Friday, September 30, 2011

The Book Thief

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . .   
Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can't resist- books. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever they are to be found.
With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

I'm not even quite sure how to write a review on this.

Give me a bad book, or an okay book, and I can criticize the hell out of it. I can write you a several thousand word review detailing every reason I did and did not like it. But give me a book like this, and I have no words.

Ironic, really, considering the huge role words play in this.

This is one of those books where I can't say I liked it. I can't even say I loved it. I feel like that's too simple, too shallow of a thing to say for this book. I didn't love it. To express how this book made me feel, a short image, as Death was fond of giving:

A girl sits on a wide hotel bed. There's a book in her hands, dark with the picture of dominoes on the verge of being toppled, the words The Book Thiefscrawled across the top. She isn't moving. She's barely even blinking. Another girl comes up and sits next to her, nudges her shoulder, but she still doesn't move.

That was me.
This book didn't make me cry. It didn't make me sob.
I was too numb for that.

I want to explain to you why this book made me feel the way it did, why every person should read it, but I just can't do that. I can't pick this book apart, even in a positive way.

Just read it. Please. Just . . . please. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I'm reading a John Green book with a pizza bookmark.

I just thought this was too awesome not to share.

Between Shades of Gray

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch. 
Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. 
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously - and at great risk - documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

I'm going to be very blunt right now: I would have enjoyed this a lot more if I had read this before The Book Thief.
Now don't take that statement the wrong way.  I did think this was a good book, especially, for a debut. But I just didn't find it as amazing as most others seemed to.

The writing was pretty decent.  For a debut author, it wasn't bad at all--for the most part, it flowed very well, and didn't use any sort of phrasing that left me scratching my head or making weird faces.
My big problem was the dialogue.  The dialogue seemed very awkward and unrealistic to me.  I tried to convince myself that it was because they were in a different time period, and using a different language, but . . . excuse me for this, but I'm going to compare it to The Book Thief. That was set in the same time period, and while the language they spoke wasn't the same, they, too, were speaking a different language, and I never found that dialogue awkward whatsoever.  In Between Shades of Gray, I would sometimes say a line or two out loud and realize just how incredibly odd it sounded.  Some of the lines were beautiful, but they're just not something a human would say.
Aside from that, there were a few typos, but nothing too terrible.  I did like the writing, the dialogue just bothered me.

I had mixed feelings about Sepetys's characters.
On the one hand, I think it's beautiful how she showed their strength and determination and hope even under the harshest of circumstances.  All these characters were truly krasivaya(I'll let you find out what that means for yourself).  I loved reading about that, even when such ugly things happened.
But--ironically, considering the title--I felt most of the characters were too black and white. Too good or too bad.  Lina's mom, for example.  Her mom was a lovely woman, but I found it hard to truly love her because she seemed too good to be true, to me.  I felt like she never slipped up, like she was always the best person around. And while I realize there are some really amazing people out there, none of them are perfect.
In contrast, you have the NKVD. Save for Kretzky(whom I will mention later), they were mostly portrayed as pure evil.  While I can see how one of the deportees would see them as such, Kretzky can't have been the only one with more to him than that.  There had to be at least some of them with decency left inside.
Even, on a lesser scale, the bald man. I think she was trying to create one of those characters that you think you're gonna hate but you end up loving or liking them in the end because of some redeeming qualities, but . . . I never got that. He did a few decent things, but he said too many ridiculously cruel things for me to ever like him, at all.
Lina, as a narrator, was good.  I liked how she preserved their story through art and writing and how much she cared about her family. But same as with her mother, I  never loved her. I just never fully connected.
Kretzky was the only character I really connected with and liked. I think he was the most complex, well-developed character, and I would've liked to see even more of him.
Also, a nitpick here--how some of the characters were referred to bothered me.  The majority of the characters were referred to be phrases, like "the man who wound his watch" or "the grumpy woman."  After being in such close quarters with these people for over a year, I'd think they'd learn one another's names.  And then there are some whose names she learned later on, like "the little girl with the dolly," whose name was Janina, and so she referred to her as Janina from then on. Then why, after learning the bald man's name, did she not call him that?  It's a pretty small nitpick, but it bugged me.
Overall, Sepetys's characters were good, but I never fully connected.

