Gwyn Hyman Rubio, “Icy Sparks”

Cover design, Jessica Shatan; http://www.penguin.com/book/icy-sparks-by-gwyn-hyman-rubio/9780142000205Icy Sparks, the 10-year-old girl with the yellow ocher eyes and floss-like hair prone to cursing and croaking, has a problem. When she feels like rubber bands are about to pop her eyes, and her body twitches with the urge to jerk, she escapes to the root cellar to release the quirks. Her control, however, is limited, and when her classmates and teacher react with cruelty and dismay, colorful and sassy Icy retreats to a world of humiliation.

Plot Overview: Ignorance, Humiliation and Friendships

In Act One, Icy struggles to negotiate her goodness and her badness (the uncontrollable cursing, the misinterpretations and exaggerations, the tics and jerks). Her relationship with her peers – with the exception of outsiders Peavy Lawson and Lane Carlson – deteriorates, and her teacher, Mrs. Stilton, revels in demeaning the fiery fourth grader. After one intense outburst, Icy is relegated to the supply closet to study alone. She arranges the closet (and arranges her mind in the process), but when her advocate, the school principal, attempts to rearrange the order, Icy snaps.

Icy soon finds herself in a mental hospital. Although Wilma, a hospital nurse, is as malicious and ugly as Mrs. Stilton and Icy is homesick for her loving Matanni and Patanni, she develops a friendship with staff member Maizy. Despite the traumatizing stay, Icy also puts her problems in perspective; her croaks are minor compared to how the other children in the hospital suffer. Her doctor gives her coping tips, and the older and wiser girl returns home to the mountains of West Kentucky.

As a teenager, Icy lives in isolation. She’s kept in touch with Maizy, and her good friend, morbidly obese Miss Emily, goes to the house every week to teach. The teenager, though, is thirsty for company, for puppy love, but her anxiety keeps her alone and lonely. It’s only when Miss Emily and Matanni drag her to a tent revival that Icy taps into what makes her different – and special.

Criticisms and Compliments

Icy Sparks has one of the most unique, vibrant voices in literature. Her narrative, her use of colloquialisms and her range of emotions breathes life into a story that, from the book jacket, doesn’t sound that appealing. But the tale of a young girl struggling with undiagnosed Tourette Syndrome is fascinating, more so because of the spotlight author Rubio sheds on ignorance and cruelty.

Despite its achievements (Icy is one of the most striking characters in the last several years), some of Rubio’s descriptions are a little too self-indulgent, to the point that the people of Appalachia are caricatures. More importantly, the ending is too pat. Icy, the complex, spirited “frog girl of Icy Creek,” struggles with her pops and croaks, her good side and her mean side, only to find it all cured by Jesus. What? That’s it? She goes to a tent revival, and ta-da, the insecure and isolated girl is saved and accepts herself fully? That’s not enough for a story that weaves Icy’s misery through three acts of nescience. More so, Icy’s diagnosis, her experience at college, surrounded by others around whom she may not be able to control her tics, is glossed over. Only the epilogue touches on Tourette Syndrome and Icy’s musical abilities.

For such a well-written book, and for such a great protagonist, the ending of Icy Sparks is a disappointment, but it is still worth a read.

Source:

  • Rubio, Gwyn Hyman. Icy Sparks. Penguin Books, 2001 ISBN 9780142000205

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

Little, Brown and Company; http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/donna-tartt/the-goldfinch/9780316248679/Funny how one incident, one disaster can irrevocably change a person’s life. For Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker who’s just beginning to push at rules and restrictions, a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother is a distraction from a more pressing issue: a meeting at school and a possible expulsion. That worry, however, becomes a drop in a spectacular flood that soon engulfs the young boy’s life.

Plot Overview: Tragedy, Growth and Fate

Inside the museum, Theo’s mother lovingly examines paintings by Dutch masters, explaining nuances and brushstrokes to her son; she is most captivated by Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” a simple yet telling piece of art. Theo, though, only has eyes for a redheaded girl wandering through the exhibition with an older gentleman. Just as Theo works up the nerve to say hello, the building explodes, destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb.

Theo survives, only to find the gentleman, Welton “Welty” Blackwell, barely alive. The young boy sits with the man until he finally succumbs to his injuries. Before Welty passes, however, he instructs Theo to take “The Goldfinch,” which remains almost untouched. The boy does then makes his escape, the painting rolled into his bag.

Following the attack, Theo is taken in by his friend, Andy’s, family, the Barbours. The Barbours are an odd, upperclass bunch, prone to stiff conversations and even stiffer drinks. Theo, unsettled and traumatized, does his best to ingratiate himself with the family. Just as the grief-stricken boy begins to feel comfortable, Theo’s father, a neglectful alcoholic, reappears.

With Theo in tow, Larry Decker and his girlfriend, Xandra, head to Las Vegas. The couple, more involved with drinking, substance abuse and gambling, leave Theo to care for himself. With the newfound freedom – and no supervision to speak of – Theo and his best friend, Ukrainian transplant Boris, embark on a drug-fueled adventure. Before long, the fun spins out of control, and Theo shortly finds himself lost. With nowhere to go, he returns to New York, to the doorstep of Welty’s business partner, Hobie. There, Theo attempts to mature, but his rootless childhood, his addictions, his unrequited love for the redheaded girl (Pippa, Welty’s niece, who also survived the bombing), but cannot right himself. The only consistent part of his life is “The Goldfinch.”

Criticisms and Compliments

Although Donna Tartt may not be the most prolific writer, what she does produce is captivating – and that’s not a hyperbole. Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch is a stunning examination of tragedy, of the beauty and ugliness that hides in the cracks of a damaged life. Theo, through each phase of his adolescence, absorbs the subtle dynamics of dysfunction, and the experience shapes the malleable teen into an ambiguously moral businessman with a penchant for drugs. Theo’s identity, however, seems solely based on fate: What if his mother hadn’t died? What if he had stayed with the Barbours? What if he hadn’t been shuttled to Las Vegas? What if he had never stolen the painting?

Fiction is based on “what ifs,” and Tartt’s exploration of the coulda, would, shouldas not only adds momentum to the hefty novel (or really, the series of novellas), but also draws a sense of sorrow in the reader. How could Theo, who had such potential, who was so vulnerable, turn out to be such an unhappy, amoral person? It’s perplexing, given that Theo is, generally, likable and deserves sympathy. Then again, by Tartt exposing his every flaw, every addiction and every shady dealing, she creates one of the most human of literary characters. (With that said, Boris and Hobie are also uniquely drawn personalities who add zest to an otherwise melancholy tale.)

What’s noteworthy about The Goldfinch, as well, is even though it’s dense and long (and starts to slow near the end), it is engrossing. Theo, though he (or Tartt) tends to be redundant with metaphors, is a terrific narrator. And, isn’t it the nature of the reader to be curious about a character’s life? Tartt, thankfully, gives the reader the gift of tracing her lovelorn, drug-addled protagonist’s life through childhood, through tragedy and death and crime, until he finally reaches peace.

Source:

  • Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. Little, Brown and Company, 2013 ISBN 9780316055437

Upcoming Reviews

Dear Readers,

I know there’s been a lapse in reviews (two weeks with no posts!), so I wanted to clarify that I’m currently alternating between two books, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Icy Sparks. I usually read one book at a time, but after I started Icy Sparks, The Goldfinch became available at the library, so I switched. Both are fantastic reads so far but dense, and The Goldfinch is about 700 pages, hence my taking so long to read! I hope to have reviews of both soon. :)

Happy reading!

Caroline

John Green, “The Fault in Our Stars”

Cover design, Irene Vandervoort; http://www.penguin.com/book/the-fault-in-our-stars-by-john-green/9780525478812Wheeling her oxygen tank behind her, Hazel Grace Lancaster walks into the support group meeting prepared to ignore the sentiments spewing from saccharine leader Patrick. The cancer patient, however, locks eyes with Augustus Waters, a survivor of osteosarcoma. Within the hour, the two – Hazel with her weakened lungs, Gus with his artificial leg – form a bond that only those afflicted with the Big C could understand. But life, like cancer, can be cruel, and the couple knows too well how little time they might have.

Plot Overview: Cancer, Love and Oblivion

Hazel, irreverent, sarcastic, jaded, has lived with thyroid cancer for years. Although it metastasized to her lungs, she continues to fight the good fight each day. Her trial has allowed the 16-year-old to become a homebody, reluctant to socialize and be around others, but Augustus, with his over-the-top charm, worms his way past Hazel’s defenses.

The two teens become inseparable, sharing experiences, hobbies and existentialist theories. Hazel also confides in Augustus her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, that details main character Anna’s bout with cancer. The story ends mid-sentence, presumably with Anna’s death.

Augustus, determined to find closure for Hazel on the ending of the novel, uses his wish with The Genie Foundation to travel to Amsterdam, where An Imperial Affliction‘s writer, Peter Van Houten, lives. Amsterdam, lovely and romantic, is a treat for the couple, but Van Houten turns out to be a surly drunk with little regard for his readers’ needs.

When Gus and Hazel return stateside, they find their brief honeymoon over. Cancer is taking hold, and despite every conversation about life’s meaning, cancer will be cancer, and death will be death. Then again, can’t love just be love? And can’t love be enough?

Criticisms and Compliments

The Fault in Our Stars is one of the year’s most popular, but it’s an odd duck of a book. First, the writing, at least in the beginning pages, is too simplistic; it might be splitting hairs, but Green’s using “quite” twice in the same paragraph (the first of the story) and “apace” too frequently draws down the quality of the novel. Second, though they might be teenagers suffering from a cancer – an existential crisis itself given how close to death each is – Hazel and Gus speak like philosophers, more a middle-aged couple experiencing self-actualization than star-crossed lovers. As a whole, the overly simplistic writing combined with complex philosophizing makes The Fault in Our Stars a strange read. (Note: This review does not claim that it’s unrealistic for bright, curious teenagers to contemplate philosophy and nihilism, just that doing so reads strangely given Green’s writing style.)

Of course, that said, The Fault in Our Stars is compelling, and the Romeo-Juliet relationship is one guaranteed to pull at readers’ heartstrings. As the narrator, Hazel isn’t so different from Tris of the Divergent Trilogy, and her irreverent, sometimes blunt observations are insightful, if harsh. More, it’s refreshing to read about teenager’s relationship with her parents that isn’t perfect and loving; Hazel gets frustrated, hurt and angry with hers, annoyed by their crying (particularly her father’s) but humbled by their love. Likewise, Augustus has a similar relationship with his parents (example: he good-naturedly tolerates the the multitude of “encouragements” littered throughout the family home.) For these two, Mom and Dad are simultaneously irritating and endearing, and really, it’s the child-parent relationship that quietly shines in The Fault in Our Stars.

Overall, The Fault in Our Stars is a fast read, but if feels off-balance at times (for more lukewarm feelings on this one, check out The Economist review). This story might just be one that works better as a movie than a book.

Source:

  • Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton Books, 2012 ISBN 9780525478812

Joel Dicker, “The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair”

Cover design, Sabrina Bowers; http://www.penguin.com/book/the-truth-about-the-harry-quebert-affair-by-joel-dicker/9780143126683Writer Marcus Goldman had a meteoric rise with his debut novel; but, as the inimitable Isaac Newton said, “What goes up must come down” (though in this case, figurative trumps literal). Once the fame game starts to wind down, Marcus finds himself struggling to write a second book. Writer’s block, a lack of creativity and pressure to live up to expectations paralyzes the narcissistic novelist, until he travels to Somerset, New Hampshire, to reunite with his mentor, Harry Quebert. Harry holds the secret to success, and it is only with him that Marcus can grasp the inspiration for his second novel.

Plot Overview: Secrets, Small Towns and Scandal

Marcus finds refuge at Harry’s beachside home, Goose Cove. There, just before the deadline for Marcus’ second book, the body of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan is discovered. Harry, renowned writer and Marcus’ only true friend, is implicated in the murder after he admits to having an affair with the underage girl.

While Harry, his reputation tarnished and his celebrated book, The Origin of Evil, maligned, sits in prison, Marcus begins his own investigation. As much as he uncovers about the townsfolk, he develops more questions than answers. When he partners with Sergeant Gahalowood, Marcus fits together bits and pieces of the events of August 30, 1975, the last day Nola was seen alive.

As Marcus delves into the mystery, his publisher, Barnaski, decides the tale of Harry Quebert and Nola Kellergan is the hit of the year (not to be overshadowed by the 2008 presidential election). He offers Marcus $3 million to write the story. Marcus agrees, not to profit but to clear the name of his best friend. The problem? Harry is playing games, witnesses are lying, and Marcus might not discover what really happened until it’s too late.

Criticisms and Compliments

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the hit of the summer, and, for the most part, lives up to the hype. Marcus Goldman makes for an entertaining narrator, who, thankfully, is able to move past his writer’s block – and his enormous ego – to create a best-selling novel about his mentor’s love affair with a luminous, complex teenager. (Marcus’ rise as a famous writer makes the reader wonder, too, how much of author Joel Dicker’s experience is reflected in his protagonist’s…). The real highlight of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, however, is the plot.

As mentioned in past reviews, particularly with Clive Cussler’s novels, some books are appealing because of the writing or the characters or the plot. With The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, the plot takes precedence. Just when the reader thinks she has the plot figured out, Dicker throws another curveball; considering the novel stands at about 600 pages, that many twists and turns is admirable. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is impossible to put down.

The weakness in the novel most likely lies with the translation. Although the language is good, the dialogue tends to read a little wonky, especially with the way Tamara Quinn speaks to her husband. Nola’s statements, her frequent declarations of love, also read a little off, and Luther’s speech impediment takes some deciphering.

For budding writers, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a lesson in how to write; each chapter is introduced with a lesson on novel writing from Harry to Marcus, and a writer writing about a writer (writing about another writer) is intriguing. Overall, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a worthwhile read.

Source:

  • Dicker, Joel. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. Penguin, 2014 ISBN 9780143126683

Veronica Roth, Allegiant

Typography, Joel Tippie; http://www.harpercollins.com/book/index.aspx?isbn=9780062024060Dear Readers,

I finally got to read Allegiant, the third book in the Divergent Trilogy (thanks, public library!). Although the first two books are excellent, Roth expands her scope of human behavior and nature vs nurture in Allegiant; if anything, the first two books were merely ripples in the pool of good and evil in the final story.

Instead of writing a separate review for Allegiant for this week, please check out the updated “Veronica Roth, Divergent Trilogy” for my thoughts/conclusions. (Hint: It’s no wonder this trilogy was a bestseller…)

Happy reading!

Sue Grafton, “M Is for Malice”

St. Martin’s Press; http://us.macmillan.com/misformalice/SueGraftonThe M-is-for-Malek brothers are a dysfunctional lot, prone to greed and rivalry. When the family patriarch dies and leaves behind millions, three of the brothers naturally scramble for the money, claiming that a second, so-far undiscovered will cuts out the fourth brother, a black sheep who ran away decades ago. To tie up any loose ends – and prevent any future claims on the estate – Kinsey Millhone takes the case of the one who got away and promptly delivers him to his brothers. A few days later, he turns up murdered, bludgeoned to death in his bed.

Plot Overview: Malice, Murder and Money

Although she puts up a good front, Kinsey is struggling during the winter of 1986. Her newly discovered cousin, Tasha, contacts her to find the missing Malek brother, but Kinsey has every intention of turning down the assignment. Independence and few family connections (hers and others) are far more favorable to the single thirtysomething P.I., and she is wary of becoming involved in any ties that bind.

Kinsey, however, finds herself intrigued by Guy Malek, a rabblerouser, troublemaker and all-around bad boy who disappeared as a teenager. With a few phone calls and an interview or two, Kinsey quickly ferrets out Guy, who lives just miles away. The former fraudster has become a born-again Christian, and something about him tugs at Kinsey’s emotions.

The love-challenged Californian, meanwhile, is also dealing with another male in her life: ex-flame Robert Dietz. The nomadic older man and fellow private detective can’t live with strings or commitment; Kinsey can’t allow herself to deal with abandonment once again. The two dance around each other and a relationship and finally join forces after Guy’s murder.

Although Kinsey has all the tools she needs at her disposal, she has trouble getting a bead on the truth and drifts closer and closer to danger. It’s only when the heretofore strong private eye faces her growing fears that she figures out the who and the why of the Malek murder mystery.

Criticisms and Compliments

As mentioned in previous reviews, Sue Grafton writes consistently good stories; Kinsey Millhone makes for a complex and fascinating protagonist, and her experiences, dangerous as they are, are riveting. In M Is for Malice, however, Grafton seems to take it up a notch with Kinsey’s development. As the focal point, Kinsey is appealingly vulnerable, and she evokes a certain sympathy in the reader: she is a loner, but sometimes lonely; she longs for an emotional connection, but men (Guy, Dietz) tend to desert her; and she is starved for family but reluctant to reach out to her previously unknown cousins, aunt and grandmother. All in all, Kinsey is the clichéd mass of contradictions, but in a realistic, flawed, human way. For the superhero-like P.I., it only makes her that much more interesting to read.

The plot of M Is for Malice remains on the same level as past alphabet books in terms of quality, but Grafton is a little more playful with this mystery. Rather than prolonging Kinsey’s case, shoving roadblocks and reticent witnesses in the detective’s way, Kinsey finds her man within the first couple of chapters, leaving the reader to wonder, “Huh, where will it go from here?” Not one to disappoint, Grafton keeps the reader on her toes, but the real prize of M Is for Malice is the theme of F Is for Family.

M Is for Malice is a good one, and Grafton just keeps getting better. If only there were more than 26 letters in the alphabet…

Source:

  • Grafton, Sue. M Is for Malice. St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2011 ISBN 9781250006486

Robert Galbraith, “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

Mulholland Books; http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/books/the-cuckoos-calling-robert-galbraith-paperback/Lula Landry, beautiful, lithe and lovely, falls from her third-story balcony in a tony section of London on a cold, snowy night. The paparazzi gathered below snap away, while police officers and detectives quickly bundle up the corpse and close the case as a suicide. Landry’s brother, however, believes differently, and only private investigator Cormoran Strike can muscle (or charm) the truth out of reticent celebrities and hangers-on.

Plot Overview: Entitlement, Celebrity and Fame

Cormoran Strike is at a low point in life: he has one client, his debt is mounting, his fiancée, Charlotte, has just kicked him out, and he’s living in his office. When his new temp, Robin, efficient and quick-thinking, shows up, however, Strike’s career takes a turn for the better. Within a day, he has a new client, John Bristow, and a new case.

Bristow is the brother of Lula and Charlie, Strike’s childhood friend who died young. The three siblings were the adopted children of Lady Bristow, a needy woman now clinging to life. Bristow firmly believes that Lula was murdered, and with his mother so close to death, he wants the truth.

Strike methodically pursues the case, and with Robin as his Watson, the two sift through bits and pieces of truth and lies from suspects and witnesses, none of whom are particularly likeable. But Strike, ever confident, fits the pieces together, uncovering dirty family secrets and rampant cases of mental illness.

Criticisms and Compliments

The problem with detective novels is that the detective must be unique. As is the case with the genre, there are only so many plots, so many clues, so many whos of whodunits. The key to writing a unique, sellable, readable mystery novel, therefore, lies with the central character: the detective. For Robert Galbraith – the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, famous scribe of the Harry Potter series – Cormoran Strike fits the bill of original and page-turning.

Strike, like most male detectives, is a bit scruffy, a little rough at the edges, a man who has turned to private work after a career in the military or the police force (the former for Strike, who served in Afghanistan). What makes Strike different, though, is, first, his injury. After having suffered war wounds both physical and emotional, Strike returns home an amputee. Second, Strike is the progeny of a famous rock’n’roller Rokeby and supergroupie Leda. As a result, his background is somewhat sketchy and unstable, and he is well acquianted with drug use, mental illness and celebrity. Third, his methods make him a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, one whose powers of deductive reasoning are fascinating.

The most compelling part of The Cuckoo’s Calling is Galbraith/Rowling’s tendency to indicate Strike’s deductions but not actually reveal it to the reader. It’s a clever plot device that keeps the action moving and the reader engaged.

While Casual Vacancy, her first foray out of the young adult genre, caught a lot of criticism, Rowling has found her stride with The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s a great read.

Source:

  • Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling. Mulholland Books, 2014 ISBN 9780316206853

Various, American Girl Collection

American Girl; http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/html/item/id/164908/uid/127Yes, that is an American Girl book.

Nope, it’s not a joke.

Theory: The late 80′s and early ’90s-era American Girl books, which tap into complex subjects – feminism, women’s rights, child labor, poverty, war – can stand alone so well that the dolls should be the secondary purchase, the accessory. (Who needs a doll when there is a good story to be read?)

Plot Overview: Feminism, History and AdventuresAmerican Girl; http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/html/item/id/165177/uid/128

For the five American girls (Felicity, Addy, Kirsten, Samantha and Molly), each of whom represents a pivotal historical era or issue (colonial America, immigration, slavery, Victorian America, World War II), there are six corresponding books:

Meet (the Girl): An introduction to the character, her family, her circumstances

(The Girl) Learns a Lesson: A School Story: The character is confronted with a difficult situation out of which she gains insight

(The Girl’s) Surprise: A Christmas Story: A holiday story in which the character’s ethnic traditions are explored

HaAmerican Girl; http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/html/item/id/165023/uid/130ppy Birthday, (Girl): A Springtime Story: The 9-year-old character turns 10

(The Girl) Saves the Day: A Summer Story: The character becomes involved in an adventure in which only she can fix whatever problem has arisen

Changes for (the Girl): A Winter Story: The character’s story comes to a close, as does her year of learning and exploring

Criticisms and Compliments

Critics have pointed out that each of the books is not provocative or well-written enough to become a standard for high-quality historical fiction for children, and, admittedly, they’re right. However, aside from being a marketing ploy for parents to invest in expensive dolls (and even more expensive clothing and accessories), the books have several redeeming qualities, not least of which is the inclusion of serious historical topics.American Girl; http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/html/item/id/165016/uid/131

Each book contains a “Looking Back” section in which the context for the story is explained through a female-centric perspective: how immigration affected women, how changes in fashion reflected women’s comfort level and development, how women’s rights made an impact on women’s roles within the family. For the standard audience (girls in grades three through six), the easy language and simple descriptions serve a crucial purpose: teaching young girls the value of being female.

The boAmerican Girl; http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/html/item/id/165017/uid/133oks of the first five dolls also touch on controversial subjects that  later books have moved away from or diluted to bland, middle-class white girl concerns (check out this The Atlantic article for more). Samantha and Felicity’s books hint at class differences and poverty, child labor and the role of women in society; Samantha, for example, stumbles upon a suffragette meeting while looking for a puppy, and she becomes saddened and concerned when her friend, Nellie, goes to work in a factory. Kirsten’s books include her “secret friend,” a Native American girl named Singing Bird whose family is driven away due to food shortage, and Addy’s stories shine a light on racism, a still-relevant issue, unfortunately. Molly’s books, meanwhile, focus on life during war and what it means to have a family member fighting abroad.

Overall, each of the girl’s books is fun and entertaining, as are the corresponding illustrations, but the meat of the story lies in the historical portion. For mothers who are fans, the myriad American Girl books and the magazine are good, appropriate reads for daughters.

Source:

  • Valerie Tripp, Meet Felicity. American Girl, 1991 ISBN 9781562470043
  • Janet Shaw, Meet Kristen. American Girl, 1988 ISBN 9780937295014
  • Connie Porter, Meet Addy. American Girl, 1993 ISBN 9781562470753
  • Susan Adler, Meet Samantha. American Girl, 1988 ISBN 9780937295045
  • Valerie Tripp, Meet Molly. American Girl, 1988 ISBN 9780937295076

Veronica Roth, Divergent Trilogy

Typography, Joel Tippie; http://www.harpercollins.com/book/index.aspx?isbn=9780062024022In a gray, derelict Chicago set far in the future, humans have divided themselves into five groups: Candor (honesty), Amity (kindness), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery) and Erudite (intelligence). Each has its own focus, its own culture, its own social standards. Brewing beneath the carefully organized groups, however, is a brilliant mind, a hunger for power, a need for control driven by mercilessness. Only one set of people – the Divergent, those who cannot be pigeonholed into one faction – have the ability to fight for freedom from conformity. That is, if they can survive.

Plot Overview:Dystopia, Identity and Self-Actualization

In Divergent, each 16-year-old Typography, Joel Tippie; http://www.harpercollins.com/book/index.aspx?isbn=9780062024046undergoes an assessment to determine which faction is most suitable before the “Choosing Ceremony.” Beatrice Prior, a member of Abnegation, is told that her tests are inconclusive. Shocked, puzzled, Beatrice learns that not only is she Divergent, but she also fits into an unprecedented three factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite. On the day of the ceremony, she hesitates before impulsively dedicating herself to Dauntless. As she undergoes initiation, Beatrice, newly christened “Tris,” tests her courage, her abilities and her strength – and, with help from her enigmatic instructor, Four, slowly wades into the fearsome deep waters of intimacy.

In Insurgent, Tris, Four and their friends (i.e. those who survived initiation) find themselves fleeing after a calculated takeover by Erudite that resulted in the deaths of hundreds. Determined to avenge her mother and father, Tris makes her through Amity, through Candor, to find the truth and shove justice, an element missing from the neat and cold world of factions, into the forefront.

In Allegiant, Evelyn, Four’s mother, has taken control of the closed society, but a newly formed rebel group, Allegiant, is planning an uprising to reinstate the factions. Tris, Four and their allies hatch a plan to escape the city to discover what really lies behind the boundaries of the city. In the process, relationships will fall apart, lives will be lost, but freedom and choice are, and always will be, the priority.

Criticisms and Compliments

Typography, Joel Tippie; http://www.harpercollins.com/book/index.aspx?isbn=9780062024060It’s time to call it at this point: vampires are out, dystopian futures are in. Whether she intended to or not, Roth has tapped into the fantastic new trend among young adult readers: teenagers trapped in oppressive societies in a crumbling, corrupt U.S. where divisions are clear, free thought is dangerous, and strategy is the only means of survival (in all fairness, however, this trend started long ago with The Giver). Tris, like Katniss of The Hunger Games Trilogy, is other, an outsider who struggles to maintain her inner thoughts and stay balanced in her tightly controlled world (not so different from teens enduring high school, right?). Add lust, romance and teenage hormones (though the Divergent series is refreshingly without a love triangle), and the resulting reads are impossible to put down.

Although reviewers have pointed out flaws in Roth’s logic, her trilogy is creative and provocative. The only aspect that doesn’t ring true is Tris’ continued wavering on selfishness and selflessness; though she’s designed to be complex – she is Divergent – her inner dialogue between the value of human life, her guilt and her need to sacrifice, even if it’s really for her own emotional needs, can be frustrating for Roth’s (older) readers; perhaps the younger readers, her target audience, can better relate to Tris’ confusion. Four, or Tobias, however, makes up for Tris’ frequent ruminations on the meaning of life and her identity. He is Roth’s most intriguing character, and given that the Divergent Trilogy is written in first person, he remains a mystery. Fascinating.

UPDATE: After completing the third novel, I have to give Roth credit for including the enigmatic Tobias’ thoughts, feelings and motivations (Allegiant alternates between Tris and Tobias’ first-person narratives). What’s most fascinating about the concluding novel, however, is Roth’s depiction of genetically pure vs. genetically damaged. In many ways, this division could be racial or ethnic or sexual, but it taps into a part of U.S. history long forgotten: eugenics. Jodi Picoult explored the topic not long ago in Second Glances, and it’s interesting to see it pop up again in such a trilogy. If anything, the study of good genes and bad, what makes a person good and evil, only further delineates how choices and nature determine a person’s identity. It’s (surely) not just one or the other. Tris doesn’t think so.

Overall, the Divergent Trilogy is aimed at young adult readers, but, like The Hunger Games, it can be enjoyed by all readers, particularly as Roth explores classic archetypes man vs. nature and man vs. self. Additionally, the pacing is fast, the action is high, and the reader always has to wonder: which faction am I?

Source:

  • Roth, Veronica. Divergent. Katherine Tegen Books, 2013 ISBN 9780062278784