Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Declaration

The Declaration by Gemma Malley

My Grade: A

A British book by a British author, I would have never come across it if it hadn't been for a random search of my local library's catalog. I was searching for something completely different at the time and came across this instead, but I'm very glad I did. It's a shame that more British products don't reach us over here in the US of A. Their movies, books, music and other various outputs are often terrific, and I discovered many great things during my time living in Scotland that I would have never known about. Their stores and advertisements are saturated with American products; it's too bad it doesn't go both ways. But in any case, my library had a copy of this great book, so maybe yours does too.

The Premise:

The year is 2140. The energy crisis has come to a head. Luckily, the powerful drug companies have created a pill that, when taken once a day, keeps you living forever. No more disease, no more illness, no old age. What is the natural result of this? Overpopulation, of course. To deal with this, the British Government bans childbearing and makes everyone sign a Declaration stating they will follow this rule. If for some preposterous reason you want to Opt Out, you can, but you are regarded with suspicion and ostracized by society. However, there were some criminal-type people who signed the Declaration and still had children. All children born illegally are Surplus and a burden on Mother Nature. Only when a parent gives his or her life in exchange for the child's would the child become Legal and be free to live a normal life. But this is not usually the case, so the children must work in Surplus Halls, which are little better than prisons, to pay for their sin of existence and their parents' selfishness. Surplus Anna is just such a child. She accepts her position and epitomizes what a Surplus should be. At 15, she's almost ready to enter the Outside as a perpetual servant to Legals until she dies, and she's looking forward to it. Her world has comfortable rules and boundaries, so she is unprepared when a new Surplus, Peter, arrives at Grange Hall and challenges everything she thought she knew.

My thoughts:

The book is told in third person, mostly following Anna but occasionally switching to Mrs. Margaret Pincent, the House Matron, or Mrs. Sharpe, the Legal who is kind to Anna and helps her and Peter escape to London.

I find the title ironic. It is an oxymoron in a way, because the world 'Declaration' usually has positive connotations. Strictly speaking, the formal definition is 'a statement, announcement, or proclamation,' with no mention as to whether the declaration has positive or negative implications. Historically, however, it has been the vehicle oppressed peoples use to proclaim their freedom despite stronger powers who would control them. Ample example of this appears in both American and British history (The Declaration of Independence, The Declaration of Arbroath, etc.) Yet, to Anna and her peers it means exactly the opposite; it is the only thing that allows Legals to keep Surpluses in a life of servitude.

In fact, the whole book makes me think of opposite day. Do you remember opposite day when you were a kid? Front meant back, left meant right, no meant yes. Well that's sort of how life works in Grange Hall, except on a less superficial level. Children are an infringement on society, they upset Mother Nature simply by existing. Youth is a crime, and parents who have children are only selfish criminals. The illegal children of Grange Hall must toil their whole lives to make up for their very existence. They are little more than slaves, reared for a life of servitude for 'Legal' people. This way of thinking penetrates throughout the whole book, and although it feels utterly backwards and wrong, the author makes this world and way of thinking seem logical, and it is easy to suspend your disbelief while in this world. To our ears, the words used to define this doctrine by various characters can get rather harsh. For example, when Anna begins to deliberately question these beliefs as part of a plan to escape, she gets this response from her teacher:

"Unfair? No, what is unfair is that people like you exist. That your selfish, criminal parents thought nothing of the planet and of their fellow countrymen and produced vermin to feed on our food, drink our water and use our energy."(p. 150).

I really enjoyed the villain's (Margaret Pincent) storyline and didn't expect the twist in the last quarter that explains why she is so cold and heartless. But as soon as the twist is revealed, astute readers will see the conclusion to her story coming a mile away. I wish her back story had been revealed little by little throughout the book, instead of as one big explanatory narrative at the end. But I can see why the author chose to do it this way, because if the reader understands too much about Ms. Pincent too soon, then she becomes too sympathetic and does not serve the role of 'villain' as effectively.

I would divide this book into two sections. To me, each section feels very distinct. The first is the part of the book that takes place at Grange Hall. Anna is ingrained in the system and lives according to the rules she has been taught to follow. The action is slow, mundane, and repetitive - much like her life. The second part of the book starts at Anna's and Peter's escape from Grange Hall and is a marked contrast from the first part. The action picks up, the emotion is heightened, the world is no longer gray and dull but bright and full of possibility. The writing style is the same, as is the tone, but the pacing is much faster and more exciting, and this parallels the journey Anna takes through the book. It clearly displays her transformation from lifeless drone to free-thinking individual.

The climax is brief and over too soon. I wish it had been a bit more drawn out, as it was one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the book. I also wish the scenes leading up to the climax had been a bit meatier. Alot of time is spent on Anna and Peter's plans to escape and journey to London and hardly any time at all is spent on Anna's parents or the new life the children live once they get to London. We hardly learn anything about the Underground Movement, only that Anna's parents are a part of it. Perhaps this will be more fleshed out in the sequel. But as far as the climax goes, the action feels over before it's begun. You just get into the action only to see it all resolved to quickly. The resolution is believable within the context of the story line, but it comes about very suddenly which hurts its credibility.

The dénouement is a satisfying conclusion to Anna's ordeal. It ends the story on an uplifting and hopeful note, and helps us believe there is a chance for the revolutionary yet. The only characters that have depth to them are Anna and Mrs. Pincent. Anna's peers at Grange Hall are introduced to us, but them seem made of cardboard, barely two dimensional. Perhaps this is intentional, as well-rounded characters have motivations, opinions, fears, dreams, aspirations, desires, and so forth. The Surpluses of Grange Hall are taught to have none of these. They are told they do not deserve them. So to the reader they appear lifeless and flat, even if they fill the roles of bully and victim. The only other Surplus that feels real is Sheila, since she insists she is legal and is determined to find a way back to her parents. She exhibits a desire and an opinion about her oppression. The only way the reader sees Anna as anything other than a drone is through her illicit suede pink journal that she hides in a wall crevice of the bathroom. This is the vehicle through which we see Anna's reflection on her situation, as well as extent of her indoctrination. She truly believes the lies she has been told.

Although there is a strong attraction between Anna and Peter, there is not much romance. Despite the popularity of romance in teen fiction right now, this books works better without it because it turns the reader's focus to other issues. The premise, the plot, and the themes of this story take precedent over romance, which is a nice change from your run-of-the-mill relationship-centered teen fiction with a little fantasy thrown in to make it interesting. When Peter arrives at Grange Hall, Anna is at first offended by his blatant refusal to accept his position as a Surplus and to Learn Your Place, as they say. When Peter talks to Anna about his point of view, his communication style is direct and forceful:

"'Anna, we've got as much right to be on this planet as the Mrs Pincents of this world. More right. They're the ones who have outstayed their welcome by living for ever and they're blaming us for it.'
Peter's eyes were flashing and Anna looked at him with terror. What he'd just said was blasphemous. He'd be flogged if anyone heard him. She would too, just for listening." (p. 69)

Peter's stringent demeanor and radical ideas clash with Anna's ordered world, and she automatically rejects his views:

"Anna stared at Peter, then stood up, only to discover that her legs were shaking. How dare Peter call her a slave?...
'You're the one that believes crap, Peter. I'm a Prefect. A Prefect. In six months I'll be a Valuable Asset. You can ruin your own life, but you're not ruining mine. Try and escape if you want, but I don't want anything to do with it. I don't want anything to do with you, either.'" (p. 70).  

Eventually, though, she cannot suppress her fascination with him any longer and despite her rigorous training to be a Valuable Asset and work as a servant to Legals the rest of her life, she hears Peter's version of a better world and yearns for something more:

"The truth was that Peter was a window through which Anna could glimpse the world outside, and the temptation to keep looking was quite overwhelming." (p. 62)

By the very end of the story her transformation is complete. Although her journey of self-discovery is far from finished, she realizes the value of her life and of the effect Peter has had on her life:

 "'If it wasn't for you, I'd just be Surplus Anna. I'd be nothing. It is wasn't for you, I'd never have even known what it's like to have a friend...'" (p. 265)

Thought-provoking themes:

This type of literature falls into the Dystopian category of science fiction. The opposite of a perfect Utopia, the protagonist lives in a future where the human condition has deteriorated and life is very bleak. I have not read much of this kind of literature, but I think it appeals to many people because it is a vision of what could happen if we forget ourselves and turn away from our humanity. It is a warning, in a way, of what could happen if we ignore the gifts of the environment and become consumed by greed and power. I certainly found it intriguing.

This book deals heavily with ideas of indoctrination, which can be construed as a form of brainwashing. It teaches us that although we may be brought up one way and accept it because it is all we have ever known, the mind is still curious for the beyond. We may reject unfamiliar lifestyles or beliefs at first because they are foreign to us, but even the most indoctrinated of us, like Anna, will run towards the light of a better existence if our eyes are open to it.

