Posts tagged ‘death’

Vicious

Vicious.jpgTitle: Vicious
Author: V. E. Schwab
ISBN: 9780765335340
Pages: 364 pages
Publisher/Date: A Tor Book, published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, c2013.

Victor perched on the tub, clutching a drink as he stared down at Eliot Cardale’s corpse.
Eli hadn’t screamed. Pain had been written across every one of the forty-three muscles Victor’s anatomy class taught him twined together in the human face, but the worse Eli had done was let a small groan escape between clenched teeth when his body first broke the surface of the icy water. […]
Victor took another sip of his drink. Eli was a very unhealthy shade of whitish-blue.
It hadn’t taken as long as he’d expected. (75)

Roommates Victor and Eli are also rivals, playing leap-frog with the top spot at competitive Lockland University. Eli’s fascination with the possibility of superheroes influences his science thesis research, which begins to overlap with Victor’s research on the causes and effects of adrenaline on the body. What if becoming a superhero resulted from the application of stresses on the body, specifically those found with life and death situations. That’s when their hypothetical becomes experimental, and ends in tragedy. Ten years later, one young man is hunting other super-powered individuals while being hunted by his former friend. They are both aided by women with extraordinary powers of their own, and both vow that this will only end when one of them is dead.

Flipping back and forth from when events began in college to ten years later, details are doled out sparingly, slowly, without any urgency. Even when death is happening, you sense a remoteness and detachment from the narrative. Factoring the repercussions of Eli and Victor’s experiments, this choice feels successfully intentional. Does personally experiencing death detach the instigators from another’s death? Is humanity lost when you become superhuman?

Readers never really discover much about any of the characters’ lives and histories, just cursory details and snippets of everyone’s past. Their complicated thought processes are alluded to in telling off-handed remarks. Someone remarks they feel cold after using their talent, and they prefer holding a cold drink over a warm drink because “I like knowing at least I’m warmer than the can.” (181) One pair (I’m trying really hard to intentionally keep things vague until you read the story and find out who is who) bonds over their mutual disgust for what they have become and their efforts to rid the world of others like them, who they see as monsters, and it’s horrifying at how far they take this crusade. Eli’s assistant’s motives could have definitely used some more development in order to make her motivations more understandable. More than one person I spoke with was left wondering about the one non-extraordinary person in the bunch. That character could have also benefited from some additional development, explaining why he was so unfazed by the events around him and his almost instant connection with a little girl, who ends up playing a bigger role than initially assumed.

As a result of debate between the boys, there’s a bit of talk about God, and whether they are playing God, and multiple questions are raised. There’s the question of souls and whether people maintain their souls after death or a near-death experience. There’s the question of what makes a hero and a villain. The amount of religious discourse included was surprising, as one extraordinary seems to fashion himself as a modern day crusader. It reminded me of Hitler, who was said to have had Jewish ancestry and yet hunted and killed so many Jews.

It’s a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) nod to this discussion that scenes are separated by a simple black outline of an eye mask. One character towards the end even dons a mask, when methods and habits change, and assumes the costume of a superhuman, although I’ll leave it to readers to discover if it’s the villain or the hero. I guess that depends on your own personal opinion of what qualifies as humanity, death, and survival. The ending is stereotypical of the superhero genre, where the foes may be destined to continue the fight, and it leaves enough niggling uncertainty that makes readers wonder if there aren’t some future unknowns that will influence events.

