Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Today I will be talking about the recent collaboration between J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst known as S. It is more or less a story within a story as two people read a book together, passing it back and forth while writing in the margins and blank space. What we have as readers is not only the fake book they are reading together, but also the notes they write to each other within its pages, and also other little letters, postcards, maps, and articles that they collect along the way. And yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

The Situation: Undergraduate literature major Jen finds V.M. Straka's Ship of Theseus left behind in the Pollard State University library where she works. Written on the title page of the book are instructions of where to leave it if it is found, which she does, along with a note to the owner saying she even read a few chapters and hoped to get her own copy so she could finish. The owner, later revealed as Eric, writes a note back to Jen saying she could go ahead and finish it and just leave it in the same place when it is done. Once Jen finishes the book, and actually makes many more notes within the margins of most of the pages, she and Eric continue passing the book back and forth, corresponding on the pages of Ship of Theseus. It is certainly an unlikely way to begin a friendship with someone, but their shared interest in all things Straka keep it going.

But that is just the story that is going on in the margins. The top picture in this post is what S. looks like when it it first obtained from the bookseller of your choice. The second picture is what V.M. Straka's Ship of Theseus looks like once it is removed from the cover for S. It is a real (but fake) book, and Eric and Jen's story plays out in the margins. But Ship of Theseus is a 10-chapter mystery novel that follows a man, known only as S, as he attempts to find out who he has and what his purpose is. As chapter one begins, S. is soaking wet and finds himself wondering aimlessly until he finds himself in a bar. He doesn't know who he is, where he is, or why he is soaked. Apparently Ship of Theseus was V.M. Straka's last novel before his mysterious death, and it isn't even clear which parts of the 10th and final chapter were written by him, or filled in by his translator, F.X. Caldeira.

The Problem: Turns out it may not be such a great idea for Jen to get involved with Eric, and doing any sort of collaboration with him regarding his work on Straka would be even worse. Eric is a disgraced former PhD student who isn't even allowed on the Pollard campus. He was working on his dissertation where he was going to attempt to find out the real identity of the mysterious V.M. Straka. Apparently there have been many theories over time but no one has ever quite nailed the guy down. And instead of helping him, Eric's advisor, Professor Moody, sold Eric out and took what he had learned concerning Straka and was going to put it in his own book, all while getting Eric expelled in the process. Now it seems like Moody and his other graduate student, Ilsa, have realized that there is a connection between Eric and Jen, so they have started asking her questions. It also doesn't help that Ilsa is Jen's TA for one of her classes, and basically has the power to fail her, and this is supposed to be Jen's last semester before she graduates. Both Eric and Jen turn out to be more than capable of finding their own answers to the Straka question. But can they do it while also attempting to cultivate this new relationship, and keep Moody and Ilsa from figuring out what they're up to? Also, will Jen be able to graduate? Will Eric ever get back into Pollard (does he want to)? And can they keep Moody from publishing the book with information he took from Eric, or at least maybe publish their own before he gets a chance?

But again, this isn't the only story we're dealing with. There is also S, who not only doesn't know who he is, but also ends up being shanghaied and taken aboard a mysterious ship. If that wasn't horrifying enough, it seems the ships entire crew, with the exception of one man, has had their mouths sewn shut with black thread, and they only communicate by whistling. It eventually becomes clear that S. is not on this ship to be a regular sailor, and while he will eventually get off of the ship, it won't be the last time he sees it and experiences its ghoulish crew. In between rides on this ship, he finds himself in the middle of a rebellion, being chased down by authorities, searching for a mysterious woman he met at the bar before he was shanghaied, and even being given the task of carrying out several assassinations. As strange as it is to say, S. not knowing who he is becomes the least of his worries. 

And I suppose I could say there is a third story here, and it is the one of the relationship between Straka and his translator, Caldeira. The deeper Eric and Jen dig, the more clues they find within Ship of Theseus that Caldeira was seemingly leaving for someone else, possibly Straka himself, despite the fact that he was dead when the book was published. This only further lends to the mystery surrounding Straka's identity, and gives Eric and Jen more information to investigate and bond over. What they find out greatly helps their research, but also makes what they are doing all the more dangerous as there are people who would love to take that information from them and use it for their own personal gain.

