The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

In Book one of this series (or maybe it’s just a book and a sequel), The Fog Diver, Chess, the foggy-eyed tether boy, and his crew escape from the slums of evil Lord Kodoc, and the slum kids make it to the “promised land” of Port Oro. However, in The Lost Compass, Chess continues to be a target for Lord Kodoc’s diabolical plans to rule the world above the fog. And the Fog itself continues to be both a menace and a possible concealer of rich and useful secrets. Furthermore, the citizens of Port Oro may want Chess to pay them back for their rescue of Chess and his friends and for their healing of Mrs. E, Chess’s mentor, by doing something that will risk the loss of everything that they have gained.

The characters in this series are the draw for me. Chess is brave and bold, yet self-effacing and unsure of what his true destiny is. Hazel, the crew’s captain, is described as “bossy”, but she’s bossy in a good way. She usually has good ideas and knows what to do and how to do it. Bea, the gear girl (engineer), is my favorite. She talks to engines and other machines—and they talk back to her. Swede is the pilot, more than competent and kind of grumbly. And Loretta, a raw and uncivilized slum brawler, is an extreme example of what a kid without a home or family or love could turn out like. Her attitude is summed up in this quote from a discussion of information found in books: “Books . . . What’s the point? You can’t wear’em, you can’t eat’em, and you can’t even stab someone with’em.”

The Lost Compass depends on the same kind of sci-fi and pop culture jokes and the same kind of non-stop action as The Fog Diver. If you read and enjoyed The Fog Diver, you will also enjoy this more than adequate sequel. The ending feels complete to me, but Mr. Ross may have one or even a dozen more novels in this series yet to be revealed. The very last words in the novel are: “Maybe our story wasn’t over. Maybe the world was bigger than I’d ever imagined.” Take from that what you will.

The Last Wild by Piers Torday

Wild” is a noun, not an adjective in this novel, and it means a group of animals who live together in a sort of ecosystem. Kester Jaynes is a boy, the son of a former veterinarian, who lives in a home for troubled children in a society that has become somewhat troubled, perhaps insane, itself.

The animals have all been destroyed because of the the “disease worse than a nuclear bomb” called red-eye. The animals were carriers, and now most of them are gone, except for insects and a few species of birds. However, one night Kester discovers that even though he is unable to speak even a word to humans, he can communicate with animals. A flock of pigeons and a cockroach rescue Kester from lockdown in the children’s home and take him to where the Last Wild is meeting in a desperate attempt to save themselves from becoming the last victims of red-eye.

Kester, through a series of odd events, becomes the leader of this Last Wild, and they set out together to find Kester’s father, who may hold the clue to a cure for the disease. Or Mr. Jaynes may be working with the evil Selwyn Stone Enterprise, makers of “formul-A”, the only food source for human beings now that the animals (and most all of the farms) are all gone. Kester is not sure what’s going on with his dad, but he journeys in faith that somehow his father will help the animals of the Last Wild.

So, this book is a post-apocolyptic father-quest with an evil corporation as antagonist, and the plot involves a weak but honorable boy traveling across country in the company of his animal friends and protectors. It sounds like a lot of other stories of its kind, and the formul-A and the cockroach friendship didn’t help my enjoyment of the novel. However, the sequel to this book, The Dark Wild, just won the Guardian Prize for for Children’s Fiction in Great Britain, a place where they may like their children’s books a little darker than I do and where they may not be as familiar with actual, Houston-size cockroaches. I can imagine those Britishers thinking that a cockroach would make a nice little pet, but they are wrong. Mice, yes, maybe, cockroaches, no way.

Anyway, if your toleration for roaches and pink slime (which is how I imagined the formul-A) is better than mine, and if the premise sounds interesting, you might want to check out The Last Wild. The roach friend and the nasty food are about the worst of the details of the novel. Oh, there are the dying stag and the crazy white pigeon.

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.

