Monthly Archives: November 2010

“Delirium” by Lauren Oliver


Lauren Oliver's debut novel, "Before I Fall," was a New York Times bestseller and, at the Kinnelon Library, one of the most popular books of 2010. It's never on the shelf! I can confidently predict that Oliver's follow-up, February's "Delirium," will be an even bigger hit, as she begins her dystopian trilogy in truly remarkable fashion. "Delirium" will be compared to "The Hunger Games" — it shares an oppressive government and shocking loss of civil rights — but there's more pure romance here than in even some of the girliest of girl books. I literally cannot wait for book #2 … and the first installment hasn't even been officially released yet. Ugh!

Ok, so here's the rundown: We're in Portland, Maine at an unspecified point in the future. The government rules with an iron fist — all books, music, websites, and even ideas are chosen and regulated by the state — and infractions of the many rules are simply not tolerated. Nightly raiding parties and armed guards stoke fear and keep everyone in line. What, above all else, must be zealously guarded against? Love. That's right. Love is the ultimate danger, a disease that can render one delirious and can spread to infect an entire family. Love will drive you insane, and it is feared like the plague. When boys and girls — who are segregated in all aspects of life — turn 18, they are "cured" at government labs. All capacity for love, affection, and tenderness is eradicated and their safety from amor deliria nervosa is insured. If you remember "The Stepford Wives" (book or either film version), then you have a good idea of the dulled affects and complacent lives of the cured folks.

We meet high school senior Lena right before her graduation and 95 days prior to her designated cure time. Lena's mom was never properly cured of love for her dead father. Despite three procedures, mom still loved, danced, and laughed, and she committed suicide rather than face another cure attempt. Lena was thus orphaned as a young girl, branded as tainted and dangerous, and sent to live with her bland Aunt Carol. Lena is an interesting character; she longs for the safety and stability of the cure while recognizing an internal passion and creativity that bring both joy and immense discomfort. In fact, during her state evaluation, she relates that the pale gray of sunrise is her favorite color. This kind of individuality is a threat to Lena's own safety, for creativity and imagination are dangerously close to forbidden passion. Such deviations from the norm are cause for immediate imprisonment in the Crypts, the government's medieval-esque prison where independent thinkers literally rot away, chained and forgotten.

When Lena meets Alex, a seemingly cured boy with golden eyes and hair the color of autumn leaves, she discovers an entire subculture where freedom of expression, music, poetry, and, yes, love thrive. She learns that the Invalids who live beyond the borders, out in the Wilds, may have been right to resist all along. Maybe these "others" aren't mad and diseased after all. Maybe the Invalids are actually the normal ones. Lena's worldview is dangerously enlarged further when she falls in love with the lively, warm Alex. Loving Alex is a breathtaking plunge into sweeping, swooning glory, an entry into a world of color, music, light, and freedom. The expansiveness of love, how it opens the entire universe to you, contrasts beautifully with the strict, limiting, cramped nature of Lena's everyday existence, where so much is regulated and made taboo. (The stifling Portland summer, with little electricity and plenty of crushing heat and stickiness, is a wonderful metaphor for the oppressiveness of society. Rock on!)

The characters here are spot-on, especially Lena, who remains awkward, self-conscious, and fearful through much of the story. Her progression from adamantly trying to be "nothing special" to actively breaking rules and taking huge chances feels real every step of the way. We see her doubts and worries but also share the sheer exhilaration of her first glimpses of love and freedom. Likewise, Alex is stalwart and strong while still maintaining believable levels of frustration with Lena and terror at his private moments of rebellion. My favorite character, though, may be Lena's best friend Hana, a spoiled rich girl who plays with revolution like it's just another toy to alleviate boredom. Hana yearns to challenge things but also wants the perks of her life and the safety of her compliance. When her loyalty is finally tested, her actions felt entirely authentic to me.

As I mentioned, the descriptions here are captivating. Besides Portland's blazing heat, we get the crisp winds and sparkling skies of the Wilds, the revelry of music at a rave, the incandescence of love, the inhuman violence of raiders, and the rotting stink of the Crypts, all in exquisite detail. Oliver's writing as a whole is just as strong here as in "Before I Fall," as she builds a compelling future world with precise rules, a well-defined religion (hard science has eradicated faith) and complex systems of regimentation and punishment. Brava!

