Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: The Midnight Charter

The Midnight Charter
by David Whitley

In a world ruled by commerce, two children make a trade that will alter the course of their lives. Mark is apprenticed to a doctor, and Lily to an alchemist. When the children switch roles, a trade that is allowed in the commerce-driven society of Agora, they each set themselves on an unexpected course. Although their lives take vastly different directions, their destinies intersect, and the fate of Agora lies in the balance.

Imagine a world where trade is everything. Everything has value, and nothing can be given for free. There are no gifts (except once in your life on your title day) and charity is an unknown concept. You can't even get directions without trading something in return. That's the fascinating and brilliantly envisioned world that author David Whitley has created. In Agora, the only way to survive is to trade whatever you have, and if you have nothing, you trade your services and your labor. The truly desperate can even trade away emotions, which are used like a drug by those who can afford them.

The Midnight Charter is one of the most original and creative books I've read in a long time. David Whitley has done an amazing job of world-building. I think it's a shame that the publisher has chosen to market this book as a morality tale of greed, because I think that diminishes what the author has done. The Midnight Charter is so much more than a morality tale; it's a richly developed story that asks, "What if?" in the tradition of the best science fiction. Greed is only part of the equation; The Midnight Charter looks at the opposite and balancing forces that shape a society. It's about the power of ideas to change a society -- and the social forces that will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo.

The Midnight Charter is an enjoyable read. The characters are interesting and the story holds your interest and keeps you turning the pages. I read it in the car on the way back from a trip, and read it right through almost without stopping. In a few places, certain story elements aren't as well developed as they could have been, but overall I quite enjoyed the book.

Although the book doesn't say that it's part of a series, at least not that I could find, the ending clearly sets things up for another book.

The Midnight Charter will be released tomorrow, September 1, 2009. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Book Review: Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd

Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd
edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci

Editors Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci have brought together a stellar line-up of YA authors to create an outstanding collection of stories about the experience of growing up "geek." The stories range from poignant to humorous, and hopeful to triumphant, but all reflect authentic aspects of the geek experience. I'm more than a little bit geek, and I saw aspects of myself in more than one of these stories.

As with any anthology, there were some stories that I liked better than others. Here were a few that stood out for me:

Holly Black and Cecil Castelluci's Once You're a Jedi, You're a Jedi All the Way: a funny look at Star Trek vs. Star Wars, which actually turned out to be a lot sweeter and more innocent than I expected, given that the first narrator wakes up in bed with someone she doesn't remember.

Scott Westerfeld's Definitional Chaos: any author that can write an entertaining story with a central conflict that hinges on the concept of character alignment is a master geek in my book!

David Levithan's Quiz Bowl AntiChrist: I totally loved the protagonist, who hides his vulnerability behind a mask of sarcasm, in this story of self-discovery.

Garth Nix's The Quiet Knight: a story of a shy young LARPer who finds real courage. The main character is what really makes this story one of my favorites.

Barry Lyga's The Truth About Dino Girl: more than any of the others, Lyga captured what my high school experience was like; it wasn't dinosaurs for me, but in many ways I really identified with the protagonist of this story. And while I thought the resolution was a little harsh in some ways, it was completely a geek fantasy, which I think was the point.

Wendy Mass' The Stars at the Finish Line: Loved the interaction between the two main characters in this one. I haven't read anything else by Wendy Mass, but this story makes me want to.

Most of the other stories were also good; there were a couple that I didn't care for, but I think that's more a matter of personal preference.

Sara Zarr's story was missing from my ARC; I wish I could have read it.

In between the stories were various one-page comics and geek jokes; many of them were also missing from my ARC, and of the ones that were included, for the most part I didn't enjoy them as much as I enjoyed the stories.

I would recommend this book for mature teens and adults. Many of the stories depict risky behaviors, including underage binge drinking, lying to your parents, meeting people from the Internet, and underage sex (in one case, by an 8th grader!) I know that many teens (and even tweens) participate in these activities, and in general I do think it's important for YA fiction to reflect an authentic teen experience. However, I think what bothers me about it in this book is that so much emphasis is placed on the personalities and geek nature of the writers. While the stories are fictional and not autobiographical (as far as I know), I think that the emphasis on the writers as geeks makes it seem like the writers are condoning and even encouraging these behaviors.

Disclaimers: I received an Advance Reading Copy from the publisher to facilitate reviewing the book. I also attended a party hosted by the publisher at BEA to introduce the book. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Book Review: The Book of Dreams

The Book of Dreams
The Chronicles of Faerie: Book 4
by O. R. Melling

Dana Faolan, half-mortal, half faerie teen, is unhappy. Recently moved to Canada from Ireland, she misses her home and blames her father for moving her away from her beloved Ireland. She hates Canada: it's a strange country, she doesn't have any friends, and worst of all, there's no magic like there is in Ireland. Her only consolation is the world of Faerie, where she can go and visit her mother, the Light-Bearer, any time. Faerie becomes an escape from reality, one that she perhaps relies on a bit too much.

Then, all the portals between the Earthworld and Faerie are severed by an unknown enemy, putting both realms in peril. If the gateways are not restored by Samhain, then the two realms will be divided forever. Only Dana can restore the gateways. Accompanied by her new friend (and possible romantic interest) Jean, a French Canadian with secrets of his own, and with help from Laurel and Gwen, two Friends of Faerie, Dana sets off on a quest to find the Book of Dreams. In the process, she just might find that there is magic everywhere, even in Canada.

The Book of Dreams is a big, beautifully written fantasy on a grand scale. In her travels, Dana encounters people of the many different cultures that make up Canada, and the story is rich with beliefs and folklore from around the world, including Irish, French-Canadian, Hindu, Christian, Chinese, and several native peoples, including Cree and Inuit.

Melling's writing is beautiful; even her many descriptions of food, from the vegetarian meals Dana's Indian stepmother cooks, to the variety of food she encounters on her journeys, make the book worth reading (and will make you hungry while reading it!)

The story is well-paced and sometimes has a mythic feel to it. The pace is a bit slower than some YA readers may be accustomed to; the battles and dangers are balanced with scenes of family and encounters with other cultures that are important to the development of the story, but which make this a more leisurely read. The pacing, combined with the length of the book, may intimidate some readers, but good readers who love richly woven stories will enjoy it, particularly those interested in folklore and other cultures.

Don't get me wrong: there is plenty of action, as well as interesting characters (I particularly liked Dana's aunts) and a hot romantic interest. There is courage, and sacrifice, and poignant moments. This is a Rocky Road ice cream kind of book, packed with lots of chewy and delicious treats.

O.R. Melling wrote the Chronicles of Faerie so that each book stands alone, and can be read independently, and yet all the books are linked. Each of the first three books in the series features a different story and a different protagonist, although characters from the other books sometimes make cameo appearances in each book. This book can also be read independently, but I think that it would be best appreciated by someone who has read the other books in the series, because it is kind of the culmination of the series, and all the characters from the other books play a part in this one.

Our 2006 interview with O.R. Melling

Read my reviews of the other Chronicles of Faerie books:
The Hunter's Moon
The Summer King
The Light-Bearer's Daughter

Review copy provided by the publisher at BEA.