Monday, 27 September 2010

REVIEW: Mockingjay By Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay Hype is like a double-edged sword...

No, that’s not right.

Hype is like a woman, pretty face, charming smile, voluptuous body, whose captivating presence we all want to find ourselves in. Everything about her fascinates us, ensnares us, and in the end we are reduced to drooling simpletons.

Then she strips off that skin-tight red dress and we discover she has a penis, and everything changes.

It doesn’t always end like this, but when it does, for most of us our subsequent reaction is ... shock? Extreme disappointment? Disbelief? Denial?

Whatever the outcome may be, it’s not positive, which is why I devised this oh so clever technique of holding off on reading some books, or watching some movies, until the infectious, all-pervasive euphoria attached to them petered out.

Fact: I haven’t seen Inception or Sherlock Holmes.

Fact: I only just finished Mockingjay, and I’m just starting Before I Fall.

You might think I’m punishing myself, but so far my technique has saved me from jumping into a few dodgy bandwagons. You know, the ones brimming with poo.

So, is Mockingjay’s hype more Christian Hendricks than Christina Hendricks?

CHARACTERS

Mockingjay flaunts a myriad of characters ranging from Ok-ish to ho-hum. The cast in this instalment is certainly the largest of any book in the series, though only for the singular purpose of providing readers with recurrent deaths. After all, this is war, and death must be in plentiful supply.

Some characters do excel high enough to carve a niche for themselves, away from the unflattering variety. Finnick Odair and Annie Cresta offer readers the book’s – hell, the series’ only believable romance; Prim undergoes a surprising and well deserved personality growth, taking on a more responsible role that puts her miles ahead of Katniss; and Plutarch embraces the war like a precocious child would an unusual puzzle, seeing it as a great opportunity to flex his creative muscles, just as he did as Head Gamemaker in Catching Fire. As far as he’s concerned, everyone’s a piece on his chessboard, a desirable means to a worthy end – the end being sensationalising the biggest, wildest, and deadliest blood sport in the history of Panem.

Johanna adds a bit of fiery excitement to Mockingjay, a refreshing escape from Katniss’ tiresome self-pitying.

Haymitch starts out great then later reverts to his same old, bland, drunken self. This behaviour was cool and funny back in The Hunger Games. It started to wear thin in Catching Fire. Now, it’s just lame.

Gale’s only reason for being in the book is to complete the needless love-triangle that includes Katniss and Peeta.

Peeta is ... well, Peeta. Neither here nor there. Same way he’s always been since The Hunger Games.

President Snow is still his predictable “mu-ha-ha-ha, I’m eeevil, check out my moustache” self. Collins had a chance to flesh him out in Catching Fire. She didn’t. She had yet another chance to do so in Mockingjay. She didn’t.

Then you have Katniss Everdeen, the star of the show, the Mockingjay herself. As a central character, Katniss does a decent job at carrying the book to its arduous anti-climatic end, tripping and staggering along the way, but never really falling facedown. This is not the Katniss of The Hunger Games, and by that I don’t mean she’s matured.

Yes, she does go through some personality changes, but not for the reasons you think. You see, in today’s YA, female protagonists must all live through a phase where they can’t decide which guy they want to stick with at the end of the story. Why? Well, because girls read more than boys and for girls to truly enjoy YA there must be a team A versus team B, or a team Jacob versus team Edward, or a team Peeta versus team Gale.

For the record, watching Katniss do the ubiquitous girl-caught-in-the-middle-of-two-guys dance is very sad. (And you wonder why most boys don’t like reading YA.)

In all sincerity, these characters make for a nice collection, despite their deplorable flaws. The real issue is that they don’t carry the emotional weight necessary to make me care enough when they die, which is what a lot of them do. They die, and I’m supposed to cry.

Well, my eyes are still very dry.

Score: 5/10

WORLD BUILDING

The first half of Mockingjay takes place in District Thirteen, which is a far cry from District Twelve, and yet not all that an exciting place to read about.

Come to think of it, The Hunger Games series isn’t quite the same when Katniss is outside the arena. The plot wobbles, tottering here and there, like it’s been hit by a truck, and then slows to an unsettling crawl. Nothing feels right. Imagine playing football underwater – that’s The Hunger Games without a hunger game. I think it’s to do with Collins’ prose (more on that to come).

Collins probably agrees, because in the other half of Mockingjay Katniss takes the fight to the capitol, and it so happens that –surprise, surprise – the capitol is one gigantic arena, complete with cameras, outlandish booby-traps and countless unwilling contestants to satiate your thirst for gore and death.

Still, Mockingjay falls short of delivering anything close to what we saw in the series’ debut. I can’t say I’m surprised. Catching Fire was a pretty good indication that Collins had run out of whatever creative juice she’d downed when writing The Hunger Games. It wasn’t a bad book. It was simply a bad case of déjà vu. Been there, done that.

In Mockingjay, war is upon Panem and our intrepid band of heroes, led by Katniss, is on a crusade for freedom, storming the deserted streets of the Capitol, which are not safe places to be at, as they are inundated with all kinds of traps, gadgets, pods, and weapons.

Now, close your eyes for a second and picture the most ridiculous weapon ever, something that makes little sense in logical terms. I’m dead certain you’ll find it in Mockingjay.

There’s a part in the book where a bloke gets caught in a beam of golden light and he stands rigid, mouth open like his screaming though no sound leaves him, and his skin melts like candle wax. Then there’s another part where an entire street folds in like a flap and people fall to their deaths. I literally laughed my ass off reading these scenes, and I had to check, more than once, that I wasn’t reading a novelisation of Road Runner.

It’s amazing how much you have to suspend belief just to enjoy Mockingjay. The violence is so cartoonish, like something straight out of Looney Tunes. No wonder I hardly felt any sympathy for characters that died.

I don’t know why Collins took this route. I understand that Mockingjay is all about war and thus the weapons should be deadlier than any weapon seen in previous Hunger Games books. This is a rational step forward in the creative process of book-sequel writing. However, in this case, the result is catastrophic. We’re talking about a series where in the first book a bunch of kids, some as young as 12, were put into an arena and forced to murder each other in cold blood. That’s disturbing, Ok? That’s psychologically disturbing. If you’re going to take things up a notch, I don’t think cartoon weapons is the right way to go.

Score: 5/10

PROSE

Though Collins isn’t its pioneer she’s one of the few in the industry to have perfected this quick paced wordplay, short sentence structure, prose so many YA authors utilise today. It worked wonders for The Hunger Games – I was practically at the edge of my seat while reading that book. So much action. So much tension.

In Mockingjay Collins flips the script on her prose, allowing for an influx of poetry and metaphors. This is not a tension-laden book, at least not like The Hunger Games. Katniss does a lot of reflecting, retrospective analysing, and character examination, and because so many people presumably die on account of her, she has to properly convey gloom, depression, anger, weariness and a host of other emotions.

Collins’ tweaked prose is a hit and miss affair. When it works, it works really, really well. The ending is beautiful, easily the best part of the book.

When it doesn’t work, it’s like watching your grandmother perform a striptease – awkward and just wrong.

Every now and then Collins over-describes an action, or skirts around what she’s actually saying, and you’re forced to re-read entire paragraphs just to get the gist of what’s going on.

Considering the torrent of major character demises, Mockingjay struggles to be emotive. I think the problem lies with how fast-paced Collins’ prose is, and how awkward it can be sometimes. She’s capable of handling one or two major deaths, as we know from reading Rue’s tear-jerker end in The Hunger Games. Three deaths and above, and she loses her footing.

Mind you, Collins’ prose is still compelling in the end, though sadly not compelling enough to ensure a captivating read.

Score: 8/10

PLOT

From Amazon: “Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But now that she's made it out of the bloody arena alive, she's still not safe. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge. Who do they think should pay for the unrest? Katniss. And what's worse, President Snow has made it clear that no one else is safe either. Not Katniss’ family, not her friends, not the people of District 12. Powerful and haunting, this thrilling final instalment of Suzanne Collins’ groundbreaking The Hunger Games trilogy promises to be one of the most talked about books of the year.

Alas, Mockingjay’s plot is more annoying and facile than powerful and haunting. At the end of the book you have to wonder: what was the war about? Freedom? Freedom from what, exactly? Where’s the freedom when the people who wrest control of Panem from the Capitol are no different from the Capitol itself? It’s like the transference of power from a murdered dictator to his murderer son.

I’m guessing it won’t be long long before Scholastic announces a new Hunger Games book featuring a character well beyond Katniss’ time, forced to rise up against the new government.

Score: 5/10

FINAL THOUGHTS

In the past couple of months there’s been heated discussions in the blogosphere concerning YA books and male and female readers. Hannah Moskowitz (I definitely spelled that right cos I checked Goodreads) wrote that a lot of YA authors aren’t writing believable male characters anymore and it’s affecting how boys pick up YA.

She got ripped apart by like a hundred blogger chicks, cos you know, boys should learn to appreciate girl books since girls have been appreciating boy books for eons.

After reading Mockingjay, I don’t see this ever happening. In fact, I think boys should steer clear of YA and stick to whatever it is they love.

Girls make up YA’s greater market share. These days, when you write a YA book it doesn’t matter who you think you’re writing it for, because as far as publishers are concerned you’re writing it for the people most likely to put money in their pockets – girls. You have the freedom to do whatever you please, but certain things must feature in your book, one of them being a love triangle, or some weird romance between a pseudo-strong female and a thing that talks, walks and acts like a guy but really isn’t. Of course there are YA books that shy away from this narrative, but the ones that are considered the genre’s flagship, the ones the media champions every so often, adhere to these rules.

This explains why there had to be a love triangle in Mockingjay. It wasn’t necessary. We all knew Katniss would end up with Peeta, no matter how bogus and forced their romance was. But the triangle – dragged on throughout the book and put to rest in the worst possible way (Gale does the unthinkable and Katniss can’t look at him the same way, so she picks Peeta) – had to happen, because the market demands it. Boys aren’t too crazy about reading this kind of stuff, and when it pervades a book they’re certainly not encouraged to give the book a try. The book might as well have a “Warning: Not for Boys” label on it.

There’s even a Twilight-esque scene where Katniss is supposed to be asleep, but instead she eavesdrops on Gale and Peeta’s conversation about which one of them she will end up choosing. I’m not making this up.

(To be clear: I am not saying there aren't YA books for boys. That's not what I'm talking about here, because whenever someone brings up this issue people start listing out YA books tailored for boys. I'm talking about male characters in the YA books that hold up the banner for YA. I'm talking about themes that make it difficult for boys to get into YA books for girls, because these books make up a greater part of YA, and because bloggers keep saying, "Well, boys should learn to read books for girls, cos we girls have been reading books for boys too."

Like it or not, young boys of today are born into a pop culture environment where what's popular gets the most attention, and everything else is pretty much shunned by the greater mass [that includes 3/4 the list of YA books written specifically for boys that you're probably typing out at the moment to post as a comment]. The most popular YA books right now are YA books for girls. Period. Boys will go for these books, just as they did with Harry Potter. Difference is, Harry had a universal theme. These recent popular YA books don't, and most boys will turn away, not just from them, but from YA in general, because they can't be bothered to carry out archeological digs in bookstores just to find some obscure book that could appeal to them. You don't have to be rocket scientist to deduce this fact.)

Just as I accepted that YA Paranormal is what it is and will never be what it is not, I’ve come to the same conclusion regarding YA in general. I think the argument about boys reading YA or whether they should bother with it is a moot one. If YA’s current market is happy with the way YA is (and they are, judging from the sales of Twilight, Hush-Hush, Fallen and co) then I see no reason why anyone should try and change things.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

To conclude, Mockingjay can best be described as an uninspired end to a rather average series.

