Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black Hole Sun by David Macinnis Gill

What You Need To Know:  This is a highly-derivative, but fun, fast-paced sci-fi book.

Summary:  Durango is out of luck.  A highly trained Regulator, he should have committed suicide for the disgrace his father brought upon him.  He didn't, and now he has to live on the fringes of Martian society.  His only companions are Vienne, his deadly but beautiful lieutenant and Mimi, the AI planted in his head.  When miners seek his help to protect their settlement from the cannibalistic Draeu, he has no choice.  So he rounds up what crew he can and sets off to the mines.  But the miners are hiding something; something that terrifies Durango.

What Worked:  This is a fun book to read, with lots of explosions, bullets and cannibal attacks. Things move fast, and the snappy banter, mostly between Durango and Mimi, keeps everything light.

What Didn't:  To put it bluntly, there's not much of anything that's original here.  I counted tropes from  Firefly, The Magnificent Seven, Total Recall, Red Mars, Bioshock,  and Star Wars. You could argue that there's nothing new under the sun, but that is a lot of borrowing.  Even the title (which doesn't have ANYTHING to do with the story) is lifted from a popular song.

However: I'm a middle aged geek.  I cut my teeth on some of this stuff.  So to me, this is just an old tale retold.  Your average 14 year old kid?  Not going to notice or care that Durango is basically a younger version of Capt. Mal Reynolds and that the plot is lifted from a 60 year old Western.*

Who Would I Give this Book To:  This is a great guy book, lots of action and a hot chick.  Fans of "space opera" would like it too.

* Yes, I know The Magnificent Seven is based on The Seven Samurai.  I've never seen the Kurasowa film, but I've seen Yul Brenner in that Mexican town more times than I can count.  Dad was a big western fan.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

* Note:  I'm trying a new format for the reviews, so this may look a little different.

What You Need to Know:  Revolution is a historical fiction book with a twist.  This is the story of a very modern, very screwed up girl who finds inspiration and hope in the diary of a girl who lived and died during the French Revolution.  Beautifully written and engrossing, I consider this one of the best books of 2010. 

Summary: Following the death of her little brother, Andi's life has fallen apart.  Her dad has split, her mom's gone crazy and Andi only survives due to medication and her music.  When Andi's mom is hospitalized, Andi is forced to go to Paris with her dad.  There she finds the diary of Alexandrine, a girl who lived during the French Revolution.  Alexandrine was a performer, who was a special companion of the Dauphin, the heir to the throne of France.  When the Revolution comes, and Louis-Charles is imprisoned, Alexandrine risks everything to give him what comfort she can.  As Andi becomes more engrossed in Alexandrine's story, the two girls' lives begin to converge in surprising ways.

What Worked:  Donnelly has a special gift, for instructing her reader with out lecturing them.  Although I had a pretty good background in the French Revolution, I learned without realizing it, as the information is seamlessly integrated into the story, not dumped in big chunks of exposition.   Donnelly also humanizes her historical characters, so that they are just as flawed and sympathetic as the characters she creates, not dusty cardboard cutouts.  Those two things -- history lessons disguised as narrative and stock characters  -- are two of my biggest beefs with historical fiction, and both are avoided here.

The amount of craft in this book is truly amazing, so many different threads -- the fate of Alexandrine, the implosion of Andi's family, the causes of the Revolution, musical DNA, the Paris catacombs, depression, survivor's guilt, art, The Divine Comedy -- all come together to weave a compelling and engrossing story.  Yes, at 500 pages, there is a lot of book here, but it doesn't feel overlong or padded.  The length is necessary for the complex tale.

What Didn't:  Personally, I could have lived without the love story angle.  I know from interviews that Donnelly took a lot of inspiration from The Divine Comedy and wanted to show an artist traveling through their version of hell with a guide.  Andi's Virgil is so smoking hot and wonderful, how could she not fall in love with him?  However, I'm not sure it worked.  I also felt like Donnelly was trying to make some paralells between the climate during the Revolution and the treatment of refugees in modern Paris that never really came off.  

However: These are quibbles, overall there wasn't much wrong here.

Who I Would Give this Book to:  Kids who share Andi's love of music.  Girls who like historical fiction.  Boys who would be intersted in the bloody Revolution.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.

Sam Kingston didn't expect to die.  Not on the way home from a party, in a car accident, slightly buzzed from the vodka she and her girls have been shooting.  But die she does.

And then she wakes up, on the morning of the day of her death, to live it all over again.  And again. And again.  Seven times in all, till she learns to put things right.

I'll be honest, I put this book off.  Nothing about the premise appealed to me, however, it was considered a Printz contender and was named on the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list.  More importantly, some of my co-workers read it, and liked it.  So, I dove in.

This book represents an interesting conundrum for me -- how to acknowledge the craft of a book, and  talk about it, without liking it.  Because, while I admire Oliver's writing and the skill she brought to her story, I had a strong visceral dislike for the book.  Mostly because of the main character.

To put it bluntly, Sam is a bitch.  The worst kind of mean girl, in my opinion.  She's not the instigator of any of the myriad cruelties and taunts that she and her crew hand out, but she always goes along.  She's not vile or despicable, just weak.  What makes her worse than the alpha girl she slavishly follows, is that she knows what they do is wrong.  She occasionally has twinges of remorse, but she manages to drown them in sea of consumerism and alcohol.

I'll freely admit, my perspective is skewed by my experience.  Girls like Sam made my life miserable.  Girl on girl social aggression gets me all steamed up, and it seems to begin earlier and earlier.  While reading Before I Fall I wasn't concerned with if Sam would find redemption, but with how I could keep my daughter from turning into a girl like her, or becoming one of her victims*.

Putting that aside is difficult, and I have to say, my dislike for Sam made it hard for me to engage with the story.  However, I can say that Oliver writes beautifully.  She manages to take you inside Sam's life, to help you understand how she became what she is.  For me, that understanding didn't engender sympathy, but, I can see how it could.  The poetic turns of phrase and the small, quiet moments that pepper Sam's struggle are what kept me engaged.  Oliver also has a keen understanding of teens, their relationships and how small, random things are what bind friends together.

Since I didn't like Sam, I didn't want to spend much time with her, so for me, this book is overlong.  About midway through, I wanted to scream "It's not about YOU!"  I'm also not sure that Sam evolved that much through the course of the book; in the end, I still felt like Sam was seeking for herself, not for others as she had claimed.  However, with a character like this, you can only expect so much growth.

One of my benchmarks for a successful teen book is: can I imagine the teen I would hand this book too?  With Before I Fall this is an easy task.  I can totally see teen girls with a taste for romance and melodrama devouring this one.  The length might put some readers off, but girls like Sam, or who wish they were, will eat it up.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nothing by Janne Teller

In a small Danish town, a 7th grader stands up and declares "Nothing Matters".  He walks out of school, and takes up residence in the plum tree outside his house, shouting and throwing plums at his classmates as they go to and from school.

In order to prove him wrong, the class decides to build a pile of meaning in an old sawmill.  All is well, until the classmates start choosing what each will give up.  Although the sacrifices start small -- favorite books, special shoes -- they grow and grow to monstrous proportions.

A co-worker recommended this book to me -- no, that's not right.  She didn't recommend it, she told me it was amazing, and completely devastating to read.  She said it was the best book of 2010, but she would never read it again.

With a pitch like that, how could I resist?

Well, she was right.  This is an astounding book, that I will never, ever, ever re-read.   Nothing reminds me of The Chocolate War or any number of books by Adam Rapp -- a beautifully crafted, extraordinary novel that makes you want to give it all up and meditate on a cliff, or I suppose, in a plum tree.

When I first started the novel, I wondered about the cold, almost mechanical voice of the narrator Agnes.  However, as events unfold, we learn what made Agnes' voice, and it makes perfect sense.

Do I recommend Nothing? No, in fact, I have a hard time envisioning the teen I would hand this book to.  But I commend Teller for creating a haunting, extreme yet believable tale that will stay with the reader for a long time.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Grace by Elizabeth Scott

Grace has grown up among the People.  The People stand opposed to Keran Berj, and his control over all things, including the land.  The men of the People become Rorys, soldiers who fight Keran Berj's guard, and the women follow them from camp to camp.