"Delirium" reads like a cross between "Fahrenheit 451" and "Romeo and Juliet." It delivers tons of suspense and thrills, wonderful language and characters, a finely delineated world, and the kind of enthralling, non-saccharine romance that is often missing from teen novels. (The scene where Alex woos Lena under a night sky with long forgotten poems, after which she finally allows herself to taste the sweetness of the word "love" in her own mind, is unforgettable.) "Delirium" is a fantastic read for high school students, and I'm sure this one will be spread like wildfire. "Delirium" releases in February 2011. Give it a try, you won't be disappointed!

PS – Check out the Publishers Weekly article on Harper Teen's search for the perfect cover for "Delirium."

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Posted by on November 9, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“The Sky is Everywhere” by Jandy Nelson


"The Sky is Everywhere" is Lennie's story of overcoming the tragic, sudden death of her older sister, college student / actress Bailey. Part sweeping love story, part grief journal, this book is peppered with Lennie's poetry, as written on everything from the soles of her shoes to discarded coffee cups. Author Jandy Nelson writes in a lyrical, poetic style, and her word choice can be captivating, as she almost paints the story as much as writes it. Whether this style works for you — admittedly, it gave me some problems — will largely determine how you feel about this novel.

We meet Lennie at the start of a California summer, months after her sister's death. Lennie is still heartbroken, often spending time in Bailey's closet, engulfing her fading scent. Lennie's Gram and Uncle Big try to reach out to Lennie in their own eccentric ways, but she's basically sleepwalking. The only thing that makes Lennie feel alive is kissing Bailey's boyfriend, Toby. Yes, it's wrong and shameful, and it makes her feel utterly disgusting, but making out with the devastated Toby — who is as lost as Lennie — is an addictive rush.

Just as school is ending, Lennie meets Joe, a fellow musician with batting eyelashes, a poetic soul, and foreign cachet (Joe lived in Paris, plays the acoustic guitar, and drinks wine; rock on!). Joe ends up joining Lennie for daily breakfasts and, er, family chats — among other things, Uncle Big is trying to raise the dead with mini pyramids (!) — and the whole clan quickly becomes enamored of him. For Lennie, this is first love in all its blooming, incandescent glory … except for the part where she's still self destructing by fooling around with Toby and, yeah, the part where her own happiness feels like a betrayal of Bailey.

How all this resolves, including a subplot about Lennie’s long-missing mother, I will leave to your reading. I despise spoilers! I will instead say that the sensual quality of Nelson’s writing works splendidly in depicting Lennie’s burgeoning love for Joe, as well as in lush descriptions of velvety roses, flowing rivers, crisp breezes, and green woods. There were, however, times when I felt whole passages were overwritten — must every paragraph include three metaphors?! — and that the story would have benefited from being giving more room to breathe and just be.

Along these same lines, Joe is so perfect, such a paragon of beauty, charm, grace … heck, even musical talent and worldliness! … that I found him completely unbelievable as a real teen boy. Similarly, Gram and Uncle Big had one quirk too many for my tastes (Gram only paints with green hues; Uncle Big, married five times, takes all his lady conquests up into a tree for romance). The last straw in this regard was an actual bedroom lovingly maintained deep in the forest by some sort of hippie pied piper. Ugh. Seriously? A secret forest bedroom?

If that criticism seems harsh, I truly don’t mean it to be so. I just found these grandiose flourishes — the overwrought language, the characters’ eccentricities — to undermine the quiet grief and loneliness that is so carefully portrayed here. The "bigger," sweeping touches work more effectively in conveying the romance than they do the pain.

Fans of verse novels and transporting romances ("Wuthering Heights," referenced throughout the novel, is a great example) will find much to like here. Even music lovers will likely adore Lennie’s descriptions of floating along while playing the clarinet. Those of us looking for a bit more realism and grit may find portions of "The Sky is Everywhere" grating rather than uplifting. But, hey, we're all different. In the end, this book is a (mostly) lovely read with some truly stirring moments and fine poetry sprinkled throughout. Happy reading!

PS: The paperback version of "The Sky is Everywhere," with the completely reworked forest bedroom cover, should be out in March of 2011.

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Posted by on November 3, 2010 in Uncategorized


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