Tag Archive: dystopia

Extras by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 13 and up

Aya Fuse lives in a world dominated by reputation. Either you have face rank or you’re a nobody. An extra. It’s the way society functions after the mind-rain brought on by Tally and her friends. With a face rank around 400,000, Aya is as good as an extra, unlike her older brother who is pushing the top thousand. Inspired by him (or aggravated by him), she’s become a kicker–someone who breaks video stories to the whole world. All her previous stories have been small fish, barely making a dent in her face rank. But she’s found a group of daredevil stunt girls that might just rocket her face rank to the top. Only problem is that these girls actually want to remain anonymous and Aya is forced to become one of them if she wants to pursue her story. And then they discover something bigger than a group of girls doing dangerous tricks. They discover something that has the potential to destroy cities. And the story Aya kicks is one big enough to send her face rank to the double digits. Problem is, with all that attention she’s bound to attract the attention of the people that’s she’s just exposed and they aren’t beyond abducting one girl and her friends to protect their mission.

Remember back in May, when I finished Specials and I said that I wasn’t sure that I like this series because of the way that book ended? Yeah, it took about two weeks to decide if it would even be possible for me to like the book and all I wanted to do was see if Westerfeld fixed it. So there was more than a little trepidation when I picked up Extras. Fool me once and all that. But I am SO glad that I did. Because he did fix it! And he did more than I was expecting. I was hoping for just a little cameo, just Tally dropping in or being mentioned and maybe a little bit about her life three years after the mind rain. Not so, I got a whole half a book of Tally-action, making Extras quite possibly my favorite book in the series (It also is partly responsible for the recent Scott Westerfeld-a-thon in my reading life–that and the fact that I was able to get Leviathan for six bucks). It brought Speicals from possible book-burning material (So far, the only book I’ve ever burned is Wuthering Heights–now that was cathartic) to just one more book in a series that I absolutely adore. Yes, I’m gushing, I know. Now, let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns…sorry, couldn’t help myself).

It was interesting to see Westerfeld’s society after the mind rain. You get the distinct feeling that it is a society still adjusting to the downfall of the bubblehead era. They are expanding and making new discoveries. Hurrying to make up for the time lost in the pretty-time. The face rank system is what Aya’s own city has come up with to cope with the sudden demands of a society that is no longer mindless and complacent. It’s just one of the clues that labels this city as a futuristic Tokyo (I’m assuming, Tokyo, it could be another prominent Japanese city). There are references to Tally and the pretty-time, echoes of how the world was in the previous three books. It is still an active part of everyone’s memory (her own brother was a pretty for a few months) and a definite influence on the decisions made by Aya and her friends.

Speaking of Aya. I really liked her. She could be little dense, yes, but there’s something about her need to be noticed that just resonates. Westerfeld sums it up beautifully in the first chapter: “It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen.” We’ve all been through it, that span in our teens that we felt uncomfortable and unbeautiful and unpopular (for me it was actually seventeenish, but whatever). And I’d forgotten how well Westerfeld is able to capture that. Aya resonates with the reader because she is SO very fifteen. And kicking stories isn’t something that she does just to gain attention. She does it because she’d good at it and because she enjoys it. And it makes her feel like more than just an awkward teenager. How many of us wouldn’t want to be famous for doing what we loved to do.

I love how the plot of this book becomes so much more than it seems at first. I thought that the whole story was going to be about whether or not she would betray her new friends and kick their story and it ended up not being about that at all. I was pleasantly surprised. There are more layers to this book than there are in a birthday cake. Just when you think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, Westerfeld surprises you with some delicious new ingredient that sweetens the plot. Kept me on my toes.

One of my favorite things about the series actually comes back to bite me in this book though. I’ve always loved Westerfeld’s way with words. How he comes up with new phrases, like “nervous-making” and “brain-missing” (my personal favorite from Extras). However, I feel that he overdoes it a little bit in this book. And perhaps that was just a part of the new society overcompensating…but I started to get tired of all the noun-verb-ing combinations. But thankfully, that didn’t last long once we got into the real action and it was a small distraction.

