Tag Archives: totalitarian state

Book Review Saturday – ‘Maggot Moon’

The first thing I’m going to say about ‘Maggot Moon’ is this: Do not read it in a public place.

Perhaps I should clarify that.

Public Announcement: Do not read Sally Gardner’s award-winning novel ‘Maggot Moon’ in a public place if you’re anything like me, and you get deeply emotionally affected by the books you read, and you’re prone to showing those emotions, viz. through displays of tearfulness, wailing and/or clutching your napkin to your face and sobbing into it.

I read ‘Maggot Moon’ in a café, and I’m probably barred from it for life as a result of my reaction to this book. I wept, my friends. I wept, in public. Am I sorry? Heck, no.

Image: thebookstheartandme.wordpress.com

Image: thebookstheartandme.wordpress.com

‘Maggot Moon’ is a gutsy, unashamed, powerful novel. Its dedication reads: ‘For you the dreamers, overlooked at school, never won prizes. You who will own tomorrow,‘ and that spirit of defiance and combativeness runs through the core of the story. This is a book about those who struggle, and those who make a stand against tyranny and evil, no matter what the personal cost. This is a book about bravery, family, friendship and love – and, most importantly, how not even the most brutal regime can crush these most precious and fragile things.

The book is narrated in the voice of Standish Treadwell, a fifteen-year-old boy with the reading and writing age of a child ten years younger. He is upfront about the fact that he cannot read or spell, that he sees the written world differently from everyone else, but this is far from being a ‘handicap’, or a drawback, for him. In fact, it is one of his greatest strengths. Standish has immersed himself in language, in the spoken word, and has a natural talent for understanding coded, indirect and hidden speech, even when the words he hears are spoken in another language. In his own words:

I may not be able to spell, but I have a huge vocabulary. I collect words – they are sweets in the mouth of sound. (Maggot Moon, p. 24)

His ability to understand spoken language propels him on his journey, and even saves his life. I loved Standish – the way he thinks, the way he speaks, the depth with which he loves, the courage behind the decisions he makes, and the loyal devotion to his family and friends, all make him a memorable and deeply affecting character.

Some of the phrases in this book are pure Standish – he says things like ‘hare’s breath’ when most people would say ‘hair’s breadth’, or ‘glad drags’ when the more usual way of saying it would be ‘glad rags’; reading his unique take on language made the hairs stand up all over my body. His voice opened up language for me, creating worlds within words and making me see things in a completely different way. It’s a thrilling experience, going along with Standish on his adventure – his unique language and phraseology re-makes the world for the reader, making everything seem slightly off-kilter – and, of course, this is not just for effect. Standish navigates his own world in this same slightly off-kilter way; he is different in a world where being different is a death sentence. We feel his alienation and his sense of being oppressed through the way he uses language as much as through the way he describes his life at school, his treatment at the hands of bullies and cruel teachers, and the gradual picture he builds up for us of the country he lives in, and the regime he exists under.

Many images of oppression in this book are chillingly familiar. The story is set in 1956, but it’s not the 1956 we’re familiar with. It’s an alternative vision, a world we could have lived in. A totalitarian regime is in place, with those loyal to ‘the Motherland’ in charge; salutes and jackboots are the order of the day. Physical violence is common – not only does Standish receive beatings, but there is a terrifying – and stomach-churning – scene near the middle of the book when a teacher takes out his frustration on a student, to horrifying effect. This is not a world which rewards the weak. The Motherland is about to launch a rocket into space, designed to colonise the moon and place a weapon on its surface, from whence to launch an attack upon her enemies; the Obstructors, or underground resistance movement, are doing their best to subvert it. People who show any form of non-compliance (including Standish’s parents) are regularly ‘removed’, and anyone who does not help to spread the Motherland’s propaganda is considered a dissenter. Life struggles on in the midst of all this horror – children go to school to be taught noxious lies and to be brutalised by their instructors; adults try to scrape together a living, nobody trusting anyone else, and the Motherland pushes forward with its military regime at the cost of its citizens’ lives. The world of ‘Maggot Moon’ is not our world, but it is all too easy to imagine.

Standish lives with his grandfather, and befriends Hector Lush, a young boy who, along with his parents, moves in to the house next door. The relationship between the two boys, including their plan to build their own spaceship and discover their own planet where they can live in peace, and their attempts to find a normal space in which to live, and simply be, without fear or pain, is one of the sparks behind the story; the Motherland does not permit the sort of loyalty and affection that Standish has for Hector and the other members of his small family, and so the stage is set for a showdown. As the story progresses we learn that not only are Mr and Mrs Lush not what they seem, but neither is Gramps, Standish’s brave and resourceful grandfather, and when the boys end up embroiled in a conspiracy that goes to the heart of what the Motherland is all about, they receive help from the most unexpected places.

It’s difficult to do a review of this book without giving too much away. Suffice to say that a point is reached at which Standish has had enough of the lies he is being fed, and he makes a decision which will impact not only his own life, but the lives of everyone. He is willing to sacrifice all that he is for the sake of love and family and truth, and when you read this book you’ll know which scene tipped me over the edge into full-on blub mode. I defy anyone to read it and not weep, for the sheer beauty that is Standish Treadwell is not often found in literature, and even less in life.

This is a book to read and treasure, to recommend and pass on, to remember. It is a book to celebrate. Read it, and read it, and read it again.

Happy Saturday! What are you going to read today?

Once More Unto the Book Review – ‘ACID’

How on earth is it Saturday already? *Shakes clock* *peers at it peevishly*

I'm not *this* desperate to slow down time - not yet, anyway! Image: dailymail.co.uk

I’m not *this* desperate to slow down time – not yet, anyway!
Image: dailymail.co.uk

Oh well. In any case, Saturday is the day it appears to be, and so it must be time for this:

The Book Review Post!

Image: nosegraze.com

Image: nosegraze.com

This week, it’s all about fighting The Man, as I’m feeling the love for Emma Pass’ marvellous début novel, ‘ACID’. It’s not exactly a comfortable read, but that – in essence – is what makes it so good. And it is, indeed, so good.

I read ‘ACID’ pretty much in one sitting – no mean feat, considering it’s over 400 pages long – and when I tell you it gripped me from the first sentence, I mean it. ‘ACID’ has one of the most arresting opening chapters of any book I’ve ever read; Pass’ grip over language and character doesn’t relax for one second for the rest of the book, either. I felt like Jenna Strong’s story was dragging me by the nose. I had to find out what happened to her, because her voice was so compelling and urgent. The book is tight, well-written, expertly paced and so very clever – it’s almost too much to believe that it’s Emma Pass’ first published novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and my hat is off to her for that alone.

‘ACID’, set in 2113, is the story of the aforementioned Jenna Strong. At the time of the novel’s opening, Jenna is incarcerated in Mileway Maximum-Security Prison, having, we’re told, murdered her parents at the age of 15. She is (perhaps a tiny bit implausibly, but I instantly forgave it) the only female inmate in this prison; as a result, of course, she is sexually and physically victimised by the male inmates. Or, at least, the male inmates attempt to victimise her – Jenna, easily the most kick-ass heroine I’ve read this side of Katniss Everdeen, does not take their maltreatment lightly, and learns very quickly how to defend herself. After the breath-holding tension of the first few chapters, where we learn all about the prison, Jenna’s past, and her painful present, the story quickens into a rescue mission, mounted by persons unknown, to break Jenna out of Mileway.

The book takes us through Jenna’s new existence outside of prison, her efforts to stay under the radar and away from ACID – the Agency for Crime Investigation and Defence, i.e. the most brutal, merciless, and omnipresent police force you can imagine – and her growing involvement with an underground resistance movement which is dedicated to freeing the population from ACID’s iron grip. In the course of this, she must assume a new identity, start living a different life (including being forced to take a LifePartner with whom she cannot see eye to eye – the breakdown of their clandestine relationship brings her entire existence into danger), and eventually, inevitably, go on the run. This identity-swapping is done in order to try to evade ACID’s terrifying, all-seeing surveillance; later in the book she is forced to assume yet another identity, against her will this time. All these layers are deftly handled, giving Jenna’s character such satisfying texture and complexity.

The story describes daily existence in a country which was once the UK and is now the IRB, a walled-off, segregated totalitarian state. It is a chilling vision. Everything is monitored – ACID knows who you talk to, what you read, what you think, who your friends are – marital unions are state-sanctioned (everyone is assigned a LifePartner in their late teens, and any sign of deviance from this is severely punished), and couples may not become pregnant without a permit from the state. It’s not a new idea that total power brings total corruption, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea – Emma Pass makes such excellent use of the trope that it seems new and fresh in her hands. The gradual uncovering of the truth behind Jenna’s early life, as well as her own origins, gives the story an emotional punch and makes you care deeply about Jenna and the pain she has been forced to suffer.

The secondary characters are also excellent, particularly Max – he’s almost the ‘heart’ to Jenna’s ‘muscle’, which is a refreshing reversal of expectation – and his kindness and compassion show us exactly how hard Jenna has had to become in order to survive. She is, however, hiding a painful secret from him for a large part of the book, and the strain this causes is made very clear. As well as excellent characterisation, another of my favourite features of the novel is the use of reproduced newspaper articles and komm readouts (‘komm’ being a device worn in the ear, and monitored by ACID, which allows you to ‘link’ to other people – almost like a smartphone, but with a heads-up display), which give us another perspective on Jenna’s first-person narration. I enjoyed the disparity which sometimes occurs between the way she views the happenings in her world and what ACID is actually thinking or doing – it’s nicely used to rachet up the tension where necessary. Plus, it looks really cool.

In short, everything about this book is top-notch – the writing, the characters, the narrative voice, the concept, the action sequences, the world-building (which feels sickeningly plausible!), the technology, and the emotional arc our characters travel. I did have two tiny quibbles, one of which I’ve touched on above (Jenna’s being the only woman in the prison), and another which occurs near the end of the book (where Jenna is handed an opportunity to achieve one of her goals, instead of creating her own means of getting what she wanted, which would have been more satisfying to read). However, these quibbles are swept away in the overall force of nature that is ‘ACID’.

Just to note: ‘ACID’ is probably considered a YA novel by publishers and librarians and booksellers, and so on, because Jenna is in her late teens, but I’m sure it would be relished by fans of crime writing, SF and speculative fiction, too. An excellent piece of work, which is heartily recommended.

Happy weekend, all! May the books be with you…