Review: Bannerless Doesn’t Live Up to its Premise

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

BannerlessFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 July 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Post-apocalypse/Mystery
Rating:
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

I went into this book hoping for some clever literary fiction exploring questions of population management, bodily autonomy, and maybe some critiquing of environmental and economic policies. I hoped the murder mystery would take a back seat, functioning as frame for those questions. Unfortunately, Bannerless falls short in all those areas. Bannerless instead tells a simple coming of age tale and murder mystery, neither of which are particularly compelling.

The first thing about this book that stood out to me was the repetitive and self-explanatory prose. One aspect that particularly grated on me was the hammering on about how investigators are feared, terrible, powerful. Their brown uniforms symbolize of something awful, but who knows what. We’re told numerous times that the average person disdains investigators, yet the narration never shows why. I don’t like being told something over and over with no evidence. Perhaps its because investigators enforce rules that people don’t like? But we’re never shown effects of that – the system that most people live by functions well and we don’t see or hear about an investigator ruining someone’s life. (One person has an outburst about a household that was split up because an investigator discovered they were doing something illegal, but that has no connection to this story.)

Another related issue I had with the prose is that many sentences felt unnecessary, in that they told me something I could have inferred from the dialogue. It was an odd case of telling instead of showing – at times, the telling happened in addition to the showing. One chapter contains five instances of glaring, by the same two characters. In general, the prose reads amateurish and undeveloped.

This critique about the investigators ties into my main issue with the novel. Where is the dystopia? How does the investigation “reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for”? Enid doesn’t seem to question her role as the blurb hints. The story doesn’t convincingly portray birth/population control as a negative thing, which, given the book’s dystopic tropes, I would assume is the goal. There’s talk of how children born bannerless (i.e. their parents didn’t have a banner and thus shouldn’t have had a child) are discriminated against. Enid encounters people living outside the households and banners structure, but they live desperate lives which enforces Enid’s belief in the banner system (not that she ever questioned the system). Based on what happens in the novel, I support the banner system, which ensures  if you can support a child, then you can have one. Wouldn’t that be the case in an ideal world? That everyone who has a child can support that child? Of course, that’s a simplistic view that should open the door for a more complex exploration of bodily autonomy and other concepts, but Bannerless makes no room for such an exploration.

It occurs to me now perhaps the story is more complex than I’m giving it credit for. Maybe it really is advocating this method of population control, or just trying to start that discussion by showing a positive side of population control. Yet I still feel that the story would have been improved by a more nuanced exploration of the various sides of that discussion. Plus, the book is being marketed as a dystopia so I’m not sure what what Enid was supposed to discover as she investigated the murder.

The story follows two threads – Enid as a teen travelling with musician Dak and Enid as a twenty-something investigating a murder. The murder mystery itself is simple and predictable, and thus pretty boring. The investigation is blah. Enid tries to talk to people, they don’t want to talk to her. She eventually figures it out. Hooray. I did like teen Enid, despite her slow story. She follows her own path. She makes the decision to travel with Dak and she makes the decision to leave him.

The Bottom Line:

Bannerless has the premise of a fascinating story, but the weak plot and dull storytelling make Bannerless one you can skip.

Further Reading:

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Exploring Biracial Identity in The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods

The Blossoming Universe of Violet DiamondFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: January 2014
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Contemporary middle grade
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

Violet is a smart, funny, brown-eyed, brown-haired girl in a family of blonds. Her mom is white, and her dad, who died before she was born, was black. She attends a mostly white school where she sometimes feels like a brown leaf on a pile of snow. She’s tired of people asking if she’s adopted. Now that Violet’s eleven, she decides it’s time to learn about her African American heritage. And despite getting off to a rocky start trying to reclaim her dad’s side of the family, she can feel her confidence growing as the puzzle pieces of her life finally start coming together. Readers will cheer for Violet, sharing her joy as she discovers her roots.

Earlier this year, my mom and I read Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill, a non-fiction book which profiles the experiences of biracial Black Canadians. That book opened my eyes to the unique challenges biracial people can face. The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond explores those challenges from a middle-grade perspective.

This book focuses on Violet finding her space within both her White family and her Black family. There are brief yet important discussions about race. For example, when Violet mentions her Greek friend’s grandmother’s belief that ‘there is no race, just the human race’ and Violet’s grandmother responds, “It’s not so simple, Violet. White folks made the race laws in the first place, and our history is complicated” (pg. 165). Violet’s grandmother’s initial negative attitude to her son marrying a White woman is also addressed. There are other places that allude to debated issues on racial identity, but as Violet is just 11 years old and learning for the first time about what it means to be Black and biracial. She isn’t drowned in too much information and neither is the reader.

Early in the book (around page 50), Violet learns about the circumstances of her father’s death, which explains why Violet’s paternal grandmother doesn’t like Violet’s mother. In two short sentences, Woods reveals the awful truth. Violet yelling at her mother caused me to cringe. I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn that about your parent’s past. The backstory is pretty intense way explain the disconnect between Violet and her father’s family.

I think this would be a good book to ease kids into the concept of and challenges surrounding what it means to be biracial, as well as to start a discussion about coming to terms with a particular identity. A young adult novel featuring Violet as a teen would make an excellent follow-up, giving the opportunity to delve further into ideas that Woods briefly introduces in this book.

The Bottom Line

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond features a spunky protagonist who learns what it means to be biracial. The book can serve as a good introduction to discussion about race and identity for younger readers.

Further Reading

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The Inevitable Disappointment of Trilogies? (Thoughts on A Conjuring of Light)

Inevitable Disappointment of Trilogies

I began this post as an ordinary review of A Conjuring of Light, the final book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. I realized most of my thoughts stemmed from the frustration of reading a trilogy’s conclusion, so I’ve structured this post to reflect that. If you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy, you can avoid spoilers and skip to the section “The Problem of a Trilogy” for some general discussion on multi-volume stories.

“Nothing Happened”

I had a lengthy discussion of A Conjuring of Light over brunch with a friend. We agreed that it felt like nothing happened in its 624 pages. After that discussion, I went home, looked at the beautiful hardcovers on my shelf and realized – didn’t I say the same thing about the first book? “Nothing happened”? Certainly I thought that about the second book. A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows have little weight on their own, feeling like set-up for the final volume.

Of course, it’s neither fair nor accurate to proclaim “Nothing happens in ACoL“.  What do I mean by this? Too much plotting, where the story just moves from one event to the next? I might think that would mean too much happens, but too much can end up feeling like nothing. Occasionally I read a book where it feels like the plot has been contrived just to have the characters react in a certain way. Again, though, I feel like that’s a ridiculous comment to make about a book, which has by its nature been entirely contrived by an author. But the best books feel like they’re sharing a story of something that really happened, as opposed to a ‘what if’ scenario.

I also felt like everything that happened was a precursor to get to the actual story. But even at the end of the final book, I felt like I had never arrived at the ‘actual story’. ACoL, and indeed the whole trilogy, never felt significant to me. I enjoyed the setting and characters. Yet I felt no excitement about the story line or the particular happenings they endure. I wasn’t anxious to learn how the story would conclude. I didn’t feel any suspense about how the characters or their worlds might be impacted by the events of the trilogy. I suppose when I say “nothing happened”, I mean whatever did happen was not suited to my taste. Does any of this make sense? It’s a difficult sensation to describe. Have you ever felt this way about a book?

Repetitive Style

My primary dissatisfaction with ACoL is that Schwab’s signature tricks, which felt fun and fresh in the first book, feel repetitive and exhausted in this final volume. (Even at the end of ADSoM, I found myself tiring of her tropes.) Here are some small examples that stuck with me. A scene concluded with “Someone screamed” or a variation thereupon, which I noticed at least three times by page 135. A popular quote from ADSoM (“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.” “Seen what?” Her smile widened. “Everything.”) never struck a chord with me. Now the recycling of the words everything and nothing certainly doesn’t have any impact (Ex. ‘It was everything and nothing’, ‘It was everywhere and nowhere’, etc.) Typing this out, I realize I may sound nitpicky. But when I’ve read three volumes of the same thing, these sort of details stick out.

