Book Review: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The OutsidersI was passing my friend in the hall at church about a month ago and she stopped me to ask a literature type question, you know, because I read stuff.

And the question was along the lines of: if I were to see a shirt that said “Stay gold, Ponyboy” on the front, would I know what that meant?

Though the name Ponyboy sounded vaguely familiar, alas, I had no clue.

I certainly read stuff, but freely admit that I have not read many of the classics. Now, I vaguely knew the plot of this book before reading it because I had been to the CliffsNotes of this generation, Wikipedia, to look at the plot at some time in the past. Who knows why. I don’t remember. I guess I was too lazy to actually read the book even though I was curious about it. ‘Cause it’s not really my kind of book and I typically don’t go out of my way to read books that aren’t my kind of books. I’m a book xenophobe.

But I did promise to read and review a classic once a quarter this year so here it is, my first quarter venture into realms heretofore unknown: The Outsiders.

The setting is Tulsa Oklahoma in 1965. The  main character is Ponyboy… That’s his name. For reals. He lives with his brothers Darry and…Sodapop…Parents can be cruel in any century. The brothers are orphans but the eldest is twenty and takes care of the other two. They’re Greasers and they’re from the ‘wrong’ part of town and they have a few friends from their neighborhood who comprise their little gang. Their rivals, the Socs (pronounced SOSHes), are the rich kids from the other side of town and the two gangs tend to come to blows on a regular basis, which is where we get our main plot conflict (which I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t read it).

Published in 1967, the author was a mere fifteen years old when she started writing The Outsiders. She was eighteen at publication(!). Hinton was inspired by her friends at the time who were dealing with the kinds of issues presented in this novel. This is one of those books that has been considered controversial in the years since it’s publication because of the portrayal of gang violence or…something. Guys. Guys. Most of the the gang violence happens off screen and the stuff that you do ‘see’ is SO mild. Do we see the consequences of violence? Absolutely, but the only real on-screen stuff is one, fists only “rumble” between the rival gangs at the end of the book…But then again I read epic fantasy where people are impaled by swords and stuff so a fist fight is no big deal. Or perhaps I’m subconsciously comparing the violence here to actual, real world violence, which everyone knows is so much worse…Whatever the reason, I see nothing controversial here.

There is just one, tiny thing that made me cringe – but only because it’s a major modern writing no-no and it happened in the first paragraph. Since this book is from the 60s, it’s partially forgiven, but if you’re writing a novel right now, remember that it’s very bad form to have the main character describing himself or herself like their lookin’ in a mirror.  Just don’t do it, kids. Especially in the first paragraph. There’s always a better way to get those details in.

Overall I liked this book – in Goodreads terms that’s 3 stars! And at 192 pages, it’s novella length and a fairly quick read.

Stay tuned for more reviews!

Happy reading!

 

~ ebook checked out from the local library.

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Book Review: Updraft by Fran Wilde

UpdraftOnce again, here’s an author that came to my attention because she was a guest speaker at my writing group. I wanted to “do my homework,” so to speak, before the meeting so I checked this one out from the library.

So, Updraft – it’s a fantasy about a society that lives in living bone towers above the clouds. Their method of transportation is to fly from tower to tower on wings made from silk and bone. The book cover is highly inaccurate, so don’t pay it no mind. The wings are small enough that they attach to the body and can be furled, so the people can walk around with them. The protagonist is Kirit and she breaks some serious rules, the consequences of which drive the remainder of the book’s plot.

Something I really liked about this book were the ‘monsters’ – which are called Skymouths. They fly around, silent, invisible, except when they open their mouths and they have wicked teeth and they eat people whole – so awesomely terrifying.

Also, I could tell the author had done her research when it came to the wings: how they worked, materials, etc. It all made sense and is based on real physics.

Unfortunately, there were some things a didn’t like:

  • Kirit. She’s kind of a Mary Sue character. She’s too good at everything – I can’t tell you what that ‘everything’ is without spoiling the plot, so I’ll just leave it at this: her abilities were not realistic.
  • The bone towers. They have tiers, they’re circular, but how big around are they? Again, the cover is no help because the book never says they’re spine-like. Also, I never could understand how the living quarters were arranged within the towers.  How many people live on each tier? Is each tier divided into smaller compartments like the spokes of a wheel? I gathered that one family have an entire tier all to themselves, but that doesn’t make any sense. From top to bottom the tower was only, like, twelve tiers of habitable space, does that mean there are only twelve families in the entire tower? No. Doesn’t work, sorry. Which leads me to my next point…
  • Population. Here we have a society that is very dangerous to live in. If your wings fail in flight, you fall to your death. When you’re learning to fly, you could easily mess up and fall to your death. The government has very harsh punishment for (in my humble opinion) minor infractions and comes to take people away and toss them to their deaths. There are monsters that fly around eating people on a regular basis. A lot of people die, often, which, if you want to maintain your population (nevermind growing it) you have to have a lot of babies. Like, all the babies. And yet, our main character: only child. Her best friend: only child. Just mentioning that there are children (but not actually see them) or showing one pregnant lady doesn’t convince me that the author’s got a handle on population issues or that she even thought about it. Kirit’s home tower is considered ‘overpopulated’….Twelve families per tower? Everyone has one kid? People are dying left and right? Over-populated my foot.

