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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau

      I picked this book up with very high hopes. Most of my Galley amigos agreed that this was a textbook "Jelle" book, so to speak. The cover was intriguing, but not stunning--I even had an ARC with a different cover than the one to the left, a nicer, more edgy black design with a shiny silver incal. The cover fits the book neatly, actually. It's edgy at first, screaming to be picked up, and depressingly shallow, run-of-the-mill mundane after three minutes of scrutiny.
      My reading notes are full of comments like "stilted dialogue" and "plastic and one-dimensional". I guess I can start with the writing, which was banal and ill-fitting. Charbonneau has a very lucid style of writing; she's very good with broad strokes and blanket words that outline her world. But there it stops: at the outline. No room, for example, in the book is described in more detail than:
     1) The rough size of the room, given in such deliciously descriptive words as "large", "small", and "very large".
     2) If you're lucky, the room will have a colour. If you're very lucky, it will be something other than white. Take, for example, this charming little exchange:      "I know this room.
White walls.
White floors.
Black desks."
    3) The rooms are utterly one-dimensional. They sever the main character from her larger surroundings so that Charbonneau can get away with describing even less, but beyond colour and shape they might as well not exist. Part of this is the starkness Charbonneau has infused her world with and part of this is the starkness that is the result of Charbonneau's meager and flat writing style.
    The author uses an incredible host of words that might have meaning if they were used more skillfully, such as "unruly", "chastising", and "abandoned". These are weak words, words that need to be babysat carefully, fed with meaning and context until they are strong enough to stand for themselves. Instead Charbonneau flings them apathetically into her work, forgoing the beauty of writing for clich├ęd buzzwords like "handsome" and "tan". Words that seem solid on the surface can collapse utterly when a reader digs back, asking himself what even the main character looks like. There's the obligatory mirror scene on page one, but no reader is able to glean more from that than that she has light brown hair and is wearing a red dress, which leaves the reader with the knowledge that she has light brown hair, unless she would wear the dress for a second day, at which point the reader would know for another day that she has light brown hair and is wearing a red dress, but after the third day her wearing that same dress just tells the reader that she is rather a slob. Which characteristic, incidentally, would stand in my memory as the only characteristic Charbonneau had gifted her with. But she is forced to change into a jumpsuit a page or three later. As that red dress crumples on the ground, so does the reader's hope of learning more about her.
      Now, that's enough about the writing. It's perfunctory and curt, with nary a compound sentence in sight beyond at most twice a chapter.
     What bothers me most about The Testing is that Charbonneau makes the reader invest energy  into its reading. I resent that I am forced to provide my own descriptions and imagination for her; I do half the work in order to make the book the bare minimum of tolerable. I have to put my imagination in high gear to glean anything from her scraps of description, to recreate Charbonneau's world in my mind so I can live in it. Whereas Hogwarts and Veronica Roth's Chicago took root in my mind and are still clenched fast, Charbonneau's Chicago faded out bare minutes after I had dragged it in. Any time I put a lot of myself into a book means that there is too little of the original book in the first place.
    What I do like about the book is the bare bones of its plot and the characters' names. They have beautiful, eerily post-apocalyptic names like Hamin, Zandri, and Malachi. The main character is introduced as Malencia Vale, and her obligatory love interest is Tomas Endress. Hard to dislike the only part of the novel that transports me to Charbonneau's imagined dystopian future.
    The plot starts out promising. Malencia's world, previously ours, has fallen prey to terrorists, international warfare on a scale we can never imagine, and disease. Then, as a desperate and desolate peace seemed within reach, the earth itself struck back. Pushed to the edge and beyond by the ferocity of the Seven Stages War, as Charbonneau dryly styles it, entire continents tear and pull themselves to ruin. The soil dies and life, no longer sustainable, recedes to a bare dozen Colonies that make up the remnants of the world's civilization. They are led by the great and powerful from Tosu City, a glittering metropolis perched over the bones of old Chicago. University-educated scientists are dispersed artificially through the Colonies, leading the struggle for survival with genetic engineering as they slowly take back the lifeless earth. All this would be slightly more plausible if it were at all apparent that Charbonneau knew what genetic engineering is or is not capable of, because she clearly hasn't the foggiest, but the idea is cool. Malencia's brother pops out a potato that beats out her father's previous edition potato. Isn't bioengineering great? Well, it is, but nothing in this book approaches realistic bioengineering. Keep those taters coming.
    Anyway, the problem is that there is only one University (I don't know why. There is no plausible answer for this. At no point in the book is this addressed: if the world just had two more universities, it would have absolutely no problems and the book would have no plot. But that's the plot's problem, not logic's.) that can only take about twenty students. Now, if our modern world can support 151 million students (a fast-growing number), I don't know how an enormous university in the heart of the remaining rich and civilized world can only enroll 20 students. Of course, the point that Charbonneau keeps shoving at the reader is that the government wants strong, independent, ruthless leaders, but the world would be 110,000% better off if it enrolled a lot more of the intelligent students and just trained some as scientists and doctors without the leadership part, which none of the graduates in the book deign to show anyway. One, Malencia's father, is literally just a scientist. (A "bioengineer".)
    Summarizing this book is boring me to tears already. Imagining reading it.
    So because the book is about Malencia, she gets selected to go through the Testing, which will determine if she can go to the University, which is a huge honor. Of course she is selected; she's the main character of a dystopian lit book.
     Then comes the testing, after they zoom across a flat landscape for a day or so. Flat in writing and in topography, in case you were wondering. She gets to the capital, Tosu City, and pretty much immediately starts the Testing. I'll leave most of it out so I won't spoil anything, but mostly because I'm lazy and/or this is painful.
    The first part of the test involves written tests, four hours, twice a day, for a few days. How does Charbonneau make this exciting? She doesn't. Literally they just take their tests for houuuurs a day and the book kind of plugs along. There's a really shameless exposition bit on the history portion of the test (soooo sneaky, Charbonneau...) where the author basically lays out the entire history of the civilization in three easy questions and Malencia's answers. But other than that, this section of the book is literally breakfast, test, lunch, test, uneasy sleep with nightmares for no reason (the dreams are SO cliched...) and then the next day the same thing. Some people disappear. Cute.
    The next stage of the testing is manual puzzles and such stuff, which was maybe a tiny bit interesting but not very. Oh, except that her friends casually keel over and die and she's like "Oh. Bummer. The government's reeeeeeallly evil." and then she continues blithely on.
    The third portion is a disgustingly intricate little brain-twister of a Test which involves a lot of convoluted logic, red herrings, horrible writing to make it all more confusing, and an eventual really flat resolution. More friends kick the bucket, but how, no one knows, because Charbonneau got lost in her own intricacy. Which explains why she doesn't mess with it for the rest of the book at all ever.
     The fourth portion of the book is LITERALLY the Hunger Games. Oh, except spread over 700 miles. Yes, this is a large distance. But other than that, LITERALLY the Hunger Games.
    And then the book ends with some cute little plot twist that leaves the reader in suspense for all of two minutes and a page flip. I'm so done discussing it.
    I'd give this book a 1.5. Interesting names and a premise Veronica Roth might be able to salvage, but Charbonneau is not Veronica Roth yet. As for a food, this is the hard plastic ice cube tray. Clean, functional, but also shallow and NOT A FOOD.

Notes from Ghost Town

By Kate Ellison

I really don't like romances.  I never have.  I also don't like mysteries.  I especially don't like murder mysteries.  This is exactly what Notes from Ghost Town is.  It is a romantic murder mystery.  A girl, Liv (Olivia),  falls in love with Stern, her best friend.  Stern kisses her, says its a mistake, and leaves.  Liv goes colorblind and then goes back to art school.  She decides she is going to call Stern in two weeks.  But, he is dead in one week and her schizophrenic mom is in jail for it.  Her mom is planning on pleading insanity.  That is how that book starts.  Then it goes into her teenage life.  The normal 'no one understands' and 'I pity myself' goes on for a while.  Until finally, something happens.  There is about one week left before Liv's mom's final sentencing when Stern comes to Liv as a Ghost and says her mom is innocent.  That's when it picks up.  The story goes on from there and Liv works to solve Stern's murder.  Once she started actually doing things in relation to Stern's murder it ended up quite good.

I found that this book was actually really good.  I was impressed, because I don't generally like mysteries or romances.  I went into the book hating it and came out pleased.  Although one regret was that the murderer was predictable.  Even though Liv did a lot of stupid stuff in the book she didn't miss a lot.  The murderer wasn't staring her in the face even though it was predictable from outside the book.  The cover was also horrible.  I found the cover to be revolting.  I hoped that I would understand why there was a dead girl on the cover when I finished reading it but I still don't know why.  I have said quite a lot of bad stuff about this book even though I think it is quite good.  The best part of the book was the plot.  The time restraint made it better because you knew that it wouldn't go on forever and it put pressure on Liv.  I also thought it was well paced.  I also enjoyed her color blindness.  I think this added to her despair in a more real way than the pain that she tries to describe.  I'm not sure was food this is but what I would do if you want a food is to think of a food you hate.  Absolutely hate.  Then once you start eating it the texture is awful and you don't think you can take another bite when surprisingly it starts to taste good.  It gets an interesting flavor until finally you start liking it.  Another unfortunate problem with the book was the ending.  It ended too fast.  The whole book was drawn out at a good pace and then BAM, it was over.  I would give this book a 3.5.  It was surprisingly good but did have shortcomings.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fearless

By Cornelia Funke

Jacob Reckless has less than a year to live.  He already wasted some of it looking for magical objects that were supposed to get rid of his curse but none of them worked.  Throughout the story Jacob forgets a letter of the dark fairy's name in a violent attack from the moth sitting on top of his heart.  6.  With each bite, part of his heart is hurt.  He hasn't told his brother, Will, or his best friend, Fox.  He realizes that there is only one object that might be able to cure him of his curse -- the Witch-Slayer's Crossbow.  If shot at a leader it would not only kill the leader but the leader's entire army.  The crossbow's reputation makes many people scared of it -- people are less willing to help Jacob because they think he will sell it which could kill thousands.  But legend says that if shot with love through the heart then the person shot will be healed.  When he goes to Guismond's, the witch-slayer's, tomb he finds out that in order to get the crossbow he has to first find his heart, his head, and his hand.  But Nerron, a Goyl treasure hunter, also wants to find the bow. As Jacob hunts for these three items his life ticks away.  5.  With very little time left, Fox is captured by a blue beard, a man who captures girls and kills them by drinking their fear.  Jacob has to sacrifice some of his little time left to save her and then return to his quest.  As he continues on the moth's bites get closer together and worse.  After this detour he may not get the crossbow in time, if at all.

Fearless was very fast paced and exciting.  It was an amazing sequel to Reckless.  4.  It matched Reckless in every aspect even exceeding it in the introduction (which was actually good this time).  The characters were realistic and entertaining.  Jacob's personality (very proud, doesn't like to admit weakness) adds more to the book.  Narration from Nerron also adds to the story because Jacob's flaws are highlighted by Nerron's dislike of him.  On top of this, sympathy is created for Nerron which creates an even more complex plot.  3.  The mirror world the book takes place in is interesting.  Its twist and turns allow the plot to become more extreme and exciting.  With such limited time and constant reminders that Jacob's time is running out the tension quickly and intensely.  2.  This book was like a rich chocolate cake.  Tons of rich details were packed into one book.  Even though you can't stop eating your piece you are devastated once its gone.  1.  This book was a 4.8 because the main characters, plot, setting, antagonists, and writing style all helped create an enticing book.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Girl Who Was Supposed To Die

Here's another book by April Henry. You can see my brief review on her other book Girl, Stolen here.

I can't mention the character's name and the plot changes direction every chapter, so I can't say much without giving away at least half the book. Maybe I can describe the first four pages: She (the main character) wakes up, dazed and confused. A disembodied voice above says "Take her out back and finish her off." That's where this story starts. She wakes up with no idea what's happening to her or how she got there. She has amnesia, and someone is trying to kill her. Dun, dun, duuuuuunnnnnnn.

If I were to describe this book as a whole, I would call it an action movie. Unfortunately, this is a problem. The book is interesting, but the whole thing isn't... realistic. In all seriousness, if this book were an action movie it would be pretty good if not run-of-the-mill. We'd see martial-arts style fighting, secret agents, guns, a corporation looking for power, an explosion or two, convenient happenstances, and even cheap romance. A character with a mysterious past and unknown skills and people trying snub her out? It all fits on the silver screen. So does her family and all other characters she interacts with, with one or two exceptions; they're wax dolls in the book. You don't really see them and their actions are just a bit too cookie-cutter. I wish I could write a better review about this book, but this is the hard truth of it. I even feel sorry for writing this. I don't want to make it sound bad because it isn't a bad book; I could feel the same emotion and tension as the main character as she learned more about herself and her situation. There's still writing to be commended here. Hmm, I guess I'm saying that it should be edited a bit.

I'll have to give this book three stars. Many people will probably enjoy it without second thought, but in my eyes is has potential to be better.
If this book were a food, it would be spaghetti and orange juice. They're both good separately, but together they're not at their best.

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