MARTians: A Five Things I’ve Learned Review…(and a Top Book of 2016 Pick!)

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Today I’m delving back into YA dystopian, a genre I have avoided in recent times due to its tendency to bring on feelings of despondency and gloom.  It was an overproliferation of YA dystopian that led to my creation of the Utopirama! feature way back when.  But times change and the use of a dystopian, consumer-driven setting in MARTians by Blythe Woolston is so subtle and original that I couldn’t help but give it the thumbs up.  We received a copy of MARTians from Walker Books Australia for review – thanks! – and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Last girl Zoë Zindleman, numerical ID 009-99-9999, has just been graduated. Early. Her options: wait for her home to be foreclosed and stripped of anything valuable now that AnnaMom has moved away, or move to the Warren, an abandoned strip-mall-turned-refuge for other left-behinds—a safe place, and close to AllMART, Zoë’s new employer, where “your smile is AllMART’s welcome mat.” Zoë may be the last girl, but her name means “life,” and Zoë isn’t ready to disappear into the AllMART abyss. Zoë wants to live.

MARTians is set in a world of exurban decay studded with big-box stores, where its inhabitants are numbed by shopping and the six o’clock “news.” MARTians may be the future, but it is frighteningly familiar.

MARTians

And here are Five Things I’ve Learned from MARTians by Blythe Woolcroft:

  1. Your smile is the ALLMart Welcome Mat.
  2. Your employment, promotion prospects, level of debt, ability to afford housing and general well-being all depend on your ability to keep customers shopping, so keep on smiling, ALLMart employee! *clapclapclap*
  3. Customer confusion results in a lack of consumer confidence. Know. Your. Product (and keep smiling!).
  4. Make sure you direct the customer through at least two different departments on their way to the checkout.
  5. Don’t quibble about your name-badge.  Everyone’s an individual at ALLMart

First up, I should point out that although I really enjoyed this book, I’m afraid it will be overlooked or seen as lacking by other YA readers due to a few key issues.  For a start, it was both short and a standalone.  These were both enormous positives from my point of view, but I know how YA readers love their series.

Secondly, there was no romance at all, despite featuring two protagonists of the same age and opposite sex stuck in an inescapable and rather bleak situation.  “HOORAY!” I cried, when I got to the end without being alternately bored and irritated by pace-slowing, bland, repetitive teen romance.  Again, I thought this was an enormous plus and offer kudos to the author for not getting sucked into the black-hole-like gravitational pull of peer pressure to put romance in every single YA book.

Finally, there were plenty of aspects of the story that COULD have been fleshed out far more deeply – the character of “Belly” and her mysterious fate, the whereabouts of Zoe’s mother, what happened to Dolly Lamb and 5er’s family – but to do so would have made this a super-long book and resulted, I think, in a shifting of the subtly disturbing and pervasive atmosphere of dystopia.

You see, I think the great strength of this book is that the dystopian aspect isn’t all in your face.  There isn’t a zompocalypse or some major environmental disaster that throws people together in a minute-t0-minute battle for survival.  Instead, the society described here is so close to our current consumerist society to be deeply disturbing on a psychological level, but just different enough to assure the reader that this is all fiction.   In Zoe’s world, you are either a consumer or a worker and there really isn’t much scope to be both successfully.  Individuals are taken straight from school graduation to prison, if deemed not capable enough to succeed as a worker.  Major retailers control the pay packets and lives of their workers.  And ordinary families disband, leaving whole suburbs of houses empty, in order to chase work and security, while the dwellings left behind are stripped of useful materials by those struggling to survive.

There is quite a bit of dark humour throughout the book – I only noticed the cheeky nod to literary classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the end! – and Zoe is a relatable, if naive, narrator. Timmer provides the lightness that is needed to avoid the whole thing descending into a depressive state and overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the way the author handled the story within such a restrained word count.

