Fire & Flood: A Race For the Cure

A Review of Fire & Flood (Fire & Flood #1) by Victoria Scott

Scholastic, 2014

Fire & Flood Victoria Scott

by REBECCA, March 31, 2014

hook

yay, montana“Tella Holloway is losing it. Her brother is sick, and when a dozen doctors can’t determine what’s wrong, her parents decide to move to Montana for the fresh air. She’s lost her friends, her parents are driving her crazy, her brother is dying—and she’s helpless to change anything. Until she receives mysterious instructions on how to become a Contender in the Brimstone Bleed. It’s an epic race across jungle, desert, ocean, and mountain that could win her the prize she desperately desires: the Cure for her brother’s illness. But all the Contenders are after the Cure for people they love, and there’s no guarantee that Tella (or any of them) will survive the race.” (Goodreads)

review

Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood is perplexing. I could tell from the first page that I was going to dislike it, but I’m a sucker for an adventure story (and the cover’s beautiful), so I read on. There are several truly major problems with the novel.

brimstone!

brimstone!

1. There is absolutely no explanation given for the Brimstone Bleed and no world-building around it for the first, oh, 85% of the novel. Then, when the origin/motivation of the Brimstone Bleed is explained, it is absurd and ridiculous. As a result, the entire time I was reading about the characters going through the Brimstone Bleed, I was like, “What in the hellfire is going on and why would I possibly care?”

2. I don’t care. At all. Given that we have no context to care about the world or the plot, it only makes sense that we’d have to care enough about the characters that all that wouldn’t matter. Nope. Tella’s brother, whom she’s running the race to save, is a total blank about whom we know nothing. Tella is a bloody nightmare. There are a million reasons I dislike her as a character (her intense superficiality and terrible sense of humor are but a few of the petty ones), but mostly I just could not possibly care less whether she lives or dies. There is nothing remotely appealing or unique about her. The author’s one attempt to make her palatable is to suggest that she is the only one out of 122 people who likes animals. Seriously?

3. The structure is obviously in service of the marketing of a series as opposed to the book. “The Brimstone Bleed will last three months and will take place across four ecosystems: desert, sea, mountains, jungle,” we learn (19). I didn’t know right away this was a series, so I started out thinking it was a standalone, but it became clear pretty quickly that there wouldn’t be time to get to all four ecosystems in one book (and, P.S. neither fire nor flood really feature here, so that didn’t give anything away). Fire & Flood features the jungle and desert ecosystems, and it’s a very choppy structure that leaves off after the second ecosystem without any ending whatsoever. There’s a kind of vague outward gesture that suggests the stakes might be higher in book two, but it’s a perfunctory gesture at best.

desert foxHere’s why I’m perplexed, though, as opposed to simply irritated that I wasted my time on Fire & Flood. While the entire first half, including the jungle ecosystem section is laughably terrible, the second half is more compelling, quick-paced, and has a few instances of pretty cool micro-plotting. This chunk—the desert ecosystem—reads much more like a survival story and less like a crappy, lazy, riding-the-tails-of-Hunger-Games dystopia. So, if Victoria Scott can actually write moments like those in the second half of the novel, I’m so confused as to why the first half is so incredibly weak and uninteresting.

This, along with the total lack of world-building and the lack of an ending, makes Fire & Flood read as a first or second draft rather than a finished novel. There are certainly those who will down Fire & Flood along with the slew of slapdash, apolitical neo-dystopias that litter the YA landscape, but it’s one of the more uneven and unpleasant books I’ve had the displeasure of reading lately.

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Proxy Alex London

Proxy (Proxy #1) by Alex London (2013). Where Fire & Flood completely fails at world- and character-building, Proxy slowly constructs a complex and intriguing world peopled with exciting characters. Check out my full review of Proxy HERE. The sequel, Guardian, comes out in May.

The Testing Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). The second half of Fire & Flood reminded me of the final component of the test in The Testing, where the candidates have to journey from busted up Chicago back to the University.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publishers (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Fire & Flood by Victoria Scott is available now.

Looking Forward!

Some Coming-Soon YA Releases I’m Excited For!

Dreams of Gods and Monsters Laini TaylorWe Won't Feel a Thing J.C. LillisPointe Brandy Colbert

by REBECCA, March 27, 2014

There’s so much I’m looking forward to in the next month! Here are but a few. All blurbs from Goodreads.

