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review 2015-03-09 00:48
Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

Book Review: Naughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

 

Powerful and thought provoking book about prejudice. I found it disconcerting -- in the best possible way.

 

"Crosses" rule the country and are the only ones holding jobs in government and other higher-up well-educated careers, both economically and status-wise. Sephy, our heroine, is a Cross, and her father is powerfully high up.  Her mother, however, is a pretty miserable soul. Their money and social status cannot make her happy. (Lesson there!) 

Her love interest, Callum, is a Naught.  Romance between a Naught and a Cross is utterly unthinkable and unacceptable to everyone.  Naughts are not permitted higher education, but Callum really wants it: and suffers greatly when he gets a chance to go to school.  A few "Naughts" have gotten educated, but at great personal cost -- and with little to show for it, as Crosses simply won't hire them for jobs requiring educationed skills. Callum's family is struggling, both financially and emotionally, from the opening scene in the novel, despite being hard working and fairly loving individuals.  His sister is.... well, mentally unstable as a result of an "incident" which is never really fully revealed, but implications are clear.  His parents are exhausted, grief stricken, and worried.  His brother is just pissed off.  

 

For the first third or so of the book, it is unclear to the reader what exactly separates the Naughts from the Crosses.....and when you discover it, you will be startled and hopefully uncomfortable.  The book raises some powerful questions. For example, what if we are prejudiced and we do not even know it or see it in ourselves?   How do you change the mind of a prejudiced person? And a burning issue: what are the ethical limits of revolt when you are being grossly oppressed?  Is militant violence acceptable?  Necessary?  Even noble and understandable? 

 

As both Sephy and Callum wrestle with this situation, the tension seeps into their own relationship. Things become messay and complicated, just like in real life, and they struggle to discern what is the right thing to do in the face of rising violence and opposition to their relationship. 

 

This may be the best novel for youth on racism that I have ever read. 

Not appropriate for younger students, say beneath high school age,  as there is considerable adult drunkenness, some very nasty racially motivated bullying, a handful of kidnappings and beatings, one instance of premarital sex and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But a powerful read for older students, say 15 and up,  or those concerned with racism and other social justice issues.

Kudos to the author,  I look forward to reading her other novels. 

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review 2015-03-09 00:30
Book Review: Shamer's Daughter, by Lene Kaaberbol
The Shamer's Daughter - Lene Kaaberbøl

Book Review:  Shamer's Daughter, by Lene Kaaberbol

How did this book get past me when it was first published? The premise is described in the trailer for the novel: Dina is the daughter of the Village Shamer, a woman who can read the truth in people through looking at their eyes, and the daughter has inherited the gift herself, though at the beginning of the novel it sure does not FEEL like a gift to her.

This book has many things I liked: a realistic setting (medieval-ish, and maybe somewhere rather like northern England or Scotland in, say, the 1100s or so?) and a likable heroine who is NOT perfect. Then there's mystery, and people striving for power, and real dragons who are nasty and relentlessly awful, and a hero boy (Nico) who is also likable and flawed and who (for once) does NOT save the day for the girl. A little politics, some nasty fighting, a close-to-dying experience or two, and a bit of female friendship, and this book has everything a middle school kid, (male or female) might want.

Loved that this did not end on a rosey happy syrupy sweet note. Was amazed to find that this was originally written in Danish, and translated into English: nicely done! It flows beautifully. Note to parents: there are a handful of words that some might find offensive, such as slut and whore. They are used by nasty people behaving in mean ways, and are clearly not encouraged to be used by the readers. But they are in there. Also, the villain is a true sociopath and his mother, Lady Death, creeped me out. But their motivation for what they do in the book is utterly realistic and believable.

I found the mother to be a character truly worth emulating: honest even when it may cost not only her own life but her child's as well, and truly not interested in what other people think of her. Dina begins to see this as the book progresses, and also finds that the burdonsome gift she has inherited might also be a blessing as well. The Widow Petri is much the same way: good to the core, and mature.

I'm just amazed I did not brush up against this series before now, as it was published in 2002. Looking forward to finding the sequels.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:23
Matched: A review
Matched - Ally Condie

Matched, first in the Matched trilogy by Ally Condie

 

In Cassia's world, everything you need is already decided for you by Society, in order to give you the safest, longest, healthiest, most peaceful life you can possibly have. No need for you to make any choices at all. Society will choose for you. Your mate, your job, your home, what art to view, what poems to read, what free time activities to participate in, what foods to eat, even what questions to ask, it's all taken care of for you. Any attempt to step outside of the boundaries placed on you (for your own good, of course) results in serious reprisals.

Sort of a grown up version of the classic children's novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry, this book asks many of the same questions.  At the start of the book, our heroine Cassia is a willing and happy participant in this Society. But as she gradually wakes up from her acceptance of this choice-less life, things get complicated. Are her parents truly happy? Does Society really know what is best for her? Why has she begun to develop feelings for a young man who is NOT going to be her mate in life?

Way better than a lot of what passes for YA fiction, largely due to two factors: realistically gradual paradigm shifts, and solidly strong writing. I love dystopian fiction in general because it allows us to ask hard questions: the one this book asks is an age-old one, well worth discussing late into the night over brandy or beers: Is safety and security worth giving up your freedom for? And if so, how much freedom, for how much security? It's the story of human history, the attempt to balance personal freedom against the common good. Sometimes we err on the side of freedom, sometimes we err on the side of order: but the balancing act goes on.

I appreciated the methodical (in the best sense, not in the sense of plodding) development of Cassia's very gradual intellectual awakening. From the start of the book to the end, she changes utterly, but none of it happens overnight. Often in YA fiction, the hero or heroine sees or hears one thing and suddenly their whole personality is altered, and EVERYTHING changes..... which irritates the bejezus out of me. People don't behave that way in real life.

This novel handles her transformation FAR more deftly and realistically. Cassia is given one piece of information, which causes her to question some things, but her behavior does NOT change, and her allegiance to her Society and its methods don't instantly crumble. She then learns another thing, and thinks of more questions, but again, continues to exist as she has before, while her internal monologue slowly alters. THIS is how things really usually happen, and the author captured that gradual life-shift so very very well. This is true both in the way Cassia views her Society and in the romantic love interest department.

Speaking of love interest, wouldn't it be wonderful to have just one popular YA novel WITHOUT a freaking love triangle? Sigh. That said, at least this one is not your normal absurd love triangle. There's Xander, the boy she grew up with and loves like a BFF, and with whom she is "Matched" by Society. Then there's Ky, the Aberrant boy who can never be matched with anyone, but with whom she gradually (there's that lovely word again) develops a relationship, which in turns gradually grows into a romance. The boys do not get into some ridiculous show down over who "gets" to get the girl, and she does not pit them against each other: in fact, she shows a tender concern for the feelings of both young men, and struggles to discern what she ought to do.  She shows honesty and she wants to treat them both as real human beings, with dignity and value, and she wants to be true. How can you not like that?

Several other things I liked very much about this book:
1. The forbidden poetry. In this dystopia, to "eliminate clutter", only 100 poems, "the very best", have been allowed to survive. (Also only 100 paintings and 100 pieces of music.... my heart is broken just pondering this) All copies of others have been destroyed... but Cassia accidentally finds a lost poem....and it tugs at her heart. Her relationship with Ky begins to grow around their sharing of forbidden poetry. The way that poetry in this world is literally a commodity, worth trading on an actual black market, delighted me. That said, I should reveal that I am a literature teacher, so of course I would find the idea of Dylan Thomas'  masterpiece "Do not go gentle into that good night" being more valuable than, say, gold, very very appealing.

2. Grandpa. I love the scenes with Grandpa before he dies. His way of saying more than he is saying. His refusal to play on Society's terms. I love the wayCassia remembers him after, and the effect he has on her choices.  I love the compact, with its beautiful secret. I love the way his memory drives her. I love his fieriness.

3. Subtlety. This book is rife with it. I know some reviewers have said that makes it slow or boring: I think it makes it delicious and far more fun to read than more obvious,  vulgar YA fiction that gives you all the secrets and answers right up front. You get hints here.... but not the full picture. As the book develops, it becomes clear that Society might not be as stable as they proclaim.... but you are not told that up front in chapter one, or in fact ever told it overtly anywhere. It comes in delicate bits of information, gleaned as you go. I deeply appreciate this more mature kind of writing. I can hardly wait to read the sequel.

4. Its lack of violence. I know, I know, some people found this book "boring". But I am relieved to find a dystopian fiction novel for youth that does not feature wholesale human slaughter. While I enjoyed the Hunger Games immensely and like the book Divergent, I was often distressed by the bloody mess going on almost constantly. This book is calmer, quieter, and in some ways made far  more sinister by the very lack of violence.

I liked Matched well enough that upon finishing it, I immediately went online and ordered the complete trilogy for my classroom. But I will read the sequels first.:>)

One complaint: the cover. I hate it. No boy in my classroom would be caught dead with a book with this cover on it.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:13
Ship Breaker: a review
Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

 

Bacigalupi has written a complex, violent novel in a grimly plausible near-future, where our rape of the planet has altered not just the physical plane, but also the way we live. The coastlines are altered beyond recognition as the seas rise, and resources worldwide have failed. Massive destructive storms ("city killers") are now normal events. The gap between rich and poor is so enormous now that they hardly know about one another anymore. Our hero, Nailer, is a wiry youth living on the beaches of the southern coastline, on the fringes of becoming a member of a ruthless recycling gang. Day to day survival is iffy, and the chances of a better life to come are nearly zero. They live (barely) by stripping useable bits from wrecked oil tankers, sleeping at night in shanty huts on the sand, and noshing on roasted rats and bits of fruit.

I liked the first half of the novel better than the second. In the first half, we meet Nailer's "tribe": his fellow crew mates (who would all gladly kill him if it meant another meal for themselves), and his one friend Pima and her mother Sadna (my favorite person in the book), as well as his tormented and abusive father. I was intrigued with how well the author wrote about Nailer's attempts to sidetrack his vicious father (repeatedly described as feral: we need a synonym for that word) as he begins to get worked up into a kid-beating frenzy. It gave me some insight into abused children.

 

I was intrigued by the half-human "dog man"  character Tool, a genetically engineered bodyguard,  and would gladly read a whole book explaining where he came from and how he became what he is, which defies logic. And I want to know how Sadna managed to retain such humanity in the inhumane world in which she must live.

Bacigalupi is a talented writer, in places completely suspending my reality. When Nailer nearly dies by drowning alone in the dark in an oil tank, for instance, I was engulfed in fear. I also loved the scene in the city, when Nailer, seeing his father with some henchmen, hides under the floating sidewalk and follows them, trying to listen from beneath without being seen. I have actually experienced being hidden in the water, underneath people on a dock like that, low to the water, and I felt he really captured the experience.

I was frustrated by the "pretty" girl Nailer rescues, both because she is not well-fleshed out, even by the end of the novel, and because he had to make her pretty. Why pretty? Why not smart, or interesting, or even just exotic looking to Nailer? I was glad the romance between the two is kept to a minimum. I wish more details had emerged about (a) why so many people with means and money are so loyal to her, and (b) what her motivations are. Maybe in the sequel? I also wished there had been a bit less philosophizing by the young people. For example, just SHOW me that Nailer is beginning to develop compassion: don't tell me what he is thinking about whether or not he should show compassion.

On the whole I really liked the novel. His world building is detailed and wonderful. The fusion of religions, the harvesting of organs for profit, the lack of choices and mobility, the failure of resources, the bits of the old reality that survive (the name Lucky Strike, for instance, or the idea of calendar pictures hung on the wall, inspiring dreams) all rang true to me.

It's quite brutal to read: Nailer must kill several people, in one case by slashing a woman's throat as she lies sleeping, and (spoiler alert) he eventually must kill his own father. Several people die throughout the novel, others get maimed and cast away to be exiled and likely die, and suffer other horrors. Early on, for instance, we are told the tragic tale of a younger, smaller child who got lost in the bowels of the oil tankers while seeking cooper wire to scavenge, and he dies there, alone, his body eaten by rats. Such imagery makes this book for more suitable for older young adults, over 12 at least.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:06
"The Knife of Never Letting Go": a review, book one of Chaos Walking
The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Book one in the trilogy called Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness.

 

Todd Hewitt, a teenager on the cusp of manhood, appears to live in a small town dominated by angry male religious nutcases. He's had an unusual upbringing, since all the women have died. All of them. In fact, he has never seen a woman at all. He's being raised by Ben and Cillian, life partners. And the men in town have all caught a germ that renders their thoughts-- all thoughts, all the time-- audible to others.

