Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"The 5th Wave" by Rick Yancey

I think I've discovered the formula that is The 5th Wave:

Hunger Games' Katniss + male version of Prim + a Gale who doesn't know Katniss + Twilight's Edward Cullen = new hit YA dystopian

But, though I think The 5th Wave is certainly derivative from the boom in the YA dystopian genre and thus the books that came before it, it's also engaging, action-packed, and a lot of fun.

The book takes place in the time period following the Others' attack on earth. In the 1st Wave, they knocked out all the power (ala the TV show Revolution); in the 2nd Wave, they flooded anywhere near the coast; in the 3rd Wave, they used birds to carry a deadly virus; and in the 4th Wave, they revealed themselves living inside human bodies (ala Stephenie Meyers' The Host, a book which also has significant similarities with the novel). Now, few humans remain, among them Cassie, who's alone and on the run.

Cassie's narration makes up the first hundred pages (nearly a quarter of the novel), and it's through her flashbacks that we learn about the Others' invasion and the first through fourth waves. Cassie's an easy protagonist to root for, and the worldbuilding is interesting without being overwhelming.

After those first hundred pages, the book begins alternating points of view, and also--I thought--got somewhat weaker. It's jarring to go from Cassie to include her high school crush, Ben Parrish; her little brother, Sammy; and mysterious hunk Evan Walker. Their viewpoints give necessary insight into the larger picture, but their views are also more predictable.

The romance (?) between Cassie and Evan was also rough. Edward--um, sorry, I mean Evan--is gorgeous and understanding and perfect and, oh, gorgeous. And he smells like chocolate. But fortunately Cassie isn't Bella, and she maintains a healthy distrust of him and a healthy reaction to his annoyingly perfect persona. Yancey is also smart enough to portray stalking as creepy, not romantic. Nonetheless, their scenes together were always a bit too much for me.

But, like I said earlier, the actions comes quick, and there's tons of violence and gore for those needing the post-Hunger Games fix. Interesting that we've definitely reached a point where kids as young as seven killing other people is normal stuff.

Ultimately, what separated The 5th Wave from Hunger Games is that it's about the fact that humanity will always come together--even when it's most dangerous for us to do so--while Hunger Games continually isolates its protagonist. It's a more hopeful message, maybe, even amongst the carnage.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

I'm aware of how little I know about history--particularly the history beyond the United States--yet it's always somewhat surprising when I read a book about a period in history that not only do I know nothing about, I've never even heard about before. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena concerns the civil wars in Chechnya, covering from 1996-2004. Much of the situation is familiar from other countries: poverty and starvation; "disappearances" in the night; neighbors ratting on one another.

Constellation weaves together several individuals' stories. First, there's Akhmed, an failure of a doctor (he'd rather be an artist) who ends up with his neighbor's young daughter after the neighbor, Dokka, is taken to the Landfill. He brings the daughter, Havaa, to a surgeon, Sonja, in a nearby run-down hospital. He's never met the doctor, but he's seen her skilled work, and she reluctantly takes in Havaa and takes on Akhmed as an employee. From there the novel flits back and forth in time, exploring the developing relationship between Akhmed and Sonja, Sonja's relationship with her missing sister, and the relationship between Akhmed's neighbor Kassan and his informant son.

The book covers a terrible time in Chechen history, yet it does so with the right balance, never becoming too tragic or too falsely saccharine. The characters are fully developed and complex, and they're all so very human--no one's a complete hero or villain.

I find I don't have much to say upon finishing, but I cried through the entire ending--something that happens seldom. It doesn't end happily, but it doesn't end hopelessly either, and the mixture of sadness and possibility stayed with me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles

(book finished on August 4)

It's obvious that one's expectations going in to a book significantly affect how much a person will enjoy it. Over the years, I've also found that having no expectations, or not knowing anything about a novel, can be dangerous in its own way. A study found that "spoiling" a story actually increases our enjoyment of it, and, to some extent, I think pre-knowledge of a book's general direction also helps us like the book more. It doesn't mean there can't be surprises, but we like to know the situation we're getting into.

All of this is a roundabout way of introducing my experience with The Rules of Civility, a book I'd downloaded onto my Kindle a long time ago, but only got around to reading now. I had no idea what the book was about, and because of that, I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I might otherwise have done.

The book begins with friends Katey and Eve on New Year's Eve 1938. At a bar, they meet a rich man named Tinker, whom they begin a friendship with. Soon after, the three are in a car accident that leaves Eve somewhat disfigured, and she takes up residence (and a relationship) with Tinker. Now, from this beginning, I assumed the novel would be about Katey and Eve's relationship with each other and with Tinker. But, soon, Eve and Tinker largely drop out of the story (though Tinker importantly returns), which then focuses on the trials and tribulations of Katey's life as an independent woman in New York. There's nothing wrong with that story line, but I kept reading it as an interlude to the real story--I just couldn't see where it all was going.

I wanted to care more about Katey's attempts to find happiness and a career in the world, but I couldn't. Her various flings didn't hold much interest either. Again, I think I was supposed to be intrigued by her breaking of social taboos in the time period, but it never felt like she was being all that revolutionary. I also couldn't quite understand her relationship with Tinker nor her condemnation of him when she learned the truth of his past. After all, all of them were trying to climb the social ladder in their own way.

Maybe "period" novels just don't work for me. Or maybe reading on trains and planes was too distracting. Whatever the reason, I just couldn't see the point of Rules of Civility.

"The Long Walk" by Stephen King

(book finished on July 27)

It's appropriate that I read The Long Walk at the onset of a 10-day trip to England and Wales. Because one of the aspects that makes The Long Walk work is the outwardly mundane nature of its premise. One hundred boys sign up for a competition--and they start walking. The last one standing wins. There's no fighting, no subversive techniques (well, unless you count the fact that you are shot dead if you stop for more 30 seconds or drop below a four miles per hour pace three times in an hour). The winner just walks longer and farther than anyone else.

And the reason I mention my trip is because, at first, walking seems easy. Walking is easy. We all do it everyday. I really enjoy walking. But after spending a week of heavy walking, including walking eleven miles through downtown London one day, I can also say: walking is exhausting. By the end of my day in London, my shins hurt, my feet hurt, and my back hurt. I just wanted to sit down. Though, of course, I'd been able to take breaks throughout the day, eat normally, use a restroom, and go the speed I wished--the characters in the novel don't have that luxury.

King does an excellent job as well showing how grueling walking can be over the long run, both physically and mentally on the boys. The main character is Garraty, and like most characters in the novel, he doesn't have a clear motive for entering. At first, this bothered me. Because the winner gets anything he wants for life, I assumed the contestants would be either in dire straights financially or be full of bravado (like the Careers in Hunger Games). After all, you're almost certain to die in the competition. But, these characters are teenagers, so their entry makes sense. Everyone else was applying. Once they got in, they delayed backing out. They avoided thinking about the reality of what they were going to do. They were dissatisfied with their lives without really knowing why.

Since the plot of the novel is comprised solely of the characters walking, its strength has to be based on the relationships built between the characters. I enjoyed how the friendship of Garraty and McVries developed over time, and characters like Scramm, Stebbins, and Barkovitch are also drawn well.

In many ways, The Long Walk is an anti-Hunger Games, exploring through a somewhat similar concept the fight within the self rather than the fight between others or against a corrupt government (though the government in the book does seem corrupt, it's barely explored, and there's little evidence of a real tyranny). I'd highly recommend.