Genre, Themes, History: Both stories, or I guess all three stories, could be categorized as mysteries, or a least suspense/thriller. And Eric and Jen's story could even be classified as a romance since, despite them only communicating in the beginning via passing an old book back and forth, they each manage to gain romantic feelings for the other. But what first bonded them is their love for the mystery in Ship of Theseus regarding S. and his journey, and also Straka and his identity and all of the clues that are contained within the book they are reading and rereading together. Once they begin finding clues that actually make sense and give them answers, they each continue to comb through the novel, writing their own thoughts and discoveries within the margins. Yeah, it's all very meta. And at times, extremely confusing. I usually become extremely annoyed when a book has footnotes. Something about having to pause in the middle of the page in order to read an outside note that the author or translator wanted to include, for whatever reason, just bugs me. And while Ship of Theseus does have its own footnotes that were included by Caldeira that the reader has to pause for, there are also the myriad of handwritten notes that are the ongoing conversation between Eric and Jen. At first, the cursive handwriting in blue ink is Jen, and the script in black ink is Eric. Oh, and the script in pencil is also 16 year-old Eric who stole the book from the Laguna Verde High School Library. But eventually, the blue and black is joined by orange and green, which eventually is joined yet again by purple and red. And at some point, and I could not tell you where, Jen begins writing in black ink too, while Eric also goes back to black ink, but this seems to happen after everything is over and done with and all conflict has ended, but I couldn't tell you that for sure. In short, there is a reason I added this book to the doorstop category, even though it is less than 500 pages. And all three stories seem to center around identity: who you are, what you're capable of doing, and how you choose to live your life. 

But wait, there's more. Throughout the book, tucked away within its pages, are postcards, maps, articles, old documents, and longer letters from both Eric and Jen for stories they want to tell the other that won't fit within the margins of a book. Yeah, it's crazy impressive. And also, this book makes for good evidence in the case for physical books. I can't imagine that S. will ever have a Kindle version available to download from Amazon. So much would be lost in translation.

My Verdict: This book has been described as a love letter to the written word, and I absolutely see that. This is a book for book lovers. It isn't easy to read, and in fact, if I were a literature professor, I would make that soul-killing recommendation that this book be read more than once in order to really "get it." Maybe read it once just as Ship of Theseus, then go back through it and read Eric and Jen's notes. But I'm not a literature professor, so I won't make that recommendation, but trying to read everything by going through the book only once is certainly exhausting, but still worth it. Eric and Jen's story is entertaining enough all on its own, but then we also have Ship of Theseus, which is a great story in its own right. And both are made all the better with the story of the mysterious Straka, and Eric and Jen's attempts to find answers. Would I have liked either story if it stood on its own? Hard to say, especially since I read everything all at once, but I think it is fair to say I would have stilled enjoyed both, although maybe not as much. Also, the actual Ship of Theseus even smells like an old library book, and the pages are even slightly yellow. Brilliant!

Favorite Moment: This isn't so much a moment as it was one of the many little treasures that is tucked away in the pages of Ship of Theseus. Among the letters and postcards and articles is a map of the Pollard State University campus drawn by Eric on a napkin taken from a campus coffeehouse. It simply lays out where everything is in campus, and shows how a student who isn't even legally supposed to be on campus is able to get into the library everyday without being noticed. 

Favorite Character: While I like both Eric and Jen just fine, I think I will have to go with Eric. Maybe it is the fact that he is a little bit older and wiser and a bit more grounded than Jen. Sure, he has his issues too, but he encourages her to not get in over her head with all the Straka stuff, and to focus on her school work so she can graduate. He makes it clear that he doesn't want her doing anything stupid that could ruin her academic career.

Recommended Reading: As soon as I read the Translator's Note and Foreword by Caldeira, I could not help but think of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. The foreword is written by the fictional Charles Kinbote, as the author of Pale Fire, the fictional John Shade, was killed before the poem could be published. Following the poem is an extensive index, much longer than the actual poem, which is 999 lines, written by Kinbote explaining certain aspects of the poem. Problem is the index doesn't so much explain Shade's poem as it just tells the story of Kinbote's life and his affiliation with Shade. It is another book that deals with the questions surrounding an author's identity and his relationship with the author of the foreword, filled with hidden clues and meaning, and it would take one reader an entire lifetime to uncover absolutely everything Nabokov put in there. And it is another book that literature professors, along with the fictional Kinbote, love to recommend that we poor lit majors and book lovers attempt to read more than once, no matter how much of our sanity that may cost us. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Champion by Marie Lu

And here we are, the final book in Marie Lu's Legend trilogy. There were a few moments where I didn't think my little heart could take reading the series all the way through to Champion, but I also knew there was no way I could stop after reading either the first or second book. There was just took much I had to know...I had to see how Lu would end this. And again, serious spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read either Legend or Prodigy.

The Situation: It's been months since June and Day have seen each other. She is working hard for Anden as the youngest of the Princeps-Elects, essentially training to become what to us would be like the Vice President, or perhaps more accurately, the First Lady. Meanwhile, Day has been reunited with his little brother, Eden, and the two are living under the Republic's protection in San Francisco, with both of them receiving treatment for their respective health problems. The doctors are working to repair Eden's loss of vision, which are a result of the plague and the experiments they conducted on him, and they are also attempting to shrink the tumor they have found in Day's head so that they can someday operate on him and remove it. Both June and Day are doing their best to convince themselves that their separation was necessary, and they are both failing miserably.

The Problem: The Colonies have begun to attack, much more aggressively than ever before, and all because they claim that one of the many plagues that the Republic has engineered has successfully infected some of their citizens, and they will not cease fire until the Republic hands over the cure. And with the Colonies having a better military, and the generous support of Africa, which in Lu's version of the future is a burgeoning continent, the Colonies have a good chance of winning this war if the Republic does not cooperate. The only way a cure can be found is if the Republic does tests on patient zero, and they believe patient zero happens to be Eden, Day's brother. There is no way Day would ever hand his brother back to the Republic, but June has been tasked with getting him to agree to just that. So after months of no communication, June finds herself having to confront Day once more, only to ask him to give up what he has fought so long to protect.

Genre, Themes, History: Again, this is a young adult novel set in an extremely messed up version of the future. It is science fiction as well as dystopian fiction, and things have actually gotten much worse since the previous book. Sure, the powers ruling the Republic are less militant and have given its people new hope, but now they are under threat of being taken over by the neighboring country they have been at war with for so long. Throughout all three books, the power and strength of the military have been crucial to the survival of every country. In Legend, the reader only saw life in the Republic. In Prodigy, we got a view of life in the Colonies, and it actually wasn't much better, although they were more technologically advanced. Now, in Champion, June gets to take a trip to Antarctica, which is doing just as well as Africa, and is a potential ally to the Republic. And even though the Antarcticans are even more advanced than the Colonies, the society still isn't perfect, and June realizes that even for all of their advances, it is still not somewhere she would want to live. Reading Lu's version of these future societies was both fascinating and slightly disconcerting, as she may or may not be close to the truth, but we won't know until we get there.

When I ordered the box set of the trilogy off of Amazon (Oh yes, this blog is certainly brought to you by both Amazon and Half Price Books. Without Amazon's discounted rates, and HPB's low prices, and also the recent generosity of public relations firms wanting to get their authors some coverage, this blog would not be possible.), it came with Life Before Legend, a handy little 40 page book that contains two short stories, one from Day, and one from June, that both take place about three years before the beginning of Legend. For some strange reason, I opted to read this after I had finished Champion, because I felt like maybe it would reveal some surprising clue about something crucial that happens later. And while that was not the case, the stories do provide interesting insight into life before June and Day meet.

My Verdict: I like Champion just as much as I liked Prodigy, if not more so. Although, the plot holes and inconsistencies become really apparent in this book, but maybe it is because there is just so much going on. I mean, there is a war going on between two neighboring countries, and both have or are seeking political allies with other countries, so there are some serious politics going on here. Also, June is now part of the Senate at only 16 years of age, while Day is essentially battling brain cancer and taking care of his mostly blind little brother. Oh, and then of course there is the whole thing about June and Day obviously being meant to be, but every factor under the sun threatens to keep them apart. Yeah, things get real. But I loved it. There were moments throughout my normal day when I couldn't wait to get back to the book and read how June and Day were handling all of these ridiculous challenges. Again, some details fall through the cracks, but even so, it's well worth the ride.

Favorite Moment: When the young Elector, Anden, shows the much older and much more experienced members of the Senate why he is the leader of the Republic, and what he is willing to do with that power if they don't follow him, as they should.

Favorite Character: This hasn't changed. I'm still going with both June and Day; however, I would also like to add Day's little brother, Eden. Poor little guy was experimented on and as a result is pretty near totally blind, but that doesn't stop him from being a sweet kid and wanting to help however he can.

Recommended Reading: After reading Champion I am going to go back to a recommendation I made after reading Legend and say that 1984 would make a good follow-up to this entire series. People keep saying that if you liked the Legend series that you should read The Hunger Games (I've even said it), and while I think people should read The Hunger Games regardless of whether they liked Legend or not, they are really two very different kinds of stories. They are both dystopian and involve young adults, but really the similarities more or less end there. So maybe in addition to George Orwell's 1984, maybe also read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Neither of them is all that long, but both make interesting predictions about our future that are worth taking a look at. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Prodigy by Marie Lu

After covering Marie Lu's Legend last week, the natural follow-up would be Prodigy, the second novel in Lu's Legend trilogy. I will have to go ahead and warn you, there are spoilers ahead, especially for those who haven't read Legend yet.

The Situation: June and Day have managed to escape the city of Los Angeles, but are headed straight for Las Vegas, a military city where being caught again by the Republic is a very real possibility. Fortunately, they manage to meet up with the Patriots, a group that has been working with the Colonies in order to take the Republic down. Not only do the Patriots agree to take in both June and Day, but they also manage to meet up with familiar faces, and get some sorely needed medical attention.

The Problem: While being taken in by the Patriots is a blessing, it comes with a price. In exchange for the safe release of Day's brother Eden, and passage into the Colonies, the Patriots want June and Day to assassinate the new Elector. Not only is it a dangerous mission that involves releasing June back into the hands of the Republic, but neither her nor Day are quite sure they are ready to take a life. But time is running out, and they need to make up their minds soon. Meanwhile, jealousies abound within the Republic as well as the Patriots, making the mission that much more complicated and difficult to carry out. And once again, there is the question of who can be trusted, and who the real enemy actually is. While June doesn't trust the leader of the Patriots and is slowly beginning to trust the Elector, Day becomes convinced the Elector is the enemy, and begins to wonder more and more if the relationship between himself and June could ever have a chance of surviving. The stakes are higher than they have ever been, and while it seems like the two heroes have already lost a great deal, they realize there is still plenty that could be taken away from them.

Genre, Themes, History: Just like Legend, Prodigy is a young adult novel that takes place in the not-so-distant future. A future where the U.S. has been split into the Republic and the Colonies, and the two are at war against each other. It is also a dystopian future where the strength of the military is everything, and the poor are taken advantage of while the rich are handed everything and are given all of the privileges and power. Also, for the first time, Prodigy gives the reader a view of the Colonies, something the Republic has always kept hidden from its citizens (there is even a map in the very beginning of the book that clearly shows the border between the two countries). But while the cities of the Colonies seem to sparkle and shimmer with new hope, (*spoiler alert*) Day and June soon learn that the grass is indeed not greener on the other side, and letting the Colonies win the war will not fix the problems currently present in the Republic. Both sides have their own agenda and propaganda to push, and are willing to do anything to have their side advance. Something else that the reader is given a better look at is the group known as the Patriots: a well-funded organization working to take down the Republic, seemingly with the help of the Colonies. The Patriots also appears to be littered with double agents as even the leader of the group holds a prominent position in the Republic's military. Instead of things becoming clearer, they actually get more complicated in this book. Even how June and Day feel about each other becomes more complicated.

My Verdict: So much better than the first one, and the first one wasn't even bad. The characters are just more believable and flushed out. And while Prodigy is still very intense and dramatic, it isn't so much so that I found myself rolling my eyes with every turn of the page. Instead, I found myself becoming genuinely concerned for the characters, specifically June and Day, and worried about the choices they were making, or not making. And while (*spoiler alert*) June and Day spend a good portion of the book separated from each other, it doesn't feel like some cheap plot device employed just to get the two characters away from each other in order for the seeds of doubt and suspicion to be sown more quickly and effectively. Also, to my very real surprise and delight, Prodigy doesn't end on a cliffhanger! Huzzah! Now, don't get lulled into a false sense of comfort...the ending is still pretty heart-breaking, but at least I didn't feel the need to pick up Champion right away after reading the final word, like I did with a certain other YA book (Catching Fire I am looking in your direction), although I won't lie, I was fully prepared to do so. Anyway, Prodigy is a great continuation of the series, and I can't wait to see what Champion has to offer.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Kaede tells Day all about how the world really is, as opposed to what the Republic has always told them. Apparently, in Lu's version of the future, Africa is a burgeoning continent doing really well, as is Antarctica of all places. Also, Russia no longer exists (ouch) and Australia is at war with itself. Fascinating.

Favorite Character: Again, it is an even split between both June and Day. The are both still extremely likable, and extremely frustrating. But hey, that's teenagers for you.

Recommended Reading: Unlike the first book in The Hunger Games series, Legend doesn't really stand on its own, and neither does Prodigy. Just because neither one of them ends in a cliffhanger, it doesn't mean you'll be able to just stop there and not read the rest of the series. Well, maybe you are the type of person who could pull that off, but I certainly am not. If you've read Legend and Prodigy, might as well continue on to Champion.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Legend by Marie Lu

I have been itching to do another young adult series ever since I covered The Hunger Games two years ago. So I've decided to read the entire Legend series by Marie Lu and post about it over the next three weeks. Sorry Derick S. No Harry Potter this time around.

The Situation: It's the not-so-distant future and what used to be the United States of America is now split up into two warring countries: the Republic and the Colonies. June Iparis is a prodigy living in the richer part of Los Angeles, which is part of the Republic. She scored a perfect score of 1500 five years ago on her Trial, a test that all ten year-olds in the Republic must take that decides their future. June's perfect score made her somewhat of a celebrity, and it meant she got to pick from the best of the best of the universities that the Republic has to offer after six years of high school. And even though she is still only fifteen years-old, she is already attending Drake University and getting into plenty of trouble. But she soon must leave Drake behind as the Republic decides to start using her for the military now. They believe she is the one who can finally capture their most wanted criminal, Day. And she willingly agrees, especially after Day becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Metias, June's brother.

The Problem: Day has been on the run for quite some time now, but he still manages to keep an eye on his family, which consists of his mother, his older brother John, and his younger brother Eden. Day has always done his best to provide for his family, who live in the slums of the Lake district, with clothes and food, all while evading authorities and taking care of his timid partner, Tess. Day's worst fear comes true when his family's house is marked with the dreaded red 'X,' meaning that someone in the house has the plague. Now he is desperate to find a plague cure, and a risky break-in at the hospital puts him on the Republic's radar again as they peg him for the murder of Metias. June grew up privileged, and has always been fiercely obedient to the Republic and believes in what they're doing and the war with the Colonies. Day has always had to fight for everything he has and has always fought against the Republic while never actually hurting anyone. Metias' death will bring the two into contact, but what comes out of this encounter neither one of them would have ever expected. And what they thought they knew about themselves and their country will be called into question.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel that is part one in a three-part series, or trilogy. It is also dystopian fiction, or even dystopian science fiction, as it is set in the future and it is a future much worse off than what we have now. The U.S. is now divided into two warring factions, with the dividing line being drawn from the eastern borders of North and South Dakota (referred to in the book only as 'Dakota'), down along the southern edge of South Dakota towards Wyoming and Colorado, and down through Texas, giving the Republic the Panhandle, as well as El Paso, but not the Valley. This separation of Texas is actually probably the part of Lu's version of the future that outraged me the most (also the idea of high school being six years long), but I digress. The reader isn't given much to go on as far as what the Colonies are like, or really the area outside of Los Angeles, but I am definitely imagining a 1984 situation. Seems like someone is always watching, and the Republic and the Colonies have seemingly always been at war with each other. Also, there are levels of government control that would make most readers cringe, and the military is a much bigger deal. The divide between the haves and the have nots is bigger, and apparently, every year, a new deadly plague breaks out, and only the rich get the yearly vaccines that keep them from being infected. Yeah, things are pretty messed up. Lu stated that she got the idea for the book while watching Les Miserables and wondering how the relationship between a criminal and a detective would translate in a modern story. Naturally, just the mention of Les Miserables being part of the origin of this story was enough for me to pick it up. 

My Verdict: Definitely a strong beginning, and it made me want to continue with the series. Although I am just going to go ahead and say this, this first book does not end on a cliffhanger, and for that I am grateful. Chances are I won't be so lucky with the second one, but we'll see. The only real bone I have to pick with Lu's Legend is that sometimes the characters and their emotions just aren't believable, especially June and Day's. June is disciplined and fiercely loyal to the Republic, so if she ever shows moments of breaking out of that I just don't quite believe it. And Day is incredibly independent and self-reliant and knows trusting strangers can get him into trouble. So if he waivers even just a little, I am just not entirely convinced. But maybe the evolution of the characters throughout the next two books will convince me. Again, we'll just have to see, but I am hopeful, and also incredibly excited. The setting is gritty and tense, for both June and Day, whether they are in the nicer parts of the city or the more downtrodden ones. Lu has created a future where kids are only seen as a resource for the military, and she translates the anxiety that must come with that incredibly well. 

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When June discovers that even though Metias is dead, he may have left something behind to provide her with answers and possibly save lives.

Favorite Character: Honestly, at this point, it is a tie between June and Day. They both have great qualities, and they can both also be incredibly stupid. They both get equal shares in my admiration and frustration.

Recommended Reading: This should come as no surprise, but I recommend both 1984 and the first book in The Hunger Games series. They are two very different types of stories that take two different approaches to the dystopian fiction novel, but I do think if you like Legend it would be worth trying The Hunger Games as well.