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

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadThe 1978-1979 school year is perfectly normal for Miranda. Except that her best friend stopped speaking to her, there’s an apparently crazy man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox on her corner, a naked man is seen running by her school on several occasions, and weird things keep happening. Like her spare house key goes missing and three days later she finds a note asking her to write a letter in which she mentions the location of her spare house key.

When You Reach Me is very good. The writing is excellent and the eye for detail is amazing. The mystery aspects, mysterious and mundane—what’s the deal with the strange notes Mira gets? Why did Marcus punch Sal? What’s up with Annemarie and Julia?—are dealt with well, with excellent pacing and delicacy. It doesn’t just balance the ordinary life and the time travel elements; it melds them. I found the discourse on time-travel a bit tedious, especially as Mira was stubbornly not getting it, though it did serve to establish how time travel works in this narrative.

This was almost a one-sitting book for me. It wasn’t, partly because airplane turbulence plus fasting (it was Yom Kippur) does not equal happy reading time, and partly because I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want to be done with it. That said, had there not been jostling to disrupt my reading, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out of the book and pace myself.

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When You Reach Me ~ Rebecca Stead ~ Rebecca Stead’s Blog

Bones of FaeriePost-Apocalyptic fiction meets Faeries.

Twenty years after the cataclysmic war between the faeries and the humans, Liza’s sister is born with hair clear as glass and is left on the hillside to die, for clear hair is a sure sign of magic and magic isn’t to be trusted. Her mother, near-mad with grief, leaves shortly thereafter. When Liza starts seeing visions in anything reflective, she, too, leaves; though the trees and their shadows can kill, her abusive father would also kill her if he learned she showed any signs of magic.

It’s a short, simple book that really could have been longer and more complex. The post-faerie-apocalypse world is interesting and vivid, described naturally and in rich detail. Liza’s relationship with her father and actions toward others gently touch upon the psychology and patterns of abuse, but, like most of the minor characters, her father is generally two-dimensional. The pacing felt off to me; whenever minor characters are involved, it seems to rush to get Liza back on the road with maybe a companion or two. Which is doubly frustrating; not only does it feel rushed, these are often characters who lived through the war. They’re given just enough time that we can glimpse their lingering reactions to what they did and saw, but not enough to explore the complexities I could see lurking beyond the surface.

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Bones of Faerie ~ Janni Lee Simner ~ Desert Dispatches, Janni Lee Simner’s Blog
Invasive Species, a short story set in the world of Bones of Faerie

A major terrorist attack has hit San Francisco. Marcus and his friends, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are picked up by Homeland Security for a few grueling days. When they return home, they – and particularly Marcus – are horrified by the loss of privacy and civil rights perpetrated by Homeland Security in the name of safety. A computer nerd, Marcus starts to fight back, with computers, cryptography, and the idealistic youth of San Francisco as his weapons. As more and more people become involved in his clandestine XNet, his creation slips more and more out of his control.

The major problem with Little Brother is that it’s trying to serve two masters. People who are attracted to it are likely to be interested in computers and cryptography, and therefore to come to the novel with some preexisting knowledge of the subject. Of course, it cannot be safely assumed that all of its readers have such knowledge. So it has to do a fair bit of teaching. I believe it generally succeeds at imparting the necessary information, but it does not succeed in making the lessons interesting. The novel is narrated in the first person; Doctorow simply has the narrator offer straightforward descriptions of cryptography, binary, Linux, and the like.

This would be boring even if one has not already read Neil Stephenson, but for someone who has all of this material taught in Stepheson’s brilliantly creative narrative digressions, it’s rather interminable.¹ I’m not asking for Doctorow to try to be Stephenson² – few things are worse than a novelist who doesn’t trust his own voice – but I think it’s valid to ask that teaching in a novel be delivered via a more interesting medium than a visit from the Exposition Fairy.

This frequent mini-lectures also have the unfortunate effect of increasing
the didacticism of an already didactic book.

Little Brother is largely an expression of Doctorow’s dissatisfaction with the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, much as William Sleator used Test to express his dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind. In both cases, I generally agree with both authors’ liberal biases, but I wish both had expressed their points of view with a touch more subtlety. Little Brother is a much better book than Test, but it is ultimately dissatisfying; while a major point of the book is “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” – after 25, ways of thinking are too set and one is too invested in the status quo – it seems 37-year-old Doctorow doesn’t trust his teenage readers to see the flaws in the system without his help.

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¹ For instance, in The Diamond Age, he teaches binary using a clockwork castle.

² Or other authors who need to present a lot of facts in their narratives. Another example would be Junot Diaz’s use of humor footnotes to impart large chunks of Dominican Republic history in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

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Little Brother ~ Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com

Miriam Newman Young Adult Literature YA Lit for Adult Readers

There are two things about Unwind of which I am certain: it is extremely well written, and its premise has some holes. The holes don’t prevent it from being provocative and fascinating, though the brilliant writing does give an impression of better-developed characters than actually exist.

But I should explain.

In the near future, the United States undergoes an all-out civil war between the pro-lifers on the one hand, the pro-choicers on the other, and the remains of the army trying to restoring order on the third hand. (Don’t like having three hands? Keep reading.) The eventual settlement: life is sacred, but a pregnancy could be retroactively terminated once the result reached the age of reason – thirteen, though once they become an adult at eighteen, they cannot be unwound. The unwanted is the taken apart – Unwound – and at least 99.44% (you have to take into account things like the appendix) of the body being used for transplants – kept alive in a divided state, or so the reasoning goes.

Our protagonists are three Unwinds – Connor has gotten into a few too many fights, Risa is a ward of the state whom the state has decided is no longer useful, and Lev is a tithe: the tenth child of a religious family, conceived and raised for the purpose of being Unwound. The three take us on a whirlwind tour of tithing parties, kicking-AWOL, the underground Unwind railroad, and, finally, a Harvesting Camp. (Yes, he goes there. For four pages, he breaks from the dark, twisted dystopian writing for in favor of out-and-out horror. In his defense, the book he was writing didn’t give him much choice. And for all its flaws, I do think it was a book worth writing.)

The writing is tight and fast, keeping you enthralled, but it’s a better book while you’re reading it than after you’re finished. As I thought back on it, I started to notice that the characters weren’t really fleshed out or developed; the main three had just enough personality to keep them from caricature, and (almost) everyone else had such a brief appearance that I didn’t notice till afterwards that they had all been catalysts or plot points, rather than people. Likewise, while I was willing to suspend disbelief for the premise as a whole – and he does a better job of making that possible than I expected – afterward, I started wondering about practicalities, like, is there really equal demand for every part of the body (minus the appendix)? There seem to be more male Unwinds than female; really? is that throwing off the genderbalance of the adult population? What are the depression rates like in this world, both for teenagers and for parents who signed unwinding orders?

Unwind has moments of striking profundity – and I do mean that as a compliment this time – and moments of surprising gentleness. It asks rarely-asked questions about life, the soul, and morality. Unfortunately, impressions of the horror linger longer than they do, and the questions which replace that are of a far more mundane variety.

Gratuity Tucci (known to her friends as Tip), is given a school assignment: an essay, to be put in a time capsule for a hundred years, on The True Meaning of Smekday, where Smekday (formerly Christmas) is the day that aliens invaded and took over – and then, a year later, the day they left. This book is the result: her tale of her cross-country road trip with a cat (named Pig) and an alien for company and her subsequent actions against alien invasion.

I’d come to it with high hopes, and found it sadly disappointing. My main issue is gimmickiness. While the self-referential first person narration – with a note from her teacher and one from the National Time Capsule Committee – is memorable and a unique voice, it verges on annoying. The humor and puns likewise fall flat. It’s not that I have a problem with puns or silly, occasionally potty, humor – I quite happily read Terry Pratchet and Robert Asprin, and even Spider Robinson, after all – but in this case they seemed forced, like the author was trying to hard. As he was with the ‘Alien Invasion as Allegory for What We Did to the Native Americans” thing. Which is particularly a pity, as in unguarded moments he gives some of the best, most refreshingly honest portrayals of thoughtless racism in contemporary culture I’ve ever seen. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

Test‘s heart is in the right place. Or, rather the left place, as in the left political place. I totally approve of that, of course.

What I do not approve of is heavy-handed didacticism.

Test is set in a slightly futuristic world in which all public-school students have to take the XCAS, hugely important exams which determine whether or not you graduate high school. No diploma, no college. No college, no chance to get rich and buy a helicopter, the only way to avoid the Traffic and the Pollution. Did I mention that the XCAS is backed by the president and his oilman friends? And, of course, if you can afford a helicopter, you can afford to put your students through private school, where students don’t have to take the XCAS.

Oh, and near the end you find out that the main cheesy slogan behind the XCAS is “No Child Left Behind.” Yes, my friends, that headache you’re developing is the result of being bludgeoned by a real-world connection which would have been so much more effective had it been more subtle.

Of course, I can’t help but feel that Sleator is writing for a world in which English class has already turned from reading books to test prep. While it’s more than a few paragraphs, his solution doesn’t raise the bar.