2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Dystopia, Ernest Cline, Fiction, Science-Fiction

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was first published by Broadway Books in 2011. I’ve had it on my “to be read” pile for about six years and finally decided to read it as part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge because the movie adaptation is releasing this March. The story is set in the United States, in the year 2044. The world is a bleak and dismal place. War, disease, and famine has become a world-wide problem. Economic, social, and government institutions have all but collapsed, and income inequality is at its greatest levels of all-time. Despite these problems, technological advancements have continued and the new ideal world is one called the “OASIS,” a virtual space unlike any we could currently imagine, where people can be whomever they choose. People can meet and get married in the OASIS, children go to school and earn their diplomas through the OASIS. It is a beautiful and powerful opportunity and, as it turns out, also deadly dangerous. When the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving behind an immeasurable fortune plus control of his company, an international, play-to-the-death quest begins. The first person who can solve each riddle and beat each boss, wins it all. Billions of dollars. Total control of the OASIS. But despite years and years of effort by individuals, groups, and corporations, the scoreboard remains empty. Empty, that is, until one lonely, poor, awkward geek named Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, figures out the first test and beats it. Then all hell breaks loose.

Ernest Cline’s style is effective in creating this science-fictionalized, virtual reality cross-over world, where people exist in two places simultaneously, sometimes as themselves but often not. He creates great tension in the idea of this universal split-personality, where everyone is someone else and where people are often only truly honest in the virtual world. The tone, too, is appropriate given the content and topic. Cline writes with a kind of frenetic irreverence that suits the abundance of geeky reference, nerd history, and 1980s pop culture that permeates the narrative. It is crystal clear who this story is about and what kind of audience will be attracted to it, though I don’t think the book will be appreciated only by self-professed geeks like me. This is because the prose itself is engaging, the pace is fast but not overwhelming, and the two worlds being created are delicately balanced and well-treated so that both seem believable, each with its own graces and terrors.

THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. One of the most common and powerful critiques I’ve read from other reviewers about this book is its lack of characterization or problematic issue with stereotyping, and I get it; there might be some problems here. First, though, I want to start with what I think was a great strength for this novel’s characterization: the antagonists. The bad guys. They are so realistically normal, and so realistically evil, in that deeply human way, that I found them horrifying and compelling at the same time. What is the nature of their evil? Greed and a consuming desire for power. That said, some reviewers have pointed out weaknesses in character development, as when Wade Watts, having fallen in love with a girl, realizes that he is overweight and thus commences to get in shape (the process of which is described in just a few sentences so, sure, that’s a bit unrealistic). The rather fanciful and laughably easy weight-loss/fitness process aside, I’m not sure what the primary resistance is to that character’s impulse. How many of us, especially when we were young, tried to modify our appearance to impress a person we were interested in romantically? I appreciate that the “message” isn’t great, but is it unrealistic?

In addition, some have argued that Ready Player One is just another cis-white-het-male fantasy because the protagonist is a white heterosexual male. Do we need more diversity in fictional protagonists? Yes, particularly in the still male-dominated genres of science-fiction and fantasy. That said, I can’t fault a good novel and its interesting-if-flawed hero because of the fact that he is a straight white male. I also appreciated the diversity of his friendships (though, as I will discuss in a moment, reviewers have found plenty to fault there, too).

SPOILER AHEAD. I’ve also read critiques about the way Cline draws some of the diverse characters: Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto (OASIS character names for real people). Wade’s best friend in the OASIS is Aech, whose character is a heterosexual male but who, it turns out, is a black lesbian woman in real life. When the two finally meet, Wade is taken aback for a moment, and then they have a good laugh and carry on like the best friends they are. Some have taken issue with the fact that Wade was shocked by Aech’s real gender/race/sexuality, and others have said the character was drawn that way to tic all the “diversity” boxes. I simply didn’t read it that way. To me, seeing a straight white teenage male discover his best friend is a black lesbian woman, and then shrug it off as entirely unimportant, was a welcome and powerful statement, especially in the science-fiction genre which remains heavily heteronormative.

SPOILER AHEAD: There have been complaints, too, about Daito and Shoto being stereotyped by their race. There are a few pages where the two, plus Wade, repeatedly mention the word “honor” as in, was someone’s actions honorable or not. At first glance, I could see how this might come across as racist: you’re drawing Japanese characters and scripting them with cheesy samurai film clichés? But, wait. Daito and Shoto identify as samurai. They talk about honor because they care about honor. I’m not convinced that this is the author being lazy or making a racist mistake in narration or dialogue; to me, it is an expression of what is important to the two characters themselves, and it aligns with their backgrounds and their other actions throughout the novel. (But do Parzival and Art3mis both need to repeat it in the span of a few pages? No, probably not – I hear you, there.)

