Tag Archives: young adult

#26: Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher

Begun: 3/31/2011
Finished: 4/4/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 2/5

It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least clung to with desperation) that if something works once, it ought to work again.  Nowhere is this less true than in the world of novels and writing, where when one author captures lightning in a bottle, a hundred lesser imitations inevitably follow, attempting to duplicate the first author’s success.  It never works.  Okay, it hardly ever works.

Just as Rick O’Riordan went after the Potter audience with his Percy Jackson series, Catherine Fisher is going after the Hunger Games audience with this first book of a series.  Call it the dystopian-future-fantasy genre.  The difference is that the Percy Jackson books are…well, good.  The same cannot be said about this book.

You know how a lot of people will say about a book that they could see everything happening in their heads?  That the writer had a strong visual sense, and a vividness to the writing that made the characters, plot and settings come alive in their imagination?  This is the opposite of that.  If I had to choose one word to describe the writing in this book, it would be vague. Everything is vague.  You know you’re in trouble when some event or situation is being described and you have to go back and re-read to figure out if it’s metaphorical or not.  There is no strong sense of setting or place.  I was never quite sure where we were or what it looked like or the relation in space of the various settings or events of the plot.  I spent the whole book sort of adrift in Stuff That Was Happening, none of which was ever made very clear or striking and none of which invoked a strong emotional response.

The plot itself is pretty vague, too.  A young man, Finn, is a prisoner in Incarceron, a seemingly infinitely large facility that people simply are born inside, live and die in.  For 150 years the population has lived there, wondering if Outside really exists.  Well, it does, and Outside lives under a decree that they must all be stuck in Protocol, being true to the Era, which seems to be a sort of pseudo-Elizabethan time period (although the rich are able to cheat rampantly).  There, Claudia is set to marry the heir apparent to the throne, and her father is Warden of Incarceron.  She and Finn both separately discover crystal keys to the prison that allow them to communicate, Finn vows to escape, she vows to discover the truth about the prison, and stuff happens.  It’s all rather haphazard, the characters are ciphers, and the Big Revelation about the true nature of Incarceron (you knew there’d be one) is profoundly unsatisfying and left me going “Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  That’s the best you could do?”

I didn’t think it was possible for characters in a novel to have so little chemistry with each other, but there really isn’t any life to the interpersonal interactions here and everything’s just fairly flat and vague and without affect.  I’m giving it two stars for creativity and because…well, it isn’t that bad, I guess.  But I can’t recommend it, and I don’t think I’ll bestir myself to read the sequel.

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The downsides of setting goals

I’ve just come up against a drawback of setting an ambitious books-read goal for myself: it means I can’t abandon a book that’s not really doing it for me.

I mean, if I were to hate a book in the first ten pages, I could put it down and pick up another without too much sturm und drang.  But if I’m a third of the way through before I realize hey, this isn’t my cup of tea, it’s not really grabbing me — well, now I’m too invested.  I’ve spent too much time on it and if I stop reading now, I won’t get to add it to my tally and I will have wasted the time I’ve already put in reading it.

I find myself in that situation now with Incarceron, the next young adult title I picked up after finishing the excellent Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I knew it was dystopian fantasy, somewhat in the Hunger Games style (I did love that series).  It isn’t my usual genre, but what the heck.

Well…it isn’t terrible and i don’t hate it, it’s just not really blowing my skirt up, you know what I mean?  But I’m almost 200 pages in, I’ve put in a good four or five hours’ reading time, and dammit now I have to finish it.  I might not do so if it weren’t for The Project.

I may finish it and find that I’m glad I did, or I might just begrudge that reading time in perpetuity.  Only another 300 pages will tell for sure.

#25: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Begun: 3/29/2011
Finished: 3/30/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4.5/5

Note: I would like to take this opportunity to boast that I am now ahead of schedule.  I have complete 25% of my book goal and the year will not be 25% complete until Friday.  Go me!

It really hurts to give this book less than five stars.  It is nearly physically painful to type that “4.5” instead of “5” for my overall rating, because 99% of the book is the best kind of fabulous that there is.  It is only because the climactic moment in the last fifteen pages is so contrived, so unrealistic, so cliched and so off-putting that I’m knocking it down a half a star.  Even with that ending, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

That being said, I almost stopped reading it at the second chapter.

Let me explain.  The book is the story of two teenaged boys who do not know each other, both named Will Grayson, one straight, one gay.  John Green writes Straight Will Grayson, and David Levithan writes Gay Will Grayson.  They alternate chapters, each writing their own Will Grayson’s first-person point of view.  The leadoff chapter is Green, and I immediately fell in love with his style, his Grayson, but mostly with the character who’s arguably more central than either of the Wills, namely Straight Will Grayson’s gay best friend, Tiny Cooper, who is possibly the awesomest gay character I’ve ever read.  He’s a huge, hulking football player who is fabulously, openly gay and real in a way that transcends stereotype.  Tiny is searching for love while he tries to get the school to finance a production of Tiny Dancer, the stage musical he’s written about his life. Green seems to be writing from inside my own head.  He’s drawing his cultural vocabulary from the same sources that I do, even using some of my own personal favorite non-words like “confuzzled,” and this made me feel comfortable in his prose immediately.

Then…the second chapter.  The first of Levithan’s chapters featuring Gay Will Grayson.  His sections are written in a no-caps, alternative-punctuation style that annoyed me right away, and Gay Will Grayson is the most irritating, stereotypical Emo Goth Kid imaginable, with the detachment and the clinical depression and the woe, betide.  I nearly didn’t make it through.  But I wanted to get back to SWG and Tiny Cooper so badly that I kept reading.

Then this amazing thing happened.  Gay Will Grayson got better.  I don’t mean to say that he became less emo, but his self-expression became more layered.  Then, something truly awful happens to him, and this awful thing leads him to finally meet Straight Will Grayson and Tiny Cooper, and somehow I found myself liking Gay Will Grayson as well.  He and Tiny make a stab at having a relationship, while Tiny tries to make Straight Will Grayson abandon his self-imposed detachment (read: defense mechanism) long enough to date their cute friend Jane.  Tiny gets the funding for his musical, and things escalate from there.

I can’t say too much about what put me off so badly about the ending without spoiling you.  It was logistically not believable, first of all, it wasn’t thematically fitting, second, and it was too over-the-top and feel-good for a book that had been pretty fiercely dedicated to truthfulness up to that point.  It’s like they took the “And I’m gay!” ending to the movie In & Out and dialed it up to eleven.

But that isn’t enough to make me not recommend the book.  I loved it, and the characters are fantastic, especially Tiny Cooper, the very model of a modern gay teenager and somebody we’ve never seen before on the page.  A unique creation, both character and novel, and a great read.  As a young-adult title, there isn’t any sex (just some kissing) but a fair amount of sex-referencing and R-rated language.

Embarrassment of riches

So since my rediscovery of the marvelous place that is the library, suddenly I’ve introduced a new element into my reading schedule: time pressure.  Gotta finish the book before it’s due!  Of course I can renew any book with one mouse click thanks to the Columbus Metropolitan Library system’s fabulous online user account interface, but still.

And I have some pressure to hit 25 books read by Friday.  I’m close enough to finishing Bonfire of the Vanities that I feel like I want to push hard and get it done.  The Kindle for PC app actually includes page counts (what a novelty!) so I now know that I’m on page 566 of 688.  That’s still kind of a long way to go.

I also now have two probably fast-reading YA titles to choose from, Incarceron and Will Grayson Will Grayson. So should I work on Bonfire and then one of those, or go ahead and start The Passage, which I’m really looking forward to but which is THICK?

I really want Bonfire finally cleared off my list.  That’s a long-ass book and I will really feel like I’ve accomplished something when I finish it, and I have tomorrow night free to read it.  That plus pick-a-YA-book will put me up to 25 books read.

And there will be much rejoicing.

Books #11-15: The Percy Jackson series, by Rick Riordan

Begun: 1/21/2011
Finished: 2/25/2011
Format: Paperback & Kindle
Rating: 5/5

Let it never be said that I am not a huge, devoted Harry Potter fangirl.  There was a time when I was deeply involved in the fandom, a dedicated Potterphile.  I was famous for it in the bookstore where I worked.  I organized our store’s HP events, including the midnight release of “Order of the Phoenix.”  I was the employee that customers were directed toward when they had Potter questions, or needed recommendations for their kids who’d read the books and needed something new.  I’ve gone to midnight showings of all the films, gone to midnight releases of all the books.  I’ve written truly epic amounts of HP fanfiction.  The HP books touched my life in very real ways that I can’t really overstate.  Because of those books I met one of my best friends, because of those books (and the fanfiction I wrote based on them) I got many actual paying writing jobs.  My chance decision to pick up “Sorcerer’s Stone” and read it was a boulder dropped into the pond of my life that did not just generate ripples, but tidal waves.  This may all seem overstated.  Trust me.  It isn’t.

So reading books that are clearly aimed at the post-Potter audience is somewhat bittersweet for me.  In some ways, nothing will ever be Potter again.  In other ways, Potter has its detractions.  I am now six years removed from the intensity of my former Potter fandom, and while I am still devoted to the books, distance has given me perspective about some of the things I found lacking in the series, especially the later books when Rowling began to suffer from Authorial Bloat Syndrome.  The way some of the crucial plot elements seemed to zoom in from left field, never having been spoken of before (masters of wands, anyone?) and how I constantly yearned for Harry to just be good at something.  The lack of development of worthy female characters and Rowling’s failure at writing believable teen romance always bugged me.

Rick Riordan really doesn’t even pretend that he isn’t doing anything other than writing a series intended for the Potter audience.  For crying out loud, his protagonist is a black-haired twelve-year-old with green eyes.  The parallels are considerable.  But if we can just agree that the concept is more than a little reminiscent of Potter, we can move on.  And hey…the concept of Potter is more than a little reminiscent of “The Dark is Rising,” you know.  Nothing new under the sun.  And as the PJ books progress, the connections to Potter grow dimmer and dimmer.

I loved these books.  In some ways…and I can’t believe I’m saying this…I liked them better than Potter.  They aren’t as detailed and satisfying in some ways, but basically, everything that I felt Potter stumbled at, the PJATO books succeeds at.

Potter wins for sheer originality.  Riordan’s creativity at taking the elements of Greek mythology and grafting them onto the modern world is great, but in Potter, Rowling created an entire world out of whole cloth.  This is the woman who thought up Quidditch, and Muggles, and Hogwarts.  You just can’t beat that.  There’s a much greater connection to our world in PJATO, whereas in Potter we mostly feel as if we’re in the bubble of the wizarding world.

Riordan’s storytelling is tighter.  Little is extraneous.  If someone or something shows up in book one they’re going to keep showing up.  Nobody appears out of nowhere, never having been mentioned before, with some crucial role to play.  They’ve already been established before that happens.  He does rely a bit too heavily on rescues in the nick of time, but it’s usually earned.  The fifth book is more than half taken up by an epic battle, and it’s perfectly paced with extended battle sequences interspersed with small breathers to get new information or develop characters.

And Riordan has it all OVER Rowling for female characters.  In Potter there’s Hermione and then there’s…Hermione.  The only other girls who even come close to being real characters are Luna and Ginny, and even they aren’t much more than sketches.  In PJATO there’s first and foremost Annabeth, Percy’s best friend, but there’s also Clarisse, and Silena, and Thalia, and Percy’s mom, and Bianca, and many others.  The gender equality is much better in PJATO.  And as a longtime Harry/Hermione shipper who was frustrated by that aspect of Potter, it was deeply satisfying that in PJATO, the Harry and Hermione characters actually get together, successfully building on their friendship for five books until it’s clear to them and everyone else that they love each other and will be together.  And it’s just so…emotionally satisfying.  Annabeth takes a dagger in the arm to save Percy’s life.  Percy gives up the offer of godhood because he doesn’t want to be separated from her.

Finally, the thing that resonated with me the most is that Percy has actual skills.  I wanted Harry to be competent at stuff so badly, and he really never was.  Even he always said that the only thing he was really good at was Quidditch.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I remember how much we were all thrilled when in Order of the Phoenix Harry started teaching defensive magic to the others.  Sadly this competence seemed to fade in later books.  So much of what Harry accomplishes is by chance, or through the skill of others, or by an accident of birth.  I think Rowling intended it like that.  She didn’t want to write a superhuman character who had mad battle skills.   She wanted to show that something other than prodigious magical talent could make you into a hero, that it could come from your character or the people you chose to surround yourself with.  I get that.  But dammit, sometimes I just wanted Harry to show some chops and whip some badassery on somebody.

Percy?  He shows chops.  He has formidable powers of his own that no one else has.  He’s skilled with a sword.  He’s strong, he’s smart, he’s powerful, and becomes more and more so as the books progress.  He definitely whips the badassery.  By the fifth book, he has become invincible thanks to a dip in the river Styx, with only one spot on his body where he can be harmed, and he is the unchallenged leader of the army of demigods opposing the Titan army.  He isn’t superhuman.  But he has skills.  And I hungered for that in Potter and never got it.

These books will not occupy a place in my life that Potter did.  I won’t be writing any fanfiction (though I’ve read a bit).  I won’t be participating in the fandom.  Nothing about PJATO is going to change my life.  Probably.  They’re not Potter.  But I’ll sure as heck be re-reading them.  And I’ll soon be reading the first book of Riordan’s sequel series, and waiting eagerly for the next book, which comes out this fall.

The brute force approach to reading Roth.

I just finished the fourth Percy Jackson book (I’m not going to add these to the total until I finish the series and post my review).  Before I start the final one, after which I’ll read the first book of Riordan’s sequel series, I’m going to hammer on Letting Go.

I have no plans tonight.  It is now  7:20 in the evening.  I am going to sit right down on the couch and start reading and not stop except for potty breaks and to refill my wineglass.  Let’s see how far I can get.  I’m currently on page 90 of 630ish.  I’d very much like to have two Roth books read before it is February.

Wish me luck.  I shouldn’t need that much luck, since I’m finding the book compelling and awesome, so it’s not like I have to force it down.  Hooray!

ETA:  Umm…okay, after fifteen pages I fell asleep.  This isn’t promising.

Jackson vs. Potter, celebrity deathmatch

It has become clear to me that if I’m going to reach my goal of 100 books in 2011, I’m going to have to sprinkle my reading list with some less…demanding books.  Some YA titles, for example.  To that end, I’m reading the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.  Pity I read the Hunger Games trilogy last year.

Now, it’s obvious that author Rick Riordan, in writing the Percy Jackson series, is going after what we shall call the Potter audience for lack of a better term.  I used to work at a bookstore, and as awesome as it was that the Potter series were getting a lot of kids to read who hadn’t been all that enthused about it, once they’d finished Potter their parents always wanted something else for them to read.  We all kept lists of books in our heads that could be recommended for kids who liked Potter.  The Jackson series definitely fits this description, although it’s much more recent (the first Jackson book was released in 2005, the final Potter book in 2007).  I’ll post a review of all five books (the series is now complete) when I’ve read them all.

I’ve finished the first two books.  They’re fast reads but entertaining.  The similarities to Potter are — significant.  The hero protagonist, at age twelve, discovers that he has special powers and is then sent to a special place for others like him to be educated about his abilities.  He is part of a trio of friends that includes a smart, capable girl and a goofy but brave guy.  He has older mentors and various enemies and a mysterious prophecy that concerns his life and the fate of the world.  Riordan’s prose is aimed a little younger than Rowling’s, but in some ways the storytelling is tighter and less prone to unnecessary complexity.

There are ways that the Jackson series differs, though.  Most notably, I think, is the protagonist.  One thing that continues to strike me is that Percy Jackson has actual skills.  Harry Potter might have been the chosen one, the Boy Who Lives, but he was never shown as being particularly skilled at magic.  He even says himself that the only thing he’s really good at is Quidditch.  In the later books when he ends up teaching magical defense, it’s more a matter of experience (and that was never that well supported, in my opinion).  Percy, on the other hand, is good with a sword and has abilities that he knows and understands, although he is certainly self-effacing about them and is often bumbling.  Percy just seems more capable than Harry did at the same age.

We’ll see how this develops.  Riordan is adding characters with each successive volume at a somewhat mind-boggling rate.  If he keeps going like this we’re going to have a cast of thousands by the time we get to book five.

But when I finish all five (I read the first two in four-five hours each, so yay for that) I will be in double digits for my book tally.  Hooray!