Night School

I guess it was unrealistic to think it would last forever.  It started with The Hunger Games.  After being blown away by that book and then discovering this whole genre of dystopian and apocalyptic books with their amazing worlds and complex characters I started this blog.  Book after book I was not disappointed – – until I was.  Lately, it seems that all my posts are along the lines of how much I disliked a book instead of the hot streak I was on for the last few years.  Where is the next Suzanne Collins, Ally Condie, or Jonathan Maberry?  Has the popularity of this genre, with its Hollywood turn, been the cause of less talented writers jumping in?

When I write a bad review I want to say that I am conscious of the fact that no, I haven’t published a book.  Some would say that critics do what they do because they couldn’t do the work themselves, but was it necessary for Siskel and Ebert to make a film to be able to comment?  Is it necessary for those of use who have book review blogs to have written a book to be able to give our opinion?   Think about this on a different scale, do you have to be a trained chef in order to express the opinion that an entree was terrible or wondrous?  I think all that is required are taste buds.  By that token if someone were to ask what qualifies me to write a review, well I could hem and haw and mention my bachelor’s in Journalism or my Master’s in Creative Writing.  I could talk about having read thousands of books in my lifetime and hundreds in this particular genre.  Really, though I don’t feel too much of a need to justify myself as I started this blog to reflect on what I read and thought, it’s my personal opinion and if it leads people to a book that they might not have heard about otherwise, or one someone was on the fence about reading, then that’s great.  All I have wanted to do is share a love of this genre, and maybe that has made me a bit protective of it, and disappointed that the quality of work seems to be slipping lately.

I am particularly conscious in this review that the author, Christi Daugherty, is a new author and I don’t want to discourage this woman from writing at all, I just want to encourage her toward better writing.  Night School is the story of a teen Allie who is a teen delinquent stereotype, good girl gone bad after some vague family tragedy.  Her concerned parents end up sending her to some weird boarding school full of the rich, smart and beautiful.  It’s far from some military academy so it seems weird to me that Allie doesn’t question the fact that she is not allowed to call her family, in fact all electronic devices…computers, cell phones, etc. are banned.  I don’t see that as being viable in our digital age. Anyway, Allie’s tough girl makeup comes off as he becomes best friends with Jo and has two boys vying for her attention.  Her apathy at not questioning the students who are allowed up past curfew and patrol the grounds seems unrealistic.  I guess in a nutshell that’s my issue with the book, everything about it lacks anything resembling real life.  The characters are cartoonish in their stereotypes, the romance reads like it was written by someone who has never been in one, and the great mystery of this unusual school is yawn inducing compared to the regular nightly news.

Lately when I have read a book that I haven’t much liked, I feel that having invested a certain amount of time in reading it, that I must continue with the next one, even if that means skimming it.  Not this time, if there was just one decent element I would have fallen back into this habit, but nothing excited me about the world building, the characters or the plot.  So I am expelling myself from Night School I really have my fingers crossed that the next book I read in this genre will put me squarely back on track to enjoying this genre again.

 

The Cage

The Cage by Megan Shepherd is a technically a dystopian story, although in this case the repressive regime is made up of aliens.

Cora wasn’t exactly a typical teenage girl even before the alien abduction. She is the daughter of a Senator and an actress and has recently been released for a long term stint in juvie for manslaughter. After waking up in an alien environment where different landscapes and climates all jut up next to each other, she finds she is not alone. There are other teens, Rolf a Norwegian genius, Nok a Thai model, Leon a Maori from a criminal family, and finally Lucky an American boy who may have a connection to Cora. Actually, there was one more teen who woke up but something terrible has happened to her. That will be a problem as now there is an uneven number of teens and yet each teen is supposed to be mated with one of the others by a 21 day deadline.

Their alien abductors watch from behind one way glass scattered throughout the environments, similar to the one-way glass in police stations, except in this case the aliens are more like scientists or anthropologists observing their behaviors. The aliens have put different types of puzzles into each locale and if they solve a puzzle they receive tokens which can be redeemed for different items, similar to gaming places now.

Supposedly the aliens have abducted them for their own good as humans are destroying the Earth , unlike the aliens that are higher beings with telepathic and other abilities despite looking very similar to humans.   Their caretaker alien is named Cassian and he has a particular affinity to Cora. Cora who the others get angry with as when she solves a puzzle she is given many more tokens than the others. Other incidents like this cause a rift in the group.

Rolf and Nok have reasons based on their pasts that make them believe that despite their captivity their extended cage is not so bad. Leon is too haunted by a memory from their first day to care about anything else. Lucky is consumed with guilt over an action he took back on Earth and which is revealed later in the story. Cora simply wants to go home, home even with all the problems of divorcing parents, her peers who can’t relate to her after her time in juvie, and all the pressures of being a Senator’s daughter. Plus, there is Cassian and her mixed feelings about him.

It’s the latter which hurts this story as Cassian becomes part of a love triangle that also includes Lucky. I personally am not sure I would feel anything but hatred for my abductor, but maybe she has Stockholm’s Syndrome? I kind of think it sense the wrong message to young girls everywhere that there could be anything attractive about a character like Cassian who has control over you, am I wrong? Its that sick dominance thing combined with the stilted triangle that made me no fan of this book. Even the ending wasn’t great and it was confusing to boot as to whether this was a one-off story or whether it had the inevitable sequel…turns out it does. That kind of stinks for me because after what an economist would term a sunk cost, I wrongly feel that I must continue with the next.

 

Alice in Zombieland

I wasn’t expecting to like Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter very much, I mean not all mashups are successful and sometimes it seems like they have outlived their novelty.  However, I came away with more positive feelings than negative.  Maybe part of it was there really wasn’t much reference to Alice a la Alice in Wonderland other than her appearance…pale blond hair, blue eyes and tall.

This Alice is a teen girl living in the UK, not Wonderland.  She has parents and a cute little sister, Lily, but there is some strangeness to her home life.  Her father refuses to let anyone in the family be out after dark, you see he believes in ‘monsters.’  Now that Alice is a teen it’s particularly frustrating and she doesn’t believe dear old Dad because Dad happens to drink heavily, so she thinks he is just crazy and can’t understand why her Mom hasn’t left him.  However Alice’s Mom fiercely loves her hubby even though she admits to Alice that she has never seen these monsters herself.

So this is the status quo for the family until one day her little sister begs her to talk her Mom into letting everyone attend her dance recital which is in the evening.  Somehow the Mom convinces the Dad to let them go, but on the ride home something terrible happens which then places Alice into a situation where she goes to live with relatives and attends a new school. At the school she meets Cole and his seemingly delinquent friends, but Cole is the most frightening of the group and when she looks at him she experience intense visions.  Are these visions of the future?  And why do Cole and gang often show up at school looking so beaten up?  Also, what is Alice glimpsing out in the yard at night?   While the answers to the mysteries were pretty obvious early on, what I liked about the book were characters like Alice and her best new friend Kat and their snappy remarks.  Basically, the book had some of the elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I love me some Buffy.   This is the first book in several sequels known as the White Rabbit Chronicles.  One of thing I am curious about is if there will be more references between the character Alice Bell and the Alice from Alice in Wonderland…

Wasteland

Wasteland by Susan Kim turned out to be a giant waste of my time.  It really is the worst post-apocalyptic YA book I have read to date.  Maybe that’s a terrible thing to say and some might say something like, “Hey, I don’t see you publishing a book.”  That’s true, but I don’t think it’s necessary for me to publish a book to make such a statement.  I have spent the last few years reading and reviewing 2-4 books of this genre per month, so I feel that gives me some credibility to take such a strong stand.  I am not trying to hurt the author’s feeling, but I am sure that could be the result; however what I hope is that this honesty spurs her to do better.  This is such an exciting genre that I look forward to reading these types of books and have generally been impressed by the quality of writing…I mean some writers might be tempted to rely on the world building and other action plot devices instead of the quality of the writing, so that’s why I am usually pleasantly surprised whenever I read something like this.

The plot consists of a town of kids and teens many years after an apocalyptic event.  There aren’t any adults as when people turn eighteen they die of a horrible sickness and are expelled from the community.  As there is such a short life span the milestones of adulthood are speeded up.  Children are organized into work crews to scavenge for supplies and food and the teens ‘marry’ and bear children.  The problem for the town in this story is there isn’t any left to scavenge in the area and food and water are running low.  The latter is an especially big problem as once bottled water runs out you cannot drink from streams or lakes as all water is contaminated/poisoned.  In addition to the kids who live in the town, there are beings that live on the outskirts.  I say beings because they are not quite human, they look different than the kids and they are born hermaphrodites and then choose what sex they want to be when they turn a certain age.  Due to their differences, they are shunned by the town kids who are prejudiced against them, though the main character in the story, Esther, is best friends with one of these variants, though they both hide it from their people.  Add to these characters a young dictator who controls food and water supplies and a mysterious stranger who comes to town and you have a lot of characters, too many really, and none of them are written in a way where they appeared ‘real’ or made me care about them, they were all pretty cartoonish.

Some of my criticisms of the book include squeezing too many divergent plot points into the story, having superfluous characters, not enough development of the main characters and their motivations, multiple ‘surprises’ that can be guessed at from a mile away, and a truly gag inducing romance.  I would say to the author, simplify, simplify, simplify.  Have one main plot and at most one subplot.  Develop the characters enough to make us actually be interested in then or care what happens to them.  Axe the immature romance, you don’t always have to put a romance into this genre, can’t survivors just have strong bonds of friendships?  I mean, I don’t think in the struggle to survive I would be thinking too hard about whether a boy ‘likes me’, do you agree?   I could see sex in these books as a way to repopulate the earth after the apocalyptic event, but can you really have a lot of romance when every minute is a struggle to survive and due to lack of food and hygiene no one is really looking so hot?

I mean I really think writers of this genre start with an advantage over other authors as they have a lot of creative license when building worlds, and dramatic license based on the drama involved with an apocalyptic or dystopian environment.  So with those in built strengths, focus on the writing itself, otherwise the books will come off as very one-dimensional, like the typical Hollywood action film.

 

 

Wolf by Wolf

Are we on the cusp of a trend?  First, I hear about and watch the first episode of The Man in the High Castle about an alternate future in which the Allies lost WWII and Germany and Japan have taken over America and Europe, and then I read Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin which also shares that plot, though the stories unfold differently from that major plot point.

How we and our world would be different today if the Allies had lost WWII is an intriguing question, so I wonder if other books and movies will explore this creating a full-fledged trend.  In Wolf by Wolf, Yael and her mother are Jews sent to a concentration camp.  Upon arrival, the camp’s doctor takes special notice of Yael, an encounter that keeps her from the gas chambers, but being chosen to live may be even worse as the doctor has selected her for an experiment.  That same quality the doctor saw in her is what helps her survive both the experiments and the deaths of so many people that she cares about.  In an odd twist of fate the sick experiment also gives her the means to escape and she is taken in to be raised by Resistance members, though they don’t know Yael’s big secret for years.  Eventually, she reveals it to her Resistance family and they realize they now have a possible means to carry out an operation that might mean the overthrow of the Nazis.

Yael will enter a grueling multi-country motorcycle race posing as a previous year’s winner.  Not only is the race challenging with the competitors known to do whatever it takes to try to win, but Yael will also find that despite studying the dossiers of all the competitors, there is much about her competition and her former relationships with them that is not found in the files, so the race holds both physical and psychological challenges for her.  Her Resistance training concentrated much more on the former, leaving this young woman to try to figure out how to behave in situations she has never experienced.

