BLOOD MATTERS by Aviva Bel’Harold

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

I have had a hard time with this review. I enjoyed so much of my time of reading this book and wanted to rate it even higher than I do now. However, there was one particular aspect that was so completely horrifying to me, so disappointing, that I cannot rate higher, in good conscience. As is my tradition, I will address both those things I enjoyed and those things I disliked. After I do that, I will go into detail about this one terrible part of the experience and – against my tradition – include quite a few spoilers so I can discuss the problem accurately. Basically, in order to fully explain why I had such a knee-jerk reaction, I will have to spoil the entire ending. I will warn again when that particular section starts, but be aware there are spoilers ahead. Ultimately, I believe this is a good book that failed itself in becoming great.

It took me some time to determine whether or not this book was fantasy or science fiction. After all, it is a vampire novel. What really sealed the deal for me was the clear work the author put into the process of the parasitic relationship that created the vampires of the novel. While no vampire novel can entirely avoid the supernatural, the parasite and the logic of the world in which it lives definitely had the tone of science fiction to me. A basic run down is this: the parasite starts in every host as a single-celled organism that travels through the blood stream and, as it settles in the heart, it begins to multiply and use up the blood supply of the host in order to do so. At the point that it runs out of blood, it then requires blood from other humans to complete and sustain the transformation. If the host dies, the parasite transfers, through touch, to a new host and starts the process once again.

One of the things this scientific bent to the vampire tale provides is a delightful lack of angst. Not that there is no angst in the novel, but that it does not over power or even equal the sense of curiosity and exploration that comes with the new abilities. This is a novel about discovery as much as it is about its major themes of heroism and humanity. The human host continues in her life for as long as she can and tries her best to function normally and the parasite does not attempt to interfere with that. The change of circumstances happens in stages and feels very organic.

The characters are well humanised and made approachable by a diversity of perspective. It’s amazing how, depending on who is the lens the narration is written through, the parasite, called E.V., and the host, known as Brit, can be two separate beings or a third, singular character. It took a little while to get used to the different narrative lenses, but allowing the story to be told through several sets of eyes made for a good deal of sympathetic perspective. I think the story was served well by the fact that though it was mostly (and understandably) told from the perspectives of Brit and E.V., others were allowed in to really fill out the edges of the picture.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the shorter chapters. All seventy-seven (!!) of them. I am generally not at all a fan of the short chapter, I feel like it fragments the narrative. However, in this case, it served as a beautiful echo of the perspectives of E.V and Brit. E.V.’s memories barely stay with her from host to host, but Brit helps in discovering and preserving them in her human mind as a full, complete narrative. The narrative device of short chapters verses a long arc mirroring the two main characters was one of my favorite bits.

The thematic discussion of heroism (which is main theme of the book, as I perceive it) was quite good. E.V. seems to feel she is a bit of a hero. As a parasite, she improves the health, function, and visage of the host body. They are faster, stronger, more beautiful, less needy. But in order to do this, she must take. Brit, as she discovers her new powers, chooses to use them to cull the bad people from her town. But, in doing so, she takes away the lives and opportunities of so many people. Both of them are play-acting at being a hero and convincing themselves that they are heroes, while neither of them really are. While I found the resolution of the discussion contained some deeply problematic things (this is the big spoiler I talk about later), I did enjoy the eventual conclusion the manuscript came to.

The secondary discussions of ‘what is it that makes one human’ (a vampire novel must) and ‘the many ways love can be felt’ were nuanced and extensive. I enjoyed the multi-thematic nature of the novel and I am truly glad to say that the discussions weren’t heavy-handed or didactic.

As for my dislikes, the first I need to mention is the simply weird pacing problems. I would be convinced that several days had passed and then read a reference to an action five chapters past as earlier in the day. This isn’t particularly unreasonable with seventy-seven short chapters, but it is disconcerting when the perception is so different from the narrative. Similarly, I would thing a short time had passed – a few days, a week at most – and discover that months had gone by. I wonder if this is a vampire novel problem, as both Stoker’s Dracula and Meyer’s Twilight also had these issues of pacing, though to wildly different degrees.

Another weird aspect was the inclusion of a biblical phrase as a large part of the mythology quite suddenly at the end. After having spent so much of the book writing a detailed individual mythology and science, it was more than a bit odd to see an established mythology (one that didn’t feel like it really fit all that well) play such a large role in the raison d’être of the vampires. I was largely confused by the inclusion and I still think it was a poor choice, though it certainly wasn’t a book breaker by any means.

Many of the “bad people” Brit targets are pimps and the prostitutes often seem to end up being collateral damage. I dislike them being lumped in as bad people (with little remorse for killing them), as a vast majority of illegal sex workers are victims themselves. At best it seems insensitive and at worst it looks like sex-shaming and has shades of victim-blaming. Either way, it felt like a very negative and dismissive treatment of sex workers and I would have liked that to be more nuanced. I also find it ludicrous that in a town that supports over 200 pimps and sex workers that Brit couldn’t find a goodly portion of muggers or robbers (or, if she could, that they didn’t show up in the narrative).

There is a scene (really, Brit’s first taste of the false heroism she takes on) in which a girl is threatened with rape. Brit steps in and saves her and the next day the girl is at school, bright, bubbly, cheery, and entirely unaffected. This sat very poorly with me. It seemed to brush off rape, or the threat of it, as a casual thing, and that disturbs me. I think it would have served the narrative, one proved to be so good at nuanced discussions, to have added a little, or even a lot more nuance to this scene.

Okay, so that’s the base of my review. As you can see, compared to what I enjoy, most of my complaints are minor. I hope you understand that while this next part addresses a major complaint at length and, though it does taint my over-all experience of the book, I did enjoy the vast majority of my time in this world.

From here on out MAJOR SPOILERS. DON’T CONTINUE IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM.

We good? Fantastic.

There was an entirely gratuitous rape in the book. Entirely. There’s no excuse or purpose that I can suss out. In my explanation, I first have to credit Maggie Stiefvater, an author of YA literature herself, for helping me create my criteria for what makes a gratuitous rape in literature. She wrote a beautiful article about rape in fiction two years ago and it perfectly captures the feeling of being faced with an unnecessary rape: “I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me.” You can find it on her tumblr and twitter. The criteria are:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?
2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?
3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?
4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?
5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?
6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

So, I will be answering each of the questions about Blood Matters. First, I need to set up the context of the rape: A male parasite (in a male host) feels that he needs to repopulate the world with parasites to cull the human herd. Since E.V. is the only remaining female parasite, she is the one he chooses. The process by which he does this first includes the male parasite leaving his host body (therefore killing it) to join E.V. in Brit’s body and fundamentally changing E.V’s DNA to replicate in such a way as to create little parasite babies and also to jump into a new (male) host and have the host bodies have sex, so the parasite babies can attach to each sperm deposited and then go infect the world. Oh, and he fully intends to do both acts whether E.V. and/or Brit intend to go along with it. And, sure enough, he does. Got it? Now to the questions:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?

Quite simply: never. He already has the sperm, so there could have been all sorts of ways to accomplish that aspect, if it must needs have sperm. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of several ways that, if the female parasite had been in a male body, this could have been pulled off just fine without rape (which means that totally could have happened in a female). These ways are: asexual reproduction; only the parasites needed to have sex and since it is established that they can remove blood through skin contact, skin contact would be the full extent of the necessity, rather than invading a body in any way, shape, or form; changing of the DNA to be compatible with flaking skin cells; combining the sperm with the baby parasite hoards OUTSIDE the body. So, in this aspect, the rape was gratuitous.

2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?

Yes. And how you can take a phoenix-like, parasitic, practically eternal being and reduce her to her girly bits is BEYOND me. Holy reproductive terrorism, Batman. Not to mention, E.V. is considered an It – a non-gendered entity – for the vast majority of the book. About two-thirds of the way through, her female-ness is impressed upon her by the man!parasite who would eventually perpetuate the rape. Her female status literally exists to serve the rapist. So, in this manner, the rape is gratuitous.

3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?

Not in the least. At no point after the rape were the implications discussed. Though shock might be considered a factor, both Brit and E.V. were a little two engaged with reality afterwards for me to feel as if that was a valid interpretation of the after-effects of the rape. Basically, much like the threat of rape from earlier in the novel, it is not discussed much at all. This is especially confusing considering the elegant discussions about heroism, love, and humanity in the script. In this way, the rape is gratuitous.

