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Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth



I first noticed this book because of the cover. Look at it. Click the link--I made sure to get an extra big cover for this review. That cover is just brilliant.

And then I noticed the title. The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Also brilliant. If you want to know the value of a title, just look at that one. How many questions did you have when you saw it?

And then I found out that the author, Carrie Ryan, is in my state's SCBWI chapter. And she lives a few hours away from me. And she's about the nicest person on Earth.

My husband accused me of stalking her.

That doesn't sound like that bad of an idea :)

Five Sentence Summary:Mary lives in a fenced-off village in The Forest of Hands and Teeth. The zombie plague has come and gone, but the few surviving humans--such as Mary and her village--must protect themselves from the living dead. After both her parents become "Unconsecrated," Mary thinks that her biggest problem is going to be finding a place for herself as either a member of the Sisterhood or married to one of the few single men of her village (although not the one she loves, who is engaged to her best friend). But her real problem comes later...when the fence can't contain the Unconsecrated any more...

(Hot dang! Did that one in four sentences! OK, since I've got an extra sentence...) PS: THIS BOOK IS MADE OF AWESOME.

So, what can we, as writers, learn from this book?

[PS: As always, highlight for spoilers.]

1. Make it worse: The zombie plague has hit. Things can't get worse than that, right? WRONG. Carrie Ryan does an amazing job of consistently making things worse and worse for the characters. Mary's dad gets infected? Bad. Mary's mom follows him into the Forest of Hands and Teeth? Worse. Mary's brother sends her to the Sisterhood? Bad. Mary's one true love ends up in the same building after getting engaged to her best friend? Worse. ...and the list goes on and on. Carrie TORTURES her characters--and the book is so much better for it. Anything that happens, it can always be worse. And when something good happens, like when Travis finally confesses his love for Mary, something worse happens, like when Travis then becomes zombie lunch.

2. Internal and External plots:
I am starting to think that this might just be the key to writing an un-put-downable book. Obviously, the external plot of The Forest of Hands and Teeth is surviving the zombies. But there's an internal plot that's strong, too: Mary wants to fulfill her lifelong dream of leaving home and seeing the ocean--a feat which will require her to go through the Forest of Hands and Teeth. And that's before even mentioning the love triangle (or is that quadrangle?). Here's the point: you read the book to see if they survive the zombie invasion...but also to see if Mary's dream comes true. When one plot narrows (i.e. the find a safe hide-out from the zombies) the other one widens (i.e. Mary's longing for the ocean grows).

3. Don't listen to Kurt Vonnegut:
I have blogged before about Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Simple Writing Rules. The oft-forgotten last line of his rules is this:

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
Carrie Ryan is one of those great writers who ignored Kurt's rules. Take, for example, Rule 8:
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I did not know what would happen to Mary until the last line of the last page...and even then, there's room for a sequel. (Which--whew!--there will be one, called The Dead-Tossed Waves.) I did expect some things in the novel (such as Travis's death) but the rest...wow. I am still not sure if Jed made it, I was never sure if Harry or Cass would follow Mary. And I really want to know about Argos! WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DOG?! Anyway, point is, if cockroaches ate my last few pages, I'd call the exterminator and order a new copy of the book.



4. Feminism:
I don't write much about this. But I will say this: people have often said that Graceling is a modern feminist approach to literature (in that she refuses traditional bonds of marriage, etc.). Look, I liked Graceling as much as the next person, but I never saw Katsa as very feminist, just a rebel in general (besides, she wasn't doing it for herself so much as for others--in other words, if it weren't for her grace, she'd have gotten married). Mary's a feminist. She is perfectly aware of society's expectations of her, and she's aware of her own power (and lack thereof) as a woman. When she realizes that her dreams lie not in marriage but in finding the ocean--and she acts on that truthfully and whole-heartedly--that, to me, is real feminism.

5. Lyrical Writing: There are a few books that I love more than any other, merely for the beauty of the language. I'm a story girl, not a language girl, but these make me sit up and take notice of the style and beauty of the written word. Marcus Zusak was, for nearly a year, the only YA writer I could cite for this for The Book Thief. Then came Mary Pearson and The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I can safely add The Forest of Hands and Teeth to that list.

Quibbles: I have very few. In fact, the only thing that I wish I could have seen that I didn't was the resolution to Mary's problems with faith. Her losing her faith seemed like such a big deal in the book, but she doesn't find anything else to fill that void except, perhaps, her obsession with the ocean. However, I expect the future books to explore Mary's internal struggle with faith and belief, and cannot wait for the ride!

STATS: This book is part of my 50 in 2009 Challenge.


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