Read This: Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Genesis by Bernard Beckett (2005)

One sentence summary: A doctoral candidate undergoes an oral examination during which she recounts and interprets seminal events from the history of her Republic in this spare, electrifying story that is philosophical exploration and science-fiction story wrapped into one.

First off, I am not convinced this is actually a young adult book, rather than just a book featuring a protagonist who is a young adult. I am inclined to lean more towards “Adult book that certain young adults would enjoy,” rather than my usual category of reading, “Young adult book that certain adults would enjoy.” But I suppose it’s all just semantics, yes?

On to the book itself. What I am left with after reading all 150 pages of Genesis is a very particular, and wonderful, set of feelings. Have you read the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov? In those great works of classic science fiction (also fairly short by modern standards) the characters aren’t the important part, and neither, really, is the plot. These elements are in service to something greater, they are pieces in a grand design that aims to expose and examine the underpinnings of human nature itself. I am definitely no philosopher, but I am human. So for me, the best philosophy book doesn’t just try to engage with my mind, making its case in a bald, intellectual fashion that my own intellect will analyze and measure against my own life experiences. Books like Foundation and Genesis use their stories and their characters and their plots to actually evoke the feelings and experiences they wish us to think about. They take us through their case in a way that lets us live it ourselves.

Genesis is an engaging little story, as well. It moves along briskly and compellingly despite the unusual format (the book takes place entirely within the Socratic-style question and answer form of the student’s oral examination). It is very unlike the kind of books I usually read, but at such a brief length it was a pleasure to put aside teen angst and heroic fantasy for a while and let these subtle thoughts and emotions bloom within me through Beckett’s careful cultivation.

Read more about Genesis:
*If you have already decided you’d like to read the book, I think it’s best to jump in with as little information as possible. There are some really great elements to the book that it would be a shame to have spoiled. But if you aren’t convinced and want to know more, or don’t want to read the book at all but would like to know more about it, here are some other good reviews that at least don’t give away anything too big.*

Very interesting, short nearly spoiler-free review on The SF Site. (Spoiler reveals one relatively insignificant plot point.)

Review comparing Beckett to Philip K. Dick, another of the great sci-fi philosophers. Review contains thorough information about the history/backstory that takes a good 30 or 40 pages to be revealed in the book, so I consider this to be a significant spoiler, but it doesn’t give away much about the rest of the book.

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Review: If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

Title (year): If the Witness Lied (2009)

Genre: Thriller/Suspense

Other important themes: Grief, Loss of a parent, Coming of age, Siblings, Mystery

Age (sex) of main character: Told from POV of 3 siblings, all high-school aged, 1 brother and 2 sisters

Estimated age of intended audience: 13 and above

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic and a little edgy – think “Party of Five” meets Dean Koontz

Narrative POV: Third person subjective, switching between three narrators

Writing quality: If you’ve read Cooney before, you know what her work is like. It’s more about the plot than the characters, but she develops everything so skillfully that the tension and taut pacing keep you racing through the book to the end.

Formulaic or surprising?: Pretty surprising. Several twists that I didn’t see coming.

Comfort food/challenging?: Definitely comfort food. I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, but the book wasn’t putting me through the wringer as some do.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Somewhat in the middle. It’s a thriller so there is the darkness of death and violence and fear, but the characters are in the “real world” so they continue to have options and resources available to them. Dystopian misery, this is not.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Nothing much here, besides maybe children who have had their lives publicized by the media.

Read this if you liked… Any of Cooney’s earlier stuff. I first read The Face on the Milk Carton about ten years ago, and I go in waves of catching up on her prolific output (I can’t handle too much suspense at one time!). Breathe My Name by RA Nelson. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles. Books by Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan, though Cooney’s books are more “thriller set in everyday life” than “serial killer killing off all my friends one by one on a deserted beach.”

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): I don’t normally read thrillers but I enjoy Cooney’s, in part because they arise more out of headlines than nightmares, which keeps them interesting for me. If you enjoy a good, fast-paced YA book, I say give this one a try even if this isn’t your usual genre.

Review: The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams

Title (year): The Golden Hour (2004)

Genre: Adventure

Other important themes: Grief, Death of a parent, Time travel, History, Finding yourself, Siblings

Age (sex) of main character: 13 (male) with a sister, aged 11, and a pair of twin friends, a boy and girl, around 13

Estimated age of intended audience: 10 and up

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic. Feelings are not shied away from, and there is grief and anger and confusion. But there are no extremes for extreme’s sake.

Narrative POV: Third-person subjective from a single POV

Writing quality: Very good. I could not put this book down. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. The basics of the story are fairly straightforward but it’s the quality of the writing that makes this such a page-turner.

Formulaic or surprising?: Definitely kept me wondering what would happen next, with some great twists and turns.

Comfort food/challenging?: Total comfort food, mostly because of the wonderful writing. The story just unfolds and carries you along.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Pretty light. Some bad things happen to the young main characters, but in the end they have support and resources to help them through it.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) The main character is white, but his traveling companions, a twin brother and sister, are described as “brown-skinned” with a Jamaican grandmother, and race is definitely acknowledged in the book. The next two books, The Hour of the Cobra and The Hour of the Outlaw, have the twins as their main characters. The author is herself a woman of color.

There is also a strong sense of the value of adults and particularly elders throughout the book. Adults are fallible like anyone else, but they are portrayed as helpful and supportive. This is not an “us against them,” kids vs. adults type adventure book.

Read this if you liked… I haven’t seen this mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve read, but to me this book was a direct descendent of the classic Edward Eager books from the 1950s such as The Time Garden, Half-Magic, and Knight’s Castle. I loved these books so much I read them again and again and bought them all off eBay so I could have the original illustrations of those early editions I’d read from the library. This book was like having another one of his to read.

Other favorites in this style that come to mind here are The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink and the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. Also A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, or any of her many series. Like L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, this might be a helpful book for someone processing grief, particularly the death of a parent.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): Yes. If you would be at all inclined to read a book with such young characters, I really recommend it. If you never read middle-grade fiction it will probably seem too light, but even if you only liked Harry Potter, you will probably enjoy The Golden Hour!

Review: The Healer’s Keep by Victoria Hanley

EDIT: Well, this is fascinating. I was going back through my book log, looking for well-loved children’s books to submit to the Top 100 Children’s Fiction Chapter Books Poll, when I came across The Seer and the Sword in my log. Apparently, I read it in 2005, and I liked it a lot as it has one my my rare asterisks next to the title in the log. Well, hmm…

Title (year): The Healer’s Keep (2002)

Sequel? Yes, I was tricked because they refer to it as a “companion book” to 2000’s The Seer and the Sword. But The Healer’s Keep was published second, and the events in it take place after the events in The Seer and the Sword. Sounds like a sequel to me. It’s the type of sequel, however, that takes place in the next generation, and ample backstory is given so the book can stand alone for a new reader.

Genre: Fantasy

Other important themes: Dreams, Magic, Love, Enslavement, Bonds of friendship, Dystopian society, Coming of age, Hero’s journey

Age (sex) of main character: 17 (female) with two more teen boys and a teen girl who also often have POV

Estimated age of intended audience: 12-17

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Fantasy, definitely, and very wholesome.

Narrative POV: Third-person subjective for several different characters, including minor characters.

Writing quality: I found the whole story to be kind of… blurry, I guess is how I would put it. I never really sank in anywhere. The constantly shifting point of view killed most of the potential for dramatic tension. The fantasy world has its own, very interesting, complex laws and rules of magic but the reader learns them almost entirely through exposition and explanation, rather than seeing them unfold within the story.

Formulaic or surprising?: Surprising to the extent that I often had no idea what was going on or what would happen next. Formulaic in terms of romance and good guys/bad guys.

Comfort food/challenging?: Definitely on the comfort food end of the spectrum.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Although there is slavery and cruelty, the book is not particularly dark, and the scenes where danger looms are described in a somewhat detached manner so they are practically over before you can get scared or tense.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Nothing of that sort here.

Read this if you liked… If you have enjoy sort of vague YA fantasy with an interesting world but not intensely developed characters… well, this describes too many books to name here, but if this is your thing, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): No. For lovers of YA fantasy only, in my opinion. I should say here, however, that this book won a lot of awards, both from critics and from young readers’ choice, so I might be the only one who doesn’t love it.

Review: Skin Hunger & Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

Title (year): Skin Hunger (2007)

Sequel: Sacred Scars (2009)

Genre: Dark fantasy

Other important themes: Magic, Adults vs. Kids, Friendship, Memory, Struggle to survive, Cruelty, Untangling the puzzle

Age (sex) of main character: Female, 17-?; Male 15-16

Estimated age of intended audience: 14-adult

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Edgy, dark, and very stylized

Narrative POV: The books have two narrators who alternate chapters. One story is told in third-person limited, the other in first-person narrative.

Writing quality: Very well written in terms of the immediate. Characters are subtly drawn and settings are vividly brought to life. Overall, however, the story requires a great deal of patience from the reader. Only well into the first book do we see how the two stories intertwine, and even by the end of the second book all the various threads are still unresolved. The story is strangely compelling, nonetheless, and while I usually don’t have the patience to wait this long for the denouement I know I’ll be eager to read Book 3.

Formulaic or surprising?: These stories are unique. I’ve read two of the three books of this trilogy (the third is still unpublished) and still have no idea what’s going on or where the books are headed.

Comfort food/challenging?: Challenging to the extreme. There is very little action in this book, very little magic, even. There are depictions of terrible cruelty and suffering inflicted on children/young adults by older adults. And if you are the type of person who likes to flip to the end of a scene or the whole book to see how a tense situation resolves, there’s no resolution offered so far!

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Very dark, very grim. Even the strongest relationships are fraught with violence and betrayal. The set-backs for both main characters are almost unrelenting, though there is still the sense that a happy ending or some sort of resolution may be reached by the end of the trilogy.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Many of the central characters come from working class backgrounds, though mentions of class function stylistically (as they do in fairy tales, e.g. “the Gypsy,” “the poor woodsman”) rather than as an exploration of working class lives.

Read this if you liked… The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. Anything by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; these books have the same sense of “not playing by the rules” that is fairly unusual in books that deal with magic.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): If you don’t usually read books that have “magical” elements, but have the patience for dark, grim tales full of tension and suspense, I would definitely give at least the first book a try.

Review: Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

I had no idea this book was from 2007. I had never heard of it until I was collecting titles from the Children’s Choice Awards (this one was shortlisted for an award, I’m not sure what year). Read on without fear of spoilers (though the major themes of the book are discussed below).

Title (year): Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (2007)

Genre: Coming of age/Realistic setting

Other important themes: Memory, identity, the subjectivity of truth, falling for troubled boys, high school, mix CDs!

Age (sex) of main character: 16 (Female)

Estimated age of intended audience: 15-17

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic. There is discussion of birth control and suicidal thoughts, but these aren’t played for shock value or edginess, just as facts of life. The protagonist has decent self-awareness as well as flaws.

Narrative POV: First person

Writing quality: I’d give the writing a solid B. I was definitely interested enough to keep reading. There are some quirky parts, but on the whole the writing doesn’t stand out as particularly humorous, poetic, or funky – just basic story and characters.

Formulaic or surprising?: A few surprises, mostly in some of the stops the story made on its way to an inevitable conclusion.

Comfort food/challenging?: Comfort food, all the way. There is nothing in this book to shake you up or make you go, “Hmm.”

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Light, despite some brushes with darker themes.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Protagonist is adopted (this is revealed on the first page of the book). Her (adoptive) father is white and her mother is half-white, half-Japanese, but race is not ever substantially addressed in the book.

Read this if you liked… Meg Cabot books like All-American Girl and Pants on Fire (her non-supernatural, non-wacky-slapstick, regular-girl stories), Sweethearts by Sarah Zarr, Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell, How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): No, although I did enjoy this book more than this review makes it sound. It was the kind of book that is a nice light story where you know everything will be OK in the end, but it didn’t stick with me much afterwards.

Review: Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Hey, it’s the debut of my rating system! I kept waiting for the perfect book to review, but tonight I decided to just start with the most recent one I’ve read. I hope it will get to the heart of things and prove helpful to people looking for YA books that match their tastes. And just so you know, there are no spoilers here (I just hate reading reviews that spoil major plot elements or twists – it kills my desire to read the book.)

Title (year): Bloodhound (2009)

Sequel?: Yes! I strongly recommend reading the first book in the series, Terrier, first. But read on, and if this book sounds like it would interest you, check out Terrier.

Genre: more Historical than Fantasy (the world is similar to medieval Western Europe, and has some magic/ghosts in it)

Important themes and topics: Coming of age, Crime/Law/Ethics, Poverty & Power/Class issues

Age (gender) of main character: 17 (female)

Estimated age of intended audience: 12-16 (but there’s fairly casual sex in it)

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Surprisingly gritty, even the main characters do morally questionable things (like take bribes or kill people). There’s a real sense that people are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances, but it also has that fantasy-book quality where you feel certain that ultimately everything will turn out OK.

Narrative POV: 1st person

Writing quality: I’d give it a B. It’s written in a very straightforward style that doesn’t have any of the dreamy quality fantasy novels often have, if that makes any sense to you. The story moved along well and the characters and settings were well fleshed out, but there were still some sections that moved frustratingly slowly.

Formulaic or surprising?: The plot, while it had a few surprises, was still fairly predictable. The pleasure is more in accompanying a likable character on her journey than in the journey itself.

Comfort food/challenging?: A little bit challenging out of context, but if Tamora Pierce in general is comfort food for you, then this will be a nice warm bowl of mashed potatoes.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: In between dark and light. The setting is urban, poor, and very violent, but the characters have good hearts and sweet friendships, and, as I said above, you never feel like things will get too bad.

Who might identify with this book? (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class?):

–A++ for strong female characters. The two leads are both women and they don’t get their power handed to them or dictated by anyone.

–The many-hued people who populate this world are all just scenery.

–The one gay character is peripheral and hides the fact that he is gay.

–There is a transgender character and I personally felt like while they were treated with affection and perhaps viewed in a way in keeping with the time period there was no respect shown by the author or the protagonist for the character’s personal gender identification (in terms of pronoun use, etc.). The book really dropped the ball on an opportunity to communicate with modern readers about a very current topic.

Read this if you liked… Any Tamora Pierce, of course (she’s most famous for her Alanna: Song of the Lioness Quartet), though this one is aimed at an older crowd than many of her books. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest and The Blue Sword. A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce. Maybe even Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, though that was written for an adult audience.

Genre-bender? (i.e., recommended to ALL regardless of your usual preferences): No, not worth leaving your comfort zone for (few books are, eh?).