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review 2016-04-16 19:30
THE READING Book 5: The Baby Squad (Andrew Neiderman)
The Baby Squad - Andrew Neiderman
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review 2015-09-24 18:33
Review: The Scorpion Rules - Erin Bow

Release Date: September 22, 2015
Source: Netgalley
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books

The Scorpion Rules - Erin Bow | Goodreads

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages. The Children of Peace - sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals - are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures. There, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of the North American Prefecture. Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water — she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

Enter Elián Palnik, the Prefecture’s newest hostage and biggest problem. Greta’s world begins to tilt the moment she sees Elián dragged into the school in chains. The Prefecture’s insidious surveillance, its small punishments and rewards, can make no dent in Elián, who is not interested in dignity and tradition, and doesn’t even accept the right of the UN to keep hostages.

What will happen to Elián and Greta as their two nations inch closer to war?


This book was not what I was expecting. Multiple people have said that YA dystopia is dead; knowing that this book is considered dystopian made me curious. But I sort of don't want to consider this a YA dystopia. On one hand, my immediate thought with regard to YA dystopian novels is: fast-paced, action-packed works like Divergent, Legend, The Maze Runner, and The Hunger Games. The Scorpion Rules is probably closest to The Hunger Games for its premise alone, but even then I wouldn't compare the two because TSR is a lot slower and more focused on the literary implications of its premise (whereas THG can read like a video game sometimes). And when I try to think of other YA dystopian novels, I think of symbolic poetic types likeMatched. The Scorpion Rules is less about poetic literary truths and more about the hard details of a world war-torn over precious resources. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a dystopian work, and I can't dismiss that for lack of appropriate comparisons. At its core a dystopian novel has some critique of today's society or some innately discussable idea. There is plenty to discuss in The Scorpion Rules: the way Talis rules the world, the metaphor that explains the book's title (put two scorpions in a jar, and one will sting the other, regardless of its own inevitable death), the way the Children of Peace react to various crises, the water wars and the effects of climate change (this is something I really loved getting to see because wars for my generation will undoubtedly be influenced or caused by the rippling effects of climate change). I have seen some people comment that environmental ruin is frequently mentioned in YA dystopian novels - maybe, but not in the way of The Scorpion Rules. Most YA dystopian novels just use environmental ruin or apocalypse as the backdrop (look, I like Divergent the book, but Divergent the movie - what was with that random sunken ship by the wall? And Hunger Games - we never know what led to the Districts forming, etc.). Meanwhile the Scorpion Rules juggles the politics and political intrigue of and the human role in such ruin. To me, it reads unlike anything else I've read.

Then there's also the fact that most YA dystopians are considered YA science fiction as well or sci fi dystopias (I never quite understood why). Divergent, Legend, The Hunger Games - if they do ever have a more science focused lens, it comes much later in the game whereas The Scorpion Rules starts off with the introduction of AIs. The role the AIs play and the way they mingle with humans, and even their history, was quite fascinating to me, and I particularly enjoyed the twists that Erin Bow was able to introduce because of her AIs. So, to recap: for me, The Scorpion Rules was different from other YAs of its type in how it treats its dystopian and science fiction elements.

I was also quite enchanted by the side characters like the Children of Peace. You know how in The Raven Cycle, you have the sense that Maggie Stiefvater really knows her characters and knows what kind of dynamic each character would have with a new character? That's the sort of vibe I get with the Scorpion Rules. Unlike the Raven Cycle, TSR may be plot-focused, but the author shows an incredible level of control with regard to how she has developed her side cast. Some characters may remain off to the side and seem more underdeveloped (plot, not character focused), but there's wonderful diversity and complexity all around: the relationship between Greta and her mom and how each of their interactions is coded with emotional turmoil, Greta's relationship with the Abbott, the romantic relationships. Talis. What happens with regard to Talis makes me very eager and curious to read book 2 of The Prisoners of Peace. The interesting thing, for me, is that though Talis is meant to act as the villain, he has an almost petulant voice and plenty of pent-up anger that, in a sympathetic light, makes him feel realistic and well, fascinating. I started to root for him and felt intrigued despite myself and then I remembered how his actions had caused the deaths of many people. Plus Greta's interactions with Talis were particularly interesting.

I adored the way Erin Bow handled the romance. The synopsis puts you in mind of the new boy romantic trope: "Enter Elián Palnik, the Prefecture’s newest hostage and biggest problem." But this is not the case for The Scorpion Rules, for there is another romantic interest, and that romantic interest became fairly clear from the start (at least for me). And I loved how that romantic interest helped to ground Greta, remind her of her own strength while Elián, as the new boy, challenges Greta to think beyond the principles she's accepted her whole life (e.g. Talis's absolute power, etc.). Both were essential to Greta's character development, and both had wonderfully tension-fraught scenes, and both got to shine in their own right for what they meant and represented to Greta. Plus, I also really enjoyed the fact that Erin Bow didn't try to *label* what Greta had with Elián and her other romantic interest. That lent another level of complexity that I appreciated - I didn't want their interactions to be as simple as "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" because they weren't.

What disappoints me is the way that I've seen others mention Greta. Critique has said that she's dull, flat. I think that's mistaking having a bold, extroverted personality or fighter abilities (e.g. Rose from Vampire Academy) with strength. As much as I love the Rose types, just because a character's inner voice doesn't feature sarcastic humor or brash action doesn't mean they're dull or flat. In fact, this also reminded me of the general debate on what constitutes a "strong female character." Is a Katniss type with bow and arrow going to be better received than a leader whose only weapons are her words and the loyalty she's inspired in her fellow (sometimes helpless, well-educated) hostages? Greta is smart and knowledgeable, and when a plot twist unfolds, she's a character who thinks everything through, so you're with her on her journey, especially as she decides to take action (or forestall it). She's also had an emotionally stunted childhood. Sure, she gets to go home every once in a while, to "reaffirm" the bonds between her and her parents so that she's still an effective hostage, but most of her life is dictated by AI overlords/mentors and her Children of Peace friends, who can be taken from her at any moment and have been in the past, and the knowledge that she too can be killed any day. This results in social awkwardness, a need for logical routine, a love of labor and tending to the garden/animals, and Greta being at once practical and idealistic, hard and incredibly vulnerable. For all that she knows that she can die any day, she's a child, and duh, she's afraid. She has a really interesting character arc in this novel, and some of the emotional situations (e.g. flashback scenes with her mother, her relationship with Elián) immediately caught my attention and sympathy. I found her narrative to be quite compelling, and Greta a wonderful example of how a steadfast, clever, logical mind could be a weapon.

With an innately discussable premise, complex character relationships, and dynamic political intrigue and world-building scope, The Scorpion Rules is an impressive addition to the once teeming shelves of YA dystopia.


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review 2015-08-16 03:22
The Stars Never Rise by Rachel Vincent
The Stars Never Rise - Rachel Vincent

This is not The Hunger Games. I feel that distinction has to be made early on because I was very close to dismissing The Stars Never Rise as such and putting it down because the beginning is the same, albeit more brutally realistic. A neglectful mother who is rarely seen or heard, a big sister who has to do everything she can to put food on the table and clothes on their backs while also taking care of her younger sister. The Hunger Games was “just” a dystopia, this is also urban fantasy. Demons are walking the streets wearing humans like clothes while quietly consuming their souls.


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Source: literaryames.wordpress.com/2015/08/16/stars-never-rise-rachel-vincent
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review 2015-07-26 21:07
TV: Belgium’s Cordon a modern adaption of Albert Camus’s The Plague echoes Ebola crisis

Cordon cast


“Cordon sanitaire” is a sanitary cordon used to confine the infected with a highly contagious and deadly disease to a specific area, quarantining them away from the general population until everyone inside either dies or survives, allowing the disease to die out. This technique has been around for centuries. Photos are available recording how the cordon was implemented in Honolulu’s Chinatown in an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1889. In August 2014 cordons were used in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – the African countries most affected by Ebola.


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Source: literaryames.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/tv-cordon-albert-camus-plague-ebola
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url 2015-03-27 14:31
YA Sci-Fi/Dystopias & Startalk

So, I've been meaning to visit blogs and return the comments y'all have generously left me, but as of late, I've been real tired. In the winter, I stopped walking to the gym because it was coooold. Now that it's spring I have no excuse. But, unfortunately, whenever I try to do significant amounts of work, I seem to fall asleep anyway.

The cool thing, though, is that I've been listening to this awesome podcast on my walks to and from the train station, and to the gym, and while I'm exercising. It's called StarTalk, and it's hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and part of the motto song goes something like 'science for any occasion.' Dr. Tyson encourages you to keep looking up (because he's an astrophysicist). So, anyway, I figured that I'd make a post on:


  • why StarTalk is an awesome podcast that you should listen to
  • as couched in a discussion on how some of the recent episodes I've listened to have gotten me thinking about YA novels and their portrayal of science and the future
In a recent episode, the one thing that Dr. Tyson said that really stuck with me was the idea that War drives science. It was unfortunate, he said, but it was how so many of the world's worst weapons have been created. A lot of the cruelty that has come about because of technological and scientific advancement has been because of war. Not because of the science itself; but because humans seem to have a fundamental sense of entitlement rooted in their survival instincts. We make weapons to better survive; we're creative at killing one another.

This really struck me. Of course not all science is driven by war; but I've never thought of science in this way, and then later on yesterday night, I got to thinking about science fiction novels that I've read. One popular young adult trilogy involves the mutation of the human genome to selectively express certain highly valued virtues in abundance. This leads to a war with regards to genetic purity, which leads to another branch of the government to conduct an experiment on the people with mutated genes. Are they as good as their genetically pure peers or can nature sort out the deficiency that arose from the arrogance of scientists?

In these novels we have the opposite of reality: science makes war. This is what I mean when I say I'm concerned about the anti-science message in books - what other message could you take from a society couched in the evils that it's science forefathers have made? In a podcast with Richard Dawkins, Dr. Tyson and Dr. Dawkins discuss how selectively enhancing our genome by mutations is not impossible for the future but it's impossible with the technology we currently have. So a book that would include such mutations would probably also need a lot of futuristic technology to indicate how far we've come. Forget all that for a second, and just ask this: how is it that the government policies and bureaucracies that guide scientists today disappeared? Because there is no possible way for such experiments to take place. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) would reject any such proposal because of the harm that would come to others. It's true that people have not always been moral about scientific experiments; this is one of the first things you learn in ethics training, about Nazi human experimentation and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Both have the overlap of terrible events, the Great Depression and World War II. This reminds me of 'war drives science.' Of course that's not an excuse for either, but what I will say is that the Tuskegee experiment led to the Belmont Report and the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections. It's harder to repeat the mistakes of the past, and anyway, both are such exceptions to the legacy of science, you'd really have to make sure this other mutation study was occurring on a small scale compared to the vast number of research studies happening daily. Making the government in charge of a study mutating people is essentially, to me, comparing the atmosphere of WWII to what we have today. Which is ridiculous.

It's how these dystopian / science fiction novels handle government regulation that strikes me as so weird. Some try to say that such unethical science was happening on the side, because of a corrupt company, which is possible I guess, but that also strikes me as lazy, like the loose ends have not been tied, so why not just make an excuse that will cover everything without thinking on how to tie the ends. The rest that blame things on the government...

Another thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson mentioned was the idea that people would be grateful for increased governmental control in the face of climate change (if it turned worse). He pointed out how Americans were very glad for increased government during WWII. In fact, given the prevalence of WWII in literature, I'm surprised that we haven't seen something like this in YA. (If you have, feel free to chime in; I personally can't think of any examples myself).

This is my central dissatisfaction with most YA dystopias. I am an idealist; I am optimistic and believe deeply in helping others reach their full potential, and yet many YA dystopias read to me as being too idealistic. If this novel is meant to read as warning teenagers about climate change, how is it that the people have become that dissatisfied with the government? How is it that we as a society have not voted out the representatives who didn't increase protection measures? How could a government in the face of a disaster not be voted out or introduce measures to combat their very extinction? Because even if we presume "marshal law," you have to have a very Handmaid's Tale like situation for that government to stay in place. Why would teenagers growing up in a harsh climate change affected world have the notion that the government is bad when history suggests that they might want *more* of their government, more regulation, and that is all? So many premises seem to hinge on the idea that the teenager main character is the only one to realize how awful the world is and the government's terrible secret role in propagating such horror - or, well, maybe not the only one, but certainly the focus is on that character's realization. But is that a realistic expectation?

The reason why a dystopia like The Handmaid's Tale reads to me as so frightening and compelling is because there is a concrete explanation for how this came about (and also so much of it is layered in current reality). Several times I have read explanations for how a YA dystopia has come about and thought... No. Just no. I don't understand. I honestly would rather prefer The Hunger Games route where we know little about the apocalyptic event that led to Panem and the near enslavement / death of children was led about by war. As Dr. Tyson says in yet another episode, evil is on the other side of the gate. People are only human if you're not fighting them. The idea that war could lead to the THG cruelty was not unreasonable to me. The idea that scientists would abandon all sense of morality in the pursuit of having their questions answered is. Science doesn't drive war; war drives science. There are so many regulation measures already in place for science, it's ridiculous to assume that something else doesn't happen first that would then change how people perceive and allow for science.

Anyway, so go my early morning ramblings. If there's anything to be gotten from this post, it's that you should listen to StarTalk. It's free and it's awesome and it inspires plentiful thoughts about the world. And if you read the rest of the post, that's great too ;). Let me know what you think.
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