Category Archives: Teen Fiction

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I made my book club read this book and none of them were mad at me for it. Therefore, it must be worthy of review.

I can’t really give a description of this book that won’t make it sound like another Hunger Games, or Divergent, or any other post-apocalyptic YA novel about a girl in a desperate future trying to survive, but you’ll have to trust me that it is so, so much more than that. Wasp’s future is so bleak it really isn’t worth living in at all, and there isn’t the romantic element that runs through those other YA books, and Wasp doesn’t need to spend several books changing the world, she does it in one. Seriously, Wasp could kick Katniss’ and Tris’ asses at the same time and still get something else done that day.

The premise: Wasp lives in a society where there is barely enough food to go around, people live hand-to-mouth, and all modern technology has been lost, but no one knows exactly what happened to make it this way. The future is full of ghosts, who outnumber and threaten the living. For years, “chosen” girls (known by the scars on their faces, purportedly left by the goddess Catchkeep’s claws) have been collected by the Catchkeep Priest, who raises them and supervises the work of one girl – the Archivist. The Archivist’s job is to hunt ghosts, use them to try to find out what happened in the past if she can, and then dispatch them so that they can no longer harm the living.  Every year, one of the girls (an “Upstart”) is chosen to fight the current Archivist. If the Upstart wins, she becomes the Archivist. If she loses, the Archivist keeps her job (and her life) for another year. Wasp has been the Archivist for 3 years. Her life is miserable. She lives apart from the other girls and the villagers fear her, so she has no contact with anyone other than the sadistic Catchkeep Priest, who controls her life completely.  She cannot escape – she’s tried, and the Priest and his dogs always find her and bring her back. The work is horrible – she traps ghosts, tries to extract information from them, and then kills them day after day, and never makes much progress deciphering why her world is the way it is – until the day she finds a ghost who has retained enough of his memories to talk to her. He needs her help to find another ghost. Can she trust him? Will helping the ghost free Wasp from her life as she knows it? She is desperate enough to give it a whirl. And the story goes from there.

What is this book like? It’s kind of like Divergent or Station Eleven, in the sense that the world has changed but lots of old stuff (abandoned cities, random objects) are still lying around, many of their purposes forgotten. It’s like the Hunger Games in that children are forced to fight to the death. It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale in the sense that girls are raised for a religious purpose that they know nothing about, by sadistic men who don’t tell them the whole story. (And maybe like Brave New World where children are predestined to do what society needs them to do, regardless of whether that’s what they want.)  Another story that kept popping into my mind as I read it was Sheri Tepper’s Raising the Stones. Even though the details aren’t the same, the general idea of young people carrying on a religion that they don’t know the origin of is similar.

A member of my book club suggested that I should post the questions we used for our discussion, since we all sometimes have trouble finding discussion questions and have to Google around to see if anyone else has done it for us. So, as a gesture of goodwill to other book clubbers out there, here they are:

  1. The ghost doesn’t even remember why he must find Kit any more, but he is still compelled to try. Have you ever had a goal that you pursued even after almost forgetting why?
  2. Did you expect the ghosts of the defeated Upstarts to help Wasp? Would you have?
  3. Did you expect a romantic relationship between Wasp and the ghost as soon as you realized that he was male?
  4. One review I read said the journey through the underworld was “repetitive and boring”. do you agree or disagree?
  5. page 69 test. Go.
  6. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like for Wasp and Kit to meet and get to know each other. Would they be friends?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11

Yes, I read another post-apocalyptic novel where civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. But in my defense, there’s Shakespeare! And comics!

The novel begins when Arthur, a fiftyish actor who is finally old enough to play King Lear, has a heart attack onstage. A young man in the audience who is training to be an EMT tries to help, and winds up comforting a small girl involved in the production after the ambulance takes Arthur away.

On his way home, the young EMT-to-be gets a call from a friend who works in a hospital, who warns him that an epidemic has broken out and that he should hole up at home and not talk to anyone. Since he knows this friend is not normally an alarmist, he stocks up on supplies and heads to his brother’s house to wait out the scare. From here, the story is taken up by several different characters – Kirsten, the young girl who was onstage with Arthur when he had his heart attack, Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, and Clark, a friend of Arthur’s. We piece together from their stories of the present, future and past how all of these characters are connected, and what happened before, during and after the flu pandemic.

This novel is beautiful. I know it should be depressing, and yes, 99 percent of the population dies in the first few chapters, but what happens in the aftermath is not as bleak as you’d expect. Civilization as it was known disappears, communications between communities is limited to what news can be gleaned from travelers, and technology more sophisticated than hand tools is no longer of any use – but somehow, the survivors survive, the world goes on, and there’s still classical music and Shakespeare being performed, so really, how bad could it be? Plus there’s a graphic novel (loosely inspired by Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes) which inspires two of the characters – one to make art, the other to start a cult. And did I mention the museum one of the characters starts – in an airline lounge, with cell phones and other useless devices as exhibits? And best of all, all of these things are connected, even if the people involved don’t know it. I only wish that the book had pictures, because the author’s descriptions of the graphic novel’s illustrations sound incredible. (Artists – make Station 11 the comic happen. Please.)

What reads like this? Well, the post-apocalyptic elements make it sort of like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, or Roth’s Divergent. But the writing style for some reason reminded me of Ann Patchett – maybe because the story is vaguely similar to Bel Canto, where the world has gone to hell but art keeps the survivors going?

The Word Exchange: A Novel by Alena Graedon

WORD Jacket

Paranoid much? Do you love words, and fear that the world is full of people who use them badly? Are you convinced that ebooks and downloaded music will destroy our current model of “owning” creative works? This book is for you.

Anana (rhymes with banana but means pineapple, she explains) works for her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Doug longs for the days when people emailed or spoke face to face, and fears that Anana’s generation is losing the ability to use the written word. He disapproves of Anana’s use of her meme, a device rather like a smartphone but which integrates itself with the user over time so that it can anticipate your needs and wants. For example, it will call a taxi for you just as you decide to go somewhere, or order you takeout if you begin to feel hungry. The more you use your meme, the better it gets at doing what you want it to do before you can even ask. The most insidious thing the memes do, in Doug’s opinion, is to link the user with the Word Exchange – a service that will automatically define a word for you if you hear or read it and cannot recall what it means. For an automatically deducted fee per word, of course.

Anana loves and respects her father, but that doesn’t stop her from using the technology he warns her against anyway – until she begins noticing the effects that it is having on her memory and on the communications she has with her friends. When Doug disappears, Anana begins hunting for him – only to discover that North American Dictionary of the English Language has been sold (to the company that owns the Word Exchange, naturally) and all printed copies are being destroyed.  It turns out that Doug wasn’t just being a paranoid Luddite – a shadowy group really is hatching a diabolical plot to infect users with “word flu” – an infection that causes them to lose the ability to remember the words they need to communicate at all, rendering them fully dependent on the Word Exchange…which now owns all of the words and can make them mean whatever they want. Conspiracies abound, everyone she loves is in danger, and she can’t count on anyone once they start to muddle their words.

All in all, it’s an engaging read. I didn’t really like Anana at first – at the start she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is depressed and whiny – but as the story progresses, she becomes stronger and more determined. I like the fact that this woman of average intelligence manages to get through a horrible ordeal despite the fact that evil geniuses all around her appear to hold all of the cards.

I discovered this book by accident when looking for Max Barry’s Lexicon, which someone told me was similar. I have since found it on a lot of “If you liked Lexicon…” lists, so maybe I’ll try Barry’s next. As for other read-alikes, it is kind of like George Orwell’s 1984 in the sense that a powerful entity can make the news the public hears mean whatever it wants.

So I finally read Divergent by Veronica Roth

divergent

I generally try to avoid reading whatever the latest YA obsession until the series is completely finished and you can get the first one without waiting 6 months on hold. This approach works well most cases – if the books are bad (Twilight series, anyone?) you don’t feel cheated, and if they are good you can get them easily enough to binge-read the whole series at once (I admit with some shame that I read Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy in a weekend, and I’d do it again, shame be damned, though I might skip the last one). So I didn’t read this one at the height of its hype, but since the movie came out and the second is forthcoming, I can’t get the 2nd or third one now. Grumble.

Anyway. I read this for my book club, and while it was an enjoyable read, I was not inclined to go on to read the second or third, though my book club peeps assure me they’re worth it. My mental jury is still out. Good premise, but a little too much teen angst. As for the movie, I’ll probably watch it because the book itself reads like an action movie, so there is plenty of material there to make it exciting. And the fact that it’s set in Chicago made me nostalgic, though I really don’t want to visit this particular future of Chicago (the fate of Lake Michigan actually made me teary). But the part where they climb the abandoned John Hancock tower is pretty entertaining, Swamp Michigan be damned.

Books in a similar vein: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood… basically any skewed future novel where the common people are being manipulated by forces they don’t understand and when they figure it out all Hell’s gonna break loose.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Did you grow up in the ’80s? Do you know what it is like to want something so badly that you’re willing to do anything? Then read this book. It is…sweet. But in a good, not a cloying way. It will make you nostalgic for that first thrill of love that happened back when Sony Walkmans were still in use and all of your problems could be forgotten for 40 minutes if you had the right cassette on hand.

Eleanor is a new girl, ignored and despised. She doesn’t have the right clothes and she doesn’t live in the right neighborhood. Worse, her stepfather is abusive and won’t allow her to even talk to a boy. She’s already been thrown out of his house once, and she is determined to stay with her mother and siblings this time. Park is one of those kids who isn’t popular, but isn’t unpopular – he’s accepted, but only just. Being associated with Eleanor would destroy what social status he has. But as they get to know one another, both Eleanor and Park realize that they can’t resist each other, no matter what the risks.

And then if you have time, read Rainbow Rowell’s other books. She writes for both teens and adults. I have only disliked one of her books so far, and that was because of the subject, not her writing, so I won’t tell you which. Just read them.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Front Cover

Don’t read this book on a plane, or in any public place. I was embarrassed several times as I cried copious tears and my seat-mate wondered if I was some sort of crazy person.

Ed is a 20-year-old cab driver in some depressed town in Australia which is never named. He does not have much ambition and his life revolves around a circle of similarly unmotivated friends, with whom he plays cards, drinks, and shares very superficial interests. He is madly in love with one of these friends, but she has been hurt in the past and adamantly refuses to have any relationship where she might like or love her partner, so their relationship remains platonic. All lumbers along uneventfully for Ed, until one day the bank he and his friends are waiting in is robbed. Without knowing why exactly he does so, Ed helps to apprehend the bank robber and enjoys his 15 minutes of fame.

This fame attracts attention from someone and Ed receives a playing card in the mail with three addresses written on it. He assumes that he is supposed to go to these addresses, so he does – and in the process finds 3 people who need his help in some way. Without knowing why he has been asked to do so, Ed sets out to do the right thing. More cards with other clues follow, and the book becomes beautiful, brutal, wrenching, and satisfying by turns. By the end, Ed has learned more about himself and his friends and family than he ever suspected, and the reader learns to love them right along with him.

I read this book because I loved another book by this author called The Book Thief, which my book club read (and most of them enjoyed). This book is not like The Book Thief in content, but so like it in emotional tone. It made me cry not because it is sad, but because it is so poignant. Everything that happens to Ed and his friends and the people that they help is so touching that I couldn’t help wishing that more people would undertake a quest like Ed’s. I challenge you to read the parts where he reads out loud to an old lady without bawling like a baby. And when he discovers his friend Marvin’s secret, have a hanky. Seriously.

A lot of readers online have complained about the ending. I admit, it isn’t the best ending an author has ever dreamed up, but after the superb crafting of the story and characters I’m willing to give him a pass on the deus ex machina.

Read-alikes: Hmmm, this is tricky. It’s a lot like The Book Thief in that ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary deeds for love. It’s kind of like John Green’s books where the boy longs for the impossible girl (Looking for Alaska, maybe). It’s also vaguely like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, though the characters in that one never grow like Ed does. I guess the story it reminds me the most of is the Shirley Jackson short story One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.

Best Teen Book Ever – The Year of Secret Assignments by Jacyln Moriarty

yearofsecret

When I meet a teen who isn’t sure what to read next, and I know she (or he, if he’s one of those males that doesn’t scorn “girl books”) likes very dialogue-driven or journal-style books (think Louise Rennison or Lauren Myracle), my go-to suggestion is the books of Jaclyn Moriarty. Most of her books (except the most recent, which will be part of a series and is a fantasy) take place in the same high school in Australia. Characters overlap from book to book, so if the reader likes reading series, they are related enough to satisfy, but there aren’t spoilers if you read them in the “wrong” order.

The best of Moriarty’s books is The Year of Secret Assignments. Through regular narrative, passed notes, writing exercise entries, letters, and other scraps we learn what happens when three girls from one high school write to three boys from another school as part of a pen pal assignment – and things get completely out of hand. I can’t really explain much of the plot without ruining it, but what makes this book appealing is the individual personalities of the characters, who are exactly what teenagers really are – the perfect combination of charming, self-centered, endearing, annoying, stupid, vulnerable, and absolutely right about everything. The three girls are the kind of friends you wish you had in high school, and the boys rise to the occasion and help out their new pen pals in their time of need.

Related books by Jaclyn Moriarty:

The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie
Feeling Sorry for Celia
The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Unrelated books by Moriarty that are also good:

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor
A Corner of White (first in a series – I am eagerly awaiting #2)