Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer: the Lunar Chronicles, Book 1

"She was 36.28 percent not human."

With Cinder, debut author Marissa Meyer re-imagines the fairy tale Cinderella as a futuristic political thriller.   Cinder is an exciting story that will appeal to female fans of dystopian fiction, steampunk, science fiction, and fairy tale reinventions.  It plays with a range of ideas (medical ethics, political compromises), but especially the question of what defines us as human.  Is it our bodies?  Our emotional capacity?  Or something else entirely, something that can't be precisely understood? 

Cinder Linh is a cyborg living in the futuristic city of New Beijing, under the control of her resentful stepmother.  She is an expert mechanic and has a booth in the marketplace where she repairs all manner of broken technology.  One day, Prince Kai approaches her booth incognito.  He has a broken android, and is willing to go to great lengths to have it repaired, although it is an obsolete model.  Why?  What Cinder doesn't know is that the Emperor, Kai's father, is lying ill with a deadly disease called letumosis, a disease without a cure which is devastating the earth.

Things quickly unravel for Cinder.  Her stepsister Peony, the only person in her small family who actually likes her, catches the disease and is sent to a holding place where she is expected to die quickly.  Since Cinder was with Peony when she became ill, Cinder's stepmother vengefully "volunteers" her for medical research--as a cyborg, she is not considered fully human, and has no rights or independence.  She expects to die as a research subject, as almost none of the cyborgs enrolled as test patients survive.  Surprisingly, she does not.  She is mysteriously immune.  Meanwhile, the Emperor dies, Prince Kai is about to become Emperor in his father's place, and the sinister Queen Levana, ruler of the Lunars (who live on the moon) arrives on earth to  manipulate him into marriage.  Cinder finds herself in a perfect storm of political intrigue, deception, and danger.

The big weakness of this book is that one of the plot points (who is Cinder, really?) is pretty easy to guess from about half-way through--the clues are a little too obvious.  Still, the story is engrossing despite that.  We may know who Cinder is before she does, but we don't know how she's going to get the prince and save the kingdom, or even escape getting squashed by Queen Levana's peculiar ability to "glamour" and control those around her.  Cinder is an interesting heroine which some cool attributes of her own (her cyborg programing allows her to see when people are lying to her, for example).  Since this is a modernized version of the old tale, she is of course conceived of as much more independent and gutsy than the Cinderellas of the past. 

Cinder is the start of a four-book series, which Meyer has stated will each be based on a different fairy tale.  Scarlet is coming out in 2013, Cress in 2014 and Winter in 2015.  Cinder's story is left unfinished, but it looks like the next book will focus on different characters.  Here's a short author interview put out by the publisher:

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

For fans of science fiction and fantasy who have sought and craved non-White voices, characters, and perspectives, the small number of Black writers in these literary genres have provided them few options from which to choose... Nevertheless, recent developments have excited Black speculative fiction and fantasy enthusiasts about the prospects for the fiction of the new millennium to reach into the future and, just as importantly, grapple with issues centuries old and older. At the center of this fervor is the Black speculative fiction and fantasy novelist Nalo Hopkinson, who forever changed the field in the three short years following the 1998 publication of her much-acclaimed novel, Brown Girl in the Ring. Following in the thematic footsteps prefigured by Octavia E. Butler, the first Black female writing speculative fiction and fantasy, and yet writing in an inimitable style no one could have anticipated, Hopkinson makes her fiction as rich as her own background.
Gregory E. Rutledge

The first thing I want to say is that it is a pleasure to read a teen book which features the city of Toronto so graphically and unapologetically.   I could follow the action in The Chaos down to the street. This story had an incredible sense of place for me, partially because it's set in my hometown and I could recognize many landmarks, but also because I think place is one of the things grounding this very unusual book.

 The Chaos is Nalo Hopkinson's first novel for teens, but she has a stellar reputation for her adult work, which has been adopted by the sci-fi/fantasy community although her writing has at times been described as boundary-breaking.  She has won or been nominated for many major awards, including winning the World Fantasy Award for her anthology Skinfolk.  Her themes typically encompass issues of race, culture, queer identity, and history.   Her books have been variously described as urban fantasy, black fiction, occult fiction, speculative fiction and magic realism.  I think the term magic realism applies best to this particular novel, but Hopkinson pushes the genre to it's extreme.  The term that kept coming to mind as I read The Chaos was surrealism.  This novel is a bit like Kafka, a bit like Charles de Lint, but wilder, richer and with more diverse imagery than either of them.  I think what gives it its richness is partly Hopkinson's gift for description, but mostly her ability to mash up the folklore of extremely different cultures without blinking an eye.  As an experienced reader, that's something that appeals to me.  It feels very fresh.   Like Kafka, Hopkinson does not offer explanations for her fantastical situations --we never know exactly what the Chaos is, what drives it or how and why it manifests on earth.  Hopkinson just plunges her heroine into unreality and watches her grow.   This book is going to frustrate readers who want to understand the internal logic of fantasy worlds.  It's going to frustrate readers who like closed endings.  It's even at times going to frustrate readers who want to know what the heck's going on. We don't always know.  To get into this book, you have to let yourself go a little.  But I think it's worth it. 

The plot centres around a young woman, Scotch, who is the child of a white Jamaican father and a black Canadian mother.  Her parents are strict and the atmosphere at home is tense and uncomfortable.  Strange things are happening to Scotch--she keeps getting black, sticky rashes on her skin that mystify doctors and that grow frighteningly quickly, and she has started seeing surreal floating creatures that no one else seems to notice. At an open mic with her older brother, a strange bubble of light appears, and her brother vanishes.  A volcano shoots out of Lake Ontario, mythical creatures take on form and substance, and almost every physical object transforms into something else.  Traffic lights become highlighters, bathroom stalls become singing clock towers.  Scotch's black rash starts to thicken and cover her whole body like a crust, threatening to turn her into a monster, and as she races to find her brother, Baba Yaga and a Rolling Calf (a monster from Jamaican folklore) seem to follow her around.  It's like a crazy, dangerous dream.  But amidst all the panic and confusion, Scotch is given the opportunity to make choices and show courage.  She is given the opportunity to grow. 

I haven't talked at all about the secondary characters and how strong they are, or  about the clever way that Hopkinson smashes all sorts of stereotypes.  This is a book which combines depth with imagination.  I'm not sure it will be the right book for the mainstream teen reader, but for the teen ready for something a bit more experimental, it's a good choice.

Here are some short video clips of Hopkinson discussing influences on her writing:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook by Shel Silverstein

I'm not the world's biggest Shel Silverstein fan--I find The Giving Tree kind of creepy--to me that story seems more about ingratitude and disrespect than giving.  Silverstein's poetry books are clever, but I don't always find much depth there.  However, I came across Runny Babbit a few days ago and loved the concept.  Published in 2005, Runny Babbit is a project Silverstein apparently spent over 20 years working on.  The poems not only rhyme, but also feature tongue-tripping nonsense words that can be decoded by switching first letters around.  Here's an example:

Runny fad a hamily--
Matter of fact, he had
A sother and two bristers,
A dummy and a mad. 
His mamma fed him marrot cilk
And parrot cie and such,
And all of them were happy
In their cozy hunny butch.

I thought this book was hilarious.  But I must report that I didn't get great reviews when I brought it home.

Me (to son who loves funny books):  "Hey, listen to this, Ewan, it's really funny!"  (reads two poems)
Son (with bored look on his face):  "I don't get it."

Not one to be discouraged, I try again.
Me (to husband who is normally incredibly supportive of my bookish enthusiasms):  "Listen, I want to read you something--" (reads one poem).
Husband:  "Yeah.  I've got to read the newspaper." 

So maybe it's just me.  By the way, I love the part in Diary of a Wimpy Kid where a young Greg Heffley's parents tell him that if he gets up in the night he might find Shel Silverstein walking around in their hall, and how much that freaks Greg out.  Can't say I blame him.  This is Silverstein's author photo for The Giving Tree.

Would you want to find this guy prowling your hallway at night? 

Here's one final poem from Runny Babbit: