Divergent (Veronica Roth) 2 out of 5

Divergent is supposed to be a tough-girl dystopian adventure following on the heels of Katniss and Katsa.  Tris (our new tough girl) lives in futuristic Chicago, which is divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless.  Abnegation runs the city and does lots of volunteer work, Candor runs the legal system, Erudite is smart (and useless?), Dauntless provides defense (against nobody?), and Amity is kind (and useless?).  Tris’s family belongs to Abnegation, but on choosing day she casts her lot with Dauntless.

I was expecting to like this book because the faction idea sounds fun, and the faction names are badass.  However, the faction names are 90% of what’s good about this book, so maybe we should refrain from reading the book and just write a bunch of fanfic.

The other 10% is that the Dauntless folks travel around Chicago by leaping on and off the El.  The train never stops, and part of Dauntless awesomeness is that they take superhero jumps for fun.

And here we can segue into a spoiler-free discussion of what’s wrong with this book.    First we’ll discuss the worldbuilding failures, and then we’ll move on to the gigantic ethical problem, with a bonus detour to Obvious Villains.

  • First, the worldbuilding: Abnegation does all the work while the other factions appear to be lazy and smart, lazy and kind, lazy and honest, or lazy with a death wish.  The factionless are an untouchable caste, and people keep getting cast out but nobody ever comes back in, so perhaps over time you’d end up with more factionless than factioned.
  • You live with your faction, not your family, and you choose your faction freely.  There must be plenty of not-so-genius Erudite kids who choose Erudite just to stay with their family, etc., so I expected the factions to be more varied than they were.
  • Now back to the trains.  The El trains run 24/7 just for Dauntless trainjumpers, and there’s always a train when they want one.  Which is weird because Dauntless is accepting 10 recruits this year (including the Dauntless-born kids who choose Dauntless), so maybe there are 50 years’ worth of recruits, meaning about 500 total Dauntless.
  • Ms. Roth, your city does not have enough people!
  • Hasn’t anyone in Candor or Erudite pointed out that Dauntless is hogging the world’s most awesome train system while the other four factions jolt along in buses on roads that have only been partially repaired by Abnegation volunteers?
  • Now, ethics.
  • Seriously, this is where Divergent loses one whole star off the top.  The romantic thread of this story follows Tris and her teacher, Four.  At multiple points, characters say that this pairing can’t happen because Four is “too old” for Tris, and then they immediately follow up by saying, “Well, she’s 16 and he’s 18, so grass on the field!”
  • Ahem.  There are 20 initiates and two teachers.  At the end of initiation, 10 will be welcomed by the faction and 10 will be cast into the outer darkness.
  • At one point, Four says that they have to be discreet because people will suspect favoritism.
  • Now why would anyone think that?  Can’t a hot guy just have a conflict-of-interest relationship with a pretty girl he’s evaluating?
  • Now, to the philosophical underpinnings.  Yes, I have problems there, too!
  • First, I have to issue a citation for Obvious Villains.  Ms. Roth, your villains have cold voices, cruel eyes, and no apparent motivation other than greed.  Work harder.
  • Secondly, I can tell that we’re working toward a Grand Realization, spun out painstakingly over the rest of the trilogy, that courage requires selflessness, honesty requires courage, selflessness requires kindness, and everything requires intelligence.  Yes, each of us embodies the attributes of all five factions!  Identifying with one while denying the others falsely partitions our identities.
  • Yes, Ms. Roth.  Yes, it does.  Nobody ever said otherwise…except for you.

Manga Man (Barry Lyga) 2 out of 5

mangamanLongtime readers of this blog may suspect that graphic novels always get high ratings.  It’s true: I’m crazy about Sandman and can’t say enough good things about Locke & Key.

However.

Mangaman is a giant meh.  It pains me to say this because I really like Barry Lyga.  I have 3 of his novels in the review queue, all of which I enjoyed, so I found Mangaman confusingly weak.

Basically, Mangaman is a manga character who falls through an “extra-scientific event” and lands in our world.  His stress lines manifest as physical lines that float in mid-air, and his appearance changes completely when he experiences extreme emotion.

Mangaman falls in manga-love with a human girl, blah blah blah.  I can see where Lyga is going with his East-meets-West collision of cultures and graphic styles, but it’s all kind of cardboard.  I don’t even like the texture of the pages on my fingertips.

Sorry.

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) 5

fault in our starsBack when I sent Looking for Alaska to Rejectville, I wrote off John Green as a half-talented, Gladwellian media darling.  When my book club decided to read The Fault in Our Stars, which is about two kids with cancer falling in love (/vomit), I was going to just read the Kindle sample for free and call it a day.

