Hello all. I will be one of the reviewers on this site so I figured I would introduce myself and give you a glimpse of my reading tastes. Note, I did not say what I looked for in a “good” book.
Fact is that while I like excellent books, what really grabs me are stories that break my heart out, tales that touch the numinous, fiction that ponders issues other books ignore and organic storytelling.
So, in order for you to know me better I’ll discuss what I liked and disliked from my latest reading: dystopian YA novels about teenage saviors. The novels included four by newbies: Control, by Lydia Kang; All our Yesterdays, by Cristin Terrill; Slated by Teri Terry, Divergent by Veronica Roth. And the fifth was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
We know the basics; most YA heroines in dystopian novels are outsiders called to save the world. They vary in uniqueness, and their creators use them to explore some theme important to the writer. As readers, we enter into the authors’ priorities — whether we cared about their themes or not. Sometimes it’s difficult to focus on the author’s issues — either because of the theme itself or because of some undercutting storytelling flaw we are not in the mood to be patient with— and the story fails us.
As for dystopian worlds: They are all influenced by tropes from Brave New World and 1984, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Her, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Minority Report, et al. With familiar plot points such as: world states, genetics versus nurture, rampant mercenary consumerism, dangerous technology, found families, and definitions of status, reality, happiness, racial harmony except for the outsiders, greedy consumerist corporations, the awakening to truth, the medical complex full of a fellowship of trainees and possibly-traitorous- maternal teacher figures, raging hormones, and lost loves.
So then . . . like a little kid watching yet another adaptation of Red Riding Hood, I gear myself up for tropes and variations and wait to be blown away. If not blown away. . .well, I hope not to be terribly disappointed.
So now, my list of disappointments and pleasures.
I’ll begin with Collins’ Hunger Games because her book’s in-your-face challenge of sifting celebrity from hero-worship was mighty brave, especially in a YA book. Heroes and celebrities create traits, stories, and influences which provoke imitation in those who watch them. Heroes are similar to us and yet they have somehow attained achievement and “celebrity.” But we live in a world which is tainted by celebrity. The whole hero-celebrity thing is such a part of our culture that many writers don’t even think to separate heroism from celebrity. Even primates, one scientific study showed, love to look at photos of Alpha-males in the way we humans peruse and celebrate heroes who have completed their own journeys successfully. And of course most heroes are publicly acclaimed and known … even if only to the book’s reader.
So writers writing about heroes should be choosey about tropes, whether the hero’s success is dependent on uniquely attained skills, or if he was mysteriously gifted by the gods. This is what I loved so much about Hunger Games. Whereas many YA dystopian stories with female heroines get mired in the heroine as celebrity trope, Collins expertly challenges all that morass. Katniss, the heroine of the Hunger Games, disdains the world. Even before heroism thrusts her into the spotlight, she is contentious, wary of the world’s admiration and not begging to be liked. Writer and heroine share the same task of avoiding the lure of celebrity. Collins, like Katniss, has to give folks what they want. She therefore gives her readers a love triangle, multiculturalism, amazing world-building, and an anger against poverty. But she is relentless at not giving us a likeable celebrity to indulge our personality consumerism. This makes the book thoroughly modern and meaningful to me. I’ve never liked authors begging me to see how great their characters are.
Which made my reaction to the heroine of Divergent a very bad one. Tris, the heroine, and Roth the author are both at the other extreme of Katniss and Collins. Roth wants me to see on every page how doggone wonderful Tris is, and the more she begged, the more annoyed I got. While I understand that “becoming one’s true self” is a big rite of passage in young adult novels, the heroine’s focus on her true self seemed like generic theme without any plot. An exploration of the idea of giftedness is tolerable, but in a culture that worships celebrity, the author doesn’t question the whole uniqueness-charisma- entitlement-narcissism trope. And Tris is so special that she is inimitable. Which is odd because she seems like a skin character created to make readers feel comfy inhabiting (sort of like the intellectual version of Bella for teen girls who want to have guys fighting over their uniqueness.)
Tris totally lacks that Everywoman vibe because Roth’s wish-fulfillment creates no real plot development. The heroine is a threat and a non-conformist simply because she exists. That’s all she is and wants. She is a very offputting character because she is so identified with the teenaged need to be special —like a celebrity— that that is all she is: a heroine so lacking in personality except for the need to be herself. Part of celebrity culture is the desire to appear perfect or to at least make one’s imperfections romantic, sexy, and likable. And Roth just never ever challenges this aspect of the culture. As I said earlier, each author has her own focus. So I understand that the Divergent trilogy will be meaningful to some people — perhaps to people who are forced to give up or hide a particular skill. But the fake specialness got to me and both the author and the heroine came off as desperate for celebrity and the world’s admiration and understanding.
I hadn’t had any super interest in seeing celebrity examined in a YA specfic novel so I was happily surprised with Collins and mildly disappointed with Roth’s Diverge.
I was, however, supremely annoyed with the muddled heroism in Control, by Lydia Kang. The fact that it was written by an Asian-American drew me in. The fact that it was about mutants … well, I was excited. I like stories about outsiders. I suppose the flip side of a quirk is a pet peeve. Great hopes lead to great disappointment. And here is one of my biggest reviewing flaws: Books —even when incredibly well- written and technically-perfect— disappoint me greatly when they feel made to order for the celebrity culture and when the emotional beats in the book have no real follow-through.
Control takes place in 2150 and its heroine Zelia Benten, is a teen who has suddenly discovered that she is unique. Yes, she’s a mutant in a world where mutants don’t officially exist, and the Big Bads are out to get her. Because well … her genes are THAT important to the whole world.
I can deal with the whole “biology’s gift to mankind” thing. I can even accept the whole “different-but- the-same” use of tropes … even though the book felt like a TV episode rehash of X-Men, Signs, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, Matrix, and every popular trope known to movie viewers. I kinda got the feeling that this author watched way too much television. It annoyed me that everything in Control felt like fan service, with characters who seemed geared to appeal to teen readers and celebrity fandom. Being a merciful reader, I was willing to give all that a pass. Except —darn it! Zeia and her fellow mutants are too palatable and hip. Whether because of genetics, experience, or some gift from above, heroes are supposed to be similar but different from us. But they are not to be depicted in celebrity mode. Kang’s mutants are pretty much super-heroes. Yes, we had an X-Men-ish story — and an X-Men-like story without heart. So, even though Kang has written an excellent book about medical ethics, medical research, bio-engineering, and the terrifying possibility of patenting human genes, I just couldn’t feel the story. Because the heroine seems tailor-made for celebrity and a movie deal. The book is a rehashing of tropes about mutants but the emotional heart of being outsiders is just not there. In short, she has written a story about mutants who don’t fit in but who —despite being locked away from society— pretty much fit in with the reader’s culture.
It’s a bad failing of mine, I admit. Because the book is very well-written and is quite the page-turner. But informative books should be challenging as well.
I suppose I should tell you about stories I like —or I will seem like a very picky curmudgeon. I like stories that deal with puzzles, mind-games, psychological/existential/religious tension, disabilities, and emotional stress. I like organic storytelling that make me think about something I hadn’t really pondered. Good writing skills are a pleasure but not particularly necessary; I’m fairly merciful to bad writers who touch my emotions or who touch the numinous. I really don’t care about what’s trending or what’s politically-correct because I don’t take sides too easily. But I don’t want to be subjected to some guy’s masturbatory fantasy or to a racial diatribe. And I hate kneejerk disdain against organized religion. History and culture, especially mythic ones, and great world-building rejoice my heart. Unpretentious originality makes my day. All that said, two newbie YA trilogies impressed me lately: Slated, and All Our Yesterdays.
Slated by Teri Terry, because it had a neat twist on specialness. And All Our Yesterdays because it did a good job and served my pet tropes well. Slated doesn’t hit the reader with the kind of ultra-hip meant-to-be impressive worldbuilding one finds in some stories. At first, the setting seems pretty normal— which can be pretty unsatisfying for spec- fiction readers. Except that there are “slated” children walking around whose memories have been wiped clean because of some crime they were supposed to have committed. The main character Kyla Davis has been slated as well and given a new chance at life. She is special but it’s not specialness of the celebrity kind.
In the novel, “slating” sometimes doesn’t work. Some slated people have flashback memories of their pre-slated lives. Not enough to tell them anything; but enough to confuse and disorient them. Kyla’s uniqueness comes from the journey to be normal like everyone else. The subtext feels like a mirroring of the world of immigrants and the mentally-disabled. Unlike special teenagers -Ender, Zelia, or Tris who are basically superheroes in training- Kyla is not a character a reader in our perfectionist culture would want to identify with. But she is a perfect teen character because she faces normal teen existential questions like: “Who am/was I? What crime have I done to end up like this? What has society done to me? Should I trust my folks?”
What really makes the book succeed is that Kyla’s heroism introduces normal readers to the emotional world of the mentally-disabled or isolated immigrant without teen-angst or fan-service. Let’s face it: aphasia and confusion are not remotely sexy to an audience fed on celebrity perfection.
The last book I’ll discuss is All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill. As I mentioned earlier, puzzles are one of my pet tropes. Prophetic puzzles, time puzzles, time-puzzles. Whatever the maze, I’m game to enter and wait for all the pieces to neatly come together. Because of that, and because this article is about dystopian YA fiction All Our Yesterdays is a good book to end on. This is a dystopian time-travel puzzler about two POV main characters who are really the same person in two different timelines. The older-now- wiser character must kill the childhood dreams of her younger self. All that Em once was and once considered heroic has changed. She had put off her old ideas, and each return journey to the past makes her see new truths about what a true hero is.
The mind-bending in All Our Yesterdays is perhaps not as complicated as is Control‘s bio-engineering finale. But it is more “organic.” And the answer to the puzzles are not made convenient by our heroine having the perfect bio-mutants around, as they are in Control. The heroine is battling herself — literally— but she is not needy as Divergent‘s Tris is. The story is more a page-turner than Control but Terrill doesn’t seem to be writing a movie treatment. Her heroine doesn’t feel like a fan-service super-hero celebrity character. The author isn’t begging her readers to love her heroine’s hipness or to love the author’s writing.
So those are the latest books I’ve read and this is me. All these books are well-worth reading. Even the ones I truly considered bad. There will always be someone who is touched by a book that I find repulsive, imitative, or cold. As for book choices, I never know what book I’ll be reviewing. So depending on whatever strikes my fancy, readers of this blog will be faced with fantasy, scifi, non-fiction, Eastern, Western fare. I might even review a movie once in a while. Just my taste. I hope I connect with you all.
Thanks for allowing me to introduce myself to you.
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.