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One highly opinionated feminist YA nerd's twisted, snarky and informative journey through the genre's perils, pitfalls and sparkles.

The Orwell Project: 3 - "Eve" by Anna Carey.

Once again, thank you for the comments and your thoughts. I have a few more things I’d like to discuss regarding some points I made in my “Matched” review regarding the separation of author and text, but I think it may be easier to do so in a separate post, possibly on The Book Lantern. I know I said “The Selection” would be my next entry, but cheap Kindle deals plus my birthday plus an uncharacteristically lovely day meant I just had to move onto another book with a lot of hype and a dead end.

Summary (taken from Goodreads): The year is 2032, sixteen years after a deadly virus—and the vaccine intended to protect against it—wiped out most of the earth’s population. The night before eighteen-year-old Eve’s graduation from her all-girls school she discovers what really happens to new graduates, and the horrifying fate that awaits her. 

Fleeing the only home she’s ever known, Eve sets off on a long, treacherous journey, searching for a place she can survive. Along the way she encounters Caleb, a rough, rebellious boy living in the wild. Separated from men her whole life, Eve has been taught to fear them, but Caleb slowly wins her trust...and her heart. He promises to protect her, but when soldiers begin hunting them, Eve must choose between true love and her life.

Cover impressions: The moment “Twilight” is invoked in the promotion of your book, you’ve got some serious hype to live up to. The same applies to the use of “The Hunger Games”. However, to bill a book as a combination of both is just setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s not unusual to see such comparisons made in the advertising of a book. It’s the entire backbone of the Orwell Project, after all. Publishing, now more so than ever, needs to make money, and the easiest way to get the tills ringing is to create hype. It’s not always successful, as we’ve discussed, but when deployed in the correct manner it can work wonders. “Divergent” managed it but “Matched” and “Eve” both stumbled. With “Eve”, I can easily see why, just from that promise of “The Hunger Games meets Twilight”. For many, the romance was a crucial part of “The Hunger Games”.

I’ve only read the first book, a shameful admittance on my part, but I always felt that the romantic element felt tacked on. Suzanne Collins’s agent admitted that she had suggested more romance for the series, whilst Collins was more interested in the war element. It shows, even in the first novel where the manipulation of narratives such as a dream romance broadcasted live make up a fascinating part of the story. I know many people disagree with me on this, but romance has never felt like a crucial, necessary or even particularly interesting addition to a dystopian narrative. It feels distracting, often serves solely to fill pages and suggests a complete lack of priorities for the protagonist. When society has crumbled and you’re up against a totalitarian government or something similar, you should be more worried about that than if the guy you like will hold hands with you. Romance works best as a secondary plot, and even then it’s tough to pull off well, so to push it front and centre is asking for trouble. So, with that long ramble off-topic, I bring the project back to “Eve” with the shocking revelation that I genuinely enjoyed it for the first third of the novel.
“Eve” opens with the introduction of an all-girls’ school, walled off from the rest of society in the remnants of what once was America, ruled by one King. These girls, having lived comfortable lives and educated in trades they believe they will spend their lives working in, are set to graduate and move into the next level of education. For school valedictorian Eve, her dream of being an artist is in sight, but her world is shattered when she sees the truth for herself – eighteen year old girls are strapped to beds, forcibly impregnated and must breed continually in order to replenish the country’s population. Understandably, Eve runs away, directed by one kind teacher to follow the path to a safe haven known as Califia. On the way, accompanied by fellow runaway Arden, she meets a man for the very first time, Caleb, who helps the pair out and shelters her from the military, who are keen to bring her to the main city where she shall take her place as the King’s new wife.

Up until Eve meets Caleb, the novel is rather enjoyable. It’s by no means a masterpiece and the first person narrative became a tired staple of the genre long ago, but the first third of “Eve” remains well paced with a genuine tension and hints of an exploration of the change in gender roles when society crumbles. Given dystopian fiction’s history in tackling women’s issues, most notably in Margaret Atwood’s classic novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and, more recently, in the much hyped YA debut of Lauren DeStefano, “Wither” (see my review here), it’s no surprise to see another novel tackle the topic. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the author has no real interest in such issues, nor indeed in accurately developing a world where such drastic changes in gender roles would occur. It’s another world with a single non-democratic ruler that briefly mentions a decadent city where the rich live carefree, much like the Capitol, but the decision to divide the sexes and have the girls be explicitly taught to fear and hate men before forcing them to breed leaves the reader with nothing but questions. Surely if such a patriarchal system were to be instigated then it would be far easier and more sensible to teach the girls about traditional domestic roles of housewife and mother. To push this traditional role not only as the norm but as the girls’ sole function would require the involvement of men, even if sexual intercourse never takes place. Spending seemingly unlimited resources on providing schools of young girls with comfortable room, board and several years of education also seems pointless. One character says this is done because it makes the next step easier if they have had several years of the supposedly fulfilled purpose of learning a trade. While Eve’s naivety and fear is perfectly in character, to have her go through such a u-turn, from fearing men her whole life as she has been taught, to becoming entirely consumed by the first one she meets, feels unnatural and rather insulting. It asserts the insinuated gender norm of the society, that women are passive and need to be protected. While I wouldn’t quite compare it to “Twilight” as the marketing did, the author’s need to insert a romantic angle ruins the promising potential of “Eve”.

Let’s talk about reproductive issues in dystopian fiction. Science fiction has a long standing history of using the body and its subsequent invasion as a metaphor. The numerous “Invasion of the Body Snatcher” movies used its eponymous theme to tackle contemporary fears and issues such as the McCarthy witch hunts. Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, its sequels and the recently released sort-of prequel “Prometheus” famously tackle the fear of bodily infection and loss of control over ones extremities. Personally, nothing terrifies me more than losing power over my own body. Today, with women’s rights being constantly threatened and abortion providers being shut down, severely limited in their power and even birth control coming under entirely unfounded scrutiny, it’s not a surprise to see teen fiction tackle the topic. That’s not even taking into account that glorious thing known as puberty, a horror scenario to many a teenage girl.

At the heart of these books, mainly “Eve” and “Wither”, although we can’t have this discussion without mentioning “The Handmaid’s Tale” (a similar theme appears in the next Orwell Project entry “Glow”), is the terrifying and not all that fantastical idea that society views a young woman’s worth solely as a walking womb, and that she shouldn’t even have control over that. Given the dystopian genre’s long and illustrious history in exploring the contemporary world through seemingly fantastical scenarios, this is a theme that deserves proper execution. My main issue with “Eve” and “Wither” is that they shy away from the nitty-gritty of the matter and because of this they end up falling into some tired and suspect tropes of general YA. Despite everything that occurs in both novels, both heroines end the novel with their virginity intact. This is especially uncomfortable in “Wither” given that heroine Rhine’s 13 year old sister wife ends up pregnant while the husband respectfully keeps his distance from the 16 year old. The novel sets up a genuinely unnerving premise – a world where women are forced into polygamous marriages in order to quickly repopulate the earth before a virus kills them all at the age of 20 – and refuses to go all the way. “Wither”, like “Eve”, has many problems in its world-building, but by setting up the ridiculous and damaging dichotomy that the heroine’s ‘goodness’ is inextricably connected to her ‘purity’, the novels end up going against that they’re supposed to be condemning. I’m not saying that the heroines had to have sex or be raped or be subjected to something equally gruesome and degrading; that’s horrific. The issue here is in the authors mollycoddling their heroines against the world they have created. What is the point of setting up such a scenario if the reader is perfectly aware that the heroine is safe from the evils they’re up against? Ultimately, “Eve” fails to live up to its potential because it refuses to fully embrace the premise it has created.

I’m not exactly known for my ringing endorsements of romance in young adult novels. It’s not that I hate romance – I love it and happen to think that it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding genres in fiction, both to read and to write. My issue has always been with the oversaturation of romance in the genre and the reliance of insta-love over true characterisation. Not only does “Eve” squander its potential as a dystopian novel in favour of focusing on the romantic angle, the romance itself is dull, uninspiring and fails to work on its own level. It just doesn’t work in the world Carey has created. The novel is far more concerned with high school rom-com style misunderstandings and stolen glances, something which this reader found mind-boggling considering the evidently more important issues unfolding throughout the novel. The series has potential as a whole but in order to fully live up to it, the author needs to fully embrace the concept she has created, spend far less time worrying about the romance, and to tighten up the world-building and mood substantially. However, the abrupt ending and clear assertion of the heroine’s priorities (take three guesses) don’t fill me with much hope.  

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The Orwell Project: 2 - "Matched" by Ally Condie.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the first Orwell Project entry, and apologies for the next part taking so long. It’s been a busy month for me due to ending university, my internship, job, numerous volunteering positions and organising my graduation (2:1 MA hons in Celtic & English literature, fuck yeah!) so reviewing had to be shelved for a while. Now that I will probably have a lot more free time on my hands as I join the ranks of unemployed humanities graduates,  this will hopefully move along a little more speedily.

Summary (taken from GoodReads): Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate... until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it's a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she's destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can't stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society's infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.

Cover impressions: I distinctly remember reading a Publisher’s Weekly piece on the much buzzed about auction for publishers to acquire the rights to the trilogy by Condie, an author who had only previously published Mormon-centric teen fiction from much smaller publishers, and the much talked about seven figure sum the author received. Condie’s agent, Jodi Reamer, is nothing if not a savvy businesswoman. What followed after that auction were many months of hype and a not insignificant publicity campaign that, while nowhere near matching that which “Divergent” would later receive, still warranted attention and discussion. As expected, the first book in the planned trilogy went straight into the New York Times bestseller list. However, there were rumblings that the book had not sold anywhere near as well as expected, and the reviews were decidedly mixed amongst readers. With the final book in the trilogy being released in November, one can’t help but notice how little buzz there is surrounding its impending release, especially when compared to that which preceded “Insurgent”, the follow-up to “Divergent”. Having finally read “Matched”, it’s not hard to see why. I must admit that this book took a lot longer to read than it probably should have. Part of the blame for that can be directed towards myself and my schedule, but the main reason it took me so long was because I was so unbelievably bored with this book.  

Small side note: The cover is pretty but it’s yet another addition to the less than creative field of pretty skinny white girls in prom dresses that seem to have flooded the YA cover market. I find it interesting that the marketing for this book, along with several upcoming Orwell Project books, focus their attentions on the shallow and fashionable elements of the story. This dress appears in one scene and yet the marketing is all about it.

The premise for “Matched” is a familiar one, especially to those of us who have read works such as “1984” and “The Giver”. Set in an undisclosed point in the future of what I assume is America, The Society dictates every part of the lives of its citizens. They control who you marry, when and how many children you’ll have, the education you’ll receive, the job you’ll do and when you shall die. Their reasoning for doing so is based heavily on statistics that prove their decisions equal long, content and productive lives for all. The book opens on the night of the matching banquet of our 17 year old hero Cassia. Wearing one of a selected number of dresses (the admittedly gorgeous green number adorns the cover of the book), she eagerly awaits the Society’s decision as to whom she shall marry. To everyone’s surprise, she is matched with her good friend Xander. Such instances are rare as the vast majority of the Society’s citizens are matched with strangers. However, Cassia’s carefully ordered life takes an unexpected twist when, upon checking the details of her match, the file containing details of Xander shows not his face but that of another boy she knows, called Ky. Unfortunately this match cannot be since Ky is an aberration and is thus forbidden from being matched. Cassia finds herself in a state of turmoil over choosing the boy chosen for her or the forbidden mysterious stranger. If that final sentence doesn’t make you a little queasy, you’re a stronger YA reader than I.

