Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

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Let’s talk about that boy…

All praise Brandon Sanderson for giving us one of the best male narrators in YA fiction. David is a breath of fresh air in a sea of Katniss and Tris wannabes. Maybe it’s just that I’ve become tired of the dystopian girl who has to meet a cute boy to help her cope with her depressing world, but it was nice to have a main character who took it upon himself to try and make his world better.

In the prologue, we meet David as a young boy, who goes through a harrowing experience while at the bank with his father. Two of the Epics – humans with superpowers that developed after an event called Calamity – get into a brawl with disastrous consequences. David spends the next ten years studying Epics in search of a way to defeat them, taking notes and forming theories. 

So about those Reckoners…

David is not the only one who wants to take down the Epics. Imagine if people started developing limitless powers, and couldn’t handle the God complex that followed from that? This is David’s world, where Epics rule with iron fists while the rest of the country falls into chaos and poverty.

The Reckoners are a guerrilla group that work to secretly eliminate Epics. They have no real presence – they don’t publicize their efforts, and they haven’t been able to take down any of the really powerful Epics that would draw much attention. David wants to join up with them to share his research and bring down the Epic that took everything from him. 

The mystery of Steelheart…

The problem is that although David knows that Steelheart can be hurt, he doesn’t know how. In the bank, as a boy, he witnessed one bullet that managed to make Steelheart bleed. When David joins the Reckoners they set out to try and figure out what was special about that bullet, that gun, or that moment that made him vulnerable.

And one of my favorite aspects of the book was that I could never quite figure it out. Most of the main characters have a different theory about Steelheart’s weakness, and they all feel convincing. The deeper they get in their plot to try and overthrow him, the higher the stakes become for getting the answer right. If they can’t find the answer before the showdown they are setting up, they’ll all be killed. This is a win or die scenario, and it was completely gripping to read.

If you want action…

…then this is the book for you. If they don’t make this into a movie, then the world is majorly missing out. The action scenes are crazy intense – chase sequences, guns, and explosions galore. The Reckoners have to meet with seedy black market weapons traders and sneak into heavily guarded buildings. Their headquarters are in a forgotten layer of underground tunnels, and the final showdown happens in one of the most iconic buildings in Chicago (or Newcago, as it’s known in David’s world).

It was the breakneck pace of the action that kept me turning the pages as fast as possible. I tore through this book and found it unbelievably hard to put down. Unfortunately, the pacing didn’t leave much room for explanation of the world. I felt there were a lot of pieces of information that we didn’t get which would have been helpful to understand how Newcago operates or how the world got to this point. No one seems to understand Calamity or how it led to the Epics, and even though it has only been ten years, I expected just a bit more information.

I’m hoping that information comes in with the next book in this exciting and promising new series. I adored David and can’t wait to see what’s in store for him and the rest of the Reckoners. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

[rating stars=”four-stars”]

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Review: Immortal by Gillian Shields

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Promises, promises…

For some reason, I don’t read very many gothic novels, even though when I do read them I love them. Is it that there aren’t many of them written? Are they just not flashy enough to compete with their dystopian brethren? Or do I just not keep them high enough on my radar? This gothic beauty has been languishing on my TBR for a long time, and I’m kicking myself for not getting to it sooner.

Immortal had everything going for it – sweeping romance, eerie moors, haunting ghosts. In the first 100 pages, I was enthralled. Evie arrives at Wyldcliffe, only to be nearly run over by a dark, mysterious, and handsome (naturally) boy on a horse. It was a scene ripped from Jane Eyre, that gothic novel to end all gothic novels. I was anticipating the love story to come and finding the secrets hidden in the passageways of the boarding school.

Tempered expectations…

Around the midpoint of the book I realized that I needed to adjust my expectations. Evie isn’t really haunted so much as she experiences visions. She has odd dreams and keeps seeing a girl who looks like her lurking around the school, but she’s never really frightened by any of it. This means, of course, that I was never scared as a reader, either. It took a lot of the fun out of Evie’s trips down musty passageways and out onto the moor to meet up with Sebastian.

Sebastian, the boy from the horse, runs into her again late one night after Evie has snuck out to get some air. They begin to meet up nightly, and Evie falls in love. I guess. Well, she says she falls in love, but I certainly didn’t get swoony over it. This was one romance that just wasn’t for me.

Throw in some witchcraft…

You see, the book intersperses Evie’s story with excerpts from Lady Agnes Templeton’s diary from 1882 to 1884. Agnes, the daughter of the owners of Wyldcliffe manor, writes about her friend “S.” who introduces her to the Mysticke Way. “S” is kind of a jerk, and as they unlock their mystical powers (witchcraft, though no one in this book wants to call it that), he gets worse.

SPOILER ALERT! (I think, though it seemed pretty obvious to me.) [spoiler]I mean, clearly, “S” is Sebastian, right? So I’m reading all about this douche from the past who treated Lady Agnes like complete garbage…and then I’m supposed to be happy that Evie is falling for him? Nope. Not going to happen.[/spoiler]

(Carry on.)

The witchcraft bit doesn’t really come in to play for Evie’s story until late in the book, at which point she has to rush to understand her role in the history of Wyldcliffe much too quickly for my taste.

Hurry! The end is nigh!

Once Evie finally starts to put together the pieces of the large and obvious clues in front of her, there are only a few chapters left. She has so much to learn and do, which gets rushed into a couple of scenes, only to build to a climax that is resolved so quickly and lacks so much (or any) confrontation that it feels too easy.

Instead of wrapping things up with a genuine conflict between Evie and some badass witches in this story, it seems like the author left that for the next in the series. What a letdown! I would have liked to have seen more of Evie developing her own powers and working with her friends. I would have liked to have seen her then use those powers in a manner that actually accomplished something instead of seeming to delay the conflict for a bit.

Still, I’m only really complaining because overall I really enjoyed the book. I liked the mystery of Lady Agnes and “S” and how it all tied in with Evie. I loved the setting (boarding school!) and the isolation of this old manor on the moor. I tore through this book – devoured it – to find out what would happen next. It was thoroughly engaging, even if it didn’t turn out to be quite the book I wanted it to be.

Rating: 3/5 stars

[rating stars=”three-stars”]

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Review: Splintered by A. G. Howard

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Alice in Wonderland is one of those tales that is so pervasive you feel like you’ve read it, even if you haven’t. Though I have never read Lewis Carroll’s classic book, I probably watched my old VHS tape of this ridiculously cheesy 1985 TV miniseries about a hundred times. I’ve seen the Disney version and the Johnny Depp version. And I’ve loved them all.

This modern take on Alice’s story imagines our protagonist, Alyssa, as a descendant of the Alice who lived and inspired Carroll’s stories. Along with a similar name, she is in line to inherit the psychological madness that is passed from female descendant to female descendant. Her mother is locked in an asylum, and Alyssa tries very hard to convince herself that she can’t hear the voices starting to appear in her head. She’s a cool skater girl into art and bugs and other Things That Are Dark And Twisty.

The coolest thing about this book is the brilliant display of imagination on the part of author A. G. Howard. I only wish I could think up stuff this vivid and exciting. When Alyssa goes down the rabbit hole, we get a version of Wonderland that is fresh and new without being unfamiliar. Carroll’s characters pop up, but in different forms than you might expect. I don’t want to spoil the fun of discovery, but I will say that the White Rabbit is not just a rabbit – he’s much creepier than that.

If you’re tired of love triangles, consider yourselves warned. Alyssa is into the boy next door, Jeb, and while in Wonderland starts to fall under the spell of the difficult and dark Morpheus. Morpheus acts as a sort of guide and childhood friend of Alyssa’s on the Wonderland side of things, while Jeb is her friend and protector on the reality side. Morpheus is certainly the more interesting and mysterious of the two, but his sketchy motives later in the story made me not like him as much.

If I had one complaint about this book, it’s that those motives, and the plot, got a little confusing toward the end. I had a hard time following what was happening because the history was so rich and complex. The politics of the Red Queen and White Queen and Morpheus’s place in the middle of all of it overwhelmed me, and I’m still not entirely sure I absorbed it all. I kept having to go back and re-read sections to track who supposedly did what and to what end, and what they really meant when they did them, versus what everyone else thought they were doing.

Did you get that? Yeah. Me either.

Fuzzy plot or not, this was a really enjoyable story. I loved seeing such a cool concept from a debut author, too! I picked this one up at the library because I couldn’t find it at the store, and the cover is absolutely stunning. The text is a beautiful dusty purple color. Normally I’m not a fan of colored print in books, but for some reason this really worked for me. If you’re in the market for a beautiful book for your shelf and want to support a debut author with a fantastic story, I recommend this one.

Rating: 4/5 stars

[rating stars=”four-stars”]

Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Book: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Harcourt Books
Release date: October 1, 2008
Source: Bought
Series: Graceling Realm #1
  
Summary from Goodreads: In a world where people born with an extreme skill called a Grace are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him.

When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po’s friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

Lady killers!

I have this thing with assassin stories. I love them. One of the things that drew me to this book was the promise of a girl with a special power to kill. Sign me up any day for a female main character who can kick some major ass.

The opening scene pulled me in immediately. Katsa is sneaking around in the dark, roundhouse-kicking guards to the ground, and rescuing a prisoner. Soon after, we meet Po, a mysterious boy with a fighting Grace who lets Katsa beat up on him for fun. I instantly loved both of these characters and the world they inhabited.

In Katsa’s country, her Grace is looked down upon. She is frequently shunned or feared, and her uncle, the king, manipulates and uses her to his advantage by sending her off to settle his quarrels. She’s his muscle – a thug he dispatches to get his way.

Po is a Lienid prince from across the sea, whose country doesn’t see Graces as bad things. He challenges and encourages Katsa to get over her shame and embrace her Grace. As they grow closer, Katsa learns the truth about Po’s Grace, and they both have to learn to trust each other in order to successfully reach their goals. I loved the growth of their relationship over the course of the book.

Mawwiage.

I know there have been complaints about Katsa as uber-feminist. I didn’t mind her commitment to stay unmarried, because it felt truthful to her character and experiences. I did feel that this point was beaten over our heads a few too many times, however. I also felt sorry for Katsa, because she had this concept of marriage as a loss of identity that was never reinforced by the world. I wasn’t sure if this was Katsa’s perspective that evolved from her own fears, or whether it was truly the way marriage worked in her society. Did child-free couples exist? Were there women who still had freedom and independence within their marriages, if not in Middlun then in Lienid? It was hard to know whether to root for Katsa and Po to end up together.

Questing!

The plot of the book revolves around the prisoner Katsa rescues in the opening scene – he is Po’s grandfather, and they are trying to figure out why he has been kidnapped. Katsa and Po set off to travel through the country and glean what information they can, and eventually they turn to the southeastern country of Monsea and the strange behavior happening there.

Oh. Questing.

Unfortunately, it was at this point the book lost some of its luster for me. Questing is usually one of my favorite story elements, but here it turned more Harry Potter than Lord of the Rings. First, Katsa and Po tromp through the woods finding information. Then they tromp through woods and mountains getting to Monsea. Then they tromp through more mountains trying to get out of Monsea. Then Katsa crosses the mountains, and a sea, trying to escape and plan her next move. But she doesn’t get to plan her next move, because the plot just comes to her. It felt like a lot of unnecessary walking/riding/sailing that didn’t accomplish much.

This was an enjoyable read, and I definitely recommend it to fantasy readers. I’m anxious to spend more time in the Seven Realms and explore other characters and Graces, so I’ll continue with the trilogy. 

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Book: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release date: March 22, 2011
Source: Borrowed from library

  

Summary from Goodreads:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

From the very first sentence, this book grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I devoured this book in two sittings, staying up late into the night, furiously wiping away tears so I could finish. I was so thoroughly invested in Lina’s story that I had a hard time letting go.

Lina, along with her mother and brother, is ripped from her Lithuanian home by Soviet secret police late on a June evening in 1941. They are given 20 minutes to pack a bag before they are whisked away on trucks and herded onto train cars bound for Russia. From there, we follow Lina’s harrowing journey of survival by train to Russian and Siberian forced labor camps.

The book moves quickly thanks to short chapters, often punctuated by Lina’s memories of moments from a better time. These snippets give us a glimpse into the girl she was before she was taken. They serve as a jarring juxtaposition against her situation in the camps – starving, worked near to death, fighting disease and failing health. Her memories are those of any girl, and reminds us of her humanity and innocence.

Lina meets a number of people on the train and in the camps, and they all captivated me in different ways. Ruta Sepetys, who researched this book by visiting Lithuania and hearing survivors’ experiences, created such vivid characters despite their dire circumstances. I felt for each of them in different ways, much like the way they each process their situation. No one person reacted the same way to what was happening – we saw denial, fear, shock, outrage, defiance, and defeat. Nothing can prepare you for the gamut of emotions that Sepetys paints onto each page.

This is a gorgeous, haunting, and incredibly moving book. I highly recommend it, but be sure to keep some tissues handy.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Double Review: Hidden and Breathless by Sophie Jordan

Book: Hidden
Author: Sophie Jordan
Publisher: HarperTEEN
Release date: September 11, 2012
Source: Borrowed ebook from library
Series: Firelight #3

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Jacinda was supposed to bond with Cassian, the “prince” of their pride. But she resisted long before she fell in love with Will, a human and, worse, a hunter. When she ran away with Will, it ended in disaster, with Cassian’s sister, Miram, captured. Weighed down by guilt, Jacinda knows she must rescue her to set things right. Yet to do so she will have to venture deep into the heart of enemy territory.

The only way Jacinda can reach Miram is by posing as a prisoner herself, though once she assumes that disguise, things quickly spiral out of her control. As she learns more about her captors, she realizes that even if Will and Cassian can carry out their part of the plan, there’s no guarantee they’ll all make it out alive. But what Jacinda never could have foreseen is that escaping would be only the beginning….

Loyalties are tested and sacrifices made in the explosive conclusion to Sophie Jordan’s Firelight trilogy.

Sophie Jordan is not one to recap. As with the last book, Vanish, this book picks up immediately where the last one left off. This is a great series to read back-to-back if you’ve not yet entered the world of the draki. Needless to say, there are some series spoilers ahead.

Most of the reason I love this series is simply my love for the draki. A secret race of shifters that can become a dragon/human hybrid capable of flight and varying types of powers? Oh man, I am so on board. In this book, we see much more of Jacinda and the gang in draki form, beginning with Jacinda’s entrance into the enemy camp to infiltrate their hostages and rescue Cassian’s sister, Miram.

From there, the adventure never lets up. Jacinda, Will, Cassian, Miram, Tamra, and a few new (and incredibly awesome) characters are on the run from the evil enkros and their hunters. Jacinda is simultaneously trying to track down what happened to her parents and balance her family interests against her need to run away with Will. 

I found this to be a very satisfying conclusion to the series. It was full of excitement and action, and everyone got an ending they deserved. I’ll miss Jacinda and the rest of the draki immensely. 

Luckily, there’s a new novella…

Book: Breathless
Author: Sophie Jordan
Publisher: HarperTEEN
Release date: December 4, 2012
Source: Borrowed ebook from library
Series: Firelight #3.5

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Sophie Jordan’s breathtaking digital original novella set in the world of Firelight.

For Az, it’s supposed to be a fun summer vacation with her family. Nothing complicated. Just a quick trip to test the waters as she prepares for a year on her own. That all changes when she rescues a drowning girl and meets Tate – the most gorgeous human boy she’s ever seen. Tate throws her heart, her plans, and her life into upheaval, but the closer she gets to him, the harder it is to hide the secret of what she is. With no hope for a future together, the last thing that can ever happen . . . is love.

This stand-alone digital original is perfect for those new to the Firelight series as well as veteran fans.

Jacinda may be a bad-ass fire-breather, but I loved diving into Az’s experiences as a water draki. (That’s right. I made a swimming pun.) This story takes place during Az’s family vacation, where she meets a cute boy and struggles with whether to pursue things with him given her draki nature.

At around 100 pages, it’s a short and sweet visit to the Firelight world. I loved Az – her shy personality was an interesting counterpoint to Jacinda’s bold character. It was also nice to see the draki trying to deal with real world problems again. What do you do when you fall for a boy, and those passions threaten to unveil your draki self every time you kiss? It brought back all of the good stuff I loved about Firelight.

Rating for both: 4/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

 
  
 

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Book: Cinder
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Release date: January 3, 2012
Source: Borrowed from library
Series: Lunar Chronicles #1

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . 

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

If you couldn’t tell from the summary, Cinder is a loose retelling of the Cinderella story. Cinder is a cyborg who was adopted as a child by her father, who soon after died and left her in the care of her nasty stepmother. As a mechanic, she is responsible for the mechanical upkeep of her stepmother’s household machines. In her spare time, she dreams of escaping to a life of freedom on her own.

What could have been a somewhat interesting tale about a cyborg who wants to be treated as an equal quickly became a story so much deeper than that. There is a dangerous plague spreading rapidly through New Beijing, and when one of Cinder’s stepsisters becomes infected, Cinder is signed over to the kingdom’s scientists for medical testing. She discovers hard truths about the feared population living on the moon – the Lunars – and the price Earth must pay to keep them from taking over the planet. 

The politics of Earth’s negotiations with and history of the Lunars was so fascinating to me. I loved the mystery of the Lunars and their eerie mind-control abilities. The threat of their takeover raised the stakes of the underlying Cinderella story, and added a layer of nuance to Cinder’s exploration of her status as a cyborg and as a member of New Beijing society. Marissa Meyer built an incredibly rich world that was both believable and fantastic. I wanted to stay immersed in the story forever, just to keep walking the streets of town and interacting with its characters.

You may think you know the tale of Cinderella, but this book keeps you guessing. Although I found the twist at the end to be obvious from the beginning (so perhaps it’s supposed to be?), I still enjoyed the journey. I cannot wait to continue on with this series, and I’ll definitely be purchasing a copy for my shelves as well. This is a beautifully imagined and written book by a bright new star in young adult fiction.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Reached by Ally Condie

Book: Reached
Author: Ally Condie
Publisher: Dutton Books
Release date: November 13, 2012
Source: Purchased ebook from Amazon
Series: Matched #3
 
Summary from Goodreads: All will be sorted

Cassia’s journey began with an error, a momentary glitch in the otherwise perfect facade of the Society. After crossing canyons to break free, she waits, silk and paper smuggled against her skin, ready for the final chapter.

The wait is over.

One young woman has raged against those who threaten to keep away what matters most – family, love, choice. Her quite revolution is about to explode into full-scale rebellion.

With exquisite prose, the emotionally gripping conclusion to the international bestselling Match trilogy returns Cassia, Ky, and Xander to the Society to save the one thing they have been denied for so long, the power to choose.

I absolutely adored the first book in this trilogy, Matched, and though I didn’t love the second book, Crossed, I figured it was all leading up to an exquisite showdown. When my preorder arrived on my Kindle, I was stoked. Over the Christmas break, I dove in.

What a disappointment.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this series just wasn’t what I wanted it to be. The plot of the first book that I loved so much – the government-controlled marriages/matches and what happens when that system breaks down – didn’t really carry through the trilogy. Instead of being a part of her existing community and fighting it from within, Cassia is exiled to the outer reaches of their territory. Though there is a return to the larger cities in this book, for the most part it is functioning entirely differently. She is no longer fighting the government, but a rebellion that may not be what it seems.

