Friday, 17 May 2013

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

I'd heard a lot of good things about this book and had been meaning to read it for quite a long time. Apparently dystopia is the new Vampire, which is more than ok by me. Give me rebuilding civilization over sparkly man-boy any day...

Uglies is set in a futute world, presumably America, where medical science has eliminated the genetic appearance lottery.  Everyone is made beautiful at the age of 16 and therefore become equal and happy.  Anorexia, exercise and jealousy are things of the past.  War, povery and inequality are gone.  On a person's 16th birthday, an 'Ugly' is stripped back to the bone, sanded down, rebuilt and moved accross the river to 'New Pretty Town'.  An apparent haven full of hovering mansions where its beautiful inhabitants party, drink and watch fireworks all day and night, New Pretty Town is socialite utopia.  Think The Great Gatsby, meets Back to the Future.  Pretties live a protected life, decadent and wasteful, they sit around all day, gleaming and drinking, soaking up each other's awesomeness.

I found that Uglies got off to quite a slow start.  I can't really put my finger on why, but for a while I just didn't felt a bit middle of the road.  It starts with Tally, the last of her year group to turn 16, and therefore the last ugly on the block.  It's hard to warm to Tally during her peiod of moping after her recently pretty friend Peris- she spends the first couple of chapters of the book wistfully counting the hours until her 16th birthday when she too can become pretty.  She sneaks off to see him in New Pretty Town- quite a dangerous prank.  Whilst pranks are expected of juvinle Uglies to some degree, the inhabitants of Uglyville are closely monitered trough technology, though everyone has their tricks and their ways of getting around it.  Closely evading capture by the authorities after her stunt gets dramatic, the story picks up pace (and for me actually became interesting) when Tally meets Shay in the shadows at the edge of New Pretty Town and is amazed by her attitude.  Shay doesn't want to be pretty.

Tally's friendship with Shay opens her mind to new way of thinking.  She learns to hoverboard and learns more about the 'rusties', the civilisation previous to theirs that lived in metal towers and almost destroyed the world with their weapons and their wars.  Shay, recruited by the enigmatic David, decides to risk her life trying to find "The Smoke", a heretic community of Uglies that live outside of the City's  control.  For a while it looks like Shay may be the true heroine of the novel- she's confident, intelligent and she questions the reasoning behind the compulsory prettyfication.  However, I think she's more of a catalyst for bringing Tally's more heroic personality traits to the fore.  When Tally is refused her pretty operation, she is blackmailed into infiltrating the "Smokies" and betraying her new best friend.  Suddenly Tally, a person who has never had to think particularly hard or make her own decisions before is forced to question everything she has ever been told and everything she has ever believed in..

In terms of themes and style, I think it combined some elements of the Hunger Games with elements of Brave New World.   An ordinary and unremarkable girl is thrown into an unexpeced and seemingly impossible situation.  She not only has to conquer that situation, but also has to become the reluctant fighurehead of rebellion and revolution and uncover some kind of secret that would destroy society as it's known.  Whilst Tally in my opinion is not as developed or as likable as Katniss (or as resourceful or resilient) there is certainly the potential for her to become so.  I will definately be recommending it to kids who liked THG.  As for Brave New World- the society in that novel use genetic engineering, rigid genetic class structures and state-produced drugs to schieve happiness, the society in Uglies use cosmetic (and other) surgery as well as institutionalised brainwashing to achieve what they believe to be happieness.  Wheras it might take some convincing to talk a 13 year old into reading Brave New World, I think they'd be able to explore similar ideas here, as well as introdicing the (very relevent teen-wise) topic of body image.

So overall a slow starter that definately gets better.  Really enjoyed it once it got going, though in my opinion it falls a long way short of the quality of the Hunger Games, a title it compares itself to on the cover.  The book raises some interesting questions about authority, identity and appearance, all very relevent and comtemporary issues for the book's target audience.  The worst thing is, that as far as dystopian futures go, it's not outrageously impossible to imagine this one...

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot

I felt like such a 12 year old reading this, but it was definately fun- like a nice hot bath for the brain.  I can't remember reading many novels like this when I was younger.  Maybe there weren't any...maybe I just read Famous Five forever and then moved onto Harry Potter on a loop until the age of about 17.

