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Reviewer: Melissa on June 19, 2013
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In the Society, Cassia has always known what the rules were, even when she was breaking them in small and larger ways. But the rules are different outside of the Society. In Crossed, Cassia makes her way to the Outer Provinces to find Ky, who was taken by the Society to a place where death is imminent – only to learn that he has escaped into the majestic, and dangerous, canyons. In this world that is so different from the life she’s always known, Cassia sees glimmers of a new life and the promise of a rebellion. Of course, even as Cassia sacrifices everything she’s ever known and come to expect from her life to reunite with Ky, unexpected and ingenious surprises from Xander shake things up and may have her questioning who she really wants to be with all over again.
Although I fell in love with the characters and situations that Ally Condie creates for them in Matched, I didn’t rush out to read Crossed when it was first released. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the first novel, the quiet nature of the romance that develops between Cassia and Ky on the Hill, the way they share the poems and stories they know, and of course, the way he teaches her to write cursive was ultimately sweet, but less satisfying in comparison to a few other Dystopian YA novels that I read with similar storylines. At least, that’s what I told myself after time passed. If you’re one of those people who wanted more action the first time around, then you have to read Crossed. With the new characters readers meet, the addition of Ky’s POV, and the very different circumstances that Cassia, Ky, and Xander find themselves in, Crossed is sure to grab the attention of readers of all ages and make them want to run out to pick up the final book in the series, Reached.
While in the Society, much of the storyline revolves around Cassia’s typical day-to-day existence, including the way she interacts with her family and with both her match, Xander, and with the boy who should have never been in the matching pool because of his status as an Aberration, Ky. The second novel in the Matched Trilogy, however, begins with Cassia in her penultimate work camp – where she was sent at the end of the first novel to give her one last chance to find Ky before beginning her work placement in the Society. Whereas Cassia was used to being surrounded by citizens while in the Society, she’s living among Aberrations at the work camp. Whereas she once had free access to the Hundred paintings, Hundred poems, and Hundred songs whenever she wanted to peruse them and could talk to either her parents or Xander anytime, she and the other girls she lives and work with have made due with messages that come only one day a week and a single print out of painting #19 of the Hundred Paintings, all of which are printed on paper of such poor quality that it yellows and falls apart in no time. These changes, and of course, the adventures that Ky, Vick, and Eli and Cassia and Indie have through the canyons make this novel a great installment in the series as well as a book that is unlike anything readers experienced the first time around.
Finally, through the perspective of Ky, readers will come away with a very different understanding of the world that they always thought they knew. At times, Ky’s memories of his time with Cassia on the Hill will color the experience that readers remember from Matched and at others, it will help us see that maybe Cassia and Ky aren’t as well matched as they might have initially seemed because they want different things. What doesn’t change is that Ky is just as committed to finding Cassia as she is in finding him, but what will happen by the time readers get to the final page is up to you to find out.
Whether you liked Matched or you weren’t completely satisfied with it, pick up Crossed because as Cassia breaks out of the status quo bubble that she’s always lived in, you’re going to be left reeling.
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Reviewer: Melissa on June 17, 2013
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In the Society, Officials decide everything that makes life worth living. Who you’ll fall in love with, where you’ll work, and when you die. Cassia has never questioned their decisions and believes, like everyone she knows, that accepting a few concessions here and there is hardly a price to pay for living a long life with the perfect job and the ideal mate by her side. So, in Matched, when she sees her best friend on the Matching screen, she’s certain that he’s the One for her…until another face flashes on the screen for a brief moment before it fades to black. Now she’s faced with difficult, if not impossible decisions: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s ever known and one that no one else has ever followed – between the perfect life and the one about which she’d be passionate. In the first book in Ally Condie’s Matched Trilogy, readers are in for a classic Dystopian story that’ll resonate with the here and now.
