YA Speculative Fiction Book Review – Omnibus Edition

So I’m behind in posting reviews for the 2011 Speculative Fiction Challenge – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading!

While I was on vacation, I read the Uglies, Pretties, and Specials by Scott Westerfield; Sunshine by Robin McKinley; and Delirium by Lauren Oliver – A one-word-title YA specfic blitz if I ever saw one!

Let’s get started:

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield

Westerfield tackles genetic engineering in a future where people are transformed from “uglies” to “pretties” at age 16. And main character Tally can’t wait. But when her friend Shay escapes to Smoke, a settlement of outcasts where uglies don’t have to get the operation, she is questioned by the formidable Dr. Cable from Special Circumstances who is desperate to find Smoke and stomp it out of existence.

Dr. Cable coerces Tally into finding the location of Smoke. If she succeeds, she’ll get the operation and live happily ever after in New Pretty Town. If she doesn’t she’ll be an ugly forever. Which, for Tally, is not an option.

It’s a tough balance – humanizing Tally and making us care as she risks her life to find Smoke, even though the reader knows she’s going there to destroy what her friend has worked for. But Smoke is nothing like Tally expects, and she starts to question whether she actually wants to become a pretty.

Through permutations of the plot that I won’t go into here, Tally becomes Pretty in Pretties, and later she becomes a Special in — you guessed it — Specials. The action never wanes for long in any of the three books, and Westerfield gets credit for his inventive use of language, especially as it pertains to each stage of, well, existence: Ugly (tricky), Pretty (bubbly), Special (icy).

There are no easy answers with respect to the main conceit of “pretty-making” and whether Tally even knows what she wants anymore, being so damaged by the operations and the emotional trauma that comes with them. It’s also unclear at the end of the story to what extent she is capable of appreciating normal (ie, ugly) standards of existence, even as she goes off into the sunset with David, her ugly love interest in Uglies, and opponent in much of Pretties and Specials. (Full disclosure: I have not read Extras, so I do not know if these lingering issues are addressed there.) But nonetheless, I found the books to be an entertaining read.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I haven’t read a book by McKinley since The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword – both of which I read (and loved) in the 7th grade. So when I saw the trade paperback of Sunshine deeply discounted at Borders, I thought why not, since I had fond memories of her work.

But I have to say it took me a while to get into the story. It’s first person – so obvious and idiosyncratic – hey, this is a story! – that I kept fighting with it until finally, I just gave in and let the story be told in the manner it would be told in. That’s when I started enjoying it.

In a world that’s been to the brink and back from wars waged between humans and demons, vampires are the worst group a human like Sunshine wants to be caught up in. But when she is abducted by a crew of vamps and left as a snack for another vampire prisoner, she must either join forces with him to escape and live or, well, you know. An alliance between a human and a vampire is unheard of, and both Sunshine and the vampire Constantine suffer side effects from merging their powers as they work together to bring down Bo’s vampire crew once and for all. Add in magic, wards, Special Other Forces (ie, demon cops), and more than you ever wanted to know about baking.

Constantine and Sunshine have shared so much by the end of the book – trust, despite their opposite natures, and one scene of such delicious tension that I will never think of the word “bruise” the same again. McKinley leaves it wide open for further adventures. But I was sorely disappointed to learn there are no plans for more. I’d say I felt gypped, but once I learned to embrace the voice of the story, it was unputdownable.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I heard good buzz about this book on some of the YA sites I haunt and the premise of Delirium is intriguing: a future society where love is considered to be a disease, and people have an operation at 18 to ensure they do not catch it.

Main character Lena is only a few weeks away from her operation, and she is initially thrilled to get fixed. She is still plagued by the shame of her mother’s suicide when she was younger, since her mother had the disease. Now she lives with her strict aunt and cousins in a place that’s a bizarre cross between the movie Pleasantville and the book The Handmaid’s Tale, with segregation of sexes among the uncured, spouse assignments which dictate your place in society, and brutal raids to ensure compliance with all the rules.

But then she meets a boy, and not just any boy, but one who gives her the disease Delirium. She hides her symptoms while falling deeper into love with Alex, who shows her the dark side of the society she’s been raised into.

Oliver’s sentence-level writing is amazing, especially her descriptions of Lena’s emotional state as she falls in love. Each chapter starts with a brief excerpt from manuals, textbooks, and laws to aid in worldbuilding and show how this society has gotten to this point – a very effective device.

I found the ending to be a bit predictable given the prominent references to a certain Shakespeare play that I won’t mention here for those of you who haven’t read the book. I was also surprised to learn that there are two more books slated to follow Delirium. But given the quality of the writing, I’m interested to see where Oliver takes this story.

Be sure to check out other July reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.


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CP Meet ‘n Greet

While I was traveling last month, I had the unique opportunity to meet one of my critique partners in person.

I was already planning to visit the city where my CP lives to see my friends from grad school between weddings. When I floated the idea of meeting to Anonymeet (after assuring her that I was not some crazy internet stalker, and no, she shouldn’t feel obligated to meet in person if she felt at all uncomfortable), she was happy to make it happen.

Anonymeet approached me way back in October 2010 as a potential critique partner. Since then, we’ve worked through each other’s novels – sharing marked-up drafts, writing tips, and reading recommendations. With the exception of one phone call, all of our communication has been through email and the occasional blog comment.

It’s been a successful partnership. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? But I thought if I didn’t at least try to meet her in person, there might not be another chance right away, since I’m not often in that part of the country.

As the day approached, excitement and the will-she-like-me doubts swamped me in turns. We had a good back-and-forth rapport online. What if I ruined it all in person with a poorly thought-out comment or some other social blunder? I was overthinking it, I know. But that’s what we writers do, right?

I needn’t have worried. Anonymeet picked a wonderful gourmet café near her neighborhood for our meeting. As I swooned over handcrafted desserts and the artisan cheese selection, she told me how she escapes her family each weekend to write at that very café for a few hours. The coffee shops I usually haunt don’t hold a candle to that place. (And I am still jealous.)

As we snacked, we talked about how we got started writing and about our lives offline. It was a happy coincidence that we’re both roughly the same age with similar life experiences – we even started writing seriously later in life (ie, after school and working for a few years although we both had the bug well before then). We talked about our current projects and the upcoming ones that have us excited. I also got a number of good reading recommendations from her since she’s extremely well-read and current with all the latest YA releases. (Be sure you check out the reviews she posts on her blog.)

Intellectually, I know I’m not alone in the struggles we all face writing, but talking with Anonymeet in person made things feel less lonely. She’s a writer too, a peer, someone who has actually read my writing. I know she gets it. And as much as I have come to love and respect the online writing community, there are some things about interpersonal communication that the internet can’t replace. It’s one thing to write something and share it online. It’s another to look into someone’s eyes and say it out loud.

Two-and-a-half hours later, it was all over. Anonymeet had to go back to her family and I had more plans with my friends. But I know I’ll jump at the next chance to spend time with her in person, whenever that may be.

Have you had the opportunity to meet with one of your online writing buddies?
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Review – Air by Geoff Ryman

Air (or Have Not Have) by Geoff Ryman is my April selection for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up for through the book review blog Floor to Ceiling Books.

Chung Mae is the resident fashion expert in her poor farming village in Happy Province, Karzistan. Unable to read, Mae spends her time making graduation dresses for local girls and hosting shopping expeditions into the big city for her adult clients. But all that is threatened with the coming of Air, a new technology that will bring Happy Province, willingly or no, into the future.

When a test for Air goes horribly wrong, linking Mae’s consciousness with that of Mrs. Tung, an elderly neighbor who dies during the test, Mae is both feared and admired by the other villagers thanks to her ability to navigate Air and the prophetic wisdom she utters when Mrs. Tung takes over during emotional moments.

But just as Air takes away Mae’s fashion business – for she can no longer be the only fashion expert when anyone in the village can access Air and see what designs are the latest rage – Air also gives her a new purpose as she vows to prepare her fellow villagers for the flood of information that will soon be at their command.

Air is a meditative, beautiful, frustrating, imaginative read. If you are interested in stories featuring the impact of new technologies on culture (like me) then it is also a must-read (albeit with some reservations).

What is perhaps so striking to me is Ryman’s decision to show how Air, an advanced technology, impacts a small farming community where things like indoor plumbing, telephones, and bank accounts are far removed from daily life. The villagers literally go from having nothing to the possibility of having everything thanks to Air. Thus Air is a very different story from one where Air is just the next iteration of communication technology in a more modern community.

The intersection of a traditional, agrarian society with the new technology provides countless opportunities to show the effects Air has socially (Mae’s interactions with her neighbors and the larger community), gender-wise (Mae and the other village women are empowered by Air and subvert traditional gender roles), occupationally (Mae goes from fashion expert to teacher, resulting in friction with the local headmaster), as well as other cultural dimensions. Ryman explores each aspect exhaustively but weaves them together into almost seamless, satisfying conclusion.

What was also impressive is Rymans’s use of lyrical and figurative language to describe concepts – as if literally translating them from Karz or Chinese. Not only in Mae’s dialogue, but her inner thoughts as well. His portrayal of Mae is intimate and complex, offering writers a great character to study.

My only issue with the book is his handling of

SPOILER

Mae’s pregnancy, which I found offensive and the only misstep in an otherwise excellent work. Other reviewers have interpreted this part of the story as a symbolic event – and it does work as such – but the specific subversions of Mae’s pregnancy necessary for symbolism still rankled. I mention this not so much to deter readers, but to give them a heads-up, should they be surprised by it like I was. Otherwise, I fully recommend Air to any reader of speculative fiction.

Be sure to check out other April reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.


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Review – The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

I recently popped my Steampunk cherry with Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, my March selection for the 2011 Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.

I had heard of steampunk before reading this book (who hasn’t?) but I didn’t really understand the appeal. That changed as I read The Iron Duke and got transported into a world where England has recently revolted against Horde control — nanotech “bugs” that augmented and controlled the English people for almost 200 years.

Our heroine Mina is a police inspector, and the product of a rutting frenzy triggered by the bugs between her English Lady mother and nameless Horde overlords. Because of her Horde features, Mina suffers everything from social slights to physical abuse as England struggles to pick up the pieces of their culture and move on from such a horrific time. When a dead body is dropped from an airship onto the estate of Rhys Trahaearn — pirate and war hero in England’s fight against the Horde — Mina’s investigation propels her into a conspiracy hoping to topple England once more. Add in zombies, privateers, and Horde-augmented giant squid, you are left with one rollicking, imaginative romance. Because yes, despite all the steampunk trappings, The Iron Duke is ultimately about the relationship between Mina and Rhys.

The book was named “Best Paranormal” in the 2011 All About Romance Reader’s Poll, which is where it first popped up on my radar. And I am so glad it did. This was the first book I’ve ever read by Brook, and I really enjoyed the deft writing, the characters, and the tremendous worldbuilding. Another book in the series will be released this fall, and I look forward to see how she takes the relationship between two minor characters from this book and weaves it into another story. I was impressed by the way she set up the second book in The Iron Duke, not to mention eager for more.

Be sure to check out the other March book reviews that are a part of the 2011 Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.


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Review – The Mortal Instruments Books 1-3 by Cassandra Clare

When I first heard the Mortal Instruments series was a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I’m a huge fan of all things Whedon – I even watched all of the fascinating but flawed Dollhouse) and Twilight (which I did read – the things I do to stay up with the industry) my ears perked up. I bought the boxed set (at Borders, no less, doing my part) and dug in, reading a book a day.

The series then became my February selection for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up for through the book review blog Floor to Ceiling Books.

The first three books – City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass – focus on protagonist Clary who gets drawn into the world of angels and demons when her mother mysteriously disappears. She and her comrades (three Shadowhunters, a werewolf, and her high school bff cum vampire) are pitted against Clary’s estranged father Valentine, a powerful ex-Shadowhunter who seeks to rid the world of demonkind.

One of the most enjoyable aspects was the dialogue since that was the most BtVS-worthy aspect of the stories. The worldbuidling effectively evoked the demonic underbelly of New York City, but Clare includes a lot of borrowed tropes, which help to keep the emphasis of the story where it belongs: on the characters.

Clare gets credit for trying to make the big-bad more multi-dimensional then other fantasy villains striving for the purity of the race (Voldemort anyone?) with bits of backstory and scenes intended to explain his view on things, but most of Valentine’s choices are tough to stomach. I also liked how all the different characters have their own role to play in the story – also reminiscent of the Scooby gang’s division of labor in BtVS.

And then there’s Jace. Apparently he’s up there with both Edward and Jacob from Twilight. While it’s obvious that Jace and Clary would end up together – even with best friend Simon thrown into the mix – it was still fun figuring out how and when with all the ups and downs in between.

Maybe I’m used to a more intimate third person POV in the books I read (and the ones I’m trying to write) but I found the books’ POV to have a bit more narrative distance than I’m used to. It took me a long time to get into Clary’s character and really care. As I read, I was interested in what happened because there is a lot of action, but not terribly involved.

Book Three (City of Glass) leaves us with a happy ending and most narrative threads tied up nicely. I was somewhat surprised to learn three more books were in the works, with Book Four (City of Fallen Angels) to come out later this year. It is supposedly focused more on best friend Simon’s transformation into a vampire, but it sounds (to me) as a way to bank on the success of the first three books and push the property as far as it goes. I hope I’m wrong.

In any case, the first three books are a fun read, with a bit more action and substance to them than Twilight.

To read more of this month’s book reviews for the Speculative Reading challenge, go HERE.


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