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Short Takes on Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta
Mr. Scaletta’s previous books, Mudville and Mamba Point, were both good solid middle grade reads, and The Winter of the Robots continues on in that groove. If your child is into robots or robot wars or science-y adventure tales, then The Winter of the Robots is a just the ticket. I got lost in some of the science of how to build and operate a robot, and I had to believe pretty hard to swallow some of the events that take place in the novel (kids build a self-propelled robot out of an old car?), but I bet most kids could believe it without even stretching.

Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey. I like the idea of secret society of “lybrarians” who are given the task of making the world, past and present, safe for the written word and the free expression of ideas. And I liked the opening two paragraphs a lot:

“Twelve-year-old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.
Don’t even begin to entertain consoling thoughts of long flaxen curls or shiny tresses black as ravens’ wings. Dorrie’s plain brown hair could only be considered marvelous in its ability to twist itself into hopeless tangles. She was neither particularly tall or small, thick or thin, pale or dark. She had parents who loved her, friends enough, and never wanted for a meal. So, why, you may wonder, tell a story about a girl like this at all?”

However, the story sort of meanders along and doesn’t get much better than that opening gambit.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This Harry Potter-ish novel about a boy who is sent to magic school to learn to control his magical abilities is well written and intriguing, but the ending is horrendous. After another episode in which a different character lies about being abused by a teacher, our hero ends up concealing a secret so horrible that he cannot tell anyone about it, believing that his very soul is evil, and that no one will help him or believe him or love him if he tells. That’s creepy and disturbing.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell. This Norwegian fantasy is written by a Norwegian author, but I don’t see any translator credit. So I suppose it was written in English. Nevertheless, there’s a culture gap as far as I’m concerned. Lindelin Rosenquist (lovely name) is the Twistrose (rosa torquata), sent to the land of Sylver to save the Petlings and Wilders there from imminent danger. However, she and her own special petling, Rufocanus, a redback vole, spend a lot of time wandering about and getting into fixes, then taking turns rescuing one another. They talk about having a plan, but the plan is rather muddled, and various characters show up and disappear randomly. I think I missed something in the non-translation, but maybe other readers will be able to think more Scandinavian than I do.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. Aileen and her Aunt Beck, the most powerful Wise Woman on the island of Skarr, are sent on a journey to rescue a prince. The characters in this novel do nothing but argue and undermine one another while they travel on a mission that none of them really believes in. The arguing isn’t even witty or funny. It’s a posthumous novel, completed by Ursula Jones (Diana Wynne Jones’ sister). I think the idea had potential, but someone dropped the ball.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
These books were also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Middle Grade Speculative Fiction: What’s In, What’s Out

What’s IN

North, Norse mythology, Northerness

“I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described, except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote.” ~C.S. Lewis

Thrones and Bones: Frostborn by Lou Anders.
Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen.
Odin’s Ravens by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr.
The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell.
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. (Beowulf)
Winterfrost by Michelle Houts.
West of the Moon by Margi Preus.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. (Based on The Snow Queen)

Library setting:

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” ~Jorge Luis Borges

Shouldn’t You Be In School? (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket.
The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler.
The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey.
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood.
House of Secrets: Battle of the Beasts by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini.

Trains/steampunk/alternate history North America setting:

“To some, ‘steampunk’ is a catchall term, a concept in search of a visual identity. To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance. ~Jake von Slatt
“The restlessness and the longing, like the longing that is in the whistle of a faraway train. Except that the longing isn’t really in the whistle—-it is in you.” ~Meindert DeJong

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.
The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove.
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.

Father-quest (Protagonist goes in search of his/her long lost father):

Darth Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No. I am your father. ~Star Wars

Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen.
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin.
The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles.
The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove.
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos.
The Last Wild by Piers Torday.
League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
He Laughed with His Other Mouths (A Pals in Peril Tale) by M.T. Anderson.
Oliver and the Seawigs by Philllip Reeve.

Superheroes (inside-out):

“No matter how many times you manage to save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again.” ~Craig T. Nelson, The Incredibles.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale.
Minion By John David Anderson.
Almost Super by Marion Jensen.
The Flying Burgowski by Gretchen K.Wing.

Ghost Stories:

Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide. ~William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage.
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter.
Lockwood & Co., Book 2 The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud.
Grave Images by Jenny Goebel.
The Secret at Haney Field: A Baseball Mystery by R. M. Clark.
Plus a couple of others that feature a ghost, but it would be a spoiler to tell which ones.

Fierce Female Fighters (FFF!)

Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school.
And though she be but little, she is fierce. ~William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Horizon by Jenn Reese.
The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy.
The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson.
Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly.
Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz.

Robots and automatons (particularly robotic servants):

“In the twenty-first century, the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilizations.” ~Nikola Tesla

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.
The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta.
Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor by John Scieszcka.
Horizon by Jenn Reese.
Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
How to Survive Middle School & Monster Bots by Ron Bates.
The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles.

Into the Woods: Plant Attack!

I have no fear,
Nor no one should;
The woods are just trees,
The trees are just wood. ~Red Riding Hood, Into the Woods

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.
The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell.
The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell.
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood.
Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson.
Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy.
The Thickety: A Path Begins by J.A. White.
In Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins, the trees actually get attacked instead of the other way around.

Zombies!

“I’m obsessed with zombies. I like watching zombie movies and I read zombie books.” ~Kevin Bacon

My Zombie Hamster by Havelock McCreely.
Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass.
The Zombie Chasers #6: Zombies of the Caribbean by John Kloepfer.
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson.

Under the Sea: Shark Attack!

“I don’t like the idea of being eaten by a shark. I like to swim in the ocean, and I think much more about sharks than anyone should.” ~David Duchovny, star of X-Files.

The Shark Whisperer by Ellen Prager.
Horizon by Jenn Reese.
Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly.
Oliver and the Seawigs by Philllip Reeve.
The 26-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths.

Magic School (Hogwarts, we love you! Bring on the tests!)

“Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”
~J.K. Rowling

The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani.
The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.
The Shark Whisperer by Ellen Prager.
Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe.
Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby.
Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson.
The Ability: Mindscape by M.M. Vaughan.
Death’s Academy by Michael Bast.
School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott.

Moral Ambiguity (What is Evil? What is Good?)

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” ~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani.
Blue Sea Burning (The Chronicles of Egg) by Geoff Rodkey.
Minion By John David Anderson.
Almost Super by Marion Jensen.
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood.
Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby.
Loot by Jude Watson.
Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe.
The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.
Dark Lord: School’s Out by Jamie Thomson.

Popular historical characters: King Tutankhamen, Thomas Edison (villain), Nikola Tesla (hero or crazy).

What’s Out:
Vampires. I read about some blood-sucking valravens, but nary a vampire.
Fairies. There was a weird demonic looking fairy in one book and a drill sergeant fairy in another, but traditional Victorian fairies seem to be mostly passé.
Dragons. I read about a couple of dragons, but that was all.

What popular themes and motifs did I miss? What middle grade speculative fiction books of 2014 that fit into one of the above categories did I forget?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
These books are also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

12 Favorite Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Books of 2014

This list is both difficult and easy. I read over 100 Middle Grade speculative fiction novels because of my role as a Cybils judge, so I have quite a few books to choose from. However choosing only the twelve best isn’t easy. These are my personal favorites and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other Cybils judges.

1. The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson. This fourth book in the Wingfeather series is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the series with Book 1, At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. The entire series would be excellent for read aloud time.
2. The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman. When Mary Mouse, art thief, and Caro McKay, model orphan, meet, they immediately form a bond that transcends their inability to communicate completely. And when Caro helps Mary escape from the dreaded predator, Gallico the cat, then Mary knows that she must return the favor by helping Caro, even though Caro doesn’t understand the danger she faces.
3. The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Two Irish orphan children become entangled in an English family, the Windsors, and the curse that binds them to a crumbling house built around a spooky, twisted snare of a tree that captures the Windsors and their new Irish servants and threatens to carry them to their doom.
4. Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins. Talking squirrels threatened by environmental disaster. If you liked last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt or even last year’s Newbery Award winner, Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures by Kate di Camillo, then Nuts to You should be just up your alley.
5. The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell. A lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
6. The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel. The Boundless, a luxury train in a steampunk alternate history world, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!
7. Almost Super by Marion Jensen. All of the Baileys receive their very own superpower on February 29th at 4:23 in the afternoon in the first leap year after their twelfth birthday. So now it’s time for Rafter Bailey, age thirteen, and his brother, Benny, age twelve to get their powers. It should be the best day of their young lives, but superpowers are unpredictable and Rafter and Benny are in for a big surprise.
8. The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Chritopher Healy. The new League of Princes book, third in the series, does indeed have pirates, fearless female fighters, and grammar lessons, and all sorts of other hilarious shenanigans. Luxuriate in laughter.
9. The Children of the King When war refugees Cecily and May find two mysterious boys hiding in the nearby ruins of Snow Castle, they beg Uncle Peregrine to tell them the history of the castle. And he does, even though “its story is as hard as winter” and “cruel” and “scary” and “long” and “unfit for childish ears.”
10. Space Case by Stuart Gibbs. A classic murder mystery set on the moon and wrapped inside a bunch of details about life in space, space stations, and the possibilities of what might happen if and when humans begin to colonize the moon.
11. Lockwood & Co.: the Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. The Lockwood & Co series of ghost fantasies aren’t for everyone. They’re probably too occult-related for some readers, even though the the protagonists—Lockwood, Lucy, and George—are the good guys as they fight against The Problem of evil ghostly manifestations that have become a common peril in this alternate history future.
12. Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson. I would recommend this one to anyone who’s interested in trains, dystopia, futuristic sci-fi, or spunky female protagonists.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Ambassador by William Alexander


“Gabe has some alien problems.”

National Book Award-winning author William Alexander is writing in a completely different genre from his fantasy novel and award winner, Goblin Secrets, a book I didn’t care for all that much. Ambassador is science fiction, close encounters of the third kind, and I did enjoy it.

Gabriel Sandro Fuentes is an eleven year old middle child, with an older sister and twin toddler brother and sister. Gabe is what my mom would fondly call “a lover, not a fighter.” He’s plenty courageous, but he’s learned in his eleven years to be a peacemaker. His mother calls him “the most sensible member of this whole family” and “the only one who knows how to keep your head down.”

When The Envoy asks Gabe to become Earth’s Ambassdor to the Galaxy and to avert an impending crisis in the universe using his skills in diplomacy and playground negotiation, Gabe feels it is his duty to take up the challenge. But while Gabe is dealing with a destructive alien force headed for Earth and an assassination attempt, his family on Earth is in danger of being deported from the U.S. because of their undocumented status. How can Gabe save Earth and be there for his family?

Ambassador is lots of fun. It doesn’t tie all the loose ends up neatly at the end of the book. Readers will want to know more about what happens to Gabe’s family as well as the motivations and intentions of the enigmatic Outlast Omegan. Maybe there’s a sequel planned.

Nevertheless, it’s not an unsatisfying ending. Gabe is an engaging character, and he does do what he needs to do in a well-planned and plucky way. Whovians and Trekkies and fans of classic sci-fi in general will enjoy the ride.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry


Good old-fashioned Robert Heinlein-style juvenile science fiction. The story takes place in our own solar system. The characters are all human (well, except for Grandpa who’s mostly cyborg by now). The unfamiliar words are mostly space travel jargon (fireship, grav-sled, transponder) and pirate talk (belay, burgoo, avast, barky). There’s politics and adventure and espionage, and girls and guys take part equally in the adventure and in the drudge work.

Twelve year old twins Tycho and Yana, and older brother Carlo Hashoone are the three probable heirs to the Hashoone family business: a privateering starship called the Shadow Comet. Their mom, Diocletia, is the captain, and dad, Mavry, is the first mate. However, since only one of the three siblings can become captain when mom retires, there’s a lot of rivalry mixed in with the teamwork as the entire family, including Grandpa, work together to find and take prizes, namely Earth cargo ships. Because the Jovian Union, where the Hashoons are from, and Earth are technically at war, the Shadow Comet operates under letters of marquee to capture and hold for ransom any starships from Earth that might cross their path.

Besides just being a lot of fun, the book might bring up some interesting class or family discussions:

What is the difference between a pirate and a privateer? (Reference and compare Sir Francis Drake and also U.S. privateers of the American revolution.) How are the crew of the Shadow Comet different from historical pirates like Jean Lafitte? How are they similar? Are privateers really just “pirates with papers”? Is it justifiable to be a pirate (or privateer) if you’re fighting for your country while you you take a little profit for yourself?

Can family members work as a team and also be rivals for the same position? How would that work in real life? Have you seen families pull together in a crisis? Do they always?

Did you think it was unusual to have the mom be the captain of the Shadow Comet, with the dad serving under her authority as first mate? What did you think of Captain Diocletia giving orders to her father, her husband, and her children? Why do you think the author wrote the characters’ roles this way?

Yana is impulsive and decisive, whereas Tycho is more thoughtful and indecisive. Which twin are you more like? Which one do you think would make a better captain someday? Or would you choose Carlo, since he’s older and a better pilot?

What do you think about Grandpa’s decision at the end of the book? Was he right? If not, do you understand why he did what he did?

You can probably think of other avenues for discussion as you read the book. Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is the first book in a series about the Hashoone family and their piratical (privateering!) adventures. The second book is Curse of the Iris, due out December 16, 2014.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor by John Scieszcka

Frank Einstein loves science. So does his grandfather, Grampa Al. The science bug skipped a generation, however, since Frank’s parents love to travel and are clueless about science. When Frank teams up with a couple of self-assembled artificially intelligent SmartBots, Klink and Klank, he’s on his way to win the science fair with a motor powered by the combination of matter and anti-matter. But Frank’s competition, T. Edison, along with Edison’s Chief Financial officer, Mr. Chimp, are out to win the science fair, too—-any way they can!

“Frank loves science” becomes a convenient excuse for inserting all sorts of science factoids into the story, but it’s a painless interposition with lots of cool science charts and illustrations. Kids who “love science” along with Frank, about third or fourth graders, should also enjoy Frank Einstein’s adventures. And those who aren’t so fond of science might develop a taste for it, which I assume is at least part of the goal.

Brandy of Random Musings of a Bibliophile noted in her review of another 2014 middle grade sci-fi book (Tesla’s Attic), “This is one in a long line of books that have released lately in which Tesla and his inventions play a major role. As does the vilifying of Thomas Edison.” No Tesla in Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, but T. Edison is the villain. So why is everybody suddenly down on Edison?

Aside from a few slightly abrupt transitions, this first book in the Frank Einstein series is an action-packed solid read for younger middle grade readers. And Mr. Scieszcka has his characters allude to both Asimov’s I, Robot and to the Captain Underpants series. So something for everyone, including some very bad jokes, courtesy of Klank.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles

This debut novel, first in a projected series, is just the ticket for Star Wars fans. Are there still Star Wars fans around these days? Like Trekkies? Tell me that Trekkies still exist.

Anyway, The Lost Planet opens with our amnesiac hero recovering from a nasty head wound. He doesn’t know where he is or who he is. However, a somewhat damaged memory chip embedded under his scalp (ouch!) indicates that his name might be “Chase Garrety”. The only thing he remembers, sort of, is a message: “Guide the star.” What does it mean? Who is he really? And is someone trying to kill him?

What in this book reminded me of Star Wars?

