Tag: YA fiction

Book review: Soonchild by Russell Hoban (illustrated by Alexis Deacon)

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Russell Hoban’s Soonchild was an impulse purchase I made a few years ago when a bookstore had a sale on. Deacon’s artwork intrigued me, plus the book’s spine creaked when I opened it. Unfortunately, my first and second reading of the book left me unsatisfied, and so the novel was relegated to a shelf until last Halloween when, in a fit of boredom, I decided to read it again.

My feeling was that I’d “missed” something that turned Sixteen-Face John’s story from the merely curious to the charming. I’m still not sure what element it was, but that Halloween reading changed the way I experienced Hoban’s story. Maybe a part of it was that I stopped expecting something from the fable and just enjoyed it. In that enjoyment, I found a surprising depth of meaning.

Billed as a young adult novel, but more fable-ish than anything else, Soonchild tells the story of Sixteen-Face John’s search for the world songs to coax his unborn child from her mother’s womb. The journey takes Sixteen-Face John (so called because he has sixteen faces with which to be afraid) deep into the north’s world, and into himself. Along the way he faces dangerous foes, of which fear proves to be the biggest one.

It’s hard to classify the story. It’s funny, wise, wry, sarcastic, cautionary and clever in turn. Alexis Deacon’s illustrations really bring it to life, sparse and extravagant as the story demands, helping you follow the barnacle-goose children over the ledge of fiction, fantasy, fable, phantasm and faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Soonchild
Author: Russell Hoban (who passed away in 2011), illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Publisher: Walker Books, 2012.
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.76/5)
The best feature of the book: Its surprising spiritual depth; its wry turns.
The worst feature of the book: It can be confusing.
Trigger warnings: You’ll be tempted to think of it as a children’s book – it really isn’t. It’s surprisingly gory.
You’ll like this if… You like fables and reading books like chewing good food.

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Unfinished books: 2017 edition

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This year, I set the goal of reading at least fifty books. I didn’t have a set list, just an ever-growing “to read” pile, foolish optimism and a bit of wildness about the eye. I made some headway, but in my reading, there were a few books I started but just couldn’t finish, not even if it put me one desperate book closer to magical number fifty.

It’s not to say these books weren’t good, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t appeal. I may try them again at some point, but at present, they’ve been relegated to the reject list (and I’m sure these authors are quaking in their boots at the thought of being in some random blogger’s bad graces, but they must carry on as best they can!)

In no particular order…

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Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

According to my tablet, I got 34% through this one. A rec from a favourite Christian podcast of mine, I stocked up on a few Richard Rohr books thinking I’d be able to relate. And while Falling Upward has a great premise, the book and I just never hit it off. It didn’t help that Rohr kept throwing shade at “young people nowadays”, which is just presumptuous.

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Black, Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker is sort of the Stephen King of Christian fantasy fiction, so I set into the first in the Circle series, Black, with some enthusiasm. Now, I consider myself a fairly die-hard fantasy/horror fan, but Black crept me the hell out. Worse, the parts that freaked me out weren’t supposed to! I didn’t get very far with this one before I gave it up.

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History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

An irreverent and somewhat sexy read (think The Talented Mr Ripley meets Downton Abbey, but set in the Netherlands), the chief characters soon lose their appeal, and after that, the novel feels self-conscious and pretentious. I’m aware that this may have been intentional given the protagonist, but still.

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Look: A practical guide for improving your observation skills, James H. Gilmore

My tablet suggests I got all of 11% into this one. I wasn’t expecting it to turn me into Sherlock Holmes, but the theory was so boring I stopped reading it before it could even try!

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The Art of Intuition, Sophy Burnham

It’s a very finger-wavy book. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of what we call intuition is closer to scientific fact than to anything esoteric, but don’t tell this book that: it wades right into spiritual topics, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

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The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

I’ll finish this book one day, but today (or this week, or month, or year) isn’t it. It’s a good book and it delivers keen insights into the topic at hand and the men discussing it, although it’s been so sanitised you can practically eat off of it. Hardly a page-turner, however.

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The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Another good, but kind of dull, book, it offers fascinating insights into the nature of politics. This is the academically toned down version of the authors’ work, but I think it’ll take another level of dumbing down to make it as absorbing a read as it is an intriguing one.

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Fallen, Lauren Kate

Lest it be said I scorn only intellectual books… I’ve written before about my ambiguous relationship with YA fiction. Well, when the movie adaptation for Fallen came out, I set to reading it, thinking I wanted to finish the novel before I see the film. Now I doubt I’ll ever even watch the movie. The book is just plain badly written, dragging its feet across the dull flagstones of its story world. I should probably be intrigued by the Mysterious and Rude Boy, but Edward Cullen has saturated my tolerance for that business. Hard pass.

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Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Reading the blurb for this sci-fi novel, it ticked a lot of boxes, not least of which is the fact that the author is a woman. The premise is interesting and I don’t hate its execution, but after a few chapters, the weight of the story world just begins to sag down on all the beguiling characters and the decent plot.

