The new Carnival of Children's Literature is up on The Miss Rumphius Effect. Tricia did a great job organizing and formatting the carnival. Lots of good posts there, from book reviews to interviews to advice about reading aloud with kids.
Monday, March 22, 2010
by Stephen Wallenfels
At exactly 5:00am on March 14, the invasion begins. It starts with a horrible screeching noise, then black spheres descend from the sky and vaporize people and cars in the streets with beams of light. After the streets are cleared, the spheres just hang there, mysteriously. Telephones, internet, and all other electronic communications are shut down, and the streets remain a danger zone.
Sixteen-year-old Josh, trapped with his father in their house in Prosser, Washington, calls the spheres Pearls of Death, or PODs for short. Meanwhile, a twelve-year-old girl named Megs is trapped in a hotel parking garage in Los Angeles, when her mother leaves her in the car just before the invasion, promising to return in an hour.
The book alternates between Josh’s and Megs’ stories, as each deals with the aftermath of the invasion. Both are surrounded by people, and yet in some sense alone. Josh’s father obsessively organizes their limited resources, while refusing to allow Josh to talk about his mother, missing and possibly dead in the invasion. Josh can see the people in the apartment building across the street, but with no communications and the streets unsafe, they might as well be on Mars.
Megs spends her time hiding in the garage from the denizens of the hotel; her instincts warn her that she’s safer on her own. When she can, she scavenges food, water, and other resources from the other cars to survive.
POD is science fiction at its best: a gripping post-apocalyptic novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat, yet has human character and human relationships at its heart. One of the fascinating things about post-apocalyptic SF is a chance to look at what can happen to society when life becomes dangerous and resources scarce. The aliens are not the scariest thing in this book; that honor goes to the people who will do anything for food, water, or antibiotics, and the people who use the situation to their own advantage.
POD is a fairly short book, and a quick read. Once you start, you won’t want to put it down. The two stories are a little unbalanced for the first part of the book, in that Megs faces more immediate danger than Josh. Josh's story is more of a relationship story which, while compelling, is slower to develop, and at first I kept wanting to switch back to Megs’ story.
The characters are fascinating and well-developed. Josh's point of view is so well-written that even as an adult and a parent, I sided with Josh in his conflicts with his dad, and felt that his dad was being unreasonable. Megs is a likable, spunky girl who has well-developed survival skills from an unstable pre-invasion home life.
The length of this book might make you wonder if it would be appropriate for middle-grade readers. But this is definitely a YA, not middle-grade book: there are people (and animals) getting vaporized and killed and hurt in horrible ways, and dead bodies bloating after days (weeks) hanging around. Some middle-grade readers may enjoy it, but others might find it too frightening.
POD is the first book in a trilogy, and some questions are left unanswered at the end.
FTC required disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher to enable me to write this review. The Amazon.com links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.
Saturday, March 06, 2010
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
The Clone Codes
by Patricia C. McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack, and John McKissack
I wanted to like this book. I'm always on the lookout for good young adult science fiction, and this looked perfect: a future where clones are created as servants, with safeguards and restrictions genetically built in to make them the perfect slaves. Thirteen-year-old Leanna grows up believing that clones are less than human, until her mother is arrested for being part of the radical Liberty Bell movement that is working to prove that clones are equal and should be free.
This is the kind of thing that science fiction does so well: explore sociological themes in a subtle way that can open us up to thinking about our own society in a new way. However, this book has all the subtlety of a brick wall. From the opening scene, in which Leanna is participating through school in a virtual re-enactment of an Underground Railroad escape led by Harriet Tubman, it's clear that this book is intended to teach, both about history and about the evils of slavery. This is not science fiction; it's a lesson that's not very cleverly disguised as science fiction.
It's not even very well written, which surprised me since the authors (at least, two of the three of them) have won multiple major awards. The writing style is choppy, the story and character development simplistic, and there's an awful lot of "telling" when there should be "showing." There are multiple plot inconsistencies. Minor ones, to be sure, but it was enough to annoy me. I don't understand how such acclaimed authors could have written such a book, but when I look at their bio, apparently their other books have been non-fiction. I guess that there must be a big enough difference between non-fiction writing and fiction writing -- science fiction in particular -- that skill in one area doesn't necessarily translate into skill in the other. I did wonder whether the short sentences and simplistic plot were intended to address those with reading challenges, however the press materials that Scholastic sent don't say that, and I think even kids with reading challenges will spot the too-obvious lessons in this book.
I don't normally post a review when I can't say anything good about a book. I figure that every author pours their heart and soul into a book, and no author deserves to have their work publicly trashed. If I can't find enough good to say about a book, I usually decline to review it, which I guess makes my reviews more recommendations than reviews.
However, there were a couple of things that annoyed me enough about this book to make me want to post this. The first is the apparent assumption that science fiction is easy to write, and any writer can jump on board and write science fiction. I have spent my life reading science fiction and fantasy, starting in elementary school. I took a college lit class on science fiction. I've studied YA fantasy and science fiction pretty intensely over the last several years in my roles as both blogger and publisher focusing on the genre. And I can tell you that there's nothing easy about writing science fiction. It's probably one of the hardest genres to write well. You have to have all the literary skills required to write any fiction, but in addition you have to have believable world-building and credible science. You have to develop characters that may be very different from us, such as non-human species or genetically modified clones, and yet make it possible for the human reader to understand and identify with them. If you include sociological themes, you have to do it in a subtle, thought-provoking way, and not hit the reader over the head. Books like The Clone Codes are just disrespectful to the genre.
The other thing that annoys me is that I feel that this book wouldn't have been published if the authors hadn't been award-winning, well-known authors. If this book had come in the slush pile, an editor wouldn't have gotten past the first page. With the limited number of books being published, that this one was published means that another book, maybe more well-deserving but with an unknown author, was not.
FTC required disclosure: I received a review copy of The Clone Codes from the publisher. The Amazon.com links above are Amazon Associate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.