Category Archives: Young Adult

The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs

The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor JacobsReview: The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs (Carolrhoda Books, 2013)

Shreve Cannon got the short end of life’s stick. Life in a trailer park caring for a younger brother and an alcoholic mother made his path all but inevitable. When we meet him at 15 years old he’s the kingpin of the candy-smuggling racket in juvie, keeping his wits sharp by outsmarting the ever-present warden Booth. Shreve made is mistakes but he’s no idiot; street smarts and sharp thinking keep him a few steps ahead of his fellow inmates. Enter Jack, an introverted and painfully shy 12-year old who is thrust into Shreve’s cell and life from nowhere. Jack is different, and the six fingers he sports on each hand are only the beginning. When he feels threatened, things get dangerous – explosively so. And his tendency towards blowing his top has attracted the attention of the sinister Quincrux, a menacing figure with an uncanny ability to get right inside your head.

Before long Shreve and Jack are on the run, having busted out of their detention centre in flight from Quincrux and his malevolent German sidekick, the nurse. What follows is classic comic-book material as the pair soon learn to explore and control their powers, that which has been with Jack as long as he can remember as well as the talent acquired by Shreve during an altercation with Quincrux. They soon realise they can’t run forever though and must face the terror which is dogging their every step. In doing so they’ll uncover the answers to key questions: where did these powers come from? Who or what is Quincrux? And what on earth happened in Maryland to cause him to be so terrified of that place?

The Twelve-Fingered Boy is a perfect example of why I’ve been so enamoured of YA fiction in recent years. It’s incredibly fresh, fast-moving and original. Most importantly it never once talks down to its audience, instead taking great pains to pull no punches. At times it is brutal in its treatment of characters and while John Hornor Jacobs is no George RR Martin you get the feeling that it’s best not to get too attached to any characters, no matter how prominently they may feature. This is a fantastical science-fiction universe to be sure but it’s one in which consequences certainly exist, and in which they are not necessarily equal and opposite to the actions which invoke them. Behind the relentless action there is a story of confusion, hurt and trauma, tapping right into the adolescent psyche of the teens who really should be reading this book.

Propping up the thrilling yet gritty storyline is a cast of characters so strongly portrayed they really do jump out of the pages at you. Shreve is a classic anti-hero, thoroughly likeable and roguish yet gloriously flawed and unashamedly so. He knows he has his rough edges and while he makes no apologies for them he does strive to improve. Jack’s fear is almost palpable, a lost child thrust into a chaotic world he doesn’t even begin to understand. And Quincrux – wow. So demonic is his nature that I couldn’t help but picture him as some kind of demented chimaera of ghost, scarecrow and those gangly Area-51 style bad guys from recent Dr Who episodes. Anything but human in other words, a personification of evil. The meat provided by the key players is more than enough to let Jacobs get away with occasionally taking liberties with plausibility elsewhere.

The Twelve-Fingered Boy is only the first in a planned trilogy of books – awful lot of that going around these days. My recommendation is to get into the action now before someone snaps up the movie rights and ruins it for everyone. It’s far too short a read but every second is hugely enjoyable.

 

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Filed under Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult

The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick NessReview: The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2008)

My good friend Splendibird over at Mountains Of Instead (where I sporadically post reviews) has been a-pestering me to read Patrick Ness for some time. Specifically the Chaos Walking trilogy, the first installment of which being The Knife Of Never Letting Go. For some strange reason it lay neglected at the bottom of my reading list for quite some time, its young adult form crushed under the weight of its elders. I finally picked it up last week and discovered to my delight that elder most certainly does not imply better.

The Knife Of Never Letting Go opens in the village of Prentisstown, the only human settlement remaining in the interplanetary colony of New World. Founded by religious pioneers seeking a refuge in which to worship in peace, New World initially seemed idyllic until the colonists discovered they weren’t alone. The ensuing war with the indigenous species known as Spackles resulted in the enemy’s utter defeat but also in the release of a germ with two horrific effects for the colonists. Firstly all of the women were wiped out entirely, leaving behind a world of men and boys. Secondly, each man and animal became infected with the Noise – every single thought is transmitted to everyone in earshot, no more privacy, no more secrets.

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, orphaned at an early age and raised by Ben and Cillian on their homestead. His coming birthday will result in his induction into the world of men but a trip through the swamps with his dog Manchee leads Todd to discover something unbelievable – a gap in the Noise, a spot of utter quiet. Unnerved by the incident and praying it doesn’t herald the return of the Spackle, Todd hurries about his errands in town and returns to the farm.

Before he knows what is happening, Todd’s world is turned upside town and inside out. On reading his noise, Ben and Cillian burst into action, digging out a hidden pack packed with supplies and his mother’s journal. Despite his protests, Todd’s foster parents frantically send him out of the house, beyond the reach of the men of Prentisstown and in search of another town – wait, another town? – called Haven. In the midst of the chaos the local deputy arrives, demanding that Todd be turned over – his noise leaked all over town and stirred up something dormant lying within all the menfolk. Forcefully sending the lawman packing, Ben and Cillian all but kick Todd on his way before turning to defend the farm from the posse they know will soon be at their doors. Armed only with the titular hunting knife and a journal he can’t even read and with only Manchee for company, Todd has to strike out on his own with an army at his tail and discover that everything he has been told was a lie.

The Knife Of Never Letting Go wastes no time in getting to the action and doesn’t let up from that point onwards. From start to finish it’s a never-ending series of trials for young Todd as he tries to outrun the demented preacher Aaron, avoid the Prentisstown army and hide his Noise from any outsiders he meets, none of whom hold any love for Prentisstown or its inhabitants. The pacing is perfect, with just enough time between incidents for you to catch your breath and learn more of the history of New World.

What’s not quite perfect is the writing style, with its deliberate phonetic spellings of certain longer words. It’s a fine concept to be fair, but the arbitrary and inconsistent of the words selected is enough to drive any English teacher crazy. And to be honest it took me a long time to accept the way Noise was portrayed, initially finding it clunky and cumbersome, dragging the rest of the action down. That said, by the book’s climax it feels like Ness has finally grasped how to portray Noise, and his descriptions of the climactic battle is an eruption of Noise and sharp, staccato sentences which truly bring Todd’s adrenaline-fuelled mixture of panic and resolve to life. And it has to be said that Manchee’s confused little dog-thoughts – “Todd? Poo, Todd! Squirrels, squirrels!” – are utterly adorable.

For a young adult work, The Knife Of Letting Go is remarkably mature and meaty. The kid gloves are off and Patrick Ness pulls no punches, at one point out-Martining George R.R. himself (you know what I’m talking about Ness, you heartless bastard.) The book ends on a perfectly-timed cliffhanger which has guaranteed to keep me on New World for the duration of the next two Chaos Walking volumes.

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Filed under Science Fiction, Young Adult

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Homeland by Cory DoctorowReview: Homeland by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2013)

As Bradley Manning, hero of the Wikileaks scandal, endures his court martial under a near-total blanket of secrecy from the powers that be, and the tech world still reels from the suicide of Aaron Swartz (who provides a posthumous afterword), it seems a perfect time to talk about Homeland, the latest young adult novel by king of the geeks Cory Doctorow and sequel to his wonderful YA debut Little Brother. In the previous volume a young tech enthusiast named Marcus (or MiK3y) was hounded by the government following a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. Aided by overreaching new laws they hounded him and his friends, to a point including waterboarding, for their part in organising an underground knowledge network on the Darknet in order to disseminate news about the horrific abuses of power being carried out int he name of security.

Homeland opens a couple of years into the future. Far from fulfilling his promise as a computer whizzkid, Marcus has been forced to abandon his college studies due to lack of funding. His government blacklisting has resulted in the loss of his father’s job, making things tight for everyone. Keeping himself busy through tinkering with 3D printing he finds himself at the Burning Man festival where Masha, an old acquaintance, appears from nowhere and passes something into his possession, an encryption key, with a sinister message. If she suddenly disappears or is found dead he is to use the key to decrypt a file hosted on Pirate Bay’s servers and make it public. As a snoop for the Department Of Homeland Security she has been collecting all manner of incriminating documents from other operatives whose consciences could no longer bear the weight of the secrets they were carrying. The file is dynamite, set to expose all manner of wrongdoing from torture to government complicity in the spiraling circle of debt so many find themselves trapped in.

Soon after this meeting Masha and her partner Zeb vanish from sight, soon after Marcus spots his nemesis Carrie Johnstone (responsible for his torture) patrolling the camp. Seconds later there is a massive, ‘accidental’ explosion involving one of the automotive art installations and when the dust clears Carrie is gone. What follows for Marcus is yet another series of trials, both mental and physical, stretching his integrity and his relationships to breaking point and forcing himself to fight the demons of his past. Should he release the documents? What will the consequences be? How should he do this and does he truly have the backbone to go through with it? Both aiding and abetting his quest is his appointment to the position of technical manager for a firebrand independent politician’s election campaign.

