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.


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.


J’s Take on Alan Turing: The Architect of the Computer Age

Alan Turing: Architect of the Computer Age Cover
Today is the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. I figured that since I’d procrastinated more than 2 years over writing my Turing review, I should do it today to make it look deliberate. Though I only have a little more than an hour left to go in June 23rd. And technically June 23rd is over in the UK. But we’ll ignore that!

Back when I was originally supposed to do this review, I had chosen a book called The Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt. I tried reading this book. Then a long time later, I tried again. Then I just had such a block against even trying that I let it sit around and sit around. Finally about a month ago, I thought I’d look up what my other options are. There are surprisingly few books all about Turing. And no children’s books I could find. I borrowed two through interlibrary loan. One was a hefty textbook-looking thing. I didn’t even crack that one open. The other was Alan Turing: The Architect of the Computer Age by Ted Gottfried and written for a YA audience.

Finally, a book I could get through!

The problem with the Leavitt book was it was too dry and full of footnotes. Of course I’ve read dry things with footnotes before, and it’s fine if the subject is interesting enough, as Alan Turing certainly should’ve been. But it also suffered from a lot of time-jumping that was driving me up the wall. It was pretending to be chronological, but the author kept inserting comments about how this and that and the other thing would happen later. I just wanted a nice story about his childhood and time in school and everything that follows after that.

The YA book gave me that. There are a few spots where there’s a comment inserted. Like, spoiler alert, he’s going to get into running eventually, with Olympic potential. But it happened much less frequently.

I wouldn’t call this book eminently readable; I have read much better, more enjoyable nonfiction. In fact at first it was reminding me of school history books and I was thinking ‘no wonder I found history boring’. But once I got used to the style, it was fine. Plus the subject matter was very interesting.

I had watched, years ago, (even before this review was originally due), the docudrama, “Breaking the Code”, about Alan Turing. It’s great and I highly recommend watching it. In fact I intend to watch it again before the weekend is out.

What I failed to get a sense of from the movie that I got from the book was just how geeky a kid he was. In a time and place where it was not very nice at all to be a geeky boy (there are many times and places like that, of course). It also surprised me to learn just how absent his parents were. It’s not that they dumped him at boarding school, which you sort of expect, but they weren’t even in the country for large portions of his childhood. He’s still a toddler and they’ve both gone back to India. And not even left him with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Even when his father’s job in India is over, the two of them move to France! It’s just so bizarre to me.

The book does a pretty good job of explaining Turing’s accomplishments in mathematics, biology, and of course computer science in a way that’s understandable to me, and probably understandable to most high school students. It also doesn’t shy away from talking about his evolving identity as a gay man and his relationships with other boys and men, and one woman. I didn’t feel like the book was leaving things out to protect the Impressionable Youth ™.

Several times Gottfried referenced the biography by Andrew Hodges. K read and reviewed that book, if you’d like to read her review.

Halfway through the book, I stumbled upon photos. I hadn’t realized there were photo pages in the middle. I never like photo pages being in the middle of the book. I might like to see a picture of Turing as a child, while I’m still reading about his time in school. And then I get to the photos and start looking at them, and then there’s spoilers! It happened with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book too. So I refrained from looking and went back later, after finishing the book.

The author describes the adult Turing as ‘unhandsome’, but I don’t see that. Maybe it’s the 50’s hairstyle that makes him look like the typical handsome dark-haired man. Or maybe I don’t know what ‘handsome’ means. In a group photo, I can see a little more what the author’s talking about. But I still don’t see him as looking geeky or mad scientist-like. The author a couple of times refers to his appearance or laugh as like a mad scientist.

I paused in the descriptions of a Turing machine to play a second time with today’s Google Doodle. I don’t know if either helped me understand the other more, but it was a nice break from reading.

Turing’s birthday anniversary is only today, but Gay Pride Month lasts until June 30th. So take the opportunity to read or watch more about Alan Turing. He’s an important part of science history and an important part of gay history.