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Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines

So I'm working my way through all the Cybils YA Fantasy/Science Fiction nominees, when Girl in the Arena shows up on my doorstep (thank you, Bloomsbury!). Truthfully, I'm a little supernatural creatured out just about now and so this dystopian, neo-gladiator, fight to the death novel seemed made to order. I remember seeing it at BEA and somehow not snagging a copy. I'd read a few reviews here and there, some favorable, some middling, and I knew I loved the cover. I mean, look at that. It's awesome. Admittedly, I could do without the cheesy tagline and the "Fight to the Death!" sign in the background. And, having read the book, a certain aspect of the cover is sort of glaringly inaccurate. But somehow I was able to overlook these minor quibbles, because that's simply one sweet cover. In retrospect, I think it's a good choice as that particular inaccuracy should be part of the reading experience and not ruined by the cover art.

Lyn is known as the Daughter of Seven Gladiators. Her mother, Allison, has made a career of marrying gladiators and perfecting the persona of the perfect Glad wife. The seventh (and current) husband, Tommy G., is Lyn's favorite by far. He actually spends time with her and her little brother Thad. He's stuck by her manic mother, when no one else can stand her. He even supports Lyn's growing interest in nonviolence and listens to her read from the book she is writing--A History of the Gladiator Sports Association. But their time together is growing short as Tommy stares down the bullet of what he fears will be his last match. His next opponent, Uber, is said to be the real deal. And Thad's eerie, erratic predictions don't bode well for Tommy surviving his next episode in the arena. But when Uber stands over Tommy's body and scoops up the bracelet her stepfather wore for good luck, Lyn's world unexpectedly fragments into more pieces than she can piece together again. For it's her bracelet Uber scoops up. And Lyn knows the GSA bylaws better than anyone. The only gladiator allowed to wear that bracelet is her father . . . or her husband.

I could not put this book down. I mean it was physically difficult to tear my eyes away from the page. Yes, it's a dystopian novel about gladiators fighting to the death while thousands, millions of desensitized viewers watch live and on TV. And, yes, it features a young woman who is determined to protect her family at all cost. But there the similarities to The Hunger Games end. Where Suzanne Collins' book takes place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic chunk of North America, Lise Haines' novel is set in an all-too-familiar present-day America. I spent the entire time feeling like this kind of ultra-violent, death-as-entertainment society could be just around the corner, that today's reality shows are one step away from the bizarre rituals Lyn is privy to. Interestingly, growing up in the military, I felt a surprising kinship with Lyn, Mark, and Uber's experiences growing up in the Glad culture. I've had countless conversations over the years with other military brats who echoed my thoughts. It's simply a culture of its own, separate and unique from others and only those who are "born in," as Lyn would say, can fully understand what it's like and what it means. The writing was abrupt and choppy in just the right way, dashes in place of quotes, etc. It reminded me at times of Robin McKinley's Sunshine. A favorite passage:
--Lyn, how did you get injured?
This from a tall male reporter with chopped blond hair.
--People were cheering wildly for Tommy at the stadium, I say. --I think a bottle flew out of someone's hands in the excitement.
--Do you think it's possible that someone aimed it at your head intentionally?
I look up at the house again. Thad is pacing back and forth in front of his bedroom window now. He waves. I wave back. He motions frantically for me to come into the house.
--Glad fans everywhere have shown enormous respect for my family and thought Tommy G. fought heroically. Their loyalty is helping my family through this loss. It is, however, a rough sport. People do get killed. Though I should add that Caesar's Inc. works very hard to ensure maximum safety to those who attend the competitions.
Mark whispers in my ear, --You're good.
--Have you met with Uber? another reporter asks.
--No. Not yet.
--So you plan to?
--There are no plans at this time, I say.
--Do you dream of becoming a Glad wife?
Up in the house, Thad pleads with me to come inside. Cameramen and photographers push their equipment as close as possible now, closer. The soggy summer air presses in. And I realize that I'm right there, at the end of a perfect media moment. All I have to do is come up with something that rings with warmth, something that conveys hope to a million girls about the life of the GSA wife. Then I'll be out of here, released into our home, into Allison's mind, my brother's predictions. But there's something about this particular question. I think of the number of times Allison has been asked about any plans to become a Glad wife again. And suddenly my mind is thrown into reverse and I just toss off an answer, the first thing that comes to mind.
--Sometimes I dream of becoming a gladiator.
And that's Lyn. Completely and firmly incapable of spouting crap to the media, to her family, or to herself. It's so much of why I loved her. She doesn't prevaricate, she doesn't hedge, she tells the truth. She takes her responsibilities and her heritage beyond seriously, yet she is true to herself and her growing understanding of the horrors of the society she has grown up in. She refuses to perpetuate the system that has entrapped her mother and held their lives hostage for so many years. I had waffled back and forth on whether or not to read this one, going from eager excitement to fearing it was merely a cheap Hunger Games knockoff and not wanting to risk the disappointment. I'm so glad I did because, like its protagonist, Girl in the Arena stands completely on its own feet. It's dystopian storytelling at its most honest, urgent, and very best. It's bleakness tempered by true friendships and honest interactions between human beings shoved into conditions they were never meant to withstand. The few quiet scenes between Lyn and her brother Thad, her best friend Mark, and particularly her opponent/intended Uber rang with authenticity. I freaking loved this book and it has instantly earned a spot on my Best Books of 2009 list.

