Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Giver - Lois Lowry Review


Publisher: Ember
Published: 1993
Pages: 179
Genre: Children's/YA Dystopia
Rating: 3.5 Stars

I remember being on the phone to someone last week, talking about reading The Giver. I said something like “Yeah, this is one of the original dystopians, I think” and he corrected me. It’s apparently the original young adult dystopian. Bit pedantic, but there you go.

That’s the kind of correction Jonas faces a lot, in a community that’s very very strict on Precision of Language.

The Giver is a sci-fi dystopian about a twelve-year-old boy (Jonas) living in a community with no fear/war/hunger. Everyone goes around on their quaint bicycles, people are unfailingly polite and often clinical in their speech, and it seems like every second word is capitalised. People are assigned to roles/careers on their twelfth birthday and nothing is contested (or if it is, it doesn’t matter: any appeals go to a Committee that doesn’t do anything).

Also, the world has no colour or music, because they would disrupt the Sameness. 

Announcements come over an intercom that’s never turned off, enforcing a litany of rules: no lying, girls under seven must wear their hair up, no nosiness. Everyone has the same birthday. And love doesn’t exist. Neither do any other feelings.

On the day of Jonas’ Ceremony of Twelves, he is shocked to see that he hasn’t been designated a job. Instead, he has been selected as the new Receiver of Memories. His predecessor and trainer, the Giver, needs to pass it on. The Receiver of Memories holds the memories of Outside for the whole community, so that they don’t have them – again, to preserve Sameness. So the Receiver knows sunshine, and music, and colour, but also warfare and fear and starvation.

Jonas goes to begin his training and slowly unravels the truth about his world.

The Giver is a very fast read, with few pages and simple, direct prose. So I picked it up one day after school and read half of it in probably less than two hours. It’s quite powerful, though – and I’m finding it hard to pinpoint why, because I can spot plenty of faults.

For one, the surprises weren’t that surprising. I knew what Release was immediately from the context (and from having read Matched, I guess), and besides that there weren’t really any massive twists. I think the better part of that was how it affected Jonas and the others, the smaller details and ripple effects.

I like the characterization (though your mileage may vary – some find it quite bland), particularly of Asher and Lily, Jonas’ younger sister. The world-building details were very interesting and fresh, and I actually enjoyed all the capitalisation – at least it told me what to pay attention to!

What I loved most about it was the creepiness. Even from the first few pages, there was a sense of menace in the innocence of things. It's told from Jonas' perspective and, him being eleven at the start, he takes things in his society for granted that we get majorly weirded out by.

The ending, though: that annoyed the hell out of me. I hate it, honestly. It’s completely open-ended and probably allegorical (which is always annoying, and makes it seem very childrens-book-ish when until then it had straddled borders). The events leading up to it felt rushed too: the stuff before that had been nicely paced and then this wasn’t. Which was disappointing.

But I suppose I can’t complain, because The Giver did get me in trouble twice in Chemistry for reading it under the table. Let me just say though – just before the teacher gave out the second time, I finished the last page. Victory. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell Review


Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Pages: 459
Rating: 5 stars (+)
Blurb: Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan...

But for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words... And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?


I'm just going to lead with a quote from the New York Times Journal of Books review, because it so perfectly encapsulates my feelings about it:

Fangirl is a deliciously warm-hearted nerd power ballad destined for greatness”

Can I just say I love the term “nerd power ballad”? Anyway. Fangirl is the second book I bought with the Eason book voucher I got for my birthday (thanks, Cian). I wasn't sure about it at first because I don't think I've ever read a book about someone's first year in college before, especially since it's contemporary. I wouldn't even have considered that YA before now. I'm glad to say Fangirl changed my opinion on that.

Whew. How do I start to describe Fangirl? I guess I'll start by praising the title: YA books with a catchy one-word title are all over the place, but too many of them don't have anything to do with the content. This one is great: one simply colloquial word in the teenage vernacular that runs on the story's hook.

I can express its popularity this way: people in school have read it. Tons of people in my school. I mention the title and they say, “Oh, I know that one. It's really good.” This is often coming from people who generally don't read. I guess I'm mostly surprised by that because Fangirl hasn't (yet) become a phenomenon like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games – it's a quieter book, like everyone's secret.

The characterization was fabulous. I don't think I can adequately express just how brilliant Levi – my favourite – was, but I'll try. Levi isn't someone I immediately took a liking to. He spends a lot of the first part of the book sitting on the landing waiting for Reagan, Cath's roommate, to let him in, and Cath sees him as almost belonging to Reagan. Then he steals her protein bars (more on that later) and she starts talking to him.

Levi is ... unlike anyone I've ever read about. He's so genuine, so kind and caring, but not in a pushover Peeta-type way. He's funny and normal, studying Agriculture. And he has vulnerabilities – like the fact that he's unable to learn by reading (in direct contrast to Cath's love for reading and writing), and that Reagan cheated on him. Have some quotes:

It's okay if you're crazy," he said softly.
"You don't even know-"
"I don't have to know," he said. "I'm rooting for you.”

What's the plan?" she asked.
He grinned. "My plan is to do things that make you want to hang out with me again tomorrow. What's your plan?"
"I'm going to try not to make an ass of myself."
He grinned. "So we're all set.”

You give away nice like it doesn't cost you anything.” (Cath to Levi – he's certainly not the moody type. Honestly, Levi is just the most comforting person character ever. I want him in my life.)

I loved her Dad as well, who's portrayed as a brilliant creative (who's not a writer or artist, surprisingly, but rather an advertising person of some sort – words fail me), but so very absentminded. It's a wonder he's managed to mind the twins on his own all these years, and he and Cath have a very close relationship. He's a very endearing character, and I admire Rowell for making the father involved in a YA story.

Cath's chosen fandom is Simon Snow, the wildly popular series about a boy who goes to wizarding school. It's an obvious rip-off of Harry Potter, and I think that's an interesting effect – Rowell is using the exact hype and Pottermania (oh god, did I just say that?) there was all over the world. It settles Cath into the real world and lets us identify with her a bit.

Not a whole lot, though, which is where I have to talk about something that disconcerted me. Cath seems entirely unhealthy. We already know she's painfully shy, but when she goes to college she stays in her room all the time on the internet, terrified of her roommate. She hides boxes upon boxes of protein bars under her bed so that she doesn't have to eat in front of people in the food hall. She turns down invitations to every social event. And unless I missed something, it's doesn't say that she suffers from something like anxiety, and the only mention of attending a therapist is from ten years before, after her mom left. So that was worrying. You couldn't chalk her obsession down to fangirling alone. I'm a fangirl (look at this blog), and while I'm not a particularly intense one, I don't think anyone is as extreme as she is without underlying issues. She contemplates dropping out of college and failing a big assignment just so she can finish her fanfiction. (Finishing her fanfiction is framed as a big coming-of-age moment).

One of the parts that got me really emotional about Fangirl is the description of what it feels like to have a parent leave. Obviously it's different for everyone, and there are varying degrees of, well, badness – but as the story arc tilts towards Cath's mother who left when she was in third grade, on the day of 9/11, we feel her pain and her resentment incredibly strongly. Rainbow Rowell has an amazing ability for tugging on readers' heartstrings without ever descending into melodrama.
This part is about Cath and her twin sister Wren:

They were a package deal, period. Since always.

They'd even gone to therapy together after their mom left. Which seemed weird, now that Cath thought about it. Especially considering how differently they'd reacted – Wren acting out, Cath acting in. (Violently, desperately in. Journey to the Centre of the Earth in.)

Their third-grade teacher - they were always in the same class, all through elementary school – thought they must be upset about the terrorists . . . .


Her mom left for good a week later, hugging both of the girls on the front porch, kissing their cheeks again and again, and promising that she'd see them both soon, that she just needed some time to feel better, to remember who she really was. Which didn't make any sense to Cath and Wren. You're our mom.

Cath couldn't remember everything that happened next.

She remembered crying a lot at school. Hiding with Wren in the bathroom during recess. Holding hands on the bus. Wren scratching a boy who said they were gay in the eye.

Wren didn't cry. She stole things and hid them under her pillow. When their dad changed their sheets for the first time – not until after Valentine's Day – he found Simon Snow pencils and Lip Smackers and a Britney Spears CD.”

Terribly long quote, I know, but it was so hard to choose. The writing here is just so emotive. And the matter-of-fact tone makes it worse.

Once I got into Fangirl I read it everywhere, even under the desk in school. It was so engrossing, and I felt so emotionally attached to – well, not specifically the characters, more the relationships between them – that I couldn't let it go. I sat in bed one night reading the last two hundred or so pages while listening to music, and for some reason I kept laughing and crying out loud. It could have been just me, but that book – to use fan language (fanguage? And come on, don't I use it already?) really really really gave me feels.  

And now I'm dying to read Eleanor & Park

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Legend - Marie Lu Review


Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Pages: 305
Source: Bought
Rating: 4 Stars

Last YA dystopian for a while, I swear. I have an incredible contemporary up next (Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell - perf).