One of the most prevalent messages or themes in the book is the value of a life lived. Every person wants to know that their life has meaning, that they exist for a purpose. If we suddenly are able to live forever, does that meaning go away? If we are considered surplus and are unwanted from the moment we're born, then we must believe our existence is nothing but meaningless. When thought about in these terms, this book is very dark indeed. Mrs. Sharpe, the Legal who helps Anna and Peter escape to London, ponders how no new ideas are developed anymore and people have become complacent. So, if we have all the time in the universe to do something with our lives, we may never do anything. Human being are eternal procrastinators. If we never do anything with our lives, if we never ascend to a higher understanding or to a higher plain of existence, how can our lives have meaning? We would become hollow shells. A life has meaning because it has a beginning, middle and end. On the other end of the scale, if we are told our life is meaningless and will end unceremoniously, how do we cope with being alive? I think if this was a real life situation, the House Matron at Grange Hall would have had a much higher rate of psychological conditions and perhaps even suicides. Despite our animal instinct for self-preservation, these types of tragedies occur because as human beings we are able to reason. We are able to think about these abstract ideas and come to such grim but logical conclusions. But maybe, because of my own knowledge of these issues, I am thinking too complexly about it. If we are indoctrinated to a certain way of thinking, do we simply accept that as the way things are? Would any of those children question their situation? Not if they are taught not to question, I suppose. I think the most poignant part of the book in regards to this theme happens just before the plot climax. It is definitely the most meaningful part of the book, and as such, makes the climax of the storyline almost an after thought. It is the moment that Anna realizes her life has meaning and she understands that no one is surplus to anything. The way in which she comes to this realization may seem obvious and predictable, but doing it any other way would have seemed fake. It reveals to us the very core of our nature. But I won't reveal it here, you'll have to read the book to discover it, if you haven't guessed it already.

But in a way, the Legals do give the Surpluses a reason for living. They must toil and submit their whole lives to pay Mother Nature back for the sins of their parents. By their work they are redeemed, and this gives them a purpose for working. Mother Nature will forgive their sin of existence if they work hard for those who are allowed to be alive. This is another theme that has plagued humankind since time immemorial. A heavily religious theme, it is one of the issues at the core of the human condition.

The book talks a lot about how Surpluses view their parents. Mrs. Pincent believes that getting the Surpluses to hate their parents is the key to Learning Their Place. Anna articulates this idea most clearly when discussing it with Peter:

"'You really hate your parents?' he asked her.
'Of course I hate them, its all their fault.'
'What is?'
Anna sighed. Sometimes Peter could be really dim. 'Me being here. Being responsible. Paying back Mother Nature for their Sins. Whatever you say, the Declaration was introduced for a reason and my parents abused Mother Nature's benevolence. They make me sick...They deserve to go back to prison and stay there for the rest of their lives. Now just shut up about it.'" (p. 65-6)

The theme of the child paying for the sins of the parents is so strong and poignant in The Declaration because it is portrayed in a very literal form, and is one of the many reasons this book is so thought-provoking and compelling.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Eighth Grade Bites

Eighth Grade Bites: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer

My Grade: A-

This may not be the best title for teenagers who are trying to convince their parents that what they’re reading isn’t trash. Certainly in my house growing up, saying something ‘bites’ was considered crass. And it’s cousin, ‘suck’ was even worse. I guess it’s a good thing the sequel is called Ninth Grade Slays instead of Ninth Grade Sucks. Isn’t it funny how these common slang words fit so nicely into stories about vampires? They make for a cute play-on-words in any case. I guess one good thing this book’s title has going for it is that the cover art doesn’t actually feature the title, only the series title, which is much more generic. Overall they are definitely marketed as boys’ books. But that’s not why I picked it up.

I read this book because the protagonist is thirteen years old and in eighth grade. Since my protagonist happens to have these stats as well, I wanted to compare her to other current fictional thirteen-year-olds to see if she is believable at that age and to see how she stands up to the ‘competition.’ So, it wasn’t a very researched or informed choice, I just kind of saw it in Walden Books one day when I was picking up something for my mom, and bought it as part of a half off deal.

The story structure is straightforward, especially for this genre, but does not feel worn out or overdone. Basically, Vladimir Tod is half human, half vampire, whose parents died in a house fire when he was younger. Only his best friend, Henry, and his aunt, Nelly, know this. When a new substitute teacher, Mr. Otis, arrives at Vlad’s high school and starts acting strangely towards him, Vlad suspects the newcomer may know his secret. There are several mysteries that unfold throughout the story, such as a certain symbol that keeps appearing everywhere and a curious book Vlad finds that used to belong to his father. Unanswered questions about these and other mysteries are wound carefully into the main story line and keep you intrigued until the end of the book. Also, the answers to the mysterious are satisfying when you finally discover what they are, and all tie in together nicely to create a full picture of Brewer’s vampire world. Mr. Otis was definitely the most interesting character. At times he seems like one of the bad guys, then he spins a tale of woe to Vlad and you think his intentions are good. Later, you wonder if he’s not playing both sides against the middle. The fact that Brewer keeps you guessing about this character’s allegiances until after the climax keeps the reader interested and involved in the story. The interaction between Vlad and Henry feels realistic and looks like what I would image a boyhood friendship to be like, with a little twist, of course.

