Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale

I'm generally not a huge fan of graphic novels. I have nothing against them; I just haven't searched them out for myself. But when I saw my old librarians reviewed this one, comparing it to a graphic novel I read back in high school on their recommendation, I knew I needed to check it out, and I definitely wasn't disappointed!

Despite a life of luxury where she could have whatever she wanted, Rapunzel has always felt something wasn't quite right about her life in her mother's, Goethel, villa. Her mother places few restrictions on Rapunzel; the two notable ones are to forget about the strange dreams she has that leave her feeling sad, and to never cross the great wall that surrounds her villa.

Well, anyone who's ever read a fairy tale knows how that restriction will turn out.

Sure enough, Rapunzel dares to climb to the top of the wall, and discovers a vast mining operation and desolate wasteland surrounding the lushness of the villa. The mine is worked by slaves - among them Rapunzel's real mother (anyone who knows the original Rapunzel story knows how Rapunzel ended up being raised by a witch rather than her loving mother).

When Goethel finds out, she punishes Rapunzel by placing her in the infamous tower. Except instead of the traditional tower of bricks and stone, this one is made from a tree that has been magicked into growing incredibly tall with a hallowed out room far above the ground. The magic doesn't just make the tree grow, however - Rapunzel's nails grow so fast she has to file them down every day, and after four years of imprisonment Rapunzel's hair has grown long enough to braid into ropes and use as a lasso so she can swing to freedom.

But Rapunzel isn't content to live out in the forest. She's determined to get back to the villa and save her mother, and teach Goethel a lesson. In her quest to return, she pairs up with Jack, a boy who's had some trouble with giants and carries a lucky bean and a goose that refuses to lay any eggs with him, and together they journey across the perilous western landscape. They have to avoid Goethel's henchmen, and perform heroic feats for the local people - many of whom have been decimated by Goethel's taxes and her magical ability to make the land infertile.

I absolutely loved the witty dialog throughout the book. Rapunzel is sharp and witty, and has a keen knack for using her braids to get herself and Jack out of trouble. As Jack often says when the locals are thanking him and Rapunzel for saving them, it was really Rapunzel being the hero.

Apparently a sequel is in the works - I can't wait for it!

Review: The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

I think I have a slight addiction to end-of-the-world books. This is another book where the government uses an environmental disaster to impose a dystopian regime upon an unsuspecting populace.

In this particular variation on the theme, the melting of the polar ice caps has led to the world being flooded, leaving only tiny numbered islands to house the human race. Eighteen years ago, Earth Mother (whose description reminds me of a female Mr. Rogers, but with a twisted environmental/dictatorial bent. I think it's the constant references to her kindly eyes and sweater that does it) somehow came to power, and decided to Enclose the polar caps, stabilizing the environment there to better match the environment on the rest of the planet, which seems to be a constant spring. There will be no more snow, no more changing leaves, and polar bears are already extinct (sadface!).

Honor was born in the eighth year of enclosure, and now at age ten she has moved with her parents from the wilds of the Northern Islands (where the Enclosure is happening) to Island 365. Right from the beginning Honor doesn't quite fit in with the other kids. Thanks to her unconventional early childhood, she hardly knows enough to get into the elite Old Colony School and often has trouble keeping up in class. Her mother doesn't work (though, allegedly, not from lack of trying to get an engineering job), her father takes Honor on illegal (or at least discouraged) trips to the ocean to actually touch the water, and, perhaps most obviously, Honor's very name doesn't fit in. Everyone born in the eighth year of enclosure must have a name that starts with H, and while Honor was on the approved list of names, it certainly doesn't fit in with a class filled with Harriets and Helenas.

As Honor adjusts to life on Island 365, her parents start to act stranger. They violate curfew and when Honor's mother becomes pregnant with a second child, she refuses to give him back to the community where he could be raised by a childless couple. After Quintillian, Honor's new little brother, is old enough to go to school (he is the only brother - a terrible insult - in the school, apparently), Honor's mother can return to work, but the only job she can get is in the gift wrapping department of the Central Store, working alongside the anonymous Orderlies who silently perform all of the menial labor required to keep Island 365 running.

After the parents of her friend Helix Disappear - the phenomenon where people seem to literally vanish from their houses or work, or even from the store on Errand Day, Honor knows something is wrong with her parents. They were friends with Helix's parents, and would often break curfew together. Honor begins to rebel, slowly at first, until finally she tells the school administration that she wants to change her name to something more appropriate.

