Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Uncommon Criminals

By Ally Carter

Two Things I Liked About Uncommon Criminals:
1. Casing
2. The names of different jobs

I’m going to keep this short, since this is actually a sequel and, well, it doesn’t really merit a lengthy review.

The Heist Society series stars 15-year-old Katarina Bishop: teenage girl, daughter, and international art thief. I like stories about intelligent crime (See: Ocean’s 11, Catch Me If You Can, etc.) and I like fun novels. Ergo, I loved the first installment of the Heist Society series - titled simply enough, Heist Society - which was basically Ocean's 11 turned into chick lit.

Katarina comes from a family of professional thieves and was born and raised with the instinct and know-how to become one of the best thieves in the business by her ripe old age of 15. In Heist Society she uses her ample skill and expertise to pull a job on the most high-security museum in London, along with the help of her equally teenage team of cousins and a naturally crushable best friend, Hale. Since then, she’s been globetrotting on a quest to steal back stolen items and return them to their rightful owners. Uncommon Criminals sees Katarina approached with a near impossible target: the Cleopatra emerald. But when the soaring rush of success stalls into an unplanned free-fall of failure, it seems that stealing the emerald is only the beginning.

As a fun, frivolous read, I loved Heist Society. Uncommon Criminals, however, failed to live up to even its own expectations. Its flaws were many, but my main criticisms were as follows: 1) the plot is chaotic and disjointed and hangs together well only if you are some kind of literary trapeze artist willing to leap from scene to scene with only the trust that Carter will have left something for you to catch on to again as you fly through the air, and 2) in another book, cool things could have been done with Katarina’s character, making her morally ambiguous – is stealing still wrong if it makes other wrongs right (Robin Hood style)? -  but of course under Carter’s direction there was hardly an acknowledgment of right verses wrong, much less the fascinating grey area in between. Also, considering she’s a 15-year-old international thief, Katarina fell kind of flat as the protagonist. I was vaguely irritated with her throughout the book, which detracted from the pleasure of reading – and that’s all I wanted from Uncommon Criminals: pleasure. But I finished unsatisfied on that score.

Conclusion: I'm not sure I would even recommend it to fans of Heist Society.

Books Read This Year: 53
Top 100 Progress: 45/100

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Three Musketeers (Top 100 #45)

By Alexandre Dumas

Four Things I Liked About The Three Musketeers:
1. D’Artagnan
2. Paris
3. The valets
4. Intrigue! Sword fighting! Plotting!

I generally try to start my reviews with a little bit of backstory, but in this case, there isn’t really any backstory to give. The Three Musketeers was one of those books that ended up on my “Obviously I’m going to read this” list rather by accident. It’s one of the Top 100, I liked Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and it’s fat – perfect for my summer of brick-thick books (previously: Atlas Shrugged, up next: War & Peace and East of Eden).

Considering what a fixture The Three Musketeers is in our working cultural knowledge, I’d wager that very few people are actually familiar with the story. For example, contrary to what you might assume from the title, The Three Musketeers stars one recklessly brave young man named d’Artagnan, who is in fact not a musketeer at all – at least not at the beginning. D’Artagnan comes to Paris with a letter of introduction from his father to M. de Tréville, captain of King Louis XIII’s musketeers, seeking to make a place for himself in the world. Having lost his letter in an altercation en route to Paris, the interview fails to install him as a musketeer, but does earn him a position as a guard, as well as facilitating his fateful first meeting with the three musketeers who become his most faithful friends: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. D’Artagnan quickly adapts to city and military life, and in almost one fell swoop manages to fall in love and become embroiled in the rich political turmoil of the time, caught between the king, the queen, the cardinal (Richelieu), and the beautiful but deadly Lady de Winter.

The Three Musketeers is, more than anything else, a tale of adventure. But it is not just a tale of adventure. For us, it serves as authentic historical fiction, though it was not written as such at the time. It’s also part romance, part political portrait, and part 17th century chivalric code. But my favorite aspect, I think, was the characterization. As canned as the expression sounds, d’Artagnan really does jump off the page. He’s impulsive, passionate, loyal, and eager to prove himself. His friends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are equally well developed; none of them are simply stock soldiers. Athos harbors a dark past, Porthos is a good-hearted hedonist who revels in good wine and good company, and Aramis continually professes that he “is only a musketeer temporarily” until he takes his monastic orders. The four friends also each have a personal valet, none of which fade into the background of the story but have their own distinct personalities and roles to play in the novel. That can be said of just about every character in The Three Musketeers. Even when someone only appears in a few scenes, and with minimal physical description, it is very easy to imagine them as a real character, in the dictionary definition sense of the word: “the combination of traits and qualities distinguishing the individual nature of a person or thing.”

Reading The Three Musketeers, it was easy to picture it as a movie, especially the summer blockbuster/family action flick variety of humor, romance, good-hearted bravado, and lots of sword-fighting fun. Of course, I’m not the first to have this impression – The Three Musketeers has been adapted to the silver screen any number of times, the most recent of which is coming out this fall. I’m not sure how high my hopes are, though, even though I think Logan Lerman – who I cast as Jacky Faber’s beau, Jaimy Fletcher, in an earlier post – makes a perfect d’Artagnan. I mean, there’s a clip of boat flying over the Louvre. How true an adaptation can it really be when there are flying boats involved? Also, it's in 3D. I like 3D about as much as I like Kindles.

Random fact: The novel takes place back when the Louvre was still a palace, and I constantly had to remind myself of that as I read. Nowadays, it’s really weird to think of the Louvre as anything but a museum, and stranger still to think of anyone actually living there.

Books Read This Year: 52
Top 100 Progress: 45/100

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sisterhood Everlasting

By Ann Brashares

Four Things I Liked About Sisterhood Everlasting:
1. Reuniting with old fictional friends
2. Location, location, location
3. Getting it right
4. Quick, enjoyable Atlas Shrugged detox

I am kind of perplexed as to why this book exits. Why did Ann Brashares feel the need to forcibly extend a series that had already reached a satisfyingly open-ended conclusion? Especially when this new book doesn’t appear to have been written with a specific audience in mind: It’s not really an appropriate companion novel for the first four, being very much an adult novel, not young adult as they were; nor will it appear to adult readers who haven’t read the original (young adult) series.  And especially when continuing the series meant XXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Well, I can’t tell you what it meant, because that would ruin a crucial plot point and element of surprise in the book. And I hate plot ruiners! (Ruiners can be a word if I say it is.) Suffice to say that something BIG and (in relation to the first four books, and in my opinion) unnecessary goes down in order to pave the way for this fifth installment.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series was a fixture on my teen and preteen bookshelf, right next to The Princess Diaries and Bloody Jack. So despite some exasperation with Ann for continuing the series in an obvious ploy to reach out to her old (and probably somewhat diminished since the series “ended”) readership, I must admit I was pretty pleased by the prospect of reuniting with Lena, Tibby, Carmen, and Bridget. And, in spite of XXXXXXXXXXXXXX, I was not disappointed.

As it says on the cover, Sisterhood Everlasting picks up 10 years after Forever in Blue left off. Not that much has changed. Sure, Carmen is a successful TV actress living in New York and engaged to be married to a TV producer, Bridget is living with Eric in San Francisco, and Tibby moved with Brian to Australia two years ago, while Lena – ever static – hasn’t left Providence or RISD but has taken a professorship there and continues to pine after Kostos, but the problems they’re facing are virtually just slightly grown up versions of what they dealt with before. They’ve also felt steadily more out of sync ever since they all scattered on the winds after losing their lease on the flat they shared in New York after graduation. Good thing Tibby sends them all tickets out of the blue for an impromptu reunion trip to Greece! Or so they think. It turns out XXXXXXXXXXXXXX happens in Greece and turns their already precariously organized lives topsy-turvy. In the aftermath, the girls struggle to come to terms with XXXXXXXXXXXXXX, each other, and themselves.

The danger of writing a book like Sisterhood Everlasting is tying up satisfyingly loose ends into too neat of knots. Fortunately, Sisterhood Everlasting frays enough more ends to require plenty of its own re-tying. (Whether those ends really needed fraying is another discussion.) As I said, one of the best things to recommend this book is the prospect of once again enjoying the company of Lena, Tibby, Carmen, and Bridget. So although the end (predictably) comes together pretty neatly and as a stand alone novel this would only merit about 3 stars, as long you’re a fan of the series, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the trip down memory lane.

Comment Questions:
1) If you’ve read the series, which sister was your favorite, or which did you most identify with? Mine was Lena, as much as her inertia frustrated me.
2) Will you read Sisterhood Everlasting, or are you over this series?

Books Read This Year: 51
Top 100 Progress: 44/100

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

By Ayn Rand

Five Things I Liked About Atlas Shrugged:
1. Francisco D’Anconia
2. Brotherhood of Hugh Akston’s 3 favorite pupils
3. “Who is John Galt?”
4. Dagny Taggart
5. Disappearances of the “prime movers”

My copy of Atlas Shrugged clocks in at 1,069 pages. It took me about 10 days to read, at a rate of approximately 100 pages a day. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. It is a significant undertaking of time and mind, not something to be picked up on a whim. You kind of have to be mentally prepared for the endurance and discipline it will take to push through those thousand pages – and that’s if you like the book. I can’t imagine the willpower it would take to see the story through to the end if you weren’t enjoying it.

Happily, I enjoyed it. But during the first half, this was little consolation, as I had heard several reports of undergoing a change of heart at the halfway point. My uncle, for example, spoke of making it halfway through only to get so aggravated that he threw the book away. One of my friends also made it halfway before turning on the characters and finishing it only out of stubbornness. I didn’t experience this change of heart, however; I liked it all the way through. Well, with the exception of a certain speech made by a certain John Galt that drags on for a certain 60 pages. But other than that.

Atlas Shrugged is actually a mystery novel, you might be surprised to learn. It is a mystery novel that investigates the question “Who is John Galt?” which people have begun using as a “who knows?” substitute, without realizing they are asking a real question. The answer to “Who is John Galt?” however, is much more than one man’s identity. “Who is John Galt?” answers what happens to society when its “prime movers” (the men and women who keep society in motion) withdraw from the world; what happens when one man promises to “stop the motor of the world”; what happens when society’s leaders direct everyone to cease thinking or desiring, to sacrifice self and thought to the “collective good.”

If you read the back cover summary of Atlas Shrugged, it’s incredibly vague, providing no real sense of what the story is about. I think that’s because the novel, at its heart, isn’t about character or plot, but about abstractions – ideas and archetypes and philosophies. But to provide a more concrete conception of what story to expect if you take on the commitment that is Atlas Shrugged, I’ll try to sum up the basic premises of the plot. Bear with me. A thousand pages is a bit unwieldy to condense into a paragraph.

Dagny Taggart decides as a child that she will grow up to run Taggart Transcontinental, the railroad empire her grandfather founded – and she does. Atlas Shrugged is, simply put, an epic devoted to Dagny’s struggle to preserve the integrity of the railroad that, as the single driving purpose in her life, is her life. In her efforts to save Taggart Transcontinental from ruin, Dagny must combat at every turn the directives of an unthinking government leading society into a tailspin of collective and destructive altruism, and take down the one man she holds responsible for the disintegration of industry via the unthinking apathy of society expressed in the phrase “Who is John Galt?” and the steady disappearance of industry’s main players under the influence of the ‘destroyer’: John Galt.

Even among those who enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, general opinion seems to favor The Fountainhead (and not just because it's shorter). Maybe it’s because I’ve read Atlas Shrugged more recently, but I actually liked it better. I think I found the novel’s larger lens and mystery slant more engaging (and engaging is key when you’re looking at a quadruple-digit page count). There also seemed to be some more diversity in the characters, especially among the protagonists. The Fountainhead’s protagonist – Howard Roark – was the apotheosis of Rand’s ideal man, a symbol more than a real person. His equivalent in Atlas Shrugged, however, is not Dagny Taggart, but John Galt, who only appears in the last third or so of the book. As Atlas Shrugged’s protagonist, Dagny is somewhat more nuanced in her personification of Rand’s philosophy. Though the essential attributes are there from the beginning, it takes the entire novel for her to become an epitomized Randian heroine, and the fact that she does not start out a perfect archetype but becomes so on a 1,000-page journey makes her more relatable, as well as making her story more interesting because it involves not just external conflict but personal.

Ayn Rand's novels are meant to establish a society-wide economic philosophy, but you can just as well take away from them an individual philosophy, a philosophy which says: "Do what you want, because you want to; live your life on your own terms, for your own sake." That philosophy really resonates with me, and - much more than the economic theory - is why I like her novels so much.

"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?"

"To Shrug."

Books Read This Year: 49
Top 100 Progress: 44/100