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No.4 of #52Stories: Shatter Me

11 February 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Books | No Comments

[NOTE: I feel a little bad roasting this book here, mainly because if you can’t find even one good thing to say, then should you say anything at all? But I’ve run out of patience ploughing through it, so here goes…]

52 Stories 2017That hypothetical fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous? There’s a reason one is advised to navigate it with caution. Because sometimes you step out on the wrong side.

Shatter Me hooked me with its glowing ratings (4-star-plus in Goodreads), but had I cared to read the actual reviews, I’d certainly have given Tahereh Mafi’s trilogy opener a miss. To be fair, it has an interesting premise—a girl whose touch is lethal escapes her confinement at the hands of people who want to use her as a torture device. The storyline, though, follows a predictable path, and every single YA dystopia stereotype and plot device that you could think of is ticked off here.

I’m not going to tax my brain writing about the book. Here’s what the blurb says:

I have a curse
I have a gift

I am a monster
I’m more than human

My touch is lethal
My touch is power

I am their weapon
I will fight back

Juliette hasn’t touched anyone in exactly 264 days.

The last time she did, it was an accident, but The Reestablishment locked her up for murder. No one knows why Juliette’s touch is fatal. As long as she doesn’t hurt anyone else, no one really cares. The world is too busy crumbling to pieces to pay attention to a 17-year-old girl. Diseases are destroying the population, food is hard to find, birds don’t fly anymore, and the clouds are the wrong color.

The Reestablishment said their way was the only way to fix things, so they threw Juliette in a cell. Now so many people are dead that the survivors are whispering war—and The Reestablishment has changed its mind. Maybe Juliette is more than a tortured soul stuffed into a poisonous body. Maybe she’s exactly what they need right now.

Juliette has to make a choice: Be a weapon. Or be a warrior.

I would argue that there’s hardly any original plot in fantasy and the only thing distinguishing the good YA dystopias from the bad ones is the quality of writing. Which is where Shatter Me trips up. The style of writing can best be summed up as “purple prose”, where every second sentence is a metaphor. In fact, the narrative in many parts comprises run-on, punctuation-less, inane analogies that makes you wonder if Harper is suddenly short of editors. Some of the metaphors don’t even make sense and the narrator’s habit of crossing out (sanitizing?) her thoughts gets old very fast. Samples:

Every organ in my body falls to the floor.

He’s a hot bath, a short breath, 5 days of summer pressed into 5 fingers writing stories on my body.

His eyes are tight and his forehead pinched, his lips his lips his lips are 2 pieces of frustration forged together. I step backward and 10,000 tiny particles shatter between us.

I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage.

As one Goodreads reviewer aptly summed up, “Shatter Me, otherwise known as: When Creative Writing Class Goes Wrong.” Truly, it does seem like attempted artistic writing gone terribly horribly wrong.

It also includes some YA tropes that I find incredibly off-putting, such as the instant attraction between Juliette and Adam, so much so, that despite having been in solitary confinement for almost a year, the only thoughts Juliette can have when Adam comes close to her are about how hot he is and how she wants to melt like hot butter against his body (yes, really, though I couldn’t find the page for the actual quote). And how, when they’re running for their lives, they must stop for a make-out session.

Adam on his part has also secretly lusted after been in love with Juliette for yonks. That’s not all—Juliette, of course, thinks she’s hideous herself, but in reality she’s “beautiful”, as she’s told by one of the boys. But what is perhaps worst is not even the perfectly predictable story line and flimsy world building, but the fact that Juliette is also a perfect little Mary Sue. Somewhere, it’s clear that she’s imagined as a “good” person with a “terrible” power, but she’ll never harm anyone and she’ll bend but not break. However, what comes across is a damsel in distress who goes weak-kneed in the presence of her “beloved”.

It isn’t really fair to write about a book before you finish reading it, but I couldn’t help myself in this case. I admit that taste is subjective, and one woman’s tripe is another’s artistic wizardy. So I continue to read, and remain in hope of a shattering (pun accidental) twist that will make it all worth it.



No.3 of #52Stories: My Sister Rosa

24 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Books | No Comments

52 Stories 2017I had wanted to read Justine Larbalestier’s My Sister Rosa right from the time I’d heard about it and read a preview chapter. A book about a 10-year-old psychopath who everyone believes is the cutest and most precocious thing on earth, but who is actually a dangerous and intelligent human being, without a conscience. What’s not to like?! Here’s a teaser from the review:

What makes Rosa even more dangerous is that she has already figured out how to pass for “normal”. And in her young life she has already left a wake of destruction that everyone around her seems completely blind to. Only Che knows—and he has been watching and documenting Rosa for years—that the things that happen around her have all been carefully orchestrated and manipulated by her. Worse, her psychopathic behaviour is escalating, and that terrifies Che, because he knows that next time someone is going to die.

Read the full review here

Well, what do you think?



No.2 of #52Stories: A tale of many stories

19 January 2017
Posted in: 52 stories, Workshops | 1 Comment

52 Stories 2017Between September 2016 and January 2017, Devika Rangachari and I conducted a series of 15 sessions on creative writing at Amity International School, Saket, New Delhi, under our Royal Blue banner. The participants were 50-odd students of class VIII, approximately 13 years old, selected by the school to be part of the programme. The aim was to guide them in the basic craft of writing fiction and select the best stories written by the children to be published in an anthology (by the publishing wing of Amity).

While we’ve been conducting one-off creative writing sessions, this was the first long-term programme we’ve worked on (and we certainly hope it won’t be the last). Sharing the “secrets” of cobbling together a good story is always a fun experience, and having an enthusiastic audience always helps. Out of the original 50, about 25 or 30 eventually went on to finish the workshop (though, it must be said, some were erratic as other school activities coincided with our sessions), and 21 stories were selected for the anthology. According to the students’ feedback, they enjoyed the workshop and most of them did say it helped them write better. One or two also professed to developing an interest in reading fiction.

As for us, we learnt quite a bit too, and noticed some interesting things:

  1. Teenagers are quite amenable to being pushed into writing provided you make it interesting for them. However, they seem to respond more to a carrot-and-stick method than an open-ended, write-if-you-want to directive. Our rigid school system is to blame for this, as it seems to train them to deliver only if there’s a punishment or reward at the end of the assignment.
  2. Of the 50 students who were crammed into this session, perhaps 10 or 20 were really interested in writing. In an ideal system, this should have been a voluntary workshop. Also, even though we were the ones to put a cap of 50, the sessions worked much better when there were fewer kids as they were more interactive (and the students too said the same in their feedback).
  3. There was a bizarre preoccupation with death! A significant number of the stories submitted and read out over the course of the workshop had to do with death, dying, killing, suicide. Is it because, at 13, dying doesn’t seem as real because, well, you’re only 13? Many of the stories were also about being alone, being left alone, not having any family or losing/finding one’s family. That was more understandable.
  4. Most of the stories, with the exception of one or two, featured Western (American) settings and characters. It was interesting, because this is something that I did too when writing as a teen (only, my settings and protagonists were British as that was the fiction I’d grown up reading). This underlines the importance of representation of one’s own culture, environment or whatever you want to call it. These kids have grown up reading, and are reading, books based in the West, and seem to be unable to imagine stories based in their realities. Somewhere in their heads (as it was in mine when I was 13), to be in a story, you have to belong to that world, an imaginary, aspirational one they have imagined from the stories they have been reading. It is by no means a bad thing to set your story in a different culture or have characters who are not like you, but when that setting becomes the same, monolithic one, and the characters sound eerily unreal, it deserves some attention. (Discussing this will have to be a whole new post, though.)
  5. Even though Indian students are trained to respond like trained dogs—they’ll do something if not doing it means there will be a punishment—it doesn’t mean they’re above a bit of cheating to get there. Quite a few of the submitted stories were printed straight from the Web. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that it is easier for us to check for plaigairism than it is for them to find, download and print stories. In their defence, after a long lecture on how copyright violation is a crime for which one can go to jail, most of them did withdraw their stories.
  6. A surprising number of stories featured older protagonists, that is, these 13-year-olds were writing as adults, with what they thought were adult voices.
  7. And finally, the language skills of these class VIII students were appalling. With the exception of about three or four, not one could write a grammatically correct sentence. This was surprising as quite a few of them read. What was equally surprising was that the school didn’t seem particularly concerned about this in general.

It would be really interesting to examine if these observations were peculiar to this bunch of students or if they are a general statement on the middle-class, English-educated 13-year-olds in Delhi. I suppose we may find out eventually.



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