Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Divergent by Victoria Roth

Dystopian futures are all the rage in teen lit (seemingly, maybe, replacing the vampires,) and one can't help comparing this novel to The Hunger Games triology (which I enjoyed, but this review isn't about those books, at least not mostly.)

I was recommended Divergent by a fellow mom/tennis friend whose daughters are in college and high school, respectively. Straight out, this is a teen, not a tween, novel. But it is good.

Beatrice Prior, 16, lives in Chicago in some not-too-distant future. As an Illinois native, it's always fun to read books set in places that I'm familiar with - the idea of "the giant swamp, which some say used to be a lake, but I can't imagine it" are definitely kind of fun.

In this version of the future, people are divided into 5 different groups, the Abnegation (selfless, not to be noticed as individuals), the Erudite (wisdom solves everything), the Amity (can't we just all get along?), the Candor (the truth, and nothing but the truth) and finally the Dauntless (bravery is everything.) You are raised by your parents, who, by definition would be of the same group, until age 16, when you can make a decision to stay with your birth group, or make a change. If you make a change, you will never, ever, see your birth group again. The premise is that there was some sort of horrible global meltdown, and each group would blame its opposite (the Abnegation blame egos, the Erudite blame the uneducated, the Candor blame liars, etc.) So, to keep fighting from happening again, you live pretty much isolated in whichever group you choose, and each group has social responsibilities for the whole. If, for some reason, the group you've chosen rejects you (you choose Candor, but lie constantly,) you'll get kicked out and have to live as Factionless - basically homeless, with no societal resources at all. Not even the Amity seem to want to help these guys, so you have to choose carefully.

Beatrice and her older brother Caleb, born into Abnegation, both attend the same Choosing ceremony (they are apparently not-quite-twins, so Caleb's 16th occurred after the ceremony of the previous year.) Prior to the choice, they are tested with a virtual reality scenario, which is meant to help them make their decision. Beatrice's results, though, are, well, inconclusive, and her tester warns her NEVER to mention that result to anyone - most people are pretty clear cut in their tests. This seems odd, but since no one is ever supposed to reveal results, she doesn't worry too much about it at the time.

Beatrice is sure her brother is a shoo-in Abnegation - he never shows the "selfish tendencies" that she does. And she knows she isn't truly a selfess person (though we, as readers, may view her differently than she does herself.) At any rate, she knows she doesn't want to leave her family, exactly, but also knows that she doesn't want to particularly live with the Abnegation for the rest of her days. Confident that Caleb will stay to soothe her parents' burdens, she picks, as a kind of  "the waitress is here, what am I going to order?" kind of decision, Dauntless.

Dauntless initiation turns out to be VERY hard, and the possibility certainly exists that Beatrice (now calling herself Tris as part of her reinvention) will not make it and be cast out as Factionless. There is huge physical fighting competition, first between those who have switched Factions, then overall with Dauntless-born who also want to join as adults. Much of this also involves more serum/virtual reality mind control kind of things, meant to make you face your fears. Ick.

Turns out, her brother also left Abnegation (surprise!) and went to Erudite. Their father, on Visiting Day, will have nothing to do with either of them, but Mom comes to visit, which is nice.

One of the Dauntless trainers, Four, seems to have a soft spot for Tris, and also disagrees with other trainers and leaders about what "being brave" means. They seem to be drifting into something where physical domination equals bravery, rather than bravery meaning standing up for the little guy, smart risks, and so forth. Come to find out, none of the "perfect" factions are now quite where they were when they were founded. In fact, upon (unapproved) leave visiting Caleb, Tris stumbles over a plot by a couple of the Factions to take over the others. Uh, oh.

Will she make it through initiation? What happens with the takeover plot? Are there others like her who have had "divergent" test results, and what can that mean? Is her family at all what it seems?

Without giving too much more away, this is a tightly-paced, action-packed thriller. It is NOT for the faint of heart. Dauntless leaders and initiates can be vicious - people die and are, perhaps worse, grievously injured. They use mind control/testing techniques which would scare the crap out of most adults.

The characters are well-developed, and I grew to care about them all very much. There were, perhaps, a few too many "baddies" - just in that I would forget who was which, etc., especially among the initiates. The dialog was well-done, and the world was very detailed and nicely imagined, though I guess (like in the Hunger Games, sorry, there they are again) I wish there was a bit more explanation of how this came to be in the first place. Perhaps that's a mainstay of dystopian novels that I just don't appreciate.

The philosophical questions raised by the veering of the Factions into, perhaps, extreme territory was very well done, and should make people think as they read.

Overall, this was a book that was hard to put down, wasn't completely predictable, and was very well written.

Rating: Tris and Four become somewhat intimate. Sex doesn't actually occur, but the fear of physical intimacy is used against Tris in one of her tests, so there is some discussion of the act, and also some make-out sessions do come into play. For that, and the violence and overall seriousness of the subject matter, I'd go PG-13 on this one. As I said in the first paragraph, this is teenage material that my 10-year-olds are not yet ready for. However, if your tween has read The Hunger Games (not seen the movie, read the book), then they'd be OK with this one.

Divergent is clearly meant as the beginning book of a trilogy. While there is a sort of climax to this particular plot, it certainly isn't the end of the story. I have not yet read the second book, so I am definitely looking at this as only its own story. (I wanted to jump right into the second, but some other things got in the way. I am definitely going to go for more, though.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Touch of Frost by Jennifer Estep

I love a good series,
but this one didn't make my Top 10 List.
Sorry, Mrs. Allen.