Though this sounds intriguing, I found it tough to get through. This just wasn’t the story I wanted to hear for these characters, and as a result I was disengaged from the political struggles going on. I’m still not sure I even understand who The Rising or the Pilot were or what they really wanted. The book focused too heavily on Xander’s work on the virus/vaccine, and Cassia and Ky seemed mostly like afterthoughts. 

The action was fairly exciting in this one, and a lot more happens than in book two. There is a mystery at play and a race against the clock to find a cure for the plague unleashed upon the citizens. If I had been able to better draw the line between the events of the first book and these last two, I probably would have enjoyed them. Sadly, I failed to see how all three of these books went together – they felt like they were telling two different stories to me.

I fell in love with Cassia and Ky and their love in the first book, but the last two books in this trilogy really took that away from me. I’ll happily re-read Matched, but these last two just didn’t work for me.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Book and Movie Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Book: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: June 4, 2002
Source: Purchased ebook from Amazon

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material — any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and centre from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.

I resisted this book for a long time, for three very good reasons: 1) it’s literary fiction; 2) it won the Man Booker Prize, and I’m historically 50/50 on liking Man Booker nominee and winning books; and 3) everyone talked about how amazing it was, and that kind of lavish praise makes me wary.

It wasn’t until my sister said she wanted to see the movie and I read a bunch of reviews that said the book was one that needed to be discussed that we decided we should read it. She may live 500 miles away and be stuck in baby jail (she has an 8 month old and is a stay at home mom), but we can spend time reading the same book at the same time and then talk about it, right? Thus Sister Book Club was born, and our inaugural read was Life of Pi. A few weeks later, we found an afternoon where we could both see the movie in our respective cities at about the same time so we could see it “together.”

Today I’ll be talking about both the book and the movie, and I’ll provide major spoiler alerts/hides when I get around to discussing that ending. I had the book spoiled for me early on, and it’s a shame because I think the ending serves a very distinct and effective purpose to the overall structure and message of the book, so I promise to avoid spoiling it for those of you who haven’t read it. That said, there is a lot to say about the book and movie that doesn’t rely on spoiler talk, so I hope you’ll still stick around.

First, there was a book…

The book opens by telling us we are about to hear a story that will make the reader believe in God. It’s a tall order, one that seems to purposefully put us on edge. “Ha!” we say. “I’d like to see you try,” we mutter. And we begin by taking the words with a grain of salt, perhaps waiting for the treacly drivel that comes from a boy being lost at sea who needs faith to pull him through his debacle.  

Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, tells us his history of faith. He was raised Hindu, but through a series of encounters with a priest and in a mosque, he becomes a faithful adherent of Catholicism and Islam as well. As a bit of a patchwork quilt of religions myself, I really identified with Pi’s healthy skepticism and yet profound sense of faith. There are many ways in which we express faith, and Pi felt at home in a variety of them. 

Though I have read complaints that this beginning section is slow, I found them to be a vital backdrop for Pi’s journey. Without understanding how he comprehends and converses with God, we have little understanding of how his tale at sea translates into faith. Even more importantly, without the knowledge of how Pi relates to Richard Parker or the zoo animals raised by his family, we will be unable to suspend our disbelief as to how a small Indian boy could possibly survive a journey in a lifeboat with a tiger.

The book is largely told as a story within a story – Pi is telling the story of his life to a young American novelist. There are a couple of POV changes where we see the novelist interject his own thoughts on Pi and his story, but largely the story is told from Pi’s perspective, including the longest section when he is lost at sea. 

The chapters after the shipwreck are short and not chronological. Pi lost most of his sense of time while adrift, and so we get glimpses at varying states of his being. We see him wildly delirious, joyously triumphant, and terrifyingly angry. Through these glimpses into his most powerful memories of this trip, we are taken on an incredibly journey alongside him.

So how does this tale inspire belief in God? Well, if you have any interest in seeing the movie or reading the book, I encourage you to not read too many reviews. I had the ending spoiled by reading comments on Goodreads, and it took some of the magic out of the reading experience. So skip this section and go right ahead to the movie review, but for the rest of you who have read it (or have seen the movie, or don’t care about spoilers) I’ve added my thoughts on the ending in the camouflaged section below.

**SPOILER ALERT – HIGHLIGHT TO READ THIS SECTION**
If you’re reading this section, I’m assuming you’re okay with major spoilers.
 
By the end of the book, we know only one thing for certain – that Pi survived his ordeal in the lifeboat. Beyond that, we have a lot of questions. Did he really travel with a tiger, an orangutan, a zebra, and a hyena? Or did he watch the cook murder the few survivors before Pi killed him out of revenge and survival?
 
The book challenges us by asking us to choose the one we like better. What makes the better story, and more importantly, why? By acknowledging the story as an allegory, it illuminates how other stories function as allegories, too. How does the reading of this story impact our understanding of, say, the stories in the Bible?

I loved being faced with all of the questions presented to us at the end, and I sincerely bow down to Yann Martel for creating such an incredible work of fiction. This is the kind of book that makes me want to throw in the towel on my own fiction, because I can only dream of creating a story so compelling, intelligent, beautiful, and inspiring. 

This one belongs on the Special Shelf, where it will be read over and over again. I strongly encourage you to pick up this book, but if you’re more of the movie type…

Then there came a movie…

After reading such an epic tale, I could see why so many had deemed it unfilmable. I mean, putting a tiger with a young boy is one thing, but throwing them in a boat too? Yikes.

Ang Lee showed us all, that’s for sure. Though the majority of the tiger scenes in the movie were done with CGI, I really only noticed it in a handful of scenes. Digital creation has come a long way, and they spent a pretty penny to make one fantastic looking cat. 

I was a bit sad to see that they added in an unnecessary pseudo-love interest for Pi. Does every story need a romance these days? I can think of plenty of other ways from the book that Pi could stay motivated through his journey, which is the only justification I can come up with for why they added the love interest anyway.

The photography is stunning, and worth the price of admission alone. The movie manages to showcase the immense beauty and power of the ocean, while constantly reminding us of her danger and fury. Some of the shots and scenes were so visually impactful that I easily forgave their inconsistencies with the book. I don’t care that it didn’t happen in the book – Ang Lee can show me that whale jumping over the lifeboat all he wants. Amazing.

The movie succeeded in pulling me more into the emotional journey than did the book. This isn’t unusual for me, as I’m a pretty visual person in general. The moment when Pi last sees Richard Parker was sad in the book, for sure, but absolutely tore me up watching the movie. 

If you don’t think the book is for you, I still highly recommend seeing the movie. The ending may not be as impactful (the movie kind of beats you over the head with the message – what are we, dummies?), but the tale itself is one to see. 5 stars to both the book and the movie!

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

Book: The Princesses of Iowa
Author: M. Molly Backes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release date: May 8, 2012
Source: Bought signed copy from author

 

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you? A smart and unflinching look at friendship, the nature of entitlement, and growing up in the heartland.

Paige Sheridan has the perfect life. She’s pretty, rich, and popular, and her spot on the homecoming court is practically guaranteed. But when a night of partying ends in an it-could-have-been-so-much worse crash, everything changes. Her best friends start ignoring her, her boyfriend grows cold and distant, and her once-adoring younger sister now views her with contempt. The only bright spot is her creative writing class, led by a charismatic new teacher who encourages students to be true to themselves. But who is Paige, if not the homecoming princess everyone expects her to be? In this arresting and witty debut, a girl who was once high-school royalty must face a truth that money and status can’t fix, and choose between living the privileged life of a princess, or owning up to her mistakes and giving up everything she once held dear.

My Big Fat Disclaimer 

In the interest of fairness, (and maybe only a teensy bit of pride [but totally the Mama Bear pride and not the gross look-at-me pride]) I should disclose that I know the author, M. Molly Backes. Over the past few years she has been my teacher, critique partner, and friend. While this does not prevent me from stating my honest opinions on the quality of her book, I am probably in a position to like it as a person familiar with her personality and writing style. With that all out in the open, let’s move on.

Shit just got real…

Go back up and read the first bolded line of the summary above. I’ll wait.

Back now? Good. I point it out (for the lazy set: “What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you?”) because I think understanding this theme from the outset greatly impacts your enjoyment of the book. This is not a story about fluffy bunnies and sparkly unicorns and beautiful rainbows (even though, in my mind, that cover is just asking for a rainbow). This is a story about real things that can, and do, happen to teenagers.

The situations in this book punched me in the gut. I dare you to read the prologue and not connect deeply with at least some portion of it. Molly Backes is a master of Getting It. She wrote a character, Paige Sheridan, who is struggling to understand consequences, or the completely unjust and unfair LACK of them, that accompanies the life of a high school student, in a way that was believable and thought-provoking. Backes peeled back the superficial layers and forced Paige, and us as readers, to acknowledge the ugly sides of human behavior and the ease with which cruelty and convenience can influence even the best of intentions.

Life is not fair. Things don’t always end up the way we want them to. And I love that Backes portrayed this so truthfully in her narrative. Not everyone agrees with me.

“Issue” is such a loaded word…

Is this an issue book? It deals with the impact of a drunk driving accident on a group of girls. It illustrates common teen situations of homophobia, bullying, partying, and sex. But I didn’t see it as an issue book. It wasn’t pointing out the perils of drunk driving and why teens should avoid it. Were there severe consequences from the accident? Yes. One girl was seriously injured. But that wasn’t the point of the story. Nor was the point of the story to show us how destructive homophobia can be on a community, or how teen girls should handle their drunk boyfriends trying to rape them. The drinking and the sex and the gay slurs just happened to be a part of Paige’s life, and all of these things impact her growth from a narcissistic princess into a contemplative writer. This is Paige’s story and journey, not an issue book passing judgment on the behavior of its teen characters.

I appreciated that Backes didn’t gloss over any aspect of Paige’s life. She has a manipulative best friend, a weak-willed boyfriend, and a self-absorbed mother. Her friends drink too much, Paige cares too much about what people think, and everyone in this book is capable of bad decisions. The beauty of this book is the subtlety with which each character’s growth is illustrated. There is not one cathartic event that pulls everyone together. Instead, there are a series of events that impact different characters in unique ways, setting all of them on a different trajectory. 

Sisters, man…

One of the best devices I noticed to show a subtle change was the name Paige used for her sister. In the first half of the book, Paige’s younger sister Miranda repeatedly has to remind everyone that she prefers to be called Mirror. As with many flights of fancy with young people, she is ignored. Paige refers to her always as Miranda, since that’s her name, and she thinks calling her Mirror is dumb.

I don’t know when exactly the shift occurred, but toward the end of the book I noticed that Paige was consistently calling her sister Mirror. While finding acceptance of herself, Paige began to understand that something as simple as a name change was also an important way for her sister to find her own identity. Though Paige may not have given herself a unique nickname, I think she subconsciously realized that Mirror did so because she wanted to be taken seriously, much like how Paige now wanted to be viewed as more than just a vapid princess. And she finds common ground, as well as a fresh starting point in their relationship, by using her sister’s preferred name and therefore validating Mirror’s perspective and identity. As someone with a younger sister, I really connected with this concept.

What I’m saying is…

I’m no expert in contemporary YA fiction, but this one spoke to me on so many levels. It’s a book that will make you think, which is always a good thing. It sheds some light on the power of cliques and group thinking that can take over a teen’s life without them even realizing it. Backes finds a way to validate experiences without passing judgment, and without needing to find a lesson in every difficult event that her characters encounter. Life doesn’t always hand us teachable moments, nor do we find answers in the immediate aftermath of major events. It’s how we process our experiences into making the choices that feel right to us that truly matters.

 

 

 

 

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system