Review: Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld (@ScottWesterfeld @SimonTEEN)

Uglies is yet another one of those series I started without any idea of the plot (I have got to stop doing that. It’s really going to backfire on me someday). All I knew was that it’s yet another YA dystopian. I know, I know, the genre is flooded with mediocrity right now, but before you immediately tune out, let me just throw this out there: this one is actually good.

PLOT:

Uglies follows Tally Youngblood, a 15-year-old girl living in a futuristic society that has decided that the main thing wrong with the world is that attractive people have unfair advantages over the unattractive. The solution? Everyone undergoes cosmetic surgery on their 16th birthday, modifying all their facial and physical features to fit a common standard of perfect beauty.

Once the procedure is complete, these former “Uglies” are now allowed to live in beautiful cities with the “Pretties,” where their every need is catered to via a hole in the wall (think replicators on Star Trek: TNG), and their only concern is what to wear to the next fabulous party.

Tally is eagerly awaiting her operation, passing her time with harmless pranks on the Pretties, until she meets Shay. Shay is also 15, and therefore also an Ugly. As a matter of fact, she and Tally share the same birthday, which means they will have their procedures at the same time.

The difference is that Shay doesn’t want the procedure. And after unsuccessfully trying to convince Tally to run away with her, Shay disappears. All she leaves behind is a set of cryptic instructions, in case Tally wants to join her.

While Tally is concerned for Shay, she doesn’t fluctuate in her desire to become a Pretty. She hopes Shay got what she wanted. But soon, Tally will get what she wants too.

However, on the day of Tally’s procedure, she is presented with an awful choice: go find Shay, and the rebels she has run away with, or stay Ugly forever.

Thus begins Tally’s journey to the Smoke, the secret rebel hideout that Shay has fled to. All Tally wants is to put this all behind her and become Pretty. Until she finds the Smoke, and starts to question everything she ever believed.

MY THOUGHTS:

I’ll admit, I was a little wary about starting a series that revolves around being pretty. I mean seriously, how much more superficial can you get? I was prepared to be super-annoyed with the shallowness of it all.

But once I started reading, I found myself completely absorbed in Tally’s world. Mr. Westerfeld actually made me understand how Tally would want nothing more in life than to become Pretty, and managed to do it without making me hate her. No small task.

There were a few things I could nitpick about the plot. The endless hoverboarding, for example (I couldn’t help but think that Mr. Westerfeld may have just wanted an excuse to stretch this scene out for an entire book…or four).

Also, I had a little bit of a hard time figuring out how anything actually got accomplished in this world. What I surmised was that the inhabitants of Uglyville go to school, then turn 16 and party hearty for a few years until they hit “Middle Pretty” age and actually start contributing something to society. Not that I could imagine any of them actually wanting to contribute, since it sounds like the Pretty lifestyle was the epitome of luxury and indulgence. Maybe you or I would get tired of living like that, but the Pretties don’t seem to mind in the least.

Is a workforce consisting entirely of middle-aged ex-partiers (as it’s implied that the elderly, or “Crumblies” — ouch — also do not work) enough to keep this advanced society running smoothly? Maybe not in the world you and I live in. In the world of Uglies, though, it works.

When it comes to YA fiction — or any fiction, for that matter — I can almost always poke holes in the logic of its world. The question I have to ask myself is, “Did I care?” If the answer is yes, it pulls me out of the story and diminishes my enjoyment of the book.

With Uglies, the answer was no. I didn’t care that not everything made sense. What I cared about was Tally. Was she a perfect character? Heck no. She drove me nuts at times (this is also one of the main downfalls of reading YA lit, period. The protagonists are always teenagers. I am not). But she was fun to read about, her journey was exciting, and I couldn’t put the book down until I knew what happened to her.

Content guide: contains some mild violence.

Uglies has three sequels: Pretties, Specials, and Extras. I recommend the whole series.

I’m on Facebook! Enthusiastic cheer!

So even though I only have a handful of reviews up so far, I’ve been getting some requests to make the blog Facebook Official. Much like getting married or having a baby, having a blog is not considered “real” until it is on Facebook.

My poor daughter. I don’t think we made her Facebook Official until she was 3. All those lost years….

But never again! Go “like” THCW on Facebook. Make me feel popular. It’ll be awesome.

Book to Film: The Hunger Games

A lot of the books I read eventually become movies. Sometimes I read the book first, sometimes I see the movie first. Sometimes I see the movie because I read the book, and vice versa. So I thought it may be fun to talk about the film adaptations of the books I’ve read.

And what better film to kick it off than the one currently dominating the box office, The Hunger Games?

