Pub Day Repost: Immoral Code by Lillian Clark: A Heist Novel where the Heist is maybe the Dullest Part

Immoral CodeImmoral Code

by Lillian Clark

eARC, 272 pg.
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019

Read: January 22 – 23, 2019

It’s their senior year, their lives are stretching out before them, this incredibly close group of five friends are preparing for graduation, college, etc. — even (not that they’ll confront this quite yet) living without each other. They all excel in one or two ways — one’s a hacker/activist, one’s an artist, one’s got a real shot at the Olympics — etc. One is a physics genius (or close enough to a genius to count) who was admitted early to MIT. But there’s a catch. She can’t afford it. Her mom works two jobs to help the two of them barely make it and her dad hasn’t been in her life since he was a poor student and impregnated her mom. Since then he’s gone on to become one of the richest of the rich. The kind of rich that people really can’t believe exists. So when MIT looks at her financial aid, they roll their eyes and move on to the next student.

Not content to shake their heads sadly at injustice, her friends come up with a plan to hack into her dad’s company and skim a little bit of money. Not enough that he’d ever notice — just enough to pay tuition for a year. Their hacker friend is good, but not good enough to break in remotely — she has to be physically in touch with the network — for just a few seconds. Like the tagline on the cover says, “Payback is a glitch.” So over Spring Break they take a little road trip — bigger than their families know — to get access to the network. It’s going to take a lot of nerve, some real disregard for the law, and their combined talents to pull this off.

The question they don’t really consider until it’s too late isn’t what will happen if they fail (although, they all could think of that more), it’s what happens if they succeed?

On the whole, I haven’t seen many people classifying this as a Crime Novel, despite the Heist story at the core. It’s definitely not a thriller. Because the Heist story is just an excuse to talk about friendship, figuring your life out, the pressure on teens to know what they want the next few decades to be about (not the same as the previous item on the list), the complicated relationship that exists between parents and their teens on the cusp of adulthood, and the hugeness of the moment where you leave home/family/friends to start the next phase of your life. Oh, also, morality. Somehow Clark does all that while telling a fast-moving, funny, and heart-felt story.

Which is not to say that the Heist story isn’t important, or well executed. And you can read the book just for the Heist. But you’ll miss out on a lot — and you’ll probably wonder why I rated this so highly. As fun as the Heist/prep for the Heist is, the heart of the book is the rest.

Each chapter jumps between first-person narration from each kid, keeping things moving nicely. There’s plenty to like/identify with in each character. You learn a lot about them as individuals, them as friends, and generally them as children (not that much about them as students, oddly). They’re so well-drawn, I’m sure what I respond to in one character or another will not be the same as what another reader responds to. There is one character who serves as the group’s Jiminy Cricket — their vocal and ever-present conscience. Like Jiminy, the character is ignored a lot and fought against. But I appreciated them — the voice of moral reason, the one trying to save the others from themselves, the only one who demonstrated a sense of right and wrong, not just about what feels right.

The writing is breezy, engaging — no matter whose POV you’re reading. Clark did a fantastic job differentiating the characters, giving them all a unique voice so that you don’t even have to pay attention to the indicator at the beginning of the chapter to know whose voice is telling that particular chapter. Now, as each chapter is told from the Point of View of a teenager, and fairly realistically done, that means you have to check your inner grammarian at the door — so much of this book can drive you around the bend if you don’t.

The novel is engaging, it’s beyond that really — it’s infectious.There were several points during reading that I asked myself why I was enjoying it as much as I was. Not that I thought I should dislike it, but I liked it a lot more than I should have. I don’t mind that I did, I’m just not sure I understand why. I’m just going to chalk it up to Lillian Clark being a very good author — someone you should check out, starting with her debut, Immoral Code.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Children’s Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

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The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: A wildly imaginative and creative MG Fantasy

The Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin


Hardcover, 523 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2018
Read: January 24 – 25, 2019

Let me start with a hat-tip to Paul at Paul’s Picks for putting this on my radar. Thanks, Paul.

For a MG book, I’m surprisingly intimidated by the prospect of trying to give a synopsis. That’s probably a clue about the book. Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian of moderate renown — when (as far as he knows) an ancient goblin relic is found in his land, he’s dispatched to present it to the goblin’s king. No elf has survived being in — much lest returning from — goblin territories in more than a century, but the conventional wisdom is that a historian should be safe — even if he is also spying.

The goblins and elves have spent centuries fighting each other, and are in a rare season without warfare — and no one expects it to last for long. Each side distrusts the other in ways that make relations between the USA and USSR in the 1960’s seem warm and cordial. So this mission of Brangwain’s is an unexpected and welcome overture of peace. Or so many people think.

Brangwain’s host is a goblin names Werfel — who’s also a historian. Werfel is a very odd, but seemingly pleasant, person living in the midst of pretty odd, and apparently pleasant, people. Every goblin he meets goes out of their way to welcome Brangwain and try to make him feel comfortable, while celebrating elfin culture. Brangwain’s a nervous guy, who has spent most of his life (going back to childhood) being insulted, bullied and overlooked — he doesn’t really see the efforts of the goblins for what it is. Besides, he’s too busy trying not to get caught while spying on his hosts.

Now, how does this elf — who most people expect is on a suicide mission — get his information back to the elves? I’m glad you asked — this is an ingenious move by Anderson and Yelchin — while alone and resting, Brangwain uses elfin magic and imagines what he’s seen which is transmitted to a device in the office of his king’s military intelligence, that takes these transmissions and “prints” them out. These would be the illustrations that make up a significant portion of this book.

Ultimately, things go awry and Brangwain and Werfel are on the run together, trying to survive and hopefully keep the peaceful overtures alive. A friendship will rise between the two as they depend on each other and realize how much they have in common.

There’s some great commentary on the power of perspective when it comes to history. Werfel and Brangwain differ greatly in their understandings of the same event/person, wholly dependent on their backgrounds. It’s all about who writes the history — even if it’s an obscure scholar — when it comes to establishing “fact.”

A little bit more about the art. First, it’s just great. This isn’t a book directed at the picture book crowd, but the art might as well be for people who can’t read the text — it’s as much of the story telling as the text. Yelchin actually saves them a couple hundred pages telling the more dramatic portions of the story in his pictures. Interestingly enough, the events described in the narration and the events depicted in the art/Brangwain’s reports differ significantly, and part of the fun of the book is comparing them. Yelchin’s art reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, which is possibly the biggest selling point for me. Well, except the picture of a spider-creature that makes Shelob and Aragog look tame.

It’s a fun story, a little wry, and it will appeal to grade schoolers who have an off-kilter sense of humor. I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it for middle graders and their parents/older siblings alike.

—–

3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

The Disasters by M. K. England: Some Fun YA Popcorn SF

The DisastersThe Disasters

by M. K. England


Hardcover, 352 pg.
HarperTeen, 2018

Read: January 29 – 30, 2019

           We sit in silence while al-Rihla, the jewel of the colonies, gradually takes over more and more of the viewport. It looks exactly like it did on the pages of my textbooks, only so much more. I let my eyes linger for a moment, taking in green continents outlined in rich red sand and huge, intensely blue oceans that glitter below. I know we’re in a life-or-death situation, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the view. I can see why all the antiexploration crap went away once a few humans actually got out here. Who could look at all this and not want it? It’s bizarre–I’ve only seen Earth from space once, and I was busy trying not to die at the time. Now I’m looking down on a completely different planet, in person, in space, while flying a ship I stole.

I’m actually here. This is all I’ve ever wanted, though I didn’t get it in the way I wanted.

And in a few painfully long minutes, I’ll find out whether I get to live to see the other seven colony worlds one day, or if I get to die in a dramatic crash and kill all my new friends instead.