Ms. Wilde did admit at the meeting that, coming from a short story background, one of her weaknesses was that sometimes her prose were too lean. I think that some of my criticisms could stem from that. Possibly. Or I’m just a natality statistics nerd so I’m just not the person an author wants reading their book if they haven’t considered population issues in their world.

Final verdict: B-. I did like it – it had an interesting premise, but there were just a few things that drove me nuts.

Thanks for reading!

 

~ Hardback book checked out from the local library.

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.

Book Review & Giveaway(!): Phoenix Island by John Dixon

PhoenixIsland

Phoenix Island first came to my attention when I went to my first meeting of the Brandywine Valley Writer’s Group. The special guest speaker was a member of the group, John Dixon, who’d just published his second novel, the sequel to Phoenix Island titled Devil’s Pocket. He spoke about the sources of inspiration for this Phoenix Island (which is always interesting for a wannabe writer like myself), his experiences breaking into the publishing  industry (short version: years of hard work and lots of rejection) and the process of writing Phoenix Island and Devil’s Pocket.

Dixon just seems like a super humble, normal dude who’s passionate about his writing and that made me want to support this person’s writing efforts. Plus, he read a little from something he’s currently working on at the last writer’s group meeting and his characterization is just phenomenal. And there’s a fist on the front cover of this thing, so I pretty much had to read it.

Now, I consider myself to be well versed in the YA genre, but I’d never heard of  this John Dixon bloke. Phoenix Island was the winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in 2014, which is apparently a big deal in the horror genre. I can sort of see why this would be considered horror…The official definition of horror: it’s intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle their readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.

Yeah, that’s about right.

So, our main character is Carl. He’s sixteen and a champion boxer. Unfortunately, he has the habit of starting (and finishing) fights with bullies (the boxing was supposed to be an outlet for all the aggression). Carl finds himself orphaned and bouncing around the foster system thanks to his fists. We meet him at the “end of the road” so to speak. He’s picked a fight with the wrong bunch of kids and finds himself in front of a judge  who recommends Carl be remanded to a camp for hard cases until he turns eighteen. Carl accepts the deal because he doesn’t feel like he has a choice and he understands where his future lies if he doesn’t change his ways. Of course, not all is as it seems when he gets to this place, which turns out to be an island out in international waters…

I really enjoyed this. I read it in one day – during the lovely blizzard we had about a week and a half ago – and there is nothing that I can think of that I didn’t like about it. The fight scenes were great. I love a good fight scene. Dixon lets Carl fail over and over again, which had me thinking “he HAS TO succeed this time!” and then he wouldn’t, but he’d get right back up again, which I thought was a refreshing change from the norm. It certainly wasn’t predictable. At the writer’s group meeting, Dixon talked about how he had wanted to make a strong male character in his book and I think he’s succeeded here with Carl.

Dixon also mentioned that much of the criticism he received for this book was that people thought it was too violent for the YA genre. I really have to disagree. If you write a book about a ballerina, for example, the expectation of the reader will be that there will be dancing. There has to be dancing, otherwise, why a ballerina? If you write a book about a boxer kid who likes to thrash bullies, who ends up on some prison island, the expectation is that he’s going to hit someone.

Carl’s being a fighter is essential to the plot. And seeing him using this *ahem* ‘talent’ is also essential… I think what these critics were really saying was “This book wasn’t for me,” which is fine but it’s not the same as “This book is too violent for the kids.” Was the violence gratuitous? I didn’t think so. How is this any more violent or disturbing than The Hunger Games, for example? Or The Chocolate War? I really don’t think it is. Swearing is virtually non-existent, in that I don’t even remember there being any, which is very unusual for a YA book, period, let alone a YA book of this subject matter, but maybe that was a deliberate choice by the author – violence OR language, not both. Anyway, all I’m sayin’ is, get your expectations in line-this isn’t a book about bunnies and rainbows.

This one may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the book is well written and I couldn’t put it down. I can’t not give it an A.

And now for the super fabulous reward for reading this review – I am giving away a hardcover copy of Phoenix Island to one lucky reader. All you have to do is leave a comment below. Any old comment is fine but if you’re out of ideas, tell me about your favorite fight scene in a book. Please fill out the email address field in the comment form – your email will not show up on the comment post but I can see it in my comment admin. This is how I will contact you, should you win. I will randomly select a winner by comment number using random.org. The contest will close at midnight on February 14th, 2016, and I’ll contact the winner shortly thereafter.
Thanks for reading!

~Hardcover purchased from Amazon Marketplace.

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.

Book Review: Infinity Squad by Shuvom Ghose

Inifinity SquadIt was really good to get back to some aliens, clones and explosions.

