Tag Archives: YA literature

Half World by Hiromi Goto

Half World is one of those books that I pick up from time to time from the Children’s section where I work.  I find a poor, neglected volume that is due for return to the publisher, but which I can’t send back before at least trying first. I was somewhat surprised to find Half World on my returns list – not only is it an award-winner with an amazing cover, I was sure it had enough buzz to propel it along.  But life is tough at my bookstore – often without a staff member to love and recommend it, a book will die an undeserved death.  This is why I constantly lament the imbalance in my time/book ratio in life.  This time my efforts were rewarded – I found Half World to be a solid, satisfying fantasy with enough unusual elements to make it very enjoyable.

I loved the setup for Half World: there are three realms of existence: the Spirit Realm, the realm of Flesh, and Half World.  These realms are meant to be interconnected – we pass through Flesh to Spirit, or to Half Life if we must cleanse ourselves of something.  After a stretch in Half World we find release as a spirit; when our energy begins to flag we are reborn as flesh.  But somehow these realms have become disjointed: the spirit realm is drifting away as spirits forget their connection to flesh and slowly fade from existence; the flesh world is filled with dismay and discord without the release provided by the other two worlds; and those in half life are trapped, repeating their trauma and reliving their nightmares for an eternity.

In comes Melanie Tamaki, an unhappy fourteen-year-old who has been neglected by her mother and outcast by her peers.  Melanie doesn’t know that she belongs to two realms: her mother became pregnant in Half World and journied to the Wold of Flesh to raise her daughter.  Now, fourteen years later they are both being called back to repay a debt and to account for the impossibility of this life that was created in Half World.

Once it gets going, Half World becomes one of those child/teen-goes-to-a-strange-world-and-saves-it-then-returns-home-with-a-solution-to-his/her-original-problems book.  It’s such an overused plot that I have become quite impatient  with it.  Unless the book is special – we’re talking Narnia special – then I get very bored and annoyed.  I think I find these books tedious because they always end the same way – the world is saved and the character returns home with more than they originally sought.  If the ending is going to be that predictable, then I darn well want the main story to be unique and fascinating.

In this case, it was almost fascinating enough.  There is not much that is truly unique about Half World, but it does contain some great elements capably combined.  The feel is very Neil Gaiman, with a disturbing alternate world and some kind and clever guides (I’m thinking Neverwhere and Coraline in particular).  It has just the same level of threat and violence that you would find in one of his books.  The great villan (I won’t ruin his secret, which is one of the best parts of the book) is Mr. Glueskin.  In his gloopy, sticky and disguisting appearance, he reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and slimy, depressed Howl.  These are wonderful authors to borrow from, and Hiromi Goto does a good job of creating a similar feel, but with a concept that stands all on its own.

The main character was interesting – Melanie has a good heart, but trouble remembering things, and she has never fit in.  I am actually quite pleased to see that there is a sequel coming out next spring because I’d like to see her grow up – there was just a hint of what she could become in this novel.  I would also enjoy seeing her in love, and being loved by someone romantically.  I think she could be remarkable if she was ever in her own element (I’m not sure what that would be though – she navigates our world and half world well, but doesn’t belong to either).

So I have been won over, and the book will stay on our shelves.  I enjoyed the Japanese elements and fantasy that borrowed from Asian sources.  There were amazing illustrations, and an interesting enough tale and characters to keep me moving through the well-drawn (though familiar) plot.

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Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Fantasy, Just Read, Young Adult books

Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce.  In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

I actually saw Tamora Pierce once.  Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared.  Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned.  I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason).  I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore).  And of course I loved it.  At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.

Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them!  Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series.  I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.

Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall.  However, Alanna has other plans.  She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk.  Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks.  The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues.  The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.

When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series.  Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with?  (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy)  Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend.  I’m never quite sure what age it is written for.  As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot.  However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course).  Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses.  I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one.  In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail.  But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…

There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books.  They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read.  However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna.  The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these.  The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.

Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword.  Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today.  They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.

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Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Fantasy, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction, Must-Reads!, Young Adult books

Forgotten by Cat Patrick

This is another one of those quasi-sci-fi books aimed at teen girls in the tradition Twilight, Hunger Games and Numbers.  While I kind of enjoyed Forgotten, it had some major issues that bothered me the whole way through.

I couldn’t quite get over the absolute impossibility of the premise in Forgotten – especially because the whys and hows were in no way explained.  London is a young woman whose memory works forward rather than backwards.  She can only remember the future, not her past.  As a result, she leaves herself notes every night so she can catch up on what is happening in her life.  While she can remember the next day, somewhere around 4am her memory resets, and she forgets it by morning.

Ok, interesting enough.  But – what the hell??  Memory doesn’t work like that – it’s just impossible.  And if you’re going to make me believe something impossible, I need a little bit more explanation for it all.  I mean, we’ve got some back story, but only vague references to how it started.  Really – she’s seeing the future – which I might be able to believe… but it’s a big stretch to call it memory and pretend it’s registered in her brain like normal memories are.  As if it’s something she’s already experienced.  Nifty idea, but please take some more effort to account for it.  And how is it that just her, her mom, and her best friend know about it?  Why haven’t they taken her to tons of specialists?  Why isn’t the government (or some other nefarious body) looking for her?  The best that could be said is that some of these things have happened, but she’s forgotten and hasn’t bothered reminding herself.

(A side note: in the book she apparently has beautiful auburn/red hair, but on the cover it’s just light brown? Why not check these things for continuity, publicity department?)

Another problem with the premise: she writes herself these notes every night, then every morning she has to catch herself up.  So presumably she’s reading hours of notes every day (sometimes she mentions this)… surely it’s increasing all the time and she has more and more and more to read.  How is it even possible to read through all the stuff she needs on a daily basis to function?  And why is it so important that her outfits are listed?  Can’t she go with what’s clean and what isn’t?  And how can she possibly ever pass a course, or a test?  By the time of the final review, she’d have no memory of the course at all.  But then, maybe she leaves a note as to what the questions will be… Oh, and one other thing: when reading these notes I was honestly very confused about whether she was talking about things that will happen to her that day (I think the wardrobe comments fall into this category) and what had happened the previous day.

What I did like was the thought experiment that is the concept – given adequate explanation, it could be really thought-provoking (and was a bit).  If you think about it, it’s a very sad life: as she gets older she has less and less to “remember”.  Her past disappears, and all she has left is a shrinking future.  By the time she’s old, she’ll be in a confusing present, without any memories to comfort her or guide her in the world.  That is endlessly thought-provoking, though the author doesn’t really delve into this at all.  In a way, I would have liked a more traditional sci-fi novel with this premise – it could have covered much more about her life and how it all happened, and how she manages to live it.  (or how a whole group of such people manage… makes you miss Philip K. Dick, even though I find a lot of his writing painful to read) As it was, I found it had a lot of the typical teen romance stuff re-hashed.  But, then, many readers are going to love that.

In terms of the re-hash: it’s got the usual parent stuff.  The usual friend stuff.  The usual school stuff. A very tall handsome boy named Luke who likes her.  Here the relationship reminded me of Twilight.  He’s the only person in London’s future that she can’t remember – so much so, that for a while she thinks he isn’t in her future (see Edward not being able to read Bella’s mind).  Their relationship is so immediately deep and close that it also reminds me of the vampire stuff.  Though of course it’s got a little of Fifty First Dates in it as well. I also think it is very similar to Numbers by Rachel Ward, about a girl with a strange and unsettling ability.  However, London is not a delinquent, and Luke is not nearly so hygiene challenged as Spider from that novel.  But it might be the closest match, genre-wise.

While well written and with some decent (though not very original) characters, Forgotten‘s main draw is it’s interesting premise.  If the gaps in explaining her memory issues don’t bother you, you’ll probably love this book.  If they do, I recommend finding some more serious sci-fi – like Philip K. Dick, Vonnegut, LeGuin, or maybe Asimov (if you like androids like I do).

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Filed under Just Read, Young Adult books