A Reading Roundup

I’ve been a wretched blogger lately. Let me be honest: when I was writing my thesis, I got out of the habit. It happens; maybe there are only so many words in me, and most of those needed to be devoted to that glorious monstrosity. I would like to declare that, now that I’m an M.A. without half the responsibilities of a few months ago, I’ll be a better blogger. That might not be true, so I’m not making promises. But here’s the second post of June, so that’s at least some semblance of progress.

I last posted a book review two months ago, when I finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Since then, I’ve read quite a few stellar books, so here’s a quick review:

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

I began this novel on a road trip from Williamsburg, VA. My friend Jenna was driving the whole almost-8-hour trip on that rainy Sunday, and I finished the first 200 pages before we arrived home. What a perfect way to begin a book that is, at least in part, the story of a road trip across America. The protagonist of the novel, named Shadow, meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as an assistant/bodyguard. Shadow, an ex-con and recent widower, joins Mr. Wednesday in what becomes a battle of mythological forces across America. This novel is a fascinating tale of what happens to gods and goddesses when their worshipers immigrate to America as well as the way in which new gods and goddesses form as society evolves. In the midst of searching for the gods of America and preparing for a coming war, Shadow is also on a quest to discover life after the life he once cherished dissolves. I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style (across genres–in novels, movie/TV scripts, short stories, comic books, and books for children), and this book is beautifully written and incredibly evocative of American culture (from a man who is, natively, a Brit). Hopefully, I’ll soon read the companion novel Anansi Boys, and according to Gaiman’s Twitter feed, he is currently adapting the novel for a script for a television show.

China Mieville’s Railsea

Mieville is one of the three authors I studied for my thesis. He is quite prolific, turning out a book a year for at least the past four years, all of which have been incredibly well-written and thought-provoking and distinct. This novel, his first young adult novel in several years, is a retelling of Moby Dick. Instead of ships, however, the crew travel on trains along the railsea, in a fascinating world that Mieville has created. The protagonist of the novel is Sham ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice who longs to salvage the wrecks of trains along the railsea. His captain, instead of hunting a great white whale, is searching for a great Southern moldywarpe, with whom she had battled (and lost) years before. One fabulous aspect of this novel, as my thesis advisor pointed out in our conversations about the book, is that, instead of allowing the beast to act as metaphor (as Melville did in Moby Dick), Mieville jumps straight to the point: each captain is in search of a “philosophy” that drives his or her journeys across the railsea. The moldywarpe becomes this captain’s obsession, but Sham soon discovers his own philosophy after finding a photo memory card in a trainwreck. The results of his search are fantastic and fascinating. One downside to this book, however, is that those not familiar with Mieville’s style might have a hard time with his language use and the sci-fi content of the book. Mieville is part of a movement of sci-fi writers called the “New Weird,” and his novels definitely are not written for every audience (but what book is?). My suggestion: if you want to try reading Mieville, start with his detective novel The City & the City (the book I wrote my thesis on), an work your way through the rest of his books from there.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

I knew as soon as I picked this novel up that I would love it–the title, the steampunk cover, and, of course, the dystopian premise. Also, even though I haven’t heard much about it (as with, say, The Hunger Games), the novel did win the Michael L. Printz Award (sort of like the Newbery for young adult literature) and was a National Book Award finalist. Prestigious. The book follows Nailer, one of the titular ship breakers, who is part of a “light crew” responsible for crawling through the bowels of wrecked oil tankers to scavenge for copper and other materials to sell. After a vicious storm hits the Gulf of Mexico, where the novel is set, Nailer is scavenging aboard a clipper and discovers a wealthy young girl alive in the wreckage. Eventually, Nailer and “Lucky Girl,” as she comes to be called, must flee the coast in an effort to reunite her with her father’s people and also escape from people who want both Nailer and Lucky Girl dead. The novel, as most dystopian novels are, is an interesting portrayal of society; following whatever disaster wrecked the country, cities have been destroyed and people fight for survival, yet, still, the wealthy remain powerful and the poor remain powerless. Like so many other dystopias, this novel focuses on class consciousness in a prominent way, and I, personally, am glad to see the social commentary take the focus instead of a love triangle in which a girl must both decide whom she loves as well as overthrow a government. In this novel, Nailer and Lucky Girl really do have to fight really hard for survival, and the consequences of that fight are revealed throughout the novel.

