Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gregor and the Code of Claw, Suzanne Collins

The final book in the Underland Chronicles. In some ways I liked it a lot and in others, I didn't.

Gregor's mother has had a relapse of sickness from the plague in the form of pneumonia. The war that Luxa declared is in full swing. Everything hangs on the thread of the Prophecy of Time and the Code of Claw. The Code of Claw is the secret code made of taps, clicks and scratches-not too unlike Morse Code-in order to transmit information. The rats have made a new code and in order to receive the intelligence of their movings and strategies, they must crack the code. The prophecy calls for the "Princess" to help. Boots is less than helpful with the code team as all she does is sing and use strips of code as a "tail." Everything changes when suddenly Lizzie turns up on the scene. Their father has had a relapse of sickness and their grandma is sick in the hospital. She wants Gregor to come home, but also agrees upon seeing the plight of the Regalian's that his-and her own-help is needed. Lizzie who is so smart and loves to work on math and puzzles is enlisted to help break the code.

The romance between Luxa and Gregor blossoms. Which I thought was rather ridiculous. I mean, these kids are 12. I know they've been through a LOT to make them grow up faster than any kid should have to. Luxa facing the reality of leading her people as a queen at age 12 and Gregor being a key player in the war as a warrior at age 12. But seriously, they even kiss in this book. I don't want to think of a 12 year old kissing.  And they say "I love you" which is true because I'm sure they love each other as friends and beyond that is just a crush. To think that 12 year olds are capable of knowing what real romantic love is before their hormones are even fully there yet, despite their particular circumstances, just seems like a bit of a stretch.

The other part I didn't care for is the obvious blatant anti-war agenda and anti-Christopher Columbus agenda, and even a bit of anti-early America agenda. Yes, I do understand that war is bad. And she does point out that it would take EVERYONE in the world rejecting that war is an acceptable way to settle differences. But as long as there are still groups of people bent on killing as a means to their end, we must accept that war in defense of our freedom is inevitable. We do not have to like it, but unless we are willing to sit and die and watch everyone else die because others do not agree with a philosophy of not fighting, we don't really have options. Of course, things get a lot more complicated when you have to consider whether or not you get involved with a conflict outside of your immediate country's safety and have to consider allies and helping them etc. But I'm not going to into that. Anti-Christopher Columbus. Yes. I realize he was not a good person, really. He discovered this land-and don't tell me he didn't because it was new to HIM and it was new to all the OTHER people who weren't aware of its existence. I just discovered a new way to avoid the construction and get to the grocery store with less hassel. It was MY discovery. Sure, it existed before I knew about it and many other people have been using it before me, but it doesn't discount that I found out about it without anyone else telling me it was there. And he didn't treat the natives well. And the fact that Spain just hoped he would be killed in the process of finding this land so they wouldn't have to deal with him (most likely) doesn't help his case either. But you can't decide that he didn't do something incredible just because he wasn't a good person. You have to separate that. You can't just re-write history because he was bad. Good or bad, what he did was what he did. And you shouldn't try to teach that we shouldn't celebrate Columbus day because he was bad. You can lay out the facts and let people decide for themselves their view of him. But he wasn't the only person on the ship. There were other people on other ships as well who WEREN'T bad people who probably DIDN'T agree with all of Columbus' decisions, but we don't know about them. And I admit it's a shame that we know very little about those other people. And the anti-early America agenda. I couldn't help making connections between what early European settlers and the American government did to Native Americans and the things that Sandwhich and the early Regalian's did to other species in the Underland in order to take possession of the land they wanted. Including the poisoning of water sources. And then the references to the plague being used as a weapon. Which reminded me of the Native American's being given a "gift" of blankets that just also happened to be infested with small pox. I'm not saying any of this was RIGHT. It was downright REPULSIVE. But we don't do that anymore. Well, at least as so far as our government lets on.....I'm just saying the attitude it was portrayed in wasn't conducive to what I think she wanted to accomplish. You need to accept that mistakes were made, and it's a shame that they did, but that the best way to show you believe that is to make an individual change. Don't condemn our nation because of some really bad mistakes. Is Germany forever condemned as a nation because of the Holocaust? Do all of Germany's citizens walk around with their heads hanging because of how ashamed they were that Hitler duped them all into becoming a horror symbol to the world of some of the most heinous crimes against humanity AND the most RECENT horrific offenses in world history of that magnitude? I don't think so. I mean, I've never been to Germany, but I've had several friends live there for varying durations from 18-24 months and that's not the scene they paint of the people of Germany. They acknowledge and they say that they regret it happened. That they wish they could change the past, but they can't, so instead they are looking to build a better future to ensure they are never sweet talked by another leader again or allow such crimes to repeat themselves. At least not on their watch.

The character of Mrs. Cormaci makes a comment about war and how we're brought up to treat others kindly and to hurt someone is a crime and then you become a soldier and shipped out and told to kill and how that has to do something to you. It does. But I think the soldiers who are most resilient are the ones who know exactly what and who they are fighting for. They are fighting for the freedoms they want and the for the people they love. They never  get to the point where they ENJOY what they do, but they realize that in order to prevent extreme suffering, they must do what they must do.