Doctorow manages to push all the right buttons in Homeland, giving us some snippets of actions, hefty doses of righteous indignation, comic relief and allowing high enough doses of reality to keep everything grounded. The characters from Little Brother become more fleshed out with that of Marcus being particularly well written. It’s no mean feat to make a neurotic, obsessive geek into a likable hero but aside from a few questionable decisions he fits the bill pretty well. In fact he veers away from the hero archetype, spending plenty of time weighing the options between going down in a blaze of glory – hounded as he is by the government, mercenaries and hackers alike – and simply ducking for cover to save his own skin and protect those around him. His decisions are real and they are hard, eliciting plenty sympathy from the reader.

Most rewarding for me, and the reason I picked it up, is the fact that Homeland – like Little Brother and Pirate Cinema before it – reads almost like a manual for youth insurrection. It’s steeped in technical know-how from start to finish, discussing online privacy, cryptography, surveillance and general politics – not to mention how to cold-brew the perfect cup of coffee! I have said many times that these books make me wish I had been born in the late 90’s so I could be coming of age in a world where all of this is accessible to an impressionable teen. It’s inspiring stuff and has already inspired me to start learning a couple of programming languages as well as expanding my knowledge of Linux operating systems. Not content with simply weaving these elements into the tale, Doctorow provides a handy appendix full of links and references to get you or your child started as a hacker/caffeine addict.

Homeland, despite its heavy topics, is a very easy and enjoyable read. If you have any interest at all in technology, the internet, freedom of speech, open government and other related topics then regardless of your age you will get something out of it. It inspires both thought and action while dressing everything up in the garb of a traditional thriller transposed to modern times. If you have kids in their teenage years simply do not hesitate – buy this book for them now. It’s dark for sure and may instill an inherent distrust for authority but is that really such a bad thing?

(As a closing word it should be pointed out that Homeland, like all of Cory Doctorow’s works, is available to download for free from his website, Craphound. Unlike anti-consumer websites such as Amazon, Doctorow performed an experiment whereby he simultaneously released books for free and for sale. The results were undeniable – those books with free versions sold far more copies than pay-only volumes. Word of mouth goes a long way. So go try it for free if you have a reader – any reader as his books, unlike Amazon’s, are entirely DRM-free and can be read on any kind or number of devices. If you want to pay him some money for his efforts – and the free copies are peppered with reminders and shout-outs to his favourite independent bookstores – then you can buy a paper copy afterwards and have it donated to a library or public school. This is the future of publishing, not the fearful ‘we own your purchases’ attitude of Amazon, Apple, etc.)

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Filed under Tech, Thriller, Young Adult

Crosslink – Looking For Alaska

Looking For Alaska by John GreenSplendibird over at The Mountains Of Instead has posted another of my reviews. She politely requested that I cast my eyes over John Green’s debut novel, Looking For Alaska, and I gladly obliged. For once I steered away from sci-fi, fantasy, crime and popular science, delving instead into the heady world of tragic drama and it’s attendant emotional turmoil. Yipes. Looking For Alaska tells the tale of Miles Halter and his transition to life at an American boarding school. You soon realise that events are leading inexorably towards catastrophe and Miles’ world is soon turned upside down, part of his quest for a ‘great perhaps’. Tragic yet warming, sad and funny, always full of life, this is a great book. Thanks for the tip Splendibird!

Read the full review here.

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Pirate Party

Pirate Cinema by Coy DoctorowReview: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2012)

(Note: This was originally written for The Mountains Of Instead but turned out too long. I had to use it, especially in light of the recent death of Aaron Swartz. The themes of this book are very relevant to the case)

The year is, well, not so far from now. Life in the UK is much the same, only the technology has changed. Even in that sense society is entirely recognisable, with the only significant difference being further reliance on the internet: for study; for work; for recreation; even for claiming benefits. It is against this background that nerd icon Cory Doctorow sets his latest YA novel, Pirate Cinema.

Pirate Cinema opens with Trent McCauley, a nondescript 16 year old Bradford schoolkid, indulging in his hobby. Trent is a remixer, downloading any appearances of fictional actor Scot Colford which he can lay his hands on and rearranging them into his own wildly creative and popular montages. Unfortunately for Trent, the entertainment industry takes a dim view of such activities and under the draconian laws of the land his family have their internet service disconnected.

Even today this would be a blow to many people – one year without access to email, Facebook, YouTube and everything else. In Trent’s world it is nigh a death sentence. His younger sister is cut off from vital educational resources in the middle of her schooling. His father, barely scraping by at an online temping gig, has his sole source of income removed. His mother can no longer apply for benefits to aid her crippling leg problems, nor can she find any online help. Trent, shocked by the consequences of his innocent downloading, flees home and heads for the bright lights of London.

By the end of his first night he has lost his laptop (using it as a pillow while sleeping in a park was perhaps a silly idea) and is reduced to begging for change. Fortunately he is adopted by Jem, a genuinely altruistic old hand at this life and Doctorow briefly transforms Pirate Cinema into Oliver Twist. Jem introduces Trent to the smart (and honest) way to live on the streets, with the principle of sharing their gains with those less fortunate at the forefront of their minds. Before long they are squatting in an abandoned pub and renovating it, transforming it into a veritable palace.

Trent soon finds his internet feet again and is continuing his remixing under the alias Cecil B. DeVil. This soon lands him in hot water yet again and matters escalate to the point of a legal battle and a grassroots war with the entertainment industry and the corrupt politicians whose pockets they are filling to ensure their laws pass. The ongoing collaborations with Trent and his new-found activist friends, set against the scheming and machinations of the executives and politicians, form the meat of Pirate Cinema, with Cory Doctorow subjecting his characters to all manner of mishaps and misadventures before reaching an exhilarating conclusion.

Pirate Cinema is a great little read. My only real gripe was his often embarrassing attempts so conduct dialogue using teenage slang. Canadian Doctorow has been resident in the UK for several years but his grasp of kidspeak is tenuous at best and makes for some unintentional giggle along the way. Seriously, I have never seen anyone say “Cor!” outside of the Beano.

On the plus side, it never takes itself too seriously and plays about with pop culture references, pokes gentle fun at its geeky excesses and manages to entertain and ultimately educate at the same time. It’s suited perfectly to an audience of an age with its protagonist and any references to sex, drugs and swearing are subtly glossed over. It’s possible that some may find Doctorow’s style overly preachy, an accusation levelled at his previous YA effort Little Brother (a book which made me wish I had been born 20 years later so I could be reading it as a teenager today). However, as an avowed copyfighter this was not an issue for me personally. Overall it delivers exactly what one would expect from a YA novel with this premise – a funny, rousing techno-fable which should please a wide audience, especially among computer-literate teens.

So that’s the meat of the review. Now for the Public Service Announcement. Pirate Cinema is a fictional novel but the world it depicts is most assuredly not. The legal battles, political maneuvering and lobbying which form the heart of the story are based, with very little exaggeration, on events occurring right now. UK readers may be familiar with the Digital Economy Act which passed in 2010 and handed unbelievable powers to rights holders to prosecute those they believe to be infringing copyright, even without evidence. France recently introduced a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule identical to that used in Pirate Cinema. The copyright battles in the US are probably well known to everyone with an internet connection.

There is a mammoth power struggle going on and unfortunately consumers and artists are getting the short end of the stick due mainly to simple lack of funding. Multi-billion dollar industries whose profits continue to grow year on year – despite deepening recessions – would have us believe that those who would dare to remix existing works and share them without charging a single penny are on a par with organised criminals like the mafia and should be jailed. People like me, who buy an ebook at Amazon for an insanely inflated price and are forced to use third party programs to strip its DRM and read it on the device of our choosing, are lawbreakers – a threat to the entire publishing industry.

This is not hyperbole. This is real. This is how the situation is portrayed to MPs by lobbyists with pockets full of party invitations and brown envelopes. People like Cory Doctorow are trying to help the situation by informing and educating.

And yes, he is a man with the courage of his convictions. Pirate Cinema is available for free download at his website, along with all of his other novels. Contrary to what the industry would have us believe, he conducted his own experiment and, in line with what other similar studies have shown, found that offering free downloads with no DRM at all actually increased sales of paper and electronic copies alike. Sharing is good. Sharing works.

(Okay, the free copy has regular ‘commercial interludes’ reminding you that he has to eat but this is a small price to pay. If so inclined you can choose to donate a copy to a school or library via his website while retaining a free copy yourself. This is very, very good thing.)

So there we have it. Call Pirate Cinema a simple novel, in which case it is a wonderfully enjoyable David and Goliath tale. Call it an educational supplement, opening people’s eyes to the goings-on around them. Call it a call to arms for today’s young generation, warning them of the need to exercise their rights and maintain eternal vigilance. Whichever way you look at it, Pirate Cinema is a gem of a book for any tech-oriented, creative or even vaguely pro-active mind.

Download Pirate Cinema: http://craphound.com/pc/download/
Open Rights Group: http://www.openrightsgroup.org/
Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/

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Filed under Humour, Tech, Young Adult