J’s Take on Dare, Truth or Promise by Paula Boock

Dare Truth of Promise CoverI’m about over teen gay romance novels. Or perhaps all quiltbag YA that doesn’t have a speculative element. Well, okay, I’ll make an exception for ones that aren’t glb, just because there’s so few of them.

It’s just that this particular book had all the standard elements. Religion, freaked out family, kinda-sorta-accepting family, high school drama club complete with theatre production, car crash, dog, non-explicit sex, formal/prom. Even now I’m having trouble not confusing it with ‘that one where it’s the school newspaper and one of them is a photographer’, which is um.. The Year They Banned the Books by Nancy Garden.

I suppose it’s a little unfair of me to say it’s just like all the other books, when it’s from 1997 and set in New Zealand. To some extent, the other books are like it.

The New Zealand setting didn’t affect things much. Just some of the terms were different, and my edition had a handy glossary in the front. Not everything was in there, but I was pleased to see “goolies” made the cut. No censorship in the glossary.

I notice on Amazon that Kirkus is quoted as saying “[a] steamy, brilliant girl-on-girl romance”. Either they’re operating from a different definition of “steamy” than I am, they’re counting the hot tub scene as full of steam, or my edition really was edited!

I like the size of the book. Smallish and thin both, with a photo depiction of each of the girls on one side.

The book was readable, but I was rolling my eyes a few times. It got heavily teen angsty in one or two spots. Or was it three or four?

And early on there’s this scene where the girls are working in a fast food place and the guy in charge is sexually harassing like every girl who works for him. And though most of them don’t like it, no one does anything productive about it! Like, tell, ANYONE. Like, threaten him with a LAWSUIT. Like, QUIT! So the book has left a skeevy vibe behind all because of this one guy who isn’t even terribly relevant to the rest of the plot.

The priest’s reaction is refreshing, but I have to say not terribly convincing and believable to me. Fast food guy can sexually harass his employees without consequences, but Catholic priest can say whatever he likes about homosexuality?

At least.. I assumed he was Catholic. Or remembered him as Catholic. Is that the only Christian religion where they’re called priests and they’re celibate? Well, anyway… don’t tell the Pope what he’s been saying in 1997.

So, in sum, enough is enough. Next angsty gay teen romance I read had better at least have some zombies in it. And I hate zombies.

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

From the back cover:
It is the time of the annual Midsummer Fair in the royal city of Astreiant, and the time of the conjunction of the spheres approaches, heralding the death of the monarch. Each year a few youngsters run away from home to go on the road with traders, but this year a far larger number of children than usual have gone missing during the Fair. Someone is stealing them away without a trace, and the populace is angry.

Nicolas Rathe, a city guard, must find the children and stop whatever dark plan is being hatched before the city explodes into chaos.

It took me nearly three years to finish reading Point of Hopes, and two months to write this review after I finally completed it. Those facts should give you a good indication of just how riveting this mystery isn’t.

Nicolas Rathe is a “pointsman” (basically a policeman) in the city of Astreiant. When dozens of children suddenly go missing, Rathe is on the case. He enlists a few friends to help—Philip Eslingen, a foreign mercenary to whom Rathe seems to be attracted, and a necromancer buddy from the local university who was, for some reason, played in my head by Paul Bettany. Primarily, Rathe’s investigation consists of visiting various parts of the city and talking to people to no avail, until finally a bit of evidence turns up on page 279. The three guys collectively put the pieces together, and I really liked the bits where they were working in concert. Too bad they were only together in the final 70 pages!

Thankfully, the setting of Point of Hopes is more intriguing than its central mystery. For one, gender equality is absolutely the norm. Just as many women as men participate in professions seen as traditionally male in our society, and many women are in positions of power. In the fantasy setting of Astreiant, your occupation is determined by the alignment of the stars at your birth, which reads to me as a metaphor for objectively selecting people for a job based solely on their abilities. Equality of sexual preference is also a facet of life in Astreiant—it’s not that same-sex relationships are merely tolerated: they’re commonplace. No one would think of considering them invalid or sinful.

Aside from not being very exciting, the most irritating aspect of Point of Hopes for me was the dire need for better editing. There were many, many, many instances where a comma was used in a spot that needed a semicolon and many pages that suffered from wall o’ text syndrome. I can’t help but feel like it would’ve read faster if it weren’t so dense-looking. Lastly, I wonder at some of the names. I tend to think characters’ names “aloud” in my head, and while this is obviously not a problem for the lead characters, I was stymied by names like “Cijntien.” Plus, it’s weird to have fantasy names like that alongside such normal ones.

Anyway, there is a sequel to this entitled Point of Dreams. I own it, so will likely read it someday, but at the rate I’ve gone with this story thus far, I wouldn’t expect a review until at least 2015!

J’s Take on Deepwater Black by Ken Catran

Deepwater Black cover imageI read this book slowly over the course of what was probably months. It turned out to be the perfect book for picking up and putting down. The plot wasn’t hard to follow and the characters weren’t so numerous or complex that it really mattered whether I remembered them or not. And I also didn’t care. I didn’t feel a compelling need to keep reading to figure out what was going on.

Which is perhaps a damning criticism because the book was just one giant mystery made up of little mysteries. And I just didn’t care.

The main character is either a kid in the contemporary real world who goes to school, etc, or he’s a kid with a bunch of other kids flying a spaceship in the future. He’s ‘prexing’, a word which I never did figure out, and just falling into this hallucinatory state where he believes he’s living out the life of a 20th-21st century Earth kid. Or he’s actually that kid.

On the ship, it’s a group of I dunno maybe half a dozen kids, who don’t really know what they’re doing or where they’re going. And there’s like creatures and jel and dangerous random things they have to fight off, and I don’t even know why. And two of the kids are plotting, but not secretively or very well, to get voice control over the computer. But whatever.

So the mysteries are, like, what’s this prexing thing about, why are these kids on the ship, because they don’t really know themselves, what is this ship and why was it built, where are they going, etc, etc. And why is it called Deepwater anyway?

Well, you won’t get answers to all of those questions by reading the book. (And darned if I’m going to read any more in the series to try to find them either.) And the answers that are provided are full of crap science that I’d love to pick apart, but would be major spoilers. Because what’s the point at all of reading this book if I tell you what’s going on in it? None. But it fails biology and it fails astronomy. It probably also fails physics generally. Maybe ecology.

There certainly is potential in the overarching idea, and enough hand-waving would’ve made me fine with the poor science. However, it would’ve had to have done a lot more with the characters. I couldn’t see most of them even 2-dimensionally, let alone 3. One of them had the annoying tendency to learn things and then not want to tell anyone else. And she was pretty much the most developed of all the characters.

My recommendation has to be to give this one a pass. If you want kids alone on a spaceship, try Marion Zimmer Bradley or Dom Testa.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Tomorrow When the War Began CoverBook description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was a kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out their doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

J’s Take on Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road cover

I believe the American title is Jellicoe Road and the original title is On the Jellicoe Road. This cover is the most unappealing cover to me. I’m not big on flowers as design elements and orange flowers are the absolute worst. Especially on book covers. It did not make a good first impression.

When I finished the book I was mad at it.

The non-spoily summary is: Taylor Markham is a teenager living in a boarding school after her mother abandoned her. And there’s a ‘war’ going on between the students, the locals, and a group of cadets who come for several weeks every year. And she finds out who she is and makes friends and blahdeblahblah.

This review is going to get increasingly spoiler-filled, so feel free to stop when you feel like you’ve been spoiled just the right amount.

There are two narratives running through the story. Taylor’s first person story and snippets from a manuscript her guardian is writing. At first I felt detached. The very first thing we get is a car crash with dead people, but it’s in the manuscript, so it doesn’t count? Then Taylor seems to do things without really knowing why she’s doing them or even how she’s feeling. At least that’s how it comes across to me as a reader. She’s in charge of her House now, even though she seems bad at it. And there’s a decided lack of adults around. Hannah, the woman who’s nominally her guardian and unofficially in charge of her House isn’t actually officially attached to the school. So when she disappears, it’s not like things are much different? And no adult comes in to fill her place. The kids seem oddly on their own a whole lot of the time. Especially considering these are Hogwarts-age kids we’re talking about. And they even have to do their own cooking!

So there’s this war between the students, the Townies, and the Cadets over territory. And the rules are convoluted. But mostly I was just confused. Why is there this war? Why do the adults not care? Taylor seems oddly surprised when some of the boys start physically fighting. What kind of war is it that that’s not part of the point of it? It’s just weird.

Meanwhile we have this whole other set of characters we’re supposed to keep track of, in this manuscript Hannah has been writing for over a decade. They’re all full of angst.

I can sort of see this book is well-crafted, in that we learn more about Taylor’s past bit by bit, as she learns it too. It’s a tough thing to pull off, authorially. (Although I do have some time/number quibbles. Suddenly a 17-hour drive is only 7 hours. And there’s a date thing that’s screwed up after that.)

But by the end, I was mad. Mad mad mad.

(Major spoilers now.)

Dead people everywhere and suicides and bleh bleh blecch. And adults that WON’T TELL HER THINGS. It’s sort of the worst combination of things in kid’s books. Those things show up everywhere and are hella annoying each and every time. I mean in kid’s books in general, but also in this book in particular!

And this phrase keeps running around in my mind when I think about this book, so I’ll go ahead and type it: I felt manipulated.

So I can see how some people might think it’s Teh Awesome. But I have a lot of trouble appreciating its craft when it annoyed the heck out of me and made me outright mad by the end.

I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads the moment I finished reading it. Though I was hesitant even then. I may yet go back and change it to 2.