Tag Archives: YA books

Genius Wars

Okay, after saying I wouldn’t have time to blog, I’m up with a sick kid on vacation, so, alas, I figured I may as well write a book review.

The Genius Wars is the third book in Katherine Jinks’s YA genius series.  These books follow the story of Cadel, a young, highly intelligent boy who was raised to become a sort of supervillian, but rebelled against his upbringing to become good.  In this volume, Cadel has tried to keep himself out of trouble, but finds that the people he loves, including his best friend Sonja and his foster father Saul, are being attacked and that he himself may be next.  The book focused on how Cadel, as much as he tries to do the right thing, struggles to overcome being an arrogant, bossy jerk when push comes to shove, imitating the exact behavior of his one time mentor and all around bad guy Prosper English.

The book is slightly on the long side, but I found it to be a quick read.  Still, it’s not for readers new to the series.  I didn’t remember the second book all that well so I struggled to recall some of the ins and outs of characters and plot.  My guess is that some of the relationships, such as Cadel’s love for Sonja, who suffers from cerebral palsy and cannot speak without a machine, would seem confusing to someone who had not read the back story.  Overall, it was just an okay book.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series, Evil Genius, which balanced the idea of this over the top, comic book-like school for supervillains with a very real, interesting character in Cadel.  Cadel is still a well-drawn character, but the humorous edge has been lost as the series went on and I really miss it.  So, if the premise sounds interesting, go back and read Evil Genius, but give this one a miss unless you really love it.

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens is YA superstar Libba Bray’s latest novel.  It’s for people who read her last book, Going Bovine, and thought, Gee, that’s just the right amount of trippy, but needs more satire.

I have to begin this review by saying that I pretty much loved this book.  The story set up is basically teenage beauty pageant contestants crash land on the set of Lost…  I mean…  on a seemingly deserted island filled with mysterious and nefarious plots.  The remaining girls (you know, after a bunch of them violently die in the crash) have to learn to fend for themselves and survive.  The book is full of surprises, so, of course, the girls don’t turn out to all be vapid beauty queens.  Each one has a unique story and perspective.  In between chapters, Libba Bray gives us tidbits of various other things, including the contestants’ questionnaires, advertisements for beauty products made by the sinister Corporation, and reality show excerpts.  This is in addition to snarky footnotes throughout the text.  Readers should be forewarned that the book is decidedly YA, with a healthy dose of sex of all sorts, drugs and rock n’ roll from some lost reality show pirate bad boys.

If the story sounds absurd, that’s because it is.  It made me laugh out loud repeatedly throughout.  However, more than just being funny, the story is clever.  I like how Libba Bray takes the idea of empty beauty queens and brings us these fully fleshed out individuals who actually have something to say about what it means to be a young woman growing up in our society.  The way she explores ideas about sexuality is especially powerful.  She gives us one chapter that stands out in particular in tone, so much so that “the Corporation” has to come in after and rewrite it to make it more like the view of female sexuality that the media peddles.  That’s the sort of book this is, going from one tone to another, shifting from one character to another, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink and somehow emerging with a whole book that is hilarious fun but also gives you some deep thoughts to chew on.

Teen Wanderlust

I have one more summer themed read to review.  I recently finished up As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins.  This YA book follows 15 year old Ry as a series of bizarre accidents leave him stranded without much money, any ID, access to his family or much else.  Ry is happily adopted by Del, who decides to take Ry on a cross-country (and later cross-sea!) quest to find his family.

This book hooked me pretty quickly with Ry’s initial predicament.  Then it kept me reading trying to figure out how it could all end.  Ry’s new friend and mentor Del is a great character – flawed but admirable.  And Perkins really captured that sense of the thrill of adventure and the precariousness of travel without a net.

When I was Ry’s age, I took a cross country train trip without adults (though with a friend) and it was quite an adventure, even if not anywhere near on the scale of this book.  Reading this book had me recalling that adventure, as well as many others – especially all those times I was stranded, broke or spent a day with strangers on the road.  Everyone needs those sorts of adventures in their lives, I think.  This book really got that and reminded me how much I yearned for them when I was a teenager.

Oh Please

The Wall Street Journal weighed in on darkness in YA novels over the weekend.  You can read the piece here.

There’s a lot of tacts I could take about this.  And already most blogs and tweeters have already explored most of them.  Check out Holly Black’s Salon response here for one take on the article.  Has YA become too dark?  Is there too much sex and violence in YA?  Should we be worried about our children’s inner lives if these are the books they read?  Does darkness in literature serve a purpose?

All decent questions, I suppose.  Except the article just points fingers and puts some complete absurdities out there.  It begins by telling us about a mother at a local megabookstore who literally could not find a non-dark title for her 13 year old daughter.

Really?  What bookstore was she in that didn’t have light chicklit titles like Louise Renison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging (the only “sex” in the book is some mild kissing).  Or slightly more grown-up, but still run of the mill teenage romances like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or Dairy Queen?  Was she really somewhere without any Sarah Dessen books?  Did they actually not have Libba Bray’s award-winning Going Bovine?  Was this some bizarre bookstore that didn’t stock any of Tamora Pierce’s light fantasy works or Scott Westerfeld’s popular but totally light alternate history Leviathan?  She couldn’t find a copy of Ally Carter’s cute, not violent at all, spy series?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.  Sure, there are more dark titles out there now, but to act like there’s nothing on the shelves at your local megabookstore that isn’t rape, vampires, and psychopaths is patently absurd.

Then, when the article literally called Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian not all right, it completely lost me.  Do you really want to say that an award-winning, partly biographical novel that captures the problem of bullying and may actually be the best work by one of the best Native American writers out there isn’t “all right”?  Really?  Maybe there’s a discussion to be had about these issues and about the need for more balance at the bookstore.  Maybe there do need to be more gentle, happy ending books for teens.  More “it gets better” and less darkness.  But to act as if some of the books she names don’t have literary merit strikes me as encouraging censorship of the worst sort.

A Conspiracy of Kings

I finally got to Megan Whelan Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings.  This is the latest in her fantasy series that began with the Newbery honor book The Thief.  The Thief was an extraordinarily good read.  It interwove mythological stories into the text as characters told the tales that had clear parallels to their own situation.  The ending of the story has an excellent twist that can make a reread satisfying as well.  The two volumes after The Thief built on the first.  The Queen of Attolia was nearly as good as the first.  The King of Attolia was good, though it lacked some of the tightness that marked the first two.  This latest story was enjoyable for me, but not nearly as good as the others in the series.

A Conspiracy of Kings follows Sophos in his quest to become the king of Sounis.  Sophos has never had the charisma to be a real leader and when he inherits his uncle’s throne, he finds his country in shambles.  Part of the problem with this book is that Sophos simply isn’t as compelling a character as Eugenides, who was the central figure in the other three volumes.  Not only that, but a shifting perspective between first and third person dragged down the narrative for me.  When Sophos recounts what happened to him, there’s too much telling and not enough showing.  When the narrative comes to life with action, it’s wonderful, and Sophos’s voice and Turner’s writing style are strong enough to carry some of the feeling of summary, but not all of it.  But that said, glimpses of Eugenides and seeing Sophos grapple through how to take back his country made the book well worth the read for me.

Even though this particular sequel wasn’t the most amazing entry into the series, the series itself is among the really great upper middle grade, early young adult fantasy series out there.  I rank it alongside works like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown.  If you’ve got a fantasy loving kid who hasn’t read it yet, then absolutely go out and start them on The Thief.

This Plot is Familiar

This Girl is Different by JJ Johnson tells the story of former hippie homeschooler Evie as she tries out public high school for the first time her senior year.  She is clearly a smart, analytical boat shaker.  As soon as she gets to high school, she makes a good friend, Jacinda, as well as a boyfriend, Rajas.  However, she also stirs up trouble and sees injustices everywhere in the school system.

This YA book called to me from the shelf and I got it despite my better judgment.  Honestly, the basic plot outline is just too familiar.  From middle grades books like Ida B. to YA titles like Stargirl and Schooled, it seems like the idea of homeschoolers (always slightly unschoolish liberal ones, it seems) who go back to school, show off how unique they are and then eventually integrate into the system are everywhere these days.  For one thing, it has begun to feel like a very lame plot device.  Writers want characters who think for themselves and bring an outsider’s perspective, so they seem to be turning to homeschoolers.  However, the end result in so many of these plots tends to be that school isn’t so bad, a message I’m not really on board with educationally.  This Girl is Different walks a slightly more careful line in this regard.  In the end, school turns out to be a mixed bag for Evie.  There’s less of a redeeming moment than in other books I’ve seen, which helped my like it a little more.

The book also addresses another issue that is dear to my heart, which is student rights.  Student rights was the subject of my masters thesis and was something I fought for as a high school student myself, when my friends and I sued our school over censorship (and won, I might add).  I’m all too aware that most of the time when stories about high schoolers deal with student rights, the overt message tends to be that student rights are good while simultaneously showing how students don’t have or can’t handle having rights, thus subverting that message.  Again, This Girl is Different walked a careful line.  In the end, student free speech is actually validated, in a much clearer way than most story lines.  I’m not sure that the outcome Evie manages to achieve at the school is entirely realistic, but nor is it completely absurd.

So despite my reservations, the book basically won me over.  Evie’s fiery passion and sense of justice is a bit simplistic from an adult perspective, but it reminded me of myself back in high school and I appreciated that her strong qualities never become negatives.  Evie’s first romance is realistic, as is her friendship with Jacinda and her relationship with her hippie mother.  Quotes begin each chapter and help frame the story.  A nice, breezy YA read that teens interested in justice the way Evie is will probably enjoy.

A Ring of Endless Light

I first read A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle around age eleven or twelve.  At the time, I was completely besotted with L’Engle’s works.  Actually, I probably still am, but not on the same obsessed level.  In an era before the internet, I tracked down every one of L’Engle’s books, even almost unknown titles, and purchased them one by one by ordering them through my local bookstore.  The characters she created were people I related to.  The questions she raised were ones that I wanted to think about.

On the first go around, I don’t think I thought much more about this book than any of the others.  Madeleine L’Engle had certain characters she returned to over and over in her books.  This one deals with Vicky Austin and her family when they go to stay with her dying grandfather one summer on the small Massachusetts island where he lives.  Vicky is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, shown so well by her middle child status.  She unexpectedly becomes the object of affection for three very different young men, one of whom is interning for the summer studying dolphins.  On the first go around, somehow the poetry (Vicky reads and writes a lot of poetry), the romances and the dolphins took center stage for me.

But then I reread it at some point, perhaps a year or two later, at age thirteen or fourteen, and the whole thing just hit me smack in the face.  This was a book about death.  Death runs through the story on every level.  The opening scene is a funeral.  Each of the young men has suffered a loss – of a friend, a father and a mother respectively – and is in the midst of dealing with it in a different way.  Vicky must face her grandfather’s impending death from cancer and must help with his care giving.  She sees death at the hospital when runs errands.  She even sees death among the dolphins and the birds.  I remember very distinctly reading the whole book through in one sitting and just weeping over the story.

Many years later, I was living alone in China when, through sad coincidence, both of my grandfathers became ill and passed away within a short period of time.  I went to Hong Kong for a weekend and visited one of the used bookshops packed with musty old editions brought from the U.S. and the U.K.  There, at the top of a shelf, was a first edition of A Ring of Endless Light.  I pulled it down and just holding it I teared up.  I bought the book and reread it, feeling like it had found me when I really needed someone to talk to about death when I had no one nearby.  It felt like this book had taught me things when I was young that I needed to return to as an adult to understand.

L’Engle was a Christian writer, solidly in the tradition of C.S. Lewis or George MacDonald.  She used her books to explore ideas about God and morality.  I’ve written just a little about my own religious beliefs here before (I was raised as a very liberal Baptist, but we currently attend a Unitarian Universalist church) but L’Engle’s very literary-leaning Episcopalianism has always been right up my alley spiritually.  She’s never heavy handed or judgmental so I think those who don’t share her beliefs can still find a lot to enjoy in her works.  In many ways, I would say she is one of the forces that most shaped my religious beliefs.

Our family lost someone last week, someone much loved and cherished.  For the boys, I had picture books about death, like Susan Varley’s Badger’s Parting Gifts.  However, as I looked on the shelf for something to bring for myself to read on the trip, somehow my hand reached for that first edition I found in Hong Kong years ago, as if it might still have yet another level of revelation for me, or maybe just so I could take comfort in the poetry of a familiar tale.

One Last Mission

The first thing I have to say about this latest and apparently final Alex Rider adventure is that Alex himself does not appear until more than a hundred pages into the book.  And as I read those hundred plus pages, I admit that I had my doubts.  It reads like a checklist of the villains who survived the Alex Rider missions, all uniting to get him.  It struck me that it was the sort of gamble that only a writer finishing a very successful series could afford to make.

It’s not the only change in this volume either.  One of the reliable things about the Alex Rider books was that they were all a little bit the same, to tell the truth.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re all fun and I love them for it, but after Stormbreaker, the first volume in the series, quickly told Alex’s back story, the series hasn’t strayed much from its winning formula.  There are many things about that formula present in this volume too: Alex’s reluctance to get involved while MI-6 finds a way to pull him back in, a tricked out bicycle chase, fights where Alex must show his ingenuity, evil criminal masterminds with plots so convoluted they’re funny.  But there is also a new tone.  Alex’s reluctance to work for MI-6 is more genuine this time.  He has grown up a little and has a new outlook.  As well, the violence and brutality of the story has grown up with some big surprises toward the end.  But the biggest change is that, thanks to that initial set up, the audience has been let in on the plot from the beginning, meaning that while there are still a few details missing, there’s a lot less to unravel than in other volumes.  Instead, we’re left with a sinking feeling that this mission will go awry as we watch Alex walk into a trap.

Overall, I think it was a nice end to the series.  And, of course, if you don’t know them, they’re the perfect thing to give a young teenage boy looking for something fun to read.

A Little Romance

I haven’t had it in me to delve into anything too deep lately, even as children’s books go.  Thanks to the advice of a certain Sharon Shinn loving book blog, I finally picked up a couple of titles by this YA fantasy author and I enjoyed them very much.  The first was Gateway and the second was General Winston’s Daughter.  They’re both books I think the fantasy and romance loving teenage girls out there, whether they come from reading Twilight or Tamora Pierce, would probably enjoy.  They’re both certainly romances, but rest assured, parents, they’re pretty tame.

I really liked Shinn’s writing style, which is descriptive and well done.  I also liked her imagined landscapes.  Gateway shows us an alternate universe just a step away from ours while General Winston’s Daughter depicts a world in a colonial struggle a bit like the scramble for Africa.  Both books feature an interracial romance, which I thought was a positive element in the world of children’s books and fantasy.  Both books deal with politics and oppression as the central character in each must learn to understand the world around them.  The interracial romance serves to highlight and explore those issues.

My only complaint is that, like so many girl YA books, the heroines of each story were surprisingly passive.  Events happen to them, rather than because of them.  Each book has its reasons, of course.  In Gateway, the main character has been thrown into an alternate universe.  In General Winston’s Daughter, the main character has lived a sheltered life.  This complaint was made about the books in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.  It has been made about the megahit Twilight books.  Plotwise, there’s always a reason and sometimes, like with Katniss’s tragedy-struck life, it’s a plot element that’s there to explore deeper issues.  However, it’s one that sits slightly uneasy with me.  That’s not to detract from the other wonderful qualities of these books (well, we can detract from Twilight a little, can’t we?).  And there are many books that don’t fall into this pitfall, showing strong women who do take charge of their lives.  However, it’s one that’s beginning to wear on me as a reader.


When Do You Give Up on a Book?

I have a backlog of books I need to review here and haven’t gotten around to.  In the meantime, I thought I’d pose a question along with a sort of nonreview.  Do you ever start a book and then give up on it?  I got a stack of newish YA titles out of the library the other day, including the chick lit YA title The Kid Table by Andrea Seigel.  I’m not always a big chick lit reader, but I enjoy some occasionally, like Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s awesome Dairy Queen series, for example.  The book had a nice cover, an amusing sounding premise, and I vaguely recalled having read a positive blog review about it at some point.

Well, fifty pages in, I gave up on it.  Ingrid, the main character, was so self-absorbed that I wanted to throttle her.  Nor was she amusing enough to make up for her shortcomings.  In fact, all the characters and their concerns were amazingly shallow.  Ingrid’s whole extended family seemed to inhabit a universe I couldn’t quite reconcile with reality.  The quirky bits in the book were just trying too hard and the snappy dialogue just fell flat for me.  Oh well.  Not the book for me.

But I have to admit something.  I do this somewhat often with books.  I pick them up, give them a try and then, when they don’t please me pretty quickly, I toss them aside.  Part of me says that life is too short and I’m too busy to waste time on books that aren’t very good or, at least, won’t be enjoyable or thought-provoking for me personally.  But another part of me says I’m lazy and I don’t want to be challenged or take the time to get to know a book.  Someone saw something in it and maybe it gets good after the first fifty pages.  Not every book can grab you from moment one, you know?