Saturday, 26 June 2010

Goodman's The other side of the island: simple language and complex concepts

Allegra Goodman's The other side of the island tackles some big issues for a kid's book aimed at around the 10-13 year age group. Climate change, government control, the corporate co-opting of religion and the high cost of individual thinking are all explored within this novel's dystopian world. Honor, the protagonist, lives on Island 365 where the seemingly benevolent Earth Mother holds absolute rule, protecting the earth against 'old weather' by 'ceiling' the few islands left inhabitable after environmental disaster. Each family is allowed only one child, whose name is chosen from an approved list; neighbourhood watchers ensure that citizens abide by curfews; and 'orderlies', bald, blank-faced creatures who look and act the same, exist as a sub human species silently performing menial jobs. But to Honor, this world is 'safe' and 'secure'. She strives for approval at her strict school and is horrified by her parents unwillingness to conform. In an act of teenage defiance, she changes her name from Honor, which with its silent H marks her as different, to Heloise. Soon after, her parents disappear, Honor is relegated to the lowly status of orphan and she begins to discover that Earth Mother's world is not so safe and secure after all.

The other side of the island is a fast-paced, enthralling book that follows Honor's maturing from a confused child to courageous freedom fighter. It has a lot to offer in relation to my research, particularly in relation to successful world-building and combining complex concepts within a fast-paced narrative that uses deceptively simple language and sentence structure. It also indirectly addresses neuro-scientific concepts, particularly in relation to the orderlies who are kept in a zombie-like state through the mind-numbing drugs in their food.

I'd been playing with the idea of locating my creative work on an island split down the middle by difficult terrain and I picked up this book from the library based on its title to see how the author handled it. The isolation of an island lends itself well to a controlled environment while also allowing the possibility of wild, harsh and unpredictable terrain hiding secrets and mysteries, and Goodman deftly manages these aspects in building Honor's world. While she is frightened of the untamed nature of the other side of the island, Honor comes to appreciate its natural beauty and accept that being safe and secure in Earth Mother's world comes at a high price.

Goodman also excels at weaving complex concepts while using deceptively simple language. Her use of short, sharp sentences and key words such as 'safe', 'secure', 'untruths', 'ceiled', 'enclosed' and 'correct', (identified as important through the use of quotation marks) express the essence of the corporate-controlled world of Island 365. Goodman's ability to load simple words with layers of meaning through context is, for me, one of the most impressive aspects of her writing.

I'll be looking out for more of this author's work.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Self mutilation and brain plasticity: Westerfield's 'cutters'

Scott Westerfield's Specials, the third book in his Uglies series, follows the series heroine, Tally Youngblood, in her third incarnation: this time as a new breed of Special Circumstances agents known as 'cutters'.

On his website Westerfield says of the Uglies series, "I love a good action sequence, and this series is of full of hoverboard chases, escapes through ancient ruins, and leaps off tall buildings in bungee jackets. It's the sort of fast-paced book I couldn't get enough of when I was young."

I found Specials hard going: once you've read one hoverboard fight scene, you've read them all. And several times I put the book down because I was bored with it. On the surface the novel is dealing with several themes and topics that I'm interested in looking at throughout my Phd, including brain rewiring (or plasticity) and self mutilation as a form of self expression. However, Westerfield didn't explore these themes in any detail, rather using them to add a degree of surface tension and interest to the novel's action.

Unlike the protagonist in Bates' Crossing the Line, the Specials cutters cut themselves to feel 'icy', that is, to create a feeling of power and control, and the act of cutting is performed consciously, not in a dissociative state. The cutters wear their scars with pride like a tattoo or ritual scar, rather than hiding them in shame. By the novel's end, however, Tally realises that cutting herself is a form of denying her true feelings. But even though cutting isn't portrayed as a positive act, Tally's feelings about cutting - why she does it and why she stops - aren't covered in any depth.

Westerfield has made no claims about writing a psychological novel, although on his website he does lightly touch on some psychological issues when he answers questions about the US' obsession with surgically enhanced beauty. But his focus on action scenes means the novel's characters lack substance. For all their hoverboarding and bungee jumping, clambering on and off helicopters and breaking into high security buildings, they're a little boring. Of course, with a focus on action, it was probably wasn't Westerfield's intention to dig into the meat of the issues he covers. But I think if he had, it would have made for a more interesting series.

