Lois Lowry’s The Giver was in our unit on dystopias, and yes, it fits there. I ended up being unimpressed with it as a book though, mainly because of the “unique snowflake” syndrome it exhibits.
Jonas lives in a society where you’re assigned a job to be trained for when you hit 12 years old. Not exactly 12, because you’re part of a year which all hits these milestones together. The society has a huge number of rules and surveillance to maintain itself. Jonas is understandably excited about his upcoming assignment. But he gets a weird job that sets him apart from the community as a keeper of memory, which is when you learn that no one can see colours or knows what hills or snow are, since the Sameness was instituted to eliminate pain and poor choices.
It’s a good book, as far as it goes. It’s very firm in its support of individual choice as opposed to terrible efficiency (something it shares with A Wrinkle in Time). The problem is how Jonas has to have memories transmitted into him psychically and then the ending is kind of abrupt (though it’s also kind of ambiguous, leaving a few interpretations open until being stomped on by the sequel). The thing that bugs me is how Jonas and the Giver are the only people in the world who aren’t drones that care only about the status quo.
There’s more good than bad to it, though Scott Westerfeld does a better job with similar material in Uglies. Uglies is a bit more YA and this is a bit more childrens’ I guess.
Singing the Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman was an interesting choice for our time-travel unit in my SFF course. Joss, the main character, is a first year cadet at a time-travel school who gets paired with the first alien to attend the school in a cultural exchange, but time-travel only features in the very last 20% of the book. Even then it’s the kind of time travel that’s just to sneakily grab some information before it was destroyed. Oh, um, spoiler alert?
Joss is a tough 17-year-old female protagonist (who’s been kicked out of a dozen schools), and her toughness comes through pretty well, but I kept on feeling she was written more as a precocious fourteen year old than someone actually in university. I probably just have a distorted view of it all.
The story’s pretty good, and isn’t as straight forward as it seemed at first glance (the time travel helped). It wasn’t amazing, but I’d be able to recommend it to certain types of readers. Readers of The Hunger Games would probably find this a bit fluffy.
I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game a long time ago. I remember liking it, but rereading it now made me realize just how good it is.
Ender Wiggins has been bred to be a genius and maybe go to learn to be a genius military commander. He is a gifted child who’s forced into difficult situation after difficult situation in training to become a gifted strategist. He is 6 years old when the book begins.
The Game is about battle simulation and learning to become a leader. There is no romance in this book. There isn’t even real camaraderie, just the isolation and pain of duty and becoming the best. I don’t agree with the military glorification that happens throughout most of the story but the ending redeems even that for me. While they try to make Ender into a tool, so incredibly tough and lethalm he also remains human.
This humanity despite the fact that he acts little like any child I ever knew. The main strategic thesis of the book is that you respond with overwhelming force so you never have to fight the same battle twice. This is something that makes sense tactically but as the novel shows, it doesn’t make for a very happy life.
I’d always thought it was written before I was born but it wasn’t. One thing I really appreciated was the description of the simulations in the Battle Room. They’re like zero-G laser tag games, but they feel much better than that. Supposedly they’re making a movie but man, that’s going to feel so dated with all the CGI. The simulation technology in a book is so much better in its infinite upgradeability, no remake required.
I almost didn’t reread The Graveyard Book for this SF librarianship class. I already knew I loved this Neil Gaiman book, so maybe I could spend my time better.
There is no better way to spend your time than reading about Nobody Owens, especially if you’re thinking about change and life and growing up and the future.
The story starts off with a toddling baby’s family having just been murdered. A man with a knife is climbing the stairs to kill the baby. Some people get squeamish about this being a kids’ book at this point. The baby toddles off up the street and heads into the graveyard where a family of ghosts takes him in and Silas undertakes to be the boy’s guardian. They hide him in the graveyard and the murderer’s mind is muddled and there you have it.
Now the book can begin.
It’s done in a series of short accounts of Nobody Owens’ life. There are ghouls and witches and a tutor who makes terrible soup, and Bod learns history from the people who were actually there (it’s very idiosyncratic). There’s a girl who thinks he’s her imaginary friend and there are bullies at school and police and a bunch of murderous men with something in common who’re looking for him and it’s all so good.
This is a book of atmosphere, of creepiness and funniness and all that good stuff Gaiman brings to everything he does. It’s written for kids and doesn’t need to talk down to them to do it. And I dare you to suggest a better coming of age and heading out into the world than in the end when Nobody leaves the graveyard.
It’s so fucking good. There’s a reason I give this one as gifts to all and sundry.
The first book in The Saga of Darren Shan is called A Living Nightmare. Again, this is one of those books that I knew about because kids always wanted to read it, but hadn’t read myself. It’s not very good.
I think what bothered me the most about it was all the exclamations of how scary things were. It was very “Golly gee! That boy was a snake and those people got trampled and the wolfman bit off that woman’s hand!” I also found the actual Cirque bits disappointing because they all seemed so easily faked. I realize that Darren Shan (who decides to become a vampire to save his friend’s life, but the friend is mad because he wanted to be a vampire so now he’ll become a vampire hunter and dedicate his life to killing Darren) is just a kid, but I don’t know. It all felt stupid.
The good thing about the shitty writing in this book meant I could read about Madame Octa (a really huge tarantula who could be controlled telepathically for some non-scary reason) without getting freaked out.
