"review" · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} never a nothing girl

Icebreaker by Lian Tanner

Feiwel and Friends, 2015 (orig. 2013).

Hardcover 304 pages

“Twelve-year-old Petrel is an outcast, the lowest of the low on the Oyster, an ancient icebreaker that has been following the same course for three hundred years. In that time, the ship’s crew has forgotten its original purpose and broken into three warring tribes. Everyone has a tribe except Petrel, whose parents committed such a terrible crime that they were thrown overboard, and their daughter ostracised.

But Petrel is a survivor. She lives in the dark corners of the ship, speaking to no one except two large grey rats, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink. Then a boy is discovered, frozen on an iceberg, and Petrel saves him, hoping he’ll be her friend. What she doesn’t know is that for the last three hundred years, the Oyster has been guarding a secret. A secret that could change the world.

A secret that the boy has been sent to destroy, along with the ship and everyone on it…” –Publisher’s comments

I hugged the book before I read it, and you can be sure I hugged it afterward. Why? Because Lian Tanner has written one of my favorite Juvenile Fiction Series (The Keeper Trilogy) and she did not let me down in Icebreaker.

Tanner creates rather than contrives her characters and their conflicts. It takes reading the novel to realize what I mean by that difference between the creating and the contrivance. The characters experience real, important change, within the boundaries of their personality. You labor alongside them in those pivotal moments.

Icebreaker is not for those who like to anticipate the story and control every outcome. Tanner doesn’t make her adventures easy on the characters, why would she make it easy on the reader? Tanner’s characters earn their stunning heroism and heart. That Petrel would arrive to a transformative state is perhaps expected, but what of the others, and what of the winding series of events that traverse the massive and entangle innards of the Oyster? There are clues to mysteries (Crab) for the reader to guess successfully, but the overall the sensation of honestly not knowing what is coming next is marvelous.

Tanner complicates her otherworldly stories in painfully realistic ways. Both Petrel (aka Nothing Girl) and the strange boy she rescues have internalized the beliefs of their respective adult worlds—and they have to push back for the sake of everyone. Theirs is a violent and devastated world. The different factions are rational outcomes and hauntingly familiar, yet there is a fine and cutting edge of ridiculousness in the situation. So much of the violence is situated in willful ignorance and incredible egoism. Squid is a still, quiet breath of fresh air.

The presence of tribal leaders’ children in the story is notable; especially the handling of daughters (like Squid) as game-changers. The offspring represent the attitudes of their tribes as well as the opportunity for change. The Braids’ leader, Orca’s daughter, is a horrible fascination and was no doubt one of the most tenuous to write. How to convincingly affect change in relatively few pages, and can we trust it going forward? Nothing Girl and the “rescued boy” (who represent two sets of “others” or factions) are convincing actors, posing in alternate versions of themselves, playing the role survival requires of them. The reader is helped to understand that there is a lot at stake when it comes to who and when to trust—and how to prioritize needs and wants. From the get-go, the question of whether a Nothing Girl should have rescued the boy on the ice haunts the story: Is he worth it? Is she?

The harsh setting is fraught with the kind of danger that inspires courage and resourcefulness, though the survivalist Petrel would downplay such aggrandizement of her reality. Yet while she may not find herself exceptional or worthy of manning the story, the reader will see what her few friends do, worth the risk-taking. She is so earnest, so damned determined and requiring of love. She is so damned familiar.

How Tanner manages to make such a horrible moment near the end, the realization of Nothing Girl as Petrel, to be also humorous… She has great storytelling instincts. Tanner is thought-provoking in unexpected ways, reminding the reader always of perspective (that there is always more than one at play).

Icebreaker combines the most appealing traits of juvenile fiction: an exhilarating imagination and an increasingly necessary imperative: empathy.

I wrote this of Museum of Thieves way back when: “Tanner created a cast and setting of delectable proportions for which I found I was ravenous in Museum of Thieves and will sure to be again in City of Lies.” Go ahead and transpose Icebreaker and Sunker’s Deep; Tanner is a satiating must-read.


Of note: Perfect for tracing the pathways of character development over the course of a plot, no “convenient” gaps to leap over here.

