Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Complex.  Important.  Staggering.

Is how I would describe Drowned Cities, a companion novel to Bacigalupi’s earlier Ship Breaker.  Not a strict sequel, Drowned Cities follows Tool, the fearsome and compelling man/dog/hyena/tiger hybrid we met in Ship Breaker, as well as two new young characters: Mahlia and Mouse.

When I reflect on it, I think I liked Drowned Cities even more than the first in this series.  Like Ship Breaker, it encompasses a marvellously complete and complex world – the detail is incredible, and somehow Bacigalupi makes his novel feel rooted in a place, but manages to hint that there are equally rooted, complex places throughout his futuristic world.  Set after the flood/global economic collapse/environmental disasters, these books traverse a nightmarish future United States.  Drowned Cities in fact brings us to the capital itself, Washington DC – now part jungle, swamp, war zone, and scrap heap.  Mahia and Mouse are two “war maggots” – refugees that have managed to escape the violence and have been taken in by a kind-hearted doctor living in one of the villages in the Drowned Cities area.  Mahia is a half-breed – her father was part of the Chinese peacekeeping force sent to tame the Drowned Cities and bring an end to the violence.  The Chinese peacekeepers have left, but their “castoffs” like Mahia were left behind, though few have survived the wrath of the Drowned Cities residents looking for revenge on their former occupiers.  Left with only one hand, Mahia is a survivor.  When she happens upon Tool – almost dead after an epic battle with a swamp monster on top of an escape from prison – Mahia sees an opportunity.  She nurses the monstrous creature back to life and then asks his assistance in leaving the Drowned Cities.  Though he has no master (unlike the rest of his kind), Tool agrees to help her escape the war zone and the soldiers who continue to hunt him.  However, when her best friend Mouse is captured and recruited by these boy soldiers, Mahia has to decide whether to risk everything and follow him into the heart of the Drowned Cities and enemy territory – or whether to take her chances with Tool and flee.

What I remembered from the first book was the incredible detail and complex world.  These things also struck me in Drowned Cities, but so did the characters and the almost non-stop action driving the plot forward.  Not only is the world believable – the characters and their decisions are real also.  Again, even more than in Ship Breaker, I found myself making comparisons with our own world: the factional warfare fought for no end but the glory of self-appointed “generals,” along with the unyielding hostility to occupiers promising to do good, struck me as familiar from Afghanistan, Iraq, and just about any other country the world has tried to interfere in.  The recruitment of boy soldiers comes straight out of accounts I have read of civil wars in Africa, and the jingoism and xenophobia permeating the society seems reminiscent of areas of present-day America (and many other parts of the world).  As is the case with all great science fiction, Drowned Cities reflects (and requires one to reflect) on our world: a world where privileged elites are separated from those they exploit, a world where people are too busy fighting to survive to help one another.

Though the main characters of these novels chose to act decently when pushed to the limit, most of the population of Bacigalupi’s world is predatory and violent in response to a predatory and violent world.  Tool himself is warfare personified – the most dangerous and destructive tendencies of humanity given life – and even this biological killing machine manages to show more humanity than those surrounding him.  True to his dark vision, Bacigalupi does not give us any easy escapes from the world he envisions.  Although he allows some to leave Drowned Cities, the place itself persists, a mire of death and destruction with no safe havens.  Even more so than Hunger Games and the like, Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities send a shiver up my spine because of its unconquerable reality.  If you are working your way through the mass of dystopias currently available, please don’t miss these startling and important contributions.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Dystopias, Young Adult books

Changeling by Philippa Gregory

Everyone is writing YA books these days – and the latest authors to jump on board are Jodi Picoult and Philippa Gregory.  I admit, I’ve rather been dreading what both these successful (though repetitive, to my taste) authors have to offer.

I was pleasantly surprised by the first half of Changeling.  Though not exactly a literary triumph, it had some engaging characters and an interesting enough story line.  Gregory certainly knows her history.  The novel follows Luca Vero, a brilliant young man with a scientific mind who has been expelled from his religious order for heresy (he calculates that all the nails that various religious orders have claimed to have preserved from THE cross cannot possibly be true – they would outweigh the cross itself).  He is recruited by the The Order of the Dragon, a secret organisation commissioned by Pope Nicholas V to track down the inexplicable occurrences appearing throughout the land during this end-of-days time.  Assisted by a scribe/spy and a mouthy kitchen boy, he sets out to investigate strange events as they present themselves (or are presented to him).

The other main character is Isolde, a seventeen-year-old noble girl who should have inherited her father’s estates.  However, her brother has managed to conspire to rob her of this legacy – leaving her to chose between an unspeakable marriage or taking her vows and becoming the head of a nunnery.  With no real alternative, she reluctantly enters the convent.

Luca and Isolde’s paths join when he is sent to investigate charges of witchcraft at Isolde’s nunnery.  Without getting into spoiler details, there is a conspiracy in the convent, and confusion about whether god’s work or evil is being done.  At the 11th hour Luca solves the case, though he seemed to have no idea about what to do up to the very moment.  I admit, my credulity was stretched to its breaking point in this climactic scene (imagine deranged, bald nuns attacking like creatures from night of the living dead).  Even more puzzling was the fact that this climax came only halfway through the novel.  I was wondering what could possibly be next – another climax? a denouement lasting 100+ pages?  In fact, the end was a second, almost entirely discrete, episode taking place in another village.  The second half of the novel was fine – but very strange.  It felt much more like Gregory had put two books into one, with an odd little bridge to join them.  Of course, there promises to be more adventures for the little group, but I am not sure who will be venturing out to join them.

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The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben Winters

Bethesda Fielding is an over-achiever.  And when she is given the assignment to solve a mystery in her life, she takes it seriously.  Her target is Ms. Finkleman, the entirely unremarkable, and unnoticed music teacher.  No one in the school (staff, students) know anything about Ms. Finkleman, and it is only when Bethesda finds a scrap of paper that leads her to some 1990s punk rock music, that she discovers that Ms. Finkleman was apparently once Little Miss Mystery, lead singer of the popular band, The Red Herrings.

The school is quickly in an uproar over the jaw-dropping news, and Ms. Finkleman becomes the most famous teacher in school, when all she really longs for is continued obscurity and to forget the past.  However, wheels are in motion, and before Ms. Finkleman can regroup, her program for a multi-school music competition is switched from 16th-century English folk ballads to rock music.  In order to cope, Ms Finkleman makes a secret bargain with Bethesda and rock-obsessed loner Tenny Boyer to get the show off the ground.

Full of quirky humour, zany side characters and plot twists, this book feels like a tribute band for Gordon Korman (he gives the book his recommendation on the cover) or Louis Sachar.  And, as my co-worker points out, it’s very clever and smart, built for eager middle-grade readers like the over-achieving Bethesda.  As a classroom read-aloud, it would be perfect, and I’m sure anyone reading it will be keen to share it with the teachers in their life (I have plans to give it to two middle grade teachers I know).  A little School of Rock, a little Harriet the Spy, Ms. Finkleman is a fun and engaging read for those looking for a mystery and a little wackiness.

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Middle of Nowhere by Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson is a Vancouver, BC author with a lot of awards, and award nominations behind her.  She’s chiefly known for I, Bruno, a book for younger readers that I always feel I should have read, but haven’t yet made time for.  Her latest, Middle of Nowhere, is a bit of a granola book (teachers and other adults will love it), but is very well written and well told.

This is yet another story with a mother who is MIA.  I’ve encountered a lot of these lately – I guess mothers are a huge obstacle to interesting adventures – though usually there’s been a father kicking around.  Here it’s just twelve-year-old Curtis and his five-year-old brother Artie left on their own.  When their mother doesn’t return from work on time, Curtis is 100% positive she will – soon.  So rather than risk their being sent to a foster family, Curtis covers for his missing mother – scrounging to feed them, show up for school dressed and clean, and generally look like there’s an adult in their lives.  His faith in his mother, and all his efforts and worries are heart-breaking.

Things change for the better and more interesting when the boys make friends with Mrs. Burt, a frighteningly cranky old neighbour who asks them to run errands in exchange for some much needed food money.  Soon she is offering them an escape from their desperate situation (with landlords demanding rent and teachers closing in on the scent), and they take it.  As the trio begins their escapade to a cabin in the woods, the book becomes very complex.  It takes the reader and Curtis a long while to figure out what is up with Mrs. Burt – why she is so unhappy, so kind, and also so shifty.  I’m not sure what kids will get from this book (probably an interesting read), but adults will certainly sympathize with her and find her to be a rich and fascinating character.  And because it’s a children’s book, everything does end up ok, with a twist I truly didn’t expect.

Well told and with a bit of freshness, Middle of Nowhere is a solid book for 8-11 year olds and a nice addition to the children-abandoned-by-their-mothers genre.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction