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If You Liked The Hunger Games and Divergent

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…then the next dystopian YA series on your list should be Marie Lu’s Legend. I’ve only read the first book in the trilogy, but as soon as I finished, I requested the other two from the library.

After a series of floods and other natural disasters took out large segments of the West Coast, Los Angeles and the surrounding areas have been taken over by the totalitarian Republic. While the Republic’s soldiers battle the outlying Colonies, citizens stuck in between struggle to survive.

Day, a 15-year-old Robin Hood, is a continual thorn in the Republic’s side as he steals from banks, hospitals, and other government buildings and gives their money, food, and medicine to those who need it. When one of his break-ins ends with a soldier being killed, Day is more hunted than ever. Military prodigy June takes the lead in hunting down Day, believing that he killed the soldier, her brother.

Chapters alternate points of view between Day and June—their chapters are even printed in different fonts and colors—giving the reader both leads’ perspectives and making both sympathetic and likeable. A rich cast of background characters, including soldiers, rebels, and those not taking sides, gives a great deal of depth and reality to the world in which this is set.

This series was a moderate hit, but may have gotten swallowed up in the Hunger Games/Divergent juggernauts. But if you enjoy this genre, Legend is definitely a book you should check out. (And if I know you in person, you can borrow my copy.)

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Books You Probably Haven’t Read But Should: City of Ember

… or perhaps I should say, “…Your Kids Haven’t Read But Should.” Because I love dystopian stories (and the novel I’m writing fits into that category) City of Ember was recommended to me by Holly McDowell, the author of the book series I wrote about in my first “Books You Probably Haven’t Read” post. It’s what the publishing field calls a middle-grade novel, meaning that it’s meant for readers between children’s books and Young Adult books–around fifth through eighth grade or so. So if you don’t generally like reading kids’ books, as I sometimes do, you might want to give this one to your kids.

Ember is a city in darkness. The only available light is artificial, from light bulbs, and those are starting to run out. The power grid is showing its age too, with power outages occurring more and more frequently. Meanwhile, the supplies of food and medicine, which the citizens of Ember were told would last forever, are running low.

Lina and Doon are both 12 years old, and have just begun their new jobs as all 12-year-olds must. But like most 12-year-olds, they also dream of achieving great things, of doing more with their lives than the adults around them have. When Lina stumbles across a mysterious note, they think this may be their chance at heroism. However, there are others in Ember who have reason to want things to stay the way they are.

I felt like the book was a little slow to get going, but once it picked up speed, it never stopped–and the end is terrific. The author, Jeanne DuPrau, could have easily left it at that and the ending would have been satisfying, but I just discovered that it’s a four-book series. Curse, you, Holly! *shakes fist* I need to catch up on some other reading before my library request for the other Ember books comes through.

My 9-year-old also likes fantasy, but most dystopians are a little rough for her age. I think I’m going to pass this one along to her though. Come on, dystopian fans–what are your favorites?

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Books You Probably Haven’t Read—But Should: King Solomon’s Wives

The more I learn about writing and publishing, the more I’m discovering off-the-beaten-path books that I might not have otherwise found. Many of them deserve a wider audience, so this is the first in what will be an ongoing, irregular series of posts: Books You Probably Haven’t Read—But Should.

Chapter 1: Hunted

The book that inspired me to start this series is King Solomon’s Wives by Holly McDowell. Full disclosure: I know Holly in real life (we’re in the same critique group), but I wouldn’t recommend this publicly if I hadn’t loved reading it.

King Solomon’s Wives is a serial fantasy novel that McDowell is releasing in e-book format, one chapter at a time, although each “chapter” is really more like a novella—100 pages or so. (The first two chapters, Hunted and Addicted, are both available now in Amazon.)

The Wives are modern-day women who are descendants of King Solomon’s many wives. Their touch is literally addictive—people they come in contact with pursue them relentlessly to avoid withdrawal. Meanwhile, they are pursued by the descendants of an ancient clan of Hunters whose sole purpose is to kill off the Wives.

Chapter 2: Addicted

Because of this, the Wives live in isolation, with strict rules and hierarchies supposedly designed to keep them safe. The story follows some of the individual Wives: Sumarra, who rebels against the system yet seeks to protect the younger Wives; Sonya, who escaped from her clan when she fell in love with a handsome musician; clan leader Dilara, who struggles to maintain order and safety within her group; sweet, naïve Mina; and others. Flashbacks to the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba serve to explain how the Wives came to be.

The stories are skillfully interwoven, so seemingly minor characters in one Wife’s story become major characters in other plotlines. (I just love it when authors do that well.) At the end of each chapter, you have the option to give the author feedback about who and what you’d like to see in future chapters.

Also, be warned: Because it’s a serial, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and the second is even more suspenseful than the first.

I read the first part of Addicted in our critique group, and I immediately ordered Hunted so I’d be ready when the completed version of Addicted was published. It was released in late February, and I whipped through it in just a few days. I know Holly is working on the next chapter and I can’t wait to read it.

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Summer reading list!

Sooo… my plan to write three pages a day hasn’t gone very well. Yet. By making that pledge right at the start of the school year, when the kids have a million things happening and I have a bunch of extra volunteer responsibilities, I may have set myself up for failure. But I’m not giving up, just restarting. (Although today, I went to a writer friend’s house for a “writing day” with grand plans of getting pages and pages written, then realized that I’d forgotten my laptop power cord–meaning that the battery on my elderly laptop died within the hour. Sigh.)

“Sweet Solitude” by Edmund Blair Leighton

In the meantime, I have managed to write about the books I read over the summer! Here’s what I’ve been reading. If you have any recs from your summer reading list, post them in the comments!

Room, by Emma Donoghue: I got this book more than a year ago, but I put off reading it because of the subject matter: Room is told from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, who is being raised in a prison-like room where his mother has been held captive for seven years. Jack’s biological father is their captor. Depressing, right? Not as much as I’d thought. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that Jack’s mother has worked hard to protect him from the reality of their situation and make his childhood as fun as is possible in a small, concrete room. It’s not the story of a young woman’s imprisonment—it’s the story of the lengths this mother will go to in order to protect Jack.

One minor quibble—the story is set in the U.S., but the writer is Irish and a few little Irish-isms slipped past the editors (the word “grand,” used to mean “great” or “terrific,” for example). It’s not a huge deal, but the few times it happened, I was briefly taken out of the story as I thought, “Wait a sec—where is this taking place again?” But that’s a tiny flaw in an otherwise well-executed book.

Pledged, by Alexandra Robbins: I picked this up after reading Robbins’ The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, which is a brilliant analysis of teenage cliques. But Pledged, an undercover look at college sororities written a few years earlier than Geeks, doesn’t have the same level of insight. I wasn’t surprised by most of Robbins’ findings, except for a short segment that addresses the differences between traditionally African-American and Latina sororities (which still focus heavily on community service and career mentoring) and traditionally Caucasian sororities (many of which have become far more focused on partying and husband-finding). If you haven’t read Geeks though, you should.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi: Star Trek meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The disposable background characters in a Trek-like world begin to develop an awareness of the fact that their primary purpose seems to be to get killed in order to kick off the crew’s latest adventure. The story starts to get a little convoluted and over-explainy near the end, but otherwise, it’s a unique premise and a fun read, full of in-jokes for sci-fi fans.

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Ready Player One: A Love Letter

I finished Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One a few weeks ago, but if I’d written this post then, I would have come off like a squealing 12-year-old at a Bieber concert. So in the interest of maintaining my professional decorum, I gave myself some time to chill the frak out.

Because I loved this book. Really, really loved it. It’s set in a dystopian America in the year 2044, where most people are dead broke and living in city slums or “stacks”—trailer parks where the trailers are stacked dangerously high in the interest of saving space. However, there also exists a virtual reality, the OASIS, in which nearly everyone in the world works, plays, and attends school. Friends are avatars who you interact with every day, but may never actually see in person. Virtual travel costs virtual money and occurs via virtual vehicles.

When OASIS creator James Halliday dies, he leaves behind a video game-style scavenger hunt, the winner of which will inherit his multi-billion-dollar fortune as well as ownership of the massive virtual world. Our hero, 18-year-old Wade Watts, joins the millions of gamers worldwide who join the hunt for the virtual keys to the ultimate prize.

Halliday came of age in the 1980s, so most of the scavenger-hunt clues and games are related to movies, videogames, and music of the era. Wade and his fellow hunters become experts on 1980s pop culture to get into Halliday’s head and decipher his puzzles. For instance, Wade’s obsessive knowledge of the movie War Games and the Rush album 2112 turn out to be valuable skills in his quest.

Of course, as in any good ’80s action story, there is an evil corporation that is looking to beat our hero and take over the (virtual) world. As the end of the contest grows closer, the stakes grow higher in the virtual scavenger hunt and in some cases, have real-life consequences.

Ready Player One is funny, fast-paced, and clever, and I might had shed a tear here and there. (I admit to nothing.) It’s Cline’s first novel, although he has written numerous spoken-word pieces and screenplays, including the hilarious indie Fanboys.

If ’80s pop culture isn’t your gig, then this probably isn’t the book for you—although I think that sci-fi/fantasy fans of all ages will appreciate this great yarn. As a sf/f-loving child of the acid-wash decade, I adored every page of it. Warner Brothers has reportedly secured the movie rights, so read it now and be ahead of the curve!

(Side note: While researching Cline’s publishing history for this post, I found out that he owns a DeLorean—which he has modified to look like Doc Brown’s time machine in Back to the Future! How awesome is that? Now I love him more.)

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Bad PR = Good News?

The old saying that there’s no such thing as bad PR has turned out to be true, at least in the case of the book I just finished.

I picked up Lauren Myracle’s Shine after the National Book Award committee accidentally included Shine on their Young People’s Literature shortlist instead of a similarly named book. When they realized their mistake, instead of just adding the sixth book, they went public in saying that Shine had not made the shortlist and essentially forced the author to withdraw. Even though the book had been deemed good enough to make the nomination list, the committee apparently decided that public humiliation was the best way to go.

But the author handled the whole situation with such cool and grace. Despite feeling like crap, she withdrew but requested compensation for her trouble—in the form of a $5,000 donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation (Shine is about a girl trying to solve the violent hate-crime suffered by her gay best friend).

So this was a writer I wanted to support, and I bought the book—and I definitely made the right choice. Shine is a complex, heart-pounding mystery, with rich descriptions of setting and a vivid cast of characters. (Full disclosure: I’ve had a thing for gritty young adult lit lately.) The themes of gay bullying and drug use also make it a timely read.

The publishing media reported that Shine saw a big bump in sales during and after the book award debacle, so I hope that the net result for Myracle is that she’s gained a whole new set of fans.

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I Know J.K. Rowling, and You Are No J.K. Rowling

I should have realized it when, halfway through the book, I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for months.

The Magicians is about a kid who is plucked from his banal existence and sent to a school of magic (sound familiar?). And there’s also an alternate world that only some humans can visit, where fauns, centaurs, and other fantastical creatures are battling over a kingdom that needs four humans to save them by taking over the thrones (sound familiar??).

The story acknowledges the all-too-obvious similarities to the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia series, but not with a wink. It’s more like the author thought, “You know what Hogwarts needs? More swearing! And Narnia would be so much cooler with some centaur sex!”

Really, an adult version of those novels could have been fun. This could have been an entertaining, in-jokey ride for fantasy-story fans. Instead, the characters are so relentlessly angsty, you just want to smack them. Kids, you can fly, shape-shift, and shoot fire out of your fingertips! Quit whining about it!

There’s a sequel being released next month, and the final scene of The Magicians does introduce a character that could make things interesting, but I just have to remind myself how much I can’t stand the mopey main character if I’m ever tempted to pick up book 2.

Also, a note to the author: If you’re going to try and put yourself in the company of two of the most beloved fantasy book series in the history of the English language, you’d better be prepared to BRING IT.

OK, people: Give me some great new fantasy titles to try!

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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