Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Leviathan: A Whale of a Story

LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld
4Q 3P; Audience: M/J/S

This is another book I finished quite a while ago but haven’t had the time to write about. (It’s a good thing I don’t write under deadline. Then again, if I did have a deadline, maybe it would help get my thoughts marshaled into order and out of my head in a timelier fashion!)

It’s 1914. Europe is divided between two ideologies, Clanker vs Darwinist. The Clanker countries rely on mechanical technology – iron and steam-powered devices such as the enormous multi-legged machines that carry them into battle. The Darwinists bioengineer animals to create not only beasts of burden but also weapons of war. A face-down is fast approaching.

When Aleksander Ferdinand, prince of Austria-Hungary, is woken in the middle of the night by two of his tutors, he has no idea that he has just become a pawn in the political maneuverings of the Clankers. He has no idea that the assassination of the Archduke has left him an orphan or that his continued existence may be the spark that provokes a world war. All he knows is that he and a small band of loyal men are on the run, and the only thing that may keep them alive until they reach their safe house is the protection of their Cyklop Stormwalker and its cannon and machine guns.

Across the ocean in London, Deryn Sharp is preparing for the midshipman’s entrance exam into the Royal Air Service. She’s confident of passing every test but one: will she be able to convincingly play the part of a boy so that she’s allowed to follow her dream?

When a furious storm during her testing leaves Deryn/Dylan and her Huxley ascender floating miles off course, she is rescued by the Royal Navy’s largest air ship, the Leviathan (a sperm whale enhanced by a hundred other species). But instead of returning her to London to continue her test, the crew, Deryn/Dylan included, has been ordered to fly to the Continent to keep an eye on the Clankers in the wake of the Archduke’s assassination.

Both Alek and Deryn are catapulted into the middle of world-changing events. On opposite sides of the edge of war, what will happen when their paths converge?


I’m just discovering steampunk (see also: Wikipedia's article) and finding that I like the combination of science fiction and alternate history to explore how the addition of technology (either anachronistic or fictional) might have affected the (usually*) Victorian Age. It helps that the mid-late 1800’s is my preferred historical fiction time period. (*Edited to add that I'm aware that this book is set a few years post-Victorian Age.)

What I really liked about Leviathan:
  • The fast pace. It’s pretty much non-stop chases, clashes, and collisions.
  • Devyn’s part of the story is at least as action-packed as Alek’s, so the girl never takes a back seat to the boy.
  • Alek, Devyn, and Count Volger are forceful personalities that really burst off the page. In particular, I love Devyn’s feisty, take-no-guff attitude.
  • Alek’s evolution (it’s formulaic, to be sure, but effective nonetheless)
  • Westerfeld doesn’t get too bogged down describing the new technology, be it Darwinian or Clanker (Though I got confused in a few places, it didn’t really matter.)
  • Striking black and white illustrations which really set the mood and style of the story.
  • C’mon! Who wouldn’t have fun with the idea hitching a ride on a giant jellyfish or gargantuan sperm whale?

  • It's a trilogy, so there's more to come!

What I didn’t like as much:
  • Nothing, really. But I guess I’m a Darwinist at heart, because I was more intrigued by the idea of the bioengineered animals than I was with the machinery of the Clankers. I was a more interested reader when the action began centering around the Leviathan.
  • We have to wait until late 2010 for Book Two (Behemoth).

To hear a chapter from the book, see some of the illustrations, or just read Scott's thoughts about the series, check out Scott Westerfeld's blog. Scott also blogged about how he structures his books to make sure there's a good blend of action, tension, and "nothing".

This book will appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure and action. It’s a natural suggestion for readers who enjoyed Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, the Bloody Jack books by L.M. Meyers, or Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engines* and/or Larklight* series. (*These two series are miles apart in tone, but both have elements which pair well with Leviathan.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

After the Headlines, There's More to the Story

AFTER by Amy Efaw
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S (High School)

Devon Davenport did not have sex. She did not get pregnant. She did not give birth. She did not wrap the baby in a towel, then place it in a garbage bag and put it in a dumpster. She couldn’t have. But that’s exactly what the police, the doctors, and her lawyer say she did, and they have the evidence to prove it.

Locked in a juvenile detention center, charged with attempted murder and possibly to be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile, Devon has to explain to her lawyer what happened. But how can she put into words what she has spent the last nine months refusing to admit even to herself?


I admire Gail Giles for her ability to write with great sensitivity about teens who have committed a terrible act. She doesn’t excuse what they do, but she makes us see the whole person and the whole story, reminding us not to look at events in a vacuum. By the end, we may still not be able to forgive, but we may at least be able to understand. With After, Amy Efaw proves herself a worthy companion to Giles in this regard.

I am not generally a fan of books written in the present tense, but it really worked for me in After. It made it impossible to keep Devon’s emotions and reactions at a distance. From the very first scene, Devon lying on the couch so numb and so in shock that she is barely aware of what is happening around her, I got into her head. I felt first her confusion, then her blind panic, fear, and humiliation as she began to comprehend her situation. At times I felt my own gut tightening in response to Devon’s tension, particularly as she began the painful process of not only facing the truth at last but of revealing it to someone else.

Clearly, what was very effective for me doesn’t strike everyone the same way. Though the majority of customer reviews on Amazon are positive, there are some negative comments as well. Several of them disliked the writing. Honestly? I think they missed the point. True, the prose does not always flow smoothly and lyrically. But why should it? The book is about a girl who can’t articulate what made her commit such a heinous crime. Lyrical, flowing language would be inappropriate for the story being told and the character experiencing it. I thought Efaw nailed it.

I wanted to slap Devon’s mother silly. Talk about abandoning your child!

How she views herself and how others view her is of the utmost importance to Devon. Her whole life has been centered around being a responsible, trustworthy, successful person. She can’t allow any cracks in that persona. She isn’t lying because she doesn’t want anyone to know what she did. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to know what she did. The thought that everyone else knows devastates her. One of the scenes that affected me most takes place in the courtroom when Devon discovers that she has not lost the respect of her coach and (especially) of a former employer. I can’t remember now if Devon cried, but I have to admit that I did.

Should we feel sympathy for a girl who did such a terrible thing? Some people will be upset by the very idea. But it’s important to make the distinction between feeling sympathy and excusing her actions. Sympathizing and understanding why she did it doesn’t absolve her of responsibility, and Efaw acknowledges that. I was impressed by the choice made in the end, and it proved to me that Devon really is the kind of person we heard about from people testifying on her behalf. I hate what Devon did, but I can’t hate the person who did it. Amy Efaw, mission accomplished. (And please don’t make us wait another nine years for book number three!)

This is a hard book to read, but well worth it. It's also another excellent choice for a book discussion group.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

So upset!

I just tried to edit one sentence in my post about After by Amy Efaw and the entire post, which I have been working on for a week and was just about ready to upload is GONE. I hit Undo one too many times, I guess, and the post blanked completely out. Then the autosave feature came on and saved the blank page. I have tried using undo and redo, but there's nothing there in either direction. I am one very unhappy librarian. And I can't do any more research now on how I might be able to retrieve it because I have a program starting in ten minutes. If anyone reading this knows whether it's possible to get this post back, please let me know how to do it. (I tried to go into my history, but I had Firefox not to save history, so that doesn't seem to be an option.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Where is the Demon King?


I thoroughly enjoyed Cinda Chima's Warrior Heir, Wizard Heir, and Dragon Heir. The plot and the characters were interesting and the pacing kept the story moving at a fast clip. I liked the twists and turns of the Warrior Heir and never being absolutely sure who could be trusted. I remember reading the beginning of Wizard Heir and gasping at the tragedy that occurs within the first couple of chapters. The series had me hooked from the beginning. I was sad to leave those characters behind.

It's not surprising, then, that I've been anticipating Chima's new series for months. When it finally arrived, it came at a time I had no time to read it. Twice my hold came in and I had to give it up and  put myself back at the bottom of the hold list, which was quite frustrating. Last week it came in again, and I decided to bypass another book in favor of reading this one at last. I intended to immerse myself in this new world, whatever it was, and expected to savor every minute. So it gives me a pang to have to say that this new series isn't grabbing me like the Heir series did.

  • It's 500 pages long. I'm on page 360 (note: I've now finished the book), and the action is only now kicking into gear. I enjoy reading long books, but that's an awfully leisurely set up.
  • Dancer's secret has finally been revealed. How many more pages before Cuffs learns his? (Answer: about another 80)
  • I still don't feel I know Amon and Dancer very well. Cuffs and Raisa are a little more fleshed out, but not as well as the Heir characters were by this point in their books. The only character I'm really invested in is Cuffs, and by this time, they should all be more important to me.
  • That being said, I still think Dancer is getting a rough deal, and I want to see how he works that out.
  • The timeline seems a little shaky. More than once, the implication has been that several days have gone by, but another character's scene  referencing the same events will indicate that only one or two have. Not a big issue, but it keeps tripping me up as I read.
  • At this point, the plot doesn't seem to be showing us anything new. A weak queen, wizards who have more influence than they should, political upheaval, and four (at least) teens with talents and abilities that will put them smack in the middle of the mix. I want something to surprise me. Is it coming?
  • Lots of foreshadowing makes me suspect that the pace is about to pick up dramatically, just in time for a great cliffhanger ending. 
  • Now that I've finished the book, I can't say we got a cliffhanger. But I do think the next book in the series will be much more action driven, now that all the pieces seem to finally be in place.
  • Yes, I'll definitely read the next book in this series. I may not be enthralled by this one, but I'm still a Chima fan.

Anyone want to yell at me and tell me I'm wrong, wrong, wrong? Anyone out there who agrees?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Books Speak to Her

LIBYRINTH by Pearl North
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Clearly, as a librarian, books speak to me. But they don't speak to me. They talk to Haly, though. For as long as she can remember, Haly has heard them muttering in her ears. She finds great comfort in this, but it's also a secret she doesn't dare share with anyone but her friend Clauda, who works in the kitchens. She doesn't dare imagine what would happen if the librarians and other clerks in the Library found out.

Once a year, the Eradicants arrive at the Library for their annual book burning pilgrimage. It's painful for all the Library's inhabitants, but for Haly, it's excruciating. Only she can hear the words, her friends and comfort, fall silent as they die in the flames. She hates the Eradicants for what they do to the Library and to the books. How can they believe that written words are dead and that burning them sets them free?

This year the tension surrounding the Eradicants' arrival is higher than it's ever been. The political situation is volatile and it's not only the Library that is in danger. Neighboring countries that have always protected it are also being threatened. As a result, when Selene, the librarian Haly clerks for, finds a map that reveals the location of one of the most coveted books ever written, someone she thinks she can trust betrays her. The information winds up in the hands of the Eradicants, setting up a desperate flight and search for the treasure that lands Haly in the hands of the Eradicants and Selene and Clauda seeking help from a monarch whose loyalties and priorities are always in question.

Already familiar with the pain the Eradicants can mete out, Haly is terrified when the Eradicants discover her secret ability. What else will they do to her? A realm away, Clauda is not only suffering from her own run-in with the Eradicants, her every move is suspect. Their lives held in the balance by political machinations and religious revelations, the girls are torn by their desire to save each other and their need to save the Library. It doesn't seem possible to do both.


I wish books would talk to me. But it must be headache-inducing to hear them all at once!

I had a great time trying to identify the various quotes in the book. (I thought I'd have search for them online until I thought to turn to the end of the book and found them listed there.) I would love to hear North explain why she chose the various quotes she used. Clearly, she wanted some that were familiar and some that were obscure, with the rest falling somewhere along that spectrum. I suspect the decision to use Diary of a Young Girl came pretty easily. But how did she come to use quotes from Travels with Lizbeth and Gyn/Ecology?

Anne Frank's story has been special to me for almost as long as I can remember, so I'm already predisposed to be happy when I see it mentioned. But it was used particularly effectively in this book. Without saying too much, the moment when the listener understood the importance of the existence of the book was immensely fulfilling for me.

Though Clauda and Haly are supposed to be close friends, I felt that Clauda's relationship with Scio had more life to it, though perhaps that's because they actually spend more time together. Their escapades added a thrill of excitement that I thought was needed in the Clauda sections of the book. I'm a little slow on the uptake, I guess, because it took me a while to realize where the relationship between Clauda and Selene was headed. I think we'll have to see what happens in the sequel to know if it's a necessary ingredient or an unnecessary (though quite possibly tasty) garnish.

The ending was more violent than I expected, though I think I was naive in that.

Is it the librarian in me that made me find Haly confronting Gyneth and the censors with the power of the written word more satisfying than Clauda and Selene's spying and political maneuvering? Probably. But those scenes have an emotional resonance that the Clauda/Selene section is missing. The relationships are more complicated and deeper. Haly's situation is no more fraught with danger than Clauda's, but it has more dimensions to explore.

There's a lot of food for thought here concerning the freedom to read, religion and its role in society, family loyalty, the use and abuse of power, friendship and loyalty and betrayal. Though I think it will initially attract more girls than boys, given the predominance of female characters and some slower sections, it will have appeal to both, and it would certainly lend itself well to both formal and informal discussions. 

Friday, December 04, 2009

August Can't Come Too Soon!

If you're a Hunger Games fan like me, you'll be glad to see this news about book three.

I wonder what the actual cover will look like.

What do you want to happen in this book? Katniss is a reluctant leader, so I'm curious to see how she integrates into whatever is going on in District 13. And I really want to see how that district functions, who is there, and how they were able to keep such a low profile for so long.


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

4Q 3P; Audience: J/S (high school)

Micah started her high school career pretending to be a boy. That, she says, is one reason the other students shun her. Lying about her father being an international arms dealer didn't help. When her boyfriend Zach is reported missing and is later found dead, Micah can't share her anguish with anyone because nobody knew he was her boyfriend and nobody will believe her if she tells the truth now. Why should they believe her, after all the lies she's told? She also knows, or so she says, the horrifying truth about how it happened. Whether she should be believed is a completely different story. When a book is told by an admitted compulsive liar, then everything she says must be questioned.


I believe Micah is the liar she says she is. I also think she's telling the truth about being biracial and living in New York City. But pretty much everything else she says is open to question. I think she did know a boy named Zach, and that he really is dead. Exactly what her relationship was with him, exactly what she knows about his death, exactly how he died...I'm not willing to accept her word on those topics. I think she probably does have relatives who live a fairly secluded life up north, but are they really what she says they are? What she says about herself and the family secret...that's what has my head spinning the most. I think some readers will take it at face value, and for them, that will make this one sort of book. Other readers (me, for instance) will think there's something else going on entirely, despite what Micah says, and will therefore have a completely different reading experience.

Reading this book was a fascinating, frustrating experience. Because Micah constantly revises her story, each time saying that she lied before and this is the real truth, every event and every comment must be questioned. It's very unsettling. By the time she got to the big reveal about her family secret and what she really is and how that relates to Zach's death, I mistrusted her so completely that I can't accept her final say on the matter. I believe that not only is Micah lying to us, she's lying to herself. Her secret isn't the one she reveals to us. I think it's not so much a question of not wanting to tell the truth, but rather of not being able to face the truth. If she's what she claims she is, then she can't be held responsible for what she's done or may do in the future. But if she's not...

To be honest, I don't know what I think about this book. I finished it about two weeks ago, and I haven't written about it because I've been trying to sort out my thoughts. This is a book so open to multiple interpretations that it practically demands to be read and then shared with someone else. Whether or not that discussion changes the reader's interpretation isn't as important as exploring what those other possibilities are and why they do/don't work for the reader.

I expect this book to win awards, but I don't expect everyone will love it. Love it, like it, or hate it, it would make a terrific discussion book. For sure I'm going to try to sell my Pageturners group on reading it.

Comments are welcome on all my posts, but I'd especially like to hear what you think about this book.

(I haven't explored Justine Larbalestier's FAQ about Liar yet, but I'm about to. You may want to look at it too, but I gather you'll want to do it after you've read the book, as there are spoilers.)