The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive.”
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Others in the series: The Handmaid’s Tale
Content: There is an instance of sexual assault, some violence (some of which is pretty graphic), and instances of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to preface this with a couple of caveats: I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in about 10 years, though I have kids who have read it more recently and have talked to me about it. I remember basic plot points of the book, but not specifics. And, I have not (yet; I’m kind of curious now that I’ve finished this one) watched the series on Hulu. I think having watched the series and/or having read the book more recently may have an impact on your opinion of this one.

The Testaments follows three women: Aunt Lydia, who was there at the beginning of Gilead, and chose to become part of the founding structure of the regime; Agnes Jemima, who was born in Gilead and was raised to believe in its teachings; and Daisy, who was born in Gilead, but whose mother, a Handmaid, escaped north to Canada and who was raised by a couple there. The narratives intertwine and go back and forth through time; we find out through Aunt Lydia what happened when Giliead was formed, and the choices she made to become in the position of power she is currently in. We find out through Agnes what is being taught to the generation of girls that has since been born. and the challenges they face. And from Daisy, we find out not only what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead, but the future of it.

It’s a fascinating book to read, though I’m not entirely sure it’s 1) coherent with the world Atwood put out in the Handmaid’s Tale (see above caveat) and 2) necessary. It’s really all about the downfall of Gilead, because in Atwood’s view, no matter how “pure” or “righteous” your intent setting out, we are all human and, therefore, corrupt, and any system of government built upon anything but basic human rights for all is bound to fall. I’m not sure how I feel about that — it seems easy to believe that the Commander in charge of Gilead, Commander Judd, was inherently corrupt from the start and just did all this as a power grab and because he’d like any excuse to “marry” and kill off a series of increasingly younger brides. It’s disgusting, but I’m not sure it serves a purpose except to prove that all men who crave power are disgusting and corrupt. (Which may or may not be the case.)

But it’s Atwood, and her writing is engaging, and the storytelling interesting, and while it’s not as harrowing as Handmaid’s Tale was when I first read it, it’s definitely got a bit of a warning: dismiss the power of women at your own peril.

And maybe this is the book we need for this time in history.

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe

by Ally Condie
First sentence: “Call tells me he sees a star and that makes me laugh.”
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Release date: March 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In this near-future, dystopian world, Poe is a member of the Outpost, a group of people who mine the river for gold and basically try to survive. (From what, we don’t know). They are up against the raiders, every time they take to the rivers, and when Poe is on her first voyage, the raiders kill her love, Call. So, she vows revenge. She creates an impenetrable armor for the ships as they dredge the rivers, collecting gold. And now, it’s her last voyage, the one on the biggest river, the one where she’s captain. The one where she will get revenge for Call’s death.

And then everything goes. wrong.

I wanted to love this one. I wanted it to be fierce girls taking on the patriarchy, overturning everything, breaking free from the bondage of male rule. But, what I got was one girl, grieving for a lost love, building a weapon out of revenge, and her personal journey to enlightenment. Not that it was a bad journey: I liked Poe, and I thought that (for the most part) her journey from one side of the conflict to the other was believable. Maybe a bit rushed, but understandable. Mostly I felt this book was an exploration of the anger stage of grief, and how a person gets through to acceptance and moving on. Which is fine and all, but not what I wanted out of the story. (For a much better girls taking on the patriarchy book, check out Anne Ursu’s The Lost Girl)

Spill Zone

by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland
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Content: It’s got several swear words, including at least one f-bomb. It’s in the Graphic Novel  (the teen graphic novels got absorbed by the regular graphic novels) section of the bookstore.

Addison is living on the outskirts of the Spill Zone, what used to be the city of Poughkeepsie until something happened  that turned it into a wasteland. She’s taking care of her younger sister, Lena, who was one of the kids that got out of the Zone right when it happened. Unfortunately, their parents never made it.

Addison supports the two of them by venturing into the Zone, which is illegal, and taking pictures of the weirdness that goes on there. She has a bunch of rules — never interact, never get off her bike — and she never, ever takes pictures of the “meat puppets”, the people who are still in the Zone.

That is, until a wealthy benefactor pays Addison to go get something from in the hospital…

This is a weird, trippy book. That’s not to say it isn’t good. The world that Westerfeld and Puvilland have created is incredibly compelling. And the art is fantsatical, especially the parts when Addison is in the Zone. It’s (unfortunately) a start of a series (there will be at least a sequel!) so it creates more questions than it answers (like: why does the doll talk to Lena? Why does the doll need to be recharged? What was the “accident” that created the Zone? Why is there a flying North Korean kid? I need answers!). But it’s an incredible start.

Audiobook: Flawed

flawedby Cecelia Ahern
Read by Aysha Kala
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s a somewhat graphic branding scene, some teen drinking (but the main character doesn’t) and an uncomfortable scene where I was afraid there would be a rape (there wasn’t). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

First a story: our Macmillan rep is an older gentleman, whose tastes run towards history and thrillers. But, being a good rep, he does read some of the kids stuff (he does both). And, every once in a while, he finds a YA he really likes.  This is the second time I’ve kind of said “yeah, yeah” to one of his recommendations (the first time was Cinder). I was going to get around to this one. Eventually. But then, he was kind, and sent me the audio version (which he REALLY liked) and I figured I should give it a shot.

I just need to learn to trust him: this was really good.

The problem is that it doesn’t really have a good hook. It’s a society (loosely based in England, or that may just have been the narrator’s English accent) in which they’ve developed a court system to judge people’s morality. If they find anyone to be morally or ethically wanting, they deem them Flawed, brand their skin and impose a whole ton of rules on them. They aren’t allowed to have children, they have restricted diets and a curfew, they aren’t allowed to congregate in more than groups of two. They have different restrooms, assigned seats on the bus… you get the picture.

Our main character, Celestine, on the other hand, is perfect. She has the perfect boyfriend (the son of the Flawed Court’s head judge), she has the perfect grades, the perfect family, the perfect clothes, the perfect life. Then, her next door neighbor gets hauled into the court for adhering to her mother’s wishes to be euthanized. Which gets Celestine thinking: maybe there’s something not quite right about the Flawed Court? And so, when she encounters an older Flawed man on the bus having a bad asthma attack, but doesn’t have a place to sit, Celestine helps him. Which lands her in the Flawed Court for aiding a Flawed.

And that’s just the beginning of Celestine’s journey. This is really just a set up for a bigger conclusion (due out in the spring), but it’s a fascinating one. I do have to admit that I was often annoyed with Celestine, especially her dependence on boys, but other than that, it was really good. I loved the comparisons to racism, from the segregation to a riot that broke out near the end of the book. I really liked the world that Ahern built; while it’s vaguely dystopian, it isn’t futuristic or mystical.

It’s definitely worth reading.

Proxy

proxyby Alex London
First sentence: “Even a perfect machine wasn’t built to go this fast.”
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Content: There’s a lot of violence, including several deaths that, while not graphic, are a bit shocking. There’s also some futuristic drug use. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In this vision of the future, there are those who have and those who have not. Syd is one of those who have not; in order to pay for the debt in incurred by being alive, he was forced to become a proxy for the child of a rich man. It works like this: the rich man takes on Syd’s debt, and in return, Syd takes on the punishments every time the child — Knox — gets in trouble. Seems fair, right? Except, it’s not that simple. It’s people’s lives they’re casually playing with, and Knox is exceptionally reckless. And when he accidentally kills a girl and Syd is condemned to die, Syd’s had enough: he’s going to escape this hellhole. But things aren’t as straight-forward as Syd thinks, either. And soon, Syd and Knox are on the run from a lot of people, and end up way over their heads.

I liked this one. It’s a smart vision of the future — dystopian, yes, but it’s the capitalistic system that’s become the cruel overlord rather than the government. He’s playing with class and debt and the relationships between the two. There’s a bit of chosen-one-ness going on here as well, but I thought London resolved it in a unexpected way. He definitely kept me turning pages, and I found that even the more annoying characters (Knox…) had layers to them. I hadn’t read anything by London before, and this was a great starting place.

And the best thing? I don’t have to wait for the sequel to come out!

Monsters of Men

monstersofmenby Patrick Ness
First sentence: “‘War,’ says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting.”
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Others in the series: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer
Content: It’s a violent book — it’s a violent series — and no one is safe. It’s also emotionally difficult. That, and mild swearing, puts it in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested 6th grader.

This is a big, difficult book to get through. Not because of the length (though it is nearly 600 pages), but because of the emotional content of this. I’m incredibly glad I’ve had a book group to read this one with because otherwise it would have been much too difficult to handle.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so let’s just say that everything culminates in this one, and that characters you thought you knew you find out you don’t. That nothing is safe, and that (especially this) war is an awful thing and unless someone takes the higher road, there will be no end to it.

The thing that has surprised me most about this series is how relevant it still is. The best thing speculative fiction does is explore the issues in the world, and this one takes war, terrorism, and power head on. It’s brilliant in its portrayal of colonization, of the way people grab and hold on to power, and the sacrifices it takes to make it all just stop.

I’m usually disappointed with endings, but this one fit the series. Harsh and brutal, and yet hopeful, it didn’t make me cry, but I definitely respected what Ness did.

A very, very good series overall.

The Ask and the Answer

askandanswerby Patrick Ness
First sentence: “‘Your noise reveals you, Todd Hewitt.'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Content: There’s some violence, but nothing gory, and there’s a few mild swear words. It is, however, not for the faint of heart. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first one. You’ve been warned.

Todd and Viola thought they were going to find relief in Haven when they got there. What they found, though, was that Mayor Prentiss had beat them there, taken over the town in a bloodless coup, and is in power. Scary.

He separates Todd and Viola, taking him under his wing and threatening her life if he doesn’t comply. He sends Viola to live with the women in the healing houses. Where she meets the leader of the resistance, Mistress Coyle, and becomes involved with them. Neither one knows, for a good portion of the book, whether the other is alive. The only thing they do know is that they can’t trust anyone.

It’s a harrowing book: there are abuses towards women and towards the alien Spackle. And I can see what Ness is doing here: how many people do what their awful leaders tell them to do just because it’s the path of least resistance. And whether or not people fighting against a dictator can be consider terrorists. Like the first one, there’s a lot to think about. And even though it’s good, I found it hard to get through. Mayor Prentiss is a despicable character (maybe not as bad as Leck, but close) who does awful things and it made this book difficult to read, emotionally.

Which means, I think, that Ness did his job. And I’m wondering where the last book will go.