Under Their Skin by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Under Their Skin by Margaret Peterson Haddix was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Nick and Eryn’s mom is getting remarried, and the twelve-year-old twins are skeptical when she tells them their lives won’t change much. Well, yes, she says they will have to move. And they will have a new stepfather, stepbrother, and stepsister. But don’t worry, Mom assures the kids. They won’t ever have to meet their stepsiblings….For Nick and Eryn, this news begins a quest to find out who these other kids are—and why they’re being kept hidden.

Rating: 1/5

I used to love Margaret Peterson Haddix, but I’ve found her most recent novels to be underwhelming. Under Their Skin is a mess from start to finish. It felt rushed and incomplete, and it breaks absolutely no new ground in any genre, let alone science fiction.

My main problem with Under Their Skin was not just the incomprehensibility of the plot, but the whole idea behind it. Recently, there’s been a trend to try and justify the treatment of non-humans as human, which means you get a lot of “but robots are people too!” arguments that tend to fall flat on their faces once you look past the surface. Under Their Skin tries to tackle this idea in the same way and fails spectacularly. I understand if Nick and Eryn are hesitant about destroying something that’s close to them, but don’t say that it’s “vile and cruel and inhuman” to destroy a machine. It’s not. Maybe wasteful, maybe a poor idea considering the circumstances, but certainly not “cruel.”

I think, however, that even if that idea was not present in this novel, I would not have enjoyed it anyway. The whole book feels rushed, as if it was written in a very short amount of time, and it’s hardly high quality middle grade caliber. It wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t exciting. It was odd and stilted and annoying and boring. Under Their Skin makes me not want to pick up anything written by Haddix, which is a shame because I used to quite like her older books.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade

“At least now we’ve seen pictures of Ava and Jackson,” Nick said.

“Yeah…,” Eryn said. She thought for a moment. “But didn’t something about those pictures seem kind of weird?”

“They looked like normal kids to me,” Nick said, finally turning around to look at her.

“That’s the problem,” Eryn said. “Didn’t they look maybe too normal? Like those pictures you see in frames at stories where it’s just some actors or models trying too hard to look like normal people?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2dQtZI1

The Always War: What’s Going To Happen To All These People?

The Always War is written by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. Haddix’s website can be found here.

Summary/Blurb:

“For as long as Tessa can remember, her country has been at war. When local golden boy Gideon Thrall is awarded a medal for courage, it’s a rare bright spot for everyone in Tessa’s town—until Gideon refuses the award, claims he was a coward, and runs away. Tessa is bewildered, and can’t help but follow Gideon to find out the truth. But Tessa is in for more than she bargained for. Before she knows it, she has stowed away on a rogue airplane headed for enemy territory. But all that pales when she discovers a shocking truth that rocks the foundation of everything she’s ever believed—a truth that could change the world. Is Tessa brave enough to bring it into the light?”

~Inside Flap

What I Liked:

The second passage that I quote below is probably my favorite dialogue of the entire book. Why? Because Tessa basically says, “No, we’re all responsible; let’s stop blaming other people/things and take responsibility for our own actions.” Yes, thank you. Finally.

The mishmashed names that the characters had for what is obviously supposed to be American landscape was amusing. I mean, Shargo? Lake Mish? While I doubt the knowledge of American cities and lakes will degenerate so far as the strange half-names that Haddix used, it’s an interesting thing to portray. Accurate? I dunno. But certainly interesting.

Character development was decent; pretty standard for this short of a book, but decent.

Cover Art

What I Didn’t Like:

Okay, so Haddix is obviously trying to go for a peace > (greater than) war message, which is fine. However, her message seems to be more of a not fighting > fighting, which is debatable. I mean, she ends the book with Tessa’s message going out and everyone is like “Fake war? Wow! Let’s stop fighting! Yay!” and still leaves everything such as the future and well-being of the people and the cities up in the air. And in some cases, not fighting is not > fighting, and not fighting does not necessarily = peace, as Haddix seems to portray.

The book really could have benefited from being longer. Everything was way too rushed; there was no resolution at the end (despite the happy “Yay! Peace” ending) as to what will happen to the people (I mean, just because the fighting stopped doesn’t mean their lives will necessarily get any better) and the country; and the whole “pointless war” thing going on was just strange. Okay, we get it, war is bad. But peace isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t nearly as easy as you make it out to be, so why don’t you show us a little bit more rather than the completely untrue, unrealistic not fighting > fighting message that you did show?

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Realistic, Young Adult, Science Fiction

Passages/Quotes:

Stop, Tessa told herself. Don’t think about the war.

It had been going on her entire life, her parents’ entire lives, her grandparents’ entire lives. The oldest person Tessa had ever heard of—Mr. Singleton from the first floor—was more than seventy, and even he didn’t remember a time before the war. It was always there, as ever-present as air. The most talented children were selected for the military academies and sent away by the time they were ten; only rarely did any of them ever come back. But even people who weren’t directly involved in the fighting were part of the war. They assembled bombs in factories; they packed food for the soldiers; they scavenged parts from damaged fighter planes.

For a moment Tessa felt like she could see the way the war weighed on everyone walking by in the darkness. People walked bent over, crouched down, defensive—looking defeated just by all the years of fighting. One figure in particular practically clutched the building, as if ready to dart in at the first sign of danger. Every few steps he’d whip his head around, as if every noise spooked him. Between steps he stood with his entire body tensed, watching.

That’s Gideon, Tessa thought. He’s escaping.

~Haddix 41-42

“No,” she said. “I mean, it’s not right.” Both of the others were staring at her, dumbstruck, but she bumbled on. “We shouldn’t just automatically assume that Gideon should be the one in the lead, the one at risk. We should take turns.”

“Hey,” Dek said. “He’s the one who got us in to this whole mess. He’s the one that flew us into a war zone.”

“No,” Tessa said again, stubbornly shaking her head. “We each got ourselves into our own mess. I followed him. You stowed away on his plane. We’re both responsible for being here too.”

~Haddix 104

Overall Review:

I liked the “take responsibility” part of The Always War, but Haddix’s message about war and peace just didn’t make any sense to me, nor did it even seem realistic or possible. The book needed to be longer and more slowly developed, and those garbled American names were just really strange, although amusing.

You can buy this book here: The Always War

Coming Up Next: Sapphire Blue by Kerstin Gier

Just Ella: A Great Critique/Spoof of Fairy Tales Or Just Another Fairy Tale?

Just Ella is written by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It was published in 1999 by Aladdin. Haddix’s website can be found here.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Summary/Blurb:

“It’s a familiar story: in spite of the obstacles put in her way by her wicked stepmother, Ella goes to the ball, sweeps Prince Charming off his feet, and is chosen to be his bride. Now she’s comfortably ensconced in the palace, awaiting marriage to the man of her dreams. It’s happily ever after time, right?

Wrong! Life for Ella has become an endless round of lessons and restrictions; even worse, Prince Charming turns out to be more like Prince Boring. Why can’t she talk with him the way she can with Jed, her earnest young tutor?

Slowly, Ella comes to realize she doesn’t want the life she fought so hard to win. But breaking her engagement proves more difficult—and dangerous—than escaping her stepmother’s tyranny.”

~Back Cover

Passages/Quotes:

This wasn’t what I’d imagined at the ball, the stars wheeling above me as I danced with the prince. Truthfully, I didn’t imagine anything. Just being at the ball was beyond my wildest dreams. And then everything happened so fast—the prince seeking me for his bended-knee proposal, everyone making wedding plans, me returning to the castle to stay, for good. I remembered an old neighbor woman cackling as I rode by, astonished, in the prince’s carriage: “Now, there’s one who will live happily ever after.”

I was cold. I was lonely. I was engaged to be married in two short months to the most handsome man I’d ever seen—the prince of the land, the heir to the throne. But I had never felt so alone in all my life, not even shivering in rags in my garret the day they came to say my father was dead.

This was happiness?

~Haddix 9-10

“Of course I didn’t suffer too much sun,” I told Mary crankily. “What’s too much sun? I barely saw a single ray of sunshine. It was that stupid dress. I couldn’t breathe. Why would anyone wear that torture device?”

Mary patted my hand.

“But you looked so beautiful in it, Your Highness. I saw you across the field…”

I snorted. “Oh, beauty. What’s that good for?”

Mary stared, her eyes round.

“It won you the prince, did it not?”

I snorted again. I seemed to be trying to do everything I could to annoy Madame Bisset, even though she wasn’t there.

“I prefer to think he was captivated by my charming personality.” I giggled to let Mary know I was trying to make fun of myself. But Mary only looked away.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing, Princess.” Mary patted my hand again. “I should leave and let you rest.”

“But I’ve been resting all day. I’m full of rest. I’m sick of it.” I shoved back the covers and sprang from the bed. I hopped up and down on the cold floor. “I want to do something. Jump. Dance. Run. Live.”

~Haddix 105-106

Cover Art

Warnings: None.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Rating: 3/5

What I Liked:

Ah, Margaret Peterson Haddix. She and Caroline B. Cooney (and Diana Wynne Jones) were the authors I devoured during my high school years (apparently I have a thing for authors with three names). Haddix does suspense/thriller/mystery often and well, so I actually had forgotten she had written a book like this until I saw it on the shelf.

I found it humorous how Haddix poked fun at fairy tales in this book, because even though Just Ella is a continuation of a fairy tale, it’s not actually a fairy tale. Haddix challenges people’s perceptions of and reactions to fairy tales through Ella’s character. It’s an attempt to show that sometimes happy-ever-afters aren’t how they appear to be, and that they can be hard to gain. It shows that sometimes people can be blinded and dazzled by something, and it’s not until afterward that they realize that they were wrong. It shows that happiness isn’t something that is constant or easy to gain. At the end, Ella sees that there will not be endless happiness in her future—but she is happy with her life, anyway.

Haddix

What I Didn’t Like:

Haddix gets a little heavy-handed with Ella’s circumstances. Yes, we get it. Her “happily-ever-after” with Prince Charming is not at all what she thought it would be. Yes, we get that the palace is restricting to the point where there is no free will or original thought (yeah, right).

To me, it seemed that Ella went from one extreme to the other. She went from Charming, who is boring and ultimately coldly cruel and is only marrying her because of her beauty, to Jed, who is perfectly understanding, who perfectly says that he will wait, he will let her become a doctor, that he loves her because of her personality and not just her looks. Jed is so perfect that he is almost a parody himself, just like Charming is. Yes, Haddix tries to make him not so perfect, but then ultimately makes him even more perfect by the end. I think that Haddix’s attempt to make things seem realistic just made things appear unrealistic. Charming is unrealistic, Jed is unrealistic, at times Ella herself is unrealistic (she is perfectly rebellious against the perfectly bad restrictions of the castle). It’s hard to take things as seriously as Haddix wants us to take them, because in her attempts to display the “real” results of fairy-tale thinking, she makes her own story a fairy tale.

Overall Review:

Just Ella has some good things to say about happiness while it gently pokes fun at fairy tales. However, Haddix often resorts into fairy-tale territory herself by overemphasizing the restrictions of the castle and by making Jed into a type of perfect Prince Charming, just as the Prince Charming in the novel is so uncharming. It’s hard to figure out just what Haddix is trying to say about fairy tales when she gets so fairy tale-y herself (or maybe that’s the point?).

You can buy the book here: Just Ella (The Palace Chronicles)

Coming Up Next: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones