In the Internet age we have grown accustomed to the idea of finding our match online, screening for ‘the One’ based on the data provided.  The novel Matched by Ally Condie takes this idea a step further.  Matched takes place in a world where the Society has complete control over people’s lives, which include deciding who someone will love.  Who people will marry is decided by the Society’s Officials who have made selections based on optimal results.  The administrators of the Society don’t just use analysis and probability to make love matches, they also determine what career someone will have and they have even whittled down art and poetry to what they have selected as the Hundred Best.

The marriage matches are revealed during a formal ceremony with overtones of prom; the prospective matches dress in formalwear and enjoy a luxurious meal.  When their name is called, they stand and their match is revealed via a screen because the matches may come from different provinces.  Each person matched is given a data card with their match’s photo and information to learn more about the person they will be expected to marry.  It doesn’t seem as if the main character, Cassia, will need the data as it turns out that her perfect match is her childhood best friend Xander who even lives in her neighborhood.  Nevertheless, after the ceremony she dutifully looks at the microcard and instead of seeing a photo of Xander, another face appears.  The face belongs to Ky, a boy with a mysterious past who doesn’t fit into this perfect Society.

Cassia is told that the image was a mistake, but she begins to doubt whether the Society is so perfect after all.  Her doubts grow after she is gifted with a poem by her grandfather before his ‘release.’  The poem is not one of the Chosen Hundred and suddenly she and her family are at risk by a Society that will not tolerate any ‘aberrations’, particularly the Aberration called Ky.

I find it interesting that there has been a spate of books recently about dystopian societies.  Unlike the action of the Hunger Games series, Matched focuses more on the intellectual questioning and awakening of Cassia, though there is always a sense of menace and a hint of violence by the officials of the Society.  Are these books a reaction to our current society where personal liberties and freedom sometimes feel like they are taken to the extreme?  Do we sometimes long for someone who will use critical thinking and make the hard decisions for us?  After all, how many of us have chosen unwisely in relationships and career?  Yet, once set on that path, where would a society draw the line?  In a society based on rational thinking and probability, what makes the Society in this book qualified to judge the best art or literature, which is much more subjective than matching careers?  The book implies that this kind of thinking is a slippery slope.  It also raised interesting thoughts about government control in a time when one of the biggest public debates has been the size and role of our own government and how much control it should have over the lives of citizens.

Some have criticized the romantic triangle in the book for not fleshing out Cassia’s two matches, however, I think that’s short-sighted.  First, I think initially the two men in her life serve the main plot point which is her awakening to the disadvantages of the Society she has grown up in.  I also think her feelings reflect experiences we have had in real life relationships.  The friendship which grows into love, versus the mysterious stranger who offers you the opportunity to be someone different than you have always been.  Love is never as much about the other person as it’s really about ourselves, what we learn and the choices we make.


The Novel Skylark Creates Its Own Genre

Skylark – A Book Review

I have read so many YA dystopia books now that I thought I knew the formula.

Some disaster that greatly changed the world – check

Rebel hero – check

Beloved family member – check

Authoritarian figure or totalitarian government – check

Heroic character under some constraint or control – check

Hardships such as poverty, hunger or the loss of a loved one – check

Artifacts or references to the world that was before – check

An element of horror … whether horrific tests/games, zombies, violent survivors- check

The novel Skylark by Meagan Spooner did have all the items on the checklist, but then it went and surprised me through some additional elements that I hadn’t seen before in this genre.  The story begins with teenage girl Lark sneaking into her school to peek at the Harvest Day list to see if her name is on it.  During her journey to the school there are references to something called the Resource and pixies, which unlike their name are quite malevolent.   It is these references that initially had me confused not only to what these two things were, but doubting whether this was a dystopian novel and maybe a sci fi book instead.  Then there is a description of a moment shared between Lark and her brother Basil that contained the word magic, which now made me wonder if this was going to be something along the lines of Harry Potter.  This confusion about what was going on in this book and what genre it really was is what kept me reading further. Lark and the remaining members of her family live behind the Wall in a city that is apparently fueled by the energy of the Resource and when children are called up for their Harvest Day, the forbiddingly named Institute harvests their energy or magic to help power the city.  When Lark is sent for harvesting she discovers a horrifying secret that sends her beyond the Wall accompanied by one of the pixies, a type of machine or robot that now had me thinking this was a steam punk novel, until she encountered the shadow people, which are somewhat reminiscent of zombies in other books, but with a magical element that adds a unique twist.   If you like not being able to guess where a story is going next, this is a book you might want to try.  The book reminds of something called, ‘kitchen soup’ that Grandma used to make.  It’s basically a soup made of any ingredients in the cupboard and leftovers in the fridge.  There isn’t a set recipe and each time it’s made it contains different elements combined together, which somehow end up tasting good together.

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I surprised myself by reading it straight through because it was refreshing to read something unique with each page adding a new distraction.  This novel even has an M. Night Shyamalan twist within the story that blew my mind.  I also liked that it threw in a reference to a time before the apocalyptic wars about bees dying out being a sign of bad things to come which echoes our own current problem with the decimation of honeybees.

In the end I decided that this is a book you can’t put a label on, which as a writer it’s rare for me to be at a loss for words, however that was the strange beauty of it.  I will be interested in what direction the rest of this trilogy takes.

Divergent – A Book Review

The novel Divergent by Veronica Roth raises some interesting food for thought….has our society allowed people too much freedom?  It’s a question worth asking in a world where people divorce after just months, where students take six years to graduate and incur massive student loans because they can’t decide on a major, and where  celebrities are required to constantly reinvent themselves.   In a world where there are hundreds of kinds of jam, college majors, careers, etc. do we simply have too much choice?  Would our lives be better if we lived in a simpler world with fewer choices to complicate our lives?

Enter a world that is ordered into factions, completely different than the society we live in.  Veronica Roth creates a world where society decided the price of so much freedom and choice was more than they wanted to pay and more than what was good for society. Divergent is a novel that works on many levels for different age groups.  Mature readers will ponder the deep questions, while young readers may view the novel from the viewpoint of teenage rebellion against parental or society’s control.  Either way, the book is a riveting read as the protagonist of the story, Beatrice, finds herself at sixteen in a situation in which she must literally decide her own future from the few choices available to the people of her society.

Having grown up in the faction Abnegation, known for their pious and unselfish ways, deep down inside she is not sure their values and way of life represent who she really is.  However, to choose another group means saying goodbye not only to her friends and community, but perhaps her own family, as usually people who chose a different faction are sometimes not forgiven by their own family from ‘diverging.’    Her choices are to retain the lifestyle and practices of the faction she grew up in or join the Dauntless, adrenalin junkies who live on the edge and work in dangerous jobs, the intellectuals, Erudite, Amity, empathetic feelers, and Candor, a clan which supposedly always tell the truth.

Beatrice makes her choice during the annual ritual and the book follows the far reaching consequences related to her choice.  Everyone must go through an initiation period with their chosen clan and Beatrice discovers a different side of herself while also trying to hide a secret which will put her very life and future in danger if discovered.  To complicate her new life, she encounters the enigmatic Four, who may have some secrets of his own.  How Beatrice navigates a new culture, new friends and a possible romance already makes for an engrossing read, but the elements of danger, discovery and the unknown made this a page turner.  This is one of those books you will read into the wee hours of the morning because you can’t help yourself. The true value of the book is how it will make you examine the deeper questions about your own choices, your place in the world and the nature of our own society.

What is dystopia?

One way to think of dystopia is it’s the opposite of utopia.  Instead of an ideal state of society with political or social perfection, dystopia is a society characterized by human misery. The factors that make the society miserable is what makes the genre of dystopic fiction so interesting.  Authors build worlds on the premise that a fatal flaw of  behavior leads to a future world that has been torn apart by environmental disasters, totalitarian governments, economic collapse or the end of technology – sometimes all four!  Dystopic fiction always contains a strong element of social control in dealing with these worlds and typically a hero character who rebels against authoritarianism.

While dystopia works of adult fiction such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthem have been around for quite some time, what’s fascinating is how the genre has become so popular in Young Adult fiction.   For generations young adults read book series such as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, Madeline L’Engle novels  or  the Babysitter’s Club, when suddenly The Hunger Games exploded onto the scene.  While The Hunger Games was not the first YA dystopian book, something about it captured the imagination of both young adults and adults alike.  In a world where the environment, economy and government are in a state of chaos, The Hunger Games touched a collective nerve.  In a situation where fear and social division have become the order of the day, this book produced a hero, Katniss Everdean, who was able to show strength and leadership even in the most depraved of situations, a contest where children must kill each other in order to survive.

It can be argued that the trend in this YA genre is a result of a young generation which has grown up in a world of extreme uncertainty and insecurity, the terrorism of 9/11, the frightening statistics of The Inconvenient Truth, the economic uncertainty where parents facing layoffs or pay freezes struggle to survive and government partisanship leads to a lack of any decisive action in solving various crises.  Yet adults, such as me, are also heavily drawn to this genre.  Why?  These stories do have attractive elements of action, the protagonists have qualities we admire, and the world building spikes our imaginations. However, I think there is something more to our interest in this current trend, something darker. We may have grown up in happier and more secure times, but feel the same collective malaise about the state of the world, maybe even more so because we have been around longer to observe the downward trajectory of society.  That’s not to say we want to wallow in the miserable conditions of these broken worlds, but they serve both as a cautionary tale of where our future might lead if we don’t all take responsibility to resolve some of our current issues.  Yet I would argue that these books also offer hope that even in the direst of circumstances, people are survivors.


What Reveals More About You, Your Medicine Cabinet or Your Bookcase?

ImageI actually didn’t know that snooping through medicine cabinets was a thing, until I heard a joke referencing it.  Personally, I have never felt a strong urge to peek into anyone’s medicine cabinet when visiting, maybe because there’s not much to see in mine.  I grew up being told that medicine was bad because it only made the illness last longer, so I don’t keep much more than aspirin in the house.  I remember being surprised when two of my colleagues once freely talked about the variety of anti-anxiety medicine each took.

While I haven’t ever been tempted to peek through people’s medicine cabinets as a way to figure out who they are, I guess I have my own version. It’s looking at someone’s bookshelves.  Sometimes it’s surprising that the person who seems like such a ham has a bookcase full of serious business volumes or that the introvert who doesn’t seem comfortable around people has shelves full of biographies.  Then there are the rows of fiction, what sort of judgments do we make if we see romantic bodice rippers versus Charles Dickens?  Lines of sci-fi paperbacks vs. historical fiction?  And what about people whose only books appear to be glossy coffee table tomes?  Do you consider the latter to be book lovers or more fans of interior design?

However, it can be dangerous to make assumptions based on peoples’ reading material.  For example, my house is small and I don’t have space for bookcases.  The books I own are tucked away in drawers, which might leave the impression to those who don’t know me well that I am not much of a reader, when I actually read hundreds of books a year, many borrowed from friends or the library.  If a burglar were to break in, he might assume there’s a teenage girl living there based on the stack of books next to my favorite reading spot, but the reality is I am a grown woman who has simply been devouring YA dystopia novels for the past year.  However, because I feel a little shamefaced over this guilty reading pleasure, I alternate reading the YA novels with a few business and marketing books, which I imagine would be very confusing to anyone glancing at the pile.  But I can’t help but wonder: why is it so important to learn the latest business strategies if the world is on the verge of collapse?

So feel free to browse my books and I will do the same to you, but just let’s keep an open mind about each other, ok?