Horizon by Jenn Reese

The #weneediversebooks movement has been a popular phenomenon on Twitter and among kidlit and YA bloggers this year. The idea is to encourage publishers and authors to write and market more and better literature for children and young adults that shows and features diversity in human beings. In other words, children want to read, or adults want them to be able to read, about the many cultures, racial groups, religious groups, ability groups, and others that make up the human race. Books, especially book characters, as a whole, should reflect the marvelous diversity that exists in the human family.

One question has been where does this movement for diversity intersect with speculative fiction? In particular, since I’m reading a ton of it for the Cybils, where do diversity in characters and cultures and middle grade speculative fiction intersect? Is it just about more people of color or more people with disabilities as characters in our fantasy and science fiction books? Or can diversity be approached in another way, a way that is particularly suited to speculative fiction?

In Horizon author Jenn Reese shows a world of diverse “humans”, a world in which, by the end of the book, most of the very different creatures with very different cultures an cultural expectations have learned to live together peacefully. (I could argue with the implication that if you simply get rid of the evil dictator, evil in the rest of the world will die a quick death, but I won’t go there.) Instead I want to just list some of the peoples that Reese includes in her fantasy world:

The Coral Kampii live under the ocean but near the shore and are given beautiful tails instead of legs at puberty. Their society is closed off, conservative, and isolationist.
Equians are intelligent horse-like people who live in the desert and worship the sun. Their primary values are honor and loyalty to the community, or herd.
The Deepfell live in the deeps of the ocean and are related to but also enemies of the Kampii. They have bodies that have adapted to the pressures of the ocean depths.
The Serpentii are a snakish people who also live in the desert, usually in caves. They have been long at war with the Equians and are by this time nearly extinct.
The Aviars are bird-people with a rather militant and Spartan female-led culture.
Upgraders are technologically enhanced human-like cyborgs who seem to be the enemies of all of the other more human species in this world. Or are they?

So in Horizon these different groups work out their differences and some of them ally themselves together to fight the evil Karl Strand, a mad scientist dictator who wants to rule the world. Written like that, the plot may sound a little hokey, but it’s certainly not. The interactions between the different characters and between the different people groups are complicated, nuanced, and intriguing. Characters must overcome their prejudices, learn to accept their dissimilarities, and work together, capitalizing on the things that divide them and make them diverse, while also overcoming the things that handicap them. For instance, the main character, Aluna, is a Kampii with a tail (think mermaid) which is a disability when she is on land. However, her friend, Vachir, an Equian, carries Aluna, tail and all, into battle where she is able to use her other abilities to fight and win battles.

When we talk about “diverse books” or “diverse characters”, it’s not enough to ask only simple questions, although these are a start, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Are there any people of color in the Above World books? I’m not sure skin color is ever mentioned, except for the Kampii’s colorful tails. Are any of the characters disabled? Well, in a way, they all are “differently abled”. The Kampii can’t walk. None of the people can fly, except the Aviars. The land peoples can’t live in the water, and the water peoples can’t live on land without technological aids. The Equians don’t talk in words, only whinnies. Are there diverse cultures? Of course, but they aren’t the cultures we know in our world, even though some of them resemble real cultural groups in our world.

Is speculative fiction, particularly this Above World trilogy, a good way for middle grade readers to explore diversity? Absolutely. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in a scene in which the different characters are trying to build a city that will serve all of the world’s people groups:

“She pored over the city’s planning schematics every night. The ramps and elevators had been her idea, so every person could go every place, whether they had wings or tails or hooves or legs. Given enough time, she’d probably find a way to let the Aviars live underwater if they wanted.”

Now that’s an example of accommodating and celebrating diversity. #weneeddiversebooks

The first two books in this series were Above World and Mirage. I suggest reading the books in order.

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.

