David Sun, along with many of his peers—wealthy, constantly internet-connected, often drunk high school students—calmly watched, via webcam, as one of their fellows committed suicide. This worries his parents and the school shrink. His parents are too busy to actually, y’know, parent, so when the school shrink suggests that they invest in the latest gadget designed to help “disassociated” teenage boys learn to form health relationships, they go right ahead and buy their son a hot female robot. Er, “companion.” She comes with a built in Intimacy Clock; he only gets to snog the hot female robot after a designated amount of healthy social non-sexual bonding. If he tries to jump the gun, he gets an electric shock. Basically, they’re trying to use the promise of robot-nookie to train teenage boys to behave better. It’s a completely half-baked, insulting-to-women idea… and, therefore, frightening plausible.

Anyway, when David can’t get what he wants from his personal hot female robot—Rose—she ends up turning to Charlie, a lonely, depressed social misfit with abandonment issues. She helps him get some confidence and sense of companionship; he helps her gain some independence and a sense of personhood. (She’s a very advanced robot. (Incidentally, she’s significantly more advanced, emotionally and mentally, than the other companions we come across in the novel. This is noted but never explained.))

The novel is largely a meditation on the suckiness of breakups, and at that it succeeds pretty marvelously. The characters’ pain is palpable, but the plot moves along at a good clip and protects it from descending into melodrama. Rose tends to be over the top, but in a believable way; she’s learning how to be human, how to have feelings, how to think—there’s some trial and error, and it feels natural for her to overdo it.

It’s also an uncomfortable book. The male culture David inhabits is, without recognizing it, extremely sexist. Women, even those who aren’t robotic, are reduced to bodies, and even their bodies are reduced to, well, their girl parts. In groups, if girls are present, they’re mostly there to be witnesses to the supposed coolness of the guys—and the girls know it. And, of course, the book raises all sorts of sex issuess: are the companions just objects and no more need to consent than does a vibrator, or are they feeling beings? If they’re feeling beings, are they capable of giving informed consent, or are they like children and animals? For that matter, are the boys able to give informed consent? Are the parents participating in their sons’ sex lives by purchasing their bots? If a bot experiences the desire to kiss her assigned boy but the Intimacy Clock prevents it, is she being denied her sexual agency by her makers or by her body?

The actual writing about sex is mixed; the scenes of female masturbation and of awkward, not-very-good sex are very well done, but the scene of supposedly mind-blowing sex is painfully corny and overwritten.

Overall, though, it’s an interesting idea-driven book with a strong emotional core.

August 2010.

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Girl Parts ~ John M. Cusick

The Agency Book 1: A Spy in the House A Mary Quinn MysteryThe Agency, Book 1, A Mary Quinn Mystery1

At age twelve, Mary Lang is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. This is Victorian London; she would hardly be the first nor the last orphan to meet such a fate. Instead, she is abducted on her way to the gallows and brought to the Academy, a school for girls that trains its pupils, many of them charity cases, in the usual subjects and a bonus in ambition and independent thought. Five years later, Mary—now Quinn, having reverted to her mother’s maiden name—is restless, unhappy with any of the traditional feminine options. Her mentors at the Academy provide an unexpected one: to join the Agency, an organization of female spies who take advantage of the general populace’s tendency to overlook and underestimate women. Soon, Mary is undercover in a wealthy merchant’s house, the secondary agent on a case of smuggled South Asian artifacts.

It’s exceedingly fun. The writing is smooth and engaging. Mary is a compelling heroine; accomplished, gutsy, and likable, but also fallible and liable to act on a whim. The case itself doesn’t stand out, but it’s certainly serviceable. The depth of the book comes from the social realities it portrays, from the negotiations and investigations behind society marriages to the limited livelihoods available to widows. The capricious debutante, the invalid mother, and the businessman father aren’t as simple as their tropes imply—and in keeping with the book’s theme, the women are particularly interesting, and particularly underappreciated by the men in their lives. Racism and the lives of Asian sailors in Victorian London are painted with accurately but without sensationalizing, and not only from the majority point of view. The potential romance is fine; didn’t really do much for me, but didn’t detract from the story or frustrate me. It make total sense that these two characters would have the hots for each other and it doesn’t take over the story.

The ending is frustrating, though in ways which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way. Suffice it to say Mary does something daft for the sole reason that this will let the author jerk us, and her, around at the end by denying us, and her, shiny knowledge. Which she does. I suspect this knowledge will come out in a future book, but if there’s a way for her to do so without it being an annoying deus ex machina, I don’t see it. Hopefully she has better plot-vision than I do, eh?

We’ll find out, because this book was highly entertaining and I’ll be on the lookout for the second book (coming in August!)

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1Yes, it says both of these on the cover. How many names does a series need?

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A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

the ask and the answer patrick nessThis is book two in the Chaos Walking series, following The Knife of Never Letting Go. This review does not contain spoilers for The Ask and the Answer, but it does contain spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go. You have been warned.

Things start out pretty grim: Todd, an illiterate native of New World, and Viola, the lone survivor of a scout ship sent ahead of several thousands of new colonists approaching on sleeper ships, have reached Haven, the biggest city on New World. Unfortunately, the cruel Mayor who killed all the women in his town thirteen years before, has beaten them to it, and the city has surrendered without a fight. Oh, and Viola’s been shot and Todd’s been captured. And then the Mayor starts with the manipulation and emotional abuse.

It’s a very dark book, even more so than the first. There’s quite a bit of torture, emotional and physical (he manages to stop just shy of the point where I would give up on a book every time). There’s terrorism, questions of acceptable methods of warfare, devils you know and devils you don’t. There are manipulative, charismatic leaders. It’s actually quite reminiscent of The Kestrel, the middle—and best—volume of Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. However, where Alexander took his gentle man to ungentle, dehumanizing places without dehumanizing the reader, Ness’s work threatens to do just that. As an author, he’s as manipulative as the leaders he portrays. Perhaps this is a strength, but I’m not sure.

Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, it’s a gripping read, completely absorbing once it gets into your head. The characters are compelling, and their shifting emotional states and loyalties are painfully, beautifully real. I found myself meeting the (many) betrayals not with surprise or expectation, but with a sinking heart; like the characters, each betrayal made sense, and deepened the experience of reading the book. The stylistic annoyances of the first book are still present, though lessened and therefore less of a distraction; there are many fewer misspellings, and he’s toned down the habit of narrating exciting sections—
like this—
to give a sense of—
breathless—
anticipation—
though he does slip a few times. Including during sections narrated by Viola; what is annoying but understandable if it’s supposed to represent the way Todd thinks is less understandable if it’s divorced from a particular character’s voice.

The ending lost me a bit; after five hundred pages of the story hurtling along it abruptly loses focus and tries to go three places at once without resolving anything. Too much changed too quickly, and I was hard put to keep caring.

But for those first five hundred pages, I really cared. It is significantly flawed, but The Ask and the Answer is a very powerful book.

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The Ask and the Answer ~ Patrick Ness
My review of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Maud grew up in an orphanage. Now eleven, she’s thrilled to be adopted by three sisters, bought new clothing and books of her own, and brought to their house to live. She does find it a little weird that she’s brought there under cover of darkness and is told to stay in the house or walled-in garden, away from windows, and to sneak up the back stairs when visitors knock on the front door. And then she’s asked to help with the sisters’ fake seances, knowlingly defrauding people who’ve lost loved ones. It’s okay, though – she’s loved and wanted, and isn’t that enough?

Last year, Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery, and I was unhappy. You’d think a Canterbury Tales-esque book winning the Newbery would make me happy (just like you’d think that Neil Gaiman winning the Newberry would make me ecstatic), but no. The book was boring and had no overarching narrative. Hardly any underarching narrative, for that matter.

Now that I’ve read two of Schlitz’s three other books, I’m starting to wonder if last year was a case of “Laura Amy Schlitz is good, why haven’t we given her anything yet?” (Just like I wonder if Gaiman won this year partly because he hadn’t won for Coraline. Which is a better book than The Graveyard Book. Which also has only sketched connection between chapters; maybe Newberry committees just care less about narrative than I do.)

Because A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is good. (If I was going to continue my Newbery-committee snarking, I’d mention that it’s a better book than The Higher Power of Lucky, which won the Newbery that year, and deals with some of the same issues. But The Higher Power of Lucky throws in some extra issues which deserve discussion, and I don’t actually think A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is Newbery-worth, so I won’t snark. Except I just did. Oops.)

It’s good because it’s not oversimple; Maud’s negotiation of trust, ethics, love, and even truth are difficult. Every character is deeply and realistically flawed. Maud’s task is figuring out who can be trusted anyway.

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A Drowned Maiden’s Hair

Todd is the last boy of Prentisstown, the remains of a colony founded twenty years before by a religious group wanting to found their own Eden. Instead, they found a war with the natives, a germ making the animals talk, and a germ that broadcasts the men’s thoughts to all around them. The all-male society of Prentisstown is nasty and brutish, though not necessarily short, as Todd waits for the birthday (thirteen, though the years are a different length, so he’s about fourteen by our count) that will make him a man.

Except one month before that day, he has to leave. Now. Even though he knows – he knows – that there’s nothing outside Prentisstown. He doesn’t understand when Ben and Cillian, the men who raised him, have a bag packed and ready to go, why it has a book even though all the books were burned years before, why they’re telling him to go. Now. But he goes.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. On the plus side, it’s gripping; it’s a Subway Risk¹; there’s some serious character development; it avoids the romantic pratfalls of too many YA novels; it deals with heavy issues well; and it’s the first of an unknown number, and bloody hell do I want to know what happens next.

On the other hand, the writing—
It’s so—
It’s so—
obnoxious, not least because it persists in doing that through the action scenes. Trying to create a sense of breathlessness; failing. It’s written in “uneducated boy-voice” (not that the author is uneducated; the narrator is uneducated), which very much fits the character, but made it very hard for me to get into. I actually stopped reading the first time I tried, at about 20 pages; since I didn’t get to the magic fifty pages, I did restart, and after slogging through the first thirty or so, was then unable to put it down. The spelling, however, bothered me. It is well established that Todd is uneducated; therefore the interesting grammar and persistent use of the word “ain’t” are completely fitting. However, it is firmly established that Todd can’t read or write. Therefore, he can’t actually be writing the narrative we’re reading and wouldn’t be able to tell correct spelling from a horse’s ass. Therefore, there is no need to misspell every word greater than three syllables. It doesn’t add to the sense of authenticity, it’s just annoying.

Then there’s Todd.

I hate it when characters are overly obtuse, when they’re idiots who can’t see what’s right in front of their faces. I will admit that sometimes it works – I thought a certain amount of obliviousness worked in The Last of the High Kings, but my dad disagreed; my mom thought it worked in Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons, but I disagreed. And you may disagree with me on whether or not it works in this case, but it would be hard to argue that Todd isn’t an effing idiot. When you are sent away from the only home you’ve ever known, when you suddenly learn horrible things about your community, when you realize that you’re hated, maybe you should, y’know, listen when people try to explain what’s going on. Yes, it’s hard to overcome knee-jerk reactions and rethink everything you’ve ever been taught; yes, it’s not easy to admit ignorance; yes, the desire to defend your family is strong; but at some point, maybe the first time someone tries to kill you, doesn’t the need to know take over? I really think so. And for much the same reason I hate embarrassment humor, I hate watching characters dig themselves into holes of sheer stupidity.

And then there’s the song. Todd is fixated on a song his guardian – and, it turns out, his mother – used to sing to him. He uses the song to keep him going. The title of book is derived from the song. It’s really, really, central.

The song is “Early One Morning,”, an old English folk song. It’s one I know — you can’t be a folk dancer without some folk songs worming their way into your consciousness. Plus, there’s an English country dance to the tune, though the lyrics are optional when you’re dancing. It’s one of the many folk songs about a girl being seduced and then left by her seducer. It’s less explicit than many such songs, especially in some versions (all folk songs have multiple versions), but it’s still pretty clear that that’s what’s going on. Therefore, in my head, it’s in the category Dirty Folk Songs.