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The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill

Another good book that fell to my book version of ADD, Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom takes a thorough and enlightening look at the social, economic and political nature of Jesus’ Kingdom message. This really is a good book, and one I’ll endeavour to finish, but I doubt it’ll make 2017’s “read” pile.

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Identity-Driven Churches, Malan Nel

I heard Nel speak at a church event and loved him. He’s a very clever man and his book, Identity-Driven Churches, is full of timely insight into the post-Christian decline of churches. All that said, I could not get more than a few chapters into this book, my best intentions despite. Part of the problem is that because he knows so much, even the simplest statement of his is buried in footnotes and more information. It isn’t a book so much as a roadmap to knowledge, of which his book forms only one link in the chain.

A good book, but hard to read. It’ll remain on my “try again” pile, if only for my consternated ego’s sake!

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Pad Na Gebed, Jorg Zink (The Way to Prayer)

I found this little book in a secondhand bookshop, and while I love it in theory, in practice I never read much farther than its mid-point. A collection of prayers and devotional writing with tender insights into the human condition, it’ll stay on my shelf, probably perpetually unfinished but comforting in its presence.

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The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

As a hack writer, I feel guilty about this one purely because Roy’s writing is so beautiful: every sentence is like opening a present of literary merit. That’s part of the problem, though: if you’re not in the right mood, the novel becomes a slog rather than a wondrous journey, and all the flowery language in the world won’t make you identify with characters who don’t give you much reason to.


What didn’t you read this year, and why?

Book review: The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer

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I always swear up and down I won’t read any more young adult fiction – my days as a Twihard haunt me still, though perhaps not as much as they should – but inevitably a YA title makes it way into my reading list, and here we are. Sometimes the experience is unpleasant – Jennifer Armentrout’s “Obsidian” and Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series both come to mind – but YA fiction isn’t always like being stabbed in the liver.

In that vein, I’ve got to say I enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles without worrying how it would look if I died with these books on my bedside cabinet.

Cinder, Scarlett, Cress and Winter – with a bunch of novellas stopping gaps between the major instalments – follow the lives of various heroines loosely based on old fairy tales. In Cinder, we learn about cyborg Lihn Cinder, mechanic and outcast; in Scarlet, about the red-haired, red hoodie-wearing Scarlet, whose grandmother is missing; in Cress, about a girl with tangles of hair stuck in an orbiting satellite; and in Winter, the final instalment, we meet Princess Winter, the beautiful envy of her evil stepmother…

Half of what makes these stories so intriguing is the ease with which Meyer introduces her story world: an earth far into the future that still feels familiar, teetering, as it is, on the edge of dystopia but not quite there yet, although not for lack of trying on the disease and enemy fronts. Meyer tells you about the society through the experiences of her characters, so the narrative isn’t slogged down with her story world’s history.

The other half of what makes it work are the characters themselves. In many ways they’re your typical YA fare: the misunderstood heroine, spotted – against all odds – by the handsome or misunderstood or enigmatic or blasé-but-really-deep-deep-down boy, with the requisite angst, intrigue and romance. But as in all good YA, while the boy fights for the heroine, these heroines fight for themselves and the people around them. There’s a depth to them that colour them interesting.

And, you know, it’s fun. It’s fun reading Meyer’s adaptation of familiar stories into something else, something unexpected without robbing them of their quintessence, and reading it, I was excited to see how she would sketch all these characters into a cohesive narrative. The plot doesn’t slow down – I finished all four novels inside a week – so it’s fair to say that Meyer did a good job.

Why these novels aren’t more popular – the first I saw of them was a random pin on Pinterest – baffles me. I’m assuming it’s because they were published right between Twilight’s last hard fandom encore, and the then nascent Hunger Games frenzy. Meyer exceeds both Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins in technical writing ability, though I suppose you could say that The Lunar Chronicles had a slightly younger audience in mind. Still, it’s a shame that these books were overshadowed by other series when they have such interesting characters and such an intriguing narrative.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Lunar Chronicles (Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Winter).
Author: Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4/5 for the whole series (Goodreads rating for comparison: an average of about 4/5)
The best feature of the books: The heroines are all pretty cool. Skimming the reviews on Goodreads I noticed that more than one person disliked Cinder, the main protagonist of the series. She’s hardly perfect, but I found her relatable and well constructed. Also, there isn’t a single love triangle in sight; not a one.
The worst feature of the books: If I had to nitpick, I’d say it’s the fact that Levana could have solved a lot of her own problems, but reading the books you understand why she misses obvious opportunities. She’s a pretty despicable villain, but I find it a pity that her despicableness is so related to the typical “evil woman” stereotype – a lost or rejected lover, etc.
Trigger warnings: General creepiness. While aimed at a slightly younger audience, these books don’t mess around when it comes to mentioning things like rape, and there’s quite a bit of graphic violence. There’s also some serious ick factor when it comes to the Lunar gift (a form of mind control).
You’ll like this if… You like YA fiction in general or need to read something interesting but ultimately harmless.