Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Feed'

** Spoilers ahoy: vague references to the ending and bleak tone overall. **

The Book: Feed

The Author: M.T. Anderson

How I Found It: It was always a title I heard bandied about in the world of YA scifi and fantasy, but I never picked it up until it was assigned to me this semester in Young Adult Lit.

The Review: I think Amazon.com knows a bit too much about me. It analyzes my trends and throws products at me that it thinks I'll like. I just clicked through to the site, and the front page is plastered with Doctor Who products for me to consider, as I'd been looking at the page for The Glamour Chase earlier as I composed my review.

Going over to the "My Amazon.com" section, I look at what's been recommended for me: a whole host of Disney movies (because I recently purchased Tangled), a reasonable chunk of Jane Austen paraliterature (because I've indicated that I own quite a few), more Doctor Who products (... I'm not in too deep; what're you talking about). They've pinned me and my current interests down fairly easily. I'm sure I'll be moseying on over to the page when I'm looking for something to read/watch, etc.

Then there's the slightly disconcerting emails I've been getting from Borders. As an example, two purchases I made there: Maggie Stiefvater's Linger and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. About a month after I made each purchase, I got an email inviting me to review the products. But not a generic email--oh, no. No, they included the exact editions I bought. I was a bit freaked out when I saw them. They're tracking my shopping habits? Why?

I give you this tangent because it's exactly what Feed is about. It's basically the precursor to the film Wall-E (which I've only seen once, because I consider it eminently depressing). It shows us a consumerist culture where everyone has a "feed" in their brains, putting everything at a person's fingertips. Shopping, TV and movies, a Wikipedia-esque access to facts and details, communications reminiscent of texting and instant messaging: all there inside your brain.

Titus and his friends are normal teenagers, almost slavishly obeying their feeds and never questioning. Everything changes when they take a trip to the moon, where they meet Violet--a girl who can write with pen and paper, who wants to resist the feed and the consumerism it promotes. While Titus, his friends, and Violet are partying at a club, their feeds are attacked by a politically active hacker who wants to spread his anti-feed message.

During a few days in the hospital where their feeds are offline, Titus and Violet find themselves growing closer. Once they emerge from the hospital with their feeds online, they decide to pursue a relationship--Violet wants to open Titus' eyes to the events in the outside world he chooses to ignore, whereas Titus' curiosity about Violet's ways rises. Even as disturbing events grip the two of them--Violet's feed begins to seriously malfunction, mysterious "lesions" cause citizens' skin to fall off--Titus and Violet push each other into unfamiliar territory, learning about each other all the while.

Feed paints a bleak, timely, and prescient look at our society, but one I didn't feel was original enough to interest me. As you can tell from my above tangent, I think Feed is an accurate representation of today's consumer culture. It also has some disturbing predictions about what might be on the horizon in the next couple decades: the President is hideously inarticulate and uses the word "thing" in lieu of the word he can't find. Titus' father tries to "chat" him (the equivalent of instant messaging) and is reluctant to talk to him face to face. A person can get a tattoo that forces them to say a company name in every sentence.

There is no happy ending here--how could there be? And sorry to say that I don't think I felt for any of the characters. Violet: her being educated and politically aware was revolutionary in itself, given the average level of knowledge among Titus and his friends (the scene where no one remembers the origins of the Kent State riots, among others--only that they're the namesake of an awesome "riot chic" clothing line... shudder!). But what else was she really doing to fight the feed? I wanted more rebellion, wanted her to be more like the hacker we see in the first part. Titus and his friends: ultimately, they're all jerks. You think Titus would be transformed by his experience, but he ricochets between that and that same old consumerism, so what the book leaves us with is the feeling that this can't be escaped. Cheery, ain't it?

Stylistically, the book is well put-together and well-written. Anderson intercuts his prose with jarring end-of-chapter blips from Titus' feed, never letting the reader ignore it, which is as it should be. The communication, and failure to do so, between the characters is accurately represented. All of this is wonderful, but what did the book really give us? A look at a terribly depressing society, with no chance of escape and no rebellion that's really succeeding all that much. I wanted there to be more rising up, and I didn't get that. It wasn't what I was expecting of a YA dystopian; I'll give it that much. So anyone who's looking for a real revolution-against-the-government dystopian story should look elsewhere, but anyone who's interested in an incredibly bleak but well-structured YA commentary on the consumer culture should look here. It's written well and comments on what it set out to comment on, but there's not much original about it and the characters aren't as sympathetic as they could have been. What it comes down to is that your mileage may vary!

In Which Trai Reviews 'Doctor Who: The Glamour Chase'

The Book: Doctor Who: The Glamour Chase

The Author: Gary Russell

How I Found It: As I stated in my last review, I've become a tad enamored with Doctor Who. Really, just a bit. (*cough*)

The Review: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory have landed on Earth in 1936--a far cry from Rio, which is what they were aiming for. The TARDIS has picked up some kind of distress signal, and of course they'd like to help.

Just as it always does, the situation becomes more complicated for the Doctor and his companions. Rory realizes that Oliver Marks, a local man, is suffering from PTSD, which is poorly understood in 1936 and more than likely related to whatever extraterrestrial threat is approaching. The Doctor is certain something off about their host, Nathaniel Porter, and his two wives: the first Mrs. Porter, dead from mysterious circumstances, and the current, an archaeologist named Enola who's going to dig up the remains of an alien ship, the Exalted, which crashed in the town over four thousand years before.

And Amy? Well, Amy's not acting like herself. She knows perfectly well the Doctor isn't from Mars, so why does she say he is? Why does she know of Enola Porter, while the Doctor and Rory don't? The Doctor and Rory are running out of time to figure out what's going on, and if they fail, the entire town might fall to the threats of the malevolent Tahnn.

In order to decide which Doctor Who novels to read, I looked at reviews from various outlets. Without fail, the reviewers were (of course) avid Whovians who could comment on characterization (the most important part, to me; I've read some dreadful tie-in novels), plotting, and if it actually feels like an episode of the show. The reviews for this one were almost overwhelmingly positive, and all of them complimented the characterization of Rory, my current favorite character on the show and one who doesn't get quite enough love. He's mainly been second fiddle to the Doctor and Amy so far, something I'm hoping will change this series, so it was really nice to see a writer give him the spotlight.

Amy's not much of a figure here, but she felt pretty in character to me (and had more of an appreciation for Rory than she does in the show proper, which was nice). The characterizations of the Doctor (Eleven, in Whovian parlance) and Rory, individually and together, are the real standout of this novel. Rory gets some backstory (a touching anecdote about nursing a childhood friend, some light shed on his motivations for becoming a nurse, and a glimpse into his feelings during the years Amy was waiting for the Doctor). He is portrayed as a competent and caring nurse, and the Doctor learns to value and appreciate his insight. A favorite exchange of mine: "Rory, you are more magnificent than I thought you were before... I've said that a lot lately, like I expected you to be a bit dim. I'm sorry, I had no right to treat you that way" (185). They get several touching moments and Russell gave them a great dynamic; I'd like to see him do another novel with these characters.

The Doctor is almost entirely spot on; Russell captured his manic energy, impatience with humans, and more-than-occasional ridiculousness quite well. I loved an early scene that just about summed him up:

"Quiet, Rory, I'm talking to a sheep."


"All right, strictly speaking, I'm talking at a sheep, but I'm pretty sure I'm getting through." The Doctor sniffed. "Blimey, Mr. Sheep, you smell bad. No... wait... nope, you're all right, I smell bad. Wow. That is bad. Sorry."


"Absolutely." (48)
Russell also sneaks in a reference or two to the Doctor's previous incarnation (Ten, as played by David Tennant), and those made me very happy, since the Doctor's other incarnations aren't referenced much at all in the show itself now. There was one weak moment that distracted me: the Doctor having trouble remembering the name of Nathaniel Porter's cook. Really? The Doctor, who makes it his duty to know everyone's name, so much so that it was a plot point and defining character moment in "The Vampires of Venice"? I couldn't see it and it made me knock a few points of the characterization tally, but other than that, everything was fantastic.

Okay, so some of the aliens were a little bit silly. We've got the good, woolly aliens--the crew of the Exalted, known as the Weave--and the bad aliens, the Tahnn. The woolly aliens were a little bit much for me to take, and overall their concept seemed just a bit to similar to the Autons. Same function--duplicating a human host--but with wool instead of plastic. Really? That was something I think should have been tweaked and changed. One of the opening scenes where we see the Tahnn's reign of destruction on the little village is pretty horrific, as is their effect on Oliver Marks (whose PTSD is touchingly portrayed), so I give them good marks.

I'm not quite sure I caught every nuance of the plot--the names of the Weave, which were solely numbers, kept throwing me off, so by the end I was slightly muddled but catching on. This is one, though, that I definitely wouldn't mind rereading a time or two--it did some things better than the show did and was a quick read to boot. If you're a Whovian looking for something to while away the wait between an episode or a Rory fan like myself, I definitely recommend this one! (Not for non-Who fans; I'm betting they'd be a bit lost.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Growing Pains'

Again, as ever this year, my sincerest apologies for the lack of reviews lately. My time has been yet again monopolized by school, and things will slow down just a few weeks from now, so I'll hopefully be able to pick up my slack during the summer.

The Book: Growing Pains

The Author: Billie Piper

How I Found It: I'm now desperately in love with Doctor Who, and I loved Billie Piper's role on the show, Rose Tyler, and her acting in general.

The Review: Only my love for Billie Piper could have tempted me to read this. I don't normally go for nonfiction, but when I looked up Billie on Wikipedia, I was struck by how interesting and inspiring her early life sounded. She was only 23 when she released this book sometime in 2006 or so, and it sounds absurd--a 23-year-old having enough life experience to fill a book? But she had enough and more, and I was surprised at how much depth and relevance her story still has five or so years later.

At 15 years old, Billie was signed to Innocent Records, pushed to be an artist with the longevity of Madonna and the success of the Spice Girls. It was a pretty tall order for a 15-year-old, and you can't help but wonder what her team was thinking. Billie was more than game, looking forward to fame and money and with an endlessly positive attitude, but upon recording her first single, she started to feel like it wasn't what she wanted. She could sing, but not quite well enough to be a true performer, but she pushed on and decided to stay in the business for the sake of the people making their living off of her.

Billie had already been growing up far too young--she was an only child for the first seven years of her life, but then her mother had three children in three years, which lead to a nervous breakdown for Billie's mother and the responsibility of parenting her siblings for Billie. After loving acting classes as a child, Billie made it into the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and from there her singing career kicked off.

The pressures of her singing career and personal life ended up putting Billie into a destructive spiral. A television presenter's comment about her being fat sparked a two year battle with anorexia and laxative abuse, which led to many painful health problems. Her manager warned her not to date a member of a boy band, saying that it would make her core audience (young girls who would fantasize about dating that same boy band member) hate her. They dated anyway, and it quickly led to Billie receiving hate mail and being poorly received at her concerts.

All of that would change when she got married, at 18, to Chris Evans, a DJ and television host sixteen years her senior who literally saved her life. Billie left the music world in order to be a wife and, eventually, an actress, something she's kept doing ever since.

Just reading what I saw of her life story on Wikipedia had already endeared me to Billie, and I knew I'd probably really like the book, but I didn't expect to love her even more and find the book truly life-affirming. This one is a keeper and something I will be re-reading and recommending to friends of mine.

For one thing, I was stunned at how incredibly honest and candid Billie was about her struggles and mistakes. She is fully willing to talk about her struggles with anorexia and even an attempt at suicide, and admits freely that the way she treated her friends and family oftentimes was wrong. She was humble and totally honest about her shortcomings and feelings during what must have been incredibly turbulent times, and I was stunned at how much she'd had to go through.

What touched me the most were the details of her struggle with anorexia. Several people I knew in high school have struggled with eating disorders, and while I knew bits and pieces of what it was like for them, I'd never really read a true firsthand account until now. No detail is spared, and it's wrenching to read but painfully true. Billie doesn't divulge every detail, in order not to give anyone ideas, but she urges those who are struggling to get help, and the fact that she was able to recover from her eating disorder is ultimately hopeful. I certainly felt a little better about myself after reading it--she had the same insecurities about herself that I'd had when I was a bit younger, and it really made me realize that she's just a person, too.

The insight into the music industry was also interesting in a really twisted way. I liked that what Billie went through seems to have soured her team on putting another artist that young up to the rigors of the industry. It's truly sad how much she had to deal with on her own: "It had been eight months of non-stop work, I'd barely been home, I was tired, I'd split up with my boyfriend in Swindon and I'd had to deal with my first period with no one to confide in" (34). She was living in a hotel room on her own at 15, and I'm sure that this type of thing is still going on with the young Disney performers and such today. It was the lack of supervision that did her the most harm, something she admits. I'd never considered how quickly backlash could happen, either. Her manager's bit about not dating a boy band member and all the hate she received was really an eye-opener, considering the behavior of some of the tweenybopper fans that are around today.

Overall, I was truly surprised at how much I ended up loving this book. Billie went through a lot, but she managed to emerge from it a funny, kind, self-aware person who has a lot of love for the people she's worked for and a lot of advice to give. My favorite bit: "Then I thought, ‘You’ve got to sharpen up, girl, sort it out. Be more headstrong and believe in yourself more. Because if you don’t, why should anyone else?'" (286-7).

The story was emotional (I was crying when she recounted her almost attempt at suicide, and when she finally found happiness again on the set of Doctor Who) and I think that Doctor Who fans would enjoy it in particular, because it gives a ton of insight on what she has in common with Rose and why she was chosen for the role, which made me appreciate her work on the show all the more. It's a story of hope and figuring out what you love to do, and for that reason I'd recommend it to almost anyone, but in particular those who are struggling or have struggled with eating disorders, any young person thinking about going into a music career (there's some salty language and a bit of content, so perhaps no one younger than 15 or 16), or someone who loves Billie's work as an actress. This one's a keeper.