Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fiction: Okay for Now

It's 1968: the Vietnam war is raging. The Americans are about to put a man on the moon. Doug Swieteck is about to move to a small town named Marysville in upstate New York.

Doug's dad is a blue collar worker with a temper, and he's not shy with his fists. One brother is away in Vietnam: another spends his spare time stealing Doug's prize possessions. Doug's life sucks, even before he's forcibly relocated to a small town where everybody thinks he's a brainless thug.

It'd be nice to say that everything changes when when Doug discovers a book of original Audubon bird illustrations at the local library: in fact, things are looking up for a while, as the librarian gives him art lessons, his English teacher helps him out with reading, and he gets a job delivering groceries (it helps that he's sweet on the grocer's daughter).

But Doug's pretty sure that just when you think life might be alright, that's when it kicks you down. Sure enough, Doug's older brother comes home from Vietnam without his legs, and the entire town gives his family the cold shoulder when Doug's brother is accused of stealing. To deal with his disappointment and turbulent family life, Doug focuses on restoring the missing Audubon prints to the library book.

It seems like the town has been using the priceless book as a bank: everytime they need money, town council excises an illustration, and sells it for profit. This leaves the book tragically incomplete, and Doug feels so strongly about it that he's willing to do almost anything to retrieve the dispersed pages. Collecting all of them is a faint hope, especially since he's got a budget of exactly zero; but as he gets to know the town and its inhabitants, Doug finds that he's got a surprising amount of credit with the people who care for him.

This is a poignant story about overcoming loss and circumstance. Doug finds hope and redemption in art, while staying true to his blue-collar, 1960's American roots. Every word in this tale rings true, and we're left believing that the characters will find happiness, even as we mourn the tragedies that they've experienced.


Grades 10-12

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Science Fiction: Divergent

There are lots of dystopian teen fantasies out right now, and Divergent holds its own against them.

Beatrice has lived all of her sixteen years as part of the Abnegation faction. Her family and friends are devoted to the concept of selflessness: they strive to place the needs of all others above their own. Beatrice knows students from the other factions through her school: the fierce and courageous Dauntless, the studious Erudites, peaceful Amities, and scrupulously honest Candors.

Sixteen is the age of majority: now Beatrice and her classmates must choose their allegiances. Will they stay in their birth faction, or take a leap into the unknown, and join another sect? The psyco-emotional testing that students undergo is a guide, but Beatrice is one of the very rare people who come up as indeterminate: Divergent.

The tester is a shocked by the result, and she erases the test and swears Beatrice to secrecy. Being Divergent is apparently a death sentence, and Beatrice doesn't plan on making things easier by following the expected faction path. As she struggles to protect her secret and survive the brutal faction initiation, Beatrice begins to realize that her Divergent status could be the key that topples her entire society: a society that is might be rotten to the core.

This action-packed tale has something for everyone: romance, adventure, and a healthy dose of rebellion against an oppressive authority.

Science Fiction

Grades 8-11

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Historical Fiction: Heart of a Samurai

Part fact, part fiction, part Moby Dick, and part rags to riches story,
Heart of a Samurai is a simple, breathtaking, tale. And don't just take my word for it - this debut novel got four starred (that means really, really dang good) reviews from four of the biggest book review magazines.

It is 1841 and fourteen year-old Manjiro is a poor Japanese fisherman who finds himself lost at sea with four of his friends. They group finds themselves on a deserted island, barely clinging to survival, when they are rescued by an American whaling ship. Never having seen Caucasian people before, Manjiro and his friends are weary of these barbarian North Americans (they call them "butter stinkers"). But unlike his friends, Manjiro can't fight his curiosity and soon begins to learn English. Once he befriends the Captain of the ship, Manjiro's life begins to change in drastic, exciting ways, and he begins a whirlwind around-the-world journey.

While I like historical fiction, I prefer things domestic and girly (think Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice or the Dear Canada books). I'm not one for adventure on the high seas. But I was completely absorbed by this novel, which is based on a real historical figure. Manjiro (or John Mung as he is known in North America) was believed to be one of the first Japanese people to ever set foot on North American soil - and he was just a teenager!

Sometimes historical fiction can be boring and overly-detailed, but Margi Preus exercises a wonderful restraint. I think that's the main reason I enjoyed this book - the language is simple and sparse, with an emphasis on action rather than description.

If you are not one for swashbuckling tales and this sounds like the last kind of book you would ever read, let me say two things: 1) I felt the same way, and 2) I dare you to read this! In a publishing climate that's full of vampires and wizards and paranormal everything, this is something completely different and completely absorbing.

Historical Fiction
Grades 6+
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Science Fiction: Omnitopia Dawn

Omnitopia Dawn is actually written for adults, but this excellent science fiction title is written by beloved YA author Diane Duane. Fans of her "So You Want to be a Wizard" series will be eager to pick up another of her titles, even though the protagonists in this book are adults.

