The Pigman by Paul Zindel – Book Review

John Conlan and Lorraine Jensen interact as any teenagers who are not overwhelmed by the problems that beset them but deal with them as they come, sometimes not just one at a time. They alternate writing chapters to inject a multiple view of the same situation with pleasing variety. It is not unlike listening to two students eagerly revealing their escapades. The Pigman himself is not so much a character as he is an ideal personified in the body of Angelo Pignati.

But, it is clear that what the Pigman represents is transiently dynamic replaceable by any stimulus which has as its goal the acquisition of self-identity. It was by assisted chance that Lorraine selected the name during their random telephone marathon, but Angelo Pignati became an integral part of the youths’transitions from children to young adults. The Pigman, despite his wry humor indicative of regression to second childhood, issues profound challenges that test the perceptivity of John and Lorraine concerning their values. The combination of young innocence and aged experience fulfills both sets of needs for parental bonding sorely lacking in John and all too weak with Lorraine.

The revelation of the loss of the Pigman’s wife only heightens the need for this bond. The importance of honesty in any relationship is brought to light as Lorraine and John struggle with the decision whether or not to reveal to Mr. Pignati the truth about their chance meeting. He, however, is a master psychologist and knows how to extract from the unwary couple their subconscious aspirations. The negative parental images are not fiction; they recreate Paul Zindel’s own conflicts in his novel personae reflected not only in this story but also forming the common thread throughout his others.

As is so true to life, the depth of feeling for the Pigman is not realized until the pain they inflict on him is complete, albeit unintentional. It takes his inevitable death to punctuate the severity of their loss. It is not unintentional that similar images, like baboons, are replete throughout Zindel’s stories. They are meaningful to him and should be as significant to the readers no matter what their age might be.

Evaluation: Paul Zindel knows children, their problems, and some solutions. He doesn’t offer the answers to questions like Where am I going? but opens the child’s mind to possibilities that must be answered by the child himself. The story addresses peer problems concerning interpersonal relationships without wallowing in blatant sexuality, family ties, friendship, and death. But, the primary thrust of this story is personal identity at an age when individuality is so difficult to assert.

Recommendation: This story is appropriate for any student who can pick up the book and read with minimal effort. It is more than a tale of misadventure and emotion; it is a commentary on human behavior between family members, peers, and children with adults.

Teaching: The style of this narrative opens avenues for creativity not only for exploring other models based on the alternate writer method but also for answering questions addressed in the plot: Who is YOUR pigman? Where are YOU going? What is important to YOU? Different classes could take the same test the Pigman gave to Lorraine and John with the boatman and the assassin. Variations on that same theme, looking for personal values, may provide incredible insight into the personalities of students and teachers alike.

A Book Review of The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

One word I can describe this book: TENSE. Yes, it’s so tense I cannot recommend it for a toilet read.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in a trilogy (Chaos Walking Trilogy), and the first YA book written by the author.

I do not know how to begin saying how much I like this book. From its characters, the plot, the writing style. It is just…forgive me for raving like an energetic teen…EFFIN AWESOME! And to think that I have not read a lot of Young-Adult Fiction, much more Dystopian YA. Which explains why I only got to read this now, when all other fans have already recovered from the frenzy of having completed all the 3 books.

The Knife Of Never Letting Go is told from the viewpoint of 12 year-old Todd Hewitt, who lives in Prentisstown, a town in the New World, where people can hear each other’s thoughts they call the Noise. Todd has only 30 more days to go before he becomes officially a man, but before he does, he suddenly finds himself being driven away by his parents from the town to escape the town’s army. But how far can you really get to escape when your thoughts can be heard by your pursuers?

Patrick Ness has created a unique, novel idea of a world where everybody hears everybody’s thoughts. And for this apparently original idea alone, I can easily give the book the 5 stars. But of course, there are still the almost-man Todd, who is as strong a character as he is real, and Viola, the mysterious Noiseless girl, plus the presence of very effective, very evil antagonists, Aaron and the Prentiss father-son tandem. You wrap them all up together with a very brilliant writing style and technique, and you have in your hands one excellent story.

Another thing that has made me fall in love quickly about The Knife Of Never Letting Go is Manchee, the talking dog. I absolutely love dogs, and the presence of Manchee as Todd’s sidekick is such a delight, and his loyalty to Todd (Ow, Todd? Food, Todd?) tugs at my heartstrings and brings tears to my eyes.

The Knife Of Never Letting Go is so full of hide-and-seek action, taut suspense, and mind boggling plot twists, you just cannot let go until you get to the last page. It made my chest constrict and pulled up my blood pressure (I’m only guessing), and after I turned the last page, I had this crazy urge to go to the bookstore and buy the rest of the books in the series. Except that it’s already past midnight and I have yet to get some sleep. It is full, too, of creachers, effins, yers and -shuns, but you have to read the book to understand what I’m saying.

Dystopian fiction may not be an absolute favorite in my case (so far I’ve only read The Hunger Games and Stephen King’s The Running Man) but I am definitely adding up The Knife Of Never Letting Go to my short list.

5 stars. Absolutely.

Book Review of Backward Compatible: A Geek Love Story by Sara Daltry and Pete Clark

Is there someone for everyone? Even me?

Time is passing and the Y Generation have now become young adults. During this social period computers and the Internet have become household items, at least in the Upper and Middle classes. Online gaming has now become a subculture complete with language, social activities and dress. The word ‘geek’ has become more a description of an alternate subculture than a derogatory term. Daltry and Clarke take us on a wacky trip into the world of computer geeks, as they follow the hectic lives of Katie Garretty and George Lindell. Will this young woman and man come together in a sweet romance, or will they be doomed to remain single forever? Does being a computer geek mean you can never have self-respect, or can these young people grow in self-confidence? Will the pair ever battle their way to the end of Fatal Destiny, the game which dominates their young lives? Backward Compatible is a romantic comedy that will entertain those who enjoy reading New Adult or Young Adult fiction.

Right from the start it should be pointed out that this book is a comedy and much of the humour revolves around politically incorrect views. This book is full of foul language, sexual references and biases against minorities. If you are looking for a book that will expand your social and political ideology you would do well to go somewhere else. If, however, you are looking for something that will make you smile, this is the book for you.

In tune with the gaming ethos of the book, the novel is divided into 15 “Levels”, reminiscent of computer game levels in which each new stage represents a higher degree of complexity and difficulty. The plot of Backward Compatible can roughly be divided into two halves. The first half, Level 1 – 7, revolves around the issue of whether Katie and George will actually get together, and the complication of a possible relationship between Katie and Jeff Browning (“Seynar”). The second half, Level 8- Boss Level (15), covers Katie and George’s budding romance and a gaming hunt for hidden keys, in order to win a $10,000 prize and a trip to Montréal. Both halves each contain an extended description of gaming play, so it should be pointed out that this novel is particularly designed for those interested in online games. If you are not so interested, these sections may seem a little dull. Most of the book, however, is of general human interest and so will appeal to a wide range of readers. The chapters are written alternately from Katie’s, then George’s, point of view. As a result we gain a look into both the female and male minds and lives of young adults. This book, then, should appeal to both male and female readers. At 356 pages Backward Compatible is of average length, however, it is just a little too long for the content. It could have benefited from some minor editing.

Daltry and Clarke have created a collection of likeable characters who the reader will instantly relate to. These characters will remind the reader of themselves or their friends. Both Katie and George are bright and witty, and at the same time vulnerable. We relate to their lack of confidence, and hope the best for them. Typical of the romantic comedy genre even the antagonist character, who I will not name in order to avoid spoiling the story, is not too bad: even they have endearing qualities. The character of Katie has an arc of development spanning the whole novel. We follow her as she progresses from an aching lack of self-confidence to a position of much more self-assurance and certainty. The character of George has two arcs of development. The first arc covers the first half of the story, and takes George from being a nervous young man who does not believe he will ever get a girlfriend to a happy young man who is now dating. The second arc revolves around the issue of whether George will actually have sexual relations with Katie. The character of Katie is a little more fully developed than that of George. The internal monologues for Katie take us deep into her mind and experiences. The character of George also has internal monologues, but we do not get quite the breadth of characterisation. For example, we hear of George’s physical longing for sexual satisfaction, but there are few detailed descriptions of this physical angst. This is not to say that George does not live on the page. The reader does relate to him as real.

In contrast to the new circumstances of the Y generation and technological development, as the subtitle suggests, romance is the central theme of Backward Compatible. This ageless theme is fully developed to the reader’s satisfaction. It is a simple fact of life that for many of us at least part of the solution for lack of self-confidence is finding a partner who we can love and be with. Katie and George are not the only characters to pair off by the end of the novel. Family is a very secondary theme. The reader gains a brief look into the families of George, Katie and Lanyon (George’s ever present buddy). We see parents who cramp their children’s style, but are caring, and a brother who is competitive, but willing to help. These two themes fit well together, as one has a tendency to lead to the other. Of course, a family is a long way ahead in Katie and George’s future, and we do not know if it will eventually come to be, but the reader can hope.

