Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wheelchairs with hidden machine guns: McGann, Oisin (2009). The Wisdom of Dead Men, Corgi.

Ancient Appetites was one of my favourite YA sf novels and I've been eagerly awaiting the sequel. The Wisdom of Dead Men is a damn good successor. It is not an easy sequel, it has a host of new political directions, and some uncomfortable discoveries.

The Wildernstern clan are unsually long lived and have a special relationship with gold (it heals them) and with the living animals that turn up from time to time. If the share blood with one, it will acknowledge them as its master.

In Ancient Appetites , the family discovered some bog bodies which unfortunately revived and claimed their rights as the eldest of the line. To enforce these rights, they cut a swathe through the family (using the Rites of Accession to support the various assassinations) and were finally done away with by the patriarch's second son Berto and his youngest brother Nate, along with Berto's wife Daisy. None of these people were very happy to find themselves at the head of the family. Furthermore, Berto had been crippled in the fight and as the book opens we find him in a wheelchair.

The Wisdom of Dead Men sees Berto get involved with the shady Knights of Abraham in search of a cure for his paralysis, while Nate and Daisy investigate the apparent spontaneous combustion of local witches, and find themselves digging up poorly buried family skeletons. We find out more about the engimals which roam the countryside and even more about the Wildernstern's blood and the miraculous healing they share with a small number of other families. Irish politics gets murkier and more unsettled.

There is clearly going to be a sequel, and despite being sequel averse, I'm looking forward to it. McGann is not the greatest of writers, there are a lot of clunky sentences, but unlike too many of the sf texts being pushed at kids, his work always has a really fantastic story to tell.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

There'll always be a London: Philip Reeve, Fever Crumb (London: Scholastic, 2009).

Very good indeed. A prequel to Mortal Engines, it only slides into prequel mode very occasionally. Most of the time it is firmly its own book.

Fever Crumb has grown up in the Engineers' house shortly after the collapse of the Scriven rule of London. The Scriven were not quite human, and their inability either to breed true or to breed well with humans eventually led to their downfall and to the Patschkin riots.

On leaving the Engineers for the first time, Fever discovers she herself is at least part Scriven, but this becomes a minor issue as the nomads advance on London, and the archeologists and engineers look for the secret which the Scriven left behind.

Although there are some big themes, this is a slight novel, and most of its pleasures are in the discovery of the run down future London. It's nice to see an sf writer for kids keeping firmly to sf as well, the moment at which the book could have gone all mystic, science and scientific exploration comes firmly to the fore.

Untreasured: Michelle Harrison, 13 Treasures (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Harrison, M. (2009). 13 Treasures. London, Simon & Schuster.
A very weak book: Tanya goes to stay with her grandmother because her mother can't cope with her apparently psychotic behaviour. There Tanya meets Fabian and together they unravel the mystery of the girl who went missing 50 years before. Tanya, it turns out, can see fairies, and Morwenna was kidnapped by the fairies many years ago.

The problem is that the book is very badly written, the sentences clunk, and the structure is all wrong. We spend too much time in the build up to figuring out what's going on, and only in the last fifth of the book does Fabian discover the secret Tanya is hiding. Only in the last tenth do we find out that Morwenna went willingly and that everyone is conspiring to protect Tanya. I wish I could say that Tanya figures out how to protect herself, but she is actually saved by Red, a girl who is herself trying to rescue her brother from the fairies--a twist which could have been fascinating but which is handled as a mere side-story. The 13 treasures barely figure.

The two most grating aspects of the book are the newspaper stories which are written as if by someone who has never actually read a newspaper crime report, and the Enid Blyton style wise gypsy woman.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Elliot, Zetta. (2008). A Wish After Midnight. ?, Self-published?

The easy way to describe A Wish After Midnight is that it's a YA version of Octavia Butler's _Kindred_. I mean that as a compliment by the way.

Genna lives in Brooklyn. In the first half of the novel we see through her eyes all the threats that Black ghetto families face. Under the pressure of poverty and low expectations her family is disintegrating, and Genna's chances of getting up and out are diminished with every attempt she makes to help her mother. Her own confidence however is increased when she meets a Rastafarian boy called Judah.

In the second half, Genna finds herself flung back into 1863 Brookly, badly injured although she can't remember how. She is taken in by free black folk and settles down to the indignities of being Black in America in 1863. Later, Judah arrives, but he has been sold into slavery and is far willing to accept the hard scrabble comfort of freedom. The book ends with the draft riots, and a place for a sequel.

This really is rather a good book: the pre time travel section is too long for my tastes, but it's exploration of Genna's life is complex and demonstrates the degree to which racism is held together by many institutional structures. Once in the past the book really takes off: the racism and prejudice of white northerners is given short shrift, the ways in which white immigrants and blacks are played off against each other is dealt with very well, the compromised expectations of many people are depicted well, and the casual prejudice of the well meaning is displayed.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sheldon, Dyan (2008). The Difficult Job of Keeping Time. London, Walker Books.

This is a rather nice time travel fantasy in which a town's old church is about to be obliterated by re-development. One of the things I liked about it is that while Good = preservation and Evil = obliteration of memory, one of the issues is that the redevelopment will not benefit locals but only marginalise them. Of the two protagonists, one is a refugee boy settled in the town, the other the child of a not very reliable single mother with a drink problem. As far as there is a metaphoric arc, it's that they learn to draw on their own resources.

Kiki and Trish meet a lady, of middle age, who sends them back into the past to reclaim some documents. The lady is an avatar, as is her opponent. Both of them will be born, again and again in different forms to face off against each other (each body lives its natural life unless terminated, so killing one's opponent is not always the right way to go, the lady, for example, has in a previous incarnation been locked inb a mental hospital and drugged, to keep her out of play). There is a hint that these are old gods in an old game.

The nineteenth century drawn here is reasonably realistic, with child labour portrayed as just one of those things: all the shock is in Kiki and Trish's experience of it. No one is shown as especially callous, just having different values.

I liked the book a great deal, for its combination of the nicely drawn present, and protagonists with genuine ingenuity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lavender Ratties!!! or Rat Trap by Michael J. Daley from Holiday House, 2008.

I reviewed Daley's Space Station Rat back here in 2006. It's remained one of my favourites in my collection.

In Rat Trap Daley continues the story, as Rat has to hide from investigators, learns something about ethics and learns how to tempt a computer into sentience.

I love this book. I love that Rat remains always and ever a grown up person who has as much practical to teach the boy as she has to learn. I love the fact that Daley never loses sight of the fact that in a rough, tough universe sentimental messages aren't half as useful as a good set of screwdrivers.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

End of the blog.

Dear All

I may post the odd thing here, but this blog is more or less dead. The book is due sometime next year.

Active and excelellent however is a blog by Susan Fichtelberg who seems to have a firm grasp on what sf for children and teens should be. See here.