SPOILER AHEAD: Lastly, I’ve read criticisms about the love-interest, Art3mis, and the development of Wade’s and Art3mis’s relationship. Some have said she “succumbs” too quickly in the end, after rejecting his advances for so long. I’m again on the opposite side of this debate, I guess. The two were the top competitors in a prize that would change not just their own lives, but the entire world. Art3mis took the smart route, which was to focus on the tasks at hand. Wade couldn’t get past his feelings for her. What’s wrong with either of these responses? And who is to say that, once the competition ends, particularly given all that the two go through and all that Wade does for Art3mis, Aech, and the others in the real world, where all of their lives are at risk, the two wouldn’t come together after all?

Ultimately, I do agree that characterization is the weaker element for this novel. I think there’s enough to make us care about Wade’s success and about the fate of his friends, but there are also things that happen too quickly or perhaps go without enough explanation. Wade, too, makes some decisions which leave us wondering whether or not we should be thinking of him as a hero, but as Aristotle suggests, an effective hero is mostly admirable and to be rooted for, but he is not necessarily perfect.

The Huffington Post calls Ready Player One, “The Grown-Up’s Harry Potter.” This isn’t quite right. Although there are some comparisons between the Muggle/Wizarding world and the Real/OASIS worlds, and between the orphaned lives of Harry Potter and Wade Watts, Ready Player One is much more of a realistic science-fiction novel than it is a fantasy. As a child of the 1980s, and a self-confirmed geek, I saw much more of Stranger Things in this novel. It’s a dystopian thriller for contemporary society. And I loved it. Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Ready Player One is Book 3 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Book Review, Canadian, Contemporary, Dystopia, Emily St John Mandel, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic

Thoughts: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Station Eleven begins, ironically and appropriately, in a theater with a staging of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Three of the novel’s recurring characters are first encountered in this opening scene, a moment in time that will be revisited throughout the novel. As the pages unfold, and the Traveling Symphony makes its way through a dangerous Midwestern landscape, ancient literature—from the Bible to Shakespeare—will become central in rebuilding culture and society in a drastically altered world .

Arthur Leander, Jeevan Chaudhary, and Kirsten Raymonde: three strange and special lives destined to intersect as one world ends and another begins. Over the course of decades, in the old, pre-plague world and the new world of survivors, the lives of these few characters, as well as the dark prophet child who grows up to be more sociopath than saint, begin to reflect the power, the beauty, the fear, the ability, the evils, and the resilience of the human spirit.  

Although this story cannot exist without its characters, I found many of them rather superficial throughout most of the book. This may be because the reader’s attention is drawn between the development of the characters and the effects of the apocalyptic tragedy; it may also be a result of the number of characters; it could be because of the multiple perspectives or the dance with time and numerous settings. Suffice to say, it’s a complex world and this often results in a certain distance between reader and characters. That being said, as the story unfolds and the many characters’ backgrounds begin to come together and to interact more closely, and more clearly, the dual worlds (before and after) and major conflicts (good and evil) begin to envelop the characters, resulting in a page-turning climax that makes any earlier lack seem basically innocuous.

One of the best things Station Eleven has going for it is its style and language. This is a distinctly literary work, more reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than the majority of contemporary dystopian fiction. The prose style and complexity are, quite frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air in a rather over-saturated and underwhelming genre.

So, do you want to be scared out of your mind in a paradoxically beautiful way? Okay, then: read Station Eleven. The balance of realistic and futuristic themes, art and politics, society and wilderness, all work together in bizarre and unexpected ways. St. John Mandel’s talents are expressed in the crafting of each of these individual elements, but most of all in her construction of a symphony that effectively highlights each of her strengths without allowing one or the other to overshadow or outperform the rest. Those expecting a traditional post-apocalyptic novel may be disappointed, but those open to experiencing the dystopian genre in a somewhat softer, more realistic, and character-centered (rather than event-centered) way will be pleasantly surprised.

The fluidity of time, the focus on how individuals cope with the change and how larger society functions, how history begins to be rewritten following a worldwide calamity, are elements which coalesce to form a fresh, unique, and disturbingly thought-provoking new work in an age-old and often derivative genre.  

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: YA+ (skewed toward adult)

Interest: Dystopia, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Literary.

Notable Quotes:

“Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and I have gone to rest in the forest.”

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” 

“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.” 

“She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.” 

“If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you.”

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Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, GLBT, LGBT, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

Thoughts: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

18079719Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

So, this is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang, but with a …uh… clacking-buzzing sorta sound? Yes, I think T.S. Eliot would be proud of Andrew Smith’s newest wasteland, which is to say, an average, all-American, small town in Iowa.  Of course, this small town just happens to be infested with gigantic, horny, insatiably hungry grasshoppers. Luckily, there is one historian present to witness and record the strange happenings that lead up to the end of the world: Austin Szerba.  Our narrator-historian is a corn-fed teenager just as horny and insatiable as the unstoppable grasshopper army. Okay, to be fair to the cannibalistic insects – Austin is probably hornier than they are.  But at least he doesn’t eat everybody. Young Szerba hilariously, but adeptly, graces his readers with the histories of a town, a family, a friendship, and the founding of a new world order.

Here’s the thing, though.  The premise of the book, as outlined above, might sound a bit ridiculous.  And, in spots, it’s far from believable.  This is because it’s rooted in science-fiction which, by its very nature, is not meant to be entirely realistic; yet, we know that much of science-fiction has indeed anticipated our actual scientific discoveries and technological advancements (anyone notice that Star Trek had tablets and wireless communication devices decades ago?). On the surface of Grasshopper Jungle, then, is an action-packed coming-of-age story with groovy, original and horrifying science-fiction elements.  Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find that Smith is asking some seriously profound questions about life, power, love, independence, and responsibility.

So, maybe mutated humanoids-turned-insects who breed like there’s no tomorrow (‘cause there ain’t, folks) isn’t your bag.  This book is still probably for you.  Why?  Well, because of everything else that Andrew Smith gives us in this book.

For example, we are saved from totally wigging-out over the nasty self-inflicted bug invasion at the core of the story by the presence of three very real, very believable, and very human protagonists who happen to be mired in a wonderfully messed up ménage à trois.  Robby loves Austin.  Shann loves Austin.  Austin loves them both.  It’s confusing and it’s painful.  It’s erotic and it’s maddening.  It’s teenage life in the Midwestern United States, where a young man is coming to terms with his sexuality, his family history, and, yeah, the realization that he just might be the destroyer of the world, the savior of it, and the chronicler of the whole damn thing, too. Holy shit.

What else can I say about this book?  Andrew Smith understands young adult males like few writers out there today.  He also has a superhuman ability to weave incredibly fantastical tales with deeply moving stories about the human experience and what it is like to grow up feeling different.  After Stick, and Winger, and so many other incredible books, it is impossible to deny that Smith has a cosmic connection with the teenage male psyche and all that comes with it.  So if you are prepared to enter that deeply disturbing, sometimes heartbreaking, but always hilarious world of the teen boy mind, then you will find no better avenue than this.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: Young Adult+

Interest: Science-Fiction, Coming-of-Age, Sexuality, LGBT, Friendship, Dystopia, Family, Fictional History. Midwest USA, Corn.


Notable Quotes:

“We never heard sirens in Ealing. It’s not that bad things never happened here, it’s just that nobody ever bothered to complain about it when they did.”

“History does show that boys who dance are far more likely to pass along their genes than boys who don’t.”

“I was on the conveyor belt toward the paper shredder of history with countless scores of other sexually confused boys.”

“Good books are always about everything.”

“History never tells about people taking shits. I can’t for a moment believe that guys like Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill never took a shit. History always abbreviates out the shit-taking.”

“History shows that an examination of the personal collection of titles in any man’s library will provide something of a glimpse into his soul.”


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Book Review, Chicago, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, Science-Fiction, Veronica Roth, Young Adult

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

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Divergent by Veronica Roth

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 41


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

In Chicago, sometime in the (not too distant) future, society has been torn apart by war, and those who remain have separated into factions:  Dauntless, The Brave. Those who believe in justice and freedom from fear.  Erudite, The Intelligent. Those who believe in peace through education and growth from knowledge. Amity, The Peaceful.  Those who believe in kindness, forgiveness, and self-sufficiency.  And Abnegation, The Selfless.  Those who believe in self-sacrifice, altruism, and love of God and others before one’s self. And then there are The Divergent.  The most dangerous of all, these are the ones who seem to belong to all of the factions, and none.  Their skill sets are wide, which makes them feared by many.

