Audiobook: Flawed

flawedby Cecelia Ahern
Read by Aysha Kala
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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.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

knifeofneverby Patrick Ness
First sentence: “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s the anxiety factor plus a lot of violence plus the f-bomb a couple of times (though the main character says “eff” a lot). It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown in the New World. He’s waiting for his thirteenth birthday, which will come soon, and then he will become a man and join the other men in the town (and there’s only men). It’s an interesting place, this New World — there’s a virus that makes men’s thoughts (and only men, not women) audible, so not only is there no secrets, it’s chaotic hearing everyone else’s thoughts. But, as Todd is out gathering apples in the swamp, he encounters something he’s never experienced before: silence. Quiet. A gap in the Noise which turns out to be a girl.

Viola is part of a new wave of settlers to the New World, on the initial scouting ship. Her parents died in a crash, and when she finds Todd, she’s on the run from Aaron, who is Prentisstown’s fanatic religious leader. Then Todd is sent into exile and he and Viola are on the run, one step ahead of not only the insane Aaron, but the controlling mayor of Prentisstown and his army of fanatics.

There’s way too much to unpack in this novel in a blog post. Seriously. I’m glad I’m reading this as part of a book group, because I don’t think I could even begin to process it on my own. It’s a weird sort of mix between old-timey (the book is in a sort of dialect) Western and science fiction-y futuristic. It’s a survival story with a hint of dystopian. It’s weird and wild and gave me anxiety over and over again (!) and I practically read the whole 480 page book in two sittings. It’s engrossing and there’s so much to discuss. And even though it was written eight years ago, it’s still so very relevant.

My only complaint? The cliffhanger ending. ARGH. I’m just glad I can pick the next book up and read it right away, and I don’t have to wait for it to come out.

Shadows of Sherwood

by Kekla Magoon
First sentence: “The sign on the fence said BEWARE OF DOGS.”
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Content: There’s some violence, but it’s mild, as well as some intense action. I would say the reading level is 5th grade and up, but I’d give it to a 4th grader who was interested. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Robyn has had a good life, one of luxury living in Loxley mansion. She has loving parents — one white, one black — she has everything she needs, and she even manages to sneak out once in a while to go to the dump to look for old tech so she can fiddle around.

Then, in one night her life changes: when she goes to sneak back in from a tech run, she discovers that the MPs, under the direction of Crown who has declared himself dictator of Nott City, have taken her parents. She’s on her own.

Notice anything familiar there? Yes? Good. The re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend is one of the best things in the book. It’s basically Robyn’s origin story: she flees the house, ends up in jail, escapes, and becomes a fugitive. She meets a street girl, Laurel; a mysterious boy with a pretty sweet tree house; another tech wizard, Scarlett; and a student of religion, Tucker. She even has a friend from her days in the Crown District, Crown’s niece, Maryann. I loved seeing how it all fit in with the old legends.

But this one is so much more than that as well. While it could be contemporary, it feels vaguely futuristic and distopian, and there’s a bit of Moon Lore that deals with prophecies (but no magic yet). It’s very tech-savvy with portable pads and scanners and imbedded chips that allow the government to identify everyone.

It’s a very action-packed book, with chases and near escapes. Sure, there are moments of melancholy — it takes Robyn much too long to gather her team and figure out how to work with them — and the moon lore stuff seems kind of tacked on. But I didn’t mind it so much because I was so very tickled with the Robin Hood element of the story. It made me happy to see a bi-racial girl take center stage and have her identity mean more than just the color of her skin. It also made me happy to have a range of interests and both male and female kids playing multiple roles, none of which are tied to their gender.

It definitely sets itself up for a sequel, which I am eagerly anticipating.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau
First sentence: “Graduation Day.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s violent, but not graphically so. And there’s kissing, but no sex. Which means it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. However, much like Hunger Games, I’d be wary of more sensitive readers liking it.

This book has been out for two years now, and I’ve been putting it off for just as long. Mostly because the whole post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre has been SO overdone, that I really didn’t want to read yet another one.

Then we scheduled Charbonneau to come to the store — they’ve been working on it since the first one came out and the rep mentioned it was set in a futuristic Wichita — and I was tasked with reading and reviewing the book before she gets here. And so I did, smacking myself when I finished for waiting too long to get around to this one.

Sixteen-year-old Cia Vale has just graduated from her colony’s small school near the top of her class. She’s excited: in this post-Seven Stages War America, now called the United Commonwealth, that means she’s likely to be chosen to attend The Testing in the capitol, Tosu City (aka Wichita, though it took me nearly the whole book to figure that out). Except her father — a former Testing candidate and University graduate himself — doesn’t want her to go. However, once Cia’s been chosen, she can’t say no; refusing the Testing is an act of treason, punishable by death.

So, Cia travels to Tosu City with her father’s warning — TRUST NO ONE — echoing in her ears, and discovers what he meant. The Testing is not just high-pressure and high-competition for the twenty university slots. It’s deadly.

While the plotting and writing isn’t as tight as Suzanne Collins’s, it’s still a quick, engaging read. Charbonneau sets the stakes high right away, with Cia’s roommate committing suicide, and doesn’t let up until the final pages of the book. There are twists and turns — some of which I saw, some of which I didn’t — and Cia is a good, strong narrator to carry this story on her shoulders. It’s definitely post-apocalyptic; Charbonneau cleverly gave us a brief history of how this country came to be in a series of short written test questions early on. The dystopian part is harder to see — Cia comes to hate the Testing officials, and the government as an extension, but I’m not sure I ever felt the way she did about the officials. Unlike, say, President Snow in The Hunger Games. (Yes, comparisons are inevitable.) I do think, on the other hand, that it’s a tighter, more interesting story than Divergent (yes, there’s a love interest, which I think was mostly unnecessary).

But the best thing about waiting to read this one is that the whole series is out already. And I don’t have to wait to read the second one. And I’m invested enough in Cia’s story that I’m quite curious to find out what happens next.