If you want to brush up on the basic plot, you can read my review. But if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you probably don’t want to keep going. Because I’m about to get into spoiler territory, which means you’re about to get either lost or annoyed.

CAST

For the most part, I thought the casting was spot-on. Jennifer Lawrence was a perfect Katniss, Josh Hutcherson was a charming and empathetic Peeta, Amandla Stenberg broke my heart as Rue, Lenny Kravitz was a cool and composed Cinna.

It probably helps that I read the books after the movie had been principally cast, so even though I wasn’t very familiar with a lot of the actors portraying the leads, I at least had their images in my mind when reading. And because I was aware of who was cast when I was reading, I can honestly say that for the most part, the casting, makeup, and wardrobe department did an excellent job of making the actors look the way Suzanne Collins describes the characters.

There were only a few characters where the casting surprised me. None of the actors were bad (Wes Bentley in particular was pretty impressive) — just not what I pictured from reading the book. These included:

Toby Jones as Claudius Templesmith. (Couldn’t find a picture of him in character – sorry). I pictured someone boisterous and imposing, to go with his big, booming voice. I’m not actually sure if he’s given a physical description in the book. I just pictured him having a very dominating physical presence. But they reduced Claudius’ character to a very minor one in the film (I think mostly to bolster the role of Seneca Crane, which is a creative decision I agree with), and Toby Jones did a fine job with what he was given.

 

Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane. You have to understand, Seneca Crane is barely even a character in the first book. He’s not even given a name until the second book, and he has very little written about him. I’m nearly positive there is no physical description given. So for some reason, I pictured him as middle-aged and portly. No idea why. However, probably to give the events of the second book/film more weight, the filmmakers expanded the role of Seneca Crane in the film, and Wes Bentley was excellent in the role. He had very few lines, but conveyed quite a bit with his eyes and expressions.

Isabelle Fuhrman as Clove. This is the only bit of casting that I’m positive went completely against the physical description given in the book. In the book, Clove has an imposing physical presence, and is much bigger than Katniss. There’s a scene in the book where Katniss climbs a tree, and Clove can’t follow her because she’s so much larger than Katniss. Isabelle is noticeably smaller than Jennifer Lawrence. That said, Isabelle Fuhrman had every bit of the character’s personality spot on, and delivered all her lines and actions exactly how I imagined Clove would. She just didn’t look like her. But I’m not a stickler for actors having to exactly match physical descriptions in books. I’d much rather they act like the characters than look like them. So I was totally fine with this change.

PLOT

As far as book-to-movie adaptations go, The Hunger Games was one of the most faithful ones I’ve ever seen. All the main plot points were there. There were some omissions and alterations from the book, obviously. It’s necessary when condensing an almost-400-page book down to a 2.5 hour movie.

Some of the changes didn’t bother me – the elimination of the characters of Madge and the Avox girl; the shortening of the Games themselves; the addition of the scenes with President Snow, Seneca Crane, and the Gamemakers; the lack of mention of the eyes of the mutts at the end; the fact that Peeta (it would seem) doesn’t have his leg amputated after the conclusion of the Games. I thought those changes helped make the story watchable and understandable, especially for people who hadn’t read the books.

Others irked me just a tad. [Major spoilers ahead. Don't say I didn't warn you. Twice.]

There’s a scene in the book where the Career tributes leave a girl for dead in the woods, but a cannon (signaling her death) never sounds. Peeta volunteers to go check and finish her off. He’s gone an unusually long time. Finally, he returns and then the cannon sounds. The Careers (and Katniss, who is observing it all from her hiding place) all assume Peeta killed her. But this is also when they’re all assuming that Peeta is helping them hunt down Katniss, when in fact, he’s trying to protect her.

I’ve always been curious what actually happened between Peeta and that girl. It doesn’t seem to be in his character to go and kill a wounded girl. Did he simply wait with her until she died? Did he try to help her? It’s never explained in the books. Since Suzanne Collins collaborated on the screenplay, I was hoping it would be addressed in the movie. But the whole scene is omitted.

The other scene that was left out of the movie that really irked me was the exchange between Katniss and Peeta at the very end of the book. That conversation is the catalyst for some major developments between them in Catching Fire. It changes their entire relationship. And they left it out of the movie.

There is conversation, and the gist of the original conversation is kind of maybe implied. But in the book, they both state their feelings quite bluntly, and in the movie, it’s all subtlety. I wish it had been blunt.

Other than those two notable exceptions, I thought the adaptation was extremely well done. It was obvious that Gary Ross, the actors, and the crew were trying their best to respect the books and their message.

FILMING

I’ll be honest – there was a lot of shaky cam. It kind of irked me at first.

But.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was adding to the sense of unease, of wrongness, of the feeling that this world was not good, pretty, or comfortable. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to feel.

It didn’t feel like a big, glossy action movie where the bad guys blow things up and the attractive hero always escapes by the skin of her teeth. It felt gritty and dirty and upsetting.

Speaking of dirt, I know there are some nay-sayers out there that think it wasn’t gritty and dirty and upsetting enough. But just because people are poor and in a desperate situation doesn’t automatically turn them into cavemen. They can still practice basic hygiene and grooming habits. They can still clean their small, ill-equipped houses. So I was totally okay with the overall look of the movie.

The violence was a big concern for a lot of movie-goers. After all, it’s kids killing kids. How on earth would anyone want to watch that? But much like in the book, where Katniss is observing the violence in bits and pieces as she focuses on trying to keep herself alive, a lot of the violence takes place in quick snippets or off-camera. It’s not downplayed. You definitely feel that these events are not right. But it’s also not gratuitous. It’s not glorifying violence. I thought it was handled well.

FINAL IMPRESSIONS

If I had to pick one, I’d still say I enjoyed the book more than the film. But this is definitely one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations, especially in the Young Adult genre. I thought the story came across loud and clear. The sets, costumes, and makeup were perfect. The acting was fantastic. If I had my druthers, it would have been about 30 minutes longer, but I know that a 3-hour film based on a book directed at teenagers is just not something studios are interested in doing. All in all, it was great to see a book I love brought to life so faithfully in the theater.

Grade: A

The Hunger Games is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.

Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

I confess, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to read when I was given a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I had heard the title, of course, as it was a popular book club book for a while there, and I think Oprah may have endorsed it at some point. But as I am not a member of a book club and never watched Oprah (except when she gave stuff away, because I like to live vicariously), I didn’t know anything about it.

I was kind of expecting the title to be a metaphor for something. I wasn’t exactly sure what.

But no. This book is about a time-traveler. And his wife.

The book opens on the day when Henry DeTamble, a 28-year-old ponytailed librarian, first meets Clare Abshire, a bubbly and beautiful girl of 20. Let me be clear: it’s the day Henry first meets Clare. It’s not the first day Clare meets Henry, because Clare has known Henry since she was 6.

Confused yet?

Henry DeTamble, through no fault or effort of his own, is a time traveler. Sometimes when he is under stress, or looks at a blinking light, or is excited, or for no reason whatsoever, he finds himself involuntarily traveling through time. He arrives at an unknown time and place, stark naked, not knowing how long he will be there or any way to get back.

Henry knows all of this, since he has been time traveling since he was 5 years old. What is news to him is that an older version of himself will travel back in time, many times, to visit Clare as a child and teenager. Clare has grown up with Henry as her best friend, her confidante, her protector, knowing that she will someday marry him.

Now, before you start thinking “Ew, so this middle-aged guy travels back in time to a little kid and falls in love with her? Gross,” let me assure you that’s not how it happens. (No Twilight comparisons here). For Henry, he meets Clare as an adult, falls in love with her, marries her, and then finds himself constantly pulled unwittingly to her childhood, where he puts forth every effort to be entirely proper and appropriate with her younger self.

The only reason that Clare knows they will get married is because she’s a really wily and persistent teenager, and eventually manages to weasel the information out of him.

The book mostly follows Henry linearly through his nonlinear life. It details his courtship and marriage to Clare, and the trials and joys they face in their relationship. The only catch is that throughout the course of their relationship, we also accompany Henry as he visits the past and future, crossing paths with younger and older versions of himself, Clare, and their family and friends. It also, as the title suggests, shows us Clare’s struggle as she tries to have a normal life with a decidedly abnormal man.

As with most stories involving time travel, this one operates according to its own set of rules. My only rule when dealing with time travel stories is that I need the rules of the story to make sense and be consistent. Ms. Niffenegger (side note: I love the author’s name) does an excellent job making sure her characters and narrative adhere to the rules of their world.

The first-person narrative alternates between Henry and Clare’s voices. It is very easy to follow, since each time the narrator changes, the paragraph is headed with the character’s name, age, and the date.

I really enjoyed this story. When you boil it down to its bones, it’s simply a story of two people trying to make their relationship work, in spite of the world not always working in their favor. I would probably like it if that was all there was to it; however, the fact that the main thing working against them is the sci-fi element of involuntary time travel adds a freshness and uniqueness to the story that I loved.

I loved the characters of Henry and Clare. They both have their strengths and flaws. Ms. Niffenegger gives them each a distinct voice and personality, so I felt like I really knew them. I could understand how they fell in love, how they complemented each other, how they frustrated each other. Their relationship seemed real and substantive to me, and I found myself fully invested in these characters.

Also, while it’s easy to assume a book about time travel would fall solidly into the genre of science fiction, it’s not that simple. Henry’s time traveling (which is explained in the book as a genetic anomaly) is the only fantastical element of the story. It takes place over the last few decades. There have been no great leaps in science, evolution, medicine, space travel — basically, this is the world we are all familiar with. So although I love a good sci-fi story and therefore may not be the best person to judge this, I think this book would appeal even to those who have never read or enjoyed a sci-fi book in their lives.

The Time-Traveler’s Wife is in turns sweet, melancholy, exciting, and heartbreaking. It is a lovely story about normal people in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. I loved journeying through the struggles and triumphs of Clare and Henry, and I missed them when the story was over.

Content guide: Contains sex, profanity, occasional drug use and violence.

Review: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (@orsonscottcard)

I’ve decided that if I’m going to have a blog where I review books, I need to review my favorites, even if they’ve been out for years and years. I owe it to the world (well, or at least whatever small percentage of the world reads my blog) to let them know why these books are amazing. And I couldn’t think of a better one to start with than Ender’s Game.

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Plot:

It is the future. Earth has survived an attack from an insectile alien race – barely. Population control laws are in effect. Families are limited to 2 children. Young children are monitored to see if they have military potential, and those that show promise at an early age are whisked away to train in the military’s Battle School, in the hopes that by the time they reach adulthood, they will possess the necessary skills to defend the Earth, if the aliens – “buggers” – ever return.

Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a rare third child in his family. His older brother and sister showed intellectual promise, but his brother was too ruthless and his sister too compassionate to qualify for Battle School. So the Wiggin parents were permitted a third chance to produce a military prodigy. And they succeeded.

Ender is whisked away to Battle School at the ripe old age of 6. The School, located on a space station orbiting the Earth, is populated by military officers and child prodigies. Ender is one of the youngest.

And these are not your average children.

They train daily in space military tactics, weaponry, and combat. Although they are all at an age that we associate with Dora, Spongebob, and Hannah Montana, these kids are nothing like the children currently roaming your local elementary school hallway. They are calculating, intuitive, sometimes ruthless, always dangerous.

One of the main focuses of the School is the battleroom, where the children are equipped with special suits and laser guns that allow them to fight each other in zero-gravity. On Ender’s first trip to the battleroom, it becomes quickly apparent that he is a cut above the other students. Some of his peers respect this. Some are threatened by it.

And as Ender works his way up through the ranks of Battle School, his teachers take notice, and wonder if perhaps Ender is the child they’ve been waiting for. The child who can change everything. The child who can save Earth.

Why I Love It:

Don’t let the summary throw you off. Ender’s Game may be a book about children, but it is by no means a book for children. The children in this book are nothing like how we picture children (as the mother of an almost-6-year-old, I can say this pretty definitively). Everything about this book is aimed at an adult audience.

Ender’s Game is not a thriller or adventure story, although some of the battleroom scenes are exciting. More than anything, it’s an examination of the mind of Ender Wiggin, the culture he lives in, and a world under military rule. And it’s all fascinating.

Mr. Card writes Ender in a way that while you understand he is just a child, you can still be awed, chilled, and amazed at his thoughts and actions. As a matter of fact, all of the characters are interesting and intriguing, from his friends at the Battle School, to his sociopath brother Peter, to the Commander of the Battle School, Colonel Graff.

There is a twist at the end of Ender’s Game. You may see it coming; you may not. I did, but it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book one bit. The fact that I have read this book over and over again, in spite of knowing the twist ending, speaks to the strong writing of the rest of the book. The book doesn’t exist just to throw you off at the end. The book exists to make you think, to draw you completely into the character of Ender, and to absorb you in the science-fiction world he lives in.

When one book just isn’t enough:

There are 4 sequels to Ender’s Game. They follow him into adulthood, far past the end of Ender’s Game. I love the sequels, but they’re very different in tone and scope from Ender’s Game; however, I did find that they resembled each other. So my suggestion is that if you enjoyed Ender’s Game (and I really, really hope you do), check out Speaker for the Dead from your local library, read the whole thing, and then decide if you want to keep going.

The sequels are:
Speaker for the Dead

Xenocide

Children of the Mind

Ender in Exile 

There is also a companion series to the Ender’s Game series, paralleling Ender’s story from the point-of-view of one of the secondary characters. It sounds weird – why would you want to read the same story all over again, knowing how it ends? But the Ender’s Shadow series is wonderful (only the first book parallels Ender’s Game. After that, its sequels detail events barely alluded to in the Ender’s Game sequels).

Content guide: Contains some disturbing scenes of violence towards and committed by children.