Bookish Gifts: Dystopian Edition

I have a little bit of breathing room this week–enough that I’ve indulged myself and spent some time working on a post (I KNOW. It’s a miracle). There are reviews that need to be finished, but I’ve been in a nostalgic mood and I’ve been thinking about high school and the books that I had to read in English class. There was a lot of Shakespeare (tragedies more than comedies, plays more than sonnets), Chekhov, Steinbeck, angry young men, slavery, racism, social criticism, and coming of age. It would drive me crazy that my English teachers (who were actually English, but I’m not sure if that had anything to do with it), would pick works with such heavy themes. I can appreciate my education now, but back then, there were very few books that didn’t get tainted by having to analyze and discuss the ever-loving bejesus out of them. One of those few was Nineteen Eighty-Four. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” In honor of high school English class, I went looking for merchandise that bows to one high school staple: dystopia.

(As usual click the Bookish Gifts tag for more posts, and on the images to embiggen).

bookish dystopia 11. Lord of the Flies poster ($15) 2. 1984 pouch ($12) 3. A Clockwork tote ($22) 4. Doubleplusgood necklace ($30) 5. 1984 t-shirt ($24) 6. Thought Criminal tote ($12) 7. Lord of the Flies brooch (about $13)
bookish dystopia 2
8. Fahrenheit 451 6×6 print ($12) 9. China Glaze Capitol colors set ($42.30) 10. Big Brother wall clock ($30) 11. Fahrenheit 451 11×17 print ($25) 12. Hunger Games Katniss Black Label Collector edition action figure (price varies) 13. Moloko Plus mug ($18) 14. Hunger Games
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15. Soma sticker ($2.64 – other products w/ this design available) 16. Soma Print ($15 – other products w/ this design available) 17. 1″ Brave New World buttons ($11 for a set of 10) 18. The Giver Quartet 20th Anniversary boxed set ($45.26) 19. Animal Farm tote ($18) 20. V for Vendetta mask ($3.12) 21. V for Vendetta graphic novel ($11.29) 22. Mockingjay pin ($8.90, also available: a gold plated version)

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Crewel by Gennifer Albin

I was drawn to Crewel because of its blurb that promised a non-conformist who was hiding her true abilities despite societal pressure. I was interested to see what would happen to this girl who went against the grain. I requested Crewel through a BEA-related promotion from Macmillan. This review is based off of that eARC copy.

Crewel
Gennifer Albin

The Premise: In the world of Arras, some women are born with the ability to manipulate the fabric of existence. They are called Spinsters, and they keep the world running smoothly. They can weave food into being and thread supplies from one end of Arras to the other.  But Spinsters are rare and under strict control of the Guild. Every sixteen year old girl is tested for ability, and if she qualifies, she’s whisked away by the Guild to a presumably glamorous life. She will never be seen by her family again, except as a glitzy picture on the occasional Bulletin. While most, including Adelice’s sister, Amie, believe being a Spinster is a dream come true, Adelice would much rather stay in Romen. For years under her parents’ guidance, Adelice has practiced her clumsiness. Although she doesn’t fully understand why her parents want to protect her from them, she assumes that the Guild’s tight control on society (where segregation, rationing, and marriage laws are the norm), is reason enough. As Adelice’s family begins celebrating her failure of the Spinster testing, they are unaware that Adelice slipped up and didn’t actually come off as a dud. Adelice hopes to have one last happy moment with them before being taken away. Unfortunately she underestimates her parents’ resistance. When the Guild comes knocking, her mother and father make a last ditch effort, but Adelice’s silence has limited their chances, and ultimately she’s dragged away, leaving behind at least one dead parent.

Read an excerpt of Crewel here (ch 1, on web) or here (ch 1-5 on kindle) or here (ch 1-5 on nook)

My Thoughts: I have to hand it to this author — she knows how to get a story started. Crewel quickly sets the stage: a dystopian world held in the iron grip of the Guild. Every aspect of life is regulated, all because the Guild controls the Spinsters, and as her parents tell her “no matter how good their intentions, with absolute power comes corruption”. It’s a foreboding stage, and it makes sense that Adelice would want to avoid the Guild’s notice. Instead she screws up in testing and reveals her ability, which leads the Guild to violently rip Adelice’s family apart. They use force to yank Adelice from her home, and threats to make her smile and wave at the cameras, while Guild celebrity Cormac Patton smiles at her side. Later she is drugged, imprisoned, and rebound to the Western Compound for Spinster training.  There she sees first hand what absolute power really brings.

The concept of weaving the threads of life and existence is something I hadn’t seen before. Through manipulation of ‘threads’ on a special loom, Spinsters maintain the infrastructure of Arras, create food, transport people, and even bring new life to the world. But other manipulations are less benevolent. Spinsters are also able to change memories, make dissenting citizens disappear (literally), and remove the elderly even if they are not infirm. A dystopia based off of this concept of an ultimate control of existence is a brilliant idea. I found it interesting that women were singled out for particular control, even the female Spinsters. They were made to keep traditional female roles (teacher, secretary), not allowed to travel alone (unlike men). Even appearance (cosmetics) is regulated.  It is easy to see where the Guild uses the “good of Arras” to justify their actions, and how the propaganda machine and careful memory manipulations keeps the general population blissfully ignorant of the Guild’s actions.

The idea behind of this dystopia appealed to me, but the story didn’t quite ‘wow’ me in its execution. Like I said, the story starts out really well. I loved the first chapter – we’re not only introduced to the concept of Spinsters and Adelice’s own precarious situation, but we’re also shown the dynamics of a close-knit family. Because this story is told in the first person from Adelice’s point of view, I felt like her parent’s protectiveness and their need for secrecy comes through very well, as did her sister’s innocent belief in the system. The writing here balanced world building with plot and character development. As the story continued, this balance wasn’t as well maintained.

One of the biggest issues I had was the with character development. Maybe it’s because all the other characters aren’t her family, so there’s less personal connection from her point of view, but after she leaves home, the secondary characters don’t seem to have the same depth as her family did. In my mind they fall into two groups: bad guys and everyone else. The bad guys are the ones in charge with power over life and death, and they use this power in petty ways. They were the most one-note characters representing a totalitarian government. As for everyone else, they were defined by their reaction to those in power. There was not much to distinguish a character personality-wise – not much that I could really connect to. More often then not, I just felt like they were being used to propel the plot by explaining things to Adelice at opportune moments or to serve as examples of the Guild’s evil. The love interests had a little more personality, but still not enough. There’s the ambitious assistant with his own agenda and the quiet brooder with a painful past. Again I had trouble connecting to these relationships  and had trouble caring about a romance with them. There was very little to make me believe in Adelice’s interest, and two options felt gratuitous (that dreaded love triangle, thankfully not so bad here).

Finally, we have Adelice herself. After what happens to her family, she is surprisingly… resilient. Sure, she sheds a tear here and there, but it is minimal. She says she is sad but I had trouble buying it. I didn’t read ‘mourning’ when her behavior and her narration are no different from your typical teen fond of a little snark. I think that my not buying Adelice’s connection to the other characters made them feel even more flat and lackluster.  As for Adelice’s strength as a main character – Adelice is supposedly rebellious but this didn’t make her seem very smart when who she is mouthing off to just killed at least one parent. Her attitude didn’t win points when we find out Adelice is given a pass for what she is. When it comes to doing something about her situation other than realizing who the bad guys are, she spends much of the book finding supporters who already hate the system (they don’t need convincing from her) and doing what she is told without really knowing what is going on. It is when other characters that tell her that her life is in danger that she finally does something proactive rather than reactive.

Writing out my review I think I have figured out what was missing for me in Crewel. It was that I wasn’t feeling the emotional depth that I wanted to. It just didn’t come through the pages. The story relied heavily on exploring the Spinster dystopia concept and it was what propelled it forward. The characters and their motivations were adjusted to fit this instead of vice versa. As a result it felt like the plot bypasses internal development (like Adelice absorbing her situation on an emotional level or really connecting to the other characters), in favor of shining a light on the challenges of living in a dystopia. This story is more plot-driven, less character-driven and emotional.

Overall: It was OK. The mix of fantasy and dystopia in the concept of Spinsters and their abilities made a lasting impression, but the rest didn’t really resonate. I read Crewel a month and a half ago and I had to reread it to write this review because the rest of the plot disappeared from my head like gossamer mind candy. I think many people will enjoy this and be more engaged than I was, depending on how they react to the dystopia driving the story.  Without the character/emotional aspect I felt like I was left with predictable abuses of power as the plot, and so, this story and I? We do not mesh well. I’m not sure I’ll continue this series.

Crewel is out October 16th in the US, October 18th in the UK.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks – “this is one worth checking out”

Other links:

The Department of Alterations (a short story set in the world of Crewel)

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Drawn to the premise and the glowing reviews of Zevin’s earlier work, Elsewhere, I entered a giveaway for a galley copy of All These Things I’ve Done from Macmillan. I won, and phew, if I hadn’t, I would have had to get my hands on the book by some other means, because just look at the description for the story:
 
The Premise: “In 2083, chocolate and coffee are illegal, paper is hard to find, water is carefully rationed, and New York City is rife with crime and poverty. And yet, for Anya Balanchine, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the city’s most notorious (and dead) crime boss, life is fairly routine. It consists of going to school, taking care of her siblings and her dying grandmother, trying to avoid falling in love with the new assistant D.A.’s son, and avoiding her loser ex-boyfriend. That is until her ex is accidentally poisoned by the chocolate her family manufactures and the police think she’s to blame. Suddenly, Anya finds herself thrust unwillingly into the spotlight–at school, in the news, and most importantly, within her mafia family.”
 
My Thoughts: There was something about combination of a futuristic setting, chocolate, the mafia, and a poisoning, that just had me ready to pounce on this book. I had that “I think I will definitely like this one” feeling. And I think for the most part I was right.
 
The thing I really loved about this story was Anya herself. This girl has a lot of responsibilities. Her mother died in a mob hit meant for her father, her father was shot a few years later. Her older brother Leo was left with brain injuries in the assassination that killed their mother. Her younger sister, Natty is only twelve. Her ailing grandmother is legal guardian, but is bedridden. Then we have the city of New York, which has basically turned into a pit. Commodities are rationed (or illegal), poverty is rampant, and electricity is not always constant.  Anya maintains the household with funds her father left behind. She enrolled herself and her sister in a top private school, ensures her grandmother has a nurse, and watches out for everyone. At every moment, Anya is working to keep her family safe and out of trouble. All that she has for help are her own memories of her father’s words (“Be intentional [..] Lapses won’t go unnoticed by your friends and especially not by your enemies”, “Daddy used to say you could assume a person was loyal until the day she betrayed you. Then you should never trust her again”, and other such pearls), which he imparted to her throughout her childhood. These tenets from a mafiya boss are now Anya’s tenets, and she uses them with her formidable street smarts.
 
The mob politics, the bad economic climate, the prohibition-era type undertones, and the general ambiance of this story make me think this is the 1920’s transplanted into a dystopian future. There are things that feel old fashioned, like Anya and her friends lack of cell phones, the internet, or game consoles, and wearing hand me-down-clothes from other eras. Even though the date was supposed to be 2083, there didn’t seem to be any new technology that I’ve never heard of. In fact, the world seems much like ours is now, except it’s regressed by a few decades.  Even the names (“Gable”, “Win”, “Fats”) seem old fashioned. I wonder if this started out as an alternate history which turned into something else. The dystopia part focuses on too many laws and an overworked police force.  The illegality of chocolate and caffeine amongst other things is what is put into question. I am not sure if they’re used to question the illegality of drugs, but I didn’t think they felt quite equivalent, even with the plot of the poisoned chocolate which seemed to represent quality problems from non-regulation. I felt that the message part of the dystopia could have been more clear here.
 
Anyway, the drama in this story stems from Anya’s taste in boys (the only thing she seems to have trouble with), combined her sordid family history. First there is Gable, a real sleezeball with a unlikable character, despite his pretty face. Then there is Win, who is trouble just because he’s the son of the new assistant District Attorney. It’s not long before one boy gets Anya in trouble with the law, and the other brings her to the attention of his powerful father.  In the meantime, some sort of power play is going on within her extended family’s chocolate business. All Anya wants to do is stay out of it and keep her immediate family safe, but despite her best efforts, just for being the daughter of the last head of the Balanchine empire, she finds herself in the midst of other people’s ambitious plans.  Anya’s own plans to stay out of the limelight are not happening.
 
I really loved the machinations going on and reading Anya’s point of view about it. She may be a natural leader, but she’s still sixteen and worried for her family. It was inspiring to see her take the reins and navigate tricky situations with her clear eyed practicality. I enjoyed the direction the story went with this and I hope to see more of the same in the sequel. At the same time, I liked how the story included Anya’s relationships with her family – her Nana, her brother, her sister and her best friend Scarlet. I believed in Anya’s protectiveness and love for each of them.
 
The only issue I had with the relationships in this book was with the romance, and it was a niggle more than anything else.  Even though I was thankful that Anya was practical enough to try to avoid being romantically involved with Win at the beginning (no Instalove), he seems too nice and naive to be Anya’s type.  There were a couple of times he called her on something, but otherwise his personality still felt very flat. On the other hand while I didn’t feel like there was enough to sell me on the romance, there wasn’t enough to turn me off it either. It was kind of…just…there. Hopefully this is something that could improve in the sequel.
 
Overall: I really liked this one. The self-sufficient teen heroine and the well-written plot won me over.  There were minor niggles with wanting more with the dystopia and the romance, but I think these will be developed more in the sequel or sequels, and these were less important to me than Anya and her predicament were. I would say read this for the mafia (or should I say “mafiya”) undercurrents and Anya’s struggle with her birthright and her need to protect her family.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Sophistikatied reviews – positive
The Compulsive Reader – positive
Presenting Lenore – positive
 
Book Trailer:

Enclave by Ann Aguirre

Enclave
Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is one of my favorite authors, particularly for her Sirantha Jax series, which is a science fiction romance. I’ve been eagerly awaiting Enclave since I first heard that Aguirre would be trying her hand at YA dystopia. This is the first installment of the Razorland series.

The Premise: In the enclave, children have numbers, not names, unless they live till their fifteenth birthday. Then they’re given a naming ceremony and a place as a Breeder, Builder, or Hunter in the society. Deuce (formerly Girl15), has just been named and given a spot amongst the Hunters – an honor she’s been training for as long as she can remember. Now she can leave the enclave, and bring her people food, and she can protect them from the Freaks – creatures that live in the tunnels that would like nothing more than to feast on human flesh. All her life, Deuce has only known a world that is underground, where the oldest is in his early 20s, and where people don’t live for more than that. It’s a world with very little, but it’s the only world Deuce has ever known. Deuce is partnered with Fade, the only Hunter who wasn’t born in their enclave. Fade has never really fit into the enclave, but he’s the best fighter they have, and Deuce is eager to prove herself worthy of being assigned to him. But being a Hunter brings a different perspective to all that Deuce knows. During their patrols Deuce and Fade encounter Freaks with more organization and intelligence than the norm. When their warnings about this eerie Freak behavior are ignored or suppressed, Deuce begins to question the leadership of the enclave.

Read an excerpt of Enclave here

My Thoughts: Enclave is basically three parts. At first the focus is narrow. The story revolves around Deuce’s small sphere and all that is familiar to her. When Deuce begins to think beyond the small borders of the enclave, the spotlight expands. She discovers where her partner, Fade originally came from. The last part expands the world even further beyond that.

For the size of this book, a lot happens. I liked that the story manages to blend in action, a gritty world, and a budding friendship into the story, and I think this is what made the beginning of Enclave particularly strong for me. When Deuce’s narrative begins, we’re introduced to the daily life of a semi-primitive tribal culture. It has three basic roles (Hunter, Breeder, Builder), a leadership structure based on age (over twenty makes you an elder, as this is a very small group), and a painful initiation ritual into “adulthood” (cuts made on the arms that are seared closed by hot metal).  Deuce knows only the limited scope of this enclave, which is in the Underground. Only after she becomes a Hunter and assigned a partner can she see what’s outside her home. It’s not clear what the year is or what has happened to make the world it is in Enclave, but there are enough hints to say that it is our world that has been hit by some apocalyptic event that has reduced the world to rubble and society into small tribes like the enclave, and created monsters like the Freaks.