For those of you who read my reviews at The Family Addiction, you know I love a good series.  You probably also know I REALLY love a good fantasy series.  There's nothing quite like getting to know a group of characters that you can joyfully check in on again and again.  (Alas, the Saxon math series, pictured above, didn't quite have the character development I look for in a good series. Maybe there just aren't enough words in word problems for that to happen. ;D)

So imagine my delight, last week, when I discovered the first bok of a a new series already in motion.  

Happy dance!  I read the first one and then IMMEDIATELY bought the next two so I could have hours of uninterrupted time in the Mythos Academy world.  


I will say I was a bit slow to warm up to the Mythos Academy in Touch of Frost .  At this school just outside Asheville, North Carolina, 16-22 year old descendants of the famous warrior classes (the Amazons, Valkryies, Spartans, Roman, Celts, Ninjas, and Samurais) study and train together. While the students are legally minors, they're constantly faced with the very adult threat of Loki's return and the evil machinations of his supporters.  The basic concept seemed a little to close to Harry Potter for me, but once I got settled into the world I could focus on the story itself instead of constantly making comparisons between the Mythos Academy and Hogwarts.  J.K. Rowling didn't invent the "magic kids goes to school together" concept, so it was probably more my own hang up than anything else.

(Let me stop a minute and say, definitely, that the Mythos Academy books are written for an older audience than Harry Potter, so please don't hand these to any 9-year-olds.  The main character is 17 and is faced with real-time high-school aged problems.  There is discussion of sex, drugs, and alcohol, as well as war, death, and torture, so these are truly meant for a PG-13 crowd.)

The first of a series
The first of a GOOD series!
The main character in Touch of Frost (and the rest of the series) is Gwen Frost, a Gypsy girl with touch magic.  If she touches you or your belongings she can see your emotion-laden past. Gwen only learned of the Mythos Academy after the death of her mother, and she wasn't raised in decadent wealth like the rest of her classmates.  She's more comfortable in hoodies than Gucci or Prada.  It's safe to say that Gwen has a steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out the world of the Mythos Academy.

Touch of Forst centers around Gwen reluctantly tackling that learning curve while she tries to solve the mystery of the death of a Valkryie that no one seems to mourn.  She encounters a really cute, but troubled Spartan boy and an even more troubled Nemean prowler, she might, JUST maybe, have started to make friends, and she puts herself in peril just to figure out what's going on.

I thought  Touch of Frost was a great introduction to this series by Jennifer Estep. I devoured the second two (Kiss of Frost and Dark Frost), and I'm looking forward to the fourth (Crimson Frost, which comes out in December). The book has all the elements of a good fantasy series, but set in a world of teenagers and young adults who are struggling to learn about themselves and their boundaries.

(If this review has confused you more than helped you, there is a 99-cent introduction available in e-format, First Frost.  It, however, isn't a story on its one--only background information that gets repeated in each of the subsequent tales.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsFirst, I want to say I liked it.  Really, I did.  The story was compelling and the characters were accessible and easy to like.  So what's my problem?  Well, I don't really have one except that I don't think I LOVED this book the way many people did.  I liked it.  I liked it a lot, actually.  I would re-read it even.  But if you Google this book, you will come across approximately ninety bajillion reviews stating how this book is the portal to Ultimate Truths and that one should just jump into a box of Kleenex whilst reading.  Don't believe me?  Check out this Tumblr page.  I mean, wow.  Wow.  So.......I liked it, but I only used three or four tissues and I kinda thought we all already knew the Deep Stuff in the book.  But that's also how I felt about the film American Beauty; didn't we already know all that Deep Stuff? Why is this (good) movie becoming the beacon for Truth?  But I do realize that there are people younger than I am and their first experience with Ultimate Truths has to happen somewhere, and this book isn't a bad place for that to happen.

The Fault in Our Stars centers around Hazel.  Hazel is sixteen and has been aware of her mortality for awhile, thanks to the terminal cancer she has lived with for years.  She knows she would already be dead if it weren't for an experimental drug that miraculously has made her traitorous tumors shrink.  She will never be cured, but she is able to live longer with the help of the drug.  Hazel is doing her best to be sixteen and deal with all that.  Personally, I really like Hazel.  She's more mature than she should be but still vulnerable with just enough angst to be a proper teenager.  Hazel has found the perfect novel about a Kid With Cancer, and while she might like to sit in her room and read it for the thousandth time, her mother convinces her to go a support group meeting.  There Hazel meets Augustus and things change for both of them.

Augustus had bone cancer and lost part of a leg, but he's at this particular meeting to offer moral support to a friend.  He and Hazel get to talking.  Then they get to talking over the phone.  Then they hang out.  And eventually they end up in Amsterdam.  Hmm.  It's way more logical in the book.  The point is, they fall for one another.  Augustus gives Hazel a reason to see more of the world beyond her bedroom and her favorite book and Hazel gives Augustus her favorite book and deeper insight.  They are a pretty great couple.  But this is a book involving kids with cancer, so you can probably see that there is going to be some sadness here.  I'll just say that you should be prepared for reality to creep in and take up residence here.

I don't want to say much else about the plot, because it really is a great book.  And for many people this is going to be the first Great Book they read.  For the rest of us who have already explored these themes, it's still well-written, insightful, and even funny read.  I'm torn between PG-13 and R as a rating:  there's some language (they're teenagers), and non-explicit sex (easily a cut away in the screenplay - there's going to be a movie by the way), but really the mature content of death and dying is the toughest stuff here.  I'm not letting my niece  read it for a couple of years.  She's ten but wise beyond her father's years.  But when she's old enough I'll gift it to her because it really is that good.  It's just that I'm not bronzing it like some people are.  So the fault is not in the stars, dear Brutus, but in me.  :)