When I first read Matched back in 2010, I enjoyed the characters and storyline that was romantic in a quiet sort of way. Now, as I read it again to prepare myself for the remaining two books in the trilogy, I found that I enjoyed it all over again. Cassia is a charming and strong character who has always followed the rules and who has waited her entire life to her match banquet. She chooses the green dress, one of the more unusual colors among those seventeen-year-old girls on their way to their match banquets. However, when Cassia attempts to view Xander’s information on the microcard, even though she assumes she knows everything about him, and the image changes from his to Ky’s, it sets off a chain reaction, causing Cassia to question things that she’s always assumed to be true. It makes her wonder more about Ky, even though she cares for Xander very much. It makes her wonder whether everything the Society has told her might be wrong.
While Cassia and the storyline that develops between her and both Xander and Ky is clearly the main reason that readers will enjoy this novel and look forward to reading the next two books in the Matched Trilogy, there is more to love about this novel. One of my favorite parts was the way Condie incorporates illegal poetry that is familiar to readers of our literary canon, especially Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” It’s a poem about never giving up, about always resisting, and it’s a perfect fit for the narrative that Condie wanted to tell. Moreover, a poem about resisting the status quo is also a perfect way to engage the interest of adolescent readers, who find themselves at a time in their lives where they have to learn to stand on their own, to make their own decisions, even when they might clash with the perspective of their parents.
Although there are many Dystopian YA series out there or books that are represented as being of that genre, they don’t all live up to the classic features of the genre. Some of them are more about romance than anything politically motivated. Some of them have political aspects, but the main character is always aware of the negative aspects of the society in which she lives and never really has to come to terms with a new, resistant reality. Condie, however, clearly has a grasp of what the classic Dystopian genre is about and with Matched, she’s transformed it into a book that is sure to appeal to teens and maybe get them anxious to read books that are classics in the genre, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. And of course, after reading Matched, Dystopian YA readers of all ages won’t be able to stop themselves from consuming the entire series in one go. I know that’s what I did.
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Buy All Good Children
Special Price: $15.61 (Regular price: $19.95)
Publisher: Orca books
Reviewer: Melissa on May 14, 2013
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Intelligent, graffiti artist Maxwell Conners sees more than the average prankster his age in New Middletown. And as the new school year progresses, he finds that he doesn’t like what he observes. Slowly, the kids in his sister Ally’s first grade class all they way up to the seventh and eighth graders on the football team he helps coach become better behaved. Six year olds, who once played and giggled before school, now line up in single file, waiting patiently for the school day to begin. Twelve and thirteen year old boys and girls, who used to dive to catch an impossible football pass or ardently shout when they make a touchdown, now only try when they have an obvious chance and sit on the sidelines because their isn’t a place for girls on the boys football team respectively. And most of the parents of these non brain-eating “zombies” couldn’t be happier. As Max and his best friend Dallas watch their classmates transform into efficient, model citizens in Catherine Austen’s All Good Children, Max wonders if freedom lies beyond the walls of New Middletown, if in some other city or town creativity might be viewed as a gift, not a liability.
While dystopian literature has been around for 100s of years, dystopian YA books blossomed after The Hunger Games was released. Dystopian novels became the trend du jour to the point where publisher’s catalogues were filled with everything from classic dystopian tales to what can best be described as dystopian lite. It’s not surprising that readers often describe themselves as tired of the trend now and publishers are coming out with less of them. Despite having read tons of dystopian young adult fiction, I’m still into this genre, which is great because otherwise I might have missed out on the sheer brilliance of All Good Children. Set in an unspecified future time in the US where the citizens, including the main character Max and his friends and family, have come to accept constant surveillance as a means to protect their basic safety and security, Max only realizes that there is something wrong with the direction the world is going when New Middletown starts drugging children and teens against their will. And of course, the more Max learns, the more he realizes that resistance is the only natural response to what is happening in New Middletown.
While Max is the lead character, readers soon realize that he isn’t the only well-drawn one in the world Austen creates. Max is vibrant though, and he isn’t created from a cobbled together stereotypes. He’s biracial – his mother is black and his father was white – but he isn’t the best athlete on the football team at his academic school. In fact, he’s only on the team because he can run fast. Rather it’s his white best friend, Dallas, who is the star player. One of my favorite things about this novel is the way Austen creates the friendship between these two boys. Conversations between them often begin with Dallas asking “would you rather” type questions to Max in a way that reminded me of Peeta asking “real or not real” in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, but was definitely unique. Moreover, Max’s six-year-old sister, Ally, was delightful with her children’s rhymes, giggling, and attachment to a squirrel at the park, who she names Peanut. Then, of course, there are the villains who actually think making their children into something akin to a child-sized Stepford Wife is actually a good thing, but I’ll let you learn more about them when you read it for yourself.
Since Austen has herself admitted that All Good Children was meant to be a Stepford Wives for teens, it shouldn’t be surprising that she uses a number of 20th century dystopian or horror movies to develop some of the overarching themes. Readers will want to debate what the nature of humanity is and what makes someone human. At the same time, Austen develops humor as Max and Dallas compare the drugged children to zombies, not realizing that actual zombies ate people’s brains rather than stand calmly in line or insist on working quietly. Finally, while Max does have a crush on a particular girl, readers may find it refreshing to know that romance isn’t a major part of the book, like the vast majority of dystopian YA novels.
With its mixture of humor, foreboding, and great characters, All Good Children is a book that you won’t regret picking up. Oh…and in case you were wondering…this novel was written as a standalone, and while there is possibly room for another book, it isn’t guaranteed.
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Buy The Elite
Special Price: $8.79 (Regular price: $10.51)
Publisher: Harper Teen
Reviewer: Melissa on May 2, 2013
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
In The Selection, thirty-five girls entered the palace in Illéa to compete for the chance to win Prince Maxon’s heart, but in The Elite, the competition has been whittled down to the top six candidates. And if you are at all familiar with this series, then you know that only one of them will move on to become the wife of Prince Maxon and future queen of Illéa. Much like in the first novel, America is still teetering between the exciting new romance she has with Maxon and the memories that she had with Aspen, and since the number of girls has decreased to the Elite few, the others are competing ever harder to win Maxon’s favor, making it all the more urgent for America to decide once and for all.
If you’ve read my review of The Selection, then you know that I was a little hesitant to even read, let alone love the first novel. However, America and Prince Maxon quickly won me over with their swoon-worthy romance. With this aspect and America’s uncertainty about the selection process, I found my own thoughts aligning with her’s and her situation, cementing my interest in reading the second installment in the series and now, after having finished The Elite, I’m so glad it did. Just as she did in the first novel, Kiera Cass weaves a balanced story with plenty of unexpected twists and turns that are sure to keep readers turning the pages long into the night or whenever they have a spare moment during the day. Fans of the first book won’t want to miss this one.
With the cast of characters whittled down to a more manageable number of girls, Cass is able to develop each of their characters more fully than was possible the first time around. That’s not to say that they’re all similarly well rounded. Celeste’s reputation as a manipulative character becomes ingrained in both America’s and the reader’s mind, and may even sink to something worse. Kriss and America’s relationship develops in new and unexpected ways as the latter comes to realize that there might be more to Kriss than she first imagined, and of course, Marlee becomes more fully realized and relatable. That said, the characters of Elise and Natalie are much less developed than that of the other girls. Finally, America, Maxon, Aspen, the Queen and King all change in important ways, allowing the story to become more complicated than one might imagine at first. Readers will truly come to a better understanding of not only the precarious places each of the girls have at the palace, but also how much more complicated and realistic Illéa is than they (and America) might have first believed.
Not only are the characters more complicated this time around, but also the entire society of Illéa, in general, and the selection, in particular, becomes darker. If the first book wasn’t quite the dystopian novel that you were expecting, then you might want to remind yourself that this one probably won’t be either. However, as the world America lives in becomes more complicated, readers should watch for how it becomes increasingly darker, but not to the point where dystopia is the only relevant genre. However, this doesn’t mean that everything is now without reproach. For one, America hasn’t been forced to learn from her mistakes from the first installment, yet, which increases the tension between her and nearly every other character at the palace. Second, I was still unclear about the caste system and had to look it up on Cass’ website to clear some things up for myself. Similarly, I was fuzzy on both the spatial geography of Illéa, New Asia, and the various provinces and an understanding of the wars that Illéa is facing, though perhaps some of these questions will be answered in the final novel, The One.
The Elite isn’t the best book ever written. That said, it is the ultimate, fast-paced, guilty pleasure read that fans of the first book and even those who were on the fence about The Selection will enjoy.
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Buy The Selection
Special Price: $8.80 (Regular price: $15.75)
Publisher: Harper Teen
Reviewer: Melissa on April 30, 2013
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime; the opportunity to escape a life laid out for them since they were born. It’s the possibility of being swept up into a world of beautiful gowns, expensive jewellery, a palace, and winning the heart of Prince Maxon. But America Singer isn’t just any girl, and she certainly doesn’t want to be selected, which means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her, leaving her home, and living in a place that’s under constant threat from rebels. However, America meets Prince Maxon in The Selection by Kiera Cass, and slowly, she begins to question everything that she ever planned for herself. Maybe the life that she always dreamed of won’t compare to a future she never imagined.
When it came to reading The Selection, I was conflicted. I’m not one to watch reality TV show, especially not one like either The Bachelor or The Bachelorette – I may be one of the few people who has never seen even one season of these shows, let alone however many exists. Therefore, when I heard this novel being compared to a dystopian version of the former, I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with it. But Harper Collins Canada sent me a copy, and I read it, and slowly…much like America’s gradual shift toward Maxon…I began to realize that there were things I really enjoyed about this book. No, it isn’t a literary masterpiece, but Cass knows how to tell a story, especially one in which the main character happens to be one of lowliest classes in her society with the potential to be one of the most exalted in all of Illéa. And for a someone like me, who loved fairy tales as a child (and still has a soft spot for them), it should be obvious that I was drawn into this Cinderella-esque tale.
While marketed as a type of dystopia, the only way that this novel – the first in The Selection series – adheres to the real definition is through the caste system that rigidly governs Illéa and all of its citizens. Whereas some groups of people, like royalty and celebrities, are born into the most privileged and admired places in their society, others, like America, are forced to become musicians or artists even if their real talents lie elsewhere. So yes, this is unjust, but so far, it doesn’t seem to match the idea of dystopia in the true sense of the genre, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but may disappoint some readers. Moreover, while I was fairly clear on the roles that America and her family as Fives were allowed and had an understanding of at least the future of a Six, like Aspen, would look like, the distinction between several of the other mid-range and lowest castes is slightly muddled in my mind.
Despite these set backs, I was drawn into this story, in part because America was just as unsure of the Selection as I was at first. Her uncertainty about being there, and her decision to stay on as long as she could because her family would benefit from more money that usual mirrored my own thoughts about this misogynistic tradition. Moreover, the further I read into the story, the more caught up I was in the romance that evolves between Maxon and America. I also appreciated that in a situation where every girl there benefits from others been kicked out and from actively competing against one another, America is able to develop some real friendships, especially with Marlee, even when she doesn’t quite understand all of their motivations. Finally, the dresses. ‘Nuff said?
For those who are looking for a less-than serious read, The Selection is worth a look. Just don’t expect that Cass has a lyrical or poetic writing style.
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Special: $7.66 (Regular price: $9.99)
Publisher: Harper Teen
Reviewer: Melissa on April 11, 2013
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For the first time since she left school, Eve is able to sleep soundly. She’s living in Califia, a community for women, and is protected from the harrowing fate that awaits most orphaned girls in New America. Of course, in Anna Carey’s Once, Eve’s safety had to come at the price of abandoning the boy she loves, Caleb, at the city gates. However, when Eve learns that he’s in trouble, she sets off into the wilds once again, only to be caught and forcefully brought to the City of Sand. While trapped inside the city walls, Eve learns some shocking details about her past and some harsh realities about the future she’s expected to lead. But when Caleb turns up alive, Eve must make an impossible choice to either save the ones she loves…or risk losing Caleb forever.
When I first read Eve, I was swept up in the characters, the story, and the dark vision of the world that Carey creates. In fact, I rushed through it in one, swoon-filled sitting on a dark and gloomy afternoon. But then I took a little more time to think about the book, and I was a little torn because as much as I loved it, I was conflicted by the representation of the main character, Eve. Everything that Eve planned for was for the future the teachers painted for her, but when she realizes that these were all lies, she’s not at all equipped to deal with the circumstances she faces. Without Arden and the group of boys, including Caleb, that she meets, she would have been totally helpless. However, my initial love for this book made me want to pick up the second book in the trilogy, Once, and I’m so glad that I did.
If you’d been sucked into the storyline of Eve as much as I had, but had some qualms about her character, then you really have to pick up Once because not only have Eve’s circumstances changed considerably over the few months that pass between book 1 and 2, but also her survival skills have improved. She can protect herself in a fight to some degree, which is a good thing because she still finds herself walking into traps at times. Moreover, readers will find themselves, and Eve, delving deeper into the world of the resistance, learning more about what they’ve been doing as Eve lived her day-to-day existence in Califia, what they need, and how they operate. Yes, some things change, but in this case, each and every one of the changes is an improvement and offers some great opportunities for the series to expand and finally, conclude with the final book, Rise.
Beyond the world building and characters, I also noticed that with Once, Carey demonstrates a solid ability to use of juxtaposition to imbue the novel with a literary feel and highly interconnected and fine-tuned writing choices. For example, there are a few instances where the lyrics of a classic song that most (if not all) readers would recognize are juxtaposed with an important event in the plot for either dramatic or comedic effect. Similarly, there are several elements, such as well-known companies from our contemporary culture that figure into the novel’s setting. These palimpsests of our world act as eerie reminders of how similar the future that Carey has created is to ours, suggesting that we could be on a course toward the nightmarish reality that young girls and men in New America live through every day. While elements like these appear in a lot of dystopian YA fiction, it never was so disturbing to me as reader before it’s representation in Once.
From Anna Carey’s use of literary tropes to Eve’s growth into a stronger and more independent person, there’s a lot to love about Once, so make sure you pick it up today to get ready for the final book in the series, Rise, which is now available as well.
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Buy The Lives We Lost
Special: $16.15 (Regular price: $16.99)
Publisher: Hyperion Books
Reviewer: Melissa on April 4, 2013
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
First, the deadly virus took Kaelyn’s friends, and then, her family. In Megan Crewe’s The Lives We Lost, it takes her home; the life she once had is gone forever. The virus that readers were first introduced to in The Way We Fall has now completely destroyed Kae’s island community and spread beyond the confines of the quarantine. However, when she discovers her father’s vaccine samples, she knows that there has to be someone, somewhere, who could replicate it to save everyone who is still alive. On a quest to find someone with the appropriate knowledge, Kaelyn and her friends head for the mainland and encounter a world they no longer recognize. It’s not only the flu that’s killing people – there are other people who will do everything they can to get the vaccine for themselves. How much is Kae willing to risk for an unproven cure, knowing that the search itself could kill everyone she cares about or save the human race?
If you read my review of The Way We Fall, you know that I loved the first book in the Fallen Trilogy. However, with a series, I’m always concerned that the subsequent instalments won’t live up to the first. If you worry about this problem, then don’t – at least not when it comes to Crewe’s February 2013 release, The Lives We Lost. The sequel is just as fast-paced as the first book, if not more so, and is sure to have plot twists that will shock you, even though they’re perfectly logical. While the world that the story inhabits becomes much larger in the second book, the characters’ circumstances change in a way that makes trusting people on their journey increasingly difficult. If the setting was claustrophobic in the first novel, then in the second, it’s almost too big. Tensions are high, the action is fierce, and readers are sure to be satisfied with the direction Crewe takes in her post-apocalyptic world.
As one might expect, there are new characters introduced in the second novel and some characters, like Leo, who become more fully developed and well rounded. In The Lives We Lost, Crewe shows that Leo is more than Kae could ever imagine him to be. For example, as one of the few non-white characters, readers become aware as Kae does that despite appearances to the contrary, Leo never really felt like he fit into their island community, much like Kae’s outsider status because she’s of mixed race. In addition, Kae grows in positive ways over the course of the novel. Readers will appreciate how strong she becomes in the face of danger as she steps up to become the leader, and in so doing, earns the respect of her peers. I, personally, found this growth to be a welcome from the preponderance of female protagonists who follow the lead of one or several male characters, especially if he happens to be her love interest. For these reasons, Kae and The Lives We Lost is a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps it is my tendency to not read a book blurb, or when I do, to refrain from doing so immediately before reading it, but the title is an important piece of how I interpret The Lives We Lost and its place within the series. Some people might have immediately known that the story was going to be, in part, a meditation on the lives that Kae and her friends are unable to go back to because of the virus. The blurb suggests this interpretation, and it is a major part of the story because not only does the virus disrupts their daily routines, but also the characters’ experiences since the outbreak have brought them to a place of lost innocence. The things they’ll see can never be unseen. However, for me, it was the other part of the title’s double entendre that stuck out – the lives lost also refers to the people who were killed by the virus or in another form of violence. Ultimately, this novel is a meditation on both of these dark topics as well as the renewing hope that carried readers through the first novel.
If you enjoyed the first book in Crewe’s Fallen World series, then make sure you pick up The Lives We Lost. You won’t regret it.
Buy The Lives We Lost today and save 4% off the regular price!
Buy The Way We Fall
Reviewer: Melissa on March 19, 2013
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It starts with one case of an itch that won’t go away, then the fever and a throat tickle follow. Before you know it you’re telling things to virtual strangers that you would usually have kept under wraps, and finally, hallucinations make you attack the people you hold most dear. And then, as if things couldn’t get worse, you die. In Megan Crewe’s The Way We Fall, a deadly virus sweeps through sixteen-year-old Kaelyn’s island community and the government, in the interest of safety, quarantine the island. Soon the bodies pile up, but those who are still healthy find it increasingly difficult to remain so all while they fight for the dwindling supplies in an effort to survive. Old rivals become friends in the face of danger and new love blossoms in a world gone wrong, but Kaelyn (“Kae”) keeps holding on to the belief that there has to be a way to save the people she loves most. Because what’s the point of surviving when all of the connections you have in this world are lost?
As with a few other YA books that I’ve read recently, such as Eric Walters and Teresa Toten’s The Taming, Abby McDonald’s Getting Over Garrett Delaney and Tom Ryan’s Way To Go, I picked up Crewe’s The Way We Fall because it was short-listed for the OLA’s 2013 White Pine Award. (I’ve been challenging myself to read each of the 10 nominees before the award’s ceremony on May 15, 2013, and I’m almost there.) Anyway, I’m really glad that I picked up this dystopian YA novel, the first in the Fallen World Trilogy, because there is something really powerful about it’s vacillation between poignant moments and an optimism that helps the main and secondary characters demonstrate that they’re stronger than they may have initially thought. It’s a novel that makes the reader question what they would do if they were in Kae’s situation, but at the same time shows them that hope exists in the direst circumstances.
Divided into three sections entitled, “Symptoms,” “Quarantine,” and “Mortality,” this novel flows much like a three act play, where the first act introduces the world and problem that the characters are meant to face, the second act offers further complications and dangers, and in the final act places every character in mortal danger. In each section, the stakes get higher, but rather than give up, the characters become more than who they might initially seem. Some characters, like Kae, grow stronger. Others, like Tessa, become increasingly three-dimensional the more the reader and Kae become acquainted with her. However, if you’re thinking that this is just another first-person apocalyptic novel, where the self-contained island is the extent to which readers are privy, too, then think again. Yes, this novel is written from Kae’s perspective, which is at times unreliable or at least, just without all the facts about her world and the people in which she inhabits it. However, Crewe decided to use the second-person through Kae’s perspective of the world, and she does so, quite cleverly, through a journal that Kae writes in religiously addressed to Leo, a character that we never meet in the first novel because he left the island before the virus started to study at a school on the mainland, and who was, at one time, Kae’s best friend, only they haven’t spoken for quite some time. By using the second person in the way she does, Crewe gives readers a more expansive world than they would have should Kae’s thoughts only and always be directed to her present, claustrophobia-inducing circumstances.
It goes without saying, I think, that I loved this fast-paced novel and think that both teen readers and other adults with a love for YA will appreciate The Way We Fall as well. If I had to give any criticism of it though, I would have to say that because the predominance of Kae’s knowledge comes from her father (other than the information she pieces together herself), the dialogue between them sometimes appears heavy handed. Nevertheless, every detail he mentions or that Kae mentions about him figures into something important. With The Way We Fall, there are no loose ends, only new beginnings that I can’t wait to explore in book two, The Lives We Lost.
Buy The Way We Fall today!
People often say that a book is only as good as it’s villain. I’m not sure I totally agree with this statement, but there’s no denying that a really great villain can make for a truly brilliant read. The more powerful the bad guy is, the harder the good guys have to fight to survive and the more we root for them. As I mentioned in my interview here earlier, everybody loves an underdog, especially when they’re up against something immensely powerful and utterly, relentlessly evil. I think that maybe this is why prison narratives are so popular, and why they draw such an emotional response from readers: because villains really don’t get any worse than a prison.
I always set out to make Furnace Penitentiary a character rather than a place. It had to be more than just a location if it was really going to scare people — it had to be the villain of the story. And it is. Although there are countless living horrors inside Furnace — the hellish Wheezers, the sadistic guards known as Blacksuits, the skinless dogs, the monsters dragged from the blood-drenched tunnels below, and of course, the Warden himself, a man as cruel and as dangerous as the devil — at least they are alive. Anything that is alive can be reasoned with or fought. Anything that is alive can be killed.
But Furnace Penitentiary is not alive. It has no soul, no warmth, no mercy. It cannot be reasoned with or tricked, it cannot be knocked out or injured. It cannot die. This thing — because it does feel more like a ‘who’ to me than a ‘where’ — is a monster which devours children, which pulls them into its stone belly a mile beneath the surface of the planet and which never lets them go. You could scratch away at the walls for a thousand years and still never get anywhere. I find this idea of an immortal, unthinking, unfeeling entity absolutely terrifying.
At the heart of every great prison story is the prison itself. It defines the action because it is the very force that needs to be defeated, the very evil that needs to be overcome. Prisons are built for a single purpose: to keep people locked up. And they are very, very good at what they do. This is what makes them such excellent villains — they perform their function with the same ruthless efficiency and emotional detachment as the Terminator. They are mechanical places of misery, of suffering, of pain, of violence, places where hope is crushed beyond any chance of recovery. They are evil — a necessary evil, in many cases, but evil nonetheless.
Prison narratives also simultaneously appeal to us and repel us because of the fact that there is no escape. I don’t just mean there’s no way out of the prison itself, but there’s nowhere to hide from the horrors of the incarceration. In most books, characters can run, they can get away. Behind bars, there is no such luxury. There is no privacy, no safe house, no hiding places, no friends or family that can protect you, no door you can lock behind you, no curtains you can pull. The nightmares have unrestricted access to you, they can come whenever they like, they can do whatever they like, and there is not way to stop them. It’s a horrific notion, and yet the idea of a character who is utterly powerless, who is totally at the mercy of his enemies, makes for compulsive storytelling.
Writers of prison narratives, myself included, are almost cheating. Because by setting up a penitentiary you are creating the perfect villain! And by making the good guy innocent of whatever crime he or she is accused of, you automatically get the reader on side. Wrongful accusation and imprisonment is something that everybody frears, and because of this you cannot help but empathize with a character who has suffered that fate. You desperately want them to escape — even if it’s a character you might not necessarily like or feel related to — and that emotional connection drives the story forwards, it keeps you hooked right to the last word. Prisoners are the ultimate underdogs because they’re fighting against this overwhelming enemy, not just the prison but everything it stands for.