Because Deuce is a Hunter, that brings plenty of action and the story goes at a fast clip. Deuce is eager to prove her mettle, but she is also learning about Fade and about her the Underground. The action adds drama to the story, but the plot moves along because of Deuce’s path of discovery. Fade isn’t very talkative but as time goes on Deuce begins to trust him, and she knows he doesn’t like the current leadership. Their relationship evolves through time and trials, but Fade keeps a lot close to his chest. What he does tell her, Deuce has trouble believing, but she begins to question. She debates the need for rules and leadership, against inhumane punishments to keep the enclave in line. A leadership that keeps tight control is particularly dangerous when there is important information being suppressed.

But before anything really happens in the enclave, the story changes gears. Fade and Deuce move on together, away from what Deuce is familiar. Deuce continues to learn about her world, and along the way other teen characters are introduced. The shift is a little abrupt for me and left some dangling threads. I think as a series it’s more interesting for Deuce and Fade to travel outside the enclave, but the way this story was presented, it felt like some set up was abandoned. As a result, the second half of the book felt like a restart. Again a new setting and new characters are introduced to us, but thankfully Fade and Deuce stay constant. On the other hand, with new characters introduced late in the story, I didn’t feel like there was much time to get to know them.

There’s a hint of a love triangle with Fade, Deuce, and one of the new characters as well, but it is an odd choice. One of the things I like about Aguirre’s writing is the darkness she brings into her stories. Sometimes this is in the form of dark heroes – people who have done unlikeable things in their pasts but who I still root for. In Enclave the darkness is primarily in the world building, but it’s also in Fade’s past and Deuce’s choices for self-preservation. However, in the potential love triangle, I found the third person VERY unlikeable and a better choice as a villain than a romantic interest. Depending on what happens with this character, it could either be a show stopper or a deal breaker in a later book. I have my fingers crossed.

Overall: My reaction is that I was entertained. Aguirre’s writing keeps me interested in what’s going on and there’s enough darkness in this story to add depth, but the concepts themselves feel familiar. The underground setting after a post-apocalyptic event, the humanoid creatures craving human flesh, and society broken down and ignorant of the past are familiar tropes. But this series has a lot of potential. I think the slowly evolving relationship between Deuce and Fade and their fighting partnership is what has me hooked. I also suspect that now that the world has been established, the characters will have more room to grow. I would actually want to read the second book, and there’s are a lot of other YA dystopian series I’ve started where I couldn’t say the same.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Steph Su Reads – didn’t like this one
Babbling about Books and More – B-
Scooper Speaks – very positive
See Michelle Read – positive
Fantastic Book Review – 4.5 out of 5

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium
Lauren Oliver

This is a review based on an ARC copy I received from the publisher.

The Premise: In a unspecified future, the United States government has identified love as a disease and has administered a cure for over forty-three years. Lena is terrified of getting amor deliria nervosa and can’t wait till her eighteenth birthday when she can get the procedure and be safe. She doesn’t want to become like her mother, who was so affected by love that she left Lena and her sister behind, to be cared for by their Aunt Carol and Uncle William. That is, until Lena meets Alex and begins to question whether it’s a good thing to lose the ability to feel excess emotion.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 of Delirium here

My Thoughts: The set up for this story is that sixty-five years before it begins, the United States identifies love as a disease that encompasses “stress, heart disease, anxiety, depression, hypertension, insomnia, [and] bipolar disorder”. This disease, so they say, begins with symptoms like difficulty breathing and preoccupation, slides into euphoria and despair, and then spirals into paralysis and death. The country is so rigidly run by this idea that the Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook (aka Shhh), is a new Bible, and cities are enclosed for their protection behind high electrified fences. Patrols and raids are regularly carried out. All citizens are required to be cured at eighteen, and are ever villigent should their friends or neighbors show signs of the disease. Of course Lena believes in all of this because she’s grown up in this society. The author does a good job conveying Lena’s frightfulness, particularly in the beginning of the book. Lena is the narrator, and she often uses words like “anxiety”, “blur”, “dizzy”, “suddenly dazzled” and “flashing” when she describes a situation that isn’t her norm, so much so that I began to feel like I needed a Dramamine reading about her experiences.

