Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: The Duff by Kody Keplinger

Alright ladies, I've got a question: say you're at a scummy dance club that your friends all but forced you to go to. You're not having a good time. In fact, you're pretty miserable and can't wait to go home. As you sit at the bar nursing your Cherry Coke, a good-looking guy comes and sits next to you.

That would be nice, right? A good way to pass the time until your friends decide they've had all the man-handling they can take (for the night).

Well, say the hot guy in question turns out to be the village bicycle--"everybody has had ride!"--the infamous man-whore of your school/town. You're disgusted this vile creature is in your immediate vicinity, don't want him around. So you tell him to go away. And he doesn't. He tells you he needs your help because, in his words:

"You, darling, are the Duff. Designated. Ugly. Fat. Friend. No offense, but that would be you. Hey, don't get defensive. It's not like you're an ogre or anything, but in comparison..."

He proceeds to tell you that he's talking to you, the Duff, so your ├╝ber hot friends will think he's a nice, sensitive guy. He's hoping this will up his chances of getting into their pants.

How would you react to that?

If this happened to the person I am today I'd totally laugh in the a-hole's face and walk away. Because, really, I couldn't care less what a (most likely) STD-infected man-whore thinks of me, regardless of how ridiculously hot he might be. I'm an adult. I stopped caring what other people think of me. All that matters is what I think. (for the record: I'm happy with the way I look). Besides, I'm married.

But if that happened to me fourteen years ago... well, let's just say it would have destroyed--I'm talking completely pulverized--what little self-esteem I had at the time. Back then I was--comparatively speaking--the Duff among my circle of friends. I didn't get attention from guys when I was with my unintentionally hot friends (seriously. And they didn't even know it. They were all long-limbed, willowy, girl-next-door beautiful. I was the average height ethnic girl).

What's my point? My point is I can see why teenage girls would want to read this book. Like I said, I've been there. I get it.

BUT what I fail to appreciate is the way this story plays out.

Bianca Piper, the Duff in question, is a seventeen-year-old girl finishing up her senior year in high school. She has two good friends who really care about her. Parents who, dysfunctional marriage aside, love her. She's intelligent, witty, and successful--for the most part.

Bianca only real major downfall is she is much too cynical, especially when it comes to love, though I can't say I blame her. Bianca was only fourteen when she had her heart stomped on by an upperclassman.

It is her wit and cynicism that comes to her aid the night she's told that she is The Duff. She insults the man-whore, Wesley Rush, and throws her Cherry Coke in his face--**plus twenty points for Bianca, am I right?**--and walks away in a dignity-at-all-times manner.

Unfortunately Bianca doesn't walk away completely unscathed. She is unable to get over the fact that she's the so-called "ugly fat girl" among her friends. It starts eating away at her self-esteem.

And to make matters much worse, her home life begins to crumble.

Instead of dealing with her problems, Bianca masters the art of escapism. Totally understandable. I've been there. But instead of losing herself in a good book, movie or yogalates, she loses herself in the bed of...(wait for it)...Wesley Rush, resident man-whore. The guy she hates with the intensity of a thousand suns.

Oh, it gets better. He lovingly nicknames her 'Duffy'. That's right, as in The Duff. And Bianca has a bevy of insults to hurl at Wesley whenever it pleases her. Neither of them them pretend their relationship is based on anything other then sex. Call it what you will: escapism sex, hate sex, cheap sex, a hook-up, sex buddies, booty call...I could go on. Regardless of the label, this is where the author starts to lose me.

I hope I'm not coming across as 'holier then thou', because, seriously it's not like I was an angel when I was a teenager. I had a wild streak back then, I made mistakes. Lots of them. It's just my mistakes involved less sex. Okay, sex was never involved. Neither was nudity. But I kissed (read: had total make-out sessions with) a bunch of guys. Sometimes with the sole intention of getting my mind off my problems. So really, I understand Bianca's motives. I even understand how in a twisted way she felt pretty, more desirable afterward.

That being said, I can't understand why/how she's able to repeatedly hop into bed with a guy who makes her skin crawl. She's with him as much as five times a week. Not that I'm a sexpert (see what I did there? I combined sex and expert. Hee.) but I'd wager to say that's a lot of sex for a couple of teenagers who are using each other. Especially considering how cheap and dirty Bianca claims to feel afterward.

While reading this novel I was all, "Stop it. Stop having sex with the guy you hate. Just STOP! Go talk to your friends or a counselor. You need help." But clearly, she didn't stop. It wouldn't have been so bad had she felt more guilty or ashamed afterward. And I could understand her need had it been described as some sort of an addiction. Or perhaps the author could have described Bianca's home life much worse, making her incessant need to escape that much more plausible.

But yeah, my point is: I just couldn't relate. Not entirely. And so this story fell apart for me. Okay, that's a lie. It didn't fall apart--the story was still in one piece when I finished this book, but just barely.

The only real redeeming thing about The Duff is the conclusion Bianca comes to near the end of the novel, about what it means to be a Duff. And she realizes how stupid she and Wesley were by having so much sex, regardless of how much protection they used (for the record: condoms and the pill).

And though it pains me to do so, I'll admit that I'm sappy enough to like how this book ended. (Kill me.) It wraps up so neatly with a giant bow on top, Pretty Woman style. Three stars but just barely, and if I were I being totally fair I'd have to give it just two stars (waaaaaaaaay too much swearing going on in this book. It's completely out of control). But I liked this book, despite all it's faults, so yeah, three stars.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

 Young Katniss Everdeen has survived the dreaded Hunger Games not once, but twice, but even now she can find no relief. In fact, the dangers seem to be escalating: President Snow has declared an all-out war on Kattnis, her family, her friends, and all the oppressed people of District 12. The thrill-packed final installment of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy will keep young hearts pounding.

Updated! Further thoughts/explanations as to why I gave this book five stars at the end of the original review. Warning: addendum contains some spoilers.

I've thought long and hard as to how I should review this book. For starters I feel I need to say upfront, this book is not for everyone. Mockingjay is the darkest book of the Hunger Games trilogy, containing excess violence, brutality, and ugliness. People die. It would be naive to expect otherwise in a book dealing with war.

If you're all about puppies, kittens, rainbows, unicorns, and disgustingly sweet happily-ever-afters don't bother reading this book. Faint of heart need not apply, I mean it.

This story isn't told by Katniss, The Girl Who Was On Fire. It's told by Katniss, the quiet girl from District 12 who unintentionally inspired a revolution through one simple act of defiance. Needless to say Katniss, ever weary of the roles she's been forced to play, is reluctant to officially step up, to be the Mockingjay, to lead the revolution against the Capitol.

President Coin, leader of District 13, makes it clear from the start she is no fan of Katniss, saying they should have saved 'the boy' first. Katniss agrees with President Coin here--Peeta was always better with words, had a way with people--but otherwise Katniss does not trust the woman. Life in District 13 isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Though Katniss doesn't desire the spotlight and never wanted power she finally agrees to take on the burden of leading a rebellion. Hoping that in doing so she might save Peeta's life and finally put an end to President Snow's. And so, with Haymitch, Gale, Beetee, Finnick, and her old prep team backing her up, Katniss becomes the Mockingjay.

So much happens in this book, so much I didn't expect. That being said, I love this book. I love this series. Mockingjay is a hauntingly-beautiful conclusion to an enjoyable, thought-provoking series. This series will always have a home on my bookshelf, and I hope that one day, when my girls are old enough to read it, they'll appreciate it as much as I do.

P.S. And it needs to be said: even though the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle is very much present in this book, it's not the focal point of the story. It never was. The Hunger Games series is about so much more then teenage angst, or romantic love.

P.P.S. The epilogue is what finally pushed me over the edge, made me cry.


Further explanation/thoughts about why I think this book is amazing (contains some spoilers):

I didn't cry with either of the major deaths in this book, though I felt more when the first one happened, probably because I felt more connected to the first character then I did the second. The second death was tragic and senseless. But I don't think the second death undermines the whole series, like many critics of this book have said. Nor does it make the story pointless.

Many have said that they felt detached from the story while reading this book. I felt that detachment too, but I genuinely feel that is what Suzanne Collins was hoping for. Here's the deal, my father went to Vietnam and experienced a lot of senseless violence, lost a lot of friends and acquaintances. In all my life I've only heard him speak about it, in a candid manner, once. Otherwise he speaks about it in a detached way, as if he read about it or watched some footage of it instead of actually experiencing it himself. I feel it is his way of coping with it, which is kind of sad.

I feel that Katniss, by starting that book about everyone she knew who died, was doing what my father needs to do (although, as far as I know, he probably has done something like that. Like I said, he doesn't ever talk about it). She was finally facing and working through the all the grief and pain. My point is, the reason we felt detached from the story is because Katniss was already so detached. She was so messed up by all the senseless violence that she'd already checked out emotionally. And when reality threatened to take over, she took drugs to make it all better.

Under similar circumstances I think every normal person would shut down emotionally. If Katniss had continued to function normally after going through all that, we'd have a sociopath on our hands. Like Peeta said, when you kill someone you lose a part of yourself, you're killing a part of your soul. Suzanne Collins did a fantastic job illustrating that.

Katniss triumphs in the end because, even though it took time, she confronts the pain, works through it. She lives her life, no longer the actress, the puppet, the victim. I especially love that she does what she vowed to never do. She has children. The best part is, her children, everyone's children for that matter, won't ever know the horrors of Reaping Day and the Hunger Games.

I feel she ended up with with the right man. And no, I don't think she settled for him. I knew she truly loved him when she started fighting for him, not only for his life but for all those lost memories, for his love.

I also feel Katniss is a romantic person, just not in the traditional sense. The girl kept the pearl, would take it out when she was thinking of him! Carried it with her into battle. Didn't even throw it out when he rejected her, tried to kill her (on more then one occasion)! Speaking of, talk about the ultimate rejection. I think my heart broke on Katniss behalf when that happened.

P.S. I might add more thoughts throughout the next few days.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Tessa has just months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side-effects, Tessa compiles a list. It’s her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is Sex. Released from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa’s feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, and her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallised in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time finally runs out.


  I feel like a jerk for not giving this story more stars. I mean, it's a book about a sixteen year old girl trying to live life to the fullest before dying of cancer. I keep thinking only a heartless baby-eating monster would give this book less then four stars.

Well, I suppose I am that monster, minus the whole baby-eating thing.

It's not like the premise failed to pull at my heartstrings--as I read this book I genuinely felt for the girl. And it's not like the author went out of her way to manipulate her audience. This book never crosses the line into full on manipulation, though there are times I feel it comes close, but not enough to bother me.

My problem lies with the protagonist, Tessa.

Yeah, you read that right. I don't like the main character, a teenage girl dying of cancer.

Before you start throwing things let me explain. Like I said before, I felt for Tessa, because her situation is incredibly tragic, but, I'm sorry, she sucks. I know she's dying but that doesn't give her an excuse to manipulate everyone around her into doing what she wants them to do. Dying young isn't some "get out of jail free card" you can wave around when your actions have negative consequences that you'd rather not face.

Here's the deal: Tessa has a list of ten things she wants to do before she dies. Sounds good, right? Well, the majority of the things on the list are reckless or selfish or illegal or just plain stupid. Sometime a combination of all four. And you know what? That's not so bad, doesn't necessarily bother me. Teenagers do stupid, selfish and/or illegal stuff. Tessa wants to sow some wild oats before dying. I get it.

What bothers me is the fact that she believes the rules shouldn't apply to her because she is dying--she can do whatever she wants, damn the consequences.

What's worse, Tessa demands a lot from her friends and family. At times she asks them to do things that, even under the tragic circumstances, are too much to ask. When they seem reluctant to comply she tells them that whatever it is she's asking happens to be on her list. Most of the time these things were not on her list until, conveniently, they were. It's her manipulation that really gets to me. I hate that she resorts to manipulation to get whatever she wants.

At one point Tessa throws a monumental fit (I mean, off the charts huge) because she doesn't get what she wants when she wants it--to make love with her boyfriend. Don't get me wrong, I knew her her freak out had more to do with the fact that she's dying so young, before she's old enough to really do anything, be anyone, then anything else. But still, she took it a little too far, I think.

In the end I got the idea that she had a full grasp at what was truly important in life. But for me, Tessa's understanding came too late in the game. It happened so late, that I, heartless monster that I am, had already spent some time wondering when she was going to "just die already". Yes, this really did go through my mind, more then a few times, near the end of this book--if this weren't a total work of fiction, I'd be going to hell for that, I'm sure.

I know I'm a monster for not giving this book more stars, unfortunately I'm unable to give this book more then the two stars I've given it.

P.S. Because I'm unable to recommend Before I Die to anyone I'm going to go ahead and recommend Before I Fall, which is another YA book which deals with death and is, in my humble opinion, infinitely better then this book.