The Seventh Most Important Thing

Seventh Most Important Thing.jpgTitle: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
ISBN: 9780553497281
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Arthur’s first week back at school was about as successful as his first day or probation had been. Going from juvie to school was like going from one extreme to the other. In juvie, you learned to avoid everyone else. If some convict kid wanted to cut in front of you in the food line or steal your banana pudding at supper, you let him, no questions asked.
When Arthur got back to school in December, everybody avoided him. He felt as if he were inside an invisible box. Nobody bumped into him in the hallway. Nobody spoke to him. When he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch, the other kids picked up their trays and left. The whole school knew what he’d done, of course. Nothing was a secret at Byrd Junior High. You couldn’t fart without somebody knowing. (57)

Arthur T. Owens had his reasons for throwing a brick at the Junk Man’s head, but the judge doesn’t want to hear them. The judge also doesn’t want to listen to the fact that the brick actually hit him in the arm, but he will listen to the Junk Man. That’s how Arthur finds himself working 120 hours of community service for the Junk Man, whose real name is James Hampton. Mr. Hampton gives Arthur a list of seven things to collect, including mirrors, lightbulbs, and cardboard, which Arthur has to dig through trash, quite frequently in the snow, in order to find. But as his hours start adding up, Arthur’s involvement with Hampton also increases, until eventually it’s his investment that is the only thing keeping the project alive.

This story is one of those stories that you don’t think could possibly have happened, and then you realize it’s inspired by actual events. There actually was a James Hampton, an eccentric artist who lived during that time period, although come to think of it the only mentions to a year are in the very first chapters and the lack of technological references mean it could have taken place in any time period. Pearsall’s author’s note separates fact from fiction and includes a couple pictures, although it becomes obvious she’s taken a few liberties with details and timelines. But this is ultimately Arthur’s story, and it makes sense that Arthur’s character was the most developed. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s not seen as a good kid either based almost exclusively on his family history, and so when one thing goes wrong, the whole world turns against him. His judge and parole officer are no nonsense type people, his principal assumes the worst of him and is convinced Arthur’s the instigator in trouble at school even when told otherwise, and even his younger sister keeps calling him a bad person, but he makes allowances for her because she doesn’t understand. Arthur swings from proving them all right to proving them all wrong as he works at making his own reputation, and I feel like those attitudes are fairly accurate to modern day beliefs as well. This novel could provoke discussion on a number of topics.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens.jpgTitle: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
Author: Kelly Jones
Illustrator: Katie Kath
ISBN: 9780385755528
Pages: 216 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.

“Dear People Who Sell Special Chickens,

Look, maybe Mom was right about not writing while I was angry. I’m really sorry I said that stuff. Probably you’ve been busy too. But now I really need you to write back, even if you don’t send me a catalog. Because a chicken showed up yesterday, and I think it must be one of yours, because it is really definitely not an ordinary chicken. I’m pretty sure my parents are going to freak out, and I really need to figure out what to do. What are you supposed to do with a found chicken—is it like a found dog? Do chickens go to the pound? But it’s got to be yours. It’s really unusual, for sure. Can you please come get it quickly? Sincerely, Sophie […]

“Dear Great-Uncle Jim,

You know that chicken I told you about? It can use the Force.” (33-36)

Sophie moves with her mom and dad to her Great-Uncle Jim’s farm, which her family inherited upon his death. Through letters she writes, but can’t send, to her dead grandmother and great-uncle, and letters to the Redwood Farm Supply, which she does send, Sophie details her exploits as she discovers first one, then two, then even more chickens on her great-uncle’s farm. These chickens are anything but ordinary, and Sophie is not the only person who notices the unusual attributes. There may be a chicken thief on the loose, and Sophie is going to do everything she can to protect her posse of poultry.

This is a book that needs to be read aloud to classes everywhere, perfect for fans of Charlotte’s Web or other farm based fantasies. Sophie is a biracial only child, which is addressed but never obsessed over. She is self-reliant, strong-willed and independent, writing at one point “Don’t you dare send someone to take my chickens.” Knowing when to ask for help, she consults the library and other experts in researching the care and feeding of chickens. Sophie occasionally has a sarcastic way of approaching things, like telling her grandmother “I’m really sorry you’re dead” that make her an endearing and relatable protagonist. The most realistic aspect of the narration style used is there is very little directly quoted dialogue, which is rarely found in actual letters and lends a more realistic tone to the story. The illustrations are quirky and charming at the same time, adding to the plot’s humor without turning into slapstick. Give this to fans of humorous stories who are uninterested in the potty humor of Underpants. Get it, read it, share it, and recommend this unusual book. One of my favorites and one of the most memorable of the whole year.

All the Bright Places

All the Bright PlacesTitle: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyer
ISBN: 9780553552195 (audiobook), 978038575587 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours
Pages: 388 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2015. (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.)

”Ladies and gentlemen,” I shout, “I would like to welcome you to my death!” You might expect me to say “life,” having just woken up and all, but it’s only when I’m awake that I think about dying. I am shouting in an old-school-preacher way, all jerking head and words that twitch at ends, and I almost lose my balance. I hold on behind me, happy no one seems to have noticed, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to look fearless when you’re clutching the railing like a chicken.
“I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind, do hereby bequeath all my earthly possessions to Charlie Donahue, Brenda Shank-Kravitz, and my sisters.” […]
Then his head turns away from me and points at the sky. At first I think he’s pointing at me, but it’s at that moment I see her, the girl. (4-5)

It just so happens that Theodore Finch and Violet Markey have chosen the same day in January to climb the bell tower at their school and contemplate suicide. Finch, aka “Freak” to all his classmates, has caused trouble before, has a violent school history, and sees the counselor on a regular basis, coming from a home where his father has left him, his two sisters, and his mother, for a new family. Violet’s family isn’t much better, as she is still trying to recover from the death of her older sister in a car accident less than a year ago. Not minding casting Violet in the hero role, as if she was only up there to save his sorry life, Finch in fact wants to prolong this instant connection he feels, and volunteers himself to be her partner in a geography project. A reluctant Violet slowly starts to open up to Finch as their relationship evolves, but Finch has difficulty expressing his deepest thoughts to even Violet. Does the world ever offer enough to live for?

It was a good choice to alternate narrators between the characters/chapters. Kirby Heyborne has an appropriately anxious and gravelly voice for Finch, and Ariadne Meyers has a youthful sounding voice filled with trepidation. Niven includes a heartbreaking author’s note discussing the inspiration for the story, and it’s after hearing her story that you realize why certain aspects of the end sound so realistic. The highlights of the novel are the scenes where she focuses in on the emotions and the little details, and the dialogue is both relatable but also disconcerting. For example, Finch’s interaction with his counselor has the counselor asking him “Do I need to call your mother?” and his response is “’No. And again no.’ And again: no no no. ‘Look it was a stupid thing to do. I just wanted to see what it felt like to stand there and look down. I would never jump from the bell tower.” (14) Finch’s nickname for Violet, the Facebook messages back and forth, the endearing flowers scene and the Purina Tower expedition all lead credibility to the relationship and make him so endearing to Violet and to readers, encouraging hope for the best.

In the beginning though I wasn’t thrilled with how the relationship with Finch and Violet evolved. He struck me as similar to Edward Cullen in Twilight. He obsessed over Violet, who originally has no interest in hanging out with him, investigating her Facebook page and website. While eventually the changes he forces upon her are good for her growth and recovery from her sister’s death, the way he went about it grated on my nerves. He did have his moments though, especially his patience and protectiveness of Violet. He knows how to project charm and respect, but as we get to see him both when he is and isn’t with Violet, we’re left asking the same questions he asks himself about his own authenticity and that of her feelings toward him. I thought he was too assertive, too sure of himself, too brash and too phony, although this was probably the author’s intent. He reminds me of a modern-day Holden Caufield, with his attempts to remake himself with a complete disinterest about how anyone else feels about him, except Violet. His dependency on her scared me, and those fears were ultimately validated.

