Amy had dreams of going to college, until the Collapse destroyed the economy and her future. Now she is desperate for any job that will help support her terminally ill grandmother and rebellious younger sister. When she finds herself in the running for a slot on a new reality TV show, she signs on the dotted line, despite her misgivings. And she’s right to have them. TLN’s Who Knows People, Baby—You? has an irresistible premise: correctly predict what the teenage cast will do in a crisis and win millions. But the network has pulled strings to make it work, using everything from 24/7 hidden cameras to life-threatening technology to flat-out rigging. Worse, every time the ratings slip, TLN ups the ante. Soon Amy is fighting for her life—on and off camera.
The synopsis of this book really piqued my interest as it sounded like a highly engaging dystopian novel, very Hunger Games-esk, as it were. But in reality, it’s actually nothing like The Hunger Games, which I found refreshing, further adding to the uniqueness of this novel. However, my feelings toward the novel are a bit mixed.
While the beginning of the novel helped set the stage, I have to admit that it moved a little too slowly for me. We meet Amy and her family, hear about how she has no money and doesn’t think she’ll amount to anything, and then we meet the soon-to-be cast for the reality TV show. I know the background does need to be explained, but it just didn’t draw me in, and, based on the negative reviews I’d seen prior to reading, I began to worry. But, rest assured, the novel did quickly start to pick up, though it occasionally slowed down again, and I was confused by a few things.
Number one, I wasn’t sure what the Collapse was (and I’m going to say that this is my own fault, and not the authors). In my mind—since this novel is obviously very high tech, what with TLN having the ability to create holograms and film, unnoticed, anywhere—I thought this was the distant future and that there was some sort of war that caused the Collapse, but I didn’t find anything in the text that really explained it to me, so I was confused about what the Collapse really was. Now, I do feel a little idiotic as I didn’t realize it right away, but the Collapse seems to be another term for Crash, as in, the Crash from 1929. While this novel isn’t set in 1929 (it’s definitely the close future), the Collapse and the events leading up to it, as far as I can tell from the story, mirror what we actually experienced eighty plus years ago. It’s fictionalized, of course, and with much more technology, but for some reason I just didn’t even think about that when I began the story. I’ll guess I just had it in my head that the Collapse happened due to war because I’ve read so many dystopian novels that start that way, so I couldn’t fathom that the setting for the Collapse was as simple as a “depression.” And, obviously, this is my own fault. I think I was about 40% into the novel before I figured it out… and trust me, I feel a little stupid for not realizing it sooner. But, I didn’t, so I thought I’d throw it out there for potential readers so they know what the Collapse really is. I think it helps the reader really understand what’s happening if they know and aren’t constantly wondering, like I was…
Number two, I don’t know what a phantom is. For the most part, the novel seemed like it was realistic. Yes, there is highly advanced technology and they can do things that aren’t currently possible in real life, but the people’s dispositions and problems were very down to earth. However, Amy has these “phantom” experiences where she visualizes strange things and somehow tries to connect them to what’s happening around her. I don’t know, perhaps I missed something as I was reading that would have clued me in, but I just didn’t get it. Here, in the midst of the realism, is a random paranormal type insertion, and I never did understand them as I read. Instead, I began to gloss over the “phantoms” because it just didn’t make sense.
But most everything else was great! I found the characters to be extremely real, and I truly felt for them. Amy has a huge struggle: continue the reality TV show knowing each scenario is going to be stranger and scare her even more, or go back to having no money and watching her grandmother die without medical help. While I yelled at Amy all the time, I think I would have continued to work for TLN, too. I mean, money isn’t supposed to be everything, but when it’s the only way to help your sick family member, well… it becomes really important. More important than a few scares, at least.
Now, this is where the story itself gets tricky. Kress is writing a novel about a reality TV show, in which scenarios are created to up the ante and see how people react. I’m not going to lie, I’d watch that show. People amaze me and I love to guess what they’ll do next. Of course, I wouldn’t think they were in harm’s way at any point during the filming, but that isn’t necessarily true in this reality show. But neither the cast, nor the audience know it… So anyway, this is where it gets tricky. Kress is writing the TV scenarios in order to show how the ratings go up, and then down, so of course, some of the scenarios are going to be a bit… boring. If they weren’t, the ratings wouldn’t be going down. But here’s the thing: boring scenarios for TV equal boring scenarios in a novel. Make sense? Now, not all of them were lackluster. There’s definitely a fair share of really interesting scenarios, especially the very last one, but there were also points while reading the novel that I found it slowing way down because the interactions amongst the cast just wasn’t all that interesting. But I don’t fault the author at all. What’s Kress is trying to do is extremely difficult and I think she did it well. I wouldn’t be able to imagine half of what she does, let alone get it down on paper, and I think Kress really did an amazing job. This story is very unique, but the audience really needs to know what they’re walking into when they pick up this book, or they just might not enjoy the novel as much as they could. Three and a half stars.
Penguin Young Readers Group has been extremely gracious in allowing me to read an ARC of this novel, via Netgalley, prior to its release tomorrow, November 8, 2012.