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“Reached” by Ally Condie

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

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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“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

As if being an unpopular sixth grade girl isn’t difficult enough, try adding the slowing of the Earth’s rotation — and all its cataclysmic effects — to the mix. That’s the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable debut novel “The Age of Miracles.” While I don’t normally review books written for the adult market, “The Age of Miracles” should appeal to teens, as it is essentially a coming of age tale set against a dystopian backdrop. Although more subtle and literary than novels geared directly toward teens, its subject matter and almost cringe-worthy realism should win over many younger fans.

We meet Julia and her family on an ordinary sunny Saturday morning in California. Except, this particular morning isn’t so ordinary after all, as Julia soon learns that the Earth’s rotation has slowed overnight. The slowing will continue to increase to a point where sunlight — and darkness — will last for long days on end. As the Earth slows even more, vegetation dies, animal life is depleted, strange weather patterns emerge, sunlight becomes toxic, and people begin to suffer from “gravity sickness.” If all this sounds terribly bleak, quite surprisingly, it’s not. These events are all filtered through Julia’s sensibilities, and she presents much of the horror in a stark, matter-of-fact manner. Julia’s almost detached observations place the slowing in the background as a quiet force that is never sentimental, overpowering, or showy. The real drama, interestingly enough, occurs among the human beings.

A conflict erupts between “clock timers” (folks who adhere to the dictates of the clock, regardless of sunlight or darkness) and “real timers” (those people who follow the natural rhythms of sunrise and moonrise, regardless of when they occur). It’s a classic “us against them” struggle, with all the attendant fear outsiders can generate in a trying time. A class schism also erupts, as those with money can afford artificial lawns, personal greenhouses, steel shutters, and sunlight radiation shelters. But none of these are the central source of human tension in “The Age of Miracles.” Instead, it is the family interactions and middle school relationships that form the real heart of this novel.

Here’s what I found most amazing about “The Age of Miracles”: middle school kids can be just as horrible, careless, and insensitive as ever, even when life as they know it has been catastrophically altered. Julia is bullied at the bus stop, dropped by her best friend, used by a popular classmate, and excluded from the birthday balloon tradition at school. She pines away for Seth Moreno, the mysterious skater boy who lost his mother to cancer and is alternately warm and indifferent toward Julia. She worries about her unshaved legs and buying her first bra. She tries to mediate the cold hostility between her philandering father and controlling mother, all while seeking her own small piece of independence. Above all, much of “The Age of Miracles” is about one girl’s overwhelming loneliness, which almost trumps the fact that her entire world is, literally, falling apart around her. And you wondered why I called this a “remarkable” novel? Because it is!

I’ll give nothing else away, because Julia’s story should be savored by the reader. Walker is a beautiful storyteller who uses spare language and quiet emotion to convey Julia’s fears, pain, and small triumphs. There is not one moment here that is artificially rendered. Everything is conveyed with an almost heartbreaking honesty and stillness. Although written for adults, aside from a bit of language, minor drinking, and the themes involved, older teens should do just fine with this novel. “The Age of Miracles” is a stunning, haunting book about growing up. Please go out and read it now.

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Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Legend” by Marie Lu

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

“Legend,” the debut dystopian novel written by Marie Lu, was published last November by the good people at the Penguin Young Readers Group. I’m not entirely sure why it took me ages to get around to reading “Legend” (too many books, too little time?), but I’m so glad I finally did. Although there’s nothing genre busting or terribly unique about “Legend,” it’s a fast-paced, engaging dystopian thriller that will leave most readers breathless for book number two. (Which, Penguin, again, you rock, because I just so happen to have an advanced copy of “Prodigy,” the second novel in the “Legend” trilogy. WOOT!)

