Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Anna, by Meghan Riley

Anna (The Starseed Series, #1)The biggest disappointment in reading Anna is that the story isn't quite what's advertised. The story, as suggested on the back cover, doesn't truly begin until the very end of the novel. There is a shadow man, yes, as the back cover titillatingly reveals, but he doesn't appear until 120 pages in, and even then it takes another 60 before Anna believes he is real. Really, what this novel is about is the life of a seemingly normal teenage girl named Anna who is only beginning to have somewhat weird things happen to her, but things that aren't so important as to make her forget about stuff like boys and the homecoming dance. And that's disappointing because this is a well-written book with better-developed characters than other, similar young adult novels, but its reluctance to get to the heart of its story will test the patience of its readers.

Anna is in her last year of high school at East Bank, and she can't wait to be done. Her father was killed in Afghanistan four years ago, and since then she has dropped substantially in popularity. She has only one friend, Heather. Her family is poor - they only have one cell phone for the entire house, and they have no internet and no computer. Anna's mom works as a waitress, and Anna herself works at a jewelry store. Her brother, Michael, locks himself in his bedroom playing video games and he also hangs out with kids who are into some shady activities. Anna often has to babysit him when her mom has to work, which limits her own social activities. Not that she minds. She is a good student who spends her time at home doing homework. She's very bright. In fact, her dream job involves astrophysics.

If you'll notice, that above plot summary does not involve any shadow persons. It also does not contain information about the story's main contents - a love triangle. Anna has a crush on the high school's star quarterback, Steve McCormick. Yet, of course, he has no idea she exists. That is, until she bumps into him one day and knocks his books all over the hallway. In helping him gather his things, Anna accidentally grabs the copy of Steve's physics midterm that is due the next day and only discovers this while at home. Having no access to the internet and, thus, no way to facebook him, Anna's only choice is to complete his assignment for him. When Anna tells this to Steve the next day, he becomes smitten with her, suddenly realizing the beauty behind the nerdy nobody. He asks if she will tutor him in physics and she ecstatically agrees.

Yet another boy appears. Anna joins an astronomy club through the East Bank Community College, where she meets Jared, a student from rival Milford. Jared, like Steve, is tall, handsome, athletic. Only, he plays lacrosse instead of football. He is instantly attracted to her, though she is too naive to notice. While Steve is a nice guy, perhaps a little too nice for a star quarterback (he doesn't even have an ego), Jared is also nice, but he has a little more personality. He's much more flirtatious, giving Anna the nickname of Copernicus due to her apparent astronomy genius. It seems the stuff of dreams (and cliche) that a nerdy girl with low self-esteem becomes the love interest of the two most popular boys of their respective high schools.

Now, I've given three paragraphs for plot details, when I generally stick with just one or two, and that's because there is a lot going on in this book. And I haven't even gotten to the shadow man parts. The problem is, this novel suffers a glut of plot. Anna has boy trouble. She also has a freckle formation on her arm that is shaped just like the constellation Pleiades. Her friend Heather is upset that her mom is remarrying and that Anna is being a selfish friend who won't listen to her problems. Michael is playing too many video games, and he's also getting into drugs and stealing. Anna's crush, Steve, is giving her mixed signals, and it's unclear whether he still has feelings for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jessica. Anna's mom is constantly under stress. Anna's arm becomes itchy and develops boils. Oh, and a shadow man visits her bedroom but her mom assures her it's just sleep paralysis.

Meghan Riley has a very pleasant, refined writing style. It helps make the book read smoothly despite all the details and plot points she throws the reader's way. There are moments that will make you chuckle, and many readers will likely fall in love with the romantic guessing game of "Who Will Anna End Up With?" I was enjoying this book immensely for a good chunk of it. But then I began to grow impatient. I began to flip to the back cover to remind myself what got me interested in reading it in the first place. This is a supernatural romance story that fails to utilize its own unique identity. In Twilight, Bella falls in love with the vampire Edward, thus making up the entirety of the plot. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is enlisted in a free-for-all death match that involves one boyfriend inside and one outside. In Divergent, Tris finds herself fighting an oppressive ruler while trying to sneak in a date with her own boyfriend. Anna, the novel and the heroine, is much smarter than all three of these, yet Riley fails to exploit her novel's unique identity. In the end, it's a story about Anna worrying about homecoming dance, about whether Steve really likes her or if she should go with Jared, and during those non-fantasy elements, it's just ordinary.

Anna is a heroine who I think is needed in the genre. She is smart. She is ambitious. The two guys she has a crush on are both very nice. She does not have a violent streak or any hints of masochism. Anna feels very real, much more fleshed out than the heroines I mentioned above. I like Anna. Not many young heroines seem to have much of an interest in being smart, yet Anna has a passion for astrophysics. She even talks passionately about facts and figures, the sort of things that would bore Bella or Katniss or Tris. Anna is a brilliant creation by Meghan Riley.

Yet in the end I have a tough time recommending this book. Those who enjoy such books as The Hunger Games and Divergent will have trouble enjoying this because of a lack of action. And while Steve and Jared make for nice romantic figures, the lack of a darkness within them also makes them less exciting. Finally, those intrigued by the premise will be sorely disappointed, as I was, when it takes Riley 350 pages to finally arrive at what was promised, but by then you will be too drained from having read Anna's ordinary life adventures. Things happen so quickly at the end that several questions arise that go unanswered, but I can't pose them without ruining what happens (and one of them is HUGE). I may or may not continue with the series, but my concern is that the sequel will follow the same formula as this - waiting until the end before it makes any meaningful advances in its story. I really hope Riley begins diving into her story proper before then.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

Veronica Roth's Divergent Trilogy very slowly arrives at its inevitable, almost predictable, conclusion. The characters seem predestined to rush thoughtlessly into action, so quickly that not even the reader has the opportunity to think about what's right or wrong. These rash characters are convenient to Roth's plot because they forgo the need to develop the story's themes or its plot. But once you do stop to analyze these things, you realize there isn't a whole lot of depth. Everything that happens is just an excuse for more action.

There will be obvious spoilers following for those who have not read the first two books in the series: Divergent and Insurgent.

The not-so-shocking conclusion to Insurgent revealed that Tris and everyone in her city have been part of an experiment to breed and weed out the purest of people. Now that the faction system has been destroyed, the city, of course, finds itself divided again into further factions. There are those who wish to keep the faction system alive. Still others, led by Tobias' mother, Evelyn, would like to run the city without any factions. And a third group, the Allegiant, run by Tobias' father, Marcus, and the previous leader of Amity, Johana Reyes, want to go to the outside world and see what's waiting for them. Obviously Tris and Tobias and Christina and Uriah and the old gang join this last group. The story has grown stale inside the city.

Outside the city they enter a secluded world where a select few smart people run the city experiment. The person in charge is named David. He is crippled and moves around in a wheelchair, but his powers of intellect are superior. Tris and Tobias have difficulties fathoming a world that, reader, you and I take for granted. The name Chicago means nothing to them, but it is the city they have grown up in. Yet this isn't the same United States we know. War has ravaged society. In response, an odd response, people were placed in experimental cities in order to, I guess, create a class of genetically pure humans who can rule society without violence and injustice. These would be the Divergent, except in a confusing twist, not all Divergent are genetically pure. Tris is, but Tobias is not. For Tobias, this is a complete shock.

Roth's villainizing of the intellectual-based faction, Erudite, has led to some criticism of her being anti-intellectual. There are exceptions to this, as Cara, Will's sister, comes from Erudite, and she's one of the good guys. But Roth turns this anti-intellectualism into anti-science in Allegiant. Outside the city, people are seen as genetically pure (GP) or genetically damaged (GD). Those who are genetically pure are seen as superior beings who can do no wrong, while the genetically damaged can't help their poor decisions. We find the GD grouped into giant slums, apparently treated poorly. Tobias is labeled GD and the effect is an instant ego crush. He dives into a depression, even before we readers fully understand what this label means. I still don't entirely understand it, either, even though Roth tirelessly explains it.

This latest development in the trilogy just feels like too much. None of the major plot developments are developed very well, and the story just jumps from one oppressive environment that the characters must rebel against to the next. And they waste no time rebelling against the most recent one. Right away, Roth's heroes dislike the way society is run outside the city, and they quickly make rash decisions that have serious consequences. Thought is only given to the now, not to the future, and no attempt is made at discussion. Those in charge don't listen anyway. This seems to reflect a skepticism and cynicism about the workings of our own society. Once Tris and the gang rebel against one oppressive system, the next one is just as oppressive, if not more so. The position of Tris is to destroy rather than create. What solution does she have to make a better system? None. For her and her friends, nothing is better than something.

Allegiant is unique from the other stories in that it is no longer told just from the perspective of Tris. Tobias also has a perspective, and the story alternates between the two. Unfortunately this is less intriguing than it should be. Roth provides no real depth to character in order to differentiate the two. At times, while reading, I forgot whose perspective I was reading from. Tris and Tobias both have identical world views, and only slightly separate problems. The same is true of other characters. They have no real personality, just one-dimensional character traits that are hardly compelling. This causes Roth's George R. R. Martin-esque penchant for killing off characters to have less of an impact. When Lynn dies at the end of Insurgent I had a hard time remembering who she was. More characters die in the third book. Or, I should say, more names die.

Roth is a young writer, and hopefully that means she will grow and develop in her craft. I'm afraid that, too often, young writers who earn success early on have no incentive to improve. Why improve when people will buy your books as they are? Characters need to be more than just names - they need to become people. A story should have focus. What are the goals, what are the obstacles? When Roth turns this into rebellion after rebellion, the cost is a lack of development and a lack of coherence. The ending has apparently upset a lot of people. I won't reveal it, but when I read the points readers have made, I have to agree. On the other hand, I admire Roth for sticking to her guns and not giving in to what readers would want. Readers are not always right (though in this case they are). Allegiant, unfortunately, is the weakest part of what has turned into a mediocre trilogy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

I'm sure we've all seen the types of teenagers who make up the main characters of Veronica Roth's Divergent series: broody, troubled, angry, and egocentric. I'm sure we've all been one of those teenagers at some point. Roth does a good job of portraying that side of teenage life, the despairing side. But the act has begun to grow tiresome. Her main characters, Tris and Tobias, don't seem to have any other side to them, both easily provoked to violence. Still, I can't help but notice a psychological depth here that's not seen in other similar teenage dystopias. Throughout this second novel, Insurgent, Tris is not only fighting a brand new enemy, but she's fighting inner demons of guilt and post-traumatic stress. Yet again, like the first novel, I find elements pushing me away while other elements are simultaneously drawing me in.

For those who have not read the first novel, Divergent, what I have to say from now on will be a spoiler.

At the end of Divergent, the erudite leader, Jeanine Matthews, unleashed her secret weapon, an army of Dauntless warriors under the control of a simulation serum. This serum does not effect the Divergent, such as Tris and Tobias, for unknown reasons, and so a force of people are able to fight back. However, Tris is forced to kill her good friend Will, who would have otherwise killed her. The guilt of this act eats at her through the entire novel, and even trickles into the next one. She grows to the point that she can no longer effectively handle a weapon. This seems like a convenient plot device, but it's also a peek at the psychological trauma caused by war. Roth may not probe this with much depth, but at least it's something.

Tris escapes along with Tobias and Tobias' abusive father, Marcus. From this escape we get glimpses into the two factions largely overlooked in the first book: Amity and Candor. In Amity, there's a maddeningly slow political process where people slowly think out and discuss problems and then must decide unanimously. Their leader is Johana Reyes, who is a somewhat important character. Candor is similarly wimpy, led by the spineless Jack Kang. Tris and Tobias eventually get back together with old Dauntless friends, and Tris in particular has to face the uncomfortable position that she just killed the boyfriend of one of her closest friends, Christina.

Insurgent is not as good as Divergent. At least in Divergent there was some "guessing" as to who Tris would end up with. Now that Tris and Tobias have become a couple, that guessing is replaced by broody, controlling relationship problems. For instance, Tris has kept it secret from Tobias that she killed Will, because it was such a traumatizing experience. When she inevitably shares this, it's in front of other people. This angers Tobias because he feels they shouldn't keep secrets from one another. Tris of course points out the hypocrisy in this statement because he had kept plenty of secrets from her. This theme becomes an obsession over the course of the rest of the series (what I have read so far) - the theme of lies. But the question is whether a secret is truly a lie. Everyone has a need to keep a secret or two, and sometimes sharing a secret, even with your closest lover, is not wise. And demanding that your partner share their every secret is controlling and abusive. Not that every relationship in a novel should be the best relationship ever, but when the novel seems to portray this relationship as desirable rather than destructive, that's a problem.


I can't help but feel that, by the conclusion of this novel (and being nearly halfway through the third one), there is a sense of sameness, of repetition, and maybe Roth is trying to drive something home with this repetition, but if she is I don't like the direction she's going. There's a simplicity to the way the series views life, views conflict in the world, as though it can all be explained in a few sentences. Matters aren't deeply developed, and neither are characters. Nobody truly jumps out of the pages, and as more characters are introduced, I can't help but feel they differ very little from one another in their lack of introspection. They all seem to accept some simplistic view of society without question. That's true of everyone. Many characters rush headlong to face problems without consulting somebody else, and they end up making poor decisions. That seems true of this book as well, that perhaps with a little more consultation and thought, it could have turned into something much more.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

According to Wikipedia, "dystopia...is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening." I only put that because I wonder whether Veronica Roth's Divergent belongs in the category of dystopia. Most of the people seem happy with the world they live in, and only a select few, the "divergent," have any reason to fear it - and even that doesn't become clear until late in the book. In 1984, on the other hand, all of the people live in fear that the Thought Police will arrest them just for appearing to be disloyal. In The Hunger Games, the people are in constant fear that every year they may be selected to duke it out in a kill-or-be-killed free-for-all survival game. Divergent may be a dystopia in that a majority of the people don't realize how limited their world is. It's much more similar to The Giver than The Hunger Games. While it lacks the maturity of the former, it is more thoughtful and probes more carefully into the psyche of its characters than the latter. That makes Divergent intriguing, even as it delves into character conflicts only its teenage audience base would find interesting.

The world of Divergent is broken up into five factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor. These factions were created based on the the values people believe will create a peaceful, long-lasting society in their post-apocalyptic world. Abnegation represents selflessness, because only the selfish will go to war. Dauntless represents courage, because only the courageous will stand up to villainy. Erudite represents knowledge, because ignorance leads to war. Amity represents kindness, because a nice person has no desire to kill. And Candor represents honesty, because it is deceit that allows war to happen. Just like in The Giver, once people reach a certain age they are selected to choose which faction to join. The only difference is that the teenagers have a choice where to go. Everyone undergoes a simulation that helps determine which faction they are the best fit for, but this is more of a guide than anything. Most people will stay with the faction they are born into. But not everyone matches the personality and the likes or dislikes of their family, so they may choose differently.

This is where Beatrice Prior, a member of Abnegation, comes in. She dislikes the customs of the Abnegation, who are so selfless they aren't allowed to look at themselves in a mirror. The path of selflessness seems extreme, and Beatrice is often reminded of how selfish she is, though her thoughts and desires seem normal for a teenage girl. She's torn because she knows choosing another faction will be like an act of betrayal to the family she loves, but she doesn't think she will be happy as a member of Abnegation her entire life. Perhaps the simulation will help her decide. Except, it doesn't, and this is where the label of Divergent comes in. Her simulation test recommends her for three factions, when it is programmed to only recommend one. The woman who tests her tells her not to tell anybody else because it is dangerous to be Divergent. Why? Nobody will say or nobody knows, and the reasons become clearer only later on.

While I mention in the first paragraph that the novel probes into the psyche of its characters, it doesn't probe very deeply. Divergent falls into the unfortunate trap of young adult literature that is more focused on the physical than the mental. This is why Beatrice obviously chooses to join Dauntless, where she becomes Tris. Here, withstanding physical pain or facing death by jumping onto or off of moving trains equals courage. This is an unfortunately limited view of courage. Tris becomes that shy girl you knew in high school who became a wild child when she went off to college. She gets tattooed, seeks thrills such as jumping from tall buildings, and has the desire to beat the living daylights out of anyone she doesn't like. With its punch-first mentality, the novel hardly seems to set a good example for teens and it makes the story that much less interesting for adults.

Other notable characters include Caleb, Tris's brother; Four, one of the leaders of the Dauntless, and the love interest for Tris; Eric, the merciless leader of the Dauntless; and then some of Tris's friends from other factions who also choose to join Dauntless: Will, Christina, and Al. There are also her rivals, who include Peter and Lynn, as well as some others whose names I forget. Most of the characters have blank personalities, known simply for liking another character or just being a jerk. Only Tris and Four have more complexity. The romance between the two begins just like any other teenage romance, where the characters only tease one another with glimpses of their feelings. Tris doesn't understand why Four is so interested in her, though it's obvious to us readers. Her upbringing has made her unable to see any of her own qualities that might attract somebody to her. And Four is not the only one. Al shows interest in her, but Tris is not interested. At least she has the decency not to lead him on, however, unlike a certain Twilight heroine.

Al represents some of the story's misplaced values. Al is a faction transfer from Candor. He's a massive physical presence, but also very kind and sensitive. This sensitivity automatically removes him from any possibility of being seen as a romantic figure. He's just not dangerous enough. Tris can't like him because she sees him as a coward, yet there are several instances where Al does something extremely courageous. In one moment he defies the Dauntless leader when he helps a friend. Tris, however, judges him as a coward due to his approach to the fighting that is required for Dauntless initiates. After knocking out his friend, Will, Al decides he does not want to fight simply for the sake of hurting another person. So he bows out of each fight early. I see this as an act of courage rather than one of cowardice. It takes a lot of courage to defy the values of the society you are a part of when you have a moral stance against them. The novel seems to be sending the wrong signals to teenage readers.

Another place the novel misplaces its values is in its denunciation of the Erudite faction. The Abnegation and the Erudite are at odds because the Abnegation, as the selfless faction, have taken the position of leadership. Only they can be trusted to act in the best interests of the others. The Erudite believe leadership should be shared, which does make sense. Roth leaves no doubts, however, that the Erudite are villainous. Of those who are Tris's biggest rivals, most or all of them are from Erudite. Even Eric, the cruel Dauntless leader and Four's biggest rival, comes from Erudite originally. Not only is knowledge power, Roth seems to be suggesting, it is evil. Hopefully the young adults who read this have sharp enough critical thinking skills not to buy into this mentality, because ignorance truly does cause people to value the wrong things.

These things make it hard for me to recommend Divergent, though I know plenty of teenagers do enjoy it. It's a simplistic book; its characters make childish decisions, even the adults. And yet, I found it intriguing enough by the end that I still wanted to keep reading, and will probably read to the end. It's much better than The Hunger Games, though I know many people will disagree. The Hunger Games had very little interest in the politics of its world, and it removes the psychological element from its violence, making it much easier to stomach the fact that teenagers are being killed by each other for the sake of entertainment. Tris is a much more introspective and curious character than Katniss, whose dullness and stupidity in Catching Fire made me quit the series altogether. Divergent also isn't afraid of having an affectionate romance, one where characters actually profess their love, caress one another, and even discuss sex (but not engage in it). Divergent is much more visceral and engages in a more complex game of politics than The Hunger Games (not that I mean to say the game is all that complex, just more complex).

So do I recommend Divergent? Part of me says no, at least not if you expect complex, adult themes. It seems to embrace violence and make it exciting, but people do get hurt, badly, and even killed. Yet Tris is psychologically affected by the violence. And although a strong part of me debated whether to continue the series while I was about three-quarters of the way through, events at the end changed my mind and made me want to continue on. That part of me would recommend it. Expect to be surprised, but don't expect to be amazed.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: The Long Walk, by Stephen King

Stephen King's The Long Walk is a dystopia unlike any I have encountered, much different from Orwell's model in 1984, which establishes a dystopian world, explains how it is governed, and puts readers in the perspective of somebody hoping to change things for the better. King does not set aside additional time to explain the history of this world and how it came to be, and that is a wise decision. We get hints, through conversations, of what happened - Germany won World War II and attacked the U.S. - but nothing about how the world came to be what it is. This seems about right. What we have is a bunch of kids trapped in society and following its rules, whether they like them or not. Too often characters in dystopias seem pulled from our world rather than stuck in their own. And King does an excellent job of sucking us in his perverse little world as well.

Ray Garraty has been selected (we think) for participation in the Long Walk, a sort of national event that is probably on the scale of the Super Bowl. Garraty may have had a choice not to participate, and we only know this because his mother is begging him not to go through with it. He ignores her. Why should she have a problem with it? It's just a test of endurance, seeing who can walk the longest without taking more than a two minute break. Contestants can't walk slower than four miles per hour, and if they do for too long they will receive a warning. You receive three warnings maximum. After that you get a ticket. This ticket, innocent as it may sound, is a bullet fired from a gun.

Also participating are 100 other teenagers, all male. The Major presides over it. He grows chummy with an arrogant kid named Olson, who everyone immediately dislikes. The game isn't just physical, but it's also psychological. A kid who looks chummy with the Major makes everyone else feel inferior. Along with Garraty there is McVries, Stebbins, Baker, Barkovitch, Collie Parker, and Scramm, just to name some of the major players. Most of these characters might be considered friends to Garraty, but in this game friendship has its drawbacks. You can't grow too attached to anybody because eventually he will die, unless he beats you, in which case you die. On the other hand, going on the walk with no friends can sap your sanity.

At the end of the Long Walk, the sole winner wins the grand prize of everything they could want for the rest of their lives. At odds of 1 in 100, that's much better than trying to win the multi-million dollar jackpot. But the odds of dying are much higher, at 99 in 100. Everyone who dies before you simultaneously makes you feel sick and relieved. You know the next bullet could be for you, but at least you're one person closer to winning it all.

The physical terror and the psychological terror go hand-in-hand. After walking for many miles, Garraty, along with the others, begins feeling strange pains in his feet and legs. Somebody develops a leg cramp and can't walk the required four miles per hour. He buys the first ticket, screaming that it isn't fair because he had a leg cramp. The guards that follow along show no emotion as they pull the trigger. Reality sets in as these once cocky teenagers realize they will probably die. Olson quickly loses his swagger as his body begins to wear down and he realizes he had no idea what he was in for. Kids go crazy, hallucinating, babbling bizarre words. Barkovitch takes joy in tormenting others, until he taunts somebody to the point of causing him to get his ticket. After that, McVries, who is Garraty's closest friend, stalks Barkovitch and calls him a murderer. Stebbins walks confidently at the back, going exactly the minimum speed. And then Scramm tells everyone he is favored to win it all, according to Vegas, at least until he develops a cold. On the Long Walk, as in real life, things outside of the teenagers' control brings them back down to earth.

As the walk goes on, Garraty and the rest of them begin to ask themselves, and each other, why they decided to do this. They knew what it was about, so why not pull out? They can't quite come up with an answer. It might have something to do with a fear of their oppressive government, one where people are policed by the Squads. Or it might have to do with the fame. Those who walk the Long Walk become legends. There's the story of the kid who bought his ticket at the starting line because he froze. There's stories about records that were broken. And there are plenty of fans. Right away Garraty finds people cheering his name, including a girl who goes there for the excitement of being fondled and french kissed by him, a story she will be able to share the rest of her life. By the time the novelty wears out, it's too late. The audience changes from this sexually enticing girl into a monstrosity called Crowd, a god that demands sacrifices from the game and can be satiated only by the emergence of a winner.

King originally wrote this as Richard Bachman, an alter ego he used to darker material than even King would dare to face. But in some ways, I find Bachman (in this case at least) to be much more forgiving of human flaws than King. Olson is the perfect example. At the start he is pegged the idiot jock type, the arrogant prick we are meant to hate. However, once Olson realizes his own shortcomings, the tone towards him changes, both from the other contestants and from the reader. We begin to like Olson, to root for him, and to feel sorry for him. The one exception, besides the expressionless soldiers, is Barkovitch. Barkovitch seems like a mad man from beginning to end, with only a small moment of humanity, and his fate is the most bizarre of them all. This attention to the humanity of all of its characters, the jerks and the nice guys, is what makes The Long Walk so engaging and so terrifying. If it was just about watching people walk until they collapsed, it would be a bore, but King also takes a look at what sort of effect this situation - walk or die - has on the minds and bodies of these teenagers.

A part of me wanted to try to see this novel as a metaphor, but I struggled to come up with what it is a metaphor about. Life is the obvious choice, but even this seems wrong. Life isn't really a race. People may die prematurely, they may develop philosophies on life as they begin to understand its true nature, but nobody comes out the victor. Plus, King isn't big on making his stories more than what they are. I see this as more of a satire on humanity's obsession with games. At the start of each chapter is a quote from a different game (including one from football's own Vince Lombardi). This helps establish a real-world connection to King's book. Ever since the beginning of time, people have flocked to watch and participate in games - from Christians being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome to people signing up to participate in Survivor in modern America. King's fear is that if something is made into a game, there won't be a lack of people to participate or to spectate. Even a game as sick and sadistic as the Long Walk, where teenagers are killed pointlessly, and even the winner (if there is one) is likely to suffer irreparable damage.

This is among King's best works. Only he can make a 350 page story about kids who do nothing but walk and talk and die interesting. The outcome seems inevitable, yet like the teens who continue on just to see how long they can last, in the hopes of winning, we also go on, in fascination, to see just how King will end it all. And the ending is just right.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is considered to be (perhaps) the first in two genres: the mystery novel and the sensation novel. Written in 1860, it also seems to be progressive in other ways. The novel's use of many narrators is a practice that is more common today, but even so it has a unique flair, combining the epistolary novel with first person narrative. Collins' novel also portrays his outrage at the injustices inflicted upon women, something our society is still working on today. Yet in this regard, Collins still can't help but turn to the old stereotypes of women as the more frail and emotional sex, which are qualities that are very important in forwarding the plot. And yet this remains an excellent and unforgettable thriller.

The story begins from the perspective of Walter Hartright, who collects and compiles the many different perspectives that form the whole novel. As a young man in his twenties, Walter finds himself at a crossroads in his life. He is a drawing master, but hasn't had much drawing work for some time. That is, until his good friend Pesca discovers a wealthy family, the Fairlies, in need of a drawing master to teach the young women of Limmeridge house. Walter accepts. On the way to the house, he meets a strange young woman, dressed in white, who is fleeing from somebody. She mentions a fear of a baronet, and Hartright helps her make her getaway. Only afterward does he realize she has escaped an asylum, and he becomes concerned.

Limmeridge House is run by Frederick Fairlie, a man with a weak constitution, easily stressed by loud noises and light. He would rather be alone and free of all social obligations, except for his poor servants, who somehow manage to put up with his abuse. He is the uncle of the two young woman living there: Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie. Marian is the older one, a half-sister to Laura. When Hartright first meets her, he is awed by her womanly curves and body, but, unfortunately, when he arrives at her face he describes her as ugly. Ugly or not, she turns out to be one of the strongest characters of the novel, within the limits of her womanhood, of course. Being ugly, however, means she will not be the love interest for Walter. That distinction would fall to Laura, the pretty, yet frail, woman. It's a shame that the strongest woman in the novel must be made ugly, while the love interest to the hero must be made intellectually dull, but Collins knew what his audience wanted.

After this lengthy set-up, the main conflict of the plot begins to take hold, particularly when it is discovered that Laura is already engaged, under shady terms, to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde. Walter assumes this must be the same baronet who spooked the woman in white he had met earlier, and he can't help but be suspicious of him. Later events serve to alternately heighten and shrink this suspicion. However, Laura feels duty-bound to enter marriage with Percival. The marriage brings in Percival's friend, Count Fosco, the most frightening character of all, whose love for sweets and little mice serve to mask something far more sinister. The events that unfold slowly turn the reader's rage from simmer to full boil as the men plot to exploit the power the law grants a man over his wife. What happens happens because Laura has less say over her own property than does her uncle and her husband.

Though Collins is certainly a champion of women's rights, he still betrays old-fashioned paternalistic attitudes towards women. It is not just the law that weakens the women in this novel, but their own inherent fortitude. In Victorian era novels, it's not uncommon for a woman to suddenly become so ill she is out of commission for many weeks, maybe months, at a time, unconscious. This illness does not have to come from any outside source, but often it comes as a result of some sudden shock. I'm not saying such a thing is impossible, but it's far too convenient that a healthy young woman should so easily fall ill, and that it should happen so often. Collins' contemporaries perhaps believed it was the nature of women to have a frail constitution. It also conveniently helps advance the plot in favor of the villains.

Laura is one of Collins' major flaws of the novel, as she lacks a distinct personality. It's easy to imagine Walter growing smitten by her good looks and her occasional blushes, but it's difficult to imagine him falling in love. She has no real ambition but to be pretty and she enhances her qualities of beauty by playing piano and drawing, but when push comes to shove, I would rather have a Marian Halcombe at my side, as she is a woman who you can rely on in a tough situation. At the same time that I don't care for Laura as a character, I do care for her as a person, and in this novel I think that's more important. Laura is at the heart of the conflict, anyway, though we never see anything from her perspective (and I also find it interesting that only one of the female perspectives does not come from a diary or letter, while none of the male perspectives do). Collins succeeds in making us care for her because most people have a hatred for injustice, especially if committed towards a kind, helpless person - in this case a young, pretty woman.

Collins also does an excellent job of making us suspect a character, and then later doubt our suspicions. This is partly because those characters we trust also doubt those suspicions, but it's also because we can't be sure whether to trust the judgment of the heroes and heroines of the story. Everything comes together nicely in the end and, except for one crazy revelation, there appears to be no cheating. The novel keeps you guessing for a long time, and even when you reach the point where you no longer need to guess, it reveals new information at every turn to keep the pace going. The mystery is revealed with painstaking detail, which adds some elements of excitement. Slower revelations are always more fun than fast revelations. If you learn something too quickly, there's nothing more to look forward to.

The ideas towards women in this novel aren't really all that backward, however, when you think about it. It's true that today we are used to women who can brandish a sword and swashbuckle with the rest of them, yet our modern movies and stories still have trouble allowing these women to handle their problems without the aid of a stronger, more capable man. Laura may be the victim, but it's a man, Walter who plays the hero, attempting to rescue her from a vile monster. I'm not trying to blame Collins; I'm just pointing out the attitudes that existed during the time he wrote this and were pervasive even in his own thoughts. Many of these attitudes still persist today, though we've gone a long ways (one hopes). Collins' views were, nonetheless, a step in the right direction. One should feel horror and rage at injustice towards a class of women (married) who have no rights. Collins successfully elicits these responses, and he rights a damn fine novel in the process.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Pressed Pennies, by Steven Manchester

It's tough to find the conflict of a story compelling when it can be simply resolved by a grown-up conversation with the obstinate daughter: "Paige, I am dating another man who I love very much, and he is going to be a part of our lives. You're going to have to accept that." One's child should not be allowed to dictate the private life of her mother, and being a loving, caring parent does not mean one should give in to her child's every whim. That's the conflict at the heart of Pressed Pennies, by Steven Manchester, an otherwise very sweet romance. This romance has some of the features of a Nicholas Sparks story, featuring an attractive man and woman who fall deeply in love, but lacks the tragic features of Sparks. This isn't a bad thing. Sparks' stories tend to be way over the top. What they do (sometimes) feature, though, is a conflict that makes you worry the man and woman won't end up together and makes you want them to be together. Pressed Pennies is all sweet and its conclusion is inevitable from the start.

Abby Soares lives alone with her daughter, Paige. She recently divorced her alcoholic, good-for-nothing husband, though they still scream at each other over the phone and he forgets to pick up Paige on the weekends he has her. I think this is a good thing, for Paige's sake. Rick Giles lived a different sort of life. He became successful in his career, made a lot of money, married a good-looking woman, but began to grow disillusioned with the lack of love in his life - both his marriage and otherwise. His fat paycheck was no longer enough to sustain his happiness, and his wife saw this as a weakness. Like Abby, Rick is also recently divorced.

The connection these two have is more than just divorce. The two were high school sweethearts who separated when Rick had to move due to his family's poverty. They did not remain in contact and their lives drifted apart. Now, with Abby moved into a new neighborhood - his neighborhood - the two meet again at a neighborhood party and instantly reconnect. The memories rush back to them. The times of sweet joy and the time of sorrowful parting. They fall in love yet again, though it takes a long time for them to act on this love. For Rick, being with Abby at every possible moment is a no-brainer. He asks her out to dinner. But Abby has some reservations. Not about Rick, but about the fact she has an obligation to her daughter - and she promised her it would just be the two of them. This seemingly innocent promise dooms the romance to be put on hold far longer than necessary.

I won't say anymore about the plot, but I have no doubt that from these introductions to the plot you will guess correctly at the conflicts that come up and even how they are resolved. This is a shame because Manchester has some talents. It's rare that a story so sweet comes up, one without violence or gratuitous sex, without cynicism and with a genuine belief in the power of true love. Yet that's not enough. The story would have been more compelling if it wasn't so focused on Abby and Rick trying to make Paige happy. I can understand Paige being upset by her mom having a new boyfriend. What I understand less is why Abby allows her daughter's unhappiness to dictate her relationship with Rick. I find the novel's handling of this conflict difficult to forgive. Sure, it would have been a hard pill for Paige to swallow if her mom did the adult thing and told her daughter this is the way things are and if you don't like it, tough. What the novel does to Paige instead is far more cruel.

Manchester's writing style is very subdued, and I like that. It doesn't aim for flowery prose or quotable one-liners. Sometimes Manchester goes into a tad too much detail and has scenes whose importance is questionable (such as one where Paige and her friends ride their bike to a shop run by a cranky old man). The dialogue is mostly good too, and spot on. It doesn't feel forced and has an everyday quality to it. There are some moments when the dialogue comes off as less than believable, but it's the kind of dialogue that seems to be a struggle for more well-known authors, such as Stephen King. The kind of dialogue I'm referring to is spousal arguments. For whatever reason, an argument between a husband and wife, or of the ex variety, always comes off as phony, or over-the-top. Maybe this is really how we argue, in cliches, or maybe we just aren't good at reproducing such an argument. Yet Manchester's arguments come off more gracefully than others I've read, even if they do come down to shrill screaming.

This probably just isn't the genre for me, anyway. I like a good romance, but I prefer romances that are of the comedic variety rather than the serious ones. Romance should be fun. Man and woman should be making each other laugh because romance is all about being happy and making the other person happy. This is a romance of the serious, true love, soul mate variety, where passion is constantly talking about how much in love you are with the person across the table. And if that sounds like something you'd like, this book is right up your alley.

*I received a free copy of Pressed Pennies in exchange for an honest review.*