Book Review: City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare’s novel, “City of Bones,” is a young adult novel that focuses on 15-year-old Clary, whose world starts to unravel when she discovers she can suddenly see supernatural beings that live among the mundanes like her in New York City. On the heels of this startling discovery, Clary’s mom goes missing, and she has to embrace her new acquaintances, the Shadow Hunters (demon hunters), in order to survive.

The novel, the first of three “Moral Instruments” tales, has been criticized for its clumsy expositon about the Shadow World. The story reads so easily and quickly, though, that an entertained reader would probably be willing to forgive the interruptions. The characters’ witty dialogue and the author’s imaginative descriptions of the Shadow World versions of our own transportation, accomodations and government keep the reader moving along event when the plot drags a little.

The characters are interesting, if not extremely deep or three-dimensional, and the writer manages to provides some surprises along the way, one of which turns out to be extremely awkward. Overall, it provides several hours of fun involvement in a fantasy world that’s not too hard on the head or the heart.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

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Some reviewers are predicting that “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins, will be the next Harry Potter or Twilight Saga. It’s not as original or well-written as the Harry Potter novels, but the set up for the book will probably appeal to young sci-fi fans just as much as magic and vampires do, and its anti-authoritarian theme will resonate with many readers.

The book’s protagonist is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a slum resident in a dystopian future America, now called “Panem.” She’s an isolated loner, with a dead father, an emotionally absent mother, a little sister she loves more than anything, and a platonic male friend who helps her hunt for food on a daily basis. In this future, the haves and have-nots are sharply divided among the rich, pampered government people who live in the Capitol, and everyone else who has to scrounge for food and other scarce resources (a situation with which I’m sure many of today’s anti-government factions can relate).

In a plot device similar to the one in “The Running Man,” every year the Capitol forces children from the slums to compete in televised death matches until the last person standing wins and is awarded money and food for life. Unlike many similar stories, however, “The Hunger Games” uses this setting to remove the main character from her regular daily life in order for her to process her feelings of alienation and resentment among strangers instead in her own family. Her new environment also helps Katniss re-examine her relationship with her mother, and develop empathy with people from different backgrounds.

Like all reality game show contestants, Katniss has her own support team that wants to make her look good. At first she disdains them completely, but becomes more open to them when she realizes her ability to survive the games depends in part on them. As the story continues, she is forced to ally with other contestants, and starts to empathize with them in spite of herself. Her participation in the games breaks Katniss down emotionally and physically,  and lets her repressed anger, vulnerability and longing to rise to the surface.

Katnisss character growth and attitude about the oppressive nature of her government is the most striking departures from so much of the young adult lit that is popular now.  In books with similar settings, like the Stephen King/Richard Bachman novel I loved as a teenage, “The Long Walk,” the teenage participants blame unfair and unsympathetic adults for their predicaments.  Initially in “The Hunger Games,” Katniss bitterly places the blame of her predicament on the machinations of government and society as a whole rather than on specific individual adults, which seems like a more insightful (if oversimplified) approach.

The growth and changes that Katniss undergoes during the games puts this novel in a better class than many similar speculative fiction novels, and her insights about her participation in her own oppression makes it a breath of fresh air compared with similar stories.  Don’t shy away from this novel because it is set in a dystopian future, however;  the action makes it a fun and easy read as well.

Brief Take: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig

I may not quite be well versed enough in classic Greek dialogs to fully “get” this. I understand and appreciate that the author was trying to find a way to synthesize his own thoughts about Eastern philosophy with his classical Western training, but I found it sort of boring and confusing. I believe it was revolutionary at the time, but now if I wanted to find out more about Asian philosophy, I’d go right to the source (and have, see Masao Abe’s Zen and Western Thought.)

What I did find interesting in the story was the narrator’s portrayal of how he remembers what he was like before he had a nervous breakdown and received shock treatments, as opposed to how he is now. He attempts to reconcile his emerging original personality with his new one in a way that parallels his integration of Eastern and Western thought.

I wish there had been more focus on how the re-emergence of the original personality was going to affect his family relationships. Would he go back to his obsession with philosophical questions to the exclusion of his family, or would he now be able to find a better balance?

A final thought is a quote I heard recently to the effect that the more a man considers his work to be revolutionary and important to the world, the more likely he is to have a nervous breakdown, which seems to be what happened here.

Brief Take: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

There’s a little more high school and a little less history and philosophy in this book than I’d prefer, but it is an engaging story. Bella, an ordinary, regular teenage girl from Arizona, moves to rainy Forks, Washington, and there meets Edward, a dominant, brooding, extremely attractive vampire. Bella comes to love him with her whole heart and soul, and Edward  confesses that he finds her so delectable that he may not be able to control himself around her. Any allegories to sex are completely intentional, so you can see why so many women love this series of books.

The vampires in Edward’s “family” of choice are almost *too* good and pure, and the family love-fest scenes started to make me sleepy. Luckily some villains show up and the end is more exciting.

“Twilight” could have been a formulaic romance, and it’s not, for which I am thankful. It’s worth reading, if for no other reason than to get to the next book, “New Moon.”

Book Review: The Dark Tower, Book 7 by Stephen King

Roland the Gunslinger’s journey to the Dark Tower has been a long and difficult one, and it has been long for his readers as well. I read the original novel “The Gunslinger” the first time because I loved Stephen King and I read everything he wrote.

I didn’t care much for the novel at the time, and I still don’t. I find it bleak and arid, much like the desert the gunslinger crosses – much like his soul during this opening chapter. King gives us some interesting glimpses of the world he is creating, but his characters are the real heart of his stories, and this one seems to be missing its.

The second novel, “The Drawing of the Three,” is much better. King introduces us to other characters which will help Roland on his quest, and they begin to revive his ability to care for other people. I think, however, the jump in quality between the first and second novels is due largely to King’s growth as a writer and his confidence in the story. From the very beginning of the second book, Roland seems more alive and more thought-out as a character than he does in the first one.

By the time Stephen King got to book 7, The Dark Tower had become his magnum opus. He had begun tying all his books and stories into Roland’s universe, and King seemed to invest a lot of his own energy and emotions into it as well. He himself appears as a character in this series, and his presence in it is a meditation on the artist’s part in the creative process. King seems to come from the musomania school of creativity, in that the “Gods” literally inspire him (“sh*t on his head” is how he puts it), and even if he is the physical creator of the stories, he is somehow channeling a higher energy, being or force when he is writing.

Here is where King addresses the automobile accident that nearly killed him and indirectly, the suffering he enduring during rehab, which is alluded to in his descriptions of Roland’s painful ailment, the “dry twist,” which I think of as arthritis. In coming to the end of this story, King ponders his own mortality as he examines the completion of Roland’s quest, and one individual’s small place in the universe, which will go on without him after his death.

The ending could be considered bleak. I absolutely hated it the first time I read it. It grew on me a little as time went by and I considered the mythic nature of the story, and how King draws from different mythologies in writing his conclusion. There are happy endings for some characters, which in a way feels like a cheat, even as I am happy to have them. They feel almost “tacked on,” like the 2nd ending of “Dirty Dancing,” with the big musical number, after the first, grittier, more realistic ending where Baby is left in the corner with her memories and her family. The characters in The Dark Tower series have earned their happy endings, but I’m not completely sure the story has. However, I might have found the series unbearable to read if they had not been given their due, so I understand why they were left in, even if they are not perfectly in alignment with the rest of the universe King has created.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I do want to say that – in the end – the Gunslinger realizes that in some ways, the very approach that allows him to finish his quest, the violence and disregard for human life, has tainted it and his soul. I want to believe that the experiences he has had with his friends have given him a depth of self-understanding that will ultimately lead him to a more satisfying resolution.

If anyone else wants to discuss the story – especially the ending and what happens to the characters – I’d love to hear from you, so please send me an email, here or at lee@resun.com.

Book Review: New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this book is about what happens to Bella, the regular teenage girl protagonist of “Twilight,” when Edward, the vampire she loves desperately, leaves her. She is devastated. She is depressed. She is inconsolable. I myself had a couple of very intense relationships a little like this when I was in my twenties, and I could definitely relate to Bella’s predicament and how author Stephenie Mayer expresses it. In fact, it was so realistic that I was considering not reading any more when Bella finds a new source of comfort: her friendship with Jacob, the Native American boy she has known from childhood. Obviously, he’s not the “perfect” Edward, but Bella begins to suspect that allowing herself some small measure of happiness away from Edward would not be “selling out.”

Jacob, who is 2 years younger than Bella, has his own period of painful growth to endure. Both his physical and emotional progress is laid out for the reader (eventually), as he comes to terms with the kind of adult he is becoming and tries to make peace with it.

This book contains some of the history, mythology and philosophy that the first novel lacked, and it finishes with an even better and more suspenseful flourish. Some Romeo and Juliet comparison is included, which may be appropriate, if cliched, for the age of the characters. Fortunately, Bella is modern enough, and sophisticated enough, to handle the comparisons her mind insists on making without getting too sentimental about it.