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

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The Boneshaker Kate MilfordIt’s 1913, and Natalie Minks has two main goals in life: to make her clockwork airplane work, and to figure out how to ride the unusual bicycle that she’s convinced is the fastest in the world. Her life gets much more complicated when a traveling medicine show comes to town, bringing highly unusual and rather threatening medical men, mysterious remedies, and automatons that don’t need to be wound. Her town isn’t completely helpless—there’s more to several residents than meets the eye, include an old black man who once won a bet with the devil, and Natalie’s mother herself. Nonetheless, the danger is very real, and very close to home.

It’s a beautifully written book, redolent with love of storytelling, folklore, and traditional music. It’s not as tightly-woven as I wanted it to be, though; I had to Google Wilbur Wright’s death in order to figure out when the book was set, and a few times times minor characters were so briefly mentioned or lightly sketched that I had forgotten them by the time they reemerged with some importance later on. Similiarly, there are some interesting, important-seeming elements that are never explained; vagueness that contributes to a creepy, tense atmosphere early in the book is ultimately unsatisfying when clarity never emerges.

Natalie is a spunky tomboy, but not without context—she fits in perfectly with her mildly unconventional family, and if some of the townspeople aren’t overly approving of her choices of overalls instead of dresses, they tolerate her with affection. Her best friend is an effective foil: femme and frivolous, but brave when necessary. Natalie’s close-knit family is lovingly but honestly presented, with its members’ foibles and frustrations, its secret-keeping and its worry about Natalie’s mother, who is increasingly unwell—and Natalie’s obliviousness to her mother’s illness also has a ring of truth.

The Boneshaker is a version of the old Devil at the Crossroads motif, and it plays well with the guilt, desperation, hubris, and determination of the several characters who face the Devil across the campfire.

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The Boneshaker ~ Kate Milford’s The Clockwork Foundry

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

Ten Cents a DanceIt’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old Ruby’s working canning pickled hog’s feet in a meatpacking factory. (Ewwww.) She is not happy with this arrangement, but her father is long dead, her sister is even younger than she is, and her mother’s arthritis is too bad to allow her to work—she formerly worked in the factory where Ruby is now—and someone needs to earn their daily bread. Barely. So when a local—and very attractive—bad boy dances up a storm with Ruby at a party one night and then tells her that she could make big money as a taxi-dancer, dancing with men who pay a dime for the privilege, she takes the advice and gets herself a new job. It’s hardly reputable, so she lies to her mother, and the work has its own expenses to be paid, so she spends more on gowns and makeup than she brings home, and, as these things tend to, the lies and the spending build and build. And then there’s the bad boy and what he wants from Ruby.

Ruby is an obnoxious brat who, as a fellow taxi dancer points out, never listens to advice. She manages to be a sympathetic protagonist anyway, in part because she’s vulnerable under her tough veneer and in part because it’s easy to see how blinded she is by the shiny things being dangled in her path, distracting her from how much she’s getting in over her head. Also, she means well; she does want to get her family out of the slums, she does want to give her kid sister a good life, she does want to be a good girlfriend. It’s hard to watch her try so desperately and fall so flat, but it’s compelling, too.

The writing in Ten Cents a Dance is very strong; Ruby’s first-person, slangy narration easily conveys a sense of time, place, and class status. Her casual racism—which, mercifully, diminishes over the course of the novel as she gets to know some people of color—is an honest reflection of her upbringing and is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing.

In some ways, the ending feels a bit too neat, but in other ways it’s a perfect compromise—not too grim, but not rosy, either. I think the sense of over-neatness comes from how quickly the final resolution occurs and the slightly over-sappy final pages. (Movies should not end with voice-overs. Neither should books. Metaphorically.)

Anyway, the ending to the novel may be a bit pat, but the ending to the book makes up for it: there’s an author’s note that relates, in a few simple pages, the story of the author’s aunt, a taxi dancer. It’s a nifty bit of oral history, and, while the novel stands alone, it provides an extra bit of context and connection.

