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Book Review: The Postmortal by Drew Magary (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Green book cover with a grim reaper impaled on his own scythe.Summary:
John Farrell got The Cure before it was legal.  Three painful shots, and now he’ll never age, although he can still be killed by accidents, murder, and disease.  It doesn’t take long before public pressure forces governments to legalize The Cure, in spite of the concerns, sometimes expressed in the form of terrorist acts, of those who believe in natural aging.  Of course, nobody listens, because who wants to age?  But slowly the world starts to change in more ways than becoming increasingly overpopulated.  We’ve reassembled what happened when The Cure was legal through combining John’s blog entries with news articles from his time period, as a cautionary tale.

Review:
I actually bought this when it was released because it sounded so intriguing to me.  A futuristic epistolary novel looking at overpopulation is right up my alley.  Unfortunately, I got so busy that I didn’t have time to read it right away.  I was happy to be able to finally pick it up.  The book presents an interesting dystopia but the storytelling struggles increasingly throughout the book, falling flat at the end.

The book starts out incredibly strong.  Magary strikes the right balance of realistic personal blog entries with snippets of news, twitter/facebook feeds, etc… to tell the early story of The Cure.  The world building doesn’t suffer at all, with a clear near-future established, and John’s character is immediately easy to understand.  The years immediately after The Cure is legalized are similarly well-told, with Magary choosing interesting and realistic consequences to The Cure, including violent anti-Cure extremists, peaceful anti-Cure moderates, bohemian everlasting youth, those who build fortresses around themselves and their families, and even internet trolls who take their trolling out into real life.

The world slowly establishes to the point where it’s clearly too overpopulated, and various governments make various choices about how they’re going to deal with that, and John gets caught up in the control side of the US government’s choices.  It is here, midway through the book, where things stop being so well-written and thought out and stop working quite so well.

First, the parameters of The Cure seem clear early on in the book.  It appears that it cures not just aging but any illness that could be correlated to being the result of aging, such as heart disease.  It is clearly listed out that The Cure protects you from many things but not extreme things like AIDS or being smashed by a safe.  Later on in the book, though, those who have The Cure but have a real age of elderly start having diseases that tend to show up late in life, such as cancer and heart disease.  This shakiness of exactly what The Cure does is a real problem in the book’s world building.  The reader expects one set of parameters but then gets a different one.

Second, although early in the book Magary strikes a great balance of realistic blog entries, news articles, and twitter/facebook feeds, as the book continues on, this balance drops off, and the book reads more and more like a straight-forward first-person narration, with only the occasional news article.  This makes it harder to believe these are real blog entries, particularly as they get more and more unrealistically long as John becomes busier and does more dangerous tasks.

Similarly, as the world becomes more complex, some of the world building choices make less and less sense.  For instance, a certain country chooses to periodically blow up its cities with nuclear bombs in order to control its population. It’s hard to imagine any country dumping nuclear waste into itself just to control population.  Surely even just bombs with less environmental impact would be chosen.  Similarly, a certain type of violent gang becomes rampant across the US but their motivations or reasons for turning so violent and bloody are never examined.  Are they striving to be the only people left? Do they just enjoy causing chaos? Dehumanizing them makes it easy to other them, which in turn makes the dystopic future less frightening, as it’s only the crazy, monstrous people who form into violent gangs.  Some of these limits come from the fact that our main character, whose blog entries we’re reading, isn’t a particularly inquisitive person.  He tumbles along and doesn’t seem to care much about anything, particularly in the final portions of the book.  Yes, he is probably depressed, but even early on he never seems that interested in other viewpoints.  The rare two occasions where we get glimpses into something besides his day-to-day life are once at the behest of his job, and once because his son implores him to come to his church.  In other words, it takes extraordinary circumstances for John, our narrator, to investigate anything other than what is right in front of his face, which makes for a story that’s missing a lot of information about this dystopic future, particularly when we only get John’s perspective for hundreds of years.  The story would probably have been better served by analyzing multiple different people’s blogs.  Perhaps John’s, his son’s mother’s, his son’s, his partner’s at work, a troll’s, etc…. This would have given the same epistolary feel but also more information about the dystopic world and more depth.

Finally, the ending takes a sharp turn into manic pixie dream girl land, that I found incredibly frustrating.  John makes a sudden, completely inexplicable, unrealistic change in personality thanks to a manic pixie dream girl showing up (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope).  Given the whole rest of the book, the ending was completely out of left field, and frankly felt lazy.  A much richer, deeper ending could have been written that went right into the depth and darkness of John’s soul, giving him no miraculous last-minute redemption.  Instead his character does a complete 180 and gives the reader an unexpected, and unearned, ending.

Given all of these complaints, why am I still giving the book three stars?  The world it sets up is awesome.  It’s a dystopia I want to visit again and again.  The first third of the book handles the futuristic, tech-savvy epistolary novel really well, and that’s hard to do.  Finally, most of my complaints have to do with the author not giving me enough, not taking things deep enough, dark enough, not living up to the writing in the first third of his own book.  It’s a sign of a good book to leave me wanting more, and that’s why I’m still happy I read it.  It’s a creative vision of a dystopic future that I hadn’t seen before, and I would love to see more books set in it.  Recommended to fans of dystopias who won’t mind a frustrating ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #2)

June 13, 2011 2 comments

Red sword on cloudy background.Summary:
Melissa Miller is your typical 16 year old–mom, dad, annoying sister, a jerk of an ex-boyfriend–with one small difference.  She deals with her emotions by cutting herself.  She keeps a razor in a locked box in her closet and pulls it out when she gets overwhelmed.  One night she accidentally cuts too deep, and Death shows up with an option.  Either die now or become one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War.  Missy chooses the latter option, and as she gets to know the other Horsemen and her job as War, she starts to realize she needs to face the rage inside her.

Review:
Speaking as someone who knows a lot about mental illness, self-injury is one of the illnesses that people who don’t have it have the most difficulty understanding.  It seems bizarre to those who don’t self-injure, even as for the self-injurer those moments of cutting or burning or whatever chosen method are the best coping mechanism they can come up with.  It’s not easy for those who don’t self-injure to understand, which is why I am so impressed at how well Morse Kessler has grasped the inner workings of the self-injurer in order to write such a well-rounded, sympathetic character as Missy.

Missy is simultaneously relatable as a typical teenager, for instance she gets horribly embarrassed at a party one night, but she also has this deep, dark, misunderstood secret.  Gradually other teens find out and are either concerned or lash out at her due to their fear and lack of understanding, but Missy feels that she can’t confide in even the sympathetic ones.  In perhaps one of the most powerful passages, the reader gets to see exactly why Missy cuts, while she simultaneously explains why she can’t explain it to her sister.

She could tell her that she turned to the blade because she wanted to live and sometimes pain was the only thing that kept her alive. She could tell her that she was terrified of things she couldn’t even begin to name, that friends could be fickle and lovers could be false. She could try to explain all of that and more, and maybe her sister would understand. But trust was as fragile and cutting as a crystal sword. (page 100)

That is perhaps the most clear, succinct explanation of self-injury I’ve seen outside of nonfiction clinical books.  Missy’s reasons for cutting are clear, even as it becomes more and more evident to the reader that this coping mechanism is not truly addressing Missy’s real problems.

Of course, the fantasy element comes to play here again, and it works perhaps even better this time around.  Giving the fantasy personas for Missy to talk to and express herself to gives her a safe space to think out her emotions instead of cutting them out.  There are also a few cameos from Famine, which is fun to see after reading the first book.  The fantasy also works here because it  helps give the book a distance that makes it less triggering.  There are intense emotional moments, but then Death shows up with a humorous quip to lighten the situation.  It addresses the real problems without getting bogged down in over-emotionality.

This book will give self-injuring teens a way to see themselves reflected in literature and accepted and loved for who they are.  It will give them a chance to maybe address their own emotions and issues.  Similarly, non-self-injuring teens will hopefully become more empathetic to their peers who struggle with it.  It’s a book that is simultaneously enlightening but not preachy.  I highly recommend it to teens and those who work in mental health or with teenagers.

5 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

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Previous Books in Series:
Hunger, review

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Pile of books.

Book Review: Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #1)

March 21, 2011 4 comments

Scales on a black background.Summary:
Lisabeth Lewis thought it was just a nightmare.  Death coming to her when she tried to commit suicide with her mom’s antidepressants and offering to make her Famine–one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–instead of letting her die.  It’s just all way too ironic, her as Famine.  After all, she’s fat.  She has to watch what she eats very carefully.  The Thin voice tells her all the time exactly how many calories each bit of food is and how much exercise it’ll take to burn it off.  Yes.  Lisabeth Lewis is fat.  So why would Death assign Famine to her anyway?

Review:
When I heard the concept of this new YA series–each horseman of the apocalypse representing and dealing with a mental health issue relevant to teens–I was incredibly skeptical.  Writing about mental illness in a way that teens can relate to without talking down to them as well as in a responsible manner is difficult enough without having a fantasy element present.  Toss in the fantasy and I was worried this would either read like one of those old 1950s cautionary films shown in highschools or would miss dealing with the mental illness entirely.  Boy was I wrong.  Kessler has found such a unique, creative way to address a mental illness yet cushions it in the fantasy so that it isn’t too in your face.  It’s the ideal scenario for teens reading about it, but it’s also enjoyable for adults.

The fantasy element is very tongue-in-cheek.  It strongly reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in style.  For instance, Death resembles a heroin-chic dead rock star, and he speaks in  a mix of classic English and mocking teen speak to Lisa.

“Thou art Famine, yo,” Death said.  “Time to make with the starvation.” (Location 661)

It quickly becomes apparent that Death and the Horsemen aren’t entirely what they initially seem to be.  Indeed, they seem to function to get Lisa out of her own head and problems and to look at the greater world around her.  She literally travels the world on her horse and sees real hunger, and it affects her.  It doesn’t make her feel guilty for being anorexic, but it makes her want to be better so she will be strong enough to help others.  That’s a key element of any mental illness treatment.  Getting the person to see outside of themselves, and Kessler has personified it through the Four Horsemen.

She, Lisabeth Lewis, seventeen and anorexic and suicidal and uncertain of her own path–she’d done something that mattered.  She’d ignored her own pain and had helped others.  Maybe she wanted to live after all.  (Location 2007)

Of course the non-fantastical passages dealing with Lisa’s anorexia and her friend’s bulimia are incredibly realistic.  If they weren’t, the book would immediately fail as the whole thing would ring false to the teens reading it.  Her anorexia is dealt with as a very real thing even as the Four Horsemen are presented as either truth or hallucinations of her starved mind.  This is key.  The anorexia cannot be presented as an element of fantasy.

I was concerned the ending would be too clean-cut.  I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice it to say, Kessler handles the ending in a realistic, responsible manner.  There are no easy solutions, but there are solutions to strive for.

Overall, Hunger takes the incredibly real problem of anorexia and presents it with a touch of fantasy to help bring the reader not only into the mind of the anorexic but also outside of herself to look at the bigger picture.  It is an inspiring, fresh take on YA lit dealing with mental illness, and I highly recommend it to fans of YA lit as well as those interested in literature dealing with mental illnesses.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Battle Royale Ultimate Edition Volume 1 by Koushun Takami (Manga) (Series, #1)

January 22, 2010 4 comments

A Note on Me and Graphic Novels:
This, believe it or not, was my first foray into the world of graphic novels.  I was spurred into this new territory by my intense love of the movie Battle Royale.  I know that there’s also a traditional book out there, but I’d heard the manga is what the author feels really fulfills his vision of the story.  I received the first volume of the ultimate edition, which contains the first three mangas in the series, for Chrismukkah.  I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy reading a graphic novel.  I tend to associate them with superheroes, and I’m not generally a fan of superhero stories (except Ironman. Robert Downey Jr., *swoon*).  But this.  This was a story I already knew I liked, so I came at the genre with a much more open mind than the once or twice I flipped through a superhero graphic novel.  You guys, I absolutely love the feeling of reading a graphic novel.  I could literally feel different parts of my brain working at it than that work when reading a regular book, playing videogames, writing, or watching a movie.  It’s like a portion of my brain was like “Oh hai.  You finally remembered I exist!”  I love that I’m only reading dialogue, because I hate extensive descriptions in books.  I love that the drawings are art that I actually enjoy looking at the fine details of.  I love it that when I flip back to show scenes to other people, I notice things in the drawings I didn’t see the first time around.  I’m officially a convert to the genre, but you still won’t see me reading about superheroes anytime soon.

Summary:
In an alternate history of Japan, Japan comes under the rule of a totalitarian, isolationist government after WWII.  The government rules through terror, and part of that terror is selecting, supposedly via lottery, one 9th grade class every year to compete in a televised game where it is kill or be killed.  Shuuya never expected to win this lottery, but when his class goes on a field trip, upon arrival they discover that they are this year’s participants on an island location.  They discover collars on their necks that will detonate if more than one is left alive at a certain point and also if they wander into the randomly assigned and changing forbidden zones.  As the teens attempt to survive the game through various methods, flashbacks tell the story of the 9th grade class members.

Review:
I absolutely love this story.  I love violent, gory stories, and there are creative deaths galore here.  For instance, the weapons include a scythe, and that scythe gets used.  In one particularly memorable scene, a girl desperately attempts to stuff a boy’s brains back into his skull.  It’s freaking amazing.  There’s also graphic sex, ranging from rape to love.  I don’t like my books to pretend like sex doesn’t happen in the real world, because um, it does.  The fact that sex can be wonderful and about emotions or horrible and about power is wonderfully depicted.

The manner of introducing these characters tossed together in a horrible situation then expanding on who they are via flashbacks is very reminiscent of Lost.  Of course, here the characters knew each other, at least somewhat, before the game.  The flashbacks fit in perfectly with the action of the game, and they reveal just enough about the characters without revealing too much.  From a cooking class that solidified a friendship to crimes committed to lessons learned from an activist uncle, the flashbacks are endlessly fascinating.

Seeing these characters in what most certainly feels like a hopeless situation orchestrated by a powerful government far bigger than they are is truly powerful reading.  It leaves the reader wondering not only what makes people do bad things, but also how to define what is good and bad given various situations.  Is it actually good to team up and attempt to buck the system or will that just cause more pain in the end?  Is suicide a bad thing when it’s kill yourself or kill others?

If you enjoy Lost, The Hunger Games, violence, psychology, or even just graphic novels, you will enjoy this book.  I highly recommend it and can’t wait to read the next volume!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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The Problem With the Twilight Series

October 23, 2009 15 comments

This week there’s been a bit of internet commentary that librarians can be a bit elitist when it comes to books.  They’re saying that librarians scorn the likes of Dan Brown and attempt to force-feed works like Catch-22 to patrons.

Now, I personally know some librarians who harbor a hatred of Dan Brown, but I also know that they bought multiple copies of The Lost Symbol for their library.  Similarly, I’m a librarian, and I read my fair share of “trashy,” easy literature.  Hell, I’m currently reading the Sookie Stackhouse series.  Given these facts, I’d prefer it if the commentators said *some* librarians try to force patrons to read what they want them to read.  There probably is one out there somewhere who does that.  What really pisses me off, though, is the people who’ve accused me of being elitist due to my loathing of one particular series.

I’m looking at you Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.

The minute I say I hate this seriese, people accuse me of being elitist.  Judging it for being “light” reading.  They’ve even told me something is wrong with my taste when 40 million other people love it.  Well, you know what?  My problem with Twilight has nothing to do with the writing style.  Like I said, I’m reading Sookie Stackhouse.  I like romance novels, and they aren’t exactly known for their Shakespearean style.

My problem with the series has nothing to do with the writing style.  It’s the content.  I’m sure many of you have heard teen girls say how they’d love to have an Edward all their own.  The problem with this is that Edward is an abusive boyfriend.

Let’s start with the fact that Edward stalks Bella.  He repeatedly watches her sleep at night from her window without her knowledge.  This is how the relationship starts.

It progresses further.  Once they’re dating, he tells Bella who she can hang out with.  He verbally abuses her, saying things like “I’ve seen corpses with better control,” “You’re utterly absurd,” and “You are a terrible actress–I’d say that career path is out for you.”  In a health relationship, a significant other is supportive, loving, and on your side.  Even if s/he disagrees with you, s/he expresses this disagreement without attacking who you are as a person.

Let’s not forget the whole plot sequence in which Edward first threatens then attempts to carry out suicide because he claims he can’t live without Bella.  This is abusive, because people should be in a relationship out of love, not fear the other person will harm himself.

Bella doesn’t only fear for Edward’s life, she’s also legitimately afraid of him.  Some people would say this is because he’s a vampire, but that’s no excuse.  She should feel safe with her boyfriend, not afraid.

I’m not saying abusive relationships shouldn’t ever be in a book, but Meyer presents this as a good thing!  Edward is supposedly Bella’s knight in shining armor, but he is controlling, possessive, and demeaning of her.  She is afraid of him, but she loves him so supposedly that’s ok?  No.  It’s not ok, and it is not  ok that Meyer is glorifying this in her books.  Not ok at all.

The themes I hate in the book go beyond the abusive relationship being glorified, however.  When Bella and Edward break up, there are four nearly blank pages in the book.  These are supposed to represent how empty Bella’s life is without Edward.  Yes, let’s tell the teenagers reading this book that their entire life is their romantic relationship.  This is obviously an unhealthy perspective.

Meyer also demonizes sex.  I’m not saying books should swing the other way and tell teenage girls it’s cool to go suck a new dick every night, but Meyer is totally on the sex is evil side of the fence.  First there’s the fact that Bella wants to do it with her steady boyfriend (*gasp* the horror), and Edward insists they wait until they are married.  It’d be fine for them to wait until they were married, if it was what they both wanted.  However, Edward looks down on Bella’s desire to sleep with him and insists waiting until marriage is better.  No.  Waiting until marriage isn’t “better,” it’s just “an option.”  An option among many options, and one that I feel leads to impulsive young marriages and divorce or a life-time of misery, but I digress.

Then, when they finally do get married, having sex with Edward seriously injures Bella.  Apparently having sex with a vampire in Meyer’s land is like having sex with a marble statue.  That sparkles.  So now teenage girls are not only being told sex before marriage is evil, but also that sex is scary, and it really hurts!  This hearkens back to the days of old when engaged women were told by their mothers that sex with their husband was something to “be endured” for the joy of having children some day.

Speaking of children, the last plot theme that I hate in Meyer’s series is that Bella becomes pregnant with a fetus that is literally eating her alive and killing her, yet she chooses to bring it to term anyway.  This is, naturally, glorified in the series.  Because we want to tell our girls that it’s better to die giving birth than to abort and save your own life.  What the hell, Meyer?!  Making a choice like that is, essentially, suicide.  She knows she’s dying.  She could stop it.  She chooses not to.

So in one series Meyer glorifies abusive relationships and suicidal behavior and demonizes sex.

I am horrified that a FEMALE writer wrote such a misogynistic series.  I am also saddened as it is evident that Meyer has internalized the harmful patriarchal culture she grew up in.  She’s a self-hating woman and doesn’t even realize it.  Unfortunately, she’s now helping to spread that internalized misogyny to the next generation of young women.

This is why I hate Twilight.  It isn’t because I’m supposedly an elitist.  It is because I am a feminist.