Category Archives: children & young adult

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.


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.


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. (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.

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton) 5*

the outsidersSome books stay good.  No, they stay gold!

But seriously, it really is still good, even down to the Robert Frost bit.  Sodapop and his beautiful hair, Johnny and Gone with the Wind, Dallas collapsing under the streetlight…  It’s a double time capsule: me in eighth grade, Ponyboy in the 1950’s when even cheerleaders barrel-raced at the rodeo.

I heard or misheard somewhere that there’s a Jewish doctrine that there must be 20 righteous people at all times or else God will destroy the world (permutation of Sodom?).  Along the same lines, there are certain books that make me feel humanity has a chance, and The Outsiders is one of them.

Hollowland (Amanda Hocking) 4 out of 4

HollowlandFrom the first line onward, Hollowland is a surefooted summer blockbuster that hits every mark.  If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have thought that Amanda Hocking was a professional screenwriter with 20 years of Hollywood experience, not a 26-year-old caregiver at an assisted living facility.  It’s hard to believe that Hollowland and My Blood Approves were written by the same person.  Hocking’s learning curve is something fierce.

The premise is very similar to 28 Days Later: An ultra-contagious pathogen transforms humans into rabid beasts, and the only hope is to quarantine the survivors until the zombies die off naturally.  The story begins as a quarantine zone is being breached, and 19-year-old Remy goes off in search of her little brother.  Along the way, she picks up some interesting companions on a roadtrip odyssey through the shattered United States.

This book is an action movie, and it is a perfect action movie.  The pacing is fantastic, the setting is otherworldly, the characters pack authenticity into very little dialogue, and the fight scenes are awesome.  Remy is one tough girl, and Hocking really gets the self-defense dictum that Everything is a weapon.  If a zombie is after you, and all you have is a bunk bed, then a bunk bed will have to be your weapon.  A can of olives might have to be your weapon.  A chair…dude, it’s your lucky day if you have a chair to throw.

By the way, this  book is free.