Perfect Dystopia

The Phoenix Project by C.A. Gray, the third in the Liberty Box series, was one of the most satisfying endings to an excellent series. Well written – well paced, surprising but not disappointing, well plotted, and with all the right folks surviving at then end… it was perfect.  Too often in this genre the last book, especially the ending to the last book… well… stinks.  But that is not the case here.  The Phoenix Project (The Liberty Box, #3)It was a perfect ending to a wonderful book and series!

There were all the right twists and turns, the right balance of characters and action. There was the right balance of romance and plot too – the characters cared for each other, but it wasn’t so totally sappy that the romance overshadowed everything (and turned the main characters into a bunch of whining selfish obnoxious teenagers – and I think finding that balance is phenomenally hard and hats of to the author for pulling it off throughout this series).  It was not needlessly dragged out just to get the page count up – or worse, to stretch a fourth (or more) book into what was a well planned trilogy. It was great reading on the elliptical machine on the gym – I couldn’t put it down and that meant extra workout time.

I have struggled a little with the YA-dystopian sub-genre lately. They seem to be well written in the beginning, or at least interesting enough to hold my attention, and then ‘wham’ something happens that makes me regret having read the entire series. That was not the case here. I was so happy with the way the story ended, the fate of each of the characters felt right, and it didn’t feel contorted or as if the author didn’t know how to end things so the characters ended up being ridiculous (**cough, cough** Divergent **cough, cough**).

The other thing that this series, and especially this book, illustrated is the power of suggestion, the power of brain washing, the power of only hearing one side of a story, the power of the mind. It is so very hard to re-train the brain, even when what was learned in the first place was not real. It takes great strength of will and character to be open to other perspectives, even when the other perspective is the reality. This book never looses sight of the broader plot, never stretches things so that the next steps taken by each character doesn’t feel logical (even if at times it was frustrating to watch the characters make the choices they were making), and most of all, met the expectations set by the first 2 wonderful installments of this series. It was awesome and wonderful, and I would read it again.

In my book this author is on a roll – 2 wonderfully delightful series – with not a single let down in 6 books! And, it is not often that is the case. Thanks for the read C.A. Gray! Keep up the excellent work!

p.s. I received a free copy in advance in exchange for an honest review.

p.p.s.  I think the cover for this particular installment of the trilogy is breathtaking and the best cover, for either this or the Piercing the Veil (although the latest for those books are nice too) series, yet!

New Standard in Dystopia

Wow.  What started off a little slow turned into a race to the end.  I couldn’t read it fast enough.  The Liberty Box by C.A. Gray sucked me in, and I couldn’t escape.  What a great story.  And pretty scary too as in it feels rooted in just enough reality that I felt tempted to pinch myself to make sure that I am really living the life I think I am 27108728living.

The Liberty Box is an expertly crafted, wonderfully written, and a very refreshing take the dystopian genre.  All the dystopian stories I have read to date take on the notion of factions, divisions, sectors, camps, [insert any SAT word synonym of your choice here]….  They have all started to meld together and I couldn’t tell you which story, be it the Divergent Series or Hunger Games, ended which way (without looking it up anyway, or watching the movie).  And those that haven’t ventured into the land of the factions typically involve some sort of disease (Masque of the Red Death or Legend), “game”/”test” (Maze Runner), or other singular event.  Here, Liberty Box isn’t wholly different in that there is a single event that caused the US as we know it to change.  But, the economic collapse and the idea that it is just here in the US (versus the entire world, or ignoring the fact that the rest of the world, at least at some point existed too) are both unique.  And how society is saved is quite frankly, frightening.  In part because it totally felt like something that could absolutely happen and we could all be turned into (in the words of the Crone) mindless “sheep” (although that too bears some similarity to the drug induced society of the Giver).

The plot of the story starts out like this: Kate, a young and beautiful reporter who beams into the nation’s households every night on the newscast suddenly discovers that an enemy of the state, who has been executed, is someone she knew when she was younger.  And when she starts to look into why, her fiance is killed.  Now on the run, Kate finds herself “off the grid” and away from the control of society.  Jackson, born in the US but raised in Iceland where he learned to control his mind and body from his grandfather, is back in the US for his mother’s funeral.  But, not all is as it seems in the Republic of the United States.  Yes, the former democratic US is now a republic.  Kate and Jackson find themselves in a forest with others and what they do about the world they are now faced with is the question.

To me, this seems to have the potential to be the next in the Divergent, Hunger Games movie spree.  I can totally picture the great scenery, characters, chases, and action up on the big screen.  I know I would pay to see this story brought to life.  While decidedly YA, it’s also scarier than HG or Divergent – as it seems so much more plausible and it isn’t hard to imagine someone with the financial means to create a supercomputer that can separate and segregate society the way the Potentate has done here.  It reminded me a little of  a number of movies that seemed to have just enough basis in reality to be much more frightening than the blood and gore horror movie.  They way Eagle Eye was much scarier (to me anyway) than World War Z or Saw.

Well written and well paced, there were fewer plot holes then I have found with most of the other dystopian stories I have read.  And the end was quite a surprise.  One that I can say I certainly didn’t expect or see coming.  My only critique is that the characters, Kate especially, at times felt a little two-dimensional.  It shouldn’t be that Bruce the Shark (from Finding Nemo for those who aren’t huge Disney fans like me) has more depth than some of the main protagonist.  There may be a reason for this in Kate’s case, maybe Kate is supposed to be that way because of the way she is raised.  But some of the others, especially Jackson, didn’t feel like they have quite enough personality. Regardless, I think the development for some characters needs a little work. I would love to see the great promise that some of the characters have be fulfilled.  However, this was not enough to shape the overall thoughts about the book; I believe Ms. Gray has provided yet another wonderful story and I am eager to see what happens to the characters next.

Diverging Feelings about the Divergent Series

divergentI read all three installments of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth in quick succession, back-to-back-to-back as if they were simply parts to a larger single volume.  Since they were all read together I’m going to review them together.

A few notes first:  There are things that I will discuss and there’s no need to distinguish which book it applies to and there are others where it is absolutely critical.  So keep that in mind.  As I planned out my review I was struck by a sudden sense of déjà vu. Although it took a little while to figure out why. When I did, it’s because I realized that I had a similar reaction to the Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman (and I read that series quite some time ago). The first book was really pretty good; the second book things started to take a turn but it wasn’t bad even though it certainly didn’t live up to the expectations I had set by the first book; third book – yikes. I found myself with both series wishing in many ways that the author had stopped writing after book 2, or at least I wish I had stopped reading at the end of Book two.

I will also say that this is one of the unique instances where I saw the movie first and really wanted to read the book because I liked the movie so much. Too often today young adult book adaptations just don’t seem to live up to the quality of the book. It’s not always the case – personally, I believe the film adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones wasn’t terrible, but I like the book much much better. Twilight, well let’s face it, both book and film were really pretty bad in their own rights albeit for entirely different reasons.  But, the movies were just mediocre adaptations of terrible books (I guess the terrible-ness compounded).  The Golden Compass was an absolute travesty of an adaptation, and with the star power of James Bond, I mean Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and so many others, it was just awful and my expectations were so much higher.  Ink heart?  Cute book. But the movie?  Youzers!  And that was with a pretty good performance by Helen Mirren.  Beautiful Creatures was fairly faithful to the source material but it still fell completely flat (and I love Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons so that’s a shame) and as a result, the movie totally lost the magic the book had. Percy Jackson, despite some large differences was a fun little movie (and who doesn’t love some Pierce Brosnan) but that’s the high point in this list. And it probably rates a C+ as far as adaptation quality.  Then there’s Harry Potter. Despite the fact that the film adaptations were mega hits (you should know I actually adore all of them, own multiple copies of each of the movies and watch them constantly) and despite JK Rowling’s involvement in the development of the films, I actually think they were pretty poor adaptations. Key word there is adaptations.

I give you this list (of my opinions) to help set the stage. Because I thought the movie was good. Like solid B/B+ on its own.  And, I think is quite an accomplishment really given all the crap that is made for and marketed for the YA movie-going audience.  So, when I read the first book, I totally understood the differences and necessity for them – and I really didn’t think it took away any major plot points. (This is where I am so critical of the HP films. I still love them. But there were changes, which I guess we’re for the sake of shorter running time, that would have added 4 minutes. So was the cut really necessary? And other changes that took away some of the magic of the wonderful world JKR built so painstakingly).  So, it was then followed with a solid B+ on the adaptation scale.  And that’s an even bigger accomplishment.

I liked the first book. I liked the first movie. I totally dove into the second book, with expectations of greatness.  Knowing that the second movie is already in the works only added to the excitement and anticipation.  And that’s where I fell flat on my expectations.

Because the second book was just okay. What an utter disappointment after all that setup. It started down a strange path, so that by then end of it (and the start of the third book), there was no place to go except into the land of the absurd. By the end of book three, the holes in the logic of the entire society and the socioeconomic system make a slice of swiss cheese look like it would provide good shelter from the rain.  Grrrrrrrrr.

I get that the categorization and classification into factions is a typical plot device in dystopian fiction, especially the dystopian of the YA persuasion. But here, the reasons for it, and the manner in which the sustenance of the factions survives, is beyond ludicrous. One of the things that drives me nuts about books and authors who write about physical challenges/abilities (e.g., learning a martial art) is that they have no sense of the time certain things take. And I am sorry if this will offend – but younger authors suffer from this even more. I saw a transcript of an interview with Roth and Roth talked about Tris not being able to hold a gun for a long time after she killed Will but it wasn’t that long a time. Granted it was longer than the training time (which I am sorry but there’s a reason military boot camps are longer than 4 weeks) but to condense the story across a few weeks and say that that’s such a long time means that someone’s perspective is a teeny bit skewed.  You don’t get totally proficient in fighting and being able to defend yourself or attack others so that it is second nature, a reaction without thinking, in a mere 4 weeks.  12 weeks is the current USMC boot camp time.  12.  Not 4.  It’s a lack of enough worldly experience or lack of research.  It’s ok if an author doesn’t have the right experience, but I then expect a little research.

It’s also difficult to really feel like the author had a good plan for the plot of the whole story arc from the start when the plot takes such a left turn into being about genetic engineering when there clearly is not a good understanding by the author of genetic engineering. The whole thing hit a point where by the time I got half through book 3 I was just tired and fed up and glad for it to be over.

In that same interview I referenced earlier, I found it interesting to hear the author’s take on how Tris was true to herself and her own character.  She said that the ending **spoiler ahead** where she dies was the right end for Tris because of who she was in the other two books. Poppycock!!! Who she was in the first two books: yes, someone who was courageous, and yes, someone who would stand up for others.  But it was one heck of a jump to turn Tris into some sort of sacrificial lamb, willing to sacrifice herself totally for the greater good without a whole heck of a lot of substance to support that messiah complex.  Here’s where it totally felt like the author was trying to figure out a way to throw in her religious beliefs, even though it was in a veiled way.  Now, that’s not to say that most of us would not give ourselves for a sibling, and certainly most would give anything including our own lives for our children, and lots of other members of our family and friends – it’s a natural thing to do when we love someone and if it was totally unheard of we wouldn’t have our armed forces, firefighters and police who sacrifice so much all the time and all too often they sacrifice all.  But it didn’t, in my opinion, feel like the natural thing for Tris.  She struggled with being Abnegation after all.

Never mind the fact that she also didn’t really think she wasn’t going to survive. She was pretty convinced she was going to survive the death serum. And she would have survived had she not otherwise been injured. Where I’m going with this is that there was nothing in Tris’ background or the dauntless training (that she seemed to really embrace in so many ways) that would lead me to believe it was realistic for her to have the character to take on that last mission as a suicide mission.  Not to mention, the nature of her divergent personality in a lot of ways contradicted that. In fear simulations she didn’t do the things that were dauntless like nor was she selfless. There wasn’t enough self-sacrifice in her for her to stay in the faction with her parents or that I could read in her personality and that made that ending feel very unfitting.  The reckless behavior she exhibited in the second book further underscores that point. It was reckless; it was not intentional bravery that saved others. Instead, it was a complete disregard for herself out of grief and guilt. As motivation it just doesn’t sync up with having her sacrifice herself – it was really for all the wrong reasons.  To me, a more natural ending would have had her survive the death serum, and live happily ever after with Four.

Turning back to the whole reason we were in a dystopian world to begin with, I struggle with the idea that people with “flawed genes” could be set into a confined environment and then all of a sudden after a few generations – and here’s the kicker… in Tris’ case a whole whopping single generation because remember, her mother was from the outside world – would all of a sudden magically be perfect and clean and restore the gene pool and be some magical perfectly pure person.  I have enough concern over where this particular element of the book started to go that I’m not going to even describe it any further.  It will likely turn into a treatise on political or religious views and I keep those views of mine off the Internet. Suffice it to say that I really wish the plot had taken a different direction in the reasoning for the war and the city and the factions. But it didn’t so we’re stuck with what we’ve got.  And before you jump to the conclusion, I will put it out there for you, you are right this may have colored my judgment of the series but it still didn’t change the fact that I didn’t like the third book (and I could see this awful turn coming clearly while reading the second).

I don’t know where I got the expectations for plot and story development but I bring them with me into every book that I read. Maybe it’s from all the reading I did as a little kid maybe it’s from the fact that I continue to read quite a bit of classic literature even today – for example the count of  Monte Cristo is one of just the number of books that I reread because it remains one of my all-time favorites. And the writing in that book is drastically different than so much of what we get today. It is not just the language or the words but it is the plot, and all of the intermediate steps that take us from those wonderful opening words or chapters through every element of the story, every step of the plot to the last final chapter and the end. I was left with the feeling that the author originally had a great idea for a story, which starts off with a bang by the way, and is going like gangbusters only to crash like ocean waves beating the rocks on shore.  That is, the author seems to not know how to finish and so she haphazardly comes up with something that sort of works to just get us to a conclusion.  Frankly, it’s disappointing. I don’t know if it is the time pressure to get installments out quickly or maybe it is the pressure to take stories more suited as standalone novels (even if they are a little longer) and turn them into series.  To do a series and do it well from start to finish without any faltering in the installments or the overall story arc takes a lot of work. And I am just not sure some of these authors, especially some of the beginners/younger ones, have what it takes to have each of the books in their respective series be well written, good stories, from start to finish. That is not to say that these books aren’t worth reading it is just a weakness that they have. And I wish I could say otherwise. Plenty of people can disagree with me,  it is just my opinion.

Now after all that, will I reread detergent? Probably.  Will I reread the second book? Probably not.  Will I reread the third book?  Absolutely not.  Will I re-watch the first movie? Absolutely. Will I watch the second movie? Probably. Will I watch the third? Well that is totally going to depend on the second. So all in all, the author has at least sold some books and will make some money off of the movie tickets. Therefore, depending on how you measure success, these books in some ways were success. In others, like from the purely literary perspective, I am not sure I would say they were totally successful.  All these mixed feeling about the Divergent series.  Guess it’s fitting, given the name!