Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

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Book One

On Cassia’s seventeenth birthday, she is excited but nervous about her Match Banquet—nothing out of the ordinary, Society has determined that 93% of Matchees are nervous—where she will see the face of the man Society has determined to be her perfect mate, as calculated by genetics and temperament. Instead of the screen showing her the face of a boy in another city or region, she is shown someone in the same Banquet, someone from her block—Xander, her lifelong best friend. Excited—Xander is perfect, and perfect for her, after all—but a little let down—unlike most Matchees, she won’t be anxiously studying the microcard she’s given to learn about her match, because she already knows him— she goes home and puts the datachip into the screen anyway. There’s Xander’s face, but for a minute it’s replaced by a different face: that of Ky, another boy from their borough, a friend but not someone to whom anyone she knows is really close. Startled, Cassia begins to pay attention to Ky in a way she never has before. As she notices Ky’s quiet, careful life, and as she’s shocked by her grandfather’s deathbed rebellion, Cassia begins to notice the cracks in her comfortable, easy, supposedly perfect world.

It’s a well-crafted dystopia, gently but firmly ruled by white-coated Officials who always seem to have your best interest at heart. Your meals are delivered to you, specially calibrated to contain the right amount and kind of nutrition for your body. You have schooling, if you’re young, then a blend of schooling and work, also suited to your needs and abilities, and designed to both train you and test you so you can be given your permanent work assignment: your perfect job. Your perfect mate, to produce your perfect children. A pill container on you at all times, with a blue pill that has enough nutrition to sustain you for several days in an emergency, a green pill that calms you in times of stress, and a red pill that you’re only to take under the guidance of the Officials.

Though well-crafted and well-executed, the world itself is nothing we haven’t seen before, really, and it’s a bit heavy-handed in its use of poetry as a motivational force. The characters, however, make it special. Cassia is a good narrator, observant and intelligent but invested in the world and narrative in which she was raised. Her confusion and uncertainty are strong enough to ring true, but not so strong that they annoy the reader, who comes to the book automatically distrustful of the society. Though there is a love triangle between Cassia, Xander, and Ky, it’s not melodramatic or overdone; she’s never really dating either of them and is generally truthful, so it’s more a tension between possibilities than between attachments. Behind and beyond the romance, they are both her friends, and good ones at that.

And everyone’s just so nice. Cassia’s parents and grandparents knew and know the flaws of the system, but they are nice, loving, caring people, who just want what’s best for everyone. They make the choices they do deliberately, to protect and provide for their children. There is a villain in the story and she is an official, but she is outnumbered by officials who are just doing their jobs and keeping society comfortable and safe. She is also clearly reacting to the situation in front of her, and we as readers never fully know what that situation is.

The book suffers primarily from its vagueness in describing what’s going on outside the central territories. We know there is conflict between the society and people at the edges of the territories it controls, but it’s never entirely clear what either the citizens believe is going on, or what is actually going on. The epilogue indicates that we’ll learn more about the situation in fact in the next book(s), but it lacks the perspective that the propaganda would have provided. Nonetheless, it is an extremely well-written and enjoyable book, with a number of sympathetic characters who are trapped by the world they have perpetuated.

With all its focus on mate selection, it’s also a very odd book to read while traveling to go to a couple of weddings.

November 2010

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Matched ~ Ally Condie

Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Early in her junior spring semester at an elite, idealistic boarding school, Alex is date raped. At first, all she wants is to hide, to wash it away and pretend it never happened. She doesn’t want her parents to know, she knows that there’s very little the police can do1, and her school administration is convinced that anyone smart and driven enough to go to their school is honorable and perfect, and therefore said administration is basically useless. What her school does have is the Mockingbirds, a volunteer group of students who establish and maintain a code of conduct, putting students on trial when they break the code, and enforcing nonviolent, off the record punishment to the perpetrators. Encouraged and supported by her best friend and older sister, Alex turns to the Mockingbird and seeks justice.

Written by a date rape survivor, The Mockingbirds is painful and powerful. It’s extremely well written and forthright, dealing candidly with the gamut of emotions experienced by survivors: anger, illogical coping mechanisms, denial, guilt, confusion, fear. It gets into the way rape can affect all aspects of the survivor’s life; Alex is no longer comfortable walking around the school grounds or eating in the cafeteria, certain classes are difficult, whether because of her rapist or because of his friends, and even music, her primary interest and love, has been tainted by what happened. Though the plot revolves around the process of her case with the Mockingbirds, the emotional core and character development is in her slowly and haltingly reclaiming her life, her body, her sexuality, and her mind, from her trauma and post-traumatic stress. Alex’s friends and sister are amazing but realistic; they are angry on her behalf and they know what they want her to do, but they know they need to support her in what she wants to do and can handle doing, and not push her. Her assailant is also, unfortunately, realistic, oblivious to consent issues and never thinking of his actions as rape. The one false note was a series of connected English assignments; the assignment is reasonable, the extent to which the teacher takes it does not feel reasonable, and the teachers actions are hard to explain except as malicious—but the teacher is given no motivation or reason for malicious behavior. It’s a relatively small lapse in a book that is otherwise brilliant, dealing with a difficult issue with both honesty and sensitivity, and without leaving any doubt that the absence of a yes must always be assumed to be a no.