Some girls, like Grace, are chosen to become Angels.  The Angels study the ways of those who live in the cities, and of Keran Berj, until they carry their bombs to the cities and die, destroying the enemies of the People with their death.  However, Grace, who had an outland mother, did not die as an Angel should, and now she is running from Berj's guard and a people who wish her dead.  Accompanied by a mysterious boy, she takes a train that will carry her beyond their reach.

While I am not a fan of Elizabeth Scott, I will concede that she knows how to convey a lot of information in a very little amount of space.   This book is exactly 200 pages,  and Scott doesn't waste a lot of time with setup or explanations.   In a way, I feel this is one of the weaknesses of the book, I would have liked a little more background about the People, and Keran Berj's dictatorship.   I would have particularly liked more information about the Angels, who are kept both sheltered and exposed to the outside world.  

Maybe I've read too much dystopian fiction, but nothing about this book felt particularly fresh or original to me.  Many of the major touchstones  in the book -- suicide bombers, children informing on parents, secret police -- felt as thought the were taken from other fiction.  Scott does combine these elements well, but the Orwellian overtones are impossible to ignore.

As for the plot, there wasn't much.  This is very much a character study.  What plot there was was flawed.  I don't think it held together all that well.  The major hole -- how did Grace, a girl of the People, know an underworld contact who could smuggle her out  -- is never addressed.  As most of the book is told in flashback, this bugged me throughout the narrative.  

Kerr, Grace's mysterious companion, has his own backstory, his own reasons for running.   For fear of spoilers, I won't reveal who Kerr is or why he wants to leave, but held up to the light, I'm not sure his story holds up.  

This is a fast read, and teens who are put off by the length of other dystopian stories might enjoy this book.  The lack of plot, and focus on characterization will turn off many reluctant readers.  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hype and the Law of Diminished Expectations

This post started out as a review of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.  

In a nutshell:  I liked it, it was good.  It was fast paced, well-written, did some very tidy world building and had an interesting take on the whole science-fiction dystopia trend in YA Lit. 

However, it wasn't great, I had issues with the central conflict, didn't really care about the two main characters and ended awkwardly.  Overall, it just didn't rock my world.

That being said, I walked away from Ship Breaker profoundly disapointed, and I've come to realize, the disappointment had nothing to do with the quality of the book, and everything to do with the hoopla around the book.

Ship Breaker is darling of the YA Lit Universe.    It's considered a strong contender for the Printz, its been shortlisted for the Cybils.  Many bloggers and critics consider it the best YA book of the year.

So, what's wrong with me?  Why did it disappoint me so?

I think that this book suffered from what I have coined "The Law of Diminished Expectations."

While I'm still working out the bugs in the theory, it goes something like this:  The more an artistic product is hyped, the less impressed with it I will be when I see it/hear it/read it.

With Ship Breaker, I first read about it on Reading Rants back in May 2010, this was shortly after it was released.  In the intervening 7 months, you couldn't avoid the praise for this book.  So, by the time I finally got my hands on it, I was expecting something transcendent.  Something world-moving.  A true monkey-touch-the-monolith moment.

And of course, I didn't get it.  I got a good, but flawed story.  And that's fine.  But I also felt let down, and somehow, personally insulted.  And, dear reader, that got me thinking.

I don't know if it's our hyperbole rich society, chronic and serial bandwagon jumping, or just the sheer number of opinions available in our plugged in world, but it's become increasingly easy for any artistic product to get drowned in a sea of rhetoric - both positive and negative.  This isn't a new observation, but I had never considered how much damage positive buzz could do.  A pile-on of fawning reviewers, bloggers and Facebook commenters can negatively skew my perceptions of a book as much as a group of trollish naysayers.  Maybe more, as relentless boosterism sets up an expectation that can never be met.

As a professional, I can't unplug myself from the YA Lit-o-sphere, and retire to a lovely cave somewhere with a Diet Coke and form completely uninfluenced opinions.  Nor, do I think I want to.  It's part of my job to keep a watchful eye on the trends and chatter surrounding my field.  Also, I have honestly come to respect and depend on blogs, comment boards and other feedback sources.  

But I will have to come up with a way to remain aware of the impact those sources have on me and my opinions, both good, and bad.