Within days of changing her name, Honor's and Quintillian's parents Disappear. When the school finds out, Honor and Quintillian are forced to live at the school with the Orphans, other children whose parents have Disappeared and now work at the school doing janitorial work in return for shelter and leftover food at night.

Honor is shaken. She knows its her fault her parents were taken (no matter what the pamphlets the school nurse gives her say), and with the help of her fellow Orphan, Helix, she's determined to rescue them from whatever terrible fate they have been sentenced to.

After the end-of-the-world bender I've been on recently, there wasn't very much about this book that was surprising for me. One thing I did enjoy is that the traditional roles were reversed: so often in YA lit, it's the parents who are conformists and the child who is rebelling against an oppressive way of life. Here, Honor is the one who is determined to fit in and be a perfect citizen while her parents are struggling against conformity in every way possible.

Also on the awesome side: little clues left in the book for the observant reader to pick up on and realize how far the government's totalitarian control extends. For example, at one point Honor mentions that she's reading the book The Wizard of Oz - where Dorothy falls asleep and dreams about the land of Oz. At first I was pissed, because as anyone who knows anything about the Oz books knows, that was the ending created for the film. In the books, Dorothy really does travel to Oz. But eventually it's revealed that the book has been censored, because of course Dorothy travels to Oz via tornado, a weather phenomenon that Earth Mother has sought to eliminate. Additionally, the protagonist is not the Dorothy Gale we know and love, but Dorothy Dale, since Earth Mother doesn't want anyone to know about gale-force winds. So Allegra Goodman gets major props for that one from me.

On the other hand, there is a lot that is unanswered in this story. Perhaps part of it is because it's from the point of view of a 10-12 year old. How did Earth Mother come to power? Why on earth does she go by such a silly name? (I can't help but picture her - in addition to being an evil female Mr. Rogers - as the robot Mother from Futurama) How are the Orderlies created? Why are Honor's parents pretty terrible at trying to genuinely reach her and teach her about rebellion?

And that might be my biggest problem with the book (minor spoilers after the jump concerning Honor's parents)

When Honor's parents do something she says is Not Allowed or Unacceptable (the book has a big thing for capitalizing words to make them official), they never explain to her why they are acting the way they are. They tell Honor that the things she's learning in school or this dystopian version of girl scouts are propaganda, but there's never any explanation of what exactly the propaganda is, what it means, or what the truth it.

And perhaps worst of all, after Honor is reunited with her parents and displays a great amount of bravery and ingenuity, they refuse to take her on their next adventure to make a real attempt at overthrowing the government. Okay, granted, a coup isn't necessarily the best place for a child, but they send her back to her terrible school with no explanation other than someone needs to take care of her little brother. Maybe this stems at least partially from my own distaste at the idea of being forced to care for a sibling (I have an autistic brother who will probably require lifetime care to some extent or another, but my parents have always told me they don't expect me to become his caretaker, though they hope I'll have him over for holidays and such), but it seems incredibly callous to send their daughter back into what is essentially an abusive situation without any explanation. Especially since the abuse could easily escalate because Honor was already developing a reputation as a problem child as an Orphan, and brazenly ran away from school in the middle of a typhoon.

Review: Nation by Terry Pratchett

I have a confession to make:

Nation is the first Terry Pratchett book I've ever read.

I don't know why; I've just never felt like picking up any of Pratchett's other works.

And unfortunately, I can't say that Nation is a book that is going to change my mind.

There's nothing inherently bad about this book: it's excellently written, the world is developed wonderfully and it's funny and touching and thought provoking - really everything you could ask from a book, right?

Except for one thing: I found absolutely nothing compelling about the story. It was interesting enough, but I really didn't care whether or not I ever reached the end.

This is the story of Mau and Daphne. At the story's outset, Mau is a boy on a quest to become a man. He sails by himself away from the island of the Nation to spend a night on the Boy's Island. As is the tradition of the Nation, when a boy completes his time on the Boy's Island, he returns to the Nation as a man.

Except while Mau is on the Boy's Island, a terrible wave hits the Nation, destroying everything - and everyone - Mau has ever known.

But brought along with the destruction is a ship that had been sailing across the Great Pelagic ocean, carrying Ermintrude, 138th in line for the English throne (as her grandmother always reminds her, should 137 other people die, Ermintrude would be queen!).

Ermintrude doesn't much care for the idea of being in line for the throne - she doesn't have it in her to wish for 137 other people to die. She considers herself something of a scholar: she has attended lectures at the Royal Society with her father who has encouraged her curious mind as they debate who is a greater scientist, Darwin or Newton. Ermintrude's grandmother thinks this is scandalous, of course, but when Ermintrude's father is named governor of an island in the Great Pelagic ocean, he decrees that his daughter will join him, and that is the end of that!

But it is during this voyage that the great wave that destroyed the Nation also sweeps Ermintrude's ship onto the island, leaving her the only survivor of the wreck. When she meets Mau, she realizes she has a chance to start over, in a way. She tries to Maintain Standards, wearing her proper clothes and inviting Mau to the wreckage of the ship for tea, but she also takes the opportunity to remake herself, by introducing herself to Mau as Daphne (it's a much more suitable name for adventuring than Ermintrude).

Despite the initial language and cultural barriers, Mau and Daphne work together to rebuild the Nation as refugees from other nearby islands come to what remains of the Nation. Among them are women who take Daphne under their wing and teach her how to make beer (a demon drink in Daphne's former life, but she makes the best beer on the island which, the women assure her, will lead to her getting a fine husband!), and a priest who serves as Mau's foil, as the destruction of his home has shaken Mau's previous belief in the gods.

The whole story touches on more themes than can be contained in a single summary. Gender, faith, science, imperialism, identity and family are all integral to the story and are woven in seamlessly. I probably most enjoyed the anti-imperialist sentiment, and Daphne's discovery of the Grandmothers. The Grandfathers - Mau's ancestors - spend most of the book haranguing Mau for not maintaining the old ways in the face of disaster. They yell in Mau's head and generally make him feel miserable for a long time. But as Daphne begins to understand Mau and his culture, slowly and quietly the Grandmothers - for, after all, every grandfather first had a mother and a grandmother who comforted him, fed him and taught him - begin speaking to Daphne, sharing their feminine wisdom with her.

And yet, despite all of these great, interesting tidbits...overall the whole book fell flat for me, which is unfortunate. I wanted to like this book, because I've heard so many good things about Pratchett. Considering I've read reviews on Goodreads from Pratchett fans that say this is among Pratchett's finest books, I probably won't be running out to pick up his other books any time soon.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers

I actually read two other books before I got to this one (Nation by Terry Pratchett and The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman), but I tore through Debbie Harry Sings in French today and needed to talk about it!

Johnny isn't really a bad kid. After his father dies in a car accident and his mom falls apart, Johnny takes over paying the bills, clipping coupons and going grocery shopping to make sure he and his mom can survive. To him, it shouldn't matter that he dresses all in black, wears eyeliner and black nail polish, and dyes his long hair black, so long as he's the good kid taking care of his mom. And with all of that going on at home, can you really blame him for using alcohol as a way to soften the harsh edges of his world and help him get to sleep?

After a near-fatal mix of alcohol and drugs, however, Johnny's mom has woken up to her son's behavior and has had enough. She ships him off to rehab, where he kicks the alcohol habit, and then ships him off to his uncle Sam, claiming she wants to get him away from the bad influence of his druggie friends.

Naturally, Johnny isn't happy about this turn of events, but his uncle and his kid cousin aren't so bad - his uncle actually talks to him like an adult and is willing to trust Johnny so long as Johnny shows he can be trusted. He even tells Johnny's mom that he's out studying one evening when in reality Johnny is at a concert at a local club.

To avoid thinking about alcohol, or how his mother has essentially abandoned him, Johnny devotes himself to music. During his goth days he was a fan of goth and industrial music and even, perhaps shamefully, Marilyn Manson. But his tastes take a dramatic change upon the discover of Debbie Harry. She's beautiful, sexy and tough - everything that Johnny wishes he could be.

With the help of a supportive school counselor, and the coolest (and hottest) girl in the school with her own troubled past, Johnny explores what it means to be the "bad" kid sent away from home, with an unrequited love for New Wave music and stiletto heels.

This was an extremely fast read - I started it on the subway ride to work, read a little bit before work, then again on lunch, and finished it on the ride home. All in all, about an hour and a half to devour the whole thing, and I certainly didn't want to put it down. While there are lots of books out there about kids with drinking problems, dealing with parental displeasure over their appearance, absent/dead parents and even, increasingly, LGBT kids, this one had the fresh spin of dealing frankly with cross-dressing, proving emphatically that liking to wear the clothes of the opposite sex does not prove ones sexual orientation.