We start out in a future version of Los Angeles, where fifteen year old Day, the Republic of America’s most famous outlaw, is on the run with his best friend, shy orphan Tess. Day and Tess have been secretly watching Day’s mom and brothers and are horrified to discover that Republic soldiers have quarantined their house. A deadly plague has been springing up periodically in the Republic — yet only in the slum sections; interesting — and now Day’s little brother Eden has fallen ill. In a desperate bid to steal lifesaving meds for Eden, Day breaks into a Republic hospital, with disastrous results.

Meanwhile, fifteen year old June is one of the Republic’s shining stars. A prodigy with a perfect 1500 on her Trial, June is the top student at prestigious Drake University. June is on the fast track to assume a top position in the military, much like her beloved brother Metias. And then everything falls apart. Stalwart, noble Metias is killed the night of Day’s hospital break in, allegedly by Day’s own hand, but you can smell a government coverup a mile away. Except, June cannot, because she has been so thoroughly indoctrinated by Republic propaganda, and so thoroughly insulated from society’s ravages by her deceased parents’ wealth, that she blindly accepts the Republic version of events. Commander Jameson — in my mind, a meaner version of Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager! — personally recruits June to go undercover as a street person, find Day, and bring him to justice. Needless to say, June is all in, because she can’t wait to exact revenge.

So, of course, undercover June will meet Day-with-an-assumed-name, they’ll fall for each other, their real identities will be revealed, and betrayal / heartbreak / chaos will ensue. Guys, this is a teen novel, and, as I mentioned, we’re not breaking any new ground here. But that’s absolutely okay, because the romance is believable, the government conspiracy is gripping, the secrets are appropriately troubling, and the relentless pace keeps the story moving along quite nicely. Need more? The dual narration makes “Legend” more easily accessible for girl and boy readers, which is always a good thing in my book, and the characters are well crafted. I especially loved all the shadowy Republic figures, like Metias’ oily, conniving friend Thomas and the lethal Trial director Chian. If the Republic is truly an awful, repressive force, then its minions should convey a real sense of danger, which they do in spades here. I’m all about a villain, y’all. 😉

“Legend” also exhibits some surprising emotional depth, which is a bit unexpected — but welcome — in an action-based novel. Day’s longing for his mom and brothers, June’s grief over Metias’ death, and the pair’s affection for the sweet Tess help the story find its humanity and move us from the level of secrets and chases and lies to something a bit more real. Throw in some hardcore sacrifice — ah, the bravery! — and you end up with a thrilling story that wields some real emotional pop. Well done.

“Legend” is out now. Read it, already! And keep an eye out for the sequel in (gulp!) early 2013.

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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Crossed” by Ally Condie

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

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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“Shatter Me” by Tahereh Mafi

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

The good people at HarperTeen are beside themselves with joy over debut novelist Tahereh Mafi's dystopian novel "Shatter Me," which publishes in November 2011. Don't believe me? Check out this Publishers Weekly article about the book deal for Mafi's planned trilogy. And they're not the only ones keen on "Shatter Me." Movie rights have already been sold to Twentieth Century Fox, although, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this particular studio is owned by News Corporation, the same parent company that owns HarperTeen.

I was saying … ? Right, so there's already a whirlwind of buzz surrounding "Shatter Me," which I was lucky enough to read in ARC form with a copy obtained at Book Expo America. Should you believe the hype? Yes and no. This is a powerful dystopian thriller / love story that is written in a unique, if at times overwrought, style. It can be quite gripping and chilling, and the consistent pace makes the pages fly by. My biggest problem here is how much of the concept and plot of "Shatter Me" is lifted straight from the "X-Men."

We meet 17 year old Juliette in an insane asylum, locked away silently in a room with a tiny, murky window. Juliette has had no companionship — has not even spoken aloud — for 264 days. Suddenly, a new inmate is tossed into her room. Juliette, who has spent her time keeping a secret journal and counting tiles, meals, and steps, is frightened by the newcomer, despite his strange familiarity. Over time, we realize that the handsome boy is her old schoolmate Adam Kent, the son of an abusive alcoholic.

