Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

Review: Darkchild, Sydney van Scyoc

Phew.  Nearly didn’t make it.  Actually I am not absolutely convinced I did make it – I was planning to read Daughters of the Sunstone (a trilogy) for the YA/juvenile fiction book of Jeane‘s DogEar Reading Challenge; I thought it was juvenile fiction because when I looked it up in the library catalogue, it was shelved in the children’s section.  So when December rolled around I placed a hold on it (it was checked out), and I waited and waited and waited, and it never came in, and eventually I gave up and just checked out the first book of the trilogy, Darkchild.  I don’t know that I’d call it a kids’ book in real life, but on the other hand, I don’t want the challenge police to come and scold me, so a kids’ book it shall be called!

Darkchild is a sci-fi/fantasy book in which, essentially, humankind left earth eons ago and went to colonize other planets, making necessary changes to adapt to life on less friendly planets.  Brakrath, where our young heroine Khira lives, is one such planet – a planet on which the ruler can use the power of the sun as she wishes.  While spending a long winter alone, Khira meets a boy without a name, whom she calls Darkchild, unaware that he has been programmed (against his will, of course, or we wouldn’t like him) to collect information about her civilization, then bring it back to his programmers so they can use it to destroy the people of Brakrath and take all their valuable things.

What I loved about this book was the honesty of the characters’ dilemmas.  Even after she learns what Darkchild really is, Khira is fiercely loyal to him, desperate to find a way to save him from anyone that might consider harming or destroying him.  Darkchild, in his turn, grows fond of Khira and tries to fight against his programming, to access those parts of his memory that are shut off to him, and to keep his “guide” (the program in his head that protects him) in check.  Their loneliness aches, and it makes their relationship very sincere.

I wasn’t as crazy about the sci-fi business.  I am picky picky about my science fiction, and I found some of this confusing.  Some bits were over-explained, like the race of creatures who had programmed Darkchild (Darkchild has a revelation of sorts, near the end, where he remembers how he helped his programmers to destroy cultures that had helped him – and it falls flat because this has been explained so thoroughly in the rest of the book); and some were under-explained, like the powers the barohna (the rulers of the sunstone) has, and the way everyday life goes on this world.  I had a hard time getting a sense of the world, I guess, and that took me out of the book a bit.  Can’t have been too bad, though, as I’m eager to read the sequels if I can get them, and see where the author takes it from here.  I like it that she’s switching to different characters, as I do feel Khira and Darkchild are at a good stopping place.

Thanks to the lovely Jeane for hosting this challenge!  I’d say three of these five books were a bit out of my comfort zone, and that is a good thing for me to do, read outside of my usual stuff, give different things a try and see how I find them.  Like science fiction and books about food that make me want to eat cheese fries.

An open letter to Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Wow, Patrick Ness, color me super impressed.  Way to create a distinctive, consistent, memorable voice for your protagonist.  That isn’t easy.  I have not read a book where I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much since, mm, The Book Thief, and before that The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  Which are two of my all-time favorite books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is based on a fantastic premise, that the aliens in this settled world have given the settlers the disease of Noise, which killed all the women and left the men able to hear each other’s thoughts; and then the youngest boy in the settlement of Prentisstown finds a girl.  A live girl!  The book is fast-paced and exciting and frightening.  The title is perfect.  The relationship between Todd and Viola is utterly real – all the relationships are, actually, and even though this is a plot-driven book, damn, Patrick Ness, you just nail those emotional moments every single time.  Like this?  (Major spoilers in the block text below, so skip to the subsequent paragraph if you haven’t read the book.  Even if you don’t care about spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know how great this is because all the context isn’t there, but trust me, it is great.)

Ben nods again, slow and sad, and I notice now that he’s dirty and there’s blood clotted on his nose and he looks like he ain’t eaten for a week but it’s still Ben and he can still read me like no other cuz his Noise is already asking me bout  Manchee and I’m already showing him and here at last my eyes properly fill and rush over and he takes me in his arms again and I cry for real over the loss of my dog and of Cillian and of the life that was.