Prison narratives are brutal. There are things that happen in prisons which are heartbreaking and soul-destroying — things which I couldn’t bring myself to write about. I should say that the Furnace series is violent, yes, and terrifying in places, but it’s a horror novel, not an ‘issues’ book. I didn’t want to explore the true horror of prisons, the real horror, because other people have already done it, and done it extremely well. I’m not sure I could have written about it even if I’d wanted to, because truth is always so much worse than fiction and some of the stories I’ve read of real people locked away are unbearably sad. They’re simply devastating. Horror, for me, is all about escapism — in more ways than one. That’s what I wanted the Furnace books to be. They’re scary, yes, but they’re about the adventure as much as the terror, the daring planning and execution of a prison break against all odds.
Freedom is possibly the most important thing in life. It lets us be ourselves, it lets us live the way we want to, it lets us be human. I guess, in a nutshell, that’s why prison narratives are so attractive — so addictive, almost. Because in taking freedom away, prisons become the embodiment of everything that stops us being ourselves. They lock us down when our lives need to flow, they bury us alive when we need to fly, they smother us when we need to breath. They are guilty of the greatest crime of all, which is why they are the perfect villains, and why any character pitted against one becomes the simplest and most effective kind of hero.
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Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Reviewer: Melissa on January 18, 2011
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
In the stunning conclusion to Lockdown , Alex Sawyer, Zee, Toby, and Gary jump from the passage way they exploded into a raging river. Unfortunately, their means of escape and freedom ends them right back in the clutches of the Warden. Rather than send them back to live among the general population of Furnace Penitentiary, however, the Warden decides that solitary is where they’ll be spending their days for a little while. Solitary brings Alex face-to-face with another series of nightmares and struggles to not allow their new conditions to overwhelm them. If another escape will ever be possible, they must first survive their new nightmarish existence.
If you read my review of Lockdown, then you know that I really loved it. I’m happy to report that a lot of the interesting aspects of the first dystopian YA novel in the series show up again in the second. In fact, if you needed a reminder that Alex isn’t the typical good guy type of hero, then you wouldn’t have to look far: Alex speaks directly to the reader to this effect early on in Alexander Gordon Smith‘s novel. Moreover, the creepy feeling that he gets from the Warden and his terror of both the dogs, the wheezers and the blacksuits follow him as he (and the readers) embarks on his second journey.
However, if you were to take away from this review that Solitary is in many ways the same book as it’s predecessor, then I would have led you astray somehow. And we just can’t have that. Solitary confinement at Furnace – even with a buddy or two nearby – really limits the possibility of social interaction. While there are a lot of moments when Alex can talk with other inmates through coded messages or other means, it felt to me as though he was on his own a lot. While this is to be expected given the concept of the novel, it made me feel, in general, that this is less exciting than the first book was. At times, in fact, I felt that I was inside the mind of Alex receiving info dumps a little more than I would have liked. Still, when things do happen, Alex still finds himself put in danger just as often (if not more often) than his friends, so the author definitely didn’t make the second novel give the main character a break in any way.
Another thing that I loved about the second novel is that it builds from the knowledge that Alex and the readers learned the first time around. Whereas the characters in the first novel could only imagine the terrible things that could happen to inmates who were selected by the wheezers in the first novel, or infrequently see some of their handiwork come back as a monstrous entity, this novel will give Alex a much clearer understanding about the “other forms of existence” that the Warden is always mentioning and how they come about. At the same time, it makes the reader ask deep questions about the moral dilemma of human experimentation and how could the people running Furnace get away with such atrocities? In addition, questions like, should prisoners have the basic human rights of safety? And if we say no, then can we be certain that only guilty people will find themselves behind the prison walls?
While it wasn’t quite as exciting as the previous novel, I have to admit that I enjoyed Solitary a lot. Whether you are just considering this series for the first time or you previously enjoyed Lockdown, Alexander Gordon Smith’s Escape From Furnace series will imprison you in it’s underground passages and nightmarish landscape. Don’t expect to make it out of the first book or two without desperately wanting to check out the rest of the installments!
Buy Solitary today!