Review: Divergent

Okay, so I thought I’d try something different for this book review. As an introduction to Divergent, here are the notes I took while reading the first chapter of the book:

THIS BOOK IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN POSSESSION

First chapter sets up premise and world clearly: world is divided into five factions, each representative of a different value, much like the houses at Hogwarts. However, children are sorted into their faction at 16 after taking an aptitude test.

One faction is Dauntless, and they JUMP OFF OF MOVING TRAINS TO GET TO SCHOOL. Also they guard the fence of the city but ~nobody knows what’s outside~. Spooky!

Sorry, Possession. But because I read Divergent right after Possession, the contrast was really obvious. I never had a solid feel for how the city in Possession was set up or really understood what the different divisions meant. The descriptions were unclear. But in the first chapter of Divergent, I had a very clear understanding of how things worked. The book opens with the simple image of Beatrice’s mother giving her a haircut in front of the only mirror in the house. During her monthly haircut is the only time Beatrice is permitted to look at her reflection, because she is from Abnegation, the faction of the selfless.

When you’re 16, you take an aptitude test (you don’t wear a singing hat, nor do you have to wrestle a troll) which tells you the faction you’re most suited for. You can choose to stay in the faction you were born into, or you can change factions. Each faction has their own area of the city, and do different jobs, but they’re very close-knit and secretive. If you change factions, you may never see your family again. This is what Beatrice faces when her test results are inconclusive – the woman administering her test tells her that it means she’s Divergent and could fit into several factions, but being Divergent is dangerous and Beatrice must keep this fact hidden at all costs. Oh noes! So Beatrice is faced with  a choice between Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless as well as almost certain death.

Spoiler alert: Beatrice chooses Dauntless, jumps off a seven-story building as part of her initiation, and changes her name to Tris, which is way more badass. I love the joy that Tris experiences during her introduction to the Dauntless faction. She values her Abnegation roots, but she always felt too selfish to belong there, so she’s pretty psyched that in Dauntless she can talk about herself, have friends, eat hamburgers (she had never had a hamburger! I know!) and get tattoos. And there’s a fantastic scene where she and a group of fellow initiates zipline off the top of the motherfucking Hancock building, which reminded me of the scene where Harry Potter first flies on a broomstick. Pure joy and wonder like they have never experienced before! But Tris also has to learn to fight, shoot guns, and go through simulations where she’s forced to face her greatest fears in order to be initiated into Dauntless. (If you fail initiation, you get thrown out to live on the streets, so the stakes are high.) The best thing about this is that Tris’ bravery really comes from her selflessness. She’s most brave when she’s trying to protect her friends from bullies or save them from embarrassment. Though she chose Dauntless, Tris is always going to be part Abnegation.

What I love about Tris is that she’s real and flawed, but still someone you want to emulate. She’s plagued with guilt for leaving her faction, for being too selfish, for not returning the romantic feelings one of her friends has for her. She sometimes indulges her anger and lashes out in ways she shouldn’t, but you always understand Tris’ motivations.

Now, there’s also a sinister plot to uncover and a brutal initiate who’s trying to knock off the others (trigger warning, there is a scene with some sexual assault) so that he’s guaranteed a spot in Dauntless. And those parts are done fairly well, but I don’t want to spoil them for you. I will tell you that I really appreciated that the Big Bad in this book was not some sort of poorly thought out Big Brother knockoff that watches and controls everyone for no reason. The factions were set up after a devastating war, with the intention of creating a utopia, which is why they are Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor, but no “bad” factions to act like the Slytherins. Any ambitious Slytherins in this city would probably end up in Dauntless or Erudite, both of which have corrupt leaders. (Obviously the utopia thing didn’t work so well, but nice try.) I really dug this system, though, and discovering the Dauntless base carved underground or the huge libraries of the Erudite faction felt like discovering the house common rooms in Harry Potter.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed me comparing this book to Harry Potter a lot! This book has something I’m going to call the Harry Potter Factor, which basically means that it is super-awesome! You’ve got the factions, sorted by personality and values, each of which has their own common room base. There’s Peter, who is kind of like Draco Malfoy but with bigger balls. And of course, Tris. Like Harry, Tris is willing to make incredible sacrifices to save the ones she loves, and I was definitely reminded of a pivotal scene from Deathly Hallows near the end of the book.

Divergent is available in bookstores and libraries now, and I recommend you all go check it out. Fans who want more than a formulaic dystopian novel will love Divergent. Also, this book is a… GRYFFINDOR! (Yup, I just Sorted a book. Couldn’t you tell by the fire and stuff on the cover, though?)

Review: Blood Red Road

After reading an excerpt of Moira Young’s debut novel a few months ago, I was dying to read the rest of Blood Red Road. The first chapter introduces us to this stark epic landscape that exists sometime in the future, when our civilization is long gone, and yet some people manage to soldier on in the desert wastelands that remain. Among these people is Saba, who lives with her twin brother Lugh, their pa and their little sister Emmi. The family lives in isolation in the middle of the red dustlands, until the day when everything changes. Some mysterious men show up and kidnap Lugh, kill Pa, and leave Saba alone and in charge of Emmi.

Before you start this book, you should probably know that the whole thing is written in dialect. I loved it, because I felt like it helped me get to know Saba very quickly and connect to her on an emotional level. I felt like I could already hear her voice, and it made the story her own. Everything is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, in Saba’s dialect, and without any quotations to indicate someone else speaking. It really worked for me, but I know it drives some people crazy, so consider this your heads up.

Read more about how incredibly awesome Saba is, with minor spoilers, after the jump.

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Review: Beauty Queens

Cover image shows a tan teenage girl wearing a bikini, a pageant sash, and a bandolier full of tubes of lipstick instead of bullets.

 I picked up Beauty Queens on a whim, having never read any of Libba Bray’s books and having been stuck in a reading rut for a while. Nothing I picked up lately had thrilled me, and the cover of Bray’s newest release drew me in. Beauty pageant contestants having to fight for survival after crashing on a deserted island? I haven’t read anything like that before. Count me in.

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve never read Bray before, but I was surprised and delighted by this book right off the bat. It’s hilarious. It’s written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style full of satire, but with enough heart that you become truly invested in the characters. The book is genius in that you begin with a lot of assumptions about the cast of girls who are the main characters: they’re all Miss Teen Dream contestants, so you assume that they’re all vain and vapid and that they’ll be utterly helpless on this island. But we learn more about each girl, starting with Adina, a feminist and a journalist who joined the pageant so she could write an expose on it; Nicole, who doesn’t care about pageants but wants the scholarship money so she can go to med school, and who struggles to try to be the “nice black girl”; and Tiara, who is not especially smart and actually likes pageants and makeup, but is not discounted or brushed aside. That’s the great thing, is that ALL the girls are given equal time. The black girl and Indian girl are not token, even though they expected to be in the pageant. The lesbian girl and trans girl are not ostracized. The girls who really believe in the pageant are not written off as stupid bitches. And they all come through in awesome and unexpected ways when they realize they’re probably not going to get rescued.

Why do girls always feel like they have to apologize for giving an opinion or taking up space in the world? Have you ever noticed that? You go on websites and some girl leaves a post and if it’s longer than three sentences or she’s expressing her thoughts about some topic, she usually ends with, ‘Sorry for the rant’ or ‘That may be dumb, but that’s what I think.’

Once the girls give up on being rescued, they drop their pageant facades and start to open up to one another. It’s so refreshing to just see girls talking to each other this way, talking about the things they’re always told they can’t or shouldn’t do and vowing to stop saying “sorry” for having opinions or taking up space. It sounds kind of Breakfast Club, I know, but I promise it’s SO GREAT. Because the girls are not being bombarded by commercials or pageant coaches telling them how to be the perfect girl, they’re able to be who they want to be for the first time.

‘Weren’t you wearing a purity ring when we got here? Aren’t you supposed to be saving yourself?’ Shanti asked.

‘Yeah,’ Mary Lou answered. ‘And then I thought, for what? You save leftovers. My sex is not a leftover, and it is not a Christmas present.’