November 2010

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1As with most date rapes, especially those involving alcohol (or drugs) there’s no physical evidence worth a damn. Even if she hadn’t showered and washed away all the evidence, all it would show is that the sex happened, not whether or not it was consensual.

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The Mockingbirds ~ Daisy Whitney’s Blog

powerless codyDaniel, a Sherlock Holmes devotee but otherwise a normal twelve year old, just moved to a tiny town in Pennsylvania. Not only is he the new kid, but he’s pretty sure the kids—even the ones who seem to like him—are keeping some sort of weird secret. This is awkward, but temporary; eventually he learns that the kids in town have superpowers—flight, invisibility, releasing a nasty-smelling gas, that sort of thing. The only catch is that on each kid’s birthday, he or she will wake up with no power and no memory of ever having had a superpower. With several thirteenth birthdays coming up, powerless Daniel is recruited to look into the matter. His investigation leads him to Golden Age comic books, a cranky old man, and his own family history.

It’s a solid, entertaining, uncomplicated read. The powers and their limitations are thoroughly conceived and the characters, though not particularly deep, are believable and consistent, complete with badly-suppressed anxieties and early-adolescent awkwardness between friends of different genders. The writing dips into the sentimental at times, but it’s self-aware enough to shrug off its saccharine tendencies: “‘But, you know, that’s what being a hero is all about, right? Overcoming your fears and failures to help other people, like Johnny noble did.’ Eric smiled. ‘I know you cringe when I talk like that but it’s true.'”1 We cringe, too—but it’s okay, the book acknowledges it and gives us permission. A healthy dose of younger brother-related snark running through the book helps, too. The family history bit is somewhat overdone—think Snape and Lily Deathly Hallows revelations—but the idea that history is important and that current events were seeded seventy years before are welcome and the plot is satisfying. Generally, an enjoyable book.

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1Pp. 172-173

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Powerless

Will Grayson Will Grayson David Levithan John GreenCaustic, insecure Will Grayson (CIWG) has two rules: don’t care and shut up. His best friend, the very large and very gay Tiny Cooper, cares about many things and never shuts up. Currently, aside from falling in and out of love, Tiny is trying to hook Will up with a young lady and to produce, direct, write, and star in, a FABULOUS high school musical about his life. Meanwhile, morbidly depressed Will Grayson (MDWG) is constantly at war with his best friend, Goth girl Maura, barely exchanging two words with his stressed, worried mom, and finding his only solace in his internet boyfriend, Isaac. A coincidental meeting between the two Will Graysons acts as a catalyst, sparking change in friendships and relationships.

It’s hilarious. CIWG, written by John Green, is defensive, harsh, at times a terrible person, and an incredibly funny narrator. Even MDWG, written by David Levithan, sends many deeply funny statements out from the depths of his despair. (griping about internet slang: “or <3. you think that looks like a heart? if you do, that’s only because you’ve never seen a scrotum.”1). It’s also heartbreaking: both Will Graysons are in pain most of the time, and the writing expresses their depression, self-loathing, and need flawlessly. The girls are a bit underdeveloped and underrespected, existing almost as foils for the boys, but other things the book just nails. For instance:

gideon: yeah, and, i don’t know, when i realized that I was gay, it really sucked that nobody was like, ‘way to go’ so i just wanted to come over and say…
me: way to go?2

When I came out in high school, one of my classmates did say way to go. And that was really, really awesome of her. And this is a book that understands why that was important, and celebrates it, without losing the awkwardness inherent in just about every conversation ever held in a high school hallway or cafeteria.

It does get rather over the top, notably Tiny’s musical and, even more notably, the ending. It’s too neat, too perfect, too sentimental. And yet… I don’t cry over books. I certainly don’t cry over books while walking down the street in Brooklyn and I certainly don’t cry over unrealistically perfect sentimental bullshit endings. And yet… for this one, I did.

April 2010. I got an ARC from my mother, who works at a bookstore.

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1p. 2
2p. 181
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Will Grayson, Will Grayson ~ John Green ~ John Green’s Blog ~ David Levithan