If you read one alien invasion story this summer, this should be it.
YA sci-fi--my favorite genre!--has become a bit of a hard sell for me lately. Over...moreIf you read one alien invasion story this summer, this should be it.
YA sci-fi--my favorite genre!--has become a bit of a hard sell for me lately. Over the past three years I've just absorbed so much of it that even highly buzzed books often strike me as underwhelming. I'm so familiar with all of the tropes, all the common missteps, that it takes a real winner to steal my heart.
In the After by Demitria Lunetta is that winner.
It's not just that this is a well-rendered alien invasion story. It is, and it's both realistic and compellingly paced. Unputdownable is a cliche, but I rarely finish a book in a few sittings these days. I finished this in two, half on the train ride back from New York City--annoyed when my train finally pulled into the station. Lunetta doesn't rely on cliff-hangers on unrealistic twists (though there are a few twists here). Instead, it's the voice and very immediate concerns of Amy, our heroine, which pull us through the narrative.
Amy is indeed a "strong female character," but because we're so grounded in her history, isolation, and desperation as aliens overcome the Earth, we intimately understand her strength. This isn't a person who was born knowing how to kick ass and take names but rather one who must use her moxie to survive. For three years, Amy, and a foundling toddler she dubs "Baby" live in Amy's parents' fortress-like apartment in near-total silence, all-too-aware that any noise they make might attract the bloodthirsty creatures that roam the streets.
What I most admired about this book was the way that Lunetta chooses to withhold or share information based on Amy's situation. At first, we're as clueless as she is. The opening section of the novel is, therefore, deeply claustrophobic and unsettling. When eventually the narrative begins to open outward, we completely empathize with Amy in her trauma and its aftermath, because we've been there with it, all along.
And, perhaps more importantly for a sci-fi geek like me, the science holds up. It's complex in its approach, thoughtful, sensible. The scientists aren't monsters, though they sometimes, out of their own out-of-whack survival instincts and desperation for preservation, do monstrous things. This is true for the society-building in the novel as well: it's complex, full of shades of grey.
It's not a perfect book--the narrative is a bit scattered, with flashbacks nested inside flashbacks; it becomes hard to follow, at times, because of its unusual chronology--but it's a really good book. Like ROOM meets DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, but refreshing, all the same. And it ends on a perfect, juicy, compelling note. I can't wait for the sequel.(less)
Structured like a classic, campy murder mystery (complete with secret identities that are revealed with a literal flourish) . . . IN SPACE! I enjoyed...moreStructured like a classic, campy murder mystery (complete with secret identities that are revealed with a literal flourish) . . . IN SPACE! I enjoyed Tiptree's prose and the alien species is great, beautifully described, complex, interesting. But the narrative is fractured between many characters and the book could have easily been half as long to no ill effect. The plot and story are a bit scattered and I couldn't shake the feeling that it was all missing something--though I'm really not sure what! Still, I'm glad I've finally read some Tiptree, and I look forward to exploring her short stories.(less)
A reaction, written by sixteen-year-old Phoebe (and submitted to my lovely English teacher, Mrs. S., in lieu of a summer reading essay):
I've got nothi...moreA reaction, written by sixteen-year-old Phoebe (and submitted to my lovely English teacher, Mrs. S., in lieu of a summer reading essay):
I've got nothing to say, but it's okay ..or is it?
I'm risking my grade to write this, I know, but I just have to get this off my chest. After stressing my brain for two and a half days I have come to the following conclusion: The second book of A Tale of Two Cities utterly and completely bored me. I can think of nothing of substance to write about, other than the fact that I've never really liked Charles Dickens' writing. I could bullsh*t and make something up, I could buy the Cliff Notes and rearrange them into a workable essay, but I'm not going to do that. Life's too short to feign an interest.
Perhaps this is partially due to the mind-numbingly slow pace of the "book the second." Sure, stuff happens. The two central points of interest are Darnay's marriage and the storming of the Bastille (see, I did read!). However, the marriage is so pristine and ideal that it's positively drab. Darnay loves Lucie. Lucie loves Darnay. Lucie's father has post traumatic stress syndrome. yawn. Perhaps if Dr. Manette's condition had caused more strain on the marriage, the book would have become more interesting. Instead, Dickens used it for foreshadowing alone. It had little impact on the character's lives and was disregarded upon Manette's recovery. The storming of the Bastille, on the other hand, was so slow in coming that it felt almost anticlimactic. The ruthless actions of the French were practically spelled out in "The Wineshop" We already knew that their thirst for blood was as intense as their thirst for alcohol; we already knew that the Defarge's could control both thirsts from their positions of power. No surprises there.