So it’s really weird to have it show up as a song being sung to babies, down one generation to the next. As a song being used a promise: “And it’s a sad song, Todd, but it’s also a promise. I’ll never deceive you and I’ll never leave you and I promise you this so you can one day promise it to others and know that it’s true.”²

No. I’m sorry, but no. Not even getting into the Pie-Crust Promise³ issue, it’s about a man breaking his promise. In some versions, it’s about a woman worried that he’ll go on to seduce and leave more women after her. In a world with a very disturbing history involving men and women. I am so completely baffled by this choice. Seriously. Baffled.

I quibble and pick at details like this because there’s so much that’s really good about that book, and it frustrates me to see its potential not quite realized. It’s a very good book, reflecting on power, self-control, gender, society, social models, how we define ourselves (pair it with Graceling for a nice study of how our capacity for violence interacts with identity), trust, and growing up and coming of age. And did I mention the really wanting to know what happens next?

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¹A book that causes one to miss, or nearly miss, one’s subway, train, or bus station or stop. Reader beware.
²Page 418.
³From Mary Poppins, a promise that’s “easily made, easily broken.”

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The Knife of Never Letting Go ~ Patrick Ness
My review of The Ask and the Answer (Book 2)

Miriam Newman Young Adult Literature YA Lit for Adult Readers

Okay, go read my review of the first three books of Pellinor.

Good?

Now for my review of The Singing, the fourth and final book in the series:

Squeeee!

There’s not too much to say which I haven’t said already, aside from confirming that it is a worthy conclusion to an amazing quartet.

There’s a powerful sense of humanity infusing these books, particularly this last one. As Maerad’s powers and ability grow, so do her confusion and uncertainty, and both her love for her friends and her fear of losing them – either through death or through fear and mistrust stripping away their relationships. All the characters have their doubts and their worries, and do what they need to do anyway. If that seems a bit sappy… yes. There is a touch of sap and melodrama, but it never overwhelms the well-crafted characters or well-paced plot. The real coup of the Books of Pelinor is that they are full of people. Beautiful, messed-up people.

March 2009

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Alison Croggon
Alison Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor Blog
The Books of Pellinor
The Singing

The Naming Alison Croggon Miriam Newman Reviewing YA Literature for Adult ReadersAlison Croggon The Riddle Miriam Newman YA LiteratureMiriam Newman Young Adult Literature YA Lit The Naming and The Riddle, the first two installments in a quartet, plunge us into the world of Annar and the Seven Kingdoms. There is desolation – threat of famine, bullying nobles and corruption, slaves kept in remote forts, hereditary feuds – but also cities of beauty, peace, music, and knowledge. Those are the homes of the Bard, gifted with magic, long life, speech with animals, a rich intellectual and folkloric tradition, and dedicated to the Light and the Balance. But even among Bards, all is not well; the Schools are half-empty, Hulls (corrupted Bards) roam the land, discrimination – racial, ethnic, and gender – is on the rise, and various prophesies point to an ancient enemy returning. Of course, various prophesies also point to a Fated One to save them all. Enter Maerad, our heroine, and off we go, traveling the continent in search of knowledge. The third book, The Crow, takes us into a martial realm, as quiet whispers of discontent and strife have progress into outright war.

These were re-reads for me, and I am pleased to report that I loved them just as much this time around. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I love it so much; it’s quite a bit more epic than I usually like my fantasy, and while the writing is good, it has a few quirks that my creative writing professors would never have let me get away with. (Think exclamation points.)

And yet, I love them. Bizarre, ne c’est pas?

Or maybe not so bizarre. The characters are compelling, the world and its mythology are richly detailed (and annotated! There are appendices and indices!), they deal well with racism and sexism, and even touch on queer issues (in a wonderful, understated, of-course-people-do-that kind of way), and there is subtlety – there is talk of the Light and the Dark, but they’re wonderfully muddled and the more you read, the less it remains a simple battle of Light vs. Dark. And have I mentioned the appendices and the incredibly rich myth-building and linguistics?

Go read them. And then read The Singing, the fourth and final book.

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Alison Croggon
Alison Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor Blog
The Books of Pellinor
The Naming
The Riddle
The Crow