Friday, October 28, 2011

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

There is no denying that dystopian or speculative fiction are very popular areas of writing and publication right now; since the explosion of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins over the last year, fiction set in some potential (and usually frightening) future has been filling the bookshelves at a nearly unprecedented rate.  However, since much of this fiction is both thrilling and thought-provoking, I cannot complain!

Wither by debut author Lauren DeStefano may be one of many new entries into this subgenre but it still stands out from the masses of recently published dystopian sagas.  The best speculative fiction usually grounds itself in issues and questions of the present day and Wither is no exception.  For this novel, the potential devastation of the human race comes from our own attempts to improve the world--in this case through medical and scientific engineering and manipulation of human biology. 

About 70 years ago, science at last succeeded in creating perfect children; a generation of babies were born to be nearly indestructable, immune to diseases and with unpredicatably long life spans.  However a development that seemed to be a marvel of genetic research has turned out to be the downfall of the humanity.  Every generation since that first, miraculous one is stricken with an inexplicable flaw; females die of a mysterious virus at age 20 and male die of the same illness at age 25.  Most of the globe has been destroyed by war and the United States has become a nation of desperate people.  While scientists work to discover a cure and orphans flood the country, young women are frequently snatched from the streets and sold into polygomous marriages with weathly men in an attempt to prevent the population from dying out. 

Sixteen year old Rhine Ellery is unlucky enough to be one of these unwilling brides.  Suddenly Rhine finds herself in an unfamiliar world of luxury as one of Linden Ashby's three new wives.  Athough she now wear custom designed gowns and never goes hungry, Rhine remains entirely focused on escaping her beautiful prison and finding her way back to her twin brother.  Even as she connects with her sister wives and begins to feel pity and affection for their equally imprisoned husband, Rhine never fully allows her determination to waver; she will live her last four years in freedom or die trying. 

The premise is intriguing and DeStefano's prose is lovely and evocative; however, the real strength of this novel lies in the characters.  Rhine's conflicting emotions and increasing complex relationships with the people surrounding her are the core of the novel.  Her changing emotional connections with her husband, her sister wives, and the servant Gabriel are fully fleshed out and delicately developed over the course of the plot.  There are no simplistic 'good guys' and 'bad guys'.  The most obvious villain is Rhine's father-in-law, a First Generation scientist whose obsession to find a cure that will save Linden before his twenty-fifth birthday has pushed him into very murky ethical territory.  However, even he is a three dimensional character whose motives remain sympathetic and understandable even as his actions become more and more terrifying.  Wither provides us with a chilling peek at our possible future.  The novel reminds us how easily those in power will dehumanize others in the rush to survive and how quickly the greater good might overpower the rights and freedoms of the individual masses in such a situation.     


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Bites: Keeping Reviews Short and Sweet

Whew! As the infrequent updates here indicate, life became increasingly busy again these last couple months--for very happy reasons!  I began my first grown-up job as a real librarian mid-August and while that means I've been consuming young adult books at an insane pace, it also means I've been busy getting adjusted to my new job and updating our official library blog instead updating this one! So, I am again making use of this little blog feature I call "Book Bites" where I post a bunch short mini reviews for several books I've read recently.  This batch is mix of recent and not so recent releases in a variety of genres.

How To Rock Braces and Glasses by Meg Haston

Aspiring journalist Kacey Simon rules Marquette Middle School based on one idea: she always tells the truth, even when it hurts.  As host of her own show on the school's tv channel, Kacey hands out extremely honest advice to her classmates--without worrying about other people's feelings.  Then she gets an eye infection and falls flat on her face at the roller rink, landing her with thick glasses, braces, and a lisp.  Suddenly Kacey drops from the top of the social pyramid down to the bottom.  But it turns out that life as a loser is a lot more fun than Kacey ever guessed.

 A generally fun story of almost romance, friendship , and growing self-awareness, How To Rock is likely to be a good sell to middle schoolers interested in contemporary fiction.  While it is a little formulaic and cliche, the story remains enjoyable--and quite marketable, as Nickelodeon's recent purchase of the rights and plans to adapt it into a series called "How To Rock" illustrates.

Wings by Aprilynne Pike

Laurel has always felt different from other kids her age; but she's always assumed it had something to do with the way she's been raised.  Her sweet hippie parents have homeschooled her and treated any health problems with her mom's natural treatments.  Now that she's starting at a real school, Laurel is realizing that she is unusual in a lot more ways.  She can only really eat fruits and vegetables and too much time inside makes her feel trapped.  Then Laurel grows a pair of flower-like wings between her shoulder blades. 

I heard a lot of good buzz about this opening novel in Pike's romantic fairy trilogy.  And some of that hype is deserved; Pike's writing has almost ethereal quality and she crafts her sentences and the story's plot clearly.  Laurel is a sweet but strong heroine and her two love interests, the kind human David and the mysterious fairy Tamani, are both attractive characters.  Did it set me on fire to grab the next two novels, Spells and Illusions? Not really.  But will younger teen fans of supernatural romances snatch it up? For sure.    

Abandon by Meg Cabot

Pierce died.  She got tangled in her pool cover trying to rescue a bird, hit her head, and woke up in a strange place she now knows as the Underworld.  But she escaped and now she is trying to get on with life,  moving to her mom's old hometown and starting at a new school.  However life is much more complicated when you know what it's like to die.  The fact that the tall dark and handsome guy she met in the Underworld keeps showing up whenever Pierce is in trouble is not helping.  Escaping death once was lucky but can Pierce be that lucky a second time?

I was excited about this book.  Meg Cabot, Greek mythology, dark romance--sounds like a winning combination.  But I was personally somewhat disappointed.  Abandon functions mostly as set up for the next novel in this new series, being high on flashbacks and brooding yet generally unbelievable romance and low on action or character development.  However, it sold like hotcakes among my 8th graders.

Heist Society by Ally Carter

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her to Paris.  Of course in between buying Kat ballons and croissants, her mom and dad were busy casing the Louvre so they could rob it later.  But being an art thief without a real home has become exhausting and so at 15 she pulls her biggest con yet: acceptance into a prestigious boarding school and a normal life.  However it turns out the family business is a lot trickier to get out of than Kat thought.  Suddenly her friend and fellow con artist Hale bounds into her normal life to tell Kat that her dad is in big trouble--international, life-threatening kind of trouble--and only Kat can get him out of it.

How fun is this book?!  Non-stop action, globe-trotting adventure, smart teens, a kick-butt heroine, and a touch of art history all in one delightful read.  Kat is a great protagonist, being both glamourous and reassuringly down to earth, and the plot moves at a great clip.  I had dozens of 7th graders battling for this one before I even finished my booktalk!