Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dystopic Tellings

Dystopias and anti-utopias (yes, I know they are two separate terms, but I’m not joining that hair-splitting debate) have long been a part of fiction. From Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to The Hunger Games, the concept of a world hiding behind a wall of an (at first) well-meaning, but ultimately, heavily controlled utopic principles, has always fascinated readers. For some time we have been awash in a sea of vampires, fairies, then zombies, and then fallen angels—the paranormal literally overtaking bookshelves and movie theaters, but now, thanks to Suzanne Collins, the tide has shifted and we are caught in a frenzy of dystopic bestsellers. What does this mean exactly? Well, for one it means that my desk is literally covered in dystopic novels from every publisher out there, but it also implies that we, as readers, as people wishing to be entertained, are just as fascinated with the often frightening aspect of dystopic worlds as our predecessors.

I have always enjoyed the edgy feeling of dystopian novels; that slight sense of apprehension when you start to compare the “real world” and all of it’s stunning technologies and it’s militant use of political correctness, to this imagined alter-earth, where all these concepts lead to totalitarian governments and the squashing of free thought and actions. Is it any wonder that readers, young and old all experience the same thrill and general awe when reading about that one fictional person or group who decides to defy that power?

The popularity of this genre has been under much scrutiny, particularly since the majority of these novels are aimed at young adults and/or taught in schools. Scott Westerfield, the author of the Uglies series, which presents a dystopic world where 16 year olds are able to have a beautifying surgery (turning them from Uglies to Pretties) that allows them to live in a work-free, party-filled, high tech environment, gives his thoughts on this topic:

“Teenagers’ lives are constantly defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through necessary confrontations with authority, large and small. Imagining a world in which those authorities must be destroyed by any means necessary is one way of expanding that game. Imagining a world in which those authorities are utterly gone is another …It’s little wonder, then, that a lot of YA dyslit embraces both extremes of hyper-control and chaos, wedding an oppressive government with post-apocalyptic ruin.”
(Teenage Wastelands,

 I have to think that Westerfield has something here, but why have adults so thoroughly embraced this genre? Laura Miller of the New Yorker presents this concept (as discussed by Kay Sambell in “Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults”)

"The adult dystopia extrapolates from aspects of the present to show readers how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message.“ (The New Yorker,

 I guess this could be true also, in a rather Brechtian way of catharsis. But really, who cares why we love it—we just do and the publishers are having a field day. So, here’s what I’m going to do; mention of few great new genre novels and steer you all away from a couple of the horrid.

I’ve written about Penguin’s Matched, and in October of 2011 Ally Condie is back with the sequel Crossed. I’ve yet to receive an ARC, but am eagerly awaiting one. This is a series to be read and enjoyed, well-written and entertaining, it’s Penguin’s top dystopic novel. Also from Penguin, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, is another dystopic novel, but one which takes place in space. This one is an okay read, nothing enlightening, and there is a general feeling of discontent when you reach the end.

From Simon & Schuster, look for Blood Red Road by Moira Young. This is a great debut, a little rough around the edges, but sure to pick up as the series progresses. Look for a full review here in June.

From HarperCollins comes Divergent by Veronica Roth. This is another glittering debut, sharper and more fully defined than Blood Red Road, it is an edgy look at a world that for the betterment of humanity, has broken itself up into factions according to traits brought forth during an aptitude test given to all sixteen year olds. When Beatrice, a member of the Abnegation faction (the governing faction, devoted to selflessness) chooses to become a Dauntless (a wild and reckless faction, devoted to courage above all else) she must deal with a the hidden danger of her own true status, factions that have taken their well-intentioned programs to the extreme, and her own personal morals, as she navigates through an increasingly volatile world. This is a great new novel, one I’m quite happy to see come from a publisher with such a strong paranormal and dystopic list (ie. the utterly fantastic and gritty post-apocolyptic Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy by Carrie Ryan). It’s a difficult book to put down and has a whopper of an ending—a must for genre fans.

From Scholastic comes Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens—an truly aweful dystopic-like satire, that will be throughly reviewed and harrangued in May.

As dystopia continues to prevail and over run the paranormals and steampunks, it is sure that we will see more and more of these novels. We are a society that thrives on such tales: Maybe because we’re teens searching for a way to outlet our rage against authority, or maybe because we desperately need some pity and purgation. Whatever the reason, they will write it and we will come, because we all want to topple a totalitarian world every once in awhile.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

If I Stay & Where She Went: Why You Must Read Them

A couple of years ago I read a book that stuck with me. It was one of those teen novels that an adult can pick up and devour, one which I’ve seen more adults love than teens. I loved this book, spoke about it often, wrote about it, and even spoke about it at the 2009 Warwick’s Reading Group Recommends Night. Here’s a brief snippet of what I had to say.

Mia is a promising cellist living a fulfilling life with her parents, young brother, and boyfriend, when in the blink of an eye her entire world is taken away. As she sees her past and the promise of an uncertain and painful future Mia must make a heart wrenching choice: let go of her tenuous hold on life, or stay, live without all that she holds dear. If I Stay by Gayle Forman is the most compelling book I’ve read this year, and surprisingly enough it is a teen novel. This is an amazing debut novel that pulls you in and does not let go.

It’s true, this book stayed with me, and two years on I still remember the visceral effect this book had on my emotions. It is one of the few books I had to sit and contemplate upon finishing, rather than hop directly onto the next book. I even downloaded the music mentioned in it—and have become a fan of many of the songs—because I wanted those unique feelings to last.

On Tuesday (April 4, 2011), Where She Went, the sequel to this amazing debut came out. Taking place three years after the horrific accident that destroyed Mia’s family, this book is told from the point of view of Adam, Mia’s former the boyfriend, the person who made Mia stay in this world, when it would have been so easy to let go. Adam, now a famous musician, is barely holding it together mentally, emotionally, and socially when a chance encounter with Mia, a rising star in the classical world, sets off a night of remembrance that will finally give him the answer to where she went and why she stayed.

I don’t know how she does it, but Gayle Forman manages to tap into your emotions in a way few authors can. You feel not only for the characters, but also with them. If I Stay was such an emotional roller coaster, dealing with the pain of loss and question of living with that pain or leaving it all behind, and Where She Went is equally brilliant emotionally, but here it is the anger of being left (physically and metaphysically) behind that rolls over the reader like a tidal wave. Her use of music and lyrics are inspired—truly tapping into the importance of music within the lives of Mia and Adam, but also how much we, the readers rely on music and its’ cathartic powers in our everyday lives. It’s as though she has this brilliant score running beneath the text, not so noticeable that it detracts, but just enough to add to our understanding of the plot and character development. She moves us with music without us ever hearing a single chord. I don’t know how she does it, but I want more.

If every book could this good, more people would be reading. I don’t know how to put it more succinctly than that. There are “must reads” and there are “read this nows”. Read this set of books now, you will crave more.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Mini Review of "Heads You Lose"

Heads You Lose
By Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

Lutz, of Spellman Files fame and Hayward, of no fame at all, team up to create a brilliantly neurotic whodunnit, with bodies, motives, and plot points flying in like Dorothy’s tornado in the land of Oz. A veritable he said/she said, with the authors blindly writing every other chapter, no one is safe and nothing goes as expected. I don’t know which is better—the story of siblings Lacey and Paul as they muddle their way through murder, drugs, and money—or the squabbling and character assassinations between authors Lutz and Hayward at the end of each chapter. No one is safe. Nothing is sacred. And if Lutz and Hayward do not publish The Fop (you have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about), they are missing out on a great marketing opportunity!
Highly original, exceptionally entertaining, and an ending that is wholly unexpected, Heads You Lose is a read unlike any other.

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