Monday, 28 April 2014

Ender's Shadow - Orson Scott Card Review

Heads up: I strongly advise reading Ender’s Game before reading this post, as it’ll make a lot more sense. Having read Ender’s Shadow would be a bonus but is not necessary for understanding it. This review is difficult to write without giving spoilers, but as I was so excited to read Ender’s Shadow, I’ll give it a go.
Ender’s Shadow (Orson Scott Card, 1999) describes mainly the events of Ender’s Game, but from Ender’s subordinate Bean’s perspective. Despite this, there is a huge amount of new material in it.

It begins with Bean near starvation as a street urchin, using his brilliant mind and cunning to keep himself alive and eventually get himself into Battle School – no small feat when he’s abandoned before he can walk and gets into Battle School around four.

On the surface, he tends to remind people of Ender – smart even for Battle School; small and young; intentionally isolated from his launch group by the adults; not fond of authority; promoted rapidly – but on the inside, he’s disconcertingly different.

Used to fighting for survival, Bean seems unscrupulous – he will do anything to stay alive. He scored even higher than Ender did on the entrance tests, getting the highest score in the history of Battle School by a wide margin (and at what age, 4?). To put it shortly, Bean is extremely intelligent. And he has few of Ender’s lofty moral ideals, and little to none of his compassion (arguably Ender’s greatest strength). He is eely analytical and excels at extrapolating the information he needs from what little he is told. You might have thought Ender was cautious, suspicious, but Bean blows him out of the water on that front. He won’t even play the fantasy game for fear that the adults will use it to psychoanalyse him (funny, that). I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s self-absorbed, but his survival instinct is incredibly strong.

While I praise Card for having the skill to create characters so seemingly alike and yet so different underneath, I didn’t always enjoy it. When I was reading Ender’s Game  I was quite fond of Bean and had a nice idea of him in my head. He seemed plucky, daring, adventurous, lovable. But here was a story told from his point of view and the author smashed my mental image of him from the last book (which I didn’t appreciate). He came across manipulative, calculating, cold – perfectly content to fade into the background at Battle School until he figures out the adults are expecting him to excel, only getting close to Ender because he thinks it’s his best bet of getting ahead.

Also, while Ender’s isolation leads to him becoming a leader, Bean doesn’t have that leadership quality. Perhaps it’s because he’s lacking in compassion, but whatever the reason, Bean gets ahead much more in his studies than in the Battles. (Although he’s such a genius that he does end up with his own army in the School).

Enough about Bean for the moment. The overarching plot is largely the same, but the timing feels off (which makes sense, as Bean reacts to and prioritizes things differently, but it’s disorientating). I sometimes think Ender may represent humanity’s sense of duty and Bean our self-preservation.

I thought we might see what happens to the other kids (excluding Ender) when they return to Earth, and was disappointed not to. Perhaps that’s in another book in the series – I hope so.

There was a certain subplot about Bean’s heritage that was just very underwhelming for me. I felt that (a) it didn’t really fit with the story (b) it’s not tied up at all in the end, in my opinion.

I was so uncomfortable with the sort of things Bean was doing and finding out towards the end of the book (and even in the middle, with the air ducts). The thing regarding Ender’s Game’s plot twist was manageable, but it seemed like things were shifted around a lot. Anyone who’s read the first book knows that Bean is seen as having a lot of potential and is slated as Ender’s Second for the Third Invasion, that role was really played up in Ender’s Shadow. I was also left confused by the fact that Bean, as far as I’m aware, never had a monitor, nor did any of the street urchins – how could Battle School accept him? The resolution of this book was messier than Ender’s Game, I felt.

I enjoyed reading it, but not as much as Ender’s Game. While the urchin background was interesting and really made me sympathise, I didn’t find it as compelling as Ender’s Game’s main plot or even its Demosthenes and Locke subplot.

All the books in the Ender’s Game series(es?) throw up incredibly interesting questions and themes, so hopefully I can explore some of those in the future. 

PS: I loved the movie, even though it left out so much - what did you think of it? I boycotted it in the cinema because of Card's homophobic behaviour, but I saw it on someone's DVD and really enjoyed it. Plus, Asa Butterfield is fantastic.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Little Children - Tom Perrotta Review

Published: January 2004
Rating: 3 stars

Reading Little Children was a fairly strange experience for me, because it’s definitely way out of my comfort zone. I’m used to YA, science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic and some other things. I rarely read contemporaries but when I do they’re generally still YA. This one, not so much. It’s adult contemporary, and I’ll throw the word ‘comedy’ in there as well. But it’s disconcerting.

The thing about the books I read – let’s say science fiction and fantasy, for the moment – is that they’re escapist by nature. I mean, I’ve never experienced Earth in the 28th century, but I still loved Earth Girl by Janet Edwards. I don’t go to Hogwarts, but thanks to J.K. Rowling I could while I was reading.
What I love are ‘what-ifs’ – when one thing about our world is changed and the author lets it play out. So these books have a readymade hook – ’24 teens fight to the death on reality TV’, for example, or ‘Boy enters world of wizardry and magic and fulfils prophecy’.

 But mainstream adult fiction ... just doesn’t have that. I mean, if I had to come up with a one-liner for Little Children, it’d be something like ‘Mothers gossip at the playground and marriages break up.’

And yet I can understand why it’s called things like ‘a fascinating look into married life today’ or ‘a dryly humorous view of life with kids’. It’s a different form of escapism, I think. One where you aren’t taken to a place you’ve never seen before – instead, you’re shown the same old world and helped look at it through different eyes. So all these young mothers and married people and even those who are neither (like me!) see their lives reflected in the characters.

I didn’t find it a gripping book; I’d say it’s definitely a summer beach read. But it was enjoyable to read. It didn’t make a huge impact on me or blow my mind like lots of my YA books, but it was pleasant while I turned the pages. The problem I had was motivating myself to finish the book after I’d put it down for a few days – it doesn’t have the kind of magnetism of some other books, where you just have to finish it now.

It was also a bit rude in places, so if you’re under 18 and/or squeamish about that kind of thing maybe don’t go there. Nothing too heavy, just enough to make me a bit uncomfortable – again, because the relationships it depicted were adult ones, which are very different to their teenage equivalents. In fairness, I did ‘borrow’ this book off my mother, so...

Everything above I can deal with, because they were just small things that bugged me. But I have to say this: I hate the ending. Hate it. It’s just ... pointless. I won’t spoil the ending but I’m used to there being some kind of climax, a confrontation at least. Even in the most badly-written dystopian something large-scale has to happen. This novel just tailed off. It's a pity, because the pacing was great until then.

Damn it made me mad then. But sure look, Little Children was a NYT bestseller, and although it didn’t blow me away, I did like it. To each their own. My favourite part was probably the humour - Perrotta is excellent at funny snide comments, I must admit. 

So there you go. Sorry this is more a diatribe on adult contemporary in general than a review of Little Children, it just kinda happened. I’ve just finished Soon I Will Be Invincible and Nineteen Minutes, so reviews of them are on the way. I’m almost finished The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau which I ADORE. I’ve just started Fuse, the sequel to Pure by Julianna Baggott, so I’ll see how that goes.