Sep 27, 2014

The Young Elites, by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is already well-known for her "Legend" trilogy, which I now very much want to read after devouring "The Young Elites." The island nation of Kenettra is in social and political upheaval. About a decade ago, the blood plague swept through the nation, killing all the adults it infected and most of the children. Those children that did survive were left with disfiguring or identifying marks of some kind: oddly colored hair, splotches of color across their faces, strange markings on an arm. Adelina has silver hair and a scar where her left eye used to be. She is a malfetto, one of the marked. There are rumors that some malfettos also developed unnatural powers, and that these dangerous youths are banding together to end the mistreatment of malfettos, who are believed to be abominations; they are called the Young Elites. Adelina's father practices cruelty in many forms upon her in the hopes that she will reveal a power that would make her worth something, whereas as a simple malfetto, he fears she will never be taken as a wife. Adelina shows no inkling of power, until the night she runs away from home after overhearing her father sell her as a mistress to a wealthy merchant - when he discovers her and threatens to kill her, Adelina suddenly calls upon a dark power within her that raises shadowy demons with huge claws and teeth dripping blood. She is, after all her father's cruelty, an Elite.

This is a dark, bleak book, suitable probably only for kids 14 and up, or younger only if they're very hearty. Adelina suffered years of abuse, both physical and mental, at the hands of her father, and the resultant darkness in her soul is very black indeed. Lu doesn't shy away from Adelina's dark thoughts of power and ambition and revenge, making this a tough read for gentle souls. I loved it, though, and have a great respect for authors who don't shy away from writing about dark or complicated issues for teens. Adelina is a complex heroine, perhaps even an anti-heroine, and I can't wait to see where Lu takes her in future books.

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

Perhaps a book about cholera outbreaks isn't the best idea for a self-proclaimed germophobe...but then again, it's a really interesting book! "The Ghost Map" is about an outbreak of cholera in a London neighborhood in 1854, a tragic event that led to a doctor named John Snow (no relation to the Starks [apologies for that ridiculous GoT joke]) figuring out that cholera was waterborne and not, as contemporary theory dictated, caused by "bad air." It was a momentous work of investigative science, the echoes of which are still quite strongly felt today in such areas as public health, urban planning, scientific method, epidemiology, and even social mapping programs such as Yelp. Johnson is an engaging writer, skillfully explaining the more complex scientific concepts as well as telling the story of the outbreak like a modern day murder mystery. He goes a bit off the rails toward the end, descending into fearmongering about the chances of a nuclear detonation in a major urban center; luckily, this unnecessary and marginally related section is rather small, and only detracts a little bit from the work's overall strength. I just wish I hadn't read it while eating...

Sep 20, 2014

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

I first read this little book in seventh grade, shortly after its publication. Everyone was raving about it, teachers and students alike, so in my pre-teen irascible contrariness, I read it and declared I didn't like it. I think I knew that I was being specious and argumentative just for the sake of standing out, but so much time had passed since reading it that I could no longer remember whether I really did dislike it or if I was just being difficult. With a much-heralded movie coming out very soon, my boss and I decided to reread it.

"The Giver" is a masterpiece, a brilliant novel that introduces young people to some very complex, interesting questions. The reader, whether 12-years-old or 28, is forced to ask, along with Jonas, whether stability is more important than variety. Is the true price of peace an eternal Sameness? Is contentment and safety more important than happiness and love? Would we rather live in a world without color, or a world without war? And seriously, DOES JONAS DIE AT THE END OR WHAT??

"The Giver" deserves its place in the canon of children's literature, as well as that of science fiction in general, and I look forward to seeing the (by all accounts very carefully crafted) movie version of Lowry's wonderful work.

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett

It's amazing how Pratchett has this way of taking an everyday normality in our lives and placing it in such vastly different circumstances that allows him to comment on said quotidian thing in a totally new light. He did it with banking and the postal service; "The Truth" is about newspapers, specifically, the notion of a free press. A heady theme, but in Pratchett's hands it's hilarious and exciting and totally accessible. I've said it before and I'm bound to say it again: I just love the British sense of humor (or humour, in a nod to Pratchett), and Pratchett's books are filled with it. Witty, clever turns of phrase pepper each page and make an already hilarious story that much more delightful. His books are a welcome respite of insanity in a field of all-too-often depressing contemporary fiction. Thank you, Mr. Pratchett, for making the literary world a little bit brighter by your presence.

Sep 19, 2014

Waiting for the Electricity, by Christina Nichol

Satire is extremely difficult to write well, and Nichol has nailed it with "Waiting for the Electricity," a strong indictment both of post-Soviet "democracies" and American capitalism (as well as Bay Area hippies). Slims Achmed Mashkavili is a maritime lawyer in post-communist Georgia. The electricity works only part of the time and no one has been paid for their jobs in over six months; Slims wants out. So he applies for an entrepreneurial internship in the US. Against all odds, he wins the position and heads to San Francisco for a six week business course and job at a fish packing plant in Oakland. Where all his friends and relatives in Georgia are content to complain vociferously about the lack of electricity, jobs, and money but never make a move to do anything about it, Slims finds that while Americans have everything they desire, they are also lonely and distant, cut off from their families and living in a state of constant fear that they end up on the wrong side of the law. "Why do you follow the law? Why not be free?" Slims (and Nichols) asks. Why can't he drink a beer on the sidewalk? Why can't he herd sheep through the National Parks? Why do Americans put up with all those tasteless ads everywhere?

It's quite a piece of work, to be able to satirize two completely different cultures at once. Nichol pulls it off brilliantly, somehow describing that odd gray area in which most difficult issues lie. Communism destroyed cultures, but at least its citizens had food and electricity and jobs. Post-Soviet democracy is a joke - no money, no jobs, no electricity - but at least families stick together. American consumerism creates a land of harmonious plenty, but we lack perspective and are overly materialistic. None of these systems has it right, but so few people are willing and able to do anything about it. Nichol is a fantastic writer, able to merge her message with some truly wonderful turns of phrase, and I very much look forward to reading her future work.

Sep 15, 2014

A Good and Happy Child, by Justin Evans

This is a literary thriller right up my alley: narrated by George, first as a grown man then as an eleven-year-old boy, the supporting cast of characters includes a medievalist, a psychologist, and a gay southern eccentric professor who reminds me exceedingly of my mother's friend Lanny. George, whose father passed away after a trip to Honduras, starts seeing/hallucinating a young boy who tells him that his father's death wasn't an accident and that his father's best friend, Tom Harris, planned his murder because he was in love with George's mother. Upon learning of George's visitations by this boy, Tom Harris and his friends assume he is possessed by a demon - and it turns out George's father was a bit of a celebrity exorcist - while George's psychiatrists want to put him in a long-term home for mentally insane children. Either way, it's a lot for a kid to handle.

We get a hefty dose of medieval Christian mysticism and Catholicism, much to my delight, which doesn't slow the pacing down at all. The book is a page-turner, but much better written than your average bestseller. The short chapters devoted to George as an adult, as a father who is deathly afraid of holding, or even touching, his infant son, devolve into what we would probably deem psychosis, as George's eleven-year-old self is torn between the mother he loves dearly and the inner circle of his father's friends that he desperately wants acceptance into. I had to read the ending a few times to figure it out, but when I did I saw its beauty. How does one break the chain of fatherly distance, anger, and disappointment? You'll have to read it to find out, and you'll be glad you did.

Sep 8, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Another book club book, my boss likens this to "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" for adults, and I think her description is very apt. It's a novella, really, of a grown man remembering a harrowing, magic-fraught couple of days when he was seven. He lived in the English countryside, and at the end of their lane was the Hempstock farm: Old Mrs. Hempstock, who likes to keep the full moon always shining into the bedroom windows; Mrs. Hempstock, a strong motherly figure with a no-nonsense attitude and just the right comfort food for any meal; and Lettie Hempstock, who has been eleven years old for a very, very long time and who insists that the pond behind the farmhouse is actually an ocean. The trouble starts when a lodger kills himself on the edge of their farm, letting into the world a thing that quickly upsets the balance. The language is ethereal, but also concrete in the way something narrated by a seven year old would be. I liked it, but more as something unique than as a genre I'd like to read more of.

Sep 4, 2014

Winger, by Andrew Smith

I found this book absolutely hilarious, but both my boss and our 17-year-old (female) intern thought it was rather ridiculous. I just can't help it that I think jokes about balls are funny! Ryan Dean West (and yes, Ryan Dean is his first name) is a precocious 14-year-old junior who is stuck at a boarding school somewhere in Oregon. His nickname comes from his position on the varsity rugby team, and he is hopelessly in love with his best friend Annie, a 16-year-old. Ryan Dean tells his story with hilarious side-comments from his constantly sex-obsessed brain, punctuated with hand drawn comics. Yes, he thinks and talks about his balls. A lot. What teenage boy doesn't?

It took me back to a time when I remember every little crisis being the absolute end of the world. This could have been depressing (as "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" was, at times), but his sense of humor instead made me look back at that time with a smile. It is, of course, a coming of age story. Winger has to deal with bullies and peer pressure, girls and friendships, loyalty and duty and doing what's right. There is an awful lot of swearing in it, which I think could have been toned down, but otherwise I think it's a great read for teen boys who are maybe a little too smart for their own good, who have something that makes them stick out in a crowd, who are torn between doing what they want and doing the right thing, and who sometimes have trouble being able to tell the difference. I really enjoyed it, even if the other ladies at my job didn't, and I look forward to giving it to some poor boy who needs a good book-friend.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

"Foundation," and its subsequent sequels and prequels, is a member of the science fiction cannon. When a friend mentioned he was going to read it, I found it on my bookshelf and decided to do so as well. Perhaps I am used to big, thick volumes and lots of world-building in modern sci-fi, but I found that it left me wanting much, much more. The idea behind "Foundation" is exceptionally grand in scope: several thousand years into our own future, Hari Seldon uses the mathematical science of psychohistory to predict the fall of the all-powerful Empire. He and his cadre position a group of scientists and intellectuals, the Foundation, to ride out the decline and minimize the years of anarchy that will follow. The concept is vast: by using statistics and mathematizing the way groups operate and think, Seldon is able to predict both the general flow of future history as well as surprisingly small, insightful details. This book, written in 1951, describes a few turning points along this timeline. It's incredibly intriguing, and I definitely want to read the rest of the Foundation novels, but I wish it were longer, that each crisis were fleshed out considerably so I could really dig my teeth into it. Instead, I read it in two days. The book seems too small for such a big idea, so I really look forward to reading the rest of the series to see what he does with it.