Book Review: From Now On

from now on cover

Chopchinski, Zachary, Cathi Desurne, Lindsey S. Frantz, Nealy Gihan, C.D. Scott, Lichelle Slater, Christina Walker, Katy Walker, and KT Webb. From Now On: The Last Words Anthology. N.p.: n.p., 2017. Print.

I noticed an interesting trend during last year’s presidential election—no matter their political leanings, my students became acutely aware of their government, its flaws and positive attributes alike. This awareness made it a particularly interesting time to teach dystopian literature. Though we delved into a few short stories by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen Vincent Benet, students spent the bulk of their time reading novels. I assumed that this was typical in the dystopian realm—the amount of world building required by the genre just couldn’t be contained within the boundaries of a short story.

This is why I was particularly excited to read From Now On: The Last Words Anthology. It was described as a collection of dystopian short stories, many with young adult protagonists. Each story closed with the same line: “From now on, I’ll save myself.” Below is a synopsis of each piece in the collection.

When the Body Parts Hit the Fan by Zachary Chopchinski: A wise-cracking protagonist named Guy tries to maneuver through Maine post-apocalypse; however, his progress is impeded by murderous shadow creatures who tear passerby limb from limb. Guy knows there is only one way to receive salvation—he must stay in the light.

The Pack by Cathi Desurne: At only seventeen, Grace is a feared and respected member of The Pack, a group of revolutionaries who adhere to a wolf hierarchy. However, Grace has suspicions that the group is being followed and watched. This feeling of uneasiness is coupled with confusion when Grace begins to have romantic feelings for a fellow member of The Pack, Ryder.

Erilyn’s Awakening by Lindsey S. Frantz: Erilyn is not like her peers—she has darker hair, eyes, and supernatural abilities that appear in times of duress. An orphan who lives below ground, Erilyn has no true friends or companions other than a solitary jar of glow worms. While gathering food and plants, Erilyn is tormented by the other children in her party and makes the decision to travel “upworld”.

Something Old by Nealy Gihan: Hope lives in a world ruled by gemstones—those who have all gemstones in their genetic makeup are deemed most desirable. Hope has only two, but a proposal from a wealthy member of the reigning race gives Hope the opportunity to move above her station. Slowly, Hope learns that life among the elite is not as she dreamed it would be.

The Wall by C.D. Scott: Treece attempts to flee her negligent father on the morning of her sister’s wedding. Unbeknownst to her father or sister, Treece is in love with a man “beyond the wall”. She dreams of traveling to his homeland and starting a new life, but will it be possible?

Shadow of Heritage by Lichelle Slater: After the release of an environment-altering bomb, all citizens of the United States have some degree of supernatural ability. While Corvits’ father is a supervillain, he has the rather tame power of bringing artwork to life. When he is given additional information about his mother’s murder, however, he realizes that he might have a dark side after all.

The Weeding by Christina Walker: Nina believes she lives in the perfect society with true equality among citizens. However, when the leaders of the government announce plans for a “weeding”, Nina feels uneasy. Her worst fears are realized when the elderly and disabled are forcibly removed from their homes. Can she reach her arthritic friend Scott before it’s too late?

Mirrors by Katy Walker: Allan has a miserable life. Divorced and unemployed, he spends most of his time playing video games until a weird moment with his bathroom mirror changes his life forever.

Side Effects of Progress by KT Webb: Nick is a hardworking scientist who dreams of creating the perfect vaccine to guard against illness. Unfortunately, his manipulative boss has other plans, and Nick must work around-the-clock to save his co-workers and possibly humanity itself.

Each piece in this anthology has a different narrative voice and unveils a crumbling society in a unique way. As with most short story collections, some pieces are stronger than others: Frantz’s Erilyn’s Awakening, for example, has vivid imagery and great moments of suspense—I felt my heart rate increase as Erilyn navigated her way through an underground cavern while being pursued by other children. Scott’s The Wall had a nice plot twist that made me crave an entire novel of Treece’s adventures. Gihan’s Something Old contained both a unique premise and a theme of female suppression reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale.

I did find a few grammatical errors during my read and, as I downloaded the anthology as an e-book, there were some noticeable formatting issues while reading on both my tablet and phone.

