Friday, December 27, 2013

Making Ourselves Feel Ugly Is Not Fun

Book 1
By Scott Westerfeld

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Everybody gets to be supermodel gorgeous. What could be wrong with that?

Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can't wait. Not for her license—for turning pretty. In Tally's world, your sixteenth birthday brings an operation that turns you from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to have a really great time. In just a few weeks Tally will be there.

But Tally's new friend Shay isn't sure she wants to be pretty. She'd rather risk life on the outside. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world—and it isn't very pretty. The authorities offer Tally the worst choice she can imagine: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. The choice Tally makes changes her world forever.

Perhaps I've been reading too many well-written and utterly fascinating Dystopian books lately. Maybe I've grown too used to the idea that the world is doomed, humanity has all but killed itself, and the future holds nothing but torture and injustice. Or perhaps I've heard too much praise for the series. Because when it came to Uglies, I just didn't get the punch I was expecting.

The world of Uglies was both dark and fascinating. Inequality is a thing of the past because after age 16 everyone looks beautiful. If you think about it, it's kinda true. To quote from the book:
"Everyone judged everyone else based on their appearance. People who were taller got better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians because they weren't quite as ugly as everyone else." [...]

"Yeah, and people killed one another over stuff like having different skin color."
It's sad to say so, but who doesn't judge a person based on their appearance, take in that first impression? You may not always act upon that initial judgement, but it's in our mindsets. So it would seem that there are no downsides in creating a society of equality, where everyone can be gifted with equal beauty for free.

But in a world created by humans, are there such things as equality and freedom for all? Yeah, the book's labeled Dystopian: you do the math.

As far as Dystopians go, I thought this one was less relatable than most others I've read. Oftentimes I read a book and see parallels, or read a scathing social commentary that makes me want to change what I'm doing, to go out and make a difference now, before everything goes to hell. Here, though, everything is so distanced from the world today. All we see of today's culture is ruins, artifacts, and the characters can only wonder how we survived. It's as if we're seeing ourselves from an alien's perspective instead of a descendant's.

Which in turn made it less heavy-handed and much more focused on the story at hand. Because I didn't feel like I had to go stop things myself, I was able to engross myself in the world and characters more fully. On the one hand, I appreciated being able to relax and just enjoy the story, but on the other hand, I wasn't as distracted from things I didn't like...

Tally Youngblood was our eyes to this world of Uglies and Pretties, but honestly I found her a little hard to root for. A bit of a prankster, she starts off as being all about fun and excitement. She'd break the rules, but only as much as was expected, never enough to jeopardize her own future as a Pretty. But when that future is endangered by Shay, she's pretty quick to throw her under the bus.

I suppose that all added to the journey in which Tally is supposed to change. But when a good half of the book is spent with a narrator who is a shallow, disloyal, promise-breaking liar, it makes it harder to shift your thoughts and root for her when she changes. Also, other characters continually make her out to be special, when she does little-to-nothing to deserve such praise. The villain seems to think she has some great influence over people, her boyfriend thinks she's wiser and more serious than anyone else, but I never figured out why.

Still, I didn't hate Tally. I thought she was relatable, with flaws as well as kinda major brainwashing/conditioning to account for the more serious faults. And she was brave and loyal when the moment really called for it. I was put off by how often she would promise things, only to knowingly break her promises a few pages later, but I can overlook a few things for her fighting spirit and sacrifices she makes for others later down the line.

Unfortunately there's not much to say about the other characters in the book. Shay is written mainly as a plot device for Tally to act off of. She's passionate and opinionated one moment, pushing Tally to a new level of rebellion, and the next she's a shallow and jealous ex-friend because Tally stole 'her' boy. David, the romantic interest, is basically just that. He shows Tally the truth behind the government conspiracy, praises her up one side and down the other, and then serves as the guilt to drive her to action later. There were some more incidental characters, but none of them got nearly enough screen time to develop personalities of their own.

So with my feelings of partial indifference toward both romantic leads, what did I think of the romance? Well, it had it's ups and downs. Thankfully, the love triangle was squashed rather early. Yes, Shay liked David and held a grudge against Tally about it, but it was very clear that David would never reciprocate her feelings. I also liked that Tally didn't have love at first sight. In that sense, I did think she was rather mature and serious, though she did have a lot of guilt and thoughts of "How can I tell him what I did?" which got annoying after a while. Still, I approved of how the relationship developed and their treatment of one another, so I guess I'd endorse the pairing.

I'm actually surprised to have found this much to harp on. Believe it or not, I think fondly of Uglies, and am very much looking forward to continuing with the series. Perhaps it wasn't the most thought-provoking or heart-wrenching of Dystopians I've read these days, but I did find the story and characters engaging while I read, and I'm eager to see what happens next.

Now for the ending... About three-quarters through, once I started thinking about the series as a whole, I'm sorry to say that I was able to predict the ending. Thankfully, I didn't know exactly how it would come to pass, but I did get the gist correct. And if anything, it helped me prepare for the cliffhanger that was to come. Yes, there's a cliffhanger. And yes, you should have the next book handy. But while Tally's story is unfinished, her journey of growth and self-discovery comes to a satisfying conclusion (pause) at the end of this book.

Overall, Uglies was an enjoyable Dystopian. I'd recommend it to fans of YA, Dystopians, SciFi, or any combination of three with some romance on the side. Though no language or sex, there are a few fight scenes with mild violence and some character deaths, but I'd say middle school and older will enjoy reading this. With another intriguing what-if scenario, if you're wanting a change from the heavy-handed and depressing fare that the Dystopian genre has pitched to us lately, you'll definitely want to check out Uglies for yourself.

Approximate Reading Time: 6 hours

Audiobook Review
Performed by Carine Montbertrand
Length: 12.3 Hours
Listened at 2.3x Speed

A fairly straightforward production, this audio wasn't overly memorable for good or bad. I was a tad disappointed by the narrator's male voices—David in particular was pretty much a scratchy throat—but besides that Ms. Montbertrand did a fine job with Tally and the lot. Also, because the book doesn't have chapter numbers, just names, navigation may be a tad tricky if you stop and start, but that can't really be blamed on the production.

Overall, an on-par recording that audiophiles and newcomers alike should enjoy but I wouldn't say is a must-read for those not already planning on listening.

Disclaimer: I read an e-copy of this book for free via Simon & Schuster Inc./SimonTeen's 31 Days of Reading promotion on their website, In addition, I checked out a copy of the audiobook at my local library. I received nothing in exchange for this review.