Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

Extras

ExtrasExtras by Scott Westerfeld

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With The Last Days, Scott Westerfeld revealed himself to be someone who isn’t averse to revisiting a “finished” story and fleshing it out a bit more.  With the success of the Uglies trilogy, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he went back to add a little more to the story.  I suppose I should, instead, ask if it was necessary.

Extras picks up a few years after Specials left off, when Tally Youngblood instituted the “mind rain” that cleared everyone’s minds of … well, you know, I shouldn’t mention that specifically, JUST IN CASE you haven’t read that far into the series just yet.  Let’s just say that Tally was a hero, everyone’s happy, and the world is a better place to live.  That’s not a spoiler, is it?

Anyway, this time Aya Fuse is the protagonist, and she lives in a Japan that has been much changed by Tally and her eco-revolution.  Here, currency is based off of popularity, where the more popular you are, the more clout you have in society, so people are obsessed with their rankings in the city.  Aya is one of those obsessed people, and she has her sights set on becoming more popular through her stories.  She’s what passes for a journalist in this era, and the more popular her stories are, the more famous she’ll become.  And, of course, the story that she thinks she’s breaking becomes more complicated and complex, which, naturally, is the story of Extras.

If you’re a fan of Westerfeld and the Uglies series, then you’ll read this book.  And to be honest, you should read this book.  It follows a natural progression from the end of Specials, and it’s a unique look at a possible future.  Just don’t be looking for something with the power and effect of Uglies, if only because it’s been done before.  Unlike The Last Days, Extras actually does belong in the Uglies universe, as the results of that series spur forward the events in this novel.  It just lacks the originality and message of the original series, if only because Aya, as a character, is less interesting.

Tally was unsettled at the beginning of her journey.  She thought she knew what she wanted, but she was hesitant and unsure.  Aya is different; she’s all about wanting to be popular (an important motivation in a YA book, I suppose) and moving her face-rank along, and she goes to some slightly unethical means to do so.  She’s less sympathetic, and a little harder to root for.  She comes around, as most protagonists do, but there’s still that lingering selfishness that makes her a sort of antithesis to Tally.  But, as the author mentions himself, this isn’t considered part of the Uglies trilogy, but is instead an additional story in that universe.

Another thing that bugs me about the book is some of the language Westerfeld uses.  Things are “brain-missing” or “truth-missing,” instead of “stupid,” “dumb,” or “a lie.”  I think the author’s intention is to create a sense of other-worldliness to the story to firmly make it a science fiction story, but the setting and technology do well to do this already, and I found this use of language jarring.  It took me out of the story.  This sort of language was present in the Uglies series as well, so this is nothing new; it’s just something that I noticed more strongly this time around.

So, the final tally (ha!) is that this is a decent book, is worth reading, and follows logically from the series that precedes it.  It’s not quite as interesting as that series, but it’s still a compelling read that leaves you with questions answered and unanswered.  That’s a heck of a lot more than I can say for The Last Days.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | 2 Comments

The Last Days

DaysThe Last Days by Scott Westerfeld

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I like Westerfeld’s writing style.  Sometimes, it seems like what he’s writing is banal, and even a little too detailed in the minutiae, but it’s always relevant.  There’s something about the pace, I suppose, that throws me off, but there’s never a question in my mind if I’m going to finish reading the book, or that I’m going to enjoy it.

The Last Days is the sequel to Peeps, a novel that I thought stood quite well on its own.  I was hesitant to pick it up, but really, it’s Scott Westerfeld.  I’m going to read it.  It picks up more or less where Peeps left off, though not with the same characters.  This time, the author focuses on an odd commingling of friends, which includes a musical genius, two guitarists who have been friends for ages, an obsessive-compulsive drummer of buckets, and a singer who’s a vampire.  He uses the group to bring focus to the crumbling of society, as the vampire virus spreads through New York.  The downfall is seen through their eyes.

Which brings to the point Westerfeld’s skill at characterization.  The novel is narrated in the first person, but it’s narrated by all five of the members of the band.  I didn’t realize this until the second chapter, but Westerfeld notes each chapter with the person who is speaking, but really, it’s not necessary.  He gives enough clues in his narrative for you to be able to hone in on who’s speaking, but aside from that, each character has his or her own distinctive voice.  The last time I saw a multiple first-person narrative that worked this well was in Sturgeon’s Godbody.  That says a lot for Westerfeld and his talents.

Through the first half of the novel, I wondered why the author chose to make this a sequel, as opposed to a stand-alone novel.  The focus was so much on the band members and their quest to secure a record deal, that I wondered why the author didn’t choose some other method for the decline of society.  It served as a backdrop for the musicians’ desperation, but it also poignantly illustrated how they pursued their dreams, despite the seeming futility of it all.  Once things became clearer, though, it tied in nicely with what was established in Peeps.  Well … almost.

The ending is really hokey.  Sorry, Scott, but it’s true.  I’m not going to spoil it for anyone, because I think the story is well told, and raises some good points, but the way that everything comes together in the end smacked like an odd combination of The Stand and Tremors.  I hesitate to say that it “jumped the shark,” but it at least jumped the minnows.  The ambiguous ending of Peeps was appropriate, and the conclusive ending of The Last Days was, as well, but it just didn’t gel with me.  Maybe it’s more appropriate for a younger crowd, as the book is marketed, but it seemed to fail with me.

In a way, this a pseudo-sequel to Peeps, in much the same way that Small Steps was a pseudo-sequel to Holes.  I think there were more points connecting Peeps to The Last Days, but the overall feel was that it was a different story, attached to the same universe.  This isn’t a bad thing, by any means, but it just makes me wonder what drives authors to connect their works when the stories are disparate.

Regardless, I think this is a book worth reading.  It could stand alone as its own book, but there are some characters that appear in both novels, so it’s probably best to start with Peeps.  I think it’s the superior book of the two, but both books together make a nice overall story.

September 26, 2007 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | Leave a comment

Emily Edison

EdisonEmily Edison by David Hopkins and Brock Rizy

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Anyone who likes cartoons will probably pick up this book, just to browse the artwork. In fact, anyone who watched Ren and Stimpy, or anything that John Kricfalusi created, will recognize the style. The foreword to the book even talks about how cartoons influenced the book, and how anyone who grew up on the Looney Tunes cartoons will find a kindred spirit with this book. I love cartoons, and I enjoyed Ren and Stimpy, but for whatever reason, this graphic novel fell flat with me.

The story is about a young girl, Emily Edison, whose father is an inventor who created a temporal rift with a quantum vacuum cleaner, and whose mother is a princess in the dimension that Emily’s father discovered. Her parents divorced, and she spends time between the two dimensions, but her grandfather in the other dimension wants for Emily to stay in the other dimension. His plan is to destroy Earth, so that Emily has no choice in where she chooses to live.  It’s a little weird, but the story doesn’t presume to be anything more than an adventure romp, so it works.

The thing is, I had the same problem with this graphic novel as I did with Rocketo; I couldn’t follow the action.  This is partly because there was so much going on in the panels, and the art was impressionistic enough that it was hard for me to figure out the details of what was happening.  Ultimately, I was just moving through the panels, instead of really understanding them, just to figure out who won, who was hurt, etc.

Interestingly enough, I find that a lot of the more modern action movies give me the same trouble.  It’s as if the directors try to pack so much action into every scene that the viewer can’t distinguish between everything that’s happening.  At least, I can’t.  And I found the same thing happening with this graphic novel.  Maybe it’s a generational thing, since this book is marketed toward the younger crowd.

And, to be frank, I think that’s another reason the story failed with me.  There just wasn’t enough to keep me interested.  I expect that if I were 15 or 16, then the perils of step-siblings, crushes, school, and exams would be more compelling to me; as it is, it’s just a reflection that I’ve lost touch a bit with what passes for entertainment now.

I suppose this is a fine enough graphic novel for its age group, but I wouldn’t recommend it to teens, what with Sandman, Bone, and Fables out there.  I guess if they were finished with all the great graphic novels, they might find something interesting in this story, but I’d hate it if someone just getting into the genre would start with this one.  It just might turn them off from the form entirely.

July 14, 2007 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews, YA Fiction | Leave a comment

I Am the Messenger

MessengerI Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

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I find that the publishers’ assignments of “YA” to a novel now are fairly trivial.  The last few YA books I’ve read have been more adult in theme and character than some of the adult books I’ve read, and I wonder if there’s some central conspiracy within publishing houses regarding how a book is determined YA over adult.  Zusak’s last two books were published as adult fiction in Australia (the author’s home), but because of the ages of his protagonists in those books, they were reclassified as YA for American readers.  Given that Ed Kennedy, the protagonist in I Am the Messenger, is nineteen, though, I’m still confused.

Ed is a cabdriver who stops a bank robbery in a weird sort of way.  His courage is derived from an argument that he has with one of his best friends, and has more to do with being impetuous and stubborn than anything else.  For the most part, he’s riding through life on autopilot, playing cards with his three friends a few times a week, driving a cab, and going on about his day.  He’s called a hero after stopping the bank robber, and receives a write-up in the local paper over it, but shortly after that, he receives a playing card — the ace of diamonds — in the mail.  The card has three addresses written on it, and he tracks down the locations and finds three situations that need his help: a lonely old woman; a young competitive runner; and a woman and her daughter who are terrorized by a drunk rapist of a father.  Ed finds himself compelled to help these people, both by his own motivation, and others.  In one instance, Ed starts to lose focus on his three tasks, and some goons are sent to his house to, er, “encourage” him.  This, and his own involvement with these people, drive him to complete the tasks, just in time to receive another ace in the mail.

The book seems to be about ambition, and catalysts.  Ed and his friends are stuck in their ruts, as are the people that Ed encounters in his journeys.  The people he encouters sometimes lack focus, or direction, or meaning, and Ed’s interference in their lives drives them to make something of themselves.  Even when Ed’s interactions are brutal, heartless, or even violent, the end result is that the people involved grow, and Ed, in turn, learns more about those people he affects, himself included.  In that respect, it’s a fantastic book, and Zusak’s prose is as powerful and lyrical as it is in The Book Thief.

In another sense, the book is weirdly convoluted, but in an acceptable way.  Ed seems to fall into each situation through serendipity, and understands intuitively what needs to be done in each case.  What’s even stranger is how much the people guiding him know about him.  They direct him to a location that only he and his brother know about, and at one point, there is an otherworldly focus on Ed’s life that doesn’t make sense in respect to the rest of the story.  Strangely enough, it all fits together into a mystical, almost New Age sense of reality.  I didn’t find myself questioning the validity of Zusak’s story, even if I did question why it followed the direction it did.

While not as extraordinary and powerful as The Book Thief, I Am the Messenger is another example of Zusak’s power over the written word, and another example of a wonderful, meaningful book.  I would recommend this book to readers of any age.

August 30, 2006 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | 20 Comments

Elsewhere

ElsewhereElsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

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Working in a library has its perks, one of them being able to recommend books to so many people.  I think I wind up recommending more books to fellow librarians than to patrons, but for me, the best benefit is when someone else recommends a book to me.  Elsewhere came recommended to me by a co-worker, and I was glad that it did; this is an excellent look at life through the lens of death.

Liz (or Lizzie, or Elizabeth, depending on who asks) is a fifteen year-old who has recently died in a bicycle accident, and wakens on a ship adrift on the ocean.  She and the other inhabitants on the ship are all of the recently dead, and are being transported to a place called Elsewhere.  In Elsewhere, life (death?) goes on, only in reverse; people arrive in Elsewhere at the age they were when they died, and grow younger while they are there.  This is a boon for people who die of natural causes later in life, but for fifteen year-olds who just missed being able to drive, go to the prom, or have boyfriends, it’s a bit depressing.

Ironically, life goes on in Elsewhere.  People form new romantic relationships, get married, take jobs (or, more specifically avocations, which are jobs that people want to do), and usually do things completely differently from what they did when they were alive.  Once they become too young for their avocation, they retire, and when they become seven days old again, they are wrapped in swaddling and sent down a river, where they become reborn as new children on Earth.  So, as the book mentions, life is both a circle and a line, but really, we’re just talking about the concept of reincarnation.

Luckily, the author manages to avoid any Shirley Maclaine, New Age-y analyses of the phenomenon, and instead focuses on the way life continues in Elsewhere.  People respond differently to their deaths.  Some grow addicted to the observation desks, where for a dollar or so, they can watch five minutes of friends and family back on Earth; others refuse to admit they’re dead and live in denial; still others experience grief for the lives they used to have.  Most, though, come to terms with their deaths and continue living a life similar to what they wanted in life.

The book seems a little off in places, partly because the whole mechanics of this afterlife are a bit convoluted, and partly because the book is very teen-ish in nature.  These, however, are minor complaints.  The author manages to create a vivid world with realistic people, and it’s very easy to get caught up in the story and the events.  I finished the book in just a couple of sittings, and was very satisfied with it.

The book is probably best suited for its target audience (young adults), but anyone who enjoys a good, light story with some philosophical overtones should enjoy it, as well.

August 24, 2006 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | 1 Comment

A Plethora of Summer Reading

This past week, my wife and I spent time relaxing on the beach, and I read about a book a day while we were there.  Instead of my usual entry for each review, I thought I would give a thumbnail review of each of the books.

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Shadow ThievesPeter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

For all that I gripe and moan about there being nothing original in fiction any more, I sure did enjoy Peter and the Starcatchers, the prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  The sequel was very much in the same vein as the first novel, and managed to maintain the same charm and character of Barrie’s story and Disney’s adaptation of the story, but it wasn’t quite as magical as Starcatchers.  It was still an entertaining read, and I would recommend it for kids and adults alike.

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Fourth BearThe Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

I much prefer the Thursday Next series by Fforde, but until he gets back to that one (and there’s one in the works, according to a blurb in the book!), I’ll settle for the Nursery Crimes series.  In this one, Jack Spratt investigates the murder of Goldilocks, who was reported missing after being found in the house of the three bears.  The story is as clever as most anything by Fforde, so if you enjoy his stuff, you’ll find plenty to like here.  The author continues to break the fourth wall in his fiction, and it’s excellent.

And if you haven’t read anything by Fforde, start with The Eyre Affair and go from there.  You won’t regret it.

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PeepsPeeps by Scott Westerfeld

I’m sold on Westerfeld, thanks to the Uglies trilogy, and this one came recommended to me from fellow librarians.  It has a slow start, but once it gets going, it’s a great take on the vampire theme.  It has the same depth as the Uglies series, and takes on some adult themes (horniness is a pervasive theme, and the language is a bit stronger than I would have expected from a YA novel, even though it didn’t bother me), so I would recommend it to anyone who like the author’s work.  The story looks at vampirism as a parasite that lives inside humans, and between chapters, the author tells us of other, real parasites and how they interact with nature.  It’s a fascinating education on parasites, but if you’re a germaphobe, you might want to skip those chapters.

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Half-MoonHalf-Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer

I think Colfer is growing tired of Artemis Fowl and his adventures.  I like them, myself, even if they’re not quite as original and characteristic as the first novel in the series, but the author is trying his hand at some other books and characters, Fletcher Moon being one of them.  Fletcher is another precocious pre-teen, but instead of being a rich, semi-evil genius, he’s the first 12 year-old to complete a private investigator training course online, making him a full-fledged PI.  Still, working for chocolate isn’t quite what he had in mind, so when a schoolmate offers him 30 Euro to find out who’s stealing things from her, he takes the case.  It gets more complicated (and, unfortunately, convoluted) than that, but there are red herrings and multiple suspects, like any good PI novel.  This is a decent start to a new series, but it’s not a must-read, by any means.

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Digital FortressDigital Fortress by Dan Brown

No trip to the beach is complete without a typical “beach read,” and I figured a techno-thriller by the author of The Da Vinci Code would work.  It’s an exciting intrigue novel, even if it does have a few flaws, but it’ll keep you turning the pages while you bake in the sun.  In this book, the NSA is trying to solve the mystery of an unbreakable encryption program.  Of course, there’s more going on than the principle characters first realize, but that’s what makes the story fun.  I was a bit frustrated that the full-time decoders couldn’t figure out the biggest clue, that I discovered about 1/10th of the way into the book, or the time-sensitive clue that was plainly obvious at the end, but other than that, I enjoyed the journey.  It’s just fun, mindless reading, and so long as you go into it not expecting anything more, you should enjoy it.

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DollhouseThe Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright

I read a lot of juvenile and YA books, but I always justify reading them because they have a bit more depth and story than the labels would indicate.  The Dollhouse Murders, though, is plainly a juvenile novel.  It has a young girl on the cover, and it’s published by Apple Yearling (which brought back enough nostalgia on its own), so don’t expect anything huge out of the book.  It’s a decent story, though, and what drew me to the book in the first place was the premise.  The main character discovers a dollhouse in the attic of her aunt’s house that’s an exact replica of the house where her aunt’s grandparents were murdered.  When the dolls start to act out the murder on their own, though, things get interesting.  Along with all this, the main character is dealing with the responsibility and burden of having a mentally challenged sister, and it all comes together in a touching story about family.

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FrozenFrozen by Jay Bonansinga

This author is one that always gets my attention, because he got his start with a horror novel about a man cursed to drive his rig across country without stopping, because the faster he goes, the less likely he is to burn alive.  It’s a weird, supernatural version of Speed, but in the author’s defense, I think the novel came first.  It was entertaining, and since I’m always on the lookout for a good horror novel, I thought this would be another good beach read.  Boy, was I wrong.

This book starts out as a typical forensics novel, but it starts to take a weird turn when the main character visits the 6000 year-old corpse of a shaman who was dug out of a glacier in Alsaka.  He finds similarities between that corpse and the corpses of the victims of a serial killer he’s investigating, and there are some supernatural elements touched on here and there during the investigation.  The author manages to push those aside for a more realistic explanation through most of the novel, but by the end … well, it turns out that it is something mystical and strange.  It was a bit of a letdown.

If you can find The Black Mariah, by the same author, read it, but I’d avoid this one.

August 21, 2006 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Juvenile Fiction, Reviews, YA Fiction | 1 Comment

The Book Thief

Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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A few adjectives to describe this novel:

Lyrical: Zusak’s prose is stunning: “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Leisel’s feet”; “Clouds walked by like white monsters with gray hearts.”

Beautiful: How else to describe a novel about humanity, set in Nazi Germany, and narrated by Death?

Tragic: Even moments of beauty are rendered bittersweet by the knowledge of what is to come.

Honest: Narrated by Death, the novel is told in a straightforward fashion, warts and all.  And there are many, many warts to show.

Touching: The story will make you ache, but you will welcome it when it comes.

Brilliant: No other word best describes it.

You must read this book.

July 30, 2006 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | Leave a comment

Specials

SpecialsSpecials by Scott Westerfeld

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It didn’t take long to finish the series, once I started it, and it doesn’t disappoint. The author manages to finish the story by keeping the reader guessing all the way up until the end, and it never seems forced or convoluted. He also carries the theme to its logical conclusion, making this an effective series, and one that people will be (or should be) talking about.

Again, I’m skipping the details for the book so as not to spoil anything for potential readers. Start with Uglies and finish here; you won’t be disappointed.

July 1, 2006 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | Leave a comment

Pretties

PrettiesPretties by Scott Westerfeld

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I want to talk about Pretties, since it is just as good and emotional as the first book in this series, Uglies, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll spoil part of that book for those of you who have yet to read it. So I’m going to refrain from a lot of details in this review.

I will say this, though: From the beginning, the author has made it clear that Uglies is the first book in a trilogy, and he also makes the titles of the sequels quite clear. It’s Uglies, followed by Pretties, and then concluded with Specials. So, we already know the focus of each book; what we don’t know is what takes the characters in each direction.

If this series is any indication, Scott Westerfeld is one of the most underrated writers writing today. He has an incredible sense of pacing and suspense, and he creates very real characters who grow organically, and not just as the story dictates they develop. The theme of the trilogy seems important, and I’m eager to see the direction in which he takes the story in its final volume. He keeps the reader guessing, but not so that it ever seems forced or contrived.

Read this series.

June 29, 2006 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | 10 Comments

Twilight

TwilightTwilight by Stephanie Meyer

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Lately, I’ve noticed how so many horror novels are being published and marketed toward YA audiences. It’s hard to find a good horror novel for adults, and I’ve even noticed that some of the past big names in horror fiction (Rick Hautala, Nancy Holder, Christopher Golden, and Kathe Koja, to name a few) have made the jump from writing horror for adults to writing horror for YAs. I’m not sure what this says about the genre, but I hope that the trend comes full circle so I can read some impressive adult horror fiction again.

Twilight is another in the long line of vampire novels for YAs. It’s about Bella, a 17 year-old girl who decides to move to Washington state to live with her father. Her mother has remarried after their divorce, and her new husband is on the road, and she wants to spend time with him when he travels. Bella doesn’t want to go, but she feels like she has to, and when she arrives in Washington, she finds herself the center of attention. She’s attracted to Edward, who sits next to her in science class, but his initial response to her is repulsion. The conflict starts there, and it’s not until several strange things happen before Bella starts to entertain the notion of his being a vampire.

I have to say, I found some serious flaws with this book. Part of it, I’ll admit, has to do with my age: Twilight focuses so much on high school and teenagers that a lot of the description became repetitive and grating. I didn’t care much about proms and cliques when I was in high school, so I sure don’t want to have to read this sort of minutia as an adult. Even though I could come to terms with that barrier with this novel, I still found some problems with it.

When Stephen King’s On Writing first came out in 2000, I noticed that he suggests that writers use adverbs sparingly. At the time, I couldn’t understand why; I’ve long been a user of adverbs, because sometimes they have the right sort of punch I want to make a sentence sound just so. I’ve seen other, more popular writers use adverbs to great use, and I even read Neil Gaiman’s defense of them through his blog. With Twilight, though, I now understand why writers should avoid adverbs: You wind up telling more than you show. The author wrote that her characters said something “sharply,” or “coquettishly,” or “insipidly”; she relied too much on that type of description to express a character’s feelings, instead of showing those feelings through dialogue, action, or narrative. It lessened the impact of the story, and created a distance between the reader and the story.

Furthermore, there are two main characters in this story, Edward and Bella. All the other characters (and I do mean all of them) are there just for filler. To the author’s credit, all of them move the story forward, but none of them have a large impact on the heart of the story. They were thin, two-dimensional, and disposable, and gave no further depth to the story.

The pacing was also skewed, partly from the details of high school life, and partly because the story took a long time getting to the action. The significant conflict (other than what existed between Edward and Bella) didn’t even begin until the last fifth of the novel, and then it took off. The action was well done and effective, but it took so darn long to get there, and then it concluded so quickly that I wondered if I hadn’t missed soemthing. It was exciting, nonetheless, but almost came too late in the story.

The dialogue became a bit repetitive, as well, since much of the drama (or melodrama; I’m not clear on the distinction between the two) existed through Edward’s desire for Bella, tempered with his monstrous nature. He spoke continuously about how he struggled to compose himself and his nature in order to be around her, and after a while, I was left thinking, “Yeah, yeah, we get it; get on with it.” Maybe this is because the story is, at its core, a romance, and I have so little experience with those that I wouldn’t know if that’s typical or not; I just know that it didn’t quite do it for me.

Having said all that, though, I have to admit that I found myself compelled to finish the book. Somehow or another, I was caught up in the story enough to have to see what happened next, and whether or not Bella and Edward wound up together. I have to give the author credit for pulling me in like that, but I also have to say that I can get sucked into any drama, given enough time; I think that explains why I can get hooked on some reality TV shows.

I think this book is good for its target audience. I think teenage girls will find a lot of themselves in Bella, and they may have a better time relating to the whole drama between her and Edward. I wouldn’t recommend this for adults, though; I think it’s just too “teenish” to break through to a larger audience.

June 26, 2006 Posted by | Reviews, YA Fiction | 2 Comments