This is pretty much the platonic ideal of a middle grade novel, thrilling in its realism even with a heavily paranormal premise--because it remains ab...moreThis is pretty much the platonic ideal of a middle grade novel, thrilling in its realism even with a heavily paranormal premise--because it remains absolutely emotionally true. An accessibly written story about grief, denial, empathy, art, poverty and family--it's a nice reminder that powerful writing comes not in platitudes about the universal but in the specific lives and struggles of one's characters.
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)
Mike Jung’s middle grade debut, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is a nearly perfect title for middle school boys and girls. Told in a voicey, easy...moreMike Jung’s middle grade debut, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is a nearly perfect title for middle school boys and girls. Told in a voicey, easy-going style, it’s the story of Vincent Wu, middle school student, child of divorce, and Captain Stupendous devotee. In Copperplate City, he and his friends George and Max obsess over the caped superhero with all the fervor and obsession of your average thirteen-year-old nerd (I know because I was one)–the only difference being that in Vincent’s world, the superheroes are real.
But then Vincent is thrown for a loop: the previous Captain Stupendous has died, and Vincent’s crush Polly Winnicott-Lee has taken on Captain Stupendous’s mantle. This provides a fresh twist to what seem slated to be a boy-oriented story. Polly is well-drawn, complex, and scrappy, and Vincent’s growing affection for her is very sweet. The other boys are well-rendered too, particularly big lug Max, who likes to pepper his speech with Yiddish.
It’s in Jung’s tackling of issues of racial and ethnic identity that I was most impressed. Vincent and Polly aren’t characters who happen to be Asian–their Asian-American identities define them as people and yet never make them stereotypes. Likewise easy is the matter-of-fact insertion of Jewish identity. It’s not a whitebread universe, but one as dappled and complicated as our own. Jung also does a solid job of rendering both of Vincent’s divorced parents and his complex relationship to each.
I was less impressed with the handling of gender issues–in fact, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities left me quite torn on that front. Polly is an awesome girl, navigating her feminine identity with the sophistication and aplomb that the boys lack. But she is also–aside from Vincent’s mother, who takes on a typical victim-of-the-supervillain role–the only girl present with a well-developed personality. It’s not unusual to have only one chick in this kind of novel, but Polly is consistently defined by her lack-of-girlyness and, since there are no other girls present, it’s difficult not to read a larger thesis into the novel that is disdainful of girly things. Vincent tells us of a competing Captain Stupendous fangroup, the Stupendites, in the novel's opening paragraph–this all-girl group consists of pretty, image-conscious, stupid cheerleaders who are also classic mean girls. Later, Vincent observes with relief that Polly’s bedroom is not pink or so “full of foofy ruffled blankets and rhinestones that you want to scream” (186, ARC edition). Polly protests some of Vincent’s more egregious sexist assumptions, but the overall impression is that girls are unlikely to be heroic if they like pink or looking pretty. I hope Jung challenges these outmoded assumptions in subsequent volumes by expanding the cast of female characters or giving more depth to the Stupendites.
Because otherwise, this is a pitch-perfect middle grade title, and one that I’d easily recommend to both boys and girls.(less)
I was lucky enough to read a draft of "The Audition" when Rachel Hartman was wrangling it into shape. It was wonderful even then; I forgot, really, th...moreI was lucky enough to read a draft of "The Audition" when Rachel Hartman was wrangling it into shape. It was wonderful even then; I forgot, really, that I was reading it to help her, and instead felt myself get very quickly enveloped into Seraphina's story, the strong characters, and the completely enchanting world. I was probably too starry-eyed to be really helpful--charmed by Rachel's prose. I might not be the best beta reader for Rachel in situations like these, but I am very happy to be a fan.(less)
Just last year, both Sean and I might have been heard to muse that the magic of Japanese YA–particularly anime and manga series–was conspicuously absent from the American young adult literary environment. After reading Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes, which was very close in spirit to several space-bound shojo series, I began to suspect we were wrong on that count. Jeff Hirsch’s Magisterium, out in October, proves me wrong again.
What we have here isn’t quite like the girly anime evoked by Nix, nor like anything else I’ve seen in modern YA. Instead, the closest analog would have to be the work of Hayao Miyazaki. I was particularly reminded of Spirited Away. In both works, we have strong female protagonists who lose their parents and enter magical worlds–worlds where nature obeys new laws, worlds inhabited by terrifying manipulators (or consumers) of matter, worlds haunted by ghosts, worlds where people are transformed into animals and then back again. These universes are dreamlike and vaguely disturbing, but nevertheless compelling. I suspect I’ll carry the world of Magisterium with me for a long, long while.
The plot scaffolding is one you may have seen before. There are lost princesses and magical artifacts. A girl loses her parents and must cross the border into another universe to save them. But the details of the world make this still a very rich experience. Sixteen-year-old Glenn Morgan’s father is obsessed with building technological wonders in his workshop. He hopes to save Glenn’s mother, who disappeared beyond the Rift, an invisible border created by the fallout of a long-past war, ten years before our story begins. Meanwhile, Glenn dreams of outer space. She wants to join a spacefleet and take off for an interstellar colony. Despite the techy details, Glenn’s home world feels very well-grounded. The people in it are recognizable, real, and well-rendered.
And none are so well-rendered as Glenn herself, or her love interest, childhood friend Kevin Kapoor. Glenn has been shaped by the loss of her mother. She’s angry, loyal, and determined to a fault. Her growing affection for Kevin, who wears a green mohawk and comes up with bad band names for fun, unsettles her slightly. What does it mean to begin to fall for someone you’ve known your whole life, and what are you risking by following your heart? In a genre full of instalove and unrealistically adult teenage boys, Kevin–and his complex relationship with Glenn–are certainly refreshing. They get on each other’s nerves and have trouble communicating, but their relationship is so heartfelt that the ultimate resolution feels wonderfully earned. (view spoiler)[Both make grand gestures; in one of the novel’s most touching moments, Glenn plunges into a river to swim after a brainwashed Kevin (hide spoiler)]. But these actions never feel obligatory or contrived. I believed them whole-heartedly.
Hirsch uses the chemistry and tension between these characters to effectively and seamlessly teach us about the world at the novel’s beginning (having two characters fight about the universe’s nature is so much more effective than a stock infodump). Later, they accompany one another through the Rift and into the magical world of the Magisterium. (view spoiler)[Here, physics work differently than on Glenn’s Earth. Magic is real. Her cat is (awesomely) transformed into a walking, talking guardian and mentor (hide spoiler)]. They become enmeshed in the politics of the world past the Rift, and it’s here that the story lightly stumbled for me. The characters drift from character encounter to character encounter much like avatars in top-down JRPGs. Each encounter is scary and fascinating–one with a cabin-dwelling woman named Opal Whitley (named, perhaps, for Opal Whiteley?) stands out as particularly strange–but I lost sense of the driving plot.
But all recovers by the novel’s end, as secret identities and powers are revealed and wild magic does its work. I eventually realized that it’s the romance that really drives the plot here and not the more fairy tale elements like the magical bracelet. But when a romance is written so competantly and well–when the characters involved are both strong, vivid, real, and when they inhabit a world so starkly fascinating–then I’m far from one to complain. Magisterium may not be a perfect work, but, like the work of Miyazaki, it’s the kind that you just can’t help but crow about.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Karen Cushman meets Lynda Barry in this incredibly adorable 2002 comic collection from Rachel Hartman. Like Seraphina, Amy Unbounded features strongly...moreKaren Cushman meets Lynda Barry in this incredibly adorable 2002 comic collection from Rachel Hartman. Like Seraphina, Amy Unbounded features strongly drawn characters in the quasi-Renaissance fantasy kingdom of Goredd. Here, Hartman's prose strengths--her vivid people and remarkably well-crafted world--are complimented nicely by Hartman's easy inkwork.
Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming tells the story of the eponymous Amy in the summer before her tenth year. There are certain similarities that exist between Amy's story and Seraphina's. Both are bright, stubborn girls standing on the cusp of adulthood. Both have strong ties to their fathers, foreigner mothers, and fairly awesome friendships with scholarly dragon dudes. But honestly? I might like Amy more than Seraphina. She's so vividly constructed, and Hartman writes nine-going-on-ten terrifically. This is where I see the strong similarities to Barry's work. Hartman captures not only the unbridled optimism and hope of this age but also the fear, tumultuous emotions, and poignancy. There's one scene where Amy sits under the table, holding her dog and listening, owl-eyed, as the adults talk about important things. I've rarely seen this kind of tween moment described (or drawn) so accurately.
And the fantasy world is so immersive, too. I would have loved it so much as a Ren Faire-obsessed ten year old. Bran and Trig (Trig!) and Ollpheist are people who could not exist in our world, but fit in so beautifully well here. You never get the feeling that Hartman, like some speculative writers, creates her universe simply in the service of the story. It is, instead, a very real place, one which she clearly knows intimately. She simply lets her characters walk around there and allows the conflict to grow naturally out of the environment.
Man, do I love Rachel's writing. I'd read a thousand books set in Goredd. A prequel about Belondweg? A story about Amy of Eddybrook all grown up? The star-crossed saga of Ollie and Niesta? Pretty please, dear Rachel, more?(less)
If you’ve been following the Intergalactic Academy, then you know that we’re fans of KA Applegate. To date, Sean has recapped over half of her classic YA sci-fi series Animorphs. Animorphs was, in fact, one of the first things we bonded over–on the AbsoluteWrite forums, we talked about how we loved this dark contemporary space opera and how badly we wished someone would bring that magic back.
So I was very excited to pick up Eve & Adam, a collaboration between Katherine Applegate and her husband Michael (who also helped her out on Animorphs, rumor has it). But based on the premise, my expectations were not particularly high. On the surface, Eve & Adam is not dissimilar to many other YA sci-fi titles out there today. In fact, the focus on genetic engineering, artificial men, and evil corporations is fairly run of the mill.
But what distinguishes Eve & Adam is, really, what has always distinguished Applegate’s work. Don’t get me wrong; this is not a particularly deep book. It certainly isn’t literary. Told in the alternating viewpoints of Eve Spiker, daughter of an evil corporate head, and Solo Plissken, Eve’s mother’s ward, Eve & Adam tells an action-oriented story about how Eve is summoned home after an accident to start designing simulated people at her mother’s corporation–and how Solo tries to intervene, bringing the corporation crashing down. It is extremely–deliciously, I’d say–fast-paced, with chase scenes and dramatic kisses. It’s a commercial novel, through and through.
As were the Animorphs novels, of course. Those packaged titles were just-as-often written by ghostwriters. They featured a strong commercial hook, frequent battle scenes, slightly corny humor, and mildly embarrassing covers. But the Animorphs series was transcendent because of its strength of character, darkness, and nuance. Our heroes were strongly rendered from the outset, distinctive and realistic. The novels trended very dark by the end, and the arguments they made–about war, about heroism–were always complex. This was not a universe of black and white, simplistic morality.
All of these elements are present in Eve & Adam, which is precisely what makes it so great.
Take the characters: Solo Plissken is a teenage boy who is aching to be a hero; in order to do so, he needs to destroy the bitchy woman who owns his life. Solo’s chapters are liberally scattered with wry humor and accurate teenage diction (cursing!). Evening Spiker is a mildly nerdy girl who is not quite sure what she wants. Does she want to be like Aislin, the friend her mother disdains for her sexual proclivities? Or does she want to be like her mom–sharp, educated, controlled?
Grand and Applegate don’t beleaguer the point with either of these characters. They present them in bold, broad strokes and then let the narrative move on. The ease with which the characters are established (and the snappy pace of the book) might make you think that it’s one note. In fact, I initially feared we were in for little more than another story about the evils of scientific research.
But that’s not what this book is about. First of all, there’s a real love for science here–from Plissken’s computer hacking to Spiker’s use of a complex sim capable of building artificial humans. Somehow, Applegate and Grant were able to capture precisely what makes games like Spore so addictive–the art of it, as well as the twitchy, modular fun. Secondly, there’s surprising nuance in the minor characters (even the villains) by the end. Thematically, this is a fairly dark tale–though perhaps not as dark as Animorphs–about discovering the truth behind your childhood myths about your parents. It’s also got a bit of a Pygmalion thing going on, about art and artists, about creators and how the things they make can grow beyond their control.
But I think the most interesting questions here are ethical: when is it right to play god? To what lengths should we go to protect our creations–our children?
Again, this isn’t great literature. But for commercial lit it does a good job of incorporating complexity and big ideas. And that, I think, is what I always liked best about Animorphs, too. They were deceptive little books. Kids turn into animals, ha ha–only not. I think the same is true about Eve & Adam. You might think this is just another YA sci-fi thriller, but there’s some pretty juicy meat here on a familiar set of bones.(less)
It’s rare that I find YA comp titles to be accurate. Many are pitched as “x meets y!” or “x for teenagers!” when neither title x nor why have anything but the most superficial similarities to the novel in question. What’s Left of Me, however, has already drawn comparisons to both His Dark Materials and Never Let Me Go–and for once, the comparisons are apt! What’s Left of Me bears some conceptual similarities to The Golden Compass and its sequels, in that it explores a world where souls are known to exist. As in The Golden Compass, these souls are very different from ours (namely, each person is born with two). But the comparison to Never Let Me Go is even more appropriate. Both novels are set in alternate versions of our own world. Both feature striking, somewhat spare prose and a melancholy tone. And both are quite lovely books.
What’s Left of Me is the story of Eva, a recessive soul trapped inside a body shared with a girl named Addie. In Eva’s world, each person is born with two consciousnesses who alternate control of their body until, around age six, the recessive twin fades away. But Eva never has. Her parents take her to doctors and specialists, desperate to avoid the presence of a “hybrid” child in their family. Finally, around age 12, Eva simply decides to let Addie take control–despite the fact that she’s very much still alive.
This means that for most of the novel, Eva narrates without truly interacting. She can speak to Addie, and she can speak to us, but she’s a prisoner, really, in her body. Zhang handles this interesting perspective well. Her prose is very well-controlled. Later in the story, when the perspective shifts to first person from third, it’s both very intentional and very meaningful.
What’s Left of Me is generally a thoughtful book. It seems to be primarily a novel about identity politics. There’s a running subtext about growing up as a member of a minority group in America; Zhang doesn’t avoid hard racial questions, and she doesn’t dodge the fact that Addie and Eva have an easier life than some in this world because they are white. But there’s also a persistent thread about growing up closeted, one which is fully explored by the novel’s conclusion. In the novel’s second half, the girls are forced to undergo medical treatment in a hospital that bears some resemblance to “ex-gay” therapy that some children are forced to undergo in our own world.
But Zhang doesn’t let her characters suffer for all this thematic complexity. Both Eva and Addie are very well-wrought characters, and their relationship is a thorny as any real-life sisterly bond. There are jealousies and romances and Zhang wonderfully explores the way her universe’s rules change both jealousy, and romance. The question of consent is present here (what if you want to kiss a boy but your other soul doesn’t?), and Zhang declines to give us any easy answers. Heady, thoughtful stuff.
That’s not to say the novel is perfect: Eva generally read much younger than 15 to me; religious exploration is conspicuously absent in a universe where souls are confirmed real; I was sometimes a little hazy on the history of Zhang’s America. But overall? This is a complex, sophisticated book–a satisfying answer to more pedestrian YA.(less)
Like a lot of people my age, I dig anime. Girly anime, mostly–Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. My affinity for odd Japanese children’s series has often left me craving a written equivalent. Manga are great and all, but I’m a book girl at heart, and have never really found anything in American YA that satisfies in quite the way that an episode of my favorite shojo might. Magical and often surreal, these shows take the typical universal experience of growing up and wrap them in vivid science fiction or fantasy trappings. But because the narratives are created outside the American cultural sphere, they have a fantastic freshness to them. They feel strange, unexpected–they make your brain work to uncover the mystery of the world even as you follow the main character’s narrative. For example, I recently began watching Revolutionary Girl: Utena, and became immersed in the strange setting (an isolated school with a floating castle out in the woods) and central plot (a student council fight duels and the victor gets to own a girl) as much as I was entertained by the spunky main character.
So I was excited when I read the blurb for Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes. I got a strong whiff of “anime story!” from the declaration that “being a Prince in a vast intergalactic Empire isn’t as great as it sounds. Princes may be nearly superhuman, but they are always in danger.” And really, this novel exceeded my expectations. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for: inventive as any anime, with strong science fictional worldbuilding, and the distinctive characters that make Western YA novels so lively.
Before you dive in to A Confusion of Princes, you should know that this is an incredibly dense, strange book, at least at first. Within the first hundred pages, we’re introduced to Prince Khemri, who was stolen from his parents (who were either killed, or mind-wiped) in order to become an intergalactic Prince. He spent the first decade in some sort of biogoop, where he had three types of “tek” implanted into him–mektek, bitek, and psitek. These terms are dropped in without explanation, and it took me most of the novel to work them out from context clues. Super strong, with psychic abilities and access to the knowledge of the Imperial Mind, Khem was raised alone with virtual tutors. But at last he’s set free, given a dozen servants, and allowed to join Princely society–where he is, in short order, killed.
(That’s not a spoiler, by the way. We’re told in the first sentence that this is the story of Khem’s first three deaths.)
This is truly challenging science fiction. Khem is not human, least of all in his view of the world. Nix doesn’t do much hand-holding here. We’re plunged into this new, strange universe in a manner more common of adult sci-fi. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I was so excited to discover the mysteries underlying his world that I just kept reading, finishing the novel in one sitting.
It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through that I realized that aside from Khem–strongly voiced, wryly humorous, absolutely honest–there weren’t really any characters in this book, especially not at first. But I really almost didn’t notice. We’re swept along from one intriguing science fictional situation to the next and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be so preoccupied by figuring it out that you won’t really miss people.
And then Nix pulls the rug out from under us at roughly the halfway point, when Khem meets Raine and begins to slowly take on the mantle of humanity. It’s a fascinating process, and a fascinating move in a novel such as this one. In some ways, this marks a transformation into a more typical upper-YA narrative. But Khem’s journey continues through lush environs and at a sprightly pace–and by the time he started to feel for Raine, I’d begun to feel for both of them. Sure, Nix sacrifices a little bit of the novel’s strangeness, but he exchanges it for tenderness. It works, and works well.
I really adored this book, and would imagine that it would have broad cross-over appeal–not to middle grade audiences like some of Nix’s books, but rather to adult science fiction fans. They’re likely to appreciate the rich, strange world here, even as their younger brothers and sisters enjoy the coming-of-age narrative at its core. In that way, it’s a lot like anime–and precisely what I’ve been waiting for.(less)
I was ten, almost eleven, when I fell in love for the first time.
I was over my grandparents' house. The grown-ups were watching some grown-up film on...moreI was ten, almost eleven, when I fell in love for the first time.
I was over my grandparents' house. The grown-ups were watching some grown-up film on the downstairs television, so I went upstairs with my art supplies and reams of computer paper and drew on my grandparents' bed while watching the Beatles anthology on ABC.
I can't deny that what stirred in me then--some groundswell of emotion at the sight of the Beatles in Hamburg, photographed by Astrid Kirchherr, may have been in some ways sexual--what teenage girl can deny that the affection she feels for a long-dead pop star might be essentially because she thinks he's cute? But I wasn't embarrassed. The Beatles (especially then, at the beginnings of their careers, when they wore leather instead of suits and lived in Hamburg rather than London or Liverpool) were cool--the strains of John Lennon's raw voice as he screamed "Twist and Shout" at the end of a long night at the Cavern Club bad ass. This was the first grown-up thing I ever loved, the first cool thing, when cool was just a feeling--one that I mostly associated with my punk rock older sister, not with anything that I, myself, might love.
I spent the next eighteen months or so painstakingly recreating Astrid's photographs in pencil, inhaling every book on the Beatles I could--photo books and biographies and books that explained the meanings of all of their songs. My sister bought me a copy of Backbeat on VHS for my twelfth birthday. Perhaps it was in inappropriate gift for a twelve-year-old girl (all that messy sex with oil paints!), but it really just helped solidify in my mind what I already knew: the Beatles were the best; I loved John Lennon; I wanted to be cool, and brilliant, and hard, and talented, and have adventures.
Here's the thing you might not realize if you've never been a Beatles-obsessee: the story of the four lads from Liverpool (or should I say "Four Lads from Liverpool," capitalized to signify their symbolic importance) has been reiterated and restated and re-examined so many times that it constitutes a quasi-religious canon. True fans know the story as well as they know their own. We know that Paul McCartney practiced his guitar in his bathroom at home. We know that John Lennon's parents made him choose between them when he was only five. We know that Pete Shotton was kicked out of the Quarrymen by having a washboard smashed over his head. These are intimate details we perhaps should not know, but in our quest to learn more about these men as people, no stone has been left unturned. Their lives become myths more than anything else.
This has some artistic benefits (see: The Rutles, a joke which functions on a whole 'nother level if you, too, know what Eric Idle is riffing on), but also has the side-effect of flattening your perceptions of Beatles art and history after a point. A true Beatles fan is very, very hard to surprise. We've heard it all before.
So it was with this context of excitement and trepidation that I requested Baby's in Black, a graphic novel by Arne Bellstorf about the Beatles' time in Hamburg, on netgalley. Oh, who am I kidding? I grabbed my nook, immediately downloaded it, and read the whole thing in about an hour. I expected a story of my favorite-ever-era in Beatles' history. I did not expect to be surprised, or moved.
But I was both.
For one thing, Bellstorf chooses a unique viewpoint from which to glimpse the whole endeavor of Liverpudlian boys in Hamburg: that of Astrid, slick Bohemian as she falls in love first with the band and then with Stu. I had expected something that stayed closer to the narrative built in Backbeat, but Astrid's feminine, youthful, German lens is a really unique one from which to tell this story.
We get details I hadn't ruminated upon before, or considered: Astrid and Stu, living at home with Astrid's mother; Astrid gossiping about the Beatles with the photographer for whom she works; Astrid, quietly bemused, as Klaus prattles on about how wonderful the boys in the band are. This allowed for moments of surprising tenderness, none so sharply felt as when Astrid and Stu laze around her bedroom and talk about records and books and begin to fall in love. Wow, I thought, What a couple of kids!
And then I realized that they were kids when this all happened--Stu hardly twenty years old. Which makes what happens to him that much more powerful, that much sadder.
Bellstorf's scribbled, cartoonish illustrations are wonderfully appropriate for the story he tells, somehow capturing both the grit of the Beatles' lives at the time as well as the cool simplicity of the Germans who they befriended. If I have any hesitation here, it's in the way Bellstorf's rosy-cheeked depictions of the characters (sometimes a little too indistinguishable) and simplistic dialogue made them seem even younger than they were--closer to fourteen or fifteen than nineteen or twenty. Character relationships seem simplified, too--Lennon's relationship with Sutcliffe seems particularly toothless compared to some depictions.
But this is really Astrid's story, and it's tenderly told, touching--and very sad. Bellstorf employs some neat narrative tricks in the graphic novel's last section to underscore her loss, tricks which could have fallen flat but instead were simply transcendent. The art and skill employed in the telling of Astrid's tale makes this a worthy read both for fans familiar with her life story, and those new to the Beatles mythos.(less)
I began Monument 14 with some difficulty. Following a gripping second-person introduction, we’re plunged into...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
I began Monument 14 with some difficulty. Following a gripping second-person introduction, we’re plunged into the life and voice of Dean, a tenth grader whose world falls apart on the bus to school one morning. Massive hailstones dent the ceiling of his bus, and cars swerve from the road. There are explosions. Soon, the world is a wreck around him and he finds himself ushered in to a local big box store by a grade school bus driver who soon leaves for help.
Fourteen children are left behind. They watch the news of a mega-tsunami over an old television screen. This all sounds pretty gripping, and it should have been, but at first the story–told through Dean’s simplistic and somewhat bland narration–felt stiff to me. The characters (a jock, a bully, a beautiful girl, the new kid, the foreign kid, a pair of twins) were like cardboard cut-outs.
But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. Slowly, over the course of Monument 14‘s spare three hundred pages, Dean and his companions began to come to life. Holed up in the megamart after a chemical weapon is inadvertently released by an earthquake following the tsunami, they begin to carve out a meager existence. Their days are filled realistically. Sometimes they enact ingenious plans; sometimes they get drunk and play laser tag. Soon, the older kids are plunged into romantic drama. Dean loves Astrid, who disappears after a chemical-induced freak-out. When he finds her again, he learns she’s canoodling with Jake, a popular athlete. Leader Niko loves “mother hen” Josie, who loves Brayden, a bully, and so on.
There are questionable moments in the narrative, like when a thirteen-year-old girl puts on a sexual show, apparently to gain the approval of the older boys–or when Dean himself uses the term “gay” to describe a poem he’s written. But Laybourne (and Dean) mostly present these moments without narrative comment. She’s not endorsing or judging this behavior. She simply presents it realistically, and leaves the reader to make moral judgments, or not, as he or she sees fit. Contrary to my initial beliefs, these weren’t simple, cliched characters. As I came to see different sides of the children, I began to believe they were all very nuanced in their conception. If they seemed stiff at first then, well, it was only because Dean himself didn’t know them very well.
There are a few lapses here. The ending is unsatisfying, though true to the character of a schlub like Dean. The science fictional and science elements were also sometimes silly. This is a near-future world, one with a massive computer network that soon goes down. I was never really convinced that this was a necessity. If Laybourne meant to warn us about the dangers of cloud computing, well, I’m not exactly about to give up dropbox.
But those details really weren’t important. What carries Monument 14 were the strongly-conceived, spot-on teenage characters; the fascinating setting (who hasn’t dreamed of holing up in a Walmart for awhile?); and the complexity with which Laybourne deals with human nature. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a strong, interesting one, and well worth a read.(less)
I’m late to the party with Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, winner of a Newbery in 2010 and recipient of widespread acclaim. It certainly deserves its praise; this is an engaging, fascinating middle grade novel, which takes stylistic risks all while celebrating a work of classic children’s science fiction, namely Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
A Wrinkle in Time is twelve-year-old Miranda’s favorite book. She retreats into its pages when her best friend, Sal, decides he doesn’t want to be her friend anymore. So Miranda branches out, befriending a small gaggle of interesting classmates.
There’s the time-traveling obsessed nerd. The secret epileptic. The snooty rich girl. The cute thief. All of these characters are rendered vividly, with realism and with nuance.
When You Reach Me‘s realism is probably its greatest asset. This is a sci-fi novel, sure, but it’s an incredibly grounded sci-fi novel. The little details here make Miranda’s New York City as nuanced as any science fictional landscape. One description, of her mother’s response to their ratty apartment when they first moved in, struck me as particularly true and touching.
This is a novel very much of its time–the time in which it’s set, not the time in which it was written. Miranda’s New York isn’t the New York of today but rather New York in the ’70s. In some ways this is a necessity; the plot very much hinges on Miranda’s identity as a latch-key kid. The wide latitude she and her friends are given (they go out for lunch, and even work in a local deli) would not be believable in modern children, even tough inner city kids like Miranda and Sal.
But the setting also works on another level, self-consciously evoking nostalgia for ’70s children’s literature–not only L’Engle’s works, but also the works of realist children’s writers like Judy Blume, Emily Cheney Neville, and Louise Fitzhugh, among others. If you know anything about the history of children’s fiction, you might know that this was an era with a strong emphasis on emotional honesty. Writers had moved passed the cheerful, “safe” renditions of childhood presented by ’50s writers such as Carolyn Haywood, and instead endeavored to speak to children with a trademarked earnestness and honesty.
Stead’s Miranda successfully recalls the heroes of these books, though her ending was a bit more pat than what you typically find in ’70s kid-lit. It seemed to reflect a feeling of resolution and finality more in keeping with the sensibilities of modern kid readers. Still, it was true to its premises, expanding along fascinating and unexpected SFnal lines.
But I can’t shake the feeling that this is strongest as a nostalgia piece, invoking A Wrinkle in Time while not quite transcending it. Perhaps that’s a tall order, but one of the trademarks of L’Engle’s Kairos books was their timelessness. While, like other authors of her generation, L’Engle’s children (though precocious) were emotionally true, they also seemed to exist in a universe unfettered by linear time. As Miranda says, “The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven” (8). Meg’s world was one without generational markers, which is, in part, what gave it such long legs.
Will When You Reach Me have the same staying power, the same potential to speak to middle schoolers fifty years from now? I’m not entirely sure. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great middle grade novel, a fun beginner’s exploration of certain physical concepts, a stirring mystery, and a strangely beautiful commentary on the power of friendship. But it dates itself, quite self-consciously, by embracing a story of yesterday’s children . While I don’t doubt that this will be a comforting book, familiar but still fresh, for many adult readers, I do feel that L’Engle’s mantle still remains unclaimed.(less)
It's of dubious nutritional value. It's focused on the romantic urges of a teenage girl, to the extent th...moreThis is the YA your parents warned you about.
It's of dubious nutritional value. It's focused on the romantic urges of a teenage girl, to the extent that all other plotlines--college applications and friendships--are completely eclipsed. The Romeo and Juliet metaphor is stretched precariously thin; rich girl Dawn isn't quite Juliet, and poor Irish Sean sure isn't Romeo. The largest force that conspires to keep them apart isn't their feuding parents or even their class differences but rather classic, chick-lit style lapses in communication.
But Skater Boy (or is it Sk8r Boy?) is all in good fun, a sugar coated romance that should tug on the heart strings of any self-respecting teenage girl. Fifteen-year-old Dawn knows that she's smarter than her clothing-obsessed friends (whose conversations feel lifted right out of the Fashion Club on Daria), and when a new girl--gothy Starr--shows up at her posh private school, she sees an opportunity out of her bland purgatory of mall trips and extracurriculars.
But Starr--who has an alcoholic subplot of her own--is really only a vehicle for Dawn's true savior, the eponymous Skater Boy himself, Sean. Sean is blond and adorable and really good at skateboarding, but you guys, he's also really sweet and smart. He wants to be the first in his family to go to college. His home life (which includes on brother under house arrest for drug charges) is a little embarrassing, but he refuses to be ashamed of his loving, but impoverished mother. When he catches what he assumes is a whiff of judgment from Dawn, he instinctively pushes her away.
Meanwhile, Dawn has been digging her own grave--lying to her parents, flunking her classes. When her dad finds out she's been going on dates behind his back, he sets her up on a date with the local rich sleazebucket. It goes about as well as you'd imagine (namely, extremely date-rapey).
But all is set right at the end. In the Shakespearian sense, this is a comedy, not a tragedy. And while the resolution is a little convenient for my tastes (what about Starr and her drinking problems?!), this is meant to be a cute, cute book, and it concludes on an adorable and heartwarming note.
Books like Skater Boy need to be understood on their own terms. They're not really meant for us--adult readers of YA fiction--but rather for actual teenagers, who want to feel the first thrilling shivers of love. Mancusi delivers on this heartily. Dawn's angst is familiar; love interest Sean is beautiful, and bad ass, and exciting, but safe. It's not great literature, sure, but it's pretty much pitch-perfect YA, voicey and endearing. Sure beats the Sweet Valley books of our generation.(less)
I had some hesitations with Divergent when I read it last year. While I enjoyed Tris, our narrator and heroine, and the strong, well-paced prose, I found much of her story in the first book trifling. As Tris chose a faction in her dystopian world and moved through Dauntless initiation, she spent much of her time zip-lining and jumping off buildings and acting like a hooligan. Realistic, maybe, for a teenage girl, but at times I was a bit frustrated at her refusal to pay attention to the war blossoming around her.
I had high hopes for Insurgent, though, which promised to begin with Tris's Dauntless training behind her and with the more significant global problems of her universe instead. And I was far from disappointed.
Insurgent deepens the themes of the first book in several significant ways. First, Roth tirelessly explores the sociological and emotional impact of the faction system. Tris and Tobias travel through their futuristic Chicago in this volume, visiting the various other factions; we are able to perceive the differences between the people within them in greater depth. Much of this is achieved through Roth's deft hand at characterization. She creates surprisingly vivid characters in a very short span of time. More, these characters all manage to display not only their chosen faction traits, but the underlying traits of their factions of origin. And no character is better drawn than Tris herself.
In Insurgent, Tris mourns her parents. However, their deaths not treated cavalierly, but rather informed just about everything Tris does and experiences. There were many small, moving moments--like when Tris glances in a mirror, and realizes that her mother will never see the woman that she herself is becoming. It was touching, very human, and nicely executed. But more, the depths of Tris's grief--which has her realistically contemplating suicide--also reflect the values inculcated in her during her Abnegation childhood. This omnipresence of the worldbuilding, evidenced in the way that each character was conceived, made the world feel very real. It swayed me, in a way that I wasn't quite convinced through the first book.
And Roth pushes all of her characters to their emotional extremes. There's a war going on, sure, but Tris and Tobias in particular are also forced to face some uncomfortable truths about themselves. Some of this is brought about through what can only be called a plot contrivance (truth serum), but the emotions that they work through at this stage of their relationship still rang very true to me.
The science is made deeper here as well. The plot is more significantly concerned with the simulations, which were more of a side-note in the first volume, as well as the neurological differences between the Divergent and the rest of the populace. And the neurology was refreshingly sound! There's even a completely accurate description of mirror neurons. I may or may not have squeed.
If I had any reservations about Insurgent, they concerned the novel's opening. Roth includes almost no recapping--a conscious choice, apparently, but one that simply didn't work for me. The cast of characters in this series is quite large, and I found it hard to find my footing. Despite the brisk prose, it wasn't until I was about a hundred pages in that I really found my rhythm. I didn't need a lot to help me out, but a simple "Caleb, my brother," for example, would have sufficed.
I also suspect that some readers might find the endless discussion of the factions, and the differences between them, to be a bit exhausting--but to be honest, I didn't. It was just so well-executed in the particulars. For example, the religion of Amity resembles Quakerism; Abnegation worship like Protestants. These little details made the world feel very real.
And finally, the ending was just fantastic. It features a great science fictional twist that will likely be controversial but which I whole-heartedly enjoyed. Unlike many second volumes, Insurgent accomplishes much more than moving around plot pieces. It felt like a necessary part of the story--and a deeper part, too. I look forward to the third book.(less)
There are certain myths about young adult as a genre that are perpetuated even by those of us within the business--that the industry is risk-averse; t...moreThere are certain myths about young adult as a genre that are perpetuated even by those of us within the business--that the industry is risk-averse; that the market has no room for ambitious work and that publishers prefer, rather, to release one carbon copy of Twilight after another. In a way, these myths are comforting. When we face defeat (and we all do, sometimes) it's so much easier to pin our own lack of success on a "industry" cold to our creative genius rather than ourselves.
I'll admit that this is one reason I've avoided works of YA fantasy over the past few years, as a general rule. It's not that I don't like fantasy. In fact, Mercedes Lackey was one of my favorite authors as a teen. Rather, based on limited exposure to the genre, I unfairly concluded that it was a dumbed-down version of the adult genre, insistent on holding the reader's hand through infodumps and oversimplification. And so I avoided it.
I'm not sure that I would have been in a rush to read this novel were Rachel Hartman not my friend. Bear in mind that I love dragons--shape-shifting ones are even better. Still, Firelight by Sophie Jordan was also a novel about shifty dragonkind and I begged off that one. But when I met Rachel here on goodreads, and began to talk with her about books, I saw what a sharp, perceptive mind she had--along with a dry sense of humor and a seemingly-tireless devotion to her work--and I began to grow cautiously optimistic, even excited, about her book.
Reading a friend's novel is always a bit of a daunting task. Even--and maybe especially--if you pride yourself on honesty, there's that worry, no matter how slight, that honesty might offend.
But--phew!--I honestly loved this book.
It's the story of Seraphina, daughter of a dragon and a man, who is a lady and a musician at a court on the precipice of war. The dragons and the humans in this city have wrought a tenuous peace, but then the prince is killed and beheaded (by a dragon, perhaps?), and Seraphina, who hides a few scales beneath her billowing dresses, is terrified that she might be caught in the cross-fire.
In some ways, Phina's story sounds like a typical fantasy tale--there's the courtly half-breed with a secret; the wise, gruff old teacher; a murder mystery to drive the plot. What distinguishes Hartman's work is its ambition and its sophistication. There are no infodumps here. In fact, the universe's rich history, from geographical detail to linguistics to cultural differences between various races of dragons, is told in a breezy, matter-of-fact way that remains completely faithful to Phina's narration. There are no lapses of narrative made in order to make the book easier. This means that the reader has to work a little harder, of course, piecing together the clues of the setting in order to see the rich, vital world that Hartman has created. But what we reap in exchange is an immersive, deep, and rewarding experience.
Seraphina herself is so distinct a character that I feel like I know her. Her fundamental discomfort over holding her secrets in, her loneliness, her oddness all make her one of the most recognizable young adult heroines I've encountered. The supporting cast is likewise strong, particularly Glisselda, the haughty princess who is still somehow loveable, and Orma, the gruff, logical dragon tutor who has protected Phina through her days at court and taught her how to suppress her draconic memories.
This suppression is the only aspect of Seraphina that gave me pause. She utilizes a method of visualization not unlike the "memory palace" that you might have seen in this season of the BBC's Sherlock. Phina keeps an extensive mental "garden" of compartmentalized dragon stuff. The passages describing this garden are dreamlike and a touch surreal--and I'll admit that I found a few early scenes went on a little too long. I wanted to be in the real world, sparking and lively and important and not in some place that didn't even exist! But I also get what Hartman was doing here. She was talking about code-switching between worlds, how we must repress part of ourselves to get along in different groups, and about the damage such a practice can ultimately bring. If it wasn't entirely successful for this reader, I think that's okay--it was, nevertheless, an incredibly ambitious, thoughtful gambit. I'd rather see more authors take these kinds of risks.
And anyway, the remainder of this book was frankly awesome. I loved the complex development of dragon society (sometimes hauntingly glimpsed through Phina's mother's eyes), the tension between the saar and the quigutl, a smaller dragon race; the hints of deep history of Goredd and the surrounding environs. There's a romance here--tender and endearing; more the story of two outcast nerds who come to love each other than anything else--and mounting war and familial shame. This is a challenging, enveloping book. I could imagine it finding its audience just as easily with adult fantasy fans as YA readers. What Hartman's done here has restored my faith in the sophistication of fantastic YA. If this is a publishing world that will embrace works like these--stimulating, well-wrought, enveloping, thoughtful--then it's one that I'm happy to be a part of, indeed. (less)
Jenn Reese’s middle grade debut Above World reaffirmed my choice to start reviewing middle grade novels at th...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
Jenn Reese’s middle grade debut Above World reaffirmed my choice to start reviewing middle grade novels at the Academy. This story of a young mermaid Kampii girl about to undergo her society’s adulthood ceremony where she will eat a magical seed that transforms her legs into a tail–and what happens when that girl decides to forgo this ritual instead to save her people–begins as any young adult fantasy story might. Aluna is YA heroine of a classic sort, one who sneaks weapons lessons behind her father’s back and who stubbornly refuses to accept the gender roles of her people. Her relationship with twelve-year-old Hoku is complex and tender. Hoku is more demur than his best friend, geekier and less world-weary, and passages told from his perspective were fairly refreshing. Though I liked Aluna right from the outset, she realistically lacks self-awareness; Hoku’s perceptive (and yet childlike) chapters were a nice counterpoint to Aluna’s single-mindedness.
The undersea society is built with nuance; gender roles are strictly determined by reproductive necessity rather than personal preference; the stagnating high council copes (or fails to cope) with their dying technology. The first chapters felt a bit like a better-developed, more plausible version of The Little Mermaid. However, here conflicts and motivations were much more urgently stated. Aluna doesn’t want to leave the Kampii because she’s bored or because of a boy–she wants to leave out of a stubborn and deep-seated desire to save her people.
However, once Aluna and Hoku venture out of their city, the novel takes a surprising turn. Though early chapters hint at science fictional underpinnings (there are corporate-branded breathing apparatuses and discussions of a long-lost founder), I honestly didn’t expect the depths [pun unintended, but noted] of the development of the wider world. Hoku and Aluna soon learn that theirs isn’t the only society of genetically modified chimeras–soon, they meet bird people and horse people and even mechanical crab people.
This busy, diverse universe–so different from ours–provided my only real stumbling block. As they travel across their world, it all started to feel a bit like a busy jumble. A few of the modified offshoots of humanity were difficult to visualize, and I often felt like I was just getting to know one little pocket of society when I was whisked away to learn about another. But still, this world was a rich one to utilize as a backdrop to a middle grade novel, and if the length of the book meant that we didn’t get a ton of breathing room between settings and events, well, then, it’s understandable.
What kept me reading were the tender and honest relationships between the characters–not just between Hoku and Aluna (though their platonic friendship was great), but their eventual romantic interests, as well. The romance here is light and mostly chaste, though it feels like we might be in for something a little deeper and perhaps messier in subsequent books in the series. Aluna herself seems to be in for some big changes by novel’s end.
And Above World itself gets darker and darker as the novel proceeds. A few months ago, I compared Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World to The Wizard of Oz. Like van Eekhout’s novel, Reese’s is a picaresque, with our characters going on a long journey across series of exotic locales. But the wild and sometimes scary creatures (did I mention that there’s a mechanical crab woman?) are more the stuff of low-octane nightmare fuel like Return to Oz. Our villain Fathom, like Mombi, is out for parts. It’s really quite scary, in the best, and most riveting way.
Above World is a great sci-fi tale for the middle grade reader–both girls and boys should find something to enjoy here in its rich universe, relatable characters, and accessible voice. (less)
Like the first volume in the Bumped series, Thumped is a unique sort of beast in YA speculative fiction. In a world full of poetic, but fundamentally...moreLike the first volume in the Bumped series, Thumped is a unique sort of beast in YA speculative fiction. In a world full of poetic, but fundamentally serious romance-focused dystopian novels, these are chatty, comedic novels whose primary purpose seems to be to comment on our own society’s foibles, particularly our current reproductive climate. McCafferty’s story–of twin girls raised in far-different societies who have both faced pressure to reproduce before the age of eighteen thanks to a global reproductive crisis–doesn’t take the dire tone of more traditional sociological science fiction. Instead, it’s chatty, tongue-in-cheek, kind of gross, and apparently light. But don’t mistake this for jokey chick-lit. The rollicking tone actually conceals a rather tender and incisive interior.
Thumped begins eight months after the conclusion of Bumped. The twins, Melody and Harmony, are preparing for their widely-advertised double twin birth. You might remember that this doesn’t quite jive with the ending of Bumped–all will be revealed in good time, though I have to admit that I didn’t think this twist was the best of what McCafferty offered us within Thumped‘s pages.
In fact, generally the pacing was all a bit scattered. As was the case with Bumped (and, come to think of it, the Jessica Darling novels), important events often happen off-screen–events that were emotionally relevant enough that I wondered if they shouldn’t have been included here. Instead, over Thumped‘s first half, we have establishing scenes, a caper-like kidnapping that was a little rough around the edges, and a light rehash of the school drama of the first novel. Through these scenes especially, I couldn’t help but feel a little weary about Melody’s more pedestrian, slang-laden plotlines. Harmony’s voice is undoubtedly the stronger, and it was interesting to note how McCafferty flawlessly incorporated her pregnancy into her narration. Harmony feels like a teenage girl who is on the verge of popping out a few babies. She’s mournful of her lost childhood, physically uncomfortable, and a little apprehensive. In contrast, Melody’s plot felt a bit trifling.
The girls continue their romances of the first novel. Again, Harmony’s relationship with Jondoe is the more tender and better developed of the two, at least initially. But the real treat here–and the meat of the novel–is the development of the relationship between the two sisters. After the events of the first novel, I hadn’t expected this–but the twins are abruptly vividly real in their relationship dynamic. It’s an imperfect sisterhood (as all sisterhoods are, I suppose), but it’s also a powerfully written testament to friendships between girls and friendships between sisters. The scene where they discuss their long-lost mother was perhaps the most moving of the novel:
“With the names she gave us, she had to love music,” Melody said, with an uncharacteristically faraway look in her eyes, “. . . I bet she was more like you in that way, and it’s sweet that you’re actually living up to your name, and then some.”
“I should have modestly insisted that I wasn’t early as musical as Melody made me out to be, but I was too taken with the idea that I had somehow inherited talents from my birth mother that Melody had not.”
““And she wrote heartbreaking songs about being misunderstood by wanky parents, brainless friends, and boys she loved hwo didn’t love her back.”
“I was afraid to move so much as a single muscle. I wanted her to keep talking about our birthparents in a way that made them feel realer than the conjurings of my own heart and soul. (page 181, ARC edition)
The development of the sisterly relationship at the center of this duology represents a certain maturing of the themes found in the first Bumped novel (where girls were just as often pitted against one another than not). In fact, generally I’d say that Thumped presents grown-up versions of Bumped‘s themes. Rather than ruminations on oft-too-young sexualization of teenagers, we have an examination of the reproductive pressures faced by mothers both young and old. Teenage girls are encouraged to see their children not as people but as experiences (something that has happened historically to young unmarried women pressured into giving up their babies for adoption); bodily choices–from the type of birth one has to whether one breastfeeds–are reduced for the declared good of the child. Just as was the case for the first volume, these are real issues faced by real women, sometimes very young women, and it was stirring to see McCafferty tackle them the way she did.
In fact, by the novel’s conclusion it was all very “stirring”–as the girls decide what to do with their reproductive futures, facing the melancholy truth of their universe, and ours, I found myself getting very choked up. If YA dystopians have garnered any consistent criticism, it’s that they’re not socially relevant enough. McCafferty’s novels stand as an answer to that. Her world might not be our world in a literal sense, but for all intents and purposes the conflicts faced by both Melody and Harmony are identical to the conflicts faced by women and girls today. These are important questions–and these are important books.(less)
I'll admit that I initially bristled at this, a book seemingly custom-made for me--a once-bookish girl, still bookish woman who likewise spent her ado...moreI'll admit that I initially bristled at this, a book seemingly custom-made for me--a once-bookish girl, still bookish woman who likewise spent her adolescence searching for her karass and commenting to her friends about how much she'd like to impress a [blue] dragon. Some of my initial reactions were very defensive, indeed--I wondered if the references Jo Walton used weren't so much apt as trendy. For example, our heroine Mori muses upon Lewis's feelings toward female puberty more than once in this fictional journal written supposedly in 1979 and 1980, following her twin sister's death and her own crippling. I don't remember anyone talking about that when I was a kid or a teenager even in the early '90s. We talked about Aslan-as-Jesus, sure, but the whole "What's CS Lewis got against grown women?" thing didn't enter my own consciousness until Philip Pullman began talking about that issue, and loudly. It seemed more like a post-internet-age conversation.
(I should say that I was born in '83, and though I haven't read all of the authors here--Silverberg and Zelazny are two--I've certainly heard of them. I'm disappointed in the number of readers who thought this was basically a litany of impenetrable names. Where's your sense of SF history, people?!)
However, the further I read the more I realized how apt it was that Mori was concerned with this, because this is a novel primarily about endings--the endings of books, the endings of childhood. Some have called Among Others a liminal novel. I think of it, rather, as a terminal novel. It's a long epilogue for a story we never see, bringing us, limping and stumbling, toward closure.
In this way, it's a continuation on the themes that Walton first raised in Relentlessly Mundane, one of my favorite-ever short stories, the tale of what a group of Penvensie-like children become after they're grown and how they decide to trespass again on the magical, dangerous land of their childhood. I've always wished that Walton would novelize this story; I want to know what comes next. But in the years since 2000, she's been beaten to the punch, really, by Lev Grossman. Among Others continues these themes in a more realistic setting--in fact, I'm of the opinion that this is a realistic novel, not a fantasy novel--exploring what happens after the hobbits come home from to the shire.
Mori's voice, as built through her personal journals, has an almost hypnotic quality. Some have said that nothing happens here. The truth is, nothing "important" happens here, unless you are, or have ever been, a fifteen year old girl. In that case, the events that transpire are universe-altering. Mori loses her sister, then her precious grandfather. She moves off with her dad, a perpetual child, who sends her away to boarding school. In Mori's SF vocabulary, she finds there a granfalloon, not a karass--that is, until she stumbles across a science fiction book club at the local library, where she makes friends, true friends, who care about books. She even meets a boy.
It's the way that Mori pours almost infinite care into her ideas about the world that rang most true to me. For example, in her thoughts about monogamy, sex, sexuality, anarchism. I remember being fourteen, remember what it was like to go to school with people who didn't talk about things. And I remember turning fifteen and finding friends who were all at once too young for our ages and too old. We had a secret kingdom in the woods where we sat around talking about God.
I remember what it was like to be there, in that terminal space of childhood. I remember reading books about witchcraft and making spells. More simply, I remember refusing to admit that our magical kingdom was, in fact, a municipal garbage dump. To say as much would have been a betrayal--of each other, of hope, of magic itself.
In this way, I'll admit that I think Mori's story--and it feels like a betrayal to even say so--is actually "relentlessly mundane," so to speak. I don't think there are fairies, though I think Mori thinks there are fairies. Are she and her mother merely "insane"? It feels dangerous to even guess. I don't think it matters, not really. This is not a book about magic in the way that the Narnia books are books about magic. This is about the magic that exists in a girl--a wild, untamed, dangerous blood magic. This is about the magic that exists in all girls.
Of course, Mori's life is not, in fact, mundane (but then, how many girls like Mori come from truly mundane circumstances?). She's lost her sister (view spoiler)[and stolen her name (hide spoiler)]. She is learning to know the father she never knew before (startling, the scene where he drunkenly kisses her. But oh, how right her reaction--not right as in correct, but right as in real. Of course a fifteen-year-old who reads too much '70s sci-fi would justify and explain away such an incident). Learning to find her people, her place, despite physical disability and cultural diaspora. It would be easy to dismiss this as silly girl stuff, not worth reading. Too mundane, and relentlessly so. But that would be to deny the magic that happens in school, in suburbia, on the train, in the doctor's office, and in the woods when you have your first and second kisses. I won't betray Mori like that. I won't betray the girl I was, either.
Finally, this is an excellent study in the unreliable narrator. Mori fights us for every scrap of information about her life. She does not hold our hand, plainly state her themes or her background. Like Catcher in the Rye this is a story of an aftermath. But it's perhaps more controlled than Catcher (an appropriate difference between the two characters--Holden is spiraling out of control; Mori is stitching herself up and up until she can finally become a functioning member of society again). In this way, the diary is beautifully executed--never meant to be read, never written for an audience. We're interlopers. We don't get the benefit of context. Had Walton chosen differently, it would have destroyed the verisimilitude. It would have been more ordinary, sure--more approachable--but never so relentlessly and unapologetically real. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s debut, easily delivers on the great fun of its premise: it’s a sci-fi retelling of Cinderella, set in New Beijing, with a cyborg as our poor little waif. I suspect there can be a temptation to oversimplify fairytale retellings, relying on the bland characters of the original stories rather than breathing new life into the source material. Here, however, we’re given a fresh spin on this old story.
What makes Cinder more than just fluffy princess stuff is Cinder herself, as well as the diverse cast of characters who surround her. She’s a scrappy, slightly sarcastic mechanic with soft heart. Her speech and reactions are very contemporary-feeling, and I suspect she’ll more easily connect with modern YA readers than either many sci-fi or fairy tale heroines. Her voice is believably adolescent and breezily casual, though not quite cliche enough to be called “snarky.” She’s nicely balanced and realize –even if she is only thirty eight percent human.
Cinder doesn’t remember her childhood–she was raised by a foster family who sets her to mend household electronics while her “stepsisters” preen and giggle and prepare to go to the prince’s ball. Peony and Pearl, like Cinder, are surprisingly fresh and nuanced. Rather than the flat monsters of the fairytale, one sister (Peony) is, though a little superficial, a very sympathetic character. As were other supporting members of the cast: Prince Kai, our love interest; Dr. Erland, who tries to derive from Cinder a cure for the plague that’s destroying the Earthen population; Iko, the completely awesome android. These characters are built deftly, in quick, seemingly-effortless strokes. It’s a cast as vital as any you’ll find on Joss-Whedon penned television.
The plot, likewise, moves briskly, with just enough of the fairytale (the ball; the stepsisters) to ground us, but enough fresh details (a plague! a war between Earth and the moon!) to keep it surprising. Much of the plot concerns the political machinations of the Lunar queen, and the impact of this court drama on New Beijing. And yet it’s never boring–much closer to the original Star Wars trilogy than the prequels.
Cinder‘s romance was particularly striking. Meyer could have easily defaulted to instalove here–the fairytale framework would have excused it. Yet instead, she gives us two down-to-earth, likeable characters, lets them spend sufficient time together to flirt and joke and nearly kiss, and allows the chemistry to grow naturally from there. Though Prince Kai could have been a smarmy love interest–he is a prince, after all–he’s not. He’s respectful and kind, a good foil for Cinder, who is herself a little rough around the edges.
If Cinder has any flaws, they would lie with the villains–who are a bit one dimensional–and the very predictable plot twist that is obviously telegraphed on page 50 and not revealed until the last five pages. I’m almost tempted to forgive Meyer this; it’s a fairytale, after all, and we know exactly what kind of happy endings we’re in for with this sort of story. But she teases the reader in a way that made me wonder if she thought it would ultimately surprise us.
It didn’t surprise me, but this is still a very worthwhile read. I’d easily recommend it to any reader who loves either Firefly or Sailor Moon–who are looking for the same quality of setting and character and, above all, fun.(less)
In one of my favorite-ever pieces of Internet writing, a blog post at tor.com called “SF Reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:
“Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. Delany has a long passage about how your brain expands while reading the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low”—how it fills in doubled purple shadows on the planet of a binary star. I think it goes beyond that, beyond the physical into the delight of reading about people who come from other societies and have different expectations. . . . SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues."
The world-as-central-plot-mystery can be one of the most unique and signifying aspects of a science fictional work. As the writer applies other aspects of story to the text, he or she must also seed both enough intrigue and enough hints to rouse the curiosity of the reader and slowly render a cohesive world. In this regard, Jodi Meadows’s debut Incarnate, out next month, is one of the most successful YA sci-fi novels I’ve read in years.
The world of Range at first feels like your typical fantasy setting. There are sylphs and dragons and centaurs who circle a beautiful city with a massive library and towering spires. But Meadows introduces one important difference right up front: the people here are immortal, and their souls have been reborn into one body after another for five thousand years. This has huge ramifications on the social structure of Heart, their central city. The world is a utopian one, free from prejudice thanks to the frequent switching of races, genders, and ages that the inhabitants enjoy. With all the time in the world, people do work they love, and many seem to dedicate their lives to dancing, music, baking, or even science with little concern for economics. They never have to worry about losing their loved ones or their friends, because death just means that another body—another lifetime together—is right around the corner.
Ana is a newsoul, the first in five thousand years. Raised in isolation by an abusive mother, who is horrified to lose the old friend who was supposed to get Ana’s body, Ana grows up with few social graces. This isolation is shown to good effect in the story. Ana is hot-tempered, prickly, labile—realistic in her strengths, insecurities, and fears. She’s a very real heroine, and very really eighteen.
We follow Ana out of her isolated woodland cabin toward Heart. After a sylph attack, she’s saved by Sam, a charming old soul who eventually promises his people that he’ll see to Ana’s education (something not required of even younger children in Heart—they’ve had many lifetimes to learn, after all). Because Ana is as new to this world as we are, we learn about it slowly, through her eyes.
For some readers, the surface events–the visits to the market and library and the dancing and piano playing and romance–might feel a little well-worn. Sam is definitely a cutie, and there are some steamy passages, but there’s enough SFnal romance on the market right now for their relationship to feel a touch typical. But Incarnate isn’t a romance, not at its heart. Instead, it’s a science-fantasy mystery, raising questions not just about Ana and her uncharted new life but about the nature of Range itself.
Because the deeper we get into Heart, the more we learn that everything is not what it seems. For one thing, the “typical” fantasy creatures are described very different from how they typically appear in high fantasy:
“The dragons came from the north. They looked like giant flying snakes with short legs, and talons like eagles. Their wings were as wide as their bodies were long. They were beautiful, but we’d already fought our way through shadow creatures that burned, horse people who used human skin as clothing, and giant humanoids who destroyed everything they saw” (ARC edition, 139).
I mean, “horse people who used human skin as clothing” doesn’t sound like the centaurs I remember from mythology.
The dragons, particularly, seem to have a unique relationship with the central city of Heart. They attack its temple, an eerie structure that the first humans just found lying there, and they spit a green caustic acid on any human who would try to interfere. Their behavior is described as regimented, but fundamentally strange. As a sci-fi reader, I found this mystery very intriguing.
But even more intriguing was the mystery of Heart itself. The first reincarnated humans found it waiting for them, supposedly left by a god for their use. But the walls seem to have a voice and a heartbeat and the old fogeys in the city seem to have no idea why this is the case. And they don’t care to investigate it, either.
I cared, though. I reached the passage that described the throbbing heartbeat of the city’s indigenous walls and gasped. This delicious moment of mystery reminded me of the first appearance of the polar bear in LOST–both a hint and proof that the world of the work was not everything it seemed.
In this way, I suspect that Incarnate’s closest analog is not your typical YA fantasy fare but instead something like Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of the Riverworld books. In the Riverworld, the dead of humanity–all of it—are reborn naked on the side of a river. They’re immortal, and given an endless supply of food, but otherwise, they—and the reader—are in the dark. The rest of Farmer’s series is about exploring the truth of their situation.
And below its surface, that seems to be what Meadows is doing here. It’s a risky move; conceptual mysteries like this don’t always pay out in a satisfying way (come to think of it, neither LOST nor the Riverworld saga really did). And non-genre readers, or readers who want their genres more neatly delineated, might just not see the point. But watching an author take such risks in modern YA sure is exciting, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where the mysteries of Range lead.
I should mention that Meadows’ book is also gorgeously written, filled with evocative descriptions of setting and scenery and food and music and kissing. It’s also a thoughtful book. Despite initial hiccups in letting love transcend their bodily forms, the people of Heart are queer and genderbendy and just don’t care, in a way that’s completely in keeping with their unusual lifecycle. And Ana’s struggle with purpose and mortality is touching and resonant, too. As much as it reminded me of SF works like the Riverworld series, it also reminded me of books set in the Tortall or Redwall or Valdemar universes, cozy fantasy classics. Incarnate has a lot going for it—but if you’re like me, the mystery might have the strongest pull of all.(less)
When I was about halfway done with Under the Never Sky I IMed Sean with my ratings predictions. I guessed that he’d fall to the more negative side of neutral, while I’d cling to the more positive side of that divide. It seems I was right about Sean’s feelings, though my own reaction surprised me.
I must say that there are several significant problems with Under the Never Sky. Like Sean, I suspect that the story starts in the wrong place. We’re introduced to Aria after she’s ousted from Reverie. We don’t get to see the virtual Realms in which she spends her time until about halfway into the book, so it’s difficult to understand precisely how her life has changed. In light of this, and her general naivety, I took a very long time to warm up to her, and the pacing through the novel’s first half was quite slow. There were significant worldbuilding problems–the ominous Aether is never explained or even sufficiently described to be scary; the genetics of the both the Dwellers (who genetically modify themselves for stupid stuff like tans but not to solve more significant, but spoilery problems) and the Outsiders (who have super senses within certain family lines along with animalistic traits in individuals that seem unlikely to be so prevalent in such a limited population) didn’t quite gel for me; I had questions about language and the wider universe; I thought the names were silly and bizarrely hippie-ish (Paisley and Peregrine and Aria and Reef); a girl at the onset of menstruation is described as smelling like violets.
And yet I really, really enjoyed this book.
Of the two societies, that of the Outsiders is by far the fresher and the better described. It’s a bit like Russell Hoban’s neo-Iron Age society developed in the novel Riddley Walker. These are hunters, split into warring clans, who have short lives shaped by the meager existence they eke out. It was also surprisingly bad-ass. Our hero and love interest is tattooed and dreadlocked, wields a bow and has the reflective eyes of an animal.
His world–filled with knife-huntin’ guys who have super senses and pointy canines–reminded me a bit of the post-apocalyptic New Zealand glimpsed in the millennial teen show The Tribe. I’m a big fan of The Tribe, despite goofy plots and goofier face paint. It’s the type of world I’ve always very much wanted to see realized in a YA novel, and Rossi does a good job here capturing a cool, rusty, punky zeitgeist. There’s this extended scene where our heroine Aria learns knife fighting over the course of days, assisted by two rakish boys, and normally I would have found it a little indulgent but it was so cool that I just didn’t care.
That’s not to say that this is a shallow novel. It’s not. I’d contrasted it with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, a book that never quite won me over despite widespread popularity. Like Uglies, we’re given two societies, one techy, one not; both, here, are better described, with their own societal strictures, problems, and cultural norms. These norms intelligently inform the behaviors of the characters, who we get to know gradually, through strongly written, alternating narration.
Perry, our Outsider boy, was instantly sympathetic. His very human struggles with his brother, as well as his attachment to his young nephew, made him easy to identify with. I took longer to warm to Aria, but by the time she makes her first kill, she won me over as completely as she did Perry. Even better, I bought their romance. It was heartfelt, real, and realistically complex. They had great chemistry.
And overall, despite its flaws, I bought this book. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a very strong debut–the kind of world I’d love to visit, with a pair of characters who I wouldn’t mind being friends with after the apocalypse comes.(less)
I continue to be surprised by my fondness for Cynthia Hand's writing. When I read Unearthly, her debut, I was struck by the very fact that I enjoyed a...moreI continue to be surprised by my fondness for Cynthia Hand's writing. When I read Unearthly, her debut, I was struck by the very fact that I enjoyed a paranormal romance about angels so very much. While Unearthly wasn't a particularly flashy book, it was deftly executed. And though its sequel, Hallowed, isn't quite so seamlessly conceived, it makes up for the looser plotting with a relentless honesty and emotional depth.
Hallowed continues the story of Clara, a young angelblood in search of her purpose. She's fought the destiny prescribed to her in the first book--to love fellow-angelblood Christian--and now she's balancing the pressures of her senior year of high school with her relationship with the very human Tucker.
But then God throws her a few curve balls. She's having a new vision, you see, of wearing a black dress in a cemetery. And Tucker isn't there.
There's something a bit less deliberate about Hallowed than the first volume. Certain plot twists felt inadequately foreshadowed, coming out of nowhere to provide the narrative tension that Hand apparently needed to get through the sophomore slump. This was especially true with details about angelblood mythology and certain twists of identity. Without spoiling, I'll just say that these aspects never quite gelled for me. I preferred the vaguer, but more plausible worldbuilding and background of the first book.
But Hand redeems herself in two ways. First, through Clara's incredibly accurate voice. She's a vibrant, believable girl whose emotional reactions are always spot-on. And her voice, through breezy and colloquial, never suffers from the grating, manufactured snark of some adolescent heroines.
Secondly, Hand treats these situations, no matter how implausible, with dead-on empathy. Her sympathetic rendering of the emotional thorns of Clara's situation was so real that I went through the novel's last half with a lump in my throat. Like Clara, I kept waiting for the tears to come.
Take, for example, Hand's execution of the love triangle. I was recently discussing love triangles with some reader-friends. We agreed that it's not the simple fact of love triangles in YA that bothers us. Instead, it's a refusal that many authors seem to engage in to deal with the emotional fall-out of loving two boys. Clara genuinely does care for both Christian and Tucker, for very different reasons. Though she resists her attraction to Christian as a sort of supernatural demonstration of her own free will, this fight will likely feel like a more pedestrian, familiar one to many teen readers. After all, I'm sure many of them have fought baser instincts and attractions and instead deliberately tried to make choices they thought might have been good for them.
But this never ends well--and it doesn't for Clara, either. She doesn't come out totally clean in this fight, and neither do Tucker or Christian. It's messy, but it's also true to life, elevating it just a little over the typical YA love triangle.
And generally, Hand's work remains a step above the rest of the genre. It's not perfect, but it's striking, honest, and real. You know, for a book about angels.(less)
Until I picked up Ashfall, I’d forgotten how much I loved survival stories.
The genre is an odd match for me. In many ways, even for a sci-fi lover, my tastes run toward the stereotypically “girly.” I don’t like war stories. I don’t like action sequences. Soft sci-fi is usually the rule of the day, and while a few post-apocalyptic tales–Meg Rosoff’s romance-and-psychic-incest touched How I Live Now comes to mind–have stood out among recent reads as pretty nifty, I’d forgotten how much a gritty survival story can really resonate with me. After all, I didn’t even particularly love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I found the lack of worldbuilding frustrating; the core emotional conceits, mawkish and unearned. I thought maybe Ashfall wouldn’t be for me, not because of any flaws inherent in it, but because it’s just not my type.
But the first few pages of Ashfall raised long-forgotten memories. In seventh grade, I was assigned Harry Mazer’s Snow Bound in English class. Though now I’m sure I’d find the novel slight, I was captivated. It was the story of a pair of grumpy teens holed up together in a broken-down truck during a blizzard. So many details have stayed with me–small, realistic touches that gave the novel much more texture than even the classics we read that year–like how they melt snow and chewing gum together over the cigarette lighter to make a very-poor-man’s tea. It wasn’t a romance, not quite, but it was about how harsh situations can change people, and it dealt with those situations and feelings honestly. I loved that book.
Snow Bound was part of a grand tradition of kid’s novels in that era that were hyper-realistic. Messy families and working class kids abounded, and so when Mazer wrote about a disaster situation, it seemed natural to approach it with such a strong attention to detail. In Ashfall, Mike Mullin does the same thing, but he takes it a step further–expanding the length and subject matter to something fitting with modern YA. But the honesty, the precise details, and the accuracy feel like they’re from another era, and I can’t help but fear that we’ve lost something as we’ve moved away from that time.
Sean feels that Ashfall was hampered by narrative distance. I don’t agree. This is the type of novel where everything is rendered so deliberately that aspects like narrative distance feel as if they’re simply the natural result of the characters’ actual identities. Alex isn’t a particularly special or flashy boy–that’s because he’s a normal kid, one who plays World of Warcraft (described accurately), does martial arts (described accurately), and has obnoxious friends (described accurately). If there’s distance between Alex and the reader, that’s because Alex is a normal kid dealing with absolutely abnormal events. As he’s separated from his family, he must confront death alone in a hundred different iterations, from the animals he skins and eats (described in unflinching detail), to the murder of those who he loves (described in . . . well, you get the idea).
Mullin never shies away from the truth, not once, in this book. As Sean says, there’s the admirable presence of a gay couple early in the novel’s pages (they’re allowed heroism rarely seen in media portrayals of QUILTBAG individuals). There are also the hard realities of everyday life: eating, using the bathroom, sex, disease. If you think this sounds like a grim book, then you’d be right.
It’s also transcendent.
Ashfall, through its precision and honesty, moved me in a way The Road never did. The romance that grows between Alex and Darla is one of the best ones I’ve ever seen in YA, and one that’s certainly earned after the trials the pair endures over the course of the book. Mullin manages to use these teenagers–sixteen and seventeen years old–to say something really affecting about romance, something true to the characters’ ages but unspeakably deep nevertheless.
“The most important part of seeing Darla every night wasn’t the fooling around. It was the few minutes we talked while holding each other, the feeling of security I got with her, the feeling of being understood and loved. Before the eruption, I wouldn’t have believed that I could cuddle up every night with the girl who starred in my dreams and not be totally preoccupied with sex. But the trek across Iowa had changed something. I wanted, needed to see her so badly that it woke me up at night. But making out was incidental to my need–nice when it happened, but secondary to the simple pleasure of sleeping beside her." (440)
I'll admit that it's a bit difficult to discuss A Million Suns, Beth Revis's follow-up to last year's NY Times bestselling Across the Universe, without gratuitously spoiling it. That's because its very premise is predicated on the kind of twist that's made all the more delicious when it sneaks up on you; where once the "spaceship fueled by lies" tagline seemed mildly snark-worthy, its spooky accuracy soon becomes clear. So please bear with me as I do my best.
I can say that this volume sees Elder taking control of the interstellar ship Godspeed. Now faced with an agitated populace, Elder struggles with squashing a growing rebellion. And Amy bears the weight of the sexual assault she endured in the previous book and tries to figure out her place on a ship where she'll never fit in.
This is heady stuff, complex social science fiction that asks deep questions about agency while also leaving few emotional stones unturned for our young protagonists. The primary question here is one of free will--should the people of the Godspeed have it, even if it poses a danger for the fragile society of the ship? Should Elder lead just because he was born to do so? Is Amy really choosing Elder, or do they care for each other only because there's no one else around who will have them? In the hands of a less-capable writer, these musings might be ponderous. But A Million Suns is anything but.
Like Across the Universe, this is fast-paced, riveting writing. I'd almost forgotten how fundamentally engaging that story was, how it swiftly carries you along until it's three a.m. and you really need to sleep, but can't because you really need to read just one. more. chapter. It also has a wild, untamed quality that perfectly accentuates the narrative chaos our heroes endure. The Godspeed is, once again, vividly rendered. I felt claustrophobic and trapped reading this book, just as I did when I read Across the Universe. They're both hypnotic and strangely immersive works.
Unfortunately, they both suffer from the same primary problem: an unnecessary mystery thrown into an already complex mix of genres. I understood the presence of this mystery better in Across the Universe. It felt truly extraneous here, a distraction from the more pressing narrative concerns of society building and integration. Worse, it wasn't all that mysterious--I figured out most of the twists well before they were revealed.
But that's hardly reason to give such a strongly-written volume--and series--a pass. A Million Suns is a worthy sequel to its predecessor, and I honestly can't wait to read what happens to Amy and Elder next.(less)
In Tankborn, Karen Sandler’s young adult debut with the new multicultural press Tu Books, we meet a genetically engineered girl named Kayla. She’s spending her last days of childhood living with her “nurture mother” in the overcrowded slums of her world while she waits for her job assignment. As she stresses over her eventual vocation–and for good reason; GENs like her are often sent far away from their families of origin–we learn more about Loka, and the fascinating people who live there. Kayla is a GEN, created in the tanks of the title. Not only does she have superhumanly strong arms, but she also has an augmented brain, with an embedded clock and access to stores of professional knowledge left there by her “trueborn” engineers.
We also begin to learn about Loka’s strict caste system: the GENs at the bottom of the pyramid, disdained even by lowborn humans, and the very few, wealthy trueborns at the top. Sandler enriches these class divisions with differences in race and dress. All of this information was so richly detailed that, initially, I had trouble keeping track of it all–but luckily, Sandler’s strong prose carried me through.
Loka is a world that’s bountifully rich. As a novel, Tankborn challenges you to learn its rules and digest them, like Kayla has. An example of this is the wonderfully detailed religion that the GENs follow; it’s different than the religion of the trueborns (and different from anything we know on Earth), and it rightfully impacts Kayla’s life and decisions. You can’t understand her unless you understand her faith, but, having understood that, you’re in for a much richer experience than you are with many YA sci-fi titles that leave matters of religion, class, and race unexplored.
In this way, I strongly feel that Tankborn is just what the genre has been waiting for. There are a lot of complaints these days about cookie cutter dystopians, and authors who can’t be bothered to consider plausibility or worldbuilding. Sandler’s writing punches those complaints in the face. This is the kind of science fiction that’s timeless, even though it was (for whatever reason) much more common in the ’70s and ’80s than it is today. With the deftness of Sherri S. Tepper and Ursula Le Guin, Sandler creates an utterly plausible world.
As for the story, it’s solid, nicely paced, and thoughtful. Kayla and Mishalla are admirable girls, though their upbringing has (understandably) warped their perceptions of the world around them. Kayla’s growth is fascinating, particularly her struggles with religion. My only criticism centers around certain plot revelations that occur three-quarters into the book. Without spoiling, I can say that these twists were a bit more fairy tale than I really like. Through Tankborn‘s first half, I expected a resolution that hinges on questions of the GENs’ humanity, but the story Sandler gives us instead felt a bit well-worn.
Still, that hardly detracts from what’s done well here–and what’s done well is done very well indeed. I’d easily recommend Tankborn to any sci-fi fan who has been left wanting by recent YA dystopians. (less)
This is a solid action-adventure read with some really sound worldbuilding. Despite the cover, it's not steampunk at all but rather post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Unfortunately, my engagement was hampered by James' unusual choice in point-of-view (alternating between first person, present tense, and third person past), which kept me from really loving it fully until the conclusion--which was awesome. Great climax with some surprising twists. Overall, this felt very Japanese RPG-inspired in the best possible way, like if someone made Final Fantasy VI into a book.(less)
I hate them because they're so good it humbles me. I hate them because of their complexity and realistic depth. I hate...moreI hate Kirsten Hubbard's books.
I hate them because they're so good it humbles me. I hate them because of their complexity and realistic depth. I hate them because they never, ever fail to make me stay up late. Every single book has seen me awake at 4 a.m., desperately telling myself I can squeeze in just one more chapter before I turn out the light.
I'll admit that, during my reading of the first chapters of Wanderlove, Hubbard's upcoming (illustrated!) novel from Random House, I suspected my review would be a slightly different beast. Oh, I was enjoying the tale of Bria Sandoval, recent high school grad who has given up her art and decided to impulsively travel Central America instead. Hubbard's prose was efficient and descriptive, the emotional premise clearly drawn, the voice clear. But it's such a different book than her first, 2010's Like Mandarin. Like Mandarin was immediately deeply resonant through both its beautiful prose and high emotional intensity. Wanderlove, on the other hand, fooled me into thinking it was another creature: more commercial, simpler, with a snappier plot but, perhaps, lower emotional stakes.
I was so wrong.
It's true that Hubbard (and Bria) keeps the reader at arms' length through the first several chapters. We're not told a lot about her, or the past that's led her to join a travel group catering to middle aged "global vagabonds." It's not until Bria joins up with Rowan and Starling, a pair of charismatic and mysterious backpackers, that her layers begin to peel away.
Bria is an exceptionally well-drawn character. Like many YA protagonists, she begins the novel a bit sheepish about herself and her own abilities. But as she travels with Rowan and Starling, and later Rowan alone, we begin to understand the reasons behind her reticence. More, we're witness to a fascinating transformation as Bria is emboldened by her travels and her friendship with Rowan, a nineteen-year-old traveler with his own complicated past.
Hubbard doesn't spell a lot out for you. She weaves her plot in a complex way, withholding just enough information to pique your interest, revealing powerful emotional twists at precisely the right moment. As you read further into the novel, the pages coming alive with Bria's art (drawn by Hubbard herself), much of the driving tension becomes sexual. Like Like Mandarin, Wanderlove is fundamentally a love story. Like Like Mandarin, it's not an easy one, but rather one where the very real personalities of the involved characters often stand in the way of easy resolution. Unlike Like Mandarin, this love story is undeniably sexual. And sexy. Rowan has all the thorns of a real teenage boy and twice the appeal—an undeniable sweetheart, he's a rare YA example of a healthy (but still thrilling, exciting, and mildly bad ass) love interest.
And the art . . . oh, the art. I don't mean the illustrations alone, though those are lovely (if scarce in the novel's first half—I can understand Hubbard's reasoning, but I just wanted more). No, I mean the role art plays in the narrative.
Like Bria (and, I know from conversation, Kirsten Hubbard as well), I fancied myself a bit of an artist during high school—I even went through the rigmarole of applying to art schools. But at the last minute, I chickened out and went to a state college for writing instead. Since then, art's played a tenuous role in my life. I paint on occasion, draw on occasion, and I even illustrated a children's book, but it's not omnipresent like it once was. I no longer go around with a sketchbook tucked under my arm, ready to doodle at a moment's notice.
It feels sad to say all of that—sadder, still, when I try to draw and realize how rusty I am. But at least I'm content in the fact that I made my own choice for myself. Bria's story is far sadder. It's not the story of any sort of unusual abuse or hardship. It's more typical than that—a bad boyfriend who made her feel worthless and stole her art from her.
And so Bria's reclamation of both her art, and of love itself, is all-the-more poignant.
In the end, Wanderlove exceeded my initial expectations. It might not be the heavily impressionistic tale that you'll find in the pages of Like Mandarin, but it's still complex, realistic, and heart-wrenching. Hubbard covers a lot here, from issues of identity to the class conflicts of foreign travel to the ways that we let romance shape us, for better or for worse. And it's all done deftly, with a confident hand. It's an unusual story, the type we don't often see in YA, but the people and conflicts at its heart rang exceptionally true for me.
Disclosure: A volume of this novel was generously donated by the publisher for review purposes. I am also personally acquainted with the author (hi Kirsten!).(less)
I can't really claim that this will be a "review," not really. Reviews require a certain degree of (admittedly sometimes false) objectivity, and I sus...moreI can't really claim that this will be a "review," not really. Reviews require a certain degree of (admittedly sometimes false) objectivity, and I suspect that I'm physically incapable of being objective in regards to A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet and my favorite book ever. I've read it at least a dozen times in the past decade and a half. I own multiple copies (all with the same cover, with Charles Wallace in bell bottomed jeans with feathered hair). In middle school, when I played Japanese RPGs on my Super Nintendo, I always named my characters Gaudi and Anand, because Gaudior and Ananda would not fit. In fact, were I to ever have a daughter, I would name her Ananda, except my husband says that you can't name a girl after a dog, even a fictional dog. Fine then. But, you know, I love this book—it's an integral part of my internal narrative, my history. So keep in mind that any analysis or criticism you find here is forced. I just really adore it. I keep expecting to reread it and suddenly find it less magical, to finally be totally over unicorns and witch hunts and Chuck, old dear Chuck. But that never happens. I hope it never will.
Last night's spontaneous rereading—in the face of all these ARCs—was inspired by a conversation with Sean, who asked me yesterday to tell him what my favorite book was at age fourteen. Then I saw this post from Sam at parenthetical.net asking which authors are best remembered for the wrong book. The answer, to me, is one and the same, and had me reaching for my bookshelf, for that old well-worn paperback with the green-edged pages. Madeleine L'Engle is best known for her first volume in the series, A Wrinkle in Time. While I appreciate many things about that book, it's slight, both in terms of length and concept. Sure, I adore awkward Meg, Fortinbras, spooky little Charles Wallace Murry and redheaded genius hottie Calvin O'Keefe. But that novel only hints at the complexity you'll find here, the atmospheric depth, the danger and the magic. By the time it all wraps up—too quickly, I think—with a floating, talking brain and the power of love, my interest totally wanes. No matter how many peaceable singing aliens L'Engle crams into the denouement.
In fact, my feelings range from lukewarm to pretty awful about the other three books in the Murry saga. A Wind in the Door has never managed to rouse any emotion in me at all. I've never done more than skim Many Waters (I'm really not a fan of the twins). And when I finally got around to reading An Acceptable Time during an independent study in graduate school, both my professor and I agreed that it was entirely too focused on what made the other books in the series bad—stereotyped portrayal of native "pagan" populations, and ham-fisted conversations about the applicability of Christianity in a pre-Christ era.
But this book. Oh, this book.
I guess it has its flaws. There's that embarrassing scene where an American Indian rides a dolphin. L'Engle's language, though generally beautiful, can be a bit driving and repetitive. And this is the book where Meg starts to suck—she spends most of it beslippered and pregnant, at home while Charles Wallace goes on adventures. In fact, both Murry kids are fairly passive vessels for a more interesting plot, though I'll discuss why that's not precisely problematic shortly.
I think the way that this book first won me over as a teen was via its language. I was a sucker for setting even then, and the Murry homestead is an absolutely gorgeous, perfectly realized place, the kind of house I still seek out now (hmm . . . I currently live in a house built in 1780. I wonder if the Murrys have something to do with that). Their warm, ramshackle home is filled with musty smells and dusty descriptions: threadbare curtains in Meg's attic bedroom, the scents of a Thanksgiving feast cooked over a Bunsen burner.
And the Murry family is really quite perfect—the twins, irritating though they are, are perfectly brotherly, teasing and yammering and brilliant. Charles Wallace and his father sit on the sidelines putting together a model of a tesseract. And Meg frets over the presence of her mother-in-law, who was introduced in the first novel as an abusive, hideous wretch. The woman is silent through most of the meal, right up until Meg's father receives a phone call from the president, warning him of impending nuclear war.
Suddenly, something changes in Mrs. O'Keefe. She recites a rune, a poetic incantation meant to ward off evil spirits. As the house is wracked by winds, and as the electricity goes out, the scientifically-minded Murry clan regards her with skepticism. But not Charles Wallace.
Charles was mostly a cipher in earlier books, a bit creepy, somewhat otherworldly. His fatal flaw is his pride, and we still see hints of that here, though he's grown to be a touch more grounded in his adolescence. Still, he's more open to the forces of the unknown than his siblings. He and Meg share a psychic link, for one thing. And he's seen so many unusual things in his fifteen years. He hardly seems to blink when, later that night, he goes outside, recites the rune, and a unicorn appears to help him travel through time.
Oh, I know. A unicorn But Gaudior isn't like that. Though he's beautiful, and magical, this isn't a wishy washy Lisa Frank kind of creature. This is a guardian of the light—he's stoic, sarcastic, wise. Unicorns are serious business in L'Engle's universe. And this book takes them seriously even when they're drinking moonlight and hatching out of enormous eggs.
This gravity is there at the outset, clearly transmitted through L'Engle's stunning prose. Like here, when Charles Wallace first summons the creature:
There was no moon, but starlight touched the winter grasses with silver. The woods behind the rock were a dark shadow. Charles Wallace looked across the valley, across the dark ridge of pines, to the shadows of the hills beyond. Then he threw back his head and called, "In this fateful hour I call on all Heaven with its power!"
The book proceeds from there, taking the same epic, mythical, and utterly poetic tone as the premise is established: Charles Wallace and the unicorn Gaudior travel through time. Gaudior helps Charles Wallace go "Within," jumping into the bodies of various members of one genetic line to help gently nudge the timeline away from nuclear destruction on a global scale.
These stories initially build slowly. The first two really just establish place, and premise. Charles Wallace goes Within, and Meg stays at home, psychically linked with her brother in her attic bedroom. But then Charles Wallace enters the body of Brandon Llawcae, and the story suddenly grows in both scope and depth. Each of the three tales that follow could almost stand on their own—the story of a Pilgrim family and a witch hunt; the tale of Mrs. O'Keefe and her mid-century family broken by poverty; and the saga of Matthew Maddox and his twin brother Bran, whose actions will ultimately decide the fate of the world.
These tales are short, but deep—rich with emotional intensity, darkness, and stirring thematics. None of them are particularly YA, though some feature an adolescent character. Characters are stunningly well-defined, despite their great number and often-similar names. The story of Mrs. O'Keefe—Beezie, as she's known as a girl—and her brother Chuck is particularly tragic and, despite shades of psychic ability (all of the magic here is obscure in origin and precise detail; for a story with a unicorn, it's really more of a surreal mix of magical realism and sci-fi than fantasy), it's really very grounded in real life. And it's heartbreaking. Whereas in the early books in the Time Quintet, Mrs. O'Keefe is really only present to provide a convenient tragedy to prove Calvin's depth, A Swiftly Tilting Planet forces us to empathize with her, to see her heroism and tragedy despite the fact that she's also later an old hag who beats her kids.
And she's really, truly our hero, as clearly explained by the novel's conclusion. It would be easy to cite this volume as the beginning of L'Engle's failure as a feminist writer. This is where Meg buckles down, becomes domesticated. Later, we'll learn that she's given up a career entirely for fear of making her daughters jealous as her own beautiful, successful mother did to her. But Meg's still vital in this book, and, more, the entire thesis of the novel seems to be that no matter the tragedy or pain or ordinariness that defines the bulk of your life, it's really the small acts of heroism which define you. And in that light, I don't doubt for a second that L'Engle thought Meg—and even Mrs. O'Keefe—truly heroic.
Moreover, Charles Wallace finally truly grows in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. His character and flaws are fairly static in the earlier books in this series. He's spooky, prescient, precocious, and entirely too proud. He begins the novel this way, too, but his relationship with Gaudior, and the trials they face, teach him to be humble. It's a very Taoist book in this way—Charles Wallace's journey is all about learning to be passive, to accept the whims of the forces of good, to resist acting out of pride. I can understand how this message might frustrate modern readers of YA, who are more accustomed to heroes spurred to action, but I can't deny that I feel there's a valuable lesson about a different type of heroism here—or deny that I pretty much adore Charles Wallace as a character.
Which is one of the reasons I'll never forgive Madeleine L'Engle. Charles is absent from subsequent novels. He's gone off to work for the government, as his father once did—by An Acceptable Time, he seems to be gone for good, which once seemed true for her father, too. Before her death, L'Engle implied that he was alive somewhere--she just didn't know where. I'm not surprised in that. One of the features I most love about the Time Quintet generally is that they're from disparate points in the family's narrative. This makes them feel a little bit more like slices out of someone's real life than preconceived stories. But that makes me worried, in a very real, childish way. L'Engle didn't write about Charles Wallace's fate before she died. Does that mean he was lost the the Echthroi? I sure hope not. Instead, I'd like to imagine—and hope—that he's still out there somewhere, fighting the darkness.(less)
If you're a fan of young adult literature, you've probably seen Sady Doyle's In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger series. Lovingly detailed,...moreIf you're a fan of young adult literature, you've probably seen Sady Doyle's In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger series. Lovingly detailed, this feminist critique cut Harry Potter down to size a little. In Doyle's reimagining, he's nothing more than a privileged jock—though certainly even in our own universe charges of privilege could be leveled against him. Harry is the chosen one, special as much for reasons of birth as effort, while hardworking Hermione toils away to earn her rather narrower slice of the pie.
It seems that Lev Grossman is all-too-aware of the pitfalls of writing about a male, white, chosen hero. And why shouldn't he be? Quentin Coldwater, hero to 2009's New York Time's bestselling The Magicians is certainly male, white, and special. He arrives on the scene of magical academy Brakebills in a show of spectacular and unusual magic. Unlike most students, his gifts can't be easily classified. And, though it's not his efforts that help him reach Fillory, a Narnia-like land in another universe, he shares a special connection with this country—a country where he eventually becomes king.
But unlike Harry, Quentin is truly a young adult—emphasis on the adult. Because he's meandering toward his twenties over the course of the novel rather than through his teens, he's lost a little bit of Harry's heroic, intrinsic appeal. Quentin is harder, more aware of the tensions that exist between his rich fantasy life and the slightly less fantastic (though undeniably magical) world around him. He's mourning the magic that was lost to him as a teen. And this renders him quite insufferable. In fact, that's the biggest criticism I've encountered of The Magicians--that Quentin is unlikeable, privileged, whiny. Why should he be so special, readers seem to ask, that I should have to spend time with him?
Grossman neatly answers this question in two ways in The Magician King, next month's highly anticipated sequel to The Magicians. The first way is the simpler: he lets Quentin grow. If Quentin of The Magicians was a heartbroken high school boy who has begun to fear that magic does not exist, then Quentin of The Magician King is one who has accepted that it does, and now must begin to carve out a meaningful life of his own in spite of this. There's still a lot of introspection in this volume as Quentin travels across the oceans of Fillory, between the outer islands, and all around the coastal areas of Earth. But Quentin's grown in self-awareness. Though some of his romantic choices are a bit eye roll-worthy, they're easily understood within the context of Quentin's internal life. And, having faced loss, he's kinder now, too. It's hard to hate someone who is so good with children.
The language during Quentin's portion of the novel is captivating, nearly hypnotic. Rich setting is abundantly described—Fillory is still beautiful, and Grossman manages to weave allusion so seamlessly into his text that you're never quite sure if he's trying to create something original or to simply conjure images from the collective unconscious. That might sound like a slight, but it's not meant to be; this is a book for genre lovers, and it's perfectly evocative of all those books you read over and over again as a kid until the spines cracked and the glue dried and the pages fell out. There's an adult sensibility to his approach, but not a cynical one. It's as if Grossman is trying to keep his tongue firmly in cheek, but can't because he's smiling too hard—I suspect he loves Fillory just as much as Quentin does.
(And just as much as I do. I must confess that in reading both The Magician King and its predecessor, I had a distinct feeling that I was reading a book written just for me. I understand why Quentin might seem unpalatable to many readers—I understand how his problems are the problems of the privileged, the blessed, the bored. Like Quentin, I was a bright, imaginative kid whose dreams nudged her increasingly toward lands that should have been out of her reach—not only nonexistent fantasy lands, but academia, too. In a way, I would have been happy forever there, but it's intrinsically a transient space. And you can't go back to the world of the lower middle class after living in the Ivory Tower and not see it through changed eyes—you can try to be happy in your desk job, but you won't. What's left for you? Making your own worlds, your own adventures. But what does that even mean? Quentin is happier in Fillory; I'm happier working from home and writing books. But are we happy? Can we ever be? Does our unhappiness arise out of our situations, or our natures?
But I digress, severely.)
The other way that Grossman tackles the problem of Quentin's fundamental privilege is by shifting the focus through half of the book to someone who has not been so lucky—to Julia, the Hermione of this universe, a hard working hedge witch who was denied access to Brakebills. Her storyline parallels Quentin's life through most of the first book—depression and unhappiness grow within her like a dark pearl after she fails her entrance exams. But she refuses to tolerate not being chosen. She works. Eventually a world of magical flophouses and three-ringed binders full of spells open to her. The references here are perfect--of course there would be magical chatrooms and computer BBSes—and of course these lands would be filled with characters much like Penny of the first novel. Punk, scruffy, and terribly earnest.
If Quentin had everything handed to him—if he's a little bit of a Harry—then Julia's story is one of sacrifice and pain. She labors. And Grossman is keen enough to reward her for that. Within The Magician King is a nearly self-contained novel about a magician queen who earns her title. It's wholly satisfying, and a nice counterpoint to Quentin's perpetual lack of fulfillment.
(Speaking of, the novel ends perhaps predictably on an open-ended note. It seems we've yet to be promised a third volume. This upsets me. This should be—no, needs to be—a trilogy. I understand that Quentin is a fundamentally unhappy sort, that he won't ever attain nirvana. But I want resolution, if not for my own life, then for Quentin's.)
There's a lot here—in fact, my biggest problem with The Magician King was that there is sometimes too much. The journey twists and turns and then turns again. The result is breathless and exhausting. I'd be loath to suggest Grossman tame his sprawling story, but I do wish he'd let himself luxuriate in it. A bit more time spent in any of these lands (Fillory, Venice, Connecticut) would have been fine; it's a rare thing when a fantasy novel could be almost double its length and not feel bloated. This one could. But really, I loved the journey—the characters, the setting, the details, the themes. And so I'd be remiss if I did anything but whole-heartedly recommend it.
A review copy of this volume was generously provided by the publisher for review purposes. (less)
Second books can be tricky. Even when authors produce standalone novels, eschewing the literary world's current hunger for sequels and series, they ha...moreSecond books can be tricky. Even when authors produce standalone novels, eschewing the literary world's current hunger for sequels and series, they have a difficult task ahead of them: producing work that's more than just a retread of earlier success. In some ways, I know that comparisons between Kody Keplinger's first novel, The DUFF, and her second, Shut Out, are inevitable. It's not just their bright, girly covers that tie them together but thematics (a teenage girl's ownership of her sexuality) and character (the poor family of origin with a complicated past; the control-freak girl; the supportive friends). But, while Shut Out does occasionally falter in much the same way that The DUFF did, it also stands quite capably on its own merits.
First for the bad: I thougt that the opening chapters of Shut Out suffered from the same sometimes-awkward writing that I noticed a year ago when reading The DUFF. The dialog in both begins overly deliberate and sometimes clunky; there are too many awkward physical descriptors and said bookisms. But you'd be wrong to judge either book on these first chapters. As Keplinger warms up, so do her prose stylistics, becoming more natural and confidently voiced. More, I was quickly enveloped in the story.
I suspect quite a bit of what appeals to me about Keplinger's books is how familiar the lives of her protagonists feel. Shut Out brings us another working class family. Lissa lives at home with her dad, who has been wheelchair-bound since the car accident that also took away her mother, and with her older brother, who has dropped out of graduate school to help out at home. The men of her family are fans of the local high school football team, so when Lissa brings home Randy, a high school football star, he quickly becomes a part of the family. There's something real, tender, and sad about the way the men in this book bond while Lissa makes them food and mothers them.
This is the first of Lissa's many foolish and real choices in Shut Out. Like Bella Swan, she falls into a caretaker role that isn't entirely fair. However, it was clear to me that this domesticity wasn't necessarily meant to be a positive trait, but rather a realistic reaction to feeling motherless and adrift and to having one's needs ignored by the grown-ups around her.
People generally ignore Lissa's needs. Her boyfriend, for example, is so embroiled in a rivalry with the high school soccer team that he abandons their trysts entirely to play pranks with his teammates. Lissa finally gets fed up—she proposes a sex strike against the boys on both teams until they agree to abandon the rivalry entirely.
This sex strike is the central premise of Shut Out, and its selling point (it's a retread of the Lysistrata). As Lissa unites with the other girls, she begins to struggle against the pressures and stereotypes they all face. I found this message more organic and interesting than the one found in The DUFF. Honestly, I never entirely believed Keplinger's first book's message that "we all feel like DUFFs sometimes"—far more convincing to me was the message here that "teenage girls face all sorts of sexual pressures and deserve to be in control of their sexual lives despite the schizophrenic attitudes of our society toward female sexuality." It's a messier, and less optimistic theme, maybe, but it rang truer for me. As in our world, in the world of Shut Out some girls do it and some girls don't. But nearly all of them struggle against their reputations.
But far from being a merely didactic undercurrent, this message actually provides a dramatic reveal about one of the characters—one I didn't see coming at all, and which spurred me to page back through the book and examine it in this new light. It's a neat little narrative trick, and one with Keplinger utilizes deftly, clearly illustrating her control over her plot and characters.
As the story progresses, Lissa continues to stumble forward. Again, she's a protagonist who often makes terrible choices, who is often blind to the truth in front of her, who is sometimes selfish and stubborn if only to cover up her own weaknesses. Like Bianca from The DUFF, she suffers from certain control issues—but they're more fully fledged here, and realistically problematic. I found Lissa to be a terrifically messy heroine. Her mistakes might not be fun for teenagers to read, if only because they likely hit a little too close to home, but they're certainly true to life. She's struggling—with her mother's death, with her father's disability, with change and with sex and with growing up.
Her problems aren't all solved in the end, although Keplinger again concludes on an optimistic note. We're given the impression that Lissa is a work-in-progress—as we all are, really. And as a reader who craves honesty even from books emblazoned with neons and pinks, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Disclosure: This book was generously provided by the publisher for review purposes. I'm also personally acquainted with the author.(less)