Leviathan

The year is 1914, and Alek is on the run after learning that his parents have just been murdered. This isn’t any normal boy, though, and these weren’t any normal parents: the murder victims are Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, making Alek prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alek, his fencing instructor Count Volger, and his Master of Mechanics Otto Klopp abscond from his home under cover of darkness, with Alek piloting a walker—a walking machine intended for both transportation and combat—through the countryside. They hope to make it to neutral territory, Switzerland, where they can wait out the ensuing battles, and hide from Alek’s own people, who want him dead.

Meanwhile, in England, Deryn has joined the British Air Services, and lives in constant fear of a different type of discovery. She is a girl disguised as a boy, and though she is very adept at her job, she knows she will never be accepted as a woman. The English are Darwinists, makers of fabricated beasts, and thus Deryn is on an airship called the Leviathan, an ecosystem that from the outside looks like a floating whale. The English, along with their allies in Russia and France, are the enemy of Alek’s people, the Clankers, who are known for their fabricated war machines.

Alek and his crew have just made it to Switzerland when the Leviathan is shot down and crashes on a nearby glacier. Though his companions warn him not to, he goes out to the damaged airship to offer supplies. He is captured, and soon his Clanker crew and their Darwinist enemies are working together on the Leviathan, fighting against a shared enemy.

Having never read a steampunk novel before, I can’t say if Leviathan is typical of the genre. I know some people really rave about this book—and I thought many of the steampunk touches were quite appealing—but, on the whole, I was unimpressed. The novel is broken up into two stories, that of Alek and that of Deryn, and thus divided into alternating chapters. Alek starts off the novel, narrating two chapters at a time, before Deryn takes over for her two chapters. I found myself enjoying his sections and dreading hers, so I guess, in all fairness, I can say that I enjoyed half of the novel. There’s a lot going on with Alek, even if some reviewers accuse him of being somewhat one-note: he’s dealing with the very recent death of his parents, he’s fighting for his life against his own people, and he’s learning to be humble, to look beyond his privileged upbringing so that he can adapt to his new situation.

I’m sure I was supposed to identify with Deryn. She is, after all, the girl, and many of the reviews I’ve read elevate her to one of the greatest female main characters in all of YA. But, really, she’s grating. She speaks in this contrived slang that I’m sure was meant to add to the authenticity (without resorting to actual expletives), but that really just annoyed me. She’s also constantly playing a part: it’s hard to have any understanding of the real Deryn because she’s always playing the boy, Dylan, even when she’s alone. I wouldn’t classify her as a strong female character because there’s not much to really define her as female. She just comes off as your typical insecure boy, trying too hard to impress those in authority, and overcompensating for any perceived shortcomings.

Still, the author, Westerfeld, leaves plenty of room for character growth, and it looks like he is setting Alek and Deryn up for greater development. This is, after all, part one of a trilogy. Despite my misgivings, and my hesitant reading, I must admit that I am interested in learning what happens next. There is certainly no lack of adventure, and it’s easy to get swept up in the action. The war machines and fabricated beasts are brilliantly imagined, and the illustrations really help to bring them to life. Even though I didn’t consider Leviathan a fast read, or a particularly gripping one, I still found much to enjoy. Fan of action, adventure, and, of course, history, will probably be quite taken with this hybrid romp, relishing both the liberties Westerfeld takes and the facts that remain the same. For those of us less inclined, however, it still might be worth a look. It’s a well-done venture into steampunk that reimagines the past with the technology of the future: at the very least, it should make for a fascinating afternoon in the present.

Bring Your Own Boos: A Halloween Playlist

Image courtesy cmar via Flickr.….

The best holidays, I would argue, are the ones that can last longer than a single day, those celebrations for which anticipation builds weeks, even months, in advance. They are associated with a specific, undeniable mood, which elevates them, in essence, to a state of mind. Christmas, ideally, is a holly jolly fest of goodwill toward men, with the sights, sounds, and smells inspiring kindness (at least, outside of shopping malls), high spirits, and the overindulgence of various questionable food items, like eggnog and gingerbread. Halloween, in contrast, is like Christmas’s evil twin, exploring a darker side of human nature, which delights in tricks and treats in equal measure. Halloween is a celebration of the macabre and the attendant thrill that comes with being unnerved. It’s not all slasher flicks and haunted houses, but if the darkest you get is watching the Charlie Brown special with the lights out, then you’re not doing it right.

Every year, I create my own playlists for both of these holidays in an effort to promote the right mood even when I am doing something decidedly un-festive, like writing a paper. Below I have included this year’s Halloween playlist. (Coming November 1st, my Christmas playlist! …No, no, I’m better than that.) Some of these songs are par for the course, just shy of “Monster Mash” ubiquity, while others are more obscure, but still thematically related. All of them, naturally, are songs that I like, and that I think capture the Halloween “spirit.” Yeah, that’s right, spirit. I went there.

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Looking to make your own Halloween playlist? All it takes is a crappy image editor you downloaded for free, Halloween clipart you found by doing the most obvious Google search imaginable, and, of course, the first execrable pun you can think of! Have fun!

Ship Breaker

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, winner of the 2011 Printz Award, is a dystopian adventure story set in a barely-recognizable America. This version of the future is bleak. New Orleans, which is near where our hero, Nailer, lives, is underwater. The United States appears to have become a third world country, at least where the main characters reside: the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is now unbridgeable. Everyone lives day to day; tomorrow is not a guarantee. To enter the world of Ship Breaker is to surrender to this unforgiving landscape, and to understand what it means to fight to survive, even when there’s not much worth living for.

***

The only life Nailer has ever known is one of extreme poverty and hard work. He is employed as a ship breaker, stripping beached ships of all their valuable materials so that these materials can be sold to corporations. He is small for his age—which, he thinks, is around 15— but he has only a year or so left before he will be too big to fit in the tight spaces within the ship where coveted materials like copper wiring are found. His family is broken—his mother dead, his father a violent drug addict—so he instead pledges allegiance to his crew, a ragtag bunch who are the only people who really care for Nailer.

One day, this trust is breached when Nailer falls into a pool of oil in the bowels of a ship and is abandoned by one of the crew members, Sloth. Sloth, hoping for a lucky strike, tells no one of Nailer’s predicament so that she can return later and claim the valuable oil for herself. With some quick thinking, however, Nailer escapes; everyone learns of Sloth’s betrayal, and she is cast out. Nailer becomes Lucky Boy, but how long will his luck last?

A category six hurricane, a city-killer, ravages Nailer’s beachside community, killing many, but also bringing a wrecked ship full of valuable “scavenge.” No one but he and his friend Pima spot the ship, which means this could be their lucky strike. As they explore the interior, however, the find that there is one lone survivor, a beautiful girl who is barely clinging to life. Nailer finds himself in a predicament similar to Sloth’s: does he save the girl, or let her die so he can claim the riches of her ship?

Nailer’s decision to save the wealthy girl, Nita, ultimately results in the harder path, one full of violence, daring escapes, and unbelievable danger. He is forced to cut ties with his father permanently, and to risk everything for the remote possibility that Nita can save him from poverty. Still, Nailer realizes that he is not a born killer, and cannot kill only for his personal gain. The decisions he makes are not based on what is easy, but what he feels is right.

***

I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every moment of the novel (I’m far too action-averse for that), or if I claimed to understand why it had won the Printz. Still, I did appreciate it for what I think it was trying to accomplish. Ship Breaker is brave and unflinching, allowing the ugliness of its world to really sink in. It addresses issues, like global warming and the power of corporations, that are relevant to us now, and it presents a what-if scenario that is both alarming and conceivable. For some teen readers, I think it could offer a transformative experience. It is eye-opening in a way that few books dare to be.

Yet, the book is not perfect, and does not always do justice to its premise. The characters are somewhat flat, making it difficult to care about them. The issues, likewise, are often muted, hinted at, but never explored in depth. We’re left to wonder: How did things get so bad? What has happened to the rest of the country? Still, the book strikes an impressive balance between being entertaining and being truly thought-provoking. It is stunningly brutal, convincing us readers that if this might be our future, we must do something now to change it.

Skim

Kimberly Keiko Cameron, or Skim, is a mixed-race high school student with a recently-broken arm and a passion for all things Wicca. She is having a tough time coping with her parents’ divorce, fitting in at school, and figuring out her sexuality. She is also growing apart from her best friend, Lisa, in her quest to define herself. Several changes at her all-girls school are also throwing Skim’s life into turmoil, from the suicide of her classmate’s ex-boyfriend, which has inspired the popular girls to create the over-the-top Girls Celebrate Life club, to the introduction of a new teacher, the spacey Ms. Archer, on whom Skim develops a crush. To cope, Skim keeps a diary in which she records both actual events and her daydreams and musings. This diary, in effect, constitutes the book Skim, resulting in a spare, impressionistic narrative that mixes fact with fancy, and leaves many things unsaid.

Despite the gaps and ambiguities within the text, Skim feels like a real teenager. No matter the situation, her perspective shines through: though often insecure, isolated, and depressed, Skim is still a keen observer of the world around her. She sees through the popular girls who, under the guise of “celebrating life,” are actually alienating their classmates and celebrating themselves. She also recognizes that they are doing more harm than good for the girl most affected by the tragedy, the boy’s ex-girlfriend, Katie. In fact, it is by developing a relationship with Katie, that Skim begins to embrace who she really is: she learns that she is more than the role of the outsider that she played with Lisa, and more than the goth girl, or the half-Asian girl, or the girl with the cast on her arm. Although she is still uncertain about many things, Skim learns that she can be appreciated for who she is—and that she can appreciate herself as well.

While I at first found Skim too spare and too muted to leave any lasting impression, a quick rereading revealed plenty of perfect details I had missed the first time around. Skim is a subtle but thoughtful book, beautifully illustrated and sensitively written. It is also surprisingly funny, sad, and touching—sometimes all at once. Parts of the book do linger, but as a whisper, a feeling. It is not a book that dazzles with big ideas, but rather with understated impressions.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is an improbable book. Or, I suppose I should clarify, it is a book based around several bizarre (and often hilarious) improbabilities, which, in turn, cause the book’s very existence to seem strange and unprecedented. In truth, I don’t know if there are other novels out there that are just like—or weirder than—Will Grayson, Will Grayson, or if I am getting hung up on particulars, and ignoring the fact that it is, at heart, actually a pretty conventional tale of teenage friendship. What I do know, however, is that whenever I try to describe the plot—to my friends, in this review, or even just to myself—I have no idea where to begin.

Do I start with the fateful night when Will Grayson, the only high-schooler hapless enough to buy a fake ID stating he is 20 years old, meets his name twin, the uppercase-averse will grayson, in a Chicago porn store? Or do I dispense with the formality of pretending I care very much about either Will Grayson and get right to my favorite character, Tiny Cooper? And what about the central event in the story, the production of the over-the-top musical Tiny Dancer, based on the life of the aforementioned Tiny Cooper—as well as written, directed by, and starring him? How do I pull all of these threads together without making it sound like the “Twilight Zone”-inspired episode of “Glee” that no one was waiting for?

Luckily, where I always, inevitably fail, authors John Green and David Levithan have succeeded. They have managed to wrangle all of these strange and wonderful details into a cohesive story; even more impressively, they have done so together, in a collaboration that has each contributing alternating chapters. The two Will Graysons, as a result, are convincingly unique. Their stories are interesting separately, but these stories become infinitely better as they begin to intertwine with one another. The Will Graysons, by being so different, in fact complement each other well: one is gay, the other straight; one hates the world, while the other keeps his head down and stifles his emotions. They come from different backgrounds (and have vastly different views on capitalization) but each is in a similar rut, too angry or too unwilling—or maybe just too scared—to confront the world honestly.

Of course, a novel solely about these two perpetually-paralyzed Will Graysons would surely stagnate quickly, offering no chance for character development—or even action. Enter Tiny Cooper, who, as Will Grayson explains, may not be the gayest person in the world, or the largest, but who is almost certainly the largest gay person, or the gayest large person. Tiny is not only large, but larger-than-life, and his confidence in his own fabulousness is what enables him to achieve outrageous feats. Tiny inspires the first Will Grayson, his best friend, to get the girl (and a life), and the second will grayson, his boyfriend, to finally admit to himself and the world that he is gay. Tiny is, to put it lightly, a force of nature, someone who can miraculously convince his high school to let him put on the musical adaptation of his life…but who also often ends up eclipsing those around him. (No really, with his large build he literally may have caused an eclipse at some point.)

Unfortunately, with the pressures of the play, and Will’s budding romance with a cool girl named Jane, Tiny Cooper and Will Grayson begin to drift apart. They begin to forget why they were friends in the first place. Do they really care for each other, or was their friendship just convenient? A clever scheme and some last minute revisions to the script for Tiny Dancer result in an epic finale that clarifies just what their friendship is all about. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll break into song. Well, maybe.

…Even if Will Grayson, Will Grayson doesn’t inspire you to set your emotions to music, it will keep you laughing. It’s hilarious, absurd, and even kind of touching. I didn’t expect to like it (seriously, a high school musical?), but I was completely charmed. Like I said, it’s an improbable book.

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