Upon coming of age, every young adult must choose a faction, usually the one they are born into, but also with guidance from certain tests that take place the day before selection. Those who change factions are often shunned by their families forever, and those who do not make it through their faction’s initiation, become factionless – loners – as good as dead and only cared for by the Abnegation.  Sixteen-year-old Beatrice (Tris) Prior is one of the Divergent – a secret she must discover for herself, and then protect from all others, or risk certain death. While training with her faction, she uncovers other secrets, secrets that will tip the balance of power and cause great unrest – even war- among the four factions, unless she and her small group of friends can stop it.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the things Divergent has going for it, unlike some of its contemporaries (such as The 5th Wave) is a good deal of substantive character development and relationship-building.  Sure, you have the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but there are also characters who remain somewhat mysterious, with the potential to go either way.  Beatrice is a flawed protagonist – a heroine we can root for, but one with realistic faults and challenges, which makes her all the more endearing and relatable.  You also get subtle hints, early on and then throughout, that many of the minor characters have back-stories of their own.  Some of these are discovered, some remain mysteries (possibly to be explored later in the series?).

In addition to Tris, another interesting character is her mentor and love-interest, Four.  He and Tris have much in common, though they (or Tris, at least) cannot be entirely sure of their connection.  Their relationship is interesting to watch and adds a decent side-story to the main plot.  The minor characters, like Tris’s family, Peter, Drew, Al, Molly, and others from the faction are necessary but not terribly memorable.  Even the major antagonist(s), including the leaders of two factions, as well as a mentor in Tris’s faction, serve their purpose, but their backgrounds and motives are not very well explored.  Meaningful and/or believable motivation always makes a “bad guy” more interesting, but the explanations, here, seemed more convenient than anything.

Prose/Style:
4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Roth’s style is well-crafted and fast-paced.  The interplay of action/violence, romance, and mystery/self-discovery keep the story interesting and allow it to progress with intrigue – a classic bait-and-hook technique which keeps the reader asking “What happens next?” Although Tris’s story was interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, the minor characters and subplots were not as richly crafted.  It is unfortunate that some of the glazed-over moments (such as the rising tension between the Erudite and Abnegation factions, witnessed through newspaper/press releases which are read by (or to) Tris) are not treated with as much intricacy and delicacy as the main plot.  Developing these subplots further and truly integrating them into the overall story, rather than crafting them in such a way as to leave them sort of floating on top, would have added great depth and richness to the story.

This is a similar failing as is made, in my opinion, by Suzanne Collins in Mockingjay.  Whereas The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were rather nuanced, the third book seemed to be a slap-on ending to a series that, ultimately, did not need to be a series.  So, too, do the subplots in Divergent sometimes stick out as sore thumbs – there, but not nearly developed enough to care about.  That being said, the writing is fluid and gripping; the prose is appropriate to the genre and intended reading level; and the overall experience of reading it is a positive one, which does make one interested in finding out what else Roth can do with Tris, the factions, and the development of this world.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

Divergent is one of the first young adult dystopian stories that I have enjoyed in quite some time.  Not since Ender’s Game have I been enticed enough by a story to truly want to pursue its sequels.  While I have read and enjoyed other recent books/series of this type, such as The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s series is a fresh idea, delivered in a clean, entertaining way, and seems to stand out in a genre which has many overlapping elements and borrowed ideas (The Hunger Games, for instance, having been very much a reimagining of Battle Royale, to give one example).  All that being said, the idea of the factions and what they stand for; the loathing of “outsiders,” as well as who should care for them (and why); and the fear of those who do not fit into a predefined mold – Roth has taken these very natural, every day challenges and molded them to fit a dystopian world, one which was built on human limitations and which will be threatened by distinctly human evils.

Above all of this, though, is the simple coming-of-age story.  The fear and anxiety that we all have, upon reaching adulthood, that we are not quite ready to handle these new responsibilities – that we might make bad decisions which, now that we are in the real world, could have disastrous consequences.  We begin to define who we are not in relationship to the family (or faction) we are born into, but the friends and families we choose.  This is a simple, age-old theme that dates back to the beginning of storytelling, but in Roth’s hands it feels new and exciting again.  Divergent, despite some faults, was a page-turner, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Dystopia, YA, SciFi, Coming of Age.

Notable Quotes:

“To live factionless is not just to live in poverty and discomfort; it is to live divorced from society, separated from the most important thing in life: community.”

“Valuing knowledge above all else results in a lust for power, and that leads men into dark and empty place.”

“I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

“Becoming fearless isn’t the point. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it, that’s the point.”

“Why do people want to pretend that death is sleep?  It isn’t.”

“They try to make you think they care about what you do, but they don’t. They don’t want you to act a certain way. They want you to think a certain way. So you’re easy to understand. So you won’t pose a threat to them.”


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Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Rick Yancey, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

17415470The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 35

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is a young adult sci-fi dystopian novel that has been carefully constructed to check off all the boxes of the new “classic” post-apocalyptic genre of YA fiction.  In it, we find the main character, Cassie, on a quest to save her younger brother after they have been separated from each other during the 4th Wave.  Cassie’s family, like so many other families, has been decimated, leaving her entirely alone.  As she navigates the dangerous and deserted middle United States, she encounters a young man named Evan who might turn out to be her personal savior, or her biggest nightmare.  In the meantime, her first crush – Ben Parish- has been taken to a secure military base, where children between the ages of 6 and 16 are being trained as soldier-warriors.  They are given the tools they need to identify the enemy and the skills they need to end them.  But, in the end, the question of “who is the enemy?” turns out to be much more complicated than anyone could have imagined and the answer brings Cassie and Ben racing toward each other and toward the same goal, though they don’t even know it.   

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

This section contains spoilers.

To begin with, Yancey, like many other YA dystopian writers before him, makes a smart choice in centering his story on teenagers and children.  We all want to root for young heroes – we want to see them overcome their struggles and survive despite the lack of guidance and protection that comes with having lost their parents.  Yancey also cleverly introduces a muddled love interest – an intergalactic Romeo and Juliet scenario that should tug on everyone’s heart strings.  Except it, like many of the other relationships in the book, falls flat.  Cassie is totally in lust with Ben.  Evan is totally in lust with Cassie (okay, maybe in love, a little bit).  Ben doesn’t really know Cassie exists, but he conveniently helps to save her little brother, which brings them all together – the result?  Nothing.  450 pages of build-up on a sidelined teen romance that goes absolutely nowhere, except that we are to assume Evan disappears to make way for Ben (in a future sequel?).  On the other side, we have the villains who are essentially villains for villainy’s sake.  This is, in my opinion, the least satisfying type of “bad guy.”  Sure, the Silencers need bodies (apparently) and thus have a motive for their bad deeds but it is established by one of their own that the Silencers could have lived on Earth in peaceful coexistence with humans. They just didn’t want to do that – too confusing?  Ultimately, these formless, bodiless consciousnesses floated through space for thousands of years to get to Earth, where they could unite their minds with human bodies, except they don’t really want or like their human bodies.  Ultimately, it felt as if a bad guy was needed and alien villains haven’t been used on a grand scale in a while (considering all the zombie/vampire/supernatural stories lately), so it was a simple and “uniquely retro” solution.  In the end, the one-dimensional bad guys and the relatively depthless good guys (aside from a few interesting ones, like Sam and Evan whose points of view we only get once, sadly, and Ringer, who we see only as a secondary character) created rather shallow relationships and motivations.  Their stories lacked substance which kept me from caring too much about what happened next and, unlike Ender’s Game or The Hunger Games, does not leave me wondering about the sequel books. 

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Yancey certainly knows how to tell a story.  His use of language is great – engaging and effective.  Some of the choices he makes, though, such as the multiple points of view, do not seem to be entirely necessary or helpful.  Each chapter is from a different character’s perspective and, in some ways, this was required due to the fact that Cassie and Ben, the two protagonists, were in different locations and developing their two divergent stories, to be later united at the end; however, I think a third-person narration might have done more for the story.  Take, for instance, the lack of uniformity – all of the chapters were wildly different lengths so a moment might be spent with one character, and then dozens of chapters with another.  Also, some of the most poignant perspectives, such as that of Sam and Evan, were glimpsed only briefly, which was disappointing.  Ultimately, the narrative’s style – the ease and naturalness of the prose – is definitely strength, whereas the form and structure were not as well-crafted. The first portion of the narrative drags on for quite a while and the latter part flies by.  Uniformity and balance, plus some careful cutting and focus, could have tightened up the plot and allowed Yancey’s talents as a storyteller to shine a bit more brightly than it did. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
2 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the story.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey is perhaps one of the most hyped, most anticipated young adult books of 2013.  It is being described as Ender’s Game meets The Host and as The Hunger Games meets Close Encounters, among other combinations.  In keeping with the trend, I would add my own comparison:  The 5th Wave is Battle Royale meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The problem with all of these comparisons, though, is that they spawn from a sense of the derivative.   While the story and some of its cast were interesting, what the narrative lacked was a true sense of purpose and meaning.  There might be multiple messages, here – don’t always do what you’re told just because someone in a position of authority says so.  Things are not always what they appear to be.  Only the strong survive.  Luck matters.  These are all great, simple additives for stories, but they don’t hold up too well as major themes.  Aliens invade, almost everyone dies, but a few fight back – this might work well in the movies, particularly if a romantic or emotional subplot is infused into the action, but a good book needs more than goodness for goodness sake.  

Is The 5th Wave a good read?  Absolutely.  It is actually the epitome of a great summer read – filled with action, suspense, aliens, and friendships formed in the face of great adversity.  But is The 5TH Wavethe Young Adult book of the year,” as some have claimed?  No, I think not.  I would much sooner give that title to Andrew Smith’s Winger.  Still, if you’re a fan of this genre, if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the like, then the odds are you will like this one, too.  It might not be the most profound book in the world, but it is an entertaining read – not a bad way to spend a summer afternoon.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, children in adult situations, graphic violence).   
Interest:  Dystopia, Post-apocalyptic, Science Fiction.   

Notable Quotes:

“And it occurs to me that there’s no real difference between us, the living and the dead; it’s just a matter of tense: past-dead and future-dead” (113).

“There’s more than one kind of bullshit. There’s the bullshit you know that you know; the bullshit you don’t know and know you don’t know; and the bullshit you just think you know but really don’t” (149).

“It’s why a kid army makes sense. Adults don’t waste their time on magical thinking” (242).

“The fire in my chest grows white-hot, spreads over every inch of my body. It melts my bones; it incinerates my skin; I am the sun gone supernova” (263).

“I thought the only way to hold on was to find something to live for. It isn’t. To hold on, you suave to find something you’re willing to die for.” (281).

“1st Wave: light’s out. 2nd Wave: surf’s up. 3rd Wave: pestilence. 4th Wave: Silencer. What’s next, Evan? What is the 5th Wave?” (351).

“I am a shark who dreamed he was a man” (360).

“When the moment comes to stop running from your past, to turn around and face the thing you thought you could not face – the moment when your life teeters between giving up and getting up – when that moment comes, and it always comes, if you can’t get up and you can’t give up either, here’s what you do: Crawl” (419).

“It’s the strong who remain, the bent but unbroken, like the iron rods that used to give this concrete its strength.  Floods, fires, earthquakes disease, starvation, betrayal, isolation, murder. What doesn’t kill us sharpens us. Hardens us. Schools us” (446).

“It’s almost dawn. You can feel it coming. The world holds its breath, because there’s really no guarantee that the sun will rise. That there was a yesterday doesn’t mean there will be a tomorrow” (456).

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Addiction, Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Drugs, Dystopia, Paranoia, Violence, Young Adult

Review: The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 34

This review may contain minor spoilers.


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Poor Jack.  Sixteen years old and still a virgin.  Then, in one night, he has the opportunity to lose his virginity with the girl he likes, but chickens out; or, he can join his best friend in a threesome with his girlfriend, but he chickens out.  Later that night, he is picked-up by a doctor on a park bench and suddenly whether or not he remains a virgin may not be his choice, anymore.  Thus begins an incredibly wild ride, wherein Jack and his best friend, Conner, find themselves phasing in and out of two very different worlds.  In this world, they are inseparable, sharing a bond of love like that between two brothers.  In the other world, the hidden world seen only through the Marbury lens, they are mortal enemies – victims of entirely different circumstances and determined to survive, by any means necessary.  As Jack tries to balance between these worlds, he struggles with the fear and pain which were results of that horrible night with the doctor.  He meets a girl, tries to love her, but continues to drift away, like a junkie who can’t fight the desire for his next fix.   Jack and Conner, bound not just by their friendship but by what they did before their trip to London – what they did before they were introduced to Marbury, must find a way to come together in both worlds, or risk losing everything.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Usually, I am a fan of the characters in Smith’s stories.  He pays attention to characterization and character development because most of the stories (Stick and Ghost Medicine, in particular) are about the characters and their experiences.  The Marbury Lens, though, seems to be much more about the story and the bizarre worlds within it than it is about characters; because of this, I feel, the characters are lacking a bit.  Conner is probably the most likable and well-developed of the bunch.  Jack is interesting, but his back-and-forth perpetual decline seems permanently hopeless – if recovery or stability were ever a possibility (even if it turned out to be false hope or misleading), that would have added a great deal to his depth.  Jack’s parents are interesting in their absence, but his grandparents, in their presence, are shallowly evaluated.  Jack’s girlfriend, too, is rather dull – and their love story is not very believable, particularly considering the short time Jack & Conner spent in London, and how messed up Jack was (although, much of his time spent with the girlfriend is not shown to the reader directly, because he is simultaneously with her in the “real” world, while also with the boys in Marbury).  Perhaps the “real world” characters are less developed, though, because the intrigue is meant to be in Marbury.  Jack’s compatriots there, Ben and Griffin, are much more interesting, likable, and real than anyone, save Conner, who Jack might now outside of it.  Conner, of course, is present in both worlds, though, which might explain why he is the most interesting of them all.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The story is fast-paced, strange, and disturbing.  Its prose matches these elements in various ways.  To keep up with the pace (the boys are not in London very long, nor is Jack in Marbury very long, but much has to happen in this time), Smith has constructed the prose into small pieces, like tiny bursts of energy being detonated over and over again.  There are some slower moments, such as when Seth is telling his story through Jack, but these are few and far between, and are helpful in keeping the reader from feeling burnt-out or overwhelmed by the rapid-fire sequence of events, particularly the back-and-forth between “real” life and Marbury life.  The construction is also linear, but not, which reflects the strangeness of the story.  Jack will return from a short visit to Marbury (what seems like a few hours), only to find that days have passed in the real world, and he has no idea where he is or what has happened.  Photos, letters, text messages, voicemails and others’ memories will serve to fill-in the gaps for Jack. Ultimately, the pace, style, and construction of the work help to set its tone, which is dark and unrestrained.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Paranoia.  Guilt.  Addiction.  Self-abuse.  Violence.  These are the primary themes of The Marbury Lens.  At the beginning of the story, we find a classic case of “boy gets drunk and ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  He is abducted and nearly raped, two events which will remain with him forever.  But the true haunting comes from what happens when he and Conner find Freddie Horvath, the disturbing doctor, and decide to punish him for what he has done.  There is an exploration of cruelty to innocents – from Jack’s experience at the beginning, to Seth’s tale (a ghost who shares his story with Jack, and who suffers brutally for a so-called moral mistake he made when he was a boy, in the late-1800s).  Of course, Marbury itself is a place of violence and destruction, where all people are hunted down by monsters and brutally murdered and devoured.  What is most interesting, perhaps, is what makes it possible for Marbury to exist – what allows certain people to see through the glasses, when others see only blackness.  Jack, Seth, Freddie, Henry, and Conner – they all exist in both places.  They can all see Marbury, and the can see so because they all share one common, terrible experience. 


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: HS+
Interest: Violence, Guilt, Paranoia, Addiction, Dystopia, Multiverses, Escapism. 


 

Notable Quotes:

“Mind the gap.”

“What if the world was like one of those Russian nesting dolls?  What if we only saw one surface of it, the outside, but there was all kinds of other stuff going on, too?  . . . What if you had a chance to see a different layer, like flipping a channel or something?  Would you want to look?  Even if what you saw looked like hell?  Or worse?”

“. . . in Marbury there’s no doubt about the nature of things: good and evil, or guild and innocence, for example.  Not like here, where you could be sitting in the park next to a doctor or someone and not have any idea what a sick and dangerous sonofabitch he really is.” 


I read this book as a part of the Andrew Smith Saturdays event, hosted by Smash Attack , Not Now I’m Reading, Lady Reader’s Bookstuff and Roof Beam Reader

 

There is a read-along of The Marbury Lens currently taking place at Smash Attack Reads

The sequel to The Marbury Lens (Passenger) will be released on October 2nd, and I will definitely be getting a copy!

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Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Horor, Japanese, Koushun Takami, Politics, Pop Culture, Sociology, Violence

Review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 25


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Every year, in the Republic of East Asia, one 3rd-year Junior High class, made up of 15-year olds, is selected at random to participate in a Battle Royal – an epic fight to the death, where the final student to survive is crowned the winner.  The rationale for this yearly “program” is that the totalitarian government uses the events as a learning exercise for their military but, in reality, it is simply a way of generating fear and total devotion to the government.  The kids believe they are on a school trip, but as they are journeying via bus, a sleeping agent is released and everyone wakes up inside a classroom, where they discover they have been collared with an electronic device which not only monitors their whereabouts but will also explode if they try to escape or are caught in certain “forbidden zones” on the island where they have been relocated. The kids each get one bag of supplies, including one random weapon (ranging from simple instruments like a sharp stick or ice pick, to hand grenades and even a machine gun).  Suddenly, these classmates and friends are pitted against each other – some become killers out of fear, some because they were destined to be all along, and others only take lives while trying to save their own. 