4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?

Hell. Yes. Several. And while I am almost positive that these were unintentional, it is still a fact that this rape both confirms the cultural expectation of the inevitability of rape as well as the cultural perception that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. The manuscript does this by having the female character(s) commit suicide shortly after she/they are raped. The suicide served the discussion about heroism and how the nature of the hero is to give, not to take, but it could have been accomplished (SO SO EASILY) in a non-problematic way by simply not including rape. Also, since the male parasite has to transfer hosts to a new male host – and it chooses Brit’s human boyfriend – there is a bit of playing into the ‘men can’t help themselves, they’re animals’ when the boyfriend tries to fight off the control of the parasite and fails. Also, the responsibility of getting away is left with the girls. This plays into the cultural perception that women don’t do enough to avoid being raped. In this way, the rape was gratuitous.

5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?

Yes. This choice – and it was a choice, not an inevitability – feels lazy, especially since E.V. was considered a sexless being until two-thirds of the way through the manuscript (she inhabited both men and women!). This choice didn’t feel like intent, rather it felt unexamined. In that way, it is absolutely gratuitous.

6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

Yes. After spending an entire manuscript being the acting party (parties), suddenly these women – during the climax of the story no less – become the party acted upon. They are turned into Victims or Sidekicks in their own story. It is especially frustrating, then, that their return to action is to commit suicide to prevent the little parasite babies from entering the world – an act completely about the rape, making them victims to the end. Again, this scene qualified the rape in Blood Matters as a gratuitous rape.

As you can see, this rape was entirely gratuitous by these guidelines. And yes, I realize these are guidelines of my own making (though adapted from another’s), but I hope I’ve demonstrated how truly unnecessary this was. This was an extremely disappointing way to end an experience I had so enjoyed. I don’t know what to think. The fact that all of the problematic aspects, unintentional though they might have been, in this circumstance were missed by both the author and the editor BAFFLES me. I rate the story highly because the writing was so good and the story showed a true understanding of craft. But the lack of understanding of this vital component really made the experience forever tainted.

I will continue to watch the author’s work. I will even continue to read it. She is talented and I believe she can (and hope she will) do better. To her credit, and I do hope I’ve made it clear that I give her plenty, she did not depict the rape in graphic terms. The reader knows how and when it happened, but she did not deem it necessary to show it. I *very much so* appreciate that and know that I would not be able to rate this work so highly if it were not true. I hope that, in future works, this author will prove me right and earn my trust again^. I certainly want her to be able to.

B- (excellent world building, interesting characters, successful narrative device, nuanced thematic discussions; casual attitude about the threat of rape, lightly treated rape, romanticized suicide, odd insertion of biblical mythology, weird pacing at times)

[><] & [::]

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^I am not so arrogant as to believe the author hopes to gain my trust in particular, certainly not on a personal level. If I trust an author, I enjoy their books more and I hope I can get there with Bel’Harold’s books one day.

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Slices of life.

I’m hesitant to call this book a “slice of life” novel, because it’s not. But the book is formatted in an episodic, here are slices of A life sort of way. This is the second book I won this month in LibraryThing’s Early Review program: Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo.

I’ll admit: I did not like this book at first blush. I finished the book and couldn’t figure out why a quick, engaging, thought-provoking novel left me cold. When I finally figured it out, I realized I did like the book, just not in the way I wanted to, but rather in a better way (which is why it made me think).

The main character, Barry, is the villain of the story. Let me be clear: he is not A villain. Rather he’s the villain of the story. He married a woman he did not love to cover up his gay affair, he took her away from her home by moving to a different country, he had two kids with her that he by turns hyper-criticized/spoiled rotten, he didn’t leave his wife when the children were grown, he wasn’t careful about hiding his affair from his kids (so they grew up in a house of a lot of secrets), and he treated his lover, Morris, abominably for many years. I sympathize with Barry – he had a lot of difficult decisions to make – but he is absolutely the villain of the story. He’s created a broken house around himself all because it was more comfortable. He is selfish and sometimes cruel.

