The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski

Publication year: 2007
Genre: time travel / dystopia
Time and place: mostly 2012, an alternate version of US (actually, the US does not exist as it has seceded into North and South a few decades before); also, some 1912, on board the Titanic
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence:Jonathan Wells stood by the starboard railing, a gaunt figure in a dinner jacket.
Verdict: It has its good parts but on the whole it’s not for me.

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Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines

Genre: Young Adult
Main characters: Lyn (G.?), Uber
Time and place: Boston in an alternate version of our reality; the year is ours or close to ours, I think
First sentence:In 1969 there was a young widower named Joseph Byers who lost his only child, Ned, to the war in Vietnam, when Ned tried to dodge the draft.
Verdict: Not what I was expecting.

The daughter of seven neo-gladiators, Lyn is now eighteen and a minor celebrity of her time. Her mother, Allison, is very devoted to gladiator culture, and expects her to have a bright future as a gladiator wife. Lyn is not entirely certain this is what she really wants, so she takes her time, weighing her options. But then Lyn’s last father, Tommy, is killed in the arena, and the family’s situation changes overnight. What’s worse, cultural circumstances force Lyn to marry her father’s killer, or her family will be thrown into the streets. By now however she is certain she does not want to be a ‘glad wife’, so she makes the only choice that seems available to her: challenges her husband-to-be to a duel in the arena, to the death.

General impression
For some reason the title made me think of one of those books, Hunger Games-like, where a bunch of people are stranded in a situation where they are supposed to claw their way out, most likely stepping on their adversaries’ bodies in the process. Well, this book is not it. Our main character only spends a few pages at most in the actual arena, and unfortunately I didn’t find the rest of the story strong enough to make up for it.

It all started out like a good idea:

Joe Byers introduced neo-gladiator sport into American life to involve teenage boys in a new form of competition that would be exhilarating while releasing energy in a safe, clean way. He hoped there would be less need for war over time, especially for useless, savage wars like Vietnam.

As time passed, however, the balsa wood weapons the boys trained with became real ones; their matches became sport events broadcast on a national scale. Gladiator schools were formed; in time they were followed by a Gladiator Wives College (“where young women learn in two intensive years to be perfect Glad wives“). A Gladiator culture was formed, with its own set of rules. And somewhere along the way killing one’s opponent became not only accepted but the norm.

I didn’t actually get Lyn. I cannot put my finger on the why, but I could not relate to her, and I don’t think I liked her very much. It’s not like she was bad or anything, she just felt… bland. There was nothing about her that truly stood up, she was just there.

And then we have Lyn’s mother, who most of the time seems to be in various stages of depression, and as such I couldn’t relate to her either. And there’s Thad, Lyn’s autistic brother, who seemed like a plot device more than anything else — there had to be someone depending on Lyn’s choices, to force her on a certain path, and what better way to do that than ‘attaching’ a younger brother to her? And then, why not go for an extra touching factor and make him unable to ever fend for himself. But hey, why make him ordinary? Let’s make him an oracle, of all things. How in the world did Thad know the future, and why did we need a foreteller in the book anyway? That’s never explained. One more thing for me to wonder about I guess.

On the other hand, there is Uber. A born-in gladiator (meaning that his father was a gladiator too), and the current arena champion (which means he was the very best in his field at the time). He could have been such a great character. Too bad he borrows a little from Allison’s way of seeing the world, and as such he’s always dejected or something similar. A bit strange if one thinks about it, after all this was his moment and he had the world at his feet, but there it is. He felt like something carried away by a breeze; he goes where he’s expected to go and does what he’s expected to do, with hardly any initiatives of his own. And to think he had so much potential *sigh*