Before I even get onto the utterly bland stupidity of the romance, the story’s central focus, I must touch on the one thing I did like about “Matched”, and that is the prose. Condie writes beautiful prose, striking a fine balance between a lyrical quality and yet remaining purposeful in her word choice. It’s tougher than it looks and I commend her for that. It works to extremely emotional effect in one particular scene with Cassia and her grandfather. However, the book fails on almost every other level, starting with the world-building.
The premise of an all controlling society is nothing new in fiction. It’s a backbone of dystopian novels and can be written in a highly effective manner. I recommend “The Giver” by Lois Lowry as a strong example, especially given that “Matched” borrows heavily from the tropes used in “The Giver”. Obviously, the Society is originally viewed as a utopia, bringing peace to its citizens, but the main problem with Condie’s Society is that it is completely toothless. Almost every character breaks some sort of rule throughout the story, be it minor or major. If this is a small sample, how does this translate to the Society as a whole? How on earth do they keep order? Given how much free will is allotted to the citizens, I remained baffled as to how they functioned. Surely if people are constantly breaking rules, and know they are doing so, then they are fully aware that their government is not utopian, therefore they become ungovernable? The Society claims to have eradicated certain illnesses, such as cancer, through the matched pairings, but while I’m no doctor, I’m not sure that’s how cancer works.

The Society has set aside 100 of each thing for the citizens to appreciate, such as 100 poems or 100 songs. How are these 100 poems decided out of the immeasurable amount of literature created over the course of thousands of years of human achievement? Let’s look at this logically (since I doubt the Society did): it would make the most sense for the Society to pick 100 American poems, given the location of the story, but which era would they choose, if any? For example, I love Edwin Morgan, and it would be tough enough to pick 100 of his poems to preserve, let alone 100 poems from every poem ever written. Would drama written in verse count? What about works translated from a foreign language? How is a poem deemed suitable? Given the often deeply confessional, political or cultural specific nature of some poets’ work, how can one be sure the poem they choose doesn’t incite some sort of revolution amongst the people? Books are burned in dystopian societies for a reason – because words are power. Some poems require a lot of research and analysis to truly appreciate the power behind them. I’m currently reading a biography of the marriage between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and it’s uncovering so many of the complexities behind each of their work that I’d never even considered before, and I consider myself a huge Plath fan in particular. This particular aspect of the story bugged me quite a bit, especially since I’ve spent hours analysing one stanza of a poem for an essay. The 100 poems choice is made all the more confusing given that the citizens are taught to read but not to write. To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. How is that even possible? In one supposedly touching scene of romance building, Ky teaches Cassia to write, but if she can read perfectly, as is mentioned on more than one occasion, surely she could just see the words in her head and copy them down? There is no real logic behind these decisions made by the Society. The society in “The Giver” works because they have eradicated colour and music and anything creative. Here, Cassia’s world seems utterly ridiculous in comparison. There’s no logic here at all.

Since the romantic element takes up the vast majority of the story, so it must take up the vast majority of my review, unfortunately. To put it succinctly, the romance is awful. It’s the worst of what YA romance has thrown at us over the past 5 years. Dull, insipid, poorly developed, overly reliant on “mysterious”, “brooding”, and other such descriptive words, the love triangle unfolds pretty much as you would expect. It’s the join-the-dots of YA romance, headed by an extremely annoying heroine with absolutely no concept of how basic human emotions work. It’s a very conservative romance, with a simple brushing of hands bringing about emotions in Cassia so extreme, I shudder to think how she’ll cope when she has her first orgasm (yes, I know Condie is a Mormon and that she was inspired to write “Matched” after chaperoning at a high school dance, but the book is terrible enough independent of the author, so separate my thoughts shall remain). I get the thrill of a first crush, we all do on some level, but here it is heightened to such ludicrous proportions that don’t even fit in with the society in which Cassia is living. This all controlling Society decides who you shall marry, but still allows cross-gender interaction and the odd kiss or two amongst the unmatched. Why? I refuse to believe this Society is stupid enough to assume that no child under the age of 16 has ever felt an attraction, physical or emotional, to another human being before they are matched with a spouse for life. We are supposed to believe that Cassia has never felt any attachment, romantic or otherwise, to another person, even subconsciously, before she is matched with her supposed close friend and then all of a sudden, there is a switch which changes everything. This is a world devoid of sexuality, not because the Society dictates it, but because the author has eradicated it and refuses to address it. Which brings me to a side note I must address.

Where the fuck are the gay people in dystopian fiction?

On top of believing that teenage hormones do not exist, the reader is supposed to assume that homosexuality, bisexuality, and anything remotely resembling an LGBTQ lifestyle just does not exist. The matchings exist to create content relationships and strong families, and I get that. However, there is not one single acknowledgement that LGBTQ people even exist in this Society. If Condie had taken a moment to mention that queer lifestyles were outlawed or something similar, I wouldn’t have been happy but there would have been some sort of understanding, but there’s nothing. It’s not that gay people aren’t allowed in the Society, it’s that they don’t even fucking exist, and this makes me so angry. Given the pathetically small percentage of LGBTQ representation in current young adult fiction, to have this seven figure sum selling trilogy, one that publishers fought over to buy, one that was buzzed about for almost a year prior to release, just ignore a significant portion of the population disappoints me. The characters in the book have the option to reject their match and live life as a Single (which also opens up another whole heap of plot holes) so I assume this is what LGBTQ citizens choose? If so, why does the author not acknowledge this? Are LGBTQ people not worth her time, or any dystopian author’s time? Given how much YA likes to pat itself on the back for being so diverse and supporting LGBTQ readers, seeing the most buzzed about books once again focus on the straight pretty skinny white girl in an expensive dress while entirely ignoring LGBTQ people makes me want to vomit.

Back to the romance. Ky is the one Cassia falls for (it’s the biggest shock of the year!) apparently because she’s forbidden to. They barely interact and they know next to nothing about each other, and yet we’re supposed to believe they completely adore each other and will do anything do stay together, as long as it doesn’t stop Cassia from being entirely passive as a heroine. Her supposedly close friendship with Xander is shown to be equally as poorly developed but at least they have conversations together and Xander exhibits a modicum of a personality. Ky’s entire worth as a romantic heroine seems to rest on him being mysterious and forbidding. Call me old fashioned but I’d like to get to know someone before we brush hands and declare our everlasting love. While there is a lot less of the grating angst commonly seen in YA romance when it comes to the heroine choosing between two boys, the fact that Cassia immediately seems to fall for someone she barely knows does nothing to bring me in as a reader. When it is revealed that the romance between Ky and Cassia is also a set up by the Society, for reasons too pointless and ludicrous for me to note, this has no effect on anything. Cassia barely questions her thoughts on the issue, which is odd given how preoccupied she was with the decision between her and Xander. It’s not love, it’s obsession. This forbidden romance also has absolutely no effect on the plot. About 50 pages from the end of one extremely slow read, Cassia’s family are sent to a new location and Ky is sent to another, not because of their romance but because of two entirely unrelated incidents that are barely mentioned in the novel. The entire focus of the story is completely inconsequential to the central plot. Basically, the romance is literally pointless. If that doesn’t irritate you as a reader, I don’t know what will.

This review suggests I am much angrier with this book than I actually am. Aside from the complete erasing of LGBTQ representation (and that rant could easily be applied to any number of big selling YA novels), this book mostly just bored me. It’s lifeless in almost every possible way, bland and comparable to birthday cake icing – pretty to look at but utterly lacking in anything remotely resembling substance. Where Condie’s prose shows a strong level of control over the language, the Society depicted completely lacks it. I’m struggling with a way to properly sum up “Matched” because it was so entirely pointless and forgettable, but it wasn’t atrociously bad. I found “Divergent” to be a far worse book, but there was a note of ambition behind it. “Matched” feels lazy in comparison, far more invested in an entirely inconsequential romance one can find in any number of YA books than in giving dimensions to its characters and the world they inhabit. “Matched” is solid proof that gimmicks can only take you so far in YA, and the same can be said for hype.

Big Brother’s Checklist:

·         World-building: Terrible, frivolous, completely lacking in the logic that is frequently mentioned in reference to it. I spent way more time thinking about the holes in the 100 poems scheme than I should have.
·         Strong premise: It’s a gimmick, pure and simple. A “What if…?” idea that’s good for taglines but not much else. If you’ve read “The Giver” then you may find yourself trying to figure out the percentage of that seven figure advance that Condie owes to Lois Lowry.
·         “Strong female character”: Cassia isn’t supposed to be the kickass heroine Tris was depicted as, but she is described as intelligent on more than one occasion, including by the Society, and yet she remains passive, childish and really annoying throughout.
·         Love triangle: I’m counting this as a yes because, while Cassia is very decisive in her choice between the two potential romantic interests, the reader is still subjected to far too much internal angst from Cassia on the issue.
·         Sense of threat: There isn’t one.
·         Strong villain/antagonist: The Society isn’t a strong enough threat to really register as an antagonist, nor is there another present.
·         Lack of priorities: Romance always works better as a sub-plot unless you can write the hell out of a romance. Brief hand brushing, letters on napkins and mysterious strangers just don’t cut it.
·         Overdone/unnecessary romance: Unnecessary should have been this book’s title.
·         Supporting cast: With the exception of Cassia’s grandfather, who exhibits wit and warmth in the one standout scene of the novel, the supporting cast barely registers. I was interested in learning more about the relationship between Cassia’s parents, but little time was allotted to them.
·         Deeper meaning: There doesn’t seem to be one.
·         General writing quality (pace, plotting, prose): Beautiful prose, terrible plotting, sluggish page. Half a point here.
·         Originality/execution: Read “The Giver” instead.

Bingo count: 11 ½ /12.

Next time on the Orwell Project: Kiera Cass’s “The Selection”, as possibly to be seen on the CW in the near future. I’m also looking for suggestions on how to improve the Big Brother’s checklist. Is there anything I should add or take away? Once again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book and others coming up in the Orwell Project, and if you can recommend a dystopian novel that actually acknowledges LGBTQ people, then you’ll get a gold star and my thanks!

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The Orwell Project: 1 - "Divergent" by Veronica Roth.

Welcome to the first entry in the Orwell Project! Those of you who follow me on twitter may have seen my brief tweets whilst reading the first book on the list, and you may have noticed that my opinions were less than positive. I go into every book with an open mind and aim to give each of them a fair chance, as I did with the Sparkle Project (yes, really), and what better way to start off my exploration into the new dystopian YA craze than with what is arguably the biggest success story of the post-Hunger Games market.