That all being said, the writing was excellent. Dialectal differences between characters, accents portrayed in spelling, even the different styles of speaking from the two narrators, were all extremely well executed. The character development, while Barry changes little (in true villain form), was well done for all the others, and it was an incredibly interesting experience to experience the story from the villain’s point of view. (To be fair, some people may call Barry an anti-hero, but I don’t think he fits that mold as well.) The past was told mainly in the wife’s voice and I really appreciated getting to see her points of view. They were a necessary balance to Barry’s very selfish, fault-casting personality.

There are also some very interesting discussions in the books about feminism, religion, race, and the immigrant experience. Barry, Morris, and their wives were born, educated, and raised in Antigua, then moved to England. This entire book is about discovering how to live the life YOU want, and these discussions are secondary to Barry’s secret sexuality, but they are VERY much a part of what both of the families have to deal with in a culture not their own and not particularly welcoming.

Barry is flawed and ANNOYING. He’s lied to everyone (including himself, convincing himself that it’s not an affair if he’s not sleeping with other women) his entire life. He has a lot of internalized/generational sexism and homophobia. He’s a pretty terrible parent. He’s so imperfect. But this story wasn’t ever meant to be about perfection or redemption, so far as I can tell. It was about a series of lives long lived in the shadows and how each person needed to find their way out. I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, but I did very much enjoy it myself.

B+ (excellent writing in style and execution, interesting narrator choices; main character difficult to appreciate/relate to)

[><] & [::]

Women AMAZE in Science Fiction!!!

For those of you who missed the Women DESTROY Science Fiction!!! kickstarter, this title is going to be less awesome. For those of you who missed it and regret it (or didn’t miss it and still want to support awesome, diverse SF/F), the Crossed Genre’s kickstarter could use some love. (Included the link for the first one because you’ll still be able to buy the awesome special edition, just with less perks).

I won two bids this month on LibraryThing. (I need to write a rave review of this book social media website, because it’s awesome and I love it.) The first review is for Walking Contradiction by Nancy Jane Moore.

This is definitely the best book I’ve received from the Early Reviewer program. Walking Contradiction is a fantastic compendium of short stories written by Moore. I love best the dedication, because I think it explains so much about the psyche of the book:

“For every woman who ever read an adventure story and wanted to be the hero, not the hero’s girlfriend.”

But there’s even more to this great anthology – not only is it woman positive, but sex positive, identity positive, and people of color positive. I LOVE that diversity went much deeper than just, “Let’s add women in.” There were several main characters of color and a new gender designated “ambigender” (though, it should have been designated a sex, as gender and sex are separate), which was most interesting for me as I am non-binary and LOVED seeing a character who was neither one nor the other sex. I would LOVE to have that body. There was also a woman who presented androgynous AND had a different genital structure than what is typically considered female. She, however, unabashedly identified as female, and that was respected. Also, trans people and the proper pronouns (as in: the ones they wish to use) were touched on briefly and as a side. I was happy to see that, but wish there could have been more. How little it was discussed felt like trans erasure more than if the discussion hadn’t happened.

I love that the main characters weren’t moral absolutes. They were pirates, soldiers, freedom fighters, investigators, etc. They were given complicated decisions to make in the face of difficult situations and the response wasn’t some simple, trope-filled, “Well, I’m a girl, so I have two choices: fall in love (and do as I’m told by my male lover) or make an ultimately emotional decision that is stupid and idealistic.” I liked that some of the decisions were stupidly idealistic and some were downright cold. A lot of them were of a dubious morality and the only decision to be made was a logical, if unsatisfying decision. Basically, these characters were SO *human* and I LOVED how human they were. It’s something we don’t see enough of. Love did not make them weak, sex did not make them whores, and the decisions were self-motivated, not love-interest motivated.

I have three things I wished I could see more of/differently. As mentioned, I wish there had been more trans characters and/or stories and not such a quick “peek-a-boo we kind of exist, but not really” attitude. The ambigendered characters were still cisgendered, there was just a new gender in town. It felt like a very timid way to deal with non-binary people – make a culture that doesn’t have a binary. I also would have liked to see less heteronormative relationships. The ambigendered dated the ambigendered (except for the occasional self-loathing trip to a club for males/females who fetishised them), the women dated men (even the woman who has ambiguous genitalia dates a man), or there were no romantic/sexual relationships in the story. There was one woman who spent her entire story focusing (or trying not to focus) on a fight she had with her boyfriend, which wouldn’t have been SO bad if the story didn’t end with, “As long as we’re together, this terrible world is okay.” That twigged me out just a bit.

Really and truly, though, I enjoyed this book. The stories were engaging, the world building was amazing, and I saw characters more like myself than I have EVER seen in SF/F. Nancy Jane Moore has DEFINITELY made it onto my radar.

A (people/sex/race positive science fiction, diverse character body; heteronormative, some trans erasure)

[><] & [::]

FROM THE PAST: I WAS NOT PREPARED!

Forgive me, Mark, for stealing your phrase.  It perfectly sums up how I felt about this series first, second, and now third time around.

But even so, it was especially the last book book in The Hunger Games Trilogy, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, that made me feel as if I had to use this phrase.  I read the trilogy long before I read the MarkReads reactions, but immediately realized that unprepared was exactly how I felt when I finished.

For the third time, Collins does not do happy endings.  But I appreciated this.  After spending three beautiful, action packed books in post-apocalyptic America with almost no sense of hope, I would feel cheated by a happy ending.  This does not say the ending doesn’t have an element of positive, but it’s tempered by the horror of what has happened in the series.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As for the book summary, this is the easiest to be close to spoiler free: war.  Despite the best efforts of a desperate Katniss and a plotting president, war breaks out.  And Katniss has to play the focal point for the rebellion because she already became that with her previous actions.

Crappy summary, but I really am trying to avoid spoilers in this series.  Some of these are inevitable (Katniss survived the Games in book one, or there would be no point to book two), but I’m really trying here.  Of course, the solution to the bad summary is read the series.  Hee hee hee hee.  Evil plan in place.

Remember how I said the series made me think in the review of the first book?  Well this book is always the one I find myself coming back to.  I feel like the character’s choices in this book are much more ambiguous, morally.  War, something I fear with all my heart and yet something that is part of my daily life, makes it difficult to draw those clear lines and say what is right or wrong.  Collins doesn’t shy away from those moments.  In fact, the most powerful scene for me in the book where there was no clear line.  The war was over and the victors were deciding what to do with the losers.  There were good arguments on both sides and it is easy to sympathize with the terror and the compassion.  But both options weren’t satisfying.  One had too much mercy, the other too much justice.  Those are the decisions made in war.

I feel bad that I haven’t talked much about the characters.  They’re all so very pivotal.  Talking too much about them makes for spoilers.  I hate to spoil this series.  So, in general, the characters are extremely well realized.  It’s funny, but I sometimes forget the books are written in first person.  Not that Collins slips up and makes Katniss omniscient, but that the other characters are so well realized and, perhaps, a bit over-emotive, that I never lose track of what’s going on in the other characters’ heads.  I think the over-emoting is actually a well used tool, as it’s not melodramatic, but telling emotions.  It may be that in “real life” people don’t act that way, but to make characters that stand against the first person blinkers, sometimes they have to be a bit larger than life.  It’s a relief that the characters stand out, but do not overpower Katniss, either.

I love these books.  I love this author.  I would highly recommend them to anyone.  Her action scenes are stunning and she doesn’t shy away.  Those two things on their own are invaluable in a YA book.

Why this series is challenging for me:

  • I’m constantly surprised.
  • The moral debates in the literature are phenomenal and truly keep one thinking.
  • Suzanne Collins does NOT BACK DOWN.  It tears you apart as a reader, yes, but it builds you up, too.

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FROM THE PAST: BECAUSE THE FIRST ONE WASN’T BAD ENOUGH.

I am not referring to the book in that title.  Unfortunately, these reviews, since they are a book series, contain more spoilers than I generally like to give.  Fair warning.

In Catching Fire by the wonderful Suzanne Collins (I really cannot say enough good about this lady), there is another Hunger Games.  But this one?  This one is special.  It’s the 75th Hunger Games and every twenty five years, the game makers throw a wrench into the works.  They call it a Quarter Quell.  By the time this Hunger Games is announced, the reader already knows that Katniss’ actions in the last book (which I did not spoil and will not spoil) have incited rebellion.  In the Victory tour she tried to do her best to reverse the damage done by playing innocent.  It did not work.

So when the Quarter Quell is announced, Katniss and the reader are on edge.  And so when it is announced that the victors from past Hunger Games are going to be the tributes this year, it feels half like a betrayal and half inevitable.  A betrayal because it is a sacred contract that victors are left alone by the Capitol.  They are provided for, with money and gifts and–most importantly–a sort of peace.  They do have to be the new tribute’s liason at each Hunger Games, so they never really stop living their time in the arena, but at least they’re allowed to do it privately.  Of course, this all feels inevitable because the government needs to get rid of their little rabble-rouser, however unintentional the rousing might have been.  She means too much to the rebellion and unfortunately, as the only living female victor in District 12, she’s guaranteed to be back in the arena.  It’s too convenient to be a coincidence.  And now it won’t be children and strangers in the arena.  It will be all ages and friends.

That’s as much as I’m willing to give away of the book, but know that when I said Suzanne Collins doesn’t do happy last review, that is equally true of this book.

This book feels more original than the last.  I was in Ancient Greece almost immediately, others I know have compared it to Battle Royale.  Having never been exposed to it, I was not bothered by the similarities.  However, once using these two familiar stories to establish the world, Collins does a fantastic job of making it her own in this book.  The writing is less like re-telling a story and more like telling a story.

This book’s set up take quite a long time, but it’s a necessary and good setup.  After establishing a world, this section of the book builds it.  Also, it gives the reader a much better idea of where all the Districts are (physically and politically), which becomes necessary in the next book.  I never felt bored with the “set-up” section of the book.  A lot of things happen quietly in this section.  And, of course, I much appreciated the map that I was able to create in my head.  I have a very strong theory as to where the Capitol is and I don’t really want to be proven right or wrong.  I swing between wanting a definitive map or wanting to keep my own as definitive.  I think the decision NOT to be explicit (in word or picture) as to where everything is was a brilliant choice on Collin’s part.

I adore that the main character is still emotionally and socially stilted while showing much more emotion.  Considering the situations she finds herself in, I’m not surprised that this very closed character has these emotional outbursts.  In fact, these outbursts feel real.  The emotions have to come out, but Katniss does her utmost to make sure they don’t.  The conflict within her is enough to drive anyone to the edge minus all the environmental pressures Katniss has to deal with.  The writing is at times stilted, but I think that is a purposeful reflection of the character.  She won’t process, won’t process, won’t process until her emotions mug her and force her to.  Since these books are in first person, I think the writing MUST reflect this process and I think it does so admirably.

I wish I could just keep going on and on, but there is another book to review and a flight to catch.

FROM THE PAST: THESEUS HAS NOTHING ON THESE KIDS.

I stumbled upon this author via her series for 12 year old children.  I fell in love with her genius then.  And then, of course, The Hunger Games got very popular very fast.  I already loved the author and had been intending to read this series, so I bit the bullet and bought the three books together to be delivered together.

Suzanne Collins did NOT disappoint.

I think the thing I loved best about The Hunger Games is how I was immediately put in mind of Ancient Greece in the middle of post-apocalyptic America.  The sick demand for tributes, being trapped in the arena with no way out, the government’s control.  These shades of the Theseus legend were enough to delve me straight into the material.  It was wonderful.   But, by the end of the book, if I were to pick someone to kill the Minotaur, it would not have been the Prince of Athens.  He is a supreme wimp compared to these tributes.  He used a string and false promises of love to beat the Minotaur.  Tributes in The Hunger Games actually have to kill each other to survive.  They are all Theseus and the Minotaur in one.

For those of you who don’t  know the book, The Hunger Games is set in post-apocalyptic America.  Something happened and we collapsed in on ourselves.  In the meantime, the country has been split into the Districts and the Capitol.  There has been an uprising.  There has been a war.   A District was destroyed.  They were forced into a very Big Brother-like system of government (I assume at least as bad as before the war) and on top of the conditions in the Districts and the invasive government, each District is required to send two tributes–one boy, one girl–to the Hunger Games every year.  These tributes can’t be just anybody, though.  They’re children between the ages of twelve and eighteen.  It is sickening.  These children are then forced to become murderers on national television to prove a point.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The survivor/winner gets fame and fortune while the others around them starve.

Katniss, the main character, is in a particularly bad District: 12.  Twelve mines all the coal and is located in the Appalachians.  (One of the nice things about Collins, she give good details, so I have a fairly clear maps of where everything should be.  One of the bad things, she doesn’t share HER map, which makes me just want to figure things out more).  The people have been crushed in spirit systematically.  There are some wealthy-ish Districts.  Twelve is not one.  Yet somehow, they were able to raise an incredibly intelligent and talented young woman in Katniss.  She has not been crushed.  Thankfully for her, she’s also good at killing.  She’s a perfect candidate for the Games.  I won’t tell you what gets her there, because the moment is pretty beautiful and I’d hate to ruin it.

As for the writing, aside from the incredibly engaging story, I love it.  Suzanne Collins will tear your heart out and make it feel good.  She does not do happy, fair warning.  If you need your happy endings, do not read this series.  Her actions scenes are intense.  The choice for first-person pov was an interesting one, but I like it because it makes the Games more real.  If we were dealing with an omniscient narrator, the immediacy of being in an arena would have been non-existence.  I highly recommend this series, and not just because I think Suzanne Collins is one of the best YA and SciFi writers out there right now.  I’ve loved these books since I read them.  They made me think, just stare at the wall because it’s there and it’s a good book that can hang around after I finished.  I have very little higher praise than that.

Next week, book two!

College for kids.

I know, I know, it happened again.  I read a book and didn’t review it on time.  The good news is, I read it on time.  The better news is, I haven’t been avoiding the book because I don’t like it.  I just felt very anti-internets last weeks and there you have it: no blog.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey is a fun book.  One of the reasons it is so very fun is that it’s targeted at ten and eleven year-old boys, but the main character is a college aged.  The only ten year-old is a girl.   It’s absolutely fantastic.

It was several years ago that The Fire Within caught my eye.  It couldn’t have been too long after the third book came out.  I don’t think the second book was even in paperback in the US yet (the author is British and let me tell you it takes ten kinds of forever for his books to get over here–grumpgrumpgrump).  I don’t know why this is important to tell you, but it is.  I read the first book and was impressed by the fact that the author made the main character twice the age as the target audience and at such a different stage of life than you’d expect.  Also, when I went on to the second and third books there were some seriously existential discussions in the text.  Of course, this bumped up the target age to thirteen or fourteen (writing was still at a ten to eleven level, but comprehension is what bumped it), but I appreciated that the author wasn’t afraid to treat his readers as intelligent beings.  Some eleven year-olds will be able to follow those discussions and that makes this a great series to consider.  I very much enjoy series that sit on the cusp of an age group.  It does make it difficult to recommend in some ways (well, the writing is a bit young for you but the content is just right vs the writing is right up your alley, but the content might be a bit over your head), but it also gives a chance for a reader to stretch or relax.  These are great books to have around!

I took it in an attempt to find a different sort of dragon book.  I was tired of the same old Anne McCaffrey books (though I love them) and Christopher Paolini gets boring fast.  I had read the Dragon’s Milk series half a dozen times (has anyone else read those?) and as sweet as the My Father’s Dragon series is, it’s not really very dragony.  It was time for something new.  Something different.  The Fire Within is certainly that.

Dragons are not a given in The Fire Within.  They appear to be statues created by the main character’s landlord, Liz.  Her eccentricity, if you will.  David, the college kid/main character, finds it strange, but charming.  He finds Liz’s squirrel-obsessed daughter, Lucy, much more interesting, and less of a mystery.  A friendship that Liz half-approves of, half-disapproves buds between the two “kids.”  It’s pretty adorable.

When I first read this book, I was exactly what the target audience wasn’t supposed to be: I was a twenty year-old female.  It was fun being David’s age and reading the book through the age of his eyes, but with many of Lucy’s emotions.  Reading the book this time around, I felt a lot more like Liz.  David and Lucy get into the most ridiculous shenanigans caused in part by her impatience, his too-rational nature, and an unhealthy desire for secrecy.  Bringing in Liz on everything would have been a much better idea, but I suppose that’s how everyone feels about their parents at one point or another.  And who wants to ask their landlord for help?  I certainly never did!

So, I suppose one of the things I like best is that this book can reach out to so many: boys, girls, young, old, somewhere in between.  It’s not so much about dragons this first time around, but it is enough about dragons to bring the reader back for the next book, which really jumps into the created dragon lore that D’Lacey works so hard on.  I’m very impressed with it, even if I don’t always love it.  It can get pretty out there some days.  And choosing a connection between bears and dragons has–so far as I can find–no mythological precedent.  It’s a bit radical for this stodgy mythologist, but it’s good.  I’ll give him that.

So far as the prose goes, I have to give a hats off to the editor who made this book America-ready!  THANK YOU for not taking out the colloquial British phrases!  I love it that those stayed in.  Children need to get used to deciphering meaning through context and these words are fun to do that with!  “Wuzzled off” is a wonderful phrase for dying.  Wish there was something so good on this side of the Pond.  Props to D’Lacey, too, for using language easy enough to determine via context so that the editor felt he COULD leave it alone.

One of my favorite scenes, stylistically, was one of dragon scenes (no surprise there).  It was the first time David actually communed with his dragon, Gadzooks.  Liz makes special dragons for certain people and Gadzooks was what occurred to her for David.  Gadzooks is a writing dragon (as if there were any doubt I’d like this book, this sealed it).  David finally suspends disbelief and communicates with Gadzooks in that special place in his heart and mind where Gadzooks is not only real, but alive:

Lucy, undeterred, had one last option.  “Can Gadzooks have a try [naming the squirrel]?”

“Pardon?” said David.

“Ask him,” said Lucy.

“How?” said the tenant, looking bemused.

Lucy paddled her feet. “Dream it,” she breathed.

What?” said David.

“Mom, make him do it.”

“I’m cooking sausages, Lucy.”

“Oh, Mom.  Please.”

“Do what?” said David.

Lucy threw herself into the chair beside him. “It’s Mom’s special way of telling stories.  You have to join in and tell what you see.  Then the story really comes alive.  Things happen, things you don’t expect.  Oh, Mom, make him do it.”

Liz sighed and gave in: “David, close your eyes and picture Gadzooks.”

He looked at her askance.  “You’re not serious?”

“I thirty seconds, your dinner will be burned.”

“That’s serious,” said David.  He closed his eyes.  “OK.  He’s on his windowsill, looking out over the garden.  I think he’s wondering if it’s going to rain.”

“No,” said Liz, “he’s biting his pencil, deep in thought, trying hard to thing of a name for you squirrel.  Dream it, David.”

David rocked in his chair and let his mind float. “He flipped a page of his notepad over.”

“Hhh!” gasped Lucy.  “It’s working, Mom!”

“Shush,” went Liz.

“He’s writing something.”

“What?” gasped Lucy, too excited to be shushed.  David let his imagination flow.  To his amazement, he watched Gadzooks take his pencil from his jaws and hurriedly scribble down a name on his pad.

SNIGGER

David’s eyebrows twitched in surprise. Liz prodded a sausage or two with a for.  Lucy bit a fingernail.  Bonnington yawned.  The whole Pennykettle household waited for an answer.

“Snigger,” David whispered.

From somewhere came a gentle hrring noise.

David’s dark blue eyes blinked open. “Yes,” he said, “his name is Snigger.”

I wish you could see what the publishing company did with the font for Gadzooks’ writing.  Even visually that scene was compelling.  I love how that was a step-by-step journey into the part of David that was the writer, the part he had been refusing to acknowledge until now.  Yes, Gadzooks is alive in this book, but he is alive because of the creative part of David that David had nearly killed with over rationalization.

Please don’t think I’m one of those crazy “art over science” people.  I advocate balance.  I think that the science and the arts have to work in tandem and one of the things I respect so much about D’Lacey is that he manages to split that balance so very well in this and his other books.  You don’t have to give up one to have the other.

This book is not what I’d call typical YA lit.  It takes a special kid for me to recommend it.  I like it because it pushes the boundaries of expectations.  These books treat kids intelligently, and I am a big fan of that.  I hope to do so well in my ventures into YA lit.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • Even upon second (or third) reading, it goes way against my YA expectations.
  • There are so many different perspectives in the novel to see it from.
  • It’s designed to make you ask questions and think, which I still do second (or third) time around.
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