Tag: "ya"

Book Review: Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele

Every time I read a YA novel, I wonder why all novels don’t move at the same pace. I’m not missing anything in the YA genre — the characters are just as developed, the action is just as action-y, and the story is just as engrossing. I just don’t have to slog through hundreds of extra pages of tangential plotlines and lovingly-rendered character descriptions to get to the good stuff.

And I think that adequately describes Allen Steele’s new YA sci-fi adventure, Apollo’s Outcasts, which will be published this November by Prometheus Books: for the most part, everything extraneous has been trimmed away, leaving a tightly-written, fast-paced novel that I quite enjoyed.

EP315: Clockwork Fagin

By Cory Doctorow
Read by Grant Baciocco
Discuss on our forums.
First appeared in Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories
Music by Clockwork Quartet
All stories by Cory Doctorow
All stories read by Grant Baciocco

This one is a long one! This is considered appropriate for kids 12 and up – it’s a YA story with one murder.

Clockwork Fagin
By Cory Doctorow

Monty Goldfarb walked into St Agatha’s like he owned the place, a superior look on the half of his face that was still intact, a spring in his step despite his steel left leg. And it wasn’t long before he *did* own the place, taken it over by simple murder and cunning artifice. It wasn’t long before he was my best friend and my master, too, and the master of all St Agatha’s, and didn’t he preside over a *golden* era in the history of that miserable place?

I’ve lived in St Agatha’s for six years, since I was 11 years old, when a reciprocating gear in the Muddy York Hall of Computing took off my right arm at the elbow. My Da had sent me off to Muddy York when Ma died of the consumption. He’d sold me into service of the Computers and I’d thrived in the big city, hadn’t cried, not even once, not even when Master Saunders beat me for playing kick-the-can with the other boys when I was meant to be polishing the brass. I didn’t cry when I lost my arm, nor when the barber-surgeon clamped me off and burned my stump with his medicinal tar.

I’ve seen every kind of boy and girl come to St Aggie’s — swaggering, scared, tough, meek. The burned ones are often the hardest to read, inscrutable beneath their scars. Old Grinder don’t care, though, not one bit. Angry or scared, burned and hobbling or swaggering and full of beans, the first thing he does when new meat turns up on his doorstep is tenderize it a little. That means a good long session with the belt — and Grinder doesn’t care where the strap lands, whole skin or fresh scars, it’s all the same to him — and then a night or two down the hole, where there’s no light and no warmth and nothing for company except for the big hairy Muddy York rats who’ll come and nibble at whatever’s left of you if you manage to fall asleep. It’s the blood, see, it draws them out.

Book Review: “H.I.V.E.: Higher Institute of Villainous Education” by Mark Walden

Let’s say there’s a secret school populated by a secret subculture of people living in a world alongside ours. Let’s say there’s a kid who has no idea this subculture exists, but he’s been doing things that would bring it to his attention. Let’s say that, one day, he’s accepted into this secret school, where he’s the smartest kid in his year, naturally good at everything, and has some sort of special connection to the head of the secret school.

You’d think you’d know what the story’s about and how it ends, wouldn’t you. You’d think you’re reading Harry Potter, or The Magicians, or Percy Jackson.

But let’s say the secret school is the place where the next generation of super-villains learns everything they need to know about the future of world domination. Changes things a bit, doesn’t it?

Umm… maybe not.

H.I.V.E.: Higher Institute of Villainous Education, by Mark Walden, is the first in a (so far) seven-book young-adult series of novels that borrows from the well-traveled genre tropes that gave us the three books I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

H.I.V.E.‘s main character, Otto Malpense, is a white-haired thirteen-year-old British boy with the uncanny ability to comprehend everything he reads and understand the underlying principles of everything he sees. In general, he’s more a pragmatist than a villain — he came to the attention of H.I.V.E. not because he did something evil for evil’s sake, but because he was trying to save the orphanage that was the only home he’d ever known. It just so happened to involve making the British Prime Minister look like an idiot.

Otto’s contemporaries can be picked out of most any genre lineup:

  • Wing Fanchu, an Asian boy who’s good at martial arts and is very honorable.
  • Laura, a Scottish girl good with technology.
  • Shelby, an American cat burglar.
  • Nigel, the kid who’s there because his father was a super-villain and is only good at one class — go on, guess which one*.
  • Franz, an overweight German kid who only talks about food and is also not very good at most classes, although he takes quickly to the ones teaching students how to use politics and economics to take down the good guys.

Other than Nigel and Franz, Otto and his classmates are not happy to be at H.I.V.E. They think they’ve been kidnapped by the school’s headmaster, Dr. Nero, and all they want to do is get home. But to do that, they’ll have to fight off another genre lineup, this one comprised of schoolteachers:

  • The headmaster who “takes an interest” in the main character.
  • The absent-minded technology professor.
  • The drill sergeant who teaches physical education.
  • The one who was turned into an animal.
  • The second-in-command who also can control your mind.
  • Professor Sprout**.
  • The ninja.
  • The artificial intelligence/computer system that sees everything and knows everything, but really just wants to be human (and if it starts performing Shakespeare or tries to hold Commander Riker hostage in one of Dr. Crusher’s plays in a future novel, I’m hanging it all up now).

So far, I’ve given H.I.V.E. a lot of grief over its use of genre conventions, but I hope I’ve done it good-naturedly enough to keep you from being put off the book. I mean, it’s YA; it’s sort of YA’s job to use genre conventions to make characters relatable and understandable. And the story itself is something most kids can understand: being taken from your home because you’re special, but once you get away, all you want is to go back again. I mean, come on, how many of us (when we were kids***) have thought “I’m smarter/better/awesomer than this life I’m currently leading; when will I get to go to that secret school for wizards/villains/demigods?” I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard I wished to be pulled 300 years into the future so I could go to Starfleet Academy.

It didn’t happen, obviously****. Hence my love for genre fiction (escapism) and a fondness for stories using the genre plot we see in H.I.V.E.

The storytelling is pretty good. The characters are well-rounded and often funny. The adventure is… um… adventurous. If anything is poorly-done, it’s the occasional forays into Dr. Nero’s world — we need them to forward the plot and explain whatever couldn’t be infodumped by the Contessa (Professor McGonagall) during the school tour, but they take away from the important part of the story, which is Otto and his friends. When Rowling did it in the Harry Potter novels, she confined it to the first few chapters, sort of a “meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice” thing before we got into whatever adventure Harry is facing in the current book, and I could handle that. But the whole point of third-person-limited is that you only see things through the eyes of your main character, and I think that, by using the Dr. Nero scenes to explain important plot points, the story misses out on the opportunity for more adventures or further characterization of our heroes. For example, they could’ve overheard Nero’s staff dinner because Laura was working on an extra-credit project or something, instead of the author just showing us said dinner.

Of course, that could also have just been a homage to your old-school heroes-vs-villains TV shows and movies where the hero’s journey is briefly put aside to show what the bad guys are doing right now.

I rather enjoyed H.I.V.E., to be honest. I think the storytelling moves at a good clip, the characters are funny, and the idea behind the story is novel enough that I’m interested in reading more books in the series. As a YA book, it reads quickly enough, and is short enough, that you can probably squeeze it into a week’s worth of lunch breaks. I’m not sure how the “intended” audience — young adults — would actually like it, but I know that I got a kick out of it, and I think you will too.

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Note to Parents: Because it’s a YA novel, H.I.V.E. doesn’t contain anything truly objectionable. There’s some bullying and some violence, but nothing more explicit than, say, Prisoner of Azkaban. So, if your kids can handle that, they can definitely handle H.I.V.E.. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* If you said “Herbology”… err, that is, Botany, give yourself a pat on the head.

** The one who is fairly nice and takes care of students who don’t feel like they belong. Also, she teaches Herbology. I mean Botany. Oh, whatever, it’s Professor freaking Sprout from the Harry Potter novels. Just go with it.

*** Or, you know, right now. Either way.

**** OR DID IT???

Book Review: “Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Which side will you be on when the world ends? Will you be one of the haves, an employee (or, better still, owner) of one of the ten big companies that controls everything? Will you live in relative luxury, with good food and affordable health care, safe from the weather and the rising ocean?

Or will you be like Nailer, the main character of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, who crawls through the passageways of long-dead ships, pulling old copper wire to fill his team’s quota so they get to eat for another day?

Ever since the success of Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, I’ve been meaning to read both it and Ship Breaker. It turns out I finished the latter almost a year to the day since it was released. I’m not sure how it justifies the young adult tag it’s given — it’s brutal, bloody, violent, and depressing, and while I do think it’s a good book, it makes me wonder about what exactly comprises YA fiction these days.

In Ship Breaker, Nailer Lopez leads a very difficult life. About twelve years of age, his job is to collect wire from old oil tankers and other beached vessels in the southeastern United States. He’s on a team of similarly-aged individuals, under the command of the pragmatically-ruthless Bapi. The team collects wire for one of the few big companies that controls commerce worldwide. What’s worse, this is one of the best options for Nailer, who knows that once he’s too big to crawl through the old ships, he’ll have to work heavy crew (for which he’s too small) or do something even worse.

In addition to all of that, Nailer also has to deal with his father, the vicious drug-abusing pit fighter Richard Lopez. Perhaps that’s where the YA part comes from — despite everything Richard has done to Nailer, Nailer still apparently loves him. Or, at the very least, respects him for being his father, as well as for being able to beat the hell out of him.

