February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Gregory Maguire’s “After Alice,” Speculative Fiction, and More | Adult Books 4 Teens

It seems like only a couple months ago that we were talking about speculative fiction in this space. What’s that? It was just a couple months ago. Well, it just so happens that this is the genre that seems to cross over most easily from adult to teen. We’re going to look once again at a wide assortment of speculative fiction titles, and a book that seems like it should be science fiction but is actually nonfiction.

We’re starting with one of my favorite writers in the world, a claim I make despite never having read any of his books. David Wong is the executive editor of and frequent contributor to Cracked.com, a nonfiction humor website that has some of the most interesting content on the Internet. They also have a couple books out for you non-Internet readers. Take a look at The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn’t Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew (Plume, 2013). Wong is also a frequent contributor to the weekly Cracked.com podcast, which I’ve recently become obsessed with and where he’s proven himself to be one of the smartest, funniest commentators around. That’s all an introduction to his third novel and our starred review for today, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, a humorous take on a science fiction world where anyone can have superpowers, to be used for good or, probably more often (let’s face it), evil.

For a more serious take on science fiction, try Margaret Fortune’s Nova. Like the authors of several of the novels we covered the last time we looked at speculative fiction, Fortune uses the genre to probe the depths of humanity: Is her hero, Lia, a human? A clone? A robot? How can she or anyone else tell the difference? And if they can’t, is there a difference? These questions, along with a surprisingly topical examination of the ethics of terrorism and suicide missions, comprise the beating heart of this fantastic speculative fiction novel.

Before moving on to some fantasy, let’s look at that nonfiction piece I mentioned a few paragraphs up. Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth sounds almost exactly like Jurassic Park: a group of scientists attempting to create new living members of extinct species. The science is a bit different, as these scientists use current species and adapt them into their historical predecessors. Though no one is trying to make dinosaurs or start an amusement park, the book, which our reviewer called “irresistible,” has plenty of mind-blowing implications and will engage readers in the incredibly complex science that goes into this enterprise.

OK, now on to world(s) of fantasy. We have three new books by titans in the world of fantasy, all with huge teen followings. Least well-known in America is Tom Holt, a British fantasy novelist who also writes under the name K.J. Parker. His latest is The Good, the Bad, and the Smug, and the snark continues well past the book’s title into the satirical world Holt has created, which includes a Rupert Murdock–esque goblin called Mordak and a continued fixation on donuts (see Doughnut, Orbit, 2013). The story offers a clever twist on the “Rumpelstiltskin” story, when the ability to turn straw into gold causes a troubling scarcity in straw—now which resource is most valuable?

And speaking of intriguing takes and interpretations: Gregory Maguire! Our favorite twister of tales (Wicked; Mirror, Mirror; Egg & Spoon) tackles Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with a new novel, After Alice. Maguire’s version of the story picks up just after Alice’s fateful descent down the rabbit hole, as her friend Ada comes looking for her and manages to fall into Wonderland after her. From there, Maguire alternates between Ada’s search for Alice in Wonderland and reports from the homeland back in Victorian England, as Alice’s sister Lydia notices that someone is missing. This is another great, funny novel from Maguire, with an ending open enough to hope for a series.

Finally, we have some delicious high fantasy from Juliet Marillier. This author should be well known to teen fantasy readers, both for her tremendous YA novels and her adult novels chock-full of teen appeal (she won an Alex Award for Daughter of the Forest). Tower of Thorns is another to add to the list of adult books with teen appeal. Like much of Marillier’s earlier work, this novel is steeped in Celtic mythology—in particular the legends of the fey. But the true focus of this second book in her “Blackthorn & Grim” series is squarely on the platonic relationship between the eponymous heroes: a disillusioned healer named Blackthorn and her former prison mate and current companion, Grim. It is a deeply felt and thoroughly human connection, despite the fantasy trappings. Which, really, could be said for all of the novels reviewed below. Even How to Clone a Mammoth is most definitely concerned with the human side of science and the ethical implications of our mastery of the subject. And this human connection is one of the many reasons speculative fiction continues to hold such sway over so many readers.


Margaret Fortune NovaFORTUNE, Margaret. Nova. 320p. ebook available. DAW. 2015. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780756410810.
Lia Johansen is 16 years old and alone and has recently been rescued with other refugees from the invasion that left her planet in tatters. Her parents are dead, and she has no memories of anything except her name and her mission. Lia is a human bomb, and she is programmed to blow up the space station in 36 hours. The protagonist assumes that she is a clone or, perhaps, a robot because she has no memories of a past at all, until she meets Michael, a boy who seems to know her. The ticking clock looms large until, suddenly, it stops: she is a dud. Unable to jump-start the device, Lia begins to feel that maybe she has a second chance and, possibly, a future. Her friendship with Michael deepens, and she makes other friends—so when the clock randomly begins to tick off the minutes and seconds, Lia is uncertain that she wants to continue to the end of her mission. If she goes to Nova, she will die alongside all her new companions. Teen readers will understand Lia’s reluctance to give up her newly discovered friends and may make a connection between suicide bombers of today and the mission with which she has been tasked. This work will hold readers’ attentions until the surprising end. VERDICT Hand this to young adults who enjoy their dystopia laced with a bit of love and self-discovery.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

The Good, the Bad and the SmugHOLT, Tom. The Good, the Bad and the Smug. 384p. ebook available. (YouSpace: Bk. 4). Hachette/Orbit. 2015. pap. $15. ISBN 9780316368810.
Christopher Moore blurbs this, the last installment in British author Holt’s comic fantasy series, and it will likely appeal to the same core group of fans. The satire flows fast and furious, possibly starting with a media mogul named Mordak (i.e., Murdoch), who is also a goblin. Living beside the goblins are elves, and though they coexist, they haven’t really paired up until now. When Mordak buys out elf Effluviel’s magazine, his minions make her an offer she can’t refuse—to become Mordak’s assistant. Eventually the duo set off on a dangerous quest that makes them actual allies. Meanwhile, a Rumpelstiltskin character appears, making all sorts of commentary on the financial industry. When everyone realizes you can spin straw into gold, straw becomes scarce and gold becomes plentiful—where’s the balance between getting rich and getting richer? Doubtless many of the jokes will go over teens’ heads, but young adults will get enough of them that this won’t hamper their enjoyment. VERDICT This volume will appeal to fantasy readers who can take a little irreverence with their magical creatures.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library

After AliceMAGUIRE, Gregory. After Alice. 288p. ebook available. Morrow. 2015. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780060548957.
The story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice is turned upside down as Ada, a neighbor and friend, also falls down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Afterwards, life progresses for those aboveground, some of whom start looking for both girls. Maguire creatively adapts the classic tale, mixing whimsy with science as he finds a way to work Charles Darwin and his research on natural selection and an American abolitionist into the narrative. Teenagers will feel comfortable reading about well-known characters such as the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts. This sense of familiarity, along with the brisk pace of the novel, will help readers through the often challenging vocabulary. They may also enjoy references to literary works from Dante and Shakespeare to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. As in the source material, there is great language play and there is no shortage of clever riddles. The secondary characters are just as fun, and teens may identify with Lydia, the older sister who is happy to be rid of Alice for the day while mourning the loss of her mother. With an open ending, this could easily become another popular series like Wicked (HarperCollins, 1995). VERDICT Teens who enjoy reimagined tales, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or any of Maguire’s previous works will line up to read his newest creation.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Tower of Thorns a Blackthorn & Grim NovelMARILLIER, Juliet. Tower of Thorns. 432p. ebook available. (Blackthorn & Grim: Bk. 2). NAL/Roc. 2015. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780451467010.
In this sequel to Dreamer’s Pool (Roc, 2014), the healer Blackthorn and her faithful companion Grim are trying to recover from the adventures in their first novel. Blackthorn is completing a sentence for the fey—she has to do what she is ordered and live in the area for seven years, serving the people as a healer. She’s always a tad grumpy, but she enjoys the work and even tends to the expecting royal couple. At court, a visiting lady asks for help—a wailing monster is being held captive in a tower on her lands, and the curse is hurting her holdings and her people. Blackthorn agrees to help and uses her connections with Druid lore, healing herbs, magic, and common sense to save the day. Marillier is known for her fantastic fairy tale epics, and this novel is no different—the Celtic myths and fey are interspersed throughout. But the real gem is the friendship between Blackthorn and Grim—they aren’t lovers, but their love bonds them together as they deal with post-traumatic stress disorder in their own ways. Their stories are what will make this series a hit with fantasy readers. Marillier’s adult novel Daughter of the Forest (Tor, 2000) won the Alex Award in 2001, and her young adult novels Shadowfell (2012) and Wildwood Dancing (2007, both Knopf) are popular with teens. VERDICT Give this novel to young adults who love fairy tales and female heroes.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

Futuristic Violence and Fancy SuitsWONG, David. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. 384p. ebook available. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne. 2015. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9781250040190.
In this laugh-out-loud adventure complete with superhero costumes and a cat named Stench Machine, Zoey Ashe discovers that she has inherited billions from her deadbeat dad. Unfortunately, the sudden windfall means that the entire city of Tabula Rosa (think of a tackier, more sinful Las Vegas multiplied by 10) is out to capture her to control her money and her inherited weapons. Zoey may have just been a curvy barista living in a trailer park, but she is her father’s child—she’s smart, a bit conniving, and a threat to her enemies. She’s ready to take on Molech and his biologically enhanced minions, especially after they kidnap her mother from the strip club. This hilarious novel is perfect for students who are ready to move on from Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart (Delacorte, 2013) and on to something more like Matt Ruff’s Alex Award–winning title Bad Monkeys (Harper, 2007). Wong (a pseudonym of Jason Pargin) is a comedic writer at Cracked.com, as well as the author of John Dies at the End (2009) and This Book Is Full of Spiders (2012, both St. Martin’s). Readers can’t help but snicker—Zoey is snarky, and a serial killer and chili farts are mentioned in the opening pages. Just as in a box office hit, the action is nonstop, the humor is crude (the book’s back cover features a picture of a robotic middle finger), and the plucky female main character saves the day. VERDICT Give to mature young adults who appreciate wit and crude humor.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL


How to Clone a Mammoth The Science of De-ExtinctionSHAPIRO, Beth. How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. 256p. ebook available. illus. Princeton University. 2015. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780691157054.
According to this book, the future of Shapiro’s field, “ancient DNA,” lies in adapting existing species to survive in threatened environments—think of an elephant refit with the woolly mammoth’s coat, relocated in the Arctic tundra. Sounds fantastic, as in unbelievable: although de-extinction was the stuff of science fiction once, advances in genome research have made it more realistic than cloning, the author argues.  Many of her colleagues have tried— and failed—to bring back the bucardo, the dodo, the moa, the Lazarus frog, and the carrier pigeon, to name a few whose stories Shapiro honors simply by retelling them. This eye-opening narrative will give teens an inside look at the various facets of scientific research: discipline, ambition, imagination, disappointment, and danger. For example, in 2007 Japan, a 42,000-year-old baby mammoth—so well preserved that “her stomach still contained traces of her mother’s milk”—excited researchers, who immediately named her Lyuba. But her DNA was useless, and so their endeavor was short-lived. The future, Shapiro believes, is in de-extinction, which alters existing species in the name of preservation and which, she acknowledges, carries a heavy responsibility in itself. The nonfiction work’s 16 color plates and illustrations throughout add to its appeal. VERDICT For students who are interested in environmental issues, who like animals, or who think science is “boring,” this book is pretty irresistible.–Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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