Overall, teachers who are focusing on dystopian literature would be wise to purchase and download From Now On: The Last Words Anthology. There are stories that pair well with many of the main dystopian characteristics: figurehead worship (Walker’s The Weeding), fear of the outside world (Frantz’s Erilyn’s Awakening), restriction of freedom (Webb’s Side Effects of Progress) just to name a few. In a market saturated with dystopian novels and movies, these are fresh, inventive short stories that will hold your students’ interest and challenge their imagination.

BookCon: A First Timer’s Review

book con entrance

Via a Facebook ad, I saw that Nicola Yoon, Stephen Chbosky, Jenny Han, Rainbow Rowell, and Margaret Atwood were among the attendees scheduled for this year’s BookCon in New York City. The itinerary was simply too good to resist; days later, my husband and I purchased convention and plane tickets, and I began counting down the days until my arrival in the Big Apple.

Having now attended my very first BookCon, I would be remiss if I did not share my experience with my bookish readers. In short, if you have the time and resources to visit BookCon, don’t pass it up. It truly is a reader’s paradise.

Panels

Panels are always exciting for me. As an aspiring author, I gain writerly tips and tricks. As a fangirl, I get to see some of my favorite authors in the flesh. Here is a short synopsis of each of the panels I attended.

Romance and New Adult Fiction: This panel featured Young Adult/New Adult romance authors Christina Lauren, Colleen Hoover, and Kami Garcia. The women discussed the creation of “strong” protagonists, and stressed the importance of flawed, damaged, and hurt characters. The authors also discussed the unfair and unwarranted stereotype of romance novels, even though they easily outsell other genres.

new adult romance

A Spectrum of Young Adult Authors: This panel featured YA authors Adele Griffin, Jason Reynolds, and Stephanie Garber. This group discussed the unique challenges and values in writing for young people, and how many classic and celebrated novels feature teenaged protagonists. They also discussed low moments in their own lives and careers that have influenced their writing.

ya panel

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood and Showrunner Bruce Miller from the New Series on Hulu: This panel featured author Margaret Atwood and director/screenwriter Bruce Miller from the newest television adaptation. It was truly an honor and privilege to see Ms. Atwood and learn how real-life events influenced her dystopian novel. Bruce Miller discussed the challenges of bringing elements of The Handmaid’s Tale to the small screen.

margaret atwood

Transforming a Bestseller onto the Silver Screen: A Book to Film Adaptation: This panel featured YA authors Lauren Oliver, Nicola Yoon, RJ Palacio, and Stephen Chbosky. These authors discussed the sometimes lengthy and complicated journey from selling the rights to their novel to attending the premiere of the movie adaptation.

book to film

Signings/Meet and Greets

One of my only complaints regarding BookCon is the system employed to distribute signing and meet and greet tickets. Tickets go on sale on a predetermined day, and once they are sold out, there are no more chances to have a book signed by that author. I much prefer the lottery system used by other conventions. That aside, I left BookCon with two signed novels and a professional photograph.

Kevin Hart: My husband and I are fans of the comedian Kevin Hart, so it was extremely exciting to briefly meet and be photographed with him. We also received copies of Kevin’s autobiography I Can’t Make This Up.

kevin hart

Kwame Alexander: I teach Alexander’s novel-in-verse The Crossover, so I was excited to meet him in person and tell him how much the book means to me and my students. If you are having difficulties getting your students interested in poetry, check it out! I also received an early release of Alexander’s newest novel, Solo.

kwame alexander

Ashley Poston: Although I was at the Margaret Atwood panel at the time, my husband was kind enough to get my copy of Geekerella signed by author Ashley Poston. I loved this book—look for a review in the coming weeks!

geekerella

Exhibitors and Free Stuff

One of the most enjoyable things about attending any convention is exploring the exhibition hall, and Book Con was certainly no exception. There were a countless number of exhibitors (no joke—I began to count them all but tired around 200) who were pedaling a wide array of book-related wares:  books in every category you can think of, graphic novels, bookish merchandise, subscription boxes, etc. The largest booths belonged to Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, and Chronicle Books, though smaller booths by independent publishers were also well-attended. Many of the booths also hosted their authors for signings—there was a particularly long line for Chelsea Clinton’s newest children’s book. I left with enough free stuff to weigh down an entire carry-on bag: pens and notepads, tote bags and backpacks, bookmarks, pins, stickers, magnets, playing cards, posters, beach balls, eyeglass cleaners, t-shirts, headphones…the list goes on.

But all BookCon attendees know that the true jewel of convention swag is a free book, and I was fortunate enough to snag several, pictured below. Which should I read and review first?

free books

If you want to see more of my BookCon pics and videos, follow  me on Instagram @ireadwhattheyread!

Book Review: The Breaking Light

the breaking light cover

Hansen, Heather. The Breaking Light. New York: Skyscape, 2017. Print.

Not to brag, but I’ve loved dystopias before dystopias were cool.

But, like most voracious readers of YA fiction, I found myself a bit “dystopia weary” following the monumental success of franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent. As much as I loved them (my classroom is still slathered with Hunger Games memorabilia), I longed for something new and perused YA fantasy or realistic fiction instead. My self-imposed hiatus officially ended this past weekend with an email from Amazon. I could receive a download of a yet-to-be-released YA dystopian novel, The Breaking Light, as a perk of my Prime membership. The premise was simply too good to resist.

Arden and Dade are citizens of a completely vertical society. The poorest and most destitute—like Arden—live in the Undercity, housed at ground level. Above the Undercity stretches a series of Levels, topped by the Sky Towers where the wealthiest of citizens—like Dade—reside. Those in the Sky Towers, called Solizen, are the only individuals granted access to the sun. The rest of the population relies on time in a sun booth or injections of Vitamin D. When citizens cannot afford or access these alternatives, they often die from a painful affliction known as Violet Death.

Arden is heavily involved in a ruthless gang called Lasair. The group is headed by her brother and notorious for stealing Vitamin D shipments to turn into a recreational drug known as Shine. Arden is on her way to a Lasair meeting when she has an altercation with Dade, who she views as an obvious outsider. Unbeknownst to Arden, Dade also steals Vitamin D shipments, though his motives are a bit more virtuous—he distributes the injections to clinics who use them on orphaned children. Although Dade and Arden part after a scuffle, neither can shake their mutual attraction and their desire to see one another again.

As fate would have it, their paths cross for a second time at a nightclub where Arden is dealing Shine. Their reunion is short-lived as the club is soon infiltrated by government operatives—referred to as “govies” throughout the novel. After their escape, Arden and Dade reveal their identities to one another and struggle with the desire to be together despite their numerous differences. Socioeconomic divide aside, there are difficulties looming in the couple’s future: Dade’s father, a powerful member of the Solizen, has forced his son into an engagement with a girl named Clarissa for political reasons. Arden’s brother, Niall, is planning a complete upheaval of the government and families in power, known as Project Blackout. Arden and other members of Lasair view Project Blackout as nothing short of a suicide mission. Will Dade somehow stop his upcoming wedding? Can Arden slowly distance herself from Lasair and Project Blackout? Will the couple ever find acceptance in a completely divided society?

It was easy to lose myself in the society Hansen created—a world that was terrifying, dysfunctional, and had eerie similarities to plights citizens face today. Dade, like celebrities in our world, is constantly hounded by paparazzi. And, while most claim to hate the Solizen, they do love to keep up with them via broadcasts on their datapads, hearkening to society’s current obsession with fame and social media. Furthermore, it’s not difficult to see the parallel between the lack of healthcare available to citizens of the Undercity and the terrible treatment of the impoverished in our own world.

While the concept and world building were outstanding, I did find the writing style a bit juvenile at times, even for a YA novel. This is most prominent whenever Arden thinks about Dade. In one section, she describes his “yumminess”, in another she describes a kiss between them as “raw, needy, and hot”. Sure, teenagers are hormonal, but the voice felt jarring for someone as cunning and street smart as Arden.

That said, I would be open to recommending this book to my students. It would also be a fresh addition to their Dystopian Unit where they choose books such as 1984 and A Brave New World to read independently. The Breaking Light also has some striking similarities to Romeo and Juliet which were fun to uncover as I read; I can imagine, then, that they’d be equally fun to discuss with a class. I was excited to learn that The Breaking Light is the first in a series—let’s hope Hansen continues the tale of her star-crossed lovers for many books to come.