It felt like all the relationships in the book that had any potential at all were underdeveloped, while much fuss was made about those I cared nothing for. It’s like the author had a good idea somewhere — a love triangle between a girl, her (guy) best friend who’s loved her since forever, and a new guy that everyone pushes her towards, despite the fact that he is responsible for her family’s misery. Lyn could have oscillated a bit between the familiar and the new, between her duty as a daughter and the fact that Uber was in fact rather likable; Mark could have fought tooth and nail to keep her to himself; Uber could have been obsessed with leaving the country to get rid of the gladiator life, or… I don’t know, something, anything. As it is, everyone seems a little too mild. Mark loves Lyn but does nothing to keep her other than mildly telling her so. Uber mildly tells Lyn that he loves her and he wants to leave the country one day and that is that. He never takes a stand, he even fights her in the arena, and even hurts her a few times; how’s that for being in love? As for Lyn, she never knows what she’s feeling and she doesn’t care enough to find out. She may have feelings for Uber, but, like in everyone else’s case, they never go beyond mild. And… I likes books that are intense, I like to read about feeling that blow my mind, I can’t say I much care about mild *sigh, again*.

The book felt like there was a plot somewhere in there but it kept eluding me. I was quite interested to see how the relationship between Lyn and Uber will evolve, and whether the two of them will manage to beat the system, and how. These things however kept taking a backseat, as the focus kept being on other secondary characters — mostly Lyn’s mother and brother. There are pages after pages describing Lyn’s interactions with Thad, their routines, and I kept feeling they added nothing at all to the story. Ok, I got that Thad was very attached to Lyn and Lyn loved Thad in one of their first scenes together, I did not need any more of them as they seemed repetitive after a while. There are also many pages about Alison, and her reactions to various things. And yet none of those pages allowed me to grasp the essence of the character — or perhaps I did grasp it but kept thinking there must be more to her. But there are so very few pages about Uber, and how Lyn deals with the fact that he killed her current father (surprisingly enough, Allison made such a big deal of having lost her best husband but seems to have nothing but benign feelings for his killer). I kept wanting more, I kept looking forward to things getting to actually develop… but they never did.

What I liked most
The whole backstory of Glad culture (how it came to be, how it evolved to its current state) was quite well done, in my opinion. While on the whole I doubt that there are that many people willing to die in the arena to get the trend started at first, there is nothing in the author’s depiction of events that challenges my suspension of disbelief — it’s one of those improbable but not implausible things that I could actually see happen, should stars align in a certain way. And yeah, I thought that was cool :)
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Also, a fun detail I enjoyed, also in the course of presenting the timeline, there’s this:

Then four things happened: Chuck Palahniuk, 9/11, the war in Iraq, and a self-help book selling in the millions called The Mystery. Drawing on the self-actualizing techniques of The Mystery, Caesar’s Inc., a holding company located in New York City (not to be mistaken with the Las Vegas group), recognized an opportunity.

A self-help book called The Mystery, get it? ;)

What I liked least
As much as I liked the backstory of it all, there were a couple elements I heartily disliked.

First, the premise of the book (that Uber had ‘captured’ Lyn’s dowry bracelet and in their culture this means they had to get married) seemed to me very contrived. Not only because I cannot imagine how such a custom ever came to be (who, male or female, would ever want to have such an important choice stripped from them?), but also because I find it a bit too silly on Lyn’s part to offer the thing that could imprison her for life so carelessly to someone else. Last but not least, the concept was insufficiently explored (no details were ever given about the bracelet — how did the tradition started? How/when did a girl get hers? etc), and so the whole thing felt like a gimmick to force the two main characters together. Yawn.

The second is more of a pet peeve and it has something to do with the Living machines. Leaving aside the fact that I don’t quite see how they got developed in the first place, in a society so similar to ours (gladiators aside, the pop culture is mostly the same; they even have Second Life and youtube), the ‘implementation details’ are a bit fuzzy to me. Let us assume that having a sentient copy of someone else is doable. But projecting a 360 degrees 3D image without a projector in sight (also, more than one such character walks from one place to another, from example Tommy appears outside and then comes into the house) is… well, not something I see happening in the next centuries. And then they eat!! How in the hell can a projected image physically interact with the physical world? Not in the least, why did the author felt the need to include this tidbit anyway? It’s not like it had any relevance to the rest of the story, yet it jolted me right out of the moment. Why yes, I work in tech, why do you ask? :)

Thoughts on the title
Well, there was a girl. And an arena. And even a girl in the arena for a short while. I imagine it can be called appropriate (although as previously stated it was rather misleading to me).
(also, can I pretty please complain about the cover? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful cover, and I love love love the girl’s hair. It’s only that in the book Lyn’s scalp was shaved)

Thoughts on the ending
Wow. It’s been ages since I read a book whose ending I simply did not understand. And to think people criticize the lack of fighting in Breaking Dawn. If there was a prize for most useless climax ever, well, this book would take it.
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Recommend it to?
Young Adult & Dystopia fans I guess. While the book fell short for me in some ways, this doesn’t mean that a true fan of the genre cannot find it enjoyable. Or so I think :)

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The Giver by Lois Lowry

Genre: Utopia/Dystopia (I cannot decide)
Main characters: Jonas
Time and place: the far future
First sentence:It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.
Verdict: Four and a half stars.

Jonas is a eleven year old boy who lives in a society where everything is regulated. The quality of life is high, and if one would ask them the people there would say they do not lack anything.

As Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to become a Receiver of Memory, the most honored role in their society, one that implies having access to all the memories of their forefathers. It is this way that Jonas gets to find out about how things once were, and realizes how not-so-utopic the society he lives in actually is.

General impression
I have no idea what I was expecting this book to be, but it took me completely by surprise. In a good way, of course. It’s one of those books that made me think, and I love those. I am quite looking forward to reading the sequels (although I understand that they are set in totally different worlds).

For me, the world building was the best part. It had elements that are unmistakably 1984-esque, such as the speakers in everyone’s homes, speakers that could not be turned off and that chastised children/people who did something untoward. And, of course, the feeling that someone, somewhere, is always watching.

There are also some main differences though, because this world is, at least on the surface, quite friendly to its inhabitants, or at least those of them that do obey the rules. Lying to one another is forbidden, and children are taught from an early age not to be rude with others. People’s path in life (their jobs, their marriages, their kids) is assigned to them by the Elders, but great care is taken for these choices to fit the individual they were imposed on (“Matching of Spouses was given such weighty consideration that sometimes an adult who applied to receive a spouse waited months or even years before a Match was approved and announced. All of the factors — disposition, energy level, intelligence, and interests — had to correspond and to interact perfectly“). There are also mandatory rituals that are supposed to relieve people of their daily stresses: the evening ‘telling of feelings’, when people shared their feelings with their ‘family unit’ and were helped to deal with them, and the morning sharing of dreams, which was pretty much the same.

Everything is very well regulated. A ‘family unit’ always has a mother, a father, one boy child, and one girl. There are precisely 50 babies born and entrusted to families every year. The children are all given names that are unique in the community (only when someone dies his or her name may be used again; unless the person did something particularly reprehensible so the name is forbidden to reuse), but they also have numbers, according to their age and the number they had on the list on the day they were ‘assigned’ to their families. And so on and so forth.

The obvious question that this raises is: would building a carefree life like that justify the loss of choice? The answer, in the context of the world in a book, is a resounding yes. And that is because those people (with the exception of Jonas later on) had no idea they were missing anything, as no one had ever told them there could be such a thing as free will. It takes one of us, people living under a different regime, to be horrified at the immensity of their loss. Although to be fair I do think that the idea of having someone always making the best decisions does have its merits for the society as a whole (a society where no one makes the wrong choices has no way to go but up, right?). However, from an individual point of view this would be nothing short of a catastrophe — we grow by learning from our mistakes, we gather strength by surpassing obstacles; it is this very growth that makes us who we are.

But I digress. Back to the book :)

This is a short book with plenty of world-building, so the characters are not developed beyond a few basic brush strokes. We don’t even know most of them’s names.

I liked Jonas a lot. I thought his transition from a child of his own society — taking things for granted, playing by the rules, and never thinking for himself beyond the basics — to the one who knew and understood things was quite believable and well done, albeit a bit short in pages (it did take about a year in ‘real-time’). I liked the way he found some answers to the questions no one ever thought of — such as what are animals (they used the word, but had no idea of its actual meaning), what the children’s plush toys represented (each ‘newchild’ was given a plush ‘comfort object’, with a strange name — hippo, elephant, bear — and shape), or what some of their games had their roots in. Even deprecated words, like ‘love’, become full of meaning for Jonas. The memories change him irrevocably, and for the better.

I feel like I should say something about the Giver too, but I only see him as a means to an end. Basically he is there to provide the information Jonas needs, we rarely if ever get any insights in his own mind. We know his task is very brave, taking on everyone’s memories and relieving them of their burden, but I do not know whether to read too much into that since it was a task imposed on him and not one he chose himself. I imagine him as an older version of Jonas, with the same courage and same willingness to do the right thing.

That is also an interesting part. People are no longer capable of love, or perhaps they have just discarded it as unnecessary. Since a ‘family unit’ is brought together by the authorities, they have no real blood ties and no actual attachment to one another, other than mere familiarity. Sure, parents are proud of their children’s achievements, but only because they reflect on themselves and their parenting style. Children are well cared for, but that is because this is the way things are supposed to be done. The parent-child interactions are stilted and formulaic, using pre-established sentences. A far cry from the way Jonas interacts with the Giver himself, asking all the questions he needs and being given answers, even when those answers are not easy ones.

The most obvious example of the general lack of feeling is Jonas’ family reaction to baby Gabriel: they took him in, because if he didn’t make it it would reflect badly on Jonas’ father performance as a Nurturer. They all took care of him for about a year, and yet they never bonded, they were absolutely indifferent when told they have to let Gabe go.
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What I liked
My absolute favorite thing by far was the part related to colors.
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I also liked the way the author has imagined the childhood stages of the people in that community.
First, there is the Ceremony for the Ones:

Each December, all the newchildren born in the previous year turned One. One at a time — there were always fifty in each year’s group, if none had been released — they had been brought to the stage by the Nurturers who had cared for them since birth. Some were already walking, wobbly on their unsteady legs; others were no more than a few days old, wrapped in blankets, held by their Nurturers.

There is a similar ceremony for each age up to twelve, marking the passing from one particular stage to another.
For example, when one became a Seven one was allowed (requested actually) to wear a front buttoned jacket for the first time.

Fours, Fives, and Sixes all wore jackets that fastened down the back so that they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence. The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up.

At Eight, one got another jacket, “with smaller buttons and, for the first time, pockets, indicating that she was mature enough now to keep track of her own small belongings“. At Nine, each kid got a bike (the only means of transportation allowed), “the powerful emblem of moving gradually out into the community, away from the pro-tective family unit“. At Ten their hair was shortened, and at Eleven they got new clothes again, “different undergarments for the females, whose bodies were beginning to change; and longer trousers for the males, with a specially shaped pocket for the small calculator that they would use this year in school“. The last important step was becoming Twelve, when one was assigned to their future job. After that, people usually no longer kept track of their age.

I think nothing makes more obvious the Sameness of everything than the idea of these stages. Everyone wore the same clothes, everyone wore their hair the same way, and so forth. I find it quite an original idea and I salute the author’s imagination for thinking about it.

What I did not like
Not a fault of the book’s per se but I was confused to find out that there still was snow and animals still existed in that world. Seeing that no one knew about them other than the Giver, I would have expected them to be long gone/extinct. And they weren’t even that far away, since Jonas only had to travel a few days to find them. Although now that I think about it, this too — the fact that people had no idea of the things in their vicinity — could be a sign of how isolated, closed, and self-sufficient the community was.

Thoughts on the title
“The Giver” is one of the central characters of the book, so the title is very apt. I also like how it comes with a touch of mystery — I used to try to imagine what exactly is that the giver in the book is giving. I never had a satisfactory theory about that, but even if I did I don’t think I would have guessed in a million years what the actual answer is :)

Thoughts on the ending
I can’t stop thinking about it.
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Recommend it to?
Anyone. It is an interesting read and also quite short (I read it in a single sitting).

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