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.

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Red Rising

Usually when people talk about books you hear how they ‘couldn’t put it down.’ My experience with Red Rising by Pierce Brown was the opposite; I ‘couldn’t pick it up.’ I wasn’t really very interested in the book for a number of reasons. First, I thought it had been mislabeled; it appeared to be a sci fi book, not a dystopian book. No offense to fans of sci fi, but that’s not my jam. I think there are enough potential interesting stories to be told about this planet without going farther out. I like how dystopian and apocalyptic books build a world in our own backyard and because the stories are here, we can still recognize and relate to them despite the constructs of a dystopian society or the aftermath of an apocalypse. Red Rising takes place on Luna, what we would call Mars and it starts off slow, a sort of Grapes of Wrath interplanetary style. Don’t get me wrong, the latter book is a classic, so I didn’t think setting it on another planet would add much to something that has already been done. Also, I have gotten used to the kick ass, take no prisoners type of main character in these books and Darrow seemed a reluctant protagonist far too willing to compromise and concede while his family and his love suffered. I didn’t want a Joad, I wanted a Norma Rae! However, maybe the best heroes are the reluctant ones, the ones who are conflicted about the part they will or must play.
Also, far from the book being about an alien culture, it turns out that Darrow and his people were originally from our own planet Earth. His ancestors were sent to Mars to mine a substance that will make the planet inhabitable for future generations, so his labor under poor living conditions comes off as noble more than apathetic. Darrow lives with his perpetually hungry family, minus the father who was hung for a non-violent protest of the conditions they live in. He works as a helldiver in the mines, a position both respected as well as dangerous, and comes home every night to Eo, his childhood friend grown into his love and wife. What happens to Eo is the catalyst that expels Darrow out of his family, his tribe, and his home to fulfill her dream.

Up until that crossroads I kept pushing this book aside to read other books and was truly at the point of giving up on it, something I almost never do. The same book that I reluctantly would pick up and force myself to read a couple pages of suddenly became a book I could not put down. Yes, it takes place on a another planet, and yes there are technologies and even some creatures not of this earth, but those more sci fi elements stopped bothering me when I discovered the dystopian story within. It turns out that Darrow’s world was much bigger than he or his people knew and his mission becomes much bigger than his own tragedies. In fact, he wrestles with his own desires and whether they will help or hinder him in his new role. Is he motivated by love, anger, revenge, or a higher purpose? He continually shifts among these motivators as he makes his way through a world where he is an interloper, a world he must embrace in order to succeed in his mission, at the same time that he loathes it. That becomes a cornerstone of his struggle, when does pretending to feel a certain way become an actual emotion? When does an enemy you pretend is a comrade become a true friend? Can he convince others that he is someone he is not, without becoming that person?

I wasn’t 100% certain whether this was a standalone book, or if it was a series, so I checked it out online. At that point I came across a heated discussion about how he ‘stole’ from The Hunger Games, which stole from Battle Royale, etc. Frankly, I don’t care, after all isn’t there a line about ‘ there is nothing new under the sun’? Maybe I would care if a work was very similar to something else AND poorly done. However, I thought this book had as much in common with The Testing series as it did The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Flies and dozens of other stories. That’s only because it shares universal story telling elements such as man vs. man, man vs. society and man vs. himself, and it does it in such an exciting and thoughtful way that I am glad I didn’t stop reading it.

The Hunt

The Hunt series by Andrew Fukuda is no Twilight, and I mean that as a great compliment. No disrespect to Stephanie Meyer but the difference between the Twilight series and this is like the difference between a work of classic literature and a paperback beach novel. The latter can be an entertaining read, but the former elevates the concept of vampires into an epic piece of literature. In the Twilight series the vampires are good looking, romantic and even sensitive. In The Hunt they drool and clack their teeth in a horrifying way when they think prey is near.

Prey would be people who are dehumanizingly referred to as hefers. In the world of Gene, a virus has turned most of the population into vampires who have to survive on synthetic or animal meat as they have hunted the humans almost into extinction, to find a live one and consume it is the equivalent of a heroin addict getting a fix.

In most apocalyptic or dystopian books tension is achieved by the characters reacting to the situation, in the case of Gene an exquisite tension is built because he cannot react. Gene’s mother and sister were killed by vampires when he was a young boy and his father was bitten and ran into the sunlight rather then turn vampire not many years later. Gene has been left all alone to survive in a world surrounded by vampires. He was taught the rules by his father. Don’t laugh or draw attention to yourself, and don’t sweat and let them smell you. He has to follow a very complicated grooming ritual everyday to hide what he really is. He has to sit in a classroom every day surrounded by killers. He has to suppress all the things that make him human in order to survive. Most of all he has to survive the loneliness of being one of the last of his kind.

Then in a twisted turn on the Games in The Hunger Games, Gene holds the winning lottery ticket to participate in the Hunt. Only in this book, he is the Hunter not the Hunted. Once a year to raise morale in the kingdom, lucky lottery winners are selected to participate in an event to hunt some of the few remaining hefers. Gene tries everything to not participate as those selected will all be bunking down together where he cannot keep up the charade of what he is day and night. He also can’t be part of the Hunt because the physical exertion would cause him to sweat and reveal what he really is. However, physical exertion is not the only thing that might make him sweat, there is his classmate Ashley June, a beautiful redhead and fellow lucky lottery winner.

How Gene will manage these events creates an almost unbearable suspense that will torture readers in the best way.

Promised

Promised by Caragh M. O’Brien is the final book in the Birthmarked Trilogy, but unfortunately it’s not the strongest.  I have every sympathy with authors who have to wrap up a series, but I couldn’t help wishing for more of the elements that made the first two books a good read. 

Gaia Stone has led the people of Sylum back to the Enclave.   Although she has warned her people that it will be difficult, she herself had underestimated the Protectorate’s reaction to her return.  After all, this is the same man who is responsible for the deaths of her parents as well as her own imprisonment and her flight from the Enclave in the first place, did she really think she could walk back in an negotiate with such a man?  Even as the new Martrarc that seems far-fetched.  

One of the other weaknesses is the lack of development regarding her personal relationships.  While the Chardo brothers, Peter and Will, played such a huge role in the second book, they remain far on the periphery in this one.  I think readers who developed opinions and loyalty to these characters previously, will be disappointed.  While this may be a deliberate tactic O’Brien is employing to focus on just Leon, it was the very complications that ensued from her feelings for each of the brothers that rang truer than her sudden complete attention on Leon.    There is also a lack of development of two new characters who have strong ties to Gaia.  Most of the story either revolves around Gaia’s conundrum as she feels her way through this situation as an inexperienced leader of her people, or the action and violence scenes.

Also, considering the technology and surveillance the Enclave has at it’s disposal compared to the Wharfton area, it seems unrealistic that the protagonists can keep getting inside the Enclave and escaping back into Wharfton.  

When the climax of the story comes, it feels rushed compared to all the previous chapters which stretched on too long.  Significant events and the effects on some of the characters are only mentioned in a perfunctory way; I am deliberately not getting specific for those who have not finished the series yet.  In The Hunger Games series Katniss and Peter both experienced violence and physical and emotional trauma and loss, and I think it was more realistically and better explored than the last chapter of this story. 

 

 

Reached

Although The Hunger Games was the book that truly set me on the path as a fan of dystopian YA fiction, Ally Condie’s Matched was the next book I read, so I am sad today to be writing a book review of Reached, the final book in the Matched Trilogy.   Reaching the end of a series is like saying goodbye to a dear friend and I think that the author Ally herself felt that way as there is a rather melancholy bittersweet undertone to this final book in the series.  It’s that feeling you get when you leave high school, when you are grown up and leave friends and loved ones behind as you go forward into a new life.  The characters of the trilogy have been tempered by trouble and have matured into adulthood.

Cassia and Ky have returned to the Society to play a role for the Uprising. Xander who had remained in the Society in Crossed, has become an Official, though he too belongs to the Uprising.  Once again the three are separated from each other and all must walk their own path to the future.

Xander, a physic attends the Welcome Ceremony for a newborn; he and other members of the Uprising have been giving all children the Rising immunizations, rather than the Society’s which means that the new generation will grow up immune to the red tablet so that the Society can’t take their memories of the truth.  It’s during this particular ceremony that Xander sees the sign that the rebellion won’t wait for the children to grow into a new uncontrolled generation.

Cassia has been sent to Capital to continue her work as a sorter, but she also works on the side as a trader with the Archivists, the only way she can pay to send messages to her family and the two most important men in her life. 

Ky, along with pal Indie from Crossed, has become a pilot for the Uprising, though the only reason he is doing that is for Cassia.  He isn’t sure he can believe in or trust the Pilot, the leader of the Uprising. 

The story is alternatively narrated by each of the three characters.  While a love triangle in other books is usually not very successful as the balance is always tipped towards one of the participants, Condie does a good job of balancing out the strengths and weaknesses of both Ky and Xander as suitors for Cassia.  In fact, this triangle rounds out the characters as three-dimensional as the feelings they have about each other and the situation are complicated and painful.  There is a maturity to the romance that is missing in most other YA books. 

An outbreak of disease is the catalyst for the Uprising to supplant the Society, as the Uprising are able to provide people with a cure, but the means, motives and leadership behind the Uprising are more muddied than expected and each of the main characters are pulled into a situation that begins to spiral out of control.  Ky flys the cure into the infected cities, Cassia had started a Gallery to give people the freedom to share art, songs and poems and Xander has been curing the victims of the disease until some patients present new symptoms which bring the three heroes together in a race to save civilization. 

Ally Condie is speaking as much to herself as her readers when she says, “…even though all cannot be as everyone would wish, there is satisfaction in knowing that something good and right and true was part of you…There is ebb and flow.  Leaving and coming.  Fight and fall.  Sing and silent. Reaching and reached.”  Goodspeed Cassia, Ky and Xander.