Fantastic.

Nax Hall is a would-be pilot, would-be space colonizer, and would-be anything but a failure in the eyes of his family. Sadly, after a day at the Ellis Station Academy (the only way to achieve two of those goals, and his best shot at the third), he’s been cut from the program. He’s not the only one — three others have been, too. As they wait for the shuttle to take them back to Earth, a terrorist group of some kind attacks the Academy. With a little luck, the expelled students escape in the shuttle that was destined to take them to Earth.

But they quickly realize that space fighters won’t allow the ship to land on Earth where they can alert the authorities about what happened at the Academy — so they have to hyperjump (or whatever it’s called in this world — I already took the book back to the library and can’t check) to colonial space. They quickly learn that the terrorists have used their escape as a means to frame them for the atrocities committed at the Academy and they now are on the run from the same authorities they were hoping to help them.

Thankfully, between the four of them, they have an almost perfect crew — a pilot, a diplomat, a medic and a technician/copilot. They soon find themselves aligned with a computer expert with ties to black-market entities that can help them spread the word about what happened at the Academy and what it might mean for the future of Earth’s space colonies. These five plucky teens are all that stands between humanity and widespread destruction.

England has a gift for action scenes — they were energetic, dynamic and enough to sink your teeth into. Nax’s flying, in general or in combat, was the highlight of the book for me. I could’ve used a little more of it, even though that would have been gratuitous. I’m not above gratuity in the right place. There’s a strong sense of fun in the narrative — despite being up against impossible odds, these kids are living their dream (just not in the way they wanted, as Nax put it in the quotation above). There’s a good deal of bonhomie between the makeshift crew, which builds gradually over the book to the point where they’re a tight bunch of friends at the end. This sense of fun is grounded by the dangers they face and the costs they’re paying, just enough to keep this from being a romp.

The characters aren’t that complex, although England makes a couple of attempts at it. Their backstories are interesting, to the degree that she explores them (which isn’t much). We get enough of Nax’s crewmates’ backstories to explain their presence on the ship, but not much more. We get plenty about Nax in bits and pieces — which is good enough, he’s the star of the show (and should be). The bad guys aren’t much more than stock villains, mostly a faceless group or two conspiring to do evil things. That’s fine with me, this isn’t the kind of book that promises complex opponents with compelling reasons for their activities, mustache-twirlers with lots of henchmen are good enough.

Here’s my major complaint with the book — the politics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that politics shouldn’t enter into fiction. Particularly Science Fiction. I’d prefer to see more of it — at least more diversity in political views, too much of the politics in SF is so culturally homogeneous one could easily believe no other opinions existed. But before I get gong on that line, let me get back to The Disasters. The politics and societal struggles of the late 22nd Century are apparently identical to those of 2018. Now, I’m not suggesting that Earth’s culture should have worked everything out and the struggles of today will be a distant memory — but they should’ve changed somewhat. The way these problems are seen, expressed and argued about should be different. England just comes across lazy in her approach to these ideas. It’d be like someone writing about Irish cops in 2019 Boston the same way people wrote about them in 1850.

Thankfully, while it flavors much of the book, the characters don’t spend that much time actively discussing it, so it’s easy to forget about. What you’re left with is popcorn fun. A bunch of underdog kids, rejects from society (while really being exceptional), find themselves in a place to save the world (more than 8 of them, technically). There’s some good action — again, the flight scenes are great — a couple of chuckles, and a solid ending. It’s a couple of hours of escapist entertainment when it’s at its best (which is pretty often).