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. LillisWe Won’t Feel A Thing, J.C. Lillis (March 31st)

Seventeen-year-old best friends Rachel and Riley are in forbidden love.

Their situation’s . . . complicated. And their timing couldn’t be worse—in just one month, he leaves for California and she starts college in New York. The absolute last thing they need is a reckless secret-love confession mucking up their perfect plans. There’s only one logical option: scientific intervention.

Desperate for a quick fix, they sign up for WAVES, an experimental self-help program led by mysterious scientist David A. Kerning. He swears his Forbidden Love Module can turn passion back to safe platonic friendship in “six easy steps.” But when you arm yourself with an untested program, side effects are unpredictable. And sometimes when you fight love—love fights back.

And here’s the brand spanking new book trailer for We Won’t Feel A Thing, which is pretty much the cutest damned thing I’ve ever seen:

What We Hide Marthe JocelynWhat We Hide, Marthe Jocelyn (April 8th)

Americans Jenny and her brother, Tom, are off to England: Tom to university, to dodge the Vietnam draft, Jenny to be the new girl at a boarding school, Illington Hall. This is Jenny’s chance to finally stand out, so accidentally, on purpose, she tells a lie. But in the small world of Ill Hall, everyone has something to hide. Jenny pretends she has a boyfriend. Robbie and Luke both pretend they don’t. Brenda won’t tell what happened with the school doctor. Nico wants to hide his mother’s memoir. Percy keeps his famous dad a secret. Oona lies to everyone. Penelope lies only to herself.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy Kate HattemerThe Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, Kate Hattemer (April 8th)

Witty, sarcastic Ethan and his three friends decide to take down the reality TV show, For Art’s Sake, that is being filmed at their high school, the esteemed Selwyn Arts Academy, where each student is more talented than the next. While studying Ezra Pound in English class, the friends are inspired to write a vigilante long poem and distribute it to the student body, detailing the evils of For Art’s Sake. But then Luke—the creative force behind the poem and leader of the anti-show movement—becomes a contestant on the nefarious show. It’s up to Ethan, his two remaining best friends, and a heroic gerbil named Baconnaise to save their school. Along the way, they’ll discover a web of secrets and corruption involving the principal, vice principal, and even their favorite teacher.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Claire NorthThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (April 8th)

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’ This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters Laini TaylorDreams of Gods and Monsters (Daughter of Smoke and Bone #3), Laini Taylor (April 8th)

By way of a staggering deception, Karou has taken control of the chimaera rebellion and is intent on steering its course away from dead-end vengeance. The future rests on her, if there can even be a future for the chimaera in war-ravaged Eretz.

When Jael’s brutal seraph army trespasses into the human world, the unthinkable becomes essential, and Karou and Akiva must ally their enemy armies against the threat. It is a twisted version of their long-ago dream, and they begin to hope that it might forge a way forward for their people. And, perhaps, for themselves. Toward a new way of living, and maybe even love.

But there are bigger threats than Jael in the offing. A vicious queen is hunting Akiva, and, in the skies of Eretz … something is happening. Massive stains are spreading like bruises from horizon to horizon; the great winged stormhunters are gathering as if summoned, ceaselessly circling, and a deep sense of wrong pervades the world.

From the streets of Rome to the caves of the Kirin and beyond, humans, chimaera and seraphim will fight, strive, love, and die in an epic theater that transcends good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy. At the very barriers of space and time, what do gods and monsters dream of? And does anything else matter?

Pointe Brandy ColbertPointe, Brandy Colbert (April 10th)

Theo is better now. She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.

Prisoner of Night and Fog Anne BlankmanPrisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog #1), Anne Blankman (April 22nd)

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command. Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

The Boundless Kenneth OppelThe Boundless, Kenneth Oppel (April 22nd)

The Boundless, the greatest train ever built, is on its maiden voyage across the country, and first-class passenger Will Everett is about to embark on the adventure of his life! When Will ends up in possession of the key to a train car containing priceless treasures, he becomes the target of sinister figures from his past.

In order to survive, Will must join a traveling circus, enlisting the aid of Mr. Dorian, the ringmaster and leader of the troupe, and Maren, a girl his age who is an expert escape artist. With villains fast on their heels, can Will and Maren reach Will’s father and save The Boundless before someone winds up dead?

What about you? What are you looking forward to reading in next month?

The Political Problem With Dystopias

The Fallout of the Recent Young Adult Dystopia Craze

Crunchings & Munchings YA Dystopia

by REBECCA, March 10, 2014

Dystopia has been the watchword of popular young adult fiction for the last few years, whether we’re referring to trendsetters (Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies; Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), those savvy folks who followed the trend successfully (Steven dos Santos’ The Culling), or publishers’ desperate attempts to keep the trend going (Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood). And, while I may be bored of the latter, it doesn’t at all mean I don’t value the former. But it’s the latter—those books that are manufactured to keep the trend of dystopian fiction alive—that I want to talk about.

Thomas More UtopiaThe word dystopia was coined in the 19th century to signify a state of being that was the opposite of a utopia (coined by Thomas More in the title of his 1516 book, Utopia), and means “bad place” or “hard place”; its coinage and early usage were descriptive of government in particular. A utopia, as Thomas More created it, referred to the ideal state of a republic; one toward which we should all strive. A dystopia, then, created as its inverse, refers to a bad state of a republic. This is all to say, dystopia—both as a term and as a genre description—is intrinsically political.

Several novels of the 19th century mobilized elements of dystopian societies to warn against or satirize their own, but the literary elements that we have come to associate with the genre of the dystopian novel concretized in the first half of the 20th century with the now-famous high school reading list clique of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

Why does this matter for our purposes of thinking about YA dystopias? Because the dystopia, whatever form it may take, is driven by a political engine. That is, the power of dystopia is that it takes real societal problems and represents them pushed to an extreme as a tool to demonstrate the horror that would occur if current problems became writ large. It is a literary genre that examines oppression—that is: de-individuation, mind control, deprivation, lack of choice, lack of access to power, lack of access to resources, and so on.

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret AtwoodWhether the oppressive society is one of religious hyper-conservatism in which women are kept as broodmares for the ruling class (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985) or one in which books are burned to control the society’s access to information (Fahrenheit 451), dystopias are about oppression by a political power and, usually, citizens’ coming to knowledge that the system they live in is not the system they want to live in. Contemporary YA dystopias like Westerfeld’s Uglies series and Collins’ The Hunger Games series are recognizable within this genre.

But, because of the extreme popularity and commercial success of dystopias like The Hunger Games, publishers are hungry for the next bestseller that audiences will gobble up like soma (a little Brave New World joke for ya there), unconcerned with the content so long as they’re appealing in form. Popularity, of course, is the death-knell of individuation, so with audiences ready to buy more books within a popular genre, those that are being peddled become more and more cookie-cutter, more and more generic.

generic

generic

A genre refers to a collection of things that share certain characteristics: science fiction, romance, dystopias. The more closely a book conforms to the characteristics of its genre, the more easily we can recognize it as such (no one would ever mistake a horror movie for a romantic comedy). This is neither a good or a bad thing, however, at a certain point, if something conforms too closely to genre characteristics, it becomes generic—general, indistinguishable, standard. And, as I said, nothing turns a genre into a factory of the generic faster than the promise of commercial success. So, because of the success of a few books in the genre of dystopia, the market has now been flooded with quickly-manufactured knock-offs.

Again, why is this important? I mean, of course if there is a demand for something, then someone will supply it—that’s capitalism, no? It’s important because of what drops out with dystopias’ mass production. What drops out is the political engine that has always driven the genre. With a market for books that are “like The Hunger Games” or “the new Hunger Games,” publishers and authors have scrambled to meet the demand. And what has increasingly begun to be produced are YA novels with the form of a dystopia, but without its content.

Victoria Scott Fire & FloodOne recent example of this is Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood, the first in a new series from Scholastic. Fire & Flood is marketed as a dystopia—indeed, skim any review on Goodreads to see every single person who’s read it compare it to The Hunger Games—in which contenders must take part in the Brimstone Bleed, a race that will win one of them the cure to a disease from which a loved one suffers. But, while Fire & Flood is clearly capitalizing on the themes of The Hunger Games, it’s similar only in form. In terms of deep content, well . . . there isn’t any. In other words, the Brimstone Bleed is completely bled dry of any political investment whatsoever. Chalk it up to bad world-building (which it has) or bad writing (from which it suffers), but the fact remains that the ever-increasing popularity of the genre has produced a market in which people will buy something called “dystopia” even when what is supplied is only the trappings of the genre

More problematically, given the popularity of dystopia in YA lit, politics seems to actually be the only thing that can drop out and have the genre retain its recognizability in the market. What we’re left with, then, in the case of etiolated “dystopias” like Fire & Flood, is a genre designation that’s been emptied of what was once its defining impulse. Now, for some this is no big deal. After all, genres are always changing, their characteristics becoming resignified. I would argue, though, that it’s a very big deal if you value the political force of literature, which (spoiler alert:) I do.

In YA dystopias where the oppressive force is only there to facilitate the drama of the story, that oppressive force becomes commonplace rather than exceptional; unimportant in its particulars because it’s only necessary to catalyze the plot of the novel. This has become par for the course in new (apolitical) dystopias to which I’m referring. Why do we care? Well, wouldn’t you care if there were a slew of books in which every character was raped—not because the rape was important, but because the author needed something to kick-start the drama of the book? Wouldn’t you care if there were a slew of books in which all African American characters were slaves—not because slavery had anything to do with race, but because the author wanted to shorthand a reason for why two characters couldn’t be together?

That’s what it looks like to empty acts and systems of oppression of their political resonances and turn them into plot devices. And once oppressive and repressive systems of government become something that millions of people are used to viewing as merely the backdrop to an action-packed YA romance, we enter dangerous territory. Repetition matters! It lends force! The more times something happens, the more force it gains. The more used to it we become. So, the more books that are published that use the apolitical trappings of generic oppression to facilitate a plot, the more we, as readers, become accustomed to accepting oppression as a given—as just part of the story. Eventually, accepting oppression as just part of the story can turn into not even noticing oppression at all. These are the stakes.

censorshipNow, I am absolutely not writing this in an attempt to control what authors write. In fact, this is not really about authors at all (except insofar as they need to eat, so writing something that’s likely to sell seems appealing. I get that). It’s about the potential real-world implications of literary trends that drive (and are driven by) the market. To put it another way: it’s about capitalism and the ways that art purchased by a mass audience can never be wholly extricated from the market. What we buy dictates what gets published; what gets published dictates what we can read. And what we can read contributes to what the world we dream into being looks like.

Nor is this about taste. I am absolutely not writing this in an attempt to make people stop reading books they love (hey, we’ve established that Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopia, right?). I’m writing this because trends are so often considered waves that wash over us rather than patterns that react to us, and because so much ink is spilled attempting to predict the next one for purposes of profit that we sometimes forget to talk about the implications of their content. I’m writing this because I want us to keep having conversations about the real world effects of the books we read as well as discussing their merits and shortcomings.

“A World Without Fathers”: All Our Pretty Songs

A review of All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

by REBECCA, March 3, 2013

hook

Beautiful, carefree Aurora lives every moment to the fullest and takes what she wants, whether she’s moshing at concerts, throwing elaborate parties in her mother’s crumbling Seattle mansion, or stalking her latest sexual conquest. Her best friend, our unnamed narrator, has always been content to be the moon to Aurora’s sun. They balance each other and they’re sure that nothing can ever come between them. But this summer they’re going to learn that everything in life has a cost‚ and that sometimes there’s no good choice to make when it comes to protecting the people you love.

review

I want to spend a second on the plot of All Our Pretty Songs, because I think the Goodreads blurb misrepresents it. And, although I’ll say more about it than I usually would, I don’t think it spoils anything—in fact, if I’d had a better idea of what the book was actually about, I would never have waited so long to read it!

Aurora is the daughter of a Kurt Cobain-esque figure who made it big and then died when she was a kid. Her mother, Maia, haunts the halls of their huge, crumbling house like a wraith, strung-out, leaving Aurora to do whatever she wants. Aurora and our unnamed narrator are a tight duo: they go to shows and parties together, hang out on the beach, and tell each other everything.

This summer, though, at one of Aurora’s parties, a beautiful musician named Jack shows up, and his music is irresistible and otherworldly. The narrator and Jack begin a romance, which surprises and delights her because people are always attracted to Aurora rather than her. But, as the narrator spends more time with Jack, Aurora drifts deeper into the world drugs and powerful industry people that her parents couldn’t escape. A world that will seduce Jack, too, though for very different reasons. In the end, the narrator has to go on a quest—but she isn’t sure if it’s a quest to find Aurora, or to find herself.

All Our Pretty Songs is a stunning debut by Sarah McCarry, with prose by turns lush and biting. It’s set in a realist Seattle, but, in a Francesca Lia Blockish kind of way, the city itself becomes a magical world in which music, art, clothes, and friendship create altered states that transcend realism. Then, of course, there’s the way that All Our Pretty Songs is an intertext with the Orpheus myth. Yep, as in, there is a Hades and a ferryman and other such familiar figures. I use the term “intertext” instead of “adaptation,” because:

1. An adaptation uses another story as its engine, whereas All Our Pretty Songs simply dips into the world of mythology to animate the stakes of the story, which are not the stakes of the Orpheus myth.

2. A knowledge of the myth in question does not completely give away the entire story (thank you, god, Sarah McCarry for not falling into that shockingly common trap!).

3. I hate adaptations and I love this book; so there.

Dirty Wings Sarah McCarry All Our Pretty Songs is, at heart, a story about intimacy: how it empowers us, but also makes us susceptible to grief; how it reveals truths about us, but can also distract us from discovering those truths about ourselves; and how, finally, it is a force far beyond our control. The narrator’s and Aurora’s intimacy is one of sisters, and it echoes the intimacy their mothers had before the aftermath of Aurora’s dad’s death divided them (their story is the subject of the second book in the series, Dirty Wings). The narrator’s intimacy with Jack is a revelation to her, since she’s never thought of herself as beautiful or lovable. And, as the story progresses, the narrator feels a greater intimacy with her mother as she finds herself replicating some of her mother’s struggles.

As I mentioned, I hate adaptations. I nearly never come away from them convinced that the adaptation was anything other than an uninteresting and unnecessary cheat in which the author took a narrative blueprint and danced all over it, either to lend legitimacy to their work or to avoid having to think up a narrative arc on their own. But All Our Pretty Songs completely earned its intertextuality with Greek mythology because it managed to cut to the heart of their power. The Seattle that the narrator, Aurora, their parents, and Jack live in is one in which music and art is a calling; an avocation. For them, it is worth sacrificing for—indeed, much of what they do already feels like they making sacrifices to it. Sex and drugs are just two of the ways they can both sacrifice and escape. It feels absolutely right, then, that music and drugs would narratively open up the visible world to the invisible just as they do figuratively.

It’s interesting to look at ratings of All Our Pretty Songs on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever because it’s one of the most equal distributions of opinions I’ve seen. I’m always intrigued by books where it’s split between half the people loving it and half hating it; that’s usually just an indicator of taste. All Our Pretty Songs is clearly a book that readers are ambivalent about, though. In some ways, I think it’s a very atypical young adult book, which might account for the spread: the audience it’s marketed toward isn’t expecting its slow dreaminess, or its focus on prose, or its meandering quality. And, to come full circle, I think the blurb (and the cover, which I think is a real mis-fit) sets readers up for a coming-of-age love triangle set in the Seattle music scene. And that’s definitely not what we get.

I’m incredibly excited by this debut and I can’t wait to read the second book. Are there places that feel a bit repetitive here or drag a little? Sure. But the prose is so lovely and the voice of the narrator so true that I was always compelled to read, sentence-to-sentence. If it’s not to your taste, you’ll know it in ten pages because, yes, that’s how the whole book is. But, if it is . . .

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War For The Oaks Emma Bull

War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull (1987).

Eddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making. My full review is HERE.

Violet & Claire Francesca Lia Block Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Ecstasia Francesca Lia Block Primavera Francesca Lia Block

Violet & Claire (1999), Weetzie Bat (1989), Ecstasia (1993), Primavera (1994), by Francesca Lia Block. Violet and Claire are a duo similar to the narrator and Aurora. All Our Pretty Songs is to Seattle what Weetzie Bat is to L.A. Ecstasia and Primavera have a Bachanalian/dystopian take on music’s power to create and destroy.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth, Hannah Moskowitz (2013). The line between realism and myth is blurred in Teeth, and the prose is beautiful. Check out my full review HERE, and my post on the genre of the Oceanic Gothic, of which I’m convinced Teeth is a part, HERE.

procured from: the library

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

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