 

I Miss Monsters

When I read a blurb for Dayna Lorentz’s No Safety In Numbers I misunderstood.  It mentioned something strange being discovered at a suburban shopping mall causing teens to battle to survive.  So I instantly assumed there would be monsters, probably zombies, involved as haven’t there been a number of films where survivors take refuge in a mall where there is access to food, clothes and potential weapons?

Well without giving too much away I will say that the mall part was accurate, but instead of monsters, there is a device discovered that has deadly consequences.  Have I become too hooked on monsters as an element in dystopian fiction?

Not all YA dystopian fiction has to have monsters to be good reads.  In books like The Hunger Games, Tomorrow When the War Began, Delirium and plenty of others, the monsters are really just us, humans.  Even in the Rot & Ruin series which does have zombies, the bounty hunters and cult fanatics are the bigger monsters than the actual monsters, which is why I am loving that series so much.   Maybe that’s the problem, maybe I find it actually more comforting when I read about a dystopian world where the ‘bad guys’ are someone other than us.  It’s easier to blame the woes of a post-apocalyptic situation on monstrous creatures, than to look to ourselves and our flaws that create disastrous events or worlds.  It hits to close too close to home when we are our own worst enemies.

It’s funny that I got to a point where I had to reduce time spent reading and watching news reports because I felt like I was drowning in a sea of bad news….dictators and authoritarian governments who control their citizens, environmental crises, violence and a loss of civility, and the greed of the rich and powerful.   I reduced my news absorption a few years ago, then a couple of years ago I got completely hooked on YA dystopian fiction!   It’s so ironic.

I am asking myself do I find it more palatable to face these issues in a work of fiction rather than real life?  At least in books, there are heroes; sometimes I am not sure whether there are many heroes or good leaders left  in real life.  However, that’s the thing I guess about apocalyptic or dystopian events, until one happens you never know how people will react, sometimes it’s the most ordinary or unassuming people who arise to meet the challenges at hand and emerge as heroes.

Sometimes it feels safer to read about a disaster between the pages of a book than to observe one in real life or to wonder who I would become in a crisis…

Has reading YA dystopia novels changed YOU in any way?

I actually don’t think I ever heard the term YA dystopia fiction until a few years ago when I read The Hunger Games and fell in love with the genre.  Before that I read a wide variety of books, but when I read fiction, it’s largely YA dystopian books now.  It’s become my guilty pleasure, so every few YA books, I read a hardcore business or marketing book.  It’s sort of like eating your veggies so you can have dessert.

However, I am starting to wonder if reading so much post-apocalyptic fiction has changed me.  I mean I grew up a child of the suburbs and never so much as mowed the lawn.  A few years ago I tore up all the grass in my backyard and turned it into an organic fruit and vegetable garden – well with a lot of help from a garden partner since I knew nothing.  I find myself obsessing over garden catalogs looking for more kinds of food I can grow.  I am also considering urban chickens and have had a passing fancy about a fish pond.  So many dystopian books describe the extreme hunger of the characters, The Hunger Games aside, that I wonder if this newfound connection to the earth is related to my reading habits.  I have to admit to feeling a certain level of comfort that there are edible plants in close proximity.  I also have rain cisterns too and a rain barrel.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a survivalist stockpiling canned foods and weapons in my basement, but I do feel like I am subtly changing.

This year I took advantage of a local program to add insulation to my home.  I can’t help but remember the grimness of a family almost freezing to death in their home in the book, Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer which takes place after a natural disaster.  My home that used to be freezing in the winter is now toastier and I go to sleep at night feeling better about its ability to provide shelter.  I even got two estimates this year for installing solar panels.  The irony is that I am such a low energy user already, that financially it doesn’t pencil out in a way that makes sense taking over 15 years to pay off.  My hope is that eventually the costs will drop even lower, as I would feel more secure relying on natural energy and I would feel better about not contributing to an apocalypse caused by energy related issues.  I guess someone could say I am not reallydystopian minded, I am just an environmentalist.  Maybe.

I do know that I have been eyeing solar or crank powered flashlights and radios on shopping sites the way I used to eye home decor.  I have also started working out with kettlebells, is it because I want to fit into my old smaller size clothes or because I need to build up strength to fight off those violent factions in YA dystopian novels such as Article Five and Breaking Point by Kristen Simmons? A friend of mine bought the thickest book I have ever seen full of things we have basically forgotten in our modern age.  How to butcher, grow plants for medicine and food, how to repair things, etc.  If the worst happens, I will generously provide her with shelter and food ffrom the garden (as long as she brings the book with her of course!)

I also think about how truly few useful skills I have.  Well I have skills such as social and digital media expertise, software training, marketing, etc. but those are only relevant in our modern world.  If a disaster happens that wipes out energy and thus technology, most of those would be useless and the things that would be important such as knowing how to use a bow and arrow (go Katniss), how to build things, self-defense (from zombies or other survivors), how to climb trees, how to repair machines etc., those I simply don’t know.  I guess that’s why I find so many dystopian books fascinating.  In the ones that happen after a natural or even man made disaster, the characters have had to learn all new skills, and quickly, in order to survive in their changed world.  I wonder where I would stand.

Has reading YA dystopia novels changed YOU in any way?

Matched

matched

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.

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.

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