—–

3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

Immoral Code by Lillian Clark: A Heist Novel where the Heist is maybe the Dullest Part

Immoral CodeImmoral Code

by Lillian Clark



eARC, 272 pg.
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019

Read: January 22 – 23, 2019


It’s their senior year, their lives are stretching out before them, this incredibly close group of five friends are preparing for graduation, college, etc. — even (not that they’ll confront this quite yet) living without each other. They all excel in one or two ways — one’s a hacker/activist, one’s an artist, one’s got a real shot at the Olympics — etc. One is a physics genius (or close enough to a genius to count) who was admitted early to MIT. But there’s a catch. She can’t afford it. Her mom works two jobs to help the two of them barely make it and her dad hasn’t been in her life since he was a poor student and impregnated her mom. Since then he’s gone on to become one of the richest of the rich. The kind of rich that people really can’t believe exists. So when MIT looks at her financial aid, they roll their eyes and move on to the next student.

Not content to shake their heads sadly at injustice, her friends come up with a plan to hack into her dad’s company and skim a little bit of money. Not enough that he’d ever notice — just enough to pay tuition for a year. Their hacker friend is good, but not good enough to break in remotely — she has to be physically in touch with the network — for just a few seconds. Like the tagline on the cover says, “Payback is a glitch.” So over Spring Break they take a little road trip — bigger than their families know — to get access to the network. It’s going to take a lot of nerve, some real disregard for the law, and their combined talents to pull this off.

The question they don’t really consider until it’s too late isn’t what will happen if they fail (although, they all could think of that more), it’s what happens if they succeed?

On the whole, I haven’t seen many people classifying this as a Crime Novel, despite the Heist story at the core. It’s definitely not a thriller. Because the Heist story is just an excuse to talk about friendship, figuring your life out, the pressure on teens to know what they want the next few decades to be about (not the same as the previous item on the list), the complicated relationship that exists between parents and their teens on the cusp of adulthood, and the hugeness of the moment where you leave home/family/friends to start the next phase of your life. Oh, also, morality. Somehow Clark does all that while telling a fast-moving, funny, and heart-felt story.

Which is not to say that the Heist story isn’t important, or well executed. And you can read the book just for the Heist. But you’ll miss out on a lot — and you’ll probably wonder why I rated this so highly. As fun as the Heist/prep for the Heist is, the heart of the book is the rest.

Each chapter jumps between first-person narration from each kid, keeping things moving nicely. There’s plenty to like/identify with in each character. You learn a lot about them as individuals, them as friends, and generally them as children (not that much about them as students, oddly). They’re so well-drawn, I’m sure what I respond to in one character or another will not be the same as what another reader responds to. There is one character who serves as the group’s Jiminy Cricket — their vocal and ever-present conscience. Like Jiminy, the character is ignored a lot and fought against. But I appreciated them — the voice of moral reason, the one trying to save the others from themselves, the only one who demonstrated a sense of right and wrong, not just about what feels right.

The writing is breezy, engaging — no matter whose POV you’re reading. Clark did a fantastic job differentiating the characters, giving them all a unique voice so that you don’t even have to pay attention to the indicator at the beginning of the chapter to know whose voice is telling that particular chapter. Now, as each chapter is told from the Point of View of a teenager, and fairly realistically done, that means you have to check your inner grammarian at the door — so much of this book can drive you around the bend if you don’t.

The novel is engaging, it’s beyond that really — it’s infectious.There were several points during reading that I asked myself why I was enjoying it as much as I was. Not that I thought I should dislike it, but I liked it a lot more than I should have. I don’t mind that I did, I’m just not sure I understand why. I’m just going to chalk it up to Lillian Clark being a very good author — someone you should check out, starting with her debut, Immoral Code.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Children’s Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout: An All-Ages SF that is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser

Voyage of the DogsVoyage of the Dogs

by Greg van Eekhout

Hardcover, 208 pg.
HarperCollins, 2018
Read: October 1, 2018

           Of course, the humans couldn’t go alone. There had to be dogs. Because wherever humans went dogs came along. Like rats, only more helpful. Dogs would herd livestock. Dogs would keep watch against the unknown. And, more importantly, dogs would keep the human crew company during the long spaceflight, and on their new home, far away from Earth.

But first they had to get there.

I guess this is technically a “Middle Grade” book — but forget about that. Call it All-Ages instead — that way, adults and YA readers and . . . everyone can enjoy this SF guilt-free. I should also include this line from The Big Idea post Van Eekhout wrote on Scalzi’s blog: “Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book. Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.” It’s important to get that out of the way.

Let’s start with this: the rationale to bring dogs along on a spaceship. It’s brilliant. It also points to one of the biggest problems with Starfleet, the Colonial Battle Fleet, the Serenity, etc. A lack of animals. Sure, NCC 1701-D had pets (not that we saw them often), but they were sealed up in cabins. And Firefly‘s episode “Safe” had cattle, but that was an oddity. The animals aboard Laika are there for purposes — like the main character, Lopside. He’s there to hunt rats — where there are humans and cargo, there are rats. Something small and fast — and with a good nose — is needed to hunt rats down.

The book will do a better job explaining the roles of the other three dogs and what advances in breeding have led to dogs being capable of being more than the dogs we have today — while still remaining dogs — to become Barkonauts.

These poor, brave dogs go into the hibernation state just before the humans do to complete the voyage to a nearby star system as part of human exploration and colonization, the first mission like this humanity has tried. But when the dogs wake up, they notice something’s wrong — part of the ship is missing, as is the crew.

They’re too far into the mission to turn around, too far away for a rescue mission to reach them. At this point, Lopside and the others have to try to salvage what they can and limp along to their final destination.

Lopside is a terrier mix, he’s brave, he has (understandably) abandonment issues — which are not helped at all by the absence of the humans. He’s a little scatter-brained (like a good terrier) and he’s incredibly loyal and has a great heart. The other barkonauts are as well-drawn and lovable.

Van Eekhout is clearly a dog-lover and it comes out in his characters. He’s also a pretty good story-teller, because even with that spoiler, I was invested in the outcome and really wasn’t sure how he was going to pull things off in a way that was satisfying and that wouldn’t reduce semi-sensitive 5th-graders across the globe to quivering balls of tears (a lesson Wilson Rawls could’ve used, I have to say — no, I’m not still torn up about Old Dan and Little Ann, why do you ask?). He does succeed in that — although some might get a bit misty at a point or two. It’s a fun and creative story, and takes some oft-repeated SF tropes and deals with them in a refreshing way.

Ignore the stars — I can’t bring myself to give it more, I don’t know why. Pay attention to what I have said above and this: read the book. It’ll warm your heart, it’ll make you make you a little sad, it’ll give you something to grin about — and it tells a good story, too. What more do you want?

—–

3.5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Trouble Never Sleeps by Stephanie Tromly: Tromly (and Digby & Zoe) saved the best for last.

Trouble Never SleepsTrouble Never Sleeps

by Stephanie Tromly
Series: Trouble, #3

Hardcover, 299 pg.
Kathy Dawson Books, 2018
Read: September 17, 2018

This picks up right on the heels of Trouble Makes a Comeback leaving Zoe and Digby (and their friends) to deal with the social fallout of the events of that party. Then and only then can they start to decide how they’re going to deal with the deal Digby was offered: steal some top-secret research data in exchange for information on his sister’s whereabouts. Sure, it’s technically treason and will likely end up destroying Digby’s life as well as the lives of Felix’s family.

Meanwhile, there’s a complication to the caper in the last book — Zoe left something tied to her in the evidence collected by the police. The repercussions of that caper are also in danger of hurting some of the students they set out to save.

Both stories are good uses of the characters, and were strong stories on their own. While I have enjoyed Digby’s schemes and how they work out (or how they almost do), but I had a hard time swallowing his plan (or how it was carried out) for the non-high school caper. By the way, it took several tries to stay away from spoilers in that sentence. However, once I decided to not care about how outlandish it all was, I enjoyed reading it.

The key to this book — series, really — are in the characters and their interactions. Not just Zoe and Digby (but nothing’s more important, or better, than that), but Zoe and her mom, Zoe and her friends/frenemies/enemies at school, and Digby’s strange interactions with everybody. I don’t know if Tromly hit that better this time, or just as well has she had before — either way, the dialogue sings and you believe it. These relationships are complicated and real and they make the books come alive.

I should probably add that the reason I didn’t listen to the audiobook (unlike the last two) is because my library didn’t have a copy, unlike the last two. It’s not a reflection on Kathleen McInerney’s work — it was good for me to see that it was Tromly’s words and not just McInerney’s great narration that hooked me, though.

It’s hard to talk about this book in any kind of depth without spoiling book 2 and ruining things here. So I’ll stop now. It’s a fun adventure, with laughs, tension, and all the warm fuzzies you could ask for.

The trilogy started off strong, stumbled a bit and then more than recovered with this one. It’s the strongest of the series easily — and sticks the landing (which I worried about, not because I didn’t think Tromly could do it, it’s just easy to miss). I’m going to miss Zoe and Digby. I’m so glad that I found this series this year — it’s been a blast to listen to and read. Great characters, strong character arcs over the trilogy, a good overall story, with some great smaller stories in the individual books. This series is going down as one of my favorite YA series ever.

—–

4 1/2 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Picket Town by Chris von Halle: An Age-Appropriately Creepy SF for the MG reader in your life

Picket TownPicket Town

by Chris von Halle

PDF, 178 pg.
Clean Reads, 2018
Read: July 31, 2018

Amanda is bored. Every day is the same — her life isn’t bad, she actually likes it. But she wants more. She’s not sure exactly what it is that she wants — but it’ll be found outside the city limits of New Pines (she calls it Picket Town). She and her friend Sam spend their days after school playing a computer RPG, eating with their families, playing the game some more and repeating the whole thing the next day.

Then something starts happening — some of the kids in town come down with some sort of bacterial infection that requires them to be hospitalized while a cure is worked on. Amanda starts to wonder if everyone is going to be okay — no matter how often she’s assured that the grown-ups have everything under control. She wants to strike out, she wants to learn something — and on the way home from school, they pass the same sign forbidding them to enter the forest that they walk by every day. But this day, this particular day she decides she’s had enough — and then she convinces Sam to come with her. They climb over the fence and explore the forest. This is the most thrilling thing they’ve ever done. Right up until the point that they find a what appears to be a flying saucer (well, a saucer that’s landed). Pretty much everything they’ve ever known ends right there. What follows is exciting, dramatic, and unexpected (well, at least for the target audience — Middle Grade — adult readers will have a pretty good chance of seeing what’s around the corner, most of the time).

I wasn’t so sure that I was going to enjoy this at the beginning, I’m not sure why, it just didn’t seem like it clicked. But it honestly didn’t take long before it reminded me of the better SF I read in grade school, and I was in it for the long haul. Although, honestly, I’m not sure any of the books I read when I was that age would’ve gone where von Halle took this. That’s a compliment, by the way, it may not look like one.

I’m not crazy about the conclusion, I have to say, as much as I liked almost everything that came before. There’s a good twist to it — and I really liked it. But the ending itself? I don’t know — it relied too much on a big info-dump, and then the reveal for Amanda and Sam could’ve been executed a little better. But I think those are quibbles, and I really don’t imagine that there’s a Fourth Grader out there that’ll say the same thing.

This isn’t a MG novel that transcends the label and that’ll appeal to adults — in other words, not everyone is J.K. Rowling. I’ll give you a moment to digest that revelation. This is a MG novel that knows its audience and that will deliver what it wants. Were I in that audience, I’d be re-reading this a few times. I’m not, so I’ll tell people to give it to someone who’ll appreciate it more.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, given above.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a book with a child narrator.