Spoil Me Baby One More Time! A review of Alive, now with more sexy uniforms than ever!

Don't Bowdlerize your own writing style in order to appeal to teens.  It's insulting.

I've read two of Sigler's other books--Infected and Contagion, and I was consistently impressed with his control of the pace, the pull-no-punches ickiness, and surprisingly thoughtful characterization of a man who would normally be classified as a Bad Guy.  They was good and scary and quite well-written.  It was no Uncle Stevie, but it was very fun to read.

And then we have Alive.  If I understand the marketing correctly, this is Sigler's attempt at a YA novel, although I have seen some outlets erroneously classifying it as Adult (*cough*Baker and Taylor *cough cough*).  I have this weird feeling that the author thought, "Well, since I'm writing for teens, I should include all the YA stereotypes and also write in short sentences so that their malleable brains can understand what I want to say."

Excuse.  Me.  Teens are not dumb.  They read, and they read well.  A lot of teens just skip right to straight-up adult horror because a lot of the YA stuff is dated or clichéd or both.  I know I did.  Sigler had some genuinely creepy vignettes in Alive, and yet those were abandoned in favor of The Love Triangle and the Speshul Snowflake and the Faction symbols ahem brands on the teens' foreheads.

Now, I also realize that I am not reading this with a teen's level of experience with sci-fi and thrillers and horror.  So, what I think is obvious might not be that obvious to teen readers.  But don't underestimate the power of the Pubescent Side.

The book starts with every Victorian's nightmare: waking up--alive--in a coffin.  The girl in question thinks there's a snake biting her neck, so she bucks at her restraints, which are handily quite rusty, and  heave-hos the cover off.  Triumphant and fingernail-free, she takes in her surroundings.  The décor is futuristic shabby-chic mausoleum.  She's surrounded by the coffins like the one she just broke out of , but the rest of the area is dirty and seemingly uninhabited.  At the foot of each coffin is an intricate plaque with jewels and a name: first initial and last name.  Our intrepid heroine discovers a) that her name is M. Savage and b) that she was not being bitten by a snake, but rather injected with something via needle.  Good thing it wasn't snakes.

Actually, I quite like snakes, so this doesn't really apply to me.
There's some muffled banging and yelling coming from another coffin, and Em hurries to try and get the person out.  Well, sort of.  Mostly she tells the person to push harder, because she was totally able to bust some rusty bars.  And out pops a buxom redhead.

Oh, I should mention that there is a bit of a strange schoolgirl fetish thing going on.  The teens wake up wearing uniforms--you know, plaid kilts, button downs, the whole kit and caboodle--but the clothes are much too small.  Like they've *dun dun DUNNNN* grown out of them!

Em (she didn't want to tell the others her last name because ... reasons) feels jealous and second-rate because all of the boys and girls that they pull out alive are buff and extremely sexy.  Other kids weren't so lucky, and I don't mean in the looks department.  Whatever was keeping them alive in their coffins failed, and merely a mummified husk remains.  

By now, Em has a cohort of angry, confused, and really, really, really ridiculously good-looking teens: Spingate, the redheaded bombshell who's really good with puzzles; O'Malley, the down-home good boy; Aramovsky, the temperamental fanatic; Bello, a person whose main characteristic seems to be that she's pale and boring; and Yong, a combative alpha-male.  Each of them has a brand with a different symbol on their foreheads, and Em reacts strongly to some of them.  Spingate's looks like a wheel with teeth, and instinctively, Em knows that she should hate "Tooth Girl."  But she doesn't.  There's no reason to.  With Spingate's abilities, they open the jewel-puzzle-lock on their coffin-room's door, and emerge into a hallway filled with dust and bones.

Bones as far as you can see.  Desiccated human flesh piling up in soft, grey heaps.  A slaughter.  But why?  Who?  And the doors on the sides of the hallway?  Don't look in--oh, you looked.  Of course you did.

After walking for a really long time upslope (this is repeated about thirty times, in case you missed it), Em's group runs into another group of teens.  They, too, are wearing the Sexy Catholic Uniform Special, but these teens are scarier.  Feral.  Their leader, Bishop, likes to make the rules and terrorize people and punch them in the eye.  He is the Bad Boy.  Of course, he's super-smokin', too.  And thus we have the eternal love triangle.

You know, love triangles aren't all bad--a lot of classic novels have them.  For example, my absolute favorite book in the whole wide world, Pride & Prejudice, has a love triangle: Wickham and Darcy for Elizabeth.  I totally believe that more than one person can fall in love with another person at the same time.  Love is not cut-and-dried.  If it were, it wouldn't be love.  It would be the Mr. Collins and Charlotte business-transaction version of marriage.  Why have that when you could have this:

AHEM.  So here I am, trying to write a book review about this sci-fi thriller, and Colin Firth's got me all distracted.  I am all astonishment!

So, getting round back to the point, which was lost somewhere in Austen, love triangles can work.  Unfortunately, the cookie-cutter love triangles that I keep seeing--not just in YA lit--in books rely on a formula.  Girl Who Doesn't Know She's Hot + Hot Nice Guy (usually BFF from childhood and/or neighbor, but not necessary) + Hot Bad Boy (usually new in town).  It's a choice between someone who's seen you at your worst and at your best and still loves you and some leather-jacket wearing Danny Zuko who makes you feel freeeeeeeee.

I was Team Peeta, though.  Gale was just a self-centered jerk who wanted to get jiggy wit Katniss.  Oh lord, I'm on another book tangent again.

Right.  So here we have Em Savage, who knows all the other girls are hot but can't possibly imagine being a bodacious babe herself.  "Now I have firm legs and a flat stomach, just like Spingate and Bello ... I have breasts, too, but I don't feel confident because this isn't me."  Sooo, conforming to Lowrider standards of hotness isn't good enough for you?  What is this telling girls?  You need: boobs, abs, and "firm legs" to be hot.  I have some choice words in French for this crock, but they're not polite.  You know what would be really revolutionary?  If Sigler had written his characters as being hot with squishy tummies and full thighs and no butts or big butts or just butts in between.  But no--we have to reinforce the media image of the "toned ideal" that girls end up starving or barfing or both to achieve.  We are trained to hate our bodies from a very young age, and seemingly off-the-cuff remarks like these in books simply reinforce our internal criticism of our bodies.

Then there's O'Malley, the fair, kind, thoughtful Abercrombie model who is as much of a non-entity as can possibly prance through a book.  I know nothing about him except that he is very pretty and very nice.

But woo-ee, Bishop.  "There is something basic about Bishop that excites me, that makes my soul shake.  A word comes back to me from my days in school.  Primal."  This is as Bishop is stalking and trying to spear a wild boar, by the way.  Nothing says "hot lust" to me like killing a pig.  We are wading into serious Lord of the Flies territory here.  But thank goodness for pig hunting!  It gives us visuals like these: "[Bishop's] sweaty, hairless chest gleams in the torchlight.  I'm consumed by an urge to reach out, to touch his skin, to see if his muscles are really as firm as they look, to trace a finger along his collarbone..."  I have run out of ways to express my frustration with this sort of purple prose.  And it happens over and over and over again.  I don't remember any of this in Sigler's adult books.  Does he think that teens don't understand lust?

So Em the Savior, O'Malley the Good Guy, and Bishop the Evil Fabio go running through the tunnels of their mysterious "home," being attacked by wild boars (with one of their number being eaten in record time), snatched by strange creatures, and finally figuring out Their Purpose.

Maybe I just read too much sci-fi, but I feel like I've read this story a thousand times before.  I had a guess as to what was really going on when Bishop refers to his coffin as a "cradle."  Check out crèches in any hard sci-fi.  What are they used for?  The gradually sloping tunnels were also pretty easy to figure out, and the ending was clichéd as anything.  It needed more cackling on the part of the villains, but was otherwise par for the course.

Now we arrive at my two final bones of contention (I had quite a few here, didn't I?  Hmm).  First of all, I know that Sigler could have made this a super-freaky, gritty, edgy thriller.  I've read two that he's already done.  Instead we have Em making goo-goo eyes at two different guys and occasionally stumbling onto something useful and playing Moses to her people.  All of the oft-mocked tropes of literature are here, and it's not a pretty picture.  Teens don't need a love triangle or guys with liquid eyes or soft lips or girls with flat stomachs.  They don't need to be talked down to.  They deserve better than that.  Other reviewers have mentioned the writing style, which is simplistic to the point of pain.  "Are people supposed to be that pale?  Maybe she's sick ... His tan skin looks smooth and soft."  What is this, a toddler book?

Secondly, there's the "Oh-So-Polite Request from the Author" not to "[give] away the good stuff" and spoil the book.  I wrote about this at length here, and it still gets my goat that the author presumes to dictate to the reader and the reviewer what they can and cannot say.  To feel that the author is constantly hovering over my shoulder, saying, "Don't say that!  SPOILER!" is a strange sense of censorship.  This whole review is probably excessively displeasing to the author, but it's my review.  His book, my review.

I will probably finish the Infected series of books by the same author, but I'm leery of starting anything else, which is an awful shame.  I think there's immense talent here, which is plain to see in Infected and Contagious, but it didn't transfer at all to this YA effort, which would have been better had it quietly passed away in its coffin like so many of the children in this book.

I received an ARC for review from Netgalley.


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