Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Magic of Knowledge

Enchantress from the Stars
by Sylvia Engdahl
Newbery Honor 1971

Long out of print and re-released at the beginning of the millennium, Engdahl's Enchantress from the Stars tells the story of Elana, a young woman studying to serve as a field agent in some intergalactic anthropological service. While traveling with her father and fiance (both also field agents), the three are ordered to intervene in the current affairs of a primitive planet called Andrecia, and when another agent traveling with the crew is killed by one of the colonists attempting to claim Andrecia as their own, Elana is asked by her father to aid in their plan.

As the existing civilizations of both the medieval Andrecians and their more advanced conquerors might collapse if they knew more advanced civilizations existed, the field service agents cannot allow themselves to be discovered by either group. Thus, the idea to present Elana as an enchantress is born.

Engdahl does a brilliant job juggling the three narrative strains throughout the book, each one having a distinctive voice. My personal favourite is that of Georyn and his brothers, which, as Andrecians, is written in a fairy tale style with Elana as an enchantress, her various scientific gadgets as magic, and the colonists' construction equipment as a dragon. The colonists are depicted as stereotypical spacemen with rayguns, though Jarel lends a bit of humanity to them as he begins to question their reasoning behind the colonization of this particular planet. And, finally, Elana's narrative, which is the primary one of the novel, is written as a field report.

This is a fairly sophisticated novel, which is likely why it is now categorized as YA (having been published in the 70s, there was no real distinction between children's and YA fiction at the time). Not only does Engdahl's narrative accurately portray the same events as interpreted by three disparate cultures, but it also asks challenging questions of its readers, such as if it's appropriate to guide the events of a particular civilization or if it's worthwhile to pursue knowledge if it will render one an outsider. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.

Grade: A+

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Losing My Religion

by Pete Hautman
National Book Award for Young People's Literature 2004
Religion is a very difficult issue to discuss. Questioning religion, which is the main premise of Hautman's Godless, is even more difficult to present well, especially to a young audience. Through the agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist protagonist Jason, the author asks all the right questions pertaining to faith and religion, though none are answered by the novel's end. This is, perhaps, a wise decision, as it permits the audience to decide for themselves whether or not to believe in any given religion, thus enabling the author to present occasionally negative views on organized religion without leading the reader to accept them.

After Jason concocts the idea to create a religion centering around the town's water tower, he recruits his friends to join his newly founded faith. For the most part, the kids regard the whole enterprise as a goofy activity that keeps them from complete boredom. However, Jason's best friend, Shin, becomes totally engaged with the concept, even going so far as to write a holy book to accompany their new religion (the excerpts from which become the headers of each chapter, typically paralleling the events described therein). As a foil to Shin's religious fanaticism, we have the town bully Henry, who uses "Chutengodianism" as an excuse to vandalize public property and dictate the actions of his friends. I must say I was happy to see so many variations of religious experience within the novel, and the portrayal of Just Al, the leader of the Catholic youth group Jason is forced to attend, was spot-on in his blind faith.

I have to admit, though, I'm a bit puzzled as to why this particular work won the National Book Award. It was certainly engaging, and it posed all of the right questions, but it just didn't have much impact. Maybe Octavian Nothing spoiled me, but I was just expecting more from a novel that won such a prestigious award.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Secret Identities

by Perry Moore
Lambda Literary Award for Children's & YA 2008

Thom Creed is every parent's dream child. He's the star of the basketball team, a good student, and the winner of a volunteer award for his work at a local youth center. He also has two rather large secrets: he has super-powers and he is gay. Add to the equation the fact that his father is a disgraced former superhero (he caused numerous civilian casualties in a World Trade Center type attack, where the terrorists were replaced by a planet-destroying alien) and you have the formula for a by-the-books coming-of-age novel with a few twists here and there.

When I first heard of Hero earlier this year after a member of my book club nominated it to be read, I was intrigued by the premise. I have always liked superhero fare, having grown up on Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League, and I was sold on the gay perspective. However, once I borrowed a copy from my local library, I was quickly disappointed, as it simply did not live up to my expectations. To begin with, the writing was very uneven. I realize that this was Moore's first novel, and as such, it may not be as polished as other works that I have read recently, but I seriously have to wonder if he had an editor. I frequently noticed typos (the worst being when an exclamation point was incorrectly referred to as an explanation point), and there seemed to be some inconsistencies (at one point Thom encounters a group of villains he's never seen or heard of, but they are all referred to by name in the narration). To be perfectly honest, I considered putting this book aside after the first fifty or so pages, but I kept chugging along because of its award.

I am glad I kept reading, as the last third of the book is much tighter than the other two-thirds and the world destruction plot was interesting. This is not to say it was original, though, as I figured out most of what would happen long before it did, from the identity of Dark Hero to that of the assassin haunting the league. The characters were likable, but generic, and I found the bigotry against Thom to be a little unbelievable. Taunts from peers made sense, but graffiti on his house? The latter certainly never happened to my gay friends, and we lived in a pretty conservative town.

All in all, Hero is something to recommend to nerdy teens who might otherwise have no fictional GLBT role-model, and it's a decent effort for a first-time author.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Makes the Monster?

The Monstrumologist
by Rick Yancey
Michael L. Printz Honor Book 2010

Every October, my book club tries to read a spooky YA book. Last year's selection was The Graveyard Book, so I suppose with that in mind, I can understand why other members of our group were expecting harmless ghouls to be the focus of Yancey's new work. Of course, they were terribly wrong, as the book is extremely graphic and reads somewhere between a penny-dreadful and 18th century Gothic literature. To give an example, the book begins with a vivid description of how an anthropophagus (the featured monster of the book) has not only eaten the corpse of a virginal girl, but impregnated it, as well. Worse, the anthropophagus fetus is still alive, so our twelve year old protagonist, Will Henry, must watch as his master, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, aborts the abomination. This book is definitely not for the squeamish.

Will and the doctor spend the entirety of the novel trying to thwart other massacres at the claws of the anthropophagi, which we learn much later in the novel are in New England because of a failed experiment of Warthrop's father. Both Doctors Warthrop, as well as the characters of Dr. Starr and Jack Kearns, present various degrees of morality, and through them, one of the major themes of the work is explored: What makes a monster? Is a monster a creature of nightmare who feeds upon human flesh? Or can it be something more human? A man so dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge that he endangers innocents? Or a man who becomes his monstrous prey, no longer retaining any sense of compassion or empathy? Though Yancey never directs the reader's thoughts to any particular answer, the well-planned plot leads the reader to question the motives of all involved.

Presented as a journal compiled by Will later in life and given to the author, The Monstrumologist is written in a characteristically Victorian style, replete with verbose sentences spanning several lines of text and sundry literary allusions. For a reluctant reader, it may prove a bit challenging, but the subject matter and amount of gore should be enough to keep the attention of most. Being a fan of Victorian and Gothic literature, this book was a welcome change to much of the YA I have been reading recently, and I highly anticipate the next installment Curse of the Wendigo, which was released several weeks ago.

Grade: A+

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Battle Royale Revisited?

*A Note*
Starting with this entry, all books reviewed will be given a letter grade to make my opinion more clear. Older entries have been graded retroactively.

The Hunger Games Trilogy
by Suzanne Collins
Consisting of: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay

Thanks to a friend loaning me all three of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, I can finally join the rest of the YA-reading world in my frustration with the final book. I am, however, glad that I waited to read the series until it was released in its entirety, as I would not have been able to stand the wait between books. That said, I completed the entire trilogy within several days' time, thanks to a short trip back home for an interview.

For those of you living under a rock, Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a girl chosen to participate in an annual competition where youths aged twelve to eighteen must kill each other for survival. The games, we are told, are used to punish the twelve districts of Panem (a country replacing what remains of the US in the near-future) for an uprising that took place seventy-four years ago. So each year, two teens (a boy and a girl) are drawn at random from each district. People may volunteer to take the place of the randomly chosen, as Katniss volunteers to go, in order to save her twelve year old sister.

The remainder of the first book focuses on the events of the games themselves, and as Katniss is our narrator, we know only what she knows. At times, this can be frustrating, as she spends much of the first few days simply distancing herself from the other competitors. Eventually, she makes a few strategic alliances and wins the game. The two remaining books detail the new uprising in the districts and Katniss's integral role in the revolt against the capital.

As I've already complained, the choice to use Katniss as the narrator is problematic at times, especially in later books, as she is frequently kept in the dark about various plans until they are executed. What makes this choice worse is that Katniss is not a very likable character. She's cold, distant, and self-serving; ideal qualities for someone competing in the games, I suppose, but not for the protagonist of a trilogy.

The writing is rather brusque, which suits our narrator perfectly, but does not often provide adequate detail for my tastes. Some passages become especially muddled in the last book during battle scenes, and the death scenes of several major characters left much to be desired. One would think that after spending three books becoming attached to a character that they would be granted more than a few meager sentences! Additionally, the latter two-thirds of the last book are incredibly rushed; I would have liked a more even pace, though I understand that it may have been intentional, as one does not have time to collect thoughts on the battlefield.

I also really would have liked more information on the history of Panem. We are never told what led to the destruction of the US as we knew it. Why did the capital move to Denver (We are told it's a major city in the Rockies, which leads me to think of the Colorado capital)? Did the religious right finally attempt to secede from the union, ultimately destroying our nation? Or was it terrorism that brought about our demise? I am truly hoping that in the film adaptation, Collins gives us more information on the world she's created.

All in all, I can easily understand why the trilogy is so popular right now. It's a great read with some truly interesting ideas about revolution and society, even if those ideas could have been expanded upon. Go read it before the films are released.

Series Grade: A