There was even a touch on "pupettering" I don't know how to spell the term correctly, but when there is a person who is the leader, but not the mastermind. Some wonder if Hitler was the mastermind behind the Holocaust or if it was really one of his advisors who used flattery and manipulation because he couldn't rally the people the way Hitler could. The Bane is really only the leader of the rats because of the coincidence of his color and size in relation to the Prophecy of Bane, and because of how Twirltongue flatters and manipulates him to believe certain things. But Twirltongue knows she could never BE the leader. So she simply controls the leader with her agenda.

Anyway, despite all of that going on....and my daughter and I read this one out loud to each other, and she didn't pick up on most of this, and a few things I pointed out and we discussed how we felt about it and how it plays into our Christian value system and when war is ok and when it is not, etc. and when God sanctions an act that is a "thou shalt not" in the commandments. So it did open up some good dialog, even if it was a bit annoying in its blatancy.

The other thing I couldn't quite figure out if there was an agenda to it or not was the Prophecy's. Ripred admits to Gregor that he doesn't-and has never-believed in the prophecy's written by Sandwhich that if you stayed long enough, any number of things could be made to fit into it. And if something looks like it's going along and then changes, they say they must not have fully understood it. Also, it brings up the power of suggestion-did people do things in the prophesy because it suggested they should? Or would it have happened regardless? They've had to re-interpret things to fit what was written before, and chalked it up to lack of understanding. Ripred has used it to his advantage, but has manipulated it too in order to accomplish a task at hand. I don't know if this was a stab at religion or not, because Sandwhich was not a religious figure, and therefore, we have no idea where his "authority" to even make prophecy's would be. Although I guess a prophecy doesn't need to be religious in nature, although when it's not I've usually seen it referenced as something else, like predictions or foreseeing. I think the word prophecy denotes that it came from a prophet, which is a religious figure. Anyhow, giving something the title of prophecy makes it sound more serious, more legitimate, and more weighty and therefore have more power over the mind.

I'm not entirely sure I like where things ended, but when you go on a journey with characters, the story has to end somewhere and you will always be left wondering what happened to them after, but this series left with more questions unanswered than others. Even Hunger Games at least let you know what happened with key players-whether you liked it was a different story-and Harry Potter had a great epilogue. Here, Gregor's family still doesn't know what they are going to do, Regalia has a brighter future than ever, but you still wonder if it can be pulled off, and how.

There were still twists and turns and very unexpected things that kept you hanging on the brink. I would still recommend this series, but I would also highly recommend that if your child is reading them, that you read them as well and have some really great conversations with them.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Testing, Joelle Charbonneau

This is the book selection for my book club in August. Another fairly quick read at 325 pages and a teaser of Chapter 1 of the 2nd book. No, I did not know this was a series when I picked it up.

Very reminiscent of The Hunger Games but with a twist that makes it slightly more believable. Malencia (Cia) Vale lives in the Five Lakes Colony (formerly the Great Lakes) which is probably one of the smallest Colonies that make up the United Commonwealth. After the 7 Stages of War-the first Four of which man attacked man with all manner of a physical and biological weaponry, and the last Three in which many of the man made attacks triggered the Earth to "retaliate" with subsequent earthquakes, wind storms, tornadoes, etc. leaving the Earth largely barron between biologically engineered toxins and poisons to radiation. Many animals, plants and even some humans who were able to survive the radiation were permanently altered genetically. Perhaps a small field mouse now has claws and teeth that are now venomous and has no fear of people and would attack a person with no provocation. New biology engineering must happen in order to breed new crops resilient in nutrient sparse soil and to increase the nutrients in the soil as well. Much technology was lost, though I don't think as much as they let on.

In order to get the best and brightest in the areas of studies needed most to revitalize the land, the people and the government, some of the top students of each graduating class in each colony are invited to the capitol, Tosu City (I never quite figured out exactly where that was, although many other landmarks were mentioned, I didn't pay enough attention to pinpoint it) where they have been selected to be Tested in order to see if they will qualify to continue on past what we would consider a high school education. Anyone who is not selected will enter into adulthood (at around 16 or 17 years old) and pursue a career path that will help their colony thrive. Successful Testing candidates will attend the University where their strengths will be evaluated and will be placed in the area of study they are best suited for and has the most need of their unique skills. They are the future leaders of the country.

Cia has always dreamed of being a Testing Candidate. It is considered an honor to be chosen, and your family even is granted a monetary stipend for not having you there to contribute anymore. Her father was a testing candidate, but no one has been chosen for Testing in the Five Lakes Colony for 10 years. No one knows exactly why, but with only around 900 citizens or so, it's largely assumed that Tosu City officials determining that Five Lakes can't afford to send any of its citizens away.

