Wednesday, February 17, 2010

YA reading with an edge

Older teen readers looking for edgier writing than popular wizard and vampire sagas might be interested in these new books and series, reviewed by Cory Doctorow at the Boing Boing website. There are still doses of mystery, fantasy and otherworldly beings here, along with adult themes. There's lots more -- this is just a small sample of recently featured books. You can locate these titles using the World Catalog / Amazon search boxes here on BookBag.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (Tor Books) is the story of the Wilkes/Blue family, a storied Seattle clan whose three generations unmade and remade the city through a series of scientific and martial adventures that are recounted with great relish and verve. First, there's Leviticus Blue, an arrogant mad scientist who developed a great tunnelling machine (part of a Russian-sponsored competition to improve Alaskan gold-mining) and undermined the city of Seattle, releasing the Blight, a poisonous gas that causes the dead to rise, and to hunger for the flesh of the living. ... Then there's Briar Wilkes, the widow of Leviticus and the daughter of Maynard, who is scraping by in the Outskirts, trying to outrun her reputation but unable to, and unable to escape Seattle because of the great Civil War that is eating America with martial trains and dirigibles and great armies.

And that's where the action kicks off, with son and mother chasing one another through the Blighted city of Seattle, avoiding the zombies, befriending the Chinese laborers who run the great machines that suck clean air from beyond the wall into the sealed tunnels beneath the city, trying to escape the clutches of the evil Dr. Minnericht, the self-appointed king of Seattle (who may or may not be Leviticus Blue), befriending rogue zeppelin pilots, armored giants, and steam-powered cyborg barmaids. It's full of buckle and has swash to spare, and the characters are likable and the prose is fun. This is a hoot from start to finish, pure mad adventure.

(Re)cycler (Random House) is the sequel to Lauren McLaughlin's fantastic debut YA novel, Cycler, a sf story about Jill McTeague, a high-school senior who turns into a boy for four days every month. Like Cycler, (Re)cycler is a smart, sensitive story about gender, sex and sexuality, leavened with a lot of wit and sass.

(Re)cycler picks up where Cycler left off, with Jill and her two best friends leaving small town Massachusetts for parts elsewhere. Jill lands in Brooklyn with her pal Ramie (who is also dating her male alter-ego, Jack) and commences to come of age in a setting that is frightening, dangerous, exciting and exotic.

Both Jack and Jill's voices are carried off fantastically in this story, coming across as confused but confident, and both characters grow in ways that are unexpected and extremely satisfying.

The writer Scott Westerfeld has two careers -- on the one hand, he writes science fiction for adults, and on the other, he writes wonderful young adult genre novels (see previous reviews of Scott's Peeps, a science-fictional take on vampirism and So Yesterday, a mystery novel about a cool-hunter -- and see the review below of his earlier, knockout horror trilogy, Midnighters). Both Uglies and its sequel, Pretties, fall into the latter category.

Uglies and Pretties (Simon Pulse books) are the story of a dystopian world where children are raised by the state and subjected to mandatory cosmetic surgery at 16, wherein they are rendered physically "perfect" on the basis that symmetrical, statistically average people with giant eyes are charismatic, convincing, and are afforded advantages by their peers; in the twisted logic of the Westerfeld's state, imposing this surgery on all creates an egalitarian basis for society. No one is heeded merely because she is beautiful; no idea is disregarded because it originates with someone who is ugly.

The novels tell the story of Tally Youngblood, a 16-year-old small-time rebel who becomes embroiled in a scheme to avoid the surgery, leading to her exile and eventual encounters with outsiders, secret police, and the gradual, sinister unravelling of the dark secret of the compassionate society.

Westerfeld's older Midnighters trilogy of The Secret Hour, Touching Darkness, and Blue Noon (HarperTeen) is about a small group of misfit teens in a conservative town who all share the ability to inhabit the secret hour between 12 midnight and 12:01 AM, a secret hour when time stands still for everyone but them, when the light turns blue, when they gain special powers -- the power to run tirelessly and leap buildings, even to fly.

This is pure wish-fulfillment for the kids, who are picked-on losers in their straight-laced school, harassed by the law and stuck in bad home situations. But it turns out that the secret hour is also inhabited by Cthuluesque Old Ones -- ancient monsters trapped forever in the darkness of the secret hour. And these ancient ones must escape.

The trilogy tells the story of the kids' defense of the town that rejects them, and of the ancient, wicked secrets there. If Lovecraft had a sense of plot and character, he could have written these.

Now the final volume, Blue Moon, has come into print, and it ties the story up nicely. If you're looking for three books to give to a kid in your life (or looking for a romp of your own), these would be a great choice.

Liar, by Justine Larbalestier (Bloomsbury USA): Micah -- the unreliable narrator of this tale -- is a compulsive liar from a fraught background. Poor and biracial, she attends a posh New York alternative school through a scholarship. Her mother is a runaway, her father is from a reclusive back-woods family of illiterate survivalists, and so it's no surprise that Micah's identity is a little messed up. But Micah isn't just confused: she's deliberately confusing, a compulsive liar who fools everyone around her over and over (she is mistaken for a boy on her first day of school and so she undertakes to live as a boy, lasting days before she is found out).

But Micah's lies start to unravel when the boy she is secretly dating -- he is publicly involved with the most popular girl in school -- is murdered. As the school panics and the social order turns upside down, as Micah grieves, she is also found out, scapegoated, and suspected.

That's the setup. So far, it's your basic YA fare: complicated relationships, complicated identity, fraught situation. But Micah's circumstances grow progressively odder, as Larbalestier twists and turns the story in ways that are decidedly science fictional (or possibly fantastic) and that make this into one of the most original, oddest, and ultimately satisfying YA books I've had the pleasure of reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment