Category Archives: young adult

Wake by Amanda Hocking

I picked up Wake last week when I was up north. Amanda Hocking is a Minnesota writer, whom you might have heard of because she is a self-publishing superstar. I think her success story is just adorable, I kind of love everything about it, and I’d resolved to read something of hers eventually. I was under the mistaken impression that Wake was about mermaids living in Lake Superior, so this seemed like the logical place to start. You know, because I would read the crap out of a novel about mermaids in Lake Superior. Wake is about mermaids (sort of, more sirens than half-fish ladies) but the locale is the Maryland coast. Not that my disappointment about locations really has anything to do with anything. 

The novel opens with a chatty, boppy little opening, establishing our two point of view characters, Harper and Gemma Fisher. The names are pretty indicative of tone. Gemma is our 16 year old protagonist, and clearly she was named first. Her name’s kinda chick-litty and unlikely – Americans don’t name their kids Gemma, and it reads as exotic/fancy – with a cute little metaphorical implication of someone named fisher being in a siren book, right? But then Harper Fisher? This is just straight up a terrible name, and I find it hard to imagine the kind of people who would saddle their kid with two occupations as monikers. Or if I can imagine them, they look very different from the parents here. 

These are book names: romantic, lightly metaphorical, and also kinda girly milquetoast. Gemma Fisher is what you want to be named when you’re 14 and someone just mangled your oddball Celtic name for the umpteenth time and then asked you if you had a nickname. No, fool, I would have just given you the nickname instead of going through fifteen minutes of you acting like I made my name up to make your life hard. Well, that escalated quickly. Also, I never wanted to change my name, but I can totally see the appeal of names like Gemma & Harper to teens, who were named Jennifer and Kristen before there were 27 Jennifers in every class, and they want in on the new name that there will be 27 of in every class. 

The opening of the novel sets up the sisters’ lightly sniping relationship, and a couple of boy love interests for the sisters, in addition to foreshadowing you with a two-by-four about a pack of mean girls. Harper and Gemma’s mom is packed away in a home because of a traumatic brain injury; their dad ain’t handling it so well; Harper more or less acts as Gemma’s mom in a caring but overbearing way, blah blah blah. This is going to be an uncharitable thing to say, but I thought of the writing advice attributed to Elmore Leonard: don’t write the parts people skip. So much of this was skippable, from reams of unnecessary dialogue – seriously, I did not need a whole run down of the breakfast options this morn – to the logistical wranglings – hey, I left my bike at the pool; can I get a ride – to the artless but inoffensive prose. It was nice that Gemma’s paramour was the sweet, nerdy boy-next-door, but, gotta say, their relationship had zero juice. 

I ended up just giving up because I could just see this muddling on to its three-star conclusion. I’m going to dig parts of it because I can see that it focuses pretty strongly on female relationships, and that is something depressingly lacking in a lot of YA. (Hell, in a lot of fiction, period.) The tension is going to be about Harper and Gemma’s relationship when Gemma gets all siren’d up; plus, sirens are a pretty weighty metaphor about female sexuality, etc. But there’s going to be a half dozen things that make me bananas, like Gemma’s solo night swims in the ocean. Everyone’s on her for it because she’s a swim team star and shouldn’t waste her swimming at night or something? No. Do not swim alone at night in the ocean ever. Don’t swim alone. I don’t care how strong of a swimmer you are; they might never find your body. 

Like the names, the night swimming is included because it sets up this romantic situation – ah, the water in the moonlight – but it doesn’t make sense that a swimmer wouldn’t have very basic water safety drilled into her by her coach, who would do more than sigh and shake his head if he found out about it. Oh, also, mama’s crazy, and I can see that going nowhere good. But! I can see why Hocking is so successful. It’s real mundane, but in a way that makes the mundanity just a little bit shiny. Gemma’s a good girl and Harper’s a book nerd, (I’m a good girl and a book nerd!) and they have pretty boring problems, (I have pretty boring problems!) you know, until dun dun (omg, college!). 

I can also see the appeal of the girlishness of the whole package here. I showed my six year old daughter the cover – and my daughter is a damn fine barometer of girlishness – and she was pretty into it. But then I peeled the cover off and showed her the poster that’s secretly on the back of the book jacket.

two swimmers in a blue background holding hands

She more or less freaked out about it. What are they doing? I want to go swimming too. Wake isn’t going to be about saving the world or huge action sequences. It’s not going to culminate in fisticuffs or explosions. Instead, it’s going to be this chatty, actionless parable about not fitting in and growing up and female sexuality, which is going to resonate for girls on exactly the same tuning-fork frequency as Twilight. I honestly think that’s great, the whole girl pulp for girls thing, and Wake seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of not being regressive and reactionary about female relationships slash sexuality. 

But I am, alas, old and cranky, and this just is way not for me. Frankly, Gemma and Harper are so muted, such nice people, that I had a hard time relating to them. (And that thing where girls can’t tell if they’re horny or just embarrassed – she wondered at the blush creeping up her cheeks, etc – is just weird. Can’t you tell that at a pretty young age?) I figure if I want to hear a story about a coven of mean girls, I’ll just re-watch The Craft.

the girls from The Craft having a picnic

Starglass by Phoebe North

The Italian cover for Paradises Lost,
the generation ship novella by UKL

The whole concept of the generation ship flips me out. I’m not even that comfortable with the idea of being on a spaceship (or a submarine) not because of claustrophobia, but because is there air out there?? NO THERE IS NOT. I just spent nearly four days in a blackout that had me boiling water for baths and kiting power from the neighbors (who had power due to the inexplicable ways of the city grid), and I’m keenly aware of how tenuous our systems are, how it took thousands of technicians pulled from as far away as Colorado to get me back into hot water and an icebox. And with my power outage I won’t be screaming silently into space as my lungs freeze

While most stories occurring on generation ships don’t focus on the technological fragility of a ship ginned up and sent out for hundreds of years into the void, that trapped and helpless feeling is in everything. Here are a thousand people whose living space was chosen for them, irrevocably; there will be no technicians from Colorado when things go wrong. Power structures, of all kinds, must be managed and cared for by people whose lives are by needs insular and rigid. Everyone must do their part because the alternative is not chaos, but death. (Just as a sidebar, this argument gets made politically here on Spaceship America a lot, which is part of the reason that the extremity of the generation ship resonates for me so well. Just because all members of society must contribute what they can doesn’t mean injustice has to be a part of that contribution, etc.) 

Starglass starts, fittingly, with the letter of one of the first generation, the earth-born who left a doomed planet Earth, writing to her daughter about her lost planet and the unknown future. I kinda don’t get book trailers – or maybe it’s just the ones I’ve seen are a little dopey – but this book trailer captures the elegiac tone quite well. We then meet 12 year old Terra on the morning of her mother’s funeral, the very beginnings of the grief and fracture which will color all the events of the novel, the relationships and personalities. 

The heart of this novel is grief, and as such, it makes for a more musing and introspective young adult novel than I think is typical. We meet Terra again at 16, on the eve of her graduation, where the government of Asherah metes out the living assignments for the graduating class. Her home life has turned into a cold war punctuated by emotional violence, an emotionally distant and voluminously alcoholic father clinging to his concept of societal mitzvah in lieu of real parental connection. The dad kind of killed me, the way it seemed obvious to me that on some level he loved his daughter, but he was so badly broken that it came out in these awful, inexcusably cruel ways. That I can have sympathy for him and still hate him and the things he does to Terra speaks to subtle characterization, this horrible, sad, broken, dutiful man who has pasted himself back together using his most selfish instincts. 

As befits a coming of age novel in a locked room society – remember, there are no technicians from Colorado – much of the plot centers on Terra’s growing political sense as she adjusts to her new work life. (And her work placement is an almost clustercuss of mistakes and silences that flow out of her learned self-containment as a result of her mother’s death. Say it with me: the personal is the political.) The people of the starship Asherah are Jews of a post-apocalyptic diaspora, who are, in a way, looking forward to yet another diaspora when they reach the new chosen land of their target planet. That day is coming soon, and the tensions between various factions, who will lead, and who has the right to all comes to bear not just on Terra, but everyone around her in ways that are confusing and personal. 

I feel much more closed-mouth about books I review beforethey are published, so I will just gesture to my contentment about how Terra manages her romantic life. The society on Asherah is rigid in the ways it constructs family life – everyone will marry, and have two children, a girl and boy, when they are told to do so – and that this does not and cannot work for many is maybe only a surprise to the young, who have been locked into their own family failures, cut off by silence and fear that they are the only ones. Here on starship My House, I have a girl and a boy and a husband, and a series of conflicts that I live with without ever updating to facebook or disgorging to the uninitiated. We lock ourselves into our choices and habits, and some of those choices are beautiful, and some of them abrade, and we pick our ways between the two as best we can. 

Anyway, as a conclusion, I just want to note that, as much I loved the shit out of the careful, grieving tone of this story, the personality driven conflicts, and the slow understandings that unfold, as the first part in a duology, the ending might be abrupt for some readers. Really though, it is my firm belief that in young adult novels, the leap is as important as the landing, and Terra’s leap is a sight to behold. I’m more than interested in seeing where she lands, but I’ll hold her there, in the darkness, struggling towards the promised land. 

Full disclosure: I am friends with Phoebe North on Goodreads, and I received an ARC from the publisher, but no cookies were promised or exchanged for my review or opinion, which is decidedly my own.

Tankborn by Karen Sadler: A World More Interesting Than Its Plot

When my Grandma was a girl, she was told by a Catholic priest that Protestants had tails hidden under their clothes. Maybe they had cloven hooves too, or that might have been Jews, but either way, Protestants weren’t rightly human. I don’t think my Grandma ever went so far as to believe this, so I can’t tell some fun story about how she was surprised by my Protestant grandfather’s tail-free posterior when they married. Plus, obviously, she married my Protestant grandfather. (And Grandma was raised in Homestead, PA, which was very pluralistic, not a priest-run village in County Clare or whatever, just to note how easy it was to debunk such information, yet how such disinformation persisted within her Catholic community.) So when I went to roll my eyes when Kayla in Tankborn by Karen Sadler is told that if she, as a Genetically Engineered Non-human, touches a trueborn, her skin will bruise and bubble, I checked myself. Of course that is an incredibly stupid idea with zero basis in reality, but humans regularly believe such things. And while Homestead in the 1920s had a caste system like any other American city, it was no where near as rigidly enforced as the one in this novel. 

Kayla and Mishalla are GENs on the post-Earth planet Loka on the eves of their matriculation at the start of the novel, and the plot follows their assignments out of the GEN ghetto into the larger world. GENs are the bottom of the heap of a caste system, genetically engineered slaves who were introduced into society 75 years before when the lowborn – the children of the original indentured servants when the colony was being settled – revolted against continuing hereditary indenture (or what we like to call slavery.) The slaves revolted, so the highborn of Loka made a new class of slaves. The complex hierarchical social and economic system is very much the selling point of this novel, as this information I’ve parceled out in a couple of sentences is something I came to slowly, through (mostly) Kayla’s vantage point as she navigates her society. Loka is richly textured, with various competing homegrown religions and cultural norms, and Sandler doesn’t infodump or downtalk, assuming the reader can catch up to the barrage of new terminology and ideas. 

While I don’t think a dystopian society has to be entirely plausible to be effective - Divergent, for example, has a hugely stupid societal structure, but manages to resonate as a kind ofemotional experience of adolescence – it was enjoyable to see a fictional society that wasn’t just plausible, but grounded in (mostly not-junky) science fictional elements and attention to detail. Loka is pretty much the American colonies crossed with an Anglo-Indian caste system, but the culture itself isn’t leaning too hard on either of these places, culturally speaking, synthesizing them into something new and strange. This reminded me a little of God’s War - especially the weird indigenous life of the planet – but God’s Waris waaaay more hardcore in a number of ways. 

My reservations with Tankborn all stem from the plotting of this novel, which relies far too much on information withheld from the main characters (for no apparent reason) and stunning revelations that maybe only stun our protagonists. Kayla ends up in the employ of a cranky old Lokan scientist with seeekrets and a GEN-like tattoo on his check – gasp, why would any highborndo that – while Mishalla works at a crisis nursery for orphan lowborn children – but with seeekrets. Just about everything that happens appears to be engineered by the cranky old guy, down to the chance-looking meeting between Kayla and her eventual love interest (and his great-grandson) on the banks of the GEN ghetto river. And while he (and the seeekret organization you learn he belongs to) appear to be able to engineer the most frankly ridiculous coincidences, he chooses very convoluted and bizarre ways to parcel out information to Kayla and his great-grandson. While there are culturally cogent reasons for this not to happen, sorta, I frustrate with plots that could be solved with a simple phone call. 

The parallel love stories between the GEN girls and and their trueborn paramours was also not hugely successful. I’m not criticizing the dystopian love story – let us all remember that 1984in many ways hinges on the romance between Winston and Julia before we start snarling about YA dystopian romances and how girl readers are ruining fiction – it’s just that Kayla’s relationship seemed awful sudden, overcoming scads of cultural conditioning much more severe than someone telling Grandma Fran once that Protestants had horns. Mishalla’s whole plot line was much more truncated, and therefore that much more sudden. It would have been nice to see something other than a love relationship be the impetus for cultural revelations, is all, and the fact that there are two very similar trajectories for the GEN leads seems like a wasted opportunity. (Though, I will note I really liked the sequence where Mishalla spends an afternoon passing for trueborn, and the thrill, danger and disappointment that flows from that.) 

The book-ending revelations felt a little well, duh, though I do get that that they would be huge, game-changing ideas for the leads. It’s maybe tough to hide the football of the GENs origins to an SFFnal readership, and I appreciate that walking a tightrope between reader’s expectations and character’s more limited vantage is a thing. Some of the book-ending revelations also felt, as the saying goes, problematic. I’m not even kidding when I say the following information is a serious spoiler.

Turns out, both Kayla and Mishalla were lowborn children who were stolen while toddlers and implanted with the GEN technology to make them GENs. The science here starts to fall apart for me, because while we’re told the genetic stock for the GENs is degrading or something making child-theft a sensible solution, I don’t buy it. The evil scientist in me was like, you could totally buy eggs from lowborn women or just sneak them out of IVF clinics or something; they don’t need to resort to trafficking which is a huge logistical pain in the ass. There’s a whole ethical grey zone right now surrounding these technologies, not even getting into tanks gestating children and whatnot. That Kayla and Mishalla aren’t exactly GENs felt frustrating, because while the obvious take-home is that GENs are people too!, we’ve just imbued our GEN protagonists with a secret nobility – they are not actually tankborn, but trueborn. So should I continue to believe all the racist shit about GENs – it is explicitly stated that animal DNA is used in their creation – because our spunky heroines have not been tainted by that origin? Do the Protestants still have their tails? Obviously not, but, again, it just felt like a wasted opportunity, because one could be trueborn, and one tankborn, and then the point could have been much less ambiguous. People are people, etc.


So, all told, an interesting novel, one that in many ways avoids the occasionally sloppy societal construction of the contemporary young adult dystopia, but unfortunately fails to seize on the opportunities suggested by its carefully constructed society.  

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.

Ink by Amanda Sun

 Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.) 

I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything - but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well. 

Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient. 

Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it. 

Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.


from Amanda Sun’s blog



Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas. 

assasin's curse

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

assasin's curse

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I have a challenge question if you send me a friend request on Goodreads, which is, “What is the best book you read in the last year and why?” There are no right answers – in the sense that if your best book is something I loathe I won’t hold it against you – and I don’t really care what your definition of “best” is. Best can be a lot of different things. Pretty regularly, friend requesters turn it around on me, and makes me throw up my hands. What kind of jerk question is that? Gosh, how can I be expected to answer that? 

According to the stats, I have rated 36 books since the beginning of the year, and of them, eight I gave five stars. (I admit I’ve become soft in my ratings, but then I do read less dross.) But of that eight, I’d call Cassandra Rose Clarke‘s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter the best. She managed to punch through my rib cage and strangle me with that one, with the kind of science fiction that uses technology as folklore in the long, unsaid tides of lived lives. Just, oh my god. I knew Clarke had a YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, but I have to be in a very specific mood for YA fantasy. But then the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, came up on NetGalley, I freaked right out and requested it. And then I read both books – which constitute a duology – in one huge freak-out sitting. (I would like to thank the ugly head cold I got for giving me the time prone to do that.)

Ananna of the Tanarau is a pirate’s daughter betrothed to a semi-landlocked idiot at the start of the action. She manages to mess that up fairly spectacularly, and ends up on the lam, chased by magical assassins set after her by her would-be-husband’s family. Ananna reminded me a little of Saba from Blood Red Road, both with her clueless competence and her near-dialect, but both her character and the dialect was more restrained, and for the better. She ends up tied to one of the assassins through magical weirdness, and she and the assassin, Naji, end up scrambling all over this world in an attempt to untether their destinies and break the curse.

Which, gotta say, written out like that, this book sounds a little trite, and certainly The Assassin’s Curseisn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of young adult or magical systems. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this elsewhere, but originality doesn’t necessarily factor for me in young adult slash fantasy fiction; whether I like a book of this nature comes down to whether I like the protagonist. I like Ananna a lot. She’s got ambition, and a mind, and she’s both emotionally reactive and measured. She factors the angles and leaps, or she leaps and then factors the angles, and she’s neither always making the right choice nor being overcome by hard choices. 

Maybe it’s all the sailing, but The Assassin’s Curse reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Especially the odd, inhuman character of the manticore, whose brutal predation was both funny and scary – not unlike Le Guin’s dragons. There’s a lot of action in The Assassin’s Curse, and often really strange action, occurring in magical locales with weird physics, and Clarke manages this all well. (And I think physical scenes can be deceptively hard to write.) The magical systems aren’t really tightly defined, but I didn’t mind. This isn’t some wank about how the world works, but about how people work within the world, and that Ananna knows what she knows but doesn’t know everything made perfect sense to me. 

The ending kind of dot-dot-dots in a way that is not the best, if you’re into self-contained fictions, but I had the sequel in my hot little hands, so it was okay for me. Not to start reviewing the sequel, but The Pirate’s Wish didn’t exactly deliver on the promise of this novel, but it still wasn’t a bad conclusion. For what it’s worth.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

If I had read Blood Red Road by younger, I would have loved this. People say stuff like this all the time, and sometimes it’s a dig. You know, the old saw about how teens are stupid and they cannot differentiate good writing from bad so we as older readers should either a) not read books directed at the teen market or b) not judge it according to the literary standards of books aimed at adults. A pox on both ideas. I don’t think we should just hang out in our little genre marketing ghettos: I only read YA, you only read sewious literary fiction, she only reads mysteries, etc. I don’t think we should let marketing labels dictate our reading choices. 

I also predict that this book is going to be compared to Hunger Games a lot, and some of those comparisons are going to be in the “this is a rip-off” strain. No. The Hunger Gamesis many good things, but it did not invent the post-apocalyptic landscape. When The Hunger Games came out, lots of people pointed a Japanese manga book I had never heard of called Battle Royale. I thought they were talking about Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the short story that comes out of it, called “Battle Royal”. (Which, now that I think of it, would make an interesting compare/contrast with The Hunger Games.) I had been out of reading YA long enough that I had no idea what these critics were talking about, because I thought of an Ice-T movie from the early-90s? called Surviving the Gamewhere suckas try to hunt Ice-T on an island, and he totally hands them their asses, because he is Ice-T. Then there’s other stuff like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Lord of the Fliesor, well, you see where this is going. And also, just recently a friend of mine pointed out the connection between The Hunger Games and the Theseus story, what with the tributes and the fighting. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that whatever genre commonalities this has with The Hunger Games, or The Road, or whatever else I just mentioned, this book is its own thing in terms of narrative voice and landscape, and that is all there is to it. 

 Blood Red Roadstarts incredibly strong, written in dialect that took me maybe 3 pages to get over. I am no fan of dialect, except in some notable cases, but I thought it completely worked here. The language was stripped down, conversational, without the ornament of apostrophes and other punctuation; just the unhatched thoughts of an unhatched person. Wonderful, really. And the description of landscape, be still my beating heart. Much of what I love about post-apocalit is the landscapes it writes into being, all this prosperity and functionality of our modern world run to dust and a lone chimney standing up out of the ruin of nature run its course. I don’t even want to speculate on why I find this appealing, because there is something self-annihilating, society-annihilating in my affections. The patchwork houses, the patchwork clothes, an anecdote about a bit of an airplane used to patch the roof that flew away because it remembered its function, despite the fact that the protagonist doesn’t really believe in airplanes, all this was wonderful to me. 

Anyway, there’s sequence very early on with our protagonist walking through dunes that keep shifting to reveal a ruined settlement, or the bones of an airport, and the shift and dusty beauty of that knocked me over. And the set up leaves me breathless too: a set of twins, a sister, a lost mother, a physically present but absent father, all living out their familial trauma in the bare edge of land with no one but themselves for company. One of the twins is taken, and his twin sister goes to get him back. She is twitchy and weird, as those raised in that kind of claustrophobic environment would be, and I really enjoyed her single-mindedness and social ineptness. 

But, and I’m really sorry to say this, I think Blood Red Roadblows off course at about mid-point. The sequences in the ugly city; the human-trafficking; the brittle, painful conversations whispered between prisoners in an unfair system that values human life only in the taking of it: this is what I loved about this book. By mid-point these things had been wrapped, and we start in on a love story and a continuing chase that I had very little interest in. I know, I know, some of this is age on my part. The plot still moves pretty quickly, despite several needless interactions between our heroine and her love interest that are repetitive and cliche. But there was something compelling to me in how isolated her upbringing was, something weird and unknowable about it, and I didn’t think she would behave in these broad tough-girl mannerisms that she does, especially later in the book. She would not want to ditch her younger sister as often as she does, because her younger sister would be one of the few human she understands. I feel like maybe the characterization lost its moorings in the reality of the environment, instead drawing on the character traits of the imagined readership. 

Frankly, I have no idea if this is a bad thing entirely, even though I think it weakens the character. Just to refer to a) and b) in my first paragraph. Much as I grumble about genre distinctions that divide readerships, I understand that I may not be included in the intended readership of this book. The concerns of the protagonist felt like they drift into the formula for teen romance. While I do not enjoy this formula, it might ring true for other readers. Additionally, I thought the denouement was swift, cheap, and hackneyed, and the set-up for the next book contrived and obvious. Sssst. 

I don’t want to end on a bad note, because this is still a strong and worthy book. The language is impressive; the landscape dangerously beautiful. Clunky though the ending was, I do look forward to more walks within this world, with its shifting sand dunes that reveal and conceal, the chimneys of our modern world standing mute in the green growing and the red dust. I look forward to where this story might go, given how strong the voice is now. Let’s hope it only gets stronger. 

Eleanor & Park: Alternate Histories

I kind of wanted to jump out of my skin the whole time reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – which I did in a single, compulsive sitting – because Eleanor is one of my best friends growing up. One of my best friends now, really, but I knew her back in 1986 too. There are differences. Amy wasn’t nearly as withdrawn, and got into a lot more fights. I don’t think she would ever voluntarily listen to the Smiths either – hair metal was much more the thing – but the fundamentals are all there: the home life, the poverty, the complete and total sense of being stuck and stuck forever. She had big sweaters and a lot of hair and mistrust, and pretty much everyone she knew had earned that mistrust twice. And then a third time, because that was the charm. So many of the details of Eleanor, just little things, made my throat strangle because I knew exactly what they meant, what they were covering for, even if Eleanor herself didn’t. Oh Lord. 

Which is funny, because tonally, this story is a little dopey. I don’t mean that dismissively, more with affection towards my younger self. Eleanor is the new kid in an Omaha high school, and on the first ugly day on the bus, she ends up sitting next to Park. Park’s not an outcast exactly. He’s from the neighborhood, and has those weird, long relationships that neighborhood kids have with even the popular jerks. (When my bff Alicia got into a fight with Olivia, another neighborhood girl, Olivia pulled some dirty shit on me later. But I knew Olivia’s house and her mom, and we’d hang out occasionally if no one else was on the street. Because it’s neighborhood, you know? It’s not like you’re getting out until you figure out how to use the bus system, and even then.) But Park’s mom’s Korean, so even though he’s neighborhood, and his dad is neighborhood, and his grandparents are neighborhood, people look at him and see the only Asian kid for miles. “That’s not even the right kind of racist,” Park deadpans when his friend says something stupid. 

Eleanor and Park fall into a strange, wordless courtship (sorry, hugely dorky word choice there) predicated on comics and mix tapes and never looking each other in the eye. I know, gag. Double gag. But it totally works, because Rowell knows how weird you are, and what a spaz, and how it’s all so embarrassing you’re going to die. How you think that everyone can see that your brain is absolutely covered in ants. And she knows how to write a hand-holding scene that makes me want to freak out. There was this one time, sitting in this boy’s car, where I knew if he didn’t kiss me I was going to die. I was also going to die if he kissed me, and then he did, and the ants escaped my brain and ran all over my skin. Shee-it. 

The middle of Eleanor & Park goes a little slack, I think because the book has an almost claustrophobic focus on the two of them. It’s not that the supporting cast is weak – I think Rowell can pull off some very concise character work when she does it – but, as I said, the focus is pretty tight. I can dig why in some ways – the novel is called Eleanor & Park, and the claustrophobia mirrors the ant-covered feelings of young love – but I think it weakens the motivations. Eleanor’s siblings could be better fleshed out, especially the brother closest to her age. They would have had more of a thing, I think. Her school friends also don’t factor like they should. Also, if you hate eye-gazing and romantic love, you should probably steer clear of this novel. Both those things make me itch, but I didn’t mind them here, fwiw. 

Two things: I don’t know if I would have loved this story if I didn’t love an Eleanor, and if I hadn’t been a kiddo in the late 80s. I don’t know if any of this 80s stuff would figure to someone born in 1986. (Who would be the young adult in the target audience, if my math isn’t disastrous.) Which is not to say that Rowell lays on the 80s with a trowel, not like a lot of half-assed fictions which use referents in lieu of character (cf.The Wedding Singer, et al.) Even then, I don’t know that this difference between the Smiths and Sex Pistols (who Eleanor hates) would mean anything at all. My musical understandings of the era are completely weak – I recently, embarrassingly identified the Guns N Roses album “Appetite for Destruction” as “Welcome to the Jungle” (I know, right?) – but I had enough cousins, ex-boyfriends, older brothers and ambient whatever to know precisely what that all meant, even if I’m shit for titles.

But I did have an Eleanor, and even a Park less so. I had a mid-80s upbringing in a Midwestern town with the same stupid racial and class divisions, with the same stupid neighborhood ins-and-outs. I totally get Eleanor and Park and everyone they know. As a first novel, I don’t think that Rowell is speaking to anything but the choir though; she isn’t explaining the neighborhood lingo to the outsiders. Which is fine in some ways: fuck you assholes for not getting it. But it narrows the audience for sure, and I want to gesture to other book by Ms Rowell, Attachments, which runs this Midwestern claustrophobia with more adroitness and expansion. 

My Eleanor did not have her story work out like this Eleanor at all. My Amy’s young life was hard and unsparing and cruel. So it both hurt and staunched the wound a bit to see an Eleanor find someone like Park. It was like watching an alternate history, one where the neighborhood wasn’t a barrel of crabs who would drag you under just because they were drowning as well. I kind of want to send a carefully folded letter to Ms Rowell (can I call you Rainbow?) with a sloppy, earnest entreaty for her to be my friend? Check this box. Please. I am in love with her for giving my Eleanor a Park. Maybe it’s hopelessly romantic, but it’s absolutely the sweetest thing, and I thank her for it with all my heart. <3

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

Reluctant Boy Readers: Peregrine Harker and the Black Death

I requested Peregrine Harker the Black Death from NetGalley because I have a shine for the Black Plague, and young adult novels about ridiculously awful social and bacteriological devastation appeal to me in the abstract. Unfortunately for this reader, it wasn’t really about bubonic plague. This book also skews younger than the young adult label implies, really more for the 10-14 demographic than late high school or slumming adults. There’s been a lot of fracture in the age distinctions for novels in the past however long – apparently there is a category called New Adult these days? – but I think that sometimes those distinctions can be fruitful. Or if not fruitful, than useful for readers to determine interest level. 

Peregrine Harker the Black Death by Luke Hollands absolutely screams to me reluctant boy reader, with its parentless boy detective type first-person narrator who is a cross between the pre-radioactive-spider-bitten Peter Parker and Tin Tin. He is hauled in by a superior at the newspaper and ordered to stop going off on wild tangents, and then immediately goes off on a wild tangent that gets him knocked on the head and embroiled in a Scooby Doo style mystery. There’s some mild family angst, but everybody is too busy running around and avoiding being buried alive and the like to really delve into melodrama. 

Everything is extremely action-driven, and moves fairly breathlessly around an almost overdone Victorian England. The prose is very pip pip cheerio old bean bloke lorry loo, and it took me a while to determine that this wasn’t meant to be funning on British prose style, but straight up. Or maybe it is funning after all, but it is very over the top in its Britishiosity. I didn’t exactly like this, but I think for the demographic who should be reading this, it would be fun and novel. 

I’m going to admit here I didn’t finish Peregrine Harker the Black Death. A book aimed at boys who don’t like to read and therefore gives them scads and scads of action to the detriment of anything else a novel might provide isn’t really my bag. I think I’m sounding a little bitter here, but I don’t mean to go that way. Stylized action vehicles are completely valid, especially if you’re trying to sucker some snot-nosed brat into reading instead of Minecraft. I think my 9 year old, who is an unreluctant boy reader, would probably enjoy this as action fluff. Young people who are afraid that books might have girl cooties all over them will likely enjoy this too. This is mostly cootie-free. 

But I don’t think somewhat mindless action vehicles are ultimately going to turn the reluctant reader into an avid one, because there’s not a lot of here here. I don’t believe that reading is ennobling, and I don’t think it has to be didactic or educational to be worthwhile. The things that make reading rewarding, or differently rewarding than building Legos or Mariocart – finely drawn (or even exaggerated) emotional states, engaging or challenging prose, thoughtful plotting, any kind of character study – are not in evidence here. And not that this one novel has to adhere to my cranky old standards or solve all the issues I have with how reading fits into other media, gendered divisions in marketing, and whatnot. A perfectly slap-happy read for someone other than me.