Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review: "The Murder Complex" by Lindsay Cummings.

The Murder Complex”.
Author: Lindsay Cummings.
Publisher: Greenwillow Books.
Pages: 400 pages.
Release date: June 10th 2014 (ARC received from Edelweiss. I received no compensation or other such incentives for my review of this book.)
Summary (taken from Goodreads): An action-packed, blood-soaked, futuristic debut thriller set in a world where the murder rate is higher than the birthrate. For fans of Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, La Femme Nikita, and the movie Hanna.
Meadow Woodson, a fifteen-year-old girl who has been trained by her father to fight, to kill, and to survive in any situation, lives with her family on a houseboat in Florida. The state is controlled by The Murder Complex, an organization that tracks the population with precision.
The plot starts to thicken when Meadow meets Zephyr James, who is—although he doesn’t know it—one of the MC’s programmed assassins. Is their meeting a coincidence? Destiny? Or part of a terrifying strategy? And will Zephyr keep Meadow from discovering the haunting truth about her family? Action-packed, blood-soaked, and chilling, this is a dark and compelling debut novel by Lindsay Cummings.
Cover impressions: As someone who grew up reading crime novels and obsessing over the Hannibal Lecter series (a hobby that has transcended into my adult life thanks to the TV show), I’m surprisingly comfortable with on-page depictions of violence, more so than I am with it on screen. The kind of darkness young adult novels tend to go for isn’t one so focused on this kind of violence. There are exceptions, such as Barry Lyga’s “I Hunt Killers”, and Lindsay Cummings’s debut hopes to make a similar splash with a high concept story and comparisons to Joe Wright’s teen killer movie “Hanna”.

The central concept is where the issues start. The world of “The Murder Complex” is one where all natural illnesses have been cured thanks to a series of nannites created to counteract a plague. This has had the unfortunate side effect of leaving human beings invulnerable to all illnesses, diseases and the like, meaning the only way one can die is through so-called “unnatural” means, mainly murder. While it isn’t unforeseeable that society would react to this news with a growing epidemic of violence, it is somewhat far-fetched that it would be the only reaction. The role of government is barely touched upon other than the stock dystopian unseen bad guys and the constant anti-science angle became exhausting. It may be a concept as old as science-fiction itself (the moral of “Frankenstein”, after all, is “don’t play God”) but it’s a lazy trope to create instant tension and an antagonist that can easily be blamed. It’s all science’s fault! Even though we as a current society gloss over violence and its consequences as well as the true horrors of war and therefore such attitudes are engrained in our psyche, it’s still all science’s fault.

As the novel progresses, the biggest comparison my mind kept making was that of “Reboot” by Amy Tintera, a YA novel that came with a lot of hype, many comparisons to “Divergent” and a similarly cavalier attitude towards violence (Cummings, to her credit, deals with this somewhat better than Tintera, but it takes longer than one is strictly comfortable with). Both novels also have a similar attitude towards the central romance, and both examples drag the story down significantly. With Meadow and Zephyr, the love they develop comes out of nowhere. He dreams of her but it later turns out he’s programmed to kill her. That is literally the extent of the development of their relationship. While the romance doesn’t derail the plot entirely, its very inclusion is questionable at best. Toss in a few glaring elements that echo “Divergent” so loud that you’d think this was a tribute novel and the central concept becomes less original and interesting with each passing page.

Side note but can we please stop using tattoos as a marker for how edgy and dangerous someone is? Tattoos are no longer counter-cultural, they’re part of the mainstream. My mum has 11 tattoos!

The novel itself makes for a fast paced read, although the interchanging narratives of Meadow and Zephyr are nigh on indistinguishable, and the prose is serviceable for what it hopes to accomplish. However, the violence has to be talked about again. “The Murder Complex” is a novel trying so hard to be dark and edgy and dangerous yet ultimately it feels relatively safe. The novelty of having a novel saturated with violence wears off quickly and one is left with a bad aftertaste as the consequences of said violence are barely touched upon until the final 20%.