After a large storm, a clipper ship — Nailer’s dream is to work on one of these large, clean vessels, sailing the oceans — is beached and Nailer and Pima (a member of his crew) go out to scavenge it before everyone else gets there and takes the good stuff. They find a survivor — and in true YA fashion, she is the daughter of someone important — and Nailer must choose whether to kill her now or save her in hopes of a bigger payday.

While the book hits all the YA tropes — rich daughter, rough main character, bad parent, hero’s journey, double-cross, big showdown at the end — where it really excels is in worldbuilding and characterization. Even the minor characters are well-rounded, from the dispassionate murderess Blue Eyes to the dog-men who work for Captain Candless. When someone is injured, the reader really feels his or her pain; when one is successful, such as when Nailer escapes death by drowning in oil, the reader joins in the jubilation.

And the world itself, a semi-near future where the oceans have risen and hurricanes can be Category Six, is compelling. Not a lot of it is shown because, to Nailer, it doesn’t really matter. There’s his beach, and there’s the Orleans, and there are some mentions of Houston and a melted Pole. That’s about it. But still we know that now-destroyed coastal cities are called “Orleans” — the newest of which is somewhere in Mississippi — and we know that corporations have pretty much free reign to do what they want. We know that the Chinese yuan (I don’t think it’s mentioned by name, so I’ll call it that) is the premier method of currency, and we know that genetic engineering has taken place to create dog-men who are devoutly loyal to their patrons.

In reading Ship Breaker, it’s plain to see why so many people are high on Bacigalupi’s writing. However, I didn’t adore this book in the way that I did the Terry Pratchett YA novels, or Harry Potter. It felt a little to me like the YA tropes were shoehorned into a story the author wanted to tell. Had the story been aimed at a more adult audience, or been of a wider scope, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more, but as a YA novel it just didn’t have the kind of oomph I was expecting given the accolades it’s received. There was too much “easy” stuff for me (as a writer and avid reader) to recognize, such as clear signposts which say “THIS IS IMPORTANT AND IT WILL COME BACK IN THE CLIMAX OF THE NOVEL, SO PAY ATTENTION”. That doesn’t take away from how good I think the book is — which is to say, “yes, it was a good book”. I definitely would read more adventures with these characters, and Windup Girl remains on my list.

If you like dystopian futures where corporations smash the downtrodden, who in turn smash each other, then this is a good book for you. If you enjoy contemporary-style YA dystopian fiction, you’ll like it. There’s no steampunk, no supernatural, almost no high technology, but what there is is so vivid that you’ll be drawn in even if you don’t care for the subgenre. It’s worth a read.

Note to Parents: This novel contains graphic violence and adult situations, though no sexual ones. I would recommend it for older teens, and younger ones who are mature enough to play MA-rated video games such as Call of Duty. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

EP291: Shannon’s Law

By Cory Doctorow
Read by: Mur Lafferty
Originally appearing in Welcome to Bordertown (Available May 24!) Read it at Tor.com.
Discuss on our forums.
All stories by Cory Doctorow
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated PG: language

[Update- HUGE apologies for former editing issues on this file. It’s fixed now!]

When the Way to Bordertown closed, I was only four years old, and I was more interested in peeling the skin off my Tickle Me Elmo to expose the robot lurking inside his furry pelt than I was in networking or even plumbing the unknowable mysteries of Elfland. But a lot can change in thirteen years.

When the Way opened again, the day I turned seventeen, I didn’t hesitate. I packed everything I could carry—every scratched phone, every half-assembled laptop, every stick of memory, and every Game Boy I could fit in a duffel bag. I hit the bank with my passport and my ATM card and demanded that they turn over my savings to me, without calling my parents or any other ridiculous delay. They didn’t like it, but “It’s my money, now hand it over” is like a spell for bending bankers to your will.

Land rushes. Know about ’em? There’s some piece of land that was off-limits, and the government announces that it’s going to open it up—all you need to do is rush over to it when the cannon goes off, and whatever you can stake out is yours. Used to be that land rushes came along any time the United States decided to break a promise to some Indians and take away their land, and a hundred thousand white men would wait at the starting line to stampede into the “empty lands” and take it over. But more recently, the land rushes have been virtual: The Internet opens up, and whoever gets there first gets to grab all the good stuff. The land rushers in the early days of the Net had the dumbest ideas: online pet food, virtual-reality helmets, Internet-enabled candy delivery services. But they got some major money while the rush was on, before Joe Investor figured out how to tell a good idea from a redonkulous one.

Review: For the Win by Cory Doctorow

I don’t play MMORPGs. I never have. They’re just too big for me. If I’m going to play a RPG, it’s going to be something I can play by myself, with lots of cut-scenes and a hint book — because, in my opinion, the best part about RPGs isn’t figuring out that you need to combine the Widget of Destiny with the Wilted Flower to create a Magical Key of Awesomeness. It’s playing the game like an interactive movie with battle sequences.

Which is why I love Final Fantasy VII and X so very much.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t also thoroughly enjoy Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win.

For the Win, ostensibly a YA novel (I’d say “mature YA”), contains some pretty heavy concepts, most of them dealing with economics, gaming, labor, employee rights, and the way totalitarian governments deal with lawbreakers. But fortunately, that’s not all it’s about.

For the Win follows a few major characters and spans the entire near-future Earth (much in the same way that Doctorow’s Little Brother was just around the corner in terms of its timeline). In California, Leonard Goldberg dreams of going to China to meet his guildmates in Svart… Svartal… Some-Long-Viking-Word Warriors. In Atlanta, Connor Prikkel works to protect Coca-Cola’s games division from people who game the system. In India, Mala forms an army to take on gold farmers at the behest of the games companies themselves. In China, Matthew Fong uses his savant-like strategies to get the best stuff from games. Also in China, we have Jiandi, a radio host very popular with the downtrodden factory girls — the young women who make a huge amount of stuff Westerners take for granted. And then, I believe in Indonesia or Malaysia, we find the trio of Big Sister Nor, Justbob, and The Mighty Krang, who just want gold farmers to have the same rights as everyone else.

Far more complicated than Little Brother, For the Win requires readers to keep all these characters and their motivations straight in their heads, while also keeping track of the different game worlds in which they all play. S-Word Warriors, Mushroom Kingdom, and Zombie Mecha are the three main ones, but Doctorow also gives us glimpses into others, such as Magic of Hogwarts, which I for one would really like to play. But like Little Brother, For the Win educates as well as entertains. Most gamers have at least heard of gold farmers, of boys and young men in China playing games to make money and get big items that can be sold to people who don’t have eight hours a day, every day, to level their characters up. What For the Win does is reminds us that these gold farmers, while they do get to play games all day, are still doing work, and if they’re in one of the many countries where workers don’t have rights… well, things can get ugly. Especially if they demand what even the most slacker teen working at Taco Bell has here in the U.S. (and much of the West).

It’s a big concept, and not something that every YA reader will be able to wrap his or her head around. Doctorow does a great job of breaking down the economics and the labor issues into understandable chunks, but I don’t think a tenth-grade teacher could give this book to an average English class and expect all the students to grasp everything as well as, say, a college freshman or early-30s writer could do. Not the author’s fault; like I said, these are big concepts, much bigger than Little Brother‘s relatively-simple “freedom to do what we want, without being spied upon, so long as we’re not harming anyone” message.

This book is also pretty violent. Kids are hurt, and even killed; there’s one scene where a murder takes you completely by surprise because you’re expecting something different to happen. The police beat and jail young teens and adults alike. There’s riots, narrow escapes, unjust imprisonments, and a disproportionate number of kicks or punches to the groin area — for a book as short as For the Win, I really did notice it. I guess that’s intentional — not every YA reader has been beaten up by the police, but I’m going to bet that most boys, by the age of 18, have taken at least one shot to the nads and can therefore identify with the pain the characters are going through.

I realize now that this review has been fairly dark so far, which isn’t fair to the tone of the book — Doctorow’s writing is quick and witty, full of contemporary phrases that the intended audience will totally grok. And there’s lots of hopeful moments, such as when Leonard realizes his dream only to find out that what his parents were putting him through was nothing compared to the lives his friends in China have to deal with, and then watching him rise to the occasion. Plus the irrepressible good humor of Jiandi, Ashok’s insistence that everything is going to be all right if only people listen to him, and of course the ending. I can’t tell you much about it, because it would be spoiler-y, but if you’ve ever read a YA novel where kids are the heroes and adults are the villains, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea what happens.

I really enjoyed For the Win, and I enjoyed it even more because Doctorow makes all his books available for free on his website. I read this as a PDF on my iPad — the first electronic book I’ve read for pleasure* — and if you have a device that can read PDFs, you can just download it. But that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with picking it up in the store. I’m fairly certain that most people have done so (or at least bought a Kindle/Nook version).

I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone just picking up Doctorow for the first time (although it is pretty accessible). However, if there’s a gamer in your life that you want to start reading books instead of killing orcs, this is definitely one to buy. Technically-minded people will also appreciate the level of detail and research in the novel, and genre readers will see all of this happening just around the corner.

For the Win. Full of win.

* I had to read Wealth of Nations on a website for one of my seminar courses in college. White Courier font on a black background. My eyes hurt. A lot.