Final Score: 6/10

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

REVIEW: Beautiful Creatures By Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

beautifulcreatures A boy falls in love with a girl at 17, marries her at 21, and at 28 he comes home to find her and his son lying in a vast, slippery pool of their own blood. He stares at their mutilated bodies for minutes, maybe hours. Time has no dominion over him, as does everything else that comes with it. He knows who is responsible for this sickening act – the face of the man is a permanent scar in his mind. And as gradual as the sun raises its head to peek from dawn till day, life becomes meaningless. Nothing else matters now.

So, he does the honourable thing. He picks up his shotgun, ambles to his car, drives to the house of the one whose face taunts him, and murders everyone he encounters – men, women, children, even the pet dog. When he’s done, when he has the man spread-eagled beneath him, broken and torn in every way possible and not quite possible, he allows the vengeance prickling his eyes and mangling his heart to ease off. Febrile convulsions follow.

His hands are numb, so he drops his gun. His arms are heavy, so he lowers them to his sides. His legs are drained, so he sits by the door. The holes in his stomach and chest burn and weep crimson tears. His head sags right. There is a place better than this world, a place where he must go now. Living is inconsequential. Fighting the overpowering exhaustion is futile. He welcomes death like an old friend.

Just as I have now accepted that YA Paranormal is what it is and will never be what it is not. Inevitability has always been the number one rule, and I have fought this war of attrition for too long. It’s time to accept and move on.

That said, how beautiful is Beautiful Creatures?

CHARACTERS

Beautiful Creatures parades a good many characters, but first let’s focus on the stars of the show.

Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes.

Ethan is a sixteen-year-old boy. He loves his iPod. He has an absentee father, just like virtually every YA lead character today. He’s in the basket ball team, but that doesn’t mean much to him. He loves books, the complex, tome-like kind. He has the uncanny ability to describe what a girl is wearing. I don’t mean her underwear. Oh no, Ethan doesn’t think about girls’ underwear. I mean her clothes, the design, the folds, the patterns.

Video games and music that don’t include the lyrics, “Sixteen moons, sixteen years,” are for oddballs, like Link, not our dear Ethan. After all, he has better things to do. And what could be better than sixteen-year-old boy hanging out with his grand aunts. Ethan loves those old women. He enjoys every second with them.

Enter Lena Duchannes.

Misunderstood Lena Duchannes.

Lena is a caster, kind of like a witch. She’s super powerful. She can do super amazing things. She’s very pretty too, but everyone at school hates her because she’s an outsider and, yeah, she’s pretty. Ethan doesn’t care though. He’s willing to allow the basket ball team and the entire school ostracise him for this girl. He’s seen her in his dreams, like really, he has. She’s special. Plus she’s not blonde and she doesn’t have big boobs like Savannah and Emily and the other hot girls at school. Who needs hot, blonde girls? When you’re a sixteen-year-old boy, and you’re in the basket ball team and you could have a hot, blonde girl as a girlfriend, it makes more sense to turn the other way and go for the other ordinary girl.

Throughout the book, Ethan spends time with no other teenager except Lena. No need hanging with his dudes when he’s got her and Sixteen Moons thumping in his iPod. During the times they are together, they hold hands, they kiss. They whisper sweet nothings to each other. They do this mind instant messaging thing: Ethan thinks and Lena hears; Lena thinks back and Ethan hears.

They do a lot of cuddling too, even when they’re in bed. They hold hands in bed. They kiss in bed. Nothing else happens.

You’re thinking it. I’m thinking it too. So, I’ll just say it: Ethan is not queer.

No sir.

I have a theory about Ethan’s real identity. At the end of the series, Ethan’s true self will serve as a huge reveal, like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker: I am your father. Ethan will tell Lena: Lena, I’m a drag king. I don’t have a penis. That’s why I can’t have an erection around you.

You might think I’m making fun of Beautiful Creatures, but I’m not. I think this would be an awesome twist. YA needs more diverse characters, not just black people, Chinese people, little people, or Eskimos. YA needs gay people too, but not just the politically correct ones – you know, the nice boy who discovers he’s gay and hides his identity, and then falls in love with the boy next door, then realises the only way he can truly be happy is to come out of the closet, and in the end he’s voted as his school’s prom queen. YA also needs the other gays, the ones that dress up too. The ones that change their sex, like that man who got pregnant – he’s a guy but he’s a woman too. Like Ethan.

But that’s just my Ethan theory.

As much as I like twists and mind-blowing reveals, the fact of the matter is Ethan is presented as a guy in Beautiful Creatures, and he makes one hell of a lousy guy. It’s like casting Angelina Jolie as a male stripper, and she successfully fakes the baritone voice, and the walk, but there’s still something feminine about her character ... like the swell on her chest ... or how she doesn’t have an erection.

Lena is a much better character, from afar. I enjoyed seeing her through Ethan’s eyes. You have no idea how glad I was that I didn’t have to spend 500+ pages inside her head. Lena might be strong willed and brave, but she’s not emotionally invincible. The jibes and accusations lobed at her by her classmates burn, and though she stands her ground, there’s a raw vulnerability about her defensive approach. She uses poetry to soothe her anger, writing all over her hands, her bed posts, her walls, and her ceiling. If Beautiful Creatures were written from Lena’s POV it would’ve been 900 pages of super teen angst.

Her invulnerability is only tied to her human side, though. As a caster, Lena is one gigantic Mary Sue. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.

There are other memorable characters in Beautiful Creatures, like Amma, who loves spelling out words whenever she wants to drive a point across. She more than makes up for Ethan’s lame dad who spends all his time in his study instead of manning up and being a father. Your wife died. So? You’ve got a kid. Shut the hell up, stop crying like a bitch, and take some goddamn responsibility over your son. Damn absentee parents. Amma’s verve is refreshing. She’s the matriarch you don’t want to mess with.

