Wednesday, 9 May 2012

CRACKS by Caroline Green (and other Liztopian thoughts)

I often wonder how I would fare in a dystopian world. Probably quite craply, if I am honest. I am quite a nervous person and not very good at lying and so if faced with the task of running for my life/fighting/evading the secret police, I would most likely freeze where I was and shout 'I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE' until the evil people took me away. But others have done better. Here are some books set in some quite scary places, all of them asking 'what if...'

1. CRACKS by Caroline Green

Piccadilly Press 
Amazon link

What if you found out your whole life was a lie?

Cal’s entire world cracks up and falls to pieces around him. Everything he thought was real is gone – and he doesn’t even know who he really is. Soon Cal is on the run, surrounded by people claiming to be on his side, but finding more lies at every turn. In a world where having an identity can put you in danger, Cal is safer staying anonymous – trusting no one and running from everyone. 

I was hooked by this book right from the beginning. Like Caroline Green's debut novel, DARK RIDE, the main character and their home life are completely believable. As with Bella, the main character in DARK RIDE, I was completely drawn into Cal's everyday life - and so it came as a shock when Cal's reality began to disintegrate.

As Cal steps into his new life - a fugitive in a dystopian nightmare - you take every step of the story with him, feeling as uncertain as he does about what is real and who to trust. Caroline Green cranks up the tension masterfully, making you as breathless as if you were on the run. As with all good dystopia, the settings are familiar and yet strange - there is a smog-filled Sheffield, where new hologram technology is used in constant terrorism warnings.

The action is interweaved with Cal's quest to find out who he is after he feels his whole life has been taken from him. But in his previous life Cal was constantly told by his stepfather that he was 'nothing'. In his new life he literally has no identity (all UK citzens have been implanted with an ID chip). As 'no one', Cal starts to forge his identity through the decisions he makes and the people he gets to know. His relationships with other teens - Jax and Kyla - show Cal growing in confidence and developing a sense of who he is. 

A action-fuelled, clever and engaging thriller (and a CRACKing good read).


Amazon link 

I was completely blown away by this book, to the extent that afterwards I felt (and looked) like I’d stuck my head in a tumble dryer. It is just insane and brilliant and horrible.

Dancing Jax is a book about a book. Written by Austerely Fellows in 1936, it lay hidden away for decades until some teenagers discovered it in an old house. The book has a strange hold over its readers, transporting them to the world of Mooncaster – a medieval fantasy world full of beautiful and frightening creatures. Everyone in Mooncaster is ranked according to playing cards, with the Kings and Queens at the top and with servants and peasants as twos and threes. Everyone who reads the book identifies with a Mooncaster character, and this becomes their other life. Life in Mooncaster becomes an obsession, and ‘real life’ just a drab and hollow interlude between visits.

Freax and Rejex is set five months after the book was discovered. It has now been published and everyone in Britain has fallen under the Mooncaster spell, putting them in control of the author Austerely Fellows. Well, not quite everyone. There are the aberrants – people immune to the book. To the Dancing Jax converts they are a threat to the new way of life and they must be converted or got rid of. Thirty-one young aberrants are brought on a holiday weekend arranged by Austerely Fellows to help them find their way to Mooncaster. But slowly the sinister reality of the camp is revealed. Fellows knows that one of the children has the power to bring down Mooncaster and he wants to root them out, without any regard for what happens to the rest of them.

Reading this you feel a bit like a Dancing Jax convert, going into a trance as you are transported to Mooncaster. As with other Robin Jarvis books, there is just so much depth and texture to the world – when you are there you can completely forget it’s not real. But you can’t relax. The tension of the children’s life in the camp is turned up in excruciating degrees – always on the edge of something horrific happening. You get to know every inch of a character and suddenly they are gone.

You must read this book. Otherwise I will assume you are an aberrant and invite you to my nice holiday camp and MAKE you read it...

3. THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

Amazon link

One of the things I enjoyed most about HG was that Katniss could totally kick Bella Swann’s bum. You wouldn’t find Katniss toppling sadly from cliffs or getting herself kidnapped by weirdos just so an ill-looking boy would save her. Katniss doesn’t have time for crap like that. She has to survive. And shoot squirrels. And then take part in a fight to the death on TV.

Reading Hunger Games you can imagine from the safeness of your sofa what it would be like if you had to shoot squirrels and live in trees and occasionally commit murder. (But only good murder where the people who deserve it because they did mean things and had mean faces.) (And for the one where you dropped a load of wasps on a girl's head you could just say it was an accident and the wasps 'fell'.) 

One downside of liking Katniss is knowing full well that I would be nothing like her in the same situation. My plan for the Hunger Games would be: 1. Dig a hole. 2. Sit in the hole. 3. Cry. I know this because the only time in my life I have gone paintballing I spent the entire time hidden behind a tree, too scared to shoot my gun, and then popped my head up at the end and got shot in the mouth.

4. THE OTHER LIFE by Susanna Winnacker


Number days since Sherry has seen daylight. Her family have been living in a bunker since things went wrong. When Sherry and her dad are forced to leave to look for food, they find a world devastated by savage mutants, the Weepers. A Weeper attack leaves Sherry terrified and alone, until she meets Joshua. He is an Avenger – determined to make the Weepers pay.

This book made me think of this interview with Jack Heath, where he says that we shouldn’t see books and video games as being in opposition. The action and excitement of video games, and seeing yourself as the protagonist, can be combined an experimental plot and an insight into the main character’s thoughts. And there are plenty of video games that involve killing zombies. So I enjoyed watching these zombie encounters from the point of view of a normal teenage girl – someone surviving by the skin of her teeth and with no cheats to use.

Throughout the book are flashbacks to ‘the other life’ – the life before the Weepers. Seeing Sherry chat to her best friend Izzy about boys and school has an eerie feel when you know that their whole world is about to be destroyed.

Oh and there's Joshua. Who in my head looks a bit like this: 

Which can NEVER be a bad thing. (He is looking tired because he's just killed a Weeper with his lovely arms). 

5. THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood


This book was the first time I came across dystopia and it still chills me to think about it. It is set in the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist Christian regime where women are categorised according to their function and their fertility. There are Wives, Handmaids, who are used for their wombs to have babies for childless couples and Unwomen – lesbians, feminists and those who have failed to breed healthy children. There are other types, but what all have in common is powerlessness - they are not educated or allowed to read. 

Offred is a Handmaid for the Commander and his Wife. Her name – of Fred – signifies the man she belongs to. We hear her story as a stream of conciousness, spanning her life with the Commander and her other life, with her daughter, and we never sure where she is or how she is telling the story. What is so frightening is that the book shows how quickly people's sense of what is 'normal' can be altered by context. 'Context is all' is a recurring phrase. This book also taught me the word 'palimpsest', which means parchment, or another writing surface, on which the text has been erased or written over. Offred uses it to describe the Re-education Center, where Handmaids are trained, because the center used to be a gym. The traces of hundreds of stories remain there, even after they've been written over. 

The book shows that dystopian regimes write over the old life, but they can't erase the traces and echoes of what went before.  

But still, hiding in a hole and crying is probably the safest option. 

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