The OF Blog: 2008 in Review: Young Adult SF/F

Saturday, December 27, 2008

2008 in Review: Young Adult SF/F

I begin this second installment of my review of the 2008 releases I have read with a category which I believe I need to read more often, YA fiction. Compared to the other categories, for which I had to cull a longlist of dozens down to a more manageable list, this category (and the following one on Graphic Novels) will reflect the paucity of my reading in each area. However, that does not prevent me from weighing in with my opinions, as in fact my acknowledgment of this deficiency ought to indicate my desire to read more this field, as there appears to be quite a few outstanding stories being produced.

Young Adult fiction has become a fast-growing sector of the publishing industry over the past decade. Spurred in part by the commercial and (to an extent) critical success of authors such as J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and now Stephanie Meyer, YA fiction might be one of the few sectors in the book publishing industry to have seen a substantial growth in recent years. However, there has been a backlash of sorts against this marketing category. I will not delve further into the semantics of what constitutes YA fiction, but instead will limit my choices here to books that were marketed as such and placed in the YA section of most bookstores (after all, I've already had a few posts this year about another's ill-defined, mostly pejorative use of the term, and I don't care to repeat myself here).

The first two books I wish to discuss were written by Australians. Margo Lanagan is a World Fantasy Award finalist for her short fiction work (including Black Juice and Red Spikes in recent years) whose stories often contain child or teen protagonists. Recently, Lanagan's short story, "The Goosle" (which appears in Ellen Datlow's excellent The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which will be discussed in coming days) sparked a bit of controversy over its retelling of the Hansel and Gretel tale, "The Goosle." That short story was a powerful, emotional read that caused quite a bit of discomfort with certain readers because of its treatment of pedophilia and the effects it has on the abused children.

In Tender Morsels, Lanagan continues to mine the emotional deposits left behind by acute physical and sexual trauma, this time told in a slightly more oblique fashion. This was a story not just of coming of age, but also about the various coping mechanisms that children, women in this particular case, develop to deal with the hurt and confusion brought about by rape and incest. It is not a pleasant topic, nor one that ought to be taken lightly, but Lanagan does an outstanding job in creating a moving story that alternates between being blunt and evasive in its dialogue, as is fitting for this story's themes.

D.M. Cornish's second novel in his Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy, Lamplighter, differs greatly from Lanagan in style but is just as superb of a work. As I said in an earlier comment on his work:

Whimsy is a very underrated quantity in storytelling, especially for children's/YA literature. A story can have sparkling prose or a vividly-detailed landscape, but without a hint of whimsy, it can be as dry as dust and as interesting as paint drying. Whimsy, when employed correctly, can give a story that extra Oomph! that attracts the reader's attention, acting as a sort of portal for that reader to enter into a dialogue with the text.

Australian writer D.M. Cornish displays this whimsical quality in spades in his debut novel, 2006's Foundling. Shortlisted for such prestigious honors as the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults in 2007, Foundling contained an excellent mixture of deft characterizations (accentuated by Cornish's own drawings, which adds much to the atmosphere pervading the novel), sparkling prose, and above all else, an atmosphere of "Hey! Ya know, this is fascinating!"
The same held true for Lamplighter. Cornish's drawings added greatly to the comically macabre atmosphere of this story involving young Rossamünd and Cornish has taken great care to endow his secondary characters with life-like qualities; the result being a story that is smartly-written, clever, and which moves its characters at an exciting clip to an intriguing close.

One might be forgiven at this point if one gets the idea that YA literature deals with matters of whimsy or coming of age. While each certainly is strong enough to carry quite a few titles, just like the teens purportedly represented in this category, there are bound to be equally strong entries that focus on rage, rage especially against socio-political injustices.

Cory Doctorow's first YA novel, Little Brother, is a play not just off of the totalitarianism found in George Orwell's 1984, but also off of the Chicken Little mentality that influenced the passage of knee-jerk acts such as the Patriot Act. Set in a near-future San Francisco just after a second wave of terrorist acts, Doctorow's novel is an unflinching, heated (perhaps overheated in places) look at how authority figures tend to look askance at teens (when they don't suspect them of being akin to terrorists themselves) and how socially-conscious teens, especially those of today's electronic tribal generation, might react in the face of such suspicion and repression. Although there are times that Doctorow's rhetoric will become a bit too passionate, a bit too black/white in its comparisons, ultimately such excesses serve to reinforce the notion that teens are not just passive entities, but rather they often are incautious, ernest people struggling to make sense and order out of a world that their elders have screwed up. Little Brother is a glorious mess to behold, one that dovetails nicely into a related book that I read this past spring.

Truancy is the debut novel by 17 year-old Isamu Fukui. It is a story of student protest and rebellion against the ever more onerous school rules and testing regulations (something that a great many teachers such as myself also have a great deal of animosity towards, needless to say). For a first novel and especially one written by a teen author, Truancy is very rough and unpolished. The characterizations are often a bit too stark and the violence in the final scenes might be a bit off-putting for many. This certainly is not a book for everyone, but as I read it, I found the book to contain promising glints. The pacing for the most part was good and there was certainly an angry energy running through this book that made for an engaging read. Therefore, I'm mentioning this book more for the author's future potential than I am for this book's own qualities, although I certainly think it might be a book that many readers here might enjoy.

Irish author Peadar Ó Guilín's debut novel, The Inferior, symbolizes in part the fuzzy line nature of YA marketing. Originally published in the UK and Ireland in 2007 and marketed as a sort of SF novel, it was released in the US this June and marketed on Amazon and other markets as a YA novel. The storyline certainly straddles the imaginary, subjective line between "for adults" and "for kids/teens" - there are cannibals, a story of an outcast trying to find his way through life, a ton of action, all with good prose to push the plot and the characterizations along. The Inferior is the opener to a series, a point that is not made clear until the final pages and despite the incompleteness of the story, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit when I read it this past winter. I am curious to see how Ó Guilín will develop this story and if it will grow to be a more dark and brutal tale, or if it'll have its edges softened as the story progresses. As it stands, The Inferior makes this list in part due to the unsettled nature of its story and its promise for a good payoff.

Although I just reviewed Kristin Cashore's debut novel (interesting, how three of the books mentioned here are debut efforts) Graceling yesterday, I thought I would reiterate a few of the reasons why this book deserves consideration on my list. As I said at the conclusion to my review,

Young Adult literature sometimes is dismissed as containing facile plots, cardboard characteristics, and vapid writing that fails to engage readers, particularly those over the age of 18. Such charges, while sometimes appropriate, certainly should not apply to Graceling. This novel contains enough action scenes to suit many, while balancing it with nuanced characters whose paths of self-exploration by means of their understanding of their gifted abilities makes for a story that is more complex than what any surface analysis could demonstrate.
Cashore's novel, largely self-contained, is a very vividly-drawn setting. While some might find the level of detail to be detrimental to the story's development, I found it added to the atmosphere. After reading it, it is no surprise at all to me that it was just nominated by the American Library Association for its inaugral William C. Morris Award for best debut novel for young adults. Graceling tackles gender roles and relations in a way that is thoughtful, challenging, and yet not too threatening to most males who might be tempted to reject the book out of hand for that quality. It is a very good story and I am eager to see what Cashore does with this setting and with the various characters she has introduced here.

The seventh and final YA-marketed fiction I read this year was the fabulistic The Tales of Beedle the Bard by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. As I said in my earlier review,

Rowling does a fairly good job with updating and referencing traditional fairy tales and their motifs in tales such as the one cited above, "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot." She manages to capture much of the feel of the old fairy and folk tales in these tales with her carefulness to mimic the structure of these tales without ever really going too far in the direction of creating pale carbon copies of the original tales. While the quoted first story obviously is going to set up a comeuppance for the wizard's son, it is the way that Rowling structures his pratfalls that makes for a satisfactory read. The other four tales are at least as strong as the first, with the middle tale, "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" being the darkest and most admonitory of the five stories. When reading that story, I found myself wishing that Rowling could have resisted the impulse to include the commentaries, as these were the weakest parts of the short collection.

It is difficult to comment upon a tale without risking an intrusion into that space where the Reader and the Fiction Text are interacting. Preferably, commentators will keep their comments succinct, eschewing any attempts at making a direct moral comparison in the tale. Unfortunately, Rowling too often has "Dumbledore" referring directly to the morals found in these tales. While she ostensibly did this as a means of trying to continue the illusion that the stories' readers were seeing it as might a Hogwarts student, she overdid it. At times, it felt as though one had read a really funny story, one that was witty and subtle at the time, but which was ruined at the end by someone explaining in laborious detail what the joke was about and what it aimed to accomplish.
Yet despite this over-intrusion into the storytelling space, the stories themselves were a delight to read, as they managed to capture most of the timeless qualities of the best fairy tales. Minus the commentary, this book might have been one of the better-told collection of tales, but with it, it merely is a little book that might be of interest to readers who enjoyed Rowling's Harry Potter tales.

These were the seven YA-marketed 2008 releases that I have read this year. Perhaps I missed out on quite a few good ones (and no, let's not bring up Meyer's work. From what I've learned about it, it likely would not be the sort of fiction I would enjoy, mostly due to the apparent passivity of its main character). If so, which books ought I to consider? Which books would have made your own YA list?

Later today or early tomorrow, I plan on posting a piece on the 2008 graphic novels that I have read.


Anonymous said...

Graceling sounds like the anti-Twilight.

Larry Nolen said...

Pretty much. Katsa certainly doesn't pine over Prince Po, that's for certain.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading Beetle Bard and agree that the commentary, at times, goes into too much detail. I want to read the stories and draw my own conclusions and not have to read through superfluous explanations.

Larry Nolen said...

Yeah, that can be annoying at times. Wonder what you and others will make of the next group of books, the Graphic Novels of 2008.

Peter said...

Great blog! I have read some of the book before LampLighter called Foundling, I have got Tales of Beedle the Bard but haven't got around to reading it yet, please look at my blog on books at:

Larry Nolen said...

Glad you enjoyed it and have read some of Cornish's previous work :D

Author Tony Peters said...

I really want to read Graceling. I have read good things about it on other sites.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

Martin said...

This year I read and enjoyed the following SFnal YA novels:

Shadow Web by NM Browne
Bunker 10 by JA Henderson
Skellig by David Almond
The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Larry Nolen said...


Hopefully, you'll give it a shot soon.


Which one of those, if any, would be worth my while to read?

Jeff C said...

Larry, I would recommend The Rangers Apprentice series, but if only if you looking for something more entertaining than challenging. These books might be a little too "standard" for you (hope you know what I mean by that, can't think of a better way to say it), but I am enjoying them. I even repurchased the first 2 in hardcover so i could have them all in hardcover.

Larry Nolen said...


I'll look into it later. Thanks for the rec.

Martin said...

Which one of those, if any, would be worth my while to read?

The Knife Of Never Letting Go is one of my books of the year. My review is here.

However, they are all worth reading. I left off all the shoddy YA I read this year like Little Brother, Un Lun Dun, How I Live Now and the rest.

Larry Nolen said...

I'll add that (and later on, the others) to my purchase/reading list then. Sounds like something I would enjoy reading quite a bit.

Most Popular Books on Wordpress said...

Graceling is an excellent novel.

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