Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Perfect Pairing: A Comparative Review of Ally Condie’s Matched with Lois Lowry’s The Giver

I’m straying a bit from my usual review format, because as I read Ally Condie’s new dystopian tale Matched, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the first dystopian YA novel I read, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Both books are coming of age stories of teens, who with the push of an older mentor, begin to see that the “perfect” worlds in which they live are anything but. Though Lowry’s Jonas is a younger male protagonist, Matched’s seventeen-year-old Cassia Reyes follows much the same progression of doubting, questioning, and finally rebelling against those in charge.

Condie’s style, like Lowry’s, is often rich with description, enough to make adult readers sigh with pleasure, but not too much to deter its young adult audience from enjoying the emotional journey of the main character. And that journey is what drives the plot. Though I read Matched in a marathon reading session, I wouldn’t say its pace is particularly fast. Neither was that of The Giver. What keeps the reader turning pages in these books is the emotional, intellectual, and philosophical growth of the main character. That may not sound nearly as exciting as saying these books are about hormonal teens lashing out against an oppressive society, but, at least as far as book one in each of these series goes, it’s the truth. Both books are far more focused on the character’s decision of whether or not to rebel, whether it’s right to rebel, than on the actual rebellion, which in both books takes place only at the very end. Yet Condie and Lowry both manage to make that decision-making gripping enough to propel readers to the final chapters (and beyond, since both books belong to series).

The biggest difference between these two stories is the love-triangle plot of Matched. Condie might have used this popular romance plot of recent YA books to drawn in fans of The Hunger Games and Twilight, but the twist she puts on it is unique and it doesn’t come off at all as just a ploy to suck in teenage girls. The romance isn’t an aside from the dystopian society plot; it drives Cassia’s awakening and ultimate rebellion. Though I still feel teenage boys might be turned off by the amount of brooding Cassia does over her emotions for the two boys, the fact those emotions are so entwined with her decision to break free might just save this book from being classified by the guys as chick lit.

What makes the teacher in me drool over Matched is its theme and the opportunity for serious discussion about timeless topics within a tale teens want to read. Anytime YA readers are choosing books with such clear and important themes, that’s a win for teachers, parents, and kids. And if a new series, like Matched or the Hunger Games can be connected to books that have become staples of middle and high school classrooms, like The Giver or 1984, than these young readers (and their teachers) can forge deeper understandings of great books both old and new.

Bottom line: Read them both. Though I liked Matched enough to want to read the rest of the series, I think to truly appreciate it, readers ought to start with its predecessor, The Giver.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Writer’s Review of Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris: A Fanged Farewell

Flashplot: Our favorite telepathic waitress is up to the tops of her cowgirl boots in trouble again in this series finale urban fantasy novel. After using the cluviel dor (fancy fairy magic) to save Sam at the end of the last book, Sookie has both boyfriend problems with Eric and assassin troubles with who knows how many psychos. In fabulous finale fashion, Harris manages to bring back all our favorite characters to solve the mystery of who wants Sookie dead this time around and, of course, to answer her reader’s most pressing question: who will Sookie end up with in the end. *Don’t worry; I won’t spoil it!

As a reader: As the dedication states, this book is for the fans. I doubt it could be understood, never mind enjoyed, by anyone unfamiliar to the series. That’s as it should be. Dead Ever After is the thirteenth book in this popular series; Harris doesn’t need to appease or appeal to new readers. I really enjoyed seeing all the principal players from the series make an appearance in this book. And although Sookie’s own reminiscing reads as much like an author’s goodbye as a character’s thoughts, as a long-time fan of the series, I enjoyed this too.

As a writer: One thing that threw me as a fan of the series and as a writer who always admired Harris’s ability to capture Sookie’s voice was the new style of narration. The first dozen books were all told exclusively from Sookie’s first person point of view. Although at times that left the reader in the dark for a little too long, Sookie’s honest and sarcastic voice was a huge draw for readers. This final book jumped around from first person to third person omniscient, with headings to alert the reader to the changes. Perhaps just because it was new to the series, I felt it came off as an obvious device to work in plot elements that couldn’t be told as easily in the first person. I found it jarring, and I was a little disappointed Harris resorted to such a device in the final book.

Bottom line: This wasn’t the best book in the Sookie series, nor was it the worst. It was the last, and, as the last, it had what readers will want: reminders of all we loved along the way and some closure for our favorite mind-reading, sun-loving Bon Temps girl.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My Irish Eyes are Smiling When Scottish Kilts are Flying!: A writer’s review of the first five books of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander, Dragonfly In Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross)

Flashplot: Let’s make this clear from the start: these books are mammoth. Micro-summarizing them successfully is impossible. Instead I’ll merely explain the general premise and move on to the review. 

Claire Beauchamp walks though a Scottish stone circle in her own time, just after WWII, and finds herself transported to the same place only two-hundred years earlier. In a plot to keep her alive and out of the hands of a suspicious British Captain, her rescuers marry her off to a Scottish rebel Jamie Fraser. At first Claire’s biggest concern is that she is already married to a man from her own time, whom she wants desperately to return to. Soon, though, she’s fallen for her new husband and has become entangled with his complicated and dangerous past, present, and future. 

The books do some time-jumping as they follow the cast of characters across different centuries and countries. They also do some genre bending as they work in elements of romance, history, magical realism, and adventure.

As a reader: There’s a reason I find myself reviewing all five of these books at once: I read them so fast, one after the other, that I actually couldn’t tell you where one ended and the next began. The characters, plot, and setting were equally enticing to me. Claire is strong, yet not brash. Jaime is everything a girl wants in an alpha-male of a romance book—pig-headed and overbearing on the outside, while sensitive and compassionate on the inside. Did I mention he’s also hot and wearing a kilt most of the time? Yum. Add to that plots with plenty of twists, well-researched historical details, and enough humor to balance out the darker moments, and I was hooked for the long haul.

As a writer: My one complaint is that it is indeed a verra, verra long haul. (I downloaded the seven book bundle on my kindle and it comes in at 7125 pages!) Gabaldon admits she wrote book one, Outlander, as a writing exercise, with no concern over length. In the 90’s apparently publishing such a debut novel was possible; today it would be unheard of, even as good as this story was. I’m not a proponent of strict word counts just for the sake of word counts, but these books are definitely an example of works where a good editor helping to trim the fat would have benefitted everyone. Beyond book one the biggest problem for me was that there was too much rehashing of events from prior books. Different people share varying philosophies on this, but my view is, if you’re going to write a series, write a series. Assume readers have read the previous works. If they haven’t and want to know more, they’ll go back. Don’t punish loyal readers by bogging down the plot. That said, I loved the stories enough to learn to skim some—careful, of course, to stop whenever that kilt came off!

Bottom line: If you like romance with a heavy dose of action and history and you have the time or will make the time for book that’s a little wordy, and a little unique, but really entertaining, than this series is worth picking up!

Rats, Bats, and Cockroaches, Oh, My!: A Writer’s Review of the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins

Flashplot: This five-book fantasy series follows the formula of many middle grade/YA quest fantasies: Young boy living less than desirable life in our world suddenly finds himself in a fantasy world where he’s prophesied to save the day. He makes allies and enemies, looses mentors, and falls in love.

As a reader: Despite following the formula of such series, Gregor the Overlander is a creative and entertaining set of books for young readers. I found it took a while to connect with the main protagonist, Gregor. He seemed flat and a bit void of the emotional responses readers would expect from a character undergoing the trials he was facing. But as the first book reaches its climax, Gregor begins to sound like the eleven-year-old boy he is. The plots of these books also improve as the series progresses. I enjoyed the first two books of the series from the viewpoint of a teacher, but felt, unlike Collins’ newer series, they lacked the more adult themes that gave the Hunger Games a wider appeal. In the final books of the Overlander series, though, Collins definitely addresses the universal themes of oppression, racism, and leadership—all through characters made up of rats, bats, fireflies, and the occasional human. This is a series both parents and children will enjoy!

As a writer: While it took me a awhile to see Gregor as a rounded character, it took me surprisingly little time to picture the world into which he fell. Collins’ is a master world builder. Within the first chapters readers will find themselves not only able to picture the giant cockroaches that make up one set of characters, but will also fall in love with them for their backwards speech patterns and loving nature. I also admired Collins’ ability to develop the character of Boots. It is extremely hard to make a toddler both realistic and interesting to an older audience. Boots could have become an annoying or flat character hindering middle grade readers enjoyment of the story, but in Collins’ hands she becomes a lovable and rather round little tyke.

Bottom line:  At the middle school where I teach, I ran the summer reading group for book one in this series. Of the nearly forty students who read it, three-quarters chose to read the rest of the series—over their summer vacations, without their parents forcing them. I think that says more than anything I could put in a review!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

History Revamped: A Writer’s Review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Flashplot: Anyone who’s made it through high school history knows the basics of Lincoln’s difficult life. Now take every tragedy, every death, and every accomplishment and attribute it to vampires. This is Seth Grahame-Smith’s work in a nutshell.

As a reader: Though my ridiculously simplified plot summary might make this piece sound utterly unbelievable to the point of being humorous, I assure you it’s not. Grahame-Smith weaves a dark and twisted fictional tale into the history American readers are familiar with in a way that makes it easy to suspend one’s disbelief long enough to get lost in the novel. The story is cleverly crafted in that sense. It took tremendous imagination to twist facts into fantasy. However, despite the numerous tragedies Lincoln faces, I still found him a difficult character emphasize with. My favorite characters were those of the author’s creating; it was in the scenes with Henry where Grahame-Smith’s characterization shined. I also found the pacing of the novel slowed in parts due to what I saw as Grahame-Smith’s desire to work in more of the history than what was needed to pull along the fictional tale he was telling. Finally, I loved the opening of the book with the modern-day setting and character, who is introduced as our story-teller. It was this slide into the fantasy world that allows readers to face and then dismiss their own disbelief, so the fact that the book never really returns to this character and his interactions with Henry is terribly frustrating and disappointing. Though I loved the last line of the book, I really wanted a quick epilogue to return to the present day and the book’s narrator.

As a writer: There is no doubt that the author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter did his homework. Grahame-Smith does a wonderful job of writing in a voice that matches what readers would expect that of Lincoln to sound like. He also did a nice job of writing from his “own” voice. (He is supposedly the writer who meets with Henry at the start of novel tasked with telling Lincoln’s tale.) What started to bother me, both as a writer and a reader, as the novel progresses, is the frequency with which he slips in and out of these two narrations. Lincoln’s parts are supposed to be pulled from his diaries or letters, which is interesting, except when one scene or event is told with numerous excerpts interrupted constantly with the outside narration being used to fill in the gaps. It got to be too choppy and had me wondering if perhaps the writer was taking the easy way out by slipping into his own voice when Lincoln’s would have been a harder but more fluent choice. The only other flaw in an otherwise well-written piece was Lincoln’s character development. Obviously Grahame-Smith was challenged by developing a character who was rooted in a real historical figure. Given how interesting the author’s own characters were, I feel he would have been better served by allowing himself the freedom to re-envision Lincoln entirely without worrying so much about the constraints of reality.

Bottom line: As a fantasy fanatic, a writer of vampire books, and a lover of history I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I’m not sure it’d hold the attention of readers without these passions, but it is certainly a unique and entertaining view of our nation’s past!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sequel Review: Even Better on the Second Try

The Dark Monk by Oliver Pötzsch (Author) and Lee Chadeayne (translator): Angels & Demons Gone Renaissance

Flashplot: In this historical fiction suspense novel, a sequel to The Hangman’s Daughter, our three main characters, the town executioner Jakob Kuisl, his daughter Magdalena, and the young physician Simon Fronwiesser, return to solve yet another mystery in the small 17th century German town of Schongau. Starting with the suspicious death of a local priest and leading to a full-blown conspiracy involving religious riddles, relics, and a search for the Templar’s treasure, this plot truly could be summed up as the Angels & Demons of the 1600s.

As a reader: As much as I enjoyed the characters of the first book in this series, the sequel was even better. In The Dark Monk Pötzsch rectified the plot pacing problems he had in book one. The story here unfolds fast enough to hook the reader, but without the lagging middle chapters, and ends with an action-packed climax. The mystery itself was also more artfully revealed, with enough clues to get the reader guessing, but enough unknown to create the suspense that made this a page-turner. And though it did seem to borrow a bit from the ideas of Brown’s modern-day best-seller, what makes this perhaps a more interesting tale is its historical setting. Pötzsch weaves in his research of his family, the Kuisls, the time period, the section of Germany known as Priests’ Corner, and the history of the religious disputes that brought devastating war to the area.

As a writer: The Dark Monk confirmed what I found to be true in my own writing: the only way to learn how to write a novel is to write a novel. Pötzsch’s first book was entertaining, but had some obvious flaws (as most debut novels do). His second tale took all the best parts from the first, the enhancing historical details, the dark commentary on the town and the times, and the captivating main characters, while improving his story-telling and pacing.

Bottom line: The Dark Monk is a great historical suspense novel worth pulling out the flashlight for. Though readers who like knowing as much as possible about a character might want to start with the first book, The Hangman’s Daughter, Pötzsch alludes enough to the important parts of book one that most readers would be fine reading this as a stand-alone piece. Not me, I already pre-ordered book three!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

August Review: Despite Some Hang-ups, a Good Read

The Hangman’s Daughter 
by Oliver Pötzsch (Author) and Lee Chadeayne (translator)

Flashplot: Set in 1650’s Germany, this historical fiction mystery tells the tale of a small town which is rocked by a series of odd events. Children are turning up dead, marked with the ‘witches mark’ and the town leaders want a swift execution in order to prevent the hysteria and ruin that befell the town after similar events decades ago. They’re not too concerned with who swings, so long as it quiets the townspeople. Lucky for the accused midwife, the town executioner Jakob Kuisl, his daughter Magdalena, and the young physician Simon Fronwiesser set out to find the real culprits.

As a reader: The opening line of the novel reads, “October 12 was a good day for a killing.” It’s hard not to be hooked by a line like that. The rest of the prologue was paced well and created immediate compassion for the main character, the young son of the hangman. With emotions tied to this young boy, I was a little miffed to realize the rest of the book takes place thirty-five years later, with the scared child now the surly hangman. That said, I was soon hooked again by the main characters, the town, which has character of its own, and by the action that unfolds relatively quickly. The first third of the book balances plot, description of the historical setting, and character development of the book’s many characters.

Then things get a little hung-up. (Sorry, I never pass up a pun!) The middle third of the book slows down considerably. The events of plot and the clues unfolding seem to be a bit redundant. The story’s point of view changes characters frequently, which is fine, except when readers have to hear different characters come to the same conclusions. Since the story was rich and had a great many characters, perhaps the author thought this was needed. In most cases, though, I felt the reader should have been given the benefit of the doubt to keep track of clues and characters in exchange for a faster-paced plot.

By the end, Pötzsch picks up the pace again and the story moves along well as the main characters begin to unravel the mystery. Though parts of the end could be predicted along the way, there was enough unexpected material to provide a very satisfactory ending.

As a writer: Perhaps it’s because of the anti-prologue propaganda that agents drill into writers’ heads, but I wasn’t a fan of the prologue in this instance. It was important backstory about Jakob, backstory that helps the reader be sympathetic to him early on­–perhaps too early on. Most readers like a flawed protagonist. Pötzsch should have trusted that his readers, due to his strong writing, would connect with Jakob even before this glimpse into his past. It would have been just as interesting and perhaps more appreciated a little further into the story.

Other than the prologue and the pacing problem in the middle of the book, this was a terrific mystery. I’m always in awe of good historical fiction writers for the way they weave historical facts into their plots in such unobtrusive ways. Pötzsch did this masterfully, so that when I reached the end I was thrilled to see there was a postscript that explained what was researched and what was purely his fantasy. I also liked the descriptions in the book, which were often unique and felt like part of the plot as opposed to mere window dressing. I’m sure some of the credit for this belongs to the translator, Chadeayne, for his ability to make even the figurative language seem fluent and meaningful in its translated form.

Bottom line: A good book for history lovers and mystery lovers, so long as you’re a little patient. With my soft spot for gruff, yet lovable guys, I downloaded the sequel as soon as I finished.