Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Edge of Never—J.A. Redmerski

I gaze toward the wall briefly, thinking about it. So often I sit around and think about life and wonder about every possible aspect of it. I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. Even right now. In this coffee shop with this girl I’ve known practically all my life. Yesterday I thought about why I felt the need to get up at exactly the same time as the day before and do everything like I did the day before. Why? What compels any of us to do the things we do when deep down a part of us just wants to break free from it all? (8)

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the worst book. Of all time. Trite dialogue, misogynistic, offensive, potentially racist. Just terrible.

I really only read this book because it popped up in my recently acquired Amazon Kindle account (reading on my new smartphone). And it was only $1.99. So I thought, why not? How could any book not be worth $1.99?

It may be a bit harsh to say, but that might be a bit steep of a price for this book. This is coming from someone who can find something redeeming in almost every book. I felt a bit crazy for a moment, because I went on GoodReads and there were PAGES of reviews with 5 stars. Out of 5 stars! I thought, “Surely, all of these must be from those tween girls who also love Twilight.” I’ve mentioned my general abhorrence of Twilight several times before, and this book is on par with that series. Turns out, nope. Even grown up women are loving this book. What the hell? Do they have no appreciation for writing or finesse of language?

Then I kept reading and I figured it out. It’s because of the sexy times between Cam and Andrew. I mean, who doesn’t love a good sex scene? I know I do. But it’s definitely not worth reading the other 400 pages to get those 10 cumulative pages of sex. (The line that most people seem to love is preceded by Andrew offering to…help Camryn, but not actually sleep with her and she asks him why and he responds: “If you were to let me fuck you, you would have to let me own you.”) I would suggest that if you’re looking for romance or even just sexy time books, there are far better alternatives.

The premise of the book is essentially that this girl feels that her life has gotten off track and so she runs away. On her trek cross-country on a bus, she meets this boy. Of course there are sparks and they take off on a road trip together – after he saves her from an attempted rape, of course. Towards the end, after they actually start sleeping together – we learn that (SPOILER ALERT) Andrew has a brain tumor and is probably dying. His father, coincidentally enough, also died of a brain tumor. Ugh. Gag me.

To me, it seems that in the guise of attempting to create dialogue that is “realistic,”  Redmerski has created stereotypical characters who say things in a completely inorganic way. It’s also eminently obvious that she is a woman attempting to write in the voice of a male character, during those portions of the book when she is writing for Andrew. She tries so much to make him seem hard, seem as she thinks a typical (read: stereotypical) man should be. It reads so false to me.

Not only that, some of the dialogue is downright offensive, most especially when we’re looking at things from Andrew’s point of view. Some other guy is flirting with Camryn (before she and Andrew actually start sleeping with each other) and he thinks to himself: “How insanely pathetic was that? She’s not even mine and I just got raped by a crazy-jealous reaction.” Um, I’m sorry, what?! You got “raped” by a reaction? I suppose I understand that the concept is the emotion came over you without your control. However, I do not think that the term “rape” should ever be used in this context, and it especially shouldn’t be used so flippantly by a male character.

In addition to all of this, she seems intent on setting women back about fifty years. The female lead, Camryn, is maybe sexually awakened, or at the very least loses her inhibitions with Andrew. Then after that night, because she became more aware and actually asked for what she wanted, she says that he turned her into “a foul-mouthed, perverted, nymphomaniac.” Why is a girl who is in touch with her sexuality a pervert and a nymphomaniac? She also asks Andrew if he would think she was a slut if she had a one night stand. He says it depends: girls who have one or two one-night-stands are probably fine, but any more than that, and you definitely run the risk of becoming a whore.

When Cam and Andrew get to New Orleans, they meet several natives; however, it’s interesting that only the black man has a “Cajun” accent. Now, I’ve never been to New Orleans, so it’s entirely possible that it’s actually a Cajun accent. But it’s very suspicious to me that all of the white New Orleans residents somehow managed to evade that particular accent. For example, the fun loving, jazz-playing black man, Eddie says to them, “Ga, dere come Parrish!...Galee! You look like dem lad’es in dem magazines, you do!” WHAT?!

In addition to the ridiculous, offensive writing, there’s also just lazy writing. Instead of ending quotation marks in order to add something that is happening out of the dialogue. Example: “I’m giving you advance warning that I’m not going to be your next lay, or fall in love with you (he’s grinning from ear to ear right now and it’s very distracting) or anything like that…” (emphasis mine)

I cannot even adequately express my anger after reading this book. Please avoid it if at all possible, or if you’re in the mood to be infuriated, this is the book for you, definitely.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret—Brian Selznick

 “As I look out at all of you gathered here, I want to say that I don’t see a room full of Parisians in top hats and diamonds and silk dresses. I don’t see bankers and housewives and store clerks. No, I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true dreamers.” (506)

I worked in a school during the 2009-2010 school year, serving in my capacity as an AmeriCorps member. I was specifically working with students on reading and reading comprehension, which was perfect in conjunction with my overwhelming love of books. I’d seen the book several times before that point, but as a hardbound book, it was decidedly more expensive, so I had bypassed it several times. This time in AmeriCorps was my first actual introduction to The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I actually had the opportunity to begin reading the book – although I never finished it.

This year at the annual Scholastic customer appreciation warehouse sale – and in consideration of recently having acquired a shiny new job – I treated myself.

Now that I work for an organization that is interested in different types of literacy and in turn, different formats of writing, I’m especially excited about a book like this. Not quite graphic novel, the book is innovative in combining pages of hand-drawn illustrations with pages of text. It’s an interesting, engaging way of storytelling. The formatting of the pages with text was reminiscent of the silent movie captions, which was a great tie-in to the theme of the book.

Partially based around the actual life of filmmaker George Melies, The Invention of Hugo Cabret tells the story of…you guessed it, Hugo Cabret. Hugo is a young boy who lives in a Paris train station and cares for the clocks. He used to be apprenticed to his uncle, who was the official Timekeeper, and who disappeared a few months back, which is just as well for Hugo because his uncle was a drunk. Hugo’s father died in a fire, trying to figure out how to fix an automaton that he found in the attic of the museum where he worked. In the ashes, Hugo had found the automaton – which he calls the “mechanical man” - and was now working to fix him, stealing small toys and pieces from the toymaker who sold toys in the train store. The toymaker has a young goddaughter who he cares for, who is called Isabelle, and who befriends Hugo. When the toymaker discovers that Hugo has been stealing from him, he steals Hugo’s notebook and finds it filled with sketches of the automaton. For some reason, he gets very emotional at the sight and refuses to return the notebook to Hugo, although he offers to consider it if Hugo will work at his stand – sweeping, cleaning up, and fixing broken mechanical toys. The story progresses and we learn more about Hugo, Isabelle, and the toymaker.

A great story, wonderfully interwoven with dynamic illustrations, this book is a good selection for any age.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The House of Silk—Anthony Horowitz

It is curious to reflect now, at the very end of my writing career, that each and every one of my chronicles ended with the unmasking or the arrest of the miscreant, and that after that point, almost without exception, I simply assumed that their fate would be of no further interest to my readers and gave up on them, as if it was their wrongdoing alone that justified their existence and that once the crimes had been solved they were no longer human beings with beating hearts and broken spirits. (155)

We seem to be in a phase of reincarnating Sherlock Holmes, much like our re-obsession with vampires. The powers-that-be see that something works once and then decide to milk it forever. In this particular instance, I’m not annoyed. With regard to all of the film and television media, I can find something redeeming in each iteration of Holmes that I see. With the Holmes of Robert Downey, Jr. you get…well, Robert Downey, Jr. In all of his snarky, ridiculous, wonderful glory. With the BBC’s Sherlock, you get Benedict Cumberbatch (I challenge you to find someone with a better name), who is brilliant as a modern-day Holmes, and was perhaps born to play the role of the un-self conscious, socially inappropriate, imminently observant consulting detective. (And Martin Freeman is wonderful as sidekick Watson.) With the new CBS version, Elementary, you get Jonny Lee Miller and his tattoos. Okay, there’s more to him than that. He’s wonderful as Sherlock, in another modern day take on the old classic. I mean, really, you can’t go wrong. Perhaps it’s because Conan Doyle provided such a marvelous foundation. And let’s be honest, you really can’t go wrong with a British accent.  While we’re on the subject, Amazon Kindle just released The Complete Sherlock Holmes for free. You can’t do better than that. Even if you weren’t planning on reading it anytime soon. I take things that I don’t even want if they’re free, so I say, go for it.

This is the first print version of Holmes that I’ve read which was not written by Conan Doyle  - at least as far as I can remember – and I have to say, I was impressed. I had just finished reading a slew of young adult novels, which may have contributed to the refreshing change of tone. But even with that in mind, this book was a triumph compared to other contemporary works; maybe because it is a recall to a more refined time. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my biggest pet peeves is the laziness of modern writers, the lack of interest in utilizing exposition and instead having characters express details in dialogue in the simplest of terms. (Note: I’m not saying that I can do any better, but I’m also not trying to have my writing published. That’s why I stick with a free internet blog that nobody ever looks at.) The House of Silk was as much the opposite of that as any book could be, which may have lent itself to creating a more realistic follow-up to the Conan Doyle canon. I am no expert, but in my mind, Horowitz artfully imitates the style and tone of the novels and detective stories of the 1800s, and especially those of the familiar Holmes stories.

The bulk of this story has been written shortly after Holmes has died, as Watson tells us at the start of the story. He tells us that the case was of such a nature that it would have been impossible for him to have told it any time before that point, and it becomes apparent why that is true. The two cases that Sherlock is working on in The House of Silk, seemingly unconnected, of course end up being greatly related. Watson relays the story of an art dealer, Edmund Carstairs, who comes to Sherlock, looking for assistance. He believes that he is being followed by a man who he thought was killed while he was in America attempting to track down some stolen artwork. While working on that case, Sherlock is sent down another road when one of the hooligans he has hired to help him track down the man is viciously beaten and murdered. Indeed, the case becomes so serious, and the duo are on the trail of something much bigger than they realize, that a conspiracy takes place and Sherlock is arrested for murder. (Of course, he is innocent.) The end point does end up being a bit disturbing, although thankfully not graphically so. It has the typical Holmes-ian ending, in which he explains how he came to the correct conclusion, and you feel as though you should have seen it all along.

The writing was so well done. I thought that Holowitz did a remarkable job of capturing the naked egotism, the childlike and unabashed frankness that is the somehow loveable Sherlock Holmes. A wonderful, stimulating read.

The Liberator—Alex Kershaw

To the end of his life, Sparks would continue to decry the easy access to guns in America, which have claimed more lives than all the wars fought by Americans throughout the nation’s history. More young Americans have died from gun violence in the year his grandson was shot than had died under his command throughout the Second World War – when death was a daily occurrence. (355)

While I’m reading books that I plan on reviewing, I usually will put Post-It tags on pages that have good quotes. I’ll also add them to pages where I have comments, both positive and negative.  I would say I probably used more tags than ever before on this book, in a completely positive way.

I’m not sure how the author found this particular soldier, but Felix Sparks seems to be the best, most heartwarming, uplifting story of a soldier that I’ve read in a long time. His selflessness, his certainty, his desire to do the right thing – even and especially during a time when rules and conventions are often thrown out the window – are truly inspiring. Myself and the author were clearly not the only ones to notice the amazing leadership capabilities that Sparks possessed, because he was constantly being promoted, even despite his young age. He was a man who persevered, amidst the loss of men who had become his family, continuing on his mission to ensure the freedom of many.

The author gracefully intertwines the personal stories of Sparks’ life and military career with the other events that were taking place during the war. We get pieces of things that are happening with Sparks and his men, from their storming of the beaches at Sicily to the gates of Dachau. Thrown in with that, we also get to see other events taking place simultaneously, and an idea of what the leaders were doing towards the end of the war.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about the book is the author’s ability to get inside the mind of the soldier, and to point out that our enemies are not that different from us. There were many instances of humanity from the other side, as well as instances of atrocity from our side. Like this:

“Under cover of darkness, Sparks went out and tied a piece of communication wire to Turner’s leg and to the German captain’s then dragged them both back to E Company’s lines. For the first time, he felt real anger toward the enemy. But a few days later he realized that the Germans could be every bit as humane as his own men. E Company seized another hillside, where two sergeants from G Company had been killed. The Germans had taken their bodies and dug two graves for them in ground that seemed as hard as granite. They had even placed two wooden crosses on their graves and hung the Americans’ dog tags from them.” (74)

Or this:

“At around 11 a.m., something extraordinary happened. Sparks spotted a German half-track, bearing a white flag, moving toward his position. A German captain dismounted. He clearly wanted to talk with an American counterpart. Sparks pulled himself out of his foxhole and approached the half-track.

‘Captain, you have a great number of wounded here and we have a number of wounded,’ the German officer said in fluent English. ‘Would you agree to a true of thirty minutes so we can evacuate our wounded?’” (89)

With so many tragedies and examples of inhumanity these days, and in all times of war really, it’s important to remember that the things that unite us are far greater than the things that separate us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Divergent and Insurgent—Veronica Roth

He is not sweet or gentle or particularly kind. But he is smart and brave, and even though he saved me, he treated me like I was strong. (Divergent, 288)

People, I have discovered, are layers and layers of secrets. You believe you know them, that you understand them, but their motives are always hidden from you, buried in their own hearts. You will never know them, but sometimes you decide to trust them. (Insurgent, 510)

After having been on the receiving end of what I would consider some wonderful reading suggestions (The Hunger Games, The Song of Ice and Fire series), I wanted to be the one – the first one – to find something awesome and tell everyone I know about it. I decided to stick with the Young Adult genre, with the assumption that this is a genre that most of my friends are generally not gravitating toward.

Like The Hunger Games, this series is set in a dystopian future, and has a strong female character as a lead. Unlike The Hunger Games, and many other YA series, there is not a love triangle. Which is not to say that there is no “love interest” drama happening. There absolutely is. But there’s no “Peeta vs. Gale“ or “Edward vs. Jacob.” Nobody has to take sides in that regard.

While I don’t feel that this series is on the same level as The Hunger Games, I do feel that it’s worth reading.

At an undisclosed time in the future, society has been separated into five factions: Erudite, Abnegation, Candor, Amity, and Dauntless. Funnily enough, the members of each faction personify that particular “trait” – all of which are clearly related to words that are part of our current everyday vocabulary. (Abnegation may be less familiar for some folks – from the act of relinquishing or giving up a right.) Not only are the factions separated by these particular traits, they are also separated geologically. They also all have distinct rituals, practices, and religions.

In Divergent, we meet Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who has grown up in the Abnegation factor with her mother, father, and older brother Caleb. Being not quite a year apart, Tris and Caleb go for their aptitude tests (their faction placement tests) during the same year. When finished with her test, Tris’s test proctor seems concerned about her results. Tris is told, in whispers, that she is Divergent. Unlike the great percentage of people – almost everyone – she is not destined for just one faction; Tris would fit in with, and has aptitude for, any of three factions. Which means that on her sorting day, when the youth announce their new faction to their old one in a public ceremony, she has a difficult decision to make: stay in Abnegation with her parents, even though she has never felt completely at home with the selfless, demure lifestyle OR leave her parents behind and join another faction that allows her more freedom.

During the choosing ceremony, since they go in revere alphabetical order, her brother is called first. Tris is shocked when her brother chooses Erudite as his new faction. This makes her decision even tougher. Even though she may have felt inclined to transfer to a new faction, now she feels like perhaps she should stay with her parents. But she doesn’t. She chooses Dauntless.

Although the young ones have now selected their new faction, or stayed with their old one, that doesn’t mean that they are automatically accepted into the fold. Every faction has a period of initiation. The initiation period for the Dauntless recruits is especially vigorous, as they are the daredevil, what some would call reckless, faction. There are those who die on the way to the Dauntless location. There are those who fail early on, and become “factionless,” a shameful, homeless, disconnected section of the population.

At the Dauntless complex, Tris meets Four, Eric, Al, Will, Christina, Uriah, Marlene, and many others. She feels much more at home with this group of “reckless” teens, and tries to fit in – against all her Abnegation instincts – by getting tattoos and adapting her clothing. She is taught how to fight, how to shoot a gun, all of the good stuff. Four, a Dauntless member is a few years older than Tris and is assisting with her training. During one of her simulations, Four discovers that Tris is Divergent; while in the simulation, she is aware that she is in a simulation, which is a sign of being Divergent. He only knows this because he is also Divergent.

The story continues, and of course there is some love business happening with Tris and Four (who it turns out, Tris actually knew before she came to the Dauntless party). And there is inevitable drama when the Dauntless recruits learn that only ten of them will be allowed to stay – only ten of all of the recruits, which includes those who have grown up as Dauntless, and those originally from other factions. All the typical teen/dystopian future drama that you would expect. Then, one day, the world as they know it falls apart. What results is the final quarter of Divergent, and essentially all of Insurgent, as Tris and those working with her attempt to find a way to put the world back together again.

These books were quick reads, as I finished each of them in less than the time of a plane ride from San Francisco to Miami. It was refreshing to not have to see a love triangle emerge, although I suppose there is still a third book, so there’s still time. I appreciate with this book, as with some other prominent YA fiction (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) the unapologetic way that Roth kills her characters off. I felt the same way about Rowling and about Collins: that’s the way the world works in actuality – when people die, they stay dead. I felt like so many other young adult novelists were unwilling to let their readers experience that sense of heartbreak, but I think it’s very important not only for the development of the still-living characters in the novel, but also for readers’ perceptions of reality. Novels already do a great job of skewing that. I actually liked the use of obvious, explanatory names for the factions. It made it easy for me right away to understand the restrictions of this new world. I related easily to Tris, in her desire for strength, her desire to do the right thing, but the struggle to know what that might be. I do feel that, if there are girls/women out there who do not relate to Tris, there isn’t a great deal of character development of other women in the series to allow you another character to connect with. This is understandable, however, as the series is told in the first person, from Tris’s point of view.

The end of Insurgent gives you a tiny taste of what started the factioned society. It makes me excited to see where we go from here, and leaves me with expectations of maybe seeing more of where we’ve come from. I definitely recommend this book a fast-paced, moderately engaging read.

These two books are part of what is meant to be a trilogy, with the final book being released sometime in fall 2013. Apparently Summit Entertainment bought the rights to the first book in October of this year, and have already cast Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) as Tris. That should be interesting, if it ever ends up actually happening.