The asylum scenes are spellbinding. We completely understand Juliette's pervasive, all-consuming fear at her terrifying conditions and her depraved, unseen captors. We also share in her overwhelming sense of isolation and her bone-deep loss of humanity, both of which have resulted from her accidental killing of a small boy. The asylum and its murderous psychological effects constitute the very definition of terror. It's powerful stuff to read.

So is Juliette a monster, as she has long believed? Hardly. This broken, unloved, exiled girl is just profoundly different, somehow able to harm people through her mere touch. If you're a fan of the "X-Men" comics or films, then you may immediately think of the mutant Rogue, whose touch can drain the very life from another individual and who must, accordingly, always wear gloves and remain distant from other humans. In Juliette's future world, where a savaged, fractured society is being "reestablished," she is seen as both a threat to be controlled, and, later, as a potential weapon to further terrorize a frightened populace. (Like, ahem, Rogue in the "X-Men." Just saying.)

The brutal young dictator Warner, who seems to run a small fiefdom in this new world, takes on Juliette as his pet project, goading her into succumbing to the evil within. He and a battalion of soldiers — including, surprisingly enough, Adam — take Juliette to an opulent mansion within a protected compound. Here, Juliette's every need is catered to … while she is also constantly monitored, tested, and manipulated. I have to admit that I got a huge kick out of the creepy Warner. There's something intoxicating about his malevolence, something charming in the sick way he idolizes Juliette. Warner alone understands the part of Juliette that enjoys the rush and power of harming someone with her own hands, a feeling Juliette won't even admit to herself. Warner is handsome and thoughtful but also unbelievably cruel and violent, killing a soldier and torturing a toddler without a moment's hesitation. He is, above all, a deeply compelling character whose "love" for Juliette is striking and disturbing. Because so much of the ravaged society is never revealed to us, Warner must represent all the danger, violence, and despair of this future world. He does so, in spades. (Side note: For a dystopian novel, there is precious little worldbuilding in "Shatter Me." We are told about, but rarely shown, the infertile land, apocalyptic weather patterns, and decimated animal species that have so frightened people and led society to cede so many basic rights to this shadowy, militaristic government.)

The bulk of the novel involves a clandestine love affair between Juliette and Adam — c'mon, you had to see this coming — and the planning and execution of the pair's escape from the compound. Adam is one of those super compassionate, sexy, understanding, perfect guys who always show up in YA novels, dystopian or otherwise. If you're a fan of romances with lots of "I love you's" thrown into the mix, then you'll probably adore this relationship. I personally found the Adam / Juliette scenes somewhat repetitive — how many times can they secretly kiss and exchange whispered sweet words? — but I might just be jaded. 😉 Considering these two characters never sleep together, there is a surprising amount of steaminess in their makeout scenes. At least that part isn't boring!

By novel's end, Adam and Juliette — along with a young surprise character (I won't spoil!) and a fellow soldier named Kenji — end up in an underground lab that is, spot on, a ripoff of the "X-Men." Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Juliette isn't alone in her unusual talents. A revolutionary force is amassing under the leadership of a caring, extremely intelligent leader (hello, Professor X!) who wants to harness these strange abilities for good. Yup. Bunch of kids with otherworldly talents, ostracized by society and now being led to stand with each other and save the world? If that's not the "X-Men," I'm not sure what is.

As I said, I found the entire concept here, despite its smart execution, to be utterly derivative. When you're simply repeating a story — even when you're doing it well and adding your own touches — it loses its freshness. As such, we readers can never really be transported away. That's a shame. What perhaps sets this book apart and saves it — though not fully — is author Mafi's writing style. Much of Juliette's narrative is told in a stream of consciousness style, with run-on sentences, evocative metaphors, and the regular use of strikethroughs for unwanted or unacknowledgeable thoughts. While Mafi can sometimes use one too many over the top descriptions ("My throat is a reptile covered in scales" or "I'm a cumulonimbus existence of thunder and lightning"), these literary devices wonderfully convey the rich, ethereal, and fractured world within Juliette's own mind. That's a powerful technique, and it helps further develop this captivating, wrenching main character. Does it compensate for the "X-Men" retelling? Probably not. But this writing style, coupled with a truly original concept, could create an absolutely groundbreaking novel. Maybe that's something to look forward to?

