The House of the Scorpion – A Review

Originally posted on Tuesday, 30 March 2010 at ROPL.org.

At first glance, Nancy Farmer’s novel, The House of the Scorpion, is a coming of age story set in a traditional science fiction universe. And while it is very much a coming of age story, Farmer’s book is more than that. It’s a rather surprisingly profound look at what it means to be human.

The novel, set on the Mexico-US border, appears to take place in a world similar to our own. The story centers around Matt, a young boy who was created, rather than born. He is a clone, a fact we learn before we even begin reading the book. We follows Matt as he grows up, learning about his world as he does. As readers, we often get glimpses into the world around our characters, but this is not the case with The House of the Scorpion. What we know about the world Matt lives in is limited to what he knows. Though as the novel goes on, it’s clear that things are not as they seem and an observant reader can guess what Matt’s future might be.

But what really sets this novel apart is Farmer’s ability to make her characters change and grow before our eyes. As a clone, Matt isn’t allowed to do what normal kids do and he learns that people, humans and not clones, view him very differently than he’s always viewed himself. It is through the eyes of the people who despise him that Matt must fight to find himself. Farmer’s writing weaves intricate patterns throughout the text, mixing the horror of the lives of other clones, with the love of certain people in Matt’s life, to the risks his must take in order to survive. The House of the Scorpion is not without it’s faults, and parts of the ending seem to wrap up a bit too perfectly. But in spite of that, the novel is an exceptional work of young adult literature that addresses the question of what it means to be human — a question science fiction has been asking for hundreds of years.

Adults as well as teens will find much to like in this novel.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Originally posted on Tue, May 25 2010 at ROPL.org.

If you like history, and even if you don’t, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. This witty, clever and engrossing book reads like a novel and not a study of presidential assassinations, but that’s exactly what it is.

Published in 2006, Vowell’s book is part history, part comedy and part travelogue. Assassination Vacation gives us the details, some familiar and others not, of three presidential assassinations. The first, and the one we all probably know a little bit about, is that of Abraham Lincoln. The second president is James Garfield, followed by William McKinley. These three Presidents’ deaths are woven together, almost lovingly, by Vowell’s obsession with assassinations.

Instead of inundating us with facts and figures, we travel with her as she visits obscure places, such as the Doctor’s house where John Wilkes Booth sought assistance after shooting Lincoln, as well as the more famous locations. She travels to the theater where Lincoln was shot, and also to the Oneida commune where Charles Guiteau lived before he assassinated Garfield as well as hiking the Adirondacks, just as Theodore Roosevelt was doing when McKinley died. It’s these details, and more, that draw you into the stories of the three assassinations, as well as into Vowell’s own life.

Though covering a serious subject, Vowell is almost inspiring in her devotion to bringing us all sides of these stories. Assassination Vacation is a fun, interesting and educational read.

Other books by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates
The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Take the Cannoli

A few books about Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley (and John Wilkes Booth)

In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts
President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman
by William Lee Miller
They Have Killed Papa Dead! by Anthony Pitch
Manhunt by James Swanson
The Presidencies of James A. Garfield & Chester A. Arthur by Justus Doenecke
The Garfield Orbit by Margaret Leech
The Presidency of William McKinley by Lewis Gould
William McKinley and his America by H. Wayne Morgan
Good Brother, Bad Brother by James Giblin (about John Wilkes Booth)
American Brutus by Michael Kauffman (about John Wilkes Booth)

Dystopia for Teens (and Adults)

Originally posted on Wed, Mar 17 2010 at ROPL.org.

Dystopia: A modern term invented as the opposite of utopia and applied to any alarmingly unpleasant imaginary world, usually of the projected future (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, pg. 74).

If you’re looking for something a little bit darker, a little bit scarier and not quite like our own world, look no further.

Dystopian novels have been around since before the term even existed. Everyone knows HG Wells’The Time Machine, Huxley’s A Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, but these aren’t the only books out there. Dystopian young adult novels are often dark and scary, but at the same time they draw on love stories, humor and adventure to create thrilling reads.You don’t have to like science fiction to enjoy these books, and you don’t have to like ‘normal’ fiction to like them, either. Dystopia mixes the two together with extremely fun results.

If you’re a fan of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, you’ll definitely like dystopian novels. Some of these are set in worlds similar to our own, while others take place in a distant future. But these books aren’t just for teens, adults will find plenty to enjoy about these stories of teens defying the odds to survive.

Here are three titles I’ve read recently:

The Carbon Diaries, 2015: It’s five years into our future and the world’s on high alert because massive storms have battered Earth. Efforts to stop global warming are at the center of the world’s attention and the United Kingdom has volunteered to be the guinea pig for a huge carbon reduction program. Staci Lloyd’s novel tells the story of Laura, a teen living in the UK, who must learn to live with these new carbon rules — and how she’ll survive when the storms come back.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth: Zombies! Except this is no ordinary zombie novel. Mary lives in a tiny village surrounded by fences. The only people she knows are those from her village and those fences are meant to keep people in and the zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, out. When her mother becomes one of them and danger threatens to ruin the only world she’s ever known, Mary must make a decision. Should she stay or should she follow the path to the Outside, beyond the fences? Carrie Ryan’s novel mixes the familiar fear of zombies with a world where nothing’s certain.

Winter’s End: Translated from French, Jean-Claude Mourlevat’s is the story of four teens who discover a terrible secret about their parents — all of them were murdered fighting in a rebellion. The novel is a tale of escape, freedom and resistance. Milena, Bartolomeo, Helen, and Milos must come to terms with their present situation in order to preserve their future from the ruthless government who wishes to kill them. Will they escape? And if they do, who can they trust? Mourlevat’s characters must survive man-dogs, a brutal winter and even a gladiator match all while trying to ensure the freedom of their country.

Other titles the library owns:

  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • Life As We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • Skinned and Crashed by Robin Wasserman
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner
  •  Gone and Hunger by Michael Grant