Currently

Most of the rest of my planned summer reading follows this sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian theme, unsurprisingly. I’m currently about halfway through Max Brooks’ fascinating novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I’ve just checked out the companion novel to Ship Breaker, which is called The Drowned Cities. Soon, too, I plan to delve into a lengthy novel called 1Q84, which has been both critically acclaimed and bestselling, a rare feat in the publishing world these days. That novel is 925 pages, though, and I’ll be honest and say I’m a bit intimidated by the sheer size and weight of that book. Still, I’m told it’s a worthy conquest. Perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll have more wonderful books to write about!

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The Fault in Our Stars

“But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person  starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in [An Imperial Affliction], Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.”

-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

* * *

The above quote occurs early in the fourth chapter of the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars and is a good indication of how the rest of the book will go. The narrator is Hazel, a teenaged girl who has had cancer for three years. She carries an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, she attends a Support Group that seems highly unhelpful, she loves her parents, she reads poetry from Eliot and Ginsberg, and she meets (early in the novel, at the previously mentioned unhelpful Support Group) a cancer survivor named Augustus Waters, with whom she eventually falls in love.

This, too, is not your typical cancer book. Throw every comparison to A Walk to Remember or Lurlene McDaniel out of the window. Instead, think of the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. In fact, John Green sends Hazel and Augustus to Amsterdam, where they have an incredible moment in the Anne Frank Museum, and I was reminded of why I loved and lamented Frank’s diary so much: I knew how the book was going to end. I got to know the characters, but I, the reader, understood that I could not be with the characters for long, even within the pages of the novel.

The beautiful thing about this book is that you know tragedy will occur. Hazel is very grounded, very accepting of the fact that she has a terminal cancer. She knows there is no cure; she knows the drugs she’s taking are only prolonging her life, not ending the cancer. She can, however, still lament the brevity of life. She can seeks to understand life in the short time she has.

Cancer is not portrayed as romantic, as in other novels. It is heartbreaking and devastating in so many ways. Hazel and Gus, and I and everyone else who’s read this, understand that.

* * *

In spite of the sadness, this book is funny and alive. The dialogue is fabulous–Hazel and Gus are quirky and intelligent, and their conversations often reminded me of conversations I’ve had with my best friend.

Green is also great at metafiction–reminding the reader that this is a novel, not reality. In the book, Hazel’s favorite novel is An Imperial Affliction, which Gus also reads. This novel drives a lot of the plot of the story as Gus chooses to use a “Wish” from a nonprofit organization to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the author of the novel. Hazel, in all her rereadings of the book, has hoped to discern what happens to the character after the book’s abrupt end. When she finally meets the author–who is a total jerk (to be nice)–he explains:

“But to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel…it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.”

This tirade, combined with Green’s author’s note that the novel is a work of fiction, serve as a reminder of the power of a story: we can care so much about characters, be driven to powerful emotion, travel around the world just to discover more of the story.

This reminder made it easier on me to finish the book. I don’t remember the last time I cried so much while reading a book. And while I lamented losing characters who had become dear to me, I also remembered that their stories actually did end when I turned the last page, and I remembered that my life continues beyond the close of the book. And while I continue to live, I remember what I’ve learned from stories: that life and love matter, even when they’re oh-so-difficult.

I Am Number Four

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a book–not because I haven’t read some review-worthy books, but because I haven’t had time or haven’t been able to figure out how to accurately summarize my thoughts.

However, I’ve got one for you now. I Am Number Four has received a lot of attention in the young adult realm lately–mostly because it’s just been made into a film. And, like the good reader that I am, I promised myself that I would read the book before seeing the movie (even though Civil Twilight’s song “Letters from the Sky” is on the soundtrack!).

All right, the premise: it’s science fiction (yay!). The title refers to the novel’s protagonist. He is an alien from a planet called Lorian. He and eight other children, along with each of their Cepans (like Watchers…sort of) and the pilot of the spacecraft, managed to escape Lorian during a global war in which the Lorians’ enemy, the Mogadorians, killed the Lorians to take over their planet. The Mogadorians had used up all the resources and their own planet and needed a new home.

The novel follows the fourth child and his Cepan, Henri. Every few months, Four and Henri move to a new small town in an effort to keep Four’s identity secret. Four changes his name each time (he goes by John Smith during the events of this novel). The numbering of each child is important. The Mogadorians have come to Earth to track down the nine children. Once they kill the nine, they can then begin to take over Earth (a planet much larger and more suited to the Mogadorians’ needs). But there’s a curse on the children for their protection: the Mogadorians can only kill the children in order of their number. (I don’t recall whether the number represents birth order or something else. That wasn’t clearly explained.) Every time one of the kids dies, each of the remaining nine gets a ring burned around his or her ankle as an alert that one of their number is gone. The novel opens with Three’s death, which is why Henri and Four must move yet again.

They arrive in Paradise, Ohio, where John soon meets a beautiful girl named Sarah and befriends a sci-fi geek named Sam. From there on out, it’s just what you’d expect from an alien-pretending-to-be-human, coming-of-age tale. John’s in love for the first time, has a best friend for the first time, experiences the arrival of his Legacies (his special abilities as one of the nine–he’s fireproof and able to employ telekinesis), and struggles to decide how to tell both Sam and Sarah about his true identity. And, of course, the Mogadorians find him. Fighting ensues. People discover his secret. Enemies in his high school become allies in the fight against the Mogadorians.

I expected this book to be epic. My favorite parts of this book, as I also expected, were the backstory: how Four and Henri arrived on Earth; why they left to begin with; folklore, history, and tradition associated with Lorian. In general, what I love most about science and/or speculative fiction is the ability of an author to create another world. And Pittacus Lore (a pseudonym that I’ll discuss more in a moment) sets up an interesting world.

But the execution of this story was merely good. I expected something phenomenal, and I didn’t quite get that. At times, the dialogue seemed a bit off, a bit too adult-trying-to-be-teenager. At other times, minor details in the story weren’t explained enough, and in science fiction, the beauty is in the details. For example, when the Mogadorians arrive, Four flees his school and goes back to his house. His girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend Mark (and, therefore, Four’s high school enemy) is sitting at his kitchen table on Four’s Cepan’s computer. It’s never explained why he’s there or how much he knows, but suddenly, Mark is fighting alongside Four and his friends. I was seriously bothered by the inconsistency in Mark’s attitude.

Nonetheless, the story kept me (mostly) interested. I read the book in a few days, and I’m looking forward to the movie. It may be one of those books that works better visually than textually. And I’ll definitely read any sequels that come out. But I’m not dying to know what happens next, as I did with the Hunger Games trilogy or the Chaos Walking trilogy.

One last thing about this book: Pittacus Lore is a pseudonym (obviously). The name will somehow come into play with the history of Lorian–there are references in this first book. I assumed, at first, that Lore was a new author on the scene and just established a pseudonym to go along with the content of the book. However, I searched him on Google after I noticed the first textual reference to a character named Pittacus, and I discovered that Pittacus Lore is actually a collaboration of James Frey and Jobie Hughes. (In fact, in the book, Henri creates new documents for Four to use in the future. Two of those names are “James Hughes” and “Jobie Frey.” Clever.) James Frey is the author of A Million Little Pieces, the “memoir” that Oprah chose for her book club several years ago that was later revealed to be a total fabrication. Frey had written a novel and published it as a memoir, sparking loads of controversy in the publishing world. It turns out that not only is Frey still publishing under his own name, but he’s also working on tons of projects using a variety of pseudonyms. Pittacus Lore is just one of those. This discovery about the real author may have had something to do with my disappointment with the book. I despise a lack of integrity, and no matter how great the writing or the story is, I already had a bad opinion of Frey.

All this to say, I would recommend this book. Just know that it has a few issues, and I wouldn’t rank it among the absolute best young adult novels I’ve read.

Here’s the trailer for the film. I’ve already spotted some differences between the book and the film, but I’m looking forward to seeing it nonetheless:

Life As We Knew It

This is the first book in a trilogy called the Moon Crash Trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeffer. I had heard nothing of it until I picked up the third book in B&N one day, intrigued by the cover (all 3 books have a large moon prominently featured). After I discovered that it was a trilogy, I was excited to find that B&N had the first book for $1.99 in a large online sale a few weeks ago.

The story begins in Spring–school is ending for Miranda and her classmates, and their teachers keep assigning homework related to astronomy because the news has been reporting that an asteroid is on collision course with the moon. No one is worried about the crash, just intrigued, until the night of the collision. The asteroid is denser than astronomers realize, knocking the moon closer to Earth and resetting the gravitational field. Of course, tsunamis wipe out the coastlines of America, earthquakes rumble all over the world, and long-dormant volcanoes begin erupting.

The story is told by 16-year-old Miranda through her diary as she, her mother, and her brothers struggle to survive the aftermath. Pfeffer does a great job of lending a sense of isolation to the setting–isolation that frustrates them, but eventually saves their lives. Miranda is also a good protagonist, I think–sometimes, she’s a selfish teenager, but other times, she’s a fighter, just as she needs to be.

I only had a few issues with the books, and those were mostly with writing style. First, I don’t think Pfeffer wrote urgently enough for the initial crash. It was a very quick scene–block party atmosphere with neighbors watching the sky, crash, oh-know-the-moon-is-closer, panic, sing national anthem, go inside to listen to the news. Maybe I was reading too fast, but the catastrophic event needed a few more pages of description.

Other times, specific details would have been nice. For example, Miranda burns pages of her textbook at one point, and she goes through the thought process of whether she should burn them or not before deciding to. But she never writes down which textbooks she chose. All the thought process involved, and she should have at least said something like. “I hate science. That will be the first to burn.” There’s beauty in the details.

All in all, though, I found this to be quite enjoyable. I started reading yesterday afternoon and finished this morning, so it’s a quick read, as well as being engrossing. The second book, The Dead and the Gone, is actually a companion novel, with characters in New York City who experience the aftereffects of the moon crash. Then, the final book, which was released in April brings those characters to Pennsylvania to meet Miranda. I’m very much looking forward to the final two books (and I’ll probably leave soon to go buy the second one!).

May Books

I’m over halfway toward my goal of reading 100 books that I’d never read before this year. Yay!

42. The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan. Described as a “post-apocalyptic romance” by Scott Westerfeld, I was sure this would be one I adored. Nope. Not at all.

43. Perfect You, Elizabeth Scott.

44. The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, Mike Carey & Peter Gross. The first five issues of a comic book series. It’s so good and literary and engrossing.

45. The Unwritten Rule, Elizabeth Scott.

46. Coraline, Neil Gaiman. This graphic novel was adapted from Gaiman’s book and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. I was creeped out by it…which was just about perfect. I want to see the film now.

47. Stealing Heaven, Elizabeth Scott. A young adult novel that went slightly against the formula. This one is about a 17-year-old whose mother steals silver from wealthy homes. They move around constantly, living a nomadic, clandestine life, until they arrive in a town called Heaven. While Dani’s mother is planning what house to strike, Dani makes friends in the town for the first time in her life. It’s a good coming-of-age story about how a girl decides her own future.

48. Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar. A graphic novel answering the question, “What if Superman had landed 12 hours later in Russia instead of Metropolis?” It’s really awesome.

49. Bloom, Elizabeth Scott

50. The Scent of Rain and Lightning, Nancy Pickard.

51. Double Fudge, Judy Blume. Published in 2002, this book was written years after the first four books featuring the Hatcher family and their neighbor Sheila Tubman–Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Superfudge, and Fudge-a-mania. It is just as delightful and funny as the previous tales.

52. Love You Hate You Miss You, Elizabeth Scott.

Grad school has begun, so I’m working on reading for that class, which means my other reading has slacked off a bit. Still, I’ll manage to get in a few first-time reads in June, I’m sure.

Monsters of Men preview

Two of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read (and two of my favorites from last year’s reads) are Patrick Ness’ epic dystopian novels The Knife of Never Letting Go and its sequel The Ask and the Answer. These two books are the first two in the Chaos Walking trilogy, and the last book Monsters of Men was released in the UK this week. Mr. Ness posted the trailer for the book on his blog, and it’s really awesome:

The only problem is the book won’t be released in the US until September. I have to wait five more months to get my hands on an authentic US copy. I’m seriously considering eBay–I might be able to order a copy from the UK, for far more money than I would pay if I waited until September. It might be worth it, though…especially since I’ve seen this trailer.

#98: Meet Lois Lowry

Jamboread 2010 was held last Saturday at the Spartanburg County Public Library. While there were a variety of events held for kids, Becky, Ticcoa, Harvin, and I were really interested in the two major events: book signings and author/illustrator lectures. Who were the authors and illustrators, you might ask?

Jane Yolen (who has written 300 books, including fairy tales, and she’s also done work in fairy tale research. I used her as a source for my honors project three years ago.)

Paul O. Zelinsky (a wonderful illustrator of tons of children’s books–including Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw!– and winner of a Caldecott Medal)

LOIS LOWRY! (author of The Giver and Gossamer and tons of other beautiful children’s books)

The day involved lots of laughs as my friends and I excitedly waited to meet these authors and hear them speak. We had books signed by all three, and each gave an hour-long lecture that was truly astonishing. I had a really hard time deciding which lecture I enjoyed the most, so I’ll just say that they were all equally wonderful.

Yolen talked about the importance of storytelling and her unquenchable desire to tell these stories. She also read aloud from her picture book Owl Moon, which is marvelous.

Zelinsky talked about his experiences illustrating. He had a large pad on stage and drew example illustrations for us. He’s so incredibly talented! Here, Awful Ogre is staring down Rapunzel.

And Lowry talked about her childhood and experiences that made her become a writer and write the stories she does. Her mannerisms and style of storytelling made me wish Dr. Sepko could have been there with us…the two of them would be great friends!

Such a perfect day.