It is in this final fifth of the novel that the true potential hinted at in the synopsis shines through, but it’s just not enough. Too many questions are left unanswered. Why would the government immediately turn to murder as a means of population control over something like euthanasia? How does one keep the barest semblance of order in such a society when everyone is as ridiculously violent as those in charge? What about new births? How are they controlled, if they even are? Such unanswered questions become distracting to the reader.

The biggest question I was left with was why on earth did the author decide that using very graphic violence for a cheap shock tactic was okay but swearing was not? The characters say “flux” instead of “fuck” and “shit” is swapped for “skitz”. As well as being laughably juvenile, it presents a staggering hypocrisy that reminded me of the South Park movie: horrible violence is okay as long as you don’t use naughty language. I was seriously offended by this ridiculous double standard.

While “The Murder Complex” hints at Cummings’s potential as an action writer, there are too many questions left hanging, too many plot holes gaping wide open and a whole barrel-load of problematic content that tries to be shocking but ends up being distasteful. While the so-called originality of this concept may be amplified continually until release day, the story is ultimately too familiar to keep one’s attention held for long.


2/5. 

EDIT: This review originally contained the phrase "psychotically violent". As noted in the comments, this is an unacceptable ableist slur, one I really should have noticed before publishing my review. We at The Book Lantern strive to stamp out this kind of language and the problematic and dangerous connotations and stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated through its use. I should have been more careful. I'm sorry. The word has been changed. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Steelheart: Do the ends always justify the means?

One of the things that I can thank the Internet for, and book blogging in particular, are online deconstructions. Although I clearly lack the discipline to bring mine out in a timely fashion (sorry, Bumped fans!) reading other people's works has helped me become a better, more thoughtful critic.

It's also opened my eyes (well, opened them further) on the importance of thoughtful world building, and how it means much more than simply the author doing their job well.

I'm saying this because, had it not been for that, I would have enjoyed Steelheart much more.

My other main influence, which I would very much like to disclose before I go on further, is this video by Foldable Human which, hand to my heart, changed the way I view superheroes forever. 

In case the link doesn't work, or you're short on time, the gist is that superhero movies (Iron Man, Superman, the Avengers) all tend to glorify America's tendency to invade other nations and screw sovereignty in the name of the greater goal. Also, that superheroes' impact on the lives of regular humans is much more profound and devastating than we tend to think about.

Here's why this is important: Steelheart is set in a world where superheroes (well, Epics) are ruling the Earth, and our hero David joins a group of vigilantes, the Reckoners, in an attempt to take down the ruler of what was formerly known as Chicago. 

Or so the synopsis would have you think.

Monday, December 16, 2013

#TopFictionalGirlfriends

So I was randomly wasting time on YouTuBe when I came across a top ten fictional boyfriends tag, which was interesting in of itself. But then I wondered if there was an equivalent for girlfriends. A quick search revealed one video on top ten boyfriends and girlfriends tag, which quickly dissolved into a top ten fictional couples tag. I had better luck with Google, where I came across a few top ten best lists, (followed by some top ten worst lists), and I got in a perusal before my head started ticking.

Readers, not just on the Book Lantern, but in general, have commented on the deficit in quality female relationships depicted in mainstream media, and in YA in particular. I did not, however, realise that this kind of problem extended into the blogosphere (or maybe no-one ever thought to bring up a fictional girlfriends tag.) Why, though? Even at the worst of it, for every annoying heroine, there seems to be one we like. Surely, then, we can find ten ladies we want to be friends/girlfriends/it’s-complicated with.

This is where this list comes in. I went through my shelves and, sure enough, quickly came up with quite a few examples of girls I want to be friends with. However, rather than rate them in a top ten manner, I decided to showcase some of the variety of possible female relationships that can be done. Thus, dear fledging and not-so-fledging writers, you no longer have the excuse of not knowing how women interact.

As this is a girlfriends list, I’m only including those whom I think I, personally, think I would make a meaningful connection with. Some of my favourite badasses won’t be making it up here, not because I don’t want them to, but there is a difference between Idol, Role Model, Favourite Wish Fulfilment, and One You Love to Hate. Some of them make it. Others do not. As such, no Fever Crumb or Hester Shaw, even though I love both of them, and also I’ll be limiting myself to one lady per franchise because, let’s face it, Terry Pratchett’s characters would make up a rather disproportionate number here.

Finally, Ima tag some people at the bottom of this post because I want this hastag to spread (let’s see if that happens,) so you might wanna read on to see if it happens.

Now with that out of the way…

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hermione Granger and the Double Standards for Women

Long-time readers of this blog probably know of my rather critical stance on the Harry Potter books, so this post should come as no surprise. For any casual readers, the gist of it is that the first three books were basically my life when I was a kid, the forth put me off, and I didn’t come back to the series until I was a jaded cynic with pre-set opinions about how Rowling should have done things better.

I’m a very flawed critic, I admit.

Over the past year, I thought I had used up my virol, though. I even wanted to publish a blogpost here saying how I was done harping on John Green, because really, what difference can I make in the long run and we could do with a little less hatred in this world (the reason why you won’t find this blogpost is that my resolution came just before he made his comment about the kind of mindset one must have while approaching a book for their opinion to matter, which… yeah, no. A world of no.) Still… even then, I’d say my reaction was more of detached disappointment than any passionate anger.

Turns out, though, that I have some of that left. And the thing that incited it was a little convo I had on Twitter about Hermione Granger. Specifically, how even she, the most famous and well-loved example of female badassery in YA literature, a trailblazer for strong female characters, is expected to conform to gender ideas for the sake of gender ideas.

Be nice, not because you want to be nice, but because girls must be nice.

Be gentle, not because you feel particularly gentle, but because that’s how girls are.

Hold the peace, not because you are peaceful, but because that’s what girls do.

Note: The following examples are not representative of the whole Hermione experience. One of the reasons why she’s such a strong female character is precisely because she’s got character traits beyond these limited experience, and lots and lots of different valuable relationships with other characters. But the examples are also indicative of a real-life double standard that women face every day, and I feel deeply pained that they are forced on Hermione because if she can’t be allowed to break through with them, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Note the second: My seething hatred of Ron as an example of male privilege in the series may or may not make me biased. But as Virginia Woolf says: “When a subject is highly controversial, <…> one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance to draw their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.” (A Room of One’s Own)

With that out of the way, here are some examples from Hermione Granger and the Double Standards for Women. (Spoilers Ahoy)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Girls with blue hair, or Make up is evil pt 2

When I wrote my first post on make-up and YA almost a year ago, I was struck by how unfair and na├»ve the whole “inner beauty thumps all” argument is. With its unnecessary emphasis on the desperation of the girls wearing mascara and foundation, it seemed like the whole industry was trying to overcompensate for a materialistic culture that undermines women’s self-esteem. In fact, I was so focused on the economic unfairness, I completely overlooked what happens when you swing too far into the other way.

Picture  this – a girl with blue hair, sparkly tights, and a vintage bicycle. Or a girl who changes her looks every day, going from one drastic end to the other. Or how about one that wears only ironic T-shirts and red lipstick.

Yeah. I’m talking about MPDGs. Again.

Did you know that less than 13 years ago, excessive make-up use was considered a sign of a mental illness? Liz Frost has a very interesting essay on “Doing Looks” in “Women’s Bodies”, a 1999 collection which focuses on different ways in which women can experience their corporeality. (Because the body is more than just a meaty carcass we’re lugging around, as we already know.) Frost focuses on the ways in which women can use make-up and fashion to help their mental health, through role-playing and fun, and points out a sad, sad fallacy:

A woman who didn’t do enough for herself was scolded for letting herself go. But a woman who experimented too much with make-up was considered to be “crying for attention” and “crazy.”