*a robot helper/guardian.
*lots of alien species with odd non-humanoid bodies from several different planets.
*travel on a rickety old space ship with a less than trustworthy pilot.
*space smugglers and arms dealers.
*a “who am I” and “who are my parents” mystery.
*a vaporized planet.
*a motley crew of frenemies thrown together by misadventure and running for their lives.
*planet-hopping.
*a “federation” made up of many planets (but that’s more Star Trek, isn’t it?).

On the other hand, Lost Planet is not just a Star Wars knock-off. It’s different enough that fans of that sort of story might very well enjoy it, especially middle grade readers who are looking for science fiction/fantasy with “no kissing” parts. No romance, lots of action, and inter-planetary adventure make this novel just the right read for—well, whom does that description bring to your mind?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Hooray for Cybils Speculative Fiction (Middle Grade)

I am excited and honored to be joining the following fellow bloggers as a member of the Cybils judging panel for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy) this year.

Rana Bardisi
Reader Noir
@readernoirblog

Maureen Eichner
By Singing Light
@elvenjaneite

Cindy Hannikman
Fantasy Book Critic

Katy Kramp
A Library Mama
@alibrarymama

Brandy Painter
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
@brandymuses

Charlotte Taylor
Charlotte’s Library
@charlotteslib

This assignment means that my fellow panelists and I get to read LOTS of middle grade speculative fiction, probably over 200 books in the genre published between October 15, 2013 and October 15, 2014. And we get to discuss them all via the magic of the internet, and we get to share the best of the best (or the worst of the worst) with readers of our respective blogs. What a privilege.

Nominations for the Cybils in all categories open October 1st at the Cybils website. Get your nominees ready, and check back here for speculative fiction reviews and commentary galore.

Parched by Georgia Clark

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after . . . a disaster that ruins the world. Possible apocalyptic disasters include nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, climate change, resource depletion or some other general disaster.”

“A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.”

Obviously there is/can be some overlap here. Hunger Games is dystopian fiction, but it is hinted that some apocalyptic disaster caused the government of Panem to become what it was. Divergent also falls into this in between category, with most of the emphasis being on the uncovering of the dystopia underneath the seeming utopia of future Chicago. Parched is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.

Disaster: fifty years of climate change leading to world wide drought and a severe shortage of water.

Ostensible utopia that is actually a dystopia: Eden, a city enclosed by white walls and a clear protective dome under which water is kept for the exclusive benefit of the Edenites. Outside Eden is the Badlands where millions live in violent anarchy with a growing shortage of water.

Government: authoritarian, led by a dictator named Gyan and a group of functionaries called the Trust.

Hero/heroine: Sixteen year old Tessendra Rockwood, an Edenite who, because of the tragic accident that killed her mother, has left the protective environment she grew up in to live in the Badlands outside the city.

Rebel group: Kudzu, a group of teens who are determined to change their world by means of non-violent resistance.

Technology: Eden is highly technological with robots called “substitutes” that perform most of the menial labor in the city, and the development of artificial intelligence is on the horizon for the scientists of Eden. Inhabitants of the Badlands exist on the edges of civilization, using primitive low-tech weapons and the cast-off technology of Eden to survive.

I thought Parched was well-written and solid in its world-building and characterizations. I did figure out one of the two major “reveals’ in the book before they were revealed, but I’m not sure every reader would. And sometimes Tess acts sixteen year old dumb while at other times she is brave, strong, and skilled way beyond her years. If the “border crisis” in Parched is meant to mirror and comment on the current border crisis in the U.S., it’s eerily prescient since the book was published in March of this year just before the border crisis began to dominate the news in mid-summer.

There is teen romance in Parched (no triangle, thank goodness), but it’s an interesting and somewhat restrained romance. There is some mild bad language, which could have have been left out, but unfortunately wasn’t. The language, violence, theme of rebellion against a repressive government, and romance make this one firmly YA, although both younger and older readers who like Orleans by Sherri Smith or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities would also like Parched.

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.