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

There is a wide range of characters in this story, which is necessary with a cast of more than 40 people (42 students, initially, plus their schoolmaster, the game director, security guards, parents, etc.).  While there is a lack of depth in the more “evil” of characters (those like Kazuo and Mitsuko who are soulless and violent for the sake of being violent), there are certain characters who are truly interesting to watch, and who the reader might root for, such as Shinji, the sweet and brilliant computer nerd who has a plan to escape, and Shogo, the boy who seems a bit older than the rest and who has incredible secrets.  The two main characters, Noriko and Shuya, develop well over the course of the story – they grow somewhat as individuals and also as a couple (and, with Shogo, as a team).  The varied responses and ways of “playing the game” are reflected well in the diverse types of personalities present in this group of school kids, which makes a sometimes unbelievable plot feel more realistic and natural. 


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

The story reads somewhat like an action movie-meets manga/graphic novel.  It is, at times, ridiculously over-the-top and cheesy.  Some of the dialogue, particularly the internal dialogue, is silly and very much “Japanese Pop” in nature.  The dialogue felt, at times, stiff, unnatural, and not at all in keeping with the age level of these kids or with the nature of the story which is quite dark, but which sometimes feels self-parodied (as if the writer sometimes felt self-conscious about his own seriousness, or lack thereof). Still, the book is appropriately fast-paced and the breaking up of chapters to focus on different characters is interesting in that it allows the reader an inside-look at everyone involved.  Keeping the book narrated in the third-person also means that the reader does not need to rely too heavily on a possibly flawed narrator.  The book’s structure might be its greatest achievement, as it is extremely difficult to care about characters in a book whose point-of-view, so to speak, changes on a constant basis.  There was some choppiness and grammar/spelling errors due, in part, to the translation – but which should have been caught and corrected during the editing process. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

First of all, it must be said that the similarities between this book and The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (which came after Battle Royale) are prevalent enough that it would be irresponsible to ignore them.  From the premise itself, to the idea of trackers, from the importance of the bird call to the inclusion of “bags of supplies” for the contestants, from betting on winners to televising the results, from manipulating the game to discourage participants from being idle to awarding the winner a lifetime pension and national fame, the similarities go on and on.  The primary difference, though, is that the Battle Royale game is seen as a military training necessity for Greater East Asia, where as the Hunger Games are specifically meant to be a reminder to the districts of how the Capitol punishes disobedience and disloyalty.  Slim difference.  That being said, the primary idea (which has been retold many times by many authors in many different forms, by now) is brilliant and original.  Although the author does not mention it, it would be hard not to see some minor influence, at least, from The Lord of the Flies.  The study of human nature, group dynamics, and survival instincts by witnessing the actions of teenagers isolated on an inescapable island – of course the influence is there; however, the important distinction is that these children did not land on the island by mistake, they were kidnapped and are being manipulated by their government and their elders.  This says just as much about society and politics as the microcosm of Golding’s island did.  The influence of action films and rock music, too are clear – both in the themes of the story and in its structure; for example, the main character and two main supporting characters (one who aids the main character, the other who is hunting him) are directly inspired by the movie Terminator 2.  The questioning of blind obedience to authority, the themes of oppression, fear, trust, isolation, and the dangers of totalitarian governments and violent Nationalism are all explored and effective.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Pop Culture, Youth Violence, Survival of the Fittest, Fight to the Death, Action, Humanity, Politics, Society, Japanese fiction, Dystopia.


Quotes:

“And so his choice to reduce the numbers of “the enemy” as efficiently as possible wasn’t motivated by rational thoughts but instead by a deeper, primal fear of death.”

“Please live. Talk, think, act. And sometimes listen to music . . . look at paintings, allow yourself to be moved.  Laugh a lot, and at times, cry. And if you find a wonderful girl, then you go for her and love her.”

“It’s not a bad thing to be loved.”

“Their two bodies danced in the air beyond the cliff, their hands still clasped together, the black sea under them.”

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