The Case of the Team Spirit (by John Allison) is the comic I’m most looking forward to booktalking for middle-school students next year. It’s about a group of six 11-year-olds (three boys, three girls) in Tackleford England (a made-up place) who solve mysteries. This mystery is about the hex that’s been put on their local football (soccer) team. This gets right to the heart of one investigator, while the rest are, well, less into football, but they do like their friend.
These characters are funny, and all of them are clever. The supporting characters, also great. I have a special affinity for Mr. Beckwith the young teacher who has this exchange with one of our detectives:
Charlotte: Sir how come you got rid of your beard?
Mr. Beckwith: My wife said it was scratching her.
Charlotte: Worr sir you are married?
Mr. Beckwith: Yeah I got a wife… am I giving away too much? Maybe I just have a piano. I didn’t want to scratch the piano with my chin.
Charlotte:Sir can I sit down on account of being confused?
Mr. Beckwith: Yes Charlotte.
Though Bad Machinery is a webcomic which you can read for free on a screen, the book is a beautiful widescreen kind of thing about the same size (and orientation) as a laptop screen. But it is batteryless.
So yes. Great stuff, and you will learn Britishisms.
One of the things I enjoy about Young Adult literature is how much fantasy and science fiction there is in the category. The whole “it’s a world like ours, but plucky protagonist discovers there are dragons in human form” kind of thing. There’s a way of turning the big existential questions that plague young people (well, I hope we never totally grow out of existential questions, but for young people especially) into metaphors to look at them differently.
Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock doesn’t do that. The only fantasy in this story is a series of letters Leonard Peacock has written to himself from the future, at the request of his Holocaust teacher.
This is the story of Leonard Peacock’s birthday which is also the day he brings a dead Nazi’s gun to school for a murder-suicide.
It’s kind of amazing. There are four characters he has farewell gifts for before he ends his life and the life of the young man who was once his best friend but has become something else, and we follow him through the day and his life with these people in his memory. We meet these four – his elderly neighbour he watches Humphrey Bogart movies with, the Iranian violinist who goes to his school, the homeschooled evangelist he has a crush on and his Holocaust teacher – and learn about the other people in his life and how it has come to this.
Quick has written Leonard as a smart kid who loves Hamlet and he tells the reader his story directly, with many asides in the footnotes. He’s also weird, and critical and feels very authentically teenagery. He snarks at the “It Gets Better” campaign, but really really wants some help with life. One of my favourite things about the book is that the people he’s giving his gifts to, they aren’t stupid. He cuts off all his hair and everyone is worried. They see the warning signs and can tell they’re warning signs but it’s hard to tell what to do. No one is stupid; they’re just people.
I loved the book and recommend it highly (probably not for middle-schoolers though). And it makes an interesting companion piece to We Need to Talk About Kevin.
I don’t think I’m unreasonable in being disappointed in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. The concept of the book is that the planet’s rotation is slowing, and the protagonist is a 12-year-old girl in California just living her life, trying to deal with things like unpopularity and parental infidelity.
One one hand, the book had this science fictional concept of the earth slowing and days lengthening, which is kind of interesting and no more ridiculous than Life As We Knew It‘s moon suddenly getting all up in Earth’s face. But it’s written as if the author had no idea how seasons work. There’s a bit of lip-service to the madness that comes from white nights at extreme latitudes, but the idea that the sun going down at 9pm isn’t a terrifying thing seemed completely foreign to the author. There’s a bit of information tossed in about the earth’s magnetic field, but it was very cursory.
Also, all of the big problems that arise from this global catastrophe are kind of glossed over in simplistic ways. Not just that the 12-year-old protagonist glossed over them because she didn’t get them, but like the author didn’t think it through very hard and just had the idea of monolithic blocks that would react in certain ways across the continent if not the globe.
So it seems to me that the book wasn’t written to be a science fiction book, but a backdrop for this young girl’s story. Fine. I can get behind the idea of a coming of age story in the midst of global crisis. The science and sociology could have been passed off as niggling details to annoy me if the story of the girl was compelling, but I did not find it to be so. There was a boy, and a lack of friends, and death, and a cheating father. It wasn’t terrible, but it felt simplistic and too uninvolving to distract me from the issues I had with the end of the world.
It might be an okay YA book, but I think a lot of readers would be put off by the lack of plot. In any case, Life As We Knew It is a much better YA book in the same vein.
I’ve been hearing about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind for years it feels like, but maybe that’s just because I read the blogs of writers who are friends of his. It’s a good fantasy novel that reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, or a less postmodern The Magicians.
This is the first volume in a series about Kvothe, who is now an innkeeper named Kote, but was once much more. There’s an elaborate framing device wherein Kote is telling his story, the true story, to a Chronicler over three days. This first book is the first day of the story, and covers his boyhood to attending the magickal university. In the frame though we know that the Skraelings are being seen again and that people in his chosen hideyhole are ill-prepared to deal with them.
It’s all well-told, even if young Kvothe is a showoff asshole who has to assert his superiority at every turn. It’s a self-aggrandizing tale even as the innkeeper is trying to tell it warts and all, which is less than exciting to me. I just have a bit less patience for stories of people who are so obviously “better” than everyone surrounding them. And the flaw of pride in being awesome is an annoying kind of flaw in my books. The gender politics are really traditional, and though there are a few interesting economic interactions in the society fuelled by magic, the world doesn’t feel that fantastical.
But whatever. The story is engrossing enough, and in the end of this volume the idea of encouraging Kote to tell the story of his old self as heroically as possible is revealed to be part of the larger tale, which I found intriguing (I am a sucker for metatextual elements, I guess). This’d be a great book for a reader who’s read the Ranger’s Apprentice series and wants something a bit more sophisticated (and isn’t put off by the word-count of the tome).
When I received an ARC of Sara Grant’s YA post-apocalypse story Half Lives I was kind of interested but figured it wouldn’t be anything too special. That was about right.
There are two storylines to the book. In the contemporary timeline Isis is fleeing a global terrorist attack to a mountain in Nevada where her parents think she’ll be safe. She picks up three other teens on her way and then they shut themselves into the mountain. The other timeline is some indeterminate time in the future where a tribe of young people live on a mountain following the Just Sayings and living their cultish little lives, terrified of the terrorist beasties that are waiting for them out in Vega if they leave the mountain.
I liked the contemporary storyline well enough, though there were a lot of logistical things like spatial arrangements that were vague and suffered for it. There was a crossing the highway bit in Nevada where they were dodging speeding cars and then there were infected people in gridlock that just never made sense to me. I re-read the section to see if I’d missed something but it remained missing to my eyes after the reread. The romance and whatever was all pretty par for the course in a YA novel.
The future timeline was much worse. The big problem for me was the present tense narration and varying third-person points of view. Everything there felt so disjointed compared to Isis’ first-person past-tense narration. The climactic scenes were filled with anti-climax and it was always a little tough to figure out what had just happened (though since there’s nothing really surprising to the plot you can just assume that what you would have guessed ahead of time is what did occur).
So yeah. I didn’t really like Half Lives. There were some good bits, but overall it would be fairly low on my books to recommend, unless someone was specifically looking for generation spanning YA stories, or shifting language YA stories, or nuclear waste YA stories.
Steampunk: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is in our library’s YA section. Which is fine as far as it goes – I’m more than happy to recommend it to teens – but there’s nothing about it that really demands YAness. Perhaps it’s just easier than trying to figure out if steampunk is science fiction or fantasy.
Anyway, the stories Kelly Link got for this collection are pretty excellent. Cory Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” is about a Dickensian orphanage where the children kill their cruel master, make an automaton to fool their funders and self-organize into a worker’s collective. There are time-stopping train robberies and ancient Romans dealing with clockwork oracles, but they story that hit me most in the feels was Dylan Horrocks’ “Steam Girl.” It’s about a contemporary high school boy who meets a girl dressed in a leather flight helmet who’s an excellent storyteller about this heroine from Mars.
I’m becoming a fan of suggesting anthologies to readers at the library because of the sampler effect that helps people find what it is they really like. Steampunk! will be suggested by me.
I read Jana Oliver’s The Demon Trapper’s Daughter for our teen book club’s Paranormal Creatures session because I hadn’t really read much in the Demons and Angels subset of YA Urban Fantasy (I am sighing at myself for using these marketing pigeonholes, just so you know).
The story follows Riley, a 17-year-old Atlanta girl who is an apprentice demon trapper, following in the family trade. Usually apprentices deal with tiny vandals and thieving demons (grade 1 demons), but there are far more powerful ones out there, the machinations of which she gets caught up in. She’s a resourceful active likable heroine, even as she has a lot to learn about her chosen profession.
The setting of the book was interesting. It’s 2018 Atlanta and demons and angels are very out in the open, making nuisances of themselves/being aloof and inscrutable respectively. It’s kind of weird metaphysically because the angels and demons are tied very very firmly to a pop-Roman Catholic kind of worldview that’s treated as almost scientifically accurate (a lot of the plot rests on the nature of Holy Water, which is mass-produced and certified and taxed specially), yet the pagans are also becoming a stronger voting-bloc in Georgia. There are also necromancers who can reanimate corpses as servants for a year after their deaths.
The economy has been spiralling downwards, which gives the economic incentive to the characters. There’s conflict over the taxes and paperwork you have to fill out as a demon trapper doing things the right way. Also, I appreciate that these are demon trappers not demon hunters. Demon hunters are the Vatican big-firepower badasses who get the (wildly inaccurate) TV shows made about them. The demon trappers aren’t dilettantes, or supernatural navy SEALs, but working stiffs trying to control the supernatural pest population, and dealing with paying rent.
Now that makes it sound very Ghostbusters, and to a large extent it is, but it’s also got its requisite love-triangle between Riley and the gruff young man who’s like a brother to her and the delicate apprentice who sets her heart aflutter. There are misreadings of character motives that are annoying in their desire to keep the triangle going. Also, because it’s the first book of a series, there’s no real resolution at the end of the book (though there is a lot of denouement from the final set-piece).
I liked it better than the bits of Cassandra Clare’s angel books I’ve read, and will be recommending it to fans of her work (and of Buffy).
The Raven Boys is the first book I’ve read by Maggie Stiefvater, which probably makes me a bad teenbrarian. I’m sorry. If I knew she was this good I’d have started earlier.
Blue is a girl who’s grown up in a house full of women. Who are psychics. As a result she’s grown up with the very specific prophecy that if she kisses her true love, he will die. Oh, and Blue isn’t a psychic herself.
The Raven Boys are all students at a posh private school. Gansey is born to be a politician, but is fixated on discovering a dead Welsh king buried on a ley line in Virginia. He’s assembled a posse of friends to help him. Once Blue is added to the mix the quest kind of takes off.
So yeah, there’s loads of good pop-occult history going on, but what made this book work so well for me is all the class division going on and how fucking important it is to these characters. Gansey and Ronan (his scary friend who spends most of the book reckless, fighting or nursing a baby raven) have more money than god. Blue and Adam (who lives in a trailer with his abusive father and works a million jobs to pay for his schooling) are not rich. And these divisions are hugely meaningful to these people. Gansey is utterly condescending to his friends and offends people because he has no real concept of the value of money. Adam won’t leave his abusive situation and let his friend take care of him because he does not want to be bought. Gansey doesn’t want to buy his friend; he wants to help with the means he has.
All of the tension and argument that happens in this book is along those kinds of lines. There is no one person who is being an ass and could make it all better by just doing one little thing differently. It’s these worlds of money and gender and privilege all colliding in great ways with an epic quest. That the flaws of characters are built into the structure (or energy if you want to use the lines of power that the book takes seriously) of the world they find themselves makes it fucking great. (Also, I’ve cussed more in this review than there are swears in the book, but Stiefvater does the whole “he let out a stream of inventive invective” type thing really well.)
Excellent book. Cannot wait for the next one in the series.
Dark Inside is Jeyn Roberts’ multi-perspective YA novel about a kind of apocalyptic event that happens after a huge earthquake hits North America’s west coast. Cities are destroyed, yes, but a kind of evil is unleashed, not just at the earthquake site but in everyone’s souls. The book follows a scattered bunch of teenagers as they try to deal with the end of the world.
The book feels like a zombie book, since everyone aside from our protagonists has changed into bloodthirsty terrible murderers, but they haven’t gone brainless, just embraced their inner evil. This evil inside everyone is left pretty nebulous, as is the reason why the characters we’re following are spared it. The people who have turned (so most of the population) are terrible and terrifying, and some of the scenes are pretty intense. It would make for the kind of movie I couldn’t really watch, myself.
The teens are all eventually converging on Vancouver for various reasons (looking for a lost brother, keeping a promise to someone met on the road from Saskatoon, that kind of thing) and there are plenty of good scenes on the way. People feel survivor guilt and show survival skills and all in all it’s pretty good. And props to the book having interesting First Nations characters who didn’t feel like stereotypes. They weren’t the main characters but they were there, doing stuff like the rest of the kids with their own specific problems and issues.
Everybody Sees The Ants is a YA book about a kid named Lucky Linderman who gets bullied and goes to Arizona with his mom to recuperate. Put like that it doesn’t sound too exciting. But because this is A.S. King writing the story things aren’t that straight-forward. She uses a fragmented storytelling technique to show us scenes from the present, from Lucky’s freshman year at school, from his childhood, and most importantly from his dreams where he tries to rescue his grandfather from a Vietnamese POW camp.
The story features adults being idiots and perfect lives being not so perfect. The relationship between Lucky and his dad is really interesting and a big part of the story. It’s interesting because his dad is kind of an absentee father, spending all his time at his fancy restaurant and caring more about cooking than anything else. By the end of the book, his dad hasn’t changed, but everyone has a bit more perspective and tolerance for why people act the way they do. The same goes for Lucky and his mom. King is really good at setting up situations where characters seem unreasonable and then showing us a key to understanding them (even if we don’t have to like them).
It’s a really good book. Probably the best I’ve read that’s expressly about bullying since it never ends up in a clichéd place. Kudos to King on another great read.