Tuesday, May 4, 2010

YA Book Review: Feed and Octavian Nothing

I apologize for the hiatus from writing. Things have been hectic on the writing and editing fronts lately. I am going to try for a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, and at least blog on those days. Not as prolific as some of you bloggers that write every day, but hopefully they'll be somewhat meaningful to people anyway.

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So, I've decided to add a new feature to my blog. I do quite a bit of reading in the YA genre, which is something that every author should do. If you're not reading books in
your genre, how do you know what the trends are, what's been done, and where the gaps are? How will you know how to make your novel unique? More importantly, if you don't love the genre, why are you writing in it? That doesn't mean you must be a "genre writer." Plenty of authors write across all genres. Even still, you should love the genre you're writing in, or else your attempt will come off as what it is: an attempt to exploit a genre because it's trendy this week. My point? READ PEOPLE!

Anyway, I read a lot. Well, technically I listen, because I use audiobooks. I have a bad case of ADHD, and it tends to get in the way of my physical reading. I can't focus on the lines on the page enough to read sometimes. Even as I write, I have to read aloud a lot so that I can be sure I don't have any dropped words and to make sure everything works. I know that everyone does this, but for me, it's actually a necessity.

However, because I read a lot, I occasionally come across a book that is particularly interesting for whatever reason. Sometimes it's really good, other times it's really bad. Sometimes it's just mediocre, but there's just something about it that peaks my interest. Whenever I find those books, I want to talk about them. Now, here's a way to do that!

Of course, because it's me, I'm going to throw a monkey wrench into my own formula. I'm going to review two books.

The first is a short little novel (about 5 CDs in length) called Feed. Now, it's a YA novel, but out of the gate, I must say that this is OLDER YA. You probably don't want your 14-year-old reading this book. Filled with sex, drugs, and strong language, it's not for the faint of heart or the sheltered child. Still, none of it feels gratuitous, except perhaps the language, which really isn't gratuitous at all. The language is part of the experience. Want to read an excerpt? You can do so here.

Now, don't go clicking on the link just yet. Wait to read it until you're done with the review. You'll see why as we go along. Trust me.

Anyway, whenever you do read the excerpt, or the book, you'll see that there is a certain flow to it. Authors and agents talk a lot about voice, and this book has voice in spades. The entire novel has a feeling to it, and the 1st-person narrative is exactly what you'd expect a semi-intelligent but half-stupid trendy teenage boy to sound like. At times, he sounds dumb, which he should, but then there are these moments where the language just gets luscious and the descriptions are the type that curl your toes.

So yeah, I liked the feel of the book. Now, for the plot. Feed is a dystopian novel set in a world where internet, radio, and tv are all combined and sent directly into teenage brains. A book about consumerism, the pages (and the kids' cerebral cortexes) are filled with advertising messages about the best local bars, the new gadgets they need to get, and the coolness of the legions that the feed causes. It's pretty typical cyberpunk stuff (or rather "cyberprep," as Wikipedia puts it), but that wonderful language I mentioned really sets it apart. The story is artsy and great, and I really enjoyed it until it stopped.

Yeah, the book doesn't conclude. It just ends. You see, I was listening to it on my iPod. I hadn't gotten around to converting the stupid audiobook format to music format (in music format the entire book is actually a single album, but with the audiobook format each track is a separate album). That meant that at the end of the book my iPod said it was track 5 of 10. So, I thought the book went on at the next track. I was kind of wondering where the author would go from here, but then I knew there must be more. And then the intro to Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, but then I'd Have to Kill You came on.

Wait. What?

I then realized I'd been tricked by the iPod's stupid audiobook format. The last 5 tracks where the other audiobook I hadn't converted yet. The book actually stopped THERE!

It didn't wrap up. Nothing happened. No one changed anything. There wasn't a hope of a change. There wasn't even much hope that the MC would change. It just ended. I was SOO furious.

Ok, pause that review. We'll come back to it.

Now, the next book I read that I wanted to talk about was the overly titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party. The first in a two-part series I couldn't completely get through, Octavian Nothing is a bit of historical fiction about a young boy during the time of the American Revolution. The boy lives at a house with scientists and philosophers that measure his food intake and waste outtake (yep, he pees into a bucket, which they weigh). Other than the occasional oddities, he lives a very good life there along with his mother, and is trained in the fine arts and classics. Octavian is much smarter than you or I could ever hope to be.

Still, despite his intelligence, he's also very sheltered. You see, it isn't until he's 12 that he thinks to wonder why his skin is darker than everyone else's. And wonder why other people that look like him and his mother work cleaning dishes or driving the carriages. Finally, someone spills the beans. They're all slaves. And Octavian... he's a slave too.

Octavian is owned by the men who teach him, and he's part of an experiment to see if it is possible for the "African Negro" to learn and become civilized. As Octavian learns this, his life is changed. The narrative is interesting and well written, and also well-researched. The facts about slavery and the American Revolution are surprising and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed it, but that isn't the part that stood out.

The language was flawless. Do you remember reading late 18th century American literature? Remember that over-formal language with tons of odd and interesting description? Word choice was always varied, and if you weren't good at reading context, you'd need a good dictionary with you to help interpret. Remember that?

The language in this book is exactly like that. Written in the form of a sort of confession from Octavian, you would never be able to tell the difference between it and an older text. Is that a good thing? I don't know. I never really enjoyed late 18th-century American literature that much. Still, it's very impressive. Want an excerpt? Well, you can read it here.

Ok, so what's my point here? Well, if you clicked on the links (despite my telling you not to), then you already know.

These two books were written by the same person! They were written by an amazing new author named M. T. Anderson. I know! Can you believe it?

Perhaps you can. Both stories somewhat lacked in narrative (although Octavian, being a later offering, had improved over Feed). Both stories had amazing voice. Still, they didn't sound, in any real way, the same. Even bestselling authors can't say that.

So, my advice: if you're an author, pick up these books just to see how he does it. You don't have to read through both volumes of Octavian Nothing. The Pox Party was good but Kingdom on the Waves (the 2nd volume) got a bit slow and I started to not care. I'll probably try to finish it eventually, but not yet.

Still, it's worth reading through The Pox Party and Feed just so you can see the stark differences in language. It proves my earlier point. You can write in multiple genres. It's ok. You don't have to just write fantasy or paranormal or sci fi or romance or historical or whatever. Dabble in all of it. Just enjoy what you're doing. You can totally tell Anderson enjoyed himself. Give it a read, and be prepared to be impressed.

Oh, and PS: note the humorous and probably overlooked inside joke 3/4 of the way through The Pox Party where Anderson references Feed. During a party where people are getting together to try to inoculate themselves against small pox (thus "pox party"), Octavian looks up at the moon and wonders if someday, even when there are people living in colonies on the moon, will people sit around and compare the size of their legions. A clear Feed reference that made me laugh.

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