Junior, a nerdy fourteen-year-old on a Spokane reservation, loses it when he realizes he's using the same math textbook that his mother used. He throw...moreJunior, a nerdy fourteen-year-old on a Spokane reservation, loses it when he realizes he's using the same math textbook that his mother used. He throws the book at his teacher--who forgives him and tells him to get off the rez. When he transfers to the all-white high school 22 miles away, he faces prejudice from both the white students and the people on the rez who call him a traitor. This is an extraordinarily delicately balanced book. There's so much darkness in it and yet Junior's narrative voice has enough distance in it that you don't feel pummeled by the darkness, and a genuine sense of humor shines through the terrible parts. (less)
What I always want and rarely get from high fantasy: a book that combines page-turning, suspenseful high adventure with sensitive moments of insight i...moreWhat I always want and rarely get from high fantasy: a book that combines page-turning, suspenseful high adventure with sensitive moments of insight into characters' lives and emotions. A book where the romance doesn't involve two people staring at each other mooney-eyed, but two people inching towards each other, breaking and carefully mending friendships, and most of all working together to do what needs to be done. (less)
Frankie Landau-Banks does for the patriarchy what Little Brother does for homeland security. It's a guide for the uninitiated (Michel Foucault with tr...moreFrankie Landau-Banks does for the patriarchy what Little Brother does for homeland security. It's a guide for the uninitiated (Michel Foucault with training wheels!), a call to arms, and a manual for taking action against it.
It also has some great pranks in it.
Frankie is a sophomore at Alabaster, one of the nation's best preparatory schools, which is filled mostly with people who are white, protestant, and richer than God. Over the course of the summer she suddenly becomes hot, and catches the eye of Matthew Livingston, who is cute, and powerful, and rich, and funny.
He also happens to be one of the Kings of Alabaster's secret (and all-male) Loyal Order of Basset Hounds. Frankie knows, vaguely, about the Hounds - her father was one - but when she comes to realize that she'll always just be a girl in Matthew's social circle, there to be adorable but never powerful, always underestimated, always disposable, always erasable, she decides to mastermind the Basset Hounds' return to their former pranking glory.
It's icing on the cake if she can finally get some decent vegetables in the salad bar.
This doesn't do justice to how well Lockhart writes about the social order. I couldn't get into Tamora Pierce because she is writing about the overt, out-loud sexism to which I've never really been exposed. But I've lived through what Lockhart is talking about: the way you pretend it's interesting to watch your guy friends play video games because you don't want to be relegated to the role of that girl who bakes crumbles while her guy friends are playing video games. The way that you get subtly ignored and underestimated.
And what's cool is that for all it's such a feminist book, Frankie is allowed to read gossip magazines, and paint her nails, and basically - she's allowed to be stereotypically feminine AND bring down the patriarchy. I don't do stereotypical femininity very well, but that only has so much to do with feminism. It's NOT about the big power structures that Frankie goes up against. And Frankie is also allowed to be prideful, and insecure, and way too much in love for her own good, and that never undermines who she is as a criminal mastermind.
Paris's older brother is getting beaten up by one of Paris's classmates, and won't defend himself. He doesn't believe in violence. Meanwhile, Paris is...moreParis's older brother is getting beaten up by one of Paris's classmates, and won't defend himself. He doesn't believe in violence. Meanwhile, Paris is taking piano lessons from old Mrs. Rosen, who used to live in Paris and who turns out to be a Holocaust survivor. This is an intense and beautiful look at the meaning of pacifism, of nonviolent resistance, of how we should treat our enemies and those who are cruel to us. In a world that can be dark and cruel, is violence necessary to survive? Is it foolish to think you can avoid violence? This is heavy stuff for a middle-grade novel, and Codell deals with it with amazing sensitivity. (less)
Sym adores Antarctica. And she adores Lawrence Oates, nicknamed Titus, one of the men in Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. Titus Oates is something...moreSym adores Antarctica. And she adores Lawrence Oates, nicknamed Titus, one of the men in Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. Titus Oates is something like an imaginary friend to her, or what fanfiction authors might call a muse: a voice in her head that she talks to for comfort, for advice, or just for good conversation (better than she gets from her shallow classmates). She adores, too, her Uncle Victor, who is not actually her uncle, but her late father’s business partner. So she leaps at the chance to go to Paris with Uncle Victor, except that it winds up not being Paris, but Antarctica. Which is great, right? Except that it’s not.
What strikes me about this book is that it’s an extremely literary novel dressed up as a survival/adventure story. The meticulously researched setting and the perilous events are there, but the real focus is what’s happening underneath, what really happened, who knows which secrets. I loved the first moment I picked up on the distance between what Sym tells the reader and what is actually going on, but even better than that was the first moment when Sym dismissively says that of course she knows things are a lot worse than they seem. What is this: something she’s known all along? A defense mechanism, like she doesn’t want to admit to having been deceived?
This is a Printz winner that I can get behind a hundred percent: a book that is complicated and rewarding from a literary perspective, with more subtle technique than a lot of literary YA novels, and that is also thrillery and suspenseful and full of absolutely convincing polar atmosphere. (less)
A generation ship, disabled, limps in orbit around an unstable binary star that could self-immolate at any moment. For five hundred years, Engine and...moreA generation ship, disabled, limps in orbit around an unstable binary star that could self-immolate at any moment. For five hundred years, Engine and Rule have established quasi-medieval fiefdoms with the Exalt - whose bodies are augmented by a nanotech symbiont - ruling over the Mean. And the artificial intelligence that once controlled the ship’s systems has splintered into ‘angels’ - chief among them Samael, the angel of death (or life support, at any rate) and Jacob Dust, the angel of memory.
Knight-errant Perceval loses a duel - and her wings. She’s taken prisoner by Ariane of Rule. But the Mean servant girl assigned to take care of her is Rien - her long-lost sister. (This book had me at ‘maimed wingless girl knight-errant,’ and never let go). Before long they’ve escaped from Rule on a quest to find their father and prevent the coming war between Engine and Rule.
This is a book stuffed with Cool Bits, especially if you’re me, but even if you’re not. I think it’s terribly neat that there’s medieval window-dressing and a fantasy quest plot, all packaged - with perfect rationality - in a rigorous science fictional universe. There’s a basilisk! There’s a hermaphroditic necromancer! There are peaches that contain the memories of the dead! And at the same time, all of these Cool Bits are pointed at heavy, intense themes and heartbreaking storytelling. Bear is interrogating power and privilege and love and submission and domination and - as always - what it takes to face terrible choices with honor, dignity, and integrity.
This is also the first Elizabeth Bear novel I understood all the way through without having to read anything twice over. I like the opaqueness in some of her work, but I also like the clarity in this one.(less)
One of the best books of the year, a dark intense stream-of-consciousness trip through a science fictional world where a virus has killed the women an...moreOne of the best books of the year, a dark intense stream-of-consciousness trip through a science fictional world where a virus has killed the women and made men able to read one another's thoughts. It explores brilliantly how violence and manhood are intertwined in the narrator's culture, and in our own.(less)
Most historical fiction books for young people take as their object to show a Typical Person with a Typical Problem in a particular era; and most hist...moreMost historical fiction books for young people take as their object to show a Typical Person with a Typical Problem in a particular era; and most historical fiction for young people reflects a sort of bland consensus view of history, something that is acceptable to teach in schools.
Octavian Nothing is not most historical fiction.
Picking up where the first book left off, Octavian -- a slave raised in luxury with a first-rate education as part of an experiment -- enlists with the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, which has promised to free any Rebel-owned slaves that join up. There he encounters war, friendship, heartbreak, betrayal, the difficulty of fitting in when he fits in nowhere. He has spent his childhood learning Latin and violin fugues, where his comrades have spent theirs on plantations. Octavian's cultural heritage is extremely complex. He has been given music and religion - but has been deprived of the music and religion of his own people. The novel refuses to make an easy calculation of what he has gained and lost.
We see Octavian's growing maturity as he acquires wisdom -- and also cynicism. Is selfishness at the core of human nature, human existence? Can success -- or survival -- only be achieved at the expense of others? And if so, how do we reconcile ourselves with that?
The issue of historical memory is one I've been deeply interested in for some years now. There is probably no nation on earth that has never, somewhere in its history, committed war crimes or genocide, that has no scars on its conscience. It's easy to say, it's history, it's in the past. It's too easy; the past is never past. Octavian Nothing is willing to confront that, to ask hard questions. To refuse to provide easy answers to them. It asks how we can reconcile ourselves with our past -- with our present -- and says, maybe we don't. Maybe we can't.
What a profoundly troubling and beautiful piece of work. (less)
Everyone compares this one to Catcher in the Rye, which is interesting to me because I haven’t read Catcher, and I think I would hate it, and yet I co...moreEveryone compares this one to Catcher in the Rye, which is interesting to me because I haven’t read Catcher, and I think I would hate it, and yet I completely see why the two books are compared, and I loved Someday This Pain…
James has too many advantages to have the problems that he has. His family has money, an apartment in Manhattan, a part time job at his mother’s gallery, and he’s been accepted to Brown for next year (though not Harvard, Yale, or Columbia). His parents are divorced (though whose aren’t, these days?); unfortunately, his mother has just seen the end of her third marriage after a disastrous Las Vegas honeymoon. And James himself is not doing too well. The narrative voice has a kind of iciness to it, so it takes a while to understand just how sad and frightened and lonely James is; but you see him searching for old houses in the midwest. He does not want to go to college. He wants to sit in his old midwest house and read novels. And, more than anything, he wants to correct people on what they say. It’s what he spends the entire novel doing. They misuse words; they’re not precise enough. His father asks him whether he’s gay. His mother asks him whether he’s gay. He debates the nature of the question with them until, defeated, they accept a change of subject.
James is gay. He deigns to tell us this on page 192, of 228. His fear of intimacy is so great that it extends even to us, the readers.
However, this isn’t a novel about being gay. That may have something to do with how sad and frightened James is, but as James himself admits, he is so far from approaching another human being that his sexuality is two hundred percent theoretical. If anything, it seems symptomatic; James cannot face anything about himself.
This seems to me like the kind of novel I should be ready to criticize for being whiny and emo. Yet somehow it isn’t. I want to use those words they say book critics should never use, like delicate and luminous. James’s voice is stiff and awkward enough that it never reaches that emo-whiny level; you can see the clever swagger on the surface, and you can also see the sadness lurking underneath. And at the same time, there are these moments of description that go way beyond a mere insightful detail; they bore right through to James’s state of mind. (less)
Liga grows up motherless, molested by an abusive father. When he dies trampled by a cart horse he leaves Liga alone and six months pregnant - and thin...moreLiga grows up motherless, molested by an abusive father. When he dies trampled by a cart horse he leaves Liga alone and six months pregnant - and things only get worse from there. Until, one night, some supernatural force takes pity on her and she slips into a world where all dangerous things have been removed, all cruel and awful people have been replaced by blandly kind ones, and even the forest animals are friendly. She raises her daughters in that world...but can't protect them forever, as things begin to slip between the worlds.
This is as dark a YA book as I've ever read - rape, incest, teen pregnancy. I didn't find it quite as traumatic as some of my colleagues, maybe because I'd been expecting it to be very dark, maybe because of Lanagan's oblique narration that sidles around the events instead of confronting them head-on; but still, very dark. And yet it IS, fundamentally, a YA book.
This is what coming-of-age means. Not a grim resignation that the world sucks and there's nothing you can do about it, as you see in some of the grim problem novels of the early '90s - but a cracking-open of the safe, protected world that you grew up in, to reveal a world that's stranger and more dangerous but also realer, brighter, truer. The way that Lanagan literalizes that struggle is completely brilliant. The way that she retells the story of Snow White and Rose Red, too, is completely brilliant. Lanagan is a master of language, and the voice is completely believable, touched with archaicisms but earthy rather than lace-doily-formal.
Is this my favorite YA of the year? Just maybe.(less)