Random Review: Life as We Knew It

I won this novel as part of a birth-month contest put on by Tara Anderson of The Librarian That Doesn’t Say Shhh. It’s one of her favorites, so for another take on the novel you can read her review here.

Disappointingly shallow novel suffering from an identity crisis.

Life as We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer

Sixteen-year-old Miranda has bigger things on her mind than the fact that a meteor is about to hit the moon. Like prom, and that cute boy from her swim team. To her it’s not much more than a lame excuse for extra homework assignments. When the meteor knocks the moon out of orbit and closer to Earth, she and the rest of the planet are completely unprepared for the geological events that follow. Tectonic shifts result in earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Ash fills the skies, blocking out the sun and sending temperatures plummeting. Miranda’s family rallies together to survive as every system they have ever known fails around them: the schools, the power grid, the police force…

I’m afraid I’ve made this book sound a lot more exciting than it was. The entire novel is written in diary format and unfortunately the diarist is a bit of a dope. Miranda is nearly sixteen-going-on-seventeen but her thoughts read like those of an especially self-centered twelve-year-old. I suspect this may be because the novel is aimed at upper elementary/middle grades, but in that case it might have made more sense to show the events of the novel from a younger kid’s point of view. The narrator does not come across as particularly smart, capable, or nice. She does as she pleases until her helicopter mom jerks her back into line. The most well-rounded character in the novel is Miranda’s mother, who reads like a rather irritating author insertion.

Which brings me to my main problem with the novel: the characterization is shallow and language is simple, which suggests middle-grade fare (though middle-grade novels can certainly have rich characterization). However, the presentation of the premise suggests YA or plain old fiction for adults. I can imagine the premise being deeply unsettling to younger readers, and there are some fairly dark moments. The core idea could have been the seed for a great YA post-apocalyptic, but instead the reader gets a book that is somehow both disturbing and lame narrated by a boring teenage girl.

Some other random things that bothered me:

  • The science is extremely weak. If you are going to write a novel about a catastrophic event in planetary geology, do some serious research first. The movie-science might not bother readers who are not scientifically inclined.
  • The names are all weirdly generic mid-century standards, except for Miranda. Bob, Dan, Jonny, Carol, Grace…it just seemed odd. Especially since the novel is dated by the mother’s G.W. Bush-bashing.
  • The ending is basically a Deus Ex Machina, which makes for an exasperating finish to a dull read.

All in all, an exciting idea that resulted in a middling-to-bad novel with an identity crisis. A bit too realistically dark for many kids, and way too shallow for most adults.

For a better read in a similar age-range try: The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson.

Chair Rating:

The pieces are there, but they’ve been poorly assembled.

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Random Review: Divergent

Dystopia with a capital D.

Divergent by Veronica Roth, 576 pages

Books like these make me wish I was in a book club. I read this novel in twenty-four hours, and when we’re talking 500+ pages, that says something. From the first page the reader is immersed in the life of Beatrice Prior, a sixteen-year-old on the cusp of making a life-defining decision. In Beatrice’s world every person belongs to one of five factions: Dauntless, Candor, Amity, Erudite, or Abnegation. Each of the factions has a prized trait that they seek to cultivate above all others, and factions come before blood. Beatrice and her brother are tested along with the rest of of their peers for aptitude and must publicly decide which faction to commit their lives to (each has its own community in the ruins of Chicago). A poor choice, a mistake, means becoming one of the destitute factionless. Our heroine is torn between the faction she’s always known and the one that calls to her, but changing teams may mean losing her family forever.

My summarizing will stop here because I don’t want to spoil even one choice or discovery. This novel is so tightly plotted that it sweeps the reader along without a single good place to take a break. The stakes are high from the start for Beatrice, who reinvents herself as Tris during initiation to her chosen faction, and they get higher. Tris is a complex character with a consistent core, and she remains true to herself as she makes new friends and enemies (and falls in love for the first time). The world of Divergent is richly detailed, and learning more about Tris’ faction only made me more curious about the others. Tris gradually realizes that the friction between the factions is something more than the usual grumblings, and her individual struggle goes global in the action-packed ending of the novel.

Tris is an incredible heroine. She is brave and smart and protective of others, not particularly self-aware (which makes sense considering that she was raised in the selfless faction, Abnegation). She navigates her initiation through sheer force of will, failing miserably and standing out by turns. The reader can cheer for her and be frustrated by her at the same time. She grows into a new person over the course of the novel in ways both horrifying and impressive.

The novel is brutally violent at times, but it is never gratuitous or gory. All of the characters are three dimensional, even the “bad guys” are intriguing enough to arouse curiosity. There is a lot to dig into when it comes to the world of Divergent. Should government positions only be filled by the selfless (and just because someone identifies as selfless, does that mean they actually are?). Do the pet causes of the selfless actually address the needs of a whole society? Can a group of people all work toward cultivating a single trait without becoming corrupted by that pursuit? I suspect picking your faction will become the new sorting-hat-style craze (the author even provides a helpful quiz to that end in the novel’s extras).

Speaking of the extras, they are fantastic. There are the usual discussion questions along with an interview with Veronica Roth, the aforementioned quiz, manifestos from each faction, and an excerpt of Insurgent (the next novel in the series). A novel which I just so happened to purchase today.

I told my Facebook friends that Divergent was better than The Hunger Games, and it is. Not a million times better; but the writing is tighter, the story fuller, the foreshadowing never heavy-handed, and the characters run deeper. I cannot recommend it more highly than that.

Chair Rating:

Built to last, future classic with an edge.

Random Review: The Selection

Stucco palace.

Just think about that phrase for a moment. Hold it in your mind. Turn it over, consider the implications. It has a lot to do with this review.

The Selection by Kiera Cass, 327 Pages

I was really excited about this book, I really wanted to like it. I am not immune to the lure of a beautiful cover featuring a beautiful girl in a gorgeous dress. A dust-jacket featuring a svelte redhead in endless ruffles of turquoise tulle reflected back in different poses by a bank of water-spotted mirrors, wrapped around a Tiffany-blue hardback stamped with a silver tiara. Despite my disdain for bodice-ripping romances I can enjoy a made-for-TV romantic comedy or an episode of The Bachelor while I’m cooking dinner, so I was game to give the YA dystopian fantasy a shot.

This is a book that tries to bridge the gap between The Hunger Games and Twilight. Someone was bound to try soon enough, those two incredibly popular series combined would seem like a golden ticket to publication. On the one hand, we have a highly regulated society in which many are starving and it is very difficult to move across the government’s dividing lines, hosting a competition to publicly elevate one of its number above the rest. On the other we have a novel completely centered around a love triangle, with a heroine who is a bit of a Mary Sue.

America Singer is a tri-lingual, naturally beautiful musician with a secret boyfriend of a lower caste. Being a Five is not so great, it is an artisan class with sporadic work that leaves her family perpetually short on food, but her boyfriend Aspen has it worse as a Six in the servant class. She has the big-time hots for this boy and they have two years worth of treehouse trysts backed up, creating an incredible pressure that they’d like to relieve post-marriage (pre-marital sex is ground for imprisonment). Big no-no, America’s momma is hoping she will use her pretty face to marry up at least two castes. When a Cinderella-esque invitation arrives exhorting America to enter a lottery for a chance to win a place in a competition to win the hand of the crown-prince of Illéa, becoming a One in the process, her mother is practically foaming at the mouth and even secret-boytoy Aspen doesn’t want her to pass up the opportunity.

She is persuaded to enter, and of course she is selected.

Many blogs have already likened this novel to The Bachelor, and I would have to say that it actually reads like Bachelor fan-fiction with a prince subbed for the schmuck. America is incredibly judgmental of the other Selected, often based on a single visual impression or line of dialogue, yet these judgements are never false. The sexy brunette is seductive and conniving, the bubbly blonde is sweet as pie. Everything plays out as exactly as you might guess, in the most clichéd manner possible. The palace is repeatedly attacked by mysterious rebels with no definite purpose in scenes that fail to thrill. The book is light on both dialogue and description, propelled by endless stated actions and sentiments “I walked downstairs and then sat in a chair and then ate dinner. It was delicious. I felt full.” There were several paragraphs in which every sentence began with “I”. The scant dialogue all sounds the same, though the novel depicts characters from a range of social classes and geographic locations. I wouldn’t even know if I split an infinitive, but there were many glaring errors in mechanics, as though someone printed their fan-fiction straight from the computer and had it bound. Unfortunate dialogue tags abound, everyone “sings” everything. At one point I wondered if this book were supposed to be a musical.

The heroine herself comes across as inconsistent and disingenuous. She is home-schooled and plays the victim of incomprehensible feminine politics, but makes unerring judgements of her fellow ladies and presumes to give Maxon advice on interacting with them. At one point she states that she wants nothing more than to be alone with a violin, on the next page she is alone in her room with a selection of instruments and says she can’t “be bothered” with them. She claims to be madly in love with Aspen but only seems to think or feel anything about him when he is directly in her line of sight. She performs actions that are inconsistent with the reader’s knowledge if her character, simply because they seem to be on the author’s checklist of princessly characteristics.

The romance is pretty dull. With America and Aspen it is a lot of forbidden horny leg-rubbing; America and Maxon engage in slightly more interesting conversation about why he sucks (America is a real charmer).

This is not the worst of it, you guys, and I’m sorry for rambling on. I’m almost done.

The worst failure of this novel is a failure of the imagination. I could deal with a stupid plot and two-dimensional characters if I got some great poetic language, engaging world-building, or sumptuous descriptions of luxurious locales and fashion. The author seems to have an obsession with cap-sleeves, everything America wears has them! I’m not sure if it was a deliberate choice to make her seem demure or a lack of creativity. The sumptuous cuisine? Bacon, eggs, and pancakes; or vanilla ice cream with fruit. Literally dozens of female characters have names but no physical descriptions or personalities, even when they have speaking parts. COME. ON. The palace is made of stucco (but has marble floors). Stucco, you guys. It was described in a way that made me picture the mansion they always use on The Bachelor, but it is somehow big enough to house more than two hundred people, forty or so with their own rooms and enormous individual bathrooms. Magic.

I am disappoint. This could have had real potential if a tougher editor had entered the picture.

So now that I have ripped this poor book to shreds, I am giving it away. Whether it’s morbid curiosity or a genuine belief that this might be just the story for you, I encourage you to enter.

Chair Rating:

Pretty and girly on the outside, bizarre on the inside. If you find it a good fit, you might be crazy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GIVEAWAY

To enter my giveaway for a hardcover copy of Kiera Cass’s The Selection all I ask is that you post a comment featuring:

1. A picture of what you would wear to meet and woo royalty

OR

2. A description of the most incredible meal you can imagine

If you choose to do both, I will count it as two entries. I will randomly choose a winner on Wednesday, May 2nd at midnight PST. This giveaway is limited to the continental United States and Canada (I’ve seen a few canucks pop up on the map). Spread the word!