December 2005

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Holiday Gift Guide

When I picked up Ann Halam’s Siberia I honestly had no idea where this book was going to take me. I was attracted by the idea of a young girl growing up in a futuristic prison camp and the hint of environmentalism in the book’s description. How Rosita goes from living in exile to embarking on an epic journey across the ice and snow to a fabled northern city may be what keeps readers on the edge of their seats, but there are other transformations in this novel as well, from the sweet child Rosita to the hardened teenager Sloe, and more importantly from a thought process of magic to science. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and none of this will make any sense if I don’t explain the world that Rosita/Sloe is living in.

At some point in Siberia’s future, the world has lost touch with nature and become a cold wasteland separated by domed cities. The people in the cities are distanced from those who live in the wilderness, and all of them are distanced from nature. Animals are now raised in fur farms (dogs, cats, everything) and wild animals are rare. Sloe’s parents were city scientists who opposed the government’s decisions concerning the destruction of wild animal DNA. After her father was arrested and killed by the government she and her mother are to a camp; a camp that sounds a lot like a Soviet era gulag. It is there that she learns about her mother’s “magic” and the compressed DNA she smuggled out of the city and now safeguards until they can one day escape to the safety of the almost mythical city on the other side of the forest. This compressed DNA, referred to as Lindquists in the book and named by Halam in honor of real life MIT biologist Susan Lindquist, is able to express itself in many forms. In essence, Sloe and her mother have the future of every wild animal in the small kits they hide beneath the floor of their Siberian hut. What will become of these kits after Sloe is sent away to school and her mother is arrested by the government authorities for teaching her daughter science is the crux of the story. Can Sloe save them and successfully travel to the safety of the northern city, and more importantly, can she learn enough about how to control the DNA so that they can save her from those who wish her harm (and want the DNA).

Siberia is not about the Soviet Union and as Halam points out, “The Siberia I’m talking about in this story is not a place. Siberia is a state of mind.” She makes a point in her Author’s Note to credit the seed bank in St. Petersburg for providing her with the book’s initial idea, however. That bank was protected by its curators during WWII (when the city was known as Leningrad), even at the price of their own lives. The seeds were saved despite the starving people of the city because the curators understood that they promised a new tomorrow for Russia; it was a legacy that was larger than their own lives, and they died to protect it.

Siberia is very much a science fiction novel about what can go wrong in society, and the lengths to which good people must be willing to fight in order to fix it. It is also about the dangers found when people distance themselves from the land around them, and the creatures that populate that land. In that way it is very much an environmental novel, but the message is subtle (believe it or not), and wrapped around such an outstanding adventure story that readers of all genres will certainly enjoy it as much as I did. You also can not be anything but impressed by Halam’s amazing imagination and how well she pulled off this scientific thriller. (And don’t for a minute be put off by the complexities of DNA -- Halam explains everything and the narrative never gets bogged down for a minute or swerves from its adventure roots.) I thought Siberia was outstanding and certainly one of the more imaginative novels I have come across in quite some time.

I felt like I was in a Charlie Chan movie (and I mean that in a good way) when I was reading Operation Red Jericho by Joshua Mowll. Jericho has an interesting set-up as Mowll is introduced early on as the great nephew of the recently deceased Rebecca MacKenzie. In her will, Rebecca left all of the family archives to Joshua along with her diaries. The story that follows is culled from those “archives” and details the adventures Rebecca and her brother Doug found while taking part in Operation Red Jericho.

I am a total sucker for a good adventure story -- I was queen of the Clive Cussler bandwagon until he got just too silly to believe. (I’m okay with raising the Titanic but opening the door and having your beautiful unknown twin children standing there who are brave and smart and respectful and with a conveniently dead mother who just happened to be the love your life is too much of a stretch. I mean, really!) Anyway, Red Jericho is the perfect sort of adventure story. It’s set in Shanghai and the surrounding area in 1920 when Rebecca is fifteen and Doug thirteen. Their parents have been missing in a distant Chinese province for a year and they are on their way to yet another relative, this time their uncle, Captain Fitzroy MacKenzie, and his ship the Expedient. No one seems to know where Becca and Doug’s parents are, or what they were doing when they lost contact with the family. And no one seems willing to answer the many questions the children have about the MacKenzie family. In rapid order though they learn the Expedient is not all it appears, that the Captain’s friend, Luc Chambois, is both a renowned scientist and a suspected murderer and they are all in danger from both a Chinese pirate and a mysterious man in a white linen suit. Most amazing of all are the tantalizing clues about the Honorable Guild of Specialists who seem to be at the center of the mysterious events that encircle and engage Becca and Doug at every turn.

One of the coolest things about this book is the maps, charts, photos and other bits of ephemera that are part of the text. The book is designed to be read as both part of Becca’s diary and also a traditional story about what they experience with their uncle in China. The letter excerpts and sketches along with everything else give it more of a dated and scrapbook sort of appearance and enhance the story beyond the great writing. All in all, Operation Red Jericho is classic seat-of-the-pants sort of fun adventure that is not the slightest bit stupid or ridiculous. It ends with a promise of more books to follow and I hope that Mowll keeps up with the series; he’s on to something quite unique here and any curious reader will be clamoring for more after they read his first book.

I have been a fan of Jane Yolen’s for a long long time and consider Briar Rose to be one of the best young adult books ever written. She has amazing insight into her characters’ hearts and motivations and always provides a compelling tale. With Pay the Piper Yolen teamed up with her son, writer Adam Stemple, to craft a fabulous Pied Piper of Hamelin story. One of the things I liked best about it is that it is not simply a modern update of the story (take that, Martha Stewart!), nor a revision of the original legend. It is instead the story of who the Pied Piper was from the very beginning and where he has been since his tragic visit to Hamelin in 1284. Basically, this is the story of what happened not only in Hamelin, but every place since then that the Piper has visited, and what he plans to do in 21st century Massachusetts.

The book takes place in October, and reaches its climatic moment on Halloween when the Piper’s song draws the local trick or treaters away into the night. It’s a perfect moment for this sort of sinister call, the perfect atmosphere for disappearance and despair. Of course there is a heroine who sees through the music (mostly) and fourteen-year-old Callie McCallan is determined to save her little brother and his friends from a fate she can not imagine and is only beginning to understand. What really happened to the lost princes in the tower or the Children’s Crusaders who never returned? What really happens to all those children on milk cartons and fliers that arrive in the mail? What became of the children of Hamelin is the question that Callie finds herself forced to confront, and her ability to see the truth when others have not is what makes all the difference.

Pay the Piper is a well written story but attains the level of brilliance because of how it handles the history of the real Pied Piper. It’s easy to dismiss what happened in Hamelin as a folk tale, but that would be foolish and worse yet, disgraceful. Something bad happened to those children over 800 years ago, just as something bad happens to children everyday in modern America. Believe it was just a story if that is what allows you to sleep at night, or be brave enough to jump out a window and run into the dark after a legend if you want to know the truth. That is what Callie does and what she discovers makes for a great modern fairy tale. (And Book #1 in a new series, the sequel, Troll Bridge is due out in 2006.)

Finally, for teen readers, there is an excellent graphic novel series out from Oni Press, Love as a Foreign Language. Through the trials and travails of Joel, a Canadian who is teaching English in South Korea, readers can see how difficult (and hysterical) it is to pursue love in another country. There is nothing heavy handed in this book -- don’t go looking for political tirades against nuclear weapons in the North -- but plenty of insight into the minds of expatriates trying to fit in while not going crazy. I have to confess that I don’t think Joel would be all that good at finding love in his hometown, let alone fitting in there, but I have found his pursuit of Hana to be both endearing and realistic. There are four books out in this series thus far (and the fourth ends with a major shocker!), each one better than the last. It’s witty, it’s engaging and in both story and art, a true reading pleasure. This is a great way to get out of your superhero or manga rut and something that both teens and adults will enjoy.

And as an extra to my regular column, and because this is the holiday shopping season, I thought I would end the year by mentioning ten of the more impressive books for a young adult audience that I have had a chance to read in 2005. I think all of these titles are worth seeking out, and I hope they will gain the new readership and attention that each of them certainly deserves.

1. Kipling’s Choice by Geert Spillebeen
One of the most outstanding war books I have ever read, period, and as someone who majored in U.S. Military History, I have read a lot about war. The fact that this is about Rudyard Kipling and his son only makes it that much more fascinating and somehow, that much sadder as well.

2. Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers
A brilliant and visually stunning story about how friends lose their way and why violence is such a crushing way of life in so many parts of America today. It will always be the National Book Award Winner of 2005 for me.

3. Zara’s Tales by Peter Beard
This is the book for any animal or adventure lover and the perfect antidote for kids who are too in love with their computer or tv. Beard’s photos and illustrations are excellent and his true stories of living and working in Africa are fantastic. It’s a gorgeous book and has been sadly overlooked by readers.

4. Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye
As the “big boxifcation” of America begins to feel a long overdue backlash, this story about a group of teenagers who try to keep their hometown independent and unique is both funny and inspiring. I loved that these kids were at least willing to do something, and not just sit around and whine.

5. Zazoo by Richard Mosher
In this quiet and beautiful story about a young girl in France, Mosher has done a wonderful job of showing just how long the wounds of war can linger. He combined a great coming of age story, a gentle teen romance and a family mystery into a stunning novel. This one stays on my bookshelf -- so I can reach for it when I need to learn again what it takes to be a good writer.

6. Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci
Everybody loves a teen romance but I hate when the characters (especially the girls) are stupid clichés. This story about teenage love, coupled with a search for self by both the young and old, is head and shoulders above any other in the genre that I have read in a long long time.

7. Other Echoes by Adele Geras
This thoughtful book about a young girl’s discoveries in post WWII North Borneo was striking for several reasons, not the least of which was the eloquent language. There is a mystery here, a shock, and a devastating exploration of the civilian casualties of war. If you want to learn why peace is the most important thing in the world today, read Other Echoes and Kipling’s Choice. They don’t shy away from the truth, and they don’t screw it up with a bunch of political crap (from either perspective). Class acts, both of them, all the way.

8. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durell
It’s a classic for a reason and although not written specifically for young adults it is perfect for any reader of any age who likes to read about funny families and has any sort of natural history bent. I defy you not to fall in love with the Durrells while reading this book! With memoirs like this out there, young adults should dive right in and enjoy what the adult have been hoarding as their own for far too long.

9. The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger
I have been a fan of Hartinger’s since the first page of Geography Club and this sequel just cemented our literary relationship. The crew is back and off to summer camp where all sorts of entanglements, both romantic and otherwise, ensue. If anything, the relationships are even more honest this go-round and Russell’s evolving friendships continue to impress me. There are more titles in the works for this series and it should be pursued and enjoyed by all teens, gay, straight and bi.

10. Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples
I am constantly on the lookout for well written books about the Middle East and Central Asia because I believe quite strongly that Americans are woefully behind when it comes to understanding the world. Staples has written a very honest portrayal of a young girl whose family is torn apart by the recent Afghan War. Her struggle to find a place for herself, and her refusal to let go of what she loves about her homeland, makes this the best sort of book for young adults. Readers will learn about Afghanistan when they read this, and discover both the many ways in which we are different people and the thousand ways in which we are similar human beings. It is not to be missed.

Siberia by Ann Halam
Wendy Lamb Books
ISBN 0385746504
262 pages

Operation Red Jericho by Joshua Mowll
Candlewick Press
ISBN 0763626341
270 pages

Pay the Piper by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple
Tor Books
ISBN 0765311585
176 pages

Love as a Foreign Language Vol. 4 by J. Torres
Illustrated by Eric Kim
Oni Press
ISBN 193266419X
58 pages