Omnitopia Dawn is set in the near future, where genius programmer Dev Logan has created a gigantic MMORPG: a massively multiplayer online role playing game where participants with good game karma can build their own microcosms, and create a universe for every taste.

With over two hundred million people playing worldwide, Omnitopia is more than just an online game: it's a gigantic corporation with a huge financial footprint on the world stock markets. As Omnitopia prepares to roll out a massive game expansion, the company learns that a viscious hacker attack is being planned, with the potential to bring the entire system crashing down. Crashing the game would destroy the company, and ruin the creations of millions of micocosm creators who have invested their time and hearts into the gameworld.

We follow likeable programmer and CEO Dev as he and his idealistic team of elite programmers work frantically to disable the attack, and save the complex and beautiful world of Omintopia. Even in the face of betrayal and impending disaster, Dev retains his good-guy nature: he's portrayed as uniformly likeable, as are his smart and dedicated employees. The teen appeal in this book comes from the very clear good-guy-vs.-bad-guy plot cycle, and Diane Duane adds just enough fantasy science into the game structure to interest technology buffs (while not alienating those of us who just like to play!). Anyone who's every been sucked into an RPG game, or those who just enjoy a great science-fiction espionage yarn, will find Omnitopia Dawn an engaging read.

Science Fiction

Grade 11 and up

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Science Fiction: I Am Number Four

John Smith is number four. You may not believe it, but he's one of the last six survivors from the planet Lorien. He's been living in hiding on Earth, along with his Cepan guardian, for the past twelve years: any day now, he's expecting to die.

Twelve years ago, the Mogadorians destroyed the planet Lorien when they raided it for resources that their own planet had run out of. The inhabitants of Lorien - the Cepan guardians and the warrior Garde - were slaughtered in the surprise attack. Only nine Garde escaped with their keepers, and three of those have already been hunted down and murdered by Mogadorian soldiers.

John Smith was created yesterday, when news of number three's death reached him. When John and his Keeper Henri burned their house and all identification to the ground as they fled, they also erased all traces of John's previous identity, Daniel Jones. Now they live in remote Paradise, Ohio: population 5,243.

John's job is to stay alive and stay hidden until his Garde legacies appear. The legacies are the warrior powers that will tranform John from an althletic and intelligent teen into a superwarrior capable of returning to Lorien, and scouring the planet of its alien invaders. But until he masters his legacies, John is horribly vulnerable to attack by the Mogadorian soldiers who are hunting him day and night, tirelessly seeking to destroy him.

Despite a lifetime of training, John finds staying undercover in Paradise harder than anything he's ever done. A lot of this is to do with Sarah, the gorgeous classmate who's falling hard for John. Unfortunately, her bully ex-boyfriend makes it very difficult to keep out of high school politics and squabbles, and when John accidentally befriends an expert in alien identification and legends, his entire identity is compromised.

With his cover blown wide open, John and Henri are at risk, along with everyone they care for in their new town. This fast paced Science Fiction thriller tears along at breakneck speed, ending in a thrilling climax that just begs for a sequel or two.

Science Fiction
Grades 9-11
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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fantasy: White Cat

Though I liked Holly Black's elfpunk titles Tithe and Valiant, I have to say that her newest dark fantasy, White Cat, blows them out of the water.

Combining elements of mafioso gang warfare, frustrated romance and gypsy magic, this violent and disturbing book propels the reader through the increasingly complicated life of seventeen year old Cassel.

Cassel thinks he's the only untalented member of a wildly magical family of curse workers. He's focused on making a life for himself at an exclusively snobby private boarding school, where he practices his con skills on his trust-fund-baby peers.

When his haunted nightmares strand him in an awkward situation, there's no help for it: Cassel has to go home, where he can't avoid the people and places that remind him of his best friend, Lila.

Lila, whom he remembers killing with his own hands.

But of course, in a world of magic and cursery, memories may not be what they seem; and those who love you may be the most dangerous ones of all. If he wants any sort of future at all, Cassel has to use all of his con skills to uncover the truth about his past from his tortured memories.

With convoluted plots and main characters who hover on the edge of evil, this taut and complicated fantasy novel is just the first in the forthcoming Curse Workers series.

Grades 10-12
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Short Stories: The Poison Eaters

Holly Black sticks to her strengths in this dark, edgy collection of short stories. Like her other teen titles, this collection explores the bleeding underbelly of urban adolescence, where faeries meet GBLTQ lust, vampires sweat out their infection on youtube, and werewolves consort with royalty at a bloodstained court.

Librarians will be particularly thrilled by the doubly-geeky tale of classification gone wrong, and fans of Black's elfpunk Tithe and Valiant will find some familiar characters in the bleak The Land of Hearts Desire.

The standout tale is clearly the last in the set. In The Poison Eaters, three sisters fulfill their destiny by bringing death to their hapless suitors. Merely weapons, the end of the story twists and turns in revealing the double and triple crossings of fate that brought kings and knights to a poisonous end at their hands.

For teens with a taste for supernatural horror, Holly Black is reliably disturbing. Those who love her should check out titles by Laini Taylor or Justine Larbalestier.

Short Stories (supernatural horror)
Grades 10-12
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Fantasy: Finnikin of the Rock

When Finnikin was born, he was already privileged. Son of the Captain of the Royal Guard, friend of the prince and princesses, his childhood was perfect. All he wanted was to grow up to protect the future king, just like his father.

But in 5 short days, the kingdom of Lumatere is shattered. The Royal family is slaughtered, an imposter seizes the throne, and many of Lumatere's citizens, including Finn, are locked outside the kingdom by a blood curse.

For years, Finnikin has wandered the continent seeking justice and protection for his exiled people. They live in sordid refugee camps, rife with illness and choked with filth. Every exile holds in their heart a desperate wish to return home: but nobody knows how to break the curse, and open the magically sealed borders of Lumatere again.

When Finnikin and his mentor meet Evanjalin, and novice of the Goddess Lagrami, they are shocked when she claims to be able to lead them to Prince Balthazar, presumed dead all these years. But Evanjalin has an agenda of her own: she lies and schemes to accomplish some end that Finnikin can't make out. It's clear that Evanjalin loves Lumatere, and that she too wants to return home: but how can he trust her, with her wild claims of sleepwalking inside the dreams of the Lumaterans inside the wall? How can he trust a girl who won't tell him even the simplest details of her past? Even as he falls in love with Evanjalin's courage and strength, how can he allow her to lead the exiles to what might be their doom?

Finnikin must find his faith, and untwist the tangled strands of the past in order to regain his kingdom. And to gain redemption for Lumatere, he and the other Lumaterans must confront their darkest, most shameful history.

Grades 11 and up
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fantasy: Incarceron

Incarceron is a prison, but it's also a whole world. For those inside its enormous walls, escape is a legend, and freedom a myth. No-one knows how large Incarceron is: there is nobody who has managed to cross it's length. Inside, there are not only cells, but strange metal forests, crumbling cities falling into ruin, and twisted wildernesses. Throughout all of Incarceron, the unblinking eye of the prison watches...and waits.

Finn is woke up, years ago, inside a barren cell. Since then, he's been struggling to live in the hostile world of Incarceron: he threw his lot in with a band of thugs and murderers, but he's sure that he was born for something else. In fact, Finn is sure that he was born When he finds a mysterious key that links him what what could be Outside, Finn and his companions embark on a dangerous journey through the unknown wilds of the prison.

His link to the outside is Claudia, a girl whose father is the prison Warden. As the daughter of a high ranking official, she's doomed to a loveless marriage. She dreams of throwing off the chains of Protocol that bind her, and her most dangerous desire is to break into the fastness of Incarceron, and discover what lies inside the prison that no-one can enter or leave.

These two are fated to meet: prophecy and their strong wills demand it. But how will they breach the prison walls? Is it even possible?


Grades 10-12

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Steampunk: Leviathan

So you're probably wondering, What in the world is Steampunk?? Steampunk is a genre term for books that cross victorian technology (e.g. the steam engine) with fantasy or science fiction.

In this case, Scott Westerfeld has created an alternate universe set just at the beginning of world war I. Twelve year old Aleksandar Ferdinand, son of the Archduke, is spirited away into hiding when his father and mother are assassinated. Those who know their history will be able to anticipate the ponderous, inevitable clashing of nations that follows, as Austria-Hungary crashes against the forces of 19th Century Europe.

Aleksandar's desperate flight to safety is interspersed with accounts from Deryn, a plucky British recruit posing as a boy for a chance to fly on the great liveship Leviathan. Britain's technology is Darwinist: they use science to interbreed creatures into vast, machine-like ecosystems. Even enormous ships like the Leviathan are completely living: and no-one knows how they work better than the mysterious civilian passenger, Dr. Barlow.

The war pits Darwinist countries against Technologist counties, who prefer the power and reliability of hard steel and metal engines. When the Leviathan is downed by German planes, Deryn and Alek are forced to find a way to blend the two technologies, and find a way for two completely different concepts to work together.

This looks like the start of a complex and fascinating series. The elements of history will engage many readers, while the original and carefully realized steampunk technologies will fascinate scientific minds. An excellent read.

Grades 8-11
Click here to check out the Port Moody Public Library's catalogue!