From glancing at the reviews over on Goodreads, it seems that a lot of people think that there are a few too many problems in the novel that take away from the "focus" of transvestism - there are even some suggestions that this would have been more powerful if the story hadn't been about "bad" kids. To this I say, the problems are necessary. Perhaps the alcohol issue was overcome too easily, and Johnny adapts to cross-dressing pretty easily, but I can also easily rationalize the potential problems and thoroughly enjoy the book.

In all honesty, neither Johnny nor Maria are bad kids. Bad things have happened to them, they've made poor choices, but both are determined to make good now. They help and support each other in the face of adversity and are open to new experiences. They don't always have the soundest judgment, but who does in high school?

My final verdict: this book is an excellent addition to LGBT young adult literature. While Johnny is not L, G, B or T (to his knowledge, at least), he certainly faces homophobic attacks because people think he might be one of those letters, or at least think repeatedly calling him a "fag" is the wittiest insult ever. It's a charming story about love, music, and an unconventional way of finding yourself.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: Exodus by Julie Bertagna

I think it says something about me that I am continually drawn to books about dystopian future societies. Sure, I hope that our future is all sunshine and roses - after all, I don't want to be a Handmaiden like in The Handmaid's Tale or have brain lesions implanted during radical plastic surgery like in Uglies - but when it comes to books, I'll take the end of the world/government is evil scenario over almost any other.

Exodus takes place in the year 2100, after global warming has melted the polar ice caps and apparently drowned all of the land on Earth. As far as Mara Bell is concerned, all that is left of the world is her tiny island, Wing, which is rapidly being swallowed up by the still-rising waters. In order to escape the monotony of being trapped inside her small house during the storm season (a season which seems to get longer every year), Mara uses a piece of antique technology - a cyberwizz - to explore the ruins of a virtual-reality-type internet called the weave. It's while exploring these ruins one day that she makes a startling discovery: the citizens of Wing aren't the only people left alive on earth. After years of exploring weave in solitude, Mara stumbles across another entity, a person who has taken the cyber-form of a fox. He tells Mara he lives in the New World, a city called New Mungo that has been built on stilts high enough to rise above the waters and sturdy enough to support a civilization through the thrashing storms brought on by global warming.

When Mara tells her family and the rest of the community about her discovery, they are hesitant at first, but quickly realize they have no other choice but to try to reach New Mungo. The alternative is drowning with their tiny island.

A traumatic journey across the ocean leads to more trauma: a refugee camp made of boats, an uncountable number of people who are desperate for shelter within the safety of New Mungo, but aren't allowed in - not unless you are chosen during the Picking, a fate which no one is sure is a good or a bad thing.

Mara, wracked by guilt for having led her community into the horror of the refugee camp, makes a desperate attempt to gain entry into the city. She falls short of her goal, but is rescued by a "sea urchin," an orphaned boy who lives a wild life among the support pillars of New Mungo and on small islands that haven't succumbed to the rising ocean. Also living on the islands is a small civilization of Treenesters, people who live in what are possibly the last trees on earth, and believe they will be rescued from the islands when the Face in the Stone appears and can fulfill a prophecy. The Face in the Stone, it turns out, bears an uncanny resemblance to Mara.

Mara's adventure continues as she tries to devise a way to save not only the people of Wing from the boat refugee camp, but the treenesters as well. And when he treenester friend Gorbals, as well as the sea urchin who saved her, are taken by the New Mungo police in a Picking, Mara's quest leads her into the heart of danger: New Mungo itself.

Overall I found this to be a fun book, though there were some small problems with it. There wasn't always a lot of plot development leading up to a major event, so sometimes it felt like catastrophe upon catastrophe was befalling Mara with little reason. Also the beliefs of the treenesters seemed a little forced: the oldest of their clan is a woman who was a scientist before New Mungo was built; why would she suddenly start believing in some prophecy that was apparently made up of whole cloth? Legends and religions generally don't just spring up over night, but that's apparently what happened with the prophecy of the Face in the Stone.

At the end of it all, Exodus covers a lot of ground, but still leaves lots of questions unanswered. I just checked Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, and it says a sequel was published in 2007. Considering Exodus was originally published in 2002 and it just made it to America this year, who knows when we'll get the rest of the story.

The high point of the novel for me had to be when Mara was exploring an abandoned university that hadn't quite been submerged yet. The greatest legends, artists, thinkers and inventors throughout history were written about and depicted on the walls of the university - and there were hardly any women among them. When a woman appeared she was often a legendary figure, like the warrior queen Boudica. Hopefully in whatever future Mara builds for herself in Zenith, she will be remembered as a great and brave person.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

I missed my stop on the subway twice because of this book. It's such a quiet book I wouldn't have expected that to happen, but because it's a quiet book with a lot going on, you want to pay close attention, so you can figure out what's going on as Fergus does.

It's 1981, the Troubles are going strong in Ireland, and Fergus' brother Joe is in jail for his participation. The leader of a hunger strike in the prison where Joe is being kept has just died, and everyone is concerned about what will happen next. When Fergus and his Uncle Tally cross the border dividing Ireland to dig up some peat, their biggest concern is getting back to their side of the border without getting caught. While digging in the bog they discover what appears to be the body of a young girl. Since they're so close to the border of the two parts of Ireland, authorities from both sides come to investigate. Neither want any part in looking into the horrible murder of a child, but when it's revealed the girl is actually ancient - from AD 80 - suddenly everyone wants to be involved.

Fergus, as the discoverer, gets to be part of the research process - and strikes up a friendship, then a romance, with the daughter of the lead researcher. In the meantime, he also needs to balance family concerns as his brother joins in the hunger strikers. As part of a desperate attempt to get Joe to stop starving himself, Fergus agrees to help out a local boy he knew in school by running mysterious packages across the poorly guarded border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Oh, and Fergus is also studying to take his final exams, desperate to get at least a B in all of them so he can study medicine at university. And his dreams are regularly haunted by the story of the bog child, called Mel, and how she came to be entombed in the bog.

There's a lot going on in this book, but Dowd weaves together the multiple story-lines flawlessly. This was a book that I definitely couldn't put down.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Double Whammy Review: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix & Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

These reviews are going up together because they both deal with the same subject: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25th, 1911. When I saw that Margaret Peterson Haddix had a new book out about the fire (and the strike that preceded it), I knew I had to read it, and remembering how much I liked Ashes of Roses when it first came out, I picked that up as well so I could read them together. I blame the former wanna-be English teacher in me.

Uprising focuses on the lives of three young women in New York City, two young immigrant women who work at the Triangle Factory (Yetta, a Jewish immigrant from Russia and Bella, an Italian immigrant fresh off the boat), and a third woman, Jane the disillusioned daughter of a millionaire, who vows to help the Triangle Factory workers in any way possible when they organize a strike against the unfair - and dangerous - labor practices at the factory.

The story is introduced to us by a Mrs. Livingston, who is telling the story to the now-grown daughter of one of the factory's owners and who can somehow reveal the inner lives and knowledge of three different women (while the book is narrated in the third person, the chapters alternate between focusing on Yetta, Bella and Jane). The story starts as Bella arrives in America to begin her new life, working in the Triangle factory so she can send money back to her starving mother and siblings in Italy. Bella doesn't know a word of English, so when a crowd of workers spontaneously get up and leave in the middle of the day, Bella goes out with them, not knowing she is participating in the beginning of The Uprising of 20,000. Yetta, another of our protagonists, is one of the leaders of the strike - she and her sister Rahel are active in the burgeoning union and Yetta is one of the union's most fervent devotees.

As the strike continues, Bella, desperate for money and not understanding the meaning of strikes or unions, continues to work as a scab, while Yetta walks the picket lines daily for months. Jane, who feels useless and adrift in a society that only values her for what assets she could bring her father by marrying a wealthy man, becomes one of many wealthy women who support the poor strikers in any way they can, from standing between the strikers and police (the police won't hesitate to beat poor immigrant women to a pulp, but avoid the society ladies as much as possible) to bringing food to the strikers and posting money to bail them out of prison.

The three women's friendship is cemented when Bella receives a letter from home, which she can't read. Jane, who knows some Italian, reads the letter to Bella and translates it for Yetta, who speaks Yiddish and English. Jane's family recoils at the thought of the well-bred young woman fraternizing with such lowly women, but Jane is determined to stick with the working girls, even after the strike is over and work continues as usual at the Triangle Factory - until the day of the deadly fire.

Ashes of Roses has a much narrower focus. While Uprising follows three women and covers events around the factory from the beginning of the strike in 1909 through the fire in 1911, Ashes of Roses focuses on one Irish immigrant, Rose, and the whole book covers only about a month and a half - Rose's first terrible week or so in America with her mother and sisters, and then another few weeks with just one sister as they live in a room rented to them by a Triangle factory worker and union organizer, Gussie, and her father. After a week of learning how to use a sewing machine under Gussie's tutelage, Gussie brings Rose with her to the factory to begin work. Two weeks later, on pay day, the infamous fire breaks out.

I remember when I first read Ashes of Roses, I found the scene of the fire gripping. This time around, not so much. It's still a compelling account of the tragedy, but for me it no longer seemed quite so action-packed.

Not that Uprising had a fire scene that was any better. Overall I think that Ashes of Roses is the stronger of the two books, especially for older readers, because Uprising had way too many illogical moments for me to palate. The women that have absolutely no language in common seem to have an awfully good idea of what the other is saying (only occasionally does the caveat "She must have been saying something like..." appear), and Mrs. Livingston seems to have a psychic link to the women who died in the fire in order to be able to convey their last moments so vividly. Both books also have some clunky foreshadowing - lots of conversations and observations about fire escapes on buildings and how the newly immigrated women are awestruck by them.

Uprising is more concerned with painting a larger historical picture as Haddix's fictional characters often see real historical figures of the early labor movement. Haddix also includes a very substantial author's note at the end, giving further background into the story and her research process (ironically, she begins her author's note by saying she hates notes in other books that say 'this was real, but this wasn't' as she prefers to do the research herself...but then her note goes on to explain every historical person and event that appears in her book!). Auch's author's note is shorter, but then her book also doesn't cover as wide of a time as Uprising. Both books do cover some of the same experiences however, including both Bella and Rose working in flower-making sweatshops and, of course, the Russian Jewish union leaders that feature prominently in both books.

Sometime soon, when I'm not buried under wedding planning materials, I'm heading down to the building that once housed the factory - as Yetta points out in Uprising, the building was designed to be fireproof and it was. It still stands today and is a National Historic Landmark.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Finally, a novel about the not-too-distant-future that rings frighteningly true! So many stories that take our current attitudes to their "logical" conclusion, really seem to focus on only one small part of our attitudes, ignoring how other parts of our national psyche might affect each other (I'm looking at you, Rash). In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow doesn't take our ideas about security to their logical conclusion, but rather to the logical next step, examining what happens in the aftermath of the next big terrorist attack in the United States.

Marcus is a 17 year old hacker living in the Bay Area of California. He's not one of those evil hackers one hears about, sending out viruses and stealing sensitive information; rather he hacks in order to make his overly-observed life more bearable. He hacks the school computers so he can IM during class, he knows how to disable tracking software in library books, and can avoid detection by the gait sensing software used by the school (it's charmingly low tech: put gravel in your shoe and you're untraceable by this "high tech" security).

Marcus has just used his hacking skills to break himself and his best friend, Darryl, out of school in order to participate in their favorite Alternate Reality Game with two of their friends Jolu and Van, students at other local schools, when the ground begins to slip out from under them like an earthquake, and air raid sirens begin to sound. In their panic to find safety, Darryl is injured, and Marcus steps out in front of the next vehicle he sees in order to get someone to stop and help his friend. "Help," however, is now in the guise of the Department of Homeland Security, who now view Marcus and his friends as potential enemy combatants and suspects in the bombing of the Bay Bridge.

After days of detainment and interrogation, Marcus, Jolu and Van are released into a new world with new security everywhere: video cameras are at the front of classrooms, passes for the subway and toll booths have RFID tags that are traced constantly (even when the user isn't near a subway or toll booth) to detect suspicious movements, and even Marcus' personal laptop has been bugged with a keylogger to track his every digital movement. So Marcus begins his own personal crusade to evade the all seeing eyes of the DHS. It starts by hacking an Xbox to run Linux, but grows to jamming the RFID chips, fighting with his parents, gaining a better understanding of the bill of rights and hippies, and finding an awesome girlfriend (who is all the more awesome because her name is Ange).

The book got a little talky at times, with paragraphs, or even pages, dedicated to explaining everything from the yippies to LARPing (note to Marcus: people who play in the basement are infinitely cooler than LARPers ;-) Though I agree people who are painting miniatures take nerdiness to a new level. I say this with all the love in the world, people!). However, a lot of the technical explanation was necessary - all of the technology Marcus experiences and hacks is readily available (and used) today, but unfortunately too many people don't understand what it means (or could mean) to have a Radio Frequency Identification tag broadcasting you whereabouts to anyone who inquires. Rarely does the exposition stop the action, however, and overall I felt it added a lot of credibility to the book. Additionally there are two afterwards to the book that added to the credibility: one from a security technologist and another from Andrew "bunnie" Huang, the first to hack the original Xbox, and on top of that a bibliography that covers practically every topic brought up in the book for further reading.

Ultimately this book works because it's not hard to imagine ending up here. Various organizations are constantly fighting to add more surveillance/security equipment into public places in order to protect us. But are we actually any safer for it? When cameras are placed in the front of classrooms, Marcus openly asks how on earth that is going to protect the students from terrorists - if a terrorist came in with a bomb, the camera certainly wasn't going to stop him.

I absolutely loved Marcus' interactions with his parents following his return home from his interrogation. After being threatened by the DHS if he tells anyone where he was for five days, Marcus concocts a story about his friends and himself being trapped while out camping - an experience many people did have. His father, meanwhile, is a different person upon Marcus' return. He had spent five days convinced his son was dead, perhaps buried at the bottom for the bay under the rubble of the bombed bridge. He seems to be pretty okay with the increased surveillance - even after he is stopped twice on the way home from work one day to be questioned by police about his movements. He truly believes that if the security will prevent another attack, if the security will keep his son safe, then his privacy is a small price to pay. Marcus, obviously, feels completely differently and makes impassioned arguments to his dad. These arguments reminded me of many a conversation with my own parents, both as a teenager and today, since on most issues we are miles apart in our views. The idea that a teenager is just too young to understand, and their opinion will change (to the correct view of her or his parents) in time will be familiar to many readers.

Review: Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

Wow. What a gut-wrenching read.

"Alice" is a living dead girl. Kidnapped by Ray five years ago, physically and sexually abused, Alice is now 15 with a body that is trying to show it's maturity in spite of Ray's and Alice's best efforts to keep her looking young and innocent. But Alice knows she is "wrong" - what Ray has been doing to her has tainted her, turned her into a girl who is simultaneously living and dead.

And now Ray wants her to find a replacement little girl for him. A new little girl that she will teach to become the next in a series of living dead girls.

It's not just the subject matter of this book that made it so hard to read (and yet so hard to leave alone) - it's Scott's writing style. The chapters are very short, and the prose itself is very spare, evoking the hollow life that Alice is enduring. By taking a less is more approach to the writing, the reader still gets a very clear picture of Alice's existence.

Review: Unraveling by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman

The jacket copy on Unraveling makes it sound like this is another Teen Sex Book, filled with morals about what teenage sexuality is like versus what it should be like, and how you shouldn't be pressured into sex, etc etc.

That is not at all what Unraveling is about.

Yes, the specter of teen sexuality hangs over the whole thing - Amanda is, after all, in a hurry to grow up and wants to go "all the way", either during a vacation to Myrtle Beach with the boy she met there last year, or back at school with her mortal enemy's boyfriend. But that's merely background chatter for what this book is really about: one teenager and her mother struggling to understand each other.

Amanda seems to always be at odds with her mother, aka The Capitan, a former English teacher who insists on proper grammar and word usage at all times with an almost slavish devotion to rules. The relationship is exacerbated by The Capitan's relationship with Melody, aka Malady, Amanda's younger sister who can apparently do no wrong. Everything and anything that goes wrong in the Himmelfarb household is apparently Amanda's fault, from stressful vacations to terrible family dinners to an unfortunate Shirley Temple (the drink) meets Chanel dress accident.

After a disastrous family vacation, complete with ill-timed periods and her mother discovering a secret tryst, Amanda returns to her usual life as a social outcast in high school. But when Rick Hayes, the boyfriend of Amanda's arch nemesis, begins to show an interest in her, Amanda is sure that everything will change.

In the meantime, her relationship with her mother continues its downward spiral. After setting up an e-mail account for her mother so she could keep in touch with her best friend, Amanda periodically checks in on what her mother is writing about her. The e-mails between the Captain and her best friend seem to confirm all of Amanda's worst fears: her mother hates her. This discovery leads to Amanda having to balance two precarious relationships: the burgeoning relationship with Rick, and the unraveling relationship with her mother. Helping her sort out her feelings are Amanda's cool aunt, the sister whose advice the Captain has never trusted, and her trusty notebook filled with poems about her feelings and eerily prescient fortune cookie fortunes.

Amanda's a very chatty narrator, and her voice was incredibly believable. Her feelings were completely authentic, from the bratty sister (I absolutely love the nicknames in this book - Malady might be the best annoying-sister-nickname ever) to worries over whether Rick actually likes her.

The harder part for me to read was the mother. I know I'm incredibly lucky to have grown up with a mother that I have always had a great relationship with. I honestly can't remember a single big fight we had. Sure, sometimes I don't completely "get" her (ie, she thinks George W. Bush is probably the best president ever while I...don't), but otherwise life has been pretty good. But like I said, I know I'm lucky, so I understand there are lots of books out there that look at mothers and daughters who have trouble connecting, for a variety of reasons.

This one, however, took the cake for me. The Captain isn't just mean in Amanda's opinion - we get to see e-mails The Captain sends to her best friend where she complains about how incompetent her daughter is. At first I thought, since this is a first person perspective where you can't always entirely trust the narrator's perspective, that Amanda was exaggerating her mother's horribleness. Nope. Mom's a bitch, plain and simple. Oh she apparently had an angsty past that has colored how she interacts with Amanda, but that doesn't explain why she so blatantly favors her younger daughter, or why she's so self-centered around her husband.

On a positive side for the book, I did like the "multi-genre" quality of it. Interspersed with fortune cookie fortunes, poetry written by Amanda, and e-mails sent back and forth between the Captain and her best friend, the variety of story telling methods give a well rounded view of what is going on for Amanda at this point in her life.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review: Audrey, Wait by Robin Benway

When Audrey decides to break up with her aspiring-rockstar boyfriend, Evan, she doesn't think anything big will come of it. Girls and boys break up all the time, after all. As she's leaving him and he calls out "Audrey, wait!" she keeps walking - unaware that she was about to inspire the country's Next Big Song.

Evan turns the break up into his band's break out song. As they start jetsetting around the world, Audrey finds her small world - which extends to school, working at an ice cream shop, and going to as many awesome concerts as she can make it to - suddenly invaded by the paparazzi and crazy fans. While at first her newfound celebrity affords her some awesome opportunities - hello VIP backstage passes! - it also has a number of downsides: paparazzi photos of her sleeping in class and blog posts calling her ugly are just the beginning.

While Evan has made her an instant celebrity, Audrey just wants to continue on with life as usual: going to concerts with her best friend, finding a new boyfriend, and studying for the SAT. But as it becomes clear that life, at least for as long as "Audrey, Wait!" is on the Billboard top 100 charts, will be anything but normal, how will Audrey, her family and, most importantly, her friends handle the change?

I thought this was a great read overall. For the first few chapters Audrey's voice and slang kind of grated on me - it came across as the author trying too hard to be young and hip. But eventually the story became so engrossing that I hardly noticed it for the last half of the book.

There were some plot points that were obvious from a mile away, but it was still enjoyable to see how the plot got to that point.

Audrey is a very smart young woman, who knows how to take care of herself. Sure she makes some dumb moves sometimes (giving sarcastic interviews to journalists, for example), but at the important times she does the smart thing. When a pair of creepy wanna-be musicians show up at her door and try to steal a kiss so Audrey can become the inspiration for their next song, she holds her composure and tells them to scram. Additionally, Audrey isn't afraid of showing she's book-smart either; throughout the book she's pointing out the SAT and PSAT words she keeps using. It's a small addition, but I love it when books aren't afraid to blatantly show that their female characters are academically smart.

Also awesome: Robin Benway is one of the few authors I've seen who actually seems to get how text messaging/IM/message boards/blogs all work. And yet her characters are smart enough that when we see IM conversations it's not all "lol i c u l8r." They use a realistic combination of full sentences and some shorthand (for example, Audrey says over IM at one point "got 2 go, dinner"). It's such a small thing, but the internet has been such a major part of my life for so long that it's just jarring to me when people don't get it (Audrey at one point mentions her parents don't understand how she can talk on the phone, IM and e-mail all at once and she doesn't understand how they can't. I can't do quite all of that at once, but my parents sure don't understand how I manage to type as fast as I do, or understand why someone might text rather than call someone).

Ultimately, this is one of those books I found impossible to put down. I read it over the course of an evening, on the subway and on breaks at work, and found it a quick and very fun read.
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