Overall, it’s a good read, especially for teenage boys who feel like they don’t fit the mold. Vlad dresses in the Gothic style and gets picked on at school. Henry is much more popular than Vlad, but the friendship still works, and these types of friendships are not as uncommon as it seems they would be. Vlad likes a cute girl at school but is too unconfident to talk to her. He has his own private spot where he can go to get away that no one else knows about. Because of these classic angst-y elements, I think this is a book a lot of teenagers can relate to. It’s good storytelling and fun escapism of the vampire persuasion, which is one of the most popular categories in children’s fantasy literature right now.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Amulet of Samarkand

The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

My Grade: C

I listened to an audio recording of this book in many stints over several weeks, mostly during long drives in my car.

The setting:

This book is set in an alternate London, where the upper class is made up solely of Magicians who hold all the ministerial positions in Parliament and run the government. All non-magicians are called commoners. The main way Magicians wield their magical power is by summoning ddjinnis, imps, or other such supernatural creatures, whom they command to do their bidding.

The plotline:

The main plot centers around a 12-year-old Magician’s apprentice named Nathaniel, who summons a powerful djinni named Bartimaeus. Technically this is beyond his ability level, but unbeknownst to his master, who thinks the boy is a fool, Nathaniel is actually very smart and advanced in magic for his age. He commands Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from the magician Simon Lovelace, who is the villain in this story. The plot centers around Simon and Nathaniel’s feud and possession of the Amulet.

Notable feature:

The book is told in two voices, and alternates regularly between the two, sometimes describing the same action from both points of view. The first is Bartimaeus, told in first person. We hear all the djinni’s thoughts and so get to know this character the best. The second is Nathaniel, told in third person.

Thoughts about this style:

I don’t always like this style because it can be harder to keep track of what’s going on. If the two characters are in different places and we switch from one to the other, we must then remember where the first was once we go back to him after not seeing him for several pages. This can get confusing, especially for young readers. This technique does give the reader more information about what is happening, and I think it works best when the two characters are in the same scene, giving us different perspectives on the action. But I found that when I was with Bartimaeus all I wanted to do was get back to Nathaniel. I could not relate to the djinni as well for obvious reasons, and was more interested in following the boy magician’s conflicts. I find it hard to pull away from one character’s point of view once I have already become sympathetic towards him in order to turn to another character. I think this holds true for most readers.

My thoughts:

While there is lots of action throughout the story, which in theory is supposed to appeal to kids and make the book exciting, in reality it muddles the plotline. Perhaps not the action itself, but the way it is written. Each part of the action is meticulously described in agonizing detail, and succeeds in doing just the opposite of what action is supposed to do, which is speed up the pacing. Instead, I feel like all the carefully explained action scenes make the story drag. I would rather have a summary of the action or a few key highlights, and then get on with the main thread of the plot. All the big action scenes take me out of the story and loose my interest. The only place where Stoud’s action description really works like it is supposed to is at the climax, where the action is actually a part of the main plotline.

I also found I forgot information that was given early in the book by the time I needed to know it when it came into play later on. Maybe this was due in part to the fact that I listened to the book in many sittings over a few weeks, but I am usually attentive to the story and it’s elements. Some of the things I found myself wondering near the end of the book were: How did Nathaniel find out Simon had the Amulet of Samarkand in the first place? How did Nathaniel finally dismiss Ramuthra (the big bad Simon summons to destroy everyone) to the Other Place (where the supernatural being live when not summoned)? I think I was distracted while listening to this part and didn’t care enough to go back and re-listen.

That said, there were some entertaining elements in this book. Bartimaeus, for one, was a very well crafted character. His sarcastic and unenthused attitude towards the tasks Nathaniel set for him and his deep concern for his fate, which was thickly disguised under a mask of indifference, gave him a definitive personality and voice strikingly different from every other character in the book. But a lot of the time he had quite a snobby, holier-than-thou attitude that often put me off him. You can tell the author clearly put the most time into creating this character. After all, the trilogy is named for him.