Marian sounds like she could’ve offered more, especially being Ethan’s late mother’s best friend, but like Ethan’s dad she doesn’t appear often enough in the book to manipulate my emotions.

Uncle Macon is the Dumbledore of Beautiful Creatures. Always around, but never really around, if you know what I mean; cryptic in his daily dealings. But unlike Dumbledore, Macon’s secrets suck, and he gets rather irritating before the book’s end.

Link, Ethan’s supposed best friend – I say supposed, because in 563 pages Ethan hangs out with him for like 6 times – is sort of stuck between being nobody and somebody. The only time he matters is when he tangles himself with the enigmatic, lollypop-sucking Ridley.

I loved Ethan’s grand aunts. I wouldn’t have spent as much time with them as Ethan did, but they did offer a fun read, especially when they argued, or the comments they made after they found stuff they had lost a long time ago.

If I had to pick one character as my favourite it would be Ridley. Cool, smoking hot, badass, sex appeal oozing Ridley. She wasn’t a pretend teenager like Ethan, and she served as the book’s somewhat tortured character, torn between following her evil instincts and helping her cousin, Lena.

Score: 7/10 (you can thank Ethan for knocking a point off)

WORLD BUILDING

Forget about Ethan and his bizarre sexual asceticism. The real character in Beautiful Creatures is the old southern town, Gatlin. A town filled with bizarre, crippled personalities.

The people of Gatlin are ignorant, annoying, old-fashioned, lame, probably racist, and quite twisted sons of bitches. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve read southern American depiction of this kind. Either there are lots of people out there who don’t like the south or the south really is this way.

There is a scene where Lena gets really upset and her powers activate and shatters the window near her. Normally, you would expect a reaction like: who broke the window? But in Gatlin, it's: she broke the window. I saw her do it when she walked by.

Someone questions this logic: but she hasn't got blood on her hands.

A sharp, irritated reply: what are you, CSI? She tried to kill us!

From there, the whole town wages a personal vendetta on Lean - parents, teachers, students - everyone. It's ridiculous, but - hey - it's Gatlin.

In the world of Beautiful Creatures there are casters, witches as I explained, and Lena is one of them. Unfortunately, Lena is also, like I explained, a very, super awesome powerful caster, with little to no limits on her powers, which makes me believe Beautiful Creatures has no rigid magic system. Or maybe it does, but I honestly couldn't make heads or tails of it. One minute, Lena is breaking a small window, the next she’s walking through fire, making snow fall, and freezing time.

Then there’s The Book of Moons, an excuse for Admiral Deus Ex Machina to make an impromptu appearance whenever things get too tough for our heroes. Apparently, it is the most powerful caster book in the universe, and now it belongs to the most powerful caster in the universe. Gee. Why do we need a sequel?

But it’s not all bad. The authors were able to take some popular supernatural creatures and tweak them for the better. I was absolutely impressed when I discovered Uncle Macon’s true identity and his fascination with dreams.

The whole claiming-on-your-sixteenth birthday was a nice touch, particularly with the way the book ended.

Score: 8/10

PROSE

The authors, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, make a remarkable writing team. I know they know this. In fact, I know they’re so in love with each other’s writing that neither of them could tell the other to stop rambling and get on with it.

Too much rambling in this book, I tell you. There’s just no way to justify Beautiful Creatures’ length – 563 pages, significantly less than 300 of which make up the main plot, and the others, just rambling upon rambling. Ethan rambles. Christ. Jibber-jabber, jibber-jabber, Jibber-bloody-jabber.

On the bright side, the authors were capable of representing Gatlin in all its glory. Forget all that negative stuff I said about the town; it might be a weird place, but it’s still a well-written weird place. I’m not sure calling Gatlin weird is even a criticism. I think Gatlin was always meant to be weird.

Kami and Margaret might score a B in descriptive writing, but their efforts only garner a D in dialogue. The dialogue writing in Beautiful Creatures is inconsistent at best. Sometimes it’s good. Other times – most times – it’s just laugh out loud.

Though I’ve never been a fan of written accents, I thought the authors conveyed an authentic southern drawl when Amma and Ethan’s grand aunts spoke.

(Do note I am not an American. The closest I’ve ever come to a hearing a southern talk is on TV. I might be wrong about the accuracy of Beautiful Creatures’ southern lingo).

Unfortunately, the authors go on commit the heinous crime we writers call “monologuing”. The villains talk and talk and talk and explain. The heroes listen and listen and listen and reply back.

Beautiful Creatures’ dialogue problem is further exacerbated by most of its characters’ inability to shut up and move on, always repeating themselves, over and over, like a bunch of three-year-olds pestering mummy and daddy for ice cream until mummy and daddy are fed up and lock them up in the basement. To illustrate, here’s how a typical conversation between Ethan and Uncle Macon enfolds:

Ethan: Tell me the truth. Tell me everything I need to know to save Lena.

Uncle Macon: You don’t understand. You wouldn’t understand. Telling you the truth will destroy everything. I’m trying to protect you.

Ethan: We need to save Lena! The only way to do that is if you tell me the truth.

Uncle Macon: I love Lena, but I’m trying to protect her.

Ethan: You just don’t care about Lena.

Uncle Macon: I care more than you know. I’m trying to protect her.

By this time you think the conversation has ended, cos as we can see Uncle Macon has made it quite clear he’s not telling Ethan anything.

But –

Ethan: Still, dude, just tell me the truth. Come on!

Uncle Macon: The truth will set us all free, but I won’t do it. It’s for Lena’s protection.

Dear lord.

The funny thing is the so-called truth Uncle Macon keeps evading isn’t as earth-shattering or life-threatening to Lena as is implied. Certainly not something he couldn’t have told her before the big battle. Hell, if he had told her the truth she would have been more prepared to face her enemy.

I don’t know why too many YA authors employ this plotting technique. The problem with it is it could blow up in your face. When a character goes to great lengths in explaining that he’s keeping a secret to protect another character, that secret better be bigger than the universe when it’s revealed, or it’s going to one anti-climatic mess.

Score: 8/10

PLOT

Ethan dreams about a girl. He meets her at school. Her name is Lena. He finds out she’s a caster. They fall in love, deeply in love. But it turns out their love story might be fleeting, because on Lena’s sixteenth birthday, which is fast approaching, she will be claimed. Getting claimed is a nifty way of saying she will turn good or evil against her will. She’s certain she’s going to turn evil. So she and Ethan search for a way to ensure she remains good.

There’s nothing wrong with this plot. What’s wrong is its execution.

Score: 8/10

FINAL THOUGHT

When I started Beautiful Creatures I loved it. Halfway through, I kept it aside (not out of boredom) and got my hands on Justin Cronin’s The Passage. I think that’s part of what ruined Beautiful Creatures for me. I went on to read Cronin’s masterpiece and came back to Beautiful Creatures, sort of like watching Casino Royale halfway, watching the whole of Inception, and expecting to enjoy the rest of Casino Royale afterwards.

You see, Beautiful Creatures should have been more than this. It had that spark that should’ve lit up the sky, but only flared a bit. Too many pointless scenes got in the way. The plot would flow smoothly for a while then Ethan and Lena would go off at a tangent, doing stuff that had no connection with the main plot. Nothing wrong with that, except the authors wasted too much time deviating from the main plot, to the extent that I didn’t remember some of the earlier major plot clues when I got to the end of the book. So, rather than the reveals and twists exploding before my eyes, they deflated like punctured bicycle tires.

Characters like Ridley, Larkin, and even the big, bad villain, were ruined by the very people who created them. These characters started off great, promised excitement, and delivered less than expected of them, certainly less than they were capable of delivering. Pity. Reminds me of The Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (Video Game); there’s a scene where the prince, having realised the gravity of his error, says “I am the architect of my own destruction.”

I liken Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl to amazing painters, who after producing a masterpiece pick up knives and puncture holes in their art, and then put it out for an exhibition.

Beautiful Creatures, The Forrest of Hands and Teeth and The Demon’s Lexicon all have one thing in common: they feature excellent premises and are written by excellent writers, but in the end they all crumble like shattered, eleven-foot high Lego bricks, in their quest for greatness. (Wait. That's three things.)

Why? How? I have no idea.

I’m done with Forest, but I haven’t given up on Lexicon and Beautiful Creatures.

For those of you looking for a YA book with a real male lead character, look elsewhere. If you’re a girl (or a rather strange boy) looking for Twilight Romance, you know, all the touch, touch, touch, kiss, kiss, kiss, no sex, then Beautiful Creatures is perfect for you.

Final Score: 8/10

Sunday, 8 August 2010

REVIEW: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The passage I am Babcock.

It must be hard being a vampire these days, the top target of a well orchestrated character assassination, reduced to something only half as scary as a floppy-eared beagle. Today’s literature depicts you as a sparkling chandelier, or an overemotional pansy who falls madly in love with a human girl and relinquishes his burning thirst for warm, succulent human blood. You know ... the type that tastes really good.

You used to put the fear of God in people. Now ... now you’re just a whinny, emo bitch. Well, you’re not, but that’s how we humans see you.

If vampires did exist, and they read books and watched movies, I imagine therapists worldwide would see a drastic increase in their vampire clientele, and the number one question they would get from these depressed hunters of the night would be: how can I be myself again?

Those vamps lucky to have Justin Cronin as their therapist would surely thank him after a day’s session. And eat him afterwards.

I am Babcock.

My heartfelt apologies to anyone named Babcock. Discrimination in any form – race, sex, age, height, etc – should not be tolerated or encouraged. However, I’m not so sure I like the name “Babcock” anymore. It frightens me. You can thank Justin Cronin for that.

The Passage is a riveting epic. Justin Cronin has finally put the “V” back in Vampire. You would expect this sort of impressive storytelling from a YA author, considering YA is a genre customarily representative of excellent imagination, but just as England invented the beautiful game of football and Spain perfected it, YA made vampires immensely popular in this generation and now Justin Cronin has schooled the genre and its authors on how to write a real vampire novel.

To be honest, I’m not sure YA authors care that much. The genre has moved on to pastures new: angel paranormal romance. Or is it fairies? I forget.

CHARACTERS

Literary authors understand one concept: character-driven plots. It’s their lifeblood. It’s what they eat, breathe and sleep. Since Justin Cronin is technically one of them (The Passage is his first genre book) he utilises this particular expertise in developing an assemblage of diverse, interesting and invigorating characters that walk right out the pages of The Passage. They’re not classed into simple, cardboard-cutout groups of good and evil, but complex, human clusters of flaws and convictions.

Each character has a story to tell, from Amy, the mysterious and shrewd six-year-old, abandoned by her mother and distrustful of people in general, to Brad Wolgast, an FBI agent, haunted by his failed marriage to the love of his life and scarred by a missed opportunity on fatherhood, an opportunity that resurfaces when he meets Amy.

There’s Sister Lacey Antoinette Kudoto, from Sierra-Leone, who believes she can hear God, but her life is one big twist, and Anthony Carter, a soft spoken, homeless black man who somehow ends up on death row for a crime he did not commit, but willing to take the ultimate punishment – death – all in the name of love.

Clearly, Justin Cronin understands that America is not made up of only white people.

Cronin knows how to withhold information about characters and throw them at readers in tantalising bits. My heart twisted for Anthony Carter when I read the conclusion of his story.

If there is one criticism I have it’s that the characters introduced in Part IV (All Eyes), while well drawn out, are not as appealing as those in the previous parts.

Score: 10/10

WORLD BUILDING

The Passage stretches from somewhere around or before 2008 (Amy’s mother’s story) to more than a hundred years, right into the heart of a dystopian America, shattered, defeated and teeming with ferocious creatures of the night: virals, or vampires.

Justin shows us America we know it today, a Super Power embroiled in a seemingly never-ending war in the Middle East. A country left paranoid by terrorism (in the book Walmart sells Kevlar suits for babies). And then he shows us a new world born out of a devastating vampire apocalypse. A world where children are segregated from the outside, because reality – there are blood thirsty beasts, quick as light, roaming about, seeking to get you – is too traumatising for them.

It’s a dark, dark world. A world nearly bereft of hope.

The science behind the existence of vampires and how the vampire virus works in The Passage is well thought out, plausible and imaginative. It has to do with the thymus, a specialised organ in the immune system, located in the anterior superior mediastinum.

I don’t want to spoil the book by revealing everything.

Score: 10/10

PROSE

Justin Cronin is a remarkable writer, I kid you not. His prose is engaging, touching, and brutal, all at the same time. Descriptions of places can sometimes be a bit too much, dragging on for quite a while, but it doesn’t hurt. And his dialogue writing is wow!

Score: 10/10

PLOT

The United States of America loves policing the world, or at least that’s what a lot of people, other than Americans, say. In 2003, for whatever reason you might think – oil, justice, delusions of grandeur – America attacks a certain country in the Middle East. In 2014, the war is still going strong, and America is losing soldiers by the bucket load.

Desperation sets in. How do we avoid heavy infantry losses? How do we create soldiers who can easily despatch enemies?

Beyond that, how do we permanently defeat ailments like cancer?

A scientist, Dr Lear, thinks the answer is in Bolivia. Thus, Project Noah is born.

The expedition to Bolivia does not end well. Many die. Few return. One of the returnees is classed as Zero, a scientist named Fanning, who was infected by the vampire virus in Bolivia.

For Lear to complete his research and create a solution to America’s military and health problems he needs twelve candidates. The military decides that the twelve will be people who wouldn’t be missed, death row inmates. FBI agent, Brad Wolgast, a man who can pretty much sell water to a well, is tasked with the responsibility of convincing twelve inmates to sign away their lives to the United States government. These twelve inmates are: Babcock, Carter, Morrison, Chavez, Baffes, Turrell, Winston, Sosa, Echols, Lambright, Martinez, and Reinhardt (not listed in the correct order).

Lear then decides he needs a thirteenth candidate, a child. The Army orders Wolgast to apprehend and deliver a six-year-old girl, Amy Harper Bellanfonte.

Wolgast cannot do it.

Long story short, the virals, the Twelve plus Zero, break out of the facility, and in less than a few months, they overpower America.

One hundred years later, the last surviving Americans living in a small, high-walled colony, resolve to embark on a mission to save themselves and their families, because, you see, the batteries powering the lights outside their colony, the lights preventing the vampires from breaching their walls at night, is fading fast, and if they don’t find an alternative means of survival, they’ll all be dead.

Need I say more?

Score: 10/10

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re an aspiring writer, read this book. Trust me, there’s much to learn from Justin Cronin’s tome. If you’re just a reader looking for something thrilling to chew on, The Passage will satiate your appetite and leave you wanting more.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Morality of Characters and Plots

Sisters Red A couple of days ago I read The Booksmugglers’ review for Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red, and it got me thinking about character behaviours, their motivations, flaws and likeable quotient; book plots, their implications – whether subtle or palpable; and the role authors play in the lives of their readers.

The Booksmugglers’ denouncement of Sisters Red and their subsequent refusal to score it stems from the impression (theirs) that Sisters Red (a) belittles beautiful, self-confident girls who love looking pretty and love wearing revealing clothes, and (b) promotes the popular (and misguided) message: blame the rape victim, not the rapist.

Scarlett, a main character in the book, and the review’s major culprit, is scarred, bitter and an unrelenting werewolf hunter. She’s not particularly appreciative of her life as a hunter, but she reckons someone has to do the messy deed of ridding the world of the Fenris (Old Norse word for werewolf). She also resents beautiful girls who wear skimpy clothes at night because she believes they make themselves easy prey for the Fenris. Her resentment borders on jealousy though; she’s not as beautiful as these girls, she doesn’t have the luxury of “enjoying” herself like these girls, and she doesn’t get a gold medal or a presidential award for saving these girls from the big bad wolves.

These quotes are from Scarlett’s POV, and they’re the ones the Booksmugglers take offence to:

[1] They’re adorned in glittery green rhinestones, shimmery turquoise and aquamarine powders streaked across their eyelids. Dragonfly girls. Their hair is all the same, long and streaked, spiralling down their backs to where the tiny strings holding their tops on are knotted tightly. Their skin glows under the neon lights – amber, ebony, cream – like shined metal, flawless and smooth. I press harder against the crumbly brick wall behind me, tugging my crimson cloak closer to my body. The scars on my shoulders show through fabric when I pull the cloak tight. Bumpy red hills in perfectly spaced lines.

The Dragonflies laugh, sweet, and bubbly, and I groan in exasperation. They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off. Look at me, see how I dance, did you notice my hair, look again, desire me, I am perfect. Stupid, stupid Dragonflies. Here I am, saving your lives, bitten and scarred and wounded for you, and you don’t even know it. I should let the Fenris have one of you.

No, I didn’t mean that. I sigh and walk to the other side of the brick wall, letting my fingers tangle in the thick ivy. It’s dark on this side, shadowed from the neon lights of the street. I breathe slowly, watching the tree limbs sway, backlit by the lights of skyscrapers. Of course I didn’t mean it. Ignorance is no reason to die. They can’t help what they are, still happily unaware inside a cave of fake shadows. They exist in a world that’s beautiful normal, where people have jobs and dreams that don’t involve a hatcher. My world is parallel universe to their – the same sights, same people, same city, yet the Fenris lurk, the evil creeps, the knowledge undeniably exists. If I hadn’t been thrown into this world, I could just as easily have been a Dragonfly.

