Apparently I’m reading much more than I’m blogging, because I’m going to cram three book reviews into one post.
Something I find very interesting/odd about young adult fiction: to outsiders (readers, bookstores, etc) they are all considered one genre. While people talk about YA Fantasy or YA Contemporary, if you go to the bookstore, the shelves are just marked “Teen”, and you’ll find everything there–from Stephenie Meyer to Neil Gaiman to Elie Weisel to J.D. Salinger.
The three books that I’ve read recently are all on the YA shelves, but they’re all extremely different, in tone, plot, structure. And they’re all fascinating.
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
No book has ever more strongly inspired to write fan fiction. If I were not already a writer, reading Leviathan would make me want to become one–I want to play in the world Westerfeld created.
While I was reading, I posted the following on Twitter:
“Started reading @ScottWesterfeld’s Leviathan on Saturday. Holy crap, this book was custom-built just for me. Amazingly awesome.”
The setting is essentially World War I steampunk. The Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Empire) have giant warmachine robots, while the Allies (Russian, France and Britain) have giant living creatures.
The details are fascinating: one of the main characters is a midshipman on a massive floating whale–kind of like a living zeppelin–but the whale is only a part of the “vehicle”. Bees help to maintain the whale’s food supply, scampering talking lizards relay messages like trained parrots, and bats are a weapon, swarming the enemy and dropping flechettes (in a rather undignified fashion). The airship is an entire ecosystem.
All of this imaginative wackiness is integrated into the real history of the War. One of the main characters is the son of Archduke Ferdinand, and the book, like the war, begins with the Archduke’s assassination.
For what it’s worth, the book reads more like middle-grade than YA; the focus is much more on the action and setting than on internal/character conflict. (There are also pictures, which I was surprised to find in a YA book. But the illustrations are gorgeous and fantastical, complementing Westerfeld’s descriptions beautifully.)
Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Here’s a success story for the marketing department: I picked this book up and bought it solely because of the cover and title (and because it was a cheap paperback). I’d never heard of it before seeing it in the store. I’m a sucker for apocalypse/post-apocalypse, so the title caught my eye, and the excerpt on the back clinched it:
It is a possibility only one of us is going to make it. We have fuel and we have water, but who knows how long our food will last….I don’t want to live two weeks longer or three or four if it means none of us survive.”
Earlier in the year, a massive asteroid hit the moon, bumping it significantly closer to earth. The change in gravity caused massive tides and floods, earthquakes and volcanos, and the aftermath of the devastation led to shortages and plagues.
The scope of the novel reminded me of Shyamalan’s movie “Signs”. Shyamalan’s intent was to take a common movie trope–an alien invasion–but tell it from the point of view of only one family. Pfeffer does the same thing with Life As We Knew It: we’ve all seen disaster movies before, but this one is from the point of view of Miranda, a 17-year-old girl who is riding out the disaster in her house with her family. We never see the president or the FEMA director or the army; in fact, we only hear snippets of the news here and there, and even that is unreliable. All we know is what Miranda knows, and she only knows what she needs to know: that they have to ration food, that the neighbors are dying, that the cat has gone missing and someone might have stolen it to eat it.
In many ways, this book is the opposite of Leviathan. That one was all grand action and adventure, whereas this one is personal and insular. In fact, the book is written as though you’re reading the main character’s diary; you’re only getting her most intimate thoughts and feelings.
Feathered, by Laura Kasischke
A few weeks ago I reviewed another of Laura Kasischke’s books, Boy Heaven, and I was conflicted. I definitely thought it was a powerful, amazing book, but I wasn’t sure I “liked” it. (I realize that’s not terribly clear.)
However, I recently got my hands on Feathered, Kasischke’s more recent release, (a gift from my awesome editor) and when I finally got around to reading it, I blew through it in one sitting. It was incredible.
Like Boy Heaven, the premise is nothing you’d get overly excited about: three high school seniors head to Cancun for Spring Break and things go horribly wrong. But the way that it’s handled is genius: while it’s panic-inducing and, at times, terrifying, it’d be wrong to just label it as a thriller because it’s so much more than that. It’s poetic and literary and beautiful.
The tension starts almost on the first page:
“Afterward, Terri will tell everyone back at school that, from the beginning, she knew something terrible was going to happen on spring break.
She’ll say she knew it already on the plane as we passed over that long black nothingness between the Midwest and Mexico. She’ll say she looked down and saw headlights creeping along some highway in Nebraska, or Oklahoma, and a had a cold, dead feeling.
Something bad was going to happen.
The three unaccompanied teenage girls then enter a situation already fraught with danger–in a foreign country, surrounded by drunks and strangers–and “tension” is not an adequate word to describe it. It’s paranoia, as everyone they meet can be the villian, and dread, as you know that not only that something bad might happen, but that something will happen.
And the ending… Go read the book so we can talk about it. Of these three YA novels, this is by far my favorite. And, while I was kind of stumped about Boy Heaven and not sure whether to recommend it, I wholeheartedly recommend Feathered. I loved it.