Friday, January 27, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Paper Towns by John Green

Since I will eventually read and post about John Green's most recent novel, The Fault In Our Stars, released on January 12th, I thought I would first start off with one of his earlier works and the first one of his books that I read. I enjoyed Paper Towns a great deal, more than I expected to, and I thing there are plenty of adults who would enjoy it as well.

The Situation: Quentin (a.k.a. Q) is a fairly normal and well-adjusted senior in high school who lives next-door to his life-time crush and childhood best friend Margo. In high school, Margo went the route of the popular kids while Q was...well...much less popular. Then one night Margo gets Q to tag along with her on an all-nighter of revenge pranks against other popular kids that are supposed to be her friends, including her quarterback boyfriend. Q manages to survive the night and is hoping this is the beginning of them maybe having a friendship again.

The Problem: Turns out the all-night prank fest was not the beginning of a rekindling of the friendship...because Margo then runs away, leaving only a series of clues as to where she is. Q of course takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of Margo's whereabouts while also trying to navigate his last few days of high school and graduate. In my opinion, the clues are incredibly impressive since they are coming from a teenage girl. What annoys me though is her heavy use of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (all you Simpsons fanatics out there will remember what Homer said about Leaves of Grass after stumbling upon Whitman's headstone and grave in the "Mother Simpson" episode...pretty much how I feel about it). Still, the clues and revelations that result from it all are pretty fascinating.

Genre, Theme, History: This is a young adult novel with a good amount of mystery. Also, it explores an issue which I have always found interesting when it comes to teenagers and high school, and that is the issue of the popular kid who feels trapped in always acting like someone he/she is not. It is something that comes up a good amount in popular culture, and I have found it to have a very real basis in real life.

The novel also talks about the phenomena of the "paper town," which can be an unbuilt subdivision or a copyright trap used by mapping companies where they will include the name of a town somewhere on their map, but that town does not actually exists. Of course, what will then sometimes happen is that people will start using the name of that town for other purposes, realizing that it doesn't really exists but it can be found on certain maps. 

My Verdict: I gave the novel four out of five stars on Goodreads. My only real criticism (aside from the use of Whitman, but that is really my personal issue) is that the character of Margo really does not appeal to me at all. I realize she is the popular and pretty girl, and the girl that Q has been longing for all this time, and I am fine with that, but what I am not okay with is how self-obsessed she is and how people like Q do not see that...or do not care. This may also have to do with my impatience for teenagers who think that whatever issue they are currently going through is the biggest thing to happen to anyone ever in the history of the world, and I feel like Margo has a little bit of that. Of course, she is a teenager, and I was totally guilty of this too when I was 17. 

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any instance that involved Q deciphering the clues that Margo left behind interested me greatly. 

Favorite Character: I have to go with one of Q's best friends, Marcus (a.k.a. Radar). Marcus is African-American and his parents currently own the world's largest selection of black Santas (Ha!). He is also really into, like really into, editing a website called Omnictionary - a collaborative online encyclopedia (yeah, guess which site that was modeled after). In fact, there is actually now a real life Omnictionary website that includes more detailed information about the Paper Towns characters and the life of Green.

Recommended Reading: I recently finished Green's An Abundance of Katherines. If you enjoyed Paper Towns you may also like this book.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

First I just have to say: Delightful...absolutely delightful. I mean honestly, of the best books I have read in a long while. So thoroughly enjoyed it. It should really be illegal to have as much fun as I did reading this book. Really. I just cannot sing it's praises enough. I have to say...alright I'll stop and get on with it. 

The situation: Wade is a pretty typical 17 year-old boy who attends school and spends as much time as he can online. Pretty relateable right...most of us can understand this guy and probably knows someone like him. Here's the thing though: Wade lives in the year 2044, the earth has become pretty much a wasteland due to the global energy crisis, and most of society, not just the super-tech savvy, spend most of their time online in the OASIS, which can be treated as just another social media/online gaming site, but that would be limiting it's power entirely. Wade goes to school there, has friends there, works there, but more importantly he, and the rest of humanity, are currently locked into a contest to see who can finish out a treasure hunt left behind by OASIS creator James Halliday (think Howard Hughes) when he died. The first person who successfully finishes the quest not only becomes the most famous egg hunter or "gunter," but also automatically inherits Halliday's massive estate, control over the OASIS, and billions upon billions upon billions of dollars. I probably could stand to add in a few more billions, but you get the idea.