While this certainly isn’t going to be a blockbusting, seat-of-your-pants, thrillride of a read for many people, I am giving it my Top Book of 2016 tick of approval because it really is a standout in a YA market that has a tendency towards churning out books that aren’t prepared to take a risk in generating original characters or plots.

You can see my other Top Book of 2016 (so far!) picks by clicking this attractive button:

Bruce's Pick

Until next time,

Bruce

 

The Word Exchange: The end of the world as we splerg it…

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I am very excited today to bring you my Read-it-if review of The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon – my second five star review of the week.  It’s been a very fortuitous seven days, I must admit. I received a digital copy of this book from Hachette Australia via Netgalley. Thanks!

So I know I may have mentioned once or twice that I was over dystopian novels.  Even the best of us can sometimes be wrong, however, and The Word Exchange is just the kind of dystopian/apocalyptic tome that I will happily let slip through the net.  Why? Because it’s the thinking person’s dystopian.

The plot has a lot of twists and the character relationships and reveals are quite complex, so there’s not a lot I can elaborate on without risking spoilification, but let me have a go at a synopsis.  In a not too distant future, the written word has become somewhat anachronistic.  People are attached (in some cases literally!) to their “Memes” – devices worn like a headpiece, that allow instant access to the internet, do the job of a phone, complete financial transactions and even make intuitive decisions for their wearers based on stored prefences.  For instance, if a wearer starts to think it’s time to leave a party, their Meme may automatically call a cab or list the quickest train times and routes home.  Written language is restricted only to very specific professions and those with a nostalgic streak.

On the night Ana’s father, a key figure in the production of the latest (and final) edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language goes missing, a sequence of events are set into motion that could result in the end of language as we know it.  As the shady business empire Synchronic Inc promotes a new site that allows the general public to create their own words and definitions and sell them through an online language marketplace, some individuals begin to display symptoms of aphasia and fears of a highly contagious Word Flu begin to spread.  For Ana, her friend Bart, and most of the people they love, things are about to get out of hand in ways no one could ever have imagined.

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Read it if:

* you believe that your picture should be listed in the dictionary beside the definition for the word “anti-hipster”

* you denounce ereaders at every opportunity in favour of the glorious scent and texture of print

* you always carry stamps in your wallet, you have never owned a mobile phone, your computer has a stylish, modern, walnut-laminate veneer, and you are reading this post via an internet server powered by a hand crank

* you prophesy that the reduction of our rich language into clichéd acronyms such as LOL, OMG and FTW can only end in the destruction of life as we know it

As I said, this isn’t the kind of book that I frequently read, and it took me a few chapters to get my head around what was happening.  The book is told from shifting points of view, between Ana and her friend Bart, and initially I found Bart’s chapters to be hard going due to the character’s idiosynchratic voice.  This eased up considerably when the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Ana’s father gather momentum, and more details about the future world become apparent.  Ana’s chapters include footnotes, for reasons which will become clear at the end of the story, but as I was reading this on a Kindle, often the notes appeared three or four pages past their related sentences and I found it mightily distracting trying to flick back and forth between screens.  Luckily the story was engaging enough that I felt that the flicking was a necessary evil in order to get to the end.

Being someone who reads a lot of young adult fiction, it was refreshingly different reading a book that is well and truly nestled within adult fiction – I found the complexity of the storyline a real drawcard and I enjoyed trying to piece together the loyalties of the characters, figuring out who was working with who and on which side of villainy various characters fell.  The best thing about this book is undoubtedly its unique take on the concept of apocalypse (which has really been done to death, at least in the YA market) and the fact that the author wasn’t afraid to imagine situations that really make the reader question how they relate to, and use, language and technology on a day to day basis.

The book has an atmosphere of distrust and dis-ease that slowly overwhelms the characters and seeped out into my cosy little reading nook.  With the Memes in the story having such a starring role in how things pan out, I did feel a bit creeped out that I was reading on a digital device, rather than in good, old-fashioned, safe print!

This certainly isn’t a light beach read, but while the concepts are fairly heavy, they are balanced perfectly with action and enough mystery to keep the reader working to click the pieces into place before the narrator does.  I recommend The Word Exchange to anyone who’s looking for a read to make them sit up and pay attention – and creep them out enough to take an internet-holiday for a few days!

The Word Exchange is due to be published in early April…but I’d preorder if I were you, in case the Word Flu breaks out in the meantime.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Are you Prepared for the Jam-pocalypse?: What’s in a Name Reading Challenge…

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Obstacle 2 in the What’s in a Name Reading Challenge: Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw…

This is the first title I’ve attempted from my Non-Christie-Listie, as well as the first title from Category 2 (something you might find in the kitchen) and I am happy to report that it has been successfully (and cheerfully) vanquished.

JamThis is Croshaw’s second novel, after Mogworld, and it certainly displays the same swift and silly plotting and characterisation.  Jam follows the story of Travis, a young man who wakes up one morning to discover that his city (incidentally, the one in which I also reside!) has been invaded by flesh-eating jam.  So begins a rollicking romp around Brisbane (Australia, not Texas) involving a cheeky tarantula, plenty of ironic ironicisms and plastic bag fashions a-plenty.

This Novel’s Point of Difference:

Um. I’d say it’s probably the jampocalypse aspect.

Pros:

  • One of Croshaw’s great strengths is silliness-in-appropriate-quantities and this book is jam-packed (pun-intended).with the same. There’s a lot of humour and laugh out loud lines in this book – it’s really one for when you need a bit of a chuckle or aren’t in the mood for anything too heavy in the thinking department.
  • It’s set in Bris-vegas….I quite enjoyed seeing the cityscape on the front cover and being able to recognise the Gotham City Building (I don’t know it’s actual name…since it was built everybody I know has only ever referred to it as the Gotham City Building)
  • It’s a fantastically welcome change from Zombie-related apocalypses (apocalypsi??), and scary, bring-us-all-down dystopian thrillers.

Cons:

  • It’s silly.  Now I realise I just put this in Pros, but I’ve read a lot of reviews (from people who are familiar with Croshaw’s work, weirdly) that panned this book because some of the events depicted were too silly to be credible.  I found this a bit odd, considering the whole premise is based on apocalypse by carnivorous strawberry preserve.  But I suppose, if you are after strictly believable scenarios, this is not the book you’re looking for.
  • I found it hard to recognise my own city in parts of this work….Croshaw faithfully recreates Brisbane landmarks and general layouts, except in the naming of two buildings in which most of the action takes place.  So the Myer Centre becomes the Briar Centre, and the Hitachi building becomes the Hibatsu building….but other landmarks, such as the Wintergarden and plenty of streets are given their proper names….as a local, I found this irritating as it got in the way of me picturing the action as it was occuring in places I know very well.
  • Croshaw uses plenty of American dialect words despite mostly Australian characters in an Australian setting – for example” ice pops” (we call ’em ice blocks here), “community college” (TAFE), “janitor” (cleaning staff), “middle school” (we only have primary and high), “wastepaper baskets” (bins)….I found this quite SPECTACULARLY annoying.

Teaser Text:

He sighed. “There isn’t much we can do without electricity, but my team has been researching alternatives.  One of my engineers proposed a system of fans powered by dogs in giant hamster wheels, but the major issue there is our limited dog inventory.  We’ll keep looking into it”.  p199

Although I have listed three cons, in honesty, if you are not a Brisbanite, it is unlikely you will even notice the specific local references (or lack thereof) that irritated me so.  If you’ve never tried Croshaw’s work before and you are open-minded, enjoy a bit of silly humour and particularly if you are aged 20 – 40 and interested in gaming, you should probably give it a go.

Oh, and here’s a link to some pictures of the Gotham City Building for your viewing pleasure:

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/statelawbuilding/interesting/

Until next time,

Bruce