Friday, February 8, 2013

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Title: Less Than Zero
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 208
Rating 5/5 Stars

Less Than Zero is one of those books that I don’t know how to rate because its worth can’t be measured in simple terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It’s one that I don’t know how to recommend to friends because I can’t tell them that they’ll enjoy it, but I still think it should be read. What I can say without equivocation is that it is effective.

Immensely effective. 

Less Than Zero is the second book by Bret Easton Ellis that I’ve read and while American Psycho was a thought provoking and often shocking experience, I think Less Than Zero is the better of the two and to really explain what Ellis does so well with the latter, I’m going to have to compare it to the former. 

From reviews I’ve read of American Psycho, the message and meaning of the book was lost on some because of the extreme violence perpetrated by the main character. I’d argue that they were idiots for expecting anything different from a book with the word ‘psycho’ in the title, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact remains that Ellis’s commentary on the completely shallow and soul-sucking world of Wall Street/the quest for the ‘American Dream’ in the 80s fell on deaf ears of those who couldn’t handle the visceral images he described. I would fault him for embracing the shock value so hardcore that it muddied his message if I didn’t think that that was at least half of the point. 

Less Than Zero, however, Ellis uses a different tactic to get his point across and in so doing demonstrates his talent as a writer. Where American Psycho was frenetic and dense with the inner monologue of the main character, Less Than Zero is sparse and detached. It’s a quick read at just 208 pages, some consisting of nothing but back and forth dialogue with minimal description.

And that’s exactly as it should be. 

The main character of Less Than Zero is Clay, a Beverly Hills rich kid who can’t relate to anything or anyone. It’s not that he doesn’t fit into his world, it’s that he’s lost the ability to be affected by it, to feel anything. Ellis presents us with a litany of causes – drugs, money, absentee parents, the glossy, flashy, shallow world in which he exists – but no one thing is the culprit for Clay’s state-of-being. 

It’s just the way it is. 

Ellis gives us the impression that Clay wishes things were different. Flashbacks to a previous summer in Palm Springs are sprinkled throughout the narrative and the reader is left to assume that Clay wants to go back to those supposedly better times, but those times don’t seem much better . Or maybe those flashbacks are really about showing the reader where Clay’s detachment and disaffectedness began. 

That’s the brilliance of the book – you can take it to mean either or both at the same time. 

One of the things I appreciated the most about Less Than Zero is that it’s not an anti-drug manifesto. While all of the characters are generally strung out on something – one in particular is in way over his head – Ellis doesn’t take the easy way out and claim that the drugs alone caused the problem. Clay does too much cocaine, but there are plenty of times where he doesn’t do any simply because he doesn’t want to. Drug use is a reaction to the problem, not a symptom or cause of it. 

Ellis’s use of words in
Less Than Zero is just as evocative as it is in American Psycho. I felt the desolation and detachment that Clay felt. I felt his numbness. Ellis ignores traditional rules of grammar to great effect in his use of run ons and sentence fragments. Clay’s life becomes a series of events that don’t affect him, they just happen around him. He has brief moments of being scared or angry, he describes a breakdown he has in his therapists office and again at his former elementary school, he musters up a sense of indignation over the gang rape of an underage girl that his friends – acquaintances, really, as he doesn’t feel enough for any of them to really call them friends – orchestrate and he has a sense of true horror and dread over the lengths his childhood friend Julian is willing to go to feed his drug habit, but he doesn’t do anything about it. 

He just…continues on. 

I didn’t get the impression that he doesn’t want to. He does. I think that Clay really, really wants something to feel different and to matter, but he doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know how to find it and even if he did, he knows that in the end it won’t matter. It can be lost and losing things is painful. One of the best passages in the book comes near the end between Clay and his ex-girlfriend Blair. 

“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”

“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing,” I tell her.

“Did you ever care about me, Clay?”

I don’t say anything, look back at the menu.

“Did you ever care about me?” she asks again.

“I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.”

The book culminates in a really horrifying day that begins with a quest to get money back from his friend Julian. Clay witnesses the worst of his world – Julian being pimped out to the highest bidder to cover his drug habit, the discovery of a dead body in the alley that his friends would rather mock and study in horrified fascination than call the cops about, and the gang rape of a twelve year old girl that disgusts completely disgusts him. Clay has countless opportunities to take himself out of the situation, but he doesn’t because – as he puts it – he wants to see the worst. He wants to know if the world can really be that dark. 

It can.

What’s most striking about that day is the fact that the book doesn’t end there. It covers a few more days of Clay’s Christmas vacation from college and he continues to see all of the people who committed the worst atrocities on that day and they interact as if nothing has changed. 

I could go on forever, pulling examples of what I found so fascinating about this book, but this review is already really long. I’ll leave you with what is said on the back of my copy of the book. 

Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Less Than Zero has become a timeless classic. The coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money in a city devoid of feeling or hope.

That is not hyperbole. That is exactly what this book is. Less Than Zero is an experience. It’s not a book you read to escape or relax, it’s a book that you read because you want to be moved. To be affected.

In all of the ways the main character can’t.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Embrace by Jessica Shirvington

Title: Embrace
Author: Jessica Shirvington
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 397 (Kindle Edition)
Rating: 5/5 Stars

Alright, time for my full review.

I. Loved. This. Book.

When it comes to fiction, I’m not typically an angel person. The whole concept of the wings drives me batty. How does a character DO anything with huge wings attached to their shoulder blades?
How do they sleep? How do they wear clothes? How do they walk through narrow doorways?

Anyway, suffice it to say, I get stuck in my own silly headspace when it comes to angel stories and it made me hesitant to read Embrace – despite the absolutely gorgeous cover.

Wow. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that.

Obviously, I got over my hesitation and I’m so glad that I did.

Like I said in my mini-review, I loved Violet. Even though she fell into the cliché of the girl hopelessly in love with her best friend, I loved her right from the start. Her strength and badass attitude was one cultivated over time and it made her completely relatable. I loved that her relationship with her father was strained, but in the most loving way possible. She didn’t have a lot of friends, but it wasn’t because she was unlikable, she just happened to be the type of person who didn’t have a lot of friends, but the one she does have – Steph – is awesome.

Like most books, I went into this one essentially blind – I didn’t even read the description – and as such I had no idea that there would be a triangle. Although, considering this is a paranormal YA novel, a love triangle is basically par for the course.

I liked Lincoln when the story began. I thought he was a good friend to Violet and as physical descriptions go, his wasn’t anything to sneeze at. I was all set for Violet to gradually make him aware of her feelings for him and for him to gradually reveal the fact that he pretty much loved her all along.

Then Phoenix happened.


Like I said, I don’t normally get invested in triangles to the point where I have a strong opinion as to who gets the girl. I read The Hunger Games not caring one iota whether Katniss ended up with Peeta or Gale. Embrace, however, was a completely different story. As soon as it was clear that Phoenix was going to play a major role in this story, my mind was made up and nothing that happened during the course of the story swayed my opinion. Phoenix is a glorious bad boy right down to the dark hair and smoldering good looks and that is so my type. His connection with Violet is visceral and utterly delicious.

My affinity for Phoenix probably colored my view of Lincoln as well. As soon as the truth about Violet’s Grigori nature came out, Lincoln read as more cowardly, more petulant and his jealousy toward Phoenix wasn’t attractive in the slightest.

Phoenix’s jealously wasn’t all that attractive either, but it works better with his character. Considering the fact that Lincoln appears to be the good boy, I guess I felt that jealousy should be above him.
Unfair? Eh, maybe, but I don’t care. ;)

I just wrote my review for Divergent, so forgive me for making a comparison here because the two stories are nothing alike, but in terms of plot Embrace wasn’t as tight. While Jessica Shirvington clearly did a lot of research and mythology building to support her story, there were big exposition moments that, while fascinating and engaging, really felt like story time. There were also a couple of places where I felt like Violet arrived at a decision without cluing the reader into the decision making process – when she decided to be with Phoenix, for example. Violet talks about having made a choice, but I have no idea when or how it happened.

Those were my only quibbles, however, and as you can see from my five star rating, they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. The plot itself – fallen angels, light vs. dark, Grigori and the whole concept of Embracing – I enjoyed immensely and I look forward to diving into Entice, the next book in the series.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 487
Rating: 5/5 Stars

I went into Divergent as unspoiled and unaware as possible considering the insane level of hype surrounding the book. I was not disappointed.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? With nearly 30,000 reviews on goodreads alone, I doubt I’ll come up with anything new, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Divergent, Veronica Roth has created a vivid dystopian world that is so different, so other, that it’s nearly impossible to see it as a future version of our own. Rather than calling that a detriment, I find it a testament to the event or events that led society to embrace the five factions in their effort to survive.

I loved the specificity and militant way each faction followed their own rules – the specific color choices for each faction, the way Abnegation took the stairs, rather than the elevators and stayed to stack chairs after an event, the way Dauntless always, always leapt onto and off of moving trains to get around and used tattoos and piercings to mark their accomplishments.

I also found it interesting that the remnants of the old world were allowed to survive – the old Ferris wheel and the ruined buildings outside of each faction’s home base. I frequently found myself wondering why no one had cleaned that up and if it was an indication of how recent the divide into factions actually was.
Also, is Chicago the only center of population that survived whatever apocalyptic event led to this future world? You’d think that with the virtual reality tech that Dauntless uses for their tests, they’d be able to communicate with other parts of the country…

So many questions that I hope will be answered as the series continues.

Our heroine, Beatrice Prior grew up in the Abnegation faction – the faction I’m pretty sure would be the last one I’d show an aptitude for – and the story begins on the eve of her aptitude test to see which faction she truly belongs to and will call home for the rest of her life. Choosing a faction is the single most important decision a person makes in Beatrice’s world and she goes into it appropriately nervous.

Bucking expectations, Beatrice follows her heart right into the world of the Dauntless, but this is not a case of never looking back. The story takes place during the rigorous Initiation process, where Beatrice – now Tris – is forced to face her fears and go up against her friends in a fierce competition to stay in her chosen faction.

And of course, that’s only the beginning of the story. ;)

The world of the Dauntless was an interesting one, defined by this strange juxtaposition of freedom and strict rules. Whenever Tris was out after dark or wandering alone within the Dauntless compound, I always found myself anxious for her safety because I kept thinking she was breaking rules, but she wasn’t. Apparently, I’m so indoctrinated to expect stringent rules with harsh consequences in dystopian fiction that I just expected it everywhere. It took me quite a while to get used to the fact that Tris wasn’t going to be thrown out on her ass for taking a walk through the Pit without an escort.

Or that kissing Four wouldn’t get her killed.

I really appreciated the way Roth handled Tris and explored her dueling, divergent nature – especially the way the random acts of insanity/bravery that the Dauntless perform on a regular basis exhilarated and excited her. Tris approached each challenge with a healthy dose of apprehension and delicious anticipation. She also had just enough Abnegation in her to keep her from being little more than a blunt instrument like some of her fellow Initiates.

There was a little bit of the “I’m so plain, why would he be interested in me” going on with Tris, but considering her background in Abnegation, I understood that. She wasn’t crippled by it, nor did she let it define her.

Speaking of the other Initiates, they ran the gamut. I liked them all – even the antagonists because they provided such great challenges for Tris. I really liked her close friends and was pretty heartbroken over what happens to basically all of them.

Apparently, Four is HUGELY popular and I can see why. I enjoyed him a lot in terms of a romantic foil and a character on his own. It was fascinating to watch him transform in Tris’s eyes from an enigmatic and mysterious presence to an ally and finally a love interest. I also loved that while he was special, he wasn’t Divergent like Tris. The coincidence of who he was and what faction he belonged to before the story began was enough of an aha! moment for me.

Plus, it let to that awesome confrontation between him and Tris at the end of the story.

Divergent succeeded from a technical standpoint as well. In fact, it really just succeeded all over the place. Everything about it was compelling. The heroes, villains and supporting players all stood on their own and fit into the ensemble beautifully. Roth’s writing kept me turning pages relentlessly until I got to the end, which is always the mark of a good story. I will definitely be reading Insurgent – in fact I already have a copy of it, but I’m holding off so that I don’t have to wait quite as long for the next one.