Review: Pandemonium, by Lauren Oliver (@oliverbooks @harperteen)

WARNING: Spoilers for Delirium ahead.

Pandemonium is the second book in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium Trilogy. In the first book, Delirium, Lena lives in a future dystopian United States, where love has been designated a disease, and everyone is cured on their 18th birthday. Lena was eagerly anticipating her “cure” and her orderly, predictable life to follow, free from the “Deliria” that leads to mood swings, irrational behavior, violence, and death. That is, until she meets Alex, an “Invalid” from The Wilds – a boy who has never been cured and doesn’t believe that love is something that needs a cure. Alex teaches Lena about love, and they plan to escape Portland to live in The Wilds together. But in the end, Alex sacrifices himself to allow Lena to escape.

Pandemonium’s narrative alternates between two separate time lines. The first picks up right where Delirium ends. It follows Lena in the days, weeks, and months after she has escaped Portland, losing Alex in the process. Predictably, she meets up with other Invalids living in The Wilds, and slowly assimilates to life with them. Away from the familiar comforts of the city. Away from fear of the Deliria. Away from Alex.

The second takes place several months later. Lena is now an active part of the resistance, and is living undercover in New York City. Her cover is that she is part of a new political movement – the DFA or “Deliria-Free America.” The movement’s mission is for the cure to be administered to everyone in America before their 18th birthday. Lena’s mission is to keep an eye on the DFA, especially its leaders: Thomas Fineman and his son, Julian.

[Spoilers Ahead]

But everything turns to chaos when Scavengers – a violent extremist group of uncureds – attack a DFA rally, and Lena and Julian are kidnapped and held hostage together. Their captivity forces them to question their preconceived notions about each other and about who their enemies really are.

Pandemonium was an enjoyable, exciting, fast-paced book. I did find it a bit predictable – I wasn’t nearly as surprised as Lena at the twists and turns of the plot – but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it at all. And as much as I loved Alex in Delirium and I wasn’t sure initially if I would be able to accept if Lena moved on, I found that I loved Julian just as much as Alex. I appreciated how the evolution of Lena and Julian’s relationship mirrored that of Lena and Alex – but with Lena’s role reversed.

Ultimately, I thought Pandemonium was a great set-up for the third book in the trilogy. I anticipate the conclusion to the Delirium Trilogy will contain lots of action, a likely love triangle (which is overdone in YA books, but in a world where the entire plot focuses around the benefits and drawbacks of falling in love, it probably can’t be avoided), and Lena’s deeper involvement with the resistance. It answered some questions set up in Delirium while asking several more. And it introduced us to some great new characters.

My frustrations with the book were minor. I missed the characters from Delirium (but I suspect some of them will pop up in the 3rd book). I couldn’t understand how just a couple days lost in the woods resulted in Lena needing weeks to recuperate, considering how physically fit she was at the end of Delirium. And several of Lena’s great plans just seemed far too simple (especially in the couple parts where she has to deal with key codes).

But overall, none of that was enough to take away from my enjoyment of the book. The storytelling was excellent, and I found myself completely immersed in the characters and world that Ms. Oliver created. I’m intrigued and excited to see how she wraps up Lena’s story in book 3.

Content guide: Contains scenes of violence and peril. 

Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth (@harperteen)

Divergent is the first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth. The setting is a future dystopian Chicago, where the city – and presumably the country (although nothing much is ever said about the world outside of Chicago) – have been split into five factions according to personality:

Abnegation (the selfless)
Amity (the kind)
Candor (the honest)
Dauntless (the brave)
Erudite (the intellectual)

All children are given an aptitude test when they are 16 to determine which faction they are best suited for. Then, in a public ceremony, they choose a faction for life. If the faction is different than the one they were raised in, bye-bye family (“faction before blood” is their motto).

Those who fail to assimilate into their chosen faction are the factionless, doomed to live in the projects and take the “undesirable” jobs (like janitors and sanitation workers). Ouch.

