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.

readalikes

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.

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.

Oy Vey: Heck Yes, Proxy!

A Review of Proxy (Proxy #1) by Alex London

Philomel, 2013

Proxy by Alex London

by REBECCA, July 22, 2013

hook

As a Patron, Knox has and does anything wants, as if there were no consequences to his actions. Because there aren’t. Well, not for him. Syd is Knox’s Proxy: any transgression of Knox’s is taken out of Syd’s hide. It’s been this way since they were boys, and Syd has learned to deal with the nerve-spasming pain of shocks, the beatings, and the manual labor. But when Knox kills a friend, Syd’s punishment may as well be a death sentence. But there are things brewing that are larger than Knox and Syd. In this future, where everything has a price, two boys will set out to see if they can take down the system.

worldview

denver-skylineIn the world of Proxy, the city where Syd and Knox live (where Denver once was) is considered the only real seat of civilization left on the continent, and the Proxy system the only thing preserving that civilization. The barrier between wealthy Patrons in Upper City and Proxies in the trash heap of Lower City is as wide as it is literal, and Syd and Knox both know that their positions are fixed. Knox has to live up to his father’s bloated corporate legacy and Syd has to play by every rule he’s given if he hopes to live out the last two years of debt that he incurred when he was rescued as an infant—then maybe he can have a life that’s a little more of his own making.

Knox has all the latest gadgets and he and his friends spend their time hacking, drugging, teching, and partying. Syd can fix anything, and lives in a tiny room off Mr. Baram’s shop. The day Proxy opens, Knox steals a sports car and takes it for a deadly joyride, and Syd tries to concentrate at school, but gets outed by his teacher in front of the whole class, including his crush. Both boys are feeling pretty rough, and things only go downhill from there.

Proxy by Alex London and my cat

I was trying to show you how the cover is metallic, but look at my cute cat.

Proxy‘s world is vividly rendered and Alex London deftly implies volumes about its rules and textures within a few chapters. Nothing is wasted; nothing is left unexplained. There are the typical markers of class divide, from the food to the technology, but it all feels particular to this world and—Hallelujah!—it’s a world that isn’t based on a set of suicide-inspiring misogynistic stereotypes, thank you Alex London.

Indeed, gender is something that Proxy gets very refreshingly right. It’s not the point of the story, but there are characters of all types, genders, and sexual orientations here, and reading it made that place in my heart that is defensively tensed when I start every new book unclench a little.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

After Syd finds out he’s been sentenced to pay the debt for a life taken, Syd, Knox, and a friend set out on a cross-country journey that is part rebellion, part quest, and part desperation. I’m not saying much about the plot because it’s a joy to watch unfold and I don’t want to ruin anything. Suffice it to say, it’s fast-paced without sacrificing detail, and shies away from annoyingly predictable choices even when it hits its comfortably in-genre stride. There are risks, there are stakes, and it all feels worth it.

Proxy isn’t a perfect book. It starts out alternating between Syd and Knox’s points of view, but once they meet, each chapter combines their POVs, which is confusing and, I think, a missed opportunity for learning more about their characters, which, while they definitely develop over the course of the novel, are more based in attributes than in voice. But I hope that will develop in the sequel. The writing is solidly invisible and despite the few weaknesses, Proxy soars.

Proxy by Alex London and my cute cat!

And now she is being sucked into the book. Noooooo!

In a market glutted with dystopias, Proxy is a very unique book and a really fun read, despite its grim subject matter. There are a lot of awesome details that I’ve not mentioned, like a strand of Jewish mysticism, some awesome biotech stuff, a rebel movement (always my favorite part of dystopias!), and some definitely snappy patter. My favorite detail: in this society, orphans are named after literary characters, a demonstration of how little value books have in Proxy‘s present), so there are shout-outs to famous lit all over the place—Syd’s full name is, tellingly, Sydney Carton, the Charles Darnay look-alike from A Tale of Two Cities. Delightful.

It’s also wonderful to find a gay character of color in a major YA dystopia. While we’re seeing more and more complex queer characters, race is something that YA dystopias have mostly left alone, except when it’s majorly stumbled. Alex London writes race and class into the world of Proxy and it’s much appreciated. Can’t wait for the sequel!

