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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.

The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

“You writers always have to be so cryptic.”

So says a character in this Australian YA fiction title, honored by The Children’s Book Council of Australia, but, she said it, full of cryptic. The Ink Bridge tells the story of two young men, one Afghani named Omed and one Australian boy named Hector, Hec for short. Omed’s story comes first in the book. Maimed by the Taliban when they cut out his tongue, Omed is unable to talk, lost inside himself, and a lot of his internal dialogue is obscure and puzzling (cryptic) to say the least. Omed’s story is the tale of a refugee with very little hope, as Omed makes his way from Afghanistan to Australia in the clutches of and dependent on an evil smuggler called The Snake.

Halfway through the book, the point of view switches to Hec, another boy without words. Hec is an elective mute; he chooses not to talk because the tragedy which has occurred to disrupt his life has sucked all the words out of him. As he gets to know Omed, however, whom he calls Silent Boy, Hec finds a reason for words and telling stories. In fact, he finds himself compelled to tell Omed’s story in the hope that somehow telling the story of Omed’s struggles will give voice to the suffering people of Afghanistan and will change in some small way the tragedy that is being played out daily in that country.

A lot of the book fits the cryptic label. Omed and Hec both are very internally focussed for much of the story. Since they can’t or won’t talk, they imagine a lot, and some of their introspection is a stew of secrets and mysteries and regrets and visions and just plain craziness. I can imagine not talking for a year, like Hec, and sometimes I think it would be a relief. But it might make me a little more crazy than I already am.

The Ink Bridge is a book about the power of words, but I think it would take a motivated and discerning young adult reader to stick with the story through the enigmatic passages and the difficult relationships that make up the bulk of the narrative. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in refugees in Australia or in the people of fghanistan.

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.

Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.

The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.

I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.

Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:

And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses:

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.

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.

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Last year I read Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery story for young adults set in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1846, and featuring a young Emily Dickinson as the protagonist and sleuth. MacColl’s latest novel, Always Emily, features a different literary Emily, Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

Emily and Charlotte are as different in character, personality, and appearance as it is possible for two sisters to be. On the first page of the novel the family is at a funeral. Charlotte sat “stiffly, her back perfectly straight.” Emily “fidgeted unconscionably.” Charlotte is later portrayed as bossy, prim, near-sighted and anxious. Emily, on the other hand, is wild, independent, outspoken, and undisciplined. The two sisters share only three things: a passionate nature, inquisitive intelligence, and a love for writing.

The two young women, ages 17 and 19 in the book, squabble and argue incessantly. And yet they manage to work together to solve a mystery and bring a miscreant to justice. I was impressed with the author’s ability to bring these two famous writers to life, along with their sometimes chaotic home life. The youngest Bronte sister, Anne, doesn’t play a part in Always Emily; she’s away on a visit. But their father the Reverend Bronte is very much present, as an indulgent father and a socially concerned pastor and counselor. The Bronte brother, Branwell, is already headed toward a weak and dissolute life in this story. And Tabitha, the young ladies’ Yorkshire cook, servant, and substitute mother-figure, rounds out the cast of characters who live in the Bronte household.

The mystery itself was somewhat slight, but it served as a vehicle for the characters to shine. Fans of the Brontes will enjoy the book, and some readers might become fans after reading about the two fiery and independent Bronte sisters. For a biography of the Brontes, try The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef, a Cybils finalist from last year. For more Bronte-related fiction, I recommend The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title: The Twelve and the Genii). Of course, if you’re interested in direct exposure to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, I also recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, if you haven’t already read both. Like the sisters themselves, the two books are quite different, but each one is insightful and appealing in its own way.

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.

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

I can’t believe I read the whole thing. I even started the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight. Wikipedia says, “The series has received critical acclaim and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list.” I am not impressed. And hereafter, be warned that since I didn’t like the book very much, and I don’t recommend it, there may be spoilers in my review.

The protagonist, Celaena Sardothien, aside from having an annoyingly unpronounceable first name, seems to be a failed attempt at creating a forceful, aggressive, feminist Cinderella heroine. Author Sarah Maas said in an interview, “I’d love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered.” Celaena is supposed to be a master assassin who has survived a year in the salt mines of Endevier, a horrific prison/work camp. However, she comes across to me as a frivolous girl who loves food, especially sweets, and clothes and parties and hunky guys. She is an expert with weapons of any make or model, but in the entire course of Throne of Glass, Celaena never actually assassinates anyone. (She does kill a sort of monster demon cat, but no people.) She mostly depends on the guys, a friend from another country named Nehemia, and some kind of goddess ancestor ghost named Queen Elena, to rescue her from the ultimate dangers in which she finds herself embroiled in an assassin’s competition that forms the backbone of the plot of Throne of Glass.

The book includes (of course) a love triangle. Celeana is pursued by both Prince Darian and Captain of the Guard Chaol (another annoying name). She frequently expresses her desire (in her thoughts) to kiss Darien, and eventually she does. But there’s no chemistry or interest to the budding romance between the assassin and the prince. Chaol is more the strong, silent type, and he and Celeana never get to the point of kissing. The verbal sparring and flirting that goes on between Celeana and each of the guys is neither witty nor romantic; in fact, it’s mostly boring. I didn’t really care which man Celeana chose, and at least in the first book of the series, I wasn’t disappointed because she chooses neither, keeping them both on the string.

So many contradictions marred the plot of this Hunger Games wannabe. Celeana is deathly afraid of and hates the King of Adarlan, her employer, but she is sure her skills are so developed that she could assassinate him in a heartbeat. She says she has no choice but to enter and win the competition to become the King’s Champion, but when she finds a way to escape from the castle and the competition, she decides to wait and see what happens. Some of the competitors are being murdered in a particularly gruesome way, but Celaena is worried about whether or not she is invited to the ball and pouts when she is not.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Throne of Glass is poorly plotted and the characters are unbelievably shallow and contradictory. Celaena is a twit, and I would hate to meet the young woman who is inspired by her character. The series doesn’t improve in the first few chapters of the second book, Crown of Midnight, in which our heroine goes on an extravagant shopping trip for ball gowns in between assassination assignments, so I gave up.

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.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980’s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60’s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960’s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

“Varian Johnson lists his inspirations for this book as Ocean’s 11, The Westing Game, Sneakers, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I would, guessing, add the movies Star Wars and The Sting, not to mention a few pick-up basketball games along the way, but I could be mistaken about those particular influences.

Jackson Greene has reformed, changed his ways, and sworn off all scheming, finagling, conning, and pranking. When the girl you like (Gaby) sees you brush lips with another cutie and totally misinterprets the situation, and when the principal catches you breaking into his office, you had better call it quits as far as con games are concerned. Even if it’s for a good cause. Then again, maybe if Keith Sinclair, Jackson’s arch enemy and nemesis of all good clubs and organizations at Maplewood Middle School, plans to run for Student Council against that same girl, Gaby, the one Jackson kinda sorta likes—then, maybe, a small benevolent interference, just to keep Keith from stealing the election, is in order. What could it hurt?

Mr. Johnson’s middle grade (upper middle grade since it has lots of tame boy/girl stuff) heist novel got a boost on Twitter earlier this spring and summer with people using the hash tags #weneeddiversebooks and #greatgreenechallenge, the latter tag referring to a friendly competition between independent bookstores to handsell Mr. Johnson’s book. The book does feature “diverse” characters, Asian American, African American, and Hispanic, and it is a a good solid summer read. As far as kid caper books are concerned, I preferred I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, but Acampora’s Mockingbird doesn’t have quite the same “diversity factor”. (Catholic characters and bookish characters don’t count as “diversity” the same way people of color do. Who makes up these rules, anyway?) Still, reading The Great Greene Heist was an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, and I recommend it to fans of Paul Acampora’s book or of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books.

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 reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.