Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cold War YA: Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner & Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem

Moonrise at Popham Beach, Maine

The Cold War overhung my teen years. We sighed with relief when 1984 did not bring Big Brother. I was in college when the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of an era. It's odd now to think of that formative period of my life as history, unknown to my teenaged kids. I was pleased to discover two new young adult novels about the Cold War, which would crossover well to adult readers too.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner is set in an alternate dystopian world in the 1950s. Imagine a teenaged George Orwell visiting a Hunger Games district or The Giver. The Nazi style Homeland strives for genetic excellence and global domination in a race to be the first to the moon. Maggot Moon is an empowering story about the power of the one against the tyranny of a mindless mob.

Fifteen-year-old Treadwell is a misfit with eyes of two colors and dyslexia, but what makes him outstanding as a protagonist is his imagination and his courage. Bullied and blacklisted by the authorities, he nonetheless dares to confront the regime when his only friend vanishes. Treadwell reminded me a bit of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Timewith his unique way of seeing and describing the world.

Maggot Moon would crossover well to adult readers. The main characters were school boys, but there were brave adult female characters and a resourceful grandfather. The simple prose delivered in one to two page chapters made the voice true to the narrator and accessible to readers with mild dyslexia. However, the book was violent, gruesome and scary enough to give me nightmares so I would not recommend it to young children. Its literary complexity would intrigue adult readers as well as teens. The sparse language was beautiful at times, full of haunting imagery:
   "Gramps put his finger to his mouth. He pointed to a piece of paper on the table. It had writing on it. His handwriting. I knew what it said. I didn't need the written words to tell me. I knew they had been taken.
    "I felt the scream rise. Gramps caught hold of me and we toppled to the floor. We were both crying. Gramps held his hand firmly over my mouth.
    "I still have that scream in me."
A similar dystopian book to Maggot Moon, which would be more suitable for tween readers, is Shift by Charlotte Agell.

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem nods at John le Carré but adds a teenaged girl protagonist. Marina, the privileged daughter of a scientist and a prima ballerina, hopes to inherit her mother's place in the USSR's cultural spotlight. When her mother vanishes in 1982, Marina and her father must run for their lives. There is a lot of Cold War exposition in the opening chapters, to situate young readers in Soviet Russia, but the story takes off once the father-daughter pair immigrates to New York City.

The lyrical, foreboding first sentence hooked me:
"November dusk slips into Moscow like a spy; you don't know it's there until it has stolen the day and vanished into the dark."
Kiem's debut novel had well developed characters, interesting period details and a page-turner plot. Marina was a strong, intelligent and graceful protagonist, but her story was a bit over-stacked. The spy thriller element overwhelmed the more subtle immigrant ballerina story. Also the paranormal ability of two characters to see the past and the future seemed unnecessary in a spy novel. I prefer realistic fiction so this might not be an issue for others.

DDTS was a gripping read and a good introduction to the Cold War for teens. The author studied Russian at Columbia University and lived in Russia for four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'd recommend this book to dancers, wannabe spies and nostalgic Gen-Xers. I'm curious to see what this promising new author writes next.

I'm also looking forward to Going Over by blog buddy Beth Kephart. It's a YA novel set in 1983 Berlin, on both sides of the Berlin Wall (due out on April 1, 2014.)

Salt marsh at Popham State Park

Reviewer's Disclosure: Maggot Moon was first published in the UK in 2012, in the USA in 2013 and re-released as an adult book in the UK. It won a Carnegie Medal and a Costa Award. The paperback was a gift from my mother-in-law from the Wallingford Bookshop (thank you!) In August I read a mixed review of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy in the NYT, which nonetheless led me to take a second look at the hardcover novel in Longfellow Books and buy it. It got a starred review in Booklist. For Christmas I'm giving DDTS to my 12-year-old niece, who is a ballerina and avid reader. I was not compensated for my reviews. I took the moonrise and marsh photos at Popham Beach last weekend.


Stacy said...

Is Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy suitable for an eleven-year-old? My stepdaughter (who happens to be named Marina) is an advanced reader (11th grade reading level according to her English teacher) and pretty mature for her age, but I always hesitate to buy her YA that I haven't read yet.

Stacy said...

Oh wait. I just noticed that you said you were buying it for an 12-year-old in your disclosure, so I guess that would be the answer to my question.

A Cuban In London said...

That's a cracking opening sentence. DDTS sounds like a good read, even for adults.

The Cold War had already warmed down by the time I found out it was supposed to be cold. We were in the midst of it and yet I failed to reason it out when I was a teenager. I knew there was a war and two camps, but I wasn't sure about the motives. Utopias, when lived, are full of misleading signs. Mine was a sense of (false) security.

Great reviews. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

I think it would be suitable for a mature 11 year old although it was written for grades 8 and up. It isn't as edgy or as sexual as most YA. Teens drink alcohol at a new year party with adults, but this is true to the Russian immigrant culture and the time period, 1980s. Marina's relationship with the boy is sweet and innocent. There is some violence but it happens off stage; the worst of it is directed at parents. Another good choice would be books by Laura Resau (reviewed on my blog too.)

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, interesting that you felt less chilly about the cold war in Cuba.

Stacy, more above.

tina said...

What a name for a book-Maggot Moon. Your salt marsh picture is beautiful. Happy Holidays to you!

Beth Kephart said...

This does sound like such an intriguing book! And thank you for mentioning GOING OVER. Tomorrow I'm going to sit and read that book for the first time in such a long time. And return to Berlin in my mind, in time for NCTE13.

Anonymous said...

Lovely recommendations. I'll seek them both!

Anonymous said...

Oh, postscript: thank you! I am still astonished that I actually wrote something dystopian (and so is my mom).

Carol said...

'Maggot Moon' as captivating a title as your moonrise is gorgeous. Lovely and intriguing post Sarah. Your reviews have made me come to understand why the genre of YA novels are some of the most popular out there.

troutbirder said...

Beautiful moonrise. As to maggot ones, well, probably not anymore. I used to read a lot of dystopian novels but that phase passed and now I'm frightened and discouraged enough by just watching the evening news.

Rose said...

Interesting that the Cold War has become a popular setting for all three of these YA novels. I'm older than you, Sarah, so I remember those times quite well. We once had a drill at school preparing us for a nuclear attack; I can still remember the fear I felt that day.

Amanda Summer said...

As a former dancer and someone who has always wanted to be a spy, DDTS sounds right up my alley. (And I would probably go for the paranormal angle too.) Thanks for the great review!