Monday, June 28, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Something Like Fate'

The Book: Something Like Fate

The Author: Susane Colasanti

How I Found It: I'd gotten curious about Colasanti's YA romances after finding them on a search for good YA literature, and when I came across this one recently, I was intrigued because it almost sounded like Something Borrowed (see below) for a young adult audience.

The Review: This was my break after reading two dystopian novels in a row. Never again! I'm glad I gave Colasanti a shot; her books sounded interesting and after reading this one I'd be open to trying more by her. I'd seen reviews comparing her to my favorite YA author, the amazing Sarah Dessen, and while she doesn't have quite the same amount of skill as Dessen does at crafting a plot with an unusual twist on an interesting theme, Colasanti's work has more depth and meaning than other YA novels I've seen.

Lani and Erin are best friends, bonded forever by an accident when they were young that nearly took both their lives. Both of them share an obsession with the same idea: fate. Horoscopes, palmistry, all of it appeals to them--especially to Lani, who hates the "Unknown" and the idea of taking risks. Erin is her best friend besides Blake, who is in the closet due to fear of his homophobic father, something only Lani knows. It is the end of junior year and summer is almost upon them.

Erin begins dating Jason, a nice guy who is every girl's dream--and quickly becomes Lani's, once it becomes clear how deep of a connection they have. They have so many things in common that this has to be fate. But why would fate steer Lani to her best friend's boyfriend when he's the one guy she can't have? Why does Erin have to leave for camp, leaving Lani with Jason for the whole summer? What does it mean to betray the best friend who has always been there for you?

To start with, the book deals with some interesting and important issues in a nice, readable way, and I'd even recommend this to parents of younger teens who might want to know about bullying or cruelty in high school. The latter half of the book explores issues such as cruelty between girls and homophobia, and depicts them honestly. If a starting point is needed to discuss these issues, as well as feelings of guilt or betrayal in a friendship, this would be a great one. Lani's pain is realistic and relatable, as is Blake's need for acceptance from those around him, though that is more of a subplot. There is nothing that could be objectionable to younger teens; there is merely some kissing and no swearing or anything of that sort. I was almost surprised by how entirely Colasanti avoided sex and language; judging by how well her books sell compared to other authors in the genre, it's very impressive.

While the book was definitely readable and interesting, I did have some issues with Lani's narrative voice. Though I stopped noticing it after a while, I was slightly annoyed when phrases like "legit", "and I was like", etc. popped up in the narration. The voice was accurate to that of today's teenager, but almost to a fault. It bothered me mainly because I prefer grammatical accuracy rather than colloquialisms in narration, but I doubt it will be bothersome to anyone else; it certainly shouldn't be a deterrent.

That being said, some other things about the story intrigued me. Colasanti delves into the issue of fate mostly in a surface-level way; the actual methods fade in importance as the book goes on, to be replaced by the general idea of fate and the "Energy". One thing that stuck out was although Lani and Erin express interest in Taoism and Buddhism in their fate studies at the book's start, there are no other mentions of religion. Colasanti does not equate the belief in fate to a belief in God, which was PC but an interesting perspective. I also liked that Colasanti hinted that perhaps Lani was simply interpreting her horoscopes, etc. the way she wanted to and using them as an excuse to do or not do things, until she gradually comes to realize she can control her own fate. The astrology or the idea of fate is not pushed on the reader as something we have to believe in to enjoy the story; it is merely a device, and an interesting one.

Overall, this was a perfectly enjoyable YA romance, and I recommend it to teens of any age or parents that might want to give a book without objectionable material to their kids that could nonetheless open up interesting discussions.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Hunger Games'

According to my tags, this is my 50th review! Hoorah!

The Book: The Hunger Games (Book One of The Hunger Games trilogy)

The Author: Suzanne Collins

How I Found It: I first heard of it through a friend, who read it and loaned it to me. I was curious about it after seeing the overwhelming acclaim it received from various quarters.

The Review: Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl, lives in a world very different from ours. In the ruins of what was once North America, now called Panem, people have been divided into 12 districts after a brutal rebellion against the government. In order to keep the citizens in line, the government, known as the Capitol, has devised a tournament called "The Hunger Games".

A boy and a girl are picked from each district and placed into an arena where the enviroment can be anything--forest, sand, icy terrain. Survival depends on hunting, fighting for what few supplies the Gamemakers provide--and killing the other contestants in any way possible in a televised competition until only one competitor, or "tribute", is left standing. The Capitol uses the Games to show the citizens of Panem that they will not hesitate at killing anyone--not even children.

Katniss lives in District 12, the poorest district, with her mother and her 12-year-old sister, Prim. Prim is the only person in the world Katniss cares about, ever since her mother's depression after the death of her father lead to her shutting down emotionally until Katniss and Prim nearly starved. Katniss has been providing for her family for years. When the drawings come for the Games, Prim's name is drawn even though it was entered only once, per the rules for her age. The odds were astronomical, but it still happened, and Katniss cannot bear to let her sister go off and die. She steps forward voluntarily to take her sister's place.

Also chosen from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, the baker's son, who once showed Katniss kindness. There have only been two victors from District 12 in the history of the Games, and the only surviving one of the two--Katniss and Peeta's only hope of a mentor--is Haymitch, the town drunk. The odds are stacked up against both Katniss and Peeta in a deadly game where the rules are unexpectedly changing and only one person out of twenty-four is meant to survive.

To start with, this, like Never Let Me Go, is a dystopian novel. I compare them for no other reason than that they both paint pictures of governments who do unspeakable things to their citizens. In Never Let Me Go, it was creating clones solely for the purpose of organ donation; in The Hunger Games, it is a government who pits children against themselves to kill because they can.

As horrid as the story sounds, it is also becoming a movie, something I am admittedly curious to see. The story is quite violent but not overly so, but it's still subject matter that one would be uncomfortable seeing on screen. It will have to be an interesting balancing act to juggle the inherent violence of the topic--kids fighting to the death--with the level of violence allowed to be shown on screen for a (presumably, to match the target audience for the book) PG-13 film. I have to admit that some of the violence even made me squeamish at times; for one thing, if you're afraid of fire/burns or wasps, this'll be hard for you to stomach.

I'd heard so much praise for the book that it did fall short for me; it's not as amazing as I've heard, and it was actually rather cliched. That was something that surprised me--I've read nothing like this book before, and yet I felt like I knew where the plot was going. A few elements of the story did surprise me, which was good, but it was never breathtakingly original.

The book's jacket flap makes claims of "suspense and philosophy, adventure and romance." It is suspenseful in the manner of each chapter ending on a cliffhanger, a somewhat gimmicky way to ensure further reading. It is philosophical in that it explores the effect of this violence on children who have no other option but to kill or be killed, and hints that governmental overthrow could be a step in the right direction. It is adventurous because, well, it's about a fight to the death. The romance part, though, I wouldn't quite advertise as such; I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Peeta and Katniss play up an imaginary--on Katniss' part--romance between the two of them, in order to make the viewers feel for them. Though Peeta's feelings are real, Katniss is constantly denying what could be her own feelings and instead calculating how best to use the ruse to her advantage.

I couldn't quite blame her--she was trying to stay alive, after all--but it didn't make her very sympathetic. So while the book claims to have romance, it's a very one-sided romance that will have to be built upon further--and genuinely--for me to buy into it.

Overall, while I'm going to read the sequel and upcoming third book to see how the story plays out, I'm in the middle of the road on this one. It wasn't particularly original or engaging in my mind, but Collins has crafted a suspenseful story that plays on readers' fears to her advantage. It is a thought-provoking topic and a cautionary tale, even. I'll recommend it for fans of YA literature, whether they're young adults themselves or not, with the final thoughts that most will probably look past the flaws to the story and have a more thrilling ride than I did.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Never Let Me Go'

The Book: Never Let Me Go

The Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

How I Found It: Hearing about the upcoming film version (October) made me put it on my mental list, and seeing the absolutely gorgeous trailer last week made me rush to pick it up.

The Review: Our narrator is Kathy H, who describes herself at the start as a "carer". We learn very quickly that she is caring for organ donors after their donations. And then we learn that Kathy grew up at Hailsham, a boarding school for clones raised solely for the purpose of organ donation. Kathy is one of these clones.

From the time she was born to when she was in her late teens, Kathy lived at Hailsham with the other students, becoming close friends with popular, pretty Ruth and temperamental but caring Tommy. Hailsham students are always reminded of how special they are, though one teacher, Miss Lucy, tries to tell the students that they have no hope of leading a normal life, as their path is already set out for them.

The novel is divided into three sections. One chronicles Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's early lives at Hailsham. The second recounts a period where, now older teens, all three live with other clones at the Cottages, where they enter into the real world after the secluded confines of Hailsham. The last section takes place as the three finally reunite again as adults, and as Kathy attempts to piece together what really happened between the three of them throughout their lives.

It is difficult to describe how deeply this book touched me without giving much away. All I can say is, if you want to read this, do not find out much about it before doing so. I will try to make this review as spoiler-free as possible. But stay away from plot spoilers and maybe even stay away from the movie trailer. Just go into it blind.

The story, at its core, is somewhat disturbing because it can so easily happen in the future. This is one of the most realistic dystopian novels I've ever read, because Ishiguro doesn't go overboard on the futuristic details. We simply learn from the beginning that this is an alternate version of England in the late 1990s, and there are barely any futuristic touches besides the cloning. Technologies such as Walkmans and cassette tapes pop up. It is a familiar world, which is what makes it so disconcerting.

It is also a story about humanity and about love. An important plot point hinges on whether the clones can feel as regular people do, which is another part of what makes the story so disarming. We witness each one of Kathy's emotions, we see her feeling exactly as we would in a similar situation, and then we realize that some people would rather believe that the clones are not human at all. This makes the reader reflect on emotions, on ethics, and on what science can do to both.

The three core characters were well-developed, though Kathy, as our narrator, is the most well-drawn of the three. Ruth sometimes doesn't come off as much more than the quintessential popular girl and rival, but in the end she is revealed to have depth and perception beyond what the reader could have expected. Tommy manages to evoke pathos as the reader comes to understand his struggle with his lack of creativity--an important part of the clones' world, though its full importance is not revealed until late in the novel--and his confused relationships with Ruth and Kathy. There are numerous other peripheral characters in the story, some of whom (Chrissie and Rodney, Miss Lucy, etc.) border on stereotype, but they are merely there to help the story along, so it didn't matter much if they were developed.

This is the most I've cried during a book since The Time Traveler's Wife, and I cried a lot there. The first day I started reading it, I got teary twice without even realizing I'd become so emotionally invested in the characters. It snuck up on me that way. By the end, I wanted the characters to succeed and was happy when they did and cried when they didn't. I am still thinking about the ending, which made me sob, and I have a feeling I will be thinking about it for a very, very long time, something that I can only say for a few books I read each year.

This novel transcends the dystopian genre and becomes something greater. It becomes a story about humanity as a whole, both the humanity in Ishiguro's fictional world and about humanity in our world. I can see why it was a finalist for a prestigious literary prize. I hope that anyone who is interested in well-written, incredibly moving fiction gives this one a try and finds as much beauty and sorrow in it as I did, and I hope that Hollywood manages to capture that. Very highly recommended to almost anyone who has an interest in dystopian fiction or in well-written pieces of literature.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Something Borrowed'

Hello everyone! My reviews have been scarce lately due to many demands on my time, but I'm hoping to get back into full swing the next couple of days--I have a lot of books to read and that means I will definitely be sharing my opinions!

Also, some of you may have noticed I now have a shiny new layout. Blogger asked me to try their new editor and so I did, with a nice, flashy layout for summer. I figured it was high time for a change considering I've had the same layout since I started, and because I want the blog to be a little brighter. On to the review!

The Book: Something Borrowed

The Author: Emily Giffin

How I Found It: Shiri Appleby, a favorite actress of mine, recommended it to her fans via her Facebook page. I thought it sounded interesting once I read some reviews that said it was better than your average "chick lit" novel. This book and its sequel (Something Blue) are also being turned into a movie to be released next year.

The Review: Rachel White has always been the good girl. She follows the rules, keeps her head down, and sticks with her boring, thankless job at a Manhattan law office. All her life, she has been overshadowed by her best friend, the impossibly perfect Darcy Rhone. Over the years, Darcy has taken Rachel's grade school crush, her dream college, and a friend of Rachel's whom Rachel had liked in college. That friend is Dexter, to whom Darcy is now engaged.

When the book opens, it is the night before Rachel's 30th birthday, and Darcy is throwing her a party at a local bar--and stealing the whole show, which is typical behavior for her. When Darcy gets a little too drunk, she leaves, and most of the other partygoers do as well. Rachel and Dex are left alone, and decide to barhop for a little while longer. When they begin to head home, they kiss. The kissing escalates until Rachel finds herself having sex with Dex--the one man she can't have.

The next morning, Rachel and Dex are determined to put the indiscretion behind them, knowing it can't go any further. Rachel feels guilty for betraying her best friend, even if she knew Dex first and Darcy is sometimes horribly inconsiderate of her feelings. Quickly, however, Dex and Rachel's one night of passion develops into something more when they realize once is not enough. They never explored their feelings in law school, and they feel the need to explore them now. But Dex is still engaged to Darcy and Rachel has to keep up a sham romance of her own--so what happens when the illicit affair turns into love?

I will admit up front that while I couldn't entirely relate to the subject matter, I know what it's like to be jealous of a friend and even to like a friend's boyfriend, so I knew I'd probably enjoy this one, and I really did. It did have much more depth than the average chick lit novel and it was a perceptive look at friendship, betrayal, love, and self-awareness.

To start with, Rachel was a very relatable character to any person who's ever felt like second-best. Even Rachel's mother tends to sympathize with Darcy over her own daughter, and Rachel's affair with Dex can be seen as lashing out at Darcy. While Giffin does raise that possibility, she delves much deeper into the psychology of the situation by exploring how buried feelings can surface and how a person can be torn between loyalties to two different people.

Rachel is well-developed as a character and experiences a wide range of feelings. I particularly enjoyed how she tries to rationalize her feelings for Dex and about betraying Darcy--she has Rachel picture court proceedings in which she defends her actions, and her reasons are nearly all sound. Darcy was a complicated character to pull off--she had to be unlikable enough so that the reader roots for Rachel, but likable enough that the reader would understand why Rachel felt so torn about betraying her. I think there probably should have been a smidge more of sympathy for Darcy just to keep it balanced, but Giffin succeeded in presenting a self-interested character who still elicited sympathy in some ways from the reader and from Rachel.

Rachel's relationship with Dex was also written well. Despite the fact that they are having an affair, Giffin still manages to make the situation romantic. I did think it was a little too easy for Dex to get away with it considering he almost always used work as an excuse, but I suppose a close call in the early days would have ruined the suspense of whether or not Dex would call off the wedding. I also thought it was a little too easy for Rachel to let two people in her life know about the affair, and to have those two people so unsympathetic to Darcy that they wouldn't consider telling her.

Overall, though, the book is very much about the unexpected nature of love and friendship. Rachel and Darcy's friendship is portrayed realistically and almost every woman (or even any man) can probably recognize at least one similar friendship they've had in their lifetime. Rachel's guilt over betraying Darcy's trust is as palpable as her love for Dex. I felt the urge to share this book with the friend of mine whose boyfriend I used to like (she knows and we laugh about it) and any book that makes me feel that way is a winner for me. Highly recommended to fans of chick lit or well-written novels about love and friendship.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Android Karenina'

Hello again, my readers! Once again, I am participating in a fun event for other book bloggers like me, one that will have great benefits for you guys. A few of my readers won the last contest, so maybe some of you will get lucky! This is a contest celebrating the release of Android Karenina, the fourth monster mashup by Quirk Books--combining, you guessed it, steampunk literature (robots and more!) with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

There will be 25 prize packs available to entrants of the contest, and the packs have tons of cool stuff, including an Android Karenina poster (one was sent to me with my copy; it's gorgeous), a copy of the last Quirk book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls (read my review here), and other fun-sounding books such as How to Tell if Your Boyfriend is the Anti-Christ (!). To enter, simply mention that my blog directed you to the contest and provide a link to this post if possible. Onto my review!

The Book: Android Karenina

The Authors: Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters (Winters is also the author of a previous monster mashup, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, also published by Quirk.)

How I Found It: Since I participated in the previous "blogsplosion", I was asked if I wanted to participate again for this book.

The Review: Regretfully, I did not have the time to fully delve into the original Anna Karenina before I undertook this mashup, so I can't make many comparisons to the original, since I only know vague details of the plot. However, I have to say that it made reading it more enjoyable, as I didn't know what was going to come next. Thus, I think even readers who don't know the original can enjoy this book, and it might even render the original more accessible to those who might want to tackle it afterwards, like I intend to do.

Winters has, in a sense, upgraded Tolstoy. The book now takes place in a 19th-century world where robots live to serve humans. Class I and Class II robots provide simple amusements as toys or perform minor household tasks, replacing servants. Real importance, however, rests with Class III robots--androids that act as companions to humans, essentially privy to every thought and desire from their human masters. These robots comfort, offer advice, and protect their masters ceaselessly. It's pretty clear that we are inhabiting a different world just by reading Winters' twist on Tolstoy's classic opening: "Functioning robots are all alike; every malfunctioning robot malfunctions in its own way."

We open in the same state of affairs as the original: Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky has been carrying on an affair (with the woman who tends to the household robots) and his wife is refusing to speak to him. He learns his sister, Anna Karenina, is to come to visit, and hopes she will be able to resolve the messy state of things with his wife. Meanwhile, Oblonsky's friend Levin hopes to propose to Oblonsky's sister-in-law, the beautiful young Kitty, though he is tormented by self-doubt and the news that Kitty has another suitor, the handsome officer Count Vronsky. While Levin fumbles to express his love to Kitty, Vronsky becomes taken in by Anna, and they begin an affair.

Things are not all well in Russia, however. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UnConSciya) believes that progress has been stalled one too many times on one too many important projects. They mount attacks on innocent citizens with koschei, creepy buglike organisms that seek to kill any lifeforms they come into contact with. The Ministry, which controls the production of the companion robots, is secretly planning a mysterious upgrade to Class IIIs--an upgrade that Anna's harsh husband is testing, though the robot may have designs of his own, on both Karenin's family and Russia at large.

This mashup was not the best of the ones I've read, but it had charm and I found that it was pretty absorbing, given that I didn't know all that much of what was going to happen. The story had influences from all kinds of different scifi tales, from Alien to Asimov's Laws of Robotics (Winters' robots are bound by two laws: they must obey humans and cannot hurt them, and they cannot allow themselves to come to harm).

The only criticisms I had of the novel were things that could just as well be attributed to the original--I didn't like how focus seemed to be on one story at a time, instead of more fully intertwining both stories (Vronsky/Anna, Levin/Kitty) chapter by chapter. Time would be spent with one couple for a few chapters, then another for a few more, and at times I wished there would be more direct interaction between the two sets, rather than interaction with peripheral characters. I also felt that perhaps one too many cuts were done to the buildup of the Vronsky/Anna relationship--I just never felt they had much chemistry, and their affair proceeded far too quickly. I also never quite liked Vronsky as a character.

Though at first I felt Winters went somewhat overboard on the steampunk trappings of the story, they were well-done. I found myself creeped out by the koschei and felt the threat posed to society by the attacks. There was sometimes a little too much emphasis on the Class III robots--take a shot every time the phrase "beloved-companion" is used--but I did like how the relationship between human and robot was explored. It was almost a commentary on our own dependence on technology in this day and age. While there wasn't enough explanation to non-steampunk readers about various terms, I soon caught on and understood the things that had me lost.

While the story had some weaknesses and I wasn't completely sold on it at first, I ended up truly liking it and wanting to read more and more. Tolstoy and robots work oddly well together. Winters' writing style meshed well with Tolstoy's, and I'd be intrigued to see if any more Tolstoy mashups are coming down the pike. This book did what a good mashup should do--it drew me in, got me interested, and will drive me on with even greater eagerness towards the original. I tip my hat to Mr. Winters for daring to go where no man or machine has gone before!