Title: The Unit
Author: Ninni Holmqvist
Publisher/Year: Other Press, 2006/2009
Genre: Adult dystopia
Source: Purchased (Barnes and Noble)
Date Read: Fall 2009
Rated four stars on Goodreads/LibraryThing.
Dorrit Weger has just turned fifty, and she’s single and childless. In her society, this means she no longer has value and she must check into the Second Reserve Bank for Biological Material. There, she will live out her final days in comfort and luxury while slowly being used for more and more biological and psychiatric testing. After participating in multiple experiments over many months, or even years, she will be asked to make her final donation. And then she will be no more. Dorrit has accepted this fate — in her society, there is no choice — but then she meets a man in The Unit and falls in love. Falling in love gives her a new reason to reject her fate, but it’s too late for such choices. Or is it?
The Unit is very similar to Unwind by Neal Schusterman, which probably plays a huge factor in why I found it so good (well, the other way around — I read The Unit first). It’s a translation from Swedish, so it’s quite different from typical American literature. There’s something quiet and utilitarian about the tone. The hardest thing about the novel is suspending belief that such a society would actually exist. I don’t believe for a hot second that we would ever deem unmarried, childless people “useless” and force them to donate their bodies to science for the greater good. I had to accept that crazy notion and focus on the story within that world, just like I had to in Unwind. The remainder of the story is an interesting concept: a utopian world inside of a dystopian society. Everything is free, aesthetically pleasing, entertaining. Dorrit falls in love. Things are going well, but it’s all fake. It’s the government and scientists trying to make themselves feel less guilty about what they are doing to these people and why.
And then there’s Dorrit. She’s not the most likable protagonist. She’s kind of strange. I mean, she has very few relationships in the real world and remains disconnected from everything. She could have married to avoid her fate (marriage or death? I’ll pick marriage!), but she didn’t. But then she suddenly falls in love? It’s very strange, though thought provoking — did facing death change her? But it’s never really clear. The ending to the story is ultimately the surprise, and reveals more about Dorrit that makes her make sense. But until that point I had a hard time connecting with her. The ending in general was weird, yet satisfying.
“Life and existence have no value in themselves. We mean nothing; not even those who are needed mean anything. The only thing of real value is what we produce.”
FINAL GRADE: B At the time, I rated it a B. Then I listed it as one of my favorite reads that year, considering bumping it to an A. Now it’s a B, mostly due to the feasibility of the story and my general dislike of Dorrit as a character. However, I had both a sympathy for the position she was in and a fascination with the world of The Unit. Mostly I was fascinated with the emotions of it. It’s quite clinical and fake, but with the impending experiments and death there’s a shadow hanging over everyone all the time. This isn’t action-adventure dystopia like Unwind, but more literary fiction dystopia. That’s why I recommend it adults who like dystopia. It’s not a kid book and it may not have a wide audience, but I liked it.
Do you think there is a difference between adult dystopia and YA dystopia? Which do you prefer? Can you recommend any other adult dystopian titles (besides 1984, which I have already read and loved)?
Title: Before I Fall
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher/Year: HarperCollns, 2010
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Purchased (Barnes and Nobel)
Date Read: Summer 2010
Original Review (Summer 2010)
An interesting concept, it definitely kept me reading to find out what Sam would do each day and how she would end the cycle. Was surprised by the ending, but found it appropriate and thought it was well done.
Samantha Kingston is your typical popular high school girl. She’s got the clothes, the friends, the car, and the boyfriend. She can be a little mean to people and self-absorbed. And then, one day, she dies in a car accident. However, instead of just dying and ceasing to exist, Samantha is thrust into a Groundhog Day-esque situation, repeating that last day of her life over and over. She’s not quite sure why this happened or what to do with her situation — does she try to escape death? Prevent it? Avoid it? Or is there something more she needs to figure out before she can take the next step?
I can’t believe it’s only been two and a half years since I read this book. It feel like EONS ago, since it was one of the last books I read before starting this blog. Maybe it’s even one of the ones that inspired me to start blogging. After all, what do you do when you read a book that makes you think, that changes you just a little bit, and you have no one to talk to about it?! That’s how this book made me feel. I wanted to talk to someone. Books about death inspire that in me, since they all have different takes on the situation. Compare it to Before I Die by Jenny Downham or If I Stay by Gayle Foreman (or even The Lovely Bones) in that respect. Due to the conceit of reliving same day over and over, though, this story is longer than either of those and takes a different approach.
Each day reveals complexity in Samantha’s life, which I appreciated. It would have been easy to pin-point her as a mean girl at the beginning, but even mean girls have souls. They aren’t 100% mean. They aren’t exactly “victims” of high school culture, but Samantha exemplifies how there is always more to the story than what meets the eye. Samantha is pretty unlikable for the first 3/4 of the book or so, but eventually it doesn’t matter if you like her or not. She actually became a sympathetic character, and the ending absolutely blew me away. I don’t remember many of the details of the story, but that ending is clear as day in my brain — the visual, the sounds, the emotions. Isn’t that the mark of a good book?
“Time doesn’t matter…certain moments go on forever.”
FINAL GRADE: B Good book, enjoyable read. It loses a star for being a little bit long in places, and for my initial frustration with Sam’s character. However, I recommend it to anyone who likes edgier contemporary YA. Hold up — is this even contemporary? It feels like contemporary, even though there is a sort of “supernatural” element with the repeating day. Yes. Contemporary. Anyway, my middle school students loved it and high schoolers would, too. And if you like books that make you cry, this is the book for you. I can’t believe this is Lauren Oliver’s debut novel, since she’s such a huge author now (the Delirium trilogy is largely responsible for that!) It’s amazing what three years can do, huh?
How do you feel about books about death? Which is your favorite book on the topic?
Title: The Sea of Tranquility
Author: Katja Millay
Publisher/Year: Atria, 2012
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Review copy from NetGalley
Nastya is a former piano prodigy who went through something tragic and now doesn’t speak. She’s been through therapy, but nothing has helped except running miles and miles every night in the sticky Florida heat. Josh is a seventeen year old boy haunted by death — everyone around him is dead. Emancipated, he spends his time crafting furniture in his garage shop and avoiding the world. Utilizing the dual narration of both Nastya and Josh, The Sea of Tranquility unfolds the story of emotional traumas, pain, and healing through unlikely friendships and second chances.
Now let me be frank from the get-go here: I like books where stuff happens. YA contemporary, as a genre, can often bore me — especially when the books surpass 300 pages — because I find them too slow and dull, often cliche and self-indulgent. But I LOVED this book. It doesn’t read like a romanic comedy. It’s the messed up story of two messed up kids. It’s messy. Dark. Unpredictable. But what it really sells is emotions. The sexual tension, the questions, the mysteries, the uncertainty, the sadness, lust, fear, surprise and even humor. And often these emotions are happening simultaneously. It got to me.
It’s also a character-driven story. And you know what? I liked every single one of the characters. The parents weren’t annoying, needy, or uninvolved. The teenagers were all multi-dimensional and real. Every character felt so real. My favorite character, in fact, was Josh’s best friend, the seemingly-douchey Drew Leighton. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a character like him before. That kid stole my heart. Though Josh was the real heart stealer in the novel. That boy can give me a bucket of pennies any time he wants. Or make a chair.
And Nastya. Our tough-yet-broken and completely mute female protagonist. At first I was worried about how I was going to read 500 pages of angsty, troubled teenage girl. It wasn’t long before Nastya grew on me, though, and I was rooting for her the whole way. From the first day in the courtyard lunch staring at Josh wondering how he got a “force field” around him, to her explanations for why she makes the decisions she makes, I found her logical and reasonable. Even if she is experiencing difficulty with her life post-trauma, she felt real instead of frustrating. And even though everyone around her has their moments of frustration with her mutism and her random behaviors, I understand why they stick around and stick by her.
FINAL GRADE: A This gets an A for everything, but especially the reading experience. It’s one of those rare books that affected every part of me while reading. My heart was doing flips and I honestly didn’t know where Millay was going with this story, but I was along for the ride from the first page. Though it is quite long and has a slow build, enough was revealed and enough happened along the way to satisfy me. I was never bored.
Assigned reading: Everyone. Fans of Speak will enjoy it — though I felt this book was even better. Plus I didn’t have to picture Kristen Stewart as the main character the whole time, so…bonus.
Recommendations: Put it in a high school library, leave it out of a middle school library. Be aware of rape, violence, sexuality, teenage drinking, and drug use.
Have you read this book? How you usually feel about YA contemporary, romance, or problem novels?
Recommend A…is run by Chick Loves Lit, and I love this little meme because it is basically like a practical test in reader’s advisory, which was my favorite part of being a librarian (and the reason why I run this blog).
Today we are recommending books to give for a birthday. I’ll give all kinds of books for birthdays (especially novelty books, like I Can Has Cheezeburger and Twitterature), but I going to approach this thematically: birthday books ABOUT birthday. When I think of books about birthdays, this is the first one that comes to mind:
Plot in a nutshell: One month before his thirteenth birthday, Jeremy Fink receives a mysterious box as a gift from his deceased father. The box contains the meaning of life, but the four keys to open the box have gone missing. Jeremy embarks on a mission, along with his adventurous BFF Lily, to find the keys in time for his birthday. Along the way, Jeremy works an interesting job, meets some fascinating people, and learns a few life lessons of his own.
Why I recommend it: It has some great twists, two great protagonists, some crazy characters, and a good message. Life’s a journey, not a destination — right? You have to suspend belief a bit (how can he find four random keys in New York City and learn ALL THE LESSONS along the way?!), but it’s worth it and it’s charming. I even cried at the end, for the same reason I cried when Harry Potter first saw his parents in the Mirror of Erised (to give you a heads up if that type of thing makes you cry). I also recommend the audio book, as the story works quite well in that format.
Who I recommend it to: This is such a great book for a middle schooler, especially one about to turn thirteen. Jeremy’s story might also be good bibliotherapy for anyone who has ever lost a parent. I also recommend it to teachers, librarians, and parents who work with this age group, as it would be a great book to read if you are familiar with middle grades fiction (its positives as a genre and its short comings — often in terms of predictability and contrived plots). It would also be a great book to read with middle grades students. I don’t recommend it fans of YA who want more edgy/daring books.
BONUS! Jeremy Fink isn’t Mass’s only book about birthdays. In fact, she’s got at least four others! We had all of these in my library, but I’ve never read them. However, after reading the blubs on Goodreads, I think I’d like to give 11 Birthdays (a Groundhog Day-esque story) and Leap Day (playing with point of view) a try. Here are Mass’s other birthday books:
Which birthday books would you recommend? What was the best book you’ve ever gotten for your birthday?
Paper Covers Rock
by Jenny Hubbard
Purchased on my Nook
[#10 in my 75 book challenge]
This is one of those books that presents the reader with a terrible situation, and swirls around the truth of that situation for the entire novel until the truth is revealed at the end.
Plus there are lots of Moby Dick references and some INTENSE sexual tension (with a teacher, no less).
Alex and his friends, Thomas and Glenn, were drinking vodka in the woods near their all-male boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina (hey, another local book!). Each of the boys jumped off a large rock into the French Broad river, but only two came up alive. Thomas died when he didn’t clear the jump, leaving Alex and Glenn to make sense of exactly what happened that day on the river.
So yeah. There are secrets. LOTS of secrets. The secrets are what kept me reading and what kept me glued to the book, finishing it in one sitting.
The story is told almost like a series of essays. It’s definitely a cohesive story, but each sub-section reads like a high school English essay. Some of the sections actually are Alex’s high school English essays and poems. Alex is supposedly writing the story in a journal, which he is hiding on the shelves of the library, so they essay thing kind of makes sense. The writing does feel a bit pretentious and faux-literary at times, but what would you expect from a high school junior at an all-boys boarding school? I guess, in that sense, it worked and the style was realistic. But sometimes it drove me nuts with too much literary allusion.
Final Grade: B It was better than average, and I had a superb reading experience. Any book that keeps me gripped the way this one did deserves a good grade! It did have some pitfalls in terms of being a little too literary and trying a little bit too hard. I liked it, though, and I might even re-read it one day. There might be more layers than I could get at on the first go-round.
As for my recommendations as a media specialist — I think this one belongs in a high school library, but not a middle school. I don’t say that often. The content is fine, no more sexual or dark than other books we own, but the writing style would be beyond 99% of my students. There are better, more age-appropriate books I could buy with my funds.
Before I Die
by Jenny Downham
[#55 in my
52 60 book challenge]
It’s no secret from the title of the book that 1.) the girl dies and 2.) I knew I was going to cry like a baby. But I like books that make me cry.
I didn’t realize this one would make me cry quite so much.
Picture me, laying in bed at 11:45pm turning the last pages of the novel (because I just couldn’t put it down) and making awful weeping noises. I had to change my pillowcase. Yeah. It was like that.
The first 3/4 of the story was average. The main character, Tessa, has been fighting leukemia for four years and has finally been told that she’s losing the battle. The doctors stop the chemo and she has just a few months left to live. At first, Tessa is depressed and miserable. But she creates a list of all the things she wants to do in her last months to experience life before she goes and she sets out to do them. She has sex, says yes to everything for a day, does drugs, drives a car, breaks the law…and falls in love.
The idea was great, but I found the writing a bit hard to read at times. I had to force myself to pick it up and read each night. Understanding Tessa was hard for me. Sometimes things just happened out of the blue, and not in a good way. I really didn’t appreciate the continued disrespect she had for her obviously mentally and emotionally exhausted father, a man who generally supported the idea of Tessa’s list. She’d disappear and lie to him constantly without realizing why he worried about her. I also didn’t quite get the romance. Tessa’s love interest is so unrealistically perfect up until the very end. Is that how real teenage boys are? Because that’s not my memory, but they seem to be that way in many YA novels (the girls, however, can be as hot and cold as they want).
After forcing myself to read the middle section of the book, the ending rewarded me greatly. The last 40 pages make this book absolutely worth it and they will stay with me for a long time. The chapters get shorter. The spaces between the paragraphs get longer. The thoughts are shorter. Tessa gives the reader a first-hand account of dying from cancer. I don’t care who you are, you would have to have a tiny black pebble of a heart not to get emotional over that. It forced me to think about my own mortality and what it’s like to know that you’re dying and not being able to anything about it.
I think part of what I didn’t like was Tessa’s list. I’ve never had much of a rebellious streak, so rebellious activities would not have made up my list (even at 16). I can understand the falling in love and having sex. Even the driving. But my list would have included more simple things, travel experiences, and time spent with people that I love. To each her own, I guess. I have certainly been inspired me to make better use of the time I have today in my young, healthy life.
If you like terribly, terribly sad books or the like, this book is for you. Just make sure you have tissues so you don’t get snot all over your pillowcase…not that I did that or anything…