Friday, February 5, 2016

Young Adult Kidnapping Novels

Are you in the end of a young adult thriller? Check out this book list...

1) "Gemma" by Meg Tilly

A series of sexual crimes against a wayward girl are put under a microscope.

Twelve-year-old Gemma Sullivan seems like a familiar victim. Her father disappeared years ago, and her alcoholic mother is ill-equipped emotionally and financially to raise a child. Her mother’s boyfriend, Buddy, begins molesting Gemma when she is eight, more and more frequently and hideously as time passes. When Gemma is 12, Buddy begins pimping her out to his friends. Her first “client,” Hanzen, rapes Gemma and becomes obsessed with her. The bulk of the novel details the kidnapping and brutality perpetrated against Gemma at the hands of Hanzen. The graphic depictions of the brutality that Gemma must endure are enough to turn the stomach of the most hardened reader. In the early going, it’s an effort to keep flipping the pages and endure Gemma’s suffering. Tilly, an actress best known for her screen roles in Agnes of God and The Big Chill, successfully captures Gemma’s wounded voice. The story is told from the point of view of both Gemma and her captor, and Tilly is equally proficient at conjuring up a revolting and consummate villain. The account of Gemma’s happy rescue sucks some of the power from this work, as Gemma is adopted by a kindly policewoman with a troubled past. Tilly has talent, but it remains to be seen whether she will find an audience willing to take on this unsettling subject.

A haunting tale of abuse that may leave readers queasy.

2) "Reality Check" by Peter Abrahams

After his adored ex-girlfriend Clea disappears from her ritzy Vermont boarding school, Cody—a working-class boy who, after a devastating knee injury, went from high-school football star to high-school dropout—travels to Vermont to find her, and becomes embroiled in a dangerous mystery. Cody may be from the wrong side of the tracks and have limited scholastic ability, but he possesses love, loyalty and his own kind of dogged smarts. The setup feels unnecessarily protracted, but once Cody arrives in Vermont, the thriller/mystery angle kicks in and the material becomes much more absorbing. After a series of nicely plotted twists and subterfuges, Cody ends up working at the Dover Academy, where he meets Clea’s classmates, some of the school’s staff and various locals, who may or may not have had a role in her disappearance. The climax is unexpected and not enormously credible, but it doesn’t matter, because by that point readers will be frantically turning pages and fully invested in Abrahams’s message of true love conquering all obstacles.(Mystery. 12 & up)

3) "Locked Inside" by Nancy Werlin

From Werlin, a meaty tale of self-discovery, wrapped in encounters between two computer gamers and a dangerously unstable kidnapper. Poster child for passive-aggressive behavior, hyper-wealthy orphan Marnie has blown off her studies in favor of spending hours online as the sorceress Llewellyne, battling monsters and a sharp rival known as Elf in virtual Paliopolis. Closed-off and hostile since the death of her unwed mother, Skye (a gospel singer turned author of uplifting bestsellers), Marnie pays the price for her self-imposed isolation: Leah, a teacher from her exclusive private school, kidnaps her, imprisons her in a windowless cellar room, and tremulously informs her—at gunpoint—that they are secret half-sisters. Enter Elf, actually a shaved-head prep school senior named Frank, who dashes to the “rescue” just in time to bollix Marnie’s escape, becomes another hostage, then sticks around afterward to teach her about friendship. Although the kidnapping, for all its high-pitched drama, adds a measure of suspense, this is more about Marnie’s learning how to let her mother go, which she does, but not before Leah shoots herself, Frank exhibits some endearing vulnerability beneath a veneer of macho rebellion, and brutal revelations about Skye’s past emerge. Leaving much between the lines, Werlin concocts a thriller for thoughtful readers. (Fiction. 12-15)

4) "Captive" by A.J. Grainger

The 16-year-old daughter of the U.K.’s prime minister is kidnapped by terrorists.

Robyn Knollys-Green, daughter of the PM and descendant of old money, doesn't particularly enjoy being a politician's daughter. Just a few months ago she and her father were shot at in Paris, and Robyn's still terrified. Besides, her parents' marriage is suffering from her mother's hatred of the limelight. Robyn's worst fears seem to come true when radicals from Action for Change, a "radical anticapitalist and animal rights group," kidnap her. The AFC activists want to trade Robyn's freedom for the alleged Paris sniper, the brother of their vicious leader, Feather. Though her kidnappers are masked, Robyn can see their eyes—and from her first glimpse of the "bright green eyes" of the kidnapper code-named Talon, it's clear she's destined for a hefty dose of Stockholm syndrome. Sure enough, over the two weeks of her captivity, Robyn grows ever fonder of Talon. The kidnappers, meanwhile, behave inconsistently: they eat rather a lot of dairy for radical ecoterrorists furious about treatment of animals and the Earth; they are careful to keep their faces covered in front of Robyn but repeatedly reveal their real identities in conversation. Meanwhile, Robyn learns hard truths about her father's actions in office.

What better forbidden romance than with a man who chloroforms a girl and zip-ties her to a bed?(Thriller. 12-14)

5) "Now You See Her" by Jacquelyn Mitchard

An unreliable narrator is at the heart of this extended monologue from Oprah debutante Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, 1999). It opens in a deliberately confusing fashion, with teenage actress Hope Shay exiled to a therapeutic setting after purportedly being kidnapped. While Hope conveys some early career highlights in her journal, the story doesn’t get focused or really juicy until she goes away to a private dramatic-arts high school. At the aptly named Starwood Academy, the narcissistic thespian stars in a love affair of her own imagining, playing a freshman Juliet opposite a hot senior Romeo. While Mitchard drops clues that Hope is delusional (the object of her desire—Logan Rose—often looks askance at her), the facts aren’t explicated until the final chapter. In deus ex machina form, a therapist delivers the diagnosis—borderline personality disorder—and the reality of Hope’s existence. With plenty of kid speak and pop-culture references, this melodrama steeped (for better or worse) in our celebrity culture should fly off the shelves. (Fiction. YA)

6) "Accomplice" by Eireann Corrigan

In the tradition of YA suspense master Gail Giles, Corrigan creates a tense, bare-bones thriller that both provides a nerve-wracking ride and reveals its central characters' greed, selfishness and capacity for evil. When the story opens, city-born golden girl Chloe Caffrey has disappeared, putting the New Jersey farm town of Colt River and, soon, national TV audiences into a panic. Only narrator Finn, Chloe's best friend, knows the truth: Chloe's disappearance is a hoax. In 11 days, Finn will "discover" Chloe in the woods, and the two girls hope the fame they achieve will secure them places at the nation's most selective colleges. Though college admission seems less than compelling as a motive for such a destructive scheme, the tension is real and unrelenting. Chloe's calculating indifference is a perfect, chillling foil to Finn's mounting distress as both girls' families react, guidance counselors and fellow students pry and a shy boy from school is taken into police custody as a suspect. A dark page-turner with a satisfying resolution. (Suspense. 12 & up)

7) "Feathered" by Laura Kasischke

A spring break in Cancun goes horribly wrong. Anne and Michelle flee the teen binge scene and head into the jungle to explore Mayan ruins with a male stranger as their guide. Michelle’s worries evaporate as she walks the ancient, sacrificial grounds, entranced by images of the god Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent), eviscerated hearts and dying virgins. The following morning, Michelle is missing and Anne stumbles out of the jungle, bloody and alone. Kasischke spreads her poetic wings, using lyrical language and lucid imagery to create a transcendent novel. Readers will be enchanted by remarkable poetic conceits and narrative devices. Feathers, scales, blues and greens appear as talismans, signaling readers to look for meaning in the novel’s periphery. Bright flashes of horror, exaltation and folklore draw teens into the thick Mexican jungle, and into Anne and Michelle’s story. (Fiction. YA)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Today in History

Are you interested in history? Want to know what happened on a specific date throughout history? Check out what happened today...

786 Harun al-Rashid succeeds his older brother the Abbasid Caliph al-Hadi as Caliph of Baghdad.

1194 Richard I, King of England, is freed from captivity in Germany.

1508 The Proclamation of Trent is made.

1787 Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising of debt-ridden Massachusetts farmers against the new U.S. government, fails.

1795 France abolishes slavery in her territories and confers slaves to citizens.

1889 Harry Longabaugh is released from Sundance Prison in Wyoming, thereby acquiring the famous nickname, “the Sundance Kid.”

1899 After an exchange of gunfire, fighting breaks out between American troops and Filipinos near Manila, sparking the Philippine-American War

1906 The New York Police Department begins finger print identification.

1909 California law segregates Caucasian and Japanese schoolchildren.

1915 Germany decrees British waters as part of the war zone; all ships to be sunk without warning.

1923 French troops take the territories of Offenburg, Appenweier and Buhl in the Ruhr as a part of the agreement ending World War I.

1932 Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurates the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y.

1941 The United Service Organization (U.S.O.) is formed to cater to armed forces and defense industries.

1944 The Japanese attack the Indian Seventh Army in Burma.

1945 The Big Three, American, British and Soviet leaders, meet in Yalta to discuss the war aims.

1966 Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins televised hearings on the Vietnam War.

1974 Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, beginning one of the most bizarre cases in FBI history.

1980 Syria withdraws its peacekeeping force in Beirut.

1986 The U.S. Post Office issues a commemorative stamp featuring Sojourner Truth.
Born on February 4

1881 Fernand Leger, French painter.

1900 Jacques Prevert, French poet, screenwriter (The Visitors of the Evening, The Children of Paradise).

1902 Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic.

1906 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Protestant theologian.

1906 Clyde Tombaugh, astronomer, discovered Pluto.

1913 Rosa Lee Parks, civil rights activist.

1921 Betty Friedan, writer, feminist, founded the National Organization of Women in 1966.

1925 Russell Hoban, artist and writer (Bedtime for Frances, The Mouse and His Child).

1932 Robert Coover, novelist & short story writer.

1947 Dan Quayle, vice president under President George H.W. Bush.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Commonwealth Writers' Prize Book List

Need a book to enjoy? Check out this book list...

1) "The Harmony Silk Factory" by Tash Aw

A sultry first novel of betrayal, with an exotic setting (Malaya) and a WWII link. Could it be another English Patient? As a literary creation, no way; as raw material for a movie, maybe.

Who is Johnny Lim? Aw gives us three versions of the Chinese businessman, from three different narrators. To his son Jasper, he’s a monster, and not just because he’s a drug kingpin, the richest man in Malaya’s Kinta Valley. Item: Johnny murdered his first patron, Tiger Tan, to get his textile business. Item: Johnny replaced his father-in-law as the valley’s chief power-broker by injuring him in a fire he set himself. Item: In 1942, Johnny, a secret Communist commander, betrayed his fellow commanders, who were then massacred by the occupying Japanese. Curiously, we learn little about Johnny’s competence as a father, but we do know that Jasper’s mother, Snow, died giving birth to him. This young woman, a great beauty, is the second narrator. In 1941, she’s steeling herself to leave Johnny after only a year’s marriage; she finds him alien and unknowable, the qualities that originally attracted her. But Snow’s Johnny is no monster. The child of laborers, he’s in awe of the highborn Snow and barely touches her. The heart of her story is an ill-fated expedition the two make to the mysterious islands Seven Maidens. They’re accompanied by two Englishmen (one is Peter, an epicene aesthete and Johnny’s only friend) and a Japanese man, Mamoru, who will achieve his own notoriety as the Valley’s eventual administrator. Snow’s account is as evasive as Jasper’s was explicit. The third narrator is Peter. For him, Johnny is an innocent child, worried that he’ll lose Snow to Peter’s superior charms. Peter himself is far from innocent, a bitter, poisonous man who will indeed betray Johnny, though the friendship has been implausible from the get-go.

Atmospherics substitute for credible characterization in this Malaysian writer’s sluggish, awkward account of a man’s many selves.

2) "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith

An academic comedy of multicultural manners finds Smith recapturing the sparkle of White Teeth (2000).

Following her sophomore slump with The Autograph Man (2002), the British author returns to biting, frequently hilarious form with a novel that concerns two professors who are intellectual enemies but whose families become intertwined. Radical theorist Howard Belsey, a British art historian married to the African-American Kiki, detests the cultural conservatism of Monty Kipps, a Caribbean scholar based in England. Kipps apparently has the best of their rivalry, having raised his profile with a well-received book on Rembrandt that stands in stark contrast to Belsey’s attempts to complete a counter-argument manuscript. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Belsey’s son becomes engaged to Kipps’s irresistibly beautiful daughter, Kipps accepts an invitation to become guest lecturer at the Massachusetts college where Belsey is struggling for tenure and the wives of the two discover that they are soul mates. As Smith details the generation-spanning interactions of various minorities within a predominantly white, liberal community, she finds shades of meaning in shades of skin tone, probing the prickly issues of affirmative action, race relations and cultural imperialism while skewering the political correctness that masks emotional honesty. As the author acknowledges in an afterword, her story’s structure pays homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, recasting the epistolary beginning of that book as a series of e-mails, while incorporating all sorts of contemporary cultural allusions to hip-hop, academic theory and the political climate in the wake of 9/11. Though much of the plot concerns the hypocrisies and occasional buffoonery of the professors, along with the romantic entanglements and social crises of their offspring, the heart and soul of the novel is Kiki Belsey, who must decide whether to continue to nurture a husband who doesn’t deserve her. While some characters receive scant development, the personality that shines through the narrative most strongly is that of Smith.

In this sharp, engaging satire, beauty’s only skin-deep, but funny cuts to the bone.

3) "Vandal Love" by Deni Y. Bechard

Even better than his simultaneously published memoir (Cures for Hunger), Béchard’s haunting first novel follows three generations that can’t find a home in this world.

Native soil for the Hervé family is Gaspésie, Québec, but the lure of les States draws away many despite the contempt of flinty patriarch Hervé Hervé. Life is just too hard in a land where fish stocks are falling and farmland is returning to forest. Besides, it’s difficult to feel secure in a family where “children were born alternately brutes or runts,” and Hervé Hervé makes a habit of giving away the runts to neighbors. Soon only his grandchildren, giant Jude and tiny Isa-Marie, remain, and after she dies in 1961, Jude takes to the road and winds up boxing in Georgia. This launches an odyssey that spans 45 years and ranges across the North American continent, as Hervé Hervé’s descendants struggle to maintain connections with the people they love but generally end up taking to the road again. Their connection with the natural world is more sustained and sparks Béchard’s most beautiful prose, whether he’s describing a stream in a Virginia wood, a desert landscape in New Mexico or the windswept riverside communities of Québec. Magical realism is the facile way to describe a narrative style that abruptly drops its characters into professions and relationships. Yet the meticulous details and painfully recognizable feelings forestall the fey quality that often mars novels by gringo admirers of Latin American fiction. Béchard has a voice and a vision all his own, both tough-minded and passionately emotional: It feels just as right when a father goads his son to become a fugitive from the law as it does when another father begs his wander-minded daughter, “Wait…Just a little longer. Wait.”

Reportedly at work on a book about conservation in the Congolese rainforest, the author clearly has ambitions as big as his talent, but readers of this lyrical novel will hope he gets back to fiction soon.

4) "A Golden Age" by Tahmima Anam

This remarkably moving and assured debut, the first in a planned trilogy, tells the story of Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence through the eyes of a widow who will do anything to ensure her children’s survival.

