YA Books You Need to R

Online lists about which books need to be read by everyone at least once are plentiful, but they never have the books I think are most needing of attention. For instance, Ender’s Game is on several of them, and for good reason; but Ender’s Shadow, which I confess to loving even more, rarely is.

That said, some of the books on this list are probably on others. Some are not. They aren’t a particularly literary selection. One is a Star Wars novel. One is dystopian. Perhaps a better title for this post would be “YA Books I  Love” but I’m not going to call it that, because that title would require a list too long for this blog post, and because they really are good books I think most fiction lovers can enjoy.

The Beyonders Trilogy by Brandon Mull

  A teenager falls into a magical world. This sounds like the premise for an enjoyable, but familiar story about heroes and adventurers and dragons, but that’s not how Beyonders works. The heroes of Lyrian have all been systematically bribed, corrupted, tortured or killed out of hero-ing. There are no dragons, which is a serious mark against the series in my book, but the creatures that are there are each fascinating in their own way–giants and zombies and wizards and things that we don’t have any stories or names for on Earth.

It’s an exciting story about integrity and the true meaning of courage. And sword fights, because obviously there have to be sword fights if there’s no dragons.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

This is the first of the Discworld books focused on Tiffany Aching. I don’t know if everyone considers it YA, but that’s where it’s shelved at my library and it’s about a girl as opposed to the adult protagonists of most of the other books.

The book is excellent for its dry humor and magic, but it also has this quote:

“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!

It’s a very Slytherin way of choosing to protect those in need of protecting. I love it.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

I’m fortunate to have never been forced to read this book for class, since the way I had to read and analyze literature in English class tended to make me hate them, though maybe I’d have hated The Crucible anyways.

The Giver is early dystopian fiction, and some of the best work in the genre. In a society where everyone is more or less the same, a boy named Jonas is surprised to stand out when he is chosen to be the new Reciever of Memory.

Some of my favorite themes in the book are the value of having differences between people, and whether and why emotions are important. The movie is really good too.

Ahsoka  by EK Johnston

This is a more recent book, part of the new Star Wars canon. Ahsoka Tano, former apprentice to Anakin Skywalker, survived the Jedi purges and is on the run in the Outer Rim. With an assumed name and her skill with droids, she is able to stay out of the Empire’s way as a mechanic.

Then the Empire comes to the small farming town she’s been staying in, and she is faced with the choice of running again, or helping the people she’s beginning to befriend and being targeted as a Jedi. Can she fight again after losing everything?

Also, it’s very fun to read Star Wars from a non-human’s perspecive.

Strength and weakness

During Stan Lee’s time writing the Avengers comics, Thor shared a body with a Doctor Donald Blake. Nothing out of the ordinary, in a universe that featured super soldiers, radioactive superpowers, a creepy-eyed guy who showed up to watch big events, and of course magical space Vikings, but looking back over those comics that detail catches my eye. See, without Mjolnir, Thor would revert back to Donald Blake, and so whenever something separated him from his hammer during a fight he panicked. He didn’t want his teammates to find out that, when he wasn’t being Thor, he was a small man who used a cane and looked utterly un-godlike.

Angst like that was common in the Avengers at the time–Iron Man didn’t want the team to find out about his heart condition, for instance. But the characters evolved, and Thor and Donald Blake parted ways, so it wouldn’t be relevant if the hammer and title of Thor were not currently being carried by Jane Foster–as of the last time I caught up with the series, anyway. It’s been a few months.

When Jane holds Mjolnir, as far as anyone cares, she’s Thor. Maybe not the same Thor as the other superheroes have worked with in years past, and definitely not the Thor that Odin wants, but she has the same powers and does the same work to protect people, so there isn’t much to be concerned with. The biggest difference seems to be that Iron Man tried to flirt with her. She’s physically imposing, wears almost practical armor, and looks really really cool, like every good superhero-deity should.

Separate her from the hammer, though, and not only is dear Jane a small, frail, human, she is also dying of cancer. And the transformation between Thor and her own body is just making her more sick.

I have mixed feelings about the incorporation of cancer into Jane’s story. On the one hand, cancer is real and it’s not going away soon, and reflecting that in the stories we tell is only reasonable. Stories may contain fantastic, unbelievable elements, especially superhero stories, but they also have aspects of the things their storytellers see in real life.

On the other hand, cancer is real and it keeps interfering in far too many of the lives of people I care about, and I’d like it to stay out of my fiction if possible. Along with tarantula hawks, most forms of paperwork, and broken guitar strings. But if this were a dissertation on the representation of cancer in fiction, I wouldn’t be starting with the Thor comics.

Despite my misgivings, showing the dual nature of Jane’s strengths and weaknesses in such an overt way in these comics is effective in raising the questions it’s meant to, I think. What are your strengths? It asks readers. How do your strengths make the impact of your weaknesses more dangerous, in a twist of cruel irony? In the case of Jane Foster, the questions refer to literal strength, but it can also be applied to other types of strength–strength of courage or or endurance or integrity or character as a whole, and weakness of the same.

Tony Stark’s strength and weakness stem from the same place: he is highly intelligent, and unfortunately, he knows it. Percy Jackson’s strength is his loyalty to his loved ones, but it also puts him in danger all the time. Luke Skywalker’s strength is in his love, but his love for and faith in his father nearly gets him killed. Actually, I think he inherited that strength-weakness from Anakin to begin with.

But the weaknesses can come from a place completely different from the strengths. Kaladin Stormblessed’s strength is in his magic and his protective nature, but the betrayals and failures of his past threaten to take away both. Frodo’s strength is his endurance, which is tested and broken by the One Ring.

Of course, most characters and all people have more than one strength or weakness. Reading stories like these Thor comics encourage me to try to identify all, which is looking to be a lifetime’s work. Hopefully, it will be worthwhile.

The Young Wizards

Story time.

When my little brother and I were kids, we were part of the library’s summer reading program every year. At the end of the program, if we’d done all the eating hours we were supposed to, the library would give us a book. There were all kinds of books on the shelf to choose from: Lord of the Rings, picture books, Percy Jackson, I even grabbed the Odyssey one summer during high school.

One summer, not long after we had moved into the area,  my brother got the the bookshelf before me, and naturally grabbed the biggest thing on the shelf. The librarians all cooed at the sight of such a little kid with such a big book. I’ve seen bigger books since then, but at the time it looked huge: the spine was maybe three inches wide, and the inside was all print. No pictures. It was called The Young Wizards.

I don’t think my brother has ever actually read it, or at least not all the way through. I did, several times.

That book held the first five books in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and at the time I thought that was all there was. It was enough. The gist of the story is that some kids, twelve or thirteen years old when they first start, find books on wizardry, and befriend one another over the shared interest. The books work, and they get pulled along on  various adventures to slow down entropy.

Adventure is a sort of tame word for it. Their first “adventure,” for instance, gets them pulled into a nightmare parallel-universe Manhattan where the cars are predators and the fire hydrants eat pigeons, created by a being known as the Lone Power, the one who created death.

Cheerful, right?

After books like  Fablehaven and The  Dark is Rising, this was one of my favorite books. The kids’ wizardry is all done through words,  and  one of the recurring themes of the series is how powerful words are to shape the universe. For a writer-to-be like myself, this was great.

The series was also one of the first things to spark my interest in Irish mythology and folklore, since  one of the kids gets sent to Ireland by her parents and  spends some time fighting off monsters straight from the myths. And there’s a scene with a cat going up a chimney that’s exactly like one of the folktales.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that I found out there are more books in the series than just the five books in that volume my brother had. Naturally, I have to reread everything. You know, when I’m not doing homework and other responsible adult things. I’ve already started.

It’s reminding me of the reasons I love storytelling so much, and why I’m trying to make telling stories my life’s occupation. There were plenty of frightening things in those books, but I never really got scared. I  was too busy feeling wonder at how a world so real could be conjured up with print on a page, and how the kids fighting the war against the corruption of good felt like something that had always been happening.

I was too young to have the story properly change my life, but it certainly had a hand in shaping it.

Michael Vey: Fall of Hades review

Story time. I actually met Richard Paul Evans, author of this and other amazing books, this past spring at an education summit he spoke at. His talk was all about what he wishes he’d known in middle school, but I’m  in college and found it relevant and inspiring.

Why was I, the arts major, at an education summit? My grandparents were running it.

But that’s another story. Let’s talk about the story I’m reviewing.

  If the best books are the ones that have you desperate for someone to rage with about the ending, this probably outranks even that most infuriating of cliffhanger books, Mark of Athena.

They both have Greek deities’ names in the title. Funny coincidence.