I actually started this back in November – which is the worst month for me to start reading anything because of NaNoWriMo. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to finish the thing at the time. I finally got back to it last weekend. This book came on my radar because it was on my sister’s Goodreads feed and I thought the plot sounded awesome. I got it from Amazon for the low, low price of zero dollars. And you can, too! Right Here.

In this world, the military has the ability to ‘download’ your mind into a cloned body if you die in combat (an infinite number of times, presumably). The narrator is Second Lieutenant Jonah Forrest who becomes the commander of Infinity squad after their First Lieutenant dies (permanently) under mysterious circumstances. The humans are in the midst of a war with the Hell Spiders on a planet far from Earth. Forrest discovers something very interesting about this alien enemy and stuff starts to hit the fan in short order.

The military science fiction I’ve read in the past always moves along at a good clip, not a lot of description or pontificating like fantasy does, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – just different. The focus is on tactics, weapons, explosions- that sort of thing- as opposed to visuals and exhaustive world building. I really liked the narrative voice – it reminded me of Mark Watney from The Martian, but with a lot more swearing. There was also some sexual content, so reader beware.

This was published by an indie author, but again, it doesn’t show. It was entertaining and well paced. The characters were funny and real. The premise was well thought out and executed. Some interesting uses for the clone technology are used in the character’s various exploits, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Verdict: A-.

Thanks for reading!

 

~ebook purchased from Amazon for $0.

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.

Book Review: One Summer by David Balducci

One SummerPart of me feels like it’s not fair for me to do a review of One Summer. I am not this book’s audience. I appreciate the fact that there are people out there who like to read these kinds of books, but I am not one of them. The other part of me knows that no matter the genre, if the book is written well, even scrooges like me can enjoy it.

That being said, I have a couple “disclosures” before I get into this review.

DISCLOSURE 1: I really dislike contemporary fiction.

I find the genre boring. It deals with ordinary people in our ordinary (mostly boring) world. And it’s just BORING, guys. Thus, there really has to be something special about the characters or the narrative voice to keep me reading. In addition, it’s usually all drama, all the time, which I find emotionally manipulative. It’s like the author is trying to trick you into caring about the characters instead of doing the work to show us in a realistic way why we should care about them. I don’t know about anyone else, but if the characters want my sympathy, they need to earn it. All novels have some level of emotional manipulation – that’s part of the magic –  you truly do grow to care about characters that exist only in your mind’s eye. The problem with contemporary fiction is that it’s so obvious about it. Having a few bad things happen to the characters on page one isn’t going to stir this cold, cold heart.

To drive the point home further, I can definitively count on one hand the number of contemporary novels that I’ve read that I actually enjoyed. So, right out of the gate, I knew I probably wasn’t going to like this book. In fact, a sense of dread settled over me just taking a look at the front cover of the thing.

DISCLOSURE 2: I have tried reading two of Balducci’s novels in the last year. I put both of them down a few pages in and don’t feel the least bit sorry about it.

You can probably guess how this review is going to go – just like I could guess every plot point in this novel.

Alright, so One Summer by David Balducci…

It’s about a guy named Jack who’s a thirty-something veteran. He has a wife and three kids and when we meet him in chapter one he’s almost dead from a fatal disease which he never names. Then his wife dies in a car accident before he kicks the bucket and he’s shipped off to a hospice to die alone and his children are shipped off to live with relatives. But then Jack miraculously recovers and tries to pull his life back together.

I got the ebook version of this book from the libary, read a few chapters and just knew deep in my bones that I would never be able to finish it in that format (you know, if I had to actually sit down using my free will and dedicate hours of my time to reading it and doing nothing else – ha!), so I went back to the digital catalog to check out the audiobook, which I’d seen was available when I’d originally checked out the ebook. I’ve never listened to an audiobook before…and I may never do so again. Do they all have cheesy music that they throw in every once in awhile for dramatic effect? I hated that. It didn’t help that some of the music sounded wonky like an old, worn out cassette tape. I’m serious guys. I don’t know how that even happens with a digital recording…but every time that sappy music started playing and then started to warp, I was like, “Are you freaking kidding me?!”

Complaints about the audiobook aside…this book was just so cliché and predictable I could hardly stand it.

It’s like the author went down the Hallmark movie cliché checklist:

  • Resentful mother-in-law cliché: check.
  • Incompetent father cliché: check.
  • Rebellious teenage daughter cliché: check.
  • Custody battle cliché: check.
  • Sappy love letters cliché: check.
  • Learning to love again cliché: check. Check. Check.

I could go on…

I have no complaints about the writing or editing. It was fine. *shrug* These characters and situations, though, just weren’t believable to me. Real people are not cliché. Real life is not cliché. And yet. Here we have this novel. And many, many others just like it.

I really don’t understand the appeal, I guess.

My faith in contemporary fiction has most certainly not been restored. This book earns a C-. The writing is competent but it’s boring and predictable. Skip it and spare yourself the loss of five hours you will never, ever get back.

Three strikes, Mr. Balducci.

 

~ebook & audiobook borrowed from the local library.

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