Review: Maggot Moon

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Standish Treadwell, fifteen, is dyslexic. He has different colored eyes, one blue, one brown. He lives with his grandfather; his parents are gone. He had one friend, Hector, and Hector is also gone.

Standish’s world is one of fear and lies, of hiding and barely surviving. The red and black flag of the Motherland hangs on the classroom wall. People who are different, people who question, people who have something wrong with them, disappear, either to be maggot meat or to be reeducated.

The Motherland is about to prove its world superiority by putting a man on the moon.

Hector discovered a secret behind the wall of Zone Seven. A secret that may place Standish in danger. Should he run? Or is it possible to fight back?

The Good: While I had heard of Maggot Moon before it got a Printz Honor, I hadn’t paid much attention to what it was about. Which means that when I began reading, I had no idea. “What the heck is going on?” is pretty close to what I was thinking in the first twenty-odd pages.

What is going on? It’s a bit of a puzzle for the reader to put together. There is the Motherland, it’s red and black flag. A war lost. A wall topped with glass. Mothers for Purity. Rewards for large families. And, finally, a date is given: Thursday, 19th July 1956.

Maggot Moon is set in an alternate universe, in an alternate history, a timeline a wee bit different from our own. Standish’s country lost a war years and years ago; and now Standish lives in dystopian world. Standish is telling the story, in his own way, which means that it’s simply his story. There is little explanation or exposition. Instead, the reader can fill in the pieces, try to connect the dots, attempt to understand. Just from that, from how the story is told, is enough to see why this got a Printz nod.

And the language, Standish’s turn of phrase! “The what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which describes not just life but also the chain of history that creates Standish’s world. Later, he describes “my heart an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.

The setting and Standish’s world is another element. His school is harsh and demanding, with bullies among both students and teachers. A brutal death half way through illustrates just how precarious and dangerous Standish’s world is. It also shows some surprising sides of people Standish knows. It’s not a simple place or time.

In some ways, Standish seems young. He dreams of escape, of the land of Croca-Cola and Cadillacs. Since the Motherland will soon land on the moon, he dreams of a better planet, Juniper, to escape to, He builds a small spaceship out of odds and ends, half believing it will work. What he describes is far from young: the circumstances surrounding his parents disappearances. People becoming maggot meat. A brutal death. And the end . . . what Standish ends up doing, and the results, are quite serious. This is a perfect example of how a book can be about serious, dark things, yet does so in a way that it takes a while to realize just how dark it is.

I wonder at what age the readers will fully appreciate the clues as to what Standish’s world is, and isn’t. While “Nazis” and “Soviets” are never terms that are used, it seems that his world is one where a country such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia conquered England and controls most of Europe.  (Personally, I only considered a Nazi occupied England; reading other reviews is what made me also think it could be the Soviets, or any dictatorship.) Croca-Cola reminds one of another, very American beverage, as does the references to Cadillacs and a TV show starring a woman having a ball. (If you get that last one, that’s exactly what I mean by what is needed to fully understand the time and place and alternate history of Standish’s world.)

What, you may be asking, did Hector discover? It’s a stunning secret, and it not only brings about Hector and his family disappearing but also forces Standish to take a stand.

Other reviews: Someday My Printz Will Come; CrossReferencing (Mark and Sarah); Pretty Books.




Review: The FitzOsbornes at War

The FitzOsbornes at War, the Montmaray Journals, Book III by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. Sequel to Sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Life in Great Britain during World War II, as told by Sophie FitzOsborne. The FitzOsborne story began in the mid 1930s in A Brief History of Montmaray, centering on life on their small, island kingdom and how and why the Germans invaded and took over Montmaray. The family fled their home, and The FitzOsbornes in Exile was about their adjustment to life in England as well as what was happening in the years leading up to World War II.

The war touches Sophie, her siblings and cousins in many ways. Her brother Toby and family friend/cousin, Simon, are in uniform, as are many of their friends. Sophie and her cousin, Veronica, both find civilian ways to help the war effort. Family issues don’t stop just because a country is at war: younger sister Henrietta rebels against tutors and boarding schools, their aunt is concerned with money and status and her nieces’ possible marriages, and the question of the recovery of Montmaray looms over everything.

The Good: I have adored this series from the first page, when we met Sophie as she wrote in a castle on an island, surrounded by family and nothing else. A princess with no money or resources and a mad uncle.

The FitzOsbornes at War is both what I wanted and what I needed from this series’ conclusion, but also not what I expected. It tells the story of what it was like, being a young woman during the war: the fears, the desire to do something, the dangers, the rationing, the bombings, the worries over loved ones. Going in, I knew one thing for certain: people would be hurt. People would die. It would be dishonest for anything other to happen in a book about a war, a book where the main characters are young adults in their late teens and early twenties who are in the armed forces or in places being bombed nightly. Cooper is not dishonest. She does not hold back.

Sophie, as ever, is an engaging storyteller. This is her journal, and it jumps ahead, sometimes, but it’s always smoothly written. I adored not just the details of daily living, and a civilian’s view of historical events, but also the inclusion of real people such as Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. Sophie is energetic, she is enthusiastic, she is wonderful. She goes through a lot; she suffers great loss; but she remains Sophie. The perspective is of someone who is trying, trying, trying so hard despite it all to be young, and to enjoy dances, and to fall in love.

Nope, I’m not going to give much more in terms of spoilers than that. Well, yes, the general history of World War II is hardly a spoiler, but the day to day things?The details? And how it all impacts Sophie and her family? That’s for a reader to discover, and to cry over. And, sometimes, even, to be happy about. As with the two previous books, when it comes to the real history and historical figures, it’s a mix of things a reader will recognize and things that will be new (did that really happen?).

The only thing I was disappointed about? I wish there had been more about Montmaray; there is some, don’t get me wrong, and I like what happens with that storyline and the resolution, but part of what drew me into the storyline was Montmaray so I wanted more. That said, I’ll be clear: I love this look at World War II.

As for who was hurt, who died, who lost, who loved? Oh. My. Goodness. I was shocked and I cried. And one of the resolutions was so perfect and yet so unexpected that all I could think was, well played, you. Perfect. This is the end of the trilogy,  yes — but am I the only one who wants more? Perhaps what is happening to the contemporary FitzOsbornes, the descendants of the ones who survived the war? (See how I did that, not giving anything away?)

Because this series, read in its entirety, is a wonderful whole story of Sophie’s life as a teenager and young woman. Because of the look it takes at the 1930s and 1940s. Because it’s not what I expected and it took wonderful risks that paid off. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

One last point: in part because of how Sophie and her siblings and cousins and friends age, this book easily crosses over, with appeal for both adults and teens. It also would make a terrific miniseries.

Other reviews: Oxford Erin; Read Alert blog from State Library of Victoria.

Review: The FitzOsbornes in Exile

The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the Montmaray Journals, Book II by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray; the final book is The FitzOsbornes at War. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie FitzOsborne and the rest of the royal family (cousin Veronica, 18; brother Toby, 18; sister Henrietta, 11; and friend/possible illegitimate cousin, Simon, 23) of Montmaray are now safely in England, living with Aunt Charlotte, following the events of A Brief History of Montmaray. In a nutshell: the Germans took over their small island home and the inhabitants of Montmaray fled to England.

England is full of parties and clothes and dances. No one wants to hear about a small island that was violently taken, no one wants to do anything other than remain at peace with the Germans.

The FitzOsbornes have lost their home; they are now royalty in exile. Aunt Charlotte’s good fortune to marry well means, well, they can depend on her large fortune to take care of them. Clothes, good food, servants — all are theirs. But what is the cost? Will they — like Charlotte — simply forget their home and heritage?

The Good:

The FitzOsbornes in Exile is a filler book, in a way, filling the gap between the loss of Montmaray in the first book and World War II. It turns out, of course, for the FitzOsbornes and for Europe, that the time period is hardly filler. Much happens.

A family tree at the front of the book is a helpful catch-up on the characters and their relationships to each other. Other than that, Cooper jumps right into the story. There is very little recap, and this falls under the category “best to read in order,” but primarily to understand the relationships between the characters and what happened that led to the loss of Montmaray.

The Montmaray siblings and cousins are refuges; foreigners in exile. The first half of the book is primarily the adjustment to this. Aunt Charlotte is wealthy, wealthy enough for a country house and a city house, lots of staff, and all the privilege that comes with being both rich and royal (she, herself, is a Princess Royal of Montmaray). Every now and then, Sophie flashes back to their near-poverty existence on Montmaray. It’s own country and monarchy, yes., but it’s a tiny island with little natural resources and a population destroyed by the loss of an entire generation of men during the Great War.

The siblings and cousins all have strong personalities, forged by the self-reliance needed to live on Montmaray as well as the isolation of the island. Veronica, no-nonsense and brilliant, robbed of an education because she’s a girl, who doesn’t allow that stop her. Sophie loves the good food and pretty dresses of her new life, as well as her freedom from drudgery (who wouldn’t?) but no heads are turned to a frivolous life.

The first half of the book is adjustment to Aunt Charlotte’s lifestyle, with Veronica and Sophie being introduced to Society — and failing miserably. Veronica doesn’t believe her only goal in life should be to marry well. Sophie is disappointed with how frivolous and shallow the other girls appear to be and is less than impressed with the young men who are the would-be suitors.

Cooper doesn’t rush the story; just like in real life, things take time and it takes awhile to find one’s footing. Sophie and the others have a new home and country to adjust to, as well as trying to figure out what they can do regain their home from the Germans. They may have titles, but it’s from a powerless nation. They don’t have money and are financially dependent on Aunt Charlotte. With the exception of Simon, who is a commoner with no connections or cash, they are teenagers.

I adore Sophie, as well as Veronica. These two are fantastic! The only reason I’m glad that the laws prohibit Veronica from inheriting is I’m not sure she’d do well with the politics needed to be a ruler; she sure has the knowledge and history and integrity. I’d follow both of them anywhere, in exile or not. Toby — Toby, to be honest, tries my patience. Picture Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited. His chief talent is charm. He charms people well, and I am charmed — until I remember that he is also the King of Montmaray and his carelessness doesn’t just affect him.

The only thing “alternate” about this alternate history is that Montmaray doesn’t exist. Cooper weaves the fictional Montmaray and FitzOsbornes into the real events of 1937 to 1939. It’s not just people — though, that happens, also, with Sophie meeting young Kathleen Kennedy. It’s also more nuanced, such as considering how the German occupation of Montmaray was practice for invasion.

War is coming, the reader knows this; but it’s still fun to escape into the gaiety and parties, as Sophie does, with the Upstairs/Downstairs/Downton Abbey vibe.

Montmaray and its peoples are so real to me that I worry, worry not just how they will survive the war years but also what will happen with Montmaray. Toby is king, and he’s gay. I love how accepting his family is, but this means there is no heir, right? Unless a son of one of the princesses can inherit? But even if they can, Montmaray was dying before it was lost. The FitzOsbornes are impressive, yet, but how can they revive this island?

I guess the fact that I’m concerned about a fictional island is a big giveaway: this is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Shelf Elf; Someday My Printz Will Come; whatch ya reading.

Review: The Returning

The Returning by Christine Hinwood. Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher from ALA conference.

The Plot: A young man comes home from war, returning to the small village he left as a boy. At first it seems that only Cam Attling, missing an arm, has been changed by the war, but it touches all in both large and small ways. People are freed from doing what they had always done, being who everyone expected them to be. Some changes are internal: the realization that one can leave, whether it’s leaving an abusive husband or just wanting a different life than one’s parents. Others are more obvious: a young woman, alone and abused, determinedly creating her own future; a second son suddenly becomes the heir; an arranged marriage upsets all a girl thought she knew about life, love and family.

The Good: How to explain this book? How to get you to read it, because, yes, I want you to. How to convey how much I love this book, and this writing, even though it was not easy. In truth, when I began I felt a bit cold towards it. I wasn’t sure when or where I was, just a place that was vaguely pre-Industrial and with some names vaguely familiar (Cam, Graceful) and others not at all (Pin, Edord, Vivrain.) Just close enough to something known (Edward, Vivian), yet not, to be discomforting. So, too, the geography — there is a Downlander Village and the talk of war, the war between the Uplanders and the Downlanders, with the Uplanders triumphant. (Note I read the ARC, which had neither the maps, table of contents, nor character list of the final version.)

The story is about Cam, about Cam’s return, and how war impacted him and others, but The Returning dances around this, first telling us a story from the point of view of his young sister who sees Cam as a stranger, then from Graceful, the young girl he’d been betrothed to before he left for war, from others of the Village, with Cam figuring in their stories at least a little. Karyn at Someday My Printz Will Come was enthusiastic and I respect her opinion about books and the language and craft of the book was lovely, so I kept reading.

And then, it all just — clicked. Part of it had to do with realizing that I had to stop putting expectations on this book, about what it would or would not be, and just let it enfold me. Just let myself sink into Cam’s world without worrying about who was a main character and who wasn’t, and whether this world was European or Asian or something else. And I realized that what The Returning was about, was not Cam, or Pin, or Graceful, but was about war, and the impact of war on regular people and regular lives. The people who stay in the same village, well, as Cam’s mother wisely says, “there’ve always been taxes, new Lord or old.” Their losses are in the generation of men that did not come home; Cam alone returned. For others, those displaced, like young Diido, the loss is of home and comfort and security. There are families like Graceful’s that now have opportunities they would not have had before.

The reader learns more about Cam about a third of the way through, when his story takes center stage. Why did he go to fight, what he feels when he returns, and, most importantly, the ties he has with the “enemy” Uplanders are explored in rich detail as Cam tries to find his place in this new world. It’s not just the loss of his arm that prevents him from being the farmboy he was.

The Returning is a fantasy only in the sense that it is not our world; there is a medieval feel to this time and place, but no single thing ties it to our world enough to call it an alternate history. It is the villages changed by the War of the Roses, the aftermath of the Norman Invasion, the new Tudor rulers, World War I battle devastation. By removing the Lancasters, the Yorks, and any other familiar touchstone or name or place, Hinwood creates a place where the reader does not associate any one person or side with the “winner” or “loser,” the “good” or the “bad.” It answers the questions that I, as a history reader, wonder about – what happens to the people after the battles are fought? How do they live that next day, next month, next year?

The Returning was first published in 2009, in Australia, under the title Bloodflower. This is a situation where I like both covers, and each coveys a truth about the book, just different truths.

Because it managed to make me fall in love with it after I had already made up my mind not to like it. Because when I fell, I fell hard. Because Diido’s journey renewed my faith in people. Because there are is no good or evil, just people and power. Because it illustrated the power of choice, even when it seems there are no choices to be had. Because this world is fully realized and unique. For all these reasons, The Returning is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Alternate History

So, as promised in my post about Steampunk / Alternate History Week, I’m just going to talk about Alternate History.

Historical fiction is a genre that, especially for children’s and young adult literature, is viewed by some people as unpopular among the target audience. I’m not sure why; I stumbled upon A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg around fifth grade, fell in love with Eleanor and Henry and English history and historical fiction all at once.

I’m mentioning historical fiction because it’s loving historical fiction that led me to love alternate history. Take history — take a known — and tweak it. Tweak it a little, or tweak it a lot. The story can be about that change or the backdrop for a story, where the “what if” is less about the Changed World Event and more how that Changed World Event changed the world, people, culture and their points of view. It can also be great fun for the person who is familiar with the history, to see the almost Easter Egg references to famous people, places and things that are now just a wee bit different.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m going with definitions that work for me. I’m sure there will be people who disagree. So, if you do, just give me your definition in the comments along with some book recommendations.

A pretty classic example of “changed world event” is The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood. It’s 1777 and in 1776 the British crushed the Revolution and now the leaders such as George Washington are waiting to be executed — hence the title. Exploring how things may have worked out is interesting not just for the person familiar with a time period; it’s also a great launching pad to discover the real history, to find out more about how things actually worked out and to think about why history works the way it does.

I’ve read alternate history stories where my history of the time period being discussed is so shaky that I had no idea what the “gotcha” event was until I read the historical explanation. OK, I”ll name a particular story — Counting Potsherds by Harry Turtledove. Guess what? I read that story about 20 years ago. And it stuck with me all those years because it was that good. 

Steampunk is a particular type of alternate history; as explained in Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead in School Library Journal, “Steampunk is both speculative fiction that imagines technology evolved from steam-powered cogs and gears–instead of from electricity and computers–and a movement that fosters a do-it-yourself attitude and a love of beautifully crafted, yet functional, objects. Although K.W. Jeter coined the term in the late 1980s, the concept is much older: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and other 19th-century authors are primary influences. These writers inspired a dark, melancholy genre typically set in Victorian England.” So it’s kind of alternate history because it’s usually set in a Victorian type England, but it’s also alternate science fiction because the speculative element includes technology. If you want even more information, the Locus September 2011 issue is all about steampunk.

There are some books that aren’t quite historical fiction — not in the sense of being able to pinpoint the exact tweak. Instead, different aspects of history and culture are taken and used in a different way. Take Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce. (From the cover and sub-title, it was presented as a fantasy and it is. Their is plenty of magic. Read the excellent review at the New York Times to get a sense of the incredible fantasy world-building. Personally, though, I think Leila at Bookshelves of Doom conveys a better flavor of the book itself. 

Flora Segunda is set in an alternate world, where Flora’s mother is the commanding general of the army of Califa and that’s perfectly normal. Califa — California. And the enemies? The Aztec Empire. So on the one hand, this is fantasy, no doubt. But on the other, it also has a bunch of things in it that people who like their history can go “oh’ about. Wilce explained in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith: “I’ve got a degree in history and was working as historian, but as much as I loved researching and writing factual pieces, it was hard sometimes not to drift into “what if…” But historians must (for the most part) shun such thoughts. So I decided to look at history through the prism of my imagination, and Califa was born. So far all my fiction has taken place in this tiny country. Califa is not supposed to be an alternative history of any one place, but I’ve drawn from a lot of historical detail, as least as far as material culture goes. Once I decided to try to write professionally, I was very lucky how quickly I was able to proceed.”

So, alternate history — love it? hate it? don’t understand it? And if you love it, what titles would you recommend?


Tamora Pierce’s list of recommended Alternate History books

Edited to add: A round up of posts for Steampunk / Alternate History Week, over at Chasing Ray

Alt History / Steampunk

I love Alternate History books. Love, love, love. Because…

Why, I cannot tell you NOW. Not when, as announced by Leila at Bookshelves of Doom,for the entire week of December 13th, we’re going to celebrate and discuss — and we, of course, invite and encourage you to do the same — Alt History and Steampunk novels. (We’re mostly focusing on the YAs, but I suspect we’ll do some branching out — there’re a TON of adult titles, and loads of those have insanely excellent crossover potential.)”

Leila is having a contest as part of the celebration! Nutshell, design a better book cover. Full details are at her blog.

Basically, alternate history is fiction where something has changed in the historical timeline. Steampunk is a particular subset of this genre.

If you want to read a whole lot more about it, as prep for what you want to post about the week of December 13, check out this post at Tor by GD Falksen:steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here “Victorian” is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized 19th century.” And if you want to read even more, here is Scott Westerfeld talking about it in Genre Cooties.

Image from Finding Wonderland.

Review: Invisible Things

Invisible Things by Jenny Davidson. HarperCollins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to The Explosionist.

The Plot: 1938. Sophie Hunter, sixteen, has fled Scotland for Denmark. Had she stayed in Scotland, she would have been forcibly brainwashed to become a perfect secretary for the “good of the country.” Denmark appears to be a safe harbor. She lives with her friend Mikael and his mother, assistant to Neils Bohr. Sophie waits to hear from the mysterious Alfred Nobel, who says he knows things about Sophie’s long dead parents. War is on the horizon, but the world Sophie finds herself in is not one of politics but that of science and the weapons that scientists make.

The Good: In case the “Alfred Nobel is alive in 1938” doesn’t give it away, (well, that and Scotland using brainwashed secretaries) this is an alternate world. Briefly, in this world, at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Napoleon defeated Wellington and consequences include a European Foundation that invades England while Scotland joins the New Hanseatic League, which is made up of Scandinavian countries. Some history remains similar – a war is threatened. Germany has instituted racial laws. Science is similar, and with Bohr and other scientists around it is treated very seriously. Spiritualism is real, or at least, real for some. The “invisible things” are the stuff of both science (atoms and radiation) and spiritualism.

From dynamite to nitroglycerin to nuclear physicists – it’s real, with slightly altered timeframes. Real enough for those who are into science to get a thrill by the names that are dropped (Lise Meitner). Sophie, in conversations and internal musings, thinks about science, weapons, war, peace.

Sophie’s parents died in an explosion when she was a child, an event she barely survived and hardly remembers. She is about to find out secrets about them, about their past, about their work, about their connections to people Sophie is meeting for the first time. Meanwhile, her friendship with Mikael is slowly turning into something more.

Sophie’s new home and her safety is changed dramatically when war comes to Denmark. An attack leaves Mikael injured and his personality changed; the European Foundation invades Denmark; and a new character is introduced, Elsa Blix. For a second time, Sophie flees her home.

At this point, Invisible Things turns from a story of science, war, and peace to a retelling of The Snow Queen. Mikael is Kai, his injuries turning him cold and enthralling him to the Snow Queen/Elsa Blix; Sophie is Gerda, out to save her best friend.

Every time Sophie turns around, it seems, the world and her place in it is not what it seems. It’s not just being a refugee, first from Scotland, then from Denmark. It is realizing that everything she believed, about herself and her family, is not what it seems. Her world is full of invisible things, slowly being made visible.

Do you have to read The Explosionist to read Invisible Things? No. The Explosionist features the spiritualism that is (sometime) real in this world, so that part is mainly in Sophie’s past, when she refers to experiences in Scotland. But you know what I’m going to say — you’re going to WANT to read The Explosionist. You’re going to want to find out more about this alternate history. You’re going to enjoy Sophie and her adventures and want more.