“I left him,” I say and keep saying, snot-filled and coughing.  “I left him.”

“I know,” he says and I can tell it’s true cuz I hear the same words in his Noise.  I left him, he thinks.

Ouch.  Also, chills.

And you know what else, Patrick Ness?  Since I have gotten started talking about the good things about your book, and how it’s just everything that’s great about being great?  What else is, hooray for you, portraying a gay couple without making a big thing of it – we know they’re a couple because they act like a couple, not because you (the author) gets all THESE ARE TWO GAY PEOPLE THAT ARE GAY; they are just a couple, and that is nice, and it is normalizing, and there should be more of that going on in literature.  Oo, and, okay, also?  Aaron was about the dreadfullest villain I ever read about in my life.  (That isn’t a spoiler – you can always tell he’s insane.)

Here’s the thing, Patrick Ness.  You already did it!  You already created Todd’s voice!  You did it using only your words!  Your achievement is a remarkable achievement, because it is damn hard to create a voice like that, and you did it ever so beautifully.  Why, why, why did you need to do that silly dialect thing?  “Yer” is not necessary!  “Cuz” is not really necessary either!  And I can assure you that there is no possible world in which “conversayshun” would ever be necessary, because that is how the word is already pronounced.  It’s not an accent.  It’s how you say the word.  And “an asking” instead of “a question” is both silly and jarring.  It mildly chagrins my dazzle to see you relying on dialecty crutches this way, when Todd’s voice, and the atmosphere of the world you’ve created, are already just about perfect.

Since I am having a moan anyway, here’s my other (teeny-tiny) gripe, which contains massive spoilers.  I feel like the Big Prentisstown Reveal could have happened sooner.  At least part of it could have happened sooner.  I say, tell about how they killed all the women earlier on in the book (have one of the townspeople tell Todd, or something) – we pretty much figure that out anyway, right?  It’s part of the emotional arc of the story, but it’s not the central part.  The reveal you want to save for close to the end is that Prentisstown keeps on killing their own, to allow the boys to become men.  That is what’s crucial to the events that occur immediately after Ben tells it to Todd – plotwise and emotional-story-arc-wise.  Plus, if we already had the reveal about the women, we would think, okay, we’re done, now we know why nobody likes Prentisstown, and then the other thing would really slap us in the face, because it is pretty chilling.

(I mean, it wouldn’t slap me in the face.  I would already know because I would have read the end (as indeed I did!) and found out what was what.  This was helpful to me in making judgments about where each reveal should have occurred.  Reading the end: the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye.)

Once I get started complaining, I can’t stop, so here’s my last complaint.  Patrick Ness, WHY ARE YOU BRITISH?  And also WHY DID I NOT READ THIS BOOK SOONER?  My sister has just now returned from Ireland, and if I had read this book like, like two days sooner, I could have told her to buy me the sequel, which is out in the UK now but not out in the US until September.  I really loved the books I read last week, but I would have loved them a few days later, and then I could have had The Ask and the Answer on Thursday when my sister comes all the way properly home.

To conclude, Patrick Ness, you are awesome, and future books would not suffer if you eighty-sixed the fakey dialect bit.  Also (spoilers!  Spoilers!), given that this book turned me into an emotional wreck, you, um, you could go ahead and have it turn out that Ben is still alive.  And, um, I mean, Cillian too.  That would be fine.  It wouldn’t mess up anything!  I would be happy!  Todd and Ben would be happy!  We would all be happy!  I wouldn’t feel like you had cheated!  Just if you wanted to have it turn out that way.  I only mention it.

Kisses and hugs,
Jenny

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Bart’s Bookshelf
books i done read
Becky’s Book Reviews
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Fantasy Book Critic
Librarilly Blonde
The Well-Read Child
Wands and Worlds
YA Reads
YA Fabulous
Karin’s Book Nook
The Page Flipper
Reading the Leaves
Bookannelid
Lisa the Nerd
Kids Lit
Bitten by Books
Books and So Many More Books
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury

My sister said to read this, so I bought it at the book fair last month.  Ray Bradbury can write some disturbing stories, I tell you what.  He writes beautifully – such good imagery and dialogue.  I like the frame mechanism, of the  man with illustrations on his body that begin to move, to tell the stories.  I’d read two of these stories before, the one with the nursery and the one with the falling star – hated the star, loved the nursery.  Which is about how I feel about them generally.  I like the ones that start out sort of pleasant and domestic, and then you gradually come to realize they aren’t pleasant and domestic at all but in fact really creepy.

I feel pleased with Ray Bradbury.  Maybe I will read Fahrenheit 451 again.  It’s been years.  I didn’t care for it much when I was in middle school but I am much older and more cynical these days.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This review brought to you by: Indie Sister, the same girl responsible for my reading Neil Gaiman.  I am always wary of Indie Sister’s book suggestions.  Sometimes she says to read things like Coin-Locker Babies, which gave me terrible underwater nightmares, and which I have really tried hard to forget completely; and sometimes she says to read Neil Gaiman and gives me a massive huge new source of happiness.

I checked out A Canticle for Leibowitz a month ago, and I only finished it last night.  I kept putting it off.  I’m not the hugest fan of science fiction that there has ever been.  Eventually I looked up Walter Miller on Wikipedia and discovered that a) he converted to Catholicism; and b) he struggled with mental illness his whole life before eventually committing suicide.  These things gave me much more of a fellow feeling for Walter Miller, so I decided to read his book.  And I loved it.  He killed himself before finishing a sequel to Canticle, so THANKS A LOT, MENTAL ILLNESS.

Oh, this book was so good.  Oh, I liked it so much.  I don’t want to return it to the library.  It’s set in the Southwestern United States many years after a world-wide nuclear war, following which there was a major backlash against technology and learning, which people perceived to have been the cause of the mass destruction.  Leibowitz was a Jewish clever man who converted to Catholicism, founded a monastic order, and worked really hard with the Church to save books for future generations; and he was martyred.  All this a long time ago.  The first part of the book is set before Leibowitz is canonized, and a young monk discovers relics of him; and then the second part (possibly my favorite?  I couldn’t decide) is set many years later, at the beginning of a sort of new Renaissance, and a scholar comes to the Abbey to study all the Leibowitz documents they have there; and the third part is about how everyone’s getting set to destroy the world.  Again.

This book was so, so good.  Really.  With added poignancy because Walter Miller served in the Allied forces.  And – my family made fun of me when I said this but here it is – I liked it that the Catholics weren’t all humongous jerks.  Not because I am one of those people with a bumper sticker that says “I’m thankful for the thousands of GOOD priests”.  I am not one of those people.  I want to key those people’s cars.  But because there are such a lot of bigoted, sexist, closeminded, insulting, rude Catholic priests around, and I always want Catholic priests to be nice and wry and morally upright; and it was nice to read a book in which most of them really were.

I just loved this book to pieces.  I loved how each of the parts of the book mirrored an aspect of our history – the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and the modern times – and how religion fit into each of those times.   That was neat.  All circle-of-life-y.  And I found the people in the books remarkably sympathetic, especially sweet innocent Brother Francis in the first part, all confused by how upset everyone was getting, and so sweet with the bandits and the relic – bless him.  And I liked this:

The answer was near at hand: there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods.  The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: How shall you “know” good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little?  Taste and be as Gods.  But neither infinite power not infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men.  For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

And this:

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas.
We march in spite of Hell, we do–
Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris,
telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve
and a traveling salesman called Lucifer.
We bury your dead and their reputations.
We bury you.  We are the centuries.