So yeah. Not a fan.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a pretty big deal in the YA SF community. I remember one of my WPL co-workers (am I allowed to say where I used to work now, Rick?) who was a YA librarian who was so incredibly anticipatory of Mockingjay (the third in the series). They’re making a movie of it, for what that’s worth.
I’ve often heard of this book as the antithesis of Twilight. Katniss Everdeen is a girl from one of the conquered districts in this dystopian future America. She is awesome though because she goes out into the unregulated forest and hunts with a bow and brings home food to sell to her village. Because everyone is kept poor and hungry and working in coal mines in her district.
The titular games are a sacrifice each of the conquered districts makes to the capital for having dared to rebel generations ago. One boy and one girl from each district (there are 12 of them, the 13th having been destroyed) are pitted against each other in a televised (but more futuristic than television) fight to the death.
What makes Katniss awesome is how strong she is. She is making active choices throughout the novel, shaping her future which has consequences. There’s a romance subplot driven by the boy who goes from her district, but Katniss is into the strategy of it all, and there’s not a lot of room for pining for a vampire to be her true love.
Highly recommended. At some point I’ll probably read the sequels, because this book just set things up and you can tell the stakes are moving up from a mere bloody battle royale.
Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief was so very Harry Potter it was funny.
Percy Jackson is the son of a Greek god who left. I won’t say which one because it takes him what seems like forever to figure it out. This makes him dyslexic because he should be reading ancient Greek and ADHD because he should be in battles and stuff. I don’t know how I feel about that facile explanation of dyslexia and ADHD; they both seem like grasping at making the story relevant for contemporary youth.
Anyway. He goes to a camp for demi-gods (his mom is a human) and then gets forced out of it. And into adventure!
It’s a fast-paced little romp that actually does a pretty decent job of using the Greek myths and monsters. There’s a good battle on the St. Louis Arch and like in The Philosopher’s Stone the enemies aren’t the obvious ones, which I appreciate, especially in kids books.
M.T. Anderson’s Feed was pretty excellent. It’s about a bunch of American teens in the future where the internet (the Feed) gets pumped into your head without all these bullshit devices to deal with. Well no, it’s not about a bunch of teens, it’s about Titus, an upper-middle-class American kid who goes to the moon and meets this girl, Violet.
The voice to the book is great. It’s told in slang that works, and they’re aware of the fashions around them in a way that isn’t condescending. The parents speak like they grew up on text-messaging, except for Violet’s dad, who is a bit of an eccentric professor.
The book-jacket tries to make it seem like they get involved in some big resistance movement, but it’s not like that. It’s a really personal story about young relationships, that happens to be set in a kind of terrifying world. But the characters don’t think so, because it’s just the way the world is. I think the intimate scope of the book makes the larger world (that’s only barely glimpsed) that much more affecting. And I’m not gonna lie to you, the ending is really sad. Heartily recommended.
Brian Jacques died earlier this year and in the hubbub surrounding it I realized I’d never read any of the Redwall books. I’d recommended them tonnes, but never actually read them. I realize now that I’d thought there was an actual connection between Redwall and the Mouse Guard comic/RPG. There isn’t.
Redwall is about Matthias wanting to be a warrior while a terrible rat horde comes to attack the Abbey of Redwall, where the mice peacefully heal all the woodland creatures. Matthias has it in his head that he needs to get Martin the Warrior’s sword for some reason to defeat this horde. The rest of the animals don’t think this is a stupid idea. And in the end it’s just a sword. I mean, the point of him going off and solving all these riddles was to get a sword that yes he can cut rats in half with, but all he really needed was his confidence or whatever. Through the whole book he’s such a child of privilege it’s not even funny. Everyone just loves him and he makes friends with everyone.
The other thing I wasn’t a fan of was how easily the peaceful abbey of Redwall went to a war footing and how no one tried to talk Matthias out of following a warrior path. It was all very positive on the “violence as a way of life if it’s done with honour” shtick without any questioning of it. There’s just all this casual murdering that goes on that’s justified because of the uber-simplistic “they were evil” excuse. Bah.
Also, from this book I have no idea about the scale of anything in the world of Redwall. When they talk about a chair, that’s a mouse-sized chair, right, and a barn is a human-sized barn? But when the mice go fishing did they catch a fish that was ten times the size of a mouse, or one that could fit in a mouse’s hand? And how do the birds carry things when they walk around? It took me out of the story, worrying about these logistics, especially since they seemed very inconsistent.
Still, not a bad adventure story. Just the kind of thing that probably works a lot better for a younger audience (or one that has nostalgic memories of it).
Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah is a post-apocalyptic novel that’s kind of awesome. There are only two characters in the book, Ann, a sixteen year old girl who lives in this farmhouse in a valley that’s been spared the fallout wastes surrounding them, and Mr. Loomis, a scientist who shows up with a one-of-a-kind radiation proof suit. The book starts off with her being wary of him, but then he does something stupid and gets radiation poisoning and then she takes care of him.
It’s a pretty great little book. It starts after Ann’s been there alone for a year after her family left to go find help so she’s competent at living alone and getting shit done on her own. The change that happens in her relationship with Mr. Loomis is really well done. The gender- age- and power-dynamics are all pretty first rate. I was tense tense tense.
It’s not a very subtle book, but it makes sense (and isn’t cartoony in its post-apocalyticness like Fallout nor wrist-slitting like The Road). A lot of the equipment she can use is in the store because there were Amish farms in the vicinity before the war. It was a well-thought out straightforward little story. I liked it a lot.