First off, let me say that I think it's amazing Sepetys tackled the story of these poor people, which has been mostly hidden from us for decades.  If I'm being honest here, I had no idea what Stalin had done to these people until I read this book, and I think it's great that by writing this, she's finally spreading this story.
This is not a pretty story.  People die, gruesomely. People get beaten to the ground and treated like filth. People get disease. People get their modesty stripped away. People starve.
But the sad fact is, this really happened.  This happened to millions of people in the Baltic regions. And while what happened to them was terrifying, disgusting, unbelievable, as I mentioned before, it was very uplifting to see how they persevered even in the worst of times.
However, while the fact that this is all based on true stories makes this a very powerful book, I did have some nitpicks. Yes, more nitpicks.
The flashbacks. This bothered me less as the story went on and I saw that some of them were relevant to the current story, and I know it helped build up sympathy for her papa, so we could feel her sadness and anxiety along with Lina, but it bothered me when I'd be reading something and suddenly we're in a flashback. The flashbacks were never completely random--they always related to what was happening at that time in the story--but I just think some of them were unnecessary.
Andrius and Lina's romance. I can't say I ever felt that.  I didn't feel like there was a whole lot of build-up, and for a good while either Lina hated Andrius or Andrius hated Lina, and then it was just like boom, they're kissing, boom, they love each other, etc.  And then he was gone for the last, like, seventy pages.  I'm not saying that she shouldn't have included their romance--I think it's sort of nice to realize that some of the deportees found love in all that darkness. I just wish she could've developed it a bit better.
Sometimes, and this is sort of related to what I just said, I felt like there wasn't enough foreshadowing for things.  I felt like they just fell upon us, sitting here, unaware.  I can't name any specific times without giving some spoilers, but that just bothered me a bit.
Last nitpick(I promise): the ending. On the one hand, the ending was beautiful. It really was. But on the other hand, I would've liked a little bit more closure.  While some might argue that it's better as it is, I would've at least liked to know what happened to Jonas and her papa, if not some of the other more prominent characters who survived.  
But in the end, I can do nothing but congratulate Sepetys on this plot. For her debut novel, she tackled an incredibly difficult, powerful subject, and she did it well.

Now, I realize I've had a lot of nitpicks.  But I'm typically very harsh with book reviews. The fact that I had a lot of problems does not diminish the fact that, in the end, this is a very moving book.  And because of that, I am giving it four stars.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris - until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he's taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.

As winter melts into spring, will a year of romantic near - misses end with the French kiss Anna - and readers - have long awaited?

I heard a lot of amazing things about this book, so I was excited to read it. Obviously, as my rating indicates, I enjoyed it. But I did have some problems, and I'm going to list them first and get it over with.

1) The Caps Lock. For those of you who've read it, I need say no more. For those who haven't . . . DO ANYONE OF YOU ENJOY FEELING LIKE YOU'RE BEING SHOUTED AT THE ENTIRE BOOK?!(WHY CAN'T WE ALL JUST USE INTERROBANGS?!)

2) The name-change, and then how she kept using his last name then his first. It confused and annoyed me.

3) I felt like they were going in circles with their relationship. Like the same three steps kept happening over and over again and it took them the whole book to break free of the cycle: be friendly, start to get friendlier, suddenly become awkward turtles around one another/have big blow out/ignore each other completely. And I felt like so many times their feelings for each other were made so painfully obvious that the fact that they didn't realize how the other felt forced me to believe they were both so painfully dumb.

4) I feel like Mer got over it too quickly. I know, I know, they had time to simmer, and she was nasty the first day it happened, but after Anna apologized it was just . . . okay again. Eh. I dunno.

5) I always read Mer's name like Purr.

6) Anna.
I saved the biggest one for last.
See, I . . . I had mixed feelings about Anna.
Sometimes I really liked her. I liked her brand of humor, I liked the way she acted with Bridgette when they were friendly, I liked how she cared for Etienne and got him out during Thanksgiving break. I liked her obsession with films and film criticism. And that wasn't it. There were a lot of moments here where I really liked her.
But there were a lot of moments where I really wanted to smack her.
On the one hand, I do ask myself this: if I were her, would I react any differently? Would I be any less petty, or jealous? Would I be any less hormonal or blind?
The answer is probably no. But the thing about book characters is they're not usually supposed to depict a teen to the point where it's painful, because frankly, the average teen can get pretty damn annoying.
Anna's jealousy. That really bothered me. I get being jealous, it happens to all of us, but she got so ridiculously jealous over the smallest things, even before she had any sort of claim to St. Clair, and to me, it just made her seem really clingy and petty.
I felt like whenever St. Clair tried to be nice to her, she started yelling at him. And there were sometimes she started just yelling at people who didn't deserve it the slightest bit, and it got me so mad because I felt like she was fucking up her own relationships on purpose and then complaining about it.
Also. I could try and count the number of times she described St. Clair as beautiful, but frankly, that would be tiresome, and I'm . . . tired. But while it's certainly better than the "glorious" SMeyer seems to favor, after a while I was just thinking, Alright, I've got the point, he's short and ridiculously gorgeous.

And just . . . just overall, while sometimes I really liked Anna, by the end I was just kind of wondering what he saw in her that made him choose her over, say, Mer, who was probably a better person than Anna.


Etienne St. Claire.
'Nuff said?
Think so. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Matched by Ally Condie

In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.

Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it's a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she's destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can't stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society's infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.

I finally read this book.
I'm not going to lie; I was interested in reading it partially because this book sold for seven figures. That's, well, that's a lot of money. I was also interested in reading it because of the mixed reviews I'd read.
But really, if we're being honest here, the real reason I finally bought this was the gorgeous cover. I truly doubt this would've sold half as many copies if it weren't for the stunning cover work.
But to the book.

I'm going to do as I did in another review of mine and list the things I didn't like first, so I can get those over with. Then I can talk about what I liked.

The characters.
I didn't . . . connect. Am I saying I disliked Cassia? No. Not at all. There were actually only a few times where I got upset/annoyed with her. My main problem with her is that she was just nothing special. Nothing memorable. She's not one of those MC's who you remember years after reading them.
The next bit is both praise and criticism. First, I must praise Condie on being able to make both boys in a love triangle likable, not being heavy-handed and making one such a terrible option that the outcome is entirely obvious, even though the outcome was entirely obvious. But on the other hand, while I liked both Ky and Xander, especially Ky, I didn't love them. They're kind of like Cassia in the sense that there's really nothing wrong with them, they're just not especially memorable, to me.
Most of the other side characters don't stick in my mind, either. Two I did like were her grandfather and Bram. I felt like they were characterized much better than Cassia herself.

The setting.
On the one hand, I did get that . . . that feel you should get from a dystopian, the very distinct feeling that you are not in your world as you know it.
But on the other hand, I was never really able to picture the setting. I just couldn't picture it, the air trains, the City Hall, even the Burroughs. I didn't feel like I got a good sense of the layout of this Province, or, for that matter, the layout of the Society. Which continent is it on? Because since it doesn't seem to be separated by an ocean, it must be all on one continent. What are the other Province's names? How many are there? How big are they in comparison to the Outer Provinces?
I was too confused with this. Honestly, I finished this book still feeling confused on some things. I feel like Condie tried to add too much to her futuristic, choice-free society, and was unable to readily explain all her elements.
Also, I can't ignore how painfully similar some of this is to The Giver. While The Giver was more middle grade than YA and was narrated by a young boy, and while his society was less dramatic and more horrific than the one Cassia lives in, there are dozens of similarities one can draw between the two dystopians, and that's a bit upsetting.

The Enemy.
Um . . . what?
In the last, like, fifty pages, as they're taking Ky away, his uncle suddenly speaks of this Enemy the Society is fighting and losing a battle against. What Enemy? Why have we not heard one single mention of this Enemy before, and why is Cassia not surprised to hear about it considering she's never heard about it before?
That really confused me. I hope this is explained more in the following books.

I'd expect a book that sold for as much as this did to be just about flawless in the grammar department. This wasn't. I caught several typos, and there were numerous cases of incorrect punctuation, usually involving semi-colons and commas.
Also, this is a bit of a nitpick, but Cassia "teased" people way too much. There have to be words for this action other than "teased" and "joked."

Assuming Things.
Sometimes Cassia would take these big leaps and leave me wondering how she got from Point A to Point B. Like, she'd be thinking about one thing and suddenly, conveniently remember/think of something else. Like when she was sorting Ky, and suddenly, out of the blue asked herself why they hadn't been allowed to share from Grandfather's plate after not wondering this since the beginning of the book. While it might seem logical looking back, I'm pretty sure the average person would not have made that connection.

Dialogue/Inner Thoughts.
Sometimes the dialogue was very sweet, sometimes it was beautiful, sometimes it was powerful, but never did it feel realistic to me. I tried saying some of the things they said out loud and I sounded absolutely ridiculous. Sometimes their dialogue read so much like narration that I almost felt like Condie had just accidentally put quotation marks around it. Also, for a while it seemed like they were talking a bit differently than we do, with few to no contractions and a different sort of . . . style, for lack of a better word. But then the speak became just like we would talk today, when they weren't talking like the narrator.
And then Cassia's inner thoughts . . . I just felt like that was Condie speaking directly to the reader and trying to make us think things, because there is just no way someone would think in the way she does. Often people's thoughts are just random, disjointed sentences, so when thoughts start reading like a narrator telling a story, you know there's a problem.h

The Romance.
Ky and Cassia. Now, I'm not going to go ahead and say that they didn't have chemistry, because they did. I could see how they fell for each other. But I feel like I didn't actually see them falling for each other. I'm having a hard time putting how I feel into words. It's just--I felt like one moment they were just sort-of distant friends who'd suddenly realized there was more to the other than they knew, and then boom, insta-love. While in the technical timeline of events they grew to love each other over at least a month, the way it happened in the book, it felt way too quick for me.

Why Cassia suddenly started wishing for change. Why she wanted her whole world to change.
So she could be with a guy.
I know, I know. Matched is a dystopian love story. I get that. But I feel like all it really came down to was Ky. That's the reason she wanted to overthrow society's rules. Before she knew more about the darker aspects of the Society, she wanted to overthrow it not because it was oppressive or to give everyone a better life, but because she wanted to be with a guy that wasn't her Match.
Also, something I usually like in these sort of stories is seeing the main character slowly realize how flawed their society is, and I didn't feel that with Cassia. I felt like I just flipped the page and suddenly she thought the Society was terrible and evil, after thinking it was perfect for so long. I didn't really see that development, and for a long time I didn't get that emotional depth of everything you've ever believed in being false.

My last big problem that I can remember at the moment is that there were some scenes that I thought should have been more suspenseful, more important, and they weren't. It sometimes felt like big events were treated like the expected.

Now that we're done with the bad, I'm just gonna talk about the good for a while. But I warn you, I'm tired, so this might be a lot shorter and more ramble-y than the above section.

The poetry. I loved how Condie used poetry to help show Cassia what she was missing, and as a way to connect her to Ky. Her love for language and her desire to write made her more relatable to me than really anything else, because I myself am a writer. It was also the cause for a number of really powerful moments that I loved.

I loved Ky telling his story to Cassia. Even though I can't imagine most people, especially guys, actually writing what he did, it was still a great plot device and when we find out what happened to his parents, his worlds literally gave me chills.

The writing itself. I've seen this compared to Delirium more times than I can count, and something I've heard a lot is "similar concept, but Delirium is better written." While I can't say I've read Delirium, I can say with confidence that I really love Condie's style. She has a beautiful way with words, and has that innate ability to make certain descriptions and certain scenes really magical. She also is a killer at beginning and ending scenes/chapters. It always bugs me when an author cuts off scenes or chapters at a really bad spot, but that is not something to worry about with Matched. Her endings were spot-on.

The repeated motif of do not go gently. I feel like that's so appropriate for a dystopian that, as most dystopians do, involves rebellion. Do not go gently.
It's perfect.

Her parents' love. While this is startlingly similar to The Giver in some aspects, one thing that is very different is the family relationships. In The Giver, families feel nothing for one another. But here, Cassia's parents truly loved each other, and their children, and their children loved them, and they all loved Grandfather. And it was really nice to see their family united like that even amidst the chaos.

I debated between a three star and a four star, but as you can see, I settled with four. Some might be confused; my list of things I disliked is much longer than that of the things I liked. But frankly, it's much easier to talk about things you don't like than things you do, and I'm tired.

I'd recommend this read for dystopian lovers, but if you're not a fan of romance, stay away, because make no mistake, the bare bones of this are not dystopia; this is a romance in a dystopian setting. 

Definitely a good read. Will be looking out for Crossed.