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The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

The Immortal RulesThe Immortal Rules¬†by Julie Kagawa takes place in a¬†post-apocalyptic setting where humanity has been ravaged by a virus, called the “Red Lung Virus”. Humans are now ruled and oppressed by Vampires, and, if Registered, humans are given food and protection at the cost of giving their blood for their Vampire masters. Refusing to be ‘human cattle’,¬†Allison “Allie” Sekemoto has vowed to be Unregistered – a human not recorded in the system – and has chosen a life where she must do whatever she can – except relinquish her autonomy to the Vampires –¬†to survive.

Despite the spoiler-free summary above, there are many developments in the book, plot-wise and character-wise, so the above may not do it justice. To my surprise, I quite enjoyed¬†The Immortal Rules,¬†and I’d go as far to say that I liked it – or at least, liked it enough to continue with the series. (Also, thank you to Suzie for lending me her books and recommending me this series!)

The Immortal Rules¬†has a slow and shaky start. The characters felt flat and stereotypical, and above all, Allison was boring and uninteresting. Her characterization felt bland – your typical tough-survival girl – and whilst that sort of characterization is expected, given the character’s backstory,¬†her thoughts and dialogue were predictable. However, as the story develops so does Allison’s character (which is refreshing, considering how bland Aria was in the¬†Under the Never Sky¬†series); however, I won’t delve into her character development, since that’s something that is best left for readers to enjoy firsthand.

Before my analysis, I just want to say this: Allison is ethnically Japanese, which is great; I love seeing non-White protagonists for a change. The cover, though, does not depict a Japanese woman, and that’s some bullshit there.

– Minor spoilers to follow –

In any case, what interested me in The Immortal Rules was the exploration of identity. The idea that a character must reconcile their identity, and grapple with the emotional, physical and psychological burdens of becoming something different or non-human is a theme of particular interest to me, particularly in paranormal stories. It’s fantastic that Kagawa explores this through Allison’s character, and her constant attempts to negotiate between blood-lust and yielding to her vampiric nature, and retaining¬†one’s ‘humanity’ (I’ll elaborate on the quotation marks later). More importantly, for Allison, this struggle and battle between herself is waged internally and is an emotional process for her, especially when she is tempted by things that challenge her nature and carnal tendencies.

The only issue I have with this otherwise interesting theme is that, because this conflict is constantly framed by the definition of what is human¬†or¬†what is not human,¬†this raises the question of ‘what does human mean?’ And I know this is a concept that is taken upon by intuition – human means having compassion, it means having emotion, having thoughts, having restraint, being selfless, etc. – it feels a little underdeveloped when the very nature the character is fighting against is¬†juxtaposed with humanity, which seems to presuppose that all humans should, ideally, have these characteristics. Compare that with Allison’s life as a human where her mantra is ‘do anything to survive’, where she recognizes the importance of self-interest and disregard of others if necessary, is the opposite¬†from the ‘humanity ideal’ that Allison propagates (and rather actively?) as a human… so where did her notion of humanity derive from?

Although I was glad that Kagawa incorporated these ideas and themes into her novel, I felt like maintaining these ideals as separate entities limited the potential for this novel. Although Allie comes to the realization that she is not defined by her nature, and that she can ultimately choose her path – choice, here, is what ultimately makes us – I feel like this revelation is still rooted to simplistic, black and white categories of human and vampire, especially since we see both sides to each coin in the novel – humans who are good, humans who are bad, vampires who surrender their compassion to their nature and vampires that try to show restraint. Even for Allison to blur that very line, it fails to underpin the complexity of all beings – human or vampire – and it doesn’t dismantle the very categories that Allison is trying to challenge. But, maybe this will be explored in the following books; I’ll reserve further criticism on this matter until then.

Character dynamics are not this novel’s strong suit, but there were some moments that I really enjoyed. One particular example is when Zeke is confronted with the fact that Allie is a liability in the group (supposedly, anyway); this¬†was a particular scene that was so incredibly compelling and intriguing, and Kagawa wrote that moment well enough that I could¬†feel¬†the intensity and the emotional struggle. And I enjoyed this, particularly with this novel’s themes of identity, and doing what is ‘right’.

On the topic of Zeke, his character caught me off-guard when he started talking about his ideals and desperate attempts to uphold his values¬†despite the nature of the world and necessities of survival. At first, I took him for some stereotypical nice boy who is enthralled with the main protagonist for no apparent reason other than to stir some romance-y subplot, but when Allison challenges Zeke’s outwardly kind demeanour, the reader discovers that he’s quite an idealistic guy who is trying to do right by everyone and only wants to protect everyone, which is an ideal that is incongruent with Allie’s philosophy. (Also, on the topic of Zeke, what is it with young adult novel male love interests and blonde hair?)

Something I found incredibly disappointed was the treatment of Ruth’s characterization. I empathize with Ruth and her hesitation to accept Allison into the group, but until the end of the book, she was nothing more than someone who constantly vied for Zeke’s attention and affection. I wished that Kagawa developed her character to be more than this bitchy-female stereotype or someone who is constantly antagonized to juxtapose Allison’s characterization and importance in the novel. More so, especially since the novel lacks (important) female characters, to have the secondary female character painted as a superficial, attention-seeking woman with no deeper internal motivations was deeply disappointing, especially since that is all we see of Ruth. What is Ruth’s story? Why is she so cynical and manipulative, and why is she so infatuated with Zeke? Kagawa doesn’t give us enough to guess (in fact, she doesn’t give us anything), and all that’s left of Ruth is an empty, superficial husk that readers are supposed to dislike, whose sole purpose in the novel is make Allison look like the¬†rational, grounded female.

All in all, whilst¬†The Immortal Rules¬†has its flaws and is problematic in some areas,¬†it’s an enjoyable novel with¬†themes developed enough (though, the critical part of me says¬†not enough) to pique your interest. There are some questions that are explored in the novel (though it doesn’t have the elegance and sophistication that Frankenstein has), and the way these conflicts are resolved have a reasonably sensible and satisfying conclusion. I will definitely be giving¬†The Eternity Cure¬†a go sometime soon, and I won’t lie: I’m pretty interested to see where this series goes!

Rating: 3/5

Book Information

Book Name: The Immortal Rules
Book Series: Blood of Eden #1
Author: Julie Kagawa
Publisher: Mira Ink
Pages: 485

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

FrankensteinI won’t lie: I was ignorant of the original story of¬†Frankenstein¬†prior to reading it. My conception of it was filled with Hollywood’s bastardizations of Frankenstein – angry mob with torches and pitchforks; docile, misunderstood, physically deformed lab’ assistant at the mercy of his abusive or neglectful creator; or angry, unintelligible green monster. Upon finishing¬†Frankenstein,¬†it occurred to me that I think very few, other than those who have read the novel, know the original story, which is a shame because¬†Frankenstein¬†is an elegant novel.

Written in epistolary form,¬†Frankenstein by Mary Shelley tells the story of Captain Walton who writes to his sister about his encounter with a distraught man named Victor Frankenstein, a man tormented by a successful experiment to reanimate dead tissue, giving rise to his nameless creation, or else known as Frankenstein’s Monster, his daemon, Monster or Creature.

Where do I begin to describe¬†Frankenstein?¬†For one, although the writing style is difficult to get into at first – especially since I have been habituated to reading contemporary¬†novels as of late – but once you become accustomed to the language and narrative, there is much to be appreciated about Shelley’s writing. Shelley began writing¬†Frankenstein¬†when she was 18 years old, and completed it two years later, which I regard to be an impressive and admirable feat. Her writing is incredibly romantic and expressive; there’s something so powerful and profound in¬†the ways she writes, and there were¬†parts of the book that just made me put the¬†book (or more accurately, my phone) down and breathe deeply and think. Examples of such passages are:

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as  the feelings of human nature.

and

I read and reread her letter, and some softened feelings stole into my heart and dared to whisper paradisaical dreams of love and joy; but the apple was already eaten, and the angel’s arm bared to drive me from all hope.

So, so beautiful, and so fitting for a story such as¬†Frankenstein.¬†Contrary to the popular image of Frankenstein’s monster, in the book he is eloquent, emotional and persuasive. Shelley writes voices with such allure that the characters feel tangible, authentic and honest. Despite the fact that the narrators are unreliable¬†(more on that later), both narratives of Frankenstein and his monster are thus harder to question and scrutinize, which makes the novel infinitely more interesting when you start to think about how ideas of good/right and evil/wrong are defined and ascertained in this book.

-Spoilers to follow –

Whilst on the topic of good/evil and right/wrong, let’s begin with that.¬†I tend to be very cynical and distrusting of media that presents moral dichotomies (high fantasy is an exception, of course). Moral dichotomies not only bore me because they fail to¬†stimulate me intellectually and morally,¬†but stories that utilize¬†moral dichotomies will, more often that not, lack sophistication (e.g.¬†The Giver). However, the notions of good/evil, and right/wrong are integral in the¬†Frankenstein¬†but are complex, and¬†explored with sensitivity and awareness. Both Frankenstein and his monster are tormented; the former by the disillusionment of his creation and the latter with being created, his nature and the struggles of his existence. Within their narratives, both try to justify their actions, their thoughts, their inclinations and their pain through appeals of their inherently good nature.

Particularly in the Monster’s account of the first few months of his life, we learn that he is marveled by nature, especially the small things we take for granted.

“Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. [The moon] I gazed with a kind of wonder.