Which brings me to the rant portion of my journal. I have never enjoyed Charles Dickens' writing. Not even "A Christmas Carol," which everyone seems to love. Many people excuse his wordiness and lack of literary excitement on the times in which he lived. Why, then, did I enjoy Jane Eyre and Silas Marner? Why were Frances Hodgson Burnett and Lewis Carroll two of my favorite childhood authors? Period is no excuse. I've read portions of the Bible (Old Testament, no less) for literary purposes alone and found them to be a swinging bunch of stories. Is it acceptable not to like a "classic"? I tried to tell my English teacher last year that I did not like The Grapes of Wrath. It seemed to be taken as laziness on my part...and that I hadn't given Steinbeck's work a chance. I read the entire novel, just as I've completed A Tale of Two Cities. My eighth grade civics teacher said that if he didn't like a book, he'd stop reading it at twenty five pages. If 25 pages is enough to judge a book by, 304 pages certainly is.
Which leads me to my final issue. Each summer since sixth grade I've read between 300 and 1000 pages of required reading material, as well as any books I chose for my own enjoyment. I'm not a light reader in my free time. I've often pulled muscles carrying home library books. I love to read. I would read if no one told me to. I HAVE read when people have told me not to. It upsets me to tell myself I cannot go to the library because I need to get a few boring books over with. Books which I have to read because of an overstuffed curriculum and an assumption that teenagers won't read if they're not told to. We're honors students. If we don't read in our free time, maybe we don't belong in honors classes.
Twenty-nine-year-old Phoebe's response to reading all this: Damn, I wish I'd had goodreads back then. Sure seems like I needed it.
(My saint of an English teacher, by the way, responded: "OK--an honest response!")(less)
That was fun! At the heart of this futuristic thriller (featuring science! and a girl who loves science! and poetry! and girls who love poetry!) is a...moreThat was fun! At the heart of this futuristic thriller (featuring science! and a girl who loves science! and poetry! and girls who love poetry!) is a well-wrought and touching relationship between sisters. This will appeal to fans of LJ Smith's Dark Vision trilogy, but who want a little more sci in their fi.(less)
I could probably write a dissertation on notions of alien "otherness" in modern YA as exemplified here but I won't. This is fast-paced, gripping YA wi...moreI could probably write a dissertation on notions of alien "otherness" in modern YA as exemplified here but I won't. This is fast-paced, gripping YA with really nice prose and I could see why so many people do and will love it, but it's just really not my bag.(less)
I wouldn't have ever read The Beginning of After if Jennifer Castle wasn't my friend--and by "friend" I mean, "I've eaten sandwiches at her house," no...moreI wouldn't have ever read The Beginning of After if Jennifer Castle wasn't my friend--and by "friend" I mean, "I've eaten sandwiches at her house," not "I saw her once from afar and awkwardly half-waved and she either waved back or went to tuck her hair behind her ear, I'm not sure which." I'm just not reading much contemporary these days, though it's a shame, because this is exactly the sort of book I didn't realize I needed to read, at exactly the right moment.
It's a story about grief--and you know, I'm always into books which deconstruct that--but one which resonated far more with me than several other, perhaps higher concept death books, which made other people cry but me, not so much. This one made me cry, though. They weren't the massive, sloppy tears of A Monster Calls, but they were good, earnest tears, the kind that squeeze out when something familiar catches you off-guard.
Verisimilitude. It's a word that sometimes gets a short shrift in YA these days. The hyper-realism of Judy Blume is out of style, in favor of flashier and more easily consumable fairy tales. Even contemporary books are likely to feel a touch whimsical and other worldly. That's fine; I like a good escapist story, too. But as someone who faced too much death too young, escapism doesn't feel right when we're talking about that.
Because grief is messy. That's a platitude, I know. And I know many people say that there are many ways to grieve but it's a sentiment very rarely followed through with. I know from experience that people like the grieving to be self-contained, other worldly. Fairy tale.
Laurel's story is no fairy tale. Though beautifully written, it feels at times pedestrian--an accounting of days following the sudden death of her entire family. Sometimes Laurel acts like we might expect a grieving girl might: raging or wallowing. But the days trudge on, as they always do. And Laurel is human. She's complex. She's real. She's preoccupied with boys, she's a crappy friend sometimes, she gets annoyed with her grandmother, she feels distrusting of those who reach out for her, she is afraid to reach back.
This rings true to me, very, very true. When I was in my twenties, sometime around my maternal grandfather's third stroke, I had a revelation: that times spent bored in the hospital are a part of our lives, and not apart from them. This vending machine food, these buzzing lights--we think they're intrusions, but they're not. They're just another part of the daily fabric. So is death. So is grieving. And you don't stop being a teenager, a girl, a person, just because you're experiencing these things. You don't become profound or selfless or chaste or removed. A few months after my grandfather's stroke, I sat in my cousin's car as we rushed to a hospital where my paternal grandmother lay dying. And there were moments of profundity, sure (listening to Neutral Milk Hotel--"But for now we are young/let us lay in the sun/and count every beautiful thing we can see") but that's because of who we were, young and pretentious, not necessarily what we were experiencing. On the long drive down the turnpike, I read my then-boyfriend's dog-eared copy of Watchmen, smiling at the points where he folded the pages down. I was falling in love, and that didn't stop for death. Life doesn't stop for death.
And that's what I liked about this book--the very raw, real story of one girl's totally mundane life and how death intersects that, how life doesn't stop for death--how grief doesn't stop for life, either. There are other things to love here: vivid characters with picture-perfect details to illuminate them (Nana and her moisturizer, David and his postcards); Laurel's relationship with animals, who provide a comfort--and sometimes a burden--that no human can; lovely prose and a setting so specific you can feel it, right down to the crumbs on the counter. But what was most moving about The Beginning of After was its honesty: that even when someone dies, your life goes on and on, touched, messy, imperfect, but still vital.
Anyway, good book. Moving book. Glad to call the very talented author my friend.(less)
Really fantastic space-based SF with complex alien worldbuilding and old school charm, but with a nicely modern heroine in Zenn. Looking forward to th...moreReally fantastic space-based SF with complex alien worldbuilding and old school charm, but with a nicely modern heroine in Zenn. Looking forward to the sequel.(less)
If you're part of the world of children's literature in any capacity, you need to read this book. Not only is it filled with brilliant editorial insig...moreIf you're part of the world of children's literature in any capacity, you need to read this book. Not only is it filled with brilliant editorial insight (really, Mr. Sendak, are you sure you don't want to change the last word of Where the Wild Things Are to "warm"?), but it offers a unique glimpse into the birth of children's literature as a significant genre. Before Ursula, it was all saccharine sweet. She was a pioneer who suggested that instead, we write "good books for bad children"--books as varied as the lives of the children who read them. She edited Louise Fitzhugh and John Donovan and Sendak and Gorey and EB White, all with wry humor and sensitivity. Where would we be without her?
Of course, I'm not sure we quite work in the same industry today, but it's a fascinating look at our roots--and a reminder that it only takes one incredible personality to change the publishing landscape.(less)
Spooky and unsettling, this novella explores the back story of two characters on the Godspeed--one, a villain, the other, his victim. The artistic the...moreSpooky and unsettling, this novella explores the back story of two characters on the Godspeed--one, a villain, the other, his victim. The artistic themes are well explored, and I enjoyed the interplay between friends, though the morality was a bit black and white. If the sexual violence in Across the Universe made you uncomfortable, it will here, too.(less)
While The Crossing has an unusual concept and striking setting, it's bogged down by faintly-drawn characters, black and white morality, and purple pro...moreWhile The Crossing has an unusual concept and striking setting, it's bogged down by faintly-drawn characters, black and white morality, and purple prose. Longer review to come from Strange Horizons.(less)
Bought as a gift for someone, sat down to wrap it and lost an afternoon instead. This is more of a mirror than a story, messy in form but it utterly n...moreBought as a gift for someone, sat down to wrap it and lost an afternoon instead. This is more of a mirror than a story, messy in form but it utterly needs to be, too. Explaining why Are You My Mother? meant something to me would be too personal and self-indulgent; all I can say is that it gutted me.(less)
Katya’s World isn’t my usual cup of tea–it’s undoubtedly military SF (of a naval variety), and though it’s also undoubtedly YA, it’s light on the yummy romance that I love and instead focuses on action sequences and battles. While this sea-based science fiction is the type that I’m eager to recommend to my husband (because he’s really into Cold War submarine films), it still holds a certain nostalgic appeal. Howard’s work is particularly redolent of 1970s space opera–but in all the best ways.
It’s the story of Katya Kuriakova, newly an adult an embarking on her very first submarine mission, but it does not start with her. Instead, Howard opens with an extended prologue about the history of Russalka, an ocean planet. It’s an undeniable infodump, but it’s also a lively one, which gets us quickly up to speed: the water planet would have never been colonized if not for its mineral wealth. But then Terrans forgot about it, only to return far later and kick up a civil war. In less skilled hands, this would have been dry or unnecessary (prime fodder for skimming), but Howard makes it work with his smooth, confident prose and effortless worldbuilding.
And the world really does work, quite well. This is Russian inspired, but never feels like an appropriation. Howard’s world is fleshed out and effectively seamless. This allows us to follow Katya on her first crew experiences, told through nicely controlled, third-person prose.
Now, I’m a hard sell on third-person in YA. I suspect that modern YA first needs to appeal to a reader’s desire to identify, and first-person prose is an easy short-cut for identification. But I never doubted Howard’s choice to do otherwise. Katya is a bit of a chilly heroine, whose past is informed by trauma but who has chosen to very deliberately move on from that trauma. For her to be fully-realized, we need the narrative distance that only third-person provides. The use of third-person in Katya’s World is a strong reminder that there are very valid reasons to make certain (even unpopular) narrative choices. Though I’m not sure that most readers will be aware of Howard’s choices–because they’re smoothly executed enough to not be very noticeable–I appreciated the skill evident in them.
It’s different from my usual reads in other ways, too. This is a YA tale wholly lacking in romance. But it does not lack in human relationships. Katya’s relationships with the older men around her–her Uncle Lukyan and the pirate Kane–are touching and complex. Because Katya is a girl primarily defined by her desire for adult respect and recognition, these relationships, in lieu of romantic exchanges, made a whole lot of sense.
Still, the plot didn’t particularly appeal to me to the end–we’re treated to one action sequence after another, as the crew of the Baby find pirates and an artificial sea beast called the Leviathan. This action is fairly relentless, and might be a touch dry for those readers (like me) who aren’t action fans. But it’s worth reading through them. Ultimately, the Leviathan is a complex SF villain and technology both, and the difficulties it poses push Katya to her emotional limit. The climax reveals quite a bit about a strong-heroine who has withheld so much from readers–and it’s really quite a touching story in the end.(less)
You Look Different in Real Life is pretty much the definition of high-concept contemporary, clearly based on the infamous Up series of documentaries....moreYou Look Different in Real Life is pretty much the definition of high-concept contemporary, clearly based on the infamous Up series of documentaries. In this fictional spin, sixteen-year-old Justine faces becoming the subject of the third documentary in fifteen years, and simultaneously confronts complex identity issues on the way.
Like Castle's debut, The Beginning of After, this is strong, character-driven fiction. Justine is wonderfully bitchy at the outset, and the supporting characters are well-drawn as well. Castle manages to evoke the same sort of sense of discovery one finds in the Up series and other reality-based documentaries while still creating completely distinct, relatable, and fully-fledged characters. Quirky Rory (RenFest aficionado); sensitive-but-popular Nathan; prickly Keira; and performative Felix, a working-class kid with a secret. These characters are far from plot elements or window-dressing; I read the novel a week ago and could still rattle off their names, easily.
As Castle explores the overaching concept of the Apted documentaries, she also simultaneously deconstructs them, offering the internal view of the subjects that, as viewers, we always crave but also fundamentally lack. Pretty fascinating, how, through fiction, she manages to give a voice to the voiceless. Each of these five kids must consciously construct identity while also figuring out their own, internal identities. In that way, it's a world much like high school--thrillingly universal, even as it remains, in some ways, poignantly specific.(less)
Room is an interesting exercise which wears its influences on its sleeve--part John Fowles' The Collector, part Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man....moreRoom is an interesting exercise which wears its influences on its sleeve--part John Fowles' The Collector, part Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's the story of Jack, a boy raised in seclusion in the shed where his young mother has been kept captive. Emma Donoghue renders the novel in Jack's own voice--that of an uneducated, socially and physically isolated five-year-old.
For the most part, the voice is convincing, if at times a little too winking (particularly when Donoghe all-but-quotes the opening like of Portrait). Jack's perspective is well-rendered and sharp, with few lapses in logic; this is impressive considering the limited vocabulary and external influences the child has. But the story itself is a bit fractured and, above all, odd. The "Room" portions, which take place during Jack's captivity, were never quite as incisive or eerie as I wanted. I wanted something as gripping as The Collector, and while it's a read-in-one-day sort of book, the pacing significantly flags when Jack and his Ma escape.
The problem here, really, is Ma. She's the most important person in Jack's world, and yet I never got a sense of her as an individual. It would be easy to dismiss this. We could decide that, because she's a mother, she's not important to her son as a person, but Donoghue floats close to the idea of identity several times only to shy away. The only detail that distinguishes Ma from any other person is the fact that she is adopted. Otherwise, she's completely anonymous, or else used as a bizarrely inappropriate mouthpiece against solitary confinement and for child-led weaning. She's a symbol, not a person.
And yet so many other people in the narrative are given strong, identifying details. For me, the most convincing portion of the novel was, by far, not the captivity scenes or the hospital scenes but an extended description of Jack's stay with his grandparents. The domestic, but highly personal details of his grandmother's life--living with a stoner second husband who is a stoic but willing to play Lego with Jack--are intense, vivid, convincing, real. Jack himself is a stronger character when interacting in opposition to characters like these. But when he's interacting with his mother, both become something closer to plot pieces. They interact as we would expect people in their situation to interact. They're not quite substantial.
And it all ends on a note like this--cloying, pat, and a bit sentimental. Though this novel was a fast read, with gestures toward greater artistry and even some passages that absolutely shone, it just didn't quite win me over.(less)