Except that the first chapter is weirdly good.

And then the rest of it continues to be weirdly good.

The story is about Hazel, a 16-year-old girl who likes to watch trashy TV on bad days.  Most of Hazel’s days are bad; she’s had terminal cancer for three years and counting.

Hazel carts around her oxygen tank and puts words in just the right places.  Here’s Hazel narrating her kids-with-cancer support group: “Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out.  Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.”  About twenty minutes later: “I think he’s hurting her boob.”

I don’t know if this book will make you cry (some of you are bastards), but I’d bet my hard-earned cash that it will make you laugh.  Laughter: the secret ingredient of the most effective tragedies, the soft rain that penetrates your tarmac so that ice will crack you in half when winter comes.

And winter, it comes.

Honestly, after Looking for Alaska, I was anxious that John Green might go cheap into that good night.  I half-expected him to climb up the center stage of the Great Mortal Dilemma, panic, and make an undignified dash for the exit while I politely averted my eyes.  Instead, Green stands that stage and gives the eulogy of every lifetime: There are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, and although there may be a larger infinity between 0 and 2, or 0 and 1000, the infinity between 0 and 1 is still infinite.  It’s enough room to fill with meaning; it has to be.

Whether we live 0 to 1, like Hazel and her love, or 0 to some other fragile single digit, the set is always both bounded and infinite.  Pain demands to be felt, and the world is not a wish-granting factory.

UPDATE: The author has a “secret” Tumblr where he answers people’s questions from the book.  http://onlyifyoufinishedtfios.tumblr.com/ (Password: Darnielle)

When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) 5*

when you reach meI’d heard it was about some time-traveling kids, so I was expecting light adventure fare, not an emotional undertow that takes you out to sea.  In real life, I’ve shelved this next to The Westing Game.

Miranda is a kid in New York in the 1970’s.  Public schools had kids from different economic backgrounds back then, and sixth graders were allowed to leave school grounds for lunch.  It’s true that there are time travel shenanigans, but for the most part, time’s arrow moves only forward: Miranda is growing up.

Like The Hunger Games (where the outermost ring of the story is that readers will inevitably swoon over the love story instead of the social message), time travel in When You Reach Me reaches beyond the page. Miranda’s world — the walks up and down Amsterdam Ave., the lady at the corner store who lets Miranda help after school, the crazy sandwich shop guy, her friend’s yuppie parents, and her best best best friend who has mysteriously rejected her — is the real time travel.  Stead folds space and time and takes us to old New York, and then she folds space and time and makes us twelve years old.

Which means Rebecca Stead has discovered the tesseract.

Ashfall (Mike Mullin) 4*

ashfallAfter last year’s very special week of earthquake + hurricane here in DC, I put together an emergency bag in my hall closet.  It contains my passport, cash, handwritten contact list, a detailed map, a bottle of bleach for water purification (12 drops per gallon, folks), a bigass hunting knife with compass and firesteel in the handle, mylar emergency blankets, hand-powered radio and flashlights, instructions for building a solar oven, and assorted other usefuls.

Sadly, this book has made me realize that I’m going to get killed and eaten by cannibals despite the contents of my hall closet.

Ashfall basically inhabits the world of The Road, except that the characters have names, the cataclysm has a realistic explanation, and the reader has a reason to enjoy the story.  This was one of those books that grew on me as I read it.  Mullin takes care to show humanity in all its postures, and he has a real talent for sketching memorable minor characters.  With just a few telling details, we feel the menace of the escaped convict, the exhaustion of the small-town mayor, the compassionate fury of a rescue worker, and the hard-nosed determination of a gun-toting librarian.

When the entire world has become a trauma ward, it can be hard for any particular loss to stand out, but Ashfall finds the nooks and nuances of grief.  All the characters in the book, even the little kids, know that pragmatism should crowd out grief — that there is simply no time for the soft stuff when survival is at stake — yet grief is as unyielding and indiscriminate as the ash that covers the whole world.  Darla, the smartest and most capable character in this book, never stops moving, but in the grip of grief she becomes a smart and capable person who needs a live rabbit as an emotional crutch.  Yes, she needs a rabbit.  It’s absurd, and it’s believable, and it’s real.

Horns (Joe Hill) 4*

horns“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things,”  says the first line.  When Ig wakes up with horns on his head, his girlfriend doesn’t seem to see them, yet she stares.

And then she says strange and terrible things.  The horns trigger unexpected honesty in everyone who (doesn’t) see them, and soon Ig is up to his pointy chin in other people’s secrets.  Grandmothers and little kids tell him their ugliest temptations, and he can’t shut them up.

Even worse, everyone tells Ig what they really think about Ig.  It turns out that the whole town thinks Ig murdered his ex-girlfriend.  If the menfolk had any testicles, says Ig’s priest, they’d have lynched Ig properly.  Not even Ig’s mother believes his innocence.  She wants to write Ig a nice letter, on her nicest stationery, explaining that she loves Ig very much and wants him to go away and never come back.

Ig’s father says something much worse.

Horns is stabbingly funny as it flirts with the ugly and the sublime; Flannery O’Connor on acid.  Someone will have to read it and tell me what Hill has repurposed the cross to symbolize, though.  There’s light and dark and crosses all ticking like Morse code (and there’s Morse code too), and there’s something Hill said that I didn’t quite catch.

Heat (R. Lee Smith) 3.5*

heatOne of the ladies over at Dear Author, which had delightfully mean things to say about Fifty Shades of Grey, called Heatprobably the best independently published book I have read…this sort of book was [sic] the reason I read indie books. I’m constantly hoping for that one read that will probably never be published by a mainstream publisher, yet is intense and consuming and surpasses all my skeptical misgivings.”

I tried Heat out of curiosity about this intense and consuming thing that could never be published by a mainstream publisher, and I agree that it has a certain je ne sais quoi.  Science fiction and erotica generally don’t mix, but here we have a solidly crafted, well-written novel with levels of graphic sex, violence, and sexual violence usually seen only in Japanese anime.

This is about as hardcore as erotica can get, but I was most shocked to discover that Heat is genuinely character driven.  Smith writes four main characters, each with a distinctive vantage point and spot-on diction.  The stars are Kane and Raven, who have an explosively dangerous Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling power imbalance.  Kane is a criminal from the planet Jota who has come to Earth to harvest human brain chemicals to make drugs.  Like Dr. Lecter, Kane fairly vibrates with self-awareness and maturity, yet you never know when he’s going to eat someone’s face.

Raven, a purple-haired teenage runaway, is probably my favorite of the characters.  She’s a survivor who doesn’t expect the world to hand her anything for free, which is a good thing because Kane’s not a nice guy.  “Even in this light, she could see the look on his face–a look that said he was about to kill everything in sight, ending with things that don’t even die, like rocks and trees, but beginning with her.”

Tagen is the lone cop who has been dispatched to bring Kane to justice.  Kane has been to Earth many times with his loving, criminal father and his loyal, criminal crew of slavers and drug dealers.  Tagen, on the other hand, is working from a 500-year-old briefing file because the Jotan government officially quarantined Earth centuries ago.  Tagen’s not as sexy as Kane (because who, who, who could be as sexy as a young, well-muscled, alien version of Hannibal Lecter whose hormones are in spectacular overdrive?), but his chapters are unexpectedly funny.  Tagen is fluent in Panyol, also known as español, and listens to some English language tapes on the flight over.  Then he keeps trying to speak to humans in Spanish because, hey, it’s what he knows.  Maybe if he just says it slower or louder…

As a newcomer, Tagen has a lot of tourist insights, such as quirking at why the humans’ orbital weapons are all aimed at their own planet.  Smith doesn’t overseason this soup, so it’s fun.

Both Kane and Tagen are blindsided by an unusually hot summer as they land their ships in a national park “with the kind of high-summer insect noise that made sane men butcher their families in their beds.”  Summer, which lasts only 9 days on Jota, triggers the mating season and causes extreme pain unless Jotan boys can get their rocks off.  This novel is erotica, so it dives into scenes of sex, violent sex, and imaginary sex.  The imaginary sex comes from Tagen, who has to actually woo a human female rather than just commandeer them the way Kane does.

So this is where we meet Daria, the main character most like the reader (unless you happen to be a teen prostitute or an alien).  Daria is not especially nice, but as Tagen observes, “Niceness is a quality often at odds with sincerity.”  Witty and resourceful, Daria tries her damnedest to act unfazed by the almost 7-foot tall alien who shows up in her home and demands help in tracking down an alien criminal.  And then it turns out that Daria is pretty damn good at detective work, and Raven is pretty damn good at evading the law, and this is as much a girl show as a guy show.

I’m giving a bonus star because this is exactly the risk-taking kind of book that I would love to see more of, but I’m retracting a star because there’s a pacing slowdown in the middle.  I doubt a NY editor would have made a difference, since I see these pacing problems all the damn time, so I guess I’m glad Smith is getting 70% royalties by going the self-published route.  Any professional would have advised her to change the title of the book, though, because one-word titles have signal-to-noise ratios that make it near-impossible to actually find this book on Amazon.  To say nothing of the cover art.  Here’s the Amazon link if you want to try the sample pages for free.