So, You Read Maximum Ride…

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James Patterson… What can we truly say about the man? Even at his worst –meaning when he doesn’t bother to write his own books at all– he’s still making pounds of cash. He makes up concepts that he doesn’t deliver, his premises are snappy and his execution is crap, he’s riddled with cliches, his books can easily be understood by any eight-year-old, and it doesn’t matter what I say because he’s a million times more successful than I’ll ever be.
Seriously, I fight for hits on WordPress. He bathes in cash.
So, instead of mocking the successful, let’s look at his YA franchise, Maximum Ride.
Maximum Ride is about a bunch of genetically altered mutant kids who are part human part bird. They have retractable wings, and all kinds of other X-men styled superpowers that they use to escape from baddies, and eventually save the world. The stories center around the titular Max, who is the unofficial leader of her group of superhero Boxcar Children (I am not the first person to make this comparison).
In many ways, this is a much better YA series than some of the others that are making their rounds. Max is a strong protagonist who certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and provides a funny, upbeat, and actually quite engaging narration. Even a crotchety, dyed-in-the-wool literati snob like myself enjoyed the hell out of Max. On the other hand, this is a series that seriously pissed me off when it all went to hell by book three.
**spoilers**
Why, in the name of Reason, did protesting against climate change end an evil science organization that had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change?
**end**

In the end, whether you loved or hated the series, it does provide some interesting characters without falling into the usual YA tropes of bland female, hot bad-boy, and… third wheel.
So, what else could a person who likes this series read?
Well….

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1. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Adams is mostly known for Watership Down, and by mostly I mean that pretty much everyone thinks that’s the only book he wrote. In literature, he’s sort of the one-hit-wonder. This is a real shame because, like the band A-ha and other one-hit-wonders, Adams actually has an impressive oeuvre. The Plague Dogs is yet another epic, beautifully crafted look into politically charged anthropomorphism.
But what, you may ask, do dogs have to do with bird-kids? Well, the central conflict of at least books one through three of Max Ride has to do with experimentation. The kids are products of lab experiments, and so fall in the cross-hairs of self-serving corporate needs and scientific advancement. A huge part of the story has to do with what one should do in science and what one can do, and how those may be different things. Also, some people do terrible things in the name of discovery or finding ways to help humanity. Where does one draw the line? In The Plague Dogs, Adams asks these questions not of humans but of animals. The dogs are a part of a lab experiment, and because they may be dangerous to humans they are hunted and pursued by those they come across. The novel begs the question of whether or not it is right to put the dogs through pain and suffering for the sake of a greater good.
If you like your lab-experimentation stories with a big, heady punch and a lot of depressing, this will make you think –and also cry. It’s a dog story, and dog stories are sad.

monster dogs

2. Lives of Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
I swear this list is not going to be filled with dog stories! This is the last one. I promise.
Like Max Ride, Monster Dogs is about mutants fitting into the world after experimentation made them what they are. But, unlike Max Ride, the story deals more with a realistic look at The Other in society. That is, it’s about what it is like to be alien, in this case a hyper-intelligent dog-monster, and what it is like to observe the alien around you. How would you act? How do they act? Why? Monster Dogs is a beautifully written meditation on the Frankenstein mythos of identity, what it means to be a person, and how we see those different from ourselves. While Max Ride is always off to the next adventure, running away from wolf-people and mad scientists, this story looks at a society like our own that suddenly has dog people in it. How does the media react? How do people on the streets react? How do the dogs react, and what do the dogs think of their own mad scientist creator?
It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated science fiction novel, and one worth checking out!

frankenstein

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hey, we couldn’t have mad scientists and creatures without the one that started them all, could we? Mary Shelley’s book-she-wrote-at-a-slumber-party-of-sorts has become iconic. We all know the story of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who “steals fire from the  gods”, as it were, and creates life –life he will immediately abandon in horror. The dynamic of the book is one of moral ambiguity. Who is the monster? Why do we sympathize with the creature? And, can we do this while still remaining true to what the creature really is in the story –an eloquent zombie and murderer? Is the story a cautionary tale about playing God? Is it a story about bad parenting? Is it about monsters? Nightmares? The fear that one’s best intentions will backfire and ruin your life? The fear of being a disappointment and outsider?
I’ve found that, while most people know the basic idea of Frankenstein, few actually sit down and read it, preferring to get their ideas from the movies. This is a real shame because, while there are some great Frankenstein movies out there, the book is far more complex and raises more questions than any of the adaptations. It’s an enduring classic for a reason, and one you’ll want to get!