Not only are Shelley’s description of the mundane truly captivating, but it gives insight to the nature of the Monster, and perhaps also an inkling of Shelley’s idea of human nature. Whilst the Monster inhabits within the shed of an exiled family, he tells us of his love and yearning for aforementioned family, and how his loneliness and friendlessness drives him to find a way to connect with them and to be part of their circle of care and affection.¬†Thus the Monster applies himself to learn human behaviour and human tendencies. He soon¬†deduces that language is the only means¬†to traverse between the space that separates him from¬†human beings. In fact, the very idea that language is the medium that allows us to connect with one another and reconcile differences that way¬†is almost utopian and Bakhtinian.

Initially, the Monster’s perception of human nature is optimistic and he himself is benevolent in nature.

To be friendless is indeed to be unfortunate, but the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity.

The Monster perceives humans as inclined towards good and benevolence. More interestingly, the Monster’s innate tendencies, prior to human contact, seem to incline him to be how he perceives other people – he is¬†empathetic, particularly to the family he observes, and has good intent, such as when he secretly aids the family with their labour. But when the Monster learns that humans do not love him and that he will always be a subject of prejudice because of his physical appearance, this compels him to embrace the monster they perceive him to be. (I also feel like there is something Lacanian going on when the Monster sees his reflection for the first time, but until I am fluent in Lacan’s writing, I’ll say no more of this.)

Building from this exploration of human nature comes an investigation of a dialectical relationship that exists between these two individuals. Frankenstein’s passionate¬†ambition¬†to gain mastery over nature, life and death – and to thus create something that defied nature – leads him to create his Monster. Frankenstein is horrified by his creation, and from then on, he¬†tries to escape his responsibility as the Monster’s creator (despite the fact that Frankenstein feels immense guilt for what his Monster has done)¬†which, as the story unfolds and shows, only exacerbates his problem and the ‘mistake’ that he has made. Despite this, Frankenstein laments his mistake and is tormented by the idea of his Monster, but also at the same time curses the Monster for all his grief and finds reason upon reason to hold him accountable for all the pain that he feels.

Conversely, Frankenstein’s Monster too feels pain and grief.¬†After his creator flees, the Monster is hurt by his creator’s rejection and tries to seek refuge in the woods. When his attempts to connect with other fails and backfires on him severely, Frankenstein’s Monster wrecks havoc and seeks to take revenge on his creator for the grief that his seemingly meaningless existence has given him. To me, I see that Frankenstein and his Monster’s grievances run parallel — to the extent that Frankenstein completes his Monster and his Monster completes Frankenstein (and this relationship is unbreakable); their lives are irrevocably intertwined as they try and seek power over each other.

Frankenstein and his Monster’s relationship essentially challenge dichotomous relationships of Master/Servant and Creator/Creation, and the power dynamics that exist between the two. Frankenstein is the Creator/Master, and thus should, by role, have authority over or govern his Servant/Creation. However, when Frankenstein creates his Monster, he is immediately horrified by it, fears it, and wishes to kill it. Not only does that seem to explore the question of¬†why¬†we create things (is it to only have power over¬†our creations?), but Frankenstein’s¬†fear of creating something stronger than he is, and is beyond his control and power¬†underpins the disturbance in the Master/Servant and Creator/Creation power dynamic.

Incidentally, the power dynamics have been turned upside down, and his Monster possesses power over Frankenstein and it is the Monster that becomes the force that controls him, even if the Monster does not know it. Following the conception of Frankenstein’s creation, the Monster becomes the force that shapes Frankenstein to be the changed, paranoid, agitated person that he is;¬†his Monster is Frankenstein’s creator. In fact, to take this another step further, this relationship of Creator/Creation between Frankenstein and his Monster is fluid in nature, where both assume either role as their actions continuously influence and impact each¬†other.

Lastly, in one particular chapter the Monster poses Frankenstein a question that I myself cannot answer, and I think it is something worth thinking about.

If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?

Is Frankenstein’s Monster justified in thinking this? (To me, yes.) Is¬†Frankenstein’s Monster obliged to love those who hate him? (To me, no.) And it is because of the wickedness of his treatment by those who have seen the Monster, he claims, “I am malicious because I am miserable.” Is this justified? Ultimately, who is responsible?

As you can tell from my long review, Frankenstein is an elegant piece of literature that poses many, many questions without being pretentious or overly ambitious. It is thoughtful, inquisitive and compelling. There is much to be explored in Frankenstein and also much to think about (two days later, I am still thinking about it). I thoroughly enjoyed Frankenstein, for its themes, its writing, its characters and its questions, and I have a feeling I will read this again one day.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information

Book Name: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 273

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Into the Still Blue by Veronica Rossi

Into the Still BlueI have mixed feelings about Into the Still Blue. I enjoyed it; like the books before it, they are easy and entertaining reads with enough gumption to keep you reading. However, there are some parts of the book that felt disjointed from the first two books. More on that later.

