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Category Archives: young adult fiction

Wrapping Up for Christmas

To look at this blog, you’d think I hadn’t read a book since February. That isn’t true, but it’s close enough to being true that I really have to find a convenient time warp where I can catch up on reading without having to cut back on anything else. For the record, though, I’ve read the following (excluding books that I’ve completely forgotten I read):

Revival – Stephen King

Cover for Stephen King's Revival

Electricity: Not necessarily our friend.

Stephen King works in the modern tradition of bestselling horror, which to my mind began with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, though you could track it back further to some of Richard Matheson’s early, lower-profile novels like I Am Legend. But it was Levin’s runaway bestseller and the movie that followed that seemed to break the dam open and led directly into William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which led into…a long line of Stephen King novels that’s continued from Carrie through whatever his most recent book is. (It’s hard to keep up.) The modern horror tradition places a strong emphasis on settings that are familiar almost to the point of banality, which the author uses as a means of creating a suspension of belief so profound that you’ll buy into whatever unexpected curve ball he or she pitches out of their word processor to shatter the banality into terrifying shards, like Rosemary’s neighbors turning out to be a coven of Satan worshippers or Carrie turning out to have telekinetic powers brought on by her first menstrual period.

Revival, however, is King’s homage to the older generation of horror writers that he (and I) grew up reading from an age when we were young enough to accept outre settings that were nothing like the world we lived in. It’s specifically an homage to, and in many ways an updating of, Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella “The Great God Pan,” which is about individuals who have managed to glimpse the true nature of reality that lurks behind the shallow scrim of the mundane, a reality so different and so much more terrifying than the world they thought they lived in that it drives them mad when they discover it.

King, as is often his wont, carries the story’s setup to such verbose extremes that I began to worry that he was losing track of the horror element that Machen had been considerably more focused on. Those worries turned out to be needless. Almost every scene in Revival pays off eventually and turns out to be essential to what follows. Whether what follows is worth the wait is a matter of taste. The glimpse of the reality beyond reality at the end is indeed terrifying and I find that it’s come to haunt me even more in retrospect than it did while I was reading it. To accept it, though, it’s necessary to have your belief suspended so tautly that nothing can possibly yank it down. Thankfully, mine was up to the challenge. The novel threatens at times to become a slog, as you learn more about the relentlessly ordinary protagonist than you really want to know, but it never quite bogs down completely. Then again, I’m a long-time fan of old-time horror, so nothing was going to prevent me from getting to King’s take on it. And I’m glad I waded through the sometimes interminable exposition required to get there.

This, I should note, is one of those first-person stories where the most interesting and significant character isn’t the narrator but a secondary character who wanders in and out of the narrator’s life. (H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror novella “The Thing on the Doorstep” is similar.) And if there’s anywhere that the book falters it’s in the believability of that character, who crawls farther out on a limb of eccentricity every time we meet him. There are moments toward the end when it feels like King is fighting to keep him just grounded enough that the reader’s acceptance of him as a real person won’t turn into a hot air balloon and float away, but it’s touch and go for a while. In the end King pulls it off, but by that time I was so thrilled to see him finally get to the story’s ultimate revelation that I was ready to believe anything King told me.

The title, incidentally, has multiple meanings, one of which is simply King’s revival of old-school horror. I’ll leave it to potential readers to discover the others. (There are at least two more.)

The Brilliance Trilogy — Marcus Sakey

Cover of Written in Fire

Book three of the Brilliance Trilogy

I reviewed the first two books of this trilogy, Brilliance and A Better World, in earlier installments of this blog. To summarize: I loved them. A lot. But I reread them in preparation for the third book, Written in Fire, and I was thrilled all over again. Sakey pulls off the whole Brilliance enterprise — the adverb is unavoidable — brilliantly.

Collectively, the series is about a civil war between genius-level mutants called brilliants and the ordinary humans who feel like they can no longer keep up with their intellectual superiors. I was impressed not only by Sakey’s believable depiction of the mutants but by the way he gives each of the three books its own slow-rising plot arc, with each one not fully starting to grip until about halfway through, at which point they become impossible to put down. He manages to sustain this through the entire three-book serial arc as well, except the peak comes in the final third, which is a hat trick that I wish other writers of trilogies (see below) could pull off as deftly.

There’s a touch of deus ex machina in the way the final novel is resolved, with Sakey setting the resolution up in advance but not in a way that’s totally believably in retrospect, letting everything hang on a moment of hubristic boasting by one of the characters that I think the character would have been savvy enough to avoid. But everything else about the third novel is so compelling that I’m more than willing to forgive this lapse. Sakey’s mutants are fascinating, but the one that stands out is the frighteningly vivid Soren, a sympathetic bad guy who sees time move 11 times more slowly than other human beings, even other mutants, do, which makes him horrifyingly dangerous, because he’s thinking 11 times more rapidly than the hero, but also isolates him from his peers in a way that leaves him open to manipulation by the book’s real villain, who orchestrates much of the apocalyptic chaos of the final scenes through the charismatic way he makes people like Soren think that he actually cares about them even while he uses them to achieve his own ends.

Sakey’s greatest strength is that he makes every character’s motivations feel genuine and in many cases sympathetic, even when what they’re motivated to do is appallingly wrongheaded. He leaves a hook at the end that could be used for a sequel, though Sakey says he has no intention of writing one. However, he’s been letting other writers play with his carefully constructed world and, though I haven’t read any of the non-Sakey spin-offs, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t continue where this novel leaves off.

I’m not sure I want to revisit this world, though. Sakey does such a satisfying job of telling the story that I’m worried I might see some lesser writer mucking it up. For all intents and purposes the story has now been told and told well, and that’s how I want to remember it.

The 5th Wave Trilogy – Rick Yancey

Covers for the 5th Wave trilogy

From the sublime to the tedious.

When I reviewed the first, eponymous novel in this series I raved about it. Yancey’s characters were complex, their relationships were compelling, their moments of self-revelation felt meaningful and Yancey’s writing frequently rose to the level of unexpected poetry. When I reread it to bone up for the rest of the series the poetry was still there but the rest seemed a bit flat, probably because I remembered too many unexpected twists from my first time through. It still stands pretty well as a complete work, though, and I’m sad to report that, except for the threads Yancey leaves dangling at the end, it should have remained a standalone experience.

The Infinite Sea, the second book of the trilogy, tells two stories, each of which could have been wrapped up in a couple of chapters instead of stretched out to half the length of a novel. Much of the time Yancey seems to be padding his way toward book three just so he can do the full triple-book treatment that seems to be required now in YA fantasy and science fiction whether the stories merits it or not. As much as I enjoyed them, I blame the Hunger Games novels (or perhaps the Twilight series, which I haven’t read) for that. There are entire scenes in The Infinite Sea that feel like they’ve gone on forever even when you realize that Yancey is going to make them go on even longer and if I hadn’t been as determined to finish this trilogy as I’d been to finish Sakey’s, I probably would have put the book down partway through (virtually speaking, because it’s on my Kindle, which I’d still have to pick back up to read something else) and moved on to more promising pastures. But I figured the third novel had to be better.

And it is. The Last Star picks back up with characters from the first book who vanish for long sections of the second and starts telling a real story again, but it still feels padded with unnecessary dialog and scenes that loop back so frequently to the same repetitive arguments that I wanted to tell Yancey just to get it over with (or possibly shoot me) to put me out of my misery. He finally does — get it over with, not shoot me — and the fact that I can’t even remember how it ended probably says more about how weary of the book I was by that point than any specific criticism I could make — if I could remember enough to be critical. I do remember that the climax was designed to bring tears to my eyes, but I was too sick of the characters by then to muster even a slight layer of optical mist over whatever it was that happened to them.

The 5th Wave should have been at most a duology and I’m not sure Yancey shouldn’t just have made the first novel longer and wrapped it all up there. Still, the first novel remains worth reading, though you might want to take a pass on the sequels and imagine your own resolution. It’ll probably be better than the one Yancey supplies. Or at least briefer.

Borderline (The Arcadia Project) – Mishell Baker

The cover of Borderline

The borderline between well-written characters and well-worn premises.

This is the book I’m reading now, in bits and pieces of snatched time, mostly before I fall asleep at night. It has a fascinating beginning setting up a fascinating heroine that unfortunately leads into a well-written but overly familiar detective procedural with an interesting if not entirely original fantasy overlay that doesn’t quite lift it above the pedestrian level of detective procedurals in general. But Baker’s writing is excellent, her wit sharp and lively, and I’ll read it through to the end. It’s not giving me the sort of thrill I got out of Sakey’s frequently noirish take on mutantkind, but maybe it’s unreasonable to demand that every book hit notes quite that high.

As with King’s Revival, the title has more than one meaning, though the more interesting one is that the protagonist suffers from borderline personality disorder. This is the main element that lifts the novel above the level of standard fantasy noir, but as the book goes on her psychological diagnosis begins to seem more and more like an excuse for the sort of snarky first-person narration that detective fiction writers have been using since Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep. The book’s depictions of Los Angeles and the film industry are quite good, though, and at this point are holding my attention more than the heroine’s mental disorder or the physical problems resulting from a suicide attempt that occurred before the novel begins. (Both of her legs are prosthetic, a detail that’s handled so believably that I wonder if author Baker has personal experience with it or is just really good at research.)

If the novel surprises me by transcending its fairly predictable underpinnings, I’ll write about it again later. Otherwise, I’ll only say that the novel is worth reading if you don’t have anything more compelling at hand or if you just like procedurals, a form of fiction I used to read by the bucketful. At some point, though, I think my bucket overflowed. Maybe yours hasn’t yet.

Surfing the End of the World: Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave

I haven’t written a book review in this blog for months. One reason, obviously, is that I haven’t read a book in months, but that’s not strictly true. I’ve read a few for professional reasons that I just don’t want to review. And I haven’t been able to work up the energy to review Rick Yancey’s YA alien invasion epic The 5th Wave.

The 5th Wave

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to work up the energy, because it was one of the two best books I’ve read this year. That may sound like faint praise, but when the other book was Gillian Flynn’s stunning Gone Girl, it’s actually something of a compliment. I think the real reason I don’t have the energy to review The 5th Wave is that I liked it so much that I deliberately stretched out my reading of it to the point that by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t remember all the great things I’d planned to say about it at the beginning. So if this review, which I’m finally writing several months after I finished the book, seems a bit sketchy, it’s because I’ve forgotten most of what I loved about it.

But not all. One thing I loved was that Yancey has a gift for writing poetic prose that doesn’t come across as the slightest bit poetic unless you’re looking very closely, which is a terrific gift for a writer of YA novels, where the audience might be suspicious of any book that sounds like it might someday be assigned in English classes. And it also makes for terrific reading if you’re the sort of person like me who is intensely interested in the prose mechanics of a novel. It took me a while to realize that Yancey’s prose had an almost song-like cadence to it, while still sounding like the kind of writing one would expect from a science fiction thriller. His sentences are perfectly constructed. His paragraphs are perfectly constructed. And his chapters end with beautifully thought out buttons that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. And all this will sneak up on you without you even noticing he’s done it.

He’s also gone out of his way to make the well-worn alien invasion tropes feel new again. It’s not that he does anything genuinely original here — I don’t think there’s a trick in this book that I haven’t seen in some other alien invasion novel — but he takes a whole bunch of tricks (the title tells you how many) and combines them into something unique. He gives away the book’s central surprise in the prologue, just to show that he doesn’t even have to surprise you with it to make it work. (It’s that the aliens arrive on earth by inserting their consciousnesses into the brains of unborn fetuses, where they will awaken in adolescence. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything that you won’t know by page 2.) And then a fresh mothership full of aliens starts hitting us with one nasty attack after another, but I’ll let you discover what those are about by reading the book.

What I loved about it most, though, was the moral ambiguity of it all. The aliens in the book aren’t entirely evil. Even the worst of them are simply looking for a new world to live on and want to get rid of the previous occupants. The best of them…well, let’s just say that they can be as heroic as any of the humans.

The book follows two viewpoint characters, Cassie (for Cassiopeia) and Zombie (whose real name escapes me at the moment). Cassie is a teenage girl who lives alone in the woods, armed for bear, afraid of other people because she doesn’t know which ones are aliens in disguise — and you can probably imagine the ugly places a situation like that can lead. The other is part of a children’s army being trained to fight back against the aliens, because children seem to have survived the early attack waves in greater numbers than adults have. (There’s a reason for this, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.)

Most of the suspense and fascination of Yancey’s novel comes from the internal struggles of these characters, but he can write a great action scene too. Yet my favorite moments were mostly internal monologues. Which is odd, because I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers and editors, including the late Elmore Leonard, saying that writers should avoid internal monologue because it bores readers, who are apparently frightened by long paragraphs without dialog. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with the fact that I love it. But Yancey’s book has been on bestseller lists already, so there must be other readers like me who don’t subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school of all-dialog narration. (In fairness to Leonard, most of Yancey’s book is first-person internal monologue, so you can think of it as dialog addressed to the reader.)

The 5th Wave is the first book of a trilogy, so don’t be disappointed if all your questions aren’t answered in the end and all the bad situations aren’t resolved. Some major plot arcs are tied up, so that should be enough to keep you happy until Book Two comes out. And if you’re like me, you’ll be lined up to download that book to your e-reader the moment it’s available.

Only Skin Deep: Uglies, Pretties, Specials & Extras by Scott Westerfeld

The cover of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Book #7 for 2012: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Book #8 for 2012: Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
Book #9 for 2012: Specials by Scott Westerfeld
Book #10 for 2012: Extras by Scott Westerfeld

There was an article in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, which you can read here, about the current trend toward dystopian science fiction novels for YA — young adult — readers. The most prominent example of the trend, especially at the moment, is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the film version of which just had one of the most successful opening weekends in movie history. (Actually, it’s the first of a trilogy, so there are at least two more films coming, more likely three given the current trend to break the last book of a YA series into two films as a way of giving the cash cow an additional udder to milk).

I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy about the time the final volume came out in the summer of 2010. (Those of you dying to read my review can find it here.) It’s an immensely readable series of books and I gobbled it up in about a week, as have apparently about a billion or so teens (and possibly as many adults) around the world. I enjoyed it so much that I began looking around to see what sorts of things other YA writers have done with dystopian themes and somehow alighted on Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. Let’s just say my results were mixed.

Here’s a quick sketch of what the Uglies books are about: The first volume, simply titled Uglies, takes place two or three centuries in the future, after our society has pretty much strip mined and clear cut the planet to the breaking point and then gone defunct. (Ironically, the strip mining and clear cutting aren’t why our current society — known in the future as “rusties,” because we left so much abandoned metal behind — no longer exists. What we actually did wrong was to inadvertently engineer a bacterium that eats reserves of petroleum and, whoops, there goes our continuing dependence on the internal combustion engine.) To rectify the mistakes of the past, society has rebuilt itself as a loose network of relatively small cities separated by deliberately preserved wilderness and our energy needs seem to be largely supplied by solar power. Transportation not involving walking is mostly handled by magnetic levitation, which allows not only for cool hovercraft and high-speed maglev trains but airborne surfboards that kids can use the same way skateboards are used today, except even more recklessly. It’s not reckless hovering that puts the dys in this particular topia, though: It’s cosmetic surgery. People have become obsessed with looking physically perfect. Radical surgical procedures have been developed that can make almost anyone flawlessly beautiful at the age of 16, after which they may become older (or, in the book’s futuristic slang, “crumbly”), but still remain kind of hot.

The heroine of the first three books (which are structured as a trilogy with a more or less continuous plot) is Tally Youngblood, a 15-year-old going on 16 who is waiting eagerly to go under the knife and achieve perfection. Right now she’s an Ugly, which means she looks about as hideously flawed as you or I do (or more like you or I did at age 15, when we were probably cuter than we are now). At 16 she will be allowed to become a Pretty and move off to New Pretty Town, where all the newly minted Pretties hang out and do airheaded things. (One of the things that our society apparently didn’t do wrong was to ruin the economy, because most people in this future society don’t seem to need to work for a living if they don’t want to. Machines do everything that needs doing. Sounds like utopia to me.)

Alas, Tally makes friends with someone from a bad crowd — and in a dystopian novel “bad crowd” usually means “group of rebels who discover that things aren’t as nice as they seem.” What isn’t so nice in Tally’s world, it turns out, is that the prettifying surgery tends to be accompanied by some unpublicized brain surgery, where people are made almost literally airheaded by having little holes punched into strategic locations in their forebrains, to keep them docile and less likely to do the stupid sorts of things their ancestors did. Through a convoluted series of events, Tally is blackmailed by the secret police (scary-looking Pretties, as oxymoronic as that may sound, known as Special Circumstances, or just Specials) to infiltrate the rebels, who live in a secret location called “the smoke,” where she is to broadcast their location and betray them. Naturally, Tally turns out to like the rebels but accidentally betrays them anyway, allowing for tons of action in the second half of the book.

As silly as I make all this sound, Uglies is actually quite readable and more than a little fun. As semi-mindless entertainment goes, it’s worth a read, by which I mean a read by human beings over the age of 15. (Human beings 15 and under probably don’t need the encouragement.) Unfortunately, Westerfeld didn’t stop with one book, and I found that the continuing adventures of Tally Youngblood grew continuingly more tedious as the trilogy went on. (Tally herself, who seems to go through a dire but logically justified personality change with each volume, also becomes continuingly more obnoxious.) By the climax of the third book, which completes the initial plot arc, I was ready to quit. But the fourth book of the “trilogy,” appropriately entitled Extras, offered a brand new heroine and a brand new premise, so I decided to stick it out.

And I didn’t entirely regret it. By the time the events of the fourth volume roll around, about three years have passed since the end of volume three and, this being a dystopian thriller, you can guess that major changes have taken place in society since volume one began. In the society of volume four (which seems to take place mostly in and around an unnamed city in Japan), the idea of becoming Pretty at age 16 has been abandoned and people have started doing their own thing. Some still become Pretty, some stay Ugly, some just become weird. In other words, it’s a kind of free-for-all society and it’s entertaining to read about for a few chapters. The heroine is a teenage girl named Asa Fuse, who’s a “kicker,” someone who generates news stories with her own hovercam and broadcasts them via whatever future equivalent of the Interwebs is currently in use. She falls in with, yes, a bad crowd and together they stumble on a strange plot to build mass drivers — basically, magnetic guns the size of mountains — that can fire immense bullets into the air with the kinetic potential to destroy cities, which appears to be what they’re going to be used for.

Asa’s own city runs on a “reputation economy” (a cute concept), where everyone has a ranking based on how many people know about them and talk about them, and when Asa “kicks” the mass driver story to the news feeds she becomes famous, which in the reputation economy also makes her rich. Needless to say, things turn out to be more complicated than they appear at first, and the second half of Extras involves Asa and her friends discovering what’s really going on and either stopping it or supporting it, depending on whether it turns out to be good or bad. (You won’t be surprised to hear that, at various points in the novel, they do both.)

Westerfeld is a competent writer and has the sort of lean, muscular, somewhat superficial style one would expect of a YA science fiction writer. He also has that magical ability that makes you just curious enough to know what’s going to happen that you keep turning the pages. But that’s not really what you want to know, is it? What you really want to know is: Are the Uglies books as good as the Hunger Games books?

Of course not. This series was actually published shortly before the Suzanne Collins novels, but nobody has leaped at the chance to make a blockbuster movie series out of it yet, have they? So clearly Westerfeld lacks the Collins touch. But why exactly aren’t the Uglies books as good as The Hunger Games volumes? I mean, the plots are similar. A teenage girl gets caught up fighting the authorities in a nasty, totalitarian future society and finds courage and self-confidence through the act of defiance. It’s a highly kickable premise, as Asa would say. What exactly does Westerfeld do wrong?

Maybe the real question is: What does Collins do right? Two things come to mind. The first is that Collins has a more compelling premise — a group of people trying to kill one another on a reality TV show. Note that I didn’t say it was an original premise. Much has been made of the resemblance of The Hunger Games to the Japanese film Battle Royale, but Stephen King used the same basic plot two decades earlier in his Richard Bachman novel The Running Man, which was made into a movie in the 80s with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and science fiction writer Robert Sheckley used it way back in 1958 in his short story “The Prize of Peril.” (Reality TV has been around for a long time.) But regardless of how overused the plot may be, Collins pulls it off as well as anybody ever has (with the possible exception of the makers of Battle Royale, which I’ve never seen) and makes it engrossing in that “I think I’ll stop sleeping and eating for a few days in order to finish reading this” way. (Unfortunately she uses essentially the same plot in all three books of the trilogy, with a major variation in the third, which gets a little wearisome, but Westerfeld goes out of his way to make the plots of each of his books completely different, and that turns out to be even more wearisome. So maybe Collins was onto something.)

The other thing Collins does right is to create a fully three-dimensional protagonist in Katniss Everdeen. Though the world of The Hunger Games is a bit sketchy — Exactly what sort of disaster befell the human race, anyway? Does she ever explain? — Katniss is so sympathetic and believably heroic that you don’t really care. Tally Youngblood, on the other hand, seems rather interesting at the beginning of the Uglies books, but by volume two I was already hoping that Westerfeld would just push her off the top of a hovercraft and get it over with. (Actually, I think he does this at one point, but Tally’s society has devised magnetic bracelets that make falling a lot less dangerous than it used to be in ours. So much for killing off our heroine.)

By the way, if there’s any moral to be gleaned so far from my survey of YA dystopias, it’s that the dystopias themselves are purely plot devices. Brave New World and 1984 were genuine warnings about the excesses of human behavior, but despite Westerfeld’s sloganeering against strip mining, clear cutting, genetic engineering, obsession with beauty, et al, the dystopias in both The Hunger Games trilogy and the Uglies series exist mainly just to be mean to people. After all, every thriller needs a good villain. These days, in the world of YA fiction, dystopias are it.