Monday, January 28, 2013

Rachel Swirsky's Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel Recommendations, 2012

For people who want to see only titles without commentary, a distilled list is here.

This year, I read 40 young adult and middle grade novels that were published in 2012. (That I have a record of; it's possible that I read others during the year and forgot to document them.) I compiled my list through: 1) books that caught my attention during the year, usually because of familiarity with the author or because of recommendations, 2) contacting members of the Norton jury (the Norton award is the award for young adult and middle grade novels that's granted by the Science Fiction Writers of America) toward the end of the year for their recommendations, and 3) contacting young adult and middle grade authors of my acquaintance and asking them which books they'd felt passionate about during 2012.

The nice thing about this method is that it allowed me to skip straight to the really good books. I didn't end up reading the, say, 60 random books that aren't very good which I might have picked up otherwise. It's possible that one of those sixty would have blown me away and that's always a negative of using other people's filtering, but doing it this way meant that half of the books I read rated highly above average for me, thirty that rated above average, and only 6 that I rated below average.

Since I know the distinction isn't clear to everyone, young adult and middle grade novels basically represent two facets of the market for children and teens. Young adult novels tend to be marketed at ages 13-20, have main characters around 16, and feature more romantic content (e.g. the characters may be having sex). In middle grade novels, the characters are more likely to have their first kiss, and be around 12-14, and the novels are marketed at ages 9-14. There are finer distinctions than that, and of course the books vary individually from the broad template, but those are more or less the basics. To put this in movie language, CORALINE is middle grade and TWILIGHT is young adult.


I'm still taking some time to think through what exactly will be on my ballot, so here are some likely candidates (order is alphabetical).


THE DROWNED CITIES by Paolo Bacigalupi - THE DROWNED CITIES is the sequel to Bacigalupi's extremely successful SHIPBREAKER. Although the book is set in a future, post-apocalyptic, post-global-warming-floods United States, it deals with issues that affect contemporary nations.

The main character is the daughter of a local woman and a Chinese peacekeeper who abandoned his family when China pulled its forces out. The warlord factions who filled in the void of power have no love for "half-breeds"; girls like her are routinely killed. Before the book begins, one faction captures her and cuts off her right hand. They would have killed her, if she hadn't been rescued by the secondary character, a young boy fleeing the destruction of his own home. The book opens with both children studying medicine from a doctor who believes in showing orphans mercy, but when a bio-engineered dog/man/warrior shows up, trailed by a warlord's troops, both children are forced to run again. The boy is captured by a faction and forced to become a child soldier; the girl chases after him, trying to save him from that fate.

Like much of Bacigalupi's work, this, too, is depressing and often horrific. However, the book avoids the pitfalls of some narratives that deal primarily with the bleak--the book isn't just a one-note drumbeat of emotion, pacing, or imagery. The characters are fully realized; there are moments of humor and beauty. One-note books often flatten themselves out into something dim and muddy. The variety here allows the emotions of the book--positive and negative--to come across more keenly.

Both viewpoint characters are so well-rendered that I suspect they are the primary reason why the book succeeds as well as it does.

THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray - This is the first book in a series, which generally makes me grumpy, but it does manage to complete a full, satisfying arc, while still leaving tantalizing hints about the sequel-to-come. The story follows several teenagers in the 1920s in New York City, each of whom is gifted with a kind of magical power. The first is a young, white, fun-loving flapper who was banished to NYC after using her gift of reading the stories from items in order to expose the perfidy of a wealthy, influential boy. She becomes the story's protagonist, but almost as important is a black poet from Harlem who once had the gift of healing, and now helps protect his little brother who has the gift of prophecy. While the book has epic fantasy elements about saving the world through magic, it's also a successful character piece and historical novel which gives it a broad base of ways in which to tantalize and delight.

The book has a lot of careful, historical details, which I enjoyed, although there were moments when it felt as if the book was giving me a... how do I put this?... stereotypical version of the 1920s? Ish? It felt like it was covering all the bases. Dance marathons and speakeasies and the things one thinks of when one thinks 1920. But I don't think this is a particular problem per se. I just kind of had a check-list in my mind. There's the country girl who ran away from home to get on the stage, sort of thing.

What stands in immediate contrast to that feeling, though, is the inclusion of characters from diverse backgrounds. We're rounding all the flapper bases, but how many books from the 1920s also focus on the Harlem Renaissance? I can envision the check-list as almost a political statement. Here are the things you think you know, see? And you can still enjoy the fringe and sequins. And here are the things that the history books ignore: the untold, subterranean stories.

My reservation about recommending this book as young adult is that the main plot features a serial killer along the lines of H. H. Holmes, and when he appears, the book is dark and gory in an extremely gut-clenching, visceral way. I don't have an objection to dark material in young adult books--if I did, I couldn't recommend DROWNED CITIES, for one. But in DROWNED CITIES, it's very clear from the beginning what you're in for, whereas THE DIVINERS is a cheerful, Charleston sort of story, with magic and bobbed hair, that suddenly drops into these intense scenes. Also, Bray's novel is distinct from most sorts of urban fantasy that have a fun theme interleavened with darkness because, well, she's a very good writer. She brings one into the scene sensorily, vividly; you breathe and feel the murders. There's a particular detail... I don't want to bring it up spoiler-fashion here, but if you've read the book and want to ping me, I'll share my shiver moment and see if you shared it.

Anyway, I thought about this, and I decided that the violence really doesn't disqualify the book from being something I can recommend as YA. It's not what I turn to YA for -- as an adult reader, I want my YA to be predictable in certain fashions, and usually I read it when I'm not ready to give over my spirit to be crushed without warning. But whatever. I don't think that's why teens are in the reading game, and they certainly don't need fussy protection from me. THE DIVINERS is a very good book and I think most teens will enjoy it.

VESSEL by Sarah Beth Durst - A desert civilization is broken into many nomadic parts (ten?), each of which worships one of the gods. Once a generation or so (it might be once a century; I read the book a bit ago), one child from each group is chosen to be the vessel for the group's god, which they welcome into their bodies by dancing. VESSEL's main character is such a girl, but when she dances for her goddess to come, nothing happens. Her people declare her unfit and leave her alone in the desert to fare for herself, with only the resources her family is able to hide for her before they depart.

She goes out on a quest to find what has become of the gods. She travels between groups, finding other vessels who have been rejected, and gathering information about why their rituals didn't work, and a threat from the nearby empire which appears to have colonial ambitions.

I thought this book was a real vivid, fun adventure, the kind of yay-we're-on-a-quest literature that I loved as a kid and want to love as an adult even though I'm more picky now. This one passed my picky test. I thought the quest journey itself was gorgeously described, and enjoyed seeing how Durst decided to build up religions and civilizations.

Someone asked me recently in email whether this book might be considered appropriative if there were a contingent of Bedouin bloggers who were evaluating it. Honestly, I don't know. (And if there are such evaluations and I haven't run into them, I'd be interested in seeing them.) I didn't think Durst was building her civilization as a Bedouin analog per se; there are a number of nomadic desert groups, and it was my impression that she was building one that shared some of the traits common to those, while not imitating any one group specifically. Other, more knowledgeable readers may see something I didn't.

The first book by Sarah Beth Durst that I read was ICE which was nominated for the Norton award several years ago. It had some lovely imagery, and some interesting ideas, but overall I thought it was way too fast-paced for me to actually sink my teeth into; every time there was the potential for an interesting scene, the prose just raced past it, as if terrified to ever stand still for a moment and let emotions run their course. Next, I read last year's DRINK, SLAY, LOVE, about a vampire who gains a soul, which I enjoyed as a quirky, self-aware urban fantasy. This one is even better; I'm excited to see what she does next.

SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman - SERAPHINA takes place in a world where there are both dragons and humans. After years of fighting, the two factions have made an uneasy truce. Dragons, who can shapeshift into human form (but never quite understand human culture), visit the human kingdom, but are viewed with suspicion. As the time comes for a royal visit from the dragon king, tensions rise, and a young woman who is secretly the daughter of an illegal dalliance between a human man and a dragon woman must navigate the two parts of her heritage so that she can protect the peace.

I'm not sure how much I have to say about this one. It's just kind of sharp and interesting. The best character is the main character's dragon uncle who is struggling with the assimilation of human culture and how it changes his draconic-oriented mind. There are lots of cool details about music, since the main character is the assistant to the court musician, and then there are just some randomly cool details, like the garden that exists in a corner of the main character's mind, which is populated by strange, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous denizens, whom she must take care to tend each night. Also, there's a demi-species of not-dragons, not-humans, who cling to walls and the undersides of things like geckos, and like to make sculptures, which are bizarre and kind of fantastic.


SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo - There are concerns about this text as being appropriative. (I obviously don't agree with every word of those posts; one of the readers clearly thought the book was really bad as a book, and I obviously don't agree. I did think that some other points made in the posts were well-made.)

**ETA for clarity: It seems to me that the book is appropriative. I think Rose Lemberg, in particular, makes a good, clear case. I apologize if that was ambiguous in the previous draft. I do not expand here on the novel's appropriation because I feel that Rose has done so better than I could, especially in a limited space. Consequently, I'm focusing on my other reactions to the book. I was and am still figuring out a tonal balance on how to incorporate negative reviews into positive ones when I am making long, mostly positive posts like this one. I ended up adding and deleting a number of paragraphs about appropriation and feminism, leaving the most pared down version, which may have been a mistake. I may also continue to make mistakes, in which case I apologize. In any case, the best way I can think of to express what I feel at the moment is that I enjoyed the book, and at the same time, I think the critique of the text's use of cultural appropriation is useful and necessary, and that it's important information for potential readers, which is why I linked to the critiques here. I apologize if my initial brevity seemed dismissive.

That said, I felt that there was a lot to recommend this novel. It has an interesting magic system, a sensory exploration of a variety of settings, and an immersive adventure plot.

The book (which takes place in a faux-Russian setting*) follows the life of a war orphan who joins the army as a cartographer. In this fantasy Russia, the nation is divided by a magical rift of darkness, filled with monsters who can't survive the light, which prevents easy traffic between the majority of the country and its ports. When her regiment is called to enter the rift, the main character is almost killed by the flying monsters, and only near death does she discover that she has the rarest of all magical powers--the power of light--which she calls upon to decimate the beasts. After that, she is pulled out of her former life, and sent to train with the elite magicians, called the grisha, whose lives, while filled with wealth and luxury, are also fraught with conflict and danger.

The magical rift is interesting and well-rendered, and the magic system is one of those that you just want to dig into and find out all about. Also, I really liked the way the army scenes were handled. It seemed unique to me. There was drudgery, yes, and a sense of the way in which these young people, who had no choice but to serve, were being exploited. But there was also a sense of companionability between the "soldiers," and a sense of comfortable routine. And the forces contained people of both sexes, which changed the dynamic from what we see in most literature as well. It seemed to strike a note that I haven't seen before, at least in YA, and I appreciated that.

ASK THE PASSENGERS by A. S. King - My favorite book from last year was A. S. King's EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS which you should read because it's this amazing book about masculinity and bullying and oh, my God, read it. This year's is less compelling, but it's still pretty awesome. It's the surrealist story of a girl who's trying to figure out her sexuality. Is she asexual? Bisexual? A lesbian? Her best friends are out to her--a gay boy, and a lesbian girl--but she just doesn't feel like she knows herself well enough to choose a box. Yes, she likes making out with the girl from work. Does that define her?

When she's caught up in her life, she looks up at the planes overhead and sends her love to the passengers. She sends them thoughts and questions. Her love and thoughts go up, and we see the passengers thinking about what she's sent them, how their lives intersect with, and branch away from, hers.

I'm making this book sound more sort of soft-edged than it is. It has its hard moments of homophobia and apathy and isolation. It's not all love in the skies and making out on the grass. There are dark corners.

That said, one of the reasons that I wasn't as taken with this book as I was with EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS is that the ending veers a bit toward the sentimental for me. It's not a big deal, just something that I felt didn't quite work.

But I highly recommend this book, and most everything A. S. King has done. Like PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ. Oh, my God. And did I mention EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS? This isn't at the top of her books, but even being not-the-top of A. S. King's books makes it soar higher than most.

EVERY DAY by David Levithan - This book makes me sad. It makes me sad because I should be able to put it in the "definitely on my ballot" category. I should be able to, but I can't quite do it.

So--there's this amazing book, and it's called EVERY DAY by David Levithan. It's about a kid who has grown up switching bodies every day. He goes to sleep in one flesh, with one family, and wakes up in another. It's as if he's possessing people in sequence. He has access to the memories of those he's possessing, but he controls their actions; he's living his life in the interstices of theirs. He never goes back to someone he's been before. He has almost no continuity except what he can carve for himself by doing things like setting up e-mail accounts that he can check from anyone's computer.

Well, I say "he," but he's not really a he. Ze is bodiless, genderless. One day, while occupying a boy's body, ze goes out with the body's girlfriend and falls in love with her. He pursues her. Tries to make her a constant in his life. They push and pull at each other, trying to figure out how to engage despite the almost impossible circumstances.

This book is really good on LGBT issues. It's smart, it's sharp, it's well-done. The handling of the main character's perception of zir gender and sexuality is cool, and I also appreciated the handling of how that affects his embodied, straight girlfriend. There were also other moments in which the book explored LGBT issues--we learn that ze has been involved with boys in the past, and ze occupies the bodies of trans and gay people.

