Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

333901Blurb:

Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy.

As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary. But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way.

Review:

This summer I started doing more fitnessy activities not in an attempt to lose weight or clear my prematurely blocked arteries but in response to the plethora of Young Adult Dystopian Novels that led me to question whether I could a) win the Hunger Games b) jump from a moving train with my Dauntless buddies c) take out an alien with a swift kick to the face and then evade their hot spaceship pursuit. The answers to these questions are a) no b) no c) no.

Young Adult Dystopian Novels forced me to stare fate straight in the eye: if removed from my cushy existence by a twist of apocalyptic fate, I would die. I would die every single time.

Refusing to accept this, I began a workout regimen to guarantee my survival. But then I read How I Live Now and my resolve is weakening. Because Daisy, who charmingly narrates her experiences during a world war, is no Teen Action Hero. She reacts how the vast majority of us would in dire circumstances: not by staging a coup or leading the resistance, but by surviving as best as she can. Now I’m left wondering if my pushups and jogs are even worth anything—if the world fell apart, I’d probably just stay in my basement trying to stop my towering piles of canned goods from toppling over. And face it: so would you.

So that’s what’s so refreshing about this novel. It’s about normal people. The people that most of us would be during all out world war. The people simply trying to survive. That’s Daisy’s story. It’s a story of survival in extreme circumstances and then learning to accept those circumstances as her life forevermore. After finishing the novel, I can’t help but wonder whether humankind’s immense adaptability is a strength or a weakness. It’s wonderful how Daisy and so many others find new ways to live after catastrophe, but isn’t it sad how quickly we humans adapt to a less than perfect world? How easily content we become with nothing?

Meg Rosoff is an excellent writer and demonstrates her skill most readily with Daisy’s voice. The novel is first person with Daisy recounting her experiences after the fact. The most incredible thing? Daisy actually sounds like a teenager. Aside from one too many SAT words, How I Live Now truly reads like a teenager talks. Daisy’s narration is witty (suggesting that we can find humor even in the darkest moments) and her experiences are recorded in the same way she might have submitted an essay to her English teacher on the first day of school titled “What I Did During Summer Vacation [When Bombs Hit Britain and This Manhattanite Was Stuck On the Wrong Side of the Atlantic During World War Three With My Very Hot Cousin].”

I’ve seen many reviewers object to the novel’s incestuous relationship. The incest is quite secondary and it’s included in the plotline to show how something scandalous in normal times is entirely irrelevant—even laughably unimportant—in times where people care more about 1. dying in a nuclear attack 2. dying by gunfire 3. dying from starvation 4. dying from infection 5. DYING.

“I guess there was a war going on somewhere in the world that night but it wasn’t one that could touch us.”

How I Live Now may have destroyed any motivation I had to go running tomorrow, but I’m glad I read it. I want to read more books—especially in YA—about the people who aren’t overtly special, who aren’t the Chosen Ones. Daisy is a normal teenage girl facing an extraordinary situation. She is a reminder that life persists even in epochs of death.

3.5 out of 5 stars

PS There is a film adaptation coming soon starring the lovely Saoirse Ronan. The movie Daisy seems to be more badass than she was in the book, but it was the film’s approaching release date that urged me to read this sooner rather than later and I’m happy I did.

Advertisements

Review: Angelfall by Susan Ee

11500217-1Blurb:

It’s been six weeks since angels of the apocalypse descended to demolish the modern world. Street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back.

Anything, including making a deal with an enemy angel.

Raffe is a warrior who lies broken and wingless on the street. After eons of fighting his own battles, he finds himself being rescued from a desperate situation by a half-starved teenage girl.

Traveling through a dark and twisted Northern California, they have only each other to rely on for survival. Together, they journey toward the angels’ stronghold in San Francisco where she’ll risk everything to rescue her sister and he’ll put himself at the mercy of his greatest enemies for the chance to be made whole again.

Review:

I’m sure anyone who has taken a middle school English class has suffered through endless discussion of the plot diagram below:

How many times did I have to break down a class-required reading using this chart? Too many! After reading Angelfall, I’d love to go back to my 8th grade teacher and shove this diagram in her face because Angelfall’s plot structure looks a bit more like this:

ENDLESS. CLIMAX. It’s like Susan Ee went, “exposition? pshhh who needs that? I’ll just have a major battle scene in the first few pages. Denouement, you say? Well, I don’t speak French, so I think I’ll just end my book in the middle of the climax that has been going since page one.”

In some ways, this structure was refreshing. Who hasn’t read a poorly paced book with dull spots aplenty hoping for endless action? But I think by focusing exclusively on high-octane events, Ee does her book a disservice. We never truly get to meet the characters, understand who they are and what motivates them. Thus I failed to connect with them and care about what would happen to them. Furthermore, since the characters are engaged in a battle every other chapter or so, they never really got to know each other. So later in the novel, when their connections become central to their personal choices, I didn’t believe these choices. Additionally, the fascinating backstory to this apocalypse and the details of angelic politics are glossed over in favor of action, meaning the worldbuilding is rather weak, which is a shame since Ee’s interpretation of the angel mythology seems quite novel.

While reading Angelfall I kept thinking “THIS IS AWESOME” but I never really cared what happened. It was more so just a need to know. Without any considerable depth, Angelfall is a book I anticipate forgetting quickly. That said, I will likely check out the sequel because 1. holy cliffhanger 2. I’m a chronic series completist 3. a girl can hope Ee gets a hold of the more traditional middle school plot diagram and decides to use it.

2 out of 5 stars

(Pro Tip: if you own a Kindle, this book is dirt cheap on Amazon since it’s self-published. Also, it’s slated to be a major motion picture and it will likely make millions in a few years time. Just some advice in case you want to jump on the bandwagon early so you can brag to all your friends.)

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

12600138Blurb: It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune–and remarkable power–to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved–that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt–among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life–and love–in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

Review: Have I mentioned how much I loathe bloated action scenes? I loathe bloated action scenes. What fun am I supposed to find in reading about characters attacking each other? Unfortunately, the last quarter of Ready Player One descends into a massive battle where the wholeheartedly good draws virtual weapons against the unabashedly evil, which led my eyes to skimskimskim since: I loathe bloated action scenes.

Casting aside this disappointing ending, however, I found Ready Player One to be fantastically entertaining. It’s not high literature, but on a popcorn level—where once you take a bite, you can’t stop—it’s excellent. It’s about a young guy living in a dystopic future where everyone lives inside a virtual video game reality. This young guy faces off with a Big Bad Corporation that is trying to take control of the video game by winning a scavenger hunt contest created by the game’s deceased creator. Winning the contest requires an encylopediac mind crammed with 80s pop culture trivia, early video games lore, and famed fantasy and science fiction knowledge.

Now my familiarity with the 80s is limited. Beyond playing Duck Hunter and listening to Tainted Love on a loop, that decade does not exist for me, mostly because I did not exist. I would have loved a 90s version of this with challenges based on Beanie Babies, Tamagotchis, Pokemon cards, the Backstreet Boys, The Lion King, and Gameboy Colors, but alas…(though, whoa, I need to write that book pronto before I succumb to ND—Nineties Deprivation.) I was worried about not enjoying this due to my lack of 80s knowledge, but it’s absolutely secondary. Some of the references triggered no neural impulse, yet I still understood what was going on.

The main problem is that Ernest Cline is obviously a debut novelist. His prose is constructed almost entirely with simple sentences. A subject verbs something; then the subject verbs something else; next the subject verbs a new something else, etc. His characters are flat too. Wade, the protagonist, has no flaws and miraculously succeeds at everything he tries to do. The choice of Wade as the main character is disappointing actually. Another main character in the scavenger hunt, Art3mis, is a geek girl and would have been a more interesting protagonist than your typical pimply white male hacker geek extraordinaire.

There is also no depth. There is a chapter near the middle of the book where I could tell the author suddenly tried to add some deeper themes for pondering, but it failed since it was the opposite of effortless. Yet strangely, I didn’t want to be challenged in my reading. I was enchanted enough by the creativity of the virtual reality world designed and by the scavenger hunt challenges themselves. The challenges are the best part; in a nice parallel fashion, the book is a virtual reality for us readers, a bit of personal escapism where we can put ourselves in the characters’ places and try to solve the puzzles. So when Cline made a clumsy attempt at profundity, all I wanted was for him to return to the game so that I could get back in the zone.

When you’re looking for a few hours of fun, definitely read this. I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy it in the basest pleasure center of your brain. For now, excuse me, I need to hunt down an original Nintendo set and watch every John Hughes movie ever.

A solid 3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1) by Patrick Ness

2118745Blurb:

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee — whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not — stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden — a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?

Review:

The main thing I gained from reading The Knife of Never Letting Go? Knowledge of how it feels to read a single, more than 400 page chase scene.

Sure, there are additional elements to this story. There is a coming of age tale since the protagonist Todd will become a man in a month’s time at the novel’s beginning. It’s a dystopia, complete with a deranged religious man, a tyrannical mayor, a gendered society, and a way of monitoring individuals’ thoughts through Noise, a virus that publicizes the thoughts of every male in the New World. We’ve got some light sci-fi going on: humanoid aliens inhabit the planet and Viola, the secondary protagonist, has crashed her spaceship onto New World. There’s even a minor mystery as Todd seeks to discover the true circumstances behind the disappearance of all women in Prentisstown and the reason why he is being hunted so feverishly after fleeing his town.

But despite all these components, The Knife of Never Letting Go boils down to one thing: a sprawling, epic chase scene. Which gets repetitive quickly. Very quickly.

Ness writes in first person from Todd’s perspective, but he cheats with his narrative technique. When Todd finds out crucial answers to the mystery of Prentisstown, they are not shared with the reader. Nearly halfway through this novel, I still had zero answers to the questions that had been introduced in chapter one. To me, this is plainly bad storytelling. I like when authors keep certain secrets and twists guarded, but they have to give me something. Don’t trick me into reading 90% of the book before revealing everything at once and then creating tons of new questions that, most likely, won’t be answered until 90% through the sequel.

My next biggest complaint concerned the prose, which is full of improper grammar and spelling to emphasize Todd’s lack of education. This technique can be employed splendidly (Lenny’s voice in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men comes to mind), but with Todd, who is an annoying fourteen year old, it bothered me. It just sounded so juvenile. For example, Todd uses the term “effing” a lot and frequently follows it up by saying, “But I didn’t say effing, I said the actual word…” and you can almost see the freaking winky face behind it. Ha…Ha… At times, the writing reminded me more of verse than prose, since it was written with many short, fragmented sentences indented as individual lines. This style further weakened the writing by rendering it even more simplistic and immature.

A stronger point is the development of themes and motifs, especially through the eponymous “knife” and its role in killing. During this grandiose chase scene, Ness asks: does killing change you? does a person ever have the right to take another person’s life? These questions are compelling and relevant. 33 US states still offer death penalty as a sentence in cases of homicide. US soldiers go to war and daily kill individuals identified as threats. Is this okay? I love pondering over this philosophical question, but my god, in The Knife of Never Letting Go, I didn’t care that Todd was suffering from existential qualms about killing two of the main villains chasing after him. It was vexatious and repetitive. It’s one thing to read a nearly 500 page chase scene; it’s another to have the same two chasers turn up again and again to serve as some featherweight obstacle that Todd and Viola will undoubtedly overcome by maiming them nearly mortally only to have the chasers somehow appear (of course!) yet again. Instead of wondering about the rightness and nature of killing, all I could think after like the fifth reappearance of these chasers was “KILL THEM TODD, KILL THEM.” Put me out of my misery! There are also interesting parallels between the beliefs of some Prentisstown men and super hardcore evangelist Christian beliefs toward women, but this theme was mostly unexplored and lost in the muddle.

Basically, I didn’t really enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go because the parts I found most interesting—the question of killing, the mysteries of the Noise, New World, and Prentisstown, the curious state of women in this society—were ignored in favor of action. If a fast-paced book focused on a wild pursuit of two kids by crazy men sounds like something you might enjoy, then certainly read this book. But if you like your books that feature dystopic secrets and a lot of walking to a destination to pack some emotional resonance (à la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), you may find this novel disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Stand by Stephen King

6983110Blurb:

Stephen King’s apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and tangled in an elemental struggle between good and evil remains as riveting and eerily plausible as when it was first published.
 
A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emerge—Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence. As the dark man and the peaceful woman gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them—and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity

Review:

Upon finishing The Stand, I asked myself: what is the point? I was not asking myself this question in the existential way King likely intended; I was not asking, “what is the point of living if society always goes bad at some point?” No, I was asking: what is the point of these 1300 pages? What was the point of this massive ensemble of characters, many of whom met senseless deaths? This book was not affecting in a way that made me ponder the futility and fragility of human life, though I believe that was “the point.” The Stand is an example of a book with an excellent message obfuscated by horrible execution.

In The Stand, a superflu virus basically kills everyone in the world, leaving a feeble few to resurrect human society. Imagine, for a moment, that you are one of the select 0.6% who has survived the virus. You wander for days before encountering another person. Eventually, you find a group of comrades and decide to carry on humanity’s torch and develop a society, that natural human state. What would you want your society to be like? Would you simply re-ratify the American constitution and readopt all of America’s social conventions, even if these conventions include the inferiority of women, the dominance of Christian religion, and environmental destruction?

I hope you’re saying no, because such a society would be dreadfully unimaginative and guilty of the same failures as the pre-flu society. Yet much of The Stand amounts to just that: the reinstitution of the fallen American society. It’s such a bummer! The reason I love post-apocalyptic stories is that they amount to a reset button, a perfect juncture to objectively criticize past societal failings and progress to a more advanced state. Characters in The Stand don’t treat it that way; rather they simply revert to a previous state. I think that reversion is a bit unrealistic. Why would the women of The Stand fall back to their inferior position? Wouldn’t they view this as a chance for equality? The women of The Stand remain oppressed, however, and nothing changes for the better.

