Book Review: The Living

the livingTitle: The Living
Author: Matt de la Peña
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genres: Dystopian, Action/Adventure
Pages: 320
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he’ll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all.

But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy’s  only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.

The earthquake is only the first disaster. Suddenly it’s a fight to survive for those left living. — Cover image and summary via IndieBound

Review: On the surface, The Living appears to be a typical survival story with the possibility of a romance, but there are intriguing layers to this story that the reader can catch glimpses of along the way. Matt de la Peña is an excellent storyteller, but aside from the action and suspence, he is also tackling both race and class issues. Yes, there is an earthquake and shark infested waters, but those aren’t the only things Shy will need to navigate.

A summer job on a cruise ship sounds glamorous, but for Shy it’s like any other summer job. Shy is a Mexican American from a working class single parent home. He is trying to earn enough money to help out his mom and grandma and have a little left over for himself. He has fun with his co-workers and has fairly light  responsibilities. Occasionally he must deal with obnoxious wealthy people, but it’s not a hard job. Life gets complicated very quickly though. On his first cruise out, Shy witnesses something that inspires nightmares and brings a man in black to follow him around.

This mystery takes second place though when a huge earthquake and the subsequent chain reaction of disasters hit. Shy is in a fight for his life and for those around him. The man against nature portion of this book is excellent and Matt de la Peña really created a believable character in Shy. He is a good kid and tries to follow the disaster procedures for his job, but he is in over his head in more ways than one. I felt like I was right there witnessing the disaster first-hand through his eyes feeling all of his fear and frustration.

Beyond the fight with nature, there are dangers among the people around him too. It’s difficult to discuss without revealing too much, but this book deals with race, class, and ethics on a scale that I was not anticipating. Matt de la Peña discussed a little bit about this in his interview with NPR.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a fantastic read for entertainment purposes, but it also provides a lot to think about. I am very eager to see what de la Peña has in store for us in the sequel.

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Mini-review: Akata Witch

Title: Akata Wakatalskjsljdsitch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genres: fantasy, contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Viking Children’s
Review copy: the charming library
Availability: April 14, 2011

Summary: Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ve been meaning to read Akata Witch for a while now since the cover is pretty awesome and everything by Nnedi Okorafor is bound to be great. This contemporary fantasy set in Nigeria has pretty much all the things I love in fiction — magic, friendship, and good food. Sunny, Chichi, Orlu and Sasha have completely different personalities and lives, but that only serves to enhance the camraderie they have. The solid worldbuilding neatly fuses the magical with the ordinary and Sunny’s initiation into the world of free agents, juju, and Leopard Knocks is fascinating to read. I only wish I had read this book sooner. I am definitely looking forward to the sequel Breaking Kola.

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love a good contemporary fantasy.

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Book Review: Diverse Energies

diverse
Title: Diverse Energies
Edited By: Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction
Pages: 314
Publisher: Tu Books an imprint of Lee and Low
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves Now

Summary:  In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.

In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I was excited to get my hands on Diverse Energies. Dystopia is an area of young adult literature that has been flourishing over the past few years especially following the release of The Hunger Games, but there is still a need for more works featuring protagonists from diverse backgrounds. To spell it out more clearly, it would be great to see more young adult dystopias with protagonists that are something other than straight white teens. With Diverse Energies, the editors and contributors were hoping to help fill this need and create change in the landscape of young adult science fiction.

Before the stories begin, readers find a quote from John F. Kennedy: “The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.” This demonstrates the spirit of this book. There is a high value placed on diversity. The stories shared here reveal the strength and beauty of that diversity even in the midst of chaos.

Dystopian stories typically have a corrupt entity taking unfair advantage of the masses often after war or another apocalyptic event. Since that is a fairly standard storyline, I was wondering how unique these short stories could be. It turns out that the voices were distinct and each one has a different storyline with its own particular  flavor. There are stories of war, rebellious robots, child slavery, extreme economic disparity, time travel, among others.

Most of the stories manage to end with a bit of hope, but like many dystopians, they are all pretty bleak so they do tug on emotions. In the very first story by Ellen Oh, the pain took me by surprise. I didn’t expect so much intensity right away. These authors meant business. The very next story, Freshee’s Frogurt by Daniel H. Wilson, is told in a lighter tone though the subject matter is also intense. I appreciated hearing the stories told in radically different ways.

An anthology for me is like an appetizer sampler. The variety almost ensures that there will be something to appeal to everyone. Also, there isn’t such a large investment required of the reader when stories are so brief. I was happy to meet some new authors through this book and will be seeking out more of their works.

Recommendation: Dystopian fans buy it now and even if you aren’t a dystopian fan, I would recommend you read it soon. The worlds and characters are rich and it is amazing to see what the authors have imagined into being within just a few pages.

Extras: 
A Chat with Diverse Energies Authors
Joe Monti Discusses Diverse Energies and Book Covers
Excerpt from Diverse Energies

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Review: Sorrow’s Knot

Sorrow's Knot

Title: Sorrow’s Knot
Author: Erin Bow
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 342
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: At the very edge of the world live the Shadowed People. And with them live the dead.

There, in the village of Westmost, Otter is born to power. She is the proud daughter of Willow, the greatest binder of the dead in generations. It will be Otter’s job someday to tie the knots of the ward, the only thing that keeps the living safe.

Kestrel is in training to be a ranger – one of the brave women who venture into the forest to gather whatever the Shadowed People can’t live without. It will be Kestrel and her sister rangers who stand against whatever dark threat might slip through the ward’s defenses.

