Monday, September 27, 2010

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

It was only after I read someone else's review of Ship Breaker that I realized it is classified as science fiction. Which made me wonder about the definition. This book is set in the future, but does not contain any of the elements I generally associate with that genre; gadgets, new theories of physics, stuff like that. All of the definitions provided to me by Google run something like this one, found at Wikipedia: "Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting." Although climate change is not exactly an innovation, it is certainly the possible result of science and technology, so I guess it counts.

This is a book that would make a great video game. (I say this despite having very little experience playing video games.) It is fast-paced, and has lots of great lingo. It is a teeny bit violent, and the characters are pretty much super-human in their ability to take a licking and keep on ticking.

The protagonist is Nailer, a teenaged boy with an abusive father and a job as a light crew scavenger, scurrying through the wreckage of oil tankers to gather copper wiring for resale. In this bleak and not-too-distant future, category 6 storms are the norm, New Orleans is long under water, and now obsolete tankers rust on the beaches of the Gulf Coast. Electronic technology is still up and running, but fossil fuels are a thing of the past. Nailer makes a discovery which could make him king of the salvage yards when he happens upon a modern clipper ship wrecked on an outcropping of rock. He has to make the kind of moral choice that drives fiction: save the girl or go for the gold. The rest is nail-biting action.

Society in this novel has followed its current trajectory: the rich are richer and the poor are in trouble. Nailer's commentary on family, loyalty and desperation are very touching. I always love a stand-up guy as hero, and I'm also enjoying the boy--on-his-own-in-trouble genre, which is far less upsetting to me than the girl-in-trouble-and-messed-with-by-men genre. This is good YA - a little more action than is generally my taste, but a fun read.

I'm putting Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl, on my list. It won the Nebula Award, and tied for the Hugo. It sounds timely and fascinating...

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Kids Are All Right, by Diana Welch & Co.

I read this back in October, but never managed to post about it. It's an interesting family memoir, written by four adult siblings, in rotating chapters. Two of them are professional writers, the other two decidedly not. I liked that each of the four has a distinct voice; the two who are not writers have not had their prose cleaned up or polished, and thus sound genuine.

It's always fascinating to hear a group of people talk about common past events. Each person's account is different, colored by perspective, emotion and age. These kids had a complicated family, and ended up spending a fair amount of time away from one another. I get the feeling that in this book they are not only telling their family story, but learning about the portions of one another's childhoods they did not get to witness.

The story itself is another from the my-screwed-up-childhood genre. While their story is a lot less hair-raising than many I've read, the Welches had a pretty hard time of it. A reminder to get the custody worked out before you check out.

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl

I don't usually read non-fiction. I like a good story, and if I accidentally learn something along the way, so be it. I do like memoirs, though, particularly if they involve seriously dysfunctional families. One advantage, as far as I'm concerned, is that the story happened (more or less) the way it happened, and if I don't like the way it turned out I can't blame the author.

Now, I am not a foodie. I own only a handful of cookbooks, I don't watch the cooking channel, I buy Costco olive oil, and when I was married I was very happy to let my husband do all of the cooking. Which indicates to me that Ruth Reichl is a terrific writer, because I loved this book. That her entire childhood is told through the filter of food is clearly not a clever device; she actually remembers her whole life according to what was being served and by whom! There is certainly some dysfunction (does every good memoirist have a bi-polar mother?), but mostly there is just good storytelling. In fact, I found myself thinking that my own life would seem much more interesting if I could but find a unifying theme running through it.

After reading this book, I spent a long time trying to remember specific meals from my childhood. There are a few, but when it comes to culinary training, I mostly remember my sister and mother experimenting in the kitchen together while I snuck off to my pine-needle fort in the woods.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

"When I was a teenager in the 1980s, we thought of asylum seekers as heroes. The hundreds who died while trying to cross the Berlin Wall, for example. Or the pilots, performers and scientists who defected from the Soviet Union. Or the heroes of previous generations – Sigmund Freud, who fled to London to escape the Nazis, or Anne Frank, who could not flee far enough. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad – all of them refugees – I could go on and on. When horror and darkness descend, asylum seekers are the ones who get away. They are typically above average in terms of intellectual gifts, far-sightedness, motivation and resilience. These are the people you want to have on your side. It will be a monument to our hubris if we allow ourselves to start thinking of them as a burden."

This is just one of the inspiring paragraphs I found on Chris Cleave's website. I could spend all day there - what an interesting and engaging guy.

I really loved this book. One of the greatest things about it is the blurb in the front of the dust jacket. I have returned it to the library, and so can't quote it verbatim, but it basically says that the book is great, that the story hinges on the choices made by two women, and that to say more would ruin the story. All true! I might well have passed it by had I known more about the story. In fact, this is the last book I will read for a while that includes the abuse of teenaged girls by men. My heart can't take it - I have girls verging on their teens, and it is too painful to think of them in similar situations.

Don't you hate it when reviewers say "this is an important book"? I feel disinclined to read any book thus heralded. But I think that this novel may in fact be important: the subject is one which we should, in the western world, understand. But it is pure story; there is no lecture, no sense of being enlightened Concerning an Important Fact of Life. It is well-written and entertaining, the two narrators are charming. One even has a terrible boyfriend who, despite her intelligence and success, she continues to adore. Just the kind of flaw that makes a character seem real.

Then the ending. Well. Really? I just couldn't see it, though I can understand why the author wanted it to end that way. Chris Cleave got a lot of things right in this book, primarily Little Bee's voice. I get the feeling there will be a lot more books, and I look forward to seeing him get better and better.

I kind of want to read Incendiary, Chris Cleave's first novel. But if violence against girls is hard to take, how much more painful to read about a mother losing her child? I will wait for a time when I feel a little more thick-skinned. Until then I will peruse his website in a manner verging on stalkerish.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

Wives are kind of like potato chips; it's really hard to stop at just one. So in honor of the maritally enthusiastic, September is polygamy month! I've got a few titles lined up, and have started the series with this fantastic YA novel. I read this in two sittings, but would have finished it in one, if my pesky children hadn't needed feeding and attention. Perhaps I should find a couple of wives to take care of them so that I can spend more time reading...

Where I heard about this book
: I found it in my hunt for polygamy lit, mostly performed on the Multnomah County Library website.

What I thought of this book
: Fantastic. All the stars in the firmament for this wonderful novel.

13 year old Kyra has one father, three mothers and 19 siblings (so far). She also has an unpromising future on the compound of The Chosen Ones, a breakaway Mormon sect. Kyra's greatest assets are her love for her family and her independent spirit; unfortunately, independence is not a trait the Prophet is fond of, particularly in young girls. He makes it very clear to Kyra and her family that if she resists early marriage to an elderly relative, her entire family will suffer. Smart, intrepid and self-reliant, Kyra is unwilling to fall into line, but also not crazy about the idea of tearing her family apart.

This novel is YA at its best. I had to forcibly stop myself from skipping to the end to see how it turned out. Williams does a great job of describing the no-win situations of her characters. Kyra is an engaging protagonist, who will not be dominated by the leaders of her community, nor by the mute fear of her family.