Mo Wren has everything she needs, right on Fox Street, where she lives with her father, her little sister, and the memory of her mother. Except girls to play with; during the school year, Fox Street has decidedly few girls. Luckily, it’s summer, and that means Mercedes is back, staying with her grandmother. This summer, though, something is different. After a year living with her mother’s new, well-to-do husband, Mercedes now notices the shabbiness of Fox Street, its chipping paint and litter. And the lady with the roses, who terrifies all the kids, is being unexpectedly nice to Mercedes, and that after a lifetime of snubbing Mercedes’s grandmother because she’s black. And then there are the strange letters from a lawyer.

It’s a bit predictable, but lovely anyway. Mo is a great, well-drawn character and an entertaining narrator. Realistically, she’s extremely observant about some things, and completely in denial about other things. Fox Street is lovingly portrayed, its community close-knit but certainly not perfect. Mo’s grief for her mother is apparent but not overdone, likewise Mercedes’s confusion and conflicted loyalties and Mo’s sister’s need for attention and approval. It’s a simple, honest, and enjoyable book.

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What Happened On Fox Street ~ Tricia Springstubb ~ Tricia Springstubb’s Blog

Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

Nailer is a slum rat, a ship breaker who spends his days crawling through ducts on dead oil-burning ships, stripping out the precious copper wire. On the beach, loyalty is almost everything, second only to large quantities of money; you trust your crew, sworn by blood, but you try not to make them choose between you and a lucky strike. After a City Killer hurricane, he finds a lucky strike–an elegant modern ship, containing more gold, silver, and general Stuff Worth Money than he’s seen in his life, but before he can trade in the scavenge for money, he also finds a girl. Alive, and promising more wealth if he keeps her alive than if he lets her die.

The worldbuilding is fantastic. It’s imaginative, but flows logically from our own world and decisions. City Killers and the wreckage of several cities where New Orleans once stood, shipping routes across the now-liquid North Pole, the greater disparity between rich and poor and the lack of mobility caused by running out of fossil fuels . . . Bacigalupi crafted a world rich in detail, and it’s frighteningly plausible. Ship Breaker doesn’t feel didactic, though; it’s a warning, not a sermon.

The plot is serviceable, but not much more. It gets Nailer to explore his world, and we get to come along for the ride. Much of the conflict revolves around company squabbles between the family of Nita, the wealthy girl he rescued, and rivals within their shipping company; Nailer doesn’t understand the nuances of the conflict, and neither do we. He’s in it because he became friends with Nita, not because he cares who rules the company. That’s believable and fits his character, but makes it less compelling to the reader. We know which side we’re on, but we don’t know why it’s the right side. Other than that Nailer’s brutal, drug-addled, violent father is on the other side, so they must be bad. Towards the end, it takes a turn for the swashbuckling, which changes feel significantly from the gritty dystopia that opened the novel. Personally, I liked the dystopia better than the swashbuckling.

The characters are a mixed bag. Nailer is great; well-developed, compelling, and interesting. Observant, unsatisfied with his world, and courageous, he’s a good focal point. Several other characters left me wishing for more.. A halfman–genetically modified, combining human, dog, and tiger DNA–enriches our understanding of the world, particularly in his interactions with other halfmen, but he never explains the differences between him and the other halfmen. Nailer’s best friend’s mother is similarly interesting, hinting at complexity of character and the world, but she gets little page-time. And the rest of the characters are means to an end, rather than people. Nita is particularly underdeveloped; she is crucial to the plot and nearly always present, but has little in the way of independent personality. She knows what the plot needs her to know and can do what the plot needs her to do, but we never get a sense that she knows and does because she wants or needs to.

It’s still a compelling, gripping book. The worldbuilding is worth the read, and if the plot and characters pale a little beside the rich world, they’re enough to lead us along on the exploration of the world.

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Ship Breaker ~ Paolo Bacigalupi

He’s a spoiled rich kid, she’s a slum rat. More specifically, he—Colbert—is the grandson and heir of the Supreme Commander, meant to lead the Worldshaker, a giant ship that travels on water or land, constantly roving and collecting resources for the betterment of its people. She—Riff—is not considered “people;” she’s just a filthy, locked in the bowels of the ship doing the worst of the grunt work. One thing—an escape—leads to another—an accident—and before you know it, there’s a full scale revolution on the Worldshaker.

Worldshaker is strikingly similar in premise to Mortal Engines, and, like Mortal Engines, disappointed despite my love of both dystopias and steampunk. In this case, the writing is perfectly fine and both Colbert’s stepwise enlightenment and the actions of his sister provided enough interest to keep me reading, but not enough to counteract the overall lack of distinction and two frustrating strange choices.

Strange Choice Number One:
Every single person involved in Colbert’s upper-class, best-available education is completely inane. The people of the Worldshaker have lost awareness and knowledge of their history and they are obsessed with their superiority over the filthies and with cleanliness of mind and body—these are important points to convey for worldbuilding and to forward the plot, but it does not require the education of the ruling classes—through schools and tutors—to be utterly nonsensical and pointless. In fact, it would be much scarier and more believable if the teachers were intelligent and their arguments basically logical; then we could see this as a plausible world, a frightening possibility that maintains itself through manipulation and propaganda. Instead, it’s just inane.

Strange Choice Number Two:
The filthies have one major strategic advantage over the upper decks, and they don’t use it.
Spoilers abound for the rest of this section
The Filthies’ stated purpose on the ship is to keep the boilers going and, by implication, keep the big engines and machines running. That’s why they’re still fed and a sufficient population kept alive. (A small percentage of Filthies are modified into Menials, speechless servants with their brains surgically limited who work on the upper decks). That means they have control over the boilers and the big machines. They could hold the movement, and thus the survival, of the Worldshaker hostage. They could threaten to destroy the engines and strand the ship forever. They could stop the ship and take advantage of everyone freaking out to attack the upper decks. They do none of these things. It’s not even acknowledged that they have this advantage! And then one of the upper decks people threatens to destroy the ship by overheating the boilers and making them explode, and no one, including the leaders of the Filthies, thinks to have them stop stoking the boilers, or dampen them, or open release valve, or a number of other things they could presumably do. Their entire reason for existence is just forgotten.
Enough spoilers! No more below

In general, it’s an okay book with a few interesting characters, but it’s nothing special.

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Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

The Exiled Queen The Seven Realms, Book Two

This review does not contain spoilers for The Exiled Queen, but it does contain spoilers for the first book in the series, The Demon King.

None of our heroes are welcome at home anymore. Princess Raisa is running from an arranged, unwanted, and illegal marriage, and Amon is trying to keep her safe. Fire Dancer and Han, newly aware of their wizard heritage, are no longer welcome in the camps of the tribes, their childhood home/refuge. Both pairs set off for Oden’s Ford, a university city unaffiliated with any of the Seven Realms, and therefore free of the civil wars and ethnic strife plaguing the area. As our villains, Micah and Fiona Bayar, are also young wizards, it’s hardly surprising that they appear in class with Fire Dancer and Han. All the important people from the Fells—all the important people of the rising generation—are assembled.

In Oden’s Ford—or rather, in the Dreamworld that Han learns to access—Han meets Crow, a mysterious stranger who refuses to divulge his identity but offers to teach Han advanced magic he won’t learn at the school—fairly nasty magic, truth be told. It’s pretty clearly a bad idea, but Han is eager to prove himself as a magician, eager to gain power, and extra-eager to protect himself from Micah and Fiona Bayar. Plus, Crow is going to be important in later books. We don’t know how, yet, but he will be. Meanwhile, Raisa—known as Rebecca Morley, her classmate unaware of her royal status—is learning military strategy and other useful royal skills, plus some of the unfortunate practicalities of life as a Grey Wolf Queen and Amon and Dancer are each trying to figure out how they can live their lives and be happy, after something important to them has been taken away.

It’s almost 600 pages of character development, and it’s damn good. The writing is excellent, it moves along at a good clip, everyone is interesting and human and, well, developing. The politics and interpersonal relations started in the first book continue to expand in interesting and promising ways. So far, I’m really enjoying this series.

September 2010

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The Exiled Queen ~ Cinda Williams Chima
My review of Book One, The Demon King

Book One

On Cassia’s seventeenth birthday, she is excited but nervous about her Match Banquet—nothing out of the ordinary, Society has determined that 93% of Matchees are nervous—where she will see the face of the man Society has determined to be her perfect mate, as calculated by genetics and temperament. Instead of the screen showing her the face of a boy in another city or region, she is shown someone in the same Banquet, someone from her block—Xander, her lifelong best friend. Excited—Xander is perfect, and perfect for her, after all—but a little let down—unlike most Matchees, she won’t be anxiously studying the microcard she’s given to learn about her match, because she already knows him— she goes home and puts the datachip into the screen anyway. There’s Xander’s face, but for a minute it’s replaced by a different face: that of Ky, another boy from their borough, a friend but not someone to whom anyone she knows is really close. Startled, Cassia begins to pay attention to Ky in a way she never has before. As she notices Ky’s quiet, careful life, and as she’s shocked by her grandfather’s deathbed rebellion, Cassia begins to notice the cracks in her comfortable, easy, supposedly perfect world.

It’s a well-crafted dystopia, gently but firmly ruled by white-coated Officials who always seem to have your best interest at heart. Your meals are delivered to you, specially calibrated to contain the right amount and kind of nutrition for your body. You have schooling, if you’re young, then a blend of schooling and work, also suited to your needs and abilities, and designed to both train you and test you so you can be given your permanent work assignment: your perfect job. Your perfect mate, to produce your perfect children. A pill container on you at all times, with a blue pill that has enough nutrition to sustain you for several days in an emergency, a green pill that calms you in times of stress, and a red pill that you’re only to take under the guidance of the Officials.

Though well-crafted and well-executed, the world itself is nothing we haven’t seen before, really, and it’s a bit heavy-handed in its use of poetry as a motivational force. The characters, however, make it special. Cassia is a good narrator, observant and intelligent but invested in the world and narrative in which she was raised. Her confusion and uncertainty are strong enough to ring true, but not so strong that they annoy the reader, who comes to the book automatically distrustful of the society. Though there is a love triangle between Cassia, Xander, and Ky, it’s not melodramatic or overdone; she’s never really dating either of them and is generally truthful, so it’s more a tension between possibilities than between attachments. Behind and beyond the romance, they are both her friends, and good ones at that.

And everyone’s just so nice. Cassia’s parents and grandparents knew and know the flaws of the system, but they are nice, loving, caring people, who just want what’s best for everyone. They make the choices they do deliberately, to protect and provide for their children. There is a villain in the story and she is an official, but she is outnumbered by officials who are just doing their jobs and keeping society comfortable and safe. She is also clearly reacting to the situation in front of her, and we as readers never fully know what that situation is.

The book suffers primarily from its vagueness in describing what’s going on outside the central territories. We know there is conflict between the society and people at the edges of the territories it controls, but it’s never entirely clear what either the citizens believe is going on, or what is actually going on. The epilogue indicates that we’ll learn more about the situation in fact in the next book(s), but it lacks the perspective that the propaganda would have provided. Nonetheless, it is an extremely well-written and enjoyable book, with a number of sympathetic characters who are trapped by the world they have perpetuated.

With all its focus on mate selection, it’s also a very odd book to read while traveling to go to a couple of weddings.

November 2010

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Matched ~ Ally Condie

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