My reviews of Museum of Thieves and City of Lies



"review" · concenter · fiction · recommend · young adult lit

{book} a not-so-new orleans

orleans coverOrleans by Sherri L. Smith

G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin), 2013

Hardcover, 324 pages.

After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.
Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.–Publisher’s copy.

A new category was needed for Hurricane Jesus in 2019, a declaration of quarantine for the Gulf Coast region issued in 2020, and by 2025 a declaration of separation was signed withdrawing the United States from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Not the sort of secessionist argument Texas thinks about I’m sure. But we are only offered the point of view of a young woman raised in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes, Delta Fever, and quarantine from the Outer States of America in Orleans.

We are introduced to 16 year old Fen as she negotiates what has been her normal the past few years—seeing to her tribe’s chieftain. The opening’s day anticipates some big changes on the horizon. The novel continues in this vein, the glimpses of how everyday life works in the Delta while keeping the reader in that perpetual state of an unknown outcome to a life in constant threat of violence. Immersing the reader into Fen’s world—an indelicate Fen’s world—is a way in which the author achieves this tension. The novel moves between Fen’s and Daniel’s first person narrating (once he arrives), but hers is in “tribe.” She has a very strong voice and none of her observations come out of nowhere—like his sometimes does. Of course, Daniel’s scattering is unavoidable, nothing is as he expected.

Daniel was a bit of a problem for me; that bit being his age: 24; more than even those thoughts that “he really is just a device, isn’t he?” As the novel went on, I felt like his age was originally older in earlier drafts and someone thought anything greater was too old to be hanging around a 16 year old girl. Even if he were a genius, I still had a problem with his resume. Maybe this is why no one over 30 should read YA? If Daniel were to play roles in romantic/sexual tension—I’m still not sure—but nevertheless, he doesn’t. There is zero romance in this novel!! hurray!! Well, and maybe, too bad, because we do learn why Fen is not a starry-eyed teenage girl or sexually-liberated young woman. In the market place, teenage boys are boys and we think little at first as to why there might be a reason for Fen’s disinterest. She just seems to be a focused young woman.

I kept picturing Fen as a young Zoe (Gina Torres) of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series and Serenity, so strong was her resemblance: intelligent, resourceful, powerful, tough yet capable of vulnerability and loyal. {She is Orleans} Her loyalty to Lydia, her chieftain, is one rooted in love. She makes a promise and sticks to it, even when it isn’t just inconvenient, but life-threatening. Smith minds the reality of a baby, and she works hard to make the premise of the story convincing. How is it Orleans persists physically. What is this Delta Fever and what are its physical and social consequences. The science of it shapes the social landscape. The different groups (institutions) Smith imagines is fascinating. I was especially taken with the lack of an apparent overarching government (considering the population) and how any unspoken agreements seem to be upheld—not that all of them were… That Smith wrote and kept to such an intimate portrait was the most appealing. Her Fen was able to believably cross a variety of people and circumstances so as to show us how Orlean’s situation worked. The use of flashbacks helped and were nicely done.

The consistent characterization of both the human and the landscape really sets the tone and gives the plot structure. For there to be such an underlying menace riding this ticking-clock action-adventure story, you had to have some very chilling figures. The very capable heroine has to have some vulnerability without questioning that core competence to see the baby, Daniel, and the Reader through. Daniel has to be properly suited to show us the Outer States and the external threat they’ve been to Orleans. Smith manages it all beautifully, by the way—although I’m not sure this would read “character driven plot” the way many anticipate; which is the added bonus.

In a lot of ways, the people of [New] Orleans are almost mythic in their ability to survive, the Delta (nature) most certainly is portrayed as nearly-miraculous resilience. As Daniel provides us in his ever present surprise that the city is not dead, but alive, organized, and dare we believe thriving?—we see where the “almost” and “near” come from. I mentioned earlier that Fen was Orleans—she not only characterizes her city and people in the present, but she, in a way, tells their story in her life, past into future—which makes that ending of particular interest. What of that ending other than sudden and unexpected—I was very much impressed. And by unexpected, I do not mean that it does not make sense in the keeping of the novel. But what to do with that ending if Fen is Orleans…

The novel favored Fen’s pragmatism over any sense of optimism. Any optimism present is shown to be snatched away, “The City takes… What does it give?” Neither is it pessimistic. You find beauty where you will, sneaking up on you or waiting in the compassion of others.