Summary (taken from GoodReads): In a future Chicago, 16-year-old Beatrice Prior must choose among five predetermined factions to define her identity for the rest of her life, a decision made more difficult when she discovers that she is an anomaly who does not fit into any one group, and that the society she lives in is not perfect after all.
Cover impressions: Veronica Roth started writing “Divergent” in college, and was quickly signed up by agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe. The book rose to success at an unusually enthusiastic pace, with a 200,000 copy first run by HarperCollins, and a huge online promotional campaign. The campaign is what interested me the most upon the book’s release. Part of the promotional campaign included a Facebook campaign where you could “discover your faction”, and to me this is a huge reason as to why the book was so successful, certainly selling more copies than similarly themed and promoted novels. A huge attraction of the novel’s concept is the idea of choice, of looking inside yourself and deciding which human traits you value the most, and having your entire life dictated by that choice. As I mentioned before, much of the appeal in teen dystopian novels these days lies in the inherent choices one must make, and the subsequent consequences of that decision. Unfortunately, “Divergent” fails on this front by falling into several major pitfalls of the genre.
The Chicago of the future depicted in “Divergent” is one divided into five factions, with the citizens of each faction devoting their lives to one specific virtue that they consider the most important: Amity (peace), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (intelligence) and Dauntless (bravery). Upon turning 16, each citizen must take a series of tests to discover which faction they are most suited to, but are then given the freedom to choose whichever faction they wish to join later on. This confusion is one of the first big missteps of the novel. Why introduce mandatory tests to find a suitable faction if the citizens then have free will to decide differently?
Beatrice/Tris, our heroine, belongs to Abnegation, but decides to join Dauntless, after receiving inconclusive test results which identify her as Divergent, the name given to those who are shown to possess more than one of the allotted virtues. Once again, the red flags come up, revealing my biggest issue with the novel. The world building makes absolutely no sense. The concept of dystopian societies relies on the notion of a world that seems perfect but is shown to be extremely flawed and often dangerously problematic (an idea many writers and publishers can’t seem to wrap their heads around), but while the concept of a world run by a series of such virtues sounds interesting at first glance, I cannot think of an instance where this would work without someone calling it out. How can you divide humanity into one of five virtues? How on earth can you be brave and not honest, or intelligent and not peaceful? Why would possessing more than one of these virtues be dangerous, as Tris is told? I can understand brainwashing one’s citizens into wholeheartedly believing in this system but by offering choice surely that gives them agency to question it? Those who do not pass initiation are sent out into the outskirts to be faction-less, taking on the grunt jobs and living on hand-outs, and yet the possibility of a completely justifiable uprising is never mentioned. Even if the society of this world had been watertight in its depiction of an entirely subservient society, I can’t imagine those without factions not rebelling in some way. The way in which every character just accepts this, along with every other world-building hole, felt lazy.
How on earth is this system governed? It is mentioned that Abnegation are in charge of politics of the city because of their selflessness, which sounds divine in terms of contemporary politicians, but who decided this? How can one be selfless when it is one’s job to dictate to others how to rule their lives? We’re given no indication of how the rest of America outside of Chicago works, which constantly raised questions as to the function of local government versus the role of Washington and the Congress and Senate (granted, I’m a politics geek so I doubt most teenagers are stressing over this like I am). Tris also attends high school with other factions, which logically makes no sense since surely allowing such a system would only encourage rebellion. Each faction is assigned a different job to do but the idea that each position would only require one virtue is ridiculous and illogical. This complete lack of sense is present throughout the entire book and is impossible to overlook. I cannot invest in a novel that leaves me asking so many questions. The concept and its lack of thought reminded me of Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium”, set in a world where love is a disease. It sounds like an interesting concept until it’s thought about for longer than five seconds.
Upon leaving Abnegation, Tris is sent to the Dauntless camp to begin her training for initiation. The biggest chunk of the book is spent in what I find easiest to describe as an extended training montage. Since the Dauntless value bravery above all else, naturally their training process is like a big adventure camp, complete with punch-ups, tattoos and paintballing. These frivolous activities are supposed to be what proves, for the biggest part of the story anyway, who the truly brave are. The Dauntless spend a lot of time getting tattoos, dying their hair wild colours and generally dressing like Sex Pistols fans. The definition of bravery presented is questionable at best. The stakes, which make Dauntless seem more like a summer camp than a truly life-changing initiation, are set ridiculously low, except for the frequent punch-ups the trainees must go through. While this element of the world is questioned by Tris, she buys into it ultimately but I don’t – why is violence brave? Surely the braver thing would be to say no? This element is set up for a later pay-off into the evils of another faction but once again the mishandling of the world-building raises some questions. Who is monitoring the factions? Leaving them self-governed is just asking for trouble. There’s no authority present, which also means there’s no real villain or sense of threat. The closest the novel comes to having a villain is the opposing faction Erudite, because apparently valuing intelligence makes one instantly maniacal and ready to take over the world. There’s a less than subtle anti-intellectual tone throughout the book which seriously annoyed me. The inherent premise of the book is where the issue of this lies, but given that the supposedly heroic Dauntless are happily beating up each other, I fail to see them in a better light than those who value intellect. One of the tensions of the novel lies in Erudite’s slandering of Abnegation, yet one would expect Candor to be doing their job of being honest about the inherent flaws of the city’s governmental rule. Once again, too many questions.
The stakes are raised in the second stage of initiation when Tris and company must go through extremely life-like hallucinations of their worst fears to learn to overcome them (because the true definition of bravery is overcoming one’s fear being attacked by rabid birds). Given that not much of any true consequence happens throughout this large portion of the book, I was disappointed by the lack of real character development, both for Tris and the supporting cast. I genuinely forgot the names of several of the Dauntless trainees, who remain distinguishable only by their token roles – best friend, love interest, bully – while Tris veered between cold, dull and a bit of a hypocrite. She has a distinct lack of compassion that I found to be a complete turn-off due to the inconsistencies of her depiction. While Tris admits she is too selfish to stay in Abnegation, but this doesn’t explain her often cruel nature as well as her habit of passing judgement on everyone. Characters exist to serve purposes and not much else. Peter is a bully and not much else. Al is the nice boy having trouble fitting in until he suddenly turns bad then kills himself for a cheap emotional pay-off. Not one supporting character makes a lasting impression and all feel entirely disposable.
 Of course, her emotions change quickly for the romantic interest, Four, who I am sorry but not at all surprised to say is a typical YA jerk. Then again, I can’t think of many YA romantic leads who managed to draw blood from their supposed true love. I tend to get very angry when the “I was only trying to protect you” card is played in any novel, but here it angered me more than usual since “trying to protect” Tris includes physically hurting her, demeaning and humiliating her in front of others and treating her like a child (although she is often immature and dim-witted). Of course, he also has a tortured past and is brooding but gentle and loving, ticking off so many clichés in one swoop. The fact that the supposedly strong Tris falls for this hook, line and sinker entirely contradicted her depiction as a “strong female character”. It does not help that Tris seems to pick up each part of her training with ease. I’m not sure knife throwing and using a gun (something Tris finds a lot of security in, and don’t even get me started on the pro-gun stuff) are something that just come naturally.
The moral element of the novel feels shoehorned in. Tris makes references to God and praying but we are given no sense of the role of religion in this society. While the factions suggest an inherently Christian foundation to the city’s new rule, there’s no depth to this, nor any real rules put in place. It’s difficult to imagine a society without religion, or something resembling a religious element, be it the “worship” of a leader or the following of a divine theistic being, and I think the world of the novel would be much more complex and interesting if this was explored in more depth, but the author can’t just add a few references to God and hope for the best, especially when most of what the societies do to rule their city contradicts the inherent teachings of God and Jesus.
In terms of general prose, pacing, etc, the novel is serviceable at best and plodding at worst. Clocking in at almost 500 pages, the story feels sluggish, poorly developed and more concerned with an extended action montage than any semblance of developing its poorly structured society and undeveloped characters. I have no issue with the novel’s less than original concept since strong execution can more than make up for that, but there are too many holes in this novel for me to ignore. One cannot shove the major plot developments into the final 50 pages after expecting the reader to trudge through such boredom for so long. And here’s my biggest issue beyond the basic structuring of the novel – this is a world where the essential message is those who value intelligence are all greedy, selfish, power-hungry schemers who are working to take over and destroy all that is good and selfless, and if those who are truly “brave” need to shoot them in the head to stop them, so be it. Dystopian fiction is inherently political, I have no problem with authors taking a specific slant, even if it’s one that directly contradicts my own politics, but the basic premise of “Divergent” is one that is flawed to the extreme, and one that any reader can pick apart within 10 minutes of the first page. Tris may express disagreement with the violence of Dauntless but she is only happy to use it herself, frequently, and it always works. The generalisation and complete misunderstanding of basic human thinking is mind-boggling. “Divergent” is weak in almost every way. Its world-building has more holes than Princes Street’s tram building project, weak characterisation, plodding pacing, predictable and tired romance and inherently fails in its objective. Needless to say I will not be reading the sequel.
Big Brother’s Checklist:
·         World-building: Utter failure for all the reasons I mentioned above.
·         Strong premise: Falls apart very quickly and is entirely illogical.
·         “Strong female character”: The quotation marks are there for irony’s sake, as seen in the hilarious Kate Beaton cartoon. Tris is weak, frequently contradicts herself and is all too quick to fall into the romantic damsel mode, which isn’t particularly suggestive of brave. I also deeply resent her supposed displays of bravery when they rely so heavily on contradicting everything she supposedly stood for.
·         Love triangle: Thankfully no, although I was fearful for one moment.
·         Sense of threat: There isn’t one.
·         Strong villain/antagonist: Making intelligence your villain without any real development or explanation will not win me over.
·         Lack of priorities: The entire Dauntless faction lives for this. Paintballing is a display of bravery?
·         Overdone/unnecessary romance: Four is a jerk who will undoubtedly prove to be a popular romantic hero in all his clichéd wonder, but he was entirely useless and unnecessary as a character, and his treatment of Tris was in no way “protecting” her.
·         Supporting cast: Weak, poorly developed, seemingly only there to provide useful exposition and serve convenient roles when the occasion called for it.
·         Deeper meaning: Intelligence is BAD!
·         General writing quality (pace, plotting, prose): Serviceable to weak. I hate to bring an author’s age into the equation since it’s often used as a lazy smear and proves to be inaccurate a lot of the time (Hannah Moskowitz is two years younger than me and continues to knock my socks off with her talent), but the immaturity of the storytelling is painfully evident in places, but remains readable, even when the pacing and lack of development is a turn-off.
·         Originality/execution: Weak. I seem to be using that word a lot but it feels the most fitting.
Bingo count: 11/12.

Next time on the Orwell Project: I honestly have no idea. I’m waiting on a few books arriving from the library so I will update this entry when I have more information, or post it on Twitter (@Ceilidhann).

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After the Games: The Orwell Project.

The Summer I began the Sparkle Project, my YA review venture into the world of Twilight inspired paranormal romance and its reoccurring problematic elements, saw the release date for the 3rd and final book in the wildly popular Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. I must admit that it took me far too long – until this February, just before the movie was released – to read The Hunger Games, and that was for a number of reasons. One, I have become pretty averse to hype in young adult literature due to having been immersed in it for almost two years now. Two, I was extremely annoyed by publishers heavily promoting a YA series once again through a Team [insert man here] strategy, dumbing down any complexities the series and its heroine may have into one rehashed love triangle. And three, I’m a huge dystopian fiction fan. The Handmaid’s Tale proudly sits on the list of my all-time favourite books. When a writer of particular skill or imagination tackles the topic of a twisted society, the results can be extraordinary, eliciting genuine fear and understanding from the reader, and reminding us a little too much of the possibilities that could spring from our own world. I know I’m not the only one who viewed the recent contraception debate in America and thought about Offred. The jargon of these novels have entered everyday language, from Newspeak to Big Brother and beyond. It’s not hard to see why the genre is so alluring to readers of all ages.

So why has it become so popular in YA? In my opinion, part of that has to do with the excitement element. There’s just a whole lot more happening in dystopian YA novels than most of the romance centred paranormal reads that have dominated the bookshelves and continue to do so. The possibilities are endless. Whereas the paranormal romances present a somewhat fetishized image of love conquering all, dystopian fiction offers something else; tough decisions, although the same heightened emotions are there. These novels also have strong connections to contemporary socio-political commentary, acting as mirrors to the world they inhabit. Of course, there’s also romance. While PNR presents forbidden love surviving the boundaries of mythology, dystopian pushes romance head first into societies that forbid it. The role of romance still plays a heavy part in the marketing of these novels in a similar manner to the Team Boy publicity that I oh so despise, because it’s still profitable. Whether it appeals to me or not, there’s something appealing to the demographics about forbidden love in all its forms, and this is a new outlet for it. Given the rumblings that Suzanne Collins was asked to add more of the pointless love triangle element into her series by the publishers, I can’t help but feel as if we’re stuck in a rut, even if we have moved on from sparkles. I have found myself disappointed with the dystopian YAs I have read so far (Delirium, Wither, Enclave and The Pledge), but this fad still has some steam left, so I am announcing my new blog venture:

After the Games: The Orwell Project.

(Thanks to Paige for the name suggestion).

I have picked 10 dystopian YA novels that have received varying levels of publicity, acclaim and commercial success. Some of you may notice that a few notable novels are missing, which is explained in the rules below. I have reviewed each of these novels and will include mention of them throughout the various discussions. I also wish to note that this project will not take on the same form as the Sparkle Project. I’m afraid my days of snarky recaps are over. I am extremely grateful for every view and comment these reviews received, and if it wasn’t for them I would not still be blogging today. However, I’ve grown as a reviewer since then and feel the more straightforward analytical approach would work best here. Besides, I wouldn’t want to subject you all to the pain that is my attempts to be funny! If you wish to read along with me, that would be great!


·         Each book must have been published post-Mockingjay.

·         The book must either be a stand-alone or the first in a series.

·         It must have been advertised, hyped or otherwise described in terms of being the next Hunger Games, or a twist on the novel, or any sort of emphasis on its dystopian elements.

·         It must be something I have not read before.

The list of books I shall be reading, in no particular order, are as follows:

·         Divergent (Veronica Roth)
·         Matched (Ally Condie)
·         Glow (Amy Kathleen Ryan)
·         The Selection (Kiera Cass)
·         Shatter Me (Tahereh Mafi)
·         Legend (Marie Lu)
·         Possession (Elana Johnson)
·         XVI (Julia Karr)
·         Eve (Anna Carey)
·         Blood Red Road (Moira Young)

I have not yet compiled my dystopian bingo card to accompany each review, but I will provide one as soon as possible. Each review will be posted simultaneously on my blog and my LiveJournal page, then will be added to GoodReads at a later date. Stay tuned for my first review – Divergent by Veronica Roth – next week! 

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Review: "Bad Hair Day" by Carrie Harris.

“Bad Hair Day”

Author: Carrie Harris

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Pages: 240

Summary (taken from GoodReads): Senior year is positively hair-raising.

Kate Grable is geeked out to shadow the county medical examiner as part of her school’s pre-med program. Except when he’s arrested for murder, she’s left with the bodies. And when Kate’s brother Jonah stumbles upon a dead gamer girl, she realizes that the zombie epidemic she cured last fall was only the beginning of the weirdness taking over her town. Someone’s murdering kids—something really hairy. And strong. Possibly with claws.

Is it werewolf awesomeness like Jonah and his dorktastic friends think? Kate’s supposed to be a butt-kicking zombie killing genius...but if she can’t figure out who’s behind the freakish attacks, the victims—or what’s left of them—are going to keep piling up.

It’s scary. It’s twisted. It’s sick. It’s high school.

Cover impressions: I had the first book in the series, “Bad Taste in Boys” on my radar thanks to its gleefully kitsch 50s sci-fi B-movie synopsis yet never got around to reading it, mainly because I could never find it in UK and I’m too cheap to pay for shipping. I began reading the 2nd in the series with the typical hesitations of a reader coming into a series without the full story, but luckily it was easy enough to pick up in this short, if tiresome read. Once again, this is a paranormal YA that promises big and doesn’t deliver.

I really should have written this review straight after finishing the book, but university work got in the way, because it was entirely forgettable and I’m having trouble remembering simple elements such as character names. This isn’t a good sign. Unfortunately, “Bad Hair Day” is generic in every sense of the word. The heroine is the geek who doesn’t know she’s pretty, the handsome but bland love interest, the shoe-horned in romantic conflict, the quirky but mostly absent parents and sibling, the casual disparaging comments towards girls who present a threat – they’re all here. At times it feels like join-the-dots storytelling, especially since the pacing for this short book is completely erratic, veering between fumbled exposition and drawn out and entirely unnecessary romance subplot and shorts bursts of action that do nothing to liven up what should be a short, silly read. Despite the attempts at humour – and I did snigger once or twice – the book never fully decides whether it wants to be a camp take on kitschy horror and sci-fi or a conventional paranormal tale. I’m personally quite disappointed that it didn’t take the latter route since the genre desperately needs less po-faced seriousness.

The book reads younger than YA, with the immaturity of the supposed genius teenage heroine seeming more suited to a middle-grade character. There is potential present in the spin on the zombie and werewolf mythos, grounding it in science rather than legend, but it falls flat due to painful exposition and a lack of focus. There’s nothing in this book to outright hate, it’s just too bland and inoffensive for that.


My ARC was received from "Bad Hair Day" will be released in USA on 13th November 2012.

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Review: "Enclave" by Ann Aguirre


Author: Ann Aguirre

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends

Pages: 259

Summary (taken from GoodReads): In Deuce’s world, people earn the right to a name only if they survive their first fifteen years. By that point, each unnamed ‘brat’ has trained into one of three groups–Breeders, Builders, or Hunters, identifiable by the number of scars they bear on their arms. Deuce has wanted to be a Huntress for as long as she can remember.

As a Huntress, her purpose is clear—to brave the dangerous tunnels outside the enclave and bring back meat to feed the group while evading ferocious monsters known as Freaks. She’s worked toward this goal her whole life, and nothing’s going to stop her, not even a beautiful, brooding Hunter named Fade. When the mysterious boy becomes her partner, Deuce’s troubles are just beginning.

Down below, deviation from the rules is punished swiftly and harshly, and Fade doesn’t like following orders. At first Deuce thinks he’s crazy, but as death stalks their sanctuary, and it becomes clear the elders don’t always know best, Deuce wonders if Fade might be telling the truth. Her partner confuses her; she’s never known a boy like him before, as prone to touching her gently as using his knives with feral grace.

As Deuce’s perception shifts, so does the balance in the constant battle for survival. The mindless Freaks, once considered a threat only due to their sheer numbers, show signs of cunning and strategy… but the elders refuse to heed any warnings. Despite imminent disaster, the enclave puts their faith in strictures and sacrifice instead. No matter how she tries, Deuce cannot stem the dark tide that carries her far from the only world she’s ever known.

Cover impressions: After receiving a copy of this book from GoodReads friend Lucy, I was immediately drawn to the Publisher’s Weekly quote declaring the book to be “for fans of The Hunger Games”. Such comparison quotes, while attention grabbing and common practice amongst publishers, immediately set up a certain level of expectations, even in the most cynical of readers. While I haven’t actually finished reading The Hunger Games yet (I’ll get round to it eventually, I swear!), I began this book with the same expectations I have for every dystopian novel – strong world-building and a real threat & sense of danger.

There are books that make me consider discarding use of the flawed star rating system for reviews. Sometimes it’s close to impossible to summarise the qualities of a book into a simple rating out of 5, 10 or however one chooses to do so. A book can be a relatively enjoyable and competently written piece of work that would otherwise deserve a solid rating, but a certain element, event, etc, can bring its rating tumbling down. This happened to me with Sarah Beth Durst’s “Ice” and it happened with “Enclave”. But before I get to why I cannot give this book anything higher than one star, I shall discuss other elements of the book that succeed and fail.

I’m sure you’re all sick of me going on and on about this but the foundations of a strong dystopian novel lie in its world-building. Unusual or disturbing events can’t just happen for shock value. They need to be rooted in the origins of the society, grounded in reason, meaning the reason of this world. This fundamental lack of reason within the world-building in “Enclave” left more than a few questions unanswered. The underground society Deuce lives in does not name its young, known as brats, until a specific age, which is never mentioned. Why? There doesn’t seem to be any specific reasoning behind this rule and seems too impractical to fit in with a world that works to prove itself as fundamentally practical. There are hints of a cult-like mentality to the ruling class of the world but it’s barely touched upon and leaves us with half-built reasoning. Children are sanctioned into one of three groups – warriors, builders or breeders – yet the reasons for specific grouping once again seem at odds with the necessary practicality & needs of this society. One breeder, Deuce’s friend, is seen as ideal for his calling because he is handsome, but I failed to see why this would be a relevant quality in a world where death & disease are rampant. Other extremely questions go unanswered – how does this enclave have clean water after generations underground? How does Deuce go from a lifetime underground to full on exposure to sunlight and only get slightly burned with no damage to her eyesight?

The writing itself is adequate, if simple, and has well-paced action scenes, although the overall pacing is erratic. Certain scenes are evident padding and clumsy plotting, which coupled with several under-developed plot points proves to be somewhat frustrating. No character other than the heroine is given adequate time to develop beyond basic tropes, although I did warm to Deuce somewhat throughout the first half of the novel. However, it is one particular character and how others react to him that soured things for me.

A little more than midway through the novel, Deuce is kidnapped by a gang who make their intentions towards her clear – they intend to use her for breeding purposes, forcefully if need be. Later we are introduced to Tegan, a fellow kidnapped woman who has been raped repeatedly and given birth to stillborn children. After altercations with the story’s main monsters, the Freaks, the head of the gang, Stalker (yes, really), decides he will go along with Deuce, Tegan and main love interest Fade in order to have a better chance of surviving. Fade and Deuce agree to this, despite Tegan’s protests that she does not feel safe around the leader of the gang of rapists who repeatedly violated her for years. Later on, Stalker pushes Deuce against a tree and kisses her.

Deuce reciprocates.

I’ve made my thoughts clear on the ‘bad boy’ trope in YA; I don’t like it. I understand the fantasy behind being the one girl who changes the rebel but ultimately I think it’s a problematic trope that is all too often used as an excuse to have the love interest treat the heroine like dirt, often being rough with her and belittling her.

Patch from “Hush Hush” held his love interest against a bed and talked about how much he wanted to kill her after stalking her, harassing her and generally making her feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

Stalker is the leader of a gang of rapists. It is hinted at in the book that he has raped women before. It is also implied that he may have raped Deuce during her kidnapped period.

He is presented as a potential love interest to Deuce.

The aim of a good dystopian novel is to create a sense of dread. I have seen rape mentioned in other dystopian novels and within the constraints of this world where humans die young and need to reproduce quickly, it makes sense that a patriarchy dominated society would view women in such a manner. However, I have never seen rape used so casually and tossed aside so simply by a character and an author in a YA novel. There is a cruel lack of empathy for Tegan in “Enclave”. Even within the constraints of the novel’s world, one ruled by social Darwinism, to force Tegan to interact daily with the man who stood by & let her be raped repeatedly, possibly ordering the rapes himself or even engaging in the horrific act himself, is baffling at best and disgusting at worst. As the novel progresses, Tegan grows (lazily from a characterisation point-of-view) from a victim into a ‘strong’ young woman who can fight back, but all I could think about was how her rape was used in such a cavalier fashion. Deuce, who started off with such potential (even if she did fall into the typical romantic plot tropes with mysterious bad boy Fade), does not question Stalker or his past actions. Instead, she lays some of the blame on Tegan. The dismissive attitude she has towards a victim of multiple rapes is abhorrent. At one point she asks herself how Tegan could have been so weak as to allow the events to happen. Deuce’s general attitude is that life is tough, and if she can suck it up and get on with her life, so can Tegan. Even within the context of the novel, this felt wrong on every level. Deuce, who had previously shown moments of true empathy, becomes someone who sympathises more with a rapist than the victim of rape. I shouldn’t even have to explain why this made me sick. And that’s why I can’t give this book anything more than one star.

I don’t expect every book in the world to be a beacon of social justice and feminism; that would be stupid. What I do expect is for a book to follow the rules it sets for itself. “Enclave” fails on this thanks to its inconsistent and confusing choices in its world-building, which seem to exist more for shock value than any real sense of reason. It’s a mediocre novel that becomes disgusting when something as serious, life changing and horrific as rape is used so clumsily. Rape is NEVER the woman’s fault. She’s never ‘asking for it’ and she’s certainly never deserving of pity or scorn because she was unable to fight back. Bad boys are problematic enough, but making a rapist not only a sympathetic character, one who receives a degree of sympathy from the heroine not rewarded to the victim, but a potential love interest is flat-out inexcusable.


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