Y’know I have always thought of dystopian novels as future authoritarian societies and governments such as the Factions in Divergent or the city-states in The Hunger Games or the Society in Matched, but this novel actually takes place right after the end of the war in the 1950’s.  So not only does it take place in the past, but rather than creating a whole new world and society, it takes one that really existed, Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan, and simply extrapolates from those existing facts.  So many authors of this genre spend a good part of their book on the world building, yet in this one Ryan Graudin doesn’t need to do that as we all studied WWII in school, she can devote more time to building the characters instead.  In the case of Yael this is such a gift as the character is both fascinating and heartbreaking.  In addition to this novel being part of the dystopian genre, it also has some supernatural elements, and normally I don’t like that kind of mixing, but in it works and it serves a purpose, the story line would not be possible without this additional element.

The Last Book in the Universe

For someone who writes a book review blog, what could be a more horrifying scenario than a novel about a post-apocalyptic world without books?  The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick came out of the author writing that down as a title and then developing first a short story, then later publishing as full novel.

In a future America after an event referred to as The Shake, a giant earthquake has changed the culture of generations.  The descendants of most of the original survivors live a hardscrabble existence divided into districts known as latches.  Each latch is controlled by a ruthless leader who employs fear and violence over the inhabitants.  A teen named Spaz lived in one of the slightly better latches and was raised by foster parents despite the fact that he is an epileptic.  However, when they had a child of their own, the father was worried that Spaz might somehow hurt Bean, his sister.  The reality is that Spaz loves Bean more than anyone in the world and would never cause her any harm, but his foster father was unconvinced and kicked him out of their home and he was banished from that entire latch.  Without any other options, Spaz goes to live in a latch ruled over by gang leader Billy Bizmo who lets him be part of the group as long as he steals valuable items for them.

What doesn’t make sense to me in this book is that Billy is able to steal or scavenge a lot of old tech devices and gadgets, but he never comes across a single book when there were once millions.  Yes, paper is a bit more delicate than metal, but given the amount of books that existing pre-Shake you would think some would survive, but I guess if that were this case this book wouldn’t exist.  Perhaps one reason there aren’t any books is maybe people burned them for fuel or used them for other things as they wouldn’t have seen value in books, people have other forms of entertainment in this world.  They still have something like dvds, though most people prefer probes.  Probes are needles you stick into your brain to have something like a virtual reality experience, but more direct and intense as it is interfacing directly with your brain.  Maybe it’s that intensity that makes the probes seem similar to a drug as the people of Spaz’s world seem to get addicted to them, or maybe it’s just people want to escape their hard and dreary lives.  Spaz doesn’t use probes because he can’t due to his epilepsy and it’s what makes him different than most people.  You see when the probes are overused they affect memory; people only store information in their short term memory, not their long term memory if they use the probes too much.

One day Spaz sets off for the Stacks, an old storage unit where the poorest of the poor live.  His mission is to steal from an old man named Ryter, which readers will discover is an apt name.  Ryter is so compliant about letting Spaz steal all his possessions that Spaz becomes suspicious and spots what the man in hiding, a sheath of papers.  It turns out the man is writing a book, which Spaz doesn’t see the point of as no one reads and there aren’t any libraries anymore so he wonders why anyone would be so dedicated to write a book, yet somehow it intrigues him and he ends up returning to talk to the man.  Around the time of this burgeoning friendship, Spaz is told by a Messenger who has crossed the latches (which is illegal and dangerous) that his foster sister is deathly ill and he is determined to risk everything to see her.

Spaz ends up being accompanied on this journey by Ryter who sees this as an opportunity to write one final big adventure to add to his book despite the danger.  Inevitably, they run into some very bad situations while on the trip, but one good event happens, they run into Lanaya, a proov.  Proovs are like the current 1% as they live a completely different life than anyone in the latches.  They live a life of luxury, get physical enhancement which are well beyond current plastic surgery and live in their own territory isolated from the 99%, though Lanaya is an exception among her community as she comes to the latches and hands out food packages similar to people who currently hand out food to the homeless.  The occurrence of the two worlds colliding will have significant repercussions for all the characters.