Cybils: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Nominations are open through October 15th for the Cybils, the book awards for children’s and young adult literature that are administered, judged, and awarded by kid lit bloggers. The category description for YA Speculative Fiction says:

Magic, aliens, ghosts, alternate universes, time travel, space travel, high fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, horror, and sentient animals are just some of the many topics that belong here. If a book could happen today or could have happened in the past, nominate it in YA Fiction. But any story that’s impossible, improbable, or merely possible – but not quite yet – belongs in Speculative Fiction. Magic Realism is tricky, but more often than not ends up here. The age range for this category is approximately 12-18.

Here are a few YA Speculative Fiction books that may deserve a look, but haven’t been nominated yet. If one of these is your favorite, please nominate it for a Cybils award.

Parched by Georgia Clark.
Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski.
Destined for Doon by Carey Corp and Lorey Langdon. Reviewed at The Book Nut: A Booklover’s Guide.
Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan.
Mindwar by Andrew Klavan.
One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.
Merlin’s Nightmare by Robert Treskillard. NOMINATED
Rebels (The Safe Lands) by Jill Williamson.

Do carry on with nominations for all your favorites in all of the categories, but only those books published between Oct. 16, 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014 are eligible.

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.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

A homeschooling mom friend recommended Under the Never Sky, the first in a futuristic, dystopian trilogy of YA novels about a place I wouldn’t want to visit In Real Life. Aria lives in Reverie, an enclosed pod-like city where everyone spends their time experiencing life in virtual reality “Realms”. When she visits the outside, the “Real”, Aria is in for a dangerous surprise and a journey that will both change her and show her true self.

Perry is a hunter and a fighter; for him, violence is a way of life, a tool for survival. When he meets the Dweller-girl Aria, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance so that both of them can maybe get what they want. Aria wants to find her mother who has been lost in a research accident (or attack), and Perry wants to find his nephew who was kidnapped by the Dwellers.

Plot and characters were at the forefront of this YA novel, and the story itself was a page-turner. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, in terms of themes, except maybe that surviving together in a harsh and dangerous world can breed inter-dependence, or even what Perry calls “being rendered” with another person.

“Aria smiled, turning toward him, her eyes dropping to his mouth. The room sweetened with her violet scent, drawing him in, becoming everything, and he felt it. A shift deep within him. The seal of a bond he’d known once before. And suddenly he understood . . .
It happened.
He had rendered to her.”

This one is a good, romantic yet wild and ferocious, adventure story for alternate universe geeks who love a good rendering on or around Valentine’s Day (or anytime really). The second and third books in this trilogy are titled Through the Ever Night and Into the Still Blue.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?


If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, unbelievable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Note: I do not usually give “stars” or numerical ratings to books, and after reading The Circle, I doubt if I ever will again. I can’t believe all of the people on Goodreads who say they have read the book and are still giving it a numerical rating. The sheer farce of assigning everyone and everything a numerical value and “liking” or “not liking” it is well-parodied in The Circle. So, just don’t do it, folks. Books are not numbers. (Although I kind of like “like” buttons . . .)

And, yes, I know that the gadget I’m using to allow you to share this review on social media sites, says “sharing is caring” just below this post. Irony or the beginning of the approach to Armageddon?

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

I’m reluctant to say it, but the writing quality seems to have dropped between this third book in the trilogy and the first one. Fans will still want to know what happens to Tris and Four and their city of factions, but they may be as disappointed as I was in the dialogue and plot development in Allegiant.

First of all, there are character motivation and plot continuity problems. POSSIBLE SPOILERS!!! At one point Four is supposed to have joined a rebellion and betrayed the entire compound in which he and Tris are living, and in addition, caused the death of at least one character. He is put on “probation” by the authorities. Then, he proceeds to go wherever he wants, talk to whomever he wants, and become involved in yet another rebellion. It seems unlikely to say the least.

Tris, too, is able to see and hear and get information way beyond the trust level that she has earned, and her ability to escape death and serious injury is nearly magical. I found it difficult to understand how the society where Tris and Four find themselves can be so security-conscious and at the same time so negligent in supervising and guarding against these teen “strangers”, some of whom are believed to be “genetically damaged” and therefore prone to violence and unbalanced choices.

Tris and Four promise each other to be completely honest and to keep no secrets from one another. Then they both tell half-truths and keep secrets from each other. And the motivation for their doing so is inadequate and unbelievable. Four believes a girl he barely knows and keeps secrets from Tris on her behalf—because he’s feeling insecure? Tris has her own secrets that she keeps for the sake of—not burdening Four?

Four and Tris become more and more physically involved with one another in this book, while at the same time arguing over issues of honesty and keeping secrets from one another and forgiveness. The book shows a true picture of how a romance can “heat up” physically while the couple involved have to endure misunderstandings and betrayals and continue to “choose each other” daily in order to stay together. But Tris and Four act extremely mature and make critical choices in life and death situations in one moment while at the next juncture they’re dealing with and exhibiting immaturity, jealousy, and possessiveness at a middle school level.

I predict that lots of fans are not going to like the ending, but the last few chapters were actually my favorite part of the book. Four and Tris really grow up fast in the last quarter of the book and show us the maturity that I wanted to see throughout this third book. To get to the ending I also had to endure superfluous characters (a homosexual couple introduced solely for the purpose of “diversity”), unexplained rabbit trails, and awkward pacing and dialogue. But I’m glad I finished the book. And I’m looking forward to the Divergent movie. (Divergent is scheduled to be released on March 21, 2014 in the United States.) However, unless the movie people–directors and screenwriters—do something really special with the second and third books in the trilogy, I probably won’t bother seeing those movies, if they even get made.

Cybils 2013 Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Some possible nominees for the Cybils awards in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction (Fantasy and Science Fiction) category:

A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer, reviewed at Semicolon.

Failstate: Legends by John W. Otte.

Anomaly by Krista McGee. Reviewed by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible.

Captives by Jill Williamson. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Aquifer by Jonathan Friesen. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Merlin’s Shadow by Robert Treskillard.

A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer

Inspired (or scared silly) by Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and Stephen King’s The Stand, author Amber Kizer says she first became fascinated with viruses and pandemics and apocalyptic survival when she was in middle school. “With Nadia and Rabbit’s story I got to live out one fantasy of a worst-case-scenario pandemic,” says she.

Nadia and Rabbit are a teenage girl and little brother, alive in world where a nasty weaponized virus has killed 98% of the world’s population. And what’s left is a lot of dead bodies and anarchy. It’s a pretty repulsive and violent world, but Nadia and Rabbit have been taught by their father, a marine, and their uncle, an epidemiologist in the military, to “be the cockroach”—in other words, to survive. So, using practical survival techniques and common sense, Nadia and Rabbit leave their home in Seattle to travel eastward to West Virginia where they hope to find their grandfather and uncle still living and preparing a place for them to survive in this brave new world. Don’t read any more if you want to read the novel for yourself without spoilers.

I liked this story a lot, although it had its flaws. The main thing that didn’t make sense was that Nadia and Rabbit at first think they might be the only people left in this world, but after the halfway point of the book, they meet people, other survivors, almost on every page. And there are plot developments that just seem to be dropped. At one point Nadia is captured, and her captors threaten to trade her to some one named “Jonah” who “wants all the girls.” In most stories, Jonah would show up later, and we’d get some idea about who he is and why he wants all the girls. In this story, Jonah is never mentioned again. That’s realistic, but not very satisfying as a story (see Chekhov’s gun).

Still, I recommend this story for those who have not tired of the recent spate of apocalyptic survival stories. Read-alikes would include: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Epitaph Road by David Patneaude, Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, The Compound by S.A. Bodeen, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, and Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeiffer.

2013 Cybils nomination category: Young Adult Speculative Fiction