Archive for the ‘Young Adult’ Category

In which whales fly, lizards talk and World War I starts off a little different than you remember

Title: Leviathan

Author: Scott Westerfeld

What it’s about: Imagine for a moment that bioengineering and robotics had been invented in the early 1900s and taken off at an astonishing rate. The British latched onto Darwin’s findings and before you could say “Dr. Doolittle” they were splicing genes together to create fabricated beasts for labor and war. A whole class of animals has been bred to breathe hydrogen and now creatures of the sea have taken to the sky as giant breathing airships. Meanwhile, the Germans have developed colossal walking machines piloted by men, from two-man walkers the size of a tank to giant roving battle-stations stomping about on eight legs. Scott Westerfeld takes us into this world through two points of view: Deryn, a gifted young airwoman who has lied her way into a post as a midshipmen in the British Air Service on the whale fabricant Leviathan; and Alexsander, the son of an Austro-Hungarian archduke whose wife’s less-than-royal blood has kept Alexsander from being next in line for the throne.

Westerfeld creates a clever bridge between actual European history and the events of his alternative timeline. The novel opens just after the now infamous assassination of Alexsander’s father the archduke, which sparks World War I (though Franz Ferdinand did have children, none were truly named Alexsander). From there we see the battle lines drawn out in much the same way as they really progressed, but this time the conflict is at heart an ideological one between “Darwinists” (nature and science) and “Clankers” (mechanics and religion). Alexsander is forced to flee with a few members of his household as he is hunted by Austrians and Germans who fear his claim to the throne. A stroke of luck sends Deryn on her first mission, as part of an airship crew escorting a female doctor to the Ottoman Empire with precious but secret cargo.

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I edited The Steampunk Bible. Though Leviathan is YA, it’s certainly something an adult could enjoy. Part of the fun of it is the giant thought experiment that’s occuring and the intriguing mash-up between history and fiction. The Steampunk element comes in through the futuristic revisions—living airships vs robots—but at heart it’s an amazing adventure story. Deryn and Alexsander are compelling POV characters, one a sheltered aristocrat forced out of his family home and into a world as a fugitive, and the other a common girl trying to gain respect in a man’s world. Though they come from different classes, they have more in common than they might guess. Both are hiding their true identities and want to achieve great things but have many hurdles to overcome.

As an added treat there are illustrations sprinkled throughout. While working on Steampunk Bible, I learned that Westerfeld and his illustrator Keith Thompson worked together in a very novel and symbiotic way. Sometimes Westerfeld would describe the scene he wanted illustrated, but Thompson would also produce sketches that would then inspire Westerfeld’s prose. The black-and-white line drawings are striking and add to the historical feeling of the work and the authenticity of the beasts. Since the things Westerfeld describes seem so fantastical and strange at times, they are grounded and made more real by these images.

Would I recommend? Sure! If you enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy, I think you’ll love this world as well. I got wrapped up in Westerfeld’s adventure story and can’t wait to come back for part 2.


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In which I find a story about cancer cast in a fresh light

Title: The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green

What it’s about: Hazel has already gotten her miracle. Two years ago, the doctors seems sure that her thyroid cancer would leave her with only a few months to live. But then she started taking an experimental drug and now her expiration date is more of a question mark. Everyone knows it’s coming, but since the drug is untested there’s no way to guess when it might be. Enter Augustus Waters, a new addition to Hazel’s weekly cancer support group. Augustus is on the other side of his battle with bone cancer, but has joined the group in support of his friend Issac, whose eye cancer is about to leave him blind. Hazel finds a kindred soul in Augustus, but knows what she is—a grenade, ready to burst and leave all those who love her wounded. She tries to keep Augustus at arm’s length, but their connection is too strong.

Though Hazel has cancer, this should by no means be considered a “cancer book.” It is a love story, a story about struggle, and, most acutely, a story about how a young person deals with the reality of death. You may cry, but you’ll also laugh, you’ll think, you’ll smile, you’ll feel warm-fuzzies. It’s a deep, rich book that drives you to ponder mortality, family, love, literature and our heroes.