Summary of the book contains spoilers of Through the Ever Night: With Dwellers who escaped the collapse of the Pods and the Outsiders of the Tides tribe now living together, tensions are high, differences are refused to be reconciled and solutions are dwindling. With the Aether storms intensifying and their friend, Cinder, kidnapped, our protagonists Aria and Perry, along with an unexpected group of people, undertake a dangerous rescue mission to save their friend and escape into the Still Blue, a rumoured place of peace and calm skies.

I have been thinking about why this book was difficult to summarize (at least, it was for me). I think one of the most distinct reasons is because, given that this book is a finale, many loose ends need to be tied up and questions have to be answered. Although the book was written in a coherent, structured manner, and many events occur, but in retrospect some of the seemingly important events feel uninspired and are forgettable, and lack the distinctive quality that Through the Ever Night¬†had. In saying that however, I enjoyed the book’s ending;¬†Into the Still Blue‘s¬†conclusion is satisfying with a tint of bittersweet (which I appreciated, given the loss the characters endure).

Despite the weakness in the plot, if there’s one thing I always liked about this series, it was its characters –¬†the redeeming quality of this series (and may be the only reason why I decided to finish this trilogy). ¬†Now that I have read all three, my opinions on Aria (as per review here and here) remain unchanged; I find Aria a boring, predictable and a forgettable protagonist, to the extent that her character development regresses from¬†Through the Ever Night.¬†Even with the introduction of a new character (those who have read the book will know whom I am talking about), Aria’s responses to this character were heard-this-before and have been overdone many times over. Aria’s emotional reactions to anything often feel very superficial and shallow; like the minute thoughts that she has are just a way to convey that she is capable of cognition – nothing more – because they never amount to something meaningful. Aria’s predictability is exhausting sometimes, especially when you know that the book could do so much better if Aria was different.¬†Thankfully, Aria is a character among many in this series, and¬†she is overshadowed by many in this book.

Before I delve into characters that I loved in this series (and¬†Into the Still Blue¬†in particular), here’s my two cents on Perry. Whilst I really did like Perry in the previous two books, Perry’s character development is stagnant in the finale. In fact, I felt like Perry’s character was unfamiliar —¬†I suppose in the previous two books, Perry’s narrative was filled with doubt and introspection, which this last book lacks. Granted, given its length and the many things going on in the plot, there may not have been any room for this sort of narrative, but I felt like Perry without the introspection, the rhetorical questions that he asked himself wasn’t… Perry. The¬†narrative felt different, felt disjointed from the previous books.

Characters that deserve praise: like every other reader of this series, I’m a fan of Roar and I remain so after the series’ conclusion. Though Roar is a ‘different’ person from whom he is in the previous¬†books (spoiler:¬†I mean, when the love of your life is killed in front of you, you’re bound to be hellbent on getting revenge, right?), there’s something quite heartbreaking in how he turns his grief into rage and also insecurity. In this book, Roar makes many mistakes and most of it is rooted to his pain. When Roar and Perry have their¬†talk¬†with each other, we witness a really well-executed dynamic between them. Roar feels three-dimensional; the reason why people like him so much is because he is an interesting character that has substance, and, honestly, readers love a character with charm and wit.

In response to my hopes as expressed in my review on Through the Ever Night 

Also, the reintroduction of Soren was interesting; I hope he becomes a bigger character in the third book because I am interested to see how Rossi will develop his character (if she does, that is) and what significant roles he might have.

Рwell, Rossi does develop his character, and I actually like Soren. Like Roar, Soren is an interesting character and feels three-dimensional to me. The way how he develops from this anti-Outsider who has a strange interest with Aria to someone who is driven with a cause (evident when he talks to the Dwellers in the cave and they express wanting to just wait until their deaths rather than taking action) to do something important to him. It was rewarding, as a reader, to see a minor character fleshed out to become an character that plays a greater role in the series.

Lastly, and perhaps unexpected, I liked Sable, the antagonist of Into the Still Blue. Though Sable wouldn’t ever make my Favourite/Memorable Villains list, I do enjoy interesting villains with a philosophy and Sable is one of those villains. Though he possesses the traits of your typical villain: immoral, manipulative, brutal and clever, readers will actually witness¬†that Sable is all of those things, rather than other characters describing him as such in passing. Sable’s cold but clever plan to divide his subjects¬†to decrease morale and implement his rule whilst everyone is confused, hurt or disorientated is very reminiscent of the military doctrine of shock and awe/the shock doctrine. Honestly, I prefer the use of a real military doctrine to sustain dominance over some unconvincing account of how Sable just took over the people and the people¬†acquiesced without resistance (because we know how often that has happened).

I know I talk a great deal about characters when I review the¬†Under the Never Sky¬†series, but that owes to the fact that there isn’t much else special or distinct about the series. The reason why the books of¬†Under the Never Sky¬†can never exceed a 3.5/5 for me is because it lacks an overarching theme or moral of the series (I mean, there are a few, such as¬†doing what is right¬†or¬†we all make mistakes,¬†but we have the potential to be better¬†or nice ideas about friendship). The¬†Under the Never Sky¬†series may be entertaining (and if that’s what you look for in a book, by all means!) but it doesn’t enter the fray; it isn’t brave enough in its message to be a dystopian or science fiction. On topic of genres, with specific regard to¬†Into the Still Blue,¬†whilst the previous books I classified as Romances, I found that¬†Into the Still Blue¬†lacked that Romance quality. Though there is romance present between Aria and Perry, the romance between them is largely saturated at this point of the books.

To sum,¬†Into the Still Blue¬†has a satisfying ending and is an entertaining, quick read, but as a whole, its loss of the series’s personality and tendency to feel disjointed from the previous books may leave some readers feeling a little unsure or confused about the direction or character of the series. Nonetheless, if Rossi writes any more books in the future, I would not pass up the opportunity to¬†give them a read — actually, I’d be quite excited at the prospect of her writing more books! Ah, well, time will tell. For now, I enjoyed the series from a casual reader standpoint and I recommend the series to people who like an easy read, is somewhat entertaining but doesn’t engage with you on an intellectual level.

Rating: 2.5/5

Book Information

Book Name: Into the Still Blue
Book Series: Under the Never Sky #3
Author: Veronica Rossi
Publisher: Harper Collins Publisher
Pages: 390

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Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

18404113Wow, okay. After finishing Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn, I couldn’t breathe. I haven’t felt so excited and anxious and driven to finish a book before, and now that I have, I’m getting heart palpitations.

First and forthmost, a fair warning to everyone: don’t read the blurb for this book. Complicit, like Kuehn’s other book Charm and Strange,¬†is a book that reveals itself and fleshes as the book progresses, and is best read with no knowledge of the book. Thankfully, I have little attention span and didn’t read the blurb until¬†I finished the book. So to those who are interested in reading this book and are looking to be excited about it, don’t read the blurb.

Complicit is narrated by sixteen year old Jamie who lives a comfortable life in an affluent area with his parents. One night, he receives a mysterious phone call, and the following day, he finds out that his sister has been released from juvenile detention. From there on, the siblings’ pasts resurface and unfold. As per the epigraph, “For every truth best left is a lie”.

My first, most distinct thought after finishing was Complicit is that I just love Kuehn’s writing. I am amazed by how both Charm and Strange and Complicit crept up on me; it caught me off-guard, and as the book builds to its climax, I felt so thrilled. Throughout the book, there are clues and subtle hints littered everywhere, and they cannot be appreciated until you either re-read the book or go back and see the clues that you have missed. The way she introduces important details is so calculated and with such subtlety that you’ll be flicking through the book back and forth to re-read the parts that you missed (and you’ll be amazed by the amount you miss). Kuehn’s narratives are always so memorable and real. The way she brings them to life through their narrative and how she frames their understanding or perception of events or other individuals is so raw that they feel tangible and authentic. More so and very importantly, Kuehn’s portrayal of mental illness is deep and multifaceted, and as a Psychology student, I deeply, deeply appreciate that. Given that she is well-versed in clinical psychology, readers will not find stereotypical, superficial portrayals of mental illness or human behaviour in Complicit, but will find a portrayal that is sensitive and mindful (and just really amazing).

Similarly to my review of Charm & Strange, it is difficult talking about Complicit without spoiling important points of the book (which is a good reason why everyone should read it) so I will omit an analysis (furthermore, the book only released in June). What I will say, however, is that Complicit is engaging, meaningful and exciting from start to finish. More so, the end is incredible; it made me shudder and marvel and left me in awe (such a cacophony of emotions!). I honestly think this is the book that I will obsess about for the next couple of days or weeks. I recommend it to anyone interested in psychological thrillers or mysteries, or anyone simply looking for a good book.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information

Book Name: Complicit
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffins
Pages: 248

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

9480425Objectively,¬†Water for Elephants¬†is average. It brings nothing new to the fray; it’s ridden with overused character tropes and¬†a predictable storyline. There’s nothing distinctly special about¬†Water for Elephants… but despite all of that, I found¬†Water for Elephants¬†enchanting and magical.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen follows Jacob Jankowski, a veterinarian student who, after losing everything he had, joins the circus, namely the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Set during the Great Depression, Jacob navigates the complex culture of the circus and also discovers a sense of purpose and also something beautiful that he cannot bring himself to stay away from.

