Tuesday, August 6, 2013

REVIEW: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

The Death of Bees
by Lisa O'Donnell

"Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.  Neither of them were beloved."

Marnie and her little sister Nelly bury their parents in the backyard on Christmas Eve. They were rotten parents, anyway. Marnie has grown up too fast, talking tough, wearing fishnets and short skirts and lipstick, selling drugs for a guy named Mick who she occasionally sleeps with, at the young age of 15. Nelly is younger and speaks like a grandmother with her "good gracious" and her "local constabulary." She sounds like a Jane Austen novel, and she is obsessed with Harry Potter. She might be a little off, but Marnie ferociously protects her. Lennie is the older next door neighbor who starts to notice that they are alone. He has a troubled past that will not let him be, and he invites the girls over to his home to care for them as much as they will let him. Then one day, the girls' grandfather comes looking for them. He ran out on their mother but he says he's changed. He is asking questions about their parents' whereabouts. Is he trustworthy? Will he find out his daughter is buried in the backyard? How did they really die? If all is revealed, will things get better for the girls, or a whole lot worse?

This book was the first book I read after the YA class, and it was fantastic! I loved the narration in three separate voices: Marnie as the slang-slinging tough girl, Nelly as the posh but vulnerable waif, and Lennie, speaking to his dead partner, as the emotional (not literal) grandfather of the girls. You would hear of the same event from all three different points of view and get drastically different information. It is amazing to hear their voices develop throughout the book: one becomes more natural, one becomes more assertive, one slowly looses their grip.

This book is about family. About how the family you get can be horribly broken, and how you survive and make a new one. And it's not just about the girls. It is about the whole community of poor living in Maryhill, Scotland. How they make the best or the worst of it. There is a beautiful passage about immigrants:

"It is dangerous and not because of the refugees they've housed there but because of the wee radges who don't like the refugees there. Glaswegians are very territorial, even in a shit hole like Sighthill. It never occurs to them the accents around them belong to doctors and nurses, teachers and lawyers, educated people forced out of nice homes in beautiful lands only to be stored in tower blocks in the northeast of Glasgow. I mean seriously. Imagine losing everything you are and everyone you know, to have survived rape, starvation, and homelessness, to have escaped death at the hands of genocidal maniacs only to end up in a moldy housing estate. Now we have immigrants with university degrees and doctorates prostituting themselves, selling drugs and doing whatever they must to survive the hell we call asylum..."

 Oh and the book is really darkly funny (and a bit gross in parts, so don't read it while you are eating). I highly recommend it! It is a fast read!

REVIEW: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork

“I deal with people like him a hundred times a day. They look at me and naturally assume I'm not as smart as they are. God help us. But think about it, it's a tremendous tactical advantage, not to mention personally liberating, to have others think I'm a dummy.” 

Marcelo is somewhere on the autism spectrum, close to Aspergers, but his doctors have been unable to clearly diagnose him. His special interests are religion and his internal music which sings in the back of his mind and no one else can hear. He is looking forward to spending the summer caring for the ponies at Paterson, the school for developmentally challenged kids he has been attending his whole life. However, his father thinks that he needs time in "the real world" and tells him he has to take a summer job at his father's law firm. Confronted with the real world, Marcelo must squelch his natural interests (talking about religion makes people uncomfortable) and learn the complex rules of the office. He meets Jasmine, his boss, and Wendell, the privileged son of another lawyer, and they help him to see, for better or for worse, what the real world is like. One day, Marcelo sees the photograph of a girl whose face has been sliced in half by a faulty windshield, and he must wrestle with what the real world thinks is correct, and what his heart tells him to do.

Marcelo was a beautiful book! I loved his unique voice right from the start: his need for clarification, his precise imagery (the phone ring sounding like it was full of rage). It was so unfamiliar and yet familiar at the same time. I too have a need for schedules and routine, and sometimes feel overstimulated or unwilling to venture into unknown places.

I was expecting the journey of an autistic boy learning to relate socially to people. I did not expect the deep spiritual elements in this book. And I did not expect the journey of a person from weakness to strength. I didn't expect Marcelo to become a hero with more clarity and self-awareness than most people I know.
I was profoundly impacted by his relationship with Rabbi Herschel and the moments they wrestled with the will of God: the tree of good and evil, and the final scene when they discuss how to listen to what is right, the fact that the right thing might hurt people, but we must trust that God will use the hurt in a positive way. They both touched me deeply.

I was not expecting Wendell the predator. He was such a danger, lurking there in the back of every moment Marcelo’s father was such an intriguing and multidimensional character. I don't want to give too much away, but somewhere he takes a wrong turn and has a difficult time getting back on track. That story is not quite resolved to my satisfaction, but real life never is.

This book is an amazing peak into someone's head that on the street might appear very different to you, but Marcelo struggles with the same things everyone does. He just comes at it from a different perspective. I was sad that towards the end, he begins to loose some of his uniqueness in favor of fitting in, but he develops a gentleness and a strength and a clarity of purpose that I envy. This book is great for those who are searching, for those who do not always fit in, and for those who struggle with what is right and wrong.

Books Like This
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Monday, August 5, 2013

REVIEW: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go
by Patrick Ness

“Noise ain't Truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there's a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don't watch out.” 

Todd lives in a strange town. Firstly, they are colonists on a lonely planet: religious colonists like the Pilgrims. Second, there are only men. All the women died when a terrible virus swept through the town, killing all the women and allowing all the men to hear each other's thoughts. It follows the men around like a cloud and they call it The Noise. There are no secrets in Prentisstown. Also, all the animals can talk, which is advantageous in some cases, but when you have an annoying dog who always has to poo, it appears more as an irritating situation.

One day, when Todd and Manchee (his dog) travel to the swamp to gather fruit for his adopted fathers, Todd is startled by a patch of quiet moving through ancient huts. When he returns home, his fathers force him to flee as the sheriff and his posse try to break down the door. Armed only with a book from his dead mother that he cannot read, a knife, his dog and baffled confusion and anger at his situation, Todd stumbles into the wilderness and meets the last thing he expected: a girl. He and Viola must hazard a dangerous preacher, hunger, wild animals, illness, and the string of communities who have all learned to deal with the Noise in different and often disturbing ways, to get to a legendary city called Haven. Along the way, Todd must begin to learn the awful secret of Prentisstown and resist the urge to complete it's corruption.

This book is absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately the most fantastic parts about it would reveal some pretty significant spoilers about the plot. I will do my best.

First of all, Manchee is the best dog. Ness did not give him more intellect than we would expect a dog to have, but the smooth flow of communication between man and dog was beautiful and made me wish we could communicate with our pets like that. We might not be able to discuss Aristotle with them, but the simplicity and clarity and harmony would be wonderful.

The world-building is fantastic. Ness represents the Noise with pages of scrawled writing overlapping and weaving in and out to make it crowded and chaotic and difficult to read. Prentisstown has become so sad and isolated that corruption is rampant. What started off as a quaint town of settlers has morphed into a booze-soaked, depressed, inbred (figuratively) and lost wasteland. The highlight of the book is is how the other towns Todd and Viola encounter have each dealt with the problem in their own way, a cultural Darwinian evolution, sometimes to great success, and other times to rather disturbing ends.

Todd and Viola are reluctant allies, with him spouting Noise while she has a bubble of silence around her. As their partnership grows, they are tested more and more as the Prentisstown men give chase, until Todd makes a horrible decision he can never take back. He must carry the weight of what he has done and find out the mysteries of the world he thought he knew before it is too late.

It is a wonderful exploration of what it is to know someone and what it means to be a man. And the cliffhanger ending blew my mind. I have never read a book with that much of a cliffhanger. It felt like the end to a season on a TV series rather than a book. I can't wait for the next one!

Books Like This
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REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Message from Me: I realize it has been an entire month since I have posted. That is because I have been reading a bagillion YA novels, some of which were great, some of which were crap. I have selected a few of the great ones to review (and will spare you the crap ones) and then I can get back to doing what I do best: reading books I want to read! Huzzah! Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

The Hunger Games 
by Suzanne Collins

“Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don't expect it because I don't think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim's place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.” 

(If you have read the book, you can skip this part) Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panam. Once the Districts rose up against the capital city, and now, to remind them of their terrible defeat, the capital city requires each district to send one male and one female child as tribute to compete in the yearly Hunger Games. The children must compete to survive, and there is only one winner. Katniss volunteers to spare her sister from the games and is plunged into a world of false pageantry and glamour until the day of the games dawns. She, and her fellow tribute Peeta, must survive at all costs. But in the end, only one of them can go home.

This is the third time I have traveled through The Hunger Games, but the first time I have read it in print. I first listened to the audio book, which did not leave a good impression on me. The actress playing Katniss had a thin whiny quality to her voice that made me dislike her. Then, I saw the movie, which I thought was a good adaptation. However, I loved reading this book.

Katniss is a smart, strong character, not at all whiny like the audio book had me believe. She focuses on the next thing that will help her survive. Her silence and distrust for everyone is not natural. It comes from her oppression. She learned to keep her mouth shut. She is pragmatic because she has to be. The one thing that remained from the audio book was my frustration at her being such a poor judge of character. If she had been horribly wronged in some way by someone she trusted out of malice, I could understand how she would see the worst in Peeta’s motives for so long. However, he has been nothing but kind to her, and she always questions it.

Now that I have read it again, smaller details start moving to the fore, like her relationship with her father and how it is a source of strength for her, and her relationship with her mother and her feeling of betrayal at her mother’s depression (which I had not realized was medical, rather than emotional).

The book is fast paced and action packed. It always seems longer when someone is reading it to you, but I zipped through this book, and was always surprised how the next adventure was right on top of the last one. It still dragged for me at the end, especially the one time when you think that Peeta and Katniss are getting out of the cave for good and going off to kill Cato, but then have to return for a final night in the cave.

The survival parts, where Katniss is alone in the woods, surviving and fighting and planning are so much more compelling to me than the romantic parts. In this read, I realized how truly clueless Peeta was that Katniss was pretending to love him. For some reason I thought the book had more Gale and Peeta romance bits, but perhaps that was because I listened to all the audio books in a row and lost the demarcation of each book.

This book is violent and disturbing, yes, but it is based on the old myth, Theseus and the Minotaur where young people were sent as tribute to feed the Minotaur. It is not as gory as Battle Royale, a movie of with a similar plot line, nor is it as disturbing as other books we have read this year (Never Fall Down). It is in fact, rather tame.

Children kill other children, but when you are a child, you see yourself as capable of adult things. You see yourself as the adventuresome hero who can do what must be done. In a way it is good that Suzanne Collins has so clearly defined the good guys from the bad guys, and that our protagonists only kill in self-defense, by accident, or through mercy.  If the delineations had been more nebulous, I would certainly be concerned or if our main characters had no regard for the lives of those they killed. As much as I love fully fleshed out villains, and ambiguous protagonists, the subject matter is such that it might have led to readers taking a callous view of human life.

Funny side note: The first time I listed to Hunger Games on audio book, my boyfriend and I were traveling to Disney World. We got to the hotel and were staring up at the plastic fountains and twinkle lights and smiling faces and perfect bedrooms, and the irony of the situation began to sink in.

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