Not convinced? You can download the first three chapters of Proxy for free HERE.

readalikes

The Culling by Steven dos Santos

The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos (2013). Speaking of there being more queer characters in YA fiction, I loved The Culling, which I try hard not to call the gay Hunger Games because that makes it sound derivative, but really it’s like the gay Hunger Games in all the best ways! My full review is HERE.

Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom #1) by Devon Monk Magic in the Blood (Allie Beckstrom #2) by Devon Monk Magic in the Shadows (Allie Beckstrom #3) by Devon Monk

The Allie Beckstrom Series by Devon Monk (2008-2012). The Allie Beckstrom books aren’t necessarily similar to Proxy in terms of plot or style, but Devon Monk’s urban fantasy series is based in a similar proxy system. In this world, set in an alternate Portland, every act of magic exacts a price from the user, and the wealthy (and the immoral) offload that cost onto people who have contracted to take it or have been forced to do so. The series went off the rails a bit after the first few books, but it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t often crop up in YA circles, since Allie Beckstrom is in her early twenties.

procured from: bought! That’s how excited I was to read Proxy. And I’m glad I did, because the cover is gorgeous.

The Culling: A Supercharged, Action-Packed Adventure

A Review of The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos

Flux, 2013

The Culling Torch Keeper #1 Steven dos Santos

by REBECCA, April 10, 2013

characters

Lucian “Lucky” Spark: smart and forced to grow up too soon after losing his parents, he will do whatever it takes to protect his little brother, Cole

Digory Tycho: strong and dependable, he is working with the resistance against the bloodthirsty government that controls things

hook

Every year, The Establishment recruits five citizens to face The Trials, with their loved ones as the Incentives for their success. When Lucian tries to take things into his own hands to protect his brother, he finds himself a Recruit, fighting for his brother’s life, and Digory, who seems desperate to protect him, is a Recruit right along with him. What mysteries is The Establishment hiding, and how can Lucian and Digory have any hope of being together when they may have to kill each other to save their Incentives?

worldview

Ok, so I’ve read reviews that call books or movies “supercharged” and always thought it was a really stupid word . . . until I read The Culling. There is just something about it that seemed amped-up, dynamic . . . well, supercharged.

The world of The Culling is a grim one. The Establishment controls every element of the lives of those living in the city through military presence, information-repression, disease, and poverty. Then there are The Trials: if you win, you have the chance to be an officer of The Establishment; if you lose, the people you love the most will die. When The Culling begins, Lucian is attempting to gain an audience with the prefect of the city, who came from his neighborhood, to try and protect his little brother, Cole, when he finds himself thrown headfirst into The Trials alongside the very person he’s attracted to: Digory Tycho, a highly capable member of the resistance with a heart of gold, at least where Lucian is concerned.

The Trials are sick, dude! I mean, like, messed-up in an awesome, eerie, Steven-dos-Santos-please-be-my-creepy-friend kind of way. The worldview of The Culling in general is one in which you cannot trust anyone, everyone will betray you, and people have been forced to do things for survival that leave psychological scars as well as physical ones. I admired dos Santos’ ability to present the truly harrowing consequences of The Trials, in which the Recruit who comes in last in each round must choose which of his or her two Incentives to kill. There are definitely some surprises there that were very well-handled. In short, The Culling reads like a highly creative action movie—very fast-paced but with just enough detail to everything that you absorb the world in passing, as opposed to lingering in it.

As the first book in a series, I thought The Culling did a nice job of planting a lot of seeds, any of which could be taken up in the rest of the series. The fast pace purposely values action over depth of world-building and I didn’t find this a fault, but rather an intentional artistic choice. I would have been equally satisfied by a slower-moving book with deeper world-building, but the pace here really was compelling. I’m not usually one to care overly much for speed, but I literally could not put the book down. Like, I had to go to work and was reading while I peed, reading while I walked to the trolley, reading on the trolley, which makes me carsick, and reading in the elevator up until the moment I walked in the door of work.

The characters are great: Lucian is smart and stubborn, resentful of ever needing Digory’s help, but so desperate to save his brother that he feels he has no choice. Digory could have fallen into the strong, savior stereotype, but his political ideals make him far more interesting. The other three Recruits are all excellent, too. There’s Cypress, who is cold and controlled in response to the traumas in her life; Gideon, the boy who seems pretty together, but is revealed to have more of a stake in his Incentives than anyone could possibly know; and Ophelia, who is fucking terrifying.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The Culling Steven dos SantosNow, I’ve read several reviews of The Culling that were negative, denouncing it for being similar to The Hunger Games, and I do see the similarities, plot-wise, but I’m very much hoping I can dispel the notion that these plot similarities are the heart of The Culling. Yes: The Culling shares with The Hunger Games trilogy a deep horror of a totalitarian government, the suspicion that under such a regime its citizens are mere pawns who think they have a chance of winning their freedom but who are always already merely fulfilling a preordained role, and the understanding that in a world where adults are necessarily enslaved by the system, wanting to protect someone innocent from harm is the most powerful impetus to fight, even if you don’t believe you can win. What they share, then, is the kind of deep structure that produces genres and subgenres. The Hunger Games and The Culling are part of the same subgenre of dystopian literature—a subgenre that predates the former and will, I’m sure, postdate the latter. Mkay, done.

The reason I was so excited to read The Culling in the first place is that it’s one of the few pieces of YA speculative fiction that I’ve come across where the author’s intention was that being gay wasn’t going to be the point of the story. There has been a lot of talk lately about how some people believe the next phase of queer visibility in the literary community is to have queerness be simply a fact of a character, as opposed to an occasion for comment about struggle. I don’t think that normalization into non-issue signals progress per se, but I’m glad that people are at least talking about the issue.

Anyway, I was curious what dos Santos’ take was going to be and I came away pretty impressed. My suspicion of the ideal of framing queerness as being so normal as to be invisible is that it elides very important material consequences of struggle. In the world of The Culling, being gay doesn’t seem to be an issue, but rather than eliding struggle, the commonality of being gay simply shifts the threat (Lucian is almost victimized by prison guards who call him “pretty boy”), not invisiblizing it. Furthermore, I was really glad to see a novel that depended on a regime of totalitarian control, as opposed to knee-jerk gender conservatism, to construct its dystopia.

I’m not a very patient person, so I’m kind of cursing myself for reading The Culling when I will now have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next. I highly recommend that you curse yourselves too, and check out this truly supercharged dystopia. Flux, you’ve done it again—my hat’s off.

readalikes

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Catching Fire The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Mockingjay The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course (2008-2010). Nuff said about this, I think.

Girl in the Arena Lisa Haines

Girl In the Arena by Lisa Haines (2009). This compelling book explores a neo-gladatorial society, complete with its culture of violence, through the eyes of one girl who has to fight not only for her freedom but for her family as well.

procured from: I received an ARC of The Culling from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. The Culling by Steven dos Santos is available now!

“What Ifs Are As Boundless As the Stars”: Maggot Moon

A Review of Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

Hot Key Books, 2012

Maggot Moon Sally Gardner

by REBECCA, March 20, 2013

characters

Standish: Standish Treadwell can’t spell his name but, according to his best (and only) friend, he is “a breeze in the park of imagination” (4).

Hector: smart, handsome, and confident, Hector protects Standish and stands up to bully teachers.

Gramps: Standish’s grandfather, he has cared for Standish since his parents “disappeared” years before.

Maggot Moon Sally GardnerThe back of the book told me very little about plot, characters, anything really. It was tantalizing, suggestive. I picked a copy up at Waterstones when Tessa and I were in Edinburgh the other week and, mostly, I was just taken by the awesome cover and the intriguing title. Here’s what the cover of my copy says: “What if the football hadn’t gone over the wall? What if Hector had never gone looking for it? What if he hadn’t kept the dark secret to himself? What if . . . ? Then I suppose I would be telling myself another story. You see, the what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which is the entire text of chapter one (the book is made up of 100 short chapters and sparsely illustrated).

Here’s the thing about Sally Gardner’s amazing Maggot Moon. That brief passage actually is the plot of the book (yeah, I know; why else would it be on the back of the book) and I’m so freaking glad that I didn’t know anything else about it going in. So, I’m not going to tell you much about the plot either. And even though the plot is awesome, it’s really not the star of the book. That would be characters.

Maggot Moon Sally Gardner

an illustration from Maggot Moon

Standish Treadwell is dyslexic (although that’s not the book’s term; it’s Gardner’s, who is a longtime spokesperson), which causes his teachers and peers to think he’s stupid and pick on him. Standish has a unique and resonant perspective. We see the world through his eyes, and goddamn if his isn’t one of the most beautiful voices I’ve read in YA lit. When Hector and his parents move in next door to Standish and Gramps, they become fast friends. Hector is everything Standish isn’t: good at school, confident, and admired. Together, he and Standish carve out a tiny space for themselves—a fantasy world where

“we were driving round in one of those huge, ice-cream coloured Cadillacs. I could almost smell the weather. Bright blue, sky blue, leather seats blue. Hector in the back. Me with my arm resting on the chrome of the wound-down window, my hand on the wheel, driving us home for Croca-Colas in a shiny kitchen with a checked tablecloth and a garden that looks as if the grass was Hoovered” (6).

(Croca-Cola is just one of several Standish-isms.) When the story begins, Hector has recently disappeared and Standish is at loose ends, daydreaming about Cadillacs during school and trying to figure out where his friend has been taken. And, more importantly, why.

Maggot Moon Sally GardnerMaggot Moon begins with all the hallmarks of realist fiction, but it is shot through with resonances of the darkness running just below the surface of the schoolroom and Zone 7. This is a dystopia in the literary sense of the word. And it is glorious. The plot of Maggot Moon just keeps getting more and more interesting as the short and lyrical chapters fly by, building to a satisfying and gutting climax and conclusion (that I won’t tell you anything about)!

Maggot Moon won the Costa Children’s Book Award for 2012, and well-deserved, I say. I want to give it the award for . . . um . . . well, I guess the Costa award will have to do. E-books aren’t something of which I’m much enamored—mostly because they haven’t utilized their technology well—but the e-book for Maggot Moon is an interactive, multi-touch ibook, which Gardner hopes will give readers some insight into the experience of dyslexia. It’s pretty awesome, as you can see hereMaggot Moon has been my introduction to Sally Gardner, and I cannot wait to get my grubby little paws on more.

readalikes

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead  Liar & Spy Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (2009) and Liar & Spy (2012) by Rebecca Stead.

How I Live Now Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004).

The Knife of Never Letting Go Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008).

Forests and Teeth and Zombies, Oh My!

A review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Delacorte Press (Random House), 2009

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Carrie Ryan

by REBECCA, December 31, 2012

On the cusp of a brand new year I offer you a book about a world that has been overrun by zombies. Cheers!

hook

Mary has always believed what the Sisterhood told them: the Unconsecrated that batter the fences protecting their village from the forest beyond will never stop; that their village is the last bastion of humanity and they stay there forever, and marry whom they’re told; and above all else, they must obey the Sisterhood, which makes the rules. But when a stranger from beyond the fence shows up, Mary discovers that what the Sisterhood has told everyone is far from the truth.

worldview

First things first: The Forest of Hands and Teeth has to be one of my favorite book titles of all time, and its sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves, ain’t too shabby either.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Carrie RyanUnlike many in the village, Mary was raised with stories of a time before the Unconsecrated reined, and the ocean, in particular, fascinates her and drives her to want to see the world outside the fences. The Sisterhood has propagated the story that their village contains the only humans left in all the world, but one day, an outsider arrives in the village, causing Mary to question everything she has believed. When she does some poking around she learns secrets that the Sisterhood has been keeping. Secrets that might change everything. Soon after, when the Unconsecrated breach the fences, Mary takes off into the woods with Travis, the boy she loves, Travis’ brother Harry, who loves Mary but whom Mary sees as only a friend, and Cass, Mary’s best friend whom Travis loves. They set off down the path that leads away from their village. It’s a path they’ve looked at all their lives, but where it leads nobody knows. Mary hopes it might take them to the sea. But even if it does, they have to fight their way through or die trying.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth has wonderful atmosphere, and I think the writing is good. It’s divided into two rough halves: the first half in the village and the second half Mary and her friends’ journey through the woods. This is nice because the first half is quiet, with a kind of lurking threat. It’s very claustrophobic, evoking Mary’s feelings of being trapped in her life, and it develops the characters. Then the second half is much faster-paced and plot-driven.