"Shatter Me" will be released in November 2011. I'm sure you'll see loads of promotion, since the folks at HarperTeen are geniuses at marketing a YA book. While I have my reservations, I think there's a vast audience of primarily teen girls — based on the main character and the love story here — who will eagerly scoop up this novel. In fact, one of my teen readers in Kinnelon, who also read the ARC, completely — and I mean completely — LOVED this book. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

PS – I have no cover photo to insert in this entry, since the cover art is still being designed. Check back to the Amazon page. I'm sure they'll post the cover image as soon as it's ready. Until then, enjoy the book trailer below!

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Divergent” by Veronica Roth

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Everyone remotely involved in teen literature knows that pretty much every dystopian novel is touted as the next "The Hunger Games." Sure enough, I heard that exact pitch for Veronica Roth's debut teen novel, "Divergent," which takes place in a desolate, fractured Chicago of the future. You know what, though? "Divergent" actually has some of the spark — the great hook, feisty lead character, and intense scenes of desperate survival — that made "The Hunger Games" such a phenomenon. While it lacks Suzanne Collins' precise worldbuilding, complex love story, and overall literary skill, it's still a compelling, highly enjoyable read.

Dystopian Chicago — the lakes have dried up, buildings are hulking shells — is divided into five factions, each based on a desired human trait. Amity folks are friendly and personable; Erudite is comprised of cold intellectuals; Abnegation members are selfless, plain people; Candor-ites are blunt and, perhaps, far too honest; and the Dauntless are strong, fearless fighters. The factions were created as the antidote to the human complexity that lead to power struggles, infighting, wars, and the near destruction of society. Teenagers now take an aptitude test, after which they must choose to remain in their birth faction or join the faction for which they show an innate ability. As such, society remains properly ordered, separated, and safe.

Smart, resourceful teen Beatrice has always felt out of place in her Abnegation family. Try as she might, she cannot seem to hold her tongue, quietly accept her circumstances, and selflessly offer up her time and possessions. Her aptitude test reveals a shocking result: Beatrice shows a talent for three separate factions. Such Divergence is considered so explosive and dangerous that Beatrice must keep the results secret from everyone, including her parents and beloved brother Caleb. (To be honest, we're never actually told why Divergence is such a threat, although we get hints late in the novel.) At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice selects the Dauntless group, seemingly betraying her family. She is plunged into an underground world of darkness, tattoos and piercings that is also a place of camaraderie, physical and mental strength, and bravery.

The bulk of the novel encompasses the Dauntless initiate training, which Beatrice — rechristened Tris — initially undergoes with others who were likewise born into other factions. The training is grueling, which should be expected from a group that leaps off buildings and jumps onto moving trains. We're talking beatdown fights (think UFC!), mental torture, firearms, bloodshed, daredevil feats, and knife throwing. There is plenty of action throughout "Divergent," and the training sequences, even after the Dauntless-born initiates are added to the mix, are riveting in their sheer physicality and emotional duress. We see Tris come alive during this process, emerging from a mousy Abnegation girl to discover her inner strength and calm resolve. It's a coming of age tale on steroids!

I also loved how the Dauntless competition splinters Tris' new group of friends, much like any rivalry with dire consequences inevitably reveals human flaws. (Losers here are relegated to the Factionless and forced to live apart from society as outcasts.) Tris' friends Will, Christina, and Al are all perfectly content to like her when she's the weakling "Stiff," but are offended and threatened when she emerges as a viable competitor. The wicked hazing of several initiates, including Tris, also reveals the ugly human underside of stress and cutthroat competition. Tris' horror and panic at this violence, including her post-traumatic stress reaction, are gripping and terrifyingly real.

Author Roth nicely conveys the full gamut of emotions felt by an alternately exhausted and exhilarated Tris. We clearly perceive Tris' delirium at destroying her old Abnegation bonds and soaring down a rip line or running breakneck along the edge of a cliff. There is an intoxicating freedom in living so dangerously, which we experience right along with Tris. The paintball game, in which Tris climbs the dilapidated ferris wheel at Navy Pier, is both frightening and pretty darn fun. At the same time, Roth richly depicts every last bit of pain and turmoil from Tris' many beatings and sufferings, including some harrowing scenes in which Tris must face her biggest fears in an all-too-real simulation. (Hello, hordes of pecking, smothering crows!) That's potent stuff.

There's also a love interest here, a stern trainer nicknamed Four (Tobias), who is one of those protective, compassionate, kind — and super cute! — guys we tend to see in YA fiction. Four has some secrets of his own, which he slowly shares with Tris. There's supposed to be a forbidden love angle going on with Tris and Four, but we never sense enough of the danger, passion, and longing that we should. I actually felt more intensity and steam — not all of it good! — from Four's rival, young, masochistic leader Eric. Eric is a great character, charming and seductive one minute and lethal the next. His undercurrent of malevolence really drives the story, since there is no real villain (an Erudite leader named Jeanine appears late in the book, but she's basically a one-dimensional poster girl for evil). Eric's edginess and volatility work particularly well towards the end of the book, when Four and Tris uncover a plot that I found silly and unbelievable. Remember the zombie army from "Attack of the Clones," after Emperor Palpatine executes Order 66? All the clone troops became mindless killers, decimating the Jedi Knights and other peace-loving folks. "Divergent's" conclusion is exactly like that. It's a bit of a cheap plot device. At least Eric grounds the story in a tangible, believable menace.

If the love story and ending are a bit wonky, Eric's still an excellent foil, Tris rocks, and there's a cool mystery brewing beneath the whole Divergent idea, which we finally (finally!) begin to glimpse by story's end. Throw in some exploration of the larger notions of group dynamics, weakness, greed, power, sacrifice, and bravery — as well as unexpected cameos and shocking revelations during the climax — and you have the makings of a surprisingly deep action novel. Could the ending be better? For sure. Is too much of this novel simply laying the foundation for book two? Probably. Will I be back for the sequel? YES. 🙂

"Divergent" is out now, and I think it's a good choice for boys and girls who like action, sci fi, or adventure stories. I'm thinking the audience here is later middle school and up, since there's some mild language and, as I mentioned above, some fairly intense scenes of violence and torture. Please let me know what you think!

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Across the Universe” by Beth Revis

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

When I heard last year that a big teen sci fi trilogy would be published beginning in early 2011, I was super excited. Being a sci fi geek (I love me some Star Wars and Star Trek), of course I'd be stoked to read about teens in outer space. Beth Revis' "Across the Universe," which was released by Razorbill / Penguin in January, isn't so much a sci fi novel as it a dystopian novel set in a claustrophobically insulated community on a spaceship. Once I accepted that fact — and despite one huge misstep, which I'll elaborate on below — I really enjoyed this creepy, suspenseful, love-tinged view into a strange future.

The story kicks off with an absolute bang. Modern teen Amy describes in brutal, terrifying detail the cryogenic freezing of her parents and then — ack! — herself. Amy and her folks are being frozen for a long journey aboard the space vessel Godspeed, which will take over 200 years to reach a habitable planet. Getting frozen is excruciatingly painful, involving all manner of tubes, suffocating liquids, and nearly unbearable pain. Even worse? Amy never fully loses consciousness, so as hundreds of years pass, she floats in and out of nightmares, confused and alone. It's wrenching to read!

While Amy is in frigid hell, we fast forward 200+ years to life on board the Godspeed. Apprentice leader Elder narrates here, detailing a world of monoethnic people, divided labor forces (there are "Feeders" and "Shippers"), unquestioning compliance to the rule of Eldest, forced medication of allegedly insane people, and some vague talk about an upcoming "Season." Elder is the lone teenager currently on board, and he's being groomed by the ruthless Eldest to someday take his place as ruler. Elder is lonely, curious, and defiant, so when he accesses a hidden basement and discovers Amy's thawing coffin, he is enthralled by the pale girl with flaming red hair.

Amy is disoriented upon waking up too early — without giving anything away, Godspeed is still *very* far from what's now being called Centauri Earth — and shattered to learn that she will likely outlive her parents. Amy's heartbreak at the futility of her situation is devastating to read. Moreover, our girl now lives in a stifling community in which everyone is the same and no one argues, questions authority, or expresses any independent ideas … and, as a bonus, they all think she's a dangerous freak. Well, everyone but two people: Elder and his best friend, twentysomething mental patient / artist / free spirit Harley. As more cryogenic boxes are mysteriously pulled from stasis and the bodies within allowed to die, Amy, Elder, and Harley struggle to find out who is behind the murders and what is really happening aboard this ship of lies, secrets, and manipulation.

What works well here? Amy and Elder are great characters with distinctive voices. Amy's tough survivor streak, strength, and independence create plenty of conflict within the oppressively orderly world of the Godspeed. Her brave confrontations with Eldest and one of his cronies, Doc, are riveting, and as a feisty newcomer, she helps voice our own bafflement at life on the spaceship. Considering this is a sci fi / dystopian novel with little basis in our current reality, Elder, as a boy of the future, is remarkably believable as a real teenager. He can be proud, petulant, childish, bold, and occasionally heroic as he struggles to balance the responsibility of his impending leadership with his weaknesses as a regular kid. Author Revis is particularly adept at showing Elder's internal conflict in challenging Eldest and the rules that have been ingrained within him since birth.

I also loved the ship's setting, with its "big brother" monitoring and stifling atmosphere of order and control. There is no authentic outdoors, no view of space, and everything from the air to the sunlight is artificial. We get a palpable sense of living within an elaborate metal box. The repressiveness and danger spike up the tension factor and help give the mystery even greater weight. Indeed, much of this book is so taut and suspenseful that I was actually worried to read on and discover what would happen next! We're also treated to some truly thought-provoking issues about time and sacrifice; freedom (Harley's drug of choice becomes staring through a forbidden portal at the long-hidden stars); and the balance between individual expression and society's basic need to function properly. Plus, there's some romance. 😉

Ok, so you're wondering what exactly my issue is. UGH! I hate to even bring it up, but reproduction among the inhabitants of Godspeed is limited to the Season, a brief mating period on a designated schedule. And when I say "mating period," I mean exactly that. You know, people behaving like animals in heat? Outside? In public? Indiscriminately? Whoa. I get how structured repopulation is critical for plot purposes (fixed generations are integral to the story's functioning), but, for cripe's sake, you usually don't see rampant nudity and random, group sex in a teen novel. And an attempted gang rape scene? Good lord. I'm no prude, but in a book essentially written for children, I wish the author would have figured out another way to ensure the existence of specific age groups aboard the ship. The method she chose was both distasteful and, in my view, wildly inappropriate for the intended audience.

If you can get beyond that issue — which, admittedly, gave me a great deal of difficulty — "Across the Universe" is a riveting, thrilling, often troubling tale of life in a repressive future society. The story contains plenty of secrets, a compelling mystery, and some epically shocking revelations, all of which should keep readers galloping through the pages. There are even some heavy emotional moments — oh, Harley! — and the beginnings of a sweet romance. In other words, there's plenty to enjoy in this first installment. If you're a high school aged fan of dystopian tales like "The Giver" (or Ally Condie's recent "Matched"), you should check out this dark, troubling tale.

PS – "Across the Universe" has its own site. And here's Penguin's book trailer:

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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