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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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“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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“The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life” by Tara Altebrando

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I know I’m dating myself with this reference, but it’s actually not a secret that I’m old, y’all. OLD. But do any of you remember that 90s high school graduation night flick, “Can’t Hardly Wait”? It was a fairly generic film about having a best night of your life experience — partying, falling in love, having sex, drinking, changing who you are; you know, the whole deal — as a way to celebrate freedom from high school. Cliques were busted, unspoken loves were revealed, and shenanigans ensued. It was certainly not a great (or even good) movie, but it made enough of an impact on me to stick in my brain all these years later.

I’m pretty sure “The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life,” Tara Altebrando’s new novel for Penguin Teen, aspires to the same “let loose / there are so many possibilities / anything can happen in one night!” vibe that permeated “Can’t Hardly Wait.” It probably tells you everything you need to know about “The Best Night …” that it fails miserably at achieving even these meager heights. “The Best Night …” is just so tame and tired, and it features such a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, that I found myself wishing for more of the fun and freedom of, gulp, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

The concept here is absolutely killer, which makes it even more of a shame that “The Best Night …” sputters out so quickly. Check this: teams of seniors participate in an all-night scavenger hunt on a quest for fame, glory, and a Yeti statue. The clues are both clever and silly (everything from a “find a #1 foam finger” to “shuck a Mary on a half shell”), requiring the teens to drive all over to acquire more booty and gain more points. [Although, in an indication of this book’s lameness, the *illegal, unsanctioned* hunt must end by 12:30 am. Um, seriously? Because kids have never lied about where they are to stay out all night? Oh boy.]

Our protagonist here is Mary, who, along with her fellow math nerds, musicians, and drama geeks, has vowed to win the hunt and finally, FINALLY!, be taken seriously by Barbone and the other popular kids. Mary is so resolutely fixated on winning the race that she’s often incredibly obnoxious to her own teammates and friends. She’s especially rude to her alleged best friend, insanely smart, suspenders-wearing, uber geek Patrick, who made a poorly received pass at her at prom. Patrick is clearly in love with Mary, who instead of showing any bit of warmth or compassion for her alleged best friend, instead ignores him, belittles him, and otherwise treats him like a dog. Meanwhile, her other best friend Winter is sullen and moody throughout the initial stages of the hunt, and it’s clearly telegraphed that there’s something going on between Winter and Mary’s crush, this boring rich kid named Carson. That’s the problem with “The Best Night …”, that everything outside of the clues — all the human relationships and feelings and revelations — is so stinking obvious. There is absolutely nothing unique here, from the standard jock stereotypes to the unworthy crush to the wholly unbelievable ending, in which we must buy that a high school senior is more afraid of being grounded than of committing grand theft auto.

I could go on, but you get the point. It’s hard to care at all about a selfish, petty, wholly juvenile main character with an annoying best male friend, a pouting best female friend, a dull crush, and a night filled with very few hijinks and no real sense of risk or danger. Overall, I wish “The Best Night …” was just more FUN than it ultimately turns out to be, because isn’t that the whole point of a “one wild night” story? [Or even a “one wild day” story. Hello, “The Breakfast Club!”]

If I haven’t dissuaded you, “The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life” will be published in July 2012. I think an older middle school audience would be fine, as there is only a bit of harsh language and one example of off-screen drinking. See what you think this summer … and please let us know!

 
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Posted by on April 25, 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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“The Probability of Miracles” by Wendy Wunder

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Another review. Another advanced copy from the great folks at Penguin Books for Young Readers. Life is hard. :-p

"The Probability of Miracles" is a "dying teen" novel, a trend we've seen often the last few years in books like Chris Crutcher's "Deadline," Jenny Downham's "Before I Die," and even Gayle Forman's lovely "If I Stay." Before the gloom frightens you away, I have to say that although our teen protagonist here has terminal cancer, "The Probability of Miracles" is sharp, uplifting, and, dare I say it, funny in an acerbic, biting way. Yes, there are poignant moments and tears — folks, it's *terminal* cancer — but I found most of this book to be an absolute pleasure to read. What a nice surprise!

You know what else I liked? Our girl Cam here is half-Samoan. How rare is that to see in a YA novel? Even better, Cam is an active participant in her culture, particularly in the ancient art of hula dancing. Deep down, Cam is terrified of her future, so she uses sarcasm and emotional distance as her defenses. Despite closing herself off from her family and lone best friend, Cam opens her heart and connects to the world through music and hula dancing. It is where the real Cam shines. The scenes where she tells a friend's story through hula are evocative and beautifully done.

Interestingly, much of Cam's hula is relegated to the Polynesian luau at Disney World. Cam's now deceased father and her Italian-American mom were both Polynesian performers at Disney, where Cam now also works. When Cam's doctors advise her to end treatment — no more children's hospitals or new drug trials — her mom seeks help through an alternative means: the small, hidden town of Promise, Maine. Miracles are said to happen in Promise, and all Cam has left is a miracle. Or so her mom thinks. Cam herself has no more hope, no more joy in discovering the possibilities that life may still offer. Although Cam agrees to stay in Promise for the summer, she's basically just waiting to die.

Through a series of implausible events, all of which are in the spirit of this unconventional tale and family, Cam, her mom, her half-sister Perry, and her bird Tweety find themselves living in a seaside Promise house owned by the family of sweet, patient, handsome (of course!) teen Asher. Cam eventually stops cloistering herself long enough to volunteer for the local veterinarian — cute puppy and, er, baby flamingo alert! — and start hanging out with Asher and the preppy, beautiful people she calls the "catalog kids." When Cam finally opens herself up to Asher, she falls completely in love. There are some magical moments, as Cam does at least as much to "save" Asher as he does to help her live again. Plus, there are some magical moments in general, since Promise is a miracle place with endless sunsets, puppies who come back from the dead, and roving flocks of flamingos. Author Wendy Wunder does a commendable job of balancing the serious elements (Cam is, after all, dying); some lighthearted fun (Cam, Asher, and the catalog kids win a Make a Wish trip to — you guessed it — Disney World); family tension; first love; and the wonder and beauty inherent in everyday, small miracles. I found the mix here to be delightful.

"The Probability of Miracles" comes out in December 2011 (why not a summer release for this tale of one summer, Penguin?). It is an engaging story with plenty of warmth and heart that never loses its sharp edge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'd say this one is geared for a high school audience, based on the themes here and some teen drinking and drug use, but see what you think. For more information, check out the book's Amazon page or the Probability of Miracles site. Happy reading!

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Future of Us” by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Finally done with summer reading at our library. Woot!

So I read "The Future of Us," which I obtained as an ARC at Book Expo, way back in June. I'm only able to review it now because, folks, summer is a busy time at your local public library. Don't get me wrong! That's actually a good thing. But it does tend to push everything else aside for a few months. Now, onto the review …

In the simplest terms possible, I was underwhelmed by this novel. Jay Asher wrote the phenomenal, deeply touching "Thirteen Reasons Why," while co-author Carolyn Mackler is responsible for witty, heartwarming books like "Vegan Virgin Valentine." Pairing up these two fab authors seems like a sure thing, right? Throw in a cool, time-traveling / destiny concept and this book should be an absolute joy to read. Except? It's kinda not. It's enjoyable enough and certainly not terrible. But it was also nothing special, and, believe me, I wish that wasn't true.

As I mentioned, the setup is genius. It's 1996, and Emma and Josh are next door neighbors and former BFFs. Emma is smart and athletic, but also sort of bossy and emotionally shut down, keeping her boyfriend at arms length and cutting off the vulnerable parts of herself. Josh is one of those dorky / sweet guys who tend to populate YA fiction. He's a skater with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a keen awareness of how low he sits on the high school totem pole. When Emma gets a new computer, complete with one of those AOL cd-roms that, for real, used to be everywhere, she doesn't just get an Internet connection. Through some funky mojo, Emma is able to log onto a crazy site called Facebook (!), where older versions of she and Josh post random musings about their lives. Despite their estrangement, Emma lets Josh in on the secret, and the two quickly realize that their actions in 1996 affect their future selves. Seemingly harmless events as teenagers lead to cataclysmic Facebook updates in 2011 involving spouses, occupations, and overall levels of happiness.

It's a neat concept, which should open up all sorts of clever avenues to explore the "butterfly effect." Can a chance encounter with a popular girl or a hook up with a dreamy track star really affect who you become? Can a fight with your best friend truly make you unbearably miserable 15 years down the road? These intriguing questions about fate and our role in our own destiny are raised, swept away, and never fully explored. Emma wants to change an unappealing future, regardless of the consequences, while Josh takes bold steps in the present to secure what looks like a fabulous future life. And that's all that happens in the plot. Eventually, after some mishaps, we get a pat resolution about living in the moment and letting the future evolve on its own. Eh. Even worse, I felt the internal logic here was shaky. If an action or inaction has fixed, finite consequences 15 years from now … well, doesn't the same apply to what we do 5 or 10 years from now, too? How could the kids ever be sure that their future lives were statically, perfectly preserved by happenings in 1996? Will they never do anything again to alter their destinies? Doesn't this contradict the very foundation of the butterfly effect theory?

Aside from a lackluster execution of the core concept, I also found some of the characters to be a bit flat. Kellan and Tyson, Emma and Josh's bickering friends, seem like nothing more than comic relief. Cody, Emma's perfect jock crush, never becomes more than the arrogant, slick cheeseball he first appears to be. Even Emma, who is so controlled and closed off, doesn't really leap off the page; when she inevitably realizes her buried feelings for Josh, I felt rather blah about the whole development. So while there are some nice moments here of heart and humor, I never felt connected enough to care as much as I should have.

I'm sorry! I wanted to love this book and, despite some cute 90s references, a handful of sweet scenes, and plenty of snarky humor, I just didn't. But I didn't hate it, either. It's perfectly pleasant and readable … and, well, forgettable. Sigh. "The Future of Us" will be released in November 2011. To see what others think, check out more info and reviews on this book at Good Reads.

PS – I hope you like "The Future of Us" much more than I did!

 
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Posted by on August 5, 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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