No one remembers where the paths go. Some say they are there as escape routes, others say they are there so that we can travel deep into the Forest for wood. We only know that one points to the rising sun and the other to the setting sun. I am sure our ancestors knew where the paths led, but, just like almost everything else about the world before the Return, that knowledge has been lost. We are our own memory-keepers and we have failed ourselves. (28-9)

The atmosphere is the book’s biggest strength, I think, and Carrie Ryan does a great job of maintaining the book’s tenseness even in moments about other things. For example, nearly all the moments in the book that could be sweet or tender are instead desperate, or paired with disaster:

Harry grins and he drops his head toward me and all I can think about is how I had never wanted Harry to be my first kiss, and then before his lips can land on mine we hear it. The siren. It is so old and so rarely used these days that it starts out with a creak and a wheeze and then it is full-blown.” (6)

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is, first and foremost, a dystopia. It happens to be a dystopia with zombies, but it’s definitely a dystopia. As such, it has the familiar hallmarks of the genre: a repressive regime (this one religious in nature) that depends upon the threat of the Unconsecrated (the zombies) to keep the villagers in line, and the obfuscation of the truth about the wider world. It also, unfortunately, has the rampant sexism (despite being run by women) of many contemporary YA dystopias. (I write further about this topic HERE.)

I really enjoyed the book. It succeeds as a dystopia and also as a zombie novel, and it was nice to read something that is legitimately scary but also isn’t straight-up horror. What I didn’t love were the character relationships. As you could no doubt tell from the character cluster above, this is something of a love quadrangle, although the The Dead-Tossed Waves Carrie Ryanromance does not trump the adventure, to be sure. The relationships are a bit awkward, and I didn’t really find myself caring for the characters overmuch. Now, ordinarily, being annoyed by the characters’ youth and romantic follies would make me not like a book, but I want to be clear that I really liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth despite my issues with the characters—liked it and continued on with the series.

One thing that I was particularly pleased by was the ending of the book (no spoilers, I promise). I am notoriously dissatisfied with endings these days, especially the endings of books in series. It seems like so many of them just abdicate any obligation to craft an ending because we know there’s more of the story between two future covers. Not so The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Ryan writes a lovely ending, both in terms of how it satisfies the journey of the book and in terms of how well it sets up The Dead-Tossed Waves.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth has, naturally, been tapped for production and it looks like the movie will be out next year.

procured from: the library

Some Thoughts About Gender in YA Dystopias

A Roundabout Discussion of, Among Other Things, Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)

By REBECCA, October 24, 2012

Crewel Gennifer Albin

If I had any doubts that the genre of Young Adult dystopian lit has become oversaturated to the point of soppiness, Crewel, a recent drop in the bucket, has erased them. But the fact that I found Crewel to be a thin and frustratingly ill-conceived book isn’t really the point. Every genre boom produces chaff and in fact Crewel is, at least, better-groomed than some. No, it isn’t Crewel‘s genre failings that trouble me. Or, it’s more accurate to say that Crewel‘s failings highlight a much more troubling concern with the genre.

In a recent post during Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About ‘Difficult’ Books,” I wrote that while I am 100% against banning books, one good thing sometimes comes from the process of challenging them: conversations about issues that make us uncomfortable. Further, I called for those of us who are anti-ban to take a page out of the banners’ book and discuss our own “difficult” reads. To that end, then: I am extremely uncomfortable with the trend of how gender is being portrayed in many recent YA dystopias. Specifically, I’m troubled by the way that in many recent YA dystopias, the oppression of women is made to seem normal through the use of retrograde gender stereotypes. In these novels, many of which are set in the future, women are treated as beautiful objects to be sold, controlled, shown off, or bred.