But it isn’t just the cliffhanger that makes this book memorable. Without a story of substance and characters worth caring for, a cliffhanger is just a cheap trick. This one was the real deal, especially regarding the characters. Mr. Evans has a particular gift for  creating diverse, relatable characters.

And then putting them through the worst a twisted imagination can throw at them, because why not?

All the characters, even many of the supposedly bad guys, were relateable in their own ways. We may not have agreed with them, but we understood why they did what they did and it didn’t feel like it was just for the plot.  It’s difficult to do that with a cast that large. And then to have the main ones all have their own arcs too? Pretty good.

I loved it. Loved the characters, at least, which lead to loving the story. I may have been sorely tempted to throw the book at a wall at the incredibly awesome but ambiguous end, but I loved it.

I’ll probably talk more about what exactly was awesome about the end, along with speculations about the last book, after more people have had time to read it.

Today’s drawing: Not an inktober piece, but there was this kid asleep at the library while I was studying and I just couldn’t resist a quick sketch.

Time Travel is Complicated

Hey everyone. Me from the past here. Me from the present is currently driving to uni, and asked me to take care of this week’s blog for me.

Her. Whatever. Time travel is complicated.

We see a lot of that complication in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I’ll be reviewing today.

I was simultaneously delighted and terrified to read the play script. Delighted because, well, it’s a new Harry Potter story. Terrified because all is evidently not well if there’s a new story to be told. I’ve spent the eight years since Deathly Hallows came out building up this idyllic version of Harry’s adult life in my mind. This play’s existence shattered it.

A life with no conflict is boring anyway, right?

Once I actually got around to reading the thing, though,I loved it. It’s not all butterflies and rainbows. Wizarding society still has a very tenuous relationship with logic. Slytherins still experience prejudice. Harry tries his best, but doesn’t really know how to be a parent. It’s not the same experience as reading the books, but I never read the Harry Potter books for the prose. I read them for the story.

This story fits perfectly into the world of Harry Potter.

Take the stars of the show: Albus Potter, a Slytherin who can never live up to the expectations of his family, and Scorpius Malfoy, who can never live down the scandals of his. Misfits in every sense of the word, just like Harry, Ron, and Hermione were in their day (though Al doesn’t realize it). Scorpius’s doomed but optimistic efforts at getting into Rose Weasley’s good graces fit right in.

Then there’s the magic. It’s everywhere, from Ron’s joke shop products to duels to, yes, time travel. Rarely explained, constantly practiced.

And secrets. It’s a fine Harry Potter tradition for there to be lots of secrets that few or no people have access to, and yet the kids manage to hear. This play doesn’t disappoint on that front. But I can’t talk about those. Mwahahah.

And, hey, Harry finally yells at Dumbledore for leaving him with the Dursleys. Dumbledore’s portrait, anyway.

A lot of a play rests on the things you don’t see in a script–the actors, director, the special effects. But as far as I could experience it through just the script, it was magnificent. I put it down and immediately wanted to start drawing. This is the kind of story that NEEDS to be turned into a graphic novel at some point.

Please, Jo, let it be a graphic novel.

I’ve been told more than once that I have a “general tendency to like things,” which apparently annoys some of my nearest and dearest to no end. So, probably not everyone will have the same opinion of Cursed Child as I do. But I loved it, and will not poke holes in this balloon.

On Being Peculiar

I don’t know if you’ve read the book Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children and its sequels.  If not, I’d recommend it.  The protagonist acts like a teenager in most of the more annoying ways at the beginning, but it does get interesting fast.  Plus, Tim Burton made it into a movie that looks like it will be pretty good.

The idea of the story is that there are some people born with “peculiarities,” or special powers.  Because humans are terrible at being nice to each other when there are any sort of differences between them, and because there are others who want to exploit their abilities, those peculiar people have to hide.

No, it isn’t quite like X-men.  Though that’s another good story.

I’ve thought about why Miss Peregrine’s is such an appealing story, and come to the conclusion that it’s because of one of the themes it shares with so many young adult books:  that of being different.

Adolescence and young adulthood are kind of rotten.  Your body and mind have run off and changed on you without your permission.  You’re supposed to act more like an adult than ever before, but still get treated like a child.  Decisions about future careers are demanded from you while laws and policy that affect your options are made without you getting to vote on it.  You’re locked in a building with hundreds of others in just as vulnerable a position as you, and you’ve just realized (if you hadn’t before) that you aren’t normal.

The understanding that “normal” doesn’t exactly exist anyways comes later.

Of course young adults are interested in stories about people who are even less normal than they are.  A human Taser with Tourette’s Syndrome.  A boy wizard whose scar attracts far too much attention.  A kid with the magical gift of breaking anything he touches.  Werewolves and vampires, mutants and peculiars.  I’ve forgotten how many times I dressed as Rogue from the X-men during middle school.  If Miss Peregrine’s Home had existed when I was that age, I’d have wanted to go there too.

The thing these stories about being different taught me as a kid, and still teach me when I forget it, is that being different, or peculiar, or whatever other term you care to use, is okay.  Accepting yourself as you are, even when you know there’s room for improvement, is okay.

That’s a lesson we all need, I think, when pressure to conform comes at us from all sides, whether in appearance or politics or liking Marvel or DC.

Plus, you know, having a character who can hold fire in her bare hands is just cool.

Welcome to Life in a Science Fiction Novel

All right, I know what the title says, and I’m going to get to that, but first I have to talk about the new Civil War trailer.

We hear both Tony and Cap talk more about why they’re doing what they’re doing.  We see what I hope is a flashback to Bucky’s Winter Soldier days.  If it isn’t, Hydra caught him again, and that’s no good.  Rhodes falls out of the sky when someone, possibly Bucky, shoots out his arc reactor.  Ant-Man rides on Hawkeye’s arrow to attack Tony.  Black Panther tries to kill Bucky, Wanda uses her hex powers on the Vision, Natasha seems conflicted, there seems to be some sort of super-human prison in the works, and Crossbones is involved, so it looks like the Nazis in the basement are pulling lots of strings in the background.  And Spider-Man steals Cap’s shield.

That’s just what I noticed when the fangirl part of my brain wasn’t stuck on !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! like it was the first time I watched it.

Cap, of course, goes and says his favorite thing, “I can do this all day,” when he and Tony are beating each other up.  He’s supposed to say that to enemies when facing impossible odds, not friends.  I don’t think their already rocky relationship is going to recover after this.  Especially not if Tony finds out that the Winter Soldier killed his parents, when Steve’s still supporting Bucky.

Besides that, there aren’t many more predictions on this film that I can make than I did in my previous posts on the subject, but the trailer just reignited all my worries for my favorite characters and in a few days I might have some new thoughts.  Luckily the film comes out after finals.

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled blog:

We live in a science fiction novel.

If you disagree, it’s probably because you’ve gotten used to it.

There is a device in my pocket that I can use to access the entirety of human knowledge on virtually every subject.  Many of you likely also have one.

I use this device to interact with people on the other side of the planet, and look at pictures of the surface of Pluto.  And watch movie trailers.

Five years ago, I heard people talking about 3D printers and thought it was a hoax.  Now we can replace damaged vertebrae with 3D printed ones.  And we do.

We have empirical evidence of the existence of gravitational waves.

Flowers have been grown on the International Space Station.  Space zinnias.

Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more advanced by the year.

We are using twin studies to determine the effects of long-term space travel on the human body so we can send people to Mars.

Physics might not know where most of the matter in the universe actually is, but it does know that it’s missing.

How cool is that?

Those are just the more recent and exciting developments.  So many advances we’ve already accepted as ordinary, like machines that can look inside a person’s body and show us what’s wrong with them, and goggles that can help people see using light from the non-visible spectrum.

It’s easy to forget what a magnificent time we live in when we get caught up in the rush of everyday life and hear about seventeen different varieties of disasters on the news every time we tune in.

Maybe I’m just an art student doing something only slightly more advanced than cave painting every day in preparation to make a living out of it, but this stuff is exciting.  No, it isn’t like the science fiction novels or superhero comics that people have been writing for decades, and we don’t have hoverboards yet, but those stories were just the predictions.  This is the real thing.  We have made so much progress in the past two decades alone that it’s dizzying to imagine what might happen in the upcoming years.

Which is what we science fiction geeks and storytellers are here for.  The imagining bit.

Is there a lot of things we still need to do?  Absolutely.  Are people still terrible at being decent to one another?  A lot of them, yes.  But looking at how far we’ve come, all the cultural and scientific changes we’ve had over the years, most of them for the better, I have hope for the future.