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.*

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

WWW Wednesdays (June 25, 2014)

WWW Wednesdays is a meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. What you do is answer the following three questions:

What are you currently reading?


I've been juggling between John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and The Super Hugos Presented by Isaac Asimov. I'm more than halfway through The Fault in Our Stars now, and it's a very good book. There's a lot more humor than I expected. The dialogue reminds me of the wit displayed in Diablo Cody's screenplay for Juno. The Super Hugos is a collection of sci-fi short stories, though these are more like short novels. I've read George R. R. Martin's entertaining "Sandkings," Isaac Asimov's thought-provoking "The Bicentennial Man," and Barry B. Longyear's poignant "Enemy Mine." These are all excellent examples of sci-fi stories and I can't wait to read more.

What did you recently finish reading?

I most recently finished Stephen King's The Green Mile. This was my first go at the story (never seen the movie, either) and I think I rather enjoyed it. It has some of King's signature silliness, what with a mouse named Mr. Jingles and a urinary tract infection so gruesomely detailed, but it turns out to be a wonderful piece of magical realism.

What do you think you'll read next?

I'll probably stick with the sci-fi theme and read The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke. I don't know much about it, but I have read one of Clarke's Space Odyssey books (it was a while ago) and he has a short story called "The Star" in The Super Hugos. We'll see how that goes.

Review: The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

There's an appeal to S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders that perhaps isn't much different from the tug teenagers today feel for redeemable bad boys such as Edward Cullen and the like. The difference is this story is told from the perspective of one such bad boy, Ponyboy, so we know he's not really a bad boy, just a kid stuck in the wrong circumstances and with the wrong people. There's an appeal, as well, to the fatalism of Romeo & Juliet and the doomed gang warfare of West Side Story. Some of these kids know better, though some don't, but they don't have an authority figure to guide them how to act better. Hinton's first novel has become a hit in middle school classroom precisely because it touches on things that is familiar to every teenager: cliques, fitting in, and friendship.

The story is told from the perspective of Ponyboy, who lives with his two older brothers: Sodapop and Darry (the only one their parents gave a normal name, I guess). Their parents passed away, so Darry is left to take care of the two, sacrificing a football scholarship to do so. Sodapop is charming, but he's dropped out of school and has no real hopes of moving up in the world, while Ponyboy has good grades and focuses on running track, but the lack of stability in his life is constantly threatening his future. These three are part of a group called the Greasers, kids who put grease in their hair and act real tough. Greaser is a term that is used both as a badge of honor and as an insult to character. Greasers are poor kids from broken homes or uncaring parents. Their natural enemies are the Socs, bored rich kids who like to spend their time tormenting hapless greasers.

The two groups often get into "rumbles," fights that usually involve fists, bloody noses, and battle scars that add to one's reputation as "tuff" (cool). Ponyboy is the youngest in his gang of greasers and feels uneasy because he has yet to prove himself. Others in the group include Dallas (Dally) Winston, a greaser who has actually killed someone; Two-Bits, the group clown; Johnny, a boy who'd grown timid the day a band of Socs nearly beat him to death; and Steve, Sodapop's best friend. One night, Ponyboy and Johnny befriend a Soc girl named Cherry, who is the girlfriend of a Soc, and they find that she isn't so bad. Cherry comes to the same conclusion about these two greaser boys. However, when Cherry's boyfriend discovers these greasers hanging out with his girlfriend, he decides to do something about it. I won't say what happens next, but that it turns the worlds of the greasers and the Socs upside down.

If Hinton has an overarching message, perhaps it's that people shouldn't be so quick to judge one another. The greasers are seen as bad boys, and as such they're looked down upon. Socs are able to get away with the mischief they do because everyone is quick to side with them and blame the greasers. Nobody wants to believe a rich kid is capable of societal harm. But the poor kids are easy targets. The Socs are the type of bullies who end up elected to political offices because they have money, while the greasers are the type to jump in and out of the prison system because they don't know any better. But each group has its flaws. The problem with the Socs is they lack compassion. In fact, they lack any feeling at all. It's as though their wealth has made life so easy they get bored. And just as Ishmael (from Moby-Dick) works off his boredom by knocking off people's hats, the Socs get into mischief by bullying those inferior to them. The greasers, on the other hand, have lots of passion, maybe too much. The two groups could learn a thing or two from one another if they stopped to talk to each other.

Hinton is also taking a look at what happens when there is no adult involvement in the lives of kids. The only guardian Ponyboy and Sodapop have is their 20-year-old brother, Darry, who's just a kid himself. He tries his best to make sure his brothers' lives will be set straight, but he lacks wisdom. He's hardly a replacement for lost parents, who wouldn't be involved in rumbles as Darry is. Johnny has both of his parents, but they don't care about him. He's constantly abused by his father and sometimes prefers skipping out on going home. As for the rest, it's clear there's very little boundaries to keep them on a straight path. The Socs we know even less about, but one can imagine their parents excusing the behavior of their sons with the usual "boys will be boys" line of thinking. The tragedy of Ponyboy's future may be that he will never have an adult role model to help him find a better life for himself. He may be doomed, like his brothers and friends, to be forever a greaser.

A lot of this might sound cliche, and it is, but it's wrapped up in an irresistible package of an irresistible plot. These are good kids, and it's easy to imagine young readers choosing favorite greasers. If this was written today, you'd have shirts saying "Team Ponyboy" and "Team Sodapop" and the like. To be fair, unlike some of the teeny bopper stories today, The Outsiders is engaging and entertaining, precisely because it makes us like some of these kids and gets us involved in their doomed adventures. Perhaps sometimes the story is a little unbelievable, tries a little too hard to jerk on the heartstrings, and uses a gangster dialect that can be grating on the nerves. This isn't a great story, but it's a good one, and it has heart. And that's important.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Elephant's Journey, by Jose Saramago

In 1551, an elephant named Solomon, as a gift from the king of Portugal to the archduke of Austria, traveled from Lisbon, Portugal to Vienna, Austria, crossing, in the meantime, Spain and Italy, also passing through the treacherous Alps. If you were to read about this event in a history book, that's probably the only information you will learn about it. The gifted Portuguese author, Jose Saramago, however, transforms the event into a 200 page novel. Most histories are impersonal stories that feature as heroes the rulers of a nation and clump the populace into one large mass that acts and thinks the same. Saramago protests against that type of history and instead dives into the human aspects. Here his main character, besides Solomon the elephant, is not King Joao III of Portugal, or Archduke Maximilian of Austria, but an Indian mahout, named Subhro, who is Solomon's keeper.

This is a history that is perhaps unknown by most, but especially by those in the United States, whose education on Portuguese and Austrian historical figures is very limited. It might seem odd to give, as a gift, an elephant, especially in a time when transporting such a creature over a long distance would have been very difficult. Yet the idea came from King Joao III, who was concerned that his wedding gift to Archduke Maximilian four years prior was insufficient, and now that Maximilian was about halfway between Lisbon and Vienna, in Valladolid, Spain, the king decided to consider a better gift. Thus the story of Solomon's travels begins, at the queen's suggestion, because the poor elephant has just been sitting around and doing nothing but eating for the two years since he had arrived from India.

Once the archduke accepts the gift, travel plans are made and strategies are plotted. The Portuguese, at the helm of an army captain, will take the elephant all the way to Valladolid, and from there the Austrians will take over. Taking care of the elephant is the job of Subhro, whose Indian identity provides him both with an air of mystique and an appearance of inferiority in the eyes of the Portuguese. Part of the difficulty of the journey, early on, was what pace the group should travel at. Those on horseback, such as the soldiers, would no doubt have the ability, and desire, to travel at a faster pace. However, Subhro, on his elephant, would have no choice but to move at the slow pace of the elephant, who also needed to rest for naps. Even slower were the oxen who carried Solomon's food and water. It was Subhro who keenly observed the slowest should set the pace so nobody would get separated, and that Solomon's needs should be put first, lest the group wanted to deal with an angry elephant.

What makes Saramago's tale so interesting is the day-to-day details he goes into, putting the reader into the event as though we, too, were traveling from Lisbon to Vienna. We listen to the conversations between Subhro and the commanding officer, who become good friends. We listen in on conversations between others who have no role to play in the story except to have been there at that moment. The little details Saramago notices helps bring everything to life. There are moments when the party stops at a town and the townspeople watch in awe as the only elephant they will ever see crosses their paths, and one can imagine that story being told to friends and children and grandchildren. In one instance, three men from a small town overhear Subhro describing the Hindu god, Ghanesh, who has an elephant head, and they mistakenly believe Solomon is God. When they tell their pastor, the pastor insists that the elephant is not God but has a demon inside it and decides to perform an exorcism. Such views seem narrow to us now, but the lives of these people were isolated and this was their reality.

Saramago has a tendency to go off on tangents, often referring to a phrase in his writing to cause readers to think about it in a new light. Sometimes these comments are self-referential, even self-deprecating, in order to bring your attention to the fact that you are reading a book that is from the point of view of another person and is not an objective work. Saramago particularly likes to talk about the trouble of writing and reading a history (this is particularly true in The History of the Siege of Lisbon). The trouble is, we don't really know what happened, so we should be wary of trusting every word written in history books. As an example, Jose Saramago isn't quite sure whether the Portuguese King Sebastian died on the first attack of a battle, or the second, or from an illness on the eve of battle. None of us were there, and records were less readily available then than now.

But Saramago revels in the fact that he is not a historian in the traditional sense, but a fiction writer. He uses liberties, for instance, in providing names for characters, and even in making up dialogues and getting into the minds of characters whose minds we have no access to because they left no journals behind. This helps provide a human touch, and in many ways shows just how little humanity has changed over the course of existence. For example, one can easily imagine a modern dialogue being carried in the same manner as one that happens in the book, when spectators debate whether or not the elephant, getting ready to ride on a boat, will either sink it or tumble over the rail because of his size. The imaginations of these people aren't much different from our own, when we make predictions about how things might go wrong. We also get into the mind of Subhro, who finds himself at odds with Archduke Maximilian, as he daydreams about rescuing the Archduchess in order to get back on good terms with the Archduke. Not only is Saramago making an astute observation about people, but he is also very cleverly putting us on a level playing field, so to speak, with these characters from over five hundred years ago.

Saramago writes in a style that I have gotten used to from reading many of his books, but that may be difficult for others to get into. He writes using long paragraphs, sometimes going on for pages, and uses punctuation by his own rules. Periods are scarce, and sometimes commas are used in their stead. He also fails to capitalize proper names, so Subhro is subhro, and even the king is king joao. Most interestingly of all is his style of writing dialogue. Not only does he not use quotes, which isn't that unusual of a practice, but he does not use paragraph breaks, which is pretty unusual. He separates speakers by using a comma at the end of the speaker's sentence, and then capitalizes the first word of the next speaker's sentence. This may cause you to have to re-read dialogue to make sure you don't get mixed up, but it actually flows fairly easily once you get the hang of it.

And it doesn't really matter how somebody writes as long as they are able to do so competently. And Saramago writes more than competently, but exceptionally. He writes with the intent of showing humanity in a positive light. He fails to see anyone as completely evil - even those who could be viewed as antagonists, such as Archduke Maximilian, have their redeeming qualities, and nobody in his stories is stupid. They are who they are, and everyone, even the lowest of the low, is a philosopher. In this case we also see that animals may not be so different. They, like us, want to survive and lead a happy life. Saramago never pretends to know what Solomon is thinking, and is always careful to point this out. Yet the animal does extraordinary things, for whatever reason. One of the most powerful moments I have ever read occurs when Solomon says goodbye to a group of porters by touching his trunk to their hands in a sort of handshake. These porters are so touched by Solomon's gesture that some of them burst into tears. It's as though Solomon, just like the author of the novel, wants to make sure these people don't go without realizing how appreciated they are. Perhaps we could all benefit by being a little more like Solomon. We are, after all, struggling to survive and to be happy in the same world as everyone else, high or low.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

The main difference between the romantic comedies of today and the romance of Jane Austen is that in Jane Austen's romances the most scandalous (and most exciting) things happen to the side characters, not the main characters. Modern romances allow the hero and heroine to make a grievous error and still be forgiven. The scandals of Austen are a mark of shame that lasts forever. However, Austen's skills as a storyteller would put many modern romance writers to shame. Besides, some of us like to go back to a time where we imagine that the best of us had only minor flaws, such as "want of affection" now and then. I admire and enjoy Austen's Northanger Abbey, as I do most of her other stories I have read, yet I can't help but feel a certain boredom creeping in as the inevitable conclusion creeps upon two very nice, yet somewhat dull, characters.

Life has grown dull for Catherine Morland back home. She loves her family, but her home town offers no hopes of finding a good man to bring some excitement into her life. So when her neighbors, the Allens, offer to take her to Bath, Catherine jumps on the opportunity. Immediately her life begins to perk up. She meets a good friend in Isabella Thorpe, and takes a liking to the handsome and charming Henry Tilney, a clergyman of some wealth. Catherine is shocked to find her brother, James, is a good friend of the Thorpes, though she has no inkling of the obvious attraction between him and Isabella. Catherine is so caught up in her attraction to Henry that she also fails to notice that Isabella's brother, John, has taken a liking to her.

This sets up all the major characters (not including General Tilney, Henry's father, and Miss Tilney, Henry's sister), and the necessary elements for conflict. My own modern mind couldn't help but hope Austen would surprise us and turn John into some kind of underdog love interest for Catherine. I found the early passages with him to be very entertaining. I was rooting for him. But there came to be too many things against him. He comes from a poor family, for one, and no doubt was interested in her for her family's money. He swears, saying, "D---" every now and then. He doesn't handle his horse carriage very well, and one can imagine his road rage on today's roads, with heavy traffic and too many potholes. Worst of all, he hates literature. That last one is the nail in the coffin for John Thorpe. You know he has no chance when one of the most highlighted passages on the Kindle version is Austen's diatribe against authors whose heroines fail to care much about literature.

Besides, Henry is the novel's hero, as Austen's narrator calls him. Any suspense about what will happen is removed. Thus the major drama must revolve around the secondary characters. We wonder whether John is going to sabotage Catherine's chances to meet up with Henry. We also begin to realize the seedy side of Catherine's best friend, Isabella, who is fickle and hypocritical. Though Isabella claims she's the type of friend who will never leave her closest friends alone, she nonetheless finds every excuse to leave Catherine's side during the parties they attend, mostly to spend time with James. When the scandal happens, it is like the shock of hearing about such a scandal happening to someone you know, rather than the humiliation of being involved in that scandal yourself.

It's interesting to note the difference in values between the upper class world of Jane Austen and our own much more liberal values in middle class United States. Turn on a romantic comedy today and both the hero and heroine are having sex, sometimes lots of it and sometimes with other people. It's not uncommon for the source of scandal to originate from the hero or heroine, and this is often what leads to the break-up towards the end. However, we are able to forgive these faults. The hero and heroine get back together, one ashamed of their mistake, the other forgiving, though perhaps more cautious in their trust. Austen's hero and heroine can hardly fathom the idea of scandal. To invite flirtation from another man when you are engaged only in heart to another whose hand you have never even held is among the gravest of romantic sins.

That's not to say readers today won't feel the romantic sin any less, and that's because Austen is such a skilled writer. Northanger Abbey moves at a much quicker pace than any of her other books I have read. At times, particularly in the middle, it is gripping and very entertaining. Austen sets up a lot of potentially intense plot points, but unfortunately rushes through some of them or settles them in anticlimactic fashion. The story fizzles towards the end, as Catherine leaves Bath and goes to Northanger Abbey. Here, Catherine's imagination is awakened by the horror stories she reads, and she imagines some dark secret lurking within its walls. Austen sets up a mystery subplot, in order, it seems, to prevent her novel from going stale. It doesn't work. By this time, the conclusion is drawing closer to its inevitable end. When things do finally set in motion, they wrap up far too quickly, or perhaps just quickly enough to prevent things from dragging on too long.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent novel, and I'd say it's my third favorite Austen, behind Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice. Northanger Abbey's side characters are less entertaining than those of the former, and the central romance is weaker than in the latter. This is a book of highs and lows. It begins at a rather subdued pace before rushing, manically, into the ups and downs of Catherine's emotional states of ecstasy and disappointment and tedium, and then tumbling into the slow crawl of the finale. That seems to be the way of the romance genre, and not necessarily any fault with Austen. We are thrilled more by the chase than the catch. While Catherine's romance with Henry is less certain, yet so greatly desired, the story is all the more thrilling, particularly when coupled with Henry's unaccounted absence from a ball here and there, and John Thorpe's relentless pursuit of her heart. It's almost impossible to feel anything but disappointment when the thrill of the chase is over and what you knew was going to happen finally does happen. But it sure is fun.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: The Wolf Gift, by Anne Rice

