Tag Archives: young adult books

Dystopian Overload

I spent all my brain candy reading in the last few weeks on far too many of the recent fad of dystopian YA novels.  Dystopia in YA is hardly new.  The Giver is nearly twenty years old, for example.  Scott Westerfeld’s imaginative Uglies series has been around for several years.  However, the wild success of The Hunger Games has clearly made publishers green light everything that takes place in some sort of nonsensical, overly controlling fascist society.

I’m not sure what’s so appealing about dystopia right now.  Perhaps something about how pessimistic we all are at the moment, what with the state of affairs in the world economically?  Regardless, bleak futures are all the rage.

The No-Thank-Yous

Matched (Paperback) ~ Ally Condie Cover ArtWither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy) (Hardcover) ~ Lauren DeStefano Cover ArtBirthmarked (Birthmarked Trilogy) (Paperback) ~ Caragh M. O'Brien Cover Art

I think anyone who reads this blog’s book reviews already knows I didn’t think Ally Condie’s Matched series about a society that catalogs and controls your every move was very good.  The second book, while it had some moments, just didn’t make any sense.  Add to that one the book Wither by Lauren deStephano, which has a sequel out later this month.  Wither is about a future where everyone, except for the older “first generation,” dies young from a mysterious virus.  The (unfortunately named) Rhine is kidnapped to become a child bride to a privileged young man whose father is extremely creepy.  The whole thing just didn’t hold together for me at all.  Every continent except North America is completely destroyed?  Beautiful young women are alternately really valuable and really expendable.  And, most unbelievable given the course the plot takes, Rhine’s marriage remains completely chaste, without any real explanation as to why.  The only reason I can think of is that it’s a YA novel, but the novel shows other sexual situations (in fact, it may be the most risque of all of these in that sense), meaning that any parent or reader objecting to that is still going to object to this book.  Finally, I also gave the book Birthmarked a try.  In this book, midwives must bring children to a secret enclave for mysterious purposes.  I couldn’t even finish it, it moved so slowly.

The Maybes

Delirium (Paperback) ~ Lauren Oliver Cover Art

There were two more I thought were so-so.  One was Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  The sequel comes out later this month.  In Delirium, young people are basically lobotomized by the government to remove their ability to experience love, which is seen as a terrible disease.  The future world suffered the same problems as many of the books I didn’t like in that many of the elements didn’t make any sense.  The basic purpose of the cure for love isn’t ever really revealed and some of the things that still exist in this future world (like brand names we have now!) didn’t seem to make sense.  Like Matched, the world has a nonsensical mix of old-fashioned technology and futuristic technology we’re not even close to developing.  However, the opening chapter was so good that it drew me in fully.  The writing and the characters were compelling enough to overcome my doubts.

I also kind of enjoyed both of Beth Revis’s Across the Universe books.  In this series, earth has sent a ship full of frozen people, along with a group of people to watch over them and maintain the ship, to a mysterious planet they hope to colonize.  Taking the action off earth and putting it on a closed ship helped eliminate some of the world-building problems the other books I read had.  The ship, which is practically a character itself, gives everything a closed, clear feel and works as a literary device.  The action of both the first book and the sequel unfold like a mystery novel, revealing clues slowly.  There are still a lot of unanswered questions that the final book will presumably answer.  While I didn’t think the writing was outstanding, the storytelling and the mystery kept me reading.

More Please!

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy) (Hardcover) ~ Veronica Roth Cover Art

There was one book I liked wholeheartedly: Divergent by Veronica Roth.  The cover just screams “read me after The Hunger Games” but I actually think it is the book I’ve read that is most like The Hunger Games without feeling like a rip off.  Divergent is about a future society where every person must chose a faction based on their personality.  Individuals are tested to see what faction would fit them best.  While not every aspect of the dystopian future world made sense, Veronica Roth filled the book with details that made it feel believable to me as a reader, much the way The Hunger Games did.  More importantly, the action takes over very quickly as main character Tris trains to join a new faction, where she must learn how to be a complete daredevil and seasoned fighter.  There was a mystery and a plot about how the factions are beginning to turn against each other.  Oh, and an obligatory romance, of course.  However, the main draw in the book was Tris’s strong character and that quick action.  A sequel comes out in a few months, so there’s something to look forward to.

Loving that Steampunk

I just finished Scott Westerfeld’s latest YA novel Behemoth.  It was a lot of fun, just like the first volume, Leviathan.  Westerfeld has created an amazing world where World War I is unfolding between the Darwinist nations and the Clanker nations.  Darwinists like Great Britain breed fabulous “beasties” that do everything from drop bombs to record messages.  The Clankers, like Germany, rely on pure steampunk contraptions taken to an extreme level.  Heavy walkers and giant lightning rods and guns dominate the landscape.  In case you have trouble picturing all this, there’s some fascinating interior artwork inside.  I’ve heard a lot of praise for the illustrations.  While the dark style isn’t entirely my cup of tea, they definitely enhance the reading experience for the book.

Like the previous volume, Behemoth shifts back and forth between the perspective of Deryn, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy to become a midshipman on the Leviathan, a huge British airship, and Alek, a young Austrian prince who must flee after his parents are assassinated.  Deryn has lots of funny slang, like “barking spiders.”  She has a growing crush on Alek, but can’t reveal it because he’s a prince and he thinks she’s a boy.  However, the focus of the story isn’t romantic, it’s pure action and adventure as they encounter intrigue and battles in and around the Ottoman Empire.

As I said, this was a fun read.  I dove into a number of YA steampunk titles over the last year, including Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series.  However, this series is by far the one I’ve enjoyed the most.  I’d also like to point out that while the books are being sold as YA, there’s absolutely nothing in the content to stop interested younger readers from enjoying them as well.  The romance is pretty mild and while there’s lots of intrigue and fighting, the story is not especially dark.

Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for President Coin

I’m almost afraid to write a Mockingjay review for fear of spoilers for anyone who didn’t stay up too late last night reading it.  But I really can’t help myself.  I’ll keep the spoilers very minimal, but read at your own risk if you’re a fan of this immensely popular YA series.

First of all, if you’re one of the two fans of YA literature out there who aren’t familiar with this series, it takes place in the distant future in a North American country called Panem, where the capital, District 1, rules over the other districts with an iron fist and forces their children to participate in “The Hunger Games,” a twisted reality show fight to the death.  In this third volume, our hero, Katniss, joins the rebels in the hitherto mysterious District 13, where she must decide how to act in her role as the symbol of the ongoing rebellion against the capital.  Gale, Katniss’s best friend is at her side ready to fight while Peeta, her partner in the games, is imprisoned in the capital and keeps urging peace.  The final volume fleshes out many of the minor characters, but keeps up the action of the previous books.

The complaint I’ve already seen about this volume is that Katniss continues to be a pawn in everyone else’s schemes.  It’s true, but I didn’t really expect anything different.  Like the other books, Katniss proves herself to be her own person, especially by her actions at the end of the story.  I feel like Katniss’s refusal to be only a pawn, while still lacking the control over her situation she desires, is one of the points of the story.  One of the things that bothered me about Catching Fire was how completely dense Katniss was about what was going on around her.  By contrast, the schemes in Mockingjay are genuinely harder to tease apart and more morally ambiguous, making it easier to stick with Katniss’s close first person perspective.

Having read Suzanne Collins’s other series, the excellent Gregor the Overlander books, I suspected that the ending of this book would be ambiguous.  It’s much less ambiguous than the Gregor books in that the political situation is resolved and we see what happened to all the characters.  However, many of the ambiguous actions of the war are never fully addressed, seemingly purposefully.  There’s certainly a lot of moral gray left in the story for readers to ponder.  As well, Collins makes some interesting choices with the plot near the end, where the plot seems to build to a tense climax only to be jerked away.  Fans of the romantic triangle may also be disappointed.  There are some interesting twists, but the romantic resolution is done quietly, without the fireworks some fans might want.

So, in case I wasn’t clear, my first reflection is positive.  I liked the way Collins managed to keep the story so action packed yet still brought us a quieter ending.  I also appreciated that this volume was a lot less fashion-centric.

Fat Vampire

I wanted to like this YA novel so much.  I really enjoyed Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday.  While I don’t think the idea of the schlubby vampire or vampire life as boring and annoying is as revolutionary as some have said (see Catherine Jinks’s The Reformed Vampire Support Group, for example), I do think it hasn’t been done to death and has potential.   The first quarter or so of the novel didn’t let me down.  Doug, the titular fat vampire, and his best friend start the book by going to Comic Con and knocking over a bloodmobile.  A reality show starts hunting Doug and back at Doug’s hometown, a formerly internet addicted girl named Sejal arrives as an Indian exchange student.  The scenes are funny and the plot seems promising for a comic novel.

Then the story begins to hit a snag.  Doug turns out to be a complete jerk and when the humor slows down, it’s hard to enjoy him.  Sejal and her observations are interesting, but her purpose in the narrative doesn’t become clear.  Some mildly amusing plot detours, such as a trip to a Rocky Horror show, begin to bog down the story.  Then, what was originally presented as one of the biggest plot tensions, the reality show hunting Doug, suddenly disappears, making the book seem unanchored.  When the real villain finally emerges, I found him a little offensive.  I think maybe the author was trying to spoof the concept of the gay villain, or contrast it so we can see Doug’s homophobia, but I’m not even sure.  By that point, the book was all over the place and I was pretty much through with it.

Anyway, suffice it to say, I was disappointed.

On the Oregon Trail

The Water SeekerI was never allowed to play Oregon Trail, the classic game from my childhood about outfitting wagons to go west.  I’m still sort of convinced it’s because my 5th grade teacher didn’t like me that every other kid in the class seemed to get a turn on the computer to play.  Oh well, because I’m sure this book is way better than that game ever was.

Kimberly Willis Holt’s newest novel, The Water Seeker is about a lot more than the Oregon Trail.  It’s about a boy growing up in the first half of the nineteenth century with a number of special gifts, including the ability to dowse for water.  Amos Kincaid gets bounced around in life and eventually ends up heading west on a wagon train with his father where the trip is full of the sort of adventures and tragedies you would expect from a story about a wagon train adventure.  I really enjoyed this beautiful told tale about growing up.  Holt brings the feel of that time period to life without it feeling like a history lesson.  The way Amos travels from family to family brings us a lot of details about different ways of life, however the details always feel integral to understanding Amos and the story.  As Amos grows up, I really felt for him as he tried to make his own way in life and figure out what he wanted.  There are a number of vaguely supernatural elements to the story, but they remain on the periphery, almost like a historical magical realism.

One of my only lingering questions is who the book is really for.  Amos goes from a young boy to a young man in the course of the story.  Adult perspectives also get a great deal of play.  My library had it shelved with middle grades novels, but it feels more like a YA story to me, though it’s not typical teenage fare either.  The other thing I’m left wondering is what’s up with all the yellow on covers recently.  This cover looks like it’s referencing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, another historical novel, though a very different one.

A Girl and her Sport

Thanks to the recommendations of one of my terrific writing groups, I recently tore my way through Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s YA novel Dairy Queen and its sequels, The Off Season and Front and Center.  All three books follow DJ Schwenk, a painfully shy high school junior growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.  DJ comes from a family of athletes.  Both her brothers play college football.  Her family is loving, but has trouble communicating.  DJ has trouble with her confidence, despite the fact that she’s a gifted athlete herself.  Dairy Queen follows DJ as she decides to try out for the football team herself.  The next book deals with the topic of sports injuries.  In the final book, which came out last year, DJ has to work for an athletic scholarship and decide where to go to college.

I feel like its one of the highest compliments I can give to say that a book felt compelling even when the topic wasn’t one that usually interests me.  Honestly, I can’t even watch the Superbowl for the ads.  That’s how little I care about football.  Also, despite having grown up in North Carolina, where college basketball was pretty much the only sport going and my own mother is a pretty serious Duke fan, I can’t say I care for that much either.  However, these books had me reading about football, coaching, athletic injuries, and NCAA recruiting rules.  There’s more than a little teen angst and boy drama thrown in there, but unlike reading some narrators, whose inability to grow up or see the truth frustrates me as a reader, reading DJ’s voice always had me sympathetic with where she was in her life and impressed with how she was growing up.  Overall, I enjoyed these light summer reads a lot.

Bog Child

A quick review, but a good one.  Siohan Dowd was also the author of The London Eye Mystery, which won lots of acclaim a couple of years ago.  Her YA novel Bog Child, which was issued posthumously, has recently come out in paperback.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  I thought it did exactly what a great YA novel should.  It let you into the head of a complex teen character.  It had a compelling plot and simple, but beautiful prose.  Fergus, the main character, is in the midst of his A-levels in Northern Ireland in 1981, during the Troubles.  In the opening scenes, he and his uncle stumble onto an ancient body that was preserved by the bog.  The book blends a huge number of different strands, including a number of plots about the Troubles, the life of the girl Fergus finds in the bog, a romance with the daughter of the archaeologist investigating and even the physics that Fergus is studying.  Despite all this, the elements come together neatly.  This is another one of those YA books that can clearly be enjoyed by adults as well.

Spies Like Us

Last summer I got really into the Alex Rider books and this summer I can already foresee that my spy reads will probably be the Gallagher Girls books.  I read the first one in an afternoon and there’s a new one coming out at the end of June.  I don’t know what it is about spy stories exactly, but they sure are hilarious fun, especially if there’s spy gadgets.

In case you don’t know the Alex Rider books, this is a YA series by Anthony Horowitz that’s extremely popular across the pond, about a boy who stumbles into becoming an MI-6 spy after the death of his uncle.  All the fun games and activities his uncle did with him growing up seem to have been designed to turn him into the perfect spy.  Each of his adventures is more preposterous than the last.  The eighth book in the series, Crocodile Tears, was just released last winter, so you can imagine how preposterous that one was.  However, there’s something incredibly fun about watching Alex succeed against all odds and with ever more impressive gadgetry.  It’s great how these books hit that familiar YA theme of adults just not getting it, but played grand in life or death situations where MI-6 refuses to give Alex any backup.

The Gallagher Girls books have the same teen spy feel from an American perspective.  However, these books are at least as much romance as adventure.  I admit that the writing wasn’t perfect.  The dialogue isn’t very well done and some of the cleverness just gets a little cutesy.  Actually, there’s a whole silliness factor that needs to be toned down, which is really saying something in a genre that thrives on being silly.  However, the premise was good and there’s potential in the characters.  Each book has an excellent, if lengthy, title.  The one I just finished was called I’d Tell You I Love You, but Then I’d Have to Kill You. In it, we follow sophomore Cammie at the prestigious Gallagher Academy, a school for young women to become spies.  There’s not too much real action.  Instead, Cammie finds her first romance with a normal boy who she meets while on a covert ops training mission and must figure out what to do.  Later books in the series apparently present more action for the Gallagher Girls.

And now for my own spy secret.  The writing project I’m working on now is a little bit spy.  Actually, that’s sort of an argument for me to stop watching Spooks reruns and reading spy novels so I can do my own thing.  That probably won’t happen though.

Death Warriors

I just finished Francisco X. Stork’s (by the way, doesn’t he have an awesome name?) book, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors.  I got excited when I spotted this one in the bookstore, in part because I really enjoyed Marcelo in the Real World (which made many a blog and critic’s top ten YA lists last year) and in part because it had such great cover design.  Yes, I do judge books by their covers.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Yet again, Stork has crafted a well-told tale that is both entertaining and thought provoking.  The main character, Pancho, is grieving for the loss of his sister and father when he goes to live at an orphanage.  There, he meets D.Q., who has terminal cancer.  D.Q. immediately insists that Pancho become his helper as he enters a new stage in his treatment.  At first, Pancho is too distracted by thoughts of revenge on the person he believes was responsible for his sister’s death.  As time goes on, D.Q. and his “death warrior” philosophy begin to give him something else beyond his anger.  The questions that D.Q. deals with as he faces death give the reader a lot to think about.  The book’s structure is also satisfying.  D.Q. wants desperately to live while Pancho, in his depression, is ready to throw his life away.  This book deals with different issues than Stork’s previous young adult novel, Marcelo in the Real World. However, in both books, he has created a teenage boy on the brink of adulthood who begins the novel with a single minded pursuit of a goal.  Only by breaking out of that mindset and letting the world in can each character grow.  While this is a YA novel, I think it’s one that could also be enjoyed by adults.

The Young Wizards Go to Mars

Some series are well-mapped out, time limited sorts of things, like Harry Potter or His Dark Materials.  Others begin and become an author’s bread and butter then never, ever end, like The Magic Treehouse.  And then there’s a strange third way, the series that seems to add another volume at random intervals, like Diane Duane’s Young Wizards.

I’m a huge fan of this young adult series, but it hasn’t fully satisfied me in the last few books.  However, diving back into the storyline in A Wizard of Mars, I was reminded how much I love the main characters, Nita and Kit.  The world of the books, with its strange melding of magic and theoretical physics and broad themes about good and evil is a complex and interesting one.  Others have compared them to Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, which is a flattering but fair comparison in my opinion.

This book started very slow and I felt like in the opening chapters Diane Duane had just brought back every character from the previous volumes to satisfy fan interest, which annoyed me.  There were also several storylines and themes that didn’t fully pay off for me.  Both Nita and Kit face issues at home with their families that aren’t resolved.  A subplot about Nita’s sister, Dairine, seems to be nothing more than a dead end or a buildup for a future book.  Speaking of sisters, one wonders if the whole deal with Kit’s sister, Carmela, will ever get explained.  Recurring mentions and thoughts about gender differences feed into the larger plot but also don’t fully get explored.

But despite any issues, the action picked up midway through when the focus went squarely back to Nita and Kit and the book became a very quick read.  I like how the issues Kit and Nita face are slowly becoming less black and white as they age from book to book, as well as more about working with others in the larger world.  The plot cleverly explores all our stereotypes about Mars.  And finally, I think anyone who has enjoyed this series will be pleased with the ending.  It’s not the classic that the first book, If You Want to Be a Wizard, is, but it’s a strong entry into the series.