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4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It may seem out of place to suggest this Gothic romantic novel for fans of a YA science fiction series about kids who can fly. But, hear me out. Max Ride is a compelling series for one major reason, and her name is Max Ride. She’s a super strong character, an outsider, and yet also a normal girl with feelings and worries. Jane Eyre is also a strong character. She stands up to her employer, makes her own decisions about life, and, like Max, overcomes the trauma of an abusive past. Jane is also an outsider, not because she’s a superhero, but because of her station and lack of a family. She’s also in a very strange place, dominated by her mysterious employer/lover and his Gothic mansion. Yet, Jane always manages to keep her head and stay strong. She’s a survivor, like Max. Furthermore, Jane is still a normal woman, not a “strong girl” archetype. She has to struggle with her own feelings, insecurities, and her love for Mr. Rochester. This makes her extremely relatable throughout all she goes through, and the readers can connect with the story not through epic, Gothic trappings but through a tough and intelligent protagonist.
Characters make the stories, and even if Jane Eyre isn’t your genre of choice, it is certainly one that fans of the strong, female protagonist will want to check out!

something wicked

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Or, maybe you just like kids having fantastical adventure? Well, there’s not much more fantastical than Bradbury, and this one even has a Shakespeare quote in the title! Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two boys who discover a dark secret about the circus in their town. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling it…. No, seriously, read this book! Witches, magic, scary circuses, a really freaking villain, the lighting rod man… This book is like opening a treasure chest of wonders. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and full of Bradburian goodness.
If you like strong kids, it’s also a great example. The boys are not passive horror story characters. They’re dynamic. They take action, pursue mysteries, and have to escape from the big baddies of the story –all of which are pretty terrifying. It’s a gorgeously written thrill-ride, and one that you’ll want to re-visit time and again –especially on Halloween!

adventures of sherlock

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Max Ride is basically a superhero story. And, Holmes is basically a superhero. He can enter a room and immediately know everything about something that happened two weeks ago. He looks at your shoes and knows whether or not you’re German. He can spot a clue in a doorpost. The man’s amazing. He even has his iconic superhero look: tweed and a pipe!
Sometimes, the boundaries between highbrow literature and pop-culture adventure cross over, and this is one of those times. Holmes is a timeless, beloved character, and one whose epicness we really don’t mind or see as a boring or unrealistic trait. He’s the epitome of cool, a super-genius, and we love him.

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7. Greek Love by Katherine Dunn
Hey, guys! Want some postmodernism? You do! Well, then! This is Geek Love, the story of a family of circus “freaks”, who consider freakiness a sign of superiority. The characters have a dynasty of sideshow living, with the parents who bred their children to be mutants, and the kids who have their own power struggles. It reverses expectations about who is or is not superior, with the sideshow characters starting out with a sense of greatness and beauty in their conditions, and falling from grace through their dynastic power conflicts. It’s like a very strange Greek tragedy, but with more geeks.
Oh, and to explain for the innocent, a geek is someone who bites the heads off chickens for a sideshow act.
Yes, you do need to read this.

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8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Probably the most obvious choice would have been The Island of Dr. Moreau, since it actually is a story about human-animal mutants. But, I think that The Invisible Man has far more in common with the tone of the Max Ride stories that Dr. Moreau does. Of course, if you disagree, you’re free to read them both!
The Invisible Man asks the question of what happens when, through science, you Other yourself. Instead of being mutated by scientists, Dr. Griffin causes his own downfall by making himself invisible. Like the Max Ride series, he spends much of the story trying to get about without people knowing that he is, in fact, an invisible man, and also trying to avoid the authorities. The difference is that the invisibility serum has made Dr. Griffin into a psychopath, and so he’s no innocent victim. That doesn’t mean we as the readers don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a funny, interesting, and compelling character, even if he’s also kind of terrifying. As a science fiction great, he’s definitely a character you’ll want to met.

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9. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Yes, this is a kiddie book. But, this is E.B. White we’re talking about, the man who created such iconic stories as Charlotte’s Web. And, this is a beautiful tale that really anyone can read and not worry. It’s the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His father steals him a trumpet, and his human friend teaches him to read and write, giving him two means of communication. The story is about being an Other, once again, this time being a mute swan among trumpeters and a hyper-intelligent animal among humans. How Louis fits in and how his differences make him special, not strange, is what the story is about. Also, he’s the only character in my list who has proper wings, so there’s that. It’s a charming, beautiful, life affirming story about nature, communication, identity, and music, and one that I personally love.

And coming in for a tie…

watchmen-749826v for vendetta
10. The Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Oh, you thought we were to literati to read comic books about superheroes? You thought wrong!
*dons a cape and flies off into the sunset*
Ahem… But, aside from that, Alan Moore is no low-brow writer! What other comic book has ever topped a notable books list, outranking traditional novels? Alan Moore doesn’t just create stories about action and adventure, he is writing myths for the contemporary world, stories with depth and texture that ask complex questions about society, war, peace, government, control, power, anarchy, violence, and what it means to do right.
First, The Watchmen. This is an obvious, no-brainer choice for a series about superheroes. It’s basically THE literati superhero story. The characters are an elite group of costume heroes. However, the world has grown corrupt, and their group has fallen apart. When a mysterious attacker starts picking off old heroes, even if the characters might not be that heroic in the first place, The Watchmen rise up again. Secret plots, Cold War hysteria, nuclear arms races, science, and corruption ensue, leaving the ultimate question: Who watches The Watchmen?
V for Vendetta may not be as obvious of a choice, aside from also having a connection with grassroots protesting.
occupy wall
However, the story is actually quite similar. Just ask yourself, what if the scientific corporation from Max Ride was the entire society? What if the mutants didn’t have a chance to fight on the side of good people because all the good people were completely subjugated? What if Max Ride was a super-strong anarchist Phantom of the Opera as done by David Bowie? (No, seriously, those are V’s roots, right there.) V is a like a Batman who kills people, and who lives in the world 1984. He’s smart, strong, fights for justice… and has no moral qualms about ends justifying the means, really. He’s an anarchist, and not like that kid in high school who drew A symbols on his notebook. But, his background? Mutated by evil science, deformed in an explosion, and out to take down the big bad. Something tells me Max Ride wouldn’t be that gung-ho about some of his methods. But, Max Ride was never faced with stakes like V’s. Morally ambiguous, dark, frightening, and extremely cool, V for Vendetta is a superhero story that even your snobby lit major friends will want for their collections!
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So, you read Percy Jackson and the Olympians…

Well…

                             Smiley

…I will most definitely not stop you! Nor will I suggest alternate titles for you. By all means, continue to read, or re-read, this wonderfully enjoyable series. Camp Half Blood is calling!

– Circuit B, child of Athena

So, you read Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras…

uglies

The Uglies and Pretties books may not have the household recognition of the other books on this list, but any amount of time spent with YA books and readers thereof will tell you it’s a damn popular series. And why wouldn’t it be? Feature a world literally built on the physical insecurities of put-upon teenagers, it’s a veritable marketing goldmine. For those who don’t know, it’s about a world where normal people are “uglies”, and the government then gives the “uglies” plastic surgery to become “pretties” –who live in a sparkly city and get to have parties all the time. The downside is that all the new pretties seem to have lost their former personalities. In fact, there may be something very, very wrong with them.

Yes, it’s another dystopian series. Two in a row. But, the focus of this one is quite different than for The Hunger Games. It’s about appearance, perfection, impossible ideals, and what people might sacrifice for these ideals. Not a bad initial plot point, even if I (disclaimer) really, really do not care for these books. So, if you want stories primarily about dystopian societies, I suggest the list for The Hunger Games, because here we’re looking at Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras for their discussions of identity, social control, and independence.

So, what recommendations can happen this time from Pushy Librarians?

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  1. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
    If The Hunger Games owes its largest debt of gratitude to Battle Royale, this series owes a huge debt to The Stepford Wives. Like Uglies, Pretties, et cetera, this book looks at a society where there are certain impossible standards for perfection. In order to achieve these standards, you may literally end up losing yourself. In Stepford Wives, the focus isn’t on a dystopian government, but rather a small town. A family moves in, and soon discovers that every woman in the town is perfect, beautiful, docile, and basically the ideal, 1950s housewife. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why does an interesting, powerful woman suddenly become a docile, demure lamb? And does the heroine’s family want this to happen to her, too?
    Ira Levin is known mostly for two books, Rosemary’s Baby and this one. Both are frightening novels based on the subject of gender identity and use horror or science fiction tropes to tell a story that illustrates these points symbolically. Like Tally in Uglies and Pretties, the story is about a normal woman who discovers a dark truth about the transformations that her peers have undergone. It’s a short but eerie story, and one of horror’s most memorable.gatsby pic jpeg
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    What does this have to do with a dystopia? you may ask. Well, it’s not a dystopian novel, really. But, it is a novel about a society that is corrupted and lost in his former convictions and purpose, the romantic ideals of the past turned against the characters, their lives set in a vapid world in which they desperately search for meaning and booze… It’s also a story about a glitterati world, where people appear to be perfect and beautiful, and which contains a dark secret. And, it’s a story about transforming yourself to fit into this world –at any cost.
    Oh, and love triangles. I know how much you YA fans love your love triangles. Well, this is one of literature’s greatest love triangles, so you’re welcome. You may put away your Tally, David, and Zane, it’s Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby time!
    The story is about a man who moves in next to a rich neighborhood, his closest neighbor a mysterious man whose life story is simply too incredible to be true. This neighbor is Gatsby, who spends all his time throwing amazing parties and being the focus of interest for those around him. But, these are not parties for the sake of the party. These are not happy parties. What is Gatsby’s secret? What is his connection to the beautiful Daisy?
    The Great Gatsby has the distinction not only of being a thought-provoking examination of the Jazz Era, its glitter and its dark side, but also of being one of the most beautifully written books in the history of literature. You heard that correctly. Also, Stephen Fry agrees, so you have to listen.
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
    Perhaps your interest in Uglies and Pretties is more concerning the focus on young adult insecurity and being an outsider in society? And, suppose you already read Ender’s Game? Well, you’re in luck! Shirley Jackson, ladies and gentlemen!
    Jackson is probably best known to readers for her often-assigned-in-school short story, “The Lottery”, a story about a local tradition that involves something absolutely horrific. It’s kind of like The Wicker Man, but about society as opposed to religion, and with less naked dancing and Celtic folk music.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn't have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee --and he's scary as hell.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn’t have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee –and he’s scary as hell.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a young woman who lives with her sister in an old mansion, outcast by the town due to the unresolved murder of the rest of their family. The story focuses on the town’s prejudices against the girls, which may actually be quite well-founded, but even more so on our heroine’s outlook on life. She’s brainy but childish, angsty, rebellious, angry, a practitioner of sympathetic magic, superstitious, anti-social, and misanthropic. Like many of Jackson’s heroines, from The Haunting of Hill House to The Bird’s Nest, she’s part misunderstood creative spirit, part demon, an anti-hero to rival Catcher in the Rye, but with some postmodern Gothic trappings.  If you thought that Tally should have been a more active and interesting character to warrant how put-upon she is, look to this:
    “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

    othello

  4. Othello by our man, The Bard!
    Shakespeare has something for everyone, and the idea of fitting into a seemingly perfect society is certainly no exception! Shakespeare basically rules this idea, in fact, with his play, Othello. This is the story of the titular Othello, a great warrior, talented man, and husband of the beautiful Desdemona. Unfortunately, this is Ye Olde Olden Times, and Othello is something that Europe didn’t like: a black man who isn’t shining shoes. He’s an African who fights on the side of Europe, and works to fit into European society, which appears to be so proper and cultured –from the outside. Inside, he is met with massive discrimination, even after his war triumphs, and all that due to marrying a white woman. Enter Shakespeare’s most devious villain, Iago, who seeks to warp Othello’s insecurities into suspicion and conspiracy until he is tormented into committing one of the most tragic crimes in Elizabethan theatre.
    Othello is a very complex play. On the one hand, the main character does something truly despicable by the end. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for him and Desdemona and how they simply played their parts in society, and were manipulated by Iago. It’s a tragedy, beautifully written, and will certainly make readers consider the issues of society and the roles that it sets up.stranger1
  5. The Stranger by Albert Camus
    Or, maybe you just don’t get society at all. Uglies and Pretties addresses the idea of a society that is basically meaningless, and that is the impetus for the heroine to resist and try to escape and assert her individuality. The Stranger offers a world where maybe there is no escape. And maybe it isn’t because everyone is brainwashed by an evil government, but because things don’t make sense in the postwar world. The novel poses this question: should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? And that’s the tone of the entire book.
    If your interest is in the outsider, the person looking in and seeing the emptiness in the world, you may want to read a book in which the protagonist is so, so much more cynical and anguished than even you are. And when he eventually commits a brutal murder, would you be surprised if I told you he doesn’t seem to really care?
    Oh, well, we could at least have coffee…

    Secretly, she's considered killing at least five people by now...