The Heir

I think we are all a little tired of authors and filmmakers who take one good idea and stretch it out across too many books or films, am I right?  I mean look at The Hobbit!  One good book was stretched into three poor movies due to greed.  In order to stretch this single story across three, new plot-lines and characters were added that weren’t even in the original Tolkien story.  Frankly it made me both sad and angry.  Even books that aren’t made into movies seem to be following this trend of going on too long.  In TV shows the expression for that is ‘jumping the shark’ based on the show Happy Days which kept running long after Richie and Fonzie were growing old and most plot-lines had been explored, so they came up with the ridiculous episode where Fonzie jumps over a shark while water skiing, hence ‘jumping the shark.’  Ugh.

So how does this relate to my current book review for The Heir by Kiera Cass?   Well, when I saw that the author had written a continuation of her Selection series which already was three books long, I felt that this was another example of trying to capitalize on the popularity of the first three books by created another related series in order to maximize profit and fame.  Well I was pleasantly surprised that this first book of the new series was better than I expected.  I should have known better as I had also doubted the first series, thinking from the description that it would be like the book version of The Bachelor.

The Heir takes place twenty years after the events of the first series.  American Singer married Prince Maxon and the central character of this book is their daughter Eadlyn.  Eadlyn is actually a twin, but because she was born a few minutes ahead of her brother, she will be the next ruler of Illia even though she often wishes otherwise.  It is understandable that such a responsibility would weigh heavily on anyone, but to add to the pressure, she will also be the first female ruler.  Perhaps that’s why she is very guarded and fiercely independent.

However, her parents decision in the first series to remove the Castes, a system whereby people’s ability to work in certain jobs, live in certain neighborhoods and who one could date or marry hasn’t turned out exactly as expected.   it was this Caste system that to me made the first series dystopian fiction, this one is less so, but since I already reviewed the first series, I am including this on the blog too.  There are pockets of uprisings throughout the nation, so the Queen and King decide that in order to provide a distraction to give people something positive to focus on, they will have a Selection, such as the competition that brought them together in the first place.

It is strange in The Heir that Eadlyn knows almost nothing about her parents’ Selection as it had such repercussions for the country.  Even if her parents never shared the story, as those of us who read the first series know, the whole things was written about in newspapers and magazines, documented by photographers and filmed for TV weekly during the competition, so how could she be so unaware of the details?  This is a Princess who studies her country’s history and protocols and she never came across any of these details?     A note to anyone yet to read this book, I would suggest rereading or skimming the first books before starting this series as other characters from the original series are in this one, but so much time had passed since I read it, I couldn’t remember which of the women had been good or bad in the original Selection to match them up with their lives in this new series.  Even America herself who was such a vivid character in the first series is never even referred to by that name, she is simply the Queen or Mom to Eadlyn, which is a bit of a shame that she is relegated to taking such a back seat to her daughter in this one.

I do find it strange in both series that this competition that appears in both series, The Selection, seems to old-fashioned, yet the story takes place post modern times since they have all the same technology…yet some of the activities during the Selection are balls, taking tea, strolling the gardens, horseback riding, etc. which seem like something out of the 1800’s, yet the Princess wears some modern clothing, likes pop music, etc. so it’s a bit jarring sometimes.

What was unexpected to me was how Kiera Cass conveys in a very real way what it must be like to be royalty who must struggle between being in the public eye and guiding their people, and trying to have private thoughts and feelings while during their duty.  Maybe that’s why so many of us even in modern times as so fascinated by royals such as Kate and William, while seemingly a modern couple they are also an anachronism.  Also, how in this electronic age do they maintain a private life?  And what is it like to be born into royalty knowing that your birth dictates a very narrow path for your life?    Eadlyn’s struggle with all of this feels pretty real and that’s what took this book out of The Bachelorette  territory and into something more interesting.

 

 

 

 

The Glass Arrow

As a woman, the scariest dystopian books are about a future world where women have lost about 300 years of progress and are treated as chattel to be bought and sold.  Such is the case in The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons.

Aya has grown up isolated in the mountains with her mother, cousin and another woman and her children.  They are all in hiding outside the big city where all girls who are ‘pure’ and possibly fertile are put in a special dormitory in the city to await their turn at auction and Aya’s mother doesn’t want that to happen to her daughter.  It’s not just the idea that her daughter might become some man’s possession, but Aya’s mother knows first-hand that a girl not found to be ‘pure’ will have an X carved into her face with a knife and be given to the brothels.  Even girls who do attend and are bid on at the auction, have to face a ‘private meeting’ with their prospective buyer who sometimes take advantage of the girls, a rich pimp could bid on a girl at auction and make her his working girl.  Even if a ‘respectful businessman’ buys a girl, if he tires of her eventually, he could send her back to the dorm to be auctioned off again while he finds a new wife.

No, scraping a living out of the mountains is a better life in Aya’s mom’s mind and Aya agrees.  Brought up free and strong, she knows she is so much more than anyone’s piece of property.  However, the fresh air and food she consumes outside of polluted city make her a prime target as it means she is fertile enough to bear children, especially the male ones wanted by the city.  Just like what still happens in many countries today, girl babies are sometimes killed as they lack value.  They live when the female count is low.

Things weren’t always like this, Aya’s mom has told her stories of a time when all women walked proud and free until the Red Wars when men turned on women similar to the Salem Witch Trials and killed most women and enslaved the remainder.  These tales told deep in the mountains have always been scary for Aya to hear, but they are not near as scary as the day Trackers invade her family’s mountain home.   Freedom is never more precious than to those who have lived it and now may lose it.

The Vault

The Vault by Emily McKay is not a series I wanted to end. I mean, until I started reading apocalyptic and dystopian fiction I had no interest in vampires. This book also have an autistic character as one of the main characters, and I have some conflicted conditions about that disorder after the measles epidemic this summer due to parents who did not want to vaccinate their kids because they mistakenly believe that vaccinations cause it when it does not, all it does it put other children at risk.

So why did I like this series and particularly last book so much when it already had many strikes against it? The characters were well-written and they just felt real. I think too many teen characters come across as immature or too love-struck and that wasn’t the case with Lily and Carter, nor was there the overused plot device of a love triangle. No, the biggest love was actually between Lily and her autistic sister and twin Mel.   Even with difficulties in communicating, the two have an amazing bond, and in this final book Mel became much more vivid as a character and strong person in her own right, not someone who everyone else has to be taking care of and I liked that.

Yes, this is definitely not Twilight for those who start drooling at the mention of vampires. No, in this book vampires are largely cruel and their twisted kin the ‘Ticks’ are truly frightening, as unlike their vampire brethren, their minds are gone and they are driven not by logic or emotions but instinct and need. A Tick is exactly what Lily will turn into if her boyfriend Carter and her sister Mel can’t find the antidote because you see Ticks are not supernatural creatures, they were created by a vampire who was actually trying to develop a cure for cancer and was helped by a human crew. You see, in this book it isn’t necessarily all vampires against humans, it’s vampires against vampires and humans against humans. After all, Lily and Mels father is one of those humans, the guards at the camps where teens are kept as a blood source for Ticks set teens against teens. Sabrina, a former human and Abductura goes after Sebastian, a vampire. There is plenty of tension in this book for people who enjoy both emotional and physical tension.

The story unfolds in alternating chapter by the main characters. That’s another thing I liked about this book, in most stories there is really one main character and a cast of supporting characters, or at most two main characters. I would argue that The Vault has not only four strong main characters, but some pretty strong supporting characters too that if this were a TV show would easily get their own spinoff series as each one brings a unique perspective to the overarching story.