Princess Diaries is your classic fish out of water story.  Mia Thermopolis, flat chested sophomore giantess, is just coming to terms with her bohemian artist mother dating her Maths teacher.  Out of all the millions of men in Manhatten, Mia's mother has decided to date the guy that's failing her in Algebra.  The narrator/diarist is a typically akward 16 year old, inexplicably unpopular and according to her daughter-of-two-psychoanalysts-best-friend, struggles to self actualise.  Mia's mum is convinced she bottles up her feelings, so has encouraged her to keep a diary to let it all out.  There are bigger problems in store for Mia than her Mother's love life, her algebra problems or the fact that eye candy extrordinnaire Josh Richter might or might not have accidentally said "hey" to her at the mall once...

I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that Mia Thermopolis is revealed (by her enigmatic, based abroad father) to be Princess Amelia Mignonette Grimaldi Thermapolis Renaldi of Genovia- a small European tax-haven and home to about 1000 inhabitants.  It happens pretty early on, plus it says so in the blurb...The story follows Princess Amelia as she tries to keep her royal identity a secret from her classmates (especially the popular girls) whilst recieving intensive princess lessons from her hilariously severe Grandmere, Dowager Princess, etiquette expert and Sidecar enthusiast.

Mia has to lean what it takes to be a head of state, how to negotiate and compromise with her Grandmere and her Dad and how to socialise your bodyguard.  She learns new things about herself and comes to realise that she might not have always been as nice as she could have been to others in her school, as well as how to handle the World's press.

Loads of fun- a quick and easy read with some genuinely hilarious writing in places.  I really liked Mia and think that there's something in her that everybody can relate to- even if it's just being unassertive, falling out with your best friend or not being particularly happy with the way you look.  I know some readers might take the "but I hate girly things" attitude, which is understandable looking at the cover, but Mia herself is hardly traditional Princess material (she lives on takeaway Chinese and wears only Doc Martins), something that she points out to her Dad on an almost daily basis.  I can see why this has proven to be such a successful series.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

This was a book club choice, and it has to be said, one of the few that I've enjoyed recently. It's the first of Barnes' books that I've read, and despite how much I enjoyed it, strangely enough, I find myself uninterested in any of his other novels...

This book is the story of a man and centres around the flexibility and the unreliability of memory. Narrator Tony is forgettable in every way. Late middle age, recently retired and suddenly in the mood to share his story with us. Tony looks back at his school days, his friends his first proper relationship with the difficult and complicated Veronica (and the effect her behaviour had on the impressionable young Tony) and his past and present relationship with his wife- plain speaking, straightforward, they remain on good terms. Tony's glory days were back in school where he showed some promise in his studies. He and his friends did well and were reasonably popular, navigating as a foursome the treacherous school terrain of girls, booze and books. The writing in this first section sort of reminded me of the Secret History which I read very recently and absolutely loved.

After school Tony tells us that he went to college, got a job, got married, go divorced, your usual average life.  He zooms through about 20 years in a paragraph, this really isn't a life story, it's a life's memory.  I think it's the mundaneness of Tony that's so appealing- he's not one to make his life appear more glamorous or exciting than it was. He talks about his gifted school friend Adrien, aloof but brilliant new-kid who killed himself at 18, deciding to "opt out" of a life that had animated him without his consent or approval. Tony spends a great deal of the novel contemplating the philosophy of suicide and comparing his life- a rudderless life that simply happened to him- with Adrien's decision to end his own.

Things start to unravel for Tony when he is inexplicably left something in a will.  He starts to remember things that he thought he'd forgotten, reads things that he forgets he'd ever written and generally starts to wonder if anything happened the way he thought it did.  Barnes' investigation into the nature of memory (and time and history) is what holds everything together, along with his beautiful use of language.  It's not exactly a roaring read, there's very little by way of plot, but it's the slipperyness of our own recollections that matter.  The writing is masterful and just rolls off the page- philosophy, sarcasm, an almost pathetic self-deprecating humour and musings over things that as readers we've all thought about at some point.  A well written book can manage without a great deal of plot, but a plot driven book will collapse under bad writing.

