Review: Dealing in Dreams – Starts Off High, Crashes To Blandness

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Title: Dealing in Dreams
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Dystopia
Subjects and Themes: Feminism
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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Sixteen-year-old Nalah leads the fiercest all-girl crew in Mega City. That role brings with it violent throwdowns and access to the hottest boydega clubs, but Nala quickly grows weary of her questionable lifestyle. Her dream is to get off the streets and make a home in the exclusive Mega Towers, in which only a chosen few get to live. To make it to the Mega Towers, Nalah must prove her loyalty to the city’s benevolent founder and cross the border in a search of the mysterious gang the Ashé Riders. Led by a reluctant guide, Nalah battles crews and her own doubts but the closer she gets to her goal the more she loses sight of everything—and everyone—she cares about.

Nalah must choose whether or not she’s willing to do the unspeakable to get what she wants. Can she discover that home is not where you live but whom you chose to protect before she loses the family she’s created for good?

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I went into Dealing in Dreams expecting three things:

1) “The Outsiders meets Mad Max: Fury Road”
2) Female friendships
3) Subversive look at feminism

To my delight and surprise, one of those “X meets Y” blurbs actually proved to be pretty accurate because the world of Dealing in Dreams is one of girl gangs and throwdowns and unrepentant, gritty ultraviolence.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic society where women rule the top of the food chain–as gang members and soldiers to Dessee, the city’s ruler–and men either toil away in factories or in clubs as sex workers (“papi chulos”). And dreams (or sueños)–a drug made to induce euphoric dreaming–are manufactured and dealt like currencies. Overall, it’s a cool, unforgiving city and Rivera paints a stark portrait of it.

I wasn’t as impressed with the female friendships. I never got a good sense of the other girls in Nalah’s gang, and there were definitely no heartwrenching “Stay gold” moments to be found here.

The biggest draw of the book, aside from its worldbuilding, is the theme that it carries. Rivera addresses gender roles and equality and the issue of feminism being presented as the direct opposite of male dominance–the idea that tough, rough women and submissive men equates to a better world. It asks the readers whether lopping off the head of one kind of inequality only to replace it with another can really be called progress.

“You are forced to abide by rigid rules on what it means to be a man and a woman…Do you think violence makes you more of a woman? Does forcing papis to work at boydegas make them a better ally?”

And I love that. That’s a fantastic message. And I loved the way it was presented in the first half.

But I found the second half to be a massive let-down. It felt like an abridged version of the book, with several sections missing from the middle, and events happened far too quickly to pack any kind of emotional punch. And this denial of a satisfying lead-up to the ending renders that message, not moot, but significantly less powerful.

The writing style also plays a part in this issue. It’s super clipped and plain which fits the setting and the MC’s personality pretty well, but doesn’t do much in terms of showing off the secondary characters, and ends up muting scenes that could otherwise have been poignant.

The book is still definitely worth giving a shot, but considering the sheer amount of potential it had, my feelings on Dealing in Dreams are mostly of disappointment.

Review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? – In Space, Everyone Can Hear You Dream

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Title: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?
Author: Temi Oh
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Release Date: March 7th, 2019
Genre(s): Literature, Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Space expedition
Page Count: 528 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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A century ago, scientists theorised that a habitable planet existed in a nearby solar system. Today, ten astronauts will leave a dying Earth to find it. Four are decorated veterans of the 20th century’s space-race. And six are teenagers, graduates of the exclusive Dalton Academy, who’ve been in training for this mission for most of their lives.

It will take the team twenty-three years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years spent in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong. And something always goes wrong.

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So this is an odd, odd book to classify. It’s not a sweeping space adventure in the vein of Interstellar. Nor is it quite the thriller that Gravity is (though there are resemblances in the last 1/4 of the book). And if you ask me what happens in the course of 528 pages, I’d be inclined to answer, “Nothing much.”

But it’s kind of like spending an entire evening plus the early morning hours outside, staring up at the constellations and telling their stories in your head. And next day, when someone asks what you did the other night and you answer, “I did some star-gazing.” And they say, “Sooo, nothing much?”

And you say, “No. Everything. I did everything.”

That might only make sense to me, so a more straight-forward version: in terms of main plot, not much happens, but beneath that there’s a lifetime of stories that are playing out.

Temi Oh’s writing is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of prose that’s meant for traversing outer space and cataloguing stars, and it’s got depth to it that goes beyond sounding pretty–a feeling of awe that I think is so key for space-faring stories; a commanding sense of the moment so that even small, seemingly inconsequential scenes feel important in the grand scheme of things; and a melancholy and intimacy that makes it seem like you’ve been with these characters for years when it’s only been a handful of pages.

It’s the kind of prose that teeters between sad and hopeful, and just when you think it’s falling into sadness, hope yanks it back up again.

As for our characters, their stories range from relatable to heartbreaking:

Poppy, the gorgeous linguistics genius who so badly wants to escape the bleakness of her home. The linguistics genius who got into languages in the first place because it was a way to bridge gaps between herself and others–to travel distances with only a few words–and a way to be less lonely in this world (this is a detail I really, really loved).

Astrid and Juno, the Kenyan twins. The former an astrobiologist who signed up for the program because the thought of being the first to chart an unknown world was irresistible. The latter a chemist, more serious and pragmatic.

Ara, an Indian girl who delights in the delights of the world and delights the world in turn.

Eliot, the robotics genius. The only one of the group who was scouted by the Terra-Two project leaders.

Jesse, the dreamy boy who weaves broken shells into his hair. The boy who’s been told that he would leave this world on his twentieth birthday and is hoping that “leaving the world” literally means leaving the world. On a spaceship, to be exact.

Harry, the pilot and commander-in-training. There’s zero doubt in his mind that he was born for this role, and for someone whose life has revolved around being good and winning, this might be the biggest prize of them all.

For a story that’s about heading into the future and opening a new chapter for humanity, it’s a story that’s also about carrying the past. About sifting through the various events in these characters’ lives that led them to stand where they are, as who they are, and the hopes and fears that they carry with them. It reminded me a lot of LOST, in that sense.

As wonderful and interesting as the characters are, I did have one big problem with them. When they’re in their own heads, being all introspective, they brim with complexity and their personalities shine like starlight. When they’re outside of their heads, interacting with each other, they get somewhat less interesting and complex. Dialogues don’t quite fit together, some of the interactions are strangely jagged, and I had trouble differentiating one person’s voice from another.

The good news is that they spend most of the time in their heads. And when they do, it’s mesmerizing, absorbing stuff.

And for someone who’s never experienced a pioneering space mission (presumably), Oh’s depictions of dread and excitement and just the whole range of emotions associated with the process feels remarkably real. She draws out the initial pre-launch tensions beautifully for the first 1/4 of the book, and does the same with the last 1/4. Every part of the experience is detailed and organic.

All in all, Terra-Two is a magnificent debut. If you like happy endings and fast-paced space operas and storylines that are neatly wrapped up and handed on a silver platter, it might not be the book for you. But If you want a quiet and provocative character-driven story that muses on destiny and the nature of humans, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.