But (you may be thinking) we’re talking about dystopias—isn’t the whole point to magnify some current problem in our society and see what it would look like if it were all-controlling? Well, yes, that is the point. How (you might then ask) is a book like Crewel any different than a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes notions of surveillance and fear and builds a dystopia where those threats to privacy are pushed to an extreme in order to show their dangers?

We Yevgeny ZamyatinIt is different, and here’s why. Dystopian literature has, historically, been a progressive (if reactionary) genre that warns of the dangers of something or someone gaining too much power in society. At base, dystopias like We (1921), Brave New World (1931), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), show us how easily our individuality, autonomy, privacy, and free will can be taken from us if we fail to vigilantly protect them. They take currently nascent cultural trends and show how they could turn to full-scale threats if they became ascendant.

In contrast to this, the recent YA dystopias that I find so troubling have reached backward to thoroughly retrograde sexism and gender stereotypes and made them the natural state of things. Perhaps even more worrisome, this sexism is merely one element of society and, therefore, isn’t even the main point of the books. In Crewel, for example, the main point is that the entire citizenry is being controlled by a group of people in power. This places the book’s emphasis of what is wrong not on the oppression of women, but on the oppression of people, thereby making the sexism fade into the background.

Why do I find this so troubling, though? I mean, the oppression of women is a current political, social, and economic issue—it’s not like sexism is in the past alone and these books are trying to resurrect it to malicious ends. No, it troubles me because it naturalizes the oppression of women, making it seem like a state that societies automatically default to. When we publish (in 2012) scads of dystopian novels aimed at teens in which the oppression of women is the naturally occurring state of the future, and barely even worth mentioning in comparison with the real problems of the novels, what are we doing? We’re suggesting that it makes sense for us to read with that mindset; that it is logical for the oppression of women to be part of what we bring to each book we read. In other words, it asks us to import oppression into a genre that is historically a vehicle for progressive politics. And that makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.

There are several ways that Crewel’s shortcomings brought this into focus for me.

Brave New World Aldous HuxleyMost of the criticism that I’ve read about Crewel has highlighted the thinness of Gennifer Albin’s world-building. I agree that this made the book an unsatisfying read, but it was more pernicious than that. In Crewel, Adelice Lewys is discovered to be a Spinster, one of the women who have the talent to manipulate the fabric of the world (called Arras, cue rimshot). Controlling the threads of Arras ensures peace and prosperity for those who follow the rules and provides a chance to re-weave anything “deviant” or dangerous (homosexuality, resistance, etc.). But, unlike so many of the other girls who have the ability to spin and are thrilled at the chance to wear fancy clothes and have personal stylists who make them beautiful (you know, apparently the only things that females care about), Adelice’s parents have taught her to hide her talent because becoming a Spinster means that she’ll be taken away from them and become a tool of the Guild, the organization in power.

Things related to the oppression of women that are not addressed in the explanation of the world (that is, in the first 2/3 of the book): that only women have the talent to weave; the government-controlled standards of female beauty (Spinsters are highly sexualized, and often work as glorified escorts to powerful men, and non-Spinster women receive a cosmetics allowance from the government); the reason why everyone (except Spinsters, of course) must marry at 18; why women who can control the material of life and time itself would allow a Guild of men to control them (Albin recasting the powerful Fates as mere artisans). That this societal oppression of women isn’t the point of Crewel is made even clearer because the female characters that we meet (all Spinsters) absolutely don’t fit with it. Adelice, her friends Enora and Valery, and her peer Pryana, her nemesis Maela, and her mentor, Loricel, are all strong women.

Most importantly, what is never explained is how, in this future-ish world, we returned to gender dynamics that more closely resemble the 19th century than the present. Now, it’s easy to write this off as simply careless world-building (or holding back details for the rest of the series?), but what the lack of explanation for these elements of the world suggests is that the author assumes that her readers will have no problem accepting them as reasonable. My reaction to the world-building as a reader about 100 pages in was: “Um, so, basically this is a book where instead of the masculinized world of computer- or virtual-reality we’re in a feminized world of weaving, and so since weaving used to be done by women I’m supposed to just assume that all the rest of the sexism that went with that hundreds of years ago is present here? What the hell?” Providing no explanation for how a society backslid a hundred and fifty years in our treatment of women assumes that it’s something that doesn’t need to be explained because people will understand it implicitly. That is naturalization, and that is troubling.

