5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

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Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

X-Men, Astrophysics, and Hate

X-Men Siege (Mutant Empire #1) by Christopher Golden

A few weeks ago, I was at Half-Price Books selling a big chunk of my library when, lo and behold, I stumbled across all three books in this Mutant Empire series. I’m absolutely upset with the 1990s version of Marvel Comics’s X-Men and, years ago, I had read another novelization (a cross-over with Star Trek: The Next Generation called Planet X by Michael Jan Friedman), which I really enjoyed; so I knew I had to grab these, especially since they only cost a few bucks.  X-Men: Siege brought me back to those ’90s comic books I so loved, and to some of the film adaptations. There’s much that is familiar to anyone who grew up reading the Uncanny X-men series, but plenty that is unique, too. Magneto has begun his plan to create an all-mutant Utopia, beginning with a remote location off planet earth but with the intention of, eventually, taking over the entire planet. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing for Cyclops’s dad, a kind of intergalactic space pirate, and the Shi’ar Empire. Professor Xavier decides to split the X-Men into two teams, one to take on each of these terrible challenges. For those who don’t already know the characters, especially the liminal ones, it might be a bit of a confusing or uninteresting read; but if you already know and love these stories and characters, then you’ll probably enjoy Siege quite a bit. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, but I do wish the author had found a better proofreader/editor (the number of typos is a bit jarring). 

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I’ve been wanting to read more science books for such a long time, but while I was buried by reading for my PhD, I just couldn’t find the time. So, I was pleased when, right about the time I graduated with my degree and found some time for actual “free reading,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes ahead and publishes a new book! And, as the title suggests, for someone like me who is often, “in a hurry.” What are the odds!? While I can’t pretend to have understood everything in this book, I do think I got the gist of most of it, and that is, I think, the point: to help folks like me who are curious about science and who want to be a bit more scientifically literate, get there. Tyson has an engaging voice and style, and he can explain complex topics very directly and through the use of helpful analogies. Tyson also has a larger purpose, here, which is to explain why science is so important and how dangerous it is for a society to move away from it, the way we here, unfortunately, have been doing for some time. He explains just how much science means to him and how he believes a scientifically literate culture can feel more, not less, connected to one another. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of astrophysics, concisely addressed, and they’re all fascinating. My favorite part, though, has to be the very brief final chapter titled, “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective.” It’s simply beautiful. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas 

This book: wow. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe this book and my reaction to it. For help, I started to search through the blog-o-sphere (or at least the parts of it that I watch) to see what others are saying, or even just to have links to send you all to for reference and good thoughts, but to my surprise, the majority of what I’ve found = thoughts such as, “I need to figure out how to review this!” Hey, at least I’m not alone! Essentially, The Hate U Give is an incredibly timely and relevant perspective from an honest and creative new voice that is much-needed in our culture right now. Starr is a 16-year-old black girl living in a dangerous city. Her father had been in prison but is now a successful business owner. Her mother is a nurse with great potential. Her uncle is a police officer who lives in a beautiful, gated community. She and her brothers go to private school in another district because her parents are able to afford it. In other words, she lives in two worlds. She witnesses the best and worst possible of all American cultural and societal realities. The worst? She has seen her two best friends killed in front of her eyes. The best? She has a strong and loving family, a boyfriend who loves her, and some* real friends who accept her for who she is and not for the color of her skin. Thomas is giving us such a powerful and important story, here, but more importantly, she offers multiple perspectives, a number of options, and a the sense of hopeful possibility, without proscribing a single ideology or facetious answer to our nation’s complicated racial problems. I can’t wait to see what she does next (I hear a film adaptation might be in the works). 

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.”


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.”


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).

Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 67

Plot/Story:


3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Thursday Next, Special Ops LiteraTec Agent, has a secret or two.  The biggest secret, perhaps, is that, as a young girl, she once met Mr. Rochester inside Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  In doing so, she changed the story slightly, making the meeting scene between Jane and Mr. Rochester slightly more interesting than it had been before.  Now, decades later, Mr. Rochester leaves the book to visit her – when she is in grave danger.  Hunted by and hunting the formidable Acheron Hades, the world’s most dangerous and devious criminal, Thursday Next comes to realize that she and Mr. Rochester are not the only ones who can jump from reality to fiction.  Acheron himself soon learns this secret – and it is up to Thursday to stop him before he destroys some of the world’s greatest pieces of literature forever, by visiting the original manuscripts and kidnapping their main characters.  After a beloved Dickens character is murdered, Thursday is given all the power and money the government can grant her, but will it be enough to stop Hades?  And who, of the many possible options (Thackeray? Shakespeare? Austen?), will be the next target? 


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Characterization is definitely a strong point for Fforde.  What makes this book stand out in regards to characterization is the fact that, not only does Fforde create his own characters, good and bad, who each have their own histories, relationships, quirks, etc. – but he also must re-imagine some of literature’s most beloved and well-known characters, making them believable in regards to their original works, but also relative to this story’s contemporary plot.  Fortunately, Fforde manages this quite well, and the outcome (Dickens and Bronte characters interacting with people from the 21st Century and 21st-Century folks visiting Victorian England?) is quite delightful.  Some of the minor characters, such as Thursday’s father and Bertha Mason, did tend to overshadow some of the primary characters at times, which was a bit odd.  Thursday, the main character and narrator, was one of the least empathetic, in my opinion, which made it at times difficult to enjoy the story (because, although the reader roots for her as the “good guy,” she is not exactly a champion).  Still, the characters’ stories overall are interesting, as are their histories (many are connected through distant pasts while others are new acquaintances who just happen to have excellent chemistry).  Hades is evil for evil’s sake, as are his henchmen, which is admittedly difficult for me to swallow (I like explanations for my bad guys!) but it works fine in this case, particularly since the primary character, at least, is flawed (if the good guy was purely good in addition to the bad guy being entirely evil, I would not have been able to enjoy the story nearly as much).


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The best element of this story is the prose and style.  The story itself is a bit odd.  It is a mystery and a thriller.  It’s contemporary literature and it’s a throwback to the classics.  It’s fiction and it’s meta-fiction.  It is science fiction and realism.  What holds together all this craziness?  The writing.  Fforde is clever enough to realize that, with everything he is attempting here, a linear plot and limited first-person narration is the way to go.  It keeps the story grounded and keeps the reader engaged; all the while the story verges on spinning out of control.  The narrative voice is simultaneously witty and sincere – serious in what it aims to achieve, but light-hearted enough to poke fun at itself.  The reading level is probably high school, but even more experienced readers will appreciate what Fforde accomplishes – although a fun read, it is not necessarily airy.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

The enormity of literary allusions will leave less experienced readers (particularly those who do not read classics or literary fiction) feeling a bit out of the loop (or simply missing out on what others are enjoying, without even knowing it).  As The Wall Street Journal notes, this book is “filled with clever wordplay, literary allusion and bibliowit” and it “combines elements of Monty Python, Harry Potter, Stephen Hawking, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  What could be more fun for bibliophiles and the literati than reading a sci-fi mystery-thriller all about books?  How many of us would sacrifice ourselves to save the original works of our favorite author?  To protect our favorite book from permanent destruction?  The power of books – the danger of tampering with the classics – the sheer joy of finding oneself immersed in a literary mystery (who really wrote the Shakespearean plays, eh?).  The book was a joy – a page-turner- a carnival ride for book lovers.  This is the first book in a series that I definitely plan to continue reading. 


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level:  High School+

Interest: Literature, Literary History, Mystery, Science-Fiction, Action/Adventure, Meta-fiction.


Notable Quotes:

“Religion isn’t the cause of wars, it’s the excuse.”

“I think that you could have used your vast intellect far more usefully by serving mankind instead of stealing from it.”

“No bond is stronger than that welded in conflict; no greater friend is there than the one who stood next to you as you fought.”

“I’m not mad.  I’m just…well, differently moralled, that’s all.”

“Literary detection and firearms don’t really go hand in hand; pen mightier than the sword and so forth.”

“Ordinary adults don’t like children to speak of things that are denied them by their own gray minds.”