Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future

Glory

I told you I had a review in the works!  Here it is: Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  I’ve not been shy in the past about proclaiming my love for A.S. King’s work and I’m not about to start now.  What I have come to find is that you are guaranteed a well-written and interesting read when you pick up one of King’s novels. She writes from unique perspectives, which serve as reminders that the world is a varied and complex place, as are the people who reside there.  Her new novel, Glory O’Brien, is no exception.

Days before her high school graduation, Glory O’Brien and her best–and only–friend Ellie mix a mind-altering cocktail of beer and powdered bat (yes, the animal) and are bestowed with the ability to see the past and future of living creatures, from birds to humans.  Sometimes these visions pertain directly to the person caught in their sights, but often it is their ancestor’s or progeny’s life that is revealed.  Interestingly, the girls never see the same things, and Glory consistently gets glimpses of a future war, which she begins writing down: her history of the future.

Couched within this wonderfully bizarre premise, are the inner struggles of Glory, herself.  Glory is an individual.  She doesn’t care what others think and generally steers clear of interacting with people.  As a photographer, she is an observer of the world, seeing things on a lighting scale of max white to max black and wondering what her place in it will be.  Early on we learn that her mother was a talented photographer who committed suicide when Glory was in preschool.  Her death haunts the O’Brien house in the photographs adorning its walls, in Glory’s father’s inability to move forward with his life, in never talking about what happened.  In her mother’s old dark room, Glory finds a book of her notes and pictures, which supplies as many questions about this woman as it does answers.  Glory’s head grows increasingly full as she fills in her personal history from her dark room discoveries and watches snippets of an as-yet undeclared war play out in the faces of those around her.

Garnering comparisons to The Handmaid’s TaleGlory O’Brien tackles women’s rights in Glory’s visions and the implications of what could happen if they are eradicated.  It is a sobering future.  King manages to raise readers’ consciousness to feminist issues without being preachy, and the subject couldn’t be more timely, considering today’s political climate.  However, unlike Handmaid’s Tale, this is not the dominant story of the book; it shadows a more intimate plot that is devoted to identity and a strained friendship.  I appreciate that King takes on politics and other important relationships in Glory’s life, rather than defaulting to teenage romance.  Sex, relationships, crabs–these all feature, but a romantic plot (or sub-plot) does not, making me a happy camper.  Another nice aspect to the novel is the way King’s own photography background is unitlized.  She studied photography as an undergrad, so the language she uses to capture Glory’s way of viewing the world as a photographer comes across as entirely authentic.

One of the most enjoyable parts of reading Glory O’Brien is that it offers so many insights from so many unexpected places.  It is thought provoking.  It is a book of surprises.  A.S. King has delivered once again, as she always does, and I am not the only person who thinks so.  I am happy to report that Glory O’Brien has made its way onto School Library Journal‘s and Publishers Weekly‘s, Best Young Adult Books of 2014 lists.  Kirkus will release its teen picks on December 1, so keep your fingers crossed that we see Glory there, as well!

 

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“Half Bad” is All Good

Half Bad

I read Half Bad by Sally Green in a day.  I was off work, it was storming out, and once I started it there was nothing I’d rather be doing.  Following the recent trend of trilogies in YA, this it the first of a planned three, and one I’d recommend for the dystopian, action-oriented crowed.  You know, the tried and true and what’s-next-for-me fans of Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc.  This one, though–this one has witches, and I’m a sucker for witches.  Think the dark parts of Harry Potter meet Divergent and you’ll have some idea of what Sally Green has in store for you.

Set in the modern day, the world is populated by witches and fain (non-witches).  Not surprisingly, the witches are self-divided into White (“good”) and Black (“bad”) witches, with the white in charge and the black persecuted.  The novel opens with Nathan, a 16-year-old witch shackled in a cage, plotting escape from his captor.  I won’t tell you how that goes down, but the story soon shifts to recollections of Nathan’s childhood, where we begin learning his history and at least why he might be put in a cage: Nathan has the rare distinction of being half White and half Black.  While Nathan has never met his father, simply being related to an infamous Black witch has marked the boy as a potential threat.  In a regulatory move, the government issues a resolution that all witches in Britain must be officially coded White, Black, or Fain–half codes like Nathan will only be permitted as such until their 17th birthday, when they must choose an official designation, white or black.  Each year, Nathan goes in for an assessment and more resolutions are passed that limit his freedoms as a half code.  As government sanctions ostracize him, Nathan also faces bullying at school and by his older sister.  Life may be bleak and unfair, but it is not entirely without love.  Nathan’s grandmother and brother are his comfort and support, and a girl at school has caught his eye.  Still, there comes a point where the only option left to him is escape.

As Nathan navigates a hostile society, he is constantly confronted with questions of identity. Who is he and who were his parents?  Which half truly defines him?  Green layers complexities into a plot that is taut with suspense and where things are rarely just black and white.  Action, intrigue, murder, and betrayal are all set against a ticking clock; any witch who does not participate in the gift-giving ceremony of their 17th birthday will not receive a power, and they will likely suffer a premature death.  Nathan’s 17th birthday is fast approaching, making the success of his journey all the more critical.  The structure and traditions of witch society are well developed, makings Green’s magical world believable. There are hunters (like aurors in Harry Potter), healers, potion makers, and bureaucrats.  There are fears and flaws and an underground network of witches wishing to remain off the grid, as it were.  Told through first person narration, we learn about this world as Nathan does and, consequently, feel a great deal of sympathy for this boy who is searching for a place in it.  Entertaining, imaginative, and well written, Half Bad was a complete pleasure to read.  I hope I don’t have to wait too long for the next one!

 

 

 

 

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

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“Listen–I was alive once and then I wasn’t.  Simple as that.  Now I’m alive again.  The in-between part is still a little fuzzy, but I can tell you that, at some point or another, my head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado.”

Good golly!  What a start, huh?  If you’re worried that John Corey Whaley kills it in the intro but falls flat in the follow-through, think again. Noggin is the story of 16-year-old Travis Coates, who signs up for an experimental cryogenics program after being diagnosed with an untreatable form cancer.  The plan is to cut off his cancer-free head, freeze it, and reattach it to a healthy donor body as soon as science has advanced enough to perform this procedure–a projected 50-60 years in the future.  Amazingly, science zooms ahead and Travis blinks awake a mere 5 years after his “death,” head on a brand new set of shoulders–and, well, everything else, too.

All of this is laid out in the first few pages, ensuring that this is not a cancer story or a book about dying.  This is a book about getting a second chance at life and the weirdness of:

A) Coming back to life

B) Having a new body

C) Having everyone in your life suddenly age forward 5 years, making you the oldest “16-year-old” in the room–or youngest 21-year-old, depending on your perspective

Whaley could have easily put Travis in a coma for five years instead of going the “cranial hibernation & reanimation” route, but this introduces the interesting element of grief to the story and, subsequently, “un-grieving.”  The likelihood that the procedure would work was very low, so those closest to Travis still had to treat his passing as a death and move on. Post reanimation, Travis reconnects with his best friend, who is now in college and apparently not gay anymore, and is dealt the devastating blow of learning his girlfriend, Cate, is engaged.  Things at home aren’t exactly “normal” either, but how can they be after what everyone has gone through?

As Travis tries to adjust, we see him spend a lot of time trying to get his old life back, rather than taking the 5-year leap forward.  This includes a few embarrassing attempts to win back Cate, which are funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  It takes the support of his old best friend, as well as his new one–the one who bestowed upon him the moniker “Noggin”–to draw Travis forward into his new life.  Though this new, unlikely life is filled with challenges, it also a second chance at living, so things aren’t all bad.  Travis has a smokin’ new body that came with the ability to skateboard and a lot of people who want to help him succeed.

A thread of humor runs throughout, as well as an awareness of the insanity of the entire situation, which lend a somewhat wry tone to the narration–Travis refers to himself as “Mary Shelley’s nightmare come true” and makes jokes about getting ahead–and keep the story from becoming too weighty. This was my first experience reading Whaley, though I knew his name from his 2012 Printz Award win for Where Things Come Back.  I loved his writing style.  It had heart and humor and originality of ideas and characters I truly enjoyed.  What more can you ask for, really?  In the New York Times review, A.J. Jacobs likens Noggin to “Greenlit”–novels by John Green, particularly due to his penchant for writing “first-person, funny-sad” YA.  Personally, I prefer Whaley to Green, but the comparison is apt, though I think there’s a little less of the “sad” in Noggin. This is a book for A.S. King and Ned Vizzini fans, as well, or anyone in the market for (mostly) realistic YA fiction.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

HELLO! I’ve finally managed to pull myself out of my Polar-Vortex-induced winter malaise, which essentially left me an incommunicative recluse, mainlining The Guild on Netflix.  I was, of course, reading the entire time, and now that the sun has stared shining again, I know it’s time to tell you about some of those books.  I’m starting things off with an excellent book released last week called, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

Vigilante

IndieBoundThe Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer; Published April 8, 2014 by Knopf; Recommended for grades 8-11

I was asked to review this book for Booklist, and was immediately taken with it–a feeling that stayed with me to the last page, so much so that I gave this book my first starred review.  I’m pleased (though not surprised) to say I was not alone in feeling this way because Kirkus and VOYA also gave Hattemer’s debut a star.  Here’s my review from the March 15, 2014 issue of Booklist:

“When the reality show For Art’s Sake begins filming at the local high school for the arts, a group of juniors rebels against the prostitution of their talent and forms an underground poetry movement called “The Contrecantos.” Taking cues from Ezra Pound’s work, their poetic protest goes viral and becomes the most-read publication at school. But after one of its number defects, the group must reassess its purpose and decide how to use the evidence of corruption it has found regarding the show’s production. Amid the drama and intrigue, narrator Ethan Andrezejczak must do a great deal of soul-searching and maturing to see where he fits into the equation. In this place of immense talent, Ethan is immensely relatable as the voice of the average (that is, socially awkward) teen. Hattemer writes with a refreshing narrative style, crafting both believable characters and a cohesive, well-plotted story. Romance, while in the air, takes a sideline to friendship, which proves to be the book’s heart and soul. Relying on the passion and ideals that drive adolescence, this has a vibrancy and authenticity that will resonate with anyone who has fought for their beliefs—or who has loved a gerbil. (You’ll see.)

I think it’s funny that two of my recent YA favorites have used a premise of reality TV, the other being A.S. King’s Reality Boy, but do so in completely different ways.  While both are narrated by teenage boysKing’s novel is serious and angsty (read an excerpt here), whereas Hattemer’s tone is light and humorous, even when things get real.  I find it hard to believe that Vigilante Poets is Hattemer’s first book because it is so well done.  Her writing style is fresh and well-structured, and her characters authentic.  Her protagonist, Ethan, is a lovable, relatively average Joe, who is the most endearing underdog I’ve come across in a long time.  His enthusiasm for tricolons and interrobangs is catching (In fact, it inspired me to write my own interrobang blog post), and his affection for Baconnaise the gerbil is one of the sweetest relationships to appear in print.

It is rare to find realistic teen fiction these days that is not saturated with angst, relationships, or saccharine whimsy.  This is a book where ideals are put to the test, without becoming too idealistic in its writing, and I think it fills an important gap for many “regular” teens–those without chaotic home lives or turbulent relationships, those without lighting-fast wit or above average intelligence and talents, those who are neither popular nor unpopular, those who care about their friends, those aren’t entirely sure what their lives to be.

 

“Unhinged” by A.G. Howard

collageWhen I read A.G. Howard‘s first novel, Splintered, I was taken with her rendition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice story.  It felt original because it didn’t set out to “retell” a classic; rather, it continued it with a spunky new heroine, Alyssa, who took the story in a brand new direction. It’s a compelling blend of vivid imagery, action, and innovation; the characters are strong and the romance doesn’t get out of hand.  (See my review of Splintered here.)  I eagerly anticipated its sequel and was not let down.

While much of Splintered takes place down the rabbit hole, Unhinged keeps to the human world (mostly), though Wonderland remains a constant presence.  My full review will follow, but I’d first just like to say that these books are well written and a pleasure to read.  Howard wraps you up in her language and knows how to tell a story, so it’s easy to get lost in them; they’re a fun ride.  Okay, now onto the review!

Review first published in “Shelf Awareness for Readers,” Friday, Jan. 31 2014.

“After the trip down the rabbit hole in Splintered, Alyssa Gardner chose life in the human realm with her boyfriend, Jeb, over the magical madness of Wonderland–despite having been crowned its Red Queen. It is increasingly difficult for her to ignore her netherling (magical) side, however, as her dreams and artwork have become riddled with scenes of a ravaged, war-torn Wonderland. Everything–bugs, flowers, Morpheus (her smoldering netherling mentor and tempter)–begs for her return. Then, the unthinkable happens: Wonderland finds its way into the human realm, and suddenly everyone she loves is in danger.

