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ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS: YA fiction

ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS by James Lecesne was one of my Cybil reads. I have some sketchy Cybil notes, one of which tells me this novel is 467 pages long, which is a lot of pages. The pages were cut smaller than usual, but still. It felt long. Not that I don't recommend it, just, you know, be forewarned.

The story is about a working class New Jersey family--so far, so good, and the family dynamics felt very realistic to me. The main character, Phoebe, is in high school and she lives with her older sister and their divorced mother. Then their teen cousin Leonard comes to live with them. Leonard is flamboyant. He loves makeovers and hanging out in the beauty parlor. He's a special favorite of the director of the school's drama department, which makes Phoebe apprehensive. Then Leonard disappears one night and is never seen again.

At first this novel had a STARGIRL feel to it. Leonard will make everyone learn about themselves! But then, boom, he's gone and foul play is almost certainly the cause. Phoebe and her family take on a desperate search to find out what happened to him, and Phoebe goes to extraordinary lengths to snoop. So, OK, not a STARGIRL novel, but a mystery.

But no, because after we find out what happened to Leonard (I won't spoilerize you), the book keeps going. Now Phoebe has to resolve issues of good and evil. Does the person responsible for Leonard's fate deserve to be treated like a person?

So I felt like this was three books in one: a fish out of water story that morphed into a mystery that ended up philosophical. There's a subplot going with Phoebe's older sister and father too, which I thought was well done. If you like long books, I did like the characters and setting in this one. But the tone was uneven. Dark and light were big themes in this book (you probably got that from the title) but I think I like my books on the lighter side of this one.

THE SCIENCE OF HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE

I had to read THE SCIENCE OF THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Michael Hanlon not just because I'm a huge Douglas Adams fan, but because it starts off with the Fermi Paradox. I'm slightly obsessed with the Fermi Paradox (and I'm totally flying my nerd flag with this review). Basically, if there are trillions of freaking planets in the Milky Way (my math is approximate here) and most of the galaxy is older than Earth, where is everybody? Why haven't we run across any other civilization's discarded junk, at the very least? It doesn't make sense when you think about the sheer number of planets out there, and Hanlon starts off his book by noting how much Fermi's Paradox must have been on Adams'  mind when he came up with HITCHHIKER'S. There are lots of answers to Fermi's Paradox and Hanlon describes a few of them, but I think my favorite is the HITCHHIKER'S theory: we're way out on the unfashionable end of the spiral.

THE SCIENCE OF THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is non-fiction, basically a collection of essays on a variety of topics fascinatingly touched on in HITCHHIKER'S, such as Fermi's Paradox. Hanlon uses a big dose of the Adams sense of humor to explain concepts such as the age of the universe, the possibility of alternate universes, time travel, robotics, and even the Total Perspective Vortex. If you're interested in astrophysics but have the math skills of a fourth grader (and I'm talking about myself here, of course) this book is for you. It's understandable if you've never read HITCHHIKER'S but why the heck haven't you read HITCHHIKER'S yet?

I really enjoyed Hanlon's style and would read more of his writing. However, this wasn't a book to read in one sitting. The essays were short but they didn't interconnect well. They often covered ground previous essays had covered, such as the length of the universe. Other topics weren't covered enough. Hanlon started an essay based on the talking cow in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe who was bred to want to be eaten. His topic was engineered meat--I could picture the filet mignon farm from M.T. Anderson's FEED. I really wanted to know more about this, but the essay was frustratingly short. The bibliography leans towards classics and British books. I would've appreciated an American edition of the bibliography, or a longer and more diverse bibilography. It's hard to find books about these subjects that don't go over my head. I don't see me understanding Stephen Hawking, you know?

Teens would really like this one. Did I mention it's short and light on the math? And now I'm hoping to live long enough to find out what happens when humans figure out teleportation. Also, besides Fermi's Paradox, why hasn't one of my descendants travelled back in time to meet me yet? You know, I'm trying not to take that personally.

Printz winner JELLICOE ROAD!

JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta just won the Printz Award! So I'm knocking it to the top of my "to be reviewed" pile for those of you who haven't read it yet and are wondering: is this award winning book a great read? (My critique partner YA Librarian Deena knows what I think already. I checked JELLICOE out of her library and went on and on to her about how she needs to read it herself before checking it back in!)

JELLICOE ROAD is a challenging read. Really. I had other Cybil panelists telling me they loved it to keep me going--otherwise, I would've given up by page 30. I'm so glad I kept going, and that's why I'm glad that word is getting out about JELLICOE. So other people don't give up and press on. By page 60 or so, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. It's not that this novel begins slowly. It's confusing as hell at first. Marchetta doesn't explain anything: she throws you in the middle of a story that moves back and forth between two different time periods. Complicating matters is the "boarding school in Australia" angle. Are there places like Jellicoe Road in Australia or was the setting pure fantasy? But I soon fell in love with the characters and they pulled me through my initial confusion. So many of the characters in this novel stuck with me: Jonah Griggs, Fitz, Raffaela, Chaz. I wish I could spend more time with them.

I called this book an older, darker HOLES because all the confusion in the beginning of the novel becomes clear at the end. Then I realized JELLICOE ROAD is a master work of plotting.

But one warning: the cover and blurb of the American edition do NOT match the contents. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a less accurate blurb in my life. Once I saw a P.G. Wodehouse jacket flap that said something like, "Oh, come on, we can't summarize a Wodehouse plot, do you expect us to try?" That's what JELLICOE ROAD needed. Something to make you pick it up and read it despite it not having a high-concept hook. Something like ... the Printz Award!! Yeah!

YA: CHILD OF DANDELIONS

CHILD OF DANDELIONS, by Shenaaz Nanji, is another Cybil book I'd love to recommend to people. It was on my personal short list for a long time. The setting is Idi Amin's Uganda. Amin has just announced that he is expelling ethnic Indian Ugandans from the country. People from India (and their children and grandchildren) tend to be the upper class, the remnants of British colonization. Native Africans feel exploited. But Sabine, the main character, is an ethnic Indian girl born in Uganda; it's her home.

The book starts with a radio announcement of the exact day Amin demands the Indians leave his country. The rest of the book is driven by this frantic countdown, growing in urgency as members of Sabine's family disappear. Sabine is a very sympathetic main character and I liked her a lot (although it was harder to get a grip on the secondary characters). The countdown was brilliant. Sabine's terror at the horrific violence she sees is written fantastically, with solid, detailed descriptions and then Sabine's well-measured emotional reaction. Even in her fear, Sabine has to struggle with evidence that her family is exploiting the poor to stay rich.

There were definitely violent scenes: something to consider before you hand this to a sensitive younger teen. I believe the main character is about 14 years old. I loved this book and definitely recommend it. However, is it a valid complaint to say that a book is too short? This story was almost too fast paced for me. I would've liked to have been immersed longer in this unique setting.

The Donald Westlake Reading Year

Donald Westlake passed away last month. He writes "grownup" novels, but he has been one of my favorite authors since I was a teen and one of my inspirations for my own writing. This year, I plan to read a Donald Westlake novel every month. My January novel is WHAT'S SO FUNNY, the most recently published of his novels. (I understand his publisher has his last manuscript and it will be published in April.)

I didn't mean to re-read WHAT'S SO FUNNY quite so soon, but it was on the remainders table at B&N for $5 for the hardcover, and I couldn't pass that up. And once I bought it, I had to re-read it. I had read it the first time as a library copy by putting it on reserve as soon as it came out over the summer. I read it in the sunshine and laughed and laughed. I think I enjoyed it more the second time around. This is one of the Dortmunder series, a long running collection of novels and short stories revolving around John Dortmunder, professional burglar. Dortmunder is extremely professional, skilled, smart, unlucky, and fatalistic about it. Balancing him out is his partner in crime, the ever chipper Andy Kelp, locksmith, car thief, and the "up" to Dortmunder's inevitable "down."

Dortmunder, Westlake writes with his usual skill at pinning his characters, "had a very bad tendency ... to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you've handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don't have to sweat it anymore, you've taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it."

In this caper, Dortmunder and his gang are strongarmed by a former, well-connected cop into stealing (or, I suppose, stealing back) a gold Russian chess set from an underground bank vault in Manhattan, thus triggering Dortmunder's despair. The former cop, Johnny Eppick for Hire, is one of the better foils for Dortmunder, strong willed and quite aware of Dortmunder's skills.

"Not a cop, Tiny," Dortmunder said. "Not for seventeen months."
"I think that transition takes a little longer," Tiny suggested. "Maybe three generations."

Chess is the perfect symbol for a Dortmunder plot. The players are complex, but their movements are as likely to be mistakes as brilliant ploys, and who can tell the difference? The best laid plans always go awry in a Dortmunder story, where skill won't ever rescue you from dumb luck.

Manhattan is practically a character in the book, and Dortmunder's constant amazement at how anyone could live anywhere else always makes me smile. ("His best move now" Dortmunder muses in despair "take the first train out for Chicago. That's supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city.") Dortmunder's New York consists of rooftops, back alleys, utility accesses and little-used parking garages. It's a Manhattan much denser than most people's, but in the days of Google and cell phones, it's one where people have stopped minding their own business like they used to. And that's deadly to Dortmunder's line of work. There are lots of poignant hints in this book as to what will happen to Dortmunder in his old age, after a life as an "independent contractor." But there's Kelp risking a prison sentence to make sure Dortmunder's OK, that he's managed to hang out a fire escape once more, so maybe there's hope after all. If you're new to the series, you won't get all the in jokes in WHAT'S SO FUNNY, and I plan to start the series again with NOBODY'S PERFECT myself. But WHAT'S SO FUNNY is definitely one of Westlake's better novels, and I know I'll be re-reading it many times in the future.

Book Reviews


Hi all:

I read almost 100 books as a panelist for the 2008 Cybil Awards, Young Adult Fiction category. Now I'm dying to share with the world which books I loved and why. I posted a poll on my group blog at www.author2author.blogspot.com to find out how to best share my reviews, and the winning entry was "post reviews to LiveJournal." Which was what I wanted to do anyway! I'll be posting my reviews here of not just the Cybil books, but other books I read, especially YA and MG novels. But I'm not afraid to mix it up. Let me know what you think.

I'm going to start by posting one of my four-out-of-five star choices from the Cybil nominations: THE PATRON SAINT OF BUTTERFLIES by Cecilia Galante.

This novel is written in present tense, first person, with two points of view. Chapters alternate between Honey chapters and Agnes chapters. Honey and Agnes are teen girls living on a strict religious commune. Honey's single mother escaped the commune and Honey lives with the caretaker. She is rebellious and looking to escape, but she doesn't know anyone on the outside. Agnes is a true believer who dreams of living up to the high ideals of her religious doctrine, but her grandmother is trying to get her out of the commune against her will. When Agnes' brother needs medical help from the outside, it touches off a chain of events that has the girls on the run from the law.

I was totally hooked on this novel by page 50. It starts with Agnes begging God to tell her what to do. The rules of the commune are laid out on page 12. I loved both main characters but Agnes especially. Her belief in her religion was not treated patronizingly, even when Honey needed to rebel against it. And the girls' flight from Agnes's parents was a tense adventure. This was not a ripped from the headlines plot. The book was more about how to do the right thing when all the adults in your life let you down. The end tied in so beautifully to the beginning, I have immense writer envy. I highly recommend this book.

This book would be appropriate for about 8th grade up. Some of the discipline scenes in the commune were a little disturbing as the leader disciplined with a mix of violence and humiliation. Kids younger than 14 might find the lack of support for kids in that situation upsetting, although I wouldn't call any scene gratuitous.

Fast Draft January coming soon!


Interested in Fast Draft January '09? Who's in? Maybe we can start a "support group" through LiveJournal or the BlueBoards.  (Were those quote marks necessary?)

Anyway, if you're interested in joining me and some of my www.author2author.blogspot.com partners-in-crime in our attempts to write a first draft of a new work in January, leave me a comment. The more people we get, the more inspiration we can borrow from each other.

Happy holidays!

Kate

Steampunk

Lately I've been totally taken with the concept of writing a steampunk story. Because historical fiction seems like such a challenge, and science fiction has that huge worldbuilding component ... why not combine them? Sure, that won't be difficult! 

I'm really digging the anthology Steampunk, though, and I picked up Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve from the library. So I have to admit that I'm doing the preliminary research already.

I also think my steampunk story will be from more than one POV, which I've never done before. But I'm not 100% sure about that. What I'm sure of: one of my main characters will have a mechanical arm. One will be an orphan (or at least abandoned). The story will take place in 1890's San Francisco. Perhaps there will be an anti-earthquake machine. I'm beginning to think there would HAVE to be an anti-earthquake machine.

2-page per day update: going well! The weekends are pretty hopeless, though. You'd think the days I didn't go to work would be the productive writing days, but apparently work infuses me with the drive to do something else with my life.

Teenage Deadlines

Last night I had an extremely important writing assignment. My neighbor is a senior in high school, and he rang my doorbell right before dinnertime and asked if I would write him a recommendation letter for a scholarship. This might seem late in the year for scholarships, but Neighbor X is applying to an HVAC electrician's program, so I guessed trade school scholarships are awarded later.  

Anyway, this sort of thing is right up Neighbor X's alley. All through his high school years, we watched him work on his father's house next door to us. He's helped my husband with countless home improvement projects. When we lost power lines in an ice storm, Neighbor X ran extension cords down the street to save our tropical fish from freezing to death. He's a helpful person like that, and well-liked by the whole neighborhood. I really wanted to write him the best recommendation letter ever, full of clever and telling details that would clinch him that scholarship.

"When is it due?" I asked him.
He says, "Tomorrow morning."

Oh, Neighbor X. Sigh.

When do we start thinking: what if the email doesn't go through? what if my computer breaks? what if I'm in a car accident and I simply can't get this done tonight? Maybe I should leave myself a day's grace period just in case.

I know I didn't start thinking like that until my kids were born, so I'll cut Neighbor X some slack. But boy was I relieved when I got an email confirmation from the scholarship committee that they received my letter.

Tagged

http://jmprince.livejournal.com/ tagged me and I slavishly follow all internetstructions.

What were you doing ten years ago?


Expecting the birth of my first child, completely clueless as to how my life would change. Having fun with this brand new craze called "the world wide web."

What are five things on your to-do list for today (not in any particular order):

1. Dry clothes so sick child has her most comfy stuff
2. Catch up on a couple emails
3. Two page per day madness continues: write my 2 pages
4. Make BLTs for dinner, yum
5. Collect $ for Cystic Fibrosis Walk this Saturday

What are some snacks you enjoy?

I'm a sucker for ice cream

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

I'd like to live like Thurston Howell III: on my own island, sipping hand distilled cocktails in a lounge chair while I listen to the radio and rousing myself occasionlly to play a golf-like game with bamboo and clamshells. Of course, that would make it hard to submit manuscripts to publishers.

What are three of your bad habits?

Picking my nails. Laughing when I speak when I'm nervous. Staying up late at night.

What are five places where you have lived?

1) Blue Point, NY (home of the oyster)
2) Oneonta, NY (home of cold cheese pizza)
3) Montauk, NY (home of people richer than everyone else, especially me)
4) Charlottesville, VA (home of Thomas Jefferson and DON'T forget it!)
5) Rochester, NY (home of the garbage plate)

What are five jobs you have had?

Burger King drive through goddess
Roadside flower stand bouquet girl
Hotel reservations clerk
Newspaper copy editor
Legal editor

You'll find out soon enough if I tag you, bwa ha ha ha ha.