The Sculptor

SculptorTitle: The Sculptor
Author/Illustrator: Scott McCloud
ISBN: 9781596435735
Pages: 496 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2015.
Published: February 3, 2015

“So what if the art thing didn’t work out? Is it really that important?”
“It’s all I have.”
“What would you give for your art, David?”
“I’d give my life.” (32-33)

With those fateful — or maybe fatal — words, David sets the next 200 days in motion. David has spent so many years trying to accomplish his life’s goal of making a name for himself in the art world. But he’s currently a down on his luck sculptor who has no future work prospects, no girlfriend, no family, little money, and will soon be homeless. So he’s spending his last dollars on his birthday getting drunk at a local diner, until two unexpected visitors – one is an angel and the other is death – deeply impact the next six months of his life.

Visually stunning and satisfying. These are the first two words that come to mind after finishing. Scott McCloud literally wrote the book on comic books. This graphic novel proves that not only can he talk the talk, he can also walk the walk. The writing and drawings are equally affecting, and in some cases I paused to not only process the plot but also come up for air as I was immersed in this world. The monochromatic colors change the mood with the flip of a page, with one section using a much darker blue color scheme to convey the dark emotions and some panels and pages being completely devoid of color. Some pages are more traditional in their layout, whereas others change the tone of the narrative by either switching from a white gutter to a black one, and in some cases doing away with the gutter completely. The full-page panoramic shots are eye-catching, but the varied layouts add interest and keep readers engaged. Sometimes they feature detailed street scenes with identifiable individuals in the crowd, other times focus on a single character close-up which draws readers into the dramatic relationships, and that unique final sequence feels like a flip book as it follows one character’s descent.

David, the epitome of a starving artist, just can’t catch a break, at one point claiming he’s cursed, being told it’s just bad luck, and asking “What difference does it make?” His grand goals and aspirations are what continues to drive him. He can’t think small, he can’t be confined by what others in the art world dictates. He needs to succeed in a big way and make a name for himself, which is especially influenced by his having to distinguish himself from an already successful artists with the same name. He has made promises to himself that he refuses to break, which bring morals and character to an otherwise selfish and self-centered persona. In fact, he’s criticized for his impatience and his inability to consider anyone else’s needs, whether it deals with his life personally or professionally. His life of ongoing disappointments make it difficult for him to connect with others, and you see through his few relationships how loyal he is to them, although those friends have long recognized that they can’t count on him to “act normal”. His awkwardness in social situations is stereotypical (think of any geeky, artistic character, in any romantic comedy, and you have David) but if you have a problem with the stereotype don’t blame the artist and it’s also endearing to watch David try to navigate this space.

Meg is beautiful. Her unexpected meeting with David is rooted in today’s culture, but we view things from a previously unseen perspective. She is so full of energy and life, even though as we later learn she has her own scars and past to confront and manage. Her spontaneous, optimistic, romantic heart contrast against David’s more pessimistic mood swings, but David comes to realize that he can’t just take those attitudes for granted. Many have complained that Meg is a foil for David’s character development and she isn’t as developed as she could be. I feel that while this is a valid complaint, we see her primarily from David’s perspective when they are alone together, so I feel like this point of view is justified within the context of the story. Meg’s background is a mystery, sure, but that’s because David is so self-absorbed he doesn’t think to ask and when he does she is reluctant to reveal and let him in, going so far as to warn him not to let her push him away. While David’s attraction to her is fast, Meg holds him at bay until she is sure of her own feelings.

The presentation of Death is interesting, and David’s conversations with him bring to mind questions of death, memory, fame, art, and immortality. Some questions that spring to mind for possible discussion, if I ever get around to using this as a book discussion:

  • Do you continue to “live on” after death when others remember you?
  • Is David’s pursuit of fame on par with the pursuit of immortality?
  • How did events in David’s past influence his current goals? What are his goals, and does David accomplish them by the end of the book?
  • Is art for the sake of the artist or the public?
  • How often do artists intend their symbolism in art, is it found after the completion, or is sometimes a square just a square?
  • What qualifies as art, and who decides between underground and mainstream pieces?
  • On page 217, there is a discussion about rules, and how you “can’t break the rules”. Is this true? What are some of the rules that David tries to break and what are some of the rules he tries to keep?

Although some have called it cliched with the presentation of Meg as a “Manic Pixie Girl” and David as the starving artist ready to do anything to catch a break, this hefty tome is definitely thought-provoking. The plot twists, while somewhat expected, are no less gut-wrenching as we watch these two characters try to navigate this world. Portrayals of frontal nudity cause me some hesitation in handing it to younger teens, but high school students could definitely empathize with David’s struggle to make a name for themselves and garner fame as they pursue their own futures.

Afterworlds

AfterworldsTitle: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Narrators: Heather Lind and Sheetal Sheth
ISBN: 9781442372467 (audiobook),
CDs/Discs: 12 CDs, 15 hours 16 minutes
Pages: 599 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon Pulse, c2014.
Publication Date: Sept. 23, 2014

“The thing is, I want to defer college for a year.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Why on earth?”
“Because I have responsibilities.” This line had sounded better in her head. “I need to do the rewrites for Afterworlds, and write a sequel.”
“But. . .” Her mother paused, and the elder Patels shared a look.
“Working on books isn’t going to take all your time,” her father said. “You wrote your first one in a month, didn’t you? And that didn’t interfere with your studies.” (15)

This is the story of Darcy Patel, a newly graduated high school student who forgoes college in order to move to New York and focus on her publishing career. This is also the story of Elizabeth, a high school senior and the only survivor of a terrorist attack at an airport that leaves everyone else dead and Lizzie seeing ghosts, including a hunky Hindu god named Yamaraj. Elizabeth is the character in Darcy’s story, written over the course of a month-long writing challenge and then rewritten and revised over the next year. Each girl suffers from distractions of their first romance, life’s interference, and their own insecurities about their ability to handle their situations.

First, the negatives. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, which impedes the flow of each story. Elizabeth, or Lizzie, will be running away from a ghost at the end of one chapter, and then readers are flung back to Darcy’s substantially tamer life. If there were parallels between the plots it might have made more sense, but the transitions are disconcerting and seem arbitrary in nature. In one instance, a plot point is portrayed in Lizzie’s story before Darcy finishes the rewrite of it, which makes it all the more jarring when the subject is broached in Darcy’s because we already know what she decides.

I think this may be the first time that the audiobook quality negatively impacts my enjoyment of the book. Each chapter gets only one track, making the tracks close to 30 minutes long, and quite frequently running onto a second disc. That proves frustrating when you’re listening in your car and reach your destination before the track ends. There are also small clicks in one narrator’s enunciation for Darcy’s parts, which may have been included intentionally to emphasize her accent, but are occasionally distracting.

The parts I enjoyed the most are the exposition on the publishing process and the thought-provoking asides as a result. Darcy’s advance, rewrites, edits, marketing efforts, and fearful expectations are all covered, although we aren’t privy to the actual release of her book. There is a well-quoted portion where Darcy’s friend introduces the Angelina Jolie paradox, which forces your mind to really think about how much suspension of belief we have when reading or watching movies. Darcy is questioned about her appropriation of cultural figures for her novel, and she revisits those thoughts again and again. Darcy’s friend Imogen also reveals that some symbolism in a writer’s work may not be as intentional as you might think, pointing things out that Darcy never realized she was doing. There are beautiful turns of phrases throughout the novel that capture your attention.

“Their bodies fit perfectly like this, two continents pulled apart eons ago but now rejoined.” (264)
“The surface of the snow was frozen into glass. Wind-borne flurries uncoiled across it, the high sun casting halos in them, like gray rainbows.”(428)

But the dialogue in places seems stilted and the characters’ reflections make them seem wise beyond their years, even while you’re waiting for character development to happen. Westerfeld even addresses this, when Darcy realizes that her book characters can be boiled down to a few pithy adjectives. It also strikes me as odd that Darcy, on her own for the first time, receives so little parental supervision or inquisition, especially as she keeps stressing the strictness of her immigrant parents. One bright spot is we refreshingly see a character out of school who is forced to make her own decisions and mistakes about budget, including food and living arrangements, no matter how pie-in-the-sky that life may be after Darcy’s six figure advance is paid out.

Personally, I think Westerfeld should stick with the science fiction/fantasy genres. I’ve raved about his Leviathan trilogy several times on this blog, and this seemed like a disappointing departure from what he does well. However, it’s a “chicken and the egg” thought process, because any complaints about the writing style could be attributed to Westerfeld’s portrayal of Darcy’s inexperienced writing and faults, as when someone falls on the ice and claims they meant to do that to show other people the sidewalk is slippery. Tasha Robinson says it better in her NPR Review:

And Westerfeld has an easy out for any flaws in Lizzie’s side of the book: Darcy is a young, inexperienced author. For instance, her relationship with Yamaraj seems insubstantial and heavily romanticized because it’s being written by an 18-year-old who’s just learning about love herself.

If you’re interested in trying your own hand at the National Novel Writing Month challenge, which takes place in November, try visiting their website. For more fulfilling books with a writing themed plot, try Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

How to Save a Life

How to Save a LifeTitle: How to Save a Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Narrators: Ariadne Meyere and Cassandra Morris
ISBN: 9780316036061 (hardcover), 9780307968722 (audiobook)
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 341 pages
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown, and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2011.

“Don’t, Dylan. Don’t ‘ever since your dad died’ me.” The ice scraper falls from my numb hands. I pick it up. “I haven’t changed. I’ve always been this way.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Okay, well, I don’t remember that Jill.” I hold my hands to my face to warm them up, to press back tears. “I don’t remember. I’m sorry. And I can’t be her now, and I’m never going to be her again,” I say, my voice rising. I realize it, finally. This elusive old Jill I’ve been chasing isn’t someone who can be found. Short of my father coming back from the dead, it’s not happening. Which doesn’t mean I can’t change, just that I can’t change back. (302)

Jill is dealing with a lot of change. In the last year, her father died in a car accident, she’s lost her friends and on-again off-again boyfriend while trying to deal with her grief, and now her mom is adding a baby to the mix. Mandy is the pregnant, unmarried teen who has struck up a tenuous deal with Jill’s mother through emails and has come to live with them until delivering the baby. Their backgrounds are drastically different, but their fears all revolve around this unborn child and how the birth will impact their lives. But can these two girls learn from each other, or will their differences push them further apart from the love they both need?

I think depending on where readers are in their life, different people will get different things from this book. Both girls have their own attitudes, problems, and flaws, making them each extremely relatable in their own way. Mandy has led a hard life, dealing with neglectful mother whose ideas come from real-world experience rather than ideals. She comes across as naive because while she knows life is hard and that she wants a better life for her child, Mandy doesn’t plan very well for her own future because she’s never had that ability before. By contrast, Jill has a primarily sheltered idea of the world and comes across as spoiled, never questioning her ability to plan a gap year and follow her father’s nomadic footsteps. Isolating herself from her friends and family in an attempt to deal with her grief privately, Jill is starting to break out of her shell again and yearn for the time before her father’s death. But as the quote above (which I absolutely love) recognizes, it’s nearly impossible to go back.

Yes, I’ll admit that the self-reflection might get a little corny for some, but it isn’t overdone or too preachy, as this is an emotional book, and it’s beautifully written and read. Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris make this book come alive, with inflection that makes you feel like you’re a fly on the wall listening to these conversations. There’s a reveal that’s alluded to that makes Mandy’s attitudes all the more realistic. Jill and Mandy’s opinions are understandably conveyed best, but the minor characters are in no way background. Jill’s mother has her reasons for doing what she’s doing, Jill’s boyfriend Dylan and Jill’s friends are frustrated, confused, and clueless on how to help her work through her grief. Someone from the past also enters the picture, slowly but surely becoming more and more involved in the present day events. Attitudes change gradually, regressing and advancing, ebbing and flowing as second and third thoughts continue to encroach upon everyone.

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