Monthly Archives: June 2008

Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher

Whale Talk T.J. is 1/4 black and 1/4 Japanese in a town of racist rednecks in inland Washington; his single mother, addicted to drugs, abandoned him at two years old. Luckily, she abandoned him to a very nice normal family and he grows up to be probably the happiest character in the book. Take that as a warning sign. He ends up gathering a motley cast of losers and misfits for the swim team, in a quest to get a letter jacket for Chris, the brain-damaged kid who’s been bullied out of wearing his dead brother’s letter jacket.

What’s interesting about this book is that if my suspension of disbelief had snapped for even a second, I would have sighed and rolled my eyes and put the book down, because you could play Problem Novel Bingo with it, and it has an improbable density of awful things that happen, and it’s just too clinical, too therapeutic. And depressing. Did I mention depressing?

But Crutcher has such a firm handle on T.J’s voice – it’s not all snappy and hip in the way of some YA novels, it’s just solid and convincing all the way through. I end up believing all of it. I end up getting sucked into it. I end up getting my heart broken by it even as I get annoyed by the way the plots for coming-of-age novels always seem to need to sacrifice some important character at the end.

T.J. is very believable as a character who feels an idealistic need to rebel against the system and change things, but who also has a chip on his shoulder, and who can’t always neatly draw the line between those two things. This is a guy I knew in high school, definitely. Perhaps no other character in the book is quite as well drawn – I don’t think I really believe in the villainy of the villains – but T.J. manages to hold the whole book together.


The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol. II, The Kingdom On the Waves, by M. T. Anderson

Octavian Nothing IIMost historical fiction books for young people take as their object to show a Typical Person with a Typical Problem in a particular era; and most historical fiction for young people reflects a sort of bland consensus view of history, something that is acceptable to teach in schools.Octavian Nothing is not most historical fiction.

Picking up where the first book left off, Octavian — a slave raised in luxury with a first-rate education as part of an experiment — enlists with the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, which has promised to free any Rebel-owned slaves that join up. There he encounters war, friendship, heartbreak, betrayal, the difficulty of fitting in when he fits in nowhere. He has spent his childhood learning Latin and violin fugues, where his comrades have spent theirs on plantations. Octavian’s cultural heritage is extremely complex. He has been given music and religion – but has been deprived of the music and religion of his own people. The novel refuses to make an easy calculation of what he has gained and lost.

We see Octavian’s growing maturity as he acquires wisdom — and also cynicism. Is selfishness at the core of human nature, human existence? Can success — or survival — only be achieved at the expense of others? And if so, how do we reconcile ourselves with that?

The issue of historical memory is one I’ve been deeply interested in for some years now. There is probably no nation on earth that has never, somewhere in its history, committed war crimes or genocide, that has no scars on its conscience. It’s easy to say, it’s history, it’s in the past. It’s too easy; the past is never past. Octavian Nothing is willing to confront that, to ask hard questions. To refuse to provide easy answers to them. It asks how we can reconcile ourselves with our past — with our present — and says, maybe we don’t. Maybe we can’t.

What a profoundly troubling and beautiful piece of work.


Octavian Nothing II will be published in October.

The Queen of Cool, by Cecil Castellucci

Queen of CoolLibby is one of the popular kids at school, but she’s dissatisfied, bored of everything including her popular friends and her own popularity. On a whim, she signs up for an internship at the zoo, where she is mortified to be working with an astronomy nerd (who wants to be an exobiologist) and a little person, Tina (“Tiny”), who her group has always mocked.

This book has what I love from Cecil Castellucci: the conviction that teenagers can be awesome people when they have goals and useful things to do, the conviction that creativity and art and science and craftsmanship and hard work are at least as important and interesting as who is kissing who, the sharp observation of human nature and social situations. Libby’s makeover isn’t too fast or too dramatic; she wanders around for much of the book bored and restless and sick of herself, as annoyed with the cool people as the uncool people and with no idea what to do about it. But in comparison with Castellucci’s other books, I thought this one was a little thin and shallow.

A weak(er) Castellucci book is still nothing to sneeze at. Absorbing and enjoyable.

Devilish, by Maureen Johnson

DevilishJane and Ally are the misfits at St. Teresa’s, the local all-girl Catholic high school; Jane is short, brilliant, and rebellious, while Ally has a Thing for vampires and witches (including the book Fondled by Shadows, which I will never stop finding awesome.)

The day after an absolutely magnificent humiliation, Ally comes to school with a new haircut and a new friend. Things are looking just a little too good to be true: she’s sold her soul to the devil, and Jane has to figure out how to get it back by Halloween.

I liked Johnson’s Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes but didn’t love it; it was competent, well-executed, but lacked a certain spark. Devilish has that spark. It’s fun and hard to put down, and Jane has a sense of humor about St. Teresa’s that’s never as bitter and angry as her reputation would suggest. I love how it puts a friendship between girls at the center of the story and shunts the romance bits off to the side, and the way that friendship is depicted rings really true to me.

I still felt like Johnson could’ve taken this just a little bit darker, a little bit sharper — and that might have made it a book I jumped all up and down over, but I still enjoyed it greatly.

Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

DustA generation ship, disabled, limps in orbit around an unstable binary star that could self-immolate at any moment. For five hundred years, Engine and Rule have established quasi-medieval fiefdoms with the Exalt – whose bodies are augmented by a nanotech symbiont – ruling over the Mean. And the artificial intelligence that once controlled the ship’s systems has splintered into ‘angels’ – chief among them Samael, the angel of death (or life support, at any rate) and Jacob Dust, the angel of memory.

Knight-errant Perceval loses a duel – and her wings. She’s taken prisoner by Ariane of Rule. But the Mean servant girl assigned to take care of her is Rien – her long-lost sister. (This book had me at ‘maimed wingless girl knight-errant,’ and never let go). Before long they’ve escaped from Rule on a quest to find their father and prevent the coming war between Engine and Rule.

This is a book stuffed with Cool Bits, especially if you’re me, but even if you’re not. I think it’s terribly neat that there’s medieval window-dressing and a fantasy quest plot, all packaged – with perfect rationality – in a rigorous science fictional universe. There’s a basilisk! There’s a hermaphroditic necromancer! There are peaches that contain the memories of the dead! And at the same time, all of these Cool Bits are pointed at heavy, intense themes and heartbreaking storytelling. Bear is interrogating power and privilege and love and submission and domination and – as always – what it takes to face terrible choices with honor, dignity, and integrity.

This is also the first Elizabeth Bear novel I understood all the way through without having to read anything twice over. I like the opaqueness in some of her work, but I also like the clarity in this one.