October 31, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A MockingbirdTo Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: ★★★★★

Sitting down to write this review, I feel a bit silly. I mean, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic; it's been read, analyzed, and critiqued since the day it was published. What more could I possibly add to what's already been said countless times? The answer, of course, is nothing of import. I can't offer any astounding new idea or interpretation, nor do I have the literary background necessary to garner any respect for my views. At its core, there's nothing particularly unique about my opinion; but everyone who reads a particular book has an individual experience. Here's mine.

To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned to me as required reading for my tenth grade English class. I didn't read it. After all, if one were to poll high-schoolers on their required-reading experiences, the response would overwhelmingly negative. It's no secret that many teenagers are not going to particularly enjoy the books assigned to them in school--either because the assigned books genuinely aren't interesting to them, because the books are too difficult (or, more rarely, too easy) for their reading level, or because they don't want to be told what to read.

I'm in the third camp. Though I've loved to read for as long as I can remember, I hate being told what to read. I've had experience with some truly boring books before, but my refusal to read school-assigned books wasn't the result of those. It was the simple fact that I didn't want people picking my books for me.

So I gave To Kill a Mockingbird a pass during the 2008-09 school year. The school system made it easy for me: I'm reasonably intuitive, so multiple choice and short-answer quizzes were just a matter of picking up the little hints scattered across the page, and I'm fairly good at "bullshitting", so essay tests were as simple as picking a key phrase out of the prompt and building an argument around it with what I knew from pop-culture osmosis, talking about the book with other students, and the foreknowledge of what kinds of arguments usually got high scores. What I absolutely couldn't answer, I skipped. My grades didn't reflect the evasion.

It helped that we watched the movie. You know the one: the black-and-white, 1962 picture staring Gregory Peck. It's never a good idea to take novel-based tests based on an adaptation, but familiarity with the bones of a plot certainly helps.

I ended up graduating without ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird  I didn't really think much of it; maybe I'd dodged a bullet in the form of a boring book, or maybe I'd skipped out on something I'd really enjoy. It could've gone either way, and I didn't really care. I knew enough about the plot from the movie and my friends that following up on the book didn't make it anywhere near my immediate to-do list.

That is, until I set up the GR Shelf Challenge for myself. In September of 2012, I found myself browsing Goodreads at random; with no distinct purpose in mind, I meandered over to the Shelves/Genres. I'd seen them before, but this time it sparked an idea in my head; I was already doing monthly themed reads (I run the Read by Theme book club, as a matter of fact), but I had been thinking about tackling a secondary challenge. I hadn't found one I favored... until I that moment.

The GR Shelf Challenge is simple: go through the list of shelves, starting with the most popular and working one's way down to the least popular. Read the most popular book of one shelf every month. Review it, and you're done.

When I looked at the To Read shelf, the first book on it that I hadn't read was To Kill a Mockingbird  So it was time to unbury my copy and read the book I'd avoided for four years.

I'm glad I did. To Kill a Mockingbird is leagues better than I expected it to be. What did I expect? Most prominently, I had thought the book would be more "legal story" than "coming of age story"; I knew the main character was Scout, but I thought Tom Robinson was the focal character. (According to my younger brother, who read the book and watched the movie last year, this mistaken impression spawned from the Gregory Peck adaptation.)

So instead of finding an A Time to Kill sort of legal thriller unfolding before me, I found myself watching a young girl grow into the harsh reality of the Depression era. The South suffered racism, poor education, socially acceptable child abuse, sexism, and all the related legal issues and rights breaches. Tom Robinson suffered, but so did Mayella Ewell, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Scout and her friends, and even Scout's misguided teachers.

In To Kill a Mockingbird  every character suffered in their own way. The African American characters suffered racism, segregation, hatred, and violence. Characters who outwardly opposed racism suffered prejudice. Children suffered prejudice and violence from adults. Misguided teachers actively discouraged their students' urge to learn. Women suffered violence and sexual abuse from men, up to and including their own fathers. Even the most reprehensible characters suffered--they lived in a world that encouraged and rewarded their behavior and lack of personal growth.

The human world still faces these issues today, but thankfully at a far lesser scale. In fact, that's what rings so true about To Kill a Mockingbird  It's a real problem, and it's being examined by a person who actually experienced it. This isn't a 2012 novel lamenting the racism of history; this is a 1960 novel reflecting the exact kind of life challenges that the author lived through. And that adds such weight to the story.

What it all comes down for me is that To Kill a Mockingbird was worth reading. Not because a teacher said so, but because To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story about America's past, growing up, challenging injustice, and accepting defeat in exchange for small victories. And it has a wonderfully poignant emotional ending.

To Kill a Mockingbird still isn't the kind of book I would normally read, but it's the kind of book that makes me glad I did.

October 29, 2012

The GR Shelf Challenge

The GR Shelf Challenge is a self-imposed reading/reviewing challenge I designed for myself in September 2012.

The idea plays off of Goodreads' shelves, and the task is simple: every month, read and review the top book of one shelf, going through the shelves in order from most popular to least.

I skip over books that I've already read, books already scheduled for another month of this challenge, books I've marked as "not-for-me", and sequels to books I haven't yet read. When I run into these, I move down the list until I find a suitable book to read for the challenge.

