Steamborn – Eric R. Asher

Steamborn CoverSeries: The Steamborn Series, #1
First Published: 29th November, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jacob is a boy living in a walled city, under constant attack from giant invertebrates. When an attack devastates part of the city, he and his friends investigate the cause.

I read this because of my love of invertebrates. It’s a steampunk world where invertebrates can grow to giant sizes. There are knights who ride giant spiders, insects pulling carriages, and the threat from wild invertebrates coming over the walls. I liked that though the wild ones were dangerous, it wasn’t that invertebrates were evil. Predators will kill people because they hunt, but there were invertebrates who were tame, who were farmed for food, and so on.

It’s one of the few books that treat spiders as just another animal. As well as the giant ones people ride, there are large (several inches across) jumping spiders that live around the city. Not everyone likes them, but they’re mostly treated as harmless.

Class themes are important. Jacob is from a poor family, who live in the Lowlands. As well as generally struggling with money for food and medicine, the walls protecting the Lowlands aren’t as good. That means they’re at risk from attacks. The rich area of the city is at the highest point, with the best walls.

It touches on some disability issues, as amputees are common due to the attacks. Jacob gets to work making prosthetics for people. This also links to the past, when the city was at war with people who had very advanced steampunk cybernetics. Some as prosthetics for people who’d lost limbs, but also some who’d been turned into cyborg soldiers. This would have had more impact if someone in the main cast had been injured, rather than being something that happened to minor characters. Though dehumanizing people with these prosthetics was treated as a serious issue, it was all rather distant.

The characters weren’t particularly diverse. They were mainly men/boys. Though it’s claimed the people in the present of the story are a mixture of all the races of the old world, everyone looks rather white until a few characters at the end. They fit a lot of stock character types. The eccentric old inventor. The reckless young boy who’ll save the world. Alice, the only girl who really had a major role, was there as the sensible one who told Jacob off for being too reckless.

The result is I was a lot more interested in the world than the characters living in it. The history and the society built around giant invertebrates was fun to explore. The characters who did the exploring were not the major draw for me.

The book is a little heavy on capitalised new names for things, which often made it harder to understand rather than clarifying what things were. It’s also the first in an ongoing story. There’s some resolution at the end, but it’s more of a pause before continuing the larger narrative.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Gone to Drift – Diana McCaulay

Gone to Drift CoverFirst Published: 28th February, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lloyd’s grandfather, Conrad, doesn’t come back from a fishing trip. Lloyd is certain that Conrad wouldn’t have got caught out at sea, so something else must have happened. He’s going to find out what, no matter the danger.

The story is told from two points-of-view. Lloyd in third person, as he searches for his grandfather. Conrad in first person, as he thinks about his past and his current situation. It’s an interesting mystery, as Conrad’s disappearance is not as simple as an accident at sea. Lloyd has to ask questions and search for clues, all the while being careful that he might be heading into some dangerous territory. The reader knows Conrad is still alive, but he won’t survive forever. Lloyd has limited time to solve the mystery, even if he doesn’t quite realise it at first.

Conrad’s perspective gives a broader view of how Jamaica has changed during his lifetime. Technology has brought benefits, like cell phones for staying in contact, and boat engines able to take fishers out further. It’s also meant greater pollution and dwindling fish stocks.

I appreciated the family fishing versus environmentalism plotline. This is something that impacts my local community too, as environmental laws often end up harming the local fishing fleet (of small beach-launched vessels) much more than the big factory ships. It’s important to have fishing quotas and laws to protect the environment, but they need to be made with the community, rather than against them. For Lloyd’s community, it means fishers turning to less legal sources of income, including capturing dolphins.

This book is an example of how things like binary gender roles can exist in a narrative in a way that doesn’t endorse them. Men and women have rigidly defined roles in the community. Lloyd takes this as simply being how things are. Conrad is starting to question it, such as regretting not being part of his mother’s world, and whether she felt lonely as the only woman in the family. This is also challenged from the outside by Jules, a local black woman who has trained as a scientist and is clearly at home on the ocean (a man’s place).

Some other issues are touched on briefly. Slowly, a homeless man who everyone says is mad, is clearly suffering from trauma after having been lost at sea. He’s not portrayed as a threat. Simply as someone who couldn’t cope and didn’t have access to any help. There are a lot of people like Slowly who end up homeless.

I was uncomfortable with Conrad’s fantasy about being descended from an Arawak prince. He might be right in having Arawak/Taíno ancestry, but the prince angle was much more fictional trope than reality. It also sets up Native Americans as past tense, without making it clear this is talking about the local situation, rather than as a whole. Unlike something like the strict idea of men and women’s roles, there’s no counter to this in the narrative. It relies on the reader coming in with prior knowledge.

I also wish they’d marked Conrad’s sections in something other than italics. This is difficult for me as a dyslexic reader.

Outside of those things, I enjoyed the book. Lloyd and Conrad’s relationship shines through, which is difficult to achieve when two characters spend the story apart. The social issues of fishing and dolphins caught for entertainment are also very topical. It’s a beautifully written book with an engaging mystery.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Missing – Melanie Florence

The Missing CoverFirst Published: 12th February, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Lorimer

Girls are going missing at Feather’s school, but the police aren’t taking it seriously because they’re Aboriginal. Feather has to deal with the aftermath of the disappearances, as well as try to figure out who might be taking them.