And this:

And the last old Hebrew sat alone on a mountain and did penance for Israel and waited for a Messiah, and waited, and waited, and–

Yup.  A Canticle for Leibowitz.  What a good book.  “We bury you.  We are the centuries.”  Wow.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary Pearson

Recommended by: Melissa

I know that when writing a story is going well, everything seems connected, but it felt a little weird reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox right after spending an hour hunting for titles for my own story.  I was thinking of themes and words and trying to free-associate and when that failed, I went and read The Adoration of Jenna Fox with all the words still whizzing around in my brain.  The three primary ones – family, protection, secrets – as well as agency, actually – were remarkably relevant.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is about a girl who has just woken up after a year of being in a coma, and she’s trying to relearn all her old skills and words and memories.  There are many strange circumstances all over the place.  Like the fact that her family brought her from Boston to recuperate, but they only moved here two weeks ago, like they somehow knew that she would be waking up from the coma exactly now.  And the fact that food has no taste, and how her grandmother is weirdly hostile towards her.

It was a good book.  The obvious revelation – I won’t say though you’ll figure it out anyway – gets explained halfway through the book, which I liked because it gives Jenna all this time to contemplate her humanity and the decisions she gets to make, and that was an interesting process.  I thought some of the characters weren’t fully explored – as important as Alyss ended up being, she was sort of a one-note character, and Dane never went anywhere much either.  What worked beautifully was the development of the relationship between Jenna and her grandmother, and the relationship of the pre-coma Jenna with her parents.  There was a most genuine and remarkable moment in the book when Jenna tells her parents – well, I won’t say.  It’s a good moment.  I am a ruiner of major plot points but not emotional moments.

My other complaint – I’m such a complainer! – was the epilogue.  It felt tacked-on, tying everything up – all these messy issues – in a nice little package.  The ending of the book came so abruptly, and then the epilogue happened, and then it was over.  Because I thought that the Alyss plot thread worked less well than the rest, I wasn’t thrilled about where that went.  The logical climax of the book was Jenna’s declaration of her own agency, but then it went round and had another high-tension moment and then BAM that was the end.  I don’t know.  I didn’t like it.

This was an excellent book nevertheless.  It explored themes.  I liked it so much I trotted into my sister’s room and gave it to her to read.  If my mother had been awake I’d have recommended it to her as well.  I love telling people what to read.  Thanks, Mary Pearson, for giving me this opportunity.

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card

The public librarian recommended Ender’s Game to my eighth-grade class, lo these many years ago, and from there I read just about all of Orson Scott Card’s books except the ones I thought looked lame.  And including several I thought wouldn’t be lame but were, after all.

Just reread these two.  I also recently reread Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead and Children of the Mind, and I guess it’s because I most recently read Children of the Mind that I felt like I never wanted to read anything by Orson Scott Card ever again as long as I lived and even if I died and dead people brought me books in the graveyard and the only book I had at all was Speaker for the Dead still even then I would reject it totally and just lie all dead and read nothing whatsoever.

Yeah, that was weird.  But the feeling passed, and I reread Ender’s Shadow first and then Ender’s Game.  And I was really struck by how much more I liked Ender’s Game than a) I remembered and b) Ender’s Shadow.  Really.  It’s a pretty good book.

However, reading all this Orson Scott Card has made me realize how dreadfully smug and self-righteous everybody is.  They really are.  All the characters are, they all are, not a single one of them isn’t.  They just all think they’re totally right and they say many smug and self-righteous things in defense of their positions.  I thought that the reason I didn’t ever want to read OSC again was that I had just overdosed on his books, but I think now it was overdosing on smugness and self-righteousness.

Which is funny because those are two qualities I possess in spades.

This isn’t much of a review.  I’ll go again.

Basically, the humans are under attack by these aliens they call buggers (or formics sometimes), and the most brilliant children of all the children are being recruited to learn to be commanders so that they can fight the buggers off, and the most brilliant child of all the children is Ender.  (Except in Ender’s Shadow it turns out that the most brilliant child of all the children is actually its protagonist, Bean.)  And because Ender is so brilliant, they are grooming him to command the entire space army that will destroy the buggers, and his life’s really unhappy in learning-to-defeat-aliens school.

It’s good.  I don’t mean to put anyone off by saying that all the characters are smug.  They’re still fun to read about, because you know, a lot of times you have a good idea but when people say snide things about it, you can’t immediately think of the clever thing to say to prove what a good idea your idea is; but the characters in these books?  They can always think of the clever thing to say to prove what good ideas their ideas are.