Friday, October 30, 2009

"The Knife of Never Letting Go" by Patrick Ness

Summary: In a month, Todd will be a man and will stop being the only boy left in Prentisstown.  When his parents and others landed in the New World trying to start a new life, they didn't realize their settlement would be infected by the Noise.  All the women and half the men died. Now, all the remaining people in Prentisstown can hear everyone else's thoughts, all at once.  The constant Noise that surrounds them is deafening and overwhelming.  When Todd accidentally discovers a girl--and the silence (not Noise) that surrounds her- he finds himself being forced to run from Prentisstown without knowing its dark secrets.

Musings: After reading a number of other reviews on this novel, I had some idea of what to expect and wasn't disappointed.  The Knife of Never Letting Go immediately inundates the reader with secrets and action at a break-neck speed and doesn't slow down right down until the last page.  The choppy sentences, following one line after another, increase the reading adrenaline, which made me physically nervous and excited as I read.  The action never stops, meaning there's really no good place to put down the book for another time.

The speed makes the book draining emotionally, and one death, in particular, had me cursing the "effing" author Ness for several minutes as I grasped for tissues.  I still don't think I've forgiven him, even though I rapidly drank in the remainder of his book.

The book definitely falls on the darker side of YA dystopian lit.  Beyond the deaths and grisly truths of the new society, Todd also finds himself dealing with self-loathing in a way that was scary and real.  He developed more as a character for me than the girl, Viola, but I'm hoping she'll be given more room in the next book.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book; it felt most similar to The Hunger Games although the basic premise of that book attracted me more than Ness's did.  But, that's not to say Knife is not without flaws.  The book begins with a mountain of secrets, and very little is revealed through most of the novel.  When some truth finally surfaces, near the end, it's a little anti-climactic.  Todd narrates the novel, and in an attempt to imitate his "hick" style, occasional words in the narration are misspelled (like "yer" instead of "you" or "conversayshun" instead of "conversation").  I found it distracting rather than enlightening.  One main "bad guy" comes back from the dead so often you'd think you were in a bad horror movie.

Nevertheless, I'm more than willing to pick up the next book in the series, The Ask and the Answer.  Unfortunately my library system doesn't have a copy, so I'll have to get creative.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico" by Sarah McCoy

Summary: Verdita details her "coming of age" in Puerto Rico. She deals with her burgeoning awareness of sexuality, her ambivalence about her parents, and her desire to look and be American.

Musings: This book was presented (in the inside flap, certainly not the best source of information) as following in the tradition of The House on Mango Street and Annie John. Although McCoy attempts to capture the bildungsroman and lyrical nature of more famous "island" literature, her slim book just doesn't capture the spirit or life of her predecessors.

Verdita goes through the surprises and shock of sexual growth (walking in on her parents having sex, developing pubic hair) in a way that feels done and trite. Her irrational anger at her mother and attachment to her father during this time felt confusing rather than indicative of puberty.

The parents are confusing figures, and it's uncertain what their motivations or feelings really are.

Verdita's beginning awareness of her sexuality and her desire to be "Americanized" are only half-explored, and the hopefulness with which the novels ends (with Verdita traveling to America for the first time) didn't feel in sync with the rest of the novel.

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is a quick read, but it offers nothing new to the genre.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Summary: The apocalypse is coming, but Aziraphale, an angel of Heaven, and Crowley, a demon of Hell, aren't quite ready for it. They like earth. They attempt to "neutralize" the child anti-Christ with an equal dose of heavenly and hellish influence, but they later find out that due to a baby mix-up, the anti-Christ has been raised normally, with no extraordinary influence at all. An assortment of odd characters, including the Four Horsemen (ahem, Bikers) of the Apocalypse, a prophesying witch, and some witch hunters come together to try to destroy or save the world.

Musings: This book most immediately reminded me of the movie Dogma although the movie came out after the novel was published. The concept of a satiric look on Armageddon in both cases caught my attention, and both works succeeded in delivering a funny and random story that explores some basic assumptions about religion.

The beginning of the book was a little slow for me, and the irreverence was less funny than I had hoped. As the book continued, though, the story picked up steam. I especially enjoyed the comradeship between Aziraphale and Crowley. One of the primary themes of the book is that "good" and "evil" are not so nearly different as they appear, and this message is certainly apparent in the angel and demon's relationship.

The quirky, random moments are the book's funniest, which include Famine's plot to destroy the world through creating fast food that makes a person fat while dying of malnutrition and the Hellhound's reduction to a yapping small dog.

The book has a fast pace and covers a number of different characters, but all the pieces are brought together in a satisfying end.