Which leaves me with three issues with the book. 1) Someone pointed out to me that it's got a lot of that creepy romance-movie "I will PURSUE you and it will be ROMANTIC and you will have NO CHOICE" trope. This is true. It didn't bug me because I thought the circumstances made it clear why the protagonist would choose to act that way, and I also thought the creepiness was, itself, clear in the text, and held up for the reader to consider. So, it wasn't a problem for me, but it may be for other readers. 2) The ending is weak. All of a sudden, this intense character novel became a weird monster-adventure thing, and meh. That happens, though, and I didn't think it spoiled the book.

For me, the thing I couldn't get over was issue 3 -- near the end of the book, there's a scene that exemplifies striking fatphobia. Ze jumps into the body of a fat boy. Ze goes to meet zir girlfriend in that body, and this is the impetus for the girlfriend to finally decide that she can't deal with ze switching bodies. "Fat" is kind of a lazy way to code for "beyond-the-pale not attractive," but okay--people do feel that way. My problem was that there are details in the book of what it's like to be embodied as a fat person that are... well, odd. They seem like a thin person's imagining of what it's like to be fat.

Even that I could probably get over, but there's a bit--just a very small piece--where ze describes the fat person as having, more or less, a mental surface like an "emotional burp." Now, ze can access the memories of other bodies that he jumps into, bodies that are given internal lives and struggles. But the fat body is reduced to just flesh. Moreover, it is just a bodily function--not even an absent mind, but a burp. Fat is associated with uncouth bodily functions; it is flesh without mind.

Now, the book is quite long, and this is a very short section. I was very torn about how to react. I'm not a teenager anymore, but I admit, this passage still gave me pause. I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I had still been sixteen and bulimic.

I described this dilemma to a friend of mine, further explaining that the book is really good on LGBT issues, as if that erased the fatphobia. My friend asked, "If the book was homophobic like that, would you vote for it?"

I admitted that I wouldn't.

Fatphobia and homophobia are, of course, not identical. Fat politics are so off-the-charts radical that most people don't know about them if they don't make an effort, which makes me feel like maybe I should forgive any issues with them. (Though, a burp? Really?) I wouldn't throw a homophobic book at gay teens who are already at elevated risk of bullying and suicide. But depression, bullying and suicide are a big deal for fat teens, too.

So, I don't know if I'm going to vote for this book or not, which makes me sad. I wish that the same level of political empathy that's displayed in the rest of the book could have been applied to this brief section. It could have been so easily fixed.

THE BROKEN LANDS by Kate Milford - Strange things happen at crossroads, and the bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn was one of the biggest crossroads of the time. Agents of Jack Hellcoal plan to take advantage of the construction of the bridge so that they can take over New York City and make it into a new hell. Only the pillars that represent the city stand in their way, but most of them are dead. That leaves it up to Sam, a teenage cardsharp, and Jin, a fireworks expert, to save the city.

I'm not much of a geek about New York City history, but I imagine this book is even more of a treat for those who are. The book takes place on Coney Island and has a strong sense of history, setting, and depth. The adventure is fun; the use of American tall tales to construct a mythology makes the book distinct and also brings out the historical flavor in an interesting way.

The real strength, though, is the characters--Sam and Jin, and a few others who appear in more minor roles. Their romance feels real in a way that most romances don't, and never overly sentimental, just like a practical fact that's developing along with the characters and the plot. The romance isn't the emphasis of the books, or the primary emphasis of the characters, but it's a nice garnish.

The characters are sharp; the plot is fun; the history is detailed but not overwhelming. I found the last section of the book overly complicated as the plot worked toward its resolution. This is something that I feel often afflicts the endings of novels with save-the-world plots. The rules of what magic can happen when, and who needs to be where, and whether someone can use the Wand of TrueTelling against a troll or not, blah blah blah, get confusing and hard to follow. There was some of that. But in the same section, there were also descriptions of how to build fireworks, and how construction workers navigated the heights of the unfinished Brooklyn bridge, and that's some nice compensation.

A CONFUSION OF PRINCES by Garth Nix - This is one of those books that I'm not sure whether or not I'm comfortable calling YA. In this case, it's not because of the content--and I mostly end up dismissing my content concerns anyway. It's because the book seems, to me, to rely so heavily on the constructs of space opera and hard science fiction that I'm not sure it can be read without an understanding of that history, which makes it something that I have trouble thinking of as actually aimed at teens.

That said, it does have a young character, and a coming of age plot, and boy, is it fun. In this galactic empire, there are thousands of princes, each raised in isolation and given training until he or she reaches the age of majority. (I was so happy when I realized it was he *or* she.) At that point, he or she becomes a full-fledged prince--and imagines, or at least our protagonist does, that he or she can now stroll onto the scene of the universe and be the most heroic, awesome prince ever, and be specially appointed the next emperor.