From overhead, nothing. Nothing. And then he heard his sister scream. (135)

Moving beyond minor stylistics and into a plot matter, the treatment of character deaths has bored me since ADSoM. If you find yourself suddenly reading particular details about a character who previously had no significance to the story, then you can be sure that character is about to die. Also, too many times is the reader asked to mourn a character, only to have that character return to life. (My note on this was “everyone’s dead, or are they? NOPE haha!”) This especially applies to Rhy. I rolled my eyes as he died and returned in the first hundred pages. Killing off a character but not actually is a trick I think you can only pull off once in a story.

The Problem of a Trilogy

How might these thoughts apply to trilogies in general? It seems a tricky thing to balance a story across three books. Ideally, an author could craft a complete and satisfying story in each volume, while also supporting an overarching story that concludes in the third volume. The first two books wouldn’t just be fodder for the third. The trilogy as a whole would be just as gripping a single volume story. So that leaves me with two questions:

  1. Can a trilogy remain fresh and new while maintaining whatever characteristics caused you to fall in love with it in the first place?
  2. Can a trilogy or series continually build momentum, up to that pinnacle of the final volume?

Well, I’m sure it’s possible. But perhaps I have too high standards. As someone who already prefers shorter books, and certainly books contained to a single volume, I am a tough critic of multi-volume stories. I did read more series/trilogies as a kid (which I still enjoy rereading today). Yet I can only think of one multi-volume work where I can answer ‘yes’ to both of those questions – the Unwind dystology by Neal Shusterman somehow exemplifies my ideal series.

Update June 27 2017: I just found a note in my iPod that was meant for this post – “You’ve established the characters so now it’s mostly plot”. More food for thought…

Did you find A Conjuring of Light to be a satisfying conclusion? What’s your experience been with trilogies (or series, duologies, etc.)? What’s your favourite multi-volume work?

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Talkin’ Bout Tolkien – A Secret Vice and The Plants of Middle-Earth

The Plants of Middle-Earth

The Plants of Middle-Earth: Botany and Sub-Creation by Dina Hazell

★★★★ | GoodReads | IndieBound | Wordery

I purchased this book expecting a field guide of sorts to the plants found in Middle-earth*. The Plants of Middle-earth instead uses said greenery as a point from which to explore various themes and concepts in Tolkien’s work. Hazell argues that Tolkien’s careful selection and naming of plants both real and fantastic reflects the implications of the grander tale.

The Lord of the Rings is far too complex to be reduced to a simple tale of good versus evil, but one of the questions that must be asked is whether it is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic. Tolkien explores the issue in many places, not least in his botany, where he directs our gaze toward the ephemeral beauty of a single bloom and the enduring strength of nature. (43)

I particularly liked the chapter “Forest and Trees”, which discusses significance of trees (beyond the role of Ents) via a tour of the forests of Middle-Earth. I also came to appreciate a brief aside on modernization and Sarehole Mill, which I initially thought was somewhat removed from the topic (84 to 87).

Of course, The Lord of the Rings cannot become commonplace, regardless of how often we read it. But hopefully awareness of its plant life will offer a new perspective for future visits to Middle-earth. (95)

The Plants of Middle-earth is a pretty little book, an example of why one might prefer physical over digital. The deep green binding is soft to touch and the pages have a bit of weight to them. The lovely illustrations are one of this book’s feature attractions. However, the illustrations were not captioned. I could usually figure out which plant featured in the illustrations, but some pages described multiple plants and I wasn’t quite sure what was being depicted. For those wondering about the artists, that information is tucked in the back of the book (117).

I recommend this book for a fresh take on the world of Middle-earth, through the lens of its plentiful plant life.

*For anyone interested in such a field guide, a forthcoming release from Oxford UP (Flora of Middle-Earth) might be the book we’re looking for.

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins

★★★★ | GoodReads | Chapters | Wordery

The title A Secret Vice refers to a talk that J.R.R. Tolkien originally gave in 1931. He discussed the joys of inventing language and the significant role language has to play in mythology creation.