The Sense of an Ending is a concept, rather than a novel, but it's a concept that most people can relate to.  Who hasn't wondered if the way that you remember something is the same as the memory of someone else that was there?  Isn't it weird how the memories that are to you the most vivid and prominent are absolutely forgotten to others that were there at the time?  How can we know that history doesn't work like this too?  Maybe the most famous events in history were just remembered wrongly...

I can see why people wouldn't like it- the lack of plot, the strange soapy twist at the end (I struggled with that- why is Veronica so mad?? Shouldn't she be more mad at Adrien?  After all it was him that erm...did the thing...), the emphasis on being Literary with a capital L, the fact that a book called The Sense of an Ending doesn't really have one...but even taking all this into account, I found myself very much drawn into Tony's memories and it made me think at length about my own.  A person's memories belong to them in an utterly unique and very personal way, and to think about their destruction or irrelevance is quite unsettling.  An incredibly well written, if somewhat meandering novel that is very thought provoking and that uses language in a really effective way.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Dark Judges, by John Wagner

I gave this out last week as a World Book Night giver. It's the first time they've included a Graphic Novel in the WBN list and for that reason I thought I'd choose it, as someone new to the genre myself. Maybe I could introduce other people to something new and exciting.

I always love the art work in comics and Graphic Novels and this is no exception- everything from the lettering to the expressions on people's faces is laboured over and lovingly honed and you really get a sense of the craft that goes into these books, whether you enjoy the narrative or not.

I really wanted to like this. I've only recently broken into the GN genre and this is the first superhero type narrative I've read.  Is Dedd a superhero?  Maybe it was the format- I know it's been turned from several serials into one volume, but the constant recaps of what had happened previously got annoying quickly.

Basically in the Bladerunner type future in a city called Megacity One, four Dark Judges, thought to be trapped forever, are accidentally released to Earth, bringing their judgement for the crime of life.  The punishment is death.  They say that a lot.  You think they've been defeated but oh...what's that?!  They weren't defeated after all?  Rampaging happens and lots of shooting...
I'm not sure where in the Judge Dredd franchise this volume comes, but I don't feel that he was developed much as a character.  I wanted him to get all Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, but that never happened.  Dredd's colleague Anderson got more development, but I just couldn't warm to her.  You'd think being a lady psychic in a male-dominated post-apocalyptic future police force would make you interesting, but all Anderson is really is a giant-boobed air-head that ends up fixing the mistake that she made that almost killed everyone on Earth. 

Disappointing, good to look at, but ultimately wouldn't really recommend.  It hasn't put me off though...

Undead, by Kirsty McKay

Bobby has just been dragged from the USA to life back in England.  She's not even started school properly yet and already she'd had to go on a skiing trip to Scotland to 'bond' with her classmates, something that she was less than thrilled about from the start.  Being a seasoned skier isn't going to make her popular.  She's just adjusting to life back in England, silently furious with her mum for dragging her back here, trying to remember to not to call crisps chips and having a Mobile instead of a Cell Phone.  Scotland reflects her mood- cold, miserable and dark.

When all her classmates get off the coach to visit a roadside cafe, Bobby, the bus driver and the class rebel all stay on the bus.  Bobby stays because she has no friends and because everyone thinks she's a freak, plus she's come prepared with a PB&J sandwich.  Smitty the rebel isn't allowed off because the teacher wants to keep him where he knows where he is, no more cigarettes and vodka for Smitty.

When Bobby and Smitty hear banging against the windows of the bus, they think it's their classmates messing around.  When the pampered, popular, perfectly pretty Alice comes tearing onto the bus full of screams, tears and snot, Bobby and Smitty start to realise that something has gone wrong back at the cafe.  According to Alice, everyone is dead and their teacher tried to bite her.  Soon, the snow is stained with red, mobile reception is mysteriously depleted and the recently deceased are suddenly more animated than they were in life...

Along with her mismatched band of survivors, not exactly people she would have hand picked in the circumstances, Bobby has to work out exactly what has happened.  Is this happening everywhere?  Some of the undead were obviously bitten, but what turned the first lot?  How come Alice didn't die? Why isn't there a single landline or PC in this part of Scotland?  Doesn't it all fell sort of, deliberate? 

A good story that I think will appeal to boys and girls- zombies are a lot of fun and I think they're only going to get more popular, especially now the global Vampire infatuation seems to be on the wane.  Having a female protagonist in a survival horror scenario is a big win for me and Bobby is a good narrator- funny, honest and not afraid to let her thoughts out.  The action is plentiful, gratuitous gore (personally something that I have no problems with) is kept to a minimum, so it's very age appropriate and language is minimal.  It's about as clean as zombies are going to get. 

My one complaint is the over colloquialised "teen language".  I can see that McKay is going for a Kids in an Adult world sort of thing, but her choice of words I think gets a little irritating.  Using 'circs' for circumstances and 'diff' for difference and random bits of sarcastic French ('Ohmygod...Tres embarrassing', for example).  Once or twice would've been enough, but it's pretty persistent.  It just didn't sound like proper teen-speak so might have been better if it was toned down a bit.  Also, I haven't heard anyone, teen or not, use the word "freakazoid" in about 10 years.

Overall a decent survival horror story that follows the usual formula- a bunch of woefully mismatched individuals are thrown into a situation that forces them to cooperate and work as a team, or become dribbling automatons.  Stock characters, maybe, but rounded out with humour and flourishing group-role-responsibilities.  Quick paced, funny and probably universally popular.  It ends on a cliffhanger too, so I'll have to find a copy of the sequel...

Everyone loves a good zombie story, and don't pretend you haven't got a contingency plan prepared just in case....

Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

Maggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, zone 7 resident and probable orphan.  His parents 'disappeared' months ago, but that makes them as good as dead.  Now now he lives in a tumbledown house in a derelict street with his Gramps.  Brutal, cruel and ruthlessly ambitious, The Motherland, a Nazi-esque totalitarian state has no place for people like Standish, with his odd eyes and his dyslexia.  He is imperfect, something that he is made aware of every day.

Dyslexia is a bit of a structural influence in this novel, as well as a character trait.  Gardner herself is dyslexic, and here has written a novel and a character that proves that the condition makes you anything but stupid.  The fact that people constantly underestimate the illiterate Standish only makes it easier for him to do the right thing and make a difference.  Proof that dyslexia does not stand in the way of making a person remarkable.  The novel's structure, 100 very short (sometimes not even a whole page) chapters make this book a lot more accessible for struggling readers.  The shortness of the chapters and the brutality of the setting and some of the events that Standish witnesses is made all the more shocking by Gardner's beautiful writing.  She obviously has a very special understanding of language.

The story is set in 1956, but the social decay and the neglect make Standish's world feel much more dystopian than alternate history.  We hear about the corruption, institutionalised bullying and espionage that happens as a matter of course at Zone 7 school.  Standish's school experience culminates in an exceptionally violent scene where his psychopathic teacher savagely beats one of his classmates and nobody can do anything about it.  The main story begins shortly after, when new neighbours move into Standish's parents' old house. For the first time, Standish has a friend, Hector, and he and his Gramps are no longer alone. They might have to look over their shoulders wherever they go and whatever they do, but there are now other people in their lives.  When Hector and Standish discover something that they are not supposed to know- something that could possibly topple the Motherland forever, life in Zone 7 gets all the more impossible. It's up to Standish to bring the Motherland's regime to the eyes of the World.

I don't usually quote from books online, but I do record passages that I think are outstanding in my book journal- I feel compelled to share one quote.  Standish describes his relationship with words- though he can't read or write, he has an almost multi-sensory understanding of language and understands even foreign tongues implicitly.  He explains "I collect words - they are sweets in the mouth of sound." Amazing writing.  Such a short sentence, but it's stayed lodged in my head ever since.

I loved Standish's voice in this novel- how he could remain so innocent with such an uncurbed imagination despite the brutality of the world that he lives in and how the goodness and the bravery that he is able to exhibit is never broken by the Motherland's rulers.  The character of Gramps is also beautifully written, quietly enraged at the inhumanity of his world, decent to his core and incredibly resourceful, fixing and re-fixing things that are useful with his big, safe hands that "make whole all that is broken".  I just desperately wanted Gramps to be safe and it's obvious that that's what Standish wants too.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but it's a carefully crafted story, very imaginative but disturbing in places.  Maggot Moon is both heartbreaking and uplifting, using the themes of imagination, friendship and bravery to prove to the reader that you do not have to be perceived as remarkable to do remarkable things.