[2] His eyes narrow in something between disgust and intrigue, as though he’s not certain if he likes looking at them or not. I want to comment, but I stay quiet. Somehow it feels important to wait for his reaction. Silas finally turns to look at me in the shadows.

“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it?” he asks pointedly.

“Can I tell you how glad I am that and Rosie aren’t like them?”

“No kidding.” I grin, relieved. “Rosie could be if she wanted, though. She’s beautiful like they are.”

“Beauty has nothing to do with it. Rosie could never be one of them. Do you really think they’d dress and act like that if they knew it was drawing wolves toward them?”

Had a character come up to Scarlett and said, “Hey, you shouldn’t be pissed off at beautiful girls just cos they’re beautiful and like looking hot,” or something of that sort, the review might have sung a different tune.

The status quo in commercial literature today is characters that think or do bad things must get their comeuppance: death, or a terrible event, which eventually transforms them into better, likeable people. A racist main character cannot remain a racist at the end of a book. He has to go through some eye-opening journey and change, or suffer and die. A sexist main character has to learn to appreciate women at some point before a book’s conclusion.

Scarlett doesn’t alter her attitude. She saves the world, but she still retains her “unpopular” belief.

Books are open to all kinds of interpretations and opinions. When I read the Sisters Red quotes I didn’t see any allegories of blaming rape victims or demeaning beautiful girls. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and I “don’t get it”. (But then again the author is a woman. Perhaps we both don’t get it.)

I read the quotes and saw someone who was pissed off at the world, pissed off because she couldn’t have some fun like everyone else, pissed off because no one knew the true nature of the dangers that lay in the shadows like she did, and pissed off because she had to save the day without so much as a “gee, thanks, Scarlett. I owe you one”.

I just saw a pissed off heroine, that’s all.

Does Scarlett have a right to be pissed off? That’s debateable.

Is she right in judging prettier girls the way she did? Probably not.

Is this her major character flaw? Yes.

Does this flaw make her less likeable as a character? Depends on you as a reader.

Does her attitude make Sisters Red a bad book? No. Not in my opinion.

This whole kerfuffle has got me wondering, do characters have to be likeable for a book to be good? What does likeable even mean: less irritating, more forgiving, eager to save the world?

Do authors have a responsibility as morale beacons to their readers? Must they portray their characters as examples of what happens if you make good and bad choices? Must they write plots that ultimately send messages like: stealing is bad; killing is bad; sexism is bad; racism is bad; having sex before marriage is not bad but you can catch nasty diseases ... or, you know what, maybe it’s bad; everyone should love gay people; etc.

What do you think?

Maybe some authors should. I would hate to read a children’s book to my five-year-old daughter (if I had one) about a girl who kills, steals and gets away with it. But as for the YA and Adult genres, I’m not so sure, but that’s just me.

During the early stages of the Iraqi war, a British man travelled to Iraq, despite government warnings, for humanitarian reasons and also to protest the war. He was captured by insurgents and used as a negotiating tool. The insurgents threatened to kill him unless Britain withdrew its troops from Iraq. The British government does not negotiate with terrorists. They declined.

The man was beheaded.

A friend of mine who was in the Territorial Army at the time said that he hated people like the man, and thought that humanitarians enjoy overdoing things, and they should just shut up and stay at home and not involve themselves in situations they don’t understand.

If he was the main character of a book and the thing with the British man happened and MC said those things and in the end he doesn’t change his mind about humanitarians or apologise for maligning them, but saves the world from the big bad evil, would that book automatically qualify as a bad book, to you?

It’s my belief that characters are to some extent representations of real life people. That’s what authors strive for when they write: to create characters who breathe as if they were standing right next to you.

If that’s the case, shouldn’t characters, like people, possess certain flaws that remain unchanged even after a book’s end?

Must a main character be absolutely moral or ethical before a book is considered a good book?

A book’s hero saves the world from the apocalypse, but while he’s tolerant of gay people, he’s not open to the idea of ever being gay. In fact, the thought of it – grabbing another guy’s ass, French-kissing him, going under the sheets – almost makes his skin crawl. Does that book become a bad book?

What do you think?

Saturday, 31 July 2010

REVIEW: Lies by Michael Grant

Warning: mild spoilers.

Lies Welcome back to Perdido Beach, back to the FAYZ. Welcome indeed. Lies has been a long time coming, it truly has.

I finished it about two weeks ago, but my university project prevented me from writing my review. During that time I read Justin Cronin’s behemoth, The Passage, and I’m almost done with Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures.

Michael Grant’s latest offering, Lies, mirrors his previous hits, Gone and Hunger, in every way possible. Grant doesn’t hold back; from page one the action steams out of the station and the plot unravels in so many twists, turns and flips. No time wasting. Like a Ninja Assassin: get in there, stab-slash-slice, get out. Mission accomplished.

The question is: how good an accomplishment is Lies?

CHARACTERS

If you’re a fan of the Gone series, the first thing you’ll notice when reading Lies is the absence of some beloved characters. Computer Jack appears only twice. Quinn becomes more irrelevant than he was in Hunger. Lana sits around, getting high on alcohol and smoking cigarettes, all the time. Brianna, the character I love most, contributes zilch to the plot; she’s sick the entire book, suffering from the flu, thus bedridden. The only time she does anything is towards the end, when she puts Sam on a skateboard and drags him at top speed from the nuclear plant back to Perdido Beach.

Huh.

Why are these top characters sidelined? Well, the only reason I supply is: to make room for newer characters.

Problem is the new characters are either bad imitations of the old, popular characters, or they are just not that interesting.

Nerezza channels Diana’s manipulative, sultry disposition with little success. Zil, who assumes the mantle of resident villain, as Caine is too busy starving to death, is too weak, too stupid, and too WTF-are-you-kidding-me, that the plausibility of Lies’ plot scuttles off a cliff when Zil and his human crew burn down half the town (killing some kids in the process), walk into a hall filled with kids without incurring retribution for starting the fire, and gun down a bunch of kids.

Maybe this is the author’s idea of a badass villain, in which case: fail.

Then there’re Sanjit, Virtue and the other kids who live on an island within the FAYZ. These guys are late to the party. In the first book they would have made for interesting characters. In Lies, they just get in the way. I’m reading an action scene, the chapter ends, and then I have to read Sanjit and Virtue’s boring mission to fly a helicopter. They accomplish this at the end of the book.

Yes, that’s right. It takes the entire book for them to fly a helicopter.

Fortunately, Sam, Astrid, Orc, and Howard breathe a much needed life into Lies.

Sam struggles to accept his relegated hero status, labours with the memory of Drake beating the crap out of him, and questions his relationship with Astrid: has she been using him all along just to protect herself and her brother, Little Pete? Does she love him or is she only interested in power and control?

Astrid misplaces that astute perception of hers, the one that earned her the fitting moniker, “Astrid the genius”, in her quest to maintain peace, order and unity within the FAYZ.

Orc, though playing a much smaller role like Computer Jack, becomes a more honourable individual. Even Howard shows he’s got a streak of humanity in him and that he’s not simply a brainless, smart-mouthed bully. He totally pawns Astrid at her own game. Yeah, he is still a creep, but he’s a far more interesting creep in this book than in the previous ones.

I have to say though that the character over-inflation problem that plagued Hunger is evident in Lies. In fact, most characters are starting to sound alike that it's hard to distinguish them.

What I don't understand is why the author chooses to give characters staring roles when they add nothing to the plot or the series. There are a bunch of chapters that feature Justin. Yeah, you probably don't remember him. Well, that's because he's very irrelevant. But for some reason we have to read chapters of him getting lost on his way home. That's all. What's the point?

Score: 6/10

WORLD BUILDING

Hunger gave readers the chance to see the FAYZ properly with a new pair of binoculars, one of those nifty types that zoom in and out. Lies takes things one giant step further, with a result that is far more impressive.

Score: 8/10

PROSE

Michael Grant’s prose mimics the rapid, staccato bursts of machine guns. When you open Lies, his prose flips out like an impressive cut-throat razor and slices away all distractions that might steal your attention from the book. I didn’t give it a 9 because my ebook version had some weird errors.

Score: 8/10

PLOT

There is a saying that goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I said earlier that Lies mirrors Gone and Hunger in every way possible, but is that necessarily a good thing?

Every series has a plot formula. In Harry Potter, Harry starts off each book at his uncle’s house. Weird things happen. Then he goes to Hogwarts. Weird things happen. Everyone blames him. Weird things happen. He, Hermione and Ron solve some weird riddles. They succeed. Hurray! Harry returns home. That’s pretty much the Potter formula. The reason it works is (a) there’s always something new to discover in Hogwarts; (b) Harry Potter and other characters are very, very well drawn; (c) the plot elements for each book are always fresh, engaging and exciting [book one: philosopher’s stone; book two: the basilisk/sword of Gryffindor; book three: Dementors/time-turner; book four: tri-wizard tournament/voldemort himself; etc].

The Gone series has its own formula. Unfortunately, that formula is starting to show its age.

As usual, Caine concocts a half-arsed plan and manipulates a bunch of people. The heroes are too busy squabbling amongst themselves to open their eyes and see what’s right in front of them. By the time they realise, oh, crap there’s something bad happening, it’s too late – Caine has done his damage.

Lies’ plot does deliver, but honestly, each book release in the Gone series has shown a progressive decline in plot quality. The new characters – heroes and villains alike – are unable to fill the void left by absentee characters. (Seriously, can someone tell me why Zil is still alive?) The author must know this, which is why he decided to bring back an old character that should have stayed dead. It’s like a bad episode of Passions. Said character used to be scary. Now he’s a joke.

Score: 6/10

FINAL THOUGHT

I know Little Pete is an autistic four-year-old, and I sympathise with him. Actually, I used to. Now, he’s just pissing me off. He’s responsible for the FAYZ, or at least he’s somehow connected, but his unresponsiveness, while realistic, is aggravating, especially since his character is pivotal in the series. It takes forever for him to react to anything, and when he does, I’m thinking: oh, wow. That’s it? That’s all you’re going to do after I’ve sat here for hours, reading about you whine and play a dead Game Boy?

Overall, Lies is a decent book. Certainly not my best in the series. Here is to hoping things pick up in Plague.

Final Score: 7/10

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Blue Fire contest

Once upon a time a girl was born. Her name was Janice Hardy.

Long story short, she grew up and started messing around in her meth lab. Weird. She came up with this legal meth called The Pain Merchants. Very addictive stuff, this drug.

The Pain Merchants

Warning: addictive drug. Will make you dream weird and wonderful dreams, and hallucinate on occasions. Even though deemed legal for consumption, approach with absolute caution, but do approach anyway. Contains too much awesomeness.

Now she’s cooked up a sequel, Blue Fire.

Shifter 2

Warning: modified version of substance A, category Z [street name: The Pain Merchant]. Considered far more effective. Deemed Legal, but government will not be held responsible if it blows your mind. Approach? Definitely.

The last time I read The Pain Merchants I was so addicted my folks carted me to rehab. Curse Janice. Well, my therapist told me to stay away from Janice drugs and focus on my life and dreams and girlfriends. I promised her I would.

I lied.

Here’s a link to Janice’s blog, where she’s holding a contest for Blue Fire.

From the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry, Mrs Therapist; I’m sorry, Dad; I’m sorry, Mum. But I just can’t help it. I need this book so bad.

Also, please do check out this project: Panverse Publishing. It’s a new sci-fi publisher. Let’s give Panverse our support! You might want to check out Panverse’s latest anthology which features a story by Janice.

Ok, now I’m off to read Karla’s and Karla’s teasers. (I still forget which Karla is which. I should memorise their surnames. All I know is they’re awesome writers.)