Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime, by Mark Haddon

curious_incident_dogThe Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime is a realistic fiction book by Mark Haddon, telling the story of autistic teenager Christopher, who, after finding his neighbor’s dog stabbed with a garden fork, decides to emulate his fictional hero Sherlock Holmes by searching for the murderer. Christopher’s father disapproves of him investigating the case, and what was a simple mystery about a dead dog leads to discoveries about his family, neighbors, and his own place in the world.

The major strength of this book is the unique voice of the main character. Christopher is a mathematical prodigy, but is distressed by loud noises and struggles to understand the emotions of others. His narration is often frustrating to the reader, such as when he breaks off from the plot to explain a math concept or his system of counting different colored cars, but he is also very sympathetic as a character often frightened and confused by his irrational surroundings. Christopher dislikes metaphors and jokes because of their inconsistent multiple meanings, but his literal-mindedness leads to some witty observations about the irrationality of social norms. Though the book takes place in modern London, from Christopher’s perspective it becomes a different world full of distractions and absurd rules.

I would recommend this book to anyone 14+ (for language and thematic elements) who enjoys mysteries and unusual narration.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Skinned, by Robin Wasserman

skinned_coverSkinned is the first book of a sci-fi trilogy, set in a future where science has perfected a way to download a person’s personality and memories into an immortal mechanical body.

After her body is destroyed beyond repair in a car accident, 17-year-old Lia Kahn’s wealthy parents pay for her to become a “mech.” Lia’s new life poses unexpected problems when her friends reject her, believing her to be an inhuman impostor of her former self, and hate groups protest her very existence. She encounters a group of mechs who shun mortal life and live together for protection, and must choose between her old friends and family or the company of others like her.

I really liked the worldbuilding of this book. Many futuristic dystopian novels feature civilizations with impractical societal rules that are unlikely to develop in our world’s future, and are used mostly as a plot device (no art ever! the government matches you up with your spouse!). However, the world of Skinned is more of a decayed version of our own: there is still a democratically elected government, but they have little power compared to the huge corporations that own everything. People are even more addicted to technology and entertainment. And outside of the comfortable suburbs where Lia lives, the majority of the population starves in crime-ridden cities or works under harsh conditions in corporate-owned towns. Lia lives her life preoccupied with popularity and consumerism, and only starts thinking about the bleak state of the rest of the world once she sees the cities for herself and befriends mechs who grew up there. Her greater awareness of the problems of her society parallels her character development from a spoiled and judgmental girl to a more mature person trying to change the world. Though Lia has several love interests over the course of the trilogy, romance never overshadows the plot and equal focus is given to Lia’s changing relationships with family, friends, enemies, and the corporation who built her.

I would recommend Skinned to anyone 14+ (for language and thematic elements) who likes sci-fi and dystopian books such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: A Commonplace Book of the Weird, edited by Joseph Fink

commonplaceThough H. P. Lovecraft is today considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, during his life his stories were mainly published in pulp magazines and he died in poverty in the 1930s.

Lovecraft is credited with creating the genre of cosmic horror, which emphasizes the idea that humans are insignificant and helpless in a universe of unknowably powerful beings over the gore and suspense elements of the usual horror story. He often missed school due to illness and led a reclusive adult life, never knowing his father who was placed in a psychiatric institution when Lovecraft was three, influencing the often friendless and mentally unstable protagonists he wrote.

A Commonplace Book of the Weird is a collection of short stories by twenty modern authors, each randomly assigned a prompt from Lovecraft’s book of unfinished story ideas. Some are full plot outlines, others as simple as “Dream of flying over city.”

My favorite story in this collection is “Relative Damnation” by Joseph Fink, which tells the story of a teenage boy who can save his father from going to hell after a deal with the devil, but only by giving up all of his possessions, education, relationship with his girlfriend, and chance at a happy future. It raises the question of whether successful people should feel they owe their happiness to the suffering of others, even if they didn’t ask for it.

Some more of my favorites are “Dissipation” by Daniel McCoy, a series of seemingly random scenes that come together to tell the story of a future apocalypse, and “The Impossible” by Will Hartwell and Christopher Scheer, an account of the supernatural incident that made a Victorian gentleman unwilling to leave his home, with a twist introduction of another famous mythos.

I think that the book’s weakest points are the stories that rely too heavily on surrealism and have no clear plot. Though the intent may be to make the reader feel as unsettled as the characters, the narratives sometimes come off as series of disjointed imagery rather than cohesive worldbuilding or plot. “Levittown” by Mark Farr has a promising start with an alternate history in which an astronaut from the 1800s attempts to go to the moon in a steampunk rocket, but ends up switching between the astronaut’s story and unrelated scenes of angels, modern-day children, a mysterious old man, and quotes from Lovecraft himself. Though it has excellent imagery and concepts, the story eventually becomes too muddled for the reader to follow.

As is usually the case with anthologies by multiple authors, I found this book to be a mixed bag with several outstandingly imaginative stories and others of varying quality. I would recommend A Commonplace Book of the Weird to anyone 14+ (for thematic elements) who enjoys horror, science fiction, or the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, which is written by two of the contributors.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link

pretty_monsters_coverThis collection of short stories spans the genres of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. Some stories are established as supernatural from the first sentence, while others are seemingly normal until the twist ending. The stories make use of the Magical Realism genre, in which magical elements are present, but treated as a normal part of the characters’ world, and often not the main focus of the story. Magical realism stories are often intentionally ambiguous and leave it up to the reader whether the events were real or imagined, or never give an explanation of the existence of paranormal forces.

One story I particularly liked was “Magic For Beginners,” which follows teenager Jeremy through his parents’ divorce and discovery of family secrets. Jeremy and his friends were brought together by being avid fans of a television show called “The Library.” The show is brought up in several conversations, with the characters derailing uncomfortable topics by talking instead about the most recent episode. Gradually, the reader learns that “The Library” airs at random times on random channels, with commercials for nonexistent products and actors no one can identify, although the characters aren’t overly concerned by this. The abnormality culminates in “The Library’s” main character Fox, thought to be fictional, calling Jeremy and asking him to steal books for her so that she won’t die in the next episode. Jeremy completes his instructed mission but never talks face-to-face with Fox, and so the true origin of the phone calls and the possibility of her existence is never resolved.

Another one of my favorites was “The Surfer,” in which the adolescent protagonist’s father takes him to Costa Rica to escape a viral pandemic in the near future. They share a quarantine shelter with cult members who are waiting for the return of aliens that briefly visited their leader years ago. The reader sees that one confirmed visit from aliens has not changed the future world much, and the characters’ conversations about world politics, books, soccer, and the virus take up most of the story.

Overall, I liked this book. Some stories were confusing or too open-ended, but in others the minimalist ambiguity allowed by the short story format contributed to the narrative. The author’s descriptions are concise and vivid, and the existence of ghosts, aliens, or werewolves often takes a backseat to the characters’ coming-of-age stories. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys surreal fantasy and speculative fiction.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Rot and Ruin, by Jonathan Maberry

rot_ruinFourteen years after the First Night of the zombie apocalypse, humanity is reduced to scattered towns protected by fences and bounty hunters. At age fifteen, Benny Imura must find a job or have his rations cut in half, and after failing to find any other work, he is forced to join his stuffy older brother Tom as a zombie hunter. Benny is unimpressed by his brother’s tedious approach to training and aversion to violence, especially in comparison to the more adventurous hunters who are town heroes– but after firsthand experience of the “Rot and Ruin” outside the town gates he starts to see the undead in a different way.

I was impressed with the way the author balanced action and worldbuilding (it is a zombie apocalypse story) with the stories and motivations of the human characters. The reader, like Benny, learns that fighting the undead isn’t a heroic adventure or a video game-like massacre, but a duty of euthanizing infected people who are survived by their grieving families and friends. The book also explores how less compassionate characters deal with the task– maiming zombies to take their limbs as trophies, fighting them against each other, and even setting up illegal games where participants can win money by surviving a zombie pit.

Another plot thread deals with Benny learning about his parents’ deaths on First Night, of which he has few memories. The surviving humans’ society seems like a realistic response to their apocalyptic situation: in it, they find art, celebrity, job opportunities, and moral conundrums.

I recommend Rot and Ruin to anyone 12 and up (for violence mostly) who likes futuristic books, action, and suspense.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Everlost, by Neal Shusterman

everlost_coverEverlost is a fantasy book, the first in the Skinjacker trilogy, that takes place in a dimension between life and death, populated by spirits of dead children and teenagers who failed to cross over to the true afterlife.

Main characters Nick and Allie meet when they die in the same car crash, and befriend a long-dead younger boy named Lief. The three of them travel the country and learn the rules of Everlost: they can no longer be seen by the living, objects with sentimental value can cross over to their plane, and anyone who stands still for too long will sink to the center of the earth. Allie learns the criminal practices of moving objects and possessing the living, intending to go home and visit her family, but when her friends are kidnapped aboard a ghost ship, her plans are derailed by a rescue mission.

The major strength of this book is the author’s creative ideas regarding the properties of ghosts. Spirits in Everlost are never older than fifteen or so, because adults are too focused to get lost on the way to the afterlife. Dead children arrive in Everlost wearing the clothes they died in, but after months in ghost form, their appearances can change as they forget what they looked like in life. They can easily get locked into a pattern of doing the same activity over and over until the end of time, especially if encouraged that this is their natural destiny.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes imaginative worldbuilding, adventure, and a focus on friendships rather than romance.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Flash Point, by Nancy Kress

flash_point_coverFlash Point is a dystopian fiction set in a future United States after an economic collapse has left many people jobless and rioting. Amy Kent, a teenager supporting her sister and dying grandmother, signs up for a job on the reality TV show Who Knows People, Baby – You?, where viewers try to predict the reactions of six players to surprise crisis scenarios. Desperate for ratings, the television producers put the contestants in increasingly real danger.

Though the premise of this book is similar to The Hunger Games, it focuses more on the turbulent, poverty-stricken society it is set in, rather than survival. I enjoyed that the teenage players are chosen to fit stereotypes – the spoiled rich socialite, the nerdy strategist, the relatable everygirl – but by the end of the book, when they have decided to team up against the television executives, each one is revealed to be more than they seem. Though the characters’ goal is to expose the motives of one program rather than changing the world, they learn that no one can really predict the actions of others.

I would recommend this book to anyone 14+ years old (mostly for language), who enjoys dystopian fiction and interesting plot twists.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

good_omens_coverGood Omens is a funny, original book written by British authors Neil Gaiman (Stardust, American Gods) and Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series). It is time for Heaven and Hell to destroy the world in the Biblical apocalypse, and for Adam Young, a normal preteen in a quiet English town, to realize his destiny as the Antichrist. But Crowley and Aziraphale, a demon and angel who have been working on Earth and become friends over six hundred years, decide to defy their respective superiors and save humanity. Meanwhile, the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse form a team to trigger the End of Days.

The major strength of this book is its humor, with running gags, half-page-long footnotes, and sarcastic tangents about random aspects of humanity. Aziraphale and Crowley repeatedly attempt to listen to music cassette tapes, only to have them morph into “Best of Queen” albums if left in the car for over two weeks. War, Death, Famine, and Pollution are followed around by four human bikers trying to represent concepts such as No Alcohol Lager, Things Not Working Properly, and All Foreigners Especially The French. Witch-hunter Newt Pulsifer is pulled over by aliens (for no reason) who criticize humans for being a dominant species while under the influence of consumerism. Pratchett’s witty writing style and Gaiman’s inventive fantasy are both evident here.

My favorite part of the book is near the end, where Crowley drives to help Aziraphale in a burning car held together by his own willpower, and proceeds to pick up a tire iron to fight Satan (in contrast to Aziraphale’s flaming angel sword). I also like the depictions of the Horsepeople: War as a beautiful red-haired woman who writes newspaper stories on international conflict, Famine as a thin businessman dressed in black who sells diet foods that make people starve to death, and Pollution as an inconspicuous white-haired young man who helped invent environmentally disastrous products.

If you enjoy satirical books such as Discworld or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you should definitely read Good Omens.

-Miranda C., 11th grade