    Secretly, she’s considered killing at least five people by now…

    androids

  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
    Philip K. Dick. To say his name around any sci-fi fans is to invoke great piles of gushing. He’s one of the most influential and important sci-fi writers in history. His works have been adapted into iconic movies, including this one, which became Blade Runner. His work is creative, subtle, and poses ethical and philosophical questions for the readers, beyond the usual good vs. evil found in many books.
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about a post-apocalyptic future where much human and animal life has been depleted, and life-like androids work on off-planet colonies. Well, they’re supposed to. The androids may be artificially made, but they’re not without consciousness, and they come to earth and disguise themselves as humans. It’s up to our main character, a bounty hunter, to round up the renegade androids. The question remains, however, do these robots have their own individual consciousness worthy of respect as humans? Do they have souls? What is life and what are we, in ourselves?
    The book shares many similarities with Fahrenheit 451, including government mood-control, the use of media as a sedative, and the general populace’s lack of interest in the world around them. However, Philip K. Dick’s world is stranger and more experimental, reminiscent of almost a Gravity’s Rainbow kind of reality, where everything is just… off.
    Like Uglies and Pretties, it deals with fitting into a society, and who is considered better than who. What, exactly, is it to be a human being? And, could a good human being also be a robot?animal_farm
  7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
    Orwell, again! But, really, we can’t suggest books for readers of dystopian series without Animal Farm coming up! Animal Farm is an unusual, little book, because although it’s about a controlling government and has many tropes of a traditional dystopian novel, it’s about animals. It’s literally about animals that take over a farm –only to discover that not all animals are created equal in the eyes of the leaders.
    Animal Farm may seem a far cry from the series we’re doing here. But, in fact, it has many similar aspects. For one thing, the dystopia of Uglies and Pretties is revealed to be an answer to a former bad government. The bad decisions of the series come from reactions to earlier bad decisions, gone corrupt. That’s basically the entire premise of Animal Farm! Sometimes, the solution isn’t better than the disease, and may even be quite similar. While Uglies and Pretties actually does not address a previously failed government system so much as ecological depletion, and so doesn’t give a great deal to work on and see where the past could have done better, Animal Farm’s archetypes and understanding of real-world problems (like for-profit ruling elites vs. Stalinist ruling elites), is a much punchier and more intelligent compare/contrast scenario. It’s a thoughtful look at control and corruption, and definitely worth a look!dalloway
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    Uglies and Pretties may focus on teen insecurities in general, but its protagonist and narrator is a teenage girl. The market it appeals to is mostly made of teenage girls who feel misunderstood and who do not feel like they can or even want to live up to the pressures around them, especially those of physical beauty. This is a pretty universal theme, and one that many teenagers face, perhaps especially girls with all the emphasis on fashion and makeup around.
    Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about feel like an outsider and being frustrated with the societal pressures around you. It is a dream-like story, about one afternoon, with a narrative that pops in and out of heads and reveals the struggles of each character to conform to their situation in life and also struggle to understand the changes in the world around them. If Holden Caulfield inspired leagues of angsty, frustrated teenaged boys, Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the domestic woman and her place in the world.
    It’s a melodic, tragic, poignant look at longing, apathy, ennui, desire, sorrow, and depression, and if all the teen angst left you wanting to step it up a notch, now’s the time to do it.persepolis-cover-small2-1
  9. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    This is our first autobiography. You’re welcome. Oh, and it’s also a graphic novel. You’re welcome again.
    You see, sometimes you don’t need dystopias to live in an oppressive society that has specific roles for your life and strict rules that you cannot break. Sometimes, that’s real life. This is the world of Marjane Satrapi, a spunky, intelligent, creative girl growing up in Iran during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. She sees the Shah fall and the rise of theocratic Islamist extremism. She has to cover herself, segregate from the community, and sees those she loves persecuted and even killed. Throughout it all, she remains strong, and tells her story with wit, humor, and clarity, never asking for pity, but always pushing onward. She’s a strong role model for anyone, and the book is important and moving, and worth recommending to young readers as well as adults. If you want your youthful narrator and strong female protagonist, it really doesn’t get better than Persepolis.BluestEyeCover
  10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Like Persepolis, this is a story that doesn’t need dystopia to discuss a corrupt society. The story is about a black community, living in segregation, and each character’s reaction to this environment. There is a tragedy coming up, where all the injustice, anger, and struggle comes to a head in the life of a little girl who feels that if she were only blue-eyed, she would be accepted.
    Uglies and Pretties focuses on the more superficial desires to look perfect, like movie stars, and the way media imagery and ideals affect those around them. What if you were in a society where not only where these ideals a problem, but that the entirety of who you were meant that you could not match this idea? What if from childhood the dolls you were given to play with looked nothing like you, and the movie stars and beauty queens looked nothing like you, and the people who lived in nice houses and had the best jobs and influence looked nothing like you, and all the politicians and powerful people of the world looked nothing like you? Don’t think “what if”. For many people, this was and in many situations still is a huge problem. In the age of segregation, it was even worse. Our character is driven through her tragedy by loneliness and abuse, and believes that if only she could change who she was, even just her eyes, she could change her fate.
    It’s a tragic and incredibly harrowing story that is also important and beautifully-written by Nobel Prize in Literature writer, Toni Morrison.