Monday, October 27, 2014

A Hero at the End of the World—Erin Claiborne

"You can leave me well alone. I don't want to change my magic source. I don't want to join any secret societies. I don't want any excitement. All I want in life is to work a minimum wage job, live in my parents' spare room, put on fifteen stone, and have a heart attack before my fortieth birthday." 
For the first time, Archie seemed taken aback. He stared at Ewan with a mixture of pity and disbelief. "That's rather grim." 
"Yeah, well, that's life," retorted Ewan. (19)
I—and by I, I mean my friend Gina—received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book during a panel at GeekGirlCon, which I promptly borrowed. It was described as along the lines of Harry Potter, but more adult and with more diversity. I love Harry Potter, I love diversity, so I was on board.

The story is a take on the "chosen one" narrative, which seems to be all the rage these days. (And I'll admit, is starting to drive me a little bit crazy.) Thinking in Harry Potter terms, what if Ron Weasley had killed Voldemort, rather than Harry Potter killing him? This is the scenario presented in this book, with Ewan Mao and Oliver Abrams. It was foretold that Ewan Mao would destroy Duff Slan, the big evil in their magical world. But by the time Ewan gets up the gumption to enter the final room in the grand battle to slay Slan, he finds his bestie Oliver over Slan's body. Flash forward to five years later when former-slayer-of-Duff-Slan Ewan is working in a coffee shop, feeling not a little resentment and as though his former best friend has stolen his life. Oliver is a successful member of the magic police, moving quickly up the ranks, remembered always as the slayer of Slan. When Ewan is approached by a member of a fringe magic faction called Zubernegativum and told that he can exact some revenge on Oliver, Ewan jumps at the chance, consequences be damned. And oh boy, are there consequences.

I've never experienced my best friend stealing my destiny, but I still totally related to Ewan's misanthropy and general disgust with the world, as represented by the quote above. I appreciated the human, flawed ways that the characters dealt with events. I love (almost) everything Harry Potter, but I do think that sometimes the emotions and reactions of the characters were watered down, especially when it came to interpersonal conflict between characters other than good versus evil. Ewan's feelings of resentment and envy towards the friend who he feels stole his life are emotions that even the most evolved human beings struggle with regularly, I think. Ewan is struggling with the reality that, despite what was foretold, he's actually an average person and has been coasting through life on the expectation that he is going to be a hero. It would be difficult to go from exalted hero one day to less than nothing the next.

While I agree that this book has more diversity when it comes to race and sexual orientation—which I greatly appreciated—one of the things that I always really admired about the Harry Potter series was the unapologetic way that J.K. Rowling killed off characters.  I find this even more admirable in a world that is full of magic, and yet still has to deal with the reality of death. It would have been very easy in a young adult series to "save" folks from that, and Rowling almost never took the easy way out. And in this book, nobody died. Okay, that's not precisely true; none of the protagonists died. (A couple of the villains did die, admittedly.) There seemed to be no real consequences for these characters at the end of the day.

Beyond that, I enjoyed the premise that each magical person has a certain limited amount of magic and when they spend it, that's it. This went along well with the theme of a more grown-up facing magic world, mirroring the choices that we have to make every day about our finite resources. I also loved seeing the alternate realities that appeared while they were utilizing the Baahl, and discovering what life-threatening entity might exist in each one.

I find this recent slew of books with "chosen one" narratives a bit exhausting at times. I think that these themes do tap into something inherently human in all of us: wanting to feel as though we're special and unique and important. Who doesn't want to feel that way? However, personally, I would rather feel that I'm special and unique and important because of the things I do and the choices that I make. If I was a "chosen one," I would spend time worrying about what was more integral to my success: some gift or destiny over which I had no control, or the fundamental traits and values that form my person. But I'm a classic overthinker, so maybe that's just me.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Unremembered—Jessica Brody

I saw Jessica Brody on a panel at GeekGirlCon, a panel that featured several other female young adult authors as well—including Marissa Meyer, whose books I love (although admittedly I'm a sucker for any fractured fairy tale). Brody seemed interesting, and I was intrigued by the premise of her book. She shared that she came up with the idea when she was encountered a newspaper article about a girl who was the sole survivor of a plane crash, and had awoken from the crash with amnesia. (Brody also mentioned that Unremembered is being made into a movie.)

I really wanted to like this book. As I said already, the premise drew me in, I liked Brody during her panel. And while I found the actual plot line as interesting as advertised, I had some big problems with the content.

A short summary: A girl wakes up in the ocean, surrounded by bodies after a plane crash. The rescue crews find her and the next thing she knows, she wakes up in the hospital. She can't remember anything about her life, but the doctors determine that she's 16. The hospital and Social Services search for her family, but to no avail. One night in the hospital, a mysterious boy somehow appears, seems to know who she is, and vows to get her out. Then he disappears. Meanwhile, this unnamed girl is taken in by a lovely foster family in a remote area so that she won't be hounded by the media. She encounters the mysterious boy again while out grocery shopping with her foster mother, and is given some more information about her life before the crash, including her name: Sera. As the story continues, you find out more about how she came to be in the middle of the ocean, why she doesn't have any memories, and about a menacing corporation that is chasing her.

The first thing that irked me happened not even twenty pages into the book. Sera's nurse, Kiyana, is talking to her about all of these people that have come out of the woodwork, claiming to be Sera's family. Kiyana tells Sera that the authorities know they're not her family, though, because none of them know about the locket. Now, it's true that the locket comes into play in a big way later down the line, so it's not there only to weed out the fake families. But being such a huge musical theatre nerd, I know that this particular plot point is straight out of Annie. (In Annie, Daddy Warbucks searches for Annie's real parents, and he spots the fakes because Annie was left by her parents at the orphanage with half of a locket.) I know that plot points and devices are fairly regularly stolen and transferred and adapted by authors, but there was no change here.

However, the biggest issue for me was the treatment of Sera as a young woman. Not ten pages in, people are already commenting on her looks. Kiyana cites Sera's supermodel looks as a sure sign that her family will come looking for her. Because she's beautiful and special, and beautiful and special people always have people looking for them. It's a crass way of saying it, but unfortunately it is a truth of our society. So I gave it a by. Then, 60 pages in her foster mom tells her she's lucky to be "so pretty so young." And all I could think was, "What the hell?! In constantly pointing out her physical beauty, you're teaching this girl with no memory that looks are one of the most important things in life. You had what amounted to a blank slate, and you decided to perpetuate the same beauty-driven bullshit? WHY?!" Comments about Sera's superhuman beauty continue throughout the length of the book.

I know that my reaction wasn't Brody's intention; GeekGirlCon is a convention for the empowerment of lady geeks, so I don't think that she would have attended if she wasn't all for that mission. I think what she was trying to do was emphasize that Sera stood out from the "norm," which is in itself a stepping stone to get to the big reveal about Sera's origins. But I found it incredibly uncomfortable, especially in a book that is aimed at young adults.

Again, along the same line, she is later told by the big bads at the malevolent corporation that, "We purposefully programmed you to be docile and obedient." (284) And I couldn't help thinking to myself, would this line have been present if Sera had been a male synthetic human being? I can forgive this one a bit more as it's only one line (not pervasive, like the comments on Sera's appearance, which are constant) and it seems as though it's meant to be more reflective of the corporation's antiquated views than anything else.

Sera also becomes obsessed with the mysterious boy who showed up in her hospital room, who is called Zen (short for Lyzender). She says at one point, after Zen has been kidnapped by the corp, that "Everything feels empty without Zen." (225). She can barely remember the boy, but has a feeling that he is important and essential to her. Later, she says of Zen, "Zen can never be forgotten. He lives in my blood. In my soul." (299) I find scenarios like this not only unrealistic, but damaging to perpetuate. It's one of the (many, many) problems that I had with the Twilight series. In the Twilight series, after Edward leaves her, Bella descends into a dangerous emotional spiral, because she's convinced herself that she cannot live without him. She's placed her entire reason for existence on another person. I want to empower women to feel as though they can love someone while not disappearing into them, so if that relationship ends, they can still be whole. I don't want young girls, or any young people, to think that there is only one person for them forever, and that one person should be your everything. I understand that the feelings Sera is having for Zen are partially because he is like a rock for her, a person she can be sure of even when her memories are being manipulated. But that's not what these sentences are expressing. It's made very clear that the reason that Sera remembers him is because they're "soul mates." She can't forget him, even if they wipe all of her other memories, because they're "soul mates."

To some extent, I understand that one of the purposes of YA novels is to attempt to keep the jadedness of life from influencing young folks so early, to help keep them optimistic. The world is hard, and the longer that we can keep people believing in goodness and love, the better. But I think there's a way to do it without talking down to them or presenting them with completely unhealthy scenarios. I think it's possible to do it without making them think that they're going to meet a "soul mate" who will become their reason for existence.

It was worth reading, and an exciting idea, but I had a hard time making it through. I know that there are a couple of other books in this series, and might come back to them later to see where the story ends up going, but it's not the first set of book on my to-read list.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World—Steven Johnson

On the twenty-eighth of August, all the changed. At around six a..m., while the rest of the city struggled for a few final minutes of sleep at the end of an oppressively hot summer night, the Lewis infant began vomiting and emitting watery, grene stools that carried a pungent smell. Sarah Lewis sent for a local doctor, William Rogers, who maintained a practice a few blocks away, on Berners Street. As she waited for the doctor's arrival, Sarah soaked the soiled cloth diapers in a bucket of tepid water. In the rare moments when her little girl caught a few minutes of sleep, Sarah Lewis crept down to the cellar at 40 Broad and tossed the fouled water in the cesspool that lay at the front of the house.
That is how it began. (22)
The timing of my reading of this book seems especially poignant with the pretend threat of a catastrophic Ebola outbreak (when in reality, scientists and doctors have said it's serious but unlikely to become an epidemic); however, I started reading it before the Ebola craze had reached its zenith and the realities in this book just make the current rhetoric even more outrageous.

The book explores the 1854 outbreak of cholera in a small working class neighborhood of London. Johnson artfully weaves together the story of the disease, the advancement of medical understanding as a result of this particular outbreak, and the personalities who made such monumental discoveries about the nature of the disease that they essentially eradicated future outbreaks in London.

Cholera was a huge issue for folks up to this point, and especially in large metropolitan areas. London had experienced so much population growth in the twenty years prior to this particular outbreak that there were more people living per square mile than the amount of people living per square mile in New York City today. Unfortunately, nobody had really considered the infrastructure to support such an influx of human beings, and all the things that they bring with them, including but not limited to human waste. (Sidenote: definitely don't read this book if you're squeamish about bodily fluids, because there is A LOT about poop. A lot. So fair warning.) Now we know that cholera is caused by a virus that lives in human waste, and it was a big problem back then because waste water and drinking water was all ending up in the same place. Nobody had any realistic idea of the true nature of the disease.

The "hero" of the story is a physician named John Snow (presumably no relation to his Game of Thrones counterpart). During this Victorian era, he was exceedingly well-known as an anesthetist, positing that different amounts of anesthesia created different levels of drowsiness. As crazy as it may sound at this point, around mid-1800's, the understanding of the nature of medicine was astronomically different; before some of Snow's investigations and experiments with anesthesia, physicians would often just guess at how much they should give to someone in order to perform a given procedure. To be fair to them, this was in itself a huge step from the days of absolutely no anesthesia when folks would just get good and drunk before going in for an amputation. Snow became such a well-known anesthetist that he was even personally requested by Queen Victoria to assist with the birth of one of her children.

After experimenting and developing the field of anesthesiology, Snow turned his attention to the overwhelming number of folks dying the awful, accelerated deaths from cholera. While Snow was amazing and groundbreaking in many ways while spearheading his investigation of cholera, it was also a bit of an alignment of the stars. Had a local coroner not recently started tracking cause of deaths (pretty much unheard of before he began) then Snow wouldn't have made some of the deductions about cholera that he did. If the Reverend Henry Whitehead—who lived in that particular London neighbourhood and knew the consituents remarkably well—hadn't been there to provide his insight, Snow might not have been able to reach the conclusions that he did.

When Snow first set forth his theory to the scientific community that he thought cholera was transmitted through water rather than airborne, people ridiculed him much the same way that Galileo was ridiculed for thinking that the earth went around the sun. Yet still he pursued his theory with gusto, because he was certain that he was right, and he was certain that he could help prevent cholera outbreaks in the future.

One of the remarkable things about this book that I think is not true of many history books is that Johnson didn't just recreate the neighbourhood and investigations of John Snow and Henry Whitehead—he also took the time to ponder and long-lasting effects of their discoveries, as well as posit how life might have been different had they not figured out the nature of cholera.

I obviously think it's a really interesting book, or I wouldn't have summarized quite so much. Also, it's easier to summarize a nonfiction book because there are no spoilers. Or maybe there are. Spoiler alert: Cholera is easily avoidable now, partly due to the care and attention shown to the problem almost two centuries ago by men like Snow and Whitehead. Spoiler alert: There are still hundreds of thousands of cases every year in countries where they don't have access to clean drinking water. If you're interested in helping to support a community acquire clean drinking water, there are some really great charities and NGOs that do so. charity: water is one of them. It's super easy to give a little to help a lot.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hollow City—Ransom Riggs

We rowed out through the harbor, past bobbing boats weeping rust from their seams, past juries of silent seabirds, roosting atop the barnacled remains of sunken docks, past fishermen who lowered their nets to stare frozenly as we slipped by, uncertain whether we were real or imagined...(17)
I loved the first book in this series, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (review). The concept was novel and interesting, and even a bit distracting from the plot. I may have given it more leeway, content-wise, because I was enthralled with the photos.
That being said, I also greatly enjoyed this sequel. And while I did enjoy it, I definitely had more lingering questions, and paid more attention to the development of the world and characters than I did in the first book.

Which led me to the biggest question, and ultimately a huge distraction while reading, which was the trunk of Bronwyn, the "strong girl" of the Peculiar group. Maybe I was paying too much attention to it and getting bogged down in the details, but I couldn't get over it. I will come back to this particular bee in my bonnet after a brief synopsis.

In this second book, the children are trying to not only escape the big bads but also trying to get their headmistress (Miss Peregrine, also known as their ymbryne) to a fellow ymbryne who they believe is in London. Miss Peregrine is mysteriously stuck in her bird form, and it is revealed to them as they begin this journey that she may end up being irreversibly stuck that way if they don't fix her in the next five days. And the only person who might have a chance at healing her is the fellow ymbryne. As mentioned above, they are also attempting to evade the evil faction and traveling during World War II in England, which doesn't allow a lot of flexibility, travel-mode wise. Especially as children with no money.

Okay, back to Bronwyn's trunk. At the beginning of the book, the children are arriving on mainland England after having escaped from the big bads in Wales. They've lost everything they brought with them after two of their three escape boats capsized, with very few exceptions, one of them being Bronwyn's trunk. Bronwyn's peculiarity is that she is super strong. Her trunk, on page 30, is described as a "tank sized steamer trunk." Now, even given the fact that she is a "strongwoman," even if the trunk is easily liftable by her weight-wise, it cannot be easily maneuverable logistically. Because it's huge. Yet soon after this, when they discover a rock shaped like a giant's head in the middle of a lake, they discover it's a time loop and they climb the rock and enter the cave and the loop. How does Bronwyn get this giant trunk up and into the giant's "mouth"? Then they encounter an evil creature that's trying to kill them, and just barely escape up a cliff in what is essentially a rope elevator. Where does Bronwyn's trunk go then? Does she hold onto it with one hand while she's stuck in this rope net with a gaggle of other children? We know that she brings it with her, because they are on their way back down the cliff and out of the loop, and they are gifted with some eggs, and on page 112 it says she wraps the eggs in her sweater and puts them in her trunk. Then they head back down the cliff in the rope elevator, back through the giant's head cave. No mention of how they do all that with the trunk. Later in the story, they are waiting in the bushes to see what the commotion on the road is— since they are trying to hide from the bad guys, the hiding is important— and it turns out to be a gypsy caravan. They covertly jump onto the back of the last caravan in the group. It's mentioned earlier in the book that the trunk is so unwieldy that only Bronwyn can manage it. So what happened to it when they secretly jump on the back of a caravan? Does Bronwyn drag it behind them? None of the gypsies noticed that? Down the line, the gypsies discover them hitching a ride (obviously) and after some tension, end up befriending them and riding them into town on horses so the Peculiars can catch a train to London. Where does the trunk go then? How does Brownyn take her trunk on a horse? I think these holes in the tracking of her trunk are especially clear because it is definitely mentioned in certain other parts of the book, and then basically nonexistent (until it is needed) in others. To the point where it wasn't mentioned for the whole journey through the giant's head loop, until Bronwyn puts the eggs in there, and I had to go back and reconfigure that in my head, because I assumed they had left it behind when going through the loop.

I've clearly done a lot of thinking about the logistics of Bronwyn's trunk. It's been several weeks since I finished these books, and I still can't get over it. If anybody has any thoughts as to the magical nature of Bronwyn's trunk, I would love to hear them.

I surfaced many more questions in regard to the time travel aspect of the Peculiars' world as well. For instance, Millard, the invisible brainiac of the group, points out as they are emerging from one of the time loops (which only Peculiars can enter): "So sorry[...]but this just occured to me—one of us will have to pass through the loop exit before the echolocators or the girl do, or they will cross into the present and we into 1940, and we'll be separated. For them to travel to 1940 with us, one of us has to go first and open the way." (264-5) Um....what? Nothing like this re: time travel for them has ever been mentioned before. I mean, I sort of get it, I guess. But if the theory is that whoever passes through the loop first sets the stage for where you will end up in time, and one of the new kids from the "present" went through first, wouldn't the 1940 Peculiars also end up in the "present"? And how can they know that Jacob's present is THE present? The most present present, given their time travelly nature?

Even more with this book than with the first one, I felt sometimes like the images were shoehorned into the story in unnecessary ways. Sometimes it seemed like the story went down a completely weird bend in the road just to suit a particular image. The integration felt much more natural and intrinsic to the story in the first book.

Regardless of my critiques, I adored this sequel and look forward to the third book. I'm hoping it will answer some of my questions, and give me more time with now beloved characters.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children—Ransom Riggs

But these weren't the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don't recognize them for what they are until it's too late. 
Like the monsters, the enchanted-island story was also a truth in disguise. Compared to the horrors of mainland Europe, the children's home that had taken in my grandfather must've seemed like a paradise, and so in his stories it had become one: a safe haven of endless summers and guardian angels and magical children, who couldn't really fly or turn invisible or lift boulders, of course. The peculiarity for which they'd been hunted was simply their Jewishness. They were orphans of war, washed up on that little island in a tide of blood. What made them amazing wasn't that they had miraculous powers; that they had escaped the ghettos and gas chambers was miracle enough. (17)

I've been hearing great things about this book basically since it came out, not least from John Green who went to the same university as the author, Ransom Riggs. I'd also seen it's intriguing cover several times while working/browsing the Scholastic Warehouse Sale shelves. At the most recent sale, they also had it's sequel Hollow City (review) so I thought it was about time to read them.

The story centers around Jacob Portman, a Floridian teenager wasting away the summer working in a family-owned business that he hates. He's interrupted one day by a strange call from his grandfather, so he leaves to go and check on him, and discovers his grandfather being attacked by some kind of hideous beast in the woods behind his house. Unfortunately, Jacob's grandfather passes away as a result. While helping his dad and aunt clean up his grandfather's house, Jacob discovers some very strange photographs of children from the orphanage in Wales where his grandfather spent the early years of his life after fleeing encroaching Nazi forces. He also finds a letter addressed to his grandfather from a woman. Feeling traumatized by his experience witnessing his grandfather's attack and death, and encouraged by his new therapist, Jacob embarks with his father on a journey to the small island in Wales that houses his grandfather's orphanage. When he gets there, craziness ensues! Spoiler alert: it's supernatural craziness.

First off, let me say that I've never seen a book like this before: a fictional tale intertwined with real, oftentimes haunting "found" photographs from the past. It makes me wonder if Riggs started with the photos and crafted a story around them, or had a story in mind and then searched out photos to intersect with it. Or perhaps it was a bit of both. I'm sure that he's talked about it in interviews and whatnot, especially with a film adaptation on the way. I know that he has collected the found photographs for a while, so I would imagine it was a mixture of the two. The photos added so much to the story, not only contributing visual breaks from pages of text, but also giving readers a picture (literally) of the characters that are being introduced. Some of the photos are quite creepy, which I unintentionally discovered when I decided to continue reading at 3:00 a.m,, alone, in my possibly haunted house, and immediately encountered the page with the picture of Emma Bloom. I'm an insomniac already, but that photo clinched my lack of sleep that night. When you read the book, you'll probably understand, but just for reference, the photo is of a young girl, in what seems to be a pitch black room, holding a glowing, floating orb of light. The creepiest thing is the way the light reflects on her eyes. Yeah, it's terrifying.

I loved this story. It was so engaging, and while some things were slightly predictable, it was always interesting. Especially with the novelty of the interwoven photographs, as I've already mentioned. The characters are so well fleshed out, which is not always the case when reading supernatural mystery type books, and most especially when a story has a couple of main characters and then a large secondary cast of ensemble characters. It began with their physical description, both in words and with the old school photograph that represented them. To derive supernatural powers from those old school photographs, which look weird often because of tricks of the light, oddities in the film, etc. is just such an awesome idea. Then to go further and to build a world around that? One that lives parallel to our own?

I do have some questions that weren't answered re: the time travel issue. But I suspended my disbelief, especially for this first book, because I was so enchanted with the platform and the characters and the story. My questions got a bit more pointed as I made my way through the sequel.

Unrelated to plot or character development, all of these kids seem to have no fear of swimming in the ocean in the dark night, the idea of which horrifies me to no end. So kudos to them for that bit of bravery.

At the end, when Jacob leaves his dad behind...even considering all of the circumstances, and understanding what the situation is with him and the other Peculiars, it's an amazingly powerful, big decision for a 16-year-old. Especially when you think about the fact that Jacob is pretty certain he's never going to see his father again.

I also realized during this book that, while I appreciate a lot of things about Goodreads—in fact, most things—I've determined not to judge books based on the main reviews on their pages, because I often don't agree with those people, and it has discouraged me in the past from reading those books. For example, when I went to the reviews for this book, I saw about four that had it at two stars and said it was overrated. Well, maybe that's their opinion, and maybe it even is overrated, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to like it or find it worthwhile or be touched by it.