The narrator of Divergent is Beatrice, or “Tris,” as she prefers to be called once she leaves her Abnegation family to join the daredevil Dauntless faction. Her aptitude test results were inconclusive, ruling out only Amity and Candor, and making her “Divergent” – something that she doesn’t understand, but is told is something she must keep secret if she wants to live.

After deciding that she isn’t selfless enough and that her inner monologue is too snarky to really belong in Abnegation, and never really considering Erudite at all, Tris begins initiation into the Dauntless faction, most of which consists of jumping on and off of moving trains, hallucinating her worst fears, and hurling herself from great heights. She bonds with her fellow transfer initiates (all of whom are either from Candor or Erudite), develops a crush on her 18-year-old instructor, and gets beaten up a lot.

Eventually, Tris’ Divergent nature starts to help her excel in her training — a little too much. She is warned repeatedly — with little to no explanation — to keep her Divergency hidden. And ultimately, through some shoehorned monologuing by the Bad Guy, we learn why it upsets the Powers that Be so much for her to be running around, Divergent. Unfortunately, by the time she learns the truth, it may be too late…

Plot contrivances aside, I really enjoyed this book. No, I don’t think the factions were explained well, and I don’t believe a lot of the rules of the world makes sense. But I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to immerse myself in Tris’ POV, and when you just accept that everything in her world makes sense (even though it doesn’t), it’s an enjoyable read. I’m hoping that some of the more practical questions about the world, why it exists, and how it functions are answered in the next book in the series, Insurgent.

I also hope to see Tris a bit more well-rounded in the next books. She is remarkably self-absorbed, suspicious, and unforgiving in her treatment of others. Even though she was supposed to have equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite, I didn’t see many selfless or intellectual traits in her (she figured a couple simple things out using her wits, but the Erudite are supposed to be the exceedingly intelligent, not just the not-stupid). It’s a puzzle, considering she spent the first 16 years of her life among the Abnegation.

This book isn’t perfect. The characters were sometimes confusing. Sometimes infuriating. Some of the plot twists really come out of left field, and others you can see coming miles away. There are gaping holes in some of the logic. And the world building is extremely under-developed.

All that said, I still enjoyed it. It’s fast-paced, it’s entertaining, and it’s escapist. It was a fun way to spend a couple afternoons, and I’m looking forward to finding out what comes next in Insurgent.

Content guide: Contains violence, daredevil scenarios, several scenes designed to play on fear.

Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (@Scholastic)

I read The Hunger Games several months ago. I never wrote down my thoughts, because thousands before me already had, and I figured I probably didn’t have much to add. Then I read and reviewed a bunch of other young adult dystopian fiction, some good, some “eh,” and came to the conclusion that if I’m going to judge all of them against The Hunger Games, then I should probably go ahead and review The Hunger Games.

This is a review only of the first book.

We all know by now what The Hunger Games is about. In a future version of the United States (now called Panem), the country has been divided into 12 Districts, each specializing in a different industry, surrounding a central Capitol. Years ago, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. The Capitol prevailed, and as punishment for the rebellion (and as a deterrent against future rebellion), each year the Capitol forces each District to sacrifice 2 of its citizens – a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 – to fight to the death in a barbaric gladiatorial arena for the amusement of the Capitol’s citizens. One will survive. 23 will die.

The decadent and pampered Capitol citizens, desensitized to the actual horror of what they are watching, view the televised Games as the height of entertainment, Olympics and action movies and reality TV all rolled into one.

Meanwhile, the oppressed citizens of the 12 Districts live out a nightmare, as they are forced to watch their children mercilessly slaughtered on TV.

And rebellion is out of the question. Each District is patrolled by Capitol-appointed “Peacekeepers,” there to make sure that they willingly send their Tributes and watch the Games like they’re supposed to. To resist is to guarantee death – or worse.

The heroine of the book is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who has managed to avoid the Hunger Games for the past 4 years. But that all changes when her 12-year-old sister, Prim, is selected to be this year’s District 12 Tribute. Katniss, terrified for Prim, volunteers to take her place — a decision which most likely guarantees a gruesome death.

Katniss is shipped off to the Capitol to prepare for the Games, along with Peeta, the local baker’s son. They are primped and polished, interviewed and pampered, and ultimately turned loose in the arena with the other 22 tributes.

Every single one of them knows, if they are not prepared to fight to the death, they have no hope of winning. And a peaceful sit-in is not an option – the country is watching, and the Gamemakers will guarantee a good show, even if it means unleashing mutant wasps or raining down fire on the tributes.

I will admit, I spent the first half of the book convinced Katniss would certainly find a way to rebel against the Games. Surely she wouldn’t participate. Surely she wouldn’t kill anyone. Surely she wouldn’t fight Peeta. Surely something will happen to make it so that none of these children actually has to die.

But Katniss doesn’t go to the games to rebel. She goes to save her sister, and she goes to try to come back to her sister. Which means she has to win. Which means she has to participate. She’s a 16-year-old girl in a world that has accepted the Games as a part of life for 3/4 of a century.

Children do die in this book. It’s horrible and terrifying and heartbreaking. You want to scream at the Gamemakers and Capitol citizens, “What’s wrong with you?” The book gives a chilling look at the insensitivity that would turn a blind eye to the slaughter of children in the name of entertainment and tradition.

It also gives us, in Katniss, a very flawed young girl. She is angry, stubborn and judgmental. But she is also fiercely loyal, protective, and determined. I don’t agree with all of her decisions in the book. I was actually a much bigger fan of Peeta than Katniss. But I can admire her determination to do what she has to, to return to protect her sister. She clings to hope, even when all seems lost. In the world she lives in, it seems like the only choice she has.

As a parent, it saddened me greatly to think of a world where parents would be forced to send their children into a situation like this, and where children would be forced to endure this kind of brutality and despair. And if The Hunger Games was just a stand-alone story, I may not have enjoyed it as much, even though it’s an exciting and engrossing read. But it is the first book in a trilogy, and does an excellent job of setting up the world that Katniss and Peeta live in.

The first book is sad. I cared about the characters, but I hated the world they lived in. I hated what they had to go through. It’s upsetting. It’s horrifying. It made me angry. And it’s supposed to. If this is the feeling you’re left with after the first book, it’s not a sign to give up on the series. It’s a sign you need to see where it goes.

Content guide: Contains numerous descriptions of disturbing violence towards children, often resulting in death.

Starting out

I’ve loved to read ever since I could read.

In elementary school, I devoured series like The Boxcar Children and The Baby-sitters Club.

In middle school, I ventured into the world of science fiction with Michael Crichton.

In high school, I dabbled in a variety of genres, from classic literature like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre and Lord of the Rings, to the legal thrillers of John Grisham, to the sweet and semi-sappy romances of Maeve Binchy.

The only limitation I put on myself was that I didn’t want to read anything that was actually written for kids my age. I viewed Young Adult Fiction with distain. I thought the only people who read it were kids who didn’t know any better. I was Above It All.

Then in college, a friend gave me a book for my birthday. It was a gag gift, since it was a series I had made fun of for years (and it wasn’t even the first book in the series). He knew if I owned it, I’d have to read it.

The book was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I read it.

I loved it.

Fast-forward to over a decade later. I now read what I want. Sometimes it’s books about teenagers, written for teenagers. Sometimes it’s books written for adults about housewives, detectives, spies, reporters, librarians. If it sounds interesting, I’ll read it.

I finally realized that it’s not “mature” to look down my nose at a book simply because of its intended audience. Likewise, I was not winning any brownie points in life by only reading books written for adults (and let’s face it, there’s just as much — if not more — garbage out there targeted at adults as there is for kids).

This year – 2012 – I decided to start writing down my thoughts about the books I read. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I always end each book I read with my head swimming with thoughts, and often no one to share them with. So I’ll share them with you (whoever you are).

You may not agree with me. That’s fine. I don’t agree with anyone on books (or most other things) 100% of the time either.

So here we go.