I’m almost through the Green oeuvre now, but TFIOS takes the lead as my favorite. Green’s back up to the emotional resonance he achieved in Looking for Alaska, but the female narrator does him a great service this time around. I saw repeated elements in Alaska and Paper Towns tied to the male voice, in particular the nerdy male narrator idealizing an unattainable female. The first time around it worked for me, but the second time I felt a bit of deja vu. Hazel’s voice retains the poignant honesty of his previous narrators, but feels singular and fresh. And though she’s also in love, this is a very different kind of love than I’ve seen Green tackle before (I haven’t yet read An Abundance of Katherines, so that book must be excluded from my analysis). Though Augustus and Hazel are teenagers, their life experiences age them emotionally and bring an element of the adult to their relationship. And that’s a good thing.

Would I recommend? Most definitely. Green has found a great balance in this book and created a compelling story that goes far, far beyond the confines of what we’ve come to expect from a story about cancer.

P.S. I did not receive a Hanklerfish or a Yeti and I’m very disappointed.

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In which a paper girl leaves a paper town

Title: Paper Towns

Author: John Green

What it’s about: Next door neighbors Quentin and Margo were childhood friends, but inevitably drifted apart. Now in high school, Q is a band geek who’s not in the band and Margo is popular and famous for her outrageous stunts. Also, Quentin is still in love with her. To Q, Margo Roth Spiegelman is revolutionary, spectacular, singular, and gorgeous. He also hardly ever speaks to her. One night, Margo appears at his window and takes him on a mad midnight revenge ride around Orlando. The next day she disappears. Q discovers that Margo has left clues about her whereabouts and believes that those clues are for him. Convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q follows her trail, hoping he can bring Margo back before graduation and also come to understand the real person behind his ideal girl.

First, as a girl raised in Florida who is fairly familiar with the Orlando area, I loved the setting of this book. Orlando is, without a doubt, a paper town. The actual people who live there and the interesting lives they may lead are just totally eclipsed by the machine that is tourism. Theme parks, theme hotels, theme restaurants—everything is artificial. If you drill to the core, there are places with some authenticity, but they are practically smothered by the hollow wonderland. Central Florida is also something of a wasteland. With none of the benefits of the coast, it’s unrelentingly humid and swampy, conditions that only add to the hopelessness that breeds in Margo Roth Spiegelman and leads to her disappearance.

But though Q makes much of Margo, she’s a paper character in this book, and we’re never close enough to her to even begin to understand her, which mimics Quentin’s struggle to figure Margo out. I like where Green takes the book, how he shows us how we invent others and that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to truly know another person. The teen years in particular seem rife with this problem. Green shows us a boy who quite clearly invents a girl. Oh, the flesh and blood person is there (until she’s not, of course), but his conception of Margo could never live up to an actual person. Though I think this phenomena is quite common, I found myself almost distractedly frustrated with Q and couldn’t help agreeing with his friends when they urged him to leave his search for Margo behind and enjoy his last few weeks of high school. As they pointed out, his obsession with Margo keeps him from his own life, taking but giving nothing.

Would I recommend? I have to admit that I enjoyed Looking for Alaska more than Paper Towns and I’d recommend making that your first stop in the Green oeuvre. Paper Towns has the same wit and intelligence, but was a little less emotionally impactful for me at least. Others have mentioned it’s their favorite (his new The Fault in Our Stars excluded as it’s just been released…it’s on my list!) and I’d be interested to hear why other readers rank Paper Towns above Looking for Alaska.

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In which I go to seek a Great Perhaps and find my way out of the labyrinth

Title: Looking for Alaska

Author: John Green

What it’s about: When Miles enrolls in Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama his junior year, it’s partially because of the last words of poet Francois Rabelaist: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” His life has been mediocre at best and he’s ready to expand the scope of his mundane existence. But once he arrives, his life will come to revolve around another set of last words: Simon Bolivar’s “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” Specifically, he’ll wrestle with how these words relate to the girl who shares them with him, the enigmatic, gorgeous, mysterious Alaska Young, a chain-smoking, strawberry wine-drinking, damaged but undeniably magnetic girl Miles wishes he liked less than he does. Miles finds himself caught up in Alaska’s vibrant universe as she and her best friend, the Colonel, plan the biggest prank Culver Creek has ever seen. But underneath, Alaska is wounded, and Miles and the Colonel realize there’s no way to know the true Alaska…until something happens that forces them to try.

It’s not possible to talk about the second half of the novel, which is simply titled “After,” without giving too much away. I’ll simply say that Green explores another human emotion in detail, and that I’ve rarely seen it so honestly treated. This book was a pleasure to read and it’s the first book I’ve picked up in a long while that I’ve actually felt the urge to analyze. It wasn’t pure pleasure or escape, though it has elements of that as well. It strikes the perfect balance of being engrossing as well as deep and meaningful.

Did I mention this is YA? Don’t let that dissuade you. If only all YA was crafted to this level. Green doesn’t shy away from deep thinking, explorations of religion and poetry, and examinations of what it means to be human. His teenage characters have a rawness and vulnerability that adult characters wouldn’t. They’re still experiencing things for the first time, both love and pain.

You should also know that John Green is a fascinating Internet personality. His video blogging project on YouTube with his brother Hank is addictive. I actually first became convinced I should be reading his books after watching this video about the editing process, which is a gratifyingly accurate description of what really goes on between editors and authors. As Green points out in the video, most people outside the publishing world (and even some in it) think editors just deal in punctuation and subject-verb agreement, but that doesn’t even crack the surface of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Then, when I learned Green planned to sign every copy of his next novel, The Fault in Our Stars, pre-publication, I sort of geeked out. That’s an extreme undertaking. Especially since his first print run skyrocketed to 150,000 after the announcement. To give you some perspective, a perfectly respectable first printing can be 20,000. So 150,000 of a contemporary YA is sort of insanity. Amazingly awesome insanity.

Would I recommend? This is undoubtedly the best YA novel I’ve read in years and certainly one of my top picks for this year of magical reading.

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In which the myth of Persephone and Hades trades in its gothic mystery for some adolescent angst

Title: Abandon

Author: Meg Cabot

What it’s about: Pierce Oliviera was only dead for a few hours, but it’s changed the course of her life. Most people with near-death experiences come back different, but Pierce came back against the will of a death deity who had hoped to spend eternity with her and now she’s being pursued by Furies bent on hurting the one person that deity loves. Now all kinds of strange things have been happening and after that “incident” with the teacher, Pierce and her mother have moved down to Florida to be closer to her mother’s family. Pierce is hoping it will be a new start . . . but it’s unlikely as Isla Huesos is where she first met John, the keeper of the Underworld who’s been popping up as her guardian since the day she died.

Abandon is the first book in an upcoming trilogy that retells the myth of Persephone, the woman who finds herself the unlikely consort of Hades, forced to spend half her time in the Underworld and half her time with her mother on Earth. Meg Cabot drops Hades for a young and handsome “death deity” who’s more of a gatekeeper than a god, and places Pierce in high school. The concept sounds great, but I’m sorry to tell you that the execution did not impress.

My biggest issue with Abandon was the structure. A lot of really exciting things happen to Pierce–she drowns in the family swimming pool, descends to the underworld, is attacked by demonic Furies in the guise of trusted friends–but none of these things happen in the present. Every single one of the exciting things in the novel are told through flashbacks, completely eliminating any suspense or narrative tension. This decision to place all the action in the past, and to retell it to the reader through extended flashbacks, essentially castrates the story. Never once did I feel worried about Pierce, never once did I experience any sense of urgency or struggle. And that’s a big problem in a book about death. The action that happens in the present is tame and honestly a bit boring. It’s a lot of feelings–Pierce wondering if she’ll fit in, Pierce thinking about the past, Pierce scheming to “protect” those around her. But what is Pierce doing? Very little.

Hopefully the next book with introduce the action into the present. Cabot has got a great concept on her hands and some excellent source material to mine, but she’s doing herself a disservice by not showing Pierce in action and by not allowing the reader to fear for Pierce’s safety or fret over her future. I wanted more gothic fury and mystery and less teenage navel-gazing.

Would I recommend? I can’t say I would. The potential of the novel was lost, in my opinion, by putting the action in the past. There is only one scene where Pierce is in danger in the present and you have to wait about 315 pages to get there. Pierce needs to get out of her head and into action in the next installment.

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