May 1, 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book cover for BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

When Samantha “Sam” Kingston dies in a car crash, she finds herself reliving the same day, her last day, over and over again. In her efforts to get time and her life back on track, she finally sees how much pain she and her friends have caused others. Will she be able to fix what she’s broken?

Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day

Sam is a bully, a mean girl. With her friends, she rules the popular roost of Connecticut’s Thomas Jefferson High School. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Sam knows what it’s like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be the butt of the joke, and she knows how precarious her position at the top is. It can depend on something as seemingly unimportant and random as a girl grabbing her hand and asking her to join in on a practical joke. Knowing this is what makes Sam all the more desperate to remain on top, no matter what it takes. If that means calling girls “sluts” or “bitches” or “psychos,” so be it. If it means sabotaging others, cheating on tests, and lying, she’s in.

The way Sam and her friends bully their fellow classmates is real and raw and had me cringing over things I remember happening in my own high school. Author Lauren Oliver is fairly quick to get to the root of bullying, that it always goes back to some personal fear or pain. Teens spread rumors so no one will notice their own flaws and secrets. That’s an important lesson for young readers who may be used to seeing the black and white view of bullies versus “nice kids.” It’s more complex than that, and Oliver embraces the complexity.

There’s a lot of Mean Girls to be found in this book—enough that I sometimes wondered just how much Before I Fall was inspired by that film—but it ultimately goes to much deeper, darker places, to the twisted and truly cruel games some are willing to play.

Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single [rose for Valentine’s Day]. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.

When Sam finds herself caught in her own version of purgatory / Groundhog Day after a fatal car accident, she at first doesn’t take the hint. She continues to plow her way through people, doing and saying as she pleases, regardless of the harm she might cause. Sam eventually sees the error of her ways, though, and tries to fix all she’s broken or helped break. Deep down, she knows this is the only way she and those she’s hurt will find peace.

I like the book up to this point, but the conclusion muddles Oliver’s messages. What Sam decides she needs to do to make things right makes no sense and would actually have lasting, negative consequences. She decides to sacrifice herself for another person. Because doing that won’t cause any lasting damage, right? Worse, the resolution, if it can be called that, leaves many other problems hanging. There’s no resolving all the slut- and virgin-shaming. Issues concerning drunk driving, eating disorders, date rape, predatory math teachers, and more hang as loose ends. And Sam never even begins to get her friends, who have always joined in on the bullying, to change their ways.

Sam maybe couldn’t fix all the problems mentioned in the book, but some of the issues Oliver raises here are huge, and it doesn’t feel right that so many are never properly addressed. If we aren’t going to censor YA novels—and I absolutely do not think we should—then authors of these books have some duty to address the more complex subjects they let surface in their writing.

In a similar vein, there’s a boy, Kent McFuller, in all this, because it’s apparently impossible to write books for girls without some romance. Kent’s my other complaint. (The characterization of boys in Before I Fall is extremely lacking.) Kent’s thankfully not “the bad boy” Sam shouldn’t want but “can’t help” but want; in fact, he’s the really kindhearted boy. The problem, instead, is that he shouldn’t like Sam at all. It takes an absurd amount of cruelty—of abuse—for Kent to even remotely consider disliking Sam. If we’re going to complain about the young adult books where nice girls go for bad boys and put up with their abuse, I feel obligated to complain about the young adult books where nice boys go for bad girls and their abuse.

Before I Fall is a pretty good book, even if Oliver creates a big story with lots of problems that aren’t ultimately set straight. The characters and dialogue go a long way to salvaging everything, and there are still a few valuable lessons to be found here.

Buy Before I Fall from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Lauren Oliver on Facebook and Twitter

Quotes from Before I Fall

Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.

She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.)

This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.

Jan 29, 2013

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for THE FALL OF HYPERION by Dan Simmons
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

Following the events of Hyperion, war is brewing between the Web’s Hegemony and the Ousters. As political leaders and military officials prepare for battle, secrets and betrayals are revealed. Meanwhile, on Hyperion, the Shrike pilgrims fight for their lives as the Time Tombs continue to play tricks on their minds and bodies.

More Questions Than Answers

Though I personally enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion more than the first book in the series, it still had lots of ups and downs. I can’t help but think that if Dan Simmons hadn’t created such an interesting setting in the planet Hyperion and original, frightening monster in the Shrike, I wouldn’t be as impressed as I am.

The Hyperion Cantos is a big series with many characters and many ideas—too many, in fact. While the general theme found in this book explores the relationship between creator and creation, there’s a lot of jumping around before any message is to be found. The pacing is uneven, sometimes slow when you figure something out far sooner than the characters do, and there are more loose ends than there should be.

A sizable portion of The Fall of Hyperion is told from a new character’s first-person perspective. While the consciousness of the cybrid “reincarnation” of John Keats lives on in the implant Brawne Lamia carries with her on Hyperion, a second cybrid has been created back in the Web with a slightly altered version of this same persona. He goes by the name of Joseph Severn, a painter and the historical John Keats’ friend. Joseph finds his persona overlaps in surprising ways with what’s left of the first John Keats’ cybrid data as Joseph’s dreams take on the shape of the Shrike pilgrims’ waking reality. These dreams of the others are relayed in separate chapters in third person.

As in Hyperion, Simmons plays with narrative perspective and tense. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t make for the most comfortable read, particularly in the first half of the book. It takes time to warm to Joseph and the Web he inhabits. It’s a rather dry world that mostly consists of flimsy characters talking about military logistics and planets you never see enough of to care about. Then, for me, Joseph’s “dream connection” to Keats made me pass that strange and arbitrary point where I could no longer suspend disbelief. (Apparently my brain accepts portals and organic metal monsters, though.) It was far too convenient that the Shrike pilgrims were always awake and doing something of note when Joseph was asleep to “watch” them through the first John Keats. Right, sure. It’s hard enough for me to chat with friends in Australian time zones.

Still, I was glad for Joseph’s dreams because I continued to care the most about the Time Tombs and pilgrims he saw in them. There are some really great scenes where they face the Shrike, who only becomes creepier and more mysterious as the pages turn. The only negative thing I can say about this part of the plotting and world-building is that sometimes, in an effort to keep everything mysterious, Simmons never provides answers. Then, if you do find an answer to a question, it may be unfortunately anticlimactic. There’s a very good reason TV Tropes includes this series on its Kudzu Plot page.

This is most frustrating when it comes to Colonel Kassad and Sol and Rachel’s stories, all of which fall flat merely, it would seem, for convenience. There’s room for more information about these and other characters, but whether Simmons can give them the story arcs they deserve over the next two books is questionable—especially since the rest of the series isn’t focused on any of these characters.

Finally, philosophically speaking, The Fall of Hyperion ends up in some strange territories I don’t like. I enjoyed much of Simmons’ exploration of the relationship between creator and creation: who controls whom, chicken and egg. But I don’t see any reason why that theme had to go in the direction of gods and religion. By the end of this book, the series has moved further away from science fiction, to venture into some messianic fantasy, prophecies and all. There’s no need for it, and I’d argue there’s little lead-up to it.

As the next book in the series, Endymion, mostly features different characters, I’m thinking readers never get answers to a number of remaining questions. Though I enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion more than its predecessor, I’ll skim-read the rest of the series, if that, just to know more about the Shrike. Reviews for those books aren’t likely to follow.

Buy The Fall of Hyperion from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Dan Simmons on Facebook

Quotes from The Fall of Hyperion

Tyrena was a dinosaur who refused to become extinct–her wrists, palms, and neck would have glowed blue from repeated [anti-aging treatments] if it had not been for makeup, and she spent decades on short-hop interstellar cruises or incredibly expensive cryogenic naps at spas too exclusive to have names; the upshot was that Tyrena Wingreen-Feif had held the social scene in an iron grip for more than three centuries and showed no signs of relinquishing it. With every twenty-year nap, her fortune expanded and her legend grew.

He pulled and struggled and twisted even as the creature hugged him more closely, pulling him onto its own blades as if he were a butterfly being mounted, a specimen being pinned.

“A less-enlightened personage once asked Ummon, ‘What is the God-nature/Buddha/Central Truth?’ Ummon answered him, ‘A dried shit-stick.'”

Jan 21, 2013

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Book cover for HYPERION by Dan Simmons
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

In the distant future, Old Earth has died, humans have spread throughout the universe, and technology has blossomed to both our advantage and detriment. As large-scale war looms, several people are called on a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion—so named after English Romantic poet John Keats’ unfinished work. It’s on Hyperion that the mysterious and deadly monster known as the Shrike can be found near the Time Tombs, a place that confounds archaeologists and physicists alike. As the travelers make their journey, each recounts his or her life story, revealing the many ways they are all connected to each other and their destination.

Science Fiction Meets The Canterbury Tales

The universe author Dan Simmons has created in Hyperion is expansive, with many characters, worlds, and technological devices. Entering such foreign, futuristic territory tends to go one of two ways in speculative fiction: Either the story begins slowly as you are introduced to the mechanics of the world, or the author opens a floodgate and hopes you’ll keep up. Simmons chose to unleash the flood, and there’s a lot of techie jargon at the beginning of Hyperion—some of it dated—that might put off readers who aren’t usually open to science fiction. (Tree ships? Fatline messages? All Thing? Farcasting?) Still, if you can roll with this brand of immersion, the book is mostly rewarding beyond its lexicon of buzzwords and occasional pitfalls.

Hyperion is separated into several parts. The book’s present-day story, where war looms on the horizon, is told in a limited third-person perspective, but most of the book is made up of several first-person accounts, á la The Canterbury Tales, from each of the main characters who are on the Shrike pilgrimage. Each character is on the pilgrimage for either personal or political reasons; all are guarding secrets and frightened for their lives.

There is the priest who is physically and horrifically tied to Hyperion, the famed colonel who’s had inexplicable visions, the brash poet whose muse is a monster from nightmares, the scholar who hopes his daughter’s heartbreaking illness can end on Hyperion (as it started), the detective who carries the memories of a reincarnated writer, and a government official who is weighed down by his knowledge of endless corruption and conspiracies.

These first-person accounts are a mixed bag. While I loved the stories the priest, poet, and scholar told, and the government official ended up having some things of interest, I was less intrigued by the tales the war general and detective had to tell. I did some skim-reading. Perhaps that’s a matter of taste, though, and Simmons does deserve credit for giving each character a clear voice, regardless. He’s also pretty good at bending genres whenever and wherever he pleases.

For me, where Simmons falters most is in thinking we need to know about all of the elements of his world. Presumably, this is the reason he chose to write the book in a way that allowed him to tour the universe. As much as I enjoyed some of the characters’ backstories, I would have preferred Simmons stayed out of the past and instead focus on what was only relevant to the third-person plotting that surrounded each backstory. Despite the largeness of the world and some of the individual character’s histories, this book has a very small story itself: some people journey to another planet. Enjoyable or not, the detours into each traveler’s past seriously detract from the book’s present. As such, Hyperion feels a little like a teaser for the real story that’s set to unfold in the rest of the series.

So what makes me generally like this book and want to continue reading, as I plan to?

Above all, it’s the Shrike, which is one of the best, creepiest monsters I’ve encountered in science fiction or horror. I’d rather not spoil the details that exist about the Shrike because how they are revealed through the character backstories in Hyperion is really great. Simmons kept my skin crawling every time the Shrike—and the mysterious cult who follows the monster—came into the picture. I suspect much of the acclaim for this book and the series is based on this creative bogeyman.

Hyperion has its problems, both technical and creative, but I’m looking forward to seeing what befalls my favorite characters and the Shrike that lies in wait. (I have so many questions. Is the Shrike just misunderstood? Is the whole world universe going to end?!) Whether Simmons can hold me for the entire series depends largely on the next book, The Fall of Hyperion.

Buy Hyperion from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Dan Simmons on Facebook

Quotes from Hyperion

In the beginning was the Word. Then came the fucking word processor. Then came the thought processor. Then came the death of literature. And so it goes.

The lieutenant took his time scanning their visa chips, letting them wait in the drizzle, occasionally making a comment with the idle arrogance common to such nobodies who have just come into a small bit of power.

And Sol awakened half laughing, half chilled by the dream. Amused by the thought that the entire Talmud and the Old Testament might be nothing more than a cosmic shaggy-dog story.

Dec 26, 2012

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Book cover for THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS by Karen Lord
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

With planet Sadira destroyed, the few remaining Sadiri—mainly men—seek refuge on Cygnus Beta, a veritable melting pot of refugees, races, and cultures. It is here, with the help of biotechnician Grace Delarua, that they search for distant Sadiri cousins with whom to reunite and potentially marry. Their journey takes them far and wide into different places and cultures, all of which have some relation to the now lost Sadira. Along the way, Grace connects with and befriends the reserved Sadiri people, changing her life and theirs forever.

Genocide Shouldn’t Be Lighthearted

Karen Lord’s debut, Redemption in Indigo, has been on my reading list for quite a while, but having never gotten around to it, I jumped at the chance to receive a review copy of her latest book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and was lucky enough to receive one from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. When I read the official book summary and saw Lord’s writing was compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s, I thought this was going to be an enjoyable reading experience. Alas, some things are not meant to be. The Best of All Possible Worlds is not anything like what its cover and official summary suggest.

There’s no doubt this book has an audience. Many reviews for it are very positive. But I don’t think I’m part of that audience, and I have doubts as to whether most other science fiction readers will be either. Outside of a few humanlike aliens with “psychic mind-linking” capabilities, this is very fanciful science fiction—and, sadly, not that interesting of a fantasy. It’s a far cry from being the social commentary on genocide and racial/ethnic integration I thought it would be. Stripped of all its needless subplots, the story is primarily a run-of-the-mill romance, right down to its stereotypically over-emotional female lead, Grace Delarua.

Joral leaned forward and said earnestly, “You seem to be very sad about leaving. It is all right if you wish to cry, First Officer Delarua. We will not think badly of you. We understand this is common behavior for many Terran females.”

“Well, I’m Cygnian,” I snapped. “And I wasn’t going to cry.” I swear, nothing irritates me more than being overemotional in front of a Sadiri. They make me feel so silly.

It’s Grace Delarua’s first-person perspective you’re mostly stuck with, with occasional (better written) stints in a third-person perspective that focus on the activities and feelings of her eventual (obvious) love interest, Dllenahkh. I unfortunately found it difficult to care about either character, though, never quite connecting to Grace’s unrealistically haywire emotions or Dllenahkh’s forced alien qualities. (He is similar to Spock from Star Trek.)

It doesn’t help that countless one-dimensional minor characters come and go for no good reason. This unfocused plotting means that by the first quarter of the book, Grace has had multiple jobs, taken numerous trips, and visited her sister’s family. The latter subplot could give soap writers a run for their money.

“You bastard,” I said. “I warned you: if you hurt her, if you hurt any of my family, I will deal with you!”

“I’m not hurting them,” he protested. “I take good care of them. They’re happy.”

“Happy little puppets,” I spat, gripping my right wrist in an effort not to slap him. “I should report you to the authorities.”

“You won’t,” he said simply. “You love me. Never stopped.”

Such melodramatic scenes are common in the book.

The problem with The Best is that it’s too superficial, and no amount of melodrama or tangents can mask that. There’s not much in the way of world-building, there’s little effort to flesh out main characters, the dialogue tends to be forced, and the story is too predictable from the beginning. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Then again, in a book that is at least somewhat about people being displaced after highly successful genocide, it’s awfully lighthearted. It feels as though readers are meant to find it cute and amusing that many of the Sadiri men are looking for wives who more closely match their genetic and racial makeup so they can produce, I suppose, purer babies. I find that creepy, not cute—not the ingredients for romance.

Qeturah almost laughed out loud. “Relax, Delarua. It’s a compliment … I think. She was saying that you should be registered on the special list for potential Sadiri brides, and when I pointed out that there was an upper age limit for that, she suggested that extending your fertile years would take care of objections.”

I was already dazedly shaking my head at the wrongness of it all.

“Don’t worry. I told her that with the amount of Ntshune heritage you have, you’ll probably be able to have children for quite a bit longer than the average Cygnian. I estimate you have another twenty-five years, maybe even thirty.”

Because, really, what’s the value of a woman who can’t birth children?

The Best feels a lot like a first draft: something with a glimmer of potential that hasn’t yet been realized. For all these reasons, I can’t give this book the positive review I was hoping to, and I think it will be some time before I try another novel by Karen Lord.

Aside: It appears Del Rey / Random House rather distastefully opted to use a white-skinned woman on the book cover, even though Grace is said to have “cedar-brown skin” (chapter eight, “The Faerie Queen”).

Buy The Best of All Possible Worlds from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Karen Lord on Twitter

Aug 17, 2012

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Book cover for TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Buy from Amazon or iTunes

Told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily is the story of a young girl struggling to understand herself and cope with the looming unfairness of womanhood. When she meets Peter and the lost boys, she believes she’s found where she belongs, but what will she give up to join them? Should she have to give up anything at all?

Anderson Embraces Complex Subjects in Peter Pan Reimagining

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s beautiful, poignant writing style carries you away to the jungle island of Neverland, a place where mystery and magic live and where some faces are ageless. Most of us won’t have found Neverland intriguing since early childhood, but I think even skeptics will like this one.

Retelling a children’s story in a way young readers will love it isn’t necessarily difficult, but Anderson goes beyond retelling Peter Pan. She re-imagines Neverland and its characters in a way many readers of all ages will enjoy (and maybe feel a little dread over). It’s no small feat to recreate Peter Pan in a way that doesn’t conjure up Disney characters or various actors; however, Anderson achieves all this and more in Tiger Lily.

The story is told from Tinker Bell’s perspective. But Tinker Bell—like all faeries, we’re told—is mute, and so while the occasional first-person opinion surfaces, the majority of the book is told from Tinker Bell’s semi-omniscient point of view. She can have no verbal communication with the characters she’s observing.

Tinker Bell is obsessed with watching the unpretty, proud native girl known as Tiger Lily—and with good reason. Tiger Lily is a walking mystery. She’s a girl who was found orphaned in the woods and raised by the Sky Eater tribe’s shaman. She’s a girl who doesn’t quite know how to be the person others want her to be, or even what kind of person she wants herself to be. She’s an intense character, and her village senses and reacts to the darkness of her personality. Sometimes they are in awe of her. Other times, they fear and hate her. They are her family, but they don’t understand her. A part of them doesn’t want to understand her.

Tiger Lily’s tribe particularly doesn’t understand when she nurses a shipwrecked Englander back to health. Sky Eaters hold a belief that coming into contact with Englanders makes them age and die as other non-Neverlanders do. When Tiger Lily’s efforts are discovered, she is harshly punished for her transgression.

It’s through these events that Tiger Lily eventually meets Peter Pan and the lost boys. They are an infamous bunch in Neverland, rumored to be psychotic murderers of mythic proportions. But the gossip is mainly that—gossip. Peter and the lost boys who follow him are only teenagers hiding from pirates, trying to survive the island’s wilderness.

In Peter, Tiger Lily finds a kindred spirit. He may be boisterous, while she is quiet, but they share a wild restlessness and rivalry that is both good-natured and stubborn. They also share an intense feeling of fear due to their own private circumstances. Being brave and proud, neither fully reveals this to the other. They fall in love slowly and awkwardly—innocently. This is where most young adult books settle the romance with nice, neat bows, but Anderson isn’t here to tell anyone a love story—at least not a typical one for young adults. She’s here to remind readers that life is rarely so nice, rarely so neat.

This is one of a very few young adult books I would give to young women without millions of disclaimers, such as, “Don’t you ever do this for a boy,” or “You know not all girls behave this way, right?” Beyond the fantasy elements in Tiger Lily, there are important life lessons that are applicable to real life. Some of these lessons are obvious and seen in many books, but others are more subtle and less common. And Anderson actually covers a couple of topics—(trans)gender equality and the effects of colonialism—that few young adult authors would dream of tackling, much less in the speculative fiction genre.

Anderson should also be commended for avoiding two tropes she could have easily fallen victim to with this story: what internet and TV lovers might call Mighty Whitey and Noble Savage. Tiger Lily’s tribal life isn’t played up to the point of becoming a spectacle, and there’s no Great White Savior to be found here. A lot of Peter Pan stories of the past and present have—accidentally or not-so-accidentally—drawn attention to racial stereotypes. Initially, I was sad to see Anderson make Peter an Aryan’s dream—defining his looks was something Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, consciously avoided—but I later understood Anderson’s reasoning.

Fairy tales often have blatant good and evil themes, but in Tiger Lily, decisions made with good intentions don’t always yield positive results, the bad guys sometimes have a reason for being bad, and sometimes love doesn’t save the day. Sometimes love isn’t enough, or it isn’t what you thought it might be. For a short book that makes use of a very old story, Anderson covers a lot of new ground. Many fantasy readers will love this, and it would make for a wonderful gift for teens.

Buy Tiger Lily from Amazon or iTunes
Follow Jodi Lynn Anderson on Facebook and Twitter

Quotes from Tiger Lily

“I think we could be good friends,” he said, falling into step with her. “It’s perfect because I wouldn’t fall in love with you, like I do with the mermaids. Girls always seem so exotic. But it would be okay with you, because you’re more like … you know. Not like a girl.” He shrugged.

Human hearts are elastic. They have room for all sorts of passions, and they can break and heal and love again and again. Faerie hearts are evolutionarily less sophisticated. They are small and hard, like tiny grains of sand. Our hearts are too small to love more than one person in a lifetime.

An unspoken rivalry threaded their relationship, in which Tiger Lily thought that if she could keep up with him, she could hold tighter to him.

Around the Web
See more links?