Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Heather's Book Review: Larklight by Philip Reeve

Every person is entitled to his or her list of odd sci-fi fears, and this is one of mine: outer space. 

It’s not so much the fear of what could be lurking in outer space, even though—tangent alert—Stephen Hawking recently stated that if life in space does exist, and if it does try to contact us, we are utterly and totally out of luck because really, what kind of culture is going to go to all the effort to travel to a whole new solar system just to extend an olive branch? Not any superior alien being, that’s for sure. And not even humans, really, because look at us—every single time one group of people introduces itself to another, it’s usually to spread its own culture, or else wipe the other out. And if I was an alien, with my own crazy-super-advanced fleet of ships, and I saw a planet that looked like a cute little blueberry hanging out in space, I’d totally take over that fruit. 
But no, it’s not aliens that I fear. It’s space itself. Yes, being able to look upon the earth and be overwhelmed by its blueberry beauty and the sudden realization that I really am just an insignificant little speck in the wider universe would be a marvelous, eye-opening, worldview-changing thing. But ultimately it comes down to fact that in space, there is no air, and if you smash your spaceship window when playing some space quidditch (‘cause I’d totally be playing some space quidditch), there is no hope for you. 
If NASA could somehow transform space into the version we see in Larklight, however, I might be more willing to go.
Larklight by Philip Reeve is the first in a trilogy of steampunk novels followed by Starcross and Mothstorm. Art and Myrtle Mumby are two siblings who, along with their father, occupy the extraterrestrial house known as Larklight. Though they find this location completely boring, Larklight is a house that is made of amazing (at least to this Earth-bound, architecture-loving reader); having been built to float through outer space, it is a structure where the halls can and do extend in every possible direction. The place is managed by robot servants and kept clean by hoverhogs (creatures that, in spirit, are half-pig, half-vacuum. I want one.), and Art passes his time trying to catch the various Aetheric Icthyomporphs (that is, space-fish-that-are-not-really-fish-but-just-look-like it) that float by Larklight, in hopes of discovering a new species. Oh, and it’s the 1800s. When Isaac Newton figured out how gravity worked back in the 1700s, humanity used his ideas to fling itself into space, so there are now colonies on Mars and even in the far reaches beyond the asteroid belt. Take that, modern science. 
Art and Myrtle soon get their wish for excitement. When a much-anticipated (but mysterious) guest shows up on their doorstep, they find that he’s not quite the man they expect—literally. Disaster requires escape, and the adventure they escape into is one that spans the solar system, taken in the company of a notorious bunch of space pirates.
Usually I recommend Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan as the ideal steampunk starter novel, but Larklight is becoming the novel that I recommend alongside it, as it shows the quirkier side of steampunk (and, really, the side that I’ve been yearning to see ever since I became a steampunk fan). Where Westerfeld’s steampunk is rooted at least somewhat in believable science and history, Reeve’s throws all that out the window. His steampunk only pays attention to the two when it’s fun, which is why Isaac Newton is the one credited with getting people into space, why lack of air does not seem to be such a big deal outside of spaceships, and why the main antagonists are giant talking spiders in bowler hats threatening to take over the solar system. You heard (read?) me. GIANT TALKING SPIDERS IN BOWLER HATS. 
More of the same brand of oddity follows. The characters travel to Jupiter to have a chat with its Great Red Spot. They zip around the rings of Saturn, which are held together not by gravity but by spider webs. They battle against the famous Crystal Palace of Great Exhibition fame, except that, by this point in the story, it’s not just a giant glass building. It’s transformed into a giant robot spider—though it, sadly, does not wear a bowler hat (I consider this a tremendous error on the part of the writer.).
The inventive quirkiness that permeates Larklight is easily one of the reasons why I enjoyed the novel as much as I did. One of the other things I liked about it is how utterly British it is. The book is rife with the florid, detailed language that is associated with Victorian England, but the language isn’t so elaborate that it becomes difficult to read. It’s just elaborate enough, though, that all of the text resonates with a decidedly British accent, which makes it that much more fun to read. The author even uses the language’s frilliness to an amusing advantage; most of the characters’ detailed observations in this book are simultaneously over-the-top, understated, and subtly hilarious. After hundreds of spiders overrun Larklight, encase it in webs, destroy the robot servants, and then (possibly) eat the Mumbys father, all Art says to explain the situation is, “I am afraid that something rather disagreeable has happened.” Only the British can experience something like that and remain so cool while talking about it. 
Also, while I don’t especially care if bad language pops up in my books, one thing that impressed me about Larklight is now self-consciously clean it is. Some language is implied (there are pirates involved, after all), but the narrators are so utterly proper that they censor even the mildest of it—and they do it, miraculously, without being too prudish to turn readers off. That in itself is an impressive accomplishment on Reeve’s part.
All in all, Larklight has a lot to offer, especially for the reader who loves silly, planet-hopping adventures and British accents. Its author has also written a number of other steampunk novels, including the Hungry City Chronicles (a.k.a. Mortal Engines quartet) and Fever Crumb (which I just bought simply because its paperback cover is that awesome). I hadn’t read any of these before, but Larklight has made me curious to do so. And if Larklight is any indication, Mr. Westerfeld may have some competition as my favorite steampunk author.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Tara's Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

I loved Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, so when I learned that she was writing a dystopian novel, I was so excited—the best of both worlds! Bumped tells the story of a future where people are unable to have children after 18 and a market has opened for paid teen surrogate services. Melody (whose parents pioneered this idea) is a girl waiting for her first “bump” when her twin sister Harmony shows up on her doorstep. The two girls couldn’t be more different—whereas Melody is mostly buying in to the capitalist baby-making culture, Harmony has come from a religious commune where girls are married off young to make babies and repopulate the world. There are some complications for both girls, however, like Melody’s attractive friend Zen, and Harmony’s abandoned fiancée back home—not to mention the fact that almost nobody in Melody’s life knows about Harmony’s existence. Through instances of mistaken identity, shared experience, and self-realization, the two girls both begin to question the beliefs with which they were raised and see how their lives could be different if they began to think for themselves. This book is written in alternating narration between the two girls, and while both seem obnoxiously stuck in their ways at first, it’s fascinating and touching to watch them grow and form their own opinions about the world. Even though this book is decidedly not in the same style as the Jessica Darling books, I grew to love the characters and became really interested in the plot’s twists and turns. This book just came out at the end of April and several copies are available in our system, so be sure to pick one up!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Lisa's Book Review: Nothing by Janne Teller

     According to the author’s website, this is “a story about everything and nothing.” It tackles the deep, philosophical question: what is the meaning of life?

     A Printz Honor Award winner, Nothing begins on the first day of school in a provincial town in Denmark when thirteen year-old Pierre Anthon declares to his classmates that life is meaningless and nothing matters. Pierre then refuses to attend classes, and perches in a plum tree, taunting his classmates daily as they pass by on their way to school. 

     Wrestling with the fear and angst that Pierre has planted in their minds, his classmates hatch a plan to prove to Pierre that some things really do matter. They meet regularly in an abandoned sawmill where they begin to accrue a pile of objects that are imbued with meaning and are meant to influence Pierre to change his mind. The first objects to be placed on the pile are innocent enough: a favorite pair of sandals, a soccer ball, and a pet hamster. Yet as the project evolves, the pile begins to take on a much more dark and gruesome tone, as each participant is required to name the object to be contributed by the next classmate in succession. After a series of bizarre stunts related to the theft of meaningful objects, the pile is discovered and catches attention on an international scale.

     Due to its weighty, existential themes, this is a heady book to digest. However, it is an extremely riveting story, on both narrative and symbolic levels. The shocking conclusion will stun you and leave you thinking about this book long after you have turned the final page.

     For more background on the author and her work, visit her website at http://www.janneteller.dk/?English%3ABibliography%3ANothing. If you’d like to learn more about existential philosophy and literature, explore the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/search/searcher.py?query=existentialism