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“Reached” by Ally Condie


So I was a big fan of Ally Condie’s debut dystopian romance “Matched” and its action-packed sequel “Crossed.” The Penguin Young Readers group — excellent people, all! — chose to embargo the concluding book, “Reached,” which basically means there were no advanced copies available and I, like the rest of the mortal world, had to wait for its actual publication date. Bah! 😉

“Reached” was released in early November, and it has been a popular success, appearing on many YA bestseller lists. I was STOKED to read “Reached,” as I hoped it would combine the ethereal writing of “Matched” and the breakneck pace of “Crossed.” Alas, while “Reached” is by no means a failure, it is underwhelming and flat. I’m so sorry to write these words, but, for me, “Reached” was plodding and uneventful. I wanted it to be so much more.

SPOILER SPACE, y’all, because that’s how we roll here …

Ok, read on at your own risk, because I need to reveal some details to properly review this novel. As “Reached” begins, Xander is an Official with the Society (but secretly working for the Rising), while Ky is flying directly for the Pilot and Cassia is back sorting for the Society, waiting for the Rising to contact her, and conducting back alley trades with the Archivists. Each of the three main characters narrates his or her own story, so we get lots of insight and various perspectives on the action. The use of multiple narrators is surprisingly effective. The great revelation of “Reached” — maybe the only real revelation of “Reached”?! — lies in the fact that Xander is a remarkably complex, deeply wounded, deeply obligated man, which we may not have discovered without his individual narration.

As it turns out, the Rising has unleashed the Plague on the Cities and Boroughs of the Society. Via some seriously convoluted logic, the Pilot believes that spreading the deadly virus will break the Society’s hold on the population, as the Rising members — all of whom are immunized — will sweep in and provide the cure to a grateful nation. Um, ok, I guess. At first, the Pilot’s plan seems dope, as Society falls with barely a whisper. (I honestly thought of those last lines from TS Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” that “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”) But then the Plague mutates — and here we are subjected to some incredibly tedious virology discussion — and forms a new version of the virus that not only makes victims still, it actively kills them, regardless of cure or treatment. Even worse for the Rising? The immunization it provided its own members is no protection against the mutation. Only those with a special mark on their necks, who had previously been exposed and survived, are immune, and that’s a very small percentage of the populace (but, of course, it includes Xander and Cassia).

Much of the “action” — and I use that term loosely, because very little in the way of plot occurs — involves the three teens finally joining forces in an outer mountainous community (Endstone, one of the so-called stone villages) to find a cure for the mutation. Leaving aside the highly dubious prospect that the fate of Society would rest with a bunch of teenagers, even this mess is sort of blah. There’s a rad old Society exile named Oker, who is leading the team of scientists, and we briefly — and I mean briefly — see our old pals Eli and Hunter, but mostly it’s Xander, Cassia, and Ky in a race against time. You’d think this might be a compelling setup, but it’s so hollow and dull that I found myself barely caring. Ky quickly falls ill, and there is some small bit of sabotage and danger, but mostly we’re treated to mundane passages about working, sorting, measuring, working, etc. Eh.

What’s so unfortunate is that true moments of beauty and lyricism exist throughout the story, along with some lovely ideas about the relationship between art and community. Author Condie’s descriptions are as lush as ever; nature bursts with colors, scents, and textures, all gorgeously rendered. Cassia creates a gallery on Camas, in which ordinary people — so long deprived of freedom of expression — share sculptures, poems, pictures, and even songs. The vibrancy of this community, and the joyous celebration involved by those participating in it, are so touchingly real. Even Cassia’s growing embrace of poetry remains fresh and alive. We feel the seductive pull of poetry, of words and their purest expression.

Sadly, though, these beautiful passages and scenes only serve to underscore the slow, almost methodical nature of the rest of the story. The search for a new cure meanders, while the expected drama — deaths, love affairs — is muted, often occurring “offscreen.” How are we to react to a death that we don’t even witness? Full props to Condie for her willingness to off major characters, but I so wish that when those lives ended, we readers were allowed more than a passing glance. Moreover, the resolution to the trilogy’s core love triangle is so telegraphed and so devoid of emotion that I had to go back several times and make sure I wasn’t just glossing over some hidden details. I wasn’t. It really was that empty. If not for the development of Xander’s character and the exploration of how his whole life centers on the loneliness of duty, I may well have given up before the novel’s end.

Fans of the first two books in the “Matched” trilogy will undoubtedly rush out and read “Reached,” and I’m certainly not one to dissuade them. Some sections of “Reached” are as achingly lovely as ever, and following Xander’s character is rewarding in its own way. But the larger plot — or lack thereof — and an overall sense of inertia really weigh “Reached” down. Like its predecessors, this one is good for older middle schoolers and up. Who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. I sure hope so!