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Ten Cents a Dance ~ Christine Fletcher ~ Christine Fletcher’s Blog

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

Salt Maurice GeeOur heroes are a boy from the slums and a girl from a ruling family running from an unwanted arranged marriage (because we’ve never seen that before). From the slums is dark-skinned Hari; his father has just been enslaved by the ruling Company and sent to Deep Salt, a mysterious mine from which none ever return. From the mansions of the Company Compound is blonde, blue-eyed Pearl, aided by her maid, Tealeaf, who is a Dweller: another species, three-fingered and cat-eyed, capable of speaking mind-to-mind and even of controlling animals and humans (whether or not a strong-willed Dweller can control a weak-willed Dweller is never explored). Both Hari and Pearl can also speak mind-to-mind, Pearl taught by Tealeaf and Hari taught by an old man who had taught himself. Their paths cross, as such paths are wont to do, and lead them to Weapons of Mass Destruction and the midst of a civil war.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in Salt, but it has far more potential than it reaches. The morality and temptation of using WMDs and biological weapons are explored, but the morality and temptation of controlling people’s thoughts and actions is not. The cyclical nature of war and risks of charismatic leaders are dealt with, but the Dwellers act as noble savages, lacking enough substance to really balance out the conflict-ridden society of the humans. The book is at its best when dealing with Hari’s father; it uses him to delve into mob mentality, the political expediency of lies and betrayal, the affect slavery and oppression have on the mind, and the way hatred is generalized over a group of people. Hari and Pearl are as much of a mixed bag as the book; they do come to realize that many of their assumptions are groundless and they do mature, but it felt rushed. And then they get together for no other reason than the assumption that if there are opposite-gendered protagonists, they must have romance. Or at least (off-page) sex; it’s not really well enough developed to be romance. They have no chemistry and there is no buildup, and then all of a sudden they are together. With the very heavy implication that they are a perfect pair and will be together forever. My eyes rolled.

The first in a trilogy, Salt does something that seems to be a novelty these days: it ends. No abruptly cliffhanger, no introducing new twists in the last ten pages, no looming sense of running out of time as the pages dwindle. Just, this part of their lives is ending; they’re moving on to a new one. I have no idea in what direction he’s going to take books two and three1 and that’s refreshing.

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1 Okay, maybe I would have an idea if I had read the first chapter of the sequel, conveniently included at the back of this volume. But I was basking in the resolution and didn’t want to turn that page just yet.

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Salt ~ Maurice Gee

Will Grayson Will Grayson David Levithan John GreenCaustic, insecure Will Grayson (CIWG) has two rules: don’t care and shut up. His best friend, the very large and very gay Tiny Cooper, cares about many things and never shuts up. Currently, aside from falling in and out of love, Tiny is trying to hook Will up with a young lady and to produce, direct, write, and star in, a FABULOUS high school musical about his life. Meanwhile, morbidly depressed Will Grayson (MDWG) is constantly at war with his best friend, Goth girl Maura, barely exchanging two words with his stressed, worried mom, and finding his only solace in his internet boyfriend, Isaac. A coincidental meeting between the two Will Graysons acts as a catalyst, sparking change in friendships and relationships.

It’s hilarious. CIWG, written by John Green, is defensive, harsh, at times a terrible person, and an incredibly funny narrator. Even MDWG, written by David Levithan, sends many deeply funny statements out from the depths of his despair. (griping about internet slang: “or <3. you think that looks like a heart? if you do, that’s only because you’ve never seen a scrotum.”1). It’s also heartbreaking: both Will Graysons are in pain most of the time, and the writing expresses their depression, self-loathing, and need flawlessly. The girls are a bit underdeveloped and underrespected, existing almost as foils for the boys, but other things the book just nails. For instance:

gideon: yeah, and, i don’t know, when i realized that I was gay, it really sucked that nobody was like, ‘way to go’ so i just wanted to come over and say…
me: way to go?2

When I came out in high school, one of my classmates did say way to go. And that was really, really awesome of her. And this is a book that understands why that was important, and celebrates it, without losing the awkwardness inherent in just about every conversation ever held in a high school hallway or cafeteria.

It does get rather over the top, notably Tiny’s musical and, even more notably, the ending. It’s too neat, too perfect, too sentimental. And yet… I don’t cry over books. I certainly don’t cry over books while walking down the street in Brooklyn and I certainly don’t cry over unrealistically perfect sentimental bullshit endings. And yet… for this one, I did.

April 2010. I got an ARC from my mother, who works at a bookstore.

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1p. 2
2p. 181
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Will Grayson, Will Grayson ~ John Green ~ John Green’s Blog ~ David Levithan