"You'll find out you're a clown in a trivial circus where everyone tries to convince each other how vital it is to have a certain look one year and a...more"You'll find out you're a clown in a trivial circus where everyone tries to convince each other how vital it is to have a certain look one year and another the next. And then you'll find out that fame and the big wide world are outside of you, and that inside there's nothing, and always will be, no matter what you do."
I have been saving this book for years. It's one of those books that had enough glowing reviews and literary accolades to make me almost certain I would like it. Not only that, but it is about the subject of existential nihilism - which, frankly, fascinates me and has for a long time. I'm rather inclined to believe the world is meaningless; or at the very least has a certain abstract meaning that is defined by individual perspective and experience. So, really, Nothing had me at the premise. But it just didn't deliver for me.
I can see some of the attraction - it's a complex book that once again proves YA doesn't have to be shallow or lacking in "literary value". It demands that you step outside of your normal mode of thinking and ask yourself questions: is everything pointless? Can meaning be found anywhere? If nothing matters, is it better to just do nothing?
It all starts when Pierre Anthon stands up in the classroom one day and declares "Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that." He then parks himself up in a plum tree outside the school, refuses to come down, and spouts constant odes to the meaninglessness of life, the universe and everything. His classmates grow increasingly uncomfortable with what Pierre says, so they decide to gather a "heap of meaning" - a pile of what is most precious to them, in order to prove that certain things do have value.
As they are required to give up more and more of what is important to them, soon they start to turn on one another and the sacrifices become ever more extreme. It is this part of the book that I personally found most effective: the gradual disappearance of morality and the way the children turn to violence. Despite the simplistic sentence structure (a possible side effect of the translation), this is a very mature piece of YA that contains many disturbing scenes.
What I didn't like began with the short, choppy sentences and continued to grow worse with the complete lack of realism in the story. Nothing feels more like a philosophical essay than a novel. I never developed a connection with any of the characters, nor any sympathy for them - not even the narrator. And there was no way I could believe that these young teens were allowed to run about digging up graves and stealing from science labs over the space of several months without some adult questioning what the hell was going on.
I understand that this novel is primarily intended to provoke philosophical thinking, but I believe it would have been far more effective if we were allowed to warm to someone in the novel and develop an emotional connection with them - something I personally feel was lacking. And there was another thing I didn't like. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but certain characters equated female virginity and innocence with the self. As in: if you lose your virginity, you also lose yourself, which is ridiculous.
And maybe we should call it irony or something, but this whole book felt a little pointless. In the end, it seems I took nothing from it. At first I actually wondered if that was the whole point - serves you right, Emily, for spending a couple of quid on Nothing! Ha-Ha, you fool. It would've been quite cool - if somewhat infuriating - if the book had delivered its promise and carried no message because there is no message because everything is meaningless... but no, I think there was something we were supposed to get here that was obviously lost on me.
Once, after his father had hit him in a rage, Yarvi's mother had found him crying. The fool strikes, she had said. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes.
Half a King is the kind of book that creeps up on you gradually, painting a picture of kingdoms and slavery and backstabbing until you think this is basically another fantasy set in the comfort zone of the genre, and then it hits you hard when you least expect it. I kid you not, there were three huge "twists" in this book and I remained completely oblivious to all of them until they were upon me. It is the first twist (a few chapters in) that sucks you into this story... and I found myself unable to stop reading from then on.
I'm really picky when it comes to traditional fantasy (as opposed to urban fantasy or fairytale retellings) because I find it falls into one of two extremes - either it is too lengthy, dense and wordy for my tastes, or it is "fantasy-lite" masquerading as real fantasy whilst really being all about that boy with the tortured soul. This is neither of those. It is a gritty and fast-paced tale of survival, betrayal and friendship. I started reading this in my back garden under the hot afternoon sun and I was so addicted to Yarvi's story that I was still there when the sun began to set.
The story opens when Yarvi - the king's youngest son and the not-so-proud owner of a crippled hand - finds out his father and brother have been killed and he must take his rightful place on the throne. Everyone is skeptical as to whether a crippled "half-king" can really rule over the people of Gettland, even Yarvi himself. I won't give away spoilers, but Yarvi's life takes a rapid turn downhill from there and plunges him into one threatening situation after another. Circumstances see him being forced miles away from his home, barely able to defend himself with his crippled hand.
It's a real underdog kind of story and Yarvi is a complex character that simultaneously evokes sympathy and is allowed to make mistakes, do horrible things and screw people over to survive. He is one of those flawed but likable characters whose actions, even at his worst, feel understandable and realistic. He constantly faces threats from all sides, whilst also battling with nature's demons out in the wilderness. And I swear I could feel the icy cold coming through even in the middle of July - Abercrombie works setting and atmosphere together very well.
Despite my love for Yarvi, this book wouldn't have been the same without the varied and interesting cast of secondary characters. They all provide something important to the novel, whether it be the underlying theme of friendship and finding a place as an outcast that features heavily throughout the story, or some much-needed moments of comic relief. The character Nothing especially made me laugh:
Nothing smiled. Yarvi was starting to get nervous when Nothing smiled. "And they will come ashore, tired and wet and foolish, just as we have, and we will fall upon them." "Fall upon them?" said Yarvi. "We six?" asked Ankran. "Against their twenty?" muttered Jaud. "With a one-handed boy, a woman and a storekeeper among us?" said Rulf. "Exactly!" Nothing smiled wider. "You think just as I do!"
He saw Nothing hop a few steps from the bank and raise his sword high, point downwards. "Are you mad?" Yarvi screeched, before he realized. Of course he was.
And even though women are not often sword-wielding warriors in this world, Abercrombie's female characters were fantastic, in my opinion. They were strong but flawed, deeply complex and varied. Those considered "good" had faults and those considered villains had multiple layers to them. Though this could really be said for all characters. There are no mindless villains in this book and it makes the story all the more compelling, because the author doesn't make it easy for us to group people into "goodies" and "baddies". As Rulf says:
"If life has taught me one thing, it's that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best."
Plus - the ending was PERFECT. I wasn't sure how the author would tie it all together and still leave us with something that would make me need to get my hands on the sequel - but he did. The novel's climax is an incredible show of drama and excitement, followed by a couple of gentle, quiet - but no less effective - chapters, in which Abercrombie surprised me once again. I now need to go find everything else he has written and, if you haven't already, you need to read this book.
...a fast-paced plot? Personally, though I can appreciate the attraction of slow-moving dystopian fic...more3.5 stars
What makes a good dystopian sci-fi novel?
...a fast-paced plot? Personally, though I can appreciate the attraction of slow-moving dystopian fiction that gradually uses subtle language and events to paint a portrait of the world in peril, I much prefer the kind that drags me in, makes me immediately aware of the danger and forces me to sit on the edge of my seat, freaking out over whether the main characters will ever get through this. Free to Fall does that. I spent the entire novel needing to know what was going on, desperate for answers and afraid for Rory.
...a premise grounded in science? Maybe this isn't important for everyone, but I love dystopian fiction that uses scientific language to enthrall me. I suppose it's hard to keep the balance between scientifically-detailed and not boring, but Miller does it very well. As with her last book, she builds her story close to scientific facts and makes it feel like something that is not only possible, but quite likely for the future. Which brings me onto my next point.
...a believable story? When I say "believable", I don't necessarily mean "realistic", part of the excitement of good sci-fi is to stretch to new possibilities and impossibilities and convince us of their likelihood. And I think Free to Fall's believability is it's strongest quality. This does not feel like a completely alien world that could never happen in a million years, nor does it feel like a mashed together bundle of phrases like "oppression" and "control" without any sense of how it happened. The world Rory lives in feels only a few small steps from where we are now. While some of the technology might be a little ambitious (or not - who knows?), Miller has created a convincing world that I can see happening. It doesn't feel like fantasy; it feels how, IMO, dystopian fiction should.
...good characters? I liked Rory for the most part and was sympathetic towards her situation - it mattered to me whether she would find out what was going on and make it through okay. Most of all, I liked her growth and the way she learned and gained new perspectives as the story moved along. One reason I gave Miller's first novel such a low rating was because I disliked the bitchy main characters who looked down on so-called "slutty" girls and I wondered if this might go the same way at first. But Miller surprised me. At first, Hershey is introduced as a popular ditzy girl who wears revealing clothing and Rory is annoyed to discover they will have to be roommates. But as time goes by, the two very different girls develop an understanding between them that turns to friendship... their relationship was my favourite in the whole book.
So why only 3.5 stars?
In short: a boring love story. I don't know why this is a requirement, I really don't. It seems to appear in almost every YA book, regardless of genre. Romance can be an interesting component in a story and can make you even more invested in the characters, but this one was yet another that was dull, lacking in any chemistry I could see, and pointless. I spent the romantic parts of this book hoping they would soon be over so we could get back to the very interesting science-related mysteries going on. I don't know why every heroine has to team up with some hottie in order to figure things out and save the day anyway.
But, despite this...
I enjoyed the book a lot. It's not often that I return to authors I've mentally blacklisted after a bad experience but I'm really pleased that I gave Lauren Miller a second chance. She writes in a compelling way and weaves a story that is fast-paced, full of constant twists and turns, and actually interesting. The discussions about morality really made me think and Rory's school lessons were almost as exciting as the ones in HP - the classes were all completely new so each one held something to discover. I hope she writes more books I can geek out over soon :)
This may be a graphic novel, but it is also one of the most honest, refreshing, detailed and touching memoirs I have ever read. I have one slight comp...more
This may be a graphic novel, but it is also one of the most honest, refreshing, detailed and touching memoirs I have ever read. I have one slight complaint and it isn't really a complaint, more of a little suggestion as to how this could have been better - if a couple of the f-bombs had been removed and this became a book we could give to younger kids. Because, damn, in a world of pink glitter for girls and blue guns for boys, younger kids really do need a book like this.
Tomboy is the tale of Liz Prince's childhood and adolescence. She understood from an early age that she didn't like all of the things people consider "girly" and much preferred boys' clothes and toys. As she grew older, she didn't want to dress in pretty skirts or conform to what was expected for her gender, she got crushes on boys but all of them wanted the "normal" girls.
What is most interesting is the underlying discussion going on about what it means to be male or female. The book ultimately challenges the notion that there is only one way to be either and sees Liz going from a child who would rather be mistaken for a boy and claims to "hate girls", to someone who recognises that she is a woman and doesn't have to behave or dress in a certain way to prove that. It looks at conformity and non-conformity, bullying and growing up. It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale told through the eyes of someone who doesn't want to grow up in the way everyone thinks she should.
I really liked getting this perspective on gender expectations. I wasn't really a "tomboy" myself and the only close experience I have with this is through my brother who always wanted to play with dolls and do ballet dancing. In fact, before reading this, I always focused on the problems gendered clothing/behaviour has for boys. It's commonly known that it's easier for women to wear jeans and baseball caps than it is for a man to wear a dress and make-up... so I didn't fully appreciate the effect being a "tomboy" would have on a girl while growing up. Until now.
Very enjoyable, funny and thought-provoking story.
*Maybe* I am too old for this book. That is one possible explanation. The other possible explanation is that this book really is just kinda lame. And...more*Maybe* I am too old for this book. That is one possible explanation. The other possible explanation is that this book really is just kinda lame. And tame.
Since You've Been Gone tries to be a cutesy summer story about the friendship between two teenage girls. Which was exactly what I wanted. It also tries to be a tale about a girl learning to take chances, be a little rebellious and try new things. Misspent youth and all that jazz. And I can totally get into the excitement of a good-girl-gone-bad story of naughty youth days and craziness, but the problem is that none of the things Emily actually does are particularly exciting or dangerous or rebellious.
This is like the Sunday school version of rebellion.
Not that I expected (or wanted) these kids to start shooting drugs in their basements and holding orgies... but apple picking? Yes, apple-picking makes this very random list of adventurous stuff which Sloane sets for Emily to do. The main problem I encountered in this book was a complete lack of any tension, excitement or general reasons to care. This is likely partially due to the tasks set out for our protagonist - of which kissing a boy is like the be-all and end-all of human existence - but it also has something to do with the very dry narrative. I felt zero connection to Emily and zero interest in Sloane.
Also, did you know that naked bathing is so rebellious these days? Neither did I. I feel somewhat delighted to know that I throw caution to the wind every morning without even leaving the house. Okay, I'm joking. So Emily and some friends go skinny-dipping...
Now, actually standing in front of the water and contemplating swimming in it naked — with my friends — things were no longer seeming quite so simple.
Okay, so maybe it's me. But I just don't think swimming naked in some water with your close friends makes you a rebel. Call me a tramp. Maybe it's just because I have the kind of close friends who would (and do) crazy dance around my room in their birthday suits. Or maybe it's because Emily built it up to be such a HUGE thing, edging up to the water with a towel around her, freaking out constantly. Why should I care? You took your clothes off and got in the water - go you! I still don't care.
I don't feel the need to give you much more than the description when it comes to the plot - basically, Emily's friend (Sloane) disappears suddenly and stops answering Emily's calls and texts. All Emily has is a list that Sloane left behind, a list of tasks for Emily to complete. Which she does, one by one, hoping they'll lead her to Sloane. It was a quick read that I managed to get through but it was disappointing. The writing and characters felt flat to me and the attempts at rebellion were unexciting. Lastly, I thought the ending was rushed and made the whole thing seem even more pointless. The story felt wrapped up too neatly and nicely, when some of the final reveals warranted a more dramatic handling, in my opinion.
The Blurb: Lara Jean's love life goes from imaginary to out of control in this heartfelt novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Summe...moreThe Blurb: Lara Jean's love life goes from imaginary to out of control in this heartfelt novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Summer I Turned Pretty series.
The Reality: Privileged, boring, 16-year-old girl (who's "voice" sounds closer to 12) feels sorry for herself because her sister's boyfriend doesn't want her. Until he does. Conclusion? There is none. Just a lot of faffing about, moronically pining, and an inconclusive non-ending.
2014 Contemporary YA sucks. So many books I've been looking forward to have let me down. Other books that I've taken a chance on have also let me down. Honestly, where are the sophisticated but no less realistic and dramatic voices of authors like Melina Marchetta or Courtney Summers? Why does every YA narrator have the same recycled, immature narrative voice? I am seriously starting to wonder if Young Adult has ran its course. My reading of the past few years has been defined by trends in YA; I've been propelled towards dystopias and fantasy novels with teen protagonists and I've loved, hated, laughed, cried and obsessed. Now I have to wonder: has the "genre" finally ran out of steam?
To All the Boys I've Loved Before is about a girl called Lara Jean who's been crushing on her sister's boyfriend since before they were together. Her sister, Margot, will soon be leaving for college so she breaks up with said boyfriend - Josh - leaving him behind and single and oh so heartbroken. Then there's the other part of this story: Lara Jean has written love letters to all her past crushes (5). Never sent them, of course, just written down the emotions and angst as a kind of release. Now a mysterious someone (view spoiler)[ (hide spoiler)] has sent all her letters to the respective crushes, including Josh.
Obviously, Lara Jean is mortified and decides to deal with the embarrassment by pretending to be in a relationship with one of the recipients who has some issues of his own - Peter. Drama ensues. Josh changes his mind. Lara Jean starts to think that maybe she has feelings for Peter. But does Peter have feelings for her?
It amazes me how little Lara Jean seems to realise that it's kinda weird for her to seriously pursue a relationship with her sister's ex. But whatever, it's not like that's my main problem with this book. My main problem is Lara Jean herself. She is immature, naive, silly, spoiled and behaves (and thinks) a lot younger than she actually is. I guess there's a fine line between innocence and annoying, upper middle class ignorance, but I find that Lara Jean is heading towards the latter. I know teenagers tend to have a silly obsession with boys (or girls, whatever) but her narrative voice is so childish, whiny and uninteresting that it's hard to sympathise with her at any point.
And she never learns, never develops, never grows. Time and life experiences have come and gone by the time this novel ends, but LJ is the same old girl. Forever lacking in charisma.
You are so cool. My name is Laurel and I go to High School but I am still going to talk to you in the passive, immature voice of a...moreDear Famous Person,
You are so cool. My name is Laurel and I go to High School but I am still going to talk to you in the passive, immature voice of a 10 year old and then occasionally break out into beautiful metaphors about the sparkles in Sky's eyes and how just one glance from him makes fireflies dance in my stomach (or something equally nauseating beautiful).
"There is something fragile like moths inside of him, something fluttering. Something trying desperately to crowd toward a light. May was a real moon who everyone flocked to. But even if I am only Sky’s street lamp, I don’t mind."
That's right. Sky is great! And Sky is awesome! And fuck everything else because, looky there, it's Sky!
p.s. This book is actually all about the deep grief I feel after my sister's death. I know that may be surprising when all I actually do is pull the petals off flowers and wonder if Sky loves me. ____________________________________________
You know, this book is actually almost exactly like the diaries I wrote when I was about 10/11 years old. I didn't write to famous people, I wrote the entries to a made up name so it was like I was talking to someone who was there just for me. Because, well, Anne Frank did it and I thought it was totally cool! Honestly, it's a mystery why I wasn't one of the popular kids in school.
I would write in fragmented sentences that walked the unfortunate reader through my day, until I would suddenly get a burst of inspiration and philosophize about life in that all-knowing way which only young teens who know absolutely nothing about life can manage.
Here's the thing, though. There's a real good reason why most people don't publish their diaries: because who wants to hear about your boring-ass high school day or how freaking hot that dude called Sky is? If this book was attempting to be a realistic portrait of an annoying teen without a personality - mission accomplished.
Frankly - here comes the controversial statement - this has to be the most emotionally manipulative book since The Fault in Our Stars. Laurel's sister has died so she deals with all her thoughts and feelings by writing letters to different dead people - inc. Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Judy Garland. Guess who the last dead person letter is to? Go on, guess.
And Laurel's personality is nowhere to be seen. Her letters are written in short, disjointed sentences with no sense of emotion coming through at any point. No sadness for her sister. No actual chemistry between her and Sky. It's just words, and not great words at that. She, like me, pauses in the middle of the childish narrative to wax poetic about something (probably to do with Sky). She is constantly defined by other people - what she thinks of Sky, her friends and the famous people. Who is this girl that everyone seems to fall in love with? Not a clue. ________________________________________________
Dear wasted time,
I apologise for not reading something less trite, immature and manipulative.