As a reader, however, I know that the whole basis for this society: “love is a disease”, is a lie, and that Lena’s fears are unnecessary. In order for me to accept this dystopian scenario, I needed more than the descriptions of Portland gripped by bureaucracy and fear. I needed to understand how something generally accepted as good could be seen as something bad. This book didn’t deliver that. All I had was Lena’s point of view, and she was clearly misinformed. There are infinitesimal snatches of information (a religion founded by scientists, the blitz), which has something to do with how things became the way they are, but it’s not clear how it fits with Lena’s present. It may be that book two will delve into the past, but I have no guarantee of it. As it is, I felt like I was missing the foundation to accept the premise that love came to be classified as a deadly disease. How was the population convinced? But by who and for what reason? How did this dystopia come to be? I don’t know, and I think that weakens any message about society that Delirium may be trying to convey.

To continue reading, I decided to trust that explanations would be forthcoming, and just focus on Lena’s story. The writing is very good. There are plenty of lovely passages just describing Lena’s day to day teenage life and how it’s been affected by amor deliria nervosa. It’s clear that it has touched every aspect of Lena’s life from her all-girl schooling to her careful choice of words in public. It hangs over every relationship. Conversations with her best friend, Hana involve dealing with phone tapping and checking for eavesdroppers. The biggest impact on her life however, is the procedure, when she will finally be cured, which means she will be Paired off with a boy selected by the government. On that day, Lena and all other teens will forget any feelings they had for friends or family. Until then, Lena experiences all the highs and lows of being a teenager, which includes a closeness with the charismatic Hana and a regimented home life with her aunt and uncle and their other wards, Jenny and Gracie.

Then there is of course, the relationship she begins with nineteen year old Alex.  He’s a boy who seems very different from everyone she knows. In the process of falling for Alex, Lena discovers what love is and how twisted her society has become because it has suppressed it. The romance here was very clandestine and intensely described, but while I could appreciate Lena’s and Alex’s feelings on a logical level, and I wanted them to beat the odds, there was something that held me back in believing the romance viscerally. I think that my problem was that their initial attraction felt off.  Lena seemed like a scared rabbit to me, but as someone “awake” to Alex. That he has been interested in her from afar didn’t fly, so I stayed unmoved about their initial connection. After this there was a scene when Alex and Lena are first alone together which I found compelling, followed by a montage of summer days spent together. All nice, but it was only at the end of the story that Alex really stepped up as a hero and convinced me of his feelings. Although Delirium ends on a bittersweet note, it was the perfect good-bye.

Overall: It’s very well written and it has an interesting premise, but overall I’d mark Delirium as “very good”, not “excellent”. I think that love as a disease was not believable enough for me – I ended up wondering what the REAL reason for a society built on this lie was, and feeling frustrated that I couldn’t see one. I hope that the idea is expanded more in the next book, so that we can see the history behind Lena’s world. Otherwise, I really liked how this story progressed, how Lena grew and changed, the careful way Portland under a totalitarian regime was constructed, and the bittersweet ending that leaves no illusions about what it means to love.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews (there are A LOT!):
The Book Smugglers – DNF
The Hiding Spot – positive
Debbie’s World of Books – positive
Imperial Beach Teen Blog – positive
One Librarian Reviews – comparison of Delirium with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies – 5 stars
The Compulsive Reader – positive
All Things Urban Fantasy – 5 bats (out of 5)
Book Reviews by Jess / The Cozy Reader – Perfect Score
Princess Bookie – 5/5
S. Krishna’s Books – positive
Karin’s Book Nook – positive
Book Sake – positive
Reading with Tequila – 2 out of 5
Ink and Paper – positive
Presenting Lenore – 5 out of 5
Need_tea – C grade

Song inspired by the book. Written & performed by a fan:

Videos of Lauren Oliver discussing Delirium on Amazon.com: One & Two

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Beth Revis

This is a review for an ARC I received from the publisher after requesting it.

My memory is going because I can’t remember the first blog that introduced me to this book. I might be Presenting Lenore when she had her Dystopian week. She highlighted Across the Universe as a dystopian YA book to look out for in this post, and she included a link to the excerpt of the first chapter. I know that reading the excerpt is what sold me, although I do admit that the pretty cover also helped (I am a sucker for a starry backdrop).

The Premise: From the blurb: “Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed. She expects to wake up on a new planet, 300 years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed’s scheduled landing, Amy’s cryo chamber is unplugged, and she is nearly killed. Now, Amy is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed‘s passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader, and Elder, his rebellious and brilliant teenage heir. Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she? All she knows is that she must race to unlock Godspeed‘s hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.”

My Thoughts: Across the Universe is about 400 pages long but it feels much less because of short alternating chapters written from Amy and Elder’s points of view, which is combined with a fast-paced plot. The story starts with a bang: Amy narrates the terrifying feeling of being frozen in preparation to join her parents on a 300 year journey across space to the planet Alpha Centauri. While Amy and her parents sleep along with other scientists and military personnel needed after the ship lands, a crew maintains the ship through generations. 250 years later, sixteen year old Elder is learning how to be the next leader of the ship under the supervision of his mentor, Eldest, and running into problems due to his ignorance of the ship. Improbably, the two teens meet. Through some accident or act of chaos, Amy is thawed 50 years ahead of schedule, almost dying in the process, and she has to adapt to a very different world than she is used to.

Life on the vast spaceship is fascinating. There are three levels: Keeper, Shipper, and Feeder, which correspond to the three types of people who live and work on it. Elder and Eldest are the Keepers, with access to all levels, Shippers work on the Shipper level where the research labs and the bridge are, but live on the Feeder level where a collection of small trailers house most of the ships residents. The Feeders are only allowed on the Feeder level where they farm and produce day-to-day products like textiles. All the lives are strictly regimented and controlled by Eldest, but his vicelike grip on the Godspeed begins to raise questions in Amy and Elder’s minds. Elder realizes that his education has glaring holes in it, and Amy sees a society with a disturbing lack of soul and a too-easy acceptance of authority.  The only people who don’t seem mindless are those in the mental ward. The more time Amy spends on the ship, the more she and Elder realize that things on Godspeed are not right. All the while, some murderer is killing people in the cryo-chambers by turning them off so they are thawed improperly and die in agony.

All this is well and good. There’s a sense of urgency in the writing and an invitation to keep flipping pages to see the big picture, but at tlmes I felt like the focus on the twists came at the expense of introspection.  The book brings up a lot of questions about right and wrong when survival in an enclosed environment is at stake. Eldest and those before him made certain choices that made sense to them at the time. When Elder and Amy find out about those decisions, instead of delving into their motivations and whether they had any merit,  the book misses an opportunity in my opinion by making a provocative topic overly simplistic. Some of the big reveals were things I could easily guess, enough for me to feel impatient with the characters in not figuring things out earlier, so I wish that the space for these predictable puzzles was used instead on what science fiction does best: make the reader think. Across the Universe begins to take us there, but then abruptly does an about face, leaving me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. To top it off, I keep having moments of “but what about _____?” after finishing this book — several inconsistencies never explained. I’ve read online that Across the Universe is the first in a series, and maybe what seems inconsistent now will be fixed later, but I have a feeling it won’t be.

The book cover and the blurb suggest that this book has a certain amount of romance in it. It is there, but it is extremely low key and for the most part platonic with the suggestion that in time there will be more.

Overall: This is a really promising debut — science fiction, dystopia, a fast paced plot and really interesting world building. These are all good things and for that alone, I’d recommend the book, but it didn’t quite hit the mark in terms of substance — there was more focus on grabbing the readers attention through plot twists than on really making the reader think. It skirts this territory, then scurries off, and that doesn’t really satisfy my science fiction reader sensibilities.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Calico Reaction – Buy the Paperback
Steph Su Reads – 4/5
La Femme Readers – 5/5
Fantastic Book Review – 5/5
Ellz Readz – positive review
Debbie’s World of Books – positive review
One Librarian’s Book reviews – 5/5
Book Reviews by Jess / The Cozy Reader – A

Links:
Across the Universe website (Really spiffy website I have to say, with goodies like wallpapers and an interactive map of the Godspeed)



I’m passing along my ARC copy of this book — to someone willing to review the book (on their blog, goodreads, wherever).  Open to everyone but first come, first served! Taken!