The Chosen OneAlmost-fourteen-year-old Kyra lives on a polygamist compound with her father, his three wives, and twenty siblings. She sneaks out to get books from the Bookmobile from the nearest library that drives by once a week, secretly meets a boy her own age to steal kisses, and her mothers speak longingly of their own childhoods—when they were allowed to leave the compound freely and non-Bible books weren’t burned—but generally, her life is happy, surrounded by family she loves. Then the Prophet announces that she’s been Chosen as the seventh wife of her fifty-year-old uncle.

It’s a very short, very intense book. Kyra’s pain, confusion, and wavering determination are palpable in the first-person narration. The violence, manipulation, sexual violence, and misogyny inherent in this sort of fundamentalist compound life are vividly but simply portrayed, but it doesn’t make demons of everyone who lives there; Kyra’s family, though obedient believers, are loving, well-intentioned people who stand by each other and try to protect Kyra as far as they are able. If that isn’t nearly as far as we would like, the past trauma of Kyra’s parents—including her father’s other wives— helps explain why they have such limitations.

The narration suffers a bit from ill-defined flashbacks; it’s sometimes hard to keep track of whether you’re reading about now or then. The flashbacks establishing Kyra’s relationship with the Bookmobile and the man who drives it are compelling and help establish how Kyra has developed her worldview; those featuring her romance with a boy her own age are less compelling and less interesting. Happily, they’re short enough and few enough to be mere blips in an otherwise powerful novel.

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The Chosen One

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uglies scott westerfeldIn Tally’s world, everyone is equal because everyone is equally pretty: at sixteen, they have their first major plastic surgery, making them the same height and shape, perfectly symmetrical with huge eyes and lips. Between puberty and their sixteenth birthday, everyone is equally ugly. The summer before she turns sixteen, Tally meets Shay and is introduced to some radical ideas: that not everyone wants to turn pretty, that it might be possible to live outside of the city, that it’s possibly to be beautiful without an operation to make you pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally is given a choice: find her and betray her, or live in the city without ever becoming pretty.

Unfortunately, it takes almost a quarter of the book to get to that point, and the hundred pages of exposition is tedious and at times preachy. Once Tally sets off to find Shay and the community of runaways (like there was any chance she wouldn’t go) it picks up significantly, both in terms of plot and in terms of Tally’s emotional development. A compelling dystopia, It raises some interesting issues of human nature and judgment. It also raises issues of medical consent and ethics; I’m not sure I agree with the characters’ conclusions—safety is not the only question—but it’s good to see them raised in fiction. Tally is an interesting, believable character, but her relationships aren’t particularly well done; jealousy, friendship, and romance occur, but all three are treated with an unfortunate superficiality.

It’s well written and has many entertaining touches—many realistic but divergent reactions to dehydrated spaghetti bolognaise—and ends in such a way that I will need to read the sequel.

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Uglies ~ Scott Westerfeld

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

the evolution of calpurnia tateThe lone girl sandwiched between six brothers, Calpurnia Virginia Tate—Callie Vee—is more comfortable romping the woods and swimming in the stream than knitting or sewing in the parlor. When a drought gets Callie wondering about grasshoppers—most summers she only sees one kind of grasshoppers, this time she’s seeing two—she faces her fear and talks to her grandfather, a rather forbidding amateur naturalist who generally ignores the children in favor of experiments in his laboratory. On finding a kindred spirit in Callie he makes an exception to his child-ignoring rule and teaches her about science, nature, and the distillation of liquor. (She finds that whiskey may cause coughing.)

It’s also the summer when it starts to sink in how differently boys and girls are treated in 1899, how few options she has, and how little she likes those options. The realization sits heavy on her, to say the least, and on her grandfather, too; he teaches her about Marie Curie and other lady scientists, but he knows that he’s making it harder for her to settle for the life her mother wants for her and the world expects of her, and that rejecting that life would take her down a very difficult path.

Callie is an appealing, energetic narrator, applying her wit and newly-trained skills of observation to the natural world and, with less consistent success, to her family. She is a product of her times and of her grandfather; her take on gender roles does not spring up fully-formed simple because she is the heroine of a modern volume of historical fiction and we expect our heroines to be sympathetic from a modern point of view, but rather we see it developing naturally through the conflicting influences of grandfather, brothers, best friend, mother, cook, and the telephone company. Memories of the Civil War frequently remind us how much Callie is the product of her time and place; with her friends and brothers, she maintains a reverence for Confederate soldiers, and no one likes the Federals.

It’s a slice-of-life book, covering the six months surrounding Callie’s twelfth birthday. It’s a pivotal six months of her life, and the book is a consistently interesting and enjoyable read, but as is so often the case with such books, the ending is abrupt and irresolute. We’re left with the hope that Callie will grow up from an unusual girl to an unusual woman, but with a lingering melancholy and a view of the obstacles that stand in her way.

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate ~ Jacqueline Kelly

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

A Northern Light Book Cover by Jennifer DonnellyOne day in 1906, a guest staying at the hotel where Mattie works asks Mattie to burn a stack of letters. Then the young lady goes off boating, turning up twelve hours, dead. Mattie is left with the stack of letters, her promise to burn them, and many questions. Mattie pieces together what happened to the dead woman amidst her own indecision about the future: whether to follow her love of books and writing to Barnard College in New York City or whether to stay in the sleepy upstate New York farm community with her family, the neighbors she’s known all her life, and the boy she’s sweet on.

That boy, Royal, happens to be a royal ass. A pretty ass, and one who pays unprecedented attention to plain Mattie; it’s no mystery why she goes around with him. As an adult-type reading it, I didn’t have much patience for the elevated position Royal gets in Mattie’s indecision. You feel like you’d be betraying your dead mother by leaving your father and sisters to go to college? I still think you should go to college, but I can respect your inner conflict. You like snogging the jerk who doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t respect you, and is really mean to people you care about it? Dump him and go to college. You’ll find someone else to snog. Maybe someone you can have an actual conversation with, hm? Mattie’s desire to be happy with Royal is understandable and realistic, but it’s frustrating.

Despite the frustration, it’s a very good, and enjoyable book. Mattie has a nice balance of spunkiness and nervousness, intelligence and a hint of naivete. and the book is filled with rich detail on early twentieth century Adirondak life, complete with troublesome tourists, cattle disease, hard childbirth, hunger, small-town gossip, racism, and casual domestic violence. At times, Mattie’s earnest complaints that the lives of her neighbors are more interesting than the civil, stiff lives portrayed in Austen and Dickens, and that books don’t tell the truth, become tedious; firstly, we got the point the first time she said it, and secondly, we must agree with her to some extent or we would have picked up a different book. These small faults aside, it’s an absorbing book with a heroine it’s easy to root for, even when she’s being a bit daft.

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A Northern Light ~ Jennifer Donnelly

Ash Malinda Lo Lesbian Cinderella RetellingA Cinderella variant haunted by echoes of science clashing with belief and new religions clashing with old ones, Ash tells the story of a young woman untethered, trying to find a place in the world. First Ash returns, again and again, to the grave of her mother; then she shelters in the protection of a handsome fairy; later, she falls for a confident huntress and gets some confidence and agency for herself.

Ash is told in a gentle, largely expository style, fittingly reminiscent of oral tradition. The pacing is unusual; fairly slow, it thoroughly develops Ash and Sidhean, the fairy, before introducing Kaisa, the huntress. Between those two factors, it took a while to draw me in, but once it caught me I was caught but good. Ash’s slow emotional transitions are dealt with beautifully, one set of emotions fading—but not disappearing—as another rises up. The differences between Ash’s relationships with Sidhean and Kaisa are well drawn and a fascinating reflection of the differences in their personalities and statuses, his bitterness contrasting with her caution. Though the romance is important, it’s less central than in many Cinderella variants; the focus is more on Ash coming into her own, something she does slowly and believably, with a few natural stumbles on the way. Likewise, though it builds to a lesbian relationship, the fact that it’s queer is less central than in many GLBT books. For the most part, it’s treated as perfectly natural and obvious that there would be same-sex relationships. In fact, one of the few parts of the book that didn’t work for me was a few pages of Ash being confused and awkward because of the suggestion that her feelings for Kaisa could be romantic and/or sexual. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful, unusual book, and a pleasant reprieve from heavy LGBT-related books and new stories.

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Ash ~ Malinda Lo