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Sounds good.

    http://fantasysink.blogspot.com/

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  3. What a glowing review, Angie. You know, a friend gave me a copy of this book and I don't think she liked it very much so I kind of just set it aside thinking I'd get to it eventually, but you've totally sold me now. I'm already anxious about what happens and I haven't even read the first page! LOL! Thanks for the review.

    Oh how I wish time turners truly existed so I could just read, read, read! ... and go to uber cool book signings... :/

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  4. Despite its similarities to The Hunger Games, I really really want to read this book - just waiting for my library to figure that out. :)
    And I LOVE the name Thad, but my husband says it sounds gay. Ah well.

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  5. Anonymous1:41 PM

    I'm glad you loved this one, Angie! Not many positive blogger reviews, I think, and that's too bad. I thought there were some really great things about it, especially Tommy G. I was thrown by how much I liked him, so I was filled with dread when he had to fight Uber.

    I was pleasantly surprised by Uber. He was not at all what I was expecting and I liked that a lot. I own the ARC and have been considering buying the hardcover because it is such a good-looking book.

    I finished A Brief History of Montmaray over the weekend and enjoyed it. There is one 3-star (spoilery) review at Amazon that makes some decent points about its flaws, but I think it's worth reading.

    Karen

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  6. wow, thanks for the glowing review - and very nice choice of quotes. I think this is one of those books that I will just eat up!

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  7. Okay, you're making it sound really good.

    I'm sort of waffling about this - I liked the cover/blurb/concept (think I first saw it over at the Smugglers), then I read a lukewarm review, and I wasn't convinced the present tense and dashes would work for me.

    But I did like the excerpt and did I already say you make it sound *really* good?

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  8. yay! so glad you reviewed this book. I have heard many mixed reviews as well :) can't wait to read it and thanks for the review!

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  9. Well, you just sold me with that last sentence!

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  10. Maria, let me know if you do read it!

    Christine, I know this won't appeal to everyone but I couldn't hold back with how much I loved it. I'm glad you've got a copy! Let me know what you think when you do get to it. I'm thinking your girlies would like it, too.

    Raspberry, I was completely ready to dismiss it for those similarities, but by 10 pages in I was like, this is a totally different thing and I am loving it! :) And I, too, like the name Thad.

    Karen, oh, wasn't Tommy G. something? I loved him. That scene in the kitchen while Uber is visiting the first time broke my heart. I loved Uber. I loved the whole thing. :)

    And I am definitely picking up A Brief History of Montmaray. You have sold me.

    Michelle, I'm thinking you're gonna be a fan. ;) I love the last line in that passage. Lyn is so awesome.

    Li, yeah, the reviews have been a mixed bag. I've read a few that loved it and several that were mystified by it. I really thought I'd fall into the latter category but I did not at all. Ate it up with a spoon.

    I can totally understand being bothered by the present tense/dash style, even though I love it. But if that excerpt worked for ya, I'd say give it a shot because that's pretty representative of the work as a whole.

    KIWI, my pleasure! I think you might dig this one. I think some people got hung up expecting more romance or more fighting or more...whatever else. But if you just go in and take it on its own terms...sigh.

    Janssen, hehe. She's another strong girl made of awesome. I think you'd like her.

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  11. So happy to read this...I had been reading some lukewarm reviews, but now I will definitely give it a chance!

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  12. I would have bought this book just from the cover alone, I'm glad you gave it such a great review. I'm exicited to get it.

    Raspberry, I know two Thad's and they are both gay. lol

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  13. Sounds really good Angie! I have to admit I've put off reading this but I think you may have convinced me...if I ever find time to read again. :)

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  14. I had decided not to read this because it sounded too similar to The Hunger Games - but actually, reading your review, I really want to read it now! And it sounds distinctly different, and I looooove the writing style. :)

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  15. I agree, the cover is awesome! I loved your review and I haven't read this or The Hunger Games, but I think I'm convinced that I need to try this one. The writing style looks pretty unique.

    My brother's name is Thad (no, he's not gay, lol). :)

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  16. Oh and by the way, I LOVED Robin McKinley's Sunshine so I'm sold even more if this book reminded you of it.

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  17. Samantha, I hope you do. I read those lukewarm reviews as well and was nervous but it totally rocked, IMO. :)

    Tiah, I know! That cover...I loves it. And that is hilarious about the Thads!

    Amy, I hear ya. Bump it up in the stack, sister! ;)

    Jenny, yep, it's distinctly different. And if you like the writing style in that excerpt, you will looooove the whole package. Happily, once I was in I didn't find myself thinking about THE HUNGER GAMES once.

    fictionfanatic, glad to hear the name Thad can go either way. ;) The way it reminded me of SUNSHINE was both in the way Lyn and Rae approached their lives, with that sort of gritty, gonna survive mentality. And just in the way she thought about her society and her family. Good stuff.

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  18. Very cool review! I'm one of those who didn't like it, but your remark about growing up military really resonated with me--that does fit the interactions, including a lot of the "wife" behavior. Now I want to go re-read Thomas Fleming's THE OFFICERS' WIVES again.

    I loved Tommy, too! In many ways I thought he was the most intriguing character, with so many different aspects to him--I wish there had been more of him.

    And I wouldn't even compare this to HUNGER GAMES--the only real similarity is that Lyn and Katniss show up in an area labeled "arena." It's a lifestyle for Lyn and everyone she's close to, one that most of them want. She has choices, and Katniss never does.

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