If nothing else, the book is a great read for lines like this: "He could recall how he and his wife used to go there to spoon, and on one memorable occasion, to fork."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The Tattooed Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary: Joshua Seigl, a relatively famous author and academic, finds himself in failing health and decides to hire an assistant. In an unplanned moment, he asks Alma, a quiet and mysterious new arrival in town, to help him. Joshua battles his demons as a writer as Alma deals with her past.

Musings: I'm rather new to Joyce Carol Oates, but she appears twice in the 9th grade curriculum - one of the summer reading options is her young adult novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, and all my classes read her fabulous short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?". I picked this novel up at a book fair that was giving away books, and, enjoying the works above, finally got around to reading it.

To start: this book is terrible. Truly, terrible. Not boring terrible, dense terrible, or cliched terrible- just terrible.

Most of the book repulsed and disgusted me. Perhaps it's supposed to (for what purpose?), but it literally upset my stomach. There is a strong fixation on the body in the novel, particularly Alma's breasts and body odors. Everything was "fleshy." Both men in the novel were constantly thinking about and digesting her body. Objectification of women is certainly not new, but I curdled inside reading the men's descriptions. Not surprisingly, the insecure men blame women for their troubles, then only see women as sexual objects. I would assume we are supposed to be put off by this behavior (ugh, I was), but I didn't see the men being particularly condemned. Instead, their behavior was explored as deep and personal.

I was also confused (and, again, repulsed) by the virulent anti-Semitism. There is a huge emphasis on Seigl's "Jewishness," even though he's only half Jewish (on the wrong side) and not practicing. The hatred Alma and Dmitri felt for him as a Jew befuddled me more than anything else. I suppose the virulence is given so much attention to highlight Alma's later growth, but it didn't quite work for me.

Joshua's crazy sister appears in the first part of the book for no apparent reason, then disappears only to reappear randomly and without real explanation.

I started to feel a bit more positive toward the book in the last quarter as Alma and Joshua began to explore some kind of communication. Alma's thought process started to make some sense. Then Oates went and included the most moronic ending (way worse than Farmer's!) that's straight out of a terrible horror movie.

I typically feel more eloquent when praising a book than condemning it, but I do feel like I need to get this off my chest and out of my mind.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer

Summary: Matt has always lived a sheltered life with his caretaker Celia, but at an early age he learns he's not human--he's a clone of the powerful drug lord El Patron. As a clone, Matt is reviled by all other members of the Alacran family except the young Maria. Over time, Matt learns the truth about why clones are created, the worker "zombies," and the world that has been created with the land of Opium dividing the U.S. and Aztlan (formerly Mexico).

Musings: This is my second Farmer book after The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm. I hadn't liked that novel much, but her name appeared on so many YA to-read lists, and I'd heard Scorpion recommended by several people, so I decided I'd give her another try. Unfortunately, this one wasn't much better.

Like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Scorpion's protagonist is a young and inquisitive male. However, in both books I felt absolutely no connection to the character. Matt's thoughts felt stale, and I truthfully was bored listening to him think. The dystopian society in which Matt is living is presented, but only half-heartedly explored. A miraculous happy ending was annoyingly unlikely, and Farmer throwing in a main character's death in the last few pages hardly added any emotional resonance.

Farmer also failed to explore much of the societal problems she introduces in this book. People fleeing from one country to another are captured and turned into "eejits" (zombies). The eejits are hated by regular people, and Matt feels bad about their situation, but otherwise this slavery is pushed aside.

Even more confusing was the introduction of a socialist-like mentality when Matt is trapped by the Keepers, men in charge of the work-orphanages in Aztlan. The boys are lectured on the dangers of individuality and the importance of group-work ethic. The Keepers' attempts at indoctrination are clearly supposed to be viewed as bad, but the reader is not told why they espouse this message. It doesn't seem like the rest of the country follows it (the few citizens of Aztlan we meet seem like normal, nice people). So why do these Keepers have so much power? Who's giving them the power? Is the government of Aztlan corrupt too (that didn't seem to be the case, but it was barely addressed)? What's going on with the U.S.?

Farmer has tried to create a certain view of society, but too many gaps existed in the world she created for the social commentary to make sense or deliver any message. Despite all the awards, I'm definitely done with Farmer's work.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Uglies" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: In Tally's world, no one is judged on his or her looks because at the age of 16, everyone becomes "pretty." Tally wants nothing more than to turn pretty like her friend Peris (Westerfeld and Suzanne Collins should have a "stupid character name" convention), so she can stop being an "ugly." However, when Tally meets a new friend Shay, Tally learns that some people don't want to be pretty. Soon Tally is in The Smoke, a hidden camp for those escaping the mandatory cosmetic--and other--changes.

Musings: I never would have picked up this book on my own. With a huge teenage face on the cover and a title like Uglies, Westerfeld's novel sounds more like a cliched version of Mean Girls than the dystopian literature it is. So I'm especially glad the reading challenge brought the book to my attention.

Like in most good dystopian novels, Tally's world has many benefits. People are no longer prejudiced against because of their looks, and the new society is environmentally conscious (even vegetarian!). Of course, there are obvious drawbacks. People look and act essentially the same and are manipulated into believing that happiness can only come from symmetry - conformity. Some of the messages (of the dangers of both our current society and Tally's futuristic society) are obvious, but the characters don't feel dull.

I always love a good YA romance, and this book doesn't fail as Tally finds herself falling for David, an "ugly" and lifelong Smoke resident. Unlike in other YA books (ahem, Stephenie Meyer), Tally doesn't agonize over decision to like David very long and their romance is even more exciting (and painful) because of the lies Tally has been forced to tell.

Uglies is the first of a four-part series, so the novel, of course, leaves with a big cliff hanger about Tally's future. I'll definitely pick up the next book in the series, but right now I have to decide whether I'll barrel through the second right away or take a couple weeks off and read other books first.

- See my reviews of book two in the series, Pretties, and book three in the series, Specials

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

YA Dystopian Reading Challenge

I'm brand new to the world of "challenge" reading (and to the world of potentially sharing my reviews with anyone else), but I was so excited by the idea of reading tons of young adult dystopian literature that I thought I'd take the plunge. Thanks to Bart's Bookshelf for inspiring me and starting the challenge.

Books on my to read list:
1. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
3. The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
4. Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
5. Specials by Scott Westerfeld 
5. The White Mountains by John Christopher

I started reading Uglies today and am already excited.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Summary: This feminist 1984 takes place in Gilead, which, faced with increasing infertility, institutes a perverted and fanatical "Christian" totalitarian regime in which women's bodies are not their own. Offred, the narrator, is assigned as a "handmaid" to a powerful commander; because his wife is "unable" to conceive (the idea that the man could possibly be sterile is heretical), Offred's duty is to have regular sex with him in hopes of becoming pregnant and providing the couple with a child. Offred struggles between her desire for autonomy, her desire to survive, and her stifled physical desires while attempting to maintain a connection (although only in memory) of her husband and daughter.

Musings: I'm a fan of apocalyptic novels and a fan of Atwood. I've read this novel before, of course (likely in college, although I really can't remember), and given the current proliferation of end-of-the-world entertainment, I thought I'd return to a classic. Perhaps one of the scariest parts of rereading the book is that although The Handmaid's Tale was published nearly 25 years ago, the political system it describes seems no further from reality.

The themes and issues brought up in The Handmaid's Tale aren't unfamiliar to anyone involved with feminism or women's studies, but the novel nonetheless presents the protagonist in a complex way that emphasizes the reality of her position. She misses her husband Luke, but at the same time, she acknowledges that much of her devotion to him stems from their forcible separation. She hates her position within the commander's household, but she recognizes it's better than some of the alternatives. She hates the commander's self-righteous sense of benevolence, but his small favors are the only freedom she has. Although women today don't necessarily face the same paradoxes, Offred's experiences still echo the complex and often contradictory feelings women face.

The perversion of Christianity is uncannily similar to much of the right wing fanaticism today and serves to reinforce the notion that "protection" of women and daughters often means subjugation. There are also clear parallels to how Islam has been twisted to justify the oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries.

Unlike 1984, The Handmaid's Tale ends with a message of hope. There's hope for Offred, and an "epilogue" seems to indicate that much of the tyranny present in Gilead eventually passes. Although I appreciated the positive outcome, I wondered what caused the end. Did women regain their rights? The warnings are evident, but the solutions are not.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rejects

I suppose I have an innate need to finish what I start, so I've always felt bad when I've abandoned a partially-read book. A teacher at my high school emphasizes that if you start a book and hate it, put it down. Don't waste time on something you don't enjoy. You'll just end up avoiding it and missing out on the chance to read something you do like. I've been trying to take her advice although I did grudgingly work through some terrors (notably One Hundred Years of Solitude). It doesn't feel right to blog about a book I haven't finished, but I did think perhaps it was worthwhile to mention the rejects and my reason for rejecting them.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (October 7, 2009)
- I loved Alexie's young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so I thought I'd try one of his early adult works. Although the themes (and, truthfully, many of the same events and conversations) are the same, this novel, for me, had less poignancy and humor than True Diary. The metaphors and "deep thinking" were hit-me-in-the-head-with-a-frying-pan obvious (particularly in the first chapter, in which two Indians fighting is compared to a hurricaine). I just wasn't interested.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (September 2, 2009)
- Stuck in the library with no specific titles in mind, I came across this book. The fantasy elements and recommendations made it seem like a good choice. This very simply written book has a message - follow your dreams and you will succeed. Trust in omens, which are sent by God, to lead you to achieve your goals (called your Personal Legend). This basic premise (endlessly promoted by self-help books, most recently The Promise) is repeated endlessly, and endlessly, and endlessly. Did you forget you should listen to omens? Coelho reminds you through dull and dimwitted Santiago every page or two. Follow omens! Achieve your Personal Legend! You can do it! Ugh, I'm bored. Let's go ruin someone's self-esteem.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (July 23, 2009)
- This book had been on my "to-read" list for awhile. I had heard it was funny and imagined it would be along the lines of a David Sedaris book. Instead, I found a poorly written book (and that's being kind) that was sensational and disgusting for the sake of being sensational and disgusting. Burroughs has not a shred of literary talent, but he does have a litany of outlandish stories. Take this gem of prose (written in response to the young Burroughs walking in on his mother and neighbor sexually engaged together): "I felt like, ick" (86). What skill. Events pop up and out without any continuation, and there is no sense of time's passage (at some point it seemed two years had passed since the book began, but there was no way of really knowing). I never laughed or even cracked a smile. I read about half of the piece of rubbish, but since the book was a laughably easy read, at least I didn't waste too much of my time.

Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee (May 11, 2009)
- Another book club pick. Kim lives in France with her fabulously rich boyfriend where she enjoys luxurious trips around Europe and impeccable food. Kim spends her days cooking extravagant meals and being very French. But, oh, boo-hoo, Kim was adopted by an American couple when she was three from Korea, and she has identity issues. Every few pages (in between eating truffles and drinking wine), Kim stops to muse about how unhappy she is because she doesn't belong. The concept is interesting (an American raised, Korean girl, living in France), but Sunee comes off whiny rather than contemplative. Stopped reading half-way through.

Firefly Lane
by Kristin Hannah (May 9, 2009)
- I would never willingly pick up this book and did so kicking and screaming when my book club chose it. A 500+ page Lifetime movie, Firefly Lane follows Tully and Kate, your typical contrasting BFFs. Tully is crazy, sexually open, and devoted to work; Kate is solid, quiet, timid, and only wants to be a mom. The book follows their friendship over the decades, throwing in obvious time period references along the way. And then Kate dies of cancer. It's an innocuous enough beach read, but there's nothing new or interesting in the tired story line and characters. Stopped reading half-way through (but skimmed the last three chapters).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (April 27, 2009)
- This novel appeared on many lists when I was searching for popular current books. I wasn't convinced myself, but it was at the library, so I grabbed it. I don't know that I read enough to really give it a fair chance, but the mystery set-up and plight of the journalist didn't grab my attention.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (April 2009)
- This was the case of me picking a book largely because it was on many notable book lists. The premise was interesting, centering on a freed slave (paid out of slavery by his parents) who is now a slaveowner himself and "friends" with his former owner. Unique plot, but I found the story terribly boring. I didn't feel or care for any of the characters, and the atrocities associated with slavery and racism felt like annoying plot devices rather than moving commentary. I got about half-way through before bailing out.

Gilead
by Marilynne Robinson (April 5, 2009)
- I did blog about this one, so I won't repeat what I already said.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez

Summary: Following the Garcias' "four girls" and their parents over the course of years, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents documents the family's life in the Dominican Republic and the girls' transition to adolescence and adulthood in the United States.

Musings: The novel follows multiple narrators and jumps between events and time periods. Because of this, Alvarez develops no linear chronology to the family's lives. Instead, small snapshots of places, ages, and stages are presented.

I liked the subject of this book, particularly the parts that addressed the family relationships. When the stories became intensely personal, following only one adult Garcia daughter and her troubles, I was a little less interested. I also enjoyed the stories that followed the girls as children. Those stories, however, didn't particularly gel with the adult portraits of the daughters. The adult daughters seemed highly screwed up, and although we got glimpses of troubles here and there, I wasn't quite sure what created such dysfunctional siblings.

I find myself increasingly interested in hearing from non-American voices, and I do think Alvarez was a good choice.