There are a lot of serious subjects tackled in the book, such as the disappearance of Native girls being ignored by the police, anti-gay sentiments, child abuse, and victim blaming. It ties into many real cases where such disappearances are ignored or mishandled. Though it has some mystery aspects, investigating the disappearances is not the primary focus. It centres much more on how Feather and her friends cope with what’s going on.

I liked the interaction between the characters as they come to terms with what’s happened. Everyone reacts differently. Sometimes in ways that show they’re not such nice people after all. Feather has to work out her feelings about this, as well as understanding that her friends come from very different family environments. Not everyone has their family’s support.

The killer’s perspective was also interesting. He uses a lot of exotifying terms, like describing the girls he watches in comparison with food. It’s pretty creepy to be constantly compared to food products, whilst never getting to be a person, and these sections highlight that perfectly. The girls aren’t people to him. They’re sugar-sweet playthings. It’d be nice if this was required reading for authors who think it’s a compliment to liken non-white people to chocolate.

I did wonder at one point why Feather didn’t take a weapon with her. She seems to have thought everything else though, except for that. I was also hoping for a bit more mystery solving towards the end.

Despite being good at handling some issues, it did fall down somewhat when it comes to mental health. The killer is described as crazy and insane. It’d be nice to find a story where the killer isn’t depicted as a crazy person, especially when it’s in this sort of context. Using privilege as a weapon against marginalised people isn’t a sign of insanity. A non-neurotypical person is much more likely to be the victim in this scenario.

The book is written for reluctant readers, and achieves the aim of mature subjects written in easier language. It has short chapters and clear writing. Some of the dialogue is a little stilted. However, a reader who is absorbed in the story is likely to overlook this.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Camp Midnight – Steven T. Seagle (writer), Jason Adam Katzenstein (artist)

Camp Midnight CoverFirst Published: 3rd May, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Graphic Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Skye doesn’t want to spend the summer with her dad and step-mother. It turns out they don’t want her around either, and send her to summer camp. A confusion means she ends up at Camp Midnight, where everyone is a monster. Except for Skye and possibly her new friend Mia.

This is a fun graphic novel, dealing with some difficult issues in an accessible way. Skye has been hurt by her parent’s divorce. She reacts by lashing out at everyone, without considering how her rudeness and sarcastic responses might hurt people. Something she has to face at the camp is how throw-away comments can end up hurting people, no matter what the intent.

The story runs through the whole time at the camp, from getting her choice of bunk on arrival to taking part in special events. The main focus is her friendship with Mia, though she also has to deal with the popular girls and a crush on a cute boy. The latter two aspects are nothing new, but the friendship with Mia is great. I was rooting for them both to find their place at the camp and beyond.

I liked the handling of consent issues. Mia doesn’t like being touched. Though she might sometimes be okay with it, sometimes she doesn’t want to. Skye accepts this and finds a touchless alternative to shaking hands. It’s nice to see a clear statement that if someone says no to something, you respect that, no matter how snarky you are.

I’m rather lukewarm on depictions of witches as fantasy monsters, but I don’t have any specific criticism here. The witch in charge of the camp is shown as a person and obviously cares about the campers. It’s not bad as such depictions go.

Each page has a limited colour palette, apart from an occasional frame intended to stand out. For example, one page may be greens and blues, and another page may be in oranges. This adds to the spooky atmosphere. The composition hints at monsters, with backgrounds forming faces and monstrous shadows. It’s well spaced, with a few panels on each page, and writing at a comfortable reading size. The art is a perfect match for the story.

This book is on the borderline between upper middle grade and lower young adult. The main themes are friendship and dealing with family issues, but there is some early teen stuff like her crush. It’s ideal for readers in that middling area.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George

Julie of the Wolves Cover: a yupik girl in a fur-lined coat and a wolf

Series: Julie of the Wolves, #1
First Published: 1st January, 1972
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Miyax, a Yupik girl, runs away from home after being attacked. She has to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, using the skills her father has taught her and with assistance from a wolf pack.

I did enjoy some of the aspects of the story. The feel of the landscape and how the animals interacted was there, which is something I look for in survival stories. I liked the change between the names Julie and Miyax in the narration depending on her current situation. Some of the thoughts on animal behaviour were dated, but I’d hope no one would use this as a natural history guide anyway.

However, the descriptions of Miyax/Julie’s culture and herself were often exoticised or laced with unfortunate implications. An example was the description of Miyax’s looks. It’s said she’s an “Eskimo beauty”, which comes with the implication of “pretty for an Eskimo”. Not properly pretty, like a Northern European. Add in her thinking she looked more beautiful when she was starving, because her face was thin like a European. Even when she changes her attitudes towards Europeans, she doesn’t start to think of herself as beautiful.

When Miyax decides to embrace Yupik traditions, she does so in a very black-and-white way. The real world isn’t as simplistic as traditional is good and modern is bad. Someone can hunt in traditional ways and enjoy chocolate cake. They can travel on foot and carry a phone. I wasn’t comfortable with the vibe that the only way to connect with her culture was to exist in the past, as it ignores the modern reality of Yupik people.

There’s also the issue that Miyax’s husband from an arranged marriage is non-neurotypical and ends up trying to rape her (the attack that leads her to run away). Non-neurotypical people are often portrayed as violent in books, but are more likely to be the victims of violence for real. It’s not a good trope to be reinforcing.

I couldn’t get away from how much like an outsider’s view the story read. With the added helping of the attempted rape scene, I didn’t enjoy it very much.