Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction

cover image for Karen MemoryKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memery, like most citizens in Rapid City, is just trying to do what she can to get by, and maybe even save a little something for a better future.  But Fate has other plans for her.  Like falling in love, helping a US Marshal catch his man, and preventing a villain’s treasonous plot.

There ever so are many things to love about Karen Memory.  Its steampunk Wild West setting, Karen’s  practical and distinctive personality, and of course the developing relationship between Karen and Priya.  Most especially the way Karen falls so quickly and so hard, yet doesn’t let herself push Priya (who is suffering from trauma and worry for her sister) for more than she might want or be capable of.

I think what I like best about it though is the way that its fictionalized historical setting, rather than being used once again as an excuse to focus on the usual suspects or to write characters and situations that reinforce modern bigotry, becomes instead a way to highlight the truth that we – that all of us – have always been here all along.  Karen’s occupation as “seamstress” (and the tongue in cheek way that she talks about providing sexual services) works in tandem with this argument by demonstrating that respectable society’s views of those so often only written into the margins of history books has little to do with their lives, capabilities, and impact.

Karen Memory was originally conceived as a young adult novel (Karen herself is in her late teens), and it makes me incredibly sad and frustrated that the market is such that it instead was published under an adult imprint.  I believe it still works as a young adult novel – especially for older teens – and so I strongly encourage my fellow YA librarians to make sure your adult section has it handy for recommendations.  Need a book that has adventure, romance, mystery, friendship, lgbtqia content, characters from several different racial and ethnic backgrounds, steampunk contraptions, shootouts, and deals spectacularly well with sexual assault and consent?  Here is your book.

I just want to add two more content notes about Karen Memory, for my fellow librarians in particular:

First, that there were a few bits about Tomoatooah, the US Marshal’s posseman, that made me wish I could find a review of the book from someone more familiar with Comanche culture and Native American stereotypes in American literature.  He is very much a fully realized character, and is not portrayed in an intentionally negative light.  But some aspects of how he was written had me wishing I had a more knowledgable opinion to consult.

Secondly, I want to clarify that while much of the story takes place in a brothel, there is no actual depiction of sexual acts. Sex, sexual services, and sexual assault are all discussed – when it affects the characters and plot.  All of which I consider appropriate for teens.  But despite the setting, Karen Memory has no soft-core, male-gaze, porn-like descriptions of female characters or sexual acts, unlike a great many other adult SSF novels that are themselves recommended to teens all the time.

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She Commands Me and I Obey by Ann Leckie

It’s a testament to the complexities of the characters and cultures and worlds that Leckie creates that I’ve been sitting here for several minutes trying to figure out how to explain this short story.  (Without giving away the plot, of course.)

It’s a story about intrigue and politics. About athletes and warriors and courage.  And it’s a story about choices and morality and ethics.

Like all good political intrigues, there’s several mysteries here as well.

It’s also the story of a young boy, named Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe, a novice in the Blue Lily Monastery, and why he’s drawn to the only unnamed statue in a stadium of hundreds of statues of deified ballplayers.

Like the other works of Leckie’s that I’ve read (and loved) it’s also a story about change and sacrifice, and how change is always both gradual and sudden at the same time.

It’s truly excellent, and I know I’m not the only one that nominated it for a Hugo.

cover image for Killer of EnemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

Seventeen year old Lozen’s life has never been exactly easy.  Her family was never among those who could afford genetic modifications or the latest tech implants.  But once upon a time they had their own home, and pets, and her father and uncle were still alive.  Now it’s just Lozen, her younger siblings, and their mother – and all four of them are trapped behind prison walls that exist to keep monsters out and them in.  Lozen knows how to hunt the monsters though – that’s why The Ones in charge have let her and her family live.  It’s also why they hold her family hostage, ensuring her compliance.  Lozen knows that if she can just manage to get them all outside of Haven’s walls and out of sight of the guards, they’ll be able to once again survive and live on the land that her people have called home for centuries.

I really wanted to love this book. She’s a monster hunter, for goodness sake!  (Plus, how many dystopias are out there that feature Native American characters?) And for the first third or so, I did love it.  But the pacing grew increasingly uneven, our introduction of each succeeding villain became too repetitive, and one of the twists just didn’t quite work for me.  Still, it’s a good book, with some very excellent lines and scenes, and think it should be in every library’s young adult collection.

cover image for Etiquette & EspionageEtiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

Sophronia does an excellent job of getting herself into trouble and embarrassing her older sisters, but she is perpetually floundering, stumbling, and tripping when it comes to being a proper young lady.  Fortunately (for her mother’s nerves, if nothing else) Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is willing to take Sophronia in.

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books are set in the same alternate steampunk universe as her Parasol Protectorate series, so of course Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy is not quite what Sophronia expected, and her lessons include much more than how to curtsey properly.  Yet, it’s full purpose, and her reason for being there, remain a mystery to her long after she climbs on board (yes, on board), creating a useful narrative trick for controlling the pace and for keeping readers guessing – and turning the pages.

It’s the kind of story that would likely come across as a bit overdone and over the top if it were written by someone else, but Carriger manages to carry it off with style.

Unfortunately, there is a rather large misstep about a third of the way through the book, when the only character of color is introduced in a way that isn’t at all logical or appropriate.  While this same character is shown in an admirable light for the rest of the book, that doesn’t excuse the author and editor leaving in a description that makes no sense and is based on caricatures.  Which is a shame, because the rest of the book is delightful.  It tweaks it’s nose at gender conformity, flirts a bit with critiques of class and inequality, and isn’t afraid to show complex relationships among female personages.

cover image for The Freedom MAzeThe Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Thirteen year old Sophie longs for an adventure like the ones she reads about in books. But instead, she’s stuck spending the summer of 1960 with her aunt and bedridden grandmother, in a smallish house at the edge of what was once a grand sugar plantation.  So she passes time reading books and exploring the bayou, waiting for fall to come.  Until the day she attempts to find her way through the once magnificent hedge maze, and finds something unexpected at the other end.

This is not a book that I can be objective about, in any way.

My maternal grandfather’s family comes from Georgia.  My mother grew up in the south – the deep south – in the 1950s and 1960s.  Until she turned 13 and her family moved to California, finally to stay.

In the Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman has written a story that doesn’t often get told. A story about family ties denied and forgotten – and others that are unbreakable even against the greatest of odds.  About what the antebellum south was really like – and about what it means to be nostalgic for a time when owning other people was legal.

I feel like she’s telling me the story of my family that no one ever admits to.

My uncles will joke about being taught about “the War of Northern Aggression.”  And my mother has rarely ever looked as sad as she did when I asked her, incredulously, if her hometown had separate water fountains when she was growing up.  But it always feels like there’s so much missing.  So much left unsaid.

My family would not find it flattering that I see us in these pages, but oh how I do.

It’s true that in making this story about Sophie, Sherman has centered Sophie’s point of view and growing awareness of her privilege over the the experiences and courage of her newly discovered family.  Which is frustrating for obvious reasons.

And yet…

And yet I know that this is a story that needs to be told as well.  My niece needs to grow up understanding what it means that her family is from the south.  It’s not enough that she maybe sort of learn it once she’s an adult.

And I don’t know how to explain it to her, in large part because I don’t really have that understanding myself.

But I can give her this book.

cover image for AlwaysAlways by Emma Dodd

Whether sad or happy, naughty or nice, a small elephant is always loved.

This is hardly a unique premise, but it’s not like there’s never a demand for new books for parents to give their little ones, telling them they love them. Dodd’s illustrations are adorable and the sparkle throughout the book – ranging from a few glittering stars to a large shiny lake – help make it memorable. Which is exactly what one looks for in this kind of book.

cover image for MirrorMirror by Suzy Lee

A sad little girl finds something surprising in her reflection.

The blurb on the back of the copy I read claims that the ending to this story “provides a gentle reminder that every action has consequences.”

My friends, the twist at the end of this story is no “gentle reminder.”  It’s a bit of a mind bender actually, seeing as how [spoiler alert! – it’s unclear if it’s the original little girl or her reflection that pushes the mirror over and makes the other disappear].  All of which makes Mirror a great example of why I love Suzy Lee’s books AND why I think they are a fantastic example of speculative fiction in picture books.  (Yes, these two opinions are very related).

cover image for Is There a Dog in This Book?Is There a Dog in This Book? by Viviane Schwarz

Having established that There Are Cats in This Book (or wait, are there????), Schwarz and her feline creations must now determine if this new book also contains…a dog!

These books are so clever and funny, and do such a great job of breaking the fourth wall, that it makes me incredibly sad that they are not all still available to order for the library.

cover image for Nikki and DejaNikki and Deja by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman

“Nikki and Deja are best friends.”  Neighbors and classmates, they spend as much time as they can together.  But when a new girl, Antonia, arrives and starts a club – one that only some people can join – Nikki and Deja’s friendship begins to look like it might not last, after all.

I feel guilty calling this merely a good chapter book, rather than using glowing superlatives to describe it.  The truth is that most chapter books are so awful that this novel is absolutely wonderful and amazingly written by comparison.  The characters have personality, with out feeling cartoonish, and their dilemmas are both realistic and age appropriate.  English does a wonderful job of including the right kind of details, ones that give the story life without being overwhelming to new readers.  The prose fails to be as memorable as the story, and I’d like better for new readers, but this is a chapter book after all – vocabulary limits make that incredibly difficult. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s solid and I highly recommend it.

I am, however, slightly disappointed in the quality of the book design. With apologies to Freeman (whose interior illustrations are perfect) the cover just doesn’t work for me and I can’t see that it would be terribly appealing to kids either.  All of which I wanted to point out not because I dislike it that much but because covers sell books.  So I see passable but not brilliant covers as another weak link in the chain when it comes to promoting “diverse” authors and books, and I wanted to note that here for future conversations.

cover image for Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Moving back home means that Eleanor gets to see her siblings, that she can be there to take care of them.  It also means watching what she does and says around her stepfather, and starting a new high school.  Park doesn’t mean to take pity on the new – and very weird – girl on the bus, the last thing he needs is to commit social suicide.  Yet he does so anyway.  But he isn’t going to talk to her.  Until he notices her glancing over at his comics as he reads them on the bus, and Park starts to make sure that she’s done with the page before he turns it.  Soon, Park is making her mixed tapes and Eleanor is thinking that maybe some people can be trusted after all.

I devoured this book in one night, it was that good.  Rowell has crafted a lovely story, full of stolen moments and the kinds of secrets that need to be told.  It’s refreshing to see miscommunication in a romantic relationship that actually makes sense, and to see it being worked out rather than resolved by the plot.  It should be noted that there have been complaints about Park, whose mother is from Vietnam, and how he and his family are described and portrayed.  Rowell does an excellent job handling the Eleanor’s home life, however, and how she is affected by both poverty and abuse.

cover image for We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Candence spends every summer with her family on a private island off the coast of Masachusetts. And every summer she and her cousins run wild, unhampered by schoolwork or schedules or even neighbors.  Every summer except the last one, which Cady spent in Europe with her father, hating ever minute of it, desperate for emails and texts from her cousins, which never came. When Cady arrives at the island this summer, she and her cousins pick up where they left off, as if nothing had ever happened. Only Cady knows that something did happen, something their last summer together that caused the headaches she’s had ever since.  The problem is that Cady has no idea what it was; she’s been having trouble remembering things since that night as well.

I absolutely hated reading this book.

It’s not a terrible book, but my frustrations with it only increased with each page, making it not at all enjoyable to read.  Much of the suspense rests on the reveal of the twist at the end, which I’d figured out early on.  I think the book is supposed to work even if you know truth (much like Code Name Verity actually does) – that knowing the truth changes the experience rather than detracting from it .  But for me, it didn’t succeed in doing this.  Add to that the fact that it’s a book about privilege* which makes a really big mistake in terms of privilege, and I’m afraid to admit that the warmest response I can muster to this book is “meh.”

Which makes me sad because I usually love Lockhart’s books.

cover image for The Fox InheritanceThe Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson

[The basic plot for this book is a spoiler for the entire first novel, so I’m putting it behind the cut.]

Read the rest of this entry »

cover image for The Tropic of SerpentsThe Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Despite the tragic events of her first expedition, Isabella remains determined to continue her study of dragons.  In their natural habitat, if possible.  Now there is an added urgency to her research, as Isabella – and her colleagues and sponsor –  fear that new information about dragon skeletons may threaten their survival. When the crew set off to a spot in Eriga known as the Green Hell in search of the swamp-wryms who dwell there, they are forced to face not only inhospitable habitats, but dangerous politics as well.

As I said in my review of the first book in this series, Brennan is attempting to do a thing here that I appreciate but I’m not quite certain about: Lady Trent’s world is clearly a colonial one, with all the problems and attitudes that creates, and Isabella has not been immune to such conditioning.  Her years of travel and research have taught her to view the world slightly differently, however, and so the Lady Trent that is narrating the expeditions has a less colonialist view than the Isabella whose actions we see.  It often becomes a clever way to acknowledge the problems of colonialism while being realistic about the kind of views a woman of Isabella’s position would have. I’m just not sure that it always works.

That said, I still absolutely adore these books as they are full of wonderful things that I love to pieces. Dragons! of course. Interesting ones that are as varied as any other real genus. Clever women who do Science! You get the idea. And running through it all, Lady Trent’s engaging personality and the pleasure of reading about an accomplished woman with a full life.

The Goblin EmperorThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia has lived his life in exile, cast out with his mother from his father’s court.  Since her death he has been raised by a courtier who was more than happy to take his frustrations out on the friendless boy.  With three older brothers, no one ever expected the half-Goblin Maia to ascend to the throne.  But when a suspicious accident leaves the king and the elder princes dead, Maia is thrust into a dangerous and unfamiliar court.  Ostensibly the most powerful person in the land, Maia nevertheless is as isolated as ever.  Only now he’s trapped by custom and responsibility, and is almost certainly a target by those who covet his crown. Determined to do right by his people, Maia must somehow find a way to make allies and root out his enemies.

An absolute pleasure to read, The Goblin Emperor is a story of intrigue and suspense told on an intimate rather than epic scale.  Maia’s desire to be just and competent, to be the kind of ruler his people deserve, despite his lack of training, has us rooting for him from the start.  Don’t be fooled by this novel’s idealistic point of view and steady unfolding of events, there is plenty of nuance  here, and the narrative’s affirmation of the value of humanity (and goblinkind) is one based on a spectrum of experiences, not a black and white view of Good versus Evil.

I sincerely hope there is a sequel coming (or, at the very least, that we get more books by Addison) and I suspect this will become one of my comfort reads in years to come.