Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book 98: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Though a fiction novel, it feels very biographical, and the narrator's name is even the same as the authors.  The novel tells the story of the narrator's childhood and her developing sexuality.  Raised in a very strict Christian church, some of her stories about grade school are incredibly amusing because she continuously misses the mark when trying to understand the students and the teacher.  She may make the most intricate and carefully designed projects but teachers really don't quite know how to react to embroidered sayings along the lines of "repent" or some of the other darker themes that the narrator explores as a result of her upbringing.
Once the narrator reaches her teens, she begins to develop feelings for other women, and though at first this is ignored, she soon finds herself in conflict with her church.  Despite her devotion to her religion, she also cannot see how her actions are in conflict with her church, leading to some tough lessons for her.
While I thought the novel was well-written, and also enjoyed that Winterson approached the narrative with a certain amount of humor, I can't say I was always that moved by the story,  Overall, I liked it and thought some of the relationships were very well-written.  I would have loved to learn more about some of the older women in the church who have learned to balance their beliefs and their sexuality, since a few of them suggest that they know what Jeannette is going through.  This novel was published in the mid '80s, so I'm sure part of the issue is that while the novel was groundbreaking at its time, at this point the story it tells is rather familiar.  I can certainly understand why it is an important novel, and as I said I mostly enjoyed it, though it didn't leave a huge impression on me.

Book 97: Shift

While I ended up liking this novel, or collection of three novellas, it didn't grab me in the same way that its predecessor, Wool, did.  The three stories combined tell the story from the beginning of the silos, and take the reader up to the end of Wool, where Silo 18 has become aware of at least part of what is going on.
The first novella flashes back and forth between Donald, who has been elected to Congress, and is involvement in building the silos though he isn't actually aware of what is going on.  Instead he believes he is building a temporary fall out shelter.  Much of this plan is set into notion by the powerful Senator Thurman, a man that helped Donald campaign, and who is an old acquaintance due to Donald's relationship with the senator's daughter Anna. The other half of this section covers Troy's first shift in Silo 1, and what he slowly discovers as shift supervisor.
The other two novellas contine to focus on what is going on in Silo 1, revealing more of the end game behind Thurman's plan, and his motivations for his actions, while chronicling one of the rebellions of Silo 18 in one of the novellas, and sharing more of Jimmy's story after the fall of Silo 17 in the third.  The side stories about the other silos were the most engaging for me, though Donald's story is of course the important one for the progression of the series.  Donald was a character that was easy to sympathize with, but he was also approaching his life through a bit of a daze which made the others characters easier to invest in.
At this point in the series, I am really curious to see what the outside world actually looks like beyond the 50 silos in this small area.  What happened to the rest of the world?  I'm definitely looking forward to finally getting Dust, and hopefully getting that answer as well as seeing how it all concludes.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Book 96: The Night Circus

I feel like everyone read this book about two years ago and raved about it.  I actually bought it back then, but was afraid I would be the one person that didn't like it.  Some of the reviews made me worry that maybe it wasn't my cup of tea, and then I started seeing reviews that were less excited about it, which made me feel like I was justified in holding off on reading it.  As it turns out I shouldn't have been worried at all, and I'm so glad I found some of the book challenges I did this year that inspired me to finally read this since it meets requirements for three or four of them.
The main premise of the plot revolves around a challenge between two magicians and their opposing theories on the practice of magic.  Rather than face each other, the two have been pitting apprentices and students against each other for an indeterminate time.  It seems that quite some time has elapsed since the last challenge, but when one of them realizes he has a daughter, he decides to use her in the challenge, even when his opponent, Alexander, gives him a chance to bow out considering that the challenge only ends with death.  Alexander quickly finds an orphan to teach, and thus Marco and Celia are set up as contestants in what will become a life long challenge (while neither of the older men is exactly admirable, I liked Alexander and his methods much more).
The challenge doesn't begin immediately as both men must train their chosen representatives first, but eventually, the venue is picked, and the challenge begins, showcasing the different things the two can do with their magic.  The venue of course is "Le Cirque des Reves" or the Circus of Dreams, and Marco and Celia do not realize exactly what type of contest they are in for a long time - they only know they are competing and that they are not allowed to interfere with each other.
Interspersed with the story of Marco and Celia and their growing attraction to each other are stories about the circus and its visitors.  Some of the short chapters describe attractions and how a visit might feel, while other chapters focus on some of the people involved with the circus, or the effect it has on its visitors.  One prominent guest of the circus is Friedrick Thiessen, the man that designd the beautiful and playful clock that graces the entrance of the circus (after reading this novel, I totally want a clock designed by this man).  As magical as the circus is, it is clear that there is also something darker going on and not everything is perfect.  Obviously, the challenge itself is not going to lead to a happy ending, and the oddities surrounding the circus take their toll on some of the people closely associated with the circus without actually being part of the circus.
The descriptions of the circus are very enchanting, and the novel's success has very much to do with the details and the atmosphere it creates rather than the plot itself.  There are so many little vignettes and different characters, all of which are quite enjoyable so that even though Marco and Celia are the main players, they are also just part of a large ensemble.  In a way, it reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though that one was much more complex and dense novel.  Still, it had that same type of feeling to it for me, though this one was a bit lighter and fluffier.  I'm definitely curious to see what else Morgenstern has in store for her future novels.

Book 95: Code Name Verity

This was such a great novel!  I was very impressed with the story and how much research the author incorporated into the book.  The novel begins with the written confession of "Verity," or Queenie as she refers to herself, a British agent captured in France by German agents.  After being tortured, she has agreed to give the Germans the information they want and has already revealed codes.  Given her status, she knows she has very little time left before she dies, and realizes that once they have her confessions she will likely die or get sent somewhere even worse than the Gestapo headquarters.  As a result, her confessions may seem a bit long, chronicling her friendship with Maddie, an English pilot, before she finally reveals more about herself and her mission, but her captors are both impatient and oddly tolerant of her tangents.  The commander of the Gestapo frightens Queenie but often surprises her with his knowledge of literature, even stating that she is a student of the novel, and writing her story in that way.  Queenie does an amazing job of telling her and Maddie's story while interspersing her present day predicament and the fear she faces.
I tend to focus more on the Holocaust when I read about World War II, so it was fascinating to read about the French Resistance and the way the British supported them (don't call Queenie English - she is Scottish!).  Additionally, the two women, Maddie and Verity, are just such great characters and it was a joy to see their friendship develop, even knowing that the ending wasn't going to be good.  Maddie is the one that flew Verity into France, and the plane crashed after Verity had to jump out, leaving Maddie's fate questionable.
I really loved this novel, and definitely recommend it.  My only complaint isn't with the novel but with the version I had which had a description inferring that there was a twist, so I spent the first few chapters thinking that Queenie was actually Maddie since she was writing so much about Maddie ... there's no crazy twist like that though there are surprises to the narrative and more going on than at first meets the eye. 

Book 94: The Maze Runner

The concept behind The Maze Runner is intriguing but unfortunately, I became less interested in the novel as it went on due to poor pacing and characters that were rather lacking in development.  Thomas arrives in the Glades one day with no memory of his past though he feels like the place may be vaguely familiar.  He joins a group of fifty or so very well organized boys ranging from 11-17.  None of them remember who they are, either, beyond their names, and they have arrived a month apart at the Glade for the past two years.
Thomas tries to get answers the first day he is there, and while I understand his desire, I'm not sure if I was more annoyed with him or the other characters when they told him he would get his answers on a tour of the Glade on his first full day.  I understand Thomas wanting answers before then but maybe he could have been a bit less obnoxious about it given that they promised him answers on their own time line.  The area is surrounded by a maze, and a group of the boys are maze runners, who chart and run through the maze daily, looking for clues or an exit.  Every night the walls to the maze close, keeping the boys locked in the Glade and the monsters (things called grievers) outside in the maze.  Despite these creatures and the danger they pose, Thomas develops a feeling early on that he is meant to be a maze runner.
Before Thomas can settle into his new environment or get too comfortable, something happens that completely shifts the balance in the Glade.  The day after Thomas shows up, a girl is delivered to the Glade with a note saying that she is the last.  No other girl has ever shown up in the Glade, and no more than one person has ever arrived in a month, let alone on consecutive days.  This raises suspicions about Thomas due to his timing, and also leads to an even greater desire to find a way out of the maze as the supplies also stop coming through the delivery system.
The premise was good, and I certainly wanted answers about what was going on as I was reading.  The problem with this type of concept, however, is how to keep it interesting - the whole story and plot revolve around the idea of getting answers.  I feel like this novel got the pacing off - it wouldn't even have had to reveal answers earlier than it did if other parts had been better written or more engaging.  As far as making this a trilogy, once these questions are answered, there needs to be something else and more to maintain interest.  For example, the Chaos Walking trilogy started out in the same way where something was being hidden from the main character, and he finally has a good portion of the answers by the end of the first novel.  While Ness actually had developed a lot of other things for beyond that novel, for me, the rest of the series was never quite as engaging because I no longer had that nagging desire to know what was going on, but I kept reading based on the strength of the first novel and the fact that I actually liked and cared for his protagonists.  I feel like the only reason I kept turning the page in The Maze Runner was to know why because I certainly didn't care about the main characters.  I didn't like Thomas that much, didn't care about Chuck, and some of the other characters had moments were I thought they were interesting but their actions seemed inconsistent and conflicted.  It seemed like their actions and words were based more on what would serve the plot than on what would be consistent for the character.
I admit part of it may be a preference for women authors and protagonists when I read YA.  I don't feel like I have this preference in general since I love the Dresden series and the Codex Alera, both by Jim Butcher, I love George R.R. Martin, Patrich Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson and enjoy many other male authors.  Sometimes I don't always feel a connection to coming of age stories about adolescent boys but I have read and enjoyed plenty of books by male authors with male protagonist.  And yet, both of the big YA trilogies by men that I have either started or read completely, I just didn't enjoy that much.  I find that odd.  The other thing, and I brought this up on someone else's review of this novel, is that I find it very weird that both recent pieces of dystopian YA I've read by men focus on communities of men or boys where a lone woman showing up is the trigger for change.  I can't think of a single YA novel by a woman I've read where there aren't any guys (that doesn't mean they don't exist but they are obviously not quite as popular as The Hunger Games, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Graceling, etc).  In fact, Thomas states that he hadn't even noticed that there weren't any girls until the girl showed up.  I mean I'm sure there are probably novels that take place at a girls' boarding school, but I feel like boys or guys would still at least be mentioned.  Patrick Ness actually had a bigger message with his and I liked where he went with it, and from what I hear about the sequels I'm sure Dashner had a purpose, too, but I still find it slightly weird that women are just completely written out (because really the girl in The Maze Runner wasn't a character, she was a plot point), and that Thomas wouldn't even notice that there aren't any women around.
Having said all that, the ending was both intriguing and also kind of pissed me off.  When I say ending, I'm referring to the last two pages specifically, because the rest was just in line with the rest of the book - I didn't care too much.  Not a single character death actually affected me, and some readers were talking about one death being incredibly moving when to me that was one of the most annoying characters.  However, the very last two pages throw in just enough to make it interesting again, and make me want to know what happens next.  However, I feel like the book itself should have made me want to read the rest of the series, not some little comment thrown in at the end that promises more answers, so I will not be picking up the rest of the series.