Tuesday, September 09, 2008


McLaughlin, Lauren. 2008. Cycler.

This book is blurbed by Scott Westerfeld, one of my favorite authors, "Artfully fractured and wickedly smart. A brilliant screwball comedy about love, self-knowledge, and the secret identities inside all of us." Part of me is curious what book he read, because that sure wasn't my take on Cycler. Proof yet again that reading is subjective.

I have mixed feelings on this one. I'll try to explain the pros and cons as I see them throughout my review.

First sentence: "I am all girl."

Premise: Narrated by Jill and Jack, the book tells the stories of two teens living in one body. Jill is Jill. She has the body--a female body--most of the month. But four days out of every month, Jill transforms into Jack, a teen boy with very real male desires and thoughts. It's hard to wrap your mind around this one. Imagine being a girl most of the time--but four days out of each month having a penis. (Though never once (to my recollection) does the author actually use the word penis. It's always referred to not-so-subtly in often-lame terms which you typically only find in bad romances.) It's something that Jill doesn't want to cope with--and neither do her parents. Fortunately or unfortunately you may say, Jill has discovered a way to block out her Jack memories. To erase him from her mind most of the time. But still.

The novel opens with this transformation from Jack-to-Jill in progress.

"I am all girl."
I say it because my body is betraying me.
In my dream, the colorful autumn day becomes night. The Ferris wheel speeds up, breaks free of its foundation and rolls through the darkened woods. Shearing tree branches with loud splintery crunches, it rolls toward the black lake at the edge of the tree line.
From deep within me, behind organs, beneath muscles, a jagged pain is born.
"I am all girl."
I open my eyes to the real night, the thick molasses darkness of it. But it's only when I spot the red numbers of my clock that I'm sure I'm awake: 4:27 AM. The pain is building to a sure and steady climax and I don't know who I am.
Jack or Jill.
"I am all girl!" I squeeze through clenched teeth.
There's a land mine exploding outward from my stomach and lower spine.
I'm not supposed to wake up in the middle of things. All of this is supposed to happen while I sleep. I shove my hand beneath the sheets, praying, hoping the transformation is nearly complete, but when I reach lower, there it is--limp, smooth and insistent.
He's supposed to fade in the night and I'm supposed to wake up fully constructed. Instead I have his thing* to contend with and a deep ache that, now that I think of it, is not exploding outward but sucking inward like a vortex.
"I am all girl."
That's my mantra. I use it to forget. But it does nothing to ease the pain. (1-2)
I found the transformation sequences a bit odd in terms of writing--of language and style.
Then the split begins. At the base of Jack's thing, the pain gathers to a diamond point. I grab Mom's cool hand and squeeze. My flesh punctures from within. Then, zipperlike, it tears itself open. I throw my head from side to side.
"I." Gasp. "Am." Gasp. "All." Gasp. "Girl!"
"It's okay," Mom says. But I hear the strain in her voice. She's starting to panic too.
The split now complete beneath Jack's quivering thing, I try to pull my legs together. I don't know why. Protective instinct, I guess. But I can't control my legs or anything else. My body is in control, orchestrating its mal proceedings from the angry vortex at the base of my spine.
The vortex sucks harder now, pulling at my bones, my muscles, retracting my thighs, melting the firm stomach until it's soft and feminine. My body remakes itself with no mercy, sanding crisp edges from my jawbone, deflating the gentle biceps, brutally inflating my breasts.
"I am all girl!" I scream, all sense gone. (3-4)
The chapters alternate between the two narrators. In Jill's sections, she's dealing with your typical issues. She has a crush on a guy, Tommy Knutson, and she wants to figure out a way to get him to ask her to prom. She has a best friend, Ramie, who's into designing clothes. The two often get together and gossip. In Jack's sections, we meet a very frustrated guy. A guy who has literally never been let out of the house. He's a typical guy too. All about porn and masturbating. He has a crush on Ramie, Jill's best friend. And he replays those scenes--of Jill with Ramie--over and over again in his mind. But there comes a time when Jack refuses to stay compliant. He wants out. He decides to visit Ramie at night. That is to go to her house and try to look into her window. To see if he can watch her. (A bit stalkerish I suppose. But then again he has no social training.) Ramie does notice eventually. And the two become better acquainted--a lot better acquainted.

Life is far from perfect for both Jack and Jill.

This is a novel that is meant to explore gender, sexual orientation, sexuality, etc.** And while I can respect that, I'm not sure it was able to execute it well. The writing had some awkward moments. And I really think Leila's rogue editor would have a field day.

Word selection. There were certain words/phrases that were overused. Not just a little bit. A lot. Now this doesn't make the writing necessarily inauthentic--after all, people (including teens) do have a tendency to do this. ("Like." "Totally." "Anyway." "You know." "So" etc) But it makes for a distracting read in this instance. Mal. Malness. Deeply.

"mal proceedings" (3)
"malness of his existence" (5)
"deeply non-dumb" (7)
"mal universe of yoga" (7)
"deeply flattering" (10)
"deeply cool" (13)
"deeply over it" (18)
"deeply fake" (20)
"deeply challenging" (46)
"deeply, deeply." (47)
"Oh mal" (56)
"deeply boring" (80)
"deeply not homophobic" (113)
"deeply did" (113)
"deeply normal" (124)
"new depth of malness" (128)
"deeply cool" (129)
"deeply pull it off" (130)
"deeply French" (131)
"deeply sue you" (131)
"deeply suck" (132)
"Oh mal" (143)
"mal of all mals" (143)
"Oh mal" (158)
"mal thing" (158)
"deeply sucks" (183)
"its malness" (183)
"feel mal or anything" (197)
"Oh mal" (244)

And those were just the ones I caught with casual reading. And while part of me feels that it is petty to be distracted by sloppy writing. The rest of me feels it is a legitimate complaint. After all, I've read hundreds of books, and I can't recall any with a similar issue.

All that being said, I think the story itself is interesting. And if you can look past the malness of the writing, you may find it deeply entertaining. Who knows? Reading is subjective--deeply subjective even--and most readers may be able to really enjoy this one.

Other reviews: Reading is My Superpower, YA New York, I Like Books, Westerblog, Good Reads page, Amazon Reviews,

*Yes, the book really has it in italics.
**Spoiler--Don't read this unless you're okay with spoilers--Tommy is bisexual. And as Jack/Jill become blended, there is a bit of a triangle between Tommy, Ramie, and Jack/Jill.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Bobbi 9:57 AM  

Interesting review, but this doesn't sound like something I would read.

Jill 10:48 AM  

I started reading this book because the premise seemed interesting. However, I was so annoyed by many of the same issues you had with the writing that I had to stop reading mid-book.

Debi 11:51 AM  

Not sure I'll be picking this one up, but it certainly does sound unique.

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