Stack Overflow: Recent Reads

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Stack Overflow

Today’s Stack Overflow is a grab bag of some adult and young adult fiction I’ve read recently. There isn’t one overarching theme, but there are a couple that fit with each other.

I like stories that play with tropes in a new way, particularly the Chosen One story. You know, the child who is destined for greater things, the one who will save the world, the one who was foretold in ancient prophecies. The Return of King Doug puts a twist on it by having the kid run away when he’s told that he’s supposed to lead them, and he abandons the magical realm until he’s an adult, thinking that it was all a childhood delusion. Crap Kingdom also has our chosen one (Tom) abandoning his role, but not because he’s afraid; it’s because the world on the other side of the portal seems really lame. But then when some other kid gets picked as the new chosen one, Tom suddenly realizes–too late–that maybe he shouldn’t have acted so hastily.

These first two books are ones that play around with tropes, in very different ways.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (Young Adult Fiction)

Some people get drawn into the world of the Chosen One–they team up, provide backup, show the reader/viewer that the Chosen One is human after all and needs friends. But there are also those who aren’t in the inner circle, the ones who “just live here.” This book is about them. I feel like the best example of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which Ness alludes to in his author’s note. He’s a fan of Buffy and you can sense its influence on this story somewhat.

In this young adult book, there are strange things going on–weird blue lights piercing the sky, a flood of deer with glowing eyes–but they’re only on the periphery for our main characters. Mikey just wants to graduate, go to the prom, maybe finally declare his love for Henna. Sure, he knows there’s something huge going on, but he just hopes the “indie kids” don’t blow up the high school before he gets his diploma.

What I really loved about this book is that each chapter starts with a paragraph describing what’s going on with those indie kids. Like so:

Chapter the Third, in which indie kid Finn’s body is discovered; Satchel–who once dated Finn–asks Dylan and a second indie kid also called Finn to skip school and help her talk to her alcoholic uncle, who is the lead police officer investigating the death; meanwhile, the Messenger, inside a new Vessel, is already among them, preparing the way for the arrival of the Immortals.

But then none of that is actually in the chapter itself. The paragraph is like the plot summary of the episode that you’d watch on TV; the chapter then tells the story of the regular kids, the ones who are only seen in the background, who probably don’t even have speaking parts on the show. Every so often you’ll get a little bit of overlap, but for the most part Mikey and his friends are one step removed from the “action.”

Instead, the story focuses on things like Mikey’s worsening OCD. Or the fact that his dad’s an alcoholic, and his mom is a politician who wants their family to appear perfect. His little sister is crazy for Bolts of Fire, a country western boy band who’s going to be doing a concert in town. It’s just real life, against a backdrop of the supernatural. Oh, and Mikey’s best friend happens to be one-quarter god (of cats), but he doesn’t like to talk about that much.

The Murdstone Trilogy

The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet (Adult Fiction)

This book sends up the publishing industry itself, particularly its relentless attempts to recreate the Harry Potter phenomenon. Philip Murdstone is an author, well-known for his series of novels about sensitive teenage boys, but nobody is really interested in those anymore–particularly since he wrote them so well that nobody else wanted to write anything in a similar vein, so the entire genre has sort of withered away. Instead, his agen Minerva Cinch wants him to write a fantasy novel. That’s “High Fantasy. Sometimes spelled Phantasy, with a p-h.”

Minerva’s outline of how a fantasy novel works is cynical but hilarious, and I think most authors could sympathize with Murdstone’s lament that writers today don’t get to just write–they have to spend their time “blogging and tweeting and updating their bloody Facebook pages…” Still, he agrees to it, checks out a bunch of fantasy novels from the local library, and then despairs of ever writing anything like that.

But then something miraculous happens. After a bit of a bender at the local pub, he passes out at the stone circle (sort of a less-famous Stonehenge) and wakes up with a fully formed novel in his head. Only trick is, he didn’t write it, and when Minerva comes back for the other two books in the trilogy (because of course these things come in threes), he needs some extraordinary help to complete them.

I don’t want to say much more than that, because the book was such a surprise to me and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s definitely intended for adults–there is some language and innuendo–but particularly for those familiar with young adult fiction. I wasn’t a huge fan of how it ended, but it was a fantastic ride nonetheless.

What was particularly fascinating to me, though, was how similar Philip Murdstone seems to Mal Peet himself. I honestly hadn’t heard of Peet before, but he was an English author of young adult fiction, and then it seems somewhat out of the blue he wrote this fantasy novel for adults. Sadly, he passed away in March 2015, so we won’t know if this was a temporary excursion into fantasy or if he planned to return to young adult fiction.

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyle (Young Adult Fiction)

I reviewed Vivian Apple at the End of the World in my Stack Overflow about end-of-the-world books, and this is the sequel. Spoiler alert: the world doesn’t end with the first book. If you haven’t read that yet, you may want to skip this review and go to the next book below.