1984 George OrwellNow, let me be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that Crewel is a horrible book that should be blamed for sexism. Rather, it is one example of a troubling genre trend. I don’t mean to suggest that Gennifer Albin believes we should oppress women. Rather, I imagine she likely intended to critique such oppression. I don’t mean to suggest that it is the responsibility of authors to produce books that promote equality for everyone. Rather, I think authors should create art and we should see it as multiple entries into a conversation. I don’t mean to suggest that there is some conspiracy in which authors are all trying to turn back the clock on the feminist movement. Rather, it seems most likely that the trend is publisher-driven based on what they think can sell. I don’t mean to suggest that we should blame people who want to read dystopian fiction for enjoying books that I find problematic. Rather, I want readers to discuss what they think about books on both the level of enjoyment and the level of critique.

My concern is that this trend of naturalizing the oppression of women until it is something of a dystopian knee-jerk will have wider-reaching results for young women than simple genre repetition. And that it means more than we might want to believe about what we are willing to accept along with our entertainment. To put it analogously: what if in 2013 major publishing companies publish 25 dystopian novels that all feature worlds where non-white characters are deemed lesser citizens and are segregated from white characters? And what if this bit of world-building is not the main issue of the books, but simply an incidental component of their dystopias?

Crewel aside, when we establish a trend in which oppression is able to be incidental and naturalized, we are doing much more than using a progressive genre to comment on contemporary social ills—we are, in some ways, creating reading mindsets that are in harmony with them. And we must certainly be willing to discuss the potential fallout.

What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments.

Sharing Our Snacks: The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

Sharing Our SnacksWelcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Tessa and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Since T lives in Pittsburgh and I live in Philadelphia we can no longer share an enormous middle-of-the-night bag of potato chips and tin of onion dip from Turkey Hill like we used to, so we had to find another way to share. Check out our other Shared Snacks here. You can recommend books to us, too—contact us!

Tessa recommended The Other Side of the Island to me because she thinks “it’s a nice little eco-apocalyptic that is often overlooked, and there’s a tree octopus in it.”

A Review of The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

Razorbill, 2008

By REBECCA, June 4, 2012

The Other Side of the Island Allegra Goodman

characters

Honor Greenspoon: our protag, she vacillates between wanting to fit in and wanting to uncover the secrets of the Island

Will & Pamela Greenspoon: Honor’s parents who have a hard time following the rules on Island 365

Quintillian Greenspoon: Honor’s little bro, a—gasp!—second child

Helix Thompson: Honor’s friend, he is dedicated to finding out the truth behind the propaganda

Mrs. Whyte: Honor’s teacher who drills the students in Safe propaganda

Miss Tuttle: librarian whose job it is to cut all passages that mention non-controlled weather out of books (the horror! the horror!)

Octavio: a tree octopus!!! <3!!!

The Other Side of the Island Allegra Goodmanhook

Honor moves into the Colonies with her parents when she’s 10, in the 18th “glorious year of Enclosure.” On Island 365, Earth Mother and the Corporation have regulated the dangerous weather that wiped out much of Earth’s population, and with that regulation comes a strict system of social controls. Honor has to get with the program fast in order to fit in—and she does. It’s just . . . well, something very strange is going on across the Island and no one is talking about it.

worldview

The Other Side of the Island is a classic dystopia: a force beyond human control (in this case, the weather) threatens humanity and a system must be implemented to ensure their safety; of course, a repressive regime has sprung up alongside/in service of these precautions. And, actually, it’s the classic-dystopia-ness of Island that sets it apart from the slew of YA dystopian series that we’ve seen in the past few years. The dystopian setting is not contrived as a backdrop for romance, nor is it a thinly-veiled set-up for an adventure story. Rather, Allegra Goodman has written a stand-alone dystopian novel that reminded me of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) more than anything else (I love that book!).

Yevgeny Zamyatin WeAnother unique quality that shaped The Other Side of the Island is that our protagonist, Honor, is only ten when the book opens, and twelve by the end of the book. This shifts the focus of the novel from potential romance or elaborate adventuring to a much simpler story of a young girl who is young enough when she arrives on the Island to really just want to fit in. In a world where children born each year after Enclosure are named after the corresponding letter (Honor is born in the 8th year after Enclosure, etc.), Honor is told that she will never fit in because the “h” in Honor is silent, setting her apart from all her peers. And, eventually, Honor agrees. This is a dimension of the powers of the desire to fit in that doesn’t get explored much in dystopias featuring teen characters—either such a character has lived under the dystopian regime her whole life and rebels one day because of a catalyst, or she has never conformed and her rebellion finally rises to the surface. For Honor, her loyalty is to her parents at first, but little by little she begins feeling embarrassed by her parents’ inability to easily conform to the Island’s rules and regulations.

When Honor’s parents disappear, taken by Safety Officers, Honor questions the price of conformity and begins to dig into the mysteries of the Island—for example, who are the Watchers that no one seems to pay attention to?

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

They control the weatherHere is where things get just a touch sticky for me in reviewing. I thought The Other Side of the Island was a totally solid novel. The world-building is good, if pretty dystopian-standard, and there are some totally chilling moments. But . . . there was, I dunno, no joy in the book or something. It’s Goodman’s first YA novel, although her adult fiction, Goodreads informs me, is critically acclaimed, and it felt just a touch like an adult voice that got edited into a YA book because it was a story about a kid. That’s not to say that the writing isn’t good—it is. It’s that I didn’t feel like the goal was for me to identify with Honor and see this world through her eyes. This left me feeling a bit outside the book.

Rebecca Stead When You Reach MePart of this, I thought at first, can be attributable to Honor’s age. As a 10 and 12 year old she is in some ways harder to relate to than someone older who has a more complex view of things.  But then I thought about other books that have young protagonists that absolutely rock in terms of voice and characterization, like Rebecca Stead’s amazing When You Reach Me or David Almond’s awesome Skellig, and I now think that maybe the book is just kind of detached and emotionless in voice.

Further, I felt as if there was a larger story that Goodman had in mind and she limited the novel to only the piece that featured Honor. I really liked that there was a whole other story about Honor’s parents that we only get to see in glimpses, but as an adult reader the simplicity of Honor’s perspective made it seem as if perhaps the book would have been more dynamic if we had gotten to follow Honor’s parents’ story as well.

octopus!I would totally recommend The Other Side of the Island to anyone who likes a classic dystopia—the best things about the novel are Goodman’s world-building and the shifts in Honor’s character. The ending was a bit abrupt and, although it seems to suggest one thing, as Tessa pointed out, “the creepiest part, though, is that the hopeful ending might be a fakeout, if you go back and reread the first paragraph.”

personal disclosure

Ok, I’m not going to lie: the thing I liked most about the book was Octavio the tree octopus. Tessa recommended this book to me because of Octavio. People, I am obsessed with octopi. If you ever come across a book with an octopus in it you simply must tell me. I just want MORE OCTAVIO!

readalikes

We Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921). One of my favorite dystopias ever, We really set a huge number of the genre conventions in a totally awesome and Russian way. A must read.

The Giver Lois Lowry

The Giver (The Giver #1) by Lois Lowry (1993). The Giver is one of the best examples of character-driven, subtly-constructed, dynamite YA dystopian lit! It was long before the sub-genre became super popular, so it’s outside comparison. If you’ve never read this one, it’s a total recent classic.

The Wind Singer William Nicholson

The Wind Singer (Wind on Fire #1) by William Nicholson (2000). This is an understated fantasy-dystopia-quest hybrid of awesomeness. Like The Other Side of the Island and The Giver, it has younger protagonists who go on a quest to discover the secrets of their town.

procured from: the library, after, like, 8,000 years of waiting for my hold to arrive

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