I didn’t always think Nathaniel was believable as a 12-year-old whiz magician the way Artemis Fowl is believable as a 12-year-old criminal mastermind. His whinny complaining occurred just a tad too much for me to think he possessed the maturity level and astuteness of mind to pull off all his stunts. It looked mostly like he got lucky, and had a more powerful and much wiser djinni always getting him out of his jams. The relationship between Nathaniel and Bartimaeus often seemed like an annoying kid brother tagging along with his too-superior-for-his-own-good older brother, rather than a young boy stepping up to the occasion and calling the shots with the aid of a magical djinni at his side. Maybe the author thought the more traditional sort of relationship was too cliché and over-used. But it just made me dislike both of the characters throughout the story.

I feel like the writing or character development did not evoke much emotion from me, and this disconnected me from the story significantly. For example, when two main characters die in a house fire two thirds of the way through the book, I was not very upset, although the author tells me Nathaniel was devastated, and rightfully so. But isn’t the reader supposed to feel what the main character is feeling to a certain extent? Isn’t that the mark of captivating writing? Ironically, the character I cared most about was Ms. Lutyens, Nathaniel’s art tutor. She is a minor character, but I think she had the most to say about what it means to be a person of integrity, and she mentors Nathaniel on using the gifts you are given to benefit mankind, instead of using them for greed. I was upset by her absence when she was taken out of the picture, but she was the only character I found myself really caring about.

Final thoughts:

I liked that the story was self-contained and all threads wrapped up nicely by the end. The villain got his due, the boy magician triumphs through his own devices, and the djinni is surprised by Nathaniel’s growth by the end of the story. (Although Bartimaeus doesn’t change, he’s still as cocky as ever.) Maybe I am being too hard on the book, it did win a bunch of awards after all, like the 2004 ALA Notable Book award. I just feel overall like it was a whirlwind of a tale that ultimately didn’t have anything meaningful to say. To kids it would be perhaps be pure fun, if they’re into this sort of thing, without revealing anything deeper about a young boy’s coming of age, personal growth through lessons learned, or the nature of ourselves. This book even had the opportunity to talk about what it means to be human, as it refers to the djinnis as slaves a lot. Stoud could have drawn parallels between this magician-djinni dynamic and our own master-slave history, providing a poignant social commentary on this issue. I just feel like he passed by multiple opportunities to say something more, and the shallowness of the story fell flat for me.

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How this works

The first review I'm going to post is of the book I've most recently read. This is simply because it is freshest in my mind right now and I can easily expound on it's merits and weaknesses (or what, in my humble opinion, I believe them to be). Reviews of the other books I've read may need some revisitation, as it's been a month or more since I read some of them.

In each review I will try to break down the key elements into separate sections such as...
Plot line
Notable features
My thoughts

and anything else I may come up with along the way.

I would like to note that recently I have gotten into listening to books on CD. This started mainly out of getting bored with the morning talk radio shows I would listen to on my commute to work. So, I decided I could get some "reading" done during that time instead. It has worked quite well, keeping my interest enough to make the ride seem shorter. I have an hour commute with the traffic, so getting in two hours of "reading" a day is two hours more than I usually get! So far I have listened to six books, two of which fit the category of this blog. These are The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (see first review below) and Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. I'll note in the review if I read the book in the traditional formate or listened to an audiobook version, as I believe this dramatically changes the story experience.

So, without further ado, I'm off to my first review!

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I've started this blog because I am currently writing a young adult fantasy book. In order to get a 'feel' for the current trends in the genre right now, I am reading lots of children's fantasy. I thought I would share with you, the viewing public, what I've thought of the books I've read so far. This struck me as a good idea for a few reasons:

First, because the only reviews I've been able to find for some of the books I've read recently were fairly poor or way off base. I mostly read reviews on Amazon because in the past, these have been pretty good. But I don't really know who these people are, they could all be nut-cases for all I know. Plus, not many reviews employ critical reading to consider the books from a literary perspective.

Secondly, because I think young adult and children's fantasy is one of the most exciting genres out there and is often discredited as 'kid's stuff.' Yes, some of it is fluff or just plan old fun, but I would like to open my more skeptical reader's minds to the possibility that, through fantasy, we are able to say more about the human condition than through most other means.

Thirdly, I am writing this blog because I would like to keep a record for myself of what I have read and my first impressions of it. (I call all this reading part of my 'research').

Fourthly, because it will develop my writing skills, and maybe I'll get brave enough to post some excerpts of my book on here. Who knows?

So here goes!

Books on this blog

  • City of Bones, Book One of The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare
  • Eighth Grade Bites, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer
  • Evermore by Alyson Noel
  • Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
  • Magyk, Book One of the Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage
  • The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
  • The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud