Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Red Planet

I picked up Red Planet for Evalina for Christmas with much nostalgia on my mind.  It was my first Heinlein.  I remember when I was 9, and my father brought me into a used bookstore and presented it to me with triumph in his face, knowing that he was introducing me to something wonderful.  I had the same thought as I began reading it to Evalina, and I have to say, I was not disappointed.

The Story:  Jim Marlowe has grown up on Mars, in a human colony.  The humans co-exist on Mars with the natives, and they are there under contract from The Company, which is working to further terraform Mars.  Jim has made a "friend," not quite a pet, of a Martian creature the humans call Bouncers.  His name is Willis, and he resembles a soccer ball, but with protrusions (eye stalks, etc) he can use if he desires.  He is also a perfect mimic - much better than a parrot - and sometimes repeats what he hears at inappropriate times.  Jim begs to take Willis with him when he goes off to the colony's boarding school, and though there are some objections, he is finally allowed to do so.  On the journey to the school, Jim, Willis, and his friend take a small excursion into the Martian city near a human base during a lay-over, and they encounter the elusive native Martians, and amazingly, befriend them.  They even take part in a sacred "Water Ceremony," which binds them to the Martians like blood brothers.  Once at the school, they find that there is a new headmaster, who, unlike the benevolent previous headmaster, seeks to turn the school into something akin to a military school, and among other things, he has outlawed pets.  Willis is deemed a pet and confiscated.  Jim and his buddy risk themselves to free Willis from his prison in the nefarious headmaster's office, and Willis (though his mimicking-playback ways) alerts them to a scheme that will threaten the very fabric of colonial life on Mars.  Jim, his buddy, and Willis take their lives into their hands to escape the school and return to their home, halfway across Mars, to try to let their families know about the threat, and attempt to stop it.

The Good:  Jim is a strong character, and you get to know him right away.  Evalina wants to get an "I Heart Willis" t-shirt printed and wear it all the time.  Immediately, you fall for that little guy.  He's like a tribble x 1000.  The Martians are well-described (and are the very same Martians from Stranger in a Strange Land, a non-juvenille Heinlein, so that's cool) and mysterious as they are interesting.  The Martian landscape is described well (though we know it now to be speculative fiction.. Heinlein had no way of knowing when he wrote this), and you really get the feel of what it might be like to live on Mars.  The loyalty of Jim to his colony, and to Willis, is truly something to admire.  The story is exciting and fun to read.

The Bad:  I don't think it's bad necessarily, but foreign from our modern sensibilities.  Boys on Mars are trained and licenced to use and carry guns.  It is a huge deal when the new headmaster wants to ban guns.  It makes sense in the Martian environment to have guns, if for no other reason than to protect yourself from the horrible water seekers, like crocodiles in their viciousness.  Sometimes, there are tense moments in the book where it is unsure what is going to happen to Willis and the boys, but that's just good storytelling to me.

The Verdict:  I liked this just as much reading it to Evalina as I liked it when I was her age.  I can't wait to get some more Heinlein for us to enjoy together, and I can fully recommend this one to anyone interested in exploring some great science fiction.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Heroes of Olympus: The Mark of Athena

I hate when you finish a book and realize the series isn't done yet, and not only that, that the author hasn't finished the next book!  Oh, Rick Riordon... *sigh*

Such was the case with The Mark of Athena.  I thought it was the final book, but the closer I got the the end, I realized there was another one coming... *oh well* It's bittersweet, because we don't want to wait, but it will be good to have another book with the characters that we love.  Eventually.  Anyhow... on with the review.

The Story: The demigods at Camp Jupiter and Camp Half-Blood have to work together to defeat Gaea and her forces of Giants.  This is easier said than done, given the traditional animosity between the two groups. The schizophrenic nature of the Gods, torn between their two versions, is not helpful to them.  Neither is the fact that evil possessing spirits took over Leo, as he was at the controls of the warship The Argo II, and caused him to open fire on the Roman camp, starting an all-out war.  The seven demigods from the two camps chosen for the prophecy have to escape the Roman forces that are chasing them, and make their way to the original seat of the gods in Rome, and defeat the forces of Gaea all along the way.  Gaea isn't going to make it easy for them, and sometimes working together isn't the easiest thing in the world, even for friends.  As if that wasn't hard enough, Annabeth has the task of facing her deepest fears to follow the Mark of Athena to try to restore an ancient treasure stolen from a temple to her mother Athena in ancient times.  It may just hold the key to the success of their mission.

The Good:  These are the characters we've come to know and love over the previous books. The story feels familiar, but not stale.  The friends have to learn to work together as a group, while working on their personal relationships (with three sets of couples and Leo as the seventh wheel, things can get sticky).  The battles are exciting and the journey is riveting.  It is neat to see the group traveling to Rome, and how they view the ancient land.  Gaea is a really menacing presence.  The giants all have their distinct personalities and make good adversaries, too.  And the cliffhanger... oh, the cliffhanger is so good, we can't wait for the next book to be published!

The Bad:  Because there are so many characters, sometimes the story can feel a bit scattered.  There are a lot of subplots.  Some of them are really interesting, and some feel a bit forced.  As the demigods are older than in the earlier books, some of the interpersonal relationships can get a bit serious for perhaps a 9-year old like Evalina to appreciate.  There is a lot of kissing and declarations of love.  This is not a bad thing, necessarily, but it's something to be aware of.  The book was quite long, just over 600 pages, and while that's not a bad thing, it feels like it was pretty packed with story, and some of it wasn't really pertinent to the main plot.

The Verdict:  If you have read the rest of the series (and you should), absolutely read this one.  It's really good, even if it can be a bit long and winding.  Evalina LOVED it.  Amazon recommends it for 10+ and I say that's appropriate for solo reading.  We love Rick Riordan's books and will be reading the Egyptian mythology series soon.  Because of this series, Evalina has become a crazy Greek (and now Roman) mythology buff, and that's something I love to see.  Read this series, with or without your kids.