I had previously read parts of Tolkien’s essay back 2013, when I fulfilled a years long dream of writing about Tolkien for my undergrad degree. The paper I wrote was titled “Retaining Meaning: Translating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth”, and it dealt very much with Tolkien’s passion for language creation. I was pleased to learn A Secret Vice” was being released in similar to fashion to “On Fairy-Stories”, which was released in an independent volume titled Tolkien On Fairy Stories. This book would have been handy to have around during my undergrad!

The talk itself spans 31 pages. A brief “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism” is also included in the book. (The editors theorize that Tolkien may have written the essay to expand on ideas not integral to “A Secret Vice” [63].) A 54 page introduction serves well in providing context for the actual essay. Not just padding, the introduction explores the social and cultural context in which Tolkien was writing as well characteristics of his invented languages. A 15 page coda after the essay and manuscripts titled “The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien’s Invented Languages” continues the style of the introduction in exploring Tolkien’s impact. Finally, manuscripts are also included. Sometimes these can reveal a lot about a writer’s development of thought, but I skipped them in this volume.

Originally a talk given to a literary society (xxxi), “A Secret Vice” has a relatively casual and at times self-deprecating tone. Having read so much of Tolkien’s fiction, I find it something of a novelty to read in his own ‘voice’. Fans of Tolkien or those interested in constructed languages will appreciate the sentiments expressed and ideas explored in A Secret Vice.

Do either of these books interest you? Is there a fantasy world for which you would like to read a plants field guide?
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I Have Many Thoughts on Radio Silence

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Radio Silence by Alice OsemanFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: 28 March 2017
Publisher: Harper Teen
Length: 474 pages
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

Radio Silence blew me away. I imagine it’ll be one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s a rare YA novel that I can objectively appreciate and also personally connect with. I have a lot of thoughts on this book. The following review is broken into four sections: representing the modern high school experience, atmosphere, racial and sexual diversity, and attending university.

Representing the Today’s High School Experience

Upon first seeing the author photo of Alice Oseman, I thought she looked really young. She is – she was born in 1994. (That’s my baby sister’s age?!) Oseman’s age goes a long way to explaining how Oseman wrote such a realistic novel. She lived her teen and uni years just as I lived them. I found the experiences described in Radio Silence to be spot on as to my coming of age years. This includes small things (such as certain mannerisms) and bigger things (such as engagement in online communities). Frances narrates with blunt and dry humour. There’s no sense of “Haha, I’m so awkward” that sometimes happens when authors try to recreate teen life. I’ve never read text message conversations that felt so real, like they were lifted straight out of a friend’s phone. (That’s one thing that can be particularly different for adult writers to get right, I’ve found).

Apart from accurately representing what it’s like to grow up in the 2010s, Radio Silence cut close to home for me in a couple other ways. Frances’ friends at school don’t really know her. They have one impression of her (boring and studious). She doesn’t know how to show them what she’s really like. They don’t believe that person (the real Frances) could exist. I felt that hard in my last years of high school/first years of uni. I changed, and my friends’ understanding of me took a lot longer to catch up. It was a frustrating time, and one I’ve not really seen depicted in YA before (admittedly, my YA scope is very small).

The other aspect of the book that I deeply related to was the lack of romance and the friendship between Frances and Aled. My best friend is a guy. It has taken many of years of us being ‘just’ friends for people to start accepting that there aren’t any romantic feelings between us. I would love to see more strong friendships, like Frances and Aled’s, in YA. The lack of romance also mirrors my high school experience. My friends and I didn’t date much; we weren’t searching for our one true loves. Our friendships were definitely more important than our romantic relationships at that time.

Atmospheric

Radio Silence captures a particular atmosphere that I hadn’t previously experienced in YA. The characters live in the real world, but the mystery of where Carys went and what Radio Silence (the underground YouTube podcast that the novel centers on) lends a mysterious air to the story. Oseman has said Welcome to Night Vale inspired Radio Silence – it definitely has a similar vibe. I’m also reminded of Stranger Things, with its focus on friendships in a spooky setting. Frances’ first person narration is down to earth and realistic, but it also gives a particular insight into one bright and creative girl’s mind.