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Posted by on December 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“Crossed” by Ally Condie


Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock, you know that "Matched," author Ally Condie's dystopian thriller, was a big hit in the YA market. Not only was it a bestseller, but "Matched" was featured on several year-end Best of 2010 lists, including Publishers Weekly's Best Children's Books of 2010. I quite liked it myself! At Book Expo, the good people at Penguin Books for Young Readers gave out autographed copies of the sequel to "Matched," which is titled "Crossed." Does "Crossed" avoid the second-book-in-a-trilogy curse? Surprisingly, it largely does. It's styled differently than Matched — both Cassia and Ky narrate alternating chapters — and set largely outside the Society, but it is still a gripping, engaging read.

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but I think that's a bit inevitable, no? This is one of those read it at your own risk reviews, but, just in case, here's a bit of spoiler space:

Ok? Good. 🙂 We first see Ky in the Outer Provinces burying a young man and reciting part of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." The Society has sent Ky — and many other young male Aberrations — off to the provinces as decoys, designed to lure the remaining resistance fighters out of the shadows. The Society will then attack and destroy the rebels, although it's actually many of the unarmed Aberrations who die at the Society's hands. It's a terrifying, bleak job with little chance of survival, but Ky and a stalwart fighter named Vick endure it better than most. One night, Ky, Vick, and an innocent newbie named Eli make a run for the Carving, a remote area replete with rock structures and deep canyons where Ky once lived as a child and where free communities are rumored to thrive.

Meanwhile, Cassia, who is still assigned to a work detail and still searching for Ky, impulsively jumps into a line of girls being flown by the Society to the Outer Provinces to serve as the initial round of female decoys. Upon arrival, Cassia learns that Ky was in the same area days earlier, so she, another girl from the work detail named Indie, and a young male decoy escape to the Carving. While Cassia hopes to find Ky — she dreams about him; recites all their poetry; composes new lines for when they are reunited — Indie wants only to reach the Rising, the rebel group whose stronghold was once in the Carving.

From there on out, we have two parallel stories, with Ky and his group and Cassia and hers racing through the Carving, all facing different dangers, both from the outside world, and, occasionally, from each other. I doubt I'm spoiling much by saying that Ky and Cassia ultimately meet up before leaving again on their respective journeys. I mean, you really didn't think they'd get together in book two, did you? 😉

So enough with the plot outline. What works so well? In no particular order:

* The characters. Ky has a harder edge here, and while he's still crazy in love with Cassia, we see more clearly how his pain, fears, and doubts color everything, including his relationships. I loved Ky's complexity, how all his strength and resourcefulness often cover such incredible inner turmoil and fear. (For example, Ky struggles with accepting his decision to leave the decoy soldiers, seeing not bravery but cowardice.) To me, "Crossed" really feels like Ky's story more than Cassia's, and, let me tell you, following such a rich character is not necessarily a bad thing. Other characters also have impressive levels of depth and shading, especially the naive yet brave Eli and Indie, who is at turns jaded, hopeful, cunning, and kind. I'm still not entirely sure whether to trust her!

* The action. I had a teen read "Crossed," and her biggest response was about the action. I agree. The pacing, the looming threat from the Society — which is largely unseen here but remains a sort of dark, amorphous presence — and the palpable sense of fear and desperation surge the plot forward beautifully. I had to keep reading. I had to! Along these lines, the mystery surrounding the existence of the Rising and their alleged leader (known only as the Pilot) adds to the intrigue and further underscores the tension.

* Its unexpected beauty. I'm a sucker for the lyrical passages, recitation of poetry, and musings on love and longing that are as central here as they were in "Matched." The joy and hope of Cassia and Ky's romance is contrasted effectively by the desolation and death that constantly surround them in the Carving. It's interesting that a novel that can be bleak and troubling also has its moments of purity and beauty. Incidentally, I'm not entirely sure that the conflict between Ky and Cassia worked as well as it should have — I guess I never really believed this pair wasn't destined to be together — but that's a minor point.

"Crossed" is a compelling entry in the "Matched" series, and it reads quite well on its own as a standalone novel. With that said, I cannot wait!!! for the concluding book in this trilogy, which I assume will be published sometime in 2012. "Crossed" will be released on November 1, 2011. Read it for its heart-pounding action, complex characterization, and poignant moments of raw emotion. I think it's a great book for older middle schoolers who will find so much to adore here.

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Posted by on August 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Matched” by Ally Condie


By now, you've probably heard about Ally Condie's debut teen novel, "Matched," which was published by a division of Penguin in late November 2010. "Matched" is currently listed at #3 on the New York Times list of bestselling chapter books for children, and it received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. I even saw it in my local Target store!