I feel awkward saying that Orleans is a really entertaining read, like the way I say Children of Men (2006) is entertaining. It is in that heart-pounding spinning of events and the ever present dread that goal of the novel may not be reached. But humans do not come off as lovely creatures and the violence is not just present but bleeding all over you. The end of the above “Publisher’s copy” reads: Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.” Fen is the investment you make in the book; the baby while I’m sure has some implications to thematic study, works like the Alfred Hitchcock’s “McGuffin”—it motivates Fen, but it is Fen that the story is really interested in. And this is by no means a complaint. Orleans is an exhilarating read, and Fen should be unforgettable.


recommendations: Teen, though Smith is as delicate as possible w/ the violence; she employs some poetics in her handling of a rape scene of a child, but the image she draws from is a rape in its own significance (of a child) so… Smith is stunning with her use of language and metaphor; really good writing. Orleans would be good friends with Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, and play nice with most other post-apocalyptic and dystopian young-adult fictions. for those who love and/or are familiar with the city of New Orleans.

of note: I saw an article referencing the status of the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which didn’t read it because I didn’t care for the novel, but I did care that Orleans would be the better story. It is much closer in caliber to The Hunger Games than Roth’s. Bonus that cinema would have to employ brown-skinned actors as the primary cast. What kind of sales do we need to see for Orleans to make this a possibility?

"review" · fiction · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{book} uglies

Uglies by Scott Westerfield

Scholastic Press, 2005.

paperback, 448 pages. borrowed.

There is, very probably a canon of Young Adult reads. The sort of collection where if you want to be taken seriously as a reader of YA you must have read certain authors and titles. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series is on it—as it should be. I have heard it referenced often, and thanks to Natalya who brought it home from school on Friday, I finally made the excuse to read book one: Uglies.

This is where I admit to disliking the titles in this series (Uglies, Pretties, and Specials) and their continual use throughout the novel. I also admit to loathing the ridiculous name of that section of the city called Pretty Town. Why? I feel immediately sucked into that hideous simpering hole that is the cliché of prissy female adolescence. Westerfield is a genius.*

In this future-scape, Tally is only a few short months away from a full-body-altering surgery that will make her “pretty”—and she needs to be pretty. Her best friend Peris (such an unfortunate spelling for the male) has had his surgery and is already in Pretty Town where life is just one party after another, to say nothing of the social ramifications of left being Ugly. All she has to do is behave and wait it out until she turns 16, too. But Tally makes a new friend, Shay, who despite their being the very same age has different views about the impending change—in fact, Shay is going to run away to where other rebels have fled, to live in the wilderness. This shouldn’t have affected Tally except she is the only one who knows where Shay went and the government wants Tally to find that settlement. Tally has to betray her friend or risk never becoming “pretty” and lose everything.

Tally has to follow clues in order to find the settlement and she is daring and resourceful if nothing else. She is also able to grasp the full scope of what is going on as the Utopic shine begins to tarnish and the truth behind all those Pretty faces is revealed. But the homespun wilds is no cake walk either. Growing up, peeking behind the veil of propaganda or idealism, it seems, is serious business, people. It is a testament to Westerfield’s ability that he can draw characters who have their moments of wisdom as well as absolute foolishness—characters who can be neither likeable or heinous.

Westerfield writes great action and adventure and any romance serves to develop the characters further and melds seamlessly into the turn in the plot. However, the question at the center of Tally’s adventure remains throughout: which promises will she keep and whom will she betray? Her own interest rarely figures in after the first—after we come to understand how being Ugly versus Pretty figures in. And even then, Westerfield paces the world-building, using the initially narrow scope of our first person narrative as an excuse to tease out new and enlightening perspectives as the character learns more and more about the society/world about her.

Needless to say, there is a lot of criticism regarding appearance, conformity, stereotyping and there is a healthy dose of eco-criticism as well. Westerfield creates a sensical Utopia, taking the reverse of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron and prettying everyone up rather than catering to the lowest denominator. While it may not seem fair from the first, it doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable, feeding into our own contemporary “understandings” about social and biological interaction. Tally is a good average adolescent, a reliable avatar. Passive and typical until she becomes more willingly decisive and singular as Westfield slowly introduces complications until he ups the ante irreparably. He turns the pages and it would do to have book two (Pretties) on hand.

recommendations: 12 -17 (middle school-12th); anyone human; those interested in sci-fi, dystopia, and/or action/adventure; social and/or ecological critique done in a surprisingly non-heavy-handed way considering how it dominates the story.

*although “genius” in this way may not have been intentional.

"review" · fiction · sci-fi/fantasy · series · Uncategorized · young adult lit

{book} divergent

Too bad the title does not necessary imply divergence from present popular Young Adult formulations. Work-shopped from an outline and a list of ingredients came to mind as I grit my way through this one. Is the imaginative twist on post-apocalyptic dystopian construction of society enough to forgive the seams? Likely. More, its saving grace may be in the way it does actually diverge from present YA expectations. That and the understanding that Veronica Roth does have an aptitude for writing.
   There is a degree of pleasure in reading with an expectation of formula. We even seek it out. Our comfort zones, they are sometimes called. Still, while I know I am reading something along familiar lines, I don’t want it brought to conscious attention. This was my experience with Veronica Roth’s Divergent. It was as if its own self-consciousness had alerted mine.
  In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue — Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is — she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
  During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are — and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves…or it might destroy her. ~
   Debut author Veronica Roth bursts onto the literary scene with the first book in the Divergent series — dystopian thrillers filled with electrifying decisions, heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance. ~publisher’s synopsis

publisher’s synopsis

  The forming of 5 factions based on personality was imaginative and is well-executed. Within the emergence of dystopic themes, the only thing lacking is that haunting quality a good dystopian story has–possibility. Still, said ingredient isn’t necessary to the resulting enjoyment of the read. Roth shows her excellent writing talent in her world-building which unfolds beautifully and clearly as we follow her unusual protagonist via 1st person.
   Hero and Narrator: Beatrice/Tris, though blonde, is unusual in that she is petite. An odd observance, but I couldn’t help but note it. Part of being short and thin is that she is often underestimated. Another “divergence” is that she is somewhat denied her sexuality (even at 16) which I think should be noted: “You sure you’re sixteen, Stiff? Doesn’t feel like you’re more than twelve”(279).  “Can he tell that I’m still built like a child?” (324). Still, someone finds her attractive (2 actually do)–is it for her quick wit, her bravery, her aptitude for adjusting to perilous situations? “I like how you look. You’re deadly smart. You’re brave.” (337-8). And the young man who says this is the one to swoon over well before page 337. “Unexpected romance,” really synopsis?
  Even if Tris is slow on the uptake, the Reader should guess pretty quickly who Four actually is. They will also likely wonder why his being two years older is such a scandal (337). “Isn’t he a little old for you, Tris?” (364). Nowadays, sure, but this is future and we are sending our 16 year olds off to become adults with hard life-decisions and jobs.
I also didn’t get Four as ever being tough or unkind. I kind of figured he was supposed to be (you know, somewhat Heathcliff-like*), but Tris just looks stupid in her oblivion to Four’s reactions to her. I wish the 1st person was more limited than it was, because the observances Tris makes for the benefit of the Reader (as a 3rd person narrator might) only serve to make her exasperating. She reads the observation one way, but we all know it as an other way. Misinterpretation is real, and so is a false modesty; which is Tris for the last 3/4ths of the story. Of course, a novel with tight reins on its sexuality, can’t allow things to go too fast. After all, the innocence of both Tris and Four are part of its appeal and its difference, isn’t it? Additionally, the novel isn’t all about the romance. Tris is coming of age,** coming into her Self. And then there is that nefarious plot by the bad guys. duh duh duhhh.
   Divergent is a book one of a trilogy. Crumbs are left as we are carried through Tris’ initiation process and we collect them into an action-packed ending. This ending puts some things into play in order to sustain the storyline into the next book. I think it would have done well readjusted into a singular tome. Could be I am exhausted by sagas. Roth creates a fun world to play in, dangerous and full of potential story. Fan-fiction writers will have a lot of fun. If book two reads more like a companion than a direct sequel, I could get behind that. Roth’s development as a writer is worth catching book 2 as well.
   What I did find interesting in the read was the question of : what it means to be Brave and Selfless, which is a large preoccupation within the book. Christian readers will appreciate the positive way a life of service can be viewed, and that the protagonist comes from a home that believes in God and isn’t self-righteous about it.  Roth’s restraint with depicting violence, to the possible detriment of one scene should be a draw for those tired of the gritty nature of many an action/adventure dystopian. As far as current YA fiction is concerned, Divergent is rated G.
   Roth is fair in showing up- and down-sides to each of the factions, though perhaps least with Candor and Erudite. Regardless the perspectives she present are intriguing enough, very age appropriate, light yet thought-provoking. The book isn’t so intense as to be inaccessible. She knows her audience.   In the end, I find that I am just too old for this book–and its antics–let’s just call me a curmudgeon and get on with it, eh?


recommendations: is enough that it was on most “best of 2011” lists by avid readers of young adult fiction? likely. The action is exciting, there’s tattoos, and sweet sweet romance.


*Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
** Or is female coming-of-age stories about the initiation into relationship with their “destined” mate”? I’m beginning to wonder. Roth seems to be trying to avoid it here, if it is, which I appreciate. The realization of sexuality/sensuality, I can see as coming-of-age.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2011; Hardcover, 487 pages.
"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} the curfew

To begin: When the publisher claims at the end of their synopsis that Jesse Ball’s “The Curfew is a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination,” you may think it an excitable exaggeration. It isn’t. Nor is Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s observation that “There seems to be no other novelist writing today who is capable of so thoroughly disarming one’s narrative expectations.” Writers and Readers alike: prepare to be equally intimidated and inspired.

Those who have read Jesse Ball–and adore him, I would recommend you The Curfew. It has all the fluid strange mesmerism of Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors (my favorite), while pushing creative boundaries: for both author and narrative. One sitting would be best for this darkling daydream.

William and Molly lead a life of small pleasures, riddles at the kitchen table, and games of string and orange peels. All around them a city rages with war. When the uprising began, William’s wife was taken, leaving him alone with their young daughter. They keep their heads down and try to remain unnoticed as police patrol the streets, enforcing a curfew and arresting citizens. But when an old friend seeks William out, claiming to know what happened to his wife, William must risk everything. He ventures out after dark, and young Molly is left to play, reconstructing his dangerous voyage, his past, and their future. An astounding portrait of fierce love within a world of random violence, The Curfewis a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination.~publisher’s comment

As you may guess from the synopsis, The Curfew is set in a dystopia. But one should not expect extensive world-building. Those familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale understand atmosphere can be derived from a precision of language, of image. Ball is no more superfluous. The effect is startling, and embarrassing to the next tome in line.

Ball maintains a tight focus and casual periphery. His cast, their world, is small, often claustrophobic and other times cozy. He creates a randomness that can remain random and yet also gain greater significance as the narrative continues. In The Curfew, the violence collects into a pervasive sense of fear. By the time the father must go out after curfew, you are terrified for him. Those stories, those small everyday interactions between characters slip into a deepening pool from which the novel draws emotion. That “fierce love” left me breathless, the ending left my hands trembling.

When those ministers of “show don’t tell” jab you repeatedly with their red pen, few are recommending the level of revelation The Curfew attains.

The novel is written in the shifting between 1st and 3rd person, holding present tenses. The 3rd person narrator? Oh, but I’ve been pondering this. I believe it to be a figure such as the one discussed on pages 126-8. And if so…the implications. The Curfew is told in three Parts (or Acts). They become increasingly abstract. As the reader becomes more and more attached to the little girl and her father, the movement away from the concrete is for the better–a beautiful coping mechanism.

Ball likes to mind the visual impact with dash (–) introductions to dialog, unexpectedly fluid segues, font shifts. Riddles* make their return, though with a more overt role. His repetition of images, the novels preoccupations (seats, strings, epigraphs, lies, “ideas,” etc). The use of puppetry takes on a more surprising presence than I’d anticipated; not that I figured it would remain as obvious as “people as puppets,” but the use of the puppeteer’s narrative structure (105-6), compounded by Ball’s, is marvelous.

The Curfew is a puzzle. On a primary level, the reader understands what is going on. By that ending–on another level–you are not entirely certain. This should not repel you. The response could very well be my own as I may be denying what I am being told. However, I do believe there are cues to suggest a second or third look, none of which I am going to share before your first reading. The result is an expansion of narrative possibility. The Curfew is a complex work that can be read very simply. But why you would leave it there, I’m not entirely sure.

Ball has an elegant hand with the bizarre; which may not resonate with the greater audience. The father was a world-renowned violinist. His new job is for a Mason, consulting with people and writing epigraphs for headstones. The daughter is mute and clever and irrepressible. The mother is perceived differently by the father and the daughter, but haunts both. You learn of them through external interactions, dialog, encounters. They are exactly as they seem in an environment where little is certain. Aren’t they?

There is an old-world feel despite the sense that the setting could occur anywhere, anytime. There is a surreality in even the most mundane, in the quiet and sorrowful moments that enthrall the reader. And ultimately, there is an aching familiarity; this is where empathy and fear take hold and linger long after the book closes. What does happen to the father? What happens to the little girl?

There is an ending. But I guarantee it will have you working your way back through to the beginning, after a recovery period. And you won’t hate Jesse Ball for doing that to you, submerging you back into the book. At least, you mightn’t.


recommendation: I understand that I really respond to Jesse Ball’s writing on a level that challenges articulation, especially with only one reading of the text. While The Curfew takes notable departures from previous novels, I would recommend you start with either Samedi the Deafness (a suspense thriller) and/or The Way Through Doors (a love story) and enter them with an open mind, patient, clear of expectation; this way you can get the style of his writing (voice/form). my reviews for: The Way Through Doors and Samedi the Deafness

For fans of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. For those who like Poetry, Riddles, Literature, the Absurd. Not to be read in proximity to lengthy dystopian fantasies (for both their sakes).

of note: I was reminded of the film Children of Men (2006), as well as the book The Beauty & The Sorrow by Peter Englund in that explanations for the current State are intimate and limited to a character’s understanding of the events/context and their pertinence.

There are conversations The Curfew broaches regarding Art, the Individual, Oppression, Ideas, etc. that I didn’t even touch, partially to keep the “review” relatively spoiler-free. I would love to talk about any of them.


*I am bad with riddles, but I wasn’t put off. However, I would like to read this with someone who is good at them.


The Curfew by Jesse Ball : vintage contemporaries, 2011. 195 pages, tradepaper.

{images: 1) a promo sticker Jesse Ball created for book’s release via Vintage Books/Anchor Books tumblr. 2) cover. }

"review" · fiction · Lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · wondermous · young adult lit


[So I finished Mockingjay and still got things done. Really it isn’t too lengthy, and Collins writes a compelling story. Further comments will come sooner than later I hope.]

Today I want to highly recommend to most all readers (and readers of omphaloskepsis, of course) to read Caragh O’Brien’s Birthmarked. I suppose I should give you reasons more than “you just should” and I started to write quite the lengthy post on it after I read it a couple of weeks ago. So it turns out I can still go on a bit lengthy–as usual.

<below is not what I wrote in my word document at all…not that the word document guarantees third-draft-editing.>

6909544Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien

Roaring Book Press, 2010

361 pages

Birthmarked could be categorized thus: Science-Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Landscape, Dystopian Society. And if you read similarly, you might enjoy the read. I say might because apparently some who follow Dystopian fiction disliked the experience, and went on to compare to other Dystopian works–though strangely, there was a unexpected absence of comparing it to Dystopian Genre markers  that consider a book categorized after stating it was not properly Dystopian. Was it as good as some we’ve all been asked to read in High School or University? Yes.

Birthmarked is well-written. It is well thought out. And though you most probably will find it in the Teen Section, it is not to be left there. Yes, it has a sigh-worthy male character who would be a wonderful counterpart to our heroine but the protagonist and author do not lose focus. Birthmarked is perfectly Dystopic in that it considers and challenges ideas of entitlement and oppression.

What I like more than the Dystopic aspects of the story/setting of O’Brien’s novel is the Post-Apocalyptic. How do humans survive after the near-destruction of Earth and/or Nature? Better yet, how does humanity survive?

First, Human survival: Plenty of Sci-Fi scenerios will throw ambiguous or overwhelming (belabored) technical language at the reader to explain the procreative capabilities and success of the humans re-populating this now foreign and hostile landscape. O’Brien is effortless in depicting the circumstances through nicely paced action and dialogue.

Humanity’s survival: This is where the use of a failed-Utopia comes in to play. This is where “moral” judgment comes into conflict with survival. In a time when one would think every human life is valued, there are other things to consider: resources, genetics, societal stability. Strangely, and beautifully, O’Brien casts these considerations into the shade–which is surely upsetting to plenty. It is not that she ignores the arguments, they are woven in and discussed, even contemplated, but the focus is held by the protagonist, Gaia, who appears to believe that humans are capable of accommodating more in the way of perspective.

O’Brien writes a Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction novel with the oddest idea in mind. Where does family come into play? With the necessity for a healthy reproduction of the species, resources to support the population, a balanced and civilized (aka compliant) society, where does the idea of Family come into play? Do familial ties/loyalty come into play on the side of Rationality or no?

The playing out of loyalty to Family or to State is not new, but the O’Brien’s Setting is unusual for it.  (Or perhaps I need to read more.) I don’t believe the idea of Family Units collapse in the face of human extinction, but they tend to be redefined or reconfigured. The Family in Birthmarked is perhaps the most simplistic. Sire, Birth-Mother, and off-spring; full-blooded relations. Then there are grandparents and cousins, etc. (This definition of Family is where O’Brien begins, but this does not mean she stays there.–or does she?)

Is there more to being related by blood than mere genealogical record? How does the desire for blood relation come into conflict with a Society focused on physical survival?

Perpetuation of the species may be found in the understanding of genetics, but the perpetuation of humanity is found in the understanding of what it is to have/be a part of a family.

O’Brien can explore ideas without rambling or becoming pre-occupied with her own brilliance in illustrating an imagined landscape. The story is tightly woven; even when it seems that Gaia (the protagonist) is skittering off into a dream or memory for a chapter.


Those Marked with a Code will Determine the Future.

One Marked with a Scar will Unravel the Past.

The cover text suggests more mysticism than the book could account for: other than for intrigue, I couldn’t place it…unless this is the first book in a series. Yes, Sean, I know I said I wouldn’t mind if it were, just after I read it, but I’m not so sure now. Mark me down as undecided (and as ever, conflicted). Perhaps if handled like Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger? Intersecting characters through individual stories set in a same world. [Birthmarked is strongly reminiscent of a combined read of The Giver and Gathering Blue; but most especially the latter.]


Gaia [the earth goddess] is a lovely character: not too irrational as to undermine her position as the story’s guide, and not too obtuse as to overly annoy.  I like that her reluctance as hero never quiet leaves her. And I think Gaia was a perfect choice for her name and her role as a mid-wife, especially in contrast with the Enclave and the Protectorat and his council. –a lovely short essay there. Considering as much as there is to this book, enough characters are lifted from type-cast. Gaia isn’t the only wonderful individual on the page. I think a longer work would keep all from being perceived as flat–though characterization is not a fault I find with this novel.

Really, there no faults–none that should keep a reader from enjoying Birthmarked. There is action and drama and romance and creepiness–yeah, good old darkness behind the shiny facade–except for Gaia (who as scarred would not be considered “shiny” to begin with). I cried, I laughed, I sighed, and I contemplated…and I annoyed the husband with updates on the story’s events… I had a lovely experience with this read.


This is where I thank Steph Su for reviewing & recommending the read (actually, I felt so grateful that I emailed her a “thank you”). Here is the link to her review.