Now stop and think for a moment what your life would be life if every single thing you ever thought could be picked up by everyone around you, and vice versa. (Hence the title of the series, CHAOS WALKING.)

The constant barrage of thoughts is called The Noise, and learning to control your noise is problematic. Lying is of course virtually impossible. Yet everyone in his town is in fact lying to him. (I struggled a bit with how such a huge lie would be possible, but accepted it as part of the plot line.) As he and his faithful dog Manchee begin to discover, things in Prentisstown are not at all what they seem. The reader soon learns that Prentisstown is on an alien world, and was a colony-based settlement that has been cut off from all other settlements for decades now.

Why? What made them be cut off?  That question is central to the novel. What great and horrible secret are the men of Prentisstown hiding?

Todd discovers a new something in the swamp near the edge of town, a lack of noise, an empty silence, and sees his first ever female human person. Females apparently do not project their Noise like males do, Todd learns. But they do still HEAR the Noise of men. --- Now stop and think about THAT for a moment: men can hear all other men, and women can hear all men, but women get to keep their thoughts to themselves and choose what to share and say. Fascinating premise. Society would totally change, indeed.  Kudos to the author for this highly original premise.

In very short order, Todd and Manchee must flee Prentisstown, and the female (Viola) comes with them, literally running through the woods across this alien world to the next settlement, then the next, trying to find safety and answers. Todd is carrying a big ole knife from his father figure, and it is a large part of his story, hence the title of the novel. But they are being pursued. Relentlessly, in fact. Some of the long flight across the planet was dull, and some of it felt manipulative, but along the way facts are gained and things are --at least partially --explained.The ostacles they encountered felt realistic, as did the reactions of various townspeople to discovering "Prentisstowners" in their settlements. Todd begins to learn that whathe was raised to believe was mostly a lie, or at best a spin on the truth.

 

I found the book hard to put down, and filled with things to ponder. I liked Todd and wanted him to do well, wanted him to find what he was seeking and make good choices. Liking the hero/heroine is rather central to enjoying the story at hand. I liked Viola too but did not really connect with her in the first book.

I was broken-hearted at the choice Todd has to make in the river regarding Manchee, (Shades of "Where The Red Fern Grows", and "Old Yeller") and felt exploited by the return and then almost immediate disappearance of his mother-substitute, Ben. I was also irritated that The Book he carries did not get read along the way: Seems to me he would have been DYING to get it read.

However, I liked the way Todd was growing up: he is forced to make difficult choices when right and wrong are not so clear cut and clean. I liked the way the author avoided romance between Todd and Viola for the most part. No sex in this book, just a growing trust and friendship that may or may not blossom into more in book two. I personally really liked the vernacular way of speaking, though some reviewers found it annoying,  and the interesting font changes, especially early on when it represents The Noise. Todd has a great male voice/ presence. I did get quite sick of the word "effing" and wanted the kid to just go ahead and cuss already. Say the fucking word. Quit pretending not to cuss.

The novel appealed to me on many levels. It addresses some BIG questions, especially to those of us who grew up near repressive religious figures, controlling southern men who preach one thing and do another. Mayor Prentiss is a terrifyingly real figure to me. I knew men like him: I still do. But how do we respond to people like him without hurting others? Also the whole alien race question, which is brought up but not resolved in this first installment.  Who are the Spackle?  Not quite humanoid, but not terribly alien either, they seem to be sentient -- but since we cannot communicate with them, what DO we do? Leave the planet?  Force them off of it? Live side by side without communicating? What if they attack us first?

However, The book is pretty brutal and will sadly not be going into my 8th grade classroom, nor onto on my recommend-for-under-16-years-old list. LOTS of killing. People being slaughtered left and right.  Tough choices to be made by young people who should not yet be forced to make such terrible decisions. Manchee's final scene, where Todd makes the right choice but at a terrible cost. Repressive controlling authority figures who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and beat up children. A disturbing scene when Todd unnecessarily murders a Spackle, one of the alien natives. An entire town is wiped out and more are likely to be destroyed.  There's relentless violence. But, like The Hunger Games, the violence serves a purpose. 

By and large, I loved this novel and am eagerly devouring Book Two right now, The Ask and The Answer. This is book one of a series of three, and I am glad I did not find it until all three books were published, because (warning) book one ends on a HUGE cliffhanger that would have driven me nuts.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

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