And don't worry, the OASIS isn't so far beyond what we have now that Wikipedia no longer exists. And bonus! is still free. Plus, if you lived through the 80s, you would be way ahead of the game since Halliday was a teenager during the 80s and was obsessed about any and every type of popular culture from the decade. The year may be 2044, but because of Halliday's treasure hunt and massive fixation on everything from Cyndi Lauper to John Hughes to Atari, the stuff that made up the 80s is what is popular of the time and what anyone who is interested in the treasure hunt ever studies. There is little to no mention of the music, movies, games, or television shows of the time of the time, but there are several mentions of Devo, WarGames, PacMan, and even Family Ties, plus so much more. Seriously, half the fun of reading this book is trying to see if you can catch the references. I'll admit, I was born in 1982, but a good amount of this stuff was lost on me. True, I am also not a big gamer, so maybe that is where I lost my edge.

The problem: It does sound like one big romp through an 80s themed virtual reality in order to win a mass amount of money. And for the most part, it is. Just one issue...well two really: the real world is still a festering waste land, and the Innovative Online Industries (IOI) would also like to win Halliday's fortune and take over the OASIS themselves in order to make more money off it and essentially only limit it to high paying customers. Oh, and they are okay with committing real murder in the real world in order to make that happen (think The Matrix...but not as stylish). So not only does Wade have other gunters to compete with, but he also has to stay off of the radar of the IOI, both in the OASIS and in real life.

Genre, Theme, History: To just slap on the label of science fiction would be way too short-sighted. I actually like dystopian fiction or maybe even dystopian fantasy. Of course, the case could be made for utopian fiction or fantasy as well since the world known as the OASIS is THE place for everyone to escape to and live the life that is not available to them in the real world. The massive overarching theme is anything and everything related to 80s popular culture. Having this story, which is set over 30 years in the future, have it's base in a decade that most adult readers know about made me like this book even more. Wade's world as he knows it came out of the current recession and energy crisis. It also appears that the middle class has finally disappeared and only the very poor and the very rich exist. Cline did an excellent job of giving us a glimpse into a possibly future society, but not making it so alien to us that it was difficult to keep up.

My verdict? Well, I kind of gave that away in the first paragraph. Easily five stars. There were times where I did feel a little lost, but like I said, that may be due to my limited knowledge of heavy gaming. It is the kind of book that makes your blood pressure go up as you read it, almost as if you are playing a video game because you can feel the enemy breathing down Wade's neck as he wills himself to figure out the puzzles and move forward. Also, because Wade is the typical teenage boy with the typical teenage friends and the typical teenage boy habits, he will get on your nerves on occasion.

Favorite moment: When Wade has to recite every one of Matthew Broderick's lines from one of his movies (I won't give away which one...visit Wikipedia if you absolutely must know) in order to pass one of the gates. The very idea just made me so happy for some reason.

Favorite character: I just have to go with Ogden Morrow. He was James Halliday'sHalliday for the last decade of his life. He is the Gandalf of this story, so whenever he shows up I just feel so much better. 

And that is my take on Ernest Cline's debut novel Ready Player One. I definitely recommend it to any child of the 80s or fan on 1980s popular culture.

Recommended Reading: Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Friday, January 13, 2012

Door Stop: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

It felt appropriate to me that I should not only do the first blog post on not only a door stop, but my favorite door stop, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This book is long, like War and Peace long, but it is so very worth it. And FYI: the version pictured at right is an abridged version, so watch out for that.

The Situation: Oh there is so much a crazy amount, but I guess I'll just start with Jean Valjean, who remains at the center of everything throughout the novel. Valjean is an ex-con who breaks parole in order to start a new life for himself and prove that a man with a dark past can become a virtuous member of society. He does just that and becomes mayor of a prosperous town.

Then there is Fantine, who is let go from her job in a factory where she earns money to send back to the Thenardiers for taking care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. After being fired, she becomes a prostitute and (spoiler alert!) eventually dies of what appears to be tuberculosis. After learning about her and her fate, Valjean vows to find her daughter Cosette and raise her himself, which he does.

The Problem: Once again, there is just so much, but again I'll just start with Valjean. He could have easily continues to be mayor and raised Cosette to be a beautiful young woman (which he gets to do anyway), except that before he even gets Cosette his true identity is revealed when another man is about to be convicted for his crimes. Valjean (spoiler alert!) admits to being the real prisoner 24601 but manages to escape the hand of justice once again and find Cosette. And here is another issue: the Thenardiers, who have been taking care of Cosette all this time, are complete pariah's and bottom feeders and only let her go for a price, only to keep popping up again and again throughout the book to take advantage of people. And Javert, the police officer who first wanted to accuse Valjean of being 24601 also continues to pop out and chase Valjean throughout his life so he can arrest him and force him to serve his debt to society. Oh yeah, and there is a whole student rebellion going on in the background and one of the quasi-leaders falls in love with Cosette, and those kinds of situations are never easily dealt with.

Genre, Theme, History: It is definitely a novel, and a long one. In my personal opinion, the running theme throughout the novel seems to be one of grace. Valjean continually exercises it, but cannot for the life of him seem to be able to accept it. This problem of his shows up in the very beginning when a priest shows him the true meaning of grace (I won't spoil the scene for you because it is just so good) when he has first gotten out of prison. And Javert cannot exercise grace or accept it, and this is ultimately what makes him such an awful person to deal with. The Thenardiers don't seem to have any grace at all and it shows. And Cosette is the product of grace from one of the most unselfish men in all of literature and she grows up to be all sweetness and light.

As for history, I constantly make the mistake of thinking that the battle going on in the background is the French Revolution, but it is so not. The French Revolution took place in the 1700s, and this story is set in the 1800s. Really, the only revolution portrayed is the June Rebellion which is led by students, which makes sense as Marius and his friends are a part of it. Also, at various points Hugo does take many opportunities to voice his opinions on the many issues concerning the politics, society, and religion of France (and more specifically, Paris) at the time. Hugo's tangents can be incredibly lengthy, but there is more story than there are digressions, I promise.

My Verdict: It is a masterpiece. That is all.

Favorite Moment: This is hard for me because there are more than a couple. But I'll spare you and only choose one. Or I'll choose two and justify it by saying one is for the musical and the other is for the book. I would go for the movie as well but there are so many versions and about to be a new one come December 2012. IMDb it...

The Musical: When Valjean decides to confess to being prisoner 24601 before going back to Fantine's death bed. Chills.

The Book: I won't reveal it all, but basically the last 10 pages or so of the entire novel. It takes an incredible amount for a book to get me to do something like cry or laugh out loud. But the final pages of this book left me pretty much inconsolable.

Favorite Character: Jean Valjean. Hands down. No contest. The man is a living saint and only went to jail in the first place for stealing bread for a family member. He then goes on to sacrificially give of himself for other people, even if that means he potentially goes back to jail and is executed. Oh yeah, and he is pretty indestructible and has incredible strength. And Hollywood had to top it off for me by getting Liam Neeson to play him. Awesome.

Least Favorite Character: Okay, I won't point out my least favorite character in these posts unless that character is not a villain or antagonist. In the case of Les Miserables, I definitely go against the grain of the female population and have to say that Marius is my least favorite character. He just generally gets on my nerves and is such a...well...boy. And I guess it doesn't help that I adore Valjean so much because no one can stand up next to him, so my standards are going to be ridiculously high. But even so, the boy just needs to get a grip and I feel like he does after it is already too late.

I hope I didn't ramble on too much in this post. This is a book that is very dear to my heart and I wanted to talk about it without just gushing and going on and on. It will most likely be awhile before I hit on another door stop (gotta space those suckers out), so next post look forward to something more contemporary.

Recommended Reading: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo: almost the same amount of action with less than half the pages.

Friday, January 6, 2012

And it begins...

After a much needed break, I am back, and so is the blog.

True, I am done with the M.A. Comprehensive Exam and no need to ever, and I mean ever, again explore works such as Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene. But what about the other thousand upon thousands of great works of literature out there in the world, including other classic monsters that were not included on my list but that I actually would like to read and explore? Well, the continuation of this blog is my very small attempt to get to them as well.

But no way am I sticking with just the classics and what would only qualify as "literature." Great books are published every week, but no one person can read everything and discover every great book ever written. But I'm going to try anyway. I will explore new fiction, young adult fiction, some historical fiction (not my cup of tea exactly but I am willing to try a few), nonfiction, classic fiction, etc. At the moment I am not entirely sure what the schedule will look like, but I am thinking every once in awhile I will focus on a book if the movie is about to come out (Hunger Games, I am looking in your direction), or maybe even books that are either nominated for something like the Pulitzer or have won either this year or in the past.

I will go ahead and put out the warning that there are many popular novels and series out there that I have not read and pretty much have zero intention to. I won't go ahead and list them here, but I am sure someone will comment on the omission of certain works and I'll have to break the bad news. However, that is where guest bloggers may come in and do their own reviews if they wish. I am, after all, only one person and can only read so much. There are certain books that I purposely avoid (not saying which ones, you'll have to figure that out through the blog), and others that I just cannot make time for.

That being said, I'll be ready with the first book post soon. And of course, I am starting with a monster, but it is my favorite monster. Oh yeah, and I am no longer calling them "monsters." It isn't an anti-Lady Gaga thing or anything, but I have decided to change my pet name for giant books (and the name of this blog) to "door stop." I think it is fitting, and for most of these books, incredibly true. And first up will be Victor Hugo's Les Miserables