I just can’t say enough good things about this book. I want to assign it as required reading in every high school. Beyond the awesome feminist ideals I’ve been talking about, there is a conspiracy on the island that the girls uncover. There are transcripts of commercials interspersed throughout the book, and they are so perfect in the way they deconstruct our sexist culture. These commercials are all sponsored by The Corporation, which seems to sell every type of product and also has a mysterious base on the island. Ladybird Hope, A former Miss Teen Dream winner-turned-presidential candidate is making a secret deal with the eccentric leader of the Republic of ChaCha. These two characters are pretty obviously caricatures of Sarah Palin and Kim Jong Il, and Ladybird Hope’s televised interviews are completely nonsensical and representative of a lot of political posturing in our country. All of this is super tongue-in-cheek (MoMo B. ChaCha hates America, loves Elvis, and has a stuffed lemur he calls General Good Times), but has enough roots in reality to hit home.

Bray’s sense of humor actually reminds me of Terry Pratchett a little bit:  Miss New Mexico having half of a cafeteria tray stuck in her forehead for the duration of the novel, the weapons fashioned from beauty tools and sequined dresses re-purposed as raincatchers. Everything’s just a little bit absurd, but not unbelievable. I laughed out loud so many times while reading this book (lest you think this is a serious book about serious themes like racism and ableism and cissexism – it is about those things, but they don’t always have to be serious). This is a fun book full of awesome girls learning just how awesome they are, and I love that. Major props to Libba Bray for writing this fantastic book.

Beauty Queens is available in bookstores now (and every single one of you should go read it).

Darkness Becomes Her

Darkness Becomes Her looks like your run-of-the-mill paranormal romance, right? It’s dark and gothy and you’re pretty sure the heroine is going to be a weepy emo princess. Well, color me surprised when I started reading this and the heroine, Ari, was swearing like a sailor from the first page and clearly did not let anyone fuck with her. This book is smarter than your average paranormal romance.

First, let’s talk about Ari. I fell in love with her from the first page just because of her attitude. Ari is awesome, okay? She grew up being bounced between foster homes and is currently being raised by a couple of bounty hunters, who are teaching her the trade. That means Ari kicks a lot of ass. (Though she’s not a superhero – the fighting is described pretty realistically, with Ari making up for her small stature by outsmarting opponents and kneeing them in the groin a lot.) I was a little skeptical when she described her odd appearance, though. Ari has silver Rapunzel-style hair which can’t be cut or dyed, teal eyes (not blue, TEAL), and a small tattoo of a crescent moon under her eye. That’s like every Mary Sue fanfiction character ever! Luckily, Ari’s personality and tenacity is enough to make up for it.

Oh, God. I’d just killed a man – my fingers flexed on the hilt of the blade – with a goddamn, fucking-ass, miniature sword.

How can you not love that?

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Sisters Red

You know those books that you don’t expect much from, but you think, “Oh, this will be a fun, quick read” and then you’re totally sucked in and blown away? This was one of those books. Sisters Red was published a few months ago and I can’t believe I haven’t heard more buzz about it, because I loved it! What I thought was going to be just another werewolf story turned out to be a surprisingly layered and touching story about two sisters and their love for each other. Pearce has a unique take on werewolves, which are called Fenris in her book, and the monsters lust after young, frivolous women. It’s not just a new spin on werewolves, but also a play on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and THAT is my absolute favorite thing on this book. Because while Scarlett and Rosie March must rely on their curvy bodies and act like giggly, weak, helpless girls in order to lure the Fenris, they’re actually totally badass Hunters who don’t need to be rescued by anybody. It’s a great twist on the old trope of the young woman being preyed on by a man/monster who disguises himself as someone friendly. In this book, the March sisters disguise themselves as easy prey, and then turn on the Fenris, who are the real prey.

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Delirium

I’m calling it now: Delirium will be one of the biggest YA releases of 2011. I raced through this book in about two days and I’m already itching for the second book in the trilogy, but the book was so good that I’ll probably re-read it a couple of times while I wait. If this book doesn’t catch on in a big, Hunger Games-way, I’ll be shocked.

I was a HUGE fan of Lauren Oliver’s first book, Before I Fall, and Delirium doesn’t fall short of expectations. Oliver has captured me with her beautiful writing style in a way few authors have done – she writes so honestly that her characters’ happiness and pain is tangible and utterly real. And she describes the scenery in a way that almost makes it a character in its own right, which really adds to the atmosphere of the book. Where a book like Matched lacked a certain realism, the future Portland, Maine of Delirium feels like a fully fleshed-out world with a history. These are the things that put Oliver’s book solidly above the rest of the dystopian YA fiction pack.

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