Legend is a Young Adult dystopian novel published in 2011, at the height of the dystopian frenzy. This, I think, is why it’s so original and freshly-spun – because otherwise, it never would have survived.

The dual narrative follows June, the city’s prodigy, their rising star, the only known person to have achieved a perfect 1500 in the Trials (exams taken at the age of ten that determine your future), and soldier-in-training, and Day, a fifteen-year-old criminal on the fringes of society. When June’s brother and caretaker, Metias, is killed in action, June learns that Day is the culprit. She’s accelerated to take Metias’ place in the patrol – first mission, track down Day.

I wouldn't have bought this book based on the back cover (it just didnt grab me) but the first page drew me in. Boiled down to its most basic (“Someone kills family member, character departs to avenge their death”), the plot is nothing new, but I think it’s interesting that it was put in a Young Adult (and dystopian) setting, because I haven’t seen many of those around, and the feelings and actions involved are different when the protagonists are only fifteen. For example, in an adult novel a cop might seek to avenge his wife, but here Metias acted as June’s parents (yes, it’s one of those Young Adult novels where the parents are dead).

I was surprised at first to see that the book is so short, clocking in at only 305 pages, which very nearly dissuaded me from buying it. But it's extraordinarily fast-paced, speeding up as the book goes along. It's so tight that I could forgive how short it is. 

(Ouch, practically this whole review has just been backhanded compliments). 

Lu made it easy to visualise the world, which is good because I'm normally terrible at visualisation. Gritty details are left in there, and it's a very visceral read (as it has to be, because honestly the world-building might not hold up if I examined it too quickly). 

The protagonists' ages are so unrealistic. Day's age was mentioned early on in the book but I missed it and was blindsided by it later on. Sure, they're both smart as hell, but the things they endure are just too much for fifteen-year-olds - or are we just used to 16 being the age when teens are out having dystopian adventures? 

I don't want to analyse this too much, because I'm afraid I'll spoil my enjoyment of it. Let's just say that it was exhilarating and exciting, and I'm glad I bought it.

Grrr, why couldn't it just be a standalone?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Breathe - Sarah Crossan Review

Publisher: Greenwillow (2012)
Genre: YA Dystopian
Pages: 373
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Anyone so thoroughly sick of YA Dystopian they can't stand the sight of them is going to want to look away now. For those not irredeemably jaded ...

11544466Breathe by Sarah Crossan has three protagonists, each with point-of-view chapters; Alina, Bea and Quinn. The premise is that all trees are dead and Earth has run out of oxygen.

Everyone lives inside a Dome (sound familiar?), where they have to pay for artificial air if they want to, y'know, breathe. Quinn is a Premium, a rich boy whose family can afford all the air they want. Bea is an Auxiliary who struggles to pay for breathing: she can't dance, sing or exercise enough for fear of using up too much air. Quinn and Bea are best friends. On top of that, Bea is in unrequited love with Quinn.

Alina is different, due to the not-so-inconsequential fact that she's a rebel (although what passes for rebellion here is growing illegal plants. Growing plants, full stop). One day, Quinn spots Alina in the cafeteria and fancies her. Quinn and Bea leave the Dome for a weekend holiday with air tanks, but Alina's leaving at the same time. Of course, where Alina's going is trouble. Quinn and Bea get caught up in it and bam, drama and danger and adventure.*

I gave this 3.5 stars because it's a good solid read and a pleasant surprise The three points-of-view was quite hefty to pick up at the outset and I didn't enjoy having to get used to three narrators. Their voices are reasonably distinctive, thankfully, and well-characterised, in my opinion.

Not that I know what goes on in boys' heads, but Quinn seems like the most realistic one I've ever read. He's not exactly shy in his internal monologue, I have to say. You can almost feel the hormones. Bea is sensitive, studious and compassionate. She was easy enough to sympathise with, I suppose, but you certainly wouldn't be in awe of her strength. Also, at the start of the book she spends half her time being a teatowel and wishing Quinn would notice her. Alina is your typical strong rebel girl, though even more aloof and hostile than usual. She's not just snarky; at first she seems genuinely uninterested in talking to or mixing with the other main characters (non-rebels, but in the same school).

I quite like the premise, and there's a decent amount of attention paid to the scientific-authenticity side of things. The plotline twists and turns skilfully and there's a real sense of danger, though not as much suspense as there could've been. The setting was really well-described, particularly a certain place outside the Dome that I can't talk about because of spoilers.

Twists! Fabulous twists, both in the main story and in the relationships between characters.

Didn't completely wow me compared to some books I've read recently, but worth a look. It's the first in a trilogy, which I miiiight continue. Depends.

*too snarky?