Actually being a prince turns out to kind of suck. First of all, all the other princes are trying to kill you so that you won't be competition. Also, you don't just get to be a high-and-mighty adventurer; you have to do boring things, like go be a drudge at the nearest military academy. The book follows the main character through his princely career as he realizes being a prince isn't what he expected, and confronts the question of whether the world is anything like he thought it was, either.

This is lots of fun, and full of the kind of eyeball-kicks that far-future space opera is best at. It's got all the best kinds of "roll around in cool, weird technology and cultural evolution" stuff that I crave from space opera. I wasn't totally into the ending (I almost never am), but I really enjoyed the whole book, and I definitely recommend this to fans of fun space opera with a traditional flavor and a modern edge.


Honestly, it's hard to put this together, because there were lots of books that I really enjoyed. I'm just going to concentrate on a few. There were many, many others that were also wonderful.

DARK COMPANION by Maria Acosta - A young woman from foster care is given the opportunity to go to an exclusive private school where she learns that other young women in her circumstances have gone missing. It's an urban fantasy. Really strong description of class struggles, often elided in fiction. Also, critiques via its plot some of the common literary notions about gender; I think feminists will like this one.

HEREVILLE: HOW MIRKA MET A METEORITE - I love this graphic novel series about an eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who wants to fight monsters. I admit that I probably partially love it because it's written by my best friend and I have a hand in helping to revise it. :P Still, there's just a sort of free-wheeling, loose-shouldered joy in the text and in the illustrations that I love. It taps into the kind of joy I had as a pre-adolescent. This book isn't as good as the first. The plot bears some emotional significance for the character, but it doesn't change her life in any marked way, which makes it less dramatic and compelling than the first. "Mirka discovers a magic world" (book 1) lends itself to a stronger plot than "Mirka encounters a magic double" (book 2). That's not to say I don't quite enjoy it; it just doesn't have the same heft.

RADIANT DAYS by Elizabeth Hand - A young artist who is experimenting with graffiti as her medium is homeless and exhausted when an old rock musician who can move back and forth through time hooks her up for one night with French poet Artur Rimbaud, who is even younger than she is. Both artists are gay. Intense, long descriptions; slow pacing; somewhat aggrandizing of art and artists; exceedingly beautifully written.

AND ALL THE STARS by Andrea Host - Aliens prepare for invading the earth by inundating it with a powder that turns some humans into hosts for the aliens. There are those who turn green, who remain human, but can be ordered around. There are also those whose bodies are blue and studded with stars who the aliens can possess. After possession, they die. The book follows the main character and a band of other blues as they try to avoid the aliens and preserve themselves. Had an unusual SFnal vibe for YA, some interesting alien stuff, and a twist at the end that I actually quite liked.

THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND by Margo Lanagan - On Rollrock, a witch decides to take out her vengeance on the people who outcast her by calling beautiful sea-women out of the seals. The women step out of their seal-skins, which the men steal and keep away from them, and are beautiful and docile models of femininity. The natural-born women eventually flee, leaving only men, sons, and seal-women who long to return to the water. Multiple points of view, the best realized of which is the witch, who has a single long section. Very creepy. Very detailed. Very smart. Perhaps a bit circuitous.

CINDER by Melissa Meyer - Cinderella is cybernetic in a world that discriminates against cybernetic creatures. Interesting future descriptions. Just very different from other YA that's out there, and a fun read. Also, Cinderella is a super-competent mechanic, and I just loved that unexpected deviation from the very girly origin story.

DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT by Laini Taylor - The first book of this series was quite good and was on last year's Norton ballot. It's about a girl who was raised by demons that collect teeth to make into magic and wishes. She lives in the human world and has always belived herself to be human, but discovers that she's actually a reincarnated demon, and meets the angel who she'd fallen in love with before she was executed for that love. I didn't necessarily expect great things from the sequel, but to my surprise, I liked book 2 better. Book 1 had featured long, romantic passages that bored me. This book was invigorated with interesting world-building and visuals.


*I think there's a difference between an imagined group that doesn't align with any real-world analog, and something that's clearly a "faux [nation]"; in this case, describing historically specific details and using language from the country seems to make it a faux, not a construction. A faux doesn't have to be perfect, but in my opinion, it takes on more of a responsibility toward its origins than a construct. Things can get weird when drawing the line between a faux and a construct, but on the edges, it can be pretty clear.

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