Like I said earlier, I believe that this is my favorite book in the entire series (that might change when I eventually reread the series, I’ll let you know). Partly because of the way that it wraps everything up. Partly because we get to see Tally picking up the pieces and making something amazing out of what she’s been given. Also, partly because I think this book, gets to be a little more light-hearted. All the evil, overbearing powers have been stopped. There’s no one forcing people to get brain surge (although, that doesn’t stop some people from getting brain surge anyways). We get to experience a society that’s a little different, a little familiar and sometimes more than just a little confused.  For anyone who enjoys YA fiction, and especially if you like the dystopian genre, this series is a must read. And don’t discount Extras just because you think things have moved on. This is a vital piece that finishes off the puzzle and helps turn a trilogy into a masterpiece.

This is a good example of:

  • Creating a society
  • Creating a distinctive vocabulary
  • Character building
  • Plot twist
  • Writing for YA
  • Merging theme and plot

This book is on my recommended reading list.

Book Review: Wither

The Chemical Garden Trilogy #1: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Ages 16 and up

Rhine Ellery is used to living with a death-sentence hanging over her head. She’s sixteen, which means that she has four years before the virus that now claims every female at 20 and every male at 25 comes to claim her. She and her twin brother, Rowan, have spent most of their lives surviving day by day. Until the Gatherers find Rhine. Suddenly, she finds herself a teenage bride in a polygamous marriage. She’s heard of this happening, part of a desperate effort to keep the human race from dying out completely, but she always thought that she and her brother were careful enough to keep it from happening to her. Despite the fact that she finds herself in the lap of luxury and is quickly becoming her new husband’s favorite wife, all Rhine can think about is getting out of her gilded cage and back to her brother. So she can spend whatever years she has left in freedom. But her husband’s father is a man bent on finding a cure and saving his son and Rhine starts to feel that she has perhaps been chosen for a darker purpose than being his son’s wife. A purpose that she’s not sure she likes.

This book was on my list. I was going to read it eventually, because a very reliable source told me it was good. And then I got to have a brief conversation with the author over Twitter (emphasis on brief). So if you were hoping my next review would be on Uncommon Criminals, blame it on the mouse. (And the fact that Borders forgot to call me when my book finally came in. Good thing I’m proactive.) Anyways, it got a well-deserved bump up to the A.S.A.P. part of my list, so here it is.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been on a dystopian kick recently. I am far from being an expert, but I find that I love it. I knew Wither  was categorized in that section, so I came to the book with a few preconceived notions about what I could expect. And with the big stuff I was correct. But one of my favorite nuances was how proactive Rhine felt. What I have found to be the case much of the time (and this goes for genres, I just think it’s more with this one) is that you have Protagonist. Protagonist is surviving in a less than perfect society, following the rules and acting like a good little sheep. And then something happens. Protagonist’s best friend runs away, or their sister’s name gets drawn from the cup of death. Protagonist reacts and the story begins. But through out the whole story, survival is goal (it’s a very good goal, I will give you that). The main character will do what has to be done for them to survive, but they don’t act out of the box unless they have to. They don’t try to break the mold without outside influence (be it from friends of enemies).

Rhine isn’t like that. She wants to live. She wants to be free. From almost the moment she wakes up in Linden’s house, Rhine is figuring out how she can get out. Rhine has suddenly found herself in the lap of luxury, with a guy who adores her more every day. Her needs are more than met, she could just sit back and accept that she is going to spend the rest of her life here. She could be like her sister wife, Jenna, and think that this is a better a place than most to die. But surviving isn’t good enough for her. Rhine wants freedom. Another thing that I like about Rhine is that she isn’t overly cynical. She could be. She is witty and real in her observations, but not unpleasant to a fault (actions are sometimes a different story).

This book has some of the best examples of using significant detail in a story that I have ever seen. There are some books where you can guarantee that the author is going to describe every dress or every building. Books where facial features will be stressed or actions. But in Wither, DeStefano uses her details to enhance what is happening in that moment, which means that the details with significance change constantly. One moment, she’s describing the wedding attire of Rhine and her two sister wives, giving you a glimpse into each girl’s personality. Two pages later, you see Rhine focusing on just one wall of her new home, impressing on you just how big the Ashby house is. She even manages to uses something as mundane and everyday as make-up to lead into background for a minor character. It’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

And speaking of background. This is one book where I was as happy to be reading backstory as frontstory (is that the technical term?). You get dropped right in the middle of the action. You don’t have to go through Rhine’s typical day and then she gets kidnapped. She already is kidnapped. DeStefano uses innuendo and slight of hand to deftly make you as interested in Rhine’s past as you are in her present and future. You want to know about her brother and about how her parents died. The balance between backstory and current plot is such a hard balance to strike. Too much and the reader gets bored. Too little and the reader gets lost. DeStefano does a very good job of walking that line between the two.

Of course, it’s not a perfect book. There were a few times when Rhine or the plot would make a jump and I’d be dragged out of the story to say, “Wait, what? How did you come up with that?” I’m someone who is constantly jumping in and out of the story. When it gets too intense, I’ll out the book down for about thirty seconds. Or when I’m struck by an author’s brilliance.  Or when I’m just laughing to hard to hold the book still…or breathe. Rarely do I actually have to stop because something doesn’t make sense or because I actually have to back track to figure out what the blazes is happening.  I can think of only two times that this happened and I don’t even remember where they were (not that I would tell you if I did, that would be a spoiler and I don’t give those). And I’m still not sure that I wasn’t supposed to have to stop and think at those points.

With Wither, you are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. And they won’t tell you! I’m sure that the clues are all there. I’m sure that when I get to the end of book three (however, many years down the road that is) I’ll be able to reread the series and go, “How did I not see that?” and everything will make perfect sense. But right now, my powers of prediction are sadly baffled. And that is frustrating! (If the author is reading this, I bet she’s doing a little victory dance or at least grinning evilly.) One of my favorite parts about reading a book is to take the pieces and see where the plot is going and figure out what is going to happen before it happens.  It’s an uncanny skill that I have. And it is being pushed to the max right now. Normally, I find it painfully easy. Not this time. My brain is still turning possibilities and lines of story development and the interaction between characters and coming up with likely directions the story will take. But I can’t settle on any one thing that I know is going to happen (okay, actually there are a couple of things that I think I might know are going to happen, we’ll see). This is not a familiar feeling for me. It’s weird and foreign and…actually, kind of fun. It won’t stop me from trying of course, but I like that I wasn’t able to figure all the big stuff out in one reading. No, I don’t like it…I love it. And it’s part of why I can’t wait for Fever to come out in February (*cries* It’s SO far). Because the more pieces of the puzzle I can get, closer to seeing the whole picture I will be.

This is a book that I would recommend to people all across the board. It’s up there with The Hunger Games, I think that all my friend’s that enjoy a good book will enjoy this. Whether you are into the dystopian scene or not. Make this your introduction. At the same time, anyone who wants to write, especially if you want to write YA, this book should be on your list. I had as much fun reading how it was written as I did reading what was written. It’s one of those books you walk away from and say, “Wow…Let’s do that again!” (Kind of like you do with a good roller coaster). Parents, if you’re looking for a good, thought-provoking book for your teens to read, have at it. I would keep this one away from the younger teens. Rhine knows first hand the reality of her situation, she sees glimpses of it, and she’s honest. She doesn’t shy away from the realities of her world. Some of what she sees, or knows is happening just might be bit much for kids that are younger than fifteen or sixteen. I didn’t even come close to needing to self-censor the book while I read. It is very clean (I can’t vouch for the second and third books as they haven’t been written yet), but it is also very deep and kind of dark.

This is a good example of:

  • Significant detail
  • Character reveal
  • Backstory integration
  • A good love triangle
  • First person narrative
This book is one my recommended reading list.

Book Review: Specials

Specials by Scott Westerfeld

Ages 13 and up

In Uglies, we met Tally Youngblood, a young girl who was counting down the days until she could be made “Pretty”. When her best friend, Shay runs away Tally is forced to follow her to the Smoke–a group rebelling against the city’s pretty-operation. There she learns that being pretty is not all that it seems to be. In Pretties, Tally has become pretty herself in order to reverse the operation that Shay never wanted. There, she meets Zane, a new pretty who is trying to break free of the mind-numbing personality change as well. Together, they manage to break free of the city and find the remnant of the Smoke. But they are captured once again.

In Specials, Tally has been surgically altered against her will for a second time. But this time, instead of making her complacent, the operation was to turn her into a hardened, “clear”-minded fighting machine. When her ex-boyfriend David and a group of Smokies crash a bash in the ugly dorms and kidnap a member from Tally’s new group, the Cutters, she and Shay must come up with a plan to get him back. And take down the New Smoke. This plan involves Zane, still recovering from the brain-damage inflicted by the “cure”. As Tally follows him, trying to locate the Smoke’s new base, she finds everything she knows being challenged once again. With her various lives pulling at her, Tally must rediscover who she is beneath it all. Because that has never changed.

I am of two minds with this book. On the one hand, I loved it. Loved the series. Couldn’t get enough of it. It was odd finally getting to the “last” book after several years of putting it aside for other things in life (And yes, technically it is the last book in the trilogy. But don’t forget, Extras is still out there). But on the other hand, oh the ending made me SO mad. But I’ll get to that when I figure out how to talk about it without giving everything away.

One of my favorite things about these books is that Westerfield so totally immerses you in the world and thoughts of Tally that you end thinking and speaking like Tally and her friends. Seriously, ask my friends. “Nervous-making” was definitely a part of my vocabulary for months after I read the first two books. Westerfield carries that on to the third book. And it works out well. In this book, perhaps more than any other time, Tally’s mind is completely different from the people around her. I find it interesting thinking that perhaps, had Dr. Cable never sent Tally after Shay in book one, she would have happily become a Pretty, but going into the Wild seems to have woken something in Tally that could not be shut down again. As Tally proves in books two and three.

Suspense? Hmmm, I don’t think it would be a proper Uglies book if there wasn’t suspense. If you’ve read the first two, it does seem to start out a little slow, but it picks up quite quickly. You’re right into the action after the first few chapters. If you haven’t read them yet, well, you should, because they are page-turners.

My only problem with this series is the ending. No, I’m not just saying that because Westerfield tricked me into thinking she’d end up with [Spoiler] instead of [Double-spoiler]. No, I’m not saying that because I’m usually right about these things and ended up wrong (which can be quite fun actually, on occasion). I happen to like happy endings. Really happy endings. Like, Disney-type happy endings. Granted, not all books lend themselves to Prince Charming riding off with the (Pick-Your-Princess) on a white horse. And this definitely wasn’t one of them. Obviously, (as was the case with Hunger Games) too much has happened for Tally to pick up the pieces right away and have everything be all sunshine and rainbows. But, for me, I didn’t get to even see that the pieces were picked up eventually. Oh, there’s the promise…but I like cold, hard fact. In epilogue form if necessary. She had started, she was taking steps to becoming whole again, but you don’t get to see that. And yet, I don’t know how that could have been fixed (okay, well, I do, but I didn’t write the series). I mean, at least as the end of HG, we get a brief glimpse at Katniss when she’s kind of put everything back together. Not so with Tally, and that is probably the main reason that I will, eventually, read Extras. Hoping, that I will get some sort of resolution. Just an inkling. Or just a smudgling?

But other than that, I suppose I did like it. You won’t find me singing over it. But it IS good writing and it does have a very good story with some very good observations of society and being who you are. So yes, I would say that you should read it. Because I probably will, again.

This is a good example of:

  • Creating a society
  • Creating a distinctive vocabulary
  • Character building
  • Plot twist
  • Writing for YA
  • Merging theme and plot

This book is on my recommended reading list.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Ages 15 and up

Seventeen-year-old Finn has been a prisoner of Incarceron for as long as he can remember. Which isn’t very long. He has adapted to life in the self-sustaining prison, but is still haunted by the vague memories of a past he can’t fully grasp. When the leader of a rival group is captured, news of a crystal key that is strangely linked to Finn surfaces. Through the key, he meets Claudia, a young woman trying to escape marriage to a man that she cannot stand. More interested in the truth than in the power that would come with being queen, Claudia–whose father is the warden of Incaceron–agrees to help Finn if he will help her. Guided by what small help Claudia can give him, Finn sets off with his oath-brother Keiro, the slave Attia and Gildas, whose ancestors helped to create Incarceron. What he discovers as he tries to find the way out is that Incarceron is alive…and it doesn’t want to let its prisoners go.

This book was one of those “Oh. My. Gosh. I’m going to cry because I have to put this down” books. I had Finn all figured out by Chapter Four, who he was is quite obvious (in my opinion) and I think perhaps Fischer meant for it to be that way. Knowing what I knew (sorry for the vagueness, but spoilers) added one more layer to the suspense. Because knowing that did not guarantee that Finn and his friends would make it out of Incarceron, it just made twice as important that he did. It was beautiful.

The premise of this book intrigued me at first. I thought that most of the book would be spent in the dungeons of Incarceron, but it was not. It was split about half and half between Incarceron and what the inmates dub “the Outside”. Claudia is from the Outside, which means that we get a picture of post-World War whatever human society. And it has been trapped in time. I thought it was a bit odd at first, the strange mix of the technological and historical that that Fischer worked in. But she made it work. This kind of book has been done, time and time again. If you look at the YA shelves there are two prevalent trends that you might notice, the vampire  stories and the dystopian novels. This book falls into the later category. And yet, Fischer creates something unique with this society by taking it back a few centuries. The technology is there, but protocol prevents them from using it–even if it is a matter of life and death.

The cast of characters in this book is vast, but the main characters are fleshed out nicely. There are no filler characters here. She capitalizes on her characters, developing their personalities along with the plot. Every revelation–especially in Finn and Claudia’s cases–drives the plot forward. And forward and forward. I was very glad to discover that there was a second book, for while the ending sated me for a little while there was still quite a bit left unanswered.

Another high point as an author, was the way she handled the various points of view. Each character had a voice and way of looking at the world. She handled the changing viewpoints very well, especially in a book where it must have been tempting to jump around a little. Expect to find more of her works reviewed here in the future.

A bit dark for younger readers, I would save this for mid-teens at the least. But still, if you like books in the realm of Hunger Games or Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series, this book should be on your list. Also, if you are in any way inclined to mixtures of sci-fi and historical fiction…again you might want to take some for this book.

This book is a good example of:

  • Creating audience suspense
  • Shifting viewpoint
  • Character-driven plot
  • Plot twists
  • World building

This book is on my recommended reading list.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Ages 15 and up

This is a series that I had been looking forward to reading for months. It was recommended by a friend who has impeccable taste in books. However, said friend also mentioned that the second book, Catching Fire, happens to have a doozy of a cliffhanger ending. So I thought, that knowing how well I don’t handle cliffhangers–it might be wise for me to wait until the final book was in stores. All of that to give my excuse for taking this long to finally read the series. That said–there is no excuse for not reading this series. None at all. Ever. You get the point.

From start to finish, Collins leads the reader (which will hopefully be you) through an intense journey–one of the most intense journeys I have ever been through as a reader. I was literally shaking when I finished Mockingjay. Collins kept me wanting to turn to the next page a little sooner, yet she was so in control that when I had to put the book down and carry on with my life I could. I wasn’t worried about what would happen next (except with the last 100 hundred pages, but that was excitement rather than wory). It was sort of riveted detachment. That’s not a contradiction I’ve experienced before.

Granted, it is a violent series. the premise introduced in Hunger Games–a sadistic Olympics where 24 teens fight until only one is left standing–guarantees some blood and violence. But I’ve read gorier (The Illiad anyone?) and some of that is considered classic literature (see previous aside) with the gore only there for shock value (see again).  Here it helps define the struggle of the main character to hold on to her humanity–or at least have some remaining when the games are over. It also provides an interesting glimpse of where mindless entertainment can lead. For the parents of young teens I would suggest reading this book before you let them, if only to know what the heck they are talking about when they want to discuss it.

And while we are on the subject of character: Collins has created some beautiful characters. Her mastery of the first-person narrative had Katniss commenting on aspects on my own life long after the books were finished. Her thought process felt as complicated and conflicted as my own can feel in times of stress. Plus, Collins creates a legitimate love triangle. I’m not talking about a childhood acquaintance thrown in just to stir up drama when the guy you know the heroine will end up with skips town. I’m talking two guys, each with equally strong (but different) ties to her heart. Even though I had an idea of who Collins was setting her up with (and I agree with her choice), I spent the majority of books two and three quite content with her ending with either guy. Partly, because romance wasn’t really what this story was about–it’s merely a piece of the big picture (If that isn’t a lot like life, I don’t know what is.)

This is obviously not a light, fluffy read. It was fun in places, but also hard. After all that Katniss goes through though, happily ever after is not an ending that she can immediately reach. She’s been through too much to be completely okay by the end of Mockingjay’s 27 chapters, but she (well, they) is on her way there and still fighting like she has from page one. This series is real, it’s not a happy-go-lucky fairytale–but it’s also not entirely a tragedy. It is well-written and thought provoking and surprising (yes, it’s not something I experience very often so it should count for double). And quite possibly among one of the best series you will ever read.

I take that back–There is no possibly about it.

Who Should read This: Any one who enjoys future fics with post-Apocalypse premises.

This is a Good Example of:

  • First person narrative
  • Relationships between characters (both friends and enemies)
  • Character development
  • Plot and story twists
  • Balance of overall big picture with character’s romantic life
  • How to have you readers banging at the bookstore door begging for the next book (See specifically, Catching Fire)

This book is one my recommended reading list.

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