Long before Stephenie Meyer made vampires popular in her Twilight series, Anne Rice had already been making them glamorous, yet dangerous, in her The Vampire Chronicles series. Unlike Meyer, Rice found the fact that vampires are immortal to be an object of fascination. Where Meyer's vampires choose to spend eternity as high schoolers (which should provide them with greater insight into the education system than anybody), Rice took a more mature route, exploring the identity crisis a vampire faces when changing from the living to the undead and suddenly having an appetite for human blood. Now Rice has undertaken the subject of the werewolf, another creature Meyer made popular among teenagers. But again, Rice explores the subject with more maturity, and more fascination, than Meyer. However, there are moments where it felt as though Rice was treading the Twilight line a little too closely, with cheesy melodrama and characters who are perhaps too nice - all leading to a rather anticlimactic ending.

It all begins with Reuben, a twenty-something year old man trying to find a comfortable niche for himself in life. Of course, he has it made. He is quite wealthy, mainly from some luck and inheritance. He enjoys his job as a newspaper reporter, and his stories are widely read. Yet, closing in on his thirties, he feels unaccomplished.

The story begins with Reuben researching an article on a large, secluded mansion, called Nideck Point, where its owner, Marchent Nideck, is planning to sell it. Reuben is excited to write this story, but develops a growing sense to buy the house himself. Like I said, he has plenty of money. He knows his girlfriend, Celeste, would be aghast, but he's not entirely sure he's happy with her. His mother, Grace, might also complain, but his father, Phil, a retired college professor and a poet, would no doubt love the place. It becomes clear to Marchent that Reuben adores the place, and eventually, inevitably, the two develop a strong attraction. Reuben agrees to buy the place, and she agrees to sell it to him. Immediately, without his knowledge, she signs it over to him. After a slowly built, though engrossing, introduction, the main plot begins when the werewolf strikes that night.

Werewolves aren't the most exciting of the classic monsters. Vampires, much more human and more subtly dangerous, tend to make the most interesting movie villains or antiheroes. Zombies are less compelling in terms of character depth, but make for some fun, gore-filled action. A werewolf seems more akin to the Hulk, an intelligent human transforming into a brute, thoughtless creature bent on havoc and destruction. There's also a sexual appeal to the werewolf, one different from the vampire because it is not a human sexuality. It represents some beastly desire in both man and woman - the thrill of the hunter and the hunted. The werewolf in most stories either tears through the woods and randomly kills villagers, or it is the object of desire from some young maiden and the object of scorn and fear from the villagers. Thus a hunt is inevitable. Rice, however, sidesteps the usual conventions.

Reuben nearly loses his life that night, as a pair of intruders assault him, and then he is bitten by a strange dog-like beast. Right away it's clear something has happened to him. Reuben recovers quickly in the hospital, with a vitality that astonishes not only his family and the doctors, but himself. His wounds heal miraculously fast, and he begins to develop a super sense. He can hear what people are saying on another floor of the hospital and then on the streets outside. He becomes distressed by cries of help. Meanwhile, his mother wants to probe deeper into what happened that night. There was no trace of an animal at the mansion, despite Reuben's claims of what saved him. She grows worried when she realizes there's something odd about Reuben's own blood samples, which are corrupted before they can even be tested.

Reuben undergoes a transformation, both physically and mentally. His mother and his girlfriend note how much more handsome and larger he has grown. He's also no longer the timid young man they remembered. He seems apathetic, as though he no longer cares about the things the old Reuben used to care about. There's one change only Reuben knows, however, and that's his ability to transform into a wolf man at night. Not only can he hear voices from afar, but he can smell evil. He has an instinctive impulse to kill the bad and rescue the good. In no time the man wolf becomes an object of fascination to the media and of trepidation to the police. He realizes he can no longer stay at home, and moves into the seclusion of the mansion.

