Saturday, July 6, 2013

In Which I Review Still More Books

Confession: I recently finished a new series and felt very strongly that I needed to review it. Couple that with my lack of book reviews as of late, and I figured I could churn out one of these. Sometimes stand-alones are better than series; resolution is one of the most important aspects of a series. I am not one of those people who expects everything to be wrapped up nicely in a neat little package and topped with a bow. In life you never get all your questions answered, so why should literature be any different? However, I do expect a certain amount of resolution. You have to complete at least one arc, one narrative, in order for me to consider it "finished." The books I review below--two stand-alones and two series--either failed miserably at resolution or managed to finish their characters arc and stroy. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Death narrates this book. I'm going to repeat that: DEATH narrates this book. Let that sink in for a moment. When was the last time you read something where Death is given a voice? And, more to the point, where Death wasn't the cliche, robed, scythe wielding bad guy? In this novel, Death is sympathetic, humorous, and hates his job. He cares for the souls he carries and desperately wants a vacation. Sadly, the narrative takes places on the eve of and the beginnings of World War Two, so his vacation is probably a long way off; and even then, there is no one to replace him so his vacation will never come. Death is reflecting back to those years and the three times he encountered a little girl named Liesel. Death also has in his possession a copy of the book Liesel herself wrote about her life and is thus able to tell her full life story, even if he was not present at all of it. We begin when Liesel is a very young girl and, while on a train with her mother and brother, witnesses the death of her sibling. This is the first meeting of Liesel and Death; the funeral for her brother is very short and unattended and, so haunted by her brother's death, Liesel steals a book dropped in the snow by the gravedigger. She is uneducated and cannot read but holds onto the book at a final memento of her brother. Her mother is giving her child up to foster parents in order to distance them from their parents strong communist sympathies. Liesel comes to the Hubermann house, in the care of Rosa and Hans, where she will live out her childhood. When her foster father, who quickly becomes more of a father to her than her biological one, discovers Liesel's secret book, he offers to help her learn to read and write. Thus in secret, every night, they struggle through the book together. Liesel comes to love words and their power and soon desires more books to read. From many twists and turns, Liesel continues to read while all around her the world falls to pieces. This is perhaps best exemplified by the arrival of Max, a Jew who asks for Hans' help in hiding from the Nazi party. The Hubermann's hide Max in their basement; he and Liesel strike up a friendship, both relishing the power of words and literature. There are a lot of different threads in this book; at times it's a coming of age story with typical childish antics like stealing (though always under the guise of necessity in war time); at times it's a moral tale of doing what is right even when you could get into trouble (Hans Hubermann does not agree with the Nazi Party, for example). In the middle of the book it becomes a story-within-a-story as Max writes a book for Liesel that is a fable of the Nazi's rise to power and the importance of words. But through it all, it is haunting. Because the reader, more or less, knows the history of this era, you're constantly on edge, waiting for all hell to break loose. Death's perspective and sometimes interjection into the narrative is jarring--especially as he recounts what his work was like during the war, how busy he was kept. Unlike in other narratives where Death seems to relish his work and is a good friend of War, the Death of this book is "haunted by humans" and does not understand why this is his job. There are some scenes that break your heart, like the day you are reminded how despicable human beings can be as Liesel witnesses the march of the Jews to a concentration camp. It's a very sad book, but there is hope woven within. Little Liesel loves Max and protects him, despite living in a society that reinforces the otherness of the Jew. Liesel's relationship with books is very familiar to anybody who has an equally voracious appetite for the written word. I wish there had been a bit more of Liesel's life into adulthood, but that has more to do with my fondness for the character than any flaw in Zusak's writing, which is complex and intricate and very interesting.
Overall rating: A

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
What happens when you die? This is one of those questions that has been asked--and will be asked--by countless individuals for as long as death has been happening. Religion, science, and philosophy have all entered into the conversation, and now Lauren Oliver offers up her own take on the question. The opening of the novel finds our main character Samantha Kingston dead on the side of the road--victim of a drunk driving accident in which her best friend, Lindsay, was driving. Sam is part of a four girl group of seniors who essentially run their tiny school. We all went to high school with girls like these. They are the "Mean Girls"--popular, pretty, and able to get away with just about anything because they are popular. They go to parties, wear the latest clothes, and torment those less fortunate than themselves, in particular Juliet Skyes whom they label as Psycho. In high school, you were either were one of these mean girls or you were on the receiving end of their taunts (I was the latter). One of the strong points of this novel is how Oliver is able to create a believable high school setting. I could have easily switched out the names of the four popular girls with names from my own high school and it would have been the same situation. The novel is broken into 7 chapters, which correspond to the seven chances Sam has to relive the day of her death. The opening chapter is "what really happened" on that day for the first time. Sam, Lindsey, Elody, and Ally go to a party on February 12th where they drink and dance and have what is, for them, a typical Friday. The only untypical thing that occurs is confrontation with Juliet who shows up at the party to tell the four girls how terrible they are before storming off. That night, Lindsay drives them home, drunk but insisting that she's fine, when disaster hits and the car flips and crashes, killing Sam. The next thing Sam knows, she is waking up in her bed on February 12th, apparently getting a second chance at the day of her death. It's a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. Sam tries her hardest to first prevent her death--by avoiding the party, by insisting that the four girls stay in that night--and then, even when she manages to avoid death, but still wakes up on February 12th after a "safe" night, how to escape her time loop. Along the way, several revelations about the characters are given: Lindsay may be the Queen Bee of the school (a Regina George if ever there was one) but she is also incredibly insecure and frightened; the torment the four girls inflict upon Juliet has caused heavy emotional damage, the lonely girl contemplating suicide the night of the party. The character development in this book is pretty astonishing, even if it resets for some characters when the day starts over. Character development is often seen as a straight line, up or down. But that's not how it works in real life, people stumble and falter. Sam wakes up on the 12th during one cycle and is bitter, hostile, and mean. She decides she doesn't care about who she hurts or what happens to her this time around, but this is right after she has a relatively good cycle in which she manages to prevent her own death. The ending is not surprising as the major theme of the book is self sacrifice coupled with living your life to the fullest with no regrets. The one issue that I did come up against was that because it is essentially the same day over and over, many parts get repeated and can drag on after awhile, even though Oliver does her best to put Sam in different situations each cycle.
Overall Rating: A-

 The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld
We are an image driven culture. We uphold certain figures as "the most beautiful" and idol worthy. This series, another post-apocalyptic dystopian, takes this concept to the far extreme. In the far future, society has decided that if everyone looked the same--looked Pretty--conflict would be all but erased. Because our society already seems like it is headed in this direction, which cosmetic surgery on the rise, the world built in this series reads eerily familiar and recognizable. At the age of 16, young boys and girls are given "the Surge" which is cosmetic surgery in the extreme. Everything about you is changed: your eyes, your skin, your bones, and your brain. You are made to look Pretty and you are made to look like everyone else. From the age of 16 to about 30 you live in New Pretty Town and are expected to do nothing but be pretty and party. Until you are turned Pretty, you are referred to as an Ugly and exist on the fringes of society. This is where we find our main character and protagonist, Tally Youngblood--15 years old and waiting. Tally cannot wait until she is made Pretty. Through a series of events, Tally finds herself sent on a mission before she is allowed to become Pretty to destroy the Smoke, a refuge center for Uglies who wished to stay themselves. As one might expect, while out on this mission, Tally sees the dangers of her own society for herself and joins the cause. What's interesting about this series is that Tally's decision to join the cause isn't cemented once she makes it, in fact it changes. Tally goes back and forth a lot between being Pretty and being an Ugly. The first two books are good, although I find Tally as a character to be overly annoying. The third book was almost impossible for me to get through. Tally as a "special" was hard to read for many reasons, but mainly for the way Tally keeps her mind clear to focus on being "special" which just seemed to violent and horrifying. The ending is not satisfying; I was disappointed in the decisions Tally made.  The world is what makes this series; everything is superficial where being pretty also means being Pretty-minded, robbed of the ability to focus and see things as they truly are. I have not read anything else by Scott Westerfeld, but the writing felt a bit underwhelming. I never truly felt sympathy for any of the characters, even Tally. Her love interest is banal and their story is equally boring. As much as I like sci-fi, there was almost a bit too much in this book: hoverboards, cosmetic surgery that gives you heat vision and tattoos that glow with your moods. Everything in the book--except the characters--was turned up to 100, but it wasn't that effective. The first two books are worth an attempt but the third fell flat.
Overall Rating: C

The Delirium Trilogy  by Lauren Oliver
Warning: this review is going to contain a rant. If I were to pick one example of "how to not end your book series" it would be this unfortunate series. This series started off as incredibly good and promising. The first two books had an interesting world constructed around the idea of  love-as-disease, a believable and relatable main character, an obvious conflict, and great character development in book two. And then it all came crumbling down so hard and so fast that it pretty much negates everything good about the first two books. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Sometime in the future (but not too far because the cities still have their original names and there are still cars) society has decided that love is the root of all evil. People who fall in love are diseased. This is actually pretty understandable; the symptoms of love espoused in the movies--can't eat, can't sleep, can't focus--are real and so much so that there is an entire ban on love in this world; the word love is taboo in fact. For most of the first novel, when referring to love, it is called delirium and the disease itself is amor deliria nervosa. At the age of 18 young men and women are taken in for brain surgery that removes their ability to love strongly. At the center of the story is Lena, 17 years old and counting down the days until she can undergo the surgery. Lena, like Tally in Uglies, cannot wait to become part of her society. This is due in large part to her mother's suicide several years earlier; her mother was unable to be cured and that stigma hangs over Lena in the first book. Lena is automatically a likeable character and I really related to her. She is shy and boys terrify her; she has no desire to talk to one or interact at all with them. She's a good girl who does as she is told. However, as it happens in these books, she meets a boy who changes her mind. This is the first rant I have. While, I applaud Oliver's gender changing of this trope, the love interest Alex is every inch the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We learn very little about his life and his only ambition seems to be in helping Lena escape the society's mindset that love is a disease. His character is almost totally blank and in the end, like MPDG are wont to do, his purpose to impart some sort of wisdom onto the main character before sacrificing himself. The MPDG is an overly annoying trope that I find I have little time for. However, because the world Oliver created was so interesting, I was willing to overlook it. The second book is split into two perspectives, the "then" (which finds Lena escaping her old life for the life of freedom in the Wilds as an uncured) and the "now" (which finds Lena working with the rebellion and eventually falling in love with Julian). Julian, the new love interest, is a bit more developed than blank Alex but still only serves to bolster Lena's own self awareness. The second book, despite it's rather bizarre structure of then and now, really pushes Lena's character and helps her become self sufficient. It has a pretty impressive cliffhanger which leads directly into the third book. And here is my biggest rant for this series. The third book, Requiem, erases all that character development very quickly. Lena, who had become a bit of a warrior, is reduced to a whining petulant child who's only narrative arc is to vacillate between Julian--the boy she loves but not enough--and Alex--the boy who came back from the dead. It is utterly frustrating. Julian is only around to provide conflict and Alex has become a jealous asshole. Most of the book is spent moving from one location to the next, almost indiscriminately. I'm not sure if there was a "plot" besides "don't get killed." The rebellion wants a war against the loveless society but they take forever to stage one. Most of the novel is Lena's own internal conflict about which boy she loves more. In the last 75 pages or so, the uncureds decide to invade Lena's former hometown of Portland and a battle ensues, though Lena spends most of it looking for Alex who has run off and losing track of Julian! I think when she hit page 390, Lauren Oliver suddenly realized that her book was long enough and she decided that nothing needs to be resolved. And I mean nothing. Parts of this book are given to Lena's former best friend, the now cured Hana and her upcoming wedding, but the book doesn't resolve what happens to Hana. Did she make it out of Portland? Did the bomb planted in her fiancee's house go off? When we last saw her, she was just walking without a purpose. And with regards to the war: the final image is off the rebels tearing down a wall but there no mention if this ends society or even if they win. And the most damaging thing of all: Lena doesn't make a decision between Alex and Julian. I'm not saying that she chooses to be an independent women without a male lead, I'm saying that Oliver doesn't let her choose. Lena has one final conversation with Alex where she says that she loves him but it's complicated because of Julian and then the book ends with a totally cliche and overwrought, breaking of the fourth wall, obvious author imperative to "tear down" our own walls. It's so over done that I was actually rolling my eyes while reading the final pages! I kept flipping back and forth trying to figure out if there were pages missing or if it was really a four part series and there was another book to come. But no. Just three and the third is a hot mess. People often complain, fairy I think, about Mockingjay's final epilogue which was almost too perfect and too "fairy tale" but at least it wrapped up Katniss and Peeta's story. This didn't even do that--we don't even know if Julian is alive! How do you end a series without at least your character ending the romantic triangle? I could go on, there was plenty to be unhappy about but the utter lack of resolution stuck in craw something awful.
Overall Rating: D

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