Monday, July 30, 2012

UNWIND by Neal Shusterman

Genre: Dystopian, science fiction
Rating: *****
Pages: 335
Series: One companion short story available only as an ebook, one sequel scheduled for digital release in late August
Reaction: This was supposed to be my road trip book. But then I rushed through it all the day before.
Connor's been called troubled. Defiant. At risk. A problem child. Now his parent are having him unwound-taken apart piece by piece so his tissue and organs can be donated to someone else. Someone more deserving. And then they're going on a cruise to the Bahamas to celebrate.
Risa an orphan. A ward of the state. Unwanted. A burden. When she's unwound, the state home will recieve a sum of money they can use to provide happy, safe lives for all the other children.
Lev was slated for unwinding at birth because of his family's religion. That makes him special. A tithe. A donation. A gift to the world. He didn't used to mind.
The action kicks in when fate (well, a bus crash and a kidnapping) bring the three together. And from there, it. Does. Not. Stop.  In the moments where they're not on the run, they're hiding under trapdoors or packed into shipping crates. When the police aren't an immediate threat, there's always the risk of mutiny and betrayal. Usually from Lev, the little brat.
I love a good dystopian novel, but some of them are starting to seem the same. Evil dictator killing his own people, war against an unspecified enemy, extreme wealth and poverty, shortages, climate changes, and everything seemed so perfect until the love interest taught you to see otherwise.
UNWIND is everything a dystopian story should be. There's rebellion and plenty of action, and it also provokes questions about life, death, and human nature.
Most of the other reviews I've seen are by adults, parents and non-parents alike, who go on an on about how horrifying the premise is. They would never do that to their own children. No civilized person could. Or could they?
I could believe it. There are plenty of parents who murder their own children, both before and after birth. America aborts more babies each year than soldiers have died in every war combined.
But that's beside the point.
Neal Shusterman isn't the first to raise similar issues. Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children Sequence and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card explore worlds dominated by a two children per family law. The Declaration by Gemma Malley takes place in a futuristic Britain where children are outlawed altogether. And then we're back to Suzanne Collins. Spoiler: People die in that book. Or did you know that already?
The world-building in UNWIND is slight. Newspapers are referred to as "retro", Connor describes iPods as "from his grandfather's time", but they still use cell phones. No futuristic technology beyond unwinding is mentioned.
There are a few social changes. Mothers can "stork" unwanted newborns, leave them on some random doorstep and the family is supposed to take them in. "Clappers" are suicide bombers who blow themselves up by-wait for it-clapping.
Political correctness has advanced. The new "appropriate" terms make me laugh everytime. There are no more black and white people, just "umber" and "sienna". Gays, mentioned about twice and appear very briefly without playing a particularly large role in the story, are  now "yin families".
Ah, euphemisms. Even unwinding isn't tehcnically called death. "100 percent of you will still be alive, just in a divided state." So stop complaining, kid.
UNWIND is told from three main perspectives-Connor, Risa, and Lev-with additional chapters narrated by walk-ons. Cops, teachers, and even a rioting mob. My favorite character is Cy-Ty. He's this umber guy who always speaks his mind, but there's a lot more to his mind than first meets the eye.
Of the main three, I liked Risa the best. She's strong. Not in that take-on-the-world-with-her-bare-fists way you're starting to see from more heroines. She just sticks up for herself and her friends whenever there's trouble. Both of the boys have terrific character arcs. Connor learns to contol himself. If I had to pick, I'd call him the main protagonist. But Lev, ooh Lev, he goes from being this whiny, pathetic, brainwashed tithe I wouldn't have minded seeing unwound too terribly'll just have to wait and see.
Yes, there's bad guys and bad laws and bad things happening to good people. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone under thirteen. But if you get caught up on chalking up a list of everything appropriate and inappropriate, you'll miss the whole frecking point. Shusterman creates an issue and comes at it from every angle, every what-if. All the themes and intriguing characters and quote-worthy passages and metaphors and quick, well chosen words are bound together to form the best dystopian novel I've seen in a long time.
Now when does that sequel come out again? The ending's perfect, I could have gone without and been happy, but I still need to read it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Talk: My Pet Peeves

1: Car crashes.
Sometimes characters just have to die. Often these are the parents who die before the story even starts, leaving the protagonist with a single parent or entirely orphaned. Am I the only one who thinks this is a lame and overused excuse? If you need to kill somebody, have them gunned down in an alley or eaten by a polar bear. My favorite orphan explanation comes from Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. Alex was raised by her uncle because her parents died while spelunking is Iceland.
I did read one book where both villains drove off after locking the protagonist in a burning building (she escaped) and crashed into a tree. Dues ex machina.

2. Clumsiness
So many characters describe themselves as clumsy, yet they only trip twice in the whole book. If they were truly clumsy, they'd stumble going down the stairs, fall into a car while opening it, and hit their heads on the wall waking up in the morning. Not just when there's a trapdoor that can only be seen with your face on the floor or a clue lying unnoticed in the carpet. Not just while they're being chased through a dark forest at the climax.
3. Love interests that are just there
Some stories just don't need lovers. They need friends to accompany the hero on adventures, mentors to help them along, and villains to get in the way. Sometimes they don't even associate with their object of interest, just watch them from afar, hold maybe two conversations, and kiss at the end. Because life works that way.
red and pink hearts
4. Love interests that are boring
So he's described as being cute. Terrific for you, but I can't see him. Furthermore, I can't see why you'd spend a great portion of the novel talking to him if he has no other attractive qualities. If I'm going to dive into romance, I have to fall in love with him, too. Have him quote poetry or rescue hamsters from a burning building.
5. Authors who don't know how schools work
Blackboards are gone, we use whiteboards. Schools don't have their own nurses anymore. And if something happens in a cafeteria, a couple breaking up or friends shouting at each other, nobody will notice. Not if they're more than two tables away. Unless your cafeteria is really small, like a private school. But in your average high school, nobody can keep track of who sits at what table or what might be going on over there. You can't always hear what a friend sitting right next to you is saying. My elementary school cafeteria had two rows of ten tables, one for the lower grades and one for the upper grades. Not terribly large. Every year there was an end of school food fight, and I never saw it.
Then there's the whole popularity concept. I've never seen a school where people actually trail the rich/blonde/snobby/cheerleader/stupid girl around the hallways. There's no popularity ladder. There's your friends, the people you know, and then the people you don't know. Some people have more friends than others, but most of us don't care enough to rank them by popularity.
Besides, I can't get excited about another book with a blonde cheerleader. They just change the names every time. If you use stereotypes, abuse them, like the cheerleading spies in The Squad: Perfect Cover.
6. Overly happy endings
If they all get back home safely, if the battle is won, if the guy gets the girl or vice versa, that's happy enough for me. They don't need to get extremely rich, gain magical powers, and reunite their hopelessly divided family. Life is good, but sometimes life can only be so good.

7. Villains who play with the hero
This is the one who cuts only one rope from the rope bridge, leaving the hero a route across the chasm. Or the one who installed a tracker in the hero's arm while they were knocked out at the beginning, but allowed them to run around the country for 300 pages before meeting them at their final destination.Or the one who watches the hero battle their way out of terrifying traps fit for the movies instead of just shooting them when they have the chance. Which brings me to my next problem.
8. Villain middlemen
This usually happens in mystery or action. Especially in the Alex Rider books. So they figure out who the bad guy is and it's not very hard to figure out. After all, he was hanging around the crime scene with a gun. But wait, gun guy was actually working for somebody else. So they investigate that somebody else and find them to be in partnership with Villain #3. But wait! #2 and #3 had their motives, yes, but they were actually being manipulated by the real bad guy. Villain #4 is the real mastermind here. He's incredibly smart, yet for some reason he finds in necessary to blow up a car, burn down a building, kill a few guards and pedestrians, start a power outage, send threatening notes, hack a computer, disguise his motives, and involve three other lackeys. All so he can kill one person.
Couldn't you just walk in there with a gun? You might have gotten away with it if you didn't overcomplicate everything.
9. Random gay guy
Not even the main character. This is usually the best friend left behind when the girl goes on an adventure. She may mention him twice or talk to him on the phone when she needs advice, but he's not even there. So why make him gay?
If it's because political correctness has become necessary for fiction, why do most books still have all white characters? The only black protagonists I can think of are in historical fiction, with the exception of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles and Heroes of Olympus.

Speaking of Rick Riordan, anybody else notice how diverse his characters have become lately? In Heroes of Olympus we meet Leo, who's Hispanic, Piper, half Cherokee, Hazel, African-American, and Frank, Chinese-Canadian. I think he's trying to appeal to a broader fan base.

10. The unconventional young lady
She might be a princess, she might simply be from a wealthy family. She has no interest in embroidery or dancing or boys, like all proper young ladies should. And she's supposed to be unique. Every single time.
She might have been daring in contrast to the books of a couple decades past, but now the rebel princess has become the norm. I'm surprised when they do actually enjoy embroidery, like Creel in The Dragon Slippers or Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fairy Bad Day by Amanda Ashby

Fairy Bad DayFairy Bad Day
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: **
Pages: 336
Emma was born to kill dragons. After all, her mother was one of the world's greatest dragon slayers before she died. Instead, Burtonwood Academy assigns her to be the first fairy slayer in history. Why would anybody want to slay stupid creatures no taller than ten inches? They're harmless, even if they are obnoxious and sarcastic with no fashion sense whatsoever.
Her rightful position of dragon slayer is taken by Curtis Green. He may be cute, but he has three years less slaying experience than Emma.
As if things couldn't get any worse, a giantic killer fairy keeps appearing on campus. Emma's the only one who can see it and it's looking more and more like there's no way to kill the thing. But there may be a way to defeat it...but only with some help from Curtis.
I found the fairy slaying idea extremely original and the romance extremely predictable. A perfectly cute boy, a personal grudge against him, and they're forced to work together. That sounds slightly familiar. Let me guess, are they going to kiss on the last page?
And then there's the writing style. Lots of showing instead of telling. The characters speak in a very expository manner, summing up their actions in recent pages or recents chapters and describing things they already know about. Not to mention the overuse of italics whenever they're saying anything remotely important. Especially in the last line of paragraphs.
Towards the beginning, Emma annoyed me because all she ever did was complain to the principal. Complain about not slaying dragons.  Complain about Curtis. Complain about how he's not doing anything to stop the invisible fairy. Things get a lot better once she starts acting on her own.
Later on, there's this dramatic scene where somebody's about to have his throat slit, but there's plenty of time for questions and answers and planning and insults while Emma moves to stop him. Either that claw is moving really slowly, or Emma's supernatural slayer abilities have blessed her with the gift to talk and lightning speed and still be understood.
There are also a few mild but unexpected twists towards the end, adding a satisfying element of drama to the story, though nothing made my heart beat fast.  I do love it when a book can do that. Fairy Bad Day is a quick, light, enjoyable read, even if the title is slightly corny.