There is plenty more that Reuben becomes obsessed with, particularly werewolf lore and his own roots. The mystery, for some time, is who transformed him? What will happen when he confronts that person, or beast? Another woman also comes into play, one much more sensitive and caring than Celeste. Rice seems much more interested in philosophical musings than pure action, which is both good and bad. One of the central questions is, if Reuben can sense evil and has a desire to destroy it, is he good? His goodness is tainted by the fact that he kills people, evil as they are, without a chance for a trial. Reuben wrestles with the morality of his actions, but finds the desire to carry them out much too strong. He tries to justify what he does by pointing out that the victims of evil also did not have a chance for a fair trial. Their lives were shortened by an act of malice. Doesn't it only make it right to get even? But if one justifies killing out of revenge, when will the line of revenge stop?

Rice enjoys getting into the sensations of being a wolf man. There's a strong desire to feast on a newly killed creature, human or otherwise, and the excitement is greater when the challenge is greater. But no beast can match Reuben's strength as the man wolf. Rice explains his kills with vivid, gory detail. The transformation also comes with pleasurable sensations, and he has strong sexual desires, which are met by a lonely woman who is happy to accommodate. What strikes me as odd about the sex scenes is the description of Reuben the man wolf planting kisses all over her body. Does he have a face more human-like than wolf-like? Or are his kisses of the dog variety - that is, licking?

At about the halfway mark the story begins to lose steam. It seems as though Rice didn't have a goal in mind when writing it, and thus fails to create a compelling conflict. There's the mysterious and suspicious Dr. Jaska who wants to meet Reuben. There's also the discovery of Reuben's maker. Both of these plot points resolve anticlimactically. The story decides to go the route of the origin story, with Reuben eventually discovering the history of his kind. These kinds of stories, for me, are more boring than engaging. They add very little in terms of conflict or drama, because they serve as little more than lengthy back story. A few interesting developments occur about three-quarters of the way into the book before things begin to run on auto pilot.

And now I come back to our Twilight comparison. In Twilight, very little of interest happens. The Cullens live a life of luxury, with plenty of wealth and a nice secluded home, and we see similar developments in The Wolf Gift, with fancy dinners thrown seemingly every night. Edward wrestles with the decision to change Bella into a vampire so she can enjoy immortality with him forever, and this is no different than what develops in The Wolf Gift. What makes Rice's story different is its interest in philosophy. Unfortunately this philosophy is more ponderous than intriguing. Towards the end things feel a little too safe, which fails to make for compelling storytelling. I can only hope that things get more interesting in The Wolves of Midwinter and that Rice does not descend into the sameness that plagues the conclusion of The Wolf Gift.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut wrote his most well-known works less than two decades after George Orwell published 1984, yet the themes between Orwell's work and Cat's Cradle are very similar: the consequences of the existence of nuclear weaponry. Orwell's biggest fear was that nuclear war would pave the way for authoritarian governments to rule the world. Vonnegut's biggest fear, however, was that nuclear war would lead to the annihilation of the human race. In the face of complete devastation, what is the meaning of life? Vonnegut's characters, and perhaps even Vonnegut himself, struggles with this nihilistic attitude. They, like all of us, would like to believe life has a greater meaning.

The story is told by John, in the first person, as he attempts to write a novel titled The Day the World Ended. The novel's opening line establishes its struggle with nihilism: "Call me Jonah." This is an obvious reference to Moby-Dick's opening line, "Call me Ishmael." Except in this case, the main character isn't really named Jonah, but John, suggesting he has a desire for a name fraught with Biblical meaning instead of a common name with no meaning.

John's quest is to learn everything he can about the father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. Felix is dead, but he has left behind three children: Frank, who has disappeared; Angela, who was forced to live much of her life as a caretaker of her father; and Newt, who was born a dwarf and has artistic aspirations. John writes letters to Newt in order to learn what it was like at the Hoenikker house the day the bomb was dropped. Turns out it was just an ordinary day. John also visits Dr. Breed, Felix's supervisor, and from him learns about a mythical weapon Felix imagined called Ice-Nine. Ice-Nine would be capable of freezing all bodies of water at once, depriving the world of what it needs to sustain life. What Dr. Breed didn't know was that Felix actually did create Ice-Nine.

Just as Vonnegut makes up an alien species in Slaughterhouse-Five, he makes up a religion in Cat's Cradle. This religion is Bokononism, founded by Bokonon, whose purpose is to show that people can be made to feel good by a religion based on lies. The Book of Bokonon warns that its teachings and writings are nothing but lies, but John, much like the rest of the followers of Bokonon, glaze over that part. Bokonon teaches that all people have a karass, which is a group of people connected by some force, and that each karass is driven by two wampeters, one waxing and one waning. The supreme act of Bokononist love and peaceful meditation is to touch the naked soles of your feet to those of another person, and this is called boko-maru. Vonnegut makes up many other Bokononist words as well, and defines them, though they sound meaningless. Perhaps that's the point.

Also made up is the island of San Lorenzo, which serves as the setting for the novel's second, and most entertaining, half. San Lorenzo is where Bokonon developed Bokononism, and it's also perhaps the only place in the world the religion is simultaneously outlawed yet practiced by all the people. Most of the important action happens on San Lorenzo, as it's the place where John meets the majority of the important characters. There's Mona, daughter of San Lorenzo's president, whose beauty was a huge inspiration for John's visit. Other very interesting events occur there, but I don't want to spoil the novel.

Cat's Cradle is a book that perhaps sometime in the near future I will have to visit again. I was not too impressed by the first half of the novel. There's a lot of background story, and then John happens to randomly run into people related to those he is interested in. When he comes upon Dr. Breed's son at a graveyard, it feels too much like Vonnegut is pulling the strings rather than letting the pieces fall naturally together. Maybe a second reading will change what I think of this first half, especially because the second half is so wonderful. It's where the book truly comes to life, making me laugh and feel depressed all at once.

There is a subtle undertone of anger reverberating through the novel. Many of the characters seem angry about something. Newt is angry about his small stature, and Angela is angry about her tall, unattractive stature. Dr. Breed is angry about John's seeming inability to truly understand science. John seems angry about the mass destruction that has been carried out with the aid of advanced science. Only the Bokononists on San Lorenzo aren't angry. They seem at peace, though they also seem apathetic. Vonnegut turns some surprising events on the island into great use as satire of a people's apathy towards governmental affairs. This is sad, funny, and scary all at once.

The title itself is the biggest clue regarding the novel's nihilism. Felix Hoenikker loved to make a cat's cradle out of a piece of string, but as Newt points out in one of the novel's most passionate lines, "There is no cat. There is no cradle." The cat's cradle is just a big fib. It's name has absolutely no connection with the design it creates - so why call it the cat's cradle? Newt has grown disillusioned by the magic of the world. Perhaps that's why religion is important, even the lies of Bokononism (and the rest of them, as Vonnegut seems to be suggesting), because it keeps magic alive in people's hearts. The atom bomb may have destroyed much of this magic because it portends the end of a world that humans have spent hundreds of thousands of years surviving and making meaning out of. All of it threatens to come crashing down by a single weapon that is the product of the knowledge passed down through humanity's history. Instead, let's follow the example of Bokonon: let's remove our shoes, sit down, and press the soles of our feet together in peaceful boko-maru.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review: 1984, by George Orwell

These days the popular dystopias are written for teenagers. With the exception of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the dystopias getting the most attention (and movie deals) are the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. These teen stories tend to focus much more on romance issues than they do on the larger social issues. Not that romance is irrelevant in a dystopia, but what should make it compelling is how such a romance is affected, or made dangerous by, the oppressive society the people live in. The Hunger Games only takes a shallow look at this, with poor Katniss moping over whether she should show more affection to Gale or Peeta. Despite being over 60 years old, George Orwell's 1984 manages to top the teen dystopias both in terms of social criticism and romance. It offers plenty of lessons not only for modern authors jumping into the genre, but also to modern society, as technology has advanced to the point of potentially making Orwell's warnings come true.

Where Suzanne Collins chooses her heroine, Katniss Everdeen, to have extraordinary athletic ability and Legolas-like skills with a bow and arrow, George Orwell provides his hero, Winston Smith, with varicose ulcers in his ankle. Winston has spent his adult life as a member of the Outer Party in London, in the nation of Oceania, which consists of the Americas and Britain. Under the watching eyes of Big Brother, Winston, like the rest of the party members, lives under constant fear that he will be accused of harboring thoughts against Big Brother. Telescreens keep an eye on citizens even in the comfort of their own homes. Thought Police detect rebellious thoughts by reading facial expressions. People often disappear without warning. Those who remain are left in terror.

Language itself has even undergone serious changes. This language is called Newspeak. Its purpose is to make speech more efficient by cutting out unnecessary words. Why have ten ways to say something is good when one will suffice? If you think your food is excellent, you would say it is plusgood or doubleplusgood. The purpose is to prevent thoughtcrime by eradicating the vocabulary required to think against the party. As one of the party mottoes goes, "Ignorance is Strength:" it is better that citizens are stupid in order that Big Brother stay in power. And as our government continues to make cuts to education spending, one must wonder whether some of our politicians haven't adopted this motto for themselves

Winston, as is required of heroes in the genre, despises the oppressive system he lives under. Nonetheless, he sees no choice but to continue to act as a tool of Big Brother in order to stay alive. He works in the Ministry of Truth, where, instead of truth, lies are told. And, ironically, Winston enjoys his work. He rewrites history to always make Big Brother look good. If Big Brother had made a prediction that turned out to be inaccurate, it's Winston's job to rewrite old articles so Big Brother was actually right. The ability to control history is a powerful one. One can turn the tide of opinion for or against a person by erasing a mistake or creating a narrative of horror. History, really, is only what is written and what is passed down, not what really happened. Nobody can go back and prove what really happened because the past no longer exists. It can easily be changed if everyone is convinced of an alternate version. Even in our internet era of surplus information, truth and fiction can easily become mixed up.

The novel's first third sets up much of the background on the society. It establishes characters, none of whom Winston is very close to. It's dangerous to be close friends with somebody because that person could just as easily turn you in. However, the novel turns to romance after the initial introductions, exciting romance because it is dangerous. It is also an adult romance. Winston and his love interest are physically attracted to one another, and they do more than just make out. Sex for pleasure is an act of rebellion in a world where scientists are working to abolish the orgasm. The portrayals of attraction in The Hunger Games are less realistic because they remove the element of sex. In its PG-13 world, the kiss is the major payoff. Humans have a biological need to act out on sexual urges, and in times of oppression that urge can become stronger because it is repressed.

While 1984 is certainly more for adults than The Hunger Games, it is, nonetheless, still widely taught in high schools. Part of me wonders whether its inclusion in the curriculum is due to a continuing influence of anti-communist thought from the Cold War era. It has some important ideas to consider, to be sure, and is very imaginative and frightening, but at the same time it's not particularly great writing. Orwell spends large chunks of time wading through dull ideology, much of it anti-communist, particularly as we read the sections from the book of Emanuel Goldstein, the leader of the rebellion against Big Brother. If Orwell had reduced or removed a lot of these passages, the book would be vastly improved. I'm also concerned by the way the book is taught in schools. It seems less importance is placed on the ideas in the book and more on minute details. When a test question asks how old Winston and Julia are, our literature education is sadly missing the mark.

1984 truly stands out in its feeling of hopelessness. In this world created by atomic destruction, power was taken by those who most wanted to hold onto it, at any cost. There's a sense that this lone man, Winston, can do nothing against such a power as Big Brother and the Thought Police. The reader has hope, to be sure, that he can. There's a belief that he can. Our culture perceives that the hero always wins. In movies, in books, in video games, the good guy wins the day, no matter how grim the situation. That's why 1984 is so terrifying. The best hero it can come up with is a man with varicose ulcers in his vein. As it begins to hurtle towards its conclusion the terror grows greater. While I do have some misgivings about the book, I can't help but admire the way Orwell mercilessly crushes our hopes. If society does go the way of 1984 (a big "if," admittedly), there's no guarantee somebody will be able rise up and do the right thing. That's what's frightening. The heroism of the individual is merely a myth.