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Monthly Archives: May 2011

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Everyone remotely involved in teen literature knows that pretty much every dystopian novel is touted as the next "The Hunger Games." Sure enough, I heard that exact pitch for Veronica Roth's debut teen novel, "Divergent," which takes place in a desolate, fractured Chicago of the future. You know what, though? "Divergent" actually has some of the spark — the great hook, feisty lead character, and intense scenes of desperate survival — that made "The Hunger Games" such a phenomenon. While it lacks Suzanne Collins' precise worldbuilding, complex love story, and overall literary skill, it's still a compelling, highly enjoyable read.

Dystopian Chicago — the lakes have dried up, buildings are hulking shells — is divided into five factions, each based on a desired human trait. Amity folks are friendly and personable; Erudite is comprised of cold intellectuals; Abnegation members are selfless, plain people; Candor-ites are blunt and, perhaps, far too honest; and the Dauntless are strong, fearless fighters. The factions were created as the antidote to the human complexity that lead to power struggles, infighting, wars, and the near destruction of society. Teenagers now take an aptitude test, after which they must choose to remain in their birth faction or join the faction for which they show an innate ability. As such, society remains properly ordered, separated, and safe.

Smart, resourceful teen Beatrice has always felt out of place in her Abnegation family. Try as she might, she cannot seem to hold her tongue, quietly accept her circumstances, and selflessly offer up her time and possessions. Her aptitude test reveals a shocking result: Beatrice shows a talent for three separate factions. Such Divergence is considered so explosive and dangerous that Beatrice must keep the results secret from everyone, including her parents and beloved brother Caleb. (To be honest, we're never actually told why Divergence is such a threat, although we get hints late in the novel.) At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice selects the Dauntless group, seemingly betraying her family. She is plunged into an underground world of darkness, tattoos and piercings that is also a place of camaraderie, physical and mental strength, and bravery.

The bulk of the novel encompasses the Dauntless initiate training, which Beatrice — rechristened Tris — initially undergoes with others who were likewise born into other factions. The training is grueling, which should be expected from a group that leaps off buildings and jumps onto moving trains. We're talking beatdown fights (think UFC!), mental torture, firearms, bloodshed, daredevil feats, and knife throwing. There is plenty of action throughout "Divergent," and the training sequences, even after the Dauntless-born initiates are added to the mix, are riveting in their sheer physicality and emotional duress. We see Tris come alive during this process, emerging from a mousy Abnegation girl to discover her inner strength and calm resolve. It's a coming of age tale on steroids!

I also loved how the Dauntless competition splinters Tris' new group of friends, much like any rivalry with dire consequences inevitably reveals human flaws. (Losers here are relegated to the Factionless and forced to live apart from society as outcasts.) Tris' friends Will, Christina, and Al are all perfectly content to like her when she's the weakling "Stiff," but are offended and threatened when she emerges as a viable competitor. The wicked hazing of several initiates, including Tris, also reveals the ugly human underside of stress and cutthroat competition. Tris' horror and panic at this violence, including her post-traumatic stress reaction, are gripping and terrifyingly real.

Author Roth nicely conveys the full gamut of emotions felt by an alternately exhausted and exhilarated Tris. We clearly perceive Tris' delirium at destroying her old Abnegation bonds and soaring down a rip line or running breakneck along the edge of a cliff. There is an intoxicating freedom in living so dangerously, which we experience right along with Tris. The paintball game, in which Tris climbs the dilapidated ferris wheel at Navy Pier, is both frightening and pretty darn fun. At the same time, Roth richly depicts every last bit of pain and turmoil from Tris' many beatings and sufferings, including some harrowing scenes in which Tris must face her biggest fears in an all-too-real simulation. (Hello, hordes of pecking, smothering crows!) That's potent stuff.

There's also a love interest here, a stern trainer nicknamed Four (Tobias), who is one of those protective, compassionate, kind — and super cute! — guys we tend to see in YA fiction. Four has some secrets of his own, which he slowly shares with Tris. There's supposed to be a forbidden love angle going on with Tris and Four, but we never sense enough of the danger, passion, and longing that we should. I actually felt more intensity and steam — not all of it good! — from Four's rival, young, masochistic leader Eric. Eric is a great character, charming and seductive one minute and lethal the next. His undercurrent of malevolence really drives the story, since there is no real villain (an Erudite leader named Jeanine appears late in the book, but she's basically a one-dimensional poster girl for evil). Eric's edginess and volatility work particularly well towards the end of the book, when Four and Tris uncover a plot that I found silly and unbelievable. Remember the zombie army from "Attack of the Clones," after Emperor Palpatine executes Order 66? All the clone troops became mindless killers, decimating the Jedi Knights and other peace-loving folks. "Divergent's" conclusion is exactly like that. It's a bit of a cheap plot device. At least Eric grounds the story in a tangible, believable menace.

If the love story and ending are a bit wonky, Eric's still an excellent foil, Tris rocks, and there's a cool mystery brewing beneath the whole Divergent idea, which we finally (finally!) begin to glimpse by story's end. Throw in some exploration of the larger notions of group dynamics, weakness, greed, power, sacrifice, and bravery — as well as unexpected cameos and shocking revelations during the climax — and you have the makings of a surprisingly deep action novel. Could the ending be better? For sure. Is too much of this novel simply laying the foundation for book two? Probably. Will I be back for the sequel? YES. 🙂

"Divergent" is out now, and I think it's a good choice for boys and girls who like action, sci fi, or adventure stories. I'm thinking the audience here is later middle school and up, since there's some mild language and, as I mentioned above, some fairly intense scenes of violence and torture. Please let me know what you think!

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Posted by on May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“What Happened to Goodbye” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

My love of Sarah Dessen knows no bounds (check out my reviews of "Along for the Ride," "Lock and Key," "Just Listen," and "Keeping the Moon;" raves all!). For my money, Sarah is one of the finest YA authors around, always providing fresh insight into the classic teen coming of age / falling in love story. Sarah's latest novel, "What Happened to Goodbye," while perhaps not her strongest work, is still miles ahead of most teen literature out there. It's a winning, beautifully written novel that is sure to become a favorite of Sarah's legions of fans.

When we meet Mclean Sweet, she and her divorced dad, Gus, are settling into their fourth new home in two years. After her folks' contentious divorce — mom cheated with the head coach of dad's most beloved university basketball team — Mclean chose to travel with restaurant consultant Gus instead of remaining home with mom, a new stepfather, and twin half siblings. Mclean uses each move with Gus to reinvent herself, alternately playing the roles of theatre chick, athlete, and activity joiner. Mclean even uses a new first name in each town to go with each new persona. The result? Everything is temporary for Mclean; she forms no real ties or attachments, and she leaves behind so-called friends without so much as a backward glance. Even worse? By always pretending to be someone else, Mclean has lost the girl she really is.

In Lakeview, Gus's job is to reinvent Luna Blu, a local Italian restaurant managed by the overwhelmed but well meaning Opal. Inadvertently, Mclean keeps her own name and much of her true self at school, the restaurant, and with her charmingly weird next-door neighbor Dave. It's a new experience, just being Mclean, since there's nothing and no one to hide behind. She also befriends the delightfully bossy Deb as well as bickering but kind best pals Riley and Heather. As the kids embark on an outrageously overdone large-scale model project — and as Mclean slowly lets Dave into her closely guarded world — Mclean realizes she is becoming connected to these people and this town. She cares now, more than she ever intended. So what happens when she has to leave again?

I won't give much else away, because the joy of this book is discovering what ultimately happens to Mclean, Dave, Gus, and the troubled Luna Blu restaurant. I can easily discuss the many things I loved about this book, which I will do in no particular order:

* No great surprise here — this is Sarah Dessen, folks! — but Mclean has such great depth and emotional complexity. She's essentially a parent to her father, soothing his wounded heart, arranging their moves, and getting them properly settled into each new town. Yet, Mclean is also just a high school senior who, beneath this veneer of capability, is absolutely devastated by her mother's infidelity and her parents' divorce. Mclean is so emotionally disconnected from mom that she can only manage unreturned phone calls and carefully calculated, obscenely polite conversations with her. What Mclean doesn't realize is that by separating herself from her mom and her picture perfect former life she has also isolated herself from her peers and father. When Mclean finally allows herself to truly experience all that pain, betrayal, and loneliness, it's incredibly moving.

* Dave. Oh, I could write a lot about Dave. Yes, he's a standard YA love interest. He's sensitive, kind, smart, funny, cute in an offbeat way, quirky … you know the type. He could easily have stepped out of the pages of a John Green novel. But Dave also has believable conflicts with his parents about his boy genius status, a sweet friendship with Riley, and a slew of quiet, touching moments with Mclean. Very well done.

* The three main adults in this novel (Gus, Mclean's mom Kate, and Opal) are not just window dressing, thrown into a scene to stir up conflict only to disappear and leave the real action to the teenagers. These adults are all interesting characters with their own shadings, depth, and shortcomings. I thought Kate, in particular, was well developed. A cheating wife / shrill mother can quickly devolve into painful stereotype, which never happened here. Just as Mclean does, we eventually see beyond Kate's missteps to find a brokenhearted mother longing for her daughter.

* As always, Sarah creates a precise, evocative setting. We walk the streets of Lakeview with Mclean and understand exactly how this small, nondescript town can hold so much promise. There's something beautiful and alive about its alleys after a snowstorm, its starry skies on a clear night, its cozy woods surrounding Riley's house, its failing neighborhood restaurant and overly cheery local coffeehouse. The uber model project — which recreates the town in painstaking, oversized detail — only adds to this sense of community and place. Each building, street, and house clicked into the model is another chance for both us and Mclean to feel more at home in Lakeview. Similarly, when Mclean lovingly describes the shore town she often visited with her mom, we understand how surf, salt, sun, and freedom can transport her to happier times. Later, when Mclean grudgingly visits another beach town with Kate (shout out to Colby, Last Chance, and Heidi's bikini shop!), we readers are swept along on Mclean's same wave of nostalgia and longing.

* Sarah is an expert at portraying emotional moments with simple grace and lyricism. My only real complaint with this novel lies in its rushing past some of these scenes instead of allowing us to savor their impact a bit more. For example, presenting the dramatic culmination of Mclean's journey in a flashback undermines its intensity. I wish we could have stayed in the moment and enjoyed it more! Still, the depictions of the quiet beauty of friendship, parental devotion, and first love are real treasures here. When Mclean sees Dave's heartfelt messages for her in the completed town model … oy! That's good stuff. 🙂

"What Happened to Goodbye" is a perfect summer novel for readers looking for an understated coming of age story with well-developed characters, a charming setting, flawed but involved parents, and, of course, some kicking romance. There's the occasional bit of strong language here, but nothing that would offend an average middle schooler. "What Happened to Goodbye" is out now. I loved it. Go read it! :-p

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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