Unlike my previous reviews, I will start this review with criticisms first. The major romance in the novel is bland but isn’t unique and, overall, feels uninspired. Although¬†Water for Elephants¬†is a romance novel, I would have liked¬†Water for Elephants¬†even more if it focused on Jacob navigating the nuances of ‘circus¬†culture’ (for lack of a better name) or the hardships that circus and its people face, especially since it takes place during the Great Depression. Particularly with the former, when one of the circus workers explains to Jacob the vernacular –¬†what to call the performers in their presence ‘performers’ and what to call them when the performers aren’t present ‘kinkers’¬†– intrigued me, and I wish Gruen developed this further and posed this as an obstacle for our main character.¬†Nonetheless, the strong emphasis on the novel’s romance leaves it feeling stagnant at some points of the story, and eventually becomes increasingly uninteresting, especially when there are so many other aspects to this novel that could have been developed further.

Some of the characters were flat and one-dimensional, playing into character tropes¬†and plot stereotypes. One of these characters was Marlena, which disappointed me because I enjoy interesting female characters. In saying that, Barbara, one of the performers in the circus who has no more than a few lines in the whole novel, is more interesting and three-dimensional than Marlena. August’s characterization was also disappointing, and plays into the Insane Equals Violent trope. August’s seemingly nuanced characterization falls flat when the explanation for his behaviour is easily explained by his diagnosis.

Despite the flaws in¬†Water for Elephants –¬†all of which I am conscious of – there was something alluring about this book. It’s not perfect – far from it – but I enjoyed it immensely. I love circuses; I remember going to my first circus and it was such a magical experience for me. Reading¬†Water for Elephants¬†gave me the same sort of feelings. Maybe it’s the idea of this fantastical circus that captures the hearts of its audiences but is, under the surface, dark, dangerous and terrifying was an idea that¬†intrigued me immensely.

Though it is implicit and subtle,¬†Water for Elephants¬†felt like a celebration of life. Perceived through Jacob’s eyes, we too experience the¬†beauty he perceives, the marvel and the pain. There were incidences of sex in the novel, but the sex and debauchery was not gratuitous, but were events where Jacob¬†confronts the reality of his new life, illustrating contrasts between his life before joining the circus and the life as he knows it. This motif reoccurs throughout the book, when Jacob narrates his life in the circus, and contrasts it with his life as an elderly man in a rest home. The distinct comparison between Jacob’s life in the circus and his life as an old man illustrate the force of change and time, and no matter what we endure in life, no matter the lively, eventful life that Jacob had as the circus’s¬†veterinarian, everyone changes and everyone ages, and life doesn’t owe you anything.

If anything though, the thing I loved the most was the elephant, Rosie. My opinion¬†is¬†very biased, especially since elephants are one of my favourite animals, but Rosie as a character felt so deep to me, and she wasn’t even human. The plot twist we see midway (spoiler:when we discover that Rosie is Polish and thus only understands Polish, not English, and she is not stupid after all) through the book made me laugh with such glee that I seldom experience when reading.

Above all though, Water for Elephants is profoundly melancholic. I read the ending to my sister and after we laid on our beds thinking about it and reflecting on the emotions we felt elicited by the ending. Water for Elephants has its flaws, but it was an enchanting read that satisfied me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Information:

Book Name: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Published by: Algonquin Books
Pages: 388

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Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

16045088I don’t have a lot of favourite books, so oftentimes I think to myself: what will it feel like to decide,¬†yes,¬†this is a book that’s going to be one of my favourites.¬†The last book I called my favourite was¬†The Picture of Dorian Gray,¬†and that was four months prior to reading Charm & Strange. In fact, my favourites usually creep up on me and they sink in slowly – the only exception was¬†Norwegian Wood¬†by Haruki Murakami, which moved me so much that I read some parts over and over just to relish in the heartbreak. Charm & Strange¬†by Stephanie Kuehn is my latest favourite book, and its impact hit me with such force that I was marveling in its cleverness hours after I finished.

Charm & Strange¬†by Stephanie Kuehn is difficult to review because the book is structured in a way that offers information and clues as you progress through the book. At first you start with nothing, and then you are fed slowly and then the larger picture starts to become clear. Unfortunately, because of this, my review will be somewhat vague, but that’s because I really do want everyone to read this book.

One of¬†Charm & Strange‘s strengths is that it is very compassionate and sensitive of its portrayal of certain characters and their problems. One of the problems with contemporary fiction nowadays is its poor, stereotypical¬†and lazy portrayal of themes that are important to understand with compassion in real life. (Excuse the vagueness, but talking about this book is a spoiler landmine.) Stephanie Kuehn does the latter perfectly (and I think it’s because Kuehn is a clinical psychologist herself), and it was refreshing to read something that was so dark and intense gradually unfold into something humane and uplifting. More so, Kuehn’s use of symbolism was so powerful and raw that, at the end, I was completely amazed by how deep this book was, in retrospect, from start to finish.

Charm & Strange is a book I really enjoyed Рso much that I finished it within two days. It is a compelling read and the narrative is so intense that it is difficult to pull away and it demands your attention. I love a book that can do that. I recommend this book for anyone, especially those that have an interest in psychology or teenage fiction, and I think it is an important book as it tackles very difficult, sensitive themes but with so much care and thoughtfulness.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information:

Book Name: Charm & Strange
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Published by: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
Pages: 216

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The Giver

 

450a319f8da0884ee0da7110.LSummary: Set in a dystopian society where expression of emotions are prohibited by controlling diction; where the community is limited to its mundane existence and privileges are granted to children as they age; where the goal of equality has been achieved — from family size, to perception, to the landscape, and even to the proper usage of expression of emotion itself.

Enter Jonas, whose twelfth year is approaching, where his path will be defined for him in his next ceremony. The rest of the novel is about Jonas gradually gaining higher cognition and awareness as he spends more time with this figure known as ‚ÄúThe Giver.‚ÄĚ

Review: If you‚Äôre looking for a well-nuanced, thoughtfully-constructed dystopian novel with elaborate world-building, The Giver will most likely disappoint. As you read the book and gradually become exposed how this community is structured by the rules they abide by, the questions raised and the exploration of it is lacking. There is very little nuance to events= as they¬†are presented as they are, and clearly intended to be interpreted straightforwardly. Moreover, there is plenty to pick apart of the coherence and logical consistency of the setting, and many opportunities which would serve to elucidate are left unexplored or addressed very simply — ‚ÄúIt has always been this way‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúThe goal is ‚ÄėSameness.‚Äô‚ÄĚ

The writing is very easy to read and approachable for its intended genre, Young Adult Fiction. The simple syntax works in its favor, for oftentimes characters merely express themselves in the simple active voice, which serves to demonstrate suppression of more complex thought or emotion. I found it interesting how particular the characters had to be in their diction, especially to describe their emotional state, which left me pondering how one defines the distinctions between words, and perhaps whether or not understanding of these word is entirely subjective or something ingrained by society? The chapters also, are very brief of themselves, almost like the brief memories or glimpses that Giver imparts.

The highlight and main emphasis of the book, however, is the relationship between the Giver and Jonas that develops; and this is where I feel the book succeeded and why it is well worth the read. As the Giver shares memories and Jonas develops a higher understanding of his own emotions and becomes more critical of his surroundings; it becomes a coming of age story, where the dystopian setting serves as a supplement to emphasize the growth and transformation.

Overall, it was a short and brief read that I think was well worth my time, although by the time I read it I was beyond the target audience.

**HEREFORTH SPOILERS I GUESS**

Themes:

While many messages could be found throughout the book, I found this idea of imparting on the next generation through the sharing of memories to be the most interesting and universal aspect of the book, so I’ll discuss this at length.

As the Giver transfers memories to Jonas, he learns not only new words and concepts like sunshine, colors, snow — but also the emotions attributed to them are transferred as well. With his expanded vocabulary, he is able to describe his emotions more clearly and distinctly — and with more depth. And even though the transfer of memories is described as this metaphysical process, note that the last significant memory that the Giver was uniquely his own — the story of the prior selected receiver, and his daughter.

I do not believe that there is actually some magical process required where you can empathize with another, but by merely interacting with people. Transferring memories alleviates pain and makes experiencing emotions less burdensome; because when you transfer memories, you‚Äôre also transferring the emotions attached to them because memories that are significant to us rarely are laced without emotion? There is a part in the book where the Giver describes his ‚Äúbeing‚ÄĚ as his memories, this intangible part of him. ¬†In a sense, this sharing of memories is a message about human empathy.

In the first twenty or so years of your life, you attend school (and perhaps college) to absorb all of this information — but this information is from what prior generations have written or discovered and now are imparting onto you. Think about the parental figures in your life growing up and when they advise you, when they share their memories, their experiences. At this stage, in your life, you are a ‚ÄúReceiver,‚ÄĚ learning the lessons that ‚ÄúGivers‚ÄĚ provide. But at what point, will you be ready to impart and be the ‚ÄúGiver‚ÄĚ to influence the next generation thereafter? Because as one generation comes to an end, also simultaneously arises another, and what is eventually left is what you have left to give? At what point in your life, where you cross that threshold to become a Giver; at what point, will you be able to give back in the same way that you once received from your prior generation?

It is interesting to note how, originally Jonas required the memories that the Giver transferred on him to generate his emotions as a source of comfort, but by the end ot the novel he was able to utilize his own memories, that it was entirely self derived. And at the end of the book, Jonas hears the echo of music, symbolizing the lasting impression that the Giver had on Jonas, sort of like whispers from the past influencing today.

The Giver himself had lived a full life of harrowing pain and isolation; and when the Giver sends Jonas to escape, and he chooses to remain behind, knowing his time (generation) has expired and it is Jonas’ role to deliver the message.¬†¬†It is interesting to also note that Jonas is a variation of Jonah, who had failed God (perhaps represented by the Giver?) to deliver the message that God intended. Jonas also brings Gabriel, whose name is of significance;¬†it‚Äôs a clear Biblical reference in how the baby is described: curly blonde hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks. Gabriel is famous for delivering the message of Mary‚Äôs pregnancy — the purpose of this role was that he was the messenger of information. I feel that Gabriel represented some sort of hope, the new generation, that he would be the one to deliver the message, the memories from prior generations to bring forth change.

This idea of the Receiver will eventually become the Giver is what makes this book relevant to young adults — if you are a Receiver in your point of life thus (assuming you are fairly young), so at what point will you become a Giver? What valuable memories, what valuable lessons, do you have to share to enlighten the next generation? What imprint or influence do you want to leave behind?

Miscellaneous musings:

(these don’t really have a point to them, just miscellaneous rambles and questions that arose whilst reading)

I found it amusing how everybody used bikes everywhere, for ultimately they limit your movement and handicap your capability to travel beyond the community, so was that a mechanism of control in of itself? Also, the family dynamic was very much some sort of satire of the perfect nucleus of the 1950s ideal American family, especially in the scene where they have dinner and have this banal ritual of sharing of ‚Äúfeelings.‚ÄĚ

To what extent did the people actually have empathy or care for another? The Father clearly had formed some sort of attachment to the runted babe that would be released (later named Gabriel). He grew attached to Gabriel in what way he could, — secretly giving him a name even though he wasn‚Äôt supposed to, asking to Gabriel to be spared, doting on him and bringing him home as a visitor for a year. And when it came time to release the other twinge, he did gently insert the syringe to the baby and seem to attempt to soothe them, using a tiny needle knowing it would hurt less? Lily herself was capable of pondering beyond the horizons of her own community as well, as noted when she was asking what-if questions of there being a twin or sort of parallel universe? To what extent, did they question beyond the scope of their trivial existence? Was it the pill that suppressed it? Selective breeding?

What place does ‚Äúlove‚ÄĚ have in our society, if it is both equally dangerous? I think that, perhaps the Giver‚Äôs love that he had for his daughter, Rosemary, may have afflicted his judgment in transferring memories to her; in that he was wanting to make her happy all the time and reluctant to give her pain. Is it not a parental reflex, to want to shield our children from the negative emotions and horrors that exist? But at the same time, love creates a depth of caring and compassionate for another? Clearly the society operated very efficiently (but then again, the dystopian presentation was very black and white. So eh).

Can the full spectrum of human emotion ever be experienced or contained within one person? The Giver was supposed to be this one caretaker, one singular figure to bear the entire emotional burden of society. What if prior Givers had withheld emotions, as this Giver withheld his love of music? Because these ‚Äúmemories‚ÄĚ had just been snippets without any context?

This feeling of pain from assuming this role, of harrowing isolation, not physical pain but a deeper sort, of bearing the burden in harrowing isolation of being the only person to experience the depth of emotions and knowledge? I wonder if this is how God feels o_o;

Where do these memories come from? Passed down from prior generations of Givers, I presume. Many of them are given without any sort of context or linear stream of sense — a dying elephant, a boy stuck in war, enjoying sailing around, a christmas evening with family? It reminds me of how traditions and lessons are passed down, stories from prior generations.

The word ‚Äústarving‚ÄĚ for Jonas takes on a new form as it is new experiences arise; for example, Jonas had stated that he was ‚Äústarving‚ÄĚ for dinner, but his understanding of ‚Äústarving‚ÄĚ did not deepen until he was in the outskirts of society foraging for food and survival. Can a natural collorary be drawn then, our understanding of words — especially those to describe emotional states are from our experiences? Is our understanding of the word love is developed in this way? What the word ‚Äúhappy‚ÄĚ meant to me back then is definitely not the same way it is now.

The first color that Jonas sees is the color red — I found that very interesting that Lowry should choose this color to be his first. Red, being my favorite color, represents both intense, passionate love, but it also equally associated with violence, bloodshed, war; it is an ostensibly paradoxical co-existence of the human dichotomy, infused in a singular color. As Jonas begins to perceive ¬†the color red, he is also widening and understanding both ends of emotions, both human capabilities of love and infliction of pain on another. ¬†Also very interesting that the Giver and Jonas‚Äô preferred experience of emotions are different — his is colors, the Giver‚Äôs is music. Perhaps it is an innate preference? Hmm. I wonder what the Giver‚Äôs first note that he heard?