And Cricket wants to be a storyteller – already he shows the knack, the ear – and already he knows a few dangerous secrets.

But something is very wrong at the edge of the world.

Willow’s power seems to be turning inside out. The ward is in danger of falling. And lurking in the shadows, hungry, is a White Hand – the most dangerous of the dead, whose very touch means madness, and worse. —(Summary and image from author’s site)

Review: I fell in love with this book from the second page, which is such a rare experience for me that I actually had to reread the opening scene to make sure of my feelings.

The world of Sorrow’s Knot is a fascinating and ahistorical creation that borrows from Native American, Celtic, and Japanese folklore. Erin Bow did a lot of research in order to build this world, and the effort shows in everything from the food to the houses to the descriptions of the drums and drumming. Perhaps what I love most is that Bow trusts the readers to learn from context anything that’s unfamiliar instead of assuming they won’t get it.

That allows Bow to focus on the actual prose, which is spectacular. There were times I wanted to stop and read the book aloud, just so I could hear the rhythm of the words. Stories and storytelling are of major importance in the book, and Bow wrote a book that sounds like old fairytales, if that makes any sense. (You can read an excerpt here.) This is a book where you can really luxuriate in the world and the atmosphere the author creates for you. The descriptions of the scaffolds and the dead (particularly the White Hand) are all the right sorts of eerie, and I appreciated how wide and full of unknowns the world felt.

Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket are a fantastic power trio who are all competent, intelligent, and courageous. Their banter—and Kestrel and Cricket’s romance—was adorable, and I had no trouble believing that these were friends who would break taboos or go to the end of the world for one another. The depth of their trust, love, and respect for each other made the first half of the book compelling despite the comparatively slow build of the plot. Most of the other important characters felt like people in their own right and not just accessories to the main trio.

In other books, I would probably complain about the relative lack of explicit rules for the magic, but the magic meshes well with the world and the storytelling style. While the solution to the story was a bit too simple for my tastes, I was ultimately satisfied by the characters’ trials, journeys, and sacrifices that made that solution possible.

Recommendation: Buy it now. Sorrow’s Knot was easily one of my favorite books this year. (With Christmas around the corner, there are people on my shopping list who may very well end up owning this book.) The world is rich, the characters are believable, and the prose is moving and mesmerizing. I’m definitely looking forward to future works by Erin Bow.

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Review: Proxy

proxy

Title: Proxy
Author: Alex London
Genre: Action and Adventure, Dystopia
Pages: 379
Publisher: Philomel Books
Review Copy: ARC from publisher & final copy from library
Available: On shelves now
Cover image via Amazon

Review: Syd is an orphan and a proxy. He is the one to bear the physical punishment whenever Knox, his patron, breaks a rule. Unfortunately for Syd, Knox is not all that fond of following the rules.

In a nod to the middle grade novel The Whipping Boy and A Tale of Two Cities, Alex London pulls readers along on an exciting and dangerous ride in the future.

This future world is filled with greed, extreme poverty, and corruption. Knox and Syd are both used to the way their world works and have not been trying to change the system, but over the course of a few hours, they start re-evaluating their beliefs.

After Knox crashes a car and kills a girl, Syd is beaten and imprisoned. This sets in motion a chain of events that will radically change both of their lives. The pages of this book are packed with action and suspense and I did not want to put it down.

In addition to being a proxy, Syd also happens to be a gay person who describes himself as brown. These things are not the main point of the story though. This is not an issue book, but a dystopian novel that happens to have a gay main character who isn’t white. We need more stories like this.

All of this may seem very serious, but London does scatter a few doses of humor on the way. I appreciated those light moments.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you are a fan of dystopia and especially if you are a fan of The Whipping Boy with it’s humor and fast pace. If you would like to get a taste, preview the first three chapters below.

Extras:

First three chapters of Proxy

Cover reveal and first three chapters of the sequel Guardian due out May 19, 2014

Post on Diversity in YA: 4 Things I Learned (and 1 thing I didn’t) While Writing Proxy

 

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Works in Translation

I have to admit — I’m a lazy reader. I prefer books that make me laugh out loud over heavy dystopian books that make me think about the evolution of society. I want books with lots of snappy dialogue and easy-to-swallow plotlines. I wish all my books were light summer reads, even if it’s the dead of winter. It’s like how I constantly crave junk food.

Sometimes, though, I crave the kind of language you can only get through translated works.* Now, I’m not about to go back to reading translations of modernist Japanese lit (never again! okay, maybe someday). Fortunately, there’s a few translated Japanese YA lit and middle grade books out there. Here is my favorite one:

brave storyTitle: Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe

Young Wataru Mitani’s life is a mess. His father has abandoned him and his mother has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Desperately he searches for some way to change his life; a way to alter his fate. To achieve his goal, he must navigate the magical world of Vision, a land filled with creatures both fierce and friendly. And to complicate matters, he must outwit a merciless rival from the real world. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Brave Story is a long read, but worth every minute. It’s the sort of book that has such beautiful and detailed language that I just want to bask in the flow of words — you know, that kind of book. The intermingling of Wataru’s real life and fantasy world is gracefully done. Wataru’s adventure can be a bit puzzling at times, but if you just keep reading, it’ll all come together.

Note: Brave Story is written by Miyuki Miyabe, who is a Japanese author in Japan — not a POC written work from America, England, etc. But a change of pace is nice, isn’t it?

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