My friend just passed me three young adult novels to check out, and since I haven’t been too successful lately choosing my own books, I gave them a try. I liked all three of them for different reasons.
Divergent is by first-time author Veronica Roth, and it’s the first of a planned trilogy. Like so many teen novels that are now being published by the truckload, it is set in a dystopian future where teens struggle to survive under harsh conditions imposed by a dysfunctional society. Unlike my friend, I have not embraced this particular genre. I have not read The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner, or The Knife of Never Letting Go. I did read M.T. Anderson’s Feed a few years ago, and I was very impressed. I especially liked the author’s clever creation of plausible slang words. According to an interesting New Yorker piece, Feed is closer to adult dystopian fiction that the current crop of teen releases. Writer Laura Miller explains, “Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.” She points out that the recent teen novels make the most sense if you see the dystopian society as a metaphor for the hell that is high school.
That certainly works for Divergent. In this story, all 16 year olds must choose to devote their lives and loyalties to one of five factions: Amity (peacefulness), Candor (truthfulness), Erudite (knowledge), Dauntless (courage), or Abnegation (selflessness). If a teen chooses to pledge to a faction different from the one he or she was raised in, all ties must be severed with family and friends in that faction. The factionless, those who fail the initiation into their chosen group, get the worst jobs and live without security or comfort. I don’t need to explain how this relates to high school cliques, but I can’t help pointing out that this is essentially the plot of Disney’s High School Musical. Beatrice in Divergent finds out through mandatory testing that she has qualities of more than one faction, and that’s really all the plot that I’ll reveal. I’ll just say that there’s plenty of action, some romance, and a few interesting plots twists. My main complaint? I wish author Roth could have come up with names for the five factions that were either all adjectives or all nouns. Nitpicky? You bet, but it just bugs me. Mind you, I haven’t been able to come up with five better versions. The second book in the series comes out next year in late spring/early summer. That’s another complaint about these series—the waiting time between books is way too long! At least Divergent does not have a cliffhanger ending, a “spoiler” that I don’t think spoils anything.
Split by Swati Avasthi is about a teenage boy whose father physically abuses both him and his mother. He leaves home to go live with his older brother, who disappeared years before after a bad beating. This unflinching novel about battered women and kids is not an easy read, but it is compelling. I believed the characters, although the mother is not a fully developed individual so much as composite of battered woman syndrome characteristics. We really only see her through her sons, who are the focus of the story. The author obviously did her research. While there is hope for these characters, there are no quick, easy fixes. At one point, the two brothers have a conversation where they use terms like “shadowboxing” as if they’ve both been in therapy for a while or have been reading the same books on the subject. The author doesn’t define what shadowboxing is, but I suppose that’s why we have google. Except when I googled the term, I only got sports-related stuff, so that was no help!
Shine by Lauren Myracle reminds me of Winter’s Bone. It’s about a teenage girl, in a small depressed hill community, who’s investigating the brutal beating of her gay friend because she doesn’t believe the local sheriff will solve the case. She gets warnings from all around her to stop poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. The folks in her town are beaten down by unemployment, illiteracy, alcoholism, and meth addiction. She has spent the last three years of her life withdrawing after a trauma, but her investigation forces her to re-engage with old friends and enemies. My favorite chapters are when she visits her former friends in their homes, getting insight into their lives, their hopes, and their tragedies. Like Split, this was not fun or cheerful, but it was a good book. It took me to places I’ve never been, and that’s why I read. Did I figure out the mystery before the character? Sort of. I got one major chunk of it, but I guess I just didn’t want to believe the rest.
I found proofreading mistakes in two of these books, which makes me wonder if these YA novels really are rushed to the shelves or if the standards are just lower. (I realize I’m contradicting myself here, because I just complained that the books aren’t released fast enough.) Are there websites to report mistakes that you find? I’d better go google that…