Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Margaret Atwood

My introduction to Margaret Atwood's work was The Handmaid's Tale, an Orwellian story of totalitarianism. But the depth, detail, and emotion of Atwood's story rises above that of Orwell. She has the capacity to write a compelling story with beautiful language and well developed characters while still exploring politics, religion, gender and economics - as good science fiction ought to.

Amazed by The Handmaid's Tale, I recently picked up Oryx and Crake. The story is told in alternating chapters- some taking place in the present of the novel, others in the past. They are joined together by the protagonist, a man named Jimmy, who in the present sections of the books refers to himself as Snowman. The past sections of the book are set in a recognizable landscape. This is North America. People are divided into the educated and rich, who live in secure compounds, and the poor pleebs, who live in the equivalent of slums of today's large cities. The present sections are set in a less recognizable place, but Atwood's descriptions are simple, and woven into the text so completely, that one will not see a reason question their existence- simply how they came to be.

In this world, intelligence is valued and an ability to splice necessary. Those with the best living situations are those who possess the best knowledge of genetics. Food is genetically modified, new diseases are created (as are their cures), replacement organs grown, and new hybrid creatures produced. Jimmy, we soon learn, is not the brightest, and his future, it seems, does not lie in science and splicing. But his only friend Glenn's path is certainly that of biology and genetics- he is brilliant, seemingly unfeeling, with an awareness and knowledge that far surpasses most people around him.

Through Jimmy's eyes, and his observations of Glenn, light is shed upon the situation of the older Jimmy (now called Snowman) and the altered world he inhabits. Integral to the novel is the idea of humans playing god. While combining animals might be seen as godlike, the creations of a completely new species is arguably the action of a god. This god question is further explored in the recently released sequel, In the Year of the Flood. Here, we meet others who have survived the 'disaster' that separates Jimmy from his change to Snowman. The science and genetics of Atwood's world is underplayed here. Instead, we view the world through the eyes of those living in the pleelands. Here, religion plays an integral part of the story, and the scientific aspects are minimally involved, as they are less visible in the lives of the pleebs.

I'd rather not reveal the event around which these books revolve, part of the experience of reading them is to puzzle it together from the past and future, slowly filling in the gaps as you go. All in all, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are classic Atwood- skillfully written novels that raise interesting questions of the future of homo sapiens sapiens.

Additionally, Lucy Knisley has a comic on seeing Margaret Atwood read from The Year of the Flood.

Monday, January 11, 2010

High School Books for Boys (& anyone else for that matter)

As many of you know, I've spent some time working at a bookstore. And the shelves I know best would undoubtedly be those of the children's section- from picture books and pop-ups to teen lit. Now, the pre-teen and teen shelves are choc-full of covers that look like pages from a teen fashion magazine. These are books marketed to girls, full of fashion, boyfriends, and the drama of rich lives (this is a staggering generalization, but certainly grounded in some fact- take a peek yourself). But when it comes to books specifically about the high school experience of boys, there are staggeringly few books with a publication date in the past five years.

However, I am proud to announce two new books featuring male protagonists for the high school crowd! Libba Bray's Going Bovine and (appearing February 2nd) The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had to by DC Pierson.Libba Bray may be known to you as the author the the Gemma Doyle trilogy. I had the pleasure of attending an appearance by her at Red Fox Books in December, and Libba is a riot. She jokes and teases the audience and makes you feel comfortable and entertained. She says her humorous writing stems from her love of Monty Python, something which is evident in the first few pages of her novel- the acknowledgments. But a bit on the story. If His Dark Materials is Paradise Lost for teenagers, then Going Bovine is Don Quioxte. Protagonist Cameron has given up on his family, who are all too wrapped up in their own lives, particularly his twin sister, who will not even acknowledge his existance. But Cameron's world is shaken up when he is diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jacob, or, mad cow disease. A boy, who at sixteen has never truly lived, is finally given a chance to experience the world as he sets off on an unlikely quest to find a cure and save the world. Mentored by Dulcie, a punk angel with pink hair and spray-painted wings, and assisted by a hypochondriac dwarf and a rescued garden gnome, Cameron sets off on a hilarious road trip in which shenanigans ensue and truths are revealed.

DC Pierson's The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had to includes a host of things you'd expect: boring classes, sex, drugs, and video games. But Pierson's characters defy stereotypes. Darren, our narrator, doodles in class and is developing a story line that spans movies, comic books, video games, and tv shows- called TimeBlaze. When uber-smart Eric sees some of his doodles, and thinks they're pretty sweet, a friendship and collaboration results. Cyborgs, men in dark glasses, robots, superheros, space, and time travel are all a part of their creations. But then Eric tells Darren that he cannot sleep and has never been able to. Additionally, Darren must never tell anyone of this, or The Man might become involved and cart Eric off for tests. After Eric proves the truth of this, it's as if proof of the science-fiction they've been creating has been found. But when a love triangle arises with the appearance of a Girl, what will prove to be most important? TimeBlaze or sex and theatre kids (it's a bit more complicated, but I don't want to give anything else away!)? With well-developed characters and wonderful twists and turns, Pierson's novel is an enjoyable and realistic romp through a high school friendship. Not only that, it's well-written and includes moments of true insight. I'm impressed by it- especially as it's Pierson's debut novel.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I'm letting you know that you should be anticipating the debut novel of N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Coming out in February, this novel is fantasy at its best. Think Tamora Pierce meets Juliet Marillier. Brilliant is what that is. I zoomed through the novel and handed it off to Maddie Sawyer, who sped through it (though made sure to savor the ending twice) and returned it to me saying it was "better than Tamora Pierce." Strong praise indeed. It's such a wonderful book to experience, that I don't want to give anything away. Therefore, I will simply direct you to the first two chapters of the novel, which are available online. This is one you will want to add to your comfort reading shelf, alongside your Ellen Kushner, Juliet Marillier, Tamora Pierce, Meghan Whalen Turner, and Robin McKinley. It's good enough to preorder. Really. It will make the wait for A Conspiracy a Kings just a tad easier to bear.

*If you'd like a more normal review of the novel, please just request it in comments, and I will provide one.