Tag Archives: Fiction

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent was just published in April 2011, and yes, it is another YA dystopian thriller. A few of my co-workers had read it and loved it (loved it!), and one insisted that I check it out.  And I have to say – I’m very glad I did.  I’ve just emerged from two straight days of reading (it would have been faster if I didn’t have a 6 month old to look after)… one of those marathons where I feel itchy and cranky when I’m not reading.  I love when a book sweeps me away like this, even though it makes me grouchy or completely useless for anything else.

Ok, the story.  I was actually not completely sold on the premise, as it seemed to be too overwrought when I first heard it.  But I’m learning that there might be no such thing as too implausible in this genre.  In this world, the people of the city (a future Chicago) are separated into five factions, each reflecting a virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness) and Erudite (intelligence).  Fair enough – but my mind immediately went wondered why anyone would do this.  How does it make sense to organize a society in this way?  Who does it benefit – and if it’s meant to be fair and functional, then is it really a dystopia?  Moreover, the central point of the novel – that everyone is a mix of these virtues, or that they should be mixed, seems so obvious as to defy comment.  I mean, shouldn’t a good dystopia point out something that’s wrong with our society?  Take something that’s true of us today and exaggerate it?  Or point to a path we seem to be on, and show how it could lead to evil?  For example: destruction of the environment (Chrysalids, City of Ember, The Dirt Eaters); rule by a stifling dictatorship (1984, Hunger Games), or stifling people’s creativity and human spirit (The Giver and most of the above).  No one has ever actually proposed dividing society up by virtues – so I wasn’t sure what exactly Divergent was a critique of.  It must be just another grab at a crazy premise to get a book published, I thought.

Then I started reading, and within the first three pages, I pretty much forgot all my objections.  The writing is great – tense and terse.  The economy of language perfectly captures this character who begins as a member of the ascetic Abnegation faction:

“There is one mirror in my house.  It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs.  Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”

Immediately gripping – and as it went on, I realized that it doesn’t suffer from the same problem as many of the books I’ve been reading have.  Roth doesn’t tell us who the character is, and what her hidden side is right away – she lets us discover it through details.  And the same for the other characters.  Usually we realize something before the main character does because of the careful placement of these clues.  In some cases the giveaway is too obvious (as in the love story), but on the whole it works very well.  It’s the old rule of showing not telling, and I wish more YA (and other) authors would remember it.

So the plot: the main character Beatrice is a sixteen-year-old member of the Abnegation faction, though she’s never felt selfless enough to completely fit in with her family or faction.  At age sixteen, everyone in her society is tested to see which of the five factions they belong in – then they must make a choice about which one they want to spend the rest of their lives in.  For some, this might mean leaving their birth faction and their families forever. But Beatrice is an exception – she is divergent, and displays the qualities of multiple factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite.  She must now keep this dangerous secret and choose which of these faction she will belong to.  Despite the pain of leaving home, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, and launches herself on a truly challenging path to become an initiate in a society that prizes bravery and danger above all else.  To succeed, she must face her greatest fears, but always hide her true self.

And of course there’s a love story.

So there you have it – great action, great writing, great driving plot (the ending was a little weak: there were all the usual questions about how villans always manage to let the good guys slip out of their grasp), and fantastic characters.  Definitely get this one if you are looking for a Hunger Games follow-up – so far it’s hands-down the best alternative I’ve read.

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The Predicteds by Christine Seifert

A huge wave of dystopian novels aimed at teens is making its way on the market, attempting to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games.  The Predicteds is one of the most recent offerings in this genre (available Sept 2011).  I was actually kind of excited by this one’s arresting premise: imagine a test exists that can tell you who will commit a violent crime or become a drug addict, or become a teenage mom. How would we treat people who are predicted for these actions?

Daphne Wright has just moved to a small town whose high school students have recently been profiled with just this kind of test (which is an amazing co-incidence given that her mom helped create the test, but left the project because of moral objections over how the test was being used.  You think she’d want to avoid the selected communities where the test was piloted).  Not only is the town full of rednecks and a fair portion of narrow-minded citizens, all hell breaks loose once the predicted lists are released.  The kicker is that Jesse, the tall, handsome guy Daphne has fallen in love with, is predicted as a violent offender.  Added to that are the rumours that he stalked a former girlfiend, and accusations that he was involved in the violent assault of another girl (actually a very close friend of his).  Daphne is (of course) torn between her feelings for Jesse and her fear that the charges might be true.

I have to say – part of me hated this book, and part of me very much enjoyed it.  I have a feeling it will appeal to a lot of teen readers – if you liked Numbers, or series like Prettys or Gossip Girl, this might be the right read for you.  The writing is uneven, but has some very nice moments like this one:

“It’s a bright Friday morning with only two weeks of school left, the briefest hint of summer freedom already in the air.  The month of May is always better than real summer, because when the day is done, when the sun sets, there will still be as many summer days left as there were in the morning.”  Isn’t that a nice thought?  Oh – and I’m not really supposed to quote that until I check it against the completed manuscript, but I can’t be bothered.

What really rubbed me the wrong way was the obviousness of it all.  Once the mystery was cleared up, there weren’t any questions, or profound thoughts to hold on to.  It essentially was another example of segregation – something that’s been covered by other books, but much more effectively. Moreover, the test made no sense.  I accept that in a dystopian novel one has to let some improbabilities go – and just assume that in the future things work differently, or that they’ve found technological fixes to certain problems.  But I honestly can’t imagine a test that would tell you someone is destined to become a teen mom.  Isn’t that more down to the frailty of birth control sometimes?  Whatever happened to chance?  Unfortunately, I found it all very muddled and poorly explained.

I also found the book to be infuriating in terms of the judgements it cast out.  The main character believes (and the plot seems to bear out) that these small town yokels are narrow-minded and quick to ostracize.  Maybe that’s how it is in small towns – but aren’t there good things too?  It seemed unrelentingly negative to me.  Also, the main character is extremely critical of shopping and clothes, but is constantly supplying us with details about people’s clothing and how their style works or doesn’t work.  In general, she has a massive superiority complex, and I have a hard time imagining why some of these people would give her the time of day.  She is constantly snipping at them in her head, but still spends all her time with them.  I’m quite sure that in another book the character would realize a) that these people are aweful and not worth spending time with, even if they are popular; or b) that they’re not so bad, and that she’s being a conceted ass for thinking so.  She sort of comes to both realizations – but again, I found it muddled.

Bottom line is, if you’re looking for a dystopian book with a nice romantic storyline, I would recommend Matched by Ally Condie well before this one (that a was a very clever book!).

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The Nine Lives of Travis Keating by Jill MacLean

This is another old(er) book (2009) – and a winner of multiple awards.  I picked it up to see if I could recommend it to a teacher, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  As you can tell by the rather unappealing cover, it is indeed a Canadian book.  Set in Newfoundland, it’s about twelve-year-old Travis whose mother has died, and who is having trouble dealing with the loss.  He and his father have moved to a tiny community on the coast of Newfoundland, and things are not going well for Travis.  The local bully Hud calls Travis a “townie” and makes him a target for a surprising level of violence.  Ostracized by any potential friends, Travis is completely isolated until he discovers a colony of starving feral cats.  Against his own better judgment, Travis begins to feed and name them, until soon he’s responsible for their survival.  As the cats become more important to Travis, he begins reaching out and soon has connected with two other misfits his age – Hector and Prinny.  Eventually other community members are brought onside, like charming but grumpy Old Abe who has a fierce dog and a threatening shotgun, but rather a soft heart.  In the end, Travis not only saves his cats, but earns himself a place in the community and creates a home.

I can see why this book won all the awards – it was charming and well written, and Travis is a lovely character – sensitive, but tough at the same time. It also manages to be bleak and Canadian, while still uplifting and fun.  Nevertheless, as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids would enjoy this book.  As a 10 or 12 year old, I might have… but then I was a very keen reader and liked reading about real life kids and their struggles.  What I wonder is how many boys – or what kind of boys – would like this book?  In my experience I mostly meet boys and their adults looking for action/adventure or magic/sci fi – or straight nonfiction.  I hope there is a huge contingent of boys out there who are interested in reading about smart, sensitive boys and their real life problems.  I’d like to meet some of them.

My question links to a larger question I have that eats away at my subconsious, and my integrity as a bookseller.  Us adults read, write, and sell these books for kids – but do we really know what kids like?  Do we actually like the same things?  I mean, obviously there is a lot of overlap a lot of the time (Hunger Games or Harry Potter spring to mind)… but how many books are produced each year that won’t appeal to very many kids at all?  How many of those end up being my favourites, or ones that I recommend a lot?  I try to keep in mind all the times that I see kids in the section enthusing over something I’ve loved; or all the conversations I’ve had about books with kids who’ve liked the same things as me; or the fact that adults’ taste in books is also incredibly diverse.  Surely there are men who enjoy reading books about smart, sensitive men and their real life problems?  Surely they must have needed something to read as children?  Hopefully they find this one – it will fit the bill perfectly.

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Top Ten Reasons to Love Holes by Louis Sachar


So far I’ve been very critical about a lot of the books I’ve reviewed on this site.  Part of the problem is that I’m not picking up books that would be my first choice – I’m reading my way through a constantly-renewing stack of novels that are being released this summer and fall.  So I’m going to take a moment out from all these ARCs (advance reader’s copies) to talk about an old favourite.

Holes doesn’t actually need another good review.  Written in 1998, it won the Newbery Medal (and several other prizes), gained enthusiastic and wide-spread acclaim, and has been made into a major motion picture (77% on Rotten Tomatoes).  Holes has also been done to death in schools.  It makes for an ideal novel study and teachers love using it.  I suspect that battles are fought in some schools over who gets to study it in their class.  It’s rightly a grade 4/5/6 novel, but I’ve heard of grade 2 teachers reading it to their classes.  Imagine the frustration when your class of ten-year-olds informs you with weary blase that they’ve already read the novel you’ve based a whole term around.

So Holes doesn’t need any more ink, virtual or otherwise, spilled on it.  But I’m going to slosh some more its way anyway – and I’m going to use what feels like an outdated method (because Letterman uses it, and surely that’s enough to outdate anything?) – the Top Ten List.

Top Ten Reasons Why I Loved Holes

10) Because I read it to two classes of students while in England, and they loved it.  In the middle of Essex (actually an eastern corner) I was able to do a terrible American accent and get away with it.  They loved it – the accent, the characters, the weird twists and bends.  We all had such pleasure settling down to reading time with Holes that they started requesting it.  Each time I opened the book and brought out that slow drawl, I felt like we landed up on a dusty desert in North America, and escaped to where yellow-spotted lizards spread agonizing oblivion, and where long-lost treasures and old-world curses can determine your fate.

9) Because of the author, Louis Sachar.  I can’t tell you what a soft spot I have for this guy.  He’s the author of the Sideways Stories series – books that still make me laugh today.  He also wrote There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, and while I don’t remember a single scene of it, it surely makes the list as one of the best titles ever for an intermediate novel.  Finally, his newest book, The Cardturner, manages to make bridge almost understandable, and quite interesting.  So props for that.

8.) Stanley Yelnats and his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.  Because one is a palindrome, and the other is funny, no matter how many times you read it.

7) Because the plot itself is a palindrome.  Or a web.  Or a mobeus strip.  Or a spiral.  Or a braided tapestry.  Or something.  The story takes place in the present, the past (about a hundred years ago) and the distant past (three generations ago).  At the start, Stanley Yelnats is being sent to a detention centre for troubled boys, Camp Green Lake.  He is going because everyone believes he stole a pair of used and stinky (but very valuable) sneakers.  In order to improve their character, each boy at the camp must dig a hole exactly five feet wide and five feet deep every day. Oh, and did I mention that there is no water at Camp Green Lake – just a deserted dried-up lake bottom filled with holes and deadly yellow-spotted lizards.  But read on and you’ll learn that Stanley’s bad luck, the dried-up lake and the camp itself all have their roots in the past.  Only with the help of onions, lizards, sploosh, mountains, and a song will the curse of Stanleys great-great-grandfather be lifted and another old wrong righted.  The present fixes the past and the past saves the present.

Holes Map

6)  Because every detail is used and every detail is important.   And because just about every detail is used at least twice – once in the present and also in the past.  And sometimes it will be an echo of one, and sometimes of the other.

5) Because it’s exactly the right length and ends exactly when it should.  So many books I read are too long: they go on with pointless scenes and plot twists that are there just for the sake of adding length or tiresome but pointless obstacles to the resolution.  This book is mindbendingly complex, but it is also elegant in its simplicity.  The pacing is perfect and the writing is evocative and sparse.  There’s no wasted text, but also no holes (har, har) where you’re just not sure what happened.

4) Because it improves with more readings.

3) Because Sachar deals with issues of race and privilege in a shockingly real and understandable way.  The boys at Camp Green Lake are all troubled kids and from a variety of ethnicities.  Race isn’t plastered away with political correctness in this book – it is real and tangible.  The boys accuse Stanley of practicing slavery when he gets Zero (the outcast at the camp) to dig his holes for him in exchange for reading lessons.  In another storyline, a black man is killed for daring to kiss a white woman – and she is cast out of her job and town by an enraged community.  Sachar doesn’t try to ignore history or fix it, or even present solutions for the present.  And he doesn’t hide from ugly issues but rather makes them the centre of his spiraling narrative.

2) Because it’s funny as well as clever.  It doesn’t just try to be funny.  It doesn’t just think it’s funny.  It is funny.

1) Because even after all the hype and attention, it is isn’t overrated – it still kicks ass.

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The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan

This was a nice read for ages 9-12.  I particularly love the romantic and unexpected premise.  Every day in Bombay (Mumbai) a group of deliverymen, dabbawallas, carry thousands of boxed lunches – tiffins – to workers all over the city.  Only one tiffin in millions is ever lost – but that’s what happens in this story.  The missing tiffin in this case has an important note in it, and because it is lost a young boy, Kunal, is separated from his mother.  He grows up in very Harry-Potter-pre-Howarts conditions (except worse), until he is finally rescued by a kind dabbawalla named Vinayak.  When he learns of his mother’s existence, Kunal is determined to find her using the powerful network of tiffins and dabbawallas.

Overall, this was a great read and a very good story.  I sometimes was annoyed by Kunal’s actions and the silly decisions he made out of desperation, and the constant forgiveness he always got from those around them.  But he is young and the forgiveness became important to the story’s end, so I forgave it.  Mostly, I loved the dabbawallas and their network.  I enjoyed the sense of dedication and professionalism they had, and their achievement of delivering those hot lunches all over such an enormous city.  So often India (along with many others countries outside of Europe and North America) is shown to be a place with too much waste, inefficiency and nepotism.  So it was nice to see a network that worked like a well-oiled machine.

A very solid and interesting book for its age range.

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Gamerunner by B. R. Collins

Continuing my blitz of fall 2011 Bloomsbury UK titles, I just finished Gamerunner, a sci-fi dystopian thriller.  Rick is a teenage boy who has spent more of his life in the virtual world of the “Maze” than out of it.  He is a champion – able to run missions no one else can.  While the Maze is a rich and interactive 3D world (operated through Avatars – think Avatar), the real world is a grey wasteland with poisonous rain and a toxic atmosphere.  The early pages of the novel show off Rick’s prowess in the Maze, and reveal his rather privileged existence inside Crater’s skyscraper (Crater is the company that owns and operates the Maze).  But the mood soon turns to suspense/thriller as Maze designer and Rick’s dad, Daed, gives him an almost impossible assignment to go to the roots of the Maze.  Daed wars Rick to under no circumstances finish the Maze, but because Daed doesn’t inspire trust, and because Rick can’t resist the challenge, he does.  This puts Daed’s career in jeopardy, as well as their continued safety in the confines of the company’s compound.

And so it goes.  At every turn, Rick does something stupid to make a bad situation worse – harming those around him, or causing Daed to harm someone in order to protect Rick (or so it seems – Daed is a very well-drawn, enigmatic character who is either a sarcastic but devotedly self-sacrificing father, or a psychopathic control-freak protecting his own glory).  One of the characters even asks Rick to please “stop doing stupid things.”  But he can’t – as he proves over and over and over.  It’s kind of cute, but as a plot device, a character who can’t stop himself from doing stupid things only gets you so far.

The best bits of this novel are some of the secondary characters – Daed, etc.  Also interesting is Rick’s inability to operate or understand the real world after so much time spent in the Maze.  And the action is good.  What’s unfortunate and tiresome is the constant waffling.  The plot is basically RIck wandering back and forth through the compound (I would have liked more Maze scenes) wondering what to do, and invariably choosing the worst option.

In the end, Gamerunner has a a fascinating premise reminicent of Ender’s Game or Avatar, some good characters and an interesting moral greyness about everything, but is rather ruined by the lack of action and plot.

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