Audiobook: Illuminae

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Narrated by  Olivia Taylor DudleyLincoln Hoppe & Johnathan McClain, and a full cast.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, but at least on the audio it’s all bleeped out. And there is violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to someone younger if they were interested.

So, people have been telling me to read this for YEARS. I’ve brushed them off, partially because it’s a thick book, and partially because, well, I thought it was hack science fiction. (I’m super snobby. I shouldn’t be!) But, I’ve recently read other books by both Kristoff and Kaufman, and my on-line book club picked this, so it was Time. Someone in the book club mentioned that it was a stellar audio book, and so I went that route.

And Holy Amazeballs! THIS was what I was missing?! (I know: I should listen to the buzz!) Set in the future — 2575 to be exact — and written entirely in hacked documents (reports, emails, texts, images, security footage transcriptions — it tells the story of a planet (which was colonized for illegal mining by one company) that was attacked by another corporation. Our main character, a hacker named Kady, along with a number of other citizens are rescued by a fleet of ships: the military vessel Alexander; the medical ship Copernicus; and the science vessel Hypatia. The ability to jump to safety was damaged in the fight with the other corporation, so the fleet has to make it to the nearest jump station, which is six months away.

And then things get interesting. I don’t want to say too much, because the less you know going in, the better. But let’s say it’s FANTASTIC science fiction. There’s a smidge of horror, and the AI, AIDAN is an amazingly written character (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Kaufman and Kristoff take you through twists and turns and reveals, and will keep you guessing at every turn.

And the audio? It really was fantastic. It was full cast, which is usually not a great thing, but this one pulls it off amazingly. I was literally just driving around so I could listen to the book (I got it on CD, so I could only listen to it in the car), and I didn’t want to stop. I was riveted by the whole production, from plot through the performances.

And yes, of course I’m going to go read the other two. I think I’ll try them in print this time. Just to see.

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The Remarkable Inventions of Walter Mortinson

by Quinn Sosna-Spear
First sentence: “‘Walter’ is no kind of name for a boy.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s death, including one Really Tragic One, as well as some kissing. It was in the middle grades (3-5) section, but I decided that that age group doesn’t want to read about kissing so I moved it to the YA (grades 6-8) section.

I picked this one up after the first line was chosen as the best of the week a couple weeks back. I was intrigued (I love the cover!). It’s the story of an imaginative boy with an overbearing mother and a dead father in a dreary town and his search for Something More. Walter’s dead father was an inventor (his mother is a mortician) and he desperately wants to follow in his footsteps, so when he gets an invitation to join a famous inventor on his island, he takes his mother’s hearse (a 13 year old knows how to drive?!) and runs away with the girl next door.

It’s less about Walter and Cordelia’s adventure though, and more about forgiveness and acceptance between Walter and his mother. See, Walter and Cordelia retrace the path that his parents took when leaving the island and coming to their boring, dreary town, and in doing so Walter Learns Things about his parents, particularly his father, which he never knew before.

It wasn’t a bad book; I did finish it, though by the end I was skimming (it may have been me). In the end, though, it seems to me the kind of kids books that adults would like rather than kids. I’m not sure many kids are wanting to explore their relationships with their overbearing mothers (on the other hand, there are overbearing mothers who need to read this) and not many kids are interested in heteronormative relationships either. There just wasn’t enough adventure and too much moody musing. Maybe they wanted to be all Dahl-esque, but it just kind of fell flat for me. Which is just too bad, since the premise is pretty great.

Internment

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are instances of mild swearing, plus a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but just because of language. The themes are good for anyone, really.

It’s in the near future, and the U. S. government has decided that Muslims are a threat to the country. It started with a registry, with everyone declaring their religion. And then Muslims began to be discriminated against (well, they probably were already), and now they’re being rounded up and taken to internment camps. To keep the rest of America safe from them.

Layla and her parents are among those rounded up and sent to camp Mobius in the California desert. It’s a harrowing experience: being arrested at home and then shipped on a train to an isolated “camp” (read: prison; there aren’t cells, but they’re kept in with an electric fence) where they were expected to comply to rules and are constantly watched over by drones and guards.

Layla, however, is not okay with all this. (Fair.) In spite of her parents’ pleas to just get along, Layla decides that she needs to Do Something. So, she smuggles out articles she’s written about conditions in the camp — the Director using intimidation and force and the disappearances of other internees — to be put on blogs. She organizes protests. She makes friends with sympathetic guards on the inside who help her along with her boyfriend on the outside. They stand up for what they believe in, and resist.

I think that was the thing that was most striking to me: that resistance to authority comes from the teenagers. It probably always has. Adults get complacent, and are conditioned to not make waves. But teenagers? They’re often idealistic and want a better world. And have the courage to make it happen. And Ahmed captured that perfectly.

Yes, this book is heavy-handed: Ahmed hammers the idea that This. Is. Wrong. home in so many ways, but I think this book is meant for White People. Seriously. I am sure that so many of the themes of racism and exclusion and mistrust of the Other are already known to Muslim (and Black and Asian and Native) people. The people who need to see this are White. And probably middle class. And comfortable in their lives. (Like me.) We need to remember that inaction is the same as action. And that just because we don’t see or experience the problems doesn’t mean they’re not there.

In the end, the question I thought this book was asking was: What kind of White Person will you be? (Granted, I’m coming at it with this perspective. I’m sure others will get something different out of it.) And that’s a good question to be asking right now.

Love, Hate, & Other Filters

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “Destiny sucks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some talk of sex, but none actual. There is also swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Senior Maya Aziz has one goal in life: to go to NYU (she’s been accepted!) and get a degree in filmmaking. However, her parents — even though they’re on the liberal end of the Indian Muslim scale — would rather she go close to home — University of Chicago or Northwestern — and get a degree in something practical. It also doesn’t help that they’re trying to set her up with a nice Indian Muslim boy… even if they don’t want her to get married just yet.

Maya just wants to live her life the way she wants to, and she was starting to make headway (even with the super popular white football player who’s interested in her!) when there’s a hate crime in a nearby city, and suddenly her small town isn’t safe — for her — anymore. And things just escalate when her parents’ dental practice building is vandalized Now her parents are refusing to let her go anywhere, let alone to New York to go to school.

Oh this was SUCH a good debut! Ahmed tackles conflict in a religious family, not with just culture but with belief, and she tackles the differences between parents and children — Maya’s parents aren’t bad or controlling; they just feel they know what’s best — and tackles the differences between immigrants and their first-generation American children. But she also addresses racism and prejudice all while wrapped up in a very sweet love story.

She’s definitely a writer to watch.

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe

by Ally Condie
First sentence: “Call tells me he sees a star and that makes me laugh.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In this near-future, dystopian world, Poe is a member of the Outpost, a group of people who mine the river for gold and basically try to survive. (From what, we don’t know). They are up against the raiders, every time they take to the rivers, and when Poe is on her first voyage, the raiders kill her love, Call. So, she vows revenge. She creates an impenetrable armor for the ships as they dredge the rivers, collecting gold. And now, it’s her last voyage, the one on the biggest river, the one where she’s captain. The one where she will get revenge for Call’s death.

And then everything goes. wrong.

I wanted to love this one. I wanted it to be fierce girls taking on the patriarchy, overturning everything, breaking free from the bondage of male rule. But, what I got was one girl, grieving for a lost love, building a weapon out of revenge, and her personal journey to enlightenment. Not that it was a bad journey: I liked Poe, and I thought that (for the most part) her journey from one side of the conflict to the other was believable. Maybe a bit rushed, but understandable. Mostly I felt this book was an exploration of the anger stage of grief, and how a person gets through to acceptance and moving on. Which is fine and all, but not what I wanted out of the story. (For a much better girls taking on the patriarchy book, check out Anne Ursu’s The Lost Girl)

Field Notes on Love

by Jennifer E. Smith
First sentence: “Mae wakes, as she does each morning, to the sound of a train.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a romance, but there’s really nothing objectionable. Some mild swearing and a lot of kissing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Hugo is one of a sextuplet, and so he’e never really been alone. He’s never done anything extraordinary (unless you count being born) and he’s never really had an adventure. So, when his girlfriend Margaret breaks up with him, and begs off of their planned American cross-country train trip, Hugo is left aimless. That is, until he hatches a plan: find another Margaret Campbell and still make the trip.

Mae (aka Margaret Campbell) has applied to the USC film school, but when they reject her, she’s left aimless. That is, until she sees Hugo’s advertisement for someone named Margaret Campbell to go on this train trip with him. She jumps at the chance: why not go on a bit of an adventure before school starts? Maybe, then, she can find her direction again.

Since this is a romance, of course Hugo and Mae fall in love. Of course there is a falling out moment. Of course they (kind of) (mostly) end up together in the end. Of course it’s sweet and wonderful and all that.

Smith is excellent at writing charming, sweet, lovely romances, though. And this hit all the notes. Hugo and Mae were endearing and sweet, and I loved the cross-country train trip, which was something a little different. It’s completely unobtrusive and utterly delightful.

Words on Bathroom Walls

by Julia Walton
First sentence: “My first doctor said it was unusual for the symptoms to manifest in someone so young.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Adam is a regular teen. Mostly. He has regular teen boy desires, interests… the only difference is that he’s been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The kind that make you see things — in Adam’s case, he sees people and hears voices. He’s on a new trial drug, though, and as part of it, he’s required to go to therapy. He doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t want to talk to the therapist, so the book is a series of diary entries where Adam describes what’s going on in his life, how he’s reacting to the drug, and answering the therapist’s questions, such as they are.

I found the format of the book to be super fascinating: it got us in Adam’s head, while not being mundane or super weird; the entries were made weekly, so Adam was able to reflect on the week. So, while he may have had episodes, the book never took the reader through the middle of them, since the entries were always written afterward. I thoroughly enjoyed being in Adam’s head; he had a super strong voice that came through, and I enjoyed his sense of humor around his mental health. It was also a case in which the parents (hooray!) were absolutely fantastic. They fought for Adam and his rights and wanted nothing but the best for him. The conflict was partially internal — Adam against his mental health — and from his peers, who just don’t understand what’s going on.

It’s a really excellent book; definitely a good look at a mental health issue that not many people know much about.