So what am I reading?*

October 2012 (To-Read Shelf): To Kill a Mockingbird
November 2012 (Currently Reading Shelf): A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)
December 2012 (Fiction Shelf): The Great Gatsby
January 2013 (Favorites Shelf): Pride and Prejudice
February 2013 (Fantasy Shelf): The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, #2)
March 2013 (Own Shelf): 1984
April 2013 (Wishlist Shelf): Divergent
May 2013 (2012 Shelf): The Fault in Our Stars
June 2013 (Non-Fiction Shelf): The Diary of a Young Girl aka Anne Frank's Diary
July 2013 (Romance Shelf): The Notebook
August 2013 (Books I Own Shelf): Wuthering Heights
September 2013 (Owned Shelf): The Catcher in the Rye

*The shelves do shift around from time to time, so these aren't 100% certain.

October 25, 2012

Book Buys!

Purchased 10/3/12 for $3 at the local thrift store

Fright Flight (Dreamseekers, #1) by Lisa Ard

Fright Flight (Dream Seekers, #1)Fright Flight by Lisa Ard

My rating: ★★★☆☆

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Fright Flight, I’m pleased to say, is what I expected it to be. I think it fulfilled its purpose: to present a young reader (seven to twelve is the recommended age, or at least that’s what the other reviewers are saying; the author actually told me seven to ten, which I find is a far better fit) with a fanciful SF/F story. Of course, I’m certainly not a member of the target audience, so I can only say this as an outsider looking in. But to me, Fright Flight came across as an acceptable addition to its genre.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel disappointed in a way. While reading, I got the distinct sensation that a great premise had been directed toward the wrong audience. The book as it is focuses a significant portion of the plot on the main character’s dream—too much of the plot, in my opinion. What piqued my curiosity was not by any means the spaceships; instead, the Dream Seekers themselves and their vague abilities drew my eye. I would have been more interested to see an examination of this “dream seeking”. How does it work, for instance? Are the Dream Seekers travelling to some alternate reality? The “Blend In” rule lends credence to that theory. And what about his mother? She’s stated to be able to share her children’s dreams. How does that work? Sheer willpower? And then she’s actually shown to visit her son’s spaceship dream, which brought up a bigger question: if he’s in such a dangerous dream that he needs his mother there to guide him, why didn’t she just wake him up in the “real world”? Can they not be awoken during a “dream seeking” episode? If so, that would present the characters with a major hassle in their lives, and I’d like to see the ramifications of that. The father’s attitude deserves special note: he’s described as a geneticist whose goal is to disable the gene that causes “dream seeking”. And yet his wife and children are Dream Seekers. This man is rife with unfortunate implications; he’s shown to emphasize his desire for his family to be “ordinary”, and yet no tension is shown between him and the people whose very identity he’s trying to remove. This family, if portrayed realistically to an older audience than the one for which the book was written, would be absolutely riddled with psychological issues. So I would have liked to read this plot as a YA novel; it would have given the author room to explore and elaborate, and perhaps then it would have satisfied my curiosity.

But still, it’s a nice story for a elementary schooler. I would say it’s a nice story for a beginning reader; however, the diction at certain times disqualifies it. There are moments when the twelve-year-old main character uses words that many people don’t learn until high school if ever, and while it’s not unrealistic for a twelve-year-old to have a respectable vocabulary, it is unrealistic for a twelve-year-old presented as “average” to have one. And that’s where the problem lies: the book certainly isn’t marketed solely toward twelve-year-olds with an advanced vocabulary. It’s marketed toward seven- to twelve-year-olds in general, and seven- to twelve-year-olds in general might have to break out a dictionary at points, which I personally consider detrimental to the book’s purpose. (After all, it’s hard enough to convince some children to read, so why make it more work that it has to be?)

All in all, this is a good piece; it does in certain moments make itself apparent as a first novel (the character’s voice comes across as a bit unpracticed, wavering between childlike and mature between paragraphs, and and there’s pointed avoidance of the word “said”, which is unnecessary at best and annoying at worst), but not in such a way that the target audience (or anyone else who isn’t actively looking for it) would notice. I would recommend it to any five- to ten-year-old with an interest in SF/F, and I do hope that this is an author who’ll continue to develop her craft as she continues with her series. And who knows? Maybe some of my questions will be answered as she goes.

October 24, 2012

Demon Vampire by Virgil Allen Moore

Demon VampireDemon Vampire by Virgil Allen Moore

My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

I wanted to enjoy this, especially since I received a free copy to review. But after muddling through the first seventy pages, I just couldn’t take it anymore. The slow pace of the plot wasn’t what finally made me quit; I can deal with a slow pace, and sometimes it’s even preferable. It wasn’t the amateurish writing, either; this is the author’s first novel, so it’s only fair to be somewhat forgiving. It was the editing. Or rather, the lack of it. An example from a random page:

“You know you’re a little too good at lying. It’s kind of scary.” Zack told Kyli as he slowly closed and extended his fingers.

Now, I can ignore the missing comma after “You know”. It’s not a big deal. Everyone makes typos, and even the best of editors is going to miss something. I could even forgive the incorrect formatting of the quotation (as everyone should know, it’s supposed to be “‘It’s kind of scary,’ Zack told Kyli…”)… if every single quotation wasn’t formatted that way, on top of all the other grammatical errors throughout the prose.

The only conclusion I can come to is that this simply wasn’t professionally edited, and it shows. It brings the whole book down, and that killed it for me. Amateurish writing is acceptable for a first novel. A slow pace is acceptable for any novel. But amateurish writing combined with such a slow pace that the plot can’t distract my attention away from the typos/mistakes? Nope, can’t do it. And it’s a damn shame, because I might have really enjoyed this if it’d had the benefit of a tighter plot and a firmer grasp of English.

The lesson here: always have an editor, no matter how expensive it may be, as no author can look objectively at their own work. Because the quality of the editing can make or break the book.