Friday, December 31, 2010

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Rating: PG-13; 4 ½

Summary: Rhine lives in a world devastated by a genetic virus: females only live to be 20, males to 25. At 16, Rhine is kidnapped and sold to be one of three new brides for wealthy architect whose father is desperately trying to find a cure for this virus. Although she is treated well by her new husband, and forms fledgling friendships with the other girls around her, Rhine is desperate to find a way home to her twin brother. She becomes even more desperate when she finds out that all isn't as it seems in her new home, and that the seemingly harmless may be surprisingly sinister.

Opinions: To start off, I had the impression, based on the formatting of the excerpt on Simon and Schuster's website, that this would be a novel in verse. Now let me tell you, dystopian fiction is my favorite genre, and verse novels are my favorite format, so I was pretty excited about that. Well, it isn't. However, that shouldn't be a huge deterrent for anyone, because there are many times throughout the course of the novel that DeStefano's prose definitely feels like poetry; her writing can be truly beautiful. I've been obsessing over this novel since I stumbled upon it, and because of that I have read some of the short fiction that DeStefano has on her website. It all has this dreamy, poetic feel to it that sticks with you.

I really enjoyed this book. It's about a medium-length book, not too long, not too short. Still, I could have breezed through it in about a day and a half, if I had wanted to. I chose to savor it instead—wondering what would happen to Rhine and her sister-wives. It was worth it. The characters are very life-like and consistent. They all have their personalities, and when they do change, it feels real. Occasionally, Rhine's sister-wife, Cecily, can be the exception to that, but the reader can go along with it because she is significantly younger than the other characters. There were times when Rhine's determination to escape to find her brother irritated me, but I realized halfway through the novel that this was because I knew I would never be brave enough to do the same. The world is realistic too—you can feel the hopelessness of a society that never ages, and the descriptions of everything, from desolate Manhattan to glitzy parties, makes it all seem real. Between the characters and the world, this book really draws you in.

Now for the ratings: this book is definitely PG-13. Part of the plot has to do with controversial genetic experiments, etc. There is also some violence, particularly in the first chapter, as sort of an initiation of the reader into DeStefano's world. There is some sexual content, but most of it is brief, and none of it is graphic. Some readers may have an issue with the ages of the characters having sex, but because society dies so soon, it is a necessity and not merely to shock the reader. I am unsure as to whether 4 ½ stars is the right rating for this book. I absolutely loved it, but part of me thinks that something was missing. I worry that I am biased because it turned out to not be in verse, when I thought it would be. Rest assured that it is an excellent book, and if it isn't 4 ½ stars, then it is certainly worth five stars.

Overall, this was a fantastic book. The ending seemed a little bit rushed (mainly the final chapter), but this is a trilogy, and assuming the next book picks up right, the ending shouldn't be that much of an issue at all. I certainly am looking forward to the next book in this series, and I hope that DeStefano keeps writing, because I will keep reading her work (on a side note—according to Goodreads her influences include Francesca Lia Block and Vladimir Nabokov, two of my favorite authors. No wonder I like her writing so much!)

Disclaimer: ARC was provided by the publisher. The release date is currently set for March of 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Matched by Ally Condie

Matched by Ally Condie

Rating: PG-13; 4 ½ stars

Summary: Cassia lives in the future, in a time when people live relatively pain-free lives, but there are no choices. On her seventeenth birthday, Cassia is Matched with Xander, the boy she will marry one day. However, there's a hitch. When Cassia gets home and reviews her Matching materials, it isn't Xander's face she sees. It's that of her friend Ky. Although she is assured that it is merely a glitch, and that she is, indeed, matched with Xander, Cassia can't get Ky off her mind. The more she gets to know him, the more it seems that perhaps her society isn't as perfect as it seemed.

Opinions: I thought the premise of this book was really interesting. It seems to me that the current trend for YA dystopian fiction is that world has gone to pot and everyone is miserable (examples include Unwind by Neal Schusterman, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, and the as-yet unreleased Wither by Lauren DeStefano). Matched however, seems to go back to the trend of society seems perfect until the protagonist takes a closer look at it (the best example of which is The Giver by Lois Lowry).

As it turns out, Matched has a lot in common with The Giver. Looking at other reviews online, it seems that many readers looked at this negatively. I view it differently. The Giver is my favorite book of all time. Although there were many similarities between Matched's Society and The Giver's Community, the focus of the novels were completely different. And as far as this type of dystopian lit goes (where life seems perfect, but really isn't), there are only so many different options. Choice has to be taken away from people; emotions must be suppressed. Had the focus of the novels been the same, I might accuse Condie of plaigarism. However, the focus of Matched was entirely different from that of The Giver, both plot-wise and in what they tell the reader about so-called utopia.

I really enjoyed Matched. As I mentioned before, I thought that the premise was a good one. It is rare in a dystopian novel to find a character who does not seek to change their entire society at some point in the novel. And although that goal may come later on in the series (I believe this is set to be a trilogy), it hasn't shown up yet. Everything that Cassia does is motivated by her own interests and her love for the family and friends around her. This makes the novel feel a lot more personal. She's doing the same things that an ordinary teenager might do if placed in her world.

I liked the way the plot unfolded, too. Information was revealed bit by bit, so that the reader could sense something was wrong at the same time that Cassia realized it. There was only one point in the novel when I figured something out before Cassia did, and at the time I didn't think it was a big deal (I was later proven wrong, but that just means that I didn't get it all right). In general, the pacing was good. As it got towards the end, the book definitely reached “unputdownable” level, which was a problem because I was at the dentist at the time. I will say that the very end (meaning the last two chapters or so) was a bit disappointing, but I understand that Condie had to sort of let things down a bit for the next book.

I almost rating this book a PG. There is very little violence and no swearing or sexual content, but I feel like some of the concepts and ideas can be difficult, both to understand and to accept (meaning that they were cruel, not poorly explained). This novel was very good, hence the 4 ½ stars, but it was missing that final oomph that would push it into the 5 star range. However, I have a prediction that the series as a whole could be 5 star material. In general this was a very good book, and I can't wait for the next installment.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Bottle in The Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

By Valerie Zenatti

Rating: PG; 4 ½ stars

Summary: Tal lives in Jerusalem. When her brother is sent by the Israeli army to Gaza, she sends him with a request: to put a message in a bottle in the Gaza Sea. She desperately wants to communicate with a Palestinian girl like her, to see if Israelis and Palestinians really are all that different. However, when she receives the first email from her Palestinian pen-pal, she finds that they are not a girl her age, but a boy, Naim. Thus begins a most interesting friendship. Though at first their emails are fraught with cultural misunderstandings (mostly on the part of the sometimes overoptimistic Tal), they soon become close friends. Their friendship is put to the test when Tal's love of film making causes her to witness something terrible.

Opinions: This book was a very quick read, but the story lingers with you afterward, making it seem longer than it actually is. Naim and Tal are ordinary teenagers with ordinary lives, they just happen to live in an area of conflict. Had they lives elsewhere, where distance was the only thing that separated them, I don't think there would have been a story. The stumblings and fumblings of Tal and Naim's initial contact are very realistic; they are both quick to be defensive, despite wanting to prove that Israelis and Palestinians can get along. I read this pretty much in one afternoon, and was crying by the end of it. It is a very powerful story that stays with you long after it ends.

Aside from the actual story, I loved the writing. I hate to remark on it, since this is a translation, but I really thought the writing was wonderful. It was simple and eloquent, and it really spoke to me.

I think that this is a fantastic read for American teenagers; so often we hear about conflict in the Middle East, but we don't often get this sort of glimpse into the lives of people just like us. I will emphasize again: Tal and Naim are ordinary people. They stress over tests; they have little crushes. Yet in addition to worrying about school, money, or family, they also have to worry about bombs.

I gave this book a PG because there really isn't that much violence or language or sexual content, but being a YA book, it is of course not appropriate for all audiences. The 4 ½ stars is because this really is a wonderful book. It is missing that final wow factor that would push it up into the 5 star range, but it really is great. I feel like perhaps if I read it in the original French (if I had that much skill in French), that alone might push it into the 5 star range. I tend to be a bit distrustful of translations, just because a lot can be lost between the limitations of either language. If you are fluent in French, I encourage you to look for this in the original language. Still, this is definitely a fantastic book. I think that it goes really well with In the Name of God, by Paula Jolin, which made my Top Ten list for 2009. They both showcase conflict in the Middle East from a less-than-typical angle.