Now this static social state may be due to King’s overall thesis in writing this book. He seems to suggest that many humans are inherently bad and as a result, there will never be a perfect human society, superflu reset button or no. But I don’t know if I accept his thesis because his plot never explored all the possible scenarios. We never get to see the people negotiate a new social contract and emerge from the State of Nature; the “new” society they create is already social and inherits all the faults of the old.

Ensconced somewhere in these 1300 pages is a good book. A very very good book with a fascinating overarching idea. Unfortunately, everything positive you can take out of this reading experience is slathered in deadly flu microbes, meaning it’s impossible to find these positive aspects without suffering a little. In the end, The Stand is just too much. There’s too much exposition, too much denouement, too many characters, too many logical flaws; and all of this is for one interesting idea that is not sufficiently investigated.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

16101128Blurb: The Passage meets Ender’s Game in an epic new series from award-winning author Rick Yancey.

After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.

Now, it’s the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth’s last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother—or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

Review:

Do you know why we will win this war? Why we cannot lose? Because we know how you think. We’ve been watching you for six thousand years. When the pyramids rose in the Egyptian desert, we were watching you. When Caesar burned the library at Alexandria, we were watching you. When you crucified that first-century Jewish peasant, we were watching. When Columbus set foot in the New World…when you fought a war to free millions of your fellow humans from bondage…when you learned how to split the atom…when you first ventured beyond your atmosphere…What were we doing?

Why, Mr. Alien, you were watching us and twiddling your symbolic alien mustache of course! Yet that six thousand years of creeping on humanity doesn’t seem to have done you much good. Since your plan to kill the Earthlings and take possession of the planet (if that even IS your plan—unfortunately, Rick Yancey has left your intentions vague), well, that plan kind of sucked.

Yancey’s alien species has decided to destroy humanity in waves—1st wave, 2nd wave, 3rd wave, 4th wave. Almost 7 billion humans, dead. Now it’s the 5th wave, a wave that will challenge what it means to be human. Here’s my question, though: if the aliens are oh-so-smart thanks to millions of years of evolution and as evinced by their fancy mothership, why are they killing humanity in waves? Why are they reverting to methods that allow plucky teenagers to fight back? Why can’t they simply exterminate all humans in a single blow?

…I don’t know if there are any answers to those questions, so my first issue with The 5th Wave is a basic logic fail. Sorry, but I do not accept these premises!

Considering the 7 billion death toll, the aliens are deadly, but to me, they were never scary. It’s quite remarkable, really: How can a species kill 7 billion creatures and not be scary? By definition, shouldn’t aliens be ALIEN? Unrecognizable and terrifying? Yet these aliens seem so stupidly human. Their technology is similar—you got the drones, bombs, microchips, and guns—which again raises the question: these are our intellectual superiors? The pinnacle of the universe’s chain of being? Not buying it. And then their psychology is similar to humans’. Why are these non-human creatures getting bogged down by humanity? Humanity is just that—humanity. And these guys aren’t Homo sapiens. Why can’t they be truly frightening creatures that care nothing about us and act nothing like us? If these aliens are so similar to humans, I don’t even understand why they’re bothering to exterminate us. I’m sure we could find some room on Antarctica for our weird yet strangely human galactic cousins. So…logic fail number two! Aliens should be alien.

I wanted—and needed—more information about the goals of the aliens (I should note that the book rarely describes them as aliens but as “Others”). To distinguish them from humans, I needed more backstory. All I have is questions: why are they on Earth? Just to colonize? What events on their original planet led to their arrival? But we don’t have these answers, so the aliens are mostly vacuous characters. Not horrifying, not sympathetic, not anything.

Before I even encountered the aliens and the numerous logical concerns they raised, however, I had to slog through the beginning. For a book about the apocalypse, it’s not terribly exciting. In fact, it wasn’t until the final third or so that I became enraptured with the story and let go into the pure action. The writing is partly to blame for this. The writing can be too internal and focused on the minutiae of the characters’ thoughts. There are constant Go Humanity! pep talks where the story essentially stops for a page or two as a character epiphanizes and finds his or her apocalyptic gall. Some of them are rather charming—“I had it all wrong. Before I found you, I thought the only way to hold on was to find something to live for. It isn’t. To hold on, you have to find something you’re willing to die for.”—others are distracting.

Even when the plot did kick up a gear, I remained mostly skeptical. I was never surprised and predicted all plot “twists.” And although I enjoyed the ending much more than the rest of the book due to its nonstop action, I found the climax to be too perfect. Everything comes to fruition too carefully, too obviously by design.

I realize that the first part of this review is mostly composed of questions. Questions of logic, of whys and hows. But the questions I’m asking after closing the books are character questions—“How will the gang survive after everything that happened? What’s going to happen to them next???” Those questions show that I care. I care about these characters and I want to continue reading about their struggles. And I guess, logic fails and all, that’s enough. Maybe…

2 out of 5 stars