For my research needs, the Uglies series gives a general and cursory coverage of self mutilation and brain plasticity (in that the protagonist, Tally, is able to rewire her brain to overcome the 'lesions' added to her brain to make her first a Pretty then a Special Circumstances Agent). But it's probably too cursory in its treatment of these topics for my needs.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Self mutilation in YA fiction: Bates' Crossing the Line

This search for the plastic brain within YA fiction can be a pain, especially as I've been finding it a bit of a hard slog working my way through Scott Westerfield's Uglies series. But I'm trying to perservere because, although I haven't come across Westerfield using the term brain plasticity in the novels, when his characters are able to rewire their brains around the 'lesions' caused by the 'pretty operation' that's what's happening. So that's interesting to me because he's incorprating brain plasticity into the narrative of his YA novel. Unfortunately, his writing doesn't hold my interest, mainly because I simply don't care about his self-obsessed characters. Not one bit.

Luckily I've had Di Bates' Crossing the Line to keep my reading list chugging along. Bates isn't a particularly high profile name in young adult writing but she is a veteran author of more than 30 books and a skilled and empathetic storyteller. Crossing the Line deals with the difficult issue of self harm. Sophie, the narrator, is now 17 and has lived in foster homes since she was around 12. The Department has recently allowed her to try living in a share house with a couple of other young people, Amy and Matt, to try and transition into life post-foster care. But although Sophie enjoys living independently, she is too fragile to cope and deals with her pain the only way she knows how - by cutting herself.

On the surface of it, cutting as a form of self-harm would seem to be an ultimate act of self-absorption, particularly in a teenager. But Bates' skillful writing draws you into Sophie's world, allowing you as the reader to empathise with Sophie's pain while seeing how her cutting only takes her deeper into despair. Throughout her journey, which takes her into a psychiatric ward and to regular sessions with a psychologist, Sophie struggles with finding her place in a world where natural love is denied to her. In telling the story, Bates' writing is compelling and fast paced without being frantic and the climax and resolution are satisfying to the story's heart while offering hope for Sophie's future. I cared about this character and her story a lot, despite some quibbles with the long-suffering and possibly a little too-good-to-be-true Matt.

Of course, Crossing the Line and the Uglies series are two different genres. But they're both genres I enjoy, so I don't think that's the issue. For me, when examining these books as possible inclusions in my thesis, the Uglies series is on the surface more aligned with the type of manuscript I propose to write. However, it's Bates' writing I'll draw inspiration from when it comes to writing rounded characters with real heart.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

They told me I had to write this: brief review

On this week's reading list was They told me I had to write this by first time Australian author Kim Miller. I picked it because it's aimed at young adults and deals with memory and trauma. Narrated in the first person, it's an epistolary novel, is a format that I don't often warm to (I think I was put off it by Marsden's Dear Miffy, which was not one of his best).

The book is a series of letters written by Clem to his grandmother. Clem's age isn't specified but I'd guess it at around 14, and he's a boy with a troubled past who is attending a school for boys who have failed in the mainstream schooling system. Clem's voice is clear, honest and convincing and through the letters which basically operate as a diary, he works through the issues that have been plaguing him. I won't go into the plot too much to spoil it but rest assured Clem gets to the bottom of his problems and finds a way through them.

They told me I had to write this is published by Ford Street Publishing, (coincidentally they also published Crossing the Line, another 'trauma' book which I've just started). Miller's novel deals sensitively with a difficult topic and the honesty of the voice rings true throughout the novel so it both acknowledges and respects the intense pain that the character of Clem experiences. In turn, it provides a way through for any readers that may have experienced the same trauma.

It's a good little book that I believe achieves what it sets out to, that is, to give honest expression to a child's trauma and show that it is possible to heal the hurt. For my research purposes, however, it's probably aimed at a slightly younger age group and would have been better suited to my master's thesis than my upcoming work. But I'm glad I read it and congratulate Miller on writing a book that deals with a senstive topic with genuine respect, honesty, empathy and just the right amount of humour.