Matched by Ally Condie

Cover Image of Matched by Ally CondieCondie, Ally. Matched. New York: Dutton Books, 2010.

Plot: Cassia is thrilled that the Society has Matched her with Xander, her best friend. But when she puts the government-issued microcard into her port to review Xander’s information, his face disappears after a moment and another face pops on the portscreen. Ky. An Official explains that there has been a mistake, Xander is still her Match. Ky is an Aberration and can never have a Match. The Society does not make mistakes, though. Cassia’s entire world — her family, her health, her work — has been formed around Society’s decisions and her own confidence in the system. Now the questions, and the doubt, come slowly, but steadily. Cassia could accept the explanations handed to her and be happy, or she could have choice. She could create.

Setting: A futuristic society descended from Western cultures.

Point of View: First person (Cassia)

Theme: future civilization, government, autonomy, independence, love, self identity, coming of age, family, risk, technology, self expression

Literary Quality: Fast-paced and laced with poetry, especially that of Dylan Thomas, Matched is a thought provoking page turner. As Cassia catches a glimmer beneath the surface of the Society, questions bubble up about love, autonomy, order, health, family, technology, and happiness in the future that will resonate with readers today, as well. Writing and reading are dangerous in this imagined society, and while it is suggested that the role and increase of technology has expedited and eased the elimination and outlawing of learning to write and create one’s own words, readers are reminded of words’ power and hopefully will recognize that the tradition of illegal words is based solidly in history. The division of knowledge to prevent anyone from knowing too much in this civilization is likewise an old theme into which Condie breathes new life. While the questions asked and the answers gradually arrived at in Matched are complex, their delivery lacks the same nuance. The explicit morals and lessons border on being forced and preachy, and can feel at times like a lack trust in the reader. Nevertheless, this absorbing book is well worth reading, and will keep readers pondering Cassia’s dilemmas long after it has been shelved.

Audience: I would recommend Matched to readers ages 12 and up.

Personal reaction: Matched was totally addicting. I am glad I waited a couple of years to read it, because I could (and did) immediately check out the next installment, Crossed. I appreciated the gray area in Condie’s portrayal of the Officials and the Society–that Cassia’s own father, grandfather, and neighbors are Officials and partake in actions she dislikes even though they are people she respects and loves; that Cassia can see how a problematic system can still be successful and produce happiness and meaningful relationships. I couldn’t help comparing Matched to The Hunger Games trilogy, as I read, especially given the love triangle, but with no conclusive thoughts worth sharing for now. I loved the weaving in of and framing by poetry, the subversiveness of reading poems and learning history. I found myself wishing for more discussion surrounding ethnicity and race.  There is a comment at some point about how many ethnicities the Society includes or has Matched over the years, but nothing more than a passing mention. Overall, though, a very pleasant reading experience.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Cover image of The Absolutely True Diary of  a Part-Time IndianAlexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007.

Plot: Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, has always been picked on. Small-framed, with big hands and feet, a lisp and stutter due to health problems when he was born, he is an easy target on the Spokane Indian reservation where he lives in Wellpinit, Washington. Luckily, his best friend, Rowdy, serves as his protector. Or at least he does until Junior decides to go to an all-white school twenty-two miles off of the reservation. Now Rowdy seems to hate Junior as much as everyone else, and Junior faces a whole new set of racist taunts at school. Torn between his identity as an Indian and his desire to make something of himself in a broader world, Junior just does not seem to fit in anywhere.

Setting: Present day on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.

Point of View: First person (Junior)

Theme: self-identity, bullying, Native Americans, childhood, school, friendship, family, death, coming-of-age, disability

Literary Quality: Simultaneously poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, this is an outstanding piece of fiction that should be read by young adults and adults alike. Certain to raise some eyebrows with frank references to masturbation, sexual arousal, domestic (and non-domestic) violence and racial conflict, Junior’s brazen and humorous narrative voice will speak to many teens who negotiate societal “norms” and rules of acceptance. Forney’s line-drawn illustrations, which stand in for Junior’s own as he is an aspiring cartoonist, are the perfect complement and add to both the laughs and the insights of this book. Alexie does not shy away from casting judgments on both Native Americans and whites, but delves into the complicated interactions of races, history, alcoholism, disabled individuals, family, and friends.  He takes a profound and unapologetic look at some of our country’s most troubling history and interrelations, raising issues wish high stakes in U.S. society today. This is a coming-of-age story that won’t soon be forgotten, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Cultural Authenticity: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, by Sherman Alexie’s own description, partly autobiographical. Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit,Washington. Like Junior, Alexie changed schools after opening a textbook only to see his mother’s name printed in it. He, too, underwent conflicting feelings of guilt and shame as well as pride about leaving the reservation. His experiences growing up as a Spokane Indian greatly contribute to the story’s authenticity.

Audience: I would recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for readers ages 12 and up because of some of the language and sexual references. The age of the protagonist (14) also lends the book to that age group. That said, I would recommend it to any reader over the age of 12, be they 16 or 56. This book would work well in a high school classroom or as an individual leisure read.

Personal reaction: I could not put this book down. In addition to Sherman Alexie’s wonderful storytelling ability, I was impressed by his careful consideration of the many layers of complicated relations and mindsets of his characters. I came to really care about Junior. The first time I read this book a number of years ago, it made me more aware of my own thought patterns surrounding Native Americans, and sparked my interest in reading about reservations today. I laughed a lot and enjoyed the provocative nature of the story and topics at hand.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Cover of "The Last Summer of the Death Warriors"Stork, Francisco X. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010.

Plot: Pancho cannot seem to escape death. First his mother, then his father, then his sister Rosa died. And now he is stuck at St. Anthony’s, an orphanage, babysitting for D.Q., a blond, white kid who is fighting cancer and writing the Death Warrior Manifesto, an ethos for how to live. D.Q. might be a good friend, but he’s a good friend at the wrong time. Right now, Pancho just needs to find the man that he is certain killed his developmentally disabled sister and avenge her. But as the summer progresses, Pancho decides that revenge can wait as he stays by D.Q.’s side, pondering the meaning of life, death, faith, and friendship.

Setting: New Mexico, present day

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Death, life, revenge, friendship, cancer, mental disabilities, coming-of-age

Literary Quality: The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a powerful story about the coming-of-age and growing friendship of two young men. As Pancho and D.Q. seek the meaning of life and death, author Stork looks honestly at teen male relationships and asks tough questions about perceptions of individuals who are differently-abled. Much of Pancho’s journey to self-discovery involves recognizing his own guilt, misperceptions, and misunderstandings surrounding his sister, who he considered childish, stunted, and incapable of making mature decisions about her own life and sexuality. D.Q. simultaneously struggles over his relationship with his mother who abandoned him years before. Between the two boys, readers get a profound glimpse at the meaning of family, both biological and constructed. In the end, Stork asks grand, sweeping questions, which he answers with nuance, subtlety, and humor. Readers familiar with Don Quixote will also appreciate echoes of that tale here.

Cultural Authenticity: Francisco X. Stork clearly has a stake in the issues his novel explores. Like Pancho, Stork is Mexican American. His mother was forced to give birth to him in secrecy because of the pregnancy’s illegitimacy and his step- and adopted father died when he was thirteen years old. He also studied Latin American literature during the course of his higher education.

Audience: I would recommend this book to readers ages 13 and up due to the mature themes and possible implication of sexual violence and murder. Given the almost entirely male cast of characters I expect it will have special appeal to male readers, but the story will certainly be enjoyed by young women, as well.

Personal reaction: I was very impressed with Stork’s novel. I appreciated Pancho’s imperfections and his struggle to allow himself to be a good friend. Stork incorporates details about socioeconomic, racial, and physical values in our society and their implications with subtlety without underplaying their importance. Instead he suggests that a possible mix of all three sets of values and circumstances have caused the police to dismiss Rosa’s death, and have led Pancho to his current mission of revenge. The story has a lovely thoughtfulness to it. I think Stork asks questions that teens especially tend to ask themselves about the meaning of life and death, and he does not condescend in his method of asking or in his answers.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Cover of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFeversLaFevers, Robin. Grave Mercy. His Fair Assassin. Book 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Plot: After Ismae Rienne’s childhood in the household of an abusive, turnip-growing father culminates in his sale of her to an equally abusive husband, she gladly takes an offer of refuge at a convent dedicated to St. Mortain, the god of Death. There she learns that her true father is St. Mortain, Himself, indicated by a nasty scar on her back brewed by the poison her mother took to try and expel Ismae from her womb. Ismae embraces her new role at the convent where she joins Death’s handmaidens in dedicating her life to the god and His desired assassinations. After completing her training in weaponry, poisons, history, politics, womanly arts, and her first two assignments, Ismae unwillingly enters into her next assignment posing as the mistress of Gavriel Duval in the court of Brittany’s young duchess, Anne. Her abilities to spy on Duval and identify any treachery on his part are thwarted by her growing affection for the man. With France and other parties threatening Brittany’s independence and future, time is running short for Ismae to collect herself and carry out her assignment. But as she begins to question her obligations to the convent, she wonders whether she has landed on the right side of good and evil.

Setting: 15th-century Brittany

Point of View: 1st person (Ismae)

Theme: Death, religion, romance, political intrigue, historical fiction, Brittany, France, mystery, murder, gender expectations

Literary Quality: LaFevers’ first entry in a planned trilogy grabs readers from the start and does not release them until the very last page. The blend of history, politics, mystery, fantasy, and romance along with well-paced chapters are sure to engage a wide variety of readers. Grave Mercy explores questions surrounding death, religion, gender expectations, love, and duty thoughtfully and with dark humor, but does not answer them completely (unsurprising given the additional novels to follow). LaFevers’ dynamic characters are most human in their combination of endearing and infuriating traits and moments. Ismae’s evolution and concerns over her self-identity nicely parallel the fears and transitions surrounding the fate of the young duchess and Brittany’s independence without being overdrawn. At the same time, readers will find it difficult to feel settled in this startling and provocative suggestion that in a strictly gendered world, women find power and agency in life through death.

Cultural Authenticity: LaFevers elegantly combines both real history and a fictional past in Grave Mercy. She also takes inspiration from mythology and epics. She has explained this process a bit in an interview at The Enchanted Inkpot noting that the most difficult part was paring down the political intrigue, which was even thicker in real life than in the book! Of course, the book coud be further enriched by a list of sources, but LaFevers’ website does offer further information and a select bibliography, as well as explanations on her creation of this fictionalized historic world.

Audience: I would recommend this book for readers ages 15 and up. As mentioned above, the blend of genres and topics should have wide appeal.

Personal reaction: Grave Mercy combines some of my favorite things to read (medieval European history, strong female protagonists, mystery, and romance) so well, I just couldn’t put it down. I did have some lingering questions about the outcome of the story that I expect will be answered in the rest of the trilogy. I felt particularly satisfied that I was never certain of the traitor’s identity until very near the end; new questions and doubts always popped up. I look forward to the next book!

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1, The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

Cover of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1 The Pox PartyAnderson, M. T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation. Vol. 1, The Pox Party. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006.

Plot: Octavian and his mother live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity in Boston among a set of philosophers. Taught by these men to think rationally, observe, and question, before long Octavian begins to question his lifestyle and the many experiments involved in it. Trespassing behind a forbidden door, he discovers to his horror that he is central to the philosophers’ experiments and observations as they set out to determine the character and intellectual capacities of the African race. As the colonies tremble with the beginnings of a revolution for liberty, the College loses funding and Octavian becomes less and less sure of his role in this world. Should he succeed at escaping, what purpose would it serve? Has his classical training made him useless in a society divided by liberty and property, and can he ever really be free?

Setting: Colonial Massachusetts, just before and at the start of the American Revolution.

Point of View: 1st person (Octavian), 1st person (Mr. Goring). Other characters also contribute 1st-person narrative, however the bulk of the narrative is given to Octavian with a large chunk also held by Mr. Goring.

Theme: Slavery, science, American Revolution, colonial history, Enlightenment, self-identity, racism, freedom, mother-son relationships, societal norms and values, injustice

Literary Quality: The first volume of Anderson’s 2-part saga is truly a work of art. Written in the form of a compilation of historical documents to tell a single narrative, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing delves into important historical questions at the same timer hat it brings a fascinating and very human character to life. Anderson took on a daunting task with this novel, looking at the nuances of slavery, scientific inquiry, freedom, and hypocrisy while attempting to portray the uncertain outcomes, immense hopes, and cruelty of the American Revolution. His novel successfully depicts what nonfiction historical monographs often fail to: the interconnectedness of all of these issues that are often studied separately, the ambiguity of sides and coexistence of ideals in a single individual, let alone society, and the possibility of history taking new directions. Indeed, it is often difficult to think of historic events and outcomes as anything but inevitable. At the same time that Anderson accomplishes this, Octavian comes to life — slowly but surely — and drives the reader to ask with him the reasons for his training, his treatment and mistreatment, and to what hope he might cling. In the end, Anderson’s well-crafted work illustrates a point that university professors struggle to teach: the hypocrisy of a society still largely functioning along a socially constructed dichotomy of color and race: “they told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver’s mind, not in the object, they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle. And then they imprisoned me in darkness, and though there was no color there, I still was black, and they still were white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.” (316) Anderson tells us something of the process through which history is constructed, too. Octavian’s voice comes and goes. Shortly after his revelation (which we learn through another’s voice) that he is “nothing,” his voice disappears for the second part of the book, returning in the third with more confidence and anger. However, when considering the title of the book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, the reader faces the suggestion that it is the philosophers who won after all. That they have put these sources together and manipulated them to speak. That Octavian continues to be observed as a specimen.

Cultural Authenticity: Anderson’s Author’s Note at the end of the book explains some of the sources and events on which is novel is based, his decisions about grammar and word-use, and offers an excerpt from one of his primary sources.

Audience: I would recommend this book for older teens and up. Anderson’s marketing of the book to both teenagers and adults makes sense based on the age of the protagonist and his coming-of-age, as well as the historical and social questions stake.

Personal reaction: It took me about 30-50 pages to really get into this book, which I thought moved a bit slowly at first. From that point on, though (and there are 353 pages), I was hooked. Once I had decided that Anderson wasn’t just including historical details unnecessarily (deism, philosophies, salons…the extension of the French Enlightenment into the colonies in general) but had a point to make (and more importantly that familiarity with those details wasn’t essential to understanding the story), I fell in love with the book. While deconstructing “black” and “white,” Anderson also creates characters who possessed both lovable and detestable traits. Octavian’s mother, Mr. Gitney, Mr. Goring, etc. all have traits that might be considered despicable, and yet there are moments when I admire them as well. These dynamics are humanizing, and bring the story that much closer to home.