Review | Armada, Ernest Cline

ArmadaThis was disappointing. I absolutely geeked out over Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and I was eagerly anticipating his next novel. But while Armada wasn’t bad, necessarily, it also wasn’t anything special, and after providing such geeky pleasure with Ready Player One, being just “meh” is probably the worst thing that could have happened for the author’s next novel.

Like Ready Player One, Armada dives deep into gaming culture, and posits the premise that the fate of the world lies in the hands of nerds. In Armada, a particular video game involving aliens comes to life in the real world, and it turns out that this game was actually a training device aimed to prepare the world against an alien invasion. Enter Zach Lightman, video gamer extraordinaire who is recruited to join the elite forces in saving the world. There is also a bit of a subplot involving Zach’s relationship with his father, a fellow gamer who became consumed by his own conspiracy theories and ended up dying in a sewage plant explosion when Zach was a baby.

Unfortunately, overall, this whole story and all its subplots just felt all “same old, same old.” Certainly, most of the references (Star Wars, Ender’s Game) are deliberate — and I likely missed a whole list of other references in my reading. Cline peppers his narrative with quips about how familiar things feel, and characters calling attention to cliches. But in this case, the quips hit too close to home. Rather than clever homage, as Ready Player One did so well, Armada just felt stale.

Worse, the characters all felt like stock characters. There’s the Ender-type chosen one with daddy issues, the wise mentor in disguise, the bully, the quirky manic pixie dream girl love interest, and an assorted cast of other people. There is a poignant moment near the end, where it seems like the aliens are about to win and various gamer/soldiers begin to pair off for a potential last moment of human connection. But otherwise, the characters felt as flat as their video game counterparts.

It’s possible that I’m just not the right kind of geek for this. Whereas I was in geek heaven over Ready Player One’s references to Nintendo type games, I rarely played space battle games unless at an arcade, and so perhaps I’m just not the target demographic for this novel. Perhaps someone who grew up playing World of Warcraft type video games would enjoy this book, or maybe someone who loved Ender’s Game would appreciate whatever subtlety there is in Cline’s homage to the story (rather than a straight up copy, which is how it struck me from seeing the Ender’s Game movie trailer).

Still, I really wish I’d enjoyed this book more. I devoured Ready Player One, and I’m up to read whatever Cline writes next. Unfortunately, I had fairly high expectations for Armada, and it fell short.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

20819685How can I even begin to talk about David Mitchell’s The Bone ClocksTouted as Mitchell’s most ambitious, most “Mitchell-esque” novel ever, this massive beauty of a book kept me enthralled for an entire weekend. I devoured this book, unable to put it down. I took it with me as my sister and I went around Toronto, lugging the 600+ pages just for the briefest snippets stolen on the subway, or the blissfully long wait for a movie to begin… and the weight was so worth it.

First: major, major kudos to Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday for this beautiful cover. All respect for the UK cover, but this one has such ethereal beauty that I would encourage purchasing a copy just for the cover art (something that in the past, I’ve only really suggested for Chip Kidd covers).

Then, the story itself is a series of layers that spans about a century, with all of the stories delicately, intricately intertwined. I wish I were more familiar with Mitchell’s body of work, as I’ve heard he includes a lot of characters from previous books in this story, and it would have been pretty mind-blowing to recognize them as they appeared. The story begins with fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes, who runs away from home after an argument with her mother. As a child, she used to hear what she called “the radio people,” mysterious figures who we barely understand till much later in the book. A psychologist “cures” Holly of these visions, but unfortunately, she can never truly escape. The story follows her journey, and the lives of the people she touches — a Cambridge scholarship boy, a war journalist unable to connect with his family, a middle-aged writer who goes too far in beating down his rival, and so on. Each of these figures narrates a section of the story, and each of them encounters “the radio people,” at times with horrifying results.

The story reminds me of Stephen King’s books, with its creepy, surreal feel, and also of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life in its epic sweep yet intimate tone. While I felt that Atkinson’s Life After Life fell short of its promise, Mitchell holds the narrative together well, and I found The Bone Clocks to be a much better constructed book. The book jacket describes the novel as “kaleidoscopic” and that’s a great way to describe it. Every time I felt like I was just beginning to grasp the story, something else happens, and it always felt like I was just glancing off the edge of what the story was really about.

Around three quarters of the way into the novel, we finally learn what the mysterious radio people are about, and the story settles pretty firmly into supernatural thriller mode. We learn about an age old battle between good and evil, with Holly and the other characters merely innocent pawns. I was expecting the stakes to be somewhat higher and the battle to be somewhat more epic, but I still love how all the threads came together, especially the significance of the image on the US cover.

My only real disappointment with this book was the final section. I’m sure Mitchell had his reasons for extending the story that far into the future, but after such a fantastical, epic, sweeping narrative in the previous sections, this one just felt like a letdown. It was a return to a feeling of reality, and a way to tie up remaining loose ends, and I just felt about it like I did about the epilogue of Harry Potter.

Still, overall, a beautiful, fantastic story. I love David Mitchell’s Ghostwrittennumber9dream and Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — a wide range of stories that demonstrates how versatile this author isThe Bone Clocks, by many accounts, is his most ambitious yet, and in true David Mitchell form, he pulls it off with flair.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Scotland in Toronto, men in kilts and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander on screen

Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television

Outlander preview party at The Caledonian, Toronto. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

A Scottish-themed cocktail party on a weeknight — how could I resist? Throw in a special preview screening of the first episode of Outlander and an image of Jamie Fraser on the invitation practically commanding you to come — just see that smouldering gaze and outstretched hand! — well, yes, I’m there.

Also, well, men in kilts. Because kilts.

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Why yes, there were men in kilts at the party. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Outlander is based on the first book in a best selling series by Diana Gabaldon, and the TV adaptation premieres in Canada on Showcase Sundays at 10pm ET/PT, beginning August 24. The show begins at the end of World War II, when combat nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) travels to Scotland to reconnect with her husband, professor and genealogy geek Frank (Tobias Menzies). While in Scotland, Claire is mysteriously transported two centuries back in time, and ends up falling in love with hot young warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Claire is torn, between two vastly different men and two vastly different lives.

Photographer: Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall. Photograph by Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television.

I’d heard this show touted as a “feminist Game of Thrones” and I’d also read several articles praising this show as a ground breaking feminist gesture. A science fiction/fantasy show aimed at women with a strong female protagonist is definitely something I support, and with Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: The Next Generation) at the helm, this show was high on my list to check out.

I deliberately refrained from re-reading the book before the screening. From what I remember, I wasn’t a big fan of the book — I mostly thought Frank got a really raw deal, and I didn’t remember Claire being particularly strong or ground breaking. I wanted to give the TV show a chance, watch it with fresh eyes, and I’m glad I did.

The first episode is powerful, compelling television. I was hooked from the very first scene — after treating a soldier with a leg wound, Claire meets a crowd of men and women cheering and celebrating the end of the war. Claire doesn’t smile or cry in relief, or do any of the things I expected her to do. Instead, without changing her expression, she pulls out a bottle and takes a long drink. I had no idea what was going through her mind at that moment, and that was when I knew this show was going to be special. With all she’s seen, and all she’s gone through during the war, what is there to be said?

What makes a female protagonist strong? Examples range from Katniss Everdeen to Hermione Granger to Cersei Lannister, and I always love it when a female character breaks the “strong woman” mould and still manages to be kickass in her own way. In the case of Claire Randall, she mostly struck me as being real. Here is a woman who is skilled at a demanding career, yet who is haunted by the horrors she’s seen and by the need to settle down into a kind of domestic idyll. It’s a complex role, and kudos to Caitriona Balfe for bringing just the right mix of strength, vulnerability and humour to the role.

Frank and Claire. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

Tobias Menzies and Caitriona Balfe as Frank and Claire Randall. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

Claire is also wholly in charge of her own sexuality. In one scene, Frank leans in to kiss her and Claire grabs his head and pushes it down between her legs instead, and all I could think was, “You go, girl!” It seems odd that this feels new in 2014, but with so many TV shows and movies focusing on male sexuality, it is refreshing to see a woman on screen taking the lead. Sex is also key to the story — in a voiceover later on, Claire confesses that sex is how she and Frank reconnect.

Photographer: Sony Pictures Television

Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan as Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

I was pulling for Frank in the novel, and I love Tobias Menzies in the role. Many may remember him as Catelyn Stark’s brother in Game of Thrones (the man who shot several flaming arrows at his father’s barge and kept missing each time), but I mostly remember him as Brutus from HBO’s Rome. Here he portrays both the dashing yet adorably geeky Frank Randall and the brutish, violent Black Jack Randall, Frank’s ancestor in 1740s Scotland.

This episode as well made me realize why Claire and so many readers are in love with Jamie. Sam Heughan manages to be both smouldering and adorable in the role, and so intense in this episode that I’m hoping to see a bit more of his lighthearted side later on. There were quite a few Jamie Fraser fans in my audience: at one point, Jamie asks Claire, “Do you want me to pick you up and throw you over my shoulder?” To which a woman in the audience responded, “Yes!”

Inspired by Jamie Fraser, the lovely team at Showcase treated us party-goers to a fantastic Scottish-themed affair. There was whisky tasting at the back, where the bartender taught us how the taste of each whisky is influenced by its region of origin. It ranged from a light whisky that got its taste purely from the barrel in which it was kept (very spicy to my untrained tongue) and a peaty drink from an area with a craggy landscape, high winds and raging storms (tasted like smoke, again to my untrained tongue).

Whisky tasting station. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Television

Whisky tasting station. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

The food was amazing, featuring Scottish eggs (eggs in sausages), vegetarian haggis balls (I know, right? but it was yummy), shrimp on crostini, and a whole lot more that I can’t name, but all tasted really good.

Scottish eggs. Photography courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Scottish eggs. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

It was great meeting up with Chatelaine Books Editor Laurie Grassi and Toronto book bloggers Christa, Michele and Liz.

Chatting with Laurie after the screening. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Chatting with Laurie after the screening. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Thanks to the organizers for a fantastic goodie bag, which came complete with a Pocket Jamie.

Swag bags. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Swag bags. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

And of course, men in kilts.

Lindsey and I with the kilted men. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Lindsey and I with the kilted men. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Thank you to Showcase and Sony Pictures Television for a lovely evening. I was hooked by the first episode of Outlander, and I’ll definitely be following along.

Outlander airs on Showcase Sundays at 10pm ET/PT, beginning August 24. You can join the conversation on Twitter @showcasedotca and the hashtag #Outlander. See www.showcase.ca/outlander for more information.