In the first book, Vivian discovers that the Rapture, as predicted by the Church of America, isn’t all that was promised. She and her friend Harp made it across the country and found her stepsister, only to realize that her true family is Harp–and Peter, who has been left behind. So they set out to find Peter … but things very rapidly go south. Their car has been stolen, and the Church of America has put a price on their heads.

This time around, you already know that the Church of America is up to no good, so it’s not a surprise. Instead, it’s more like a spy-vs-spy novel, with Vivian and Harp trying to figure out a way to expose the truth about the Rapture and the Church. They are taken in by a secret group of rebels, but they’re working against the clock. Apparently the Church has rescheduled the Rapture, and they don’t know what’s planned this time around, but it can’t be good.

Yeah, it’s a bit over the top, and the characters don’t always make smart decisions and Vivian thinks with her emotions more often than not. While the first book fit into the “end of the world” scenario, by this book you know it’s not really the end of the world so it takes on a different tone. But it was still a fun read, and it kept me turning the pages to find out how it would end.

The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss

Even though gaming has become a huge part of our culture (and not just for geeks), I find that I still don’t come across a whole lot of books that incorporate gaming in the story itself. You do see games on TV and in films, but for whatever reason they’re not as common in novels. But here are a few that included gaming–videogames and roleplaying games–as part of the plot.

The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone (Adult Fiction)

Dahlia Moss is not a success story. She has no job and is living with her friend, Charice, who is a bit unpredictable and sometimes hosts elaborate events in the apartment. Not that Dahlia can complain, since she isn’t paying rent. But then she is hired by Jonah Long (a friend of Charice’s) to track down the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing.

Dahlia has no detective experience, but Jonah is offering her two thousand dollars–and on top of that, he says he already knows who took it, so it should be a simple matter of confronting the thief. Oh, and this Bejeweled Spear? It’s a weapon from the MMORPG Kingdoms of Zoth, and it’s valuable but intangible.

But then things get complicated, because Jonah turns up dead: stabbed, it turns out, from a very tangible, life-sized replica of the spear.

Dahlia stumbles her way through her amateur sleuthing, having run-ins with the actual detectives investigating Jonah’s death, and attempting to level up in Zoth enough to even have a conversation with the members of Jonah’s guild. It’s a geeky murder-mystery comedy of errors, but somehow you know everything is going to turn out all right in the end. At least, that’s what Dahlia keeps telling herself.

Game Slaves

Game Slaves by Gard Skinner (Young Adult Fiction)

Game Slaves is set in the near future, when videogames are the preferred mode of escapism for people all over the world. And Blackstar is the best. They make the best games, because they have the best NPCs, the best artificial intelligence so that the games are challenging and fresh each time you play.

What’s interesting is that the book is actually told from the point of view of Phoenix, the head of the best NPC squad around. It’s a good life, such as it is: his team takes on various assignments–maybe they’re aliens aboard a spaceship, or zombies, or enemy soldiers in a war zone–and then they get some downtime. Sure, he’s just a piece of code, but a very complex one, and he doesn’t question it.

That is, until they get a new recruit, Dakota. She’s an odd one, always asking questions like why NPCs and players had to fight and couldn’t there just be peace? And she thinks there must be something more to the NPCs. Well, from the title and cover you can guess part of the answer already–but the world outside of the videogames is even stranger than I’d expected. Game Slaves plays around with various videogame tropes but also sets out some strong ideas about the videogame industry and consumerism.

An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes by Randy Ribay

An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes by Randy Ribay (Young Adult Fiction)

And, finally, some role-playing, but only tangentially. Five friends have been playing Dungeons and Dragons since the sixth grade. Now they’re entering their senior year of high school, but there are a lot of changes coming.

Archie isn’t looking forward to moving in with his dad after his parents’ divorce–not only does he have to switch schools for his senior year, but he’s still angry and unsettled because his dad came out as gay. Mari’s adoptive mom has just dropped two bombshells–one about herself and one about Mari’s biological mom. Dante has been struggling with his own secret, which gets exposed before he’s ready. And Sam and Sarah’s relationship is at a crossroads: Sarah is moving across the country, to Seattle, and doesn’t think a long-distance relationship will work. But Sam refuses to give up so easily. All of this eventually leads to a spontaneous cross-country drive to win Sarah back, but the story is more about the journey than the destination.

The book starts off by retelling a week’s worth of events from four different perspectives: Archie, Mari, Dante, and Sam. And then at the end of the week, when they head out on the road trip, the stories merge. Although there is mention of D&D and Magic: The Gathering, you don’t ever actually get to read about them playing the games. (I’d been hoping otherwise.) It’s more just part of their shared background, and instead the bulk of the book is about each of them and the issues they’re facing, and finally facing them together.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.

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