The humour in the novel works quite well. There is a great amount of witty comment and repartee, slapstick humour and tongue in cheek events. George and Lanyon are particularly a comedy duo a little reminiscent of The Three Stooges, although of course there are only two of them. For example, while George and Lanyon are at the store, at midnight, to buy the new release of Fatal Destiny George tries to pull Katie as a date by giving her his copy of the game to buy. Seeing this Lanyon comments, “I mean, if you are going to give up a midnight release the least she can provide you with is a little midnight release.” During the same incident George comments of Katie, “her smile is more that of a hungry T-Rex than innocent… ” At times the plot wanders a little into hyperbole. For example there is a three-storey climbing incident which is a little unreal, and certainly would not work in a less humorous and more realistic story. Similarly, in reality few friendships would last if a young man hit his friend in the testicles. But as has been noted this is a comedy and the reader is not too upset by these unrealities.

From the perspective of Feminism women in the novel are represented as quite dynamic and forward. Katie, despite her lack of self-confidence, can be very forceful in making her opinions known. She is a talented gamer and an aggressive fighter in Fatal Destiny. She is also an intelligent university student, an Art History major, who has gained entrance to Amherst College, a prestigious and exclusively selective university. Allie, Katie’s friend, is the first to turn against the antagonist character, deliberately killing their game avatar even though the antagonist is supposed to be on the same team. Anna, Katie’s best friend, is, however, more of a female stereotype. She is interested mainly in guys and clothes. Anna certainly gets a ribbing from Katie, though, on these points. Stacey and Vicki, two hussies who knew Katie in high school, also represent the female stereotype of get a man, have a baby and raise a family. These two women, though, are hardly represented positively, and their lifestyle is certainly not recommended.

The male characters, when seen in terms of Gender Studies, are hardly sensitive New Age men. Much of the humour comes from George and Lanyon’s insensitive, macho dialogue about women. Indeed, where women are concerned they seem interested in only one thing: sex. Much of this, however, is purely a front, an adopted persona. We see from the internal dialogue in his chapters that George in fact does have feelings, and indeed is quite sensitive, including being worried about his own masculinity. In the second half of the novel there is an extended incident where a George very much goes out of his way to cheer up and console Katie, who is crying because of some abuse she has received.

The LGBTIQ minority are not represented in the novel, and indeed gays come in for quite a bit of bigoted humour. Much of this, however, arises because of George and Lanyon’s insecurities about their own masculinity. This could have been balanced, though, by including a positively described cameo of a gay character.

The aged are completely absent from the text, but this is not a great surprise as Backward Compatible is a Young Adult / New Adult novel. Once again one cameo appearance could have been included to represent this much ignored minority. It is certainly true that the age can make a positive contribution to the lives of young people.

In the terms of the Capitalist / Socialist debate there can be no doubt that Backward Compatible lies firmly in the Capitalist camp. Both George and Katie live an alternate lifestyle and are hard up for money, but they are able to do this because of the largesse of their parents. Neither of them, nor Lanyon, works during their winter break. Indeed, they do not even attempt to find work. All three attend university because of the generosity of their parents. Katie, indeed, goes to a highly expensive college. Also, much of the second half of the novel revolves around an attempt to win $10,000. This is clearly a capitalist motivation. Nonetheless, at one point in the story Katie clearly states that she does not wish to own lots of products, and that money is not important to her. Also, George drives a car which is old and perpetually breaking down. His parents have not gifted him with an expensive new vehicle. Clearly this book will appeal to middle class and upper class readers.

The novel is quite sound in psychological terms. Indeed, the split narration allows Daltry and Clarke to illustrate the concept of “mind reading”. In Cognitive Behaviour Therapy this is a classic error in thinking in which an individual imagines that they can read the thoughts in another person’s head. Usually the individual imagines the other person is thinking of them negatively, in reality this is simply not true. (Sarah Edelman. Change Your Thinking: overcome stress, combat anxiety and depression and improve your life with CBT: New York, N.Y.: Marlowe, 2007, p. 53) Both Katie and George engage in mind reading when in fact the other is thinking of them quite positively.

Backward Compatible is an endearing and humorous romp that will particularly entertain young adults, but also, more broadly, the young at heart. The Katie / George split narrative means that the book will appeal to both male and female readers. While the novel is centred in Y generation culture, the themes of romance and family are universal, and will appeal to many. I am happy to rate this book as 4 stars out of 5.

References

Caltry, Sarah & Clark, Peter. Backward Compatible: a geek love story:__ Smashwords ed.:__ Los Gatos, C.A.: Smashwords, c2013.

Edelman, Sarah. Change Your Thinking: overcome stress, combat anxiety and depression and improve your life with CBT: New York, N.Y.: Marlowe, 2007.

http://goo.gl/tTgTVO Backward Compatible (Kindle ed.)