Sexuality and Racial Diversity

I have a read few interviews with Oseman (who is White and British) where she stated she dislikes her debut novel Solitaire for its lack of racial diversity. She made a concentrated effort to improve diversity in Radio Silence. Frances is British-Ethiopian, with a White mother and an Ethiopian father (who does not play a role in the story). Frances’ race is not integral to the story (as it is, for example, in The Hate U Give).  As I am White myself, I don’t feel confident evaluating whether Frances is a good example of biracial representation. I applaud Oseman’s efforts to diversify her cast of characters, though. (Supporting characters include Daniel [Korean]  and Raine [Indian]).

The characters are also diverse in their sexuality. Frances is bisexual and Aled is asexual. Aled’s sexuality is something that he works out throughout the book. It’s not something that he immediately knows. Frances’ sexuality is similar to her racial identity, in that that’s just a part of her identity – it’s not a big deal. I appreciate the ace representation and normalization of bisexuality.

“You Don’t Have to Go to College”

 

I have mixed feelings on the “you don’t have to go to university” message. I agree that kids shouldn’t be pressured into attending university just because it’s the thing to do. A university degree does not guarantee employment, let alone employment in your desired field. University also isn’t the only choice for higher education. High school students should be made aware that they have a variety of options and that they they have the power in choosing what they want to do, be that art college or world travel or cabinet making or university. Personally, I think if you’re going to pursue further education, you should at least have some general idea of what you might want to do afterwards. I think few people are privileged enough to engage in higher education purely for education’s sake. My experiences with formal education have been thankully positive. I have always enjoyed being a good student, and I have always known the path I wanted to take through higher education (English degree, followed by MLIS, followed by career as a librarian). I am trying not to let my own experience colour my exploration of university in Radio Silence too much, as I understand my experience is the exception, not the norm. Now that I’ve laid out my general thoughts on the topic, here’s what I think about some characters’ attitudes towards university in Radio Silence.

This section contains spoilers for events towards the end of the novel.

I found Frances’ experience very sad. She had always been a committed student, not because she enjoyed education nor due to any pressure from friends or family, but because she just thought it was always what she had to do. Even with a mother encouraging her to take a break from studying and enjoy other aspects of life and a teacher encouraging her to pursue art, Frances committed herself to something that she didn’t really connect with. I wonder, how did she end up in that situation? How could that have been avoided? Aled, on the other hand, never actually wanted to go to university but pursued that path because of his abusive mother. Aled’s disdain for university felt more grounded to me than Frances’.

Carys gets her own paragraph. I hope I’m not being too cynical when I say I found Cary’s experience exaggerated. Carys fails all her exams in her final year of high school (I interpret this as meaning she didn’t graduate), yet manages to find a well-paid job in London, with no connections or experience. At one point, a character asks Carys how she got her job running workshops for the National Theatre without any qualifications (423). Carys replies that they didn’t ask her for any. And she doesn’t have any work experience. Really?

I imagine Carys’ situation is exceptional, not something high school students should count on. I don’t mean to come across as a person for whom school grades are the be all and end all. Some students will face immense pressure and difficulties in their high school studies. Some students won’t have access to resources that might have helped them succeed. Carys’ story, however, comes off to me as wishful thinking. I wouldn’t want students who are struggling in school to think, “Oh, I’ll just flunk my exams and get a great job with no qualifications or experience anyway”. Even though I have tried to not let my experiences influence my attitude towards Radio Silence’s university message, of course they have! So I’m curious – am I too biased in my assessment of Carys? What are your thoughts on higher education and finding employment?

Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think students face more pressure to go to university than they should. Radio Silence could and should be an eye opener for some students, whose talents and dreams can be found outside academia.

The Bottom Line:

Radio Silence exemplifies what contemporary young adult novels can be. Highly recommended for its realistic depiction of teen life, including diverse racial and sexual identities and commentary on the pressure to succeed academically.

Further Reading:

Read Diverse 2017

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