Then Cia gets chosen. That's not really a spoiler alert. Due to the title and main character, it's rather obvious that she's going to be there. But what happens when she gets there is what is going to horrify you. There are 5 stages of testing. 1 the written component. 2 the hands on component. 3 the teamwork/group component. 4 the practical application. 5 the interview. From a start of 187 testing candidates, 20 will enter the University. How on Earth do you narrow down 187 to 20? That's what no one knows. The 20 who make it have absolutely no recollection of the testing process-which is to ensure confidentiality so that no future testing candidates will have an edge over anyone else.

You will come to really like Cia. I didn't get as emotionally attached to her as I did Katniss, but she certainly is likable  There's a little bit of a romance, a seeming attempt from another character to get a triangle going, but it never surfaces. Like Divergent, you are not quite sure who you trust. And Cia's father has said "trust no one".

So think Hunger Games type brutality, except NO ONE KNOWS what's going on except for Testing Officials and obviously the government. NO ONE suspects a thing. It isn't an overt lesson year after year proving the government's power by forcing you to watch children you know fight to the death. Families know that once you go to Tosu for the testing, you will probably never return home because you will be reassigned to another colony where your skills are needed. And because of the lack of ability to communicate long distances from the loss of technology, there's really no reason to believe that a lack of contact means anything else.

That's what makes it a bit more believable. If any 1st world country were to do anything shady, they sure as heck are not going to broadcast it across screens and parade it in front of the world. If anything seriously wrong is happening, it's going to be well hidden and drenched in secrecy. A wolf in sheep's clothing of biggest proportions.

I am anxious for book 2 which comes out this fall "Independent Study" if for no other reason than I want to see if Cia will succeed to have her upbringing and personal moral compass find a way to combat this secretive government to take all the good and leave the bad.

One of the biggest discussions from this book is "What makes a good leader?" There are references to needing to know when to fight and when to talk, how one of the faults of the last American President was that he was not willing to fight but attempted to talk it out with other countries bent on killing (ironically it was the Middle Eastern Coalition who first take out Washington DC and Boston followed by the Asian Alliance taking out Chicago). There's also discussion on how a leader should trust or not trust other people and how to tell who they should trust-and how to trust their own instincts and their own gut. And a good leader must know when to stop. A good leader would make mistakes-because we all do-but what separates a good leader from a bad one is that a good one would learn from those mistakes and never repeat them. They would admit to making a mistake and go in a different direction-no matter what it took or what others thought of them. They would do the right thing-to the best of their knowledge-with little regard to "popularity". The book doesn't come out and state that last one, but I felt it was heavily implied, since Cia makes a lot of choices that she thinks are making her look weak but when someone else talks to her about it she realizes the perception of others saw strength. And as chapter 1 of the second book in the sneak peak says "Thinking something is true doesn't make it so. Perceptions is almost as important as reality." and a good leader would know how to use both to their advantage.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Compound, S.A. Bodeen

Bodeen's first novel. It's a super quick read (I read it in two days and I'm a mom-that says something!) at 250-some odd pages.

It's the story of Yanakakis family. Wealthiest software developer who lives in Seattle. He has an adopted oldest daughter, Lexie, and twin sons Eddy and Eli, and a younger girl, Terese. Rex Yanakakis also has an obession. It's about nuclear war. He knows all the dates of everything having to do with nuclear war-and he's prepared too-with an underground compound built to withstand a nuclear winter of 15 years. The family knows about the compound, but never truly expected to see it. Until the fateful night when it all becomes real, and their father rushes them to the compound.

The story is told from Eli's perspective. He is 9 when they enter the compound, but then narration skips 6 years ahead in time with the occasional flashback to fill in gaps both from the previous 6 years inside the compound as well as to life before they had fled to their underground home.

I would probably give this book 3-3.5 out of 5 stars. It's highly predictable, and a little twisted in places. Twisted as in "that's SO wrong on SO many levels." But it is an interesting concept. What will people do in order to survive? What do you do if you're trapped in a situation where the authority figure is excessively controlling? How does having money affect the motives of other people in your life? Why do some people cave in their personal moral beliefs in the presence of someone with power and authority? For instance, there is a flashback in which Rex is throwing his Christmas Eve party and probably half of the guests are vegetarian or vegan-and he knows it. But he insists that everyone take a place with a serving of meat on it. And then, to further test the limits of his power, he then goes around the room and talks with each guest individually and asks them if they've tried the meat. If they haven't, he insists on them having one bite. And stays and watches while they do. Now, I know it's far fetched for a vegan or strict vegetarian to cave (have you ever met a vegan who didn't completely EXUDE the fact that they WILL not, under ANY circumstance consume an animal product?), but the example is that people who are not completely and wholly committed to their cause or belief system will cave in the presence of an outside pressure. And I think that that part is a valuable lesson for young people. I think it was Gordon B. Hinckley, former President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who was infamous for saying "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." So whatever it is you choose to value and believe, you need to commit to it 100% so that when the Rex Yanankakis's of the world insist that you eat that bite of meat, you can say "I'm sorry, but I don't __________" and if pressure continues, to just politely excuse yourself completely from the situation-no matter what the repercussions might be in your life.

Will Eli make that choice?