Unhinged is characterized by complexity rather than action, as Alyssa learns more of her family’s history and her own responsibilities toward Wonderland. Every revelation brings with it more questions, causing her to grapple with her identity and to realize that she is indelibly human and netherling. Layered between these personal struggles are matters of the heart, as Jeb and Morpheus vie for Alyssa’s affection and loyalty. A.G. Howard’s generous use of sensory language creates a lush, vibrant landscape on which her story plays out. Howard’s references to Carroll’s Alice stories keep the originals at the heart of her own tale, yet never give the impression of being derivative. A dark beauty fills the novel’s pages, which will mesmerize teens with a taste for magic, romance or suspense. Unhinged lays the groundwork for a third book where anything could happen–it is Wonderland, after all.”

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Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children

Hollow City

Officially reviewed in “Shelf Awareness for Readers:” Jan. 21, 2014.  Informally discussed below:

“I had come to the island to solve my grandfather’s mystery, and in doing so I had discovered my own.”

After two years of waiting, Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City is finally out, picking up exactly where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children left off.   Miss P is one of my favorite YA novels, and it remains a unique offering among the shelves of dystopia and romance that comprise the bulk of teen fiction today.  Perhaps I am biased because I have a fondness for vintage photographs and curiosities, for whimsy and its macabre decay.  In both Miss P and Hollow City, creepy old photos reminiscent of sideshow cabinet cards illustrate an even creepier narrative, complete with monsters, time travel, and children with supernatural (“peculiar”) abilities.  Riggs is himself a photo collector and urban explorer, as he explains in this YouTube clip, and both interests greatly influence his work–not only in terms of aesthetic, but in that they seek out fragments of history, saturated with untold stories.  Through such relics he sets the stage for the continuation of Jacob’s saga with Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children.

Hollow City is a journey book that reads like an old film reel, where different stories are spliced together, jarring the characters as they cross from one scene into the next.  Where Miss P introduces the peculiar universe and much of its history, Hollow City traverses it, moving through time loops and evading nightmarish hollowgasts and wights in order to save Miss Peregrine, who is stuck in the form of a bird.  Along the way Jacob learns more about his grandfather and the gift they share (the ability to see hollows), and the other children discover truths about their world hidden within an old book of peculiar fairytales. The old photos used in the novel add to its haunting atmosphere, and people the children encounter on their travels, such as Gypsies and carnival folk, give it a grounded mystique that complements their own unusual abilities.

Rather than losing his characters in the wilderness for the bulk of their flight, as many authors would, Riggs chooses to lead them through shifting urban landscapes, where enemies hide in plain sight. Much of the novel takes place in the war-torn streets of 1940s London, causing the children to face threats of bombs and soldiers in addition to their peculiar pursuers.  Adding to the story’s tension is the fact that Jacob and the other peculiars don’t know where they need to go to find help.  In their haste to flee their home, they have little more than the clothes on their backs; they have no way of knowing exactly where other loop entrances are located or if any loops exist unraided–the safety these places no longer assured.

Riggs masterfully builds suspense while revealing new information about the peculiars’ world, making it at once sinister and captivating.  A dark, surprising twist at the novel’s end will keep readers on the edge of their seats and leaves the story poised for a third installment.  Perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Daniel Kraus, Hollow City blends fantasy and horror into a truly unique world that will engross readers and leave them eager for more.

I’d like to take a moment to thank the kind people at Quirk Books, who sent me a copy of the Miss Peregrine graphic novel.  It is beautifully done.  Cassandra Jean’s pen and ink artwork captures the feel of Riggs’ novel, selectively employing color to mark shifts in the narrative and mood.  The photos that drew me to the novel in the first place are still used, creating a collage effect appropriate to the disparate nature of the book’s composition: fragments pieced together to form a stunning whole.  Personally, I prefer traditional books to graphic novels, but any Miss Peregrine fan would be thrilled to get their hands this illustrated rendition.

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“Hollow City,” It’s Coming

Hollow City

Last week, the book trailer for Ransom Riggs‘s Hollow City was released!  I’ve been waiting over two years for this sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and as I count down to its publication, I’ll take all the teasers I can get.  Slated to hit stores January 14, 2014, Hollow City picks up right where Miss Peregrine left off.  For those of you unfamiliar with Riggs’s novel, see my original review here.  For those of you as eager as I to get your hands on the next one, here’s are a little nibble to carry you through the next few weeks.

Check back for my review!

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