The Grace Year

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Kim Liggett’s novel, The Grace Year, in exchange for an honest review.

Garner County is ruled by men and those men enforce a rigid moral code through severe punishment and fear. As part of their fear tactics, all sixteen-year-old girls must retreat to the woods for what is termed as their “Grace Year.” Far from home, they will survive together in a rustic fort and get rid of “their magic.” The idea that teen girls possess powerful magic is a deeply held superstition that has all of the men in the community terrified and willing to send their daughters into harms way to dispel it. When the girls return from their “Grace Year”, they are forbidden to speak about it and the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, especially since many girls don’t return, and those who do are damaged, including missing limbs.

Tierney James is facing her “Grace Year” and her rebel heart makes her question the process. As she embarks on her journey, her experiences tell her to question everything, even if it means she could be killed, either by shadowy poachers who kidnap “Grace Year” girls to harvest their magical body parts, or by the patriarchy of Garner County, who don’t stand for dissent.

The Grace Year is young adult fiction that is a blend of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. It has the blood-sport, teens killing teens for survival and uncomfortable love triangle of the former, with the women rising against oppression of the latter.

Liggett has a created an intriguing premise and the first third of the book is a page-turner. I was hooked immediately. Mostly, I wanted to know the mystery of the “Grace Year” and to understand why girls were dying and getting maimed. It’s grotesque. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that there are poachers who flay the girls, selling their body parts as magical medicine. This is sick and stomach turning enough when we think of this happening to endangered animals, let alone teenage girls.

The Grace Year starts off like a shot, but has a soggy middle. The love story did not work for me and it distracted from the story of the girls. In a similar dynamic as Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Tierney faces a situation of passionate love with a fiery partner vs. the less interesting, yet steady love of a guy who she has in the friend-zone. Like Katniss, Tierney is a strong woman, who makes it quite clear that there are more important things in her life than love. Tierney is very vocal in her desire to avoid marriage and to lead a life of working in the fields. She does not dream of romantic love, yet it seems to find her. It is possible for her to have a change heart or to be swept away in the moment, but I found the weight given to this aspect of the story, undermined the strength and spirit of her character.

The story redeems itself in the last third, where many of the mysteries are solved and where the women show their power. The strongest element of The Grace Year, is the concept of oppression. The women are not the only ones who are oppressed by Garner County’s rules. Anyone who tries to challenge or who dares to be different, is beaten, executed, or banished to the edge of town. The family members of unruly citizens, even very young children, can be punished. The banishment creates a whole different class of society; women who survive by prostitution and men who become the poachers. The people who are banished live through the mercy of those who are still in town. They are part of the ecosystem of Garner County, yet they exist on the edge of it. Their participation in superstition of the power of young girls is part of maintaining the patriarchy.

Garner County reminded me of Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous witch trials. During that time, Salem had both a strong patriarchal and religious culture with fear ruling the society. Punishment could be severe. The young girls who made accusations of witchcraft found their power in a society where they had none. The Grace Year explores this concept in opposite, as the “Grace Year” is not supposed to give girls power, but the concept of it is to break the girls and make them compliant as they head back to Garner County to be the property of men. As soon as they return, they will be either wives or workers, with communication between women a rarity.

Although the middle was a tad sluggish, I enjoyed The Grace Year. I read that Elizabeth Banks has optioned the film rights, with Liggett working on the screen play. The story is exciting with many unexpected twists. It is very cinematic and I can imagine that it would be a box-office hit.

 

The Dead Inside

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Thank You to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an advanced copy of Cyndy Etler’s memoir, The Dead Inside, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler recounts her time spent in a Straight Incorporated facility during the late 80’s. Straight Incorporated was a highly controversial treatment program to get troubled kids clean from drugs. The program preyed on the drug paranoia of the 1980’s ( Just Say No) and some of the kids, like Etler, were placed in the program, despite not having addiction problems.

LIKE- In efforts to write a fair review, I need to be upfront and admit that upon requesting The Dead Inside from Netgalley, I did not realize that it was a memoir aimed at young adults. I do not often read YA literature ( occasionally, but rarely) and I don’t think that I’ve read a YA memoir, since I was a young adult. That said, at nearly forty years old, I’m not the target audience for Etler’s memoir.

I requested this, thinking it was an adult aimed memoir and I was interested in Etler’s traumatic experience in a cult-like immersive therapy situation. I had heard of Straight Incorporated, as its controversy has popped up in many news stories, but I was interested in a deeper look, which drew me to Etler’s memoir. Her story is upsetting and outrageous. She is very candid with regard to sharing the intimate details of her profoundly disturbing experience.

At the end of the advanced readers copy, there is a note that the final version will have a mini biography about Straight Incorporated. I think this will improve The Dead Inside, as I felt that the program needed a stronger explanation to compliment Etler’s experiences. I hope that it will include info on what the parent’s were told to manipulate them to keep their kids enrolled in the program. What was Straight Incorporated sales pitch to Etler’s parents? It must have been very slick, as it’s hard to imagine parents allowing their children to be away from them for months, even years, with little contact.

DISLIKE– To be fair, I’m unsure if my major dislike has more to do with it being written for young adults, or YA aside, I didn’t connect with Etler’s writing? I felt like I was reading a teleplay for an ABC After School Special from the 80’s. It was very melodramatic throughout. The problem with this, is almost immediately, I didn’t trust Etler. I thought that she was an unreliable narrator, which given this is a memoir, made me feel a little guilty. Even with the terrible things that happened to her at Straight Incorporated, I never wavered from thinking that she wasn’t as innocent as she was claiming. I can believe that her drug use was a new thing and not likely to escalate, however, she had major attitude towards her mom and a desperate desire to be accepted by the kids in the bad part of town. She was definitely looking for rebellion and I can understand her mother’s fear. Etler was running away from home, heading on the path for bigger trouble.

Etler mentions problems with her step-father and alludes to abuse, including sexual abuse. She mentions her mother turning a blind eye and she thinks that her mother sent her into the program to get her out of the way, more than to help her. I believe the abuse, but going back to the unreliable narrator situation, I didn’t believe this about Etler’s mother. Etler’s family situation should have been more at the heart of the story, but I felt muddled regarding their dynamic. I didn’t have a good grasp on why Etler was acting out or how things escalated to having her sent to the program. I wish this had been a larger portion of her memoir for clarity.

The sensationalism of Straight Incorporated is the primary focus of The Dead Inside. As such, I felt removed from the emotion of Etler’s experience because the outrageous and often unbelievable techniques from the program, took center stage. Assuming all of this is true, it’s shocking and horrific. I couldn’t shake Etler as an unreliable narrator, so some of the crazier antics, I had trouble believing happened.

But my main issue with The Dead Inside, is the lack of reflection or purpose. Etler sums up her adult life by mentioning that she now helps troubled kids, which is wonderful, but this quick summation doesn’t offer much introspection. I think it would have been a stronger read, if she had added more of her adult perspective, including how her experience has impacted the kids she helps now. The shock value aspect could have been used more sparingly for greater impact.

Again, I do not have experience with YA memoirs, so I’m not sure if this is the norm for the genre, but Etler writes in a manner that is youthful: filled with slang and bad language. The vibe is “adults just don’t get me.” It felt disingenuous. It was cringe worthy in many parts and I can’t think of any teenager that I know who would respond to this narrative. I’m a little younger than Etler and looking back, I can’t imagine this appealing to me as a teen.

RECOMMEND– No, however I could be off the mark with my assessment of the YA memoir. I think Etler has both a fascinating and disturbing story to share, but The Dead Inside did not work for me.