The widow Rehana has remade her life more than once. With her once wealthy Muslim family, she was forced to leave Calcutta for Karachi during Partition; after an arranged marriage she moved to Dhaka with her husband; when her husband died, she temporarily lost her children to her wealthy brother-in-law back in Karachi, until she found the financial means—how and where is her shameful secret—to bring them back a year later. Ten years later, Rehana lives contentedly with her son Sohail and daughter Maya, both politically active students at the local university. Then civil war breaks out and her children sweep Rehana into political events. Sohail, who has always been a pacifist, joins the resistance fighters. Maya, whose best friend has been raped and murdered by the Pakistanis, becomes a resistance spokeswoman. Anam keeps Rehana grounded in a daily routine—there are evocative scenes of cooking, of sewing blankets out of saris, of going to market—that brings Bangladesh to life amid the chaos and carnage of the war. Soon Rehana is hiding not only supplies and armaments on her property, but also a wounded resistance officer. At first she resents him for his role in endangering her son’s life, but growing to love him, as years earlier she grew to love her husband, she confides the secret theft that gave her financial survival and her guilt at losing her children even temporarily. Ultimately, she must make a final horrendous sacrifice to keep them safe again. Rehana is a memorable literary achievement, exemplifying motherhood in all its complexity and intensity. That her relationships with her children are difficult, often prickly, only makes her maternal passion that much more believable and heartrending.

Panoramic in its sense of history, intensely personal in its sense of drama—a wonderfully sad yet joyous read.

5) "The End of the Alphabet" by C.S. Richardson

This lim debut novel distills the essence of life and love, once a British husband and wife learn that he has a month or less to live.

Imagine Erich Segal’s Love Story rewritten by Nicholson Baker and transplanted to England. The protagonists are sort of an Everycouple, with nothing very exceptional about themselves, their lives or their fate. An advertising man who is creative but not deeply reflective, Ambrose Zephyr learns as he approaches 50 that he has a fatal, incurable and unnamed disease. His wife, Zappora “Zipper” Ashkenazi, who writes about books for a semi-popular fashion magazine, complements him emotionally as well as alphabetically. The two have no children and apparently need nothing beyond each other and their routines to make their lives full. Ambrose’s diagnosis seems to hit Zipper harder than it does him. He knows that he must readjust, to deal with “days that until moments before had been assumed would stretch to years. With luck, to decades. Not shrink to weeks.” He immediately devises a plan for those dwindling days. Obsessed with the alphabet since childhood, he will use it to plan an itinerary, a letter per day: Amsterdam, Berlin, Chartres. Zipper agrees, anticipating Paris and Venice, yet driven to distraction or denial by her husband’s impending death. After the scene-setting, the novel threatens to become a little too rote, a little too alphabetically cute. Yet Richardson’s prose is precise and often poetic, devoid of sentimental treacle, and the narrative deepens thematically as the couple discovers that it is as hard to plan neatly for death as it is for life. A climactic twist casts new light on the preceding narrative, and some might be tempted to start the novel all over again upon finishing.

A novel that can be read in a single sitting of less than two hours might continue to resonate with readers for weeks, months, even years.

6) "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" by Mohammed Hanif

Journalist Hanif’s first novel is a darkly witty imagining of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious plane crash that killed Pakistan’s military ruler, General Zia, in August 1988.

The central figure is a young military officer named Ali Shigri whose much-decorated father was found hanging from a ceiling fan, an alleged suicide. Ali knows, however, that his father’s death was something more sinister, and he sets out first to identify the responsible party, Zia, and then—by way of a loopy plan involving swordsmanship and obscure pharmacology—to exact revenge. The book’s omniscient narrator gets into the heads of multiple characters, including that of the General himself; his ambitious second-in-command, General Akhtar; a smooth torturer named Major Kiyani; a communist street sweeper who for a time occupies a prison cell near Ali’s; a blind rape victim who has been imprisoned for fornication; and a wayward and sugar-drunk crow. Even Osama bin Laden has a cameo, at a Fourth of July bash. But plot summary misleads; the novel has less in common with the sober literature of fact than it does with Latin American magical realism (especially novels about mythic dictators such as Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch) and absurdist military comedy (like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). Hanif adopts a playful, exuberant voice that’s almost a parody of old-fashioned omniscience, as competing theories and assassination plots are ingeniously combined and overlaid. Uneasy rests the head that wears the General’s famous twirled mustache—everybody’s out to get him.

A sure-footed, inventive debut that deftly undercuts its moral rage with comedy and deepens its comedy with moral rage.

7) "Good to a Fault" by Marina Endicott

Suddenly a surrogate mother of three, spinsterish Clara discovers love and meaning in a Anne Tyler–esque domestic drama.

Although lacking sufficient bitterness to counteract its saintly sweetness, Endicott’s second novel (Open Arms, 2001) is narrated with such lambent detail and compassion that it succeeds in casting a spell. A car crash kick-starts the story, mashing together middle-aged, divorced insurance worker Clara Purdy and the Clampett-esque Gage family: parents Clayton and Lorraine, their three children and grumpy grandmother. No one is hurt, but a hospital checkup reveals Lorraine has advanced cancer, and when Clayton disappears, Clara is left holding the babies and the grandmother. For her, however, this is a wonderful opportunity to render her previously empty life worthwhile, caring for the homeless family while supporting Lorraine. Help is also on hand from Lorraine’s wandering brother, the larger community of neighbors, friends and relatives and the local priest Paul, whose shrewish wife has just left him. Clara, a remarkable fount of previously untapped generosity, begins to assume the children are hers. But a successful stem cell transfer restores Lorraine’s health, Clayton returns and the children are ripped from her care. Depressed and angry, she breaks off her relationship with Paul, but in a story devoted to ideas of loss and restoration, a happier conclusion can be expected.

A limpid, witty, humane talent to watch.

8) "I Do Not Come to You by Chance" by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Thwarted in his ambition to become an engineer, a young Nigerian is lured by his charismatic uncle into a lucrative empire of e-mail scams.

Kingsley is the eldest child of parents who worship learning and play by the rules. But his father’s failing health and resulting retirement have landed the family in genteel poverty, and when Kingsley emerges from the university he feels obliged to support them. Engineering jobs are scarce and elusive, alas, and first novelist Nwaubani ratchets up the pressure: Kingsley’s fiancée cuts him loose, and his father Paulinus suffers a stroke. In a harrowing scene, the family rushes from hospital to hospital, looking for one that will admit Paulinus, comatose and still internally bleeding, without cash payment up front; when, finally, they call upon a distant relative’s influence to secure help, they’re issued a list of items to buy that includes IV bags and syringes. Desperate, Kingsley calls upon rich Uncle Boniface, aka “Cash Daddy,” a successful and extravagant “419er” (after the section in Nigeria’s penal code that he runs roughshod over). He imagines he’s just getting a loan from his uncle, but before long the would-be engineer finds himself enmeshed in the work of finding “mugus” (suckers) from the developed world, luxuriating in the lavish perks that come from that work—and, of course, headed for a final reckoning. The prose is merely functional, the plotting a little schematic, but Cash Daddy is a charming scapegrace, and Kingsley’s moral dilemma has real interest. Nwaubani’s portrait of contemporary Nigeria and her account of the financial and ethical convolutions of the developing world compel the reader’s attention.

Not perfect, but an entertaining and promising debut from a Nigerian native.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Best Twists Book List

Need a book that will surprise you? Check out this book list...

1) "The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton

A four-year-old girl abandoned aboard a ship touches off a century-long inquiry into her ancestry, in Morton’s weighty, at times unwieldy, second novel (The House at Riverton, 2008).

In 1913, Hugh, portmaster of Maryborough, Australia, discovers a child alone on a vessel newly arrived from England. The little girl cannot recall her name and has no identification, only a white suitcase containing some clothes and a book of fairy tales by Eliza Makepeace. Hugh and his wife, childless after several miscarriages, name the girl Nell and raise her as their own. At 21, she is engaged to be married and has no idea she is not their biological daughter. When Hugh confesses the truth, Nell’s equilibrium is destroyed, but life and World War II intervene, and she doesn’t explore her true origins until 1975, when she journeys to London. There she learns of Eliza’s sickly cousin Rose, daughter of Lord Linus Mountrachet and his lowborn, tightly wound wife, Lady Adeline. Mountrachet’s beloved sister Georgiana disgraced the family by running off to London to live in squalor with a sailor, who then abruptly disappeared. Eliza was their daughter, reclaimed by Linus after Georgiana’s death and brought back to Blackhurst, the gloomy Mountrachet manor in Cornwall. Interviewing secretive locals at Blackhurst, now under renovation as a hotel, Nell traces her parentage to Rose and her husband, society portraitist Nathaniel Walker—except that their only daughter died at age four. Nell’s quest is interrupted at this point, but after her death in 2005, her granddaughter Cassandra takes it up. Intricate, intersecting narratives, heavy-handed fairy-tale symbolism and a giant red herring suggesting possible incest create a thicket of clues as impenetrable and treacherous as Eliza’s overgrown garden and the twisty maze on the Mountrachet estate.

Murky, but the puzzle is pleasing and the long-delayed “reveal” is a genuine surprise.

2) "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The histories of a mysterious book and its enigmatic author are painstakingly disentangled in this yeasty Dickensian romance: a first novel by a Spanish novelist now living in the US.

We meet its engaging narrator Daniel Sempere in 1945, when he’s an 11-year-old boy brought by his father, a Barcelona rare-book dealer, to a secret library known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Enthralled, Daniel “chooses” an obscure novel, The Shadow of the Wind, a complex quest tale whose author, Julian Carax, reputedly fled Spain at the outbreak of its Civil War, and later died in Paris. Carax and his book obsess Daniel for a decade, as he grows to manhood, falls in and out of fascination, if not love with three beguiling women, and comes ever closer to understanding who Carax was and how he was connected to the family of tyrannical Don Ricardo Aldaya—and why a sinister, “faceless” stranger who identifies himself as Carax’s fictional creation (“demonic”) “Lain Coubert” has seemingly “got out of the pages of a book so that he could burn it.” Daniel’s investigations are aided, and sometimes impeded, by a lively gallery of vividly evoked supporting characters. Prominent among them are secretive translator Nuria Monfort (who knows more about Carax’s Paris years than she initially reveals); Aldaya family maid Jacinta Coronada, consigned to a lunatic asylum to conceal what she knows; Daniel’s ebullient Sancho Panza Fermin Romero de Torres, a wily vagrant working as “bibliographic detective” in the Semperes’ bookstore; and vengeful police inspector Fumero, a Javert-like stalker whose refusal to believe Carax is dead precipitates the climax—at which Daniel realizes he’s much more than just a reader of Carax’s intricate, sorrowful story.

The Shadow of the Wind will keep you up nights—and it’ll be time well spent. Absolutely marvelous.

3) "The Westing Game" by Ellen Raskin

A supersharp mystery, more a puzzle than a novel, but endowed with a vivid and extensive cast. In the Christie tradition, Raskin isolates a divers group of strangers--the mysteriously hand-picked tenants of a new apartment building within sight of the old Westing mansion--and presents them with the information that one of them is the murderer. Actually, it turns out that there is no corpse, but no one is aware of that when they are all assembled for a reading of old Westing's fiendish will, which pairs them all off and allots each pair four one-word clues to the murderer's identity. As the winning pair is to inherit Westing's fortune, there is much secret conferring, private investigating, far-out scheming, and snitching and scrambling of the teasing, enigmatic clues. (For example, those of black judge Josie Jo Ford, which she takes for a racial insult, read SKIES AM SHINING BROTHER.) As a result of the pairings, alliances are made and suspended, and though there is no murderer there is a secret winner--the pigtailed youngest of the "heirs"--plus extravagant happy endings for all. As Westing had warned, all are not what they seem, and you the reader end up liking them better than you expected to. If Raskin's crazy ingenuity has threatened to run away with her on previous occasions, here the complicated game is always perfectly meshed with character and story. Confoundingly clever, and very funny.

4) "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen

Gruen (Riding Lesson, not reviewed) brings to life the world of a Depression-era traveling circus.

Jacob Jankowski, a retired veterinarian living out his days in an assisted-living facility, drifts in and out of his memories: Only days before graduating from vet school in 1931, young Jake learns his parents have died and left him penniless. Leaving school, he hops a train that happens to belong to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. When the circus’s owner, Uncle Al, learns Jake’s educational background, he quickly hires him as the circus vet. This position allows Jake access to the various strata of circus society, from lowly crewmembers who seldom see actual money in their pay envelopes to the performers and managers who drink champagne and dress in evening wear for dinner. Jake is soon in love, both with Marlena, an equestrienne married to the head animal trainer, August, and with Rosie, an elephant who understands only Polish (which Polish-American Jake conveniently speaks). At first, August and Marlena seem happily married, but Jake soon realizes that August’s charm can quickly turn to cruelty. He is charismatic but bipolar (subtle echoes of Sophie’s Choice). Worse, he beats Rosie, and comes across as having no love for animals. When August assumes Marlena and Jake are fooling around—having acknowledged their feelings, they have allowed themselves only a kiss—he beats Marlena, and she leaves him. Uncle Al tries blackmailing Jake to force him to reunite Marlena with August for the sake of the circus. Jake does not comply, and one fatality leads to another until the final blowup. The leisurely recreation of the circus’s daily routine is lovely and mesmerizing, even if readers have visited this world already in fiction and film, but the plot gradually bogs down in melodrama and disintegrates by its almost saccharine ending.

5) "Nineteen Minutes" by Jodi Picoult

Picoult’s 14th novel (after The Tenth Circle, 2006, etc.) of a school shooting begins with high-voltage excitement, then slows by the middle, never regaining its initial pace or appeal.

Peter Houghton, 17, has been the victim of bullying since his first day of kindergarten, made all the more difficult by two factors: In small-town Sterling, N.H., Peter is in high school with the kids who’ve tormented him all his life; and his all-American older brother eggs the bullies on. Peter retreats into a world of video games and computer programming, but he’s never able to attain the safety of invisibility. And then one day he walks into Sterling High with a knapsack full of guns, kills ten students and wounds many others. Peter is caught and thrown in jail, but with over a thousand witnesses and video tape of the day, it will be hard work for the defense to clear him. His attorney, Jordan McAfee, hits on the only approach that might save the unlikable kid—a variation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by bullying. Thrown into the story is Judge Alex Cormier, and her daughter Josie, who used to be best friends with Peter until the popular crowd forced the limits of her loyalty. Also found dead was her boyfriend Matt, but Josie claims she can’t remember anything from that day. Picoult mixes McAfee’s attempt to build a defense with the mending relationship of Alex and Josie, but what proves a more intriguing premise is the response of Peter’s parents to the tragedy. How do you keep loving your son when he becomes a mass murderer? Unfortunately, this question, and others, remain, as the novel relies on repetition (the countless flashbacks of Peter’s victimization) rather than fresh insight. Peter fits the profile, but is never fully fleshed out beyond stereotype. Usually so adept at shaping the big stories with nuance, Picoult here takes a tragically familiar event, pads it with plot, but leaves out the subtleties of character.

Though all the surface elements are in place, Picoult falters in her exploration of what turns a quiet kid into a murderer.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Body Image Book List

Do you feel self-conscious about your body? Need some help with your self-image issues? Feel like you are the only one? Check out this book list...

1) "Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?" by Marissa Walsh

A theme anthology is sometimes forgiven artistic paleness if it’s strong or striking in subject matter, but this underwhelming collection carries only a weak narrative thrust. Each chapter addresses, in some way, insecurity or oppression due to body type. Fiction and memoir alternate uneasily with each other, never quite meshing. Most chapters are fine individually, competently portraying body anxiety and dissatisfaction, but there’s no particular power to the sum total. While many chapters acknowledge the harsh cultural pressures that render positive body image a challenge for almost everyone, there’s no underlying or overarching condemnation of such pressures. Two stories shine as literature—Jaclyn Moriarty’s “The Day Before Waterlily Arrived” and Ellen Hopkins’s “Pretty, Hungry”—and Coe Booth’s “How to Tame a Wild Booty” is empowering. Overall, however, this volume is more likely simply to keep readers company in their insecurity than to help them conquer it. (Anthology. 11 & up)

2) "Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media" by Susan J. Douglas

The author of Inventing American Broadcasting (not reviewed) takes a long, hard look at the pop culture that fed women of the baby-boom generation with images that simultaneously acknowledged a blossoming feminist awareness and reinforced sex-role stereotypes. According to Douglas, conventional cultural history says that boys were portrayed as having a serious impact as political revolutionaries and alienated rebels in films like Blackboard Jungle, while girls merely represented ``the kitsch of the 1960s'': teased hair, Beatlemania, bare breasts at Woodstock, Gidget. But there is more to this story, argues Douglas (Media and American Studies/Hampshire College). Her reexamination of popular culture shows that female baby boomers grew up hearing that they were significant and equal from sources as diverse as JFK, who encouraged them to join the Peace Corps; Helen Gurley Brown, who made being single sound exciting; and the Shirelles, who in songs like ``Will You Love Me Tomorrow'' gave voice to the issue of teenage sex and suggested that girls had choices. But while all this was going on, young women were also urged to be ``as domestic as June Cleaver, as buxom and dumb as Elly May Clampett, and as removed from politics as Lily Munster.'' Example after example demonstrates how this type of ambivalent representation helped make women the ``cultural schizophrenics'' they are today, from those who endorse many equal-rights goals but wince at the label ``feminist'' to the apparently confident souls who would ``still rather have a root canal than appear in public in a bathing suit.'' Sharp reflections on everything from Bewitched (women's power was too frightening to portray realistically) to Phyllis Schlafly (who makes ``the Wicked Witch of the West look like Mary Poppins'') ring funny and true. A witty, insightful romp through the last four decades- -especially nostalgic and enlightening for readers raised on Charlie's Angels and the Mashed Potatoes.

3) "Thinner Than Thou" by Kit Reed

A nightmarish, tragicomic near-future where body image is the new religion, from the author of@Expectations (2000), etc.

When anorexic Annie Abercrombie vanishes from her home, twins Betz and Danny suspect the dreaded Dedicated Sisters (“Your body is a temple. If you can't keep it sacred, we will”). In Dave Berman's beat-up old Saturn, they set off to find her (Dave is Annie's girlfriend, but Betz wishes he were hers). Their journey’s a strange one, not least because Danny aspires to be a world-record-breaking eating champion: in one memorably ghastly scene, he chomps his way through three 50-ounce steaks. Back home, Marg comes to several realizations: husband Ralph’s interest in his family extends only to their usefulness as perfect accessories, she doesn’t want the facelift Ralph has insistently scheduled for her, and her decision to call the Deds for Annie was utterly wrong; so she joins the search for Annie and the missing twins. Annie, meanwhile, teams up with the obese but resourceful Kelly to try and escape the Deds’ relentless regime. In an era that has spawned Jumbo Jiggler clubs, where the obscenely obese perform lap-dances to audiences whose illicit thrills derive not from sex but from fat, the Reverend Earl (slogan: “Thinner than thou”) promises a slim, beautiful heaven, the Afterfat. But Jeremy Devlin finds the Reverend’s much-touted luxury spa, Sylvania, a prison camp wherein monstrous secrets are concealed. What, for instance, is the Reverend’s mysterious new program for the elderly, Solutions? What lies concealed beneath the Arizona desert? And what’s the connection between the Reverend and the Dedicated Sisters?

Unsettling, sometimes appalling: satire edging remorselessly toward reality.

4) "Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies" by Erin Dionne

Fat girl, entered into a plus-size beauty contest by her interfering aunt, decides to lose weight so that she’ll be too thin to compete in an event she considers to be more than mortifying. It’s a clever premise, and the most winning part of the book is the beauty pageant itself, which gives readers the opportunity to see the inside workings of the process. These scenes are far more engaging than the more familiar fat-girl-at-school material, which pits 13-year-old protagonist Celeste against a thin meany who is trying to steal her best friend. The beauty competition is presented as a multilevel affair that happens over a period of time, which gives Celeste the opportunity not only to shrink in size but to grow from passive and dull to resourceful and sympathetic. Although it’s slow to gain traction and a bit too explicit in terms of life lessons learned, readers will warm to Celeste as she becomes a competitor in the Miss HuskyPeach contest, to say nothing of life itself.(Fiction. 8-12)

5) "She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders" by Jennifer Finney Boylan

The limpid, soul-rich story of novelist James Boylan (Getting In, 1998, etc.) becoming Jennifer Boylan.

From early on, Boylan says, the idea “that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind—never.” In the beautifully guileless way he has of describing his feelings, he recounts wearing women’s clothes—“I’d stand around thinking, this is stupid, why am I doing this, and then I’d think, because I can’t not.” Because he has mercifully inherited the buoyant optimism of his mother, an optimism that will serve him well over the years to come, he is able to recount, with comic aplomb, such tidbits as, “Earlier in the evening I’d sat on a chair in that room wearing a bra and reading Lord of the Rings.” He was 16. He figured if he had sex, then his sense of himself might change, or if he fell in love, maybe then. Well, he does fall in love, with the remarkable Grace, and they have children, and he gets tenure and high marks from his students at Colby, and develops a close friendship with novelist Richard Russo, also teaching at Colby. And he still wants to be a woman. In writing as sheer as stockings, artful without artifice, he explains the process of becoming Jennifer: both the physiological, which has a comfortable tactility, and the emotional repercussions among his nearest and dearest. These aren’t so easy—his wife’s saying, “I want what I had”; his children thinking of him, in the midst of hormonal makeover, as “boygirl”; Russo telling him that Jennifer “seems mannered, studied, implausible.” Yet they all manage the sticky web of circumstance—this mysterious condition—in their own fashion, and that makes them lovable. There’s a particularly poignant moment, when they’re attending a wedding and Grace turns to Jennifer, asking if she wants to dance.

Serious, real, funny. Told so disarmingly that it’s strong enough to defang a taboo.

6) "Jemima J" by Jane Green

An overweight woman turns from ugly duckling to swan in British novelist Green’s American debut: a tale that offers plenty of engaging plot twists but not much substance.

Jemima spends many secret hours pouring over fashion magazines, whose cheeky, “how to improve your [fill in the blank]” tone the novel echoes. It’s a depressing activity, since Jemima—a good hundred pounds over the limit for contemporary beauty—looks nothing like the supermodels who cavort through those glossy pages. Her job writing the household hints column for a London newspaper bums her out too, as does the fact that gorgeous Ben, the man of her dreams, adores her as a friend but nothing more. When Jemima gets on the Internet for the first time, she realizes that in cyberspace a little extra fat doesn't matter if it isn't mentioned. So she begins an online flirtation with Brad from L.A., who sends a picture and turns out to be a real hunk. Thanks to a computer-enhanced photo of herself (thinner all over), Brad wants Jemima to fly to California for a rendezvous. So she loses weight, dyes her hair blond, and dons the wardrobe of a sophisticated ‘somebody.’ Now known as J.J., Jemima gets to California and is so shocked that a man like Brad would be interested in her that she wills herself to fall in love. But something is wrong: sweet Ben never leaves her mind. Sure, Brad is good-looking, but what else? Has Jemima met Mr. Perfect? Or should she hold out for Ben—that is, if she ever sees him again? (Readers should not spend a lot of time worrying about this last question.)

Slightly unpredictable story development saves this from exactly duplicating the vast mound of similar feel-good modern fairy tales for women, but it lives in the same neighborhood.

7) "Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat" by Hillel Schwartz

An old-fashioned anecdotal compendium about fatness over 150 years of American history. Nothing in this book is slim: even the notes run to over 100 pages. The impressive amount of historical research--the author is a Yale PhD in history--focuses on specific anecdotes about how Americans feel and felt about what they weigh. Schwartz's prose is appropriately orotund, and these pages are as stuffed with adjectives as a cocktail olive with pimiento. Schwartz's keen sense of humor keeps all this stuff about weight from being weighty. Although the subject is dietetics, some lurid tales here seem to stray from the point. P.T. Barnum's hunt for ""fat boys and human skeletons,"" while interesting in itself, does not have much application to everyday American life at the time. Moreover, Schwartz might have explored more thoroughly the role of Europe as the source of Fads and fashions regarding diet, rather than isolating American ideals and paranoias about weight to such an extent. Because it includes much peripheral material, this book can be read as a kind of general-store catalogue of diverting, often weird anecdotes about almost anything having to do with the shape of American bodies from 1830 to the present. As entertainment it succeeds beyond dispute, although as serious history it reveals a want of discrimination between what is truly significant and what is merely colorful copy. The main message of this jovial parade of stories is that ""fat is fine"" and the world errs in despising fat people. The author speaks with passionate eloquence on his subject, like a pudgy John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. His arguments are so convincing, in fact that the reader has the urge to reply, ""In that case, pass the ice cream over here!

8) "Huge" by Sasha Paley

A clichéd, moralistic tale of lessons learned at fat camp. Two girls spar and then bond as summer roommates. Perky April has “saved all year… all of [her] birthday money. Christmas. Everything” to pay for Wellness Canyon because she wants to be thin and popular. (How birthday and Christmas gifts could possibly total “seven grand” for a girl with a single mother on disability is distractingly inexplicable.) Wil, in contrast, has rich parents who own a sleek gym chain; her fatness is their shame, so they force her to go. Both April and Wil lose weight over the summer, while they obnoxiously insult each other, become friends, kiss the same boy, plot revenge on him, fight more and make up. Paley unequivocally touts weight loss and repeatedly uses words like “waddled” about her fat characters. She also displays ignorance of physiology, equating fitness unquestionably with thinness. Appalling and simplistic. (Fiction. 11-13)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Prometheus Award Book List

Do you enjoy award winning books? Check out this book list...

1) "The Stars Are Also Fire" by Poul Anderson

Several generations after Dagney Beynac and other humans settle on the moon, social, political, and economic strife is on the rise between the Lunarians, genetically altered descendants of these first human settlers, and the rest of the human race. A struggle for Lunarian independence is thwarted by the cybercosm, a sort of cosmic Big Brother of linked artificial intelligence that likes the status quo. The key to gaining independence, one Lunarian leader believes, is to be found in the uncovering of an astronomical find kept shielded for centuries by the cybercosm and the descendants of Beynac, a discovery dating from the earliest days of lunar colonization. Two intrepid humans, Aleka Kame and Ian Kenmuir, agree to take on the challenge of exposing the secret, and their adventures take them to earth cultures transformed by political and technological upheaval, and the passage of time. Meanwhile, the reader is taken back in time, to the first century of lunar colonization, to the creation of the Lunarian race, and the discovery in space that drives this other quest, centuries later. Anderson (Harvest of Stars, 1993, etc.) demonstrates once again his powerful storytelling talents, and betrays once again his tendency to hang far too much political, sociological, and technological baggage on the shining thread of the tale.

Book Two of Four

2) "A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge

A distant prequel to Vinge’s 1992 masterpiece, A Fire Upon the Deep, with a single character in common. Some 8,000 years hence, the Qeng Ho interstellar trading fleet investigates the enigmatic OnOff—a star that shines for 35 years, then extinguishes for 250; once understood, its weird physics may yield an improved star drive. Meantime, its single planet harbors intelligent aliens, the Spiders, divided into warring factions, but thought to be descendants of an advanced starfaring civilization. During the Dark, they survive frozen solid in pools of ice. Also arriving at OnOff are the acquisitive, ambitious Emergents. Cooperating at first, the Emergents later mount a treacherous sneak attack, defeating the traders and enslaving the survivors. The Emergents’ overwhelming advantage is Focus, the result of a brain-infecting virus that can be induced to secrete mind-controlling chemicals. Those Focused are instilled with unswerving loyalty. The Emergents are led by a smiling deceiver, Tomas Nau, his sadistic assistant, Ritser Brughel, and personnel genius Anne Reynolt, once Nau’s greatest adversary, now enslaved and Focused. The Qeng Ho resistance is thin, consisting of legendary genius and onetime leader Pham Nuwen, whose failed dream of a Qeng Ho galactic empire forced him into exile; young trader Ezh Vinh; and, secretly, Ezh’s love, linguist Trixia Bonsol, now Focused and translating the Spiders’ language. Both the Emergent and Qeng Ho fleets lost interstellar capability during the battle, so the humans must wait until the Spiders develop technology advanced enough to help them. As the OnOff star reignites, the Spiders emerge from their “deepnesses” and, galvanized by genius Sherkaner Underhill, burst into a frenzy of technological development. Nau plans to trick the Spiders into destroying themselves in a nuclear war. Pham, meanwhile, schemes to defeat Nau but sees in Focus the key to realizing his old dreams of empire. Huge, intricate, and ingenious, with superbly realized aliens: a chilling, spellbinding dramatization of the horrors of slavery and mind control.

3) "Night Watch" by Terry Pratchett

Another Discworld yarn—#28 if you're counting (The Last Hero, 2001, etc.). Commander Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork's City Watch has it made: he's a duke, rich, respected, and his wife Sybil is about to give birth. But then Vimes is called away to deal with a notorious and ruthless murderer, Carcer, now trapped on the roof of the university library. Amid a furious storm, lightning and magic hurl Sam and Carcer 20 years back in time. Sam's younger self is a rookie Night Watch cop. History, and Sam's memory, tells that Sam learned his street smarts from a skillful, straight-arrow cop named John Keel. But Carcer's arrived in the past, too—and he's murdered Keel. In the same fight (coincidentally?), Sam received an injury he remembers Keelhaving. Must he somehow impersonate Keel, and teach young Sam how to survive? What will the History Monks—the holy men who ensure that what's supposed to happen, happens—do? Adding further complications, Sam knows that the current ruler of the city, Lord Winder, is both mad and utterly corrupt: revolution's a-brewing, with riots, street barricades, cavalry charges, and thousands dead. And the horrid Unmentionables, Winder's secret torturers and jailers, must be curbed—especially when Carcer turns up in charge of them.

Not a side-splitter this time, though broadly amusing and bubbling with wit and wisdom: both an excellent story and a tribute to beat cops everywhere, doing their hair-raising jobs with quiet courage and determination.

Book 28 of 35

4) "The System of the World" by Neal Stephenson

The Baroque Cycle crosses the finish line: somewhat winded but still spry.

One thing that becomes obvious on reading this third and final volume in Stephenson’s genre-defying historical reinvention (Quicksilver, 2003; The Confusion, p. 107) is that the author was right to say the work wasn’t a trilogy, but just one long (nearly 3,000-page) novel. Another thing is that it’s a hell of a way to finish things off. We’re in the early 1700s now, and the characters are a bit older (Quicksilver started in the 1640s) but no less active, physically or mentally. The loquacious Daniel Waterhouse is still serving England as a member of the Royal Society, and the bulk of this last installment follows his attempts to stop a plot threatening the lives of his fellow scientists with a nefarious invention: the time bomb. As prolix as Waterhouse and his comrade-in-long-windedness, Isaac Newton, can be in their scientific discourses, it’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling stew of conspiracy that’s London, with Tories and Whigs battling for position and civil war threatened over the possible ascension of the Hanoverian Princess Caroline to the throne. While the back-and-forth can be dizzying, Stephenson’s droll humor (he even tosses in an anachronistic Monty Python joke) and knack for thrilling set-pieces—the meticulously plotted escape of a Scottish rebel from the Tower of London is a tour de force of its own—act as guiding lights through the political murk. On the periphery, the onetime slave and now Duchess Eliza uses her own considerable diplomatic skills to advance her shadowy goals, and after far too long a delay comes the return of the fabled Jack Shaftoe, the Indiana Jones of the series. Stephenson knows that the inimitable Shaftoe is ultimately the star and provides him with a crowd-pleasing exit as heart-poundingly exciting as it is surprisingly emotional.

Learned, violent, sarcastic, and profound: a glorious finish to one of the most ambitious epics of recent years.

Book Three of Three

5) "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross

Far-future mind control, from British author Stross (Accelerando, 2005, etc.).

By the 27th century, death need not be permanent: People routinely make backup copies of themselves; disease and old age can simply be edited out. Human civilization, scattered across the galaxy in diverse habitats connected via wormhole gates, is slowly recovering from a prolonged and brutal war against an insidious memory-deleting, mind-controlling cyberworm called Curious Yellow. Narrator Robin, a citizen of the Invisible Republic, emerges from a memory edit, guessing he wanted to remove painful memories of the conflict. He meets, and soon falls in love with, Kay—and realizes that somebody’s trying to kill him—because of what he was? Or something his former self knew? His robot psychiatrist advises him to join a closed experimental community where he can safely recuperate. So, after his next routine backup, Robin wakes in the Glasshouse—in a female body. Robin, now Reeve, is part of a sociological experiment aimed at recapitulating a long-lost environment: Earth during the 1950s. Glasshouse residents, however, are expected to conform, and there are heavy penalties for deviants. Reeve agrees to marry big, unhappy, skeptical Sam, and tries to assimilate. But things are not what they seem. The Glasshouse is run by two notorious Curious Yellow collaborators, Major-Doctor Fiore and Bishop Yourdon. Meanwhile, Robin’s memories begin to surface. He was a member of the combat Linebarger Cats and later became an agent—sent into the Glasshouse, memories suppressed to evade the censors, to find out what’s really going on.

A perfectly tuned combination of gravitas and glee (the literary/cultural references are a blast). Stross’s enthralling blend of action, extrapolation and analysis delivers surprise after surprise.

6) "Homeland" by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow strikes a successful balance between agenda and story in his newest near-future, pre-dystopian thriller.

Marcus Yallow is at a loss; he’s dropped out of college because of finances and struggles to find employment in a terrible recession. Through a lucky encounter and thanks to his reputation as a technological guru and activist—a reputation left over from Little Brother (2008)—Marcus lands a job as webmaster for an independent politician campaigning as a reformer. Even as Marcus works to effect change through legitimate channels, he grapples with an ethical quandary. Frenemy Masha has given him some confidential information as insurance to release should anything happen to her—which it does. He’s tasked with sorting through the massive potential leak, making sense of the secrets revealed, and coming up with a method of release that is credible, will attract notice and won’t be linked back to him. After all, the secrets contained reveal large-scale privacy breaches and government corruption that involves military contractors like the intimidating figures following Marcus around. Such nerd-favorite icons as 3-D printers, Wil Wheaton and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic serve as in-jokes, but the concise explanations of real-world technology and fast pace make it accessible to less technologically savvy readers.

Outstanding for its target audience, and even those outside Doctorow’s traditional reach may find themselves moved by its call to action. (afterwords, bibliography) (Science fiction. 13 & up)

7) "Influx" by Daniel Suarez

In his latest, Suarez (Kill Decision, 2012, etc.) follows the adventures of eccentric genius Jon Grady, who has run afoul of the Federal Bureau of Technology Control.

The BTC is a Cold War relic, an agency spawned by the supersecret government nether world. Cold fusion, artificial intelligence, quantum computing with holographic presence, an immortal strand of DNA and countless other advances are quarantined—but employed—by the BTC, which theoretically is "assessing their social, political, environmental, and economic impacts with the goal of preserving social order." That means Jon Grady, a self-taught researcher without think-tank or university backing, draws BTC’s notice when he employs exotic particle states to create a gravity mirror. Grady’s kidnapped by the BTC, but he refuses to cooperate and employ his knowledge of manipulating gravity for their shadowy purposes. Grady’s relegated to Hibernity, BTC’s prison, and BTC co-opts his technology. The book is premise-driven, with characters running to type. The wizard nerd, Grady, has avuncular advocates like Dr. Bertrand Alcot, supportive retired professor, and Archibald Chattopadhyay, nuclear physicist and a fellow Hibenity prisoner, as guides. Hedrick, BTC chief, is self-important, an authoritarian under a benign shell. Morrison, BTU security, former military special ops, employs his squabbling clones as staff. Alexa, with altered DNA that "give[s] her longevity, intelligence, and perfect form," is BTC’s biotech wonder. A self-appointed prophet, Cotton, head of the Winnowers, wants to halt technology’s progress. With BTC under scrutiny of a new U.S. director of intelligence and Hedrick coping with breakaway BTC elements gone rouge in Russia and Asia, Grady escapes Hibernity and sets out to bring BTC down. The story is atomic-weighted with science terminology from college-level texts, but the narrative is easily understandable. There’s a thread left unraveled and a plot hole related to a character’s scientific and technological capabilities, but the narrative rockets along right up to a good-versus-evil battle that would be better resolved on the IMAX screen than the page.

Fun tech-fiction wrapped in black helicopter conspiracy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Young Adult Science Fiction Book List

Are you interested in science fiction? Do you like young adult books? Want a marriage of the two? Check out this book list...

1) "Icons" by Margaret Stohl

Humanity’s only hope against an alien occupation is a quartet of teens with emotion-based superpowers.

When the aliens landed on Earth, they cowed humanity into submission with the mass murder of several cities via an electromagnetic field generated by the alien Icons. Dol somehow survived and, under the care of the compassionate Padre, has developed a deep friendship with fellow vaguely superpowered teenager Ro. They hide from the Embassy that “oversees” Earth–alien relations by shipping humans off to work as slaves on mysterious, never-defined projects. On Dol’s 17th birthday, the Padre gives her a mysterious book explaining who and what the Icon Children are. Inexplicably, she decides not to read it; this is part of a pattern of clunky information-withholding that sits awkwardly and frustratingly alongside exposition. Embassy soldiers capture Dol, and after an encounter with a more-than-he-seems mercenary, they bring Dol and Ro to the Embassy where they endlessly bicker with fellow Icon Children Lucas (the Ambassador’s son) and silver-haired Tima. With all that squabbling, readers will feel like they are reading the same scene over and over again without the payoff of plot progression. Dol’s torn between best friend Ro and mysterious new Lucas, yielding a clichéd romantic storyline. Top-secret documents filed between chapters make the invasion and mystery of the Icon Children more interesting than Dol’s narration does.

Those without superhuman patience should pass. (Science fiction. 12 & up)

2) "The Rules" by Stacey Kade

A likable science-fiction romance features strong co-protagonists who know where they come from, but not who they are.

Born in a GenTex lab with human and extraterrestrial DNA, Ariane gives new meaning to “test tube baby.” A lab employee, now her adoptive dad, rescued her from a nightmarish, lab-rat existence, thwarting Dr. Jacobs’ plans to mold her into a designer weapon (her abilities include mind reading and telekinesis). Following strict rules and hiding in plain sight, Ariane’s evaded capture for a decade, but GTX is closer than she realizes. Popular, athletic and good-looking Zane coaxes her into revealing herself, while hiding from her the wounds inflicted by his mother’s abandonment and police-chief father’s contempt. Reluctantly drafted by Dr. Jacobs’ granddaughter, Rachel, the plot’s evil catalyst, into her scheme to humiliate Ariane, Zane instead is intrigued and attracted. Ariane’s long-blocked powers come roaring back when Rachel pushes her buttons. Struggling to unite the disparate strands of her identity, Ariane’s an appealing original who (in a welcome departure from YA orthodoxy) does not have beauty-queen looks of which she’s modestly unaware. She and Zane know precisely where she stands in the appearance hierarchy. Cartoonishly evil, Dr. Jacobs and Rachel are less persuasive.

The traditional cliffhanger ending leaves readers hungry for the next course. (Science fiction. 12 & up)

3) "Spark" by Amy Kathleen Ryan

The sequel to Glow (2011) delivers a page-turning plot while delving deeper into questions of leadership, trauma and violence.

The girls of the Empyrean have returned to their ship after being kidnapped by the New Horizon. Waverly Marshall has endured and committed terrible acts aboard the New Horizon. She is tormented by both her own memories and a faction of younger girls who cannot forgive her for failing to rescue their parents. Kieran, who became the ship's de facto leader when the adults were taken out of the picture, delivers sermons designed to promote both unity and loyalty among his followers but is deeply anxious about his own power. Meanwhile, Seth, the former leader and third leg of a love triangle with Waverly and Kieran, escapes the brig under mysterious circumstances and discovers a major threat to the ship. As Waverly, Kieran, Seth and the large but generally well-constructed cast of supporting characters work—often at cross-purposes—to keep the peace, secure the ship and rescue their parents from the New Horizon, meaty political and moral questions arise. Is torture ever justified? What about imprisonment and surveillance? How does one stay human after doing something monstrous?

Readers hungry for the next installment will have plenty to ponder in the meantime. (Science fiction. 14 & up)

Book Two of Three

4) "A Confusion of Princes" by Garth Nix

Exuberant and insightful, this science-fiction bildungsroman grapples with the essential question: "Who am I?"

After 16 years of intensive training and superhuman augmentation, Khemri is ready to take his place as Prince of the mighty intergalactic Empire. Alas, he immediately finds out that his status isn't quite as exalted as he had always thought. To start with, there are tens of millions of Princes, and most of them are out to kill him. Khem must negotiate a deadly maze of military training, priestly recruitment and even Imperial interest, never knowing whom he can trust. He can rely only on himself—and all the mechanical, biological and psionic enhancements that far-future science can provide, until the day even that is stripped from him….From the riveting opening sentence to the final elegiac ruminations, this is rip-roaring space opera in the classic mold. Add a perfect protagonist: Overprivileged, arrogant and not nearly as clever as he thinks, Khemri's first-person narration is also endearingly witty, rueful and infinitely likable. Perhaps his account relies a bit too much on "had I but known" foreshadowing, and the secondary characters are thinly sketched accessories to the hero's personal journey. But the rocket-powered pace and epic worldbuilding (with just the right amount of gee-whiz technobabble) provide an ideal vehicle for what is, at heart, a sweet paean to what it means to be human.

Space battles! Political intrigue! Engineered warriors! Techno-wizardry! Assassins! Pirates! Rebels! Duels! Secrets, lies, sex and True Love! What more can anybody ask for? (Science fiction. 14 & up)

5) "Crewel" by Gennifer Albin

Too many slubs in the fabric of this dystopian romance land it in the "irregular" bin.

In Arras, men control everything except reality, which is continually woven and re-woven by Spinsters, all women. They labor at the behest of the patriarchal Guild to maintain a post-apocalyptic utopia. Despite being rigorously coached by her parents to fail her aptitude test, 16-year-old Adelice shows her incredible talent at weaving and is wrested violently from her home to labor in the Coventry for the rest of her life. There, she draws the attention of two handsome young men with electric-blue (or cobalt blue, or sometimes just bright blue) eyes, the oily and evil power-hungry ambassador of the Guild, various catty Spinsters and the Creweler, the most powerful Spinster of them all, who extracts the material that forms the reality of Arras from the ruined Earth. Adelice narrates in the genre's now–de rigueur present tense, whipsawing readers through her guilt, grief, fear, revulsion and lust as she learns the power structures of the Coventry and plots to escape. A genuinely cool premise is undermined by inconsistent worldbuilding, fuzzy physics, pedestrian language, characters who never move beyond stereotype and subplots that go nowhere (including a well-meaning but awkwardly grafted-in gay rights thread). These last may reemerge in the sequel that will follow one of the slowest cliffhangers in recent memory.

It's clear that Adelice cares deeply about her fate; it's debatable whether readers will. (Dystopian romance. 12-16)

6) "Article 5" by Kristen Simmons

In an unimpressive dystopian romance, a girl flees a repressive institution with the soldier she once loved.

After a war whose details never quite emerge, the U.S. government authorized the Federal Bureau of Reformation, better known as the Moral Militia, to arrest any citizen in violation of the stringent “Moral Statutes.” Ember's mom is arrested for violating Article 5—having conceived a child out of wedlock—and Ember is sent to a girls' rehab where rule-breakers are punished with violence and those who try to escape are shot. Ember does escape, however, with the help of Chase Jennings, a friend who joined the Moral Militia years earlier, and most of the book chronicles the pair's tense and treacherous journey in search of Ember's mother and safety. That the two have feelings for each other is immediately clear, but drawn-out misunderstandings and a tedious unwillingness to communicate keep the two travelers at odds. Despite the book's implicit critique of sexism (“[women]'s subservience” is mandated by the Articles), Chase is portrayed as knowledgeable, street-smart and in charge, while Ember is loose-tongued and impulsive, frequently requiring Chase's assistance to get out of a scrape.

There are a few engaging action scenes here and there, but overall, it's a disappointment for romantics, feminists and dystopia fans alike. (Dystopian romance. 12 & up)

7) "Unremembered" by Jessica Brody

What should a 16-year-old girl with no memories trust: her own instincts or the cryptic words of a boy who insists she knows him?

Our heroine washes ashore when the book opens, apparently the sole survivor of a plane crash. Dubbed Violet by a nurse after her (yes, violet) eye color, she becomes a national news story and is quietly sent to a foster family in northern California when no one steps forward to identify her. The only person she meets who claims to know her is a boy who appears mysteriously when she's alone and warns her that she's in danger. Short, dramatic, present-tense sentences move the action forward, and the book's central questions (who is Violet? who is following her? when will she start believing the boy who is clearly the romantic lead?) provide plenty of suspense. Although the mysterious boy is more of an archetype than a character in his own right, Violet's 13-year-old foster brother Cody is pleasingly funny, suspicious and competent. There are intriguing sci-fi elements at play, but analytical readers will notice holes in the workings of genetics and the logistics of time travel.

Fast-paced and sure to satisfy romance-oriented readers, if not skeptics. (Science fiction. 12-18)

Book One of Three

8) "Blood Red Road" by Moira Young

Born on Midwinter Day, Saba and her twin brother Lugh are opposites—she’s dark, scrawny and cantankerous, while he exudes calm with his golden beauty—but that doesn't stop her from rising to the occasion when he needs her.

Weeks before their 18th birthday, four rough horsemen ride into their isolated, desert homestead, killing their star-reading Pa and taking Lugh captive. Saba embarks on a treacherous journey to save Lugh, with her pet crow, Nero, and her 9-year-old sister, Emmi, in tow. Saba and Emmi are kidnapped by slavers, who sell Saba to the Cage Master of the Colosseum, where she becomes known as the Angel of Death. Overseeing this macabre world is a king who keeps people in check with a narcotic, convincing them to renew his life by sacrificing a boy born on Midwinter Day. Saba learns about Lugh’s fate from Jack, a fellow prisoner. With the help of Nero and a group of freedom fighters, Jack and Saba escape and rush to Lugh’s rescue. This debut is a mashup ofSpartacus, the court of Louis XIV and post-apocalyptic dystopia. Saba’s naive, uneducated voice narrates this well-paced heroic quest in dialect, an effective device for this tale that combines a love story, monsters and sibling rivalry.

Readers looking for a strong female protagonist will find much to look forward to in this new series. (Science fiction. 12 & up)

Book One of Three