So is all the hype deserved? Absolutely. I first learned about "Matched" last spring at a Baker & Taylor publishing preview, and the Penguin folks graciously sent along advanced copies over the summer. Being a good librarian (ha!), I passed those copies to my teen readers, meaning I only recently got a chance to read this wonderful book for myself. Three word review: I LOVED IT!

Ok, let me explain why. "Matched" is a dystopian / romance hybrid, but it's not a "Hunger Games" trilogy clone. Yes, there's a future world in which all behavior — food intake, exercise, vocations, marriage, death — is strictly controlled by the Society, the all-powerful government that monitors and restricts life for its constituents' own safety and security. And, yes, there's a slow-brewing rebellion against the Society's power and lies, although for now it's located in the Outer Provinces, a far away, wild land. And, okay, there's a healthy love triangle here featuring main character Cassia, her childhood friend Xander, and outsider Ky. But, truly, that's where the similarities end. For instead of a bleak tale of violence and misery, we have — oddly enough! — a novel of poetry, light, buoyancy, and freedom.

A quick plot rundown is in order. 17 year old Cassia is matched by the Society with Xander, a strong, sturdy, handsome, all-around great guy. Cassia is beyond thrilled to make a lifelong match with a trusted friend she already knows. Unfortunately, through an apparent glitch in the matching technology, Cassia also briefly sees a glimpse of a second match, a neighbor who had been orphaned years earlier in the Outer Provinces and brought to live with a childless couple. Ky, she learns, is an Aberration, meaning he's something less than a full citizen. He's not even a full person in the Society's eyes. Ky spends long days toiling away in a nutrition disposal facility, and, as an Aberration, he must always remain single. Ky works hard to blend innocently into any situation at work or in the gaming center, but he's an intelligent, thoughtful guy.

On a series of state-sponsored hikes — constructive, regulated leisure time having been deemed very important by the Society — Cassia comes to discover this side of Ky. She also learns about his background and his own secret acts of rebellion. Ky teaches Cassia to write while hidden among the trees; on subsequent hikes, he gives her an outlawed compass and slowly shares his childhood story of war and death in forbidden art and words passed on scraps of napkin. When Cassia's grandfather died at age 80, as all Society residents do, he left her a hidden scroll of Dylan Thomas poetry. The words of "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night" thus become a shared piece of hope and freedom between Cassia and Ky, something that binds them to each other and against the Society's repression. This very striving for creativity, for words and life and richness, runs counter to everything the Society teaches. And yet it feels right, especially once they fall in love, triggering a painful series of events I promise not to spoil.

There's so much more here, including fleshed out parents with their own fears, weaknesses, and acts of bravery. Cassia's folks try for stoicism and submission to the Society, but they are as conflicted as Cassia. It's so rare to see flawed yet supportive parents in any teen novel. Woot! As mentioned, there is also a beautiful exploration of the potency of words to elevate and sustain us. The Dylan Thomas poem, in particular, is expertly woven throughout the story, often tied to images of soaring and flight. So incredibly well done. I also loved how author Condie creates a drab world full of workmanlike grays and browns and then uses touches of vibrant color (nature's hues, red newroses, the Society's three prescribed pills, satin dresses at the Matched Banquet, a tiny scrap of preserved green fabric, memories of long forbidden stained glass) as a striking contrast to the Society's forced conformity. And while all the main characters are well developed, I particularly enjoyed the nuances in Xander's character; the "third wheel" role can be limiting and subject to awful stereotypes, but Xander, in both moments of frustration and incredible heroism, consistently comes across as a thoroughly real boy.

Finally, Cassia's path toward rebellion, presented in small, measured steps — including the slow unfolding of her love for Ky — is pitch perfect. I believed every second of this obedient girl's journey from compliant citizen to patient rebel. Condie masterfully chips away at the Society's exterior, carefully revealing not just a strict control of history and culture but, more ominously, forced suicide, conscription, and exile. All this is presented carefully, allowing the reader to feel like she is following a trail of clues and uncovering a mystery.

So, yeah, did I mention I loved it? This is an obvious sell to Suzanne Colllins or Lois Lowry fans, as well as poetry lovers and anyone who enjoys a compelling romance. But I think the appeal of "Matched" is even broader. My sole complaint is that I cannot wait to read the next installment, "Crossed," which doesn't come out until Fall of 2011. Gah! The reviews I've read suggest a high school reading level here, but I don't understand why. Sure, the themes are troubling, even disturbing at times, but there is literally nothing offensive here in terms of language or situations. I'd say older middle school is just fine, but see what you think. "Matched" is out now. I hope you love it as much as I did!

PS – How awesome is the cover art?

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Posted by on January 9, 2011 in Uncategorized


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