Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Book Review: “Jo-Kin Battles the IT” by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2015)

ktyrrell-jokin-cover-promo-web-lgeAs teachers and librarians we can be a judgemental lot. During the process of selecting books for use in the classroom, or to sit on shelves in our libraries, we are sifters. By that I mean we sift through stacks of books in an effort to identify those which serve our own personal agenda. This inevitably means eliminating books for one reason or another. For instance, it may be that the language is too simple, the themes and ideas too one dimensional, the structure too formulaic. During this process we sometimes neglect a certain truth that what appeals to us, as adults, does not always concur with the interests of children.
My ten year old son reminded me of the importance of this a few weeks ago. As often occurs in my household, a novel arrived on my doorstep. Usually, my son pays little attention to this (it is such a common occurrence). However on this day he was drawn to the book like a moth to a flame (I apologise for the weak analogy). “What’s this Mum?” He asked holding up the copy of Karen Tyrrell’s Jo-Kin Battles the IT, “Can I read it?” I must confess, at the time I was bogged down with other books to read, so I told him he could have it now as long as he promised to tell me what he thought of it. Off he scurried to his room, book in hand, where he wasn’t heard from for a few hours. “This is awesome Mum!” he told me later that night. “It’s a page turner. I’m already up to chapter 8.” I nodded my head, told him not to read too late, and stood quietly in the hallway while he continued his reading. What I heard was the beautiful sound of literary engagement. His laughter told me that not only was he enjoying the story, but clearly it was one with characters he could strongly identify with.
Sadly, my reading of the same book was not nearly as enlivened. I found the story a little trite, and at times inane. This middle grade chapter book tells the story of Josh Atkins and Sam Jones, who, after winning a computer contest, are selected for training as Super Space Kids. Following training, they are launched into space where they do battle with the deadly alien IT. While my adult brain did not really love the book, I could immediately see why the story resonated so strongly with my son. Michael, it seems could identify with Josh, who like himself, is obsessed with computer games, and quite frankly, all things best described as being ‘nerdy’. Having snared him with Josh (and let’s face it, corny gags), Tyrrell proceeds to tell a story that empowers children to overcome feelings of self-doubt, as they develop resilience, while understanding the value of team work.
Jo-Kin Battles the IT is a cleanly edited story, typeset in a child-appealing manner, with a scattering of delightful illustrations by Trevor Salter. The story will be appreciated by younger primary students up to grade 4. The ease of language will deem it suitable for independent reading although the story would benefit from a shared class reading where the themes of resilience may be explored in greater depth.
Tanya Grech Welden

For teaching resources related to this title please click here.

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“This Shattered World” by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner, Allen & Unwin (2014)

This Shattered World

I’m a little over YA series novels.  To me they reek of marketing; a tool to make me commit to buying more books (like I don’t already read and buy enough anyway).  Yes, this is the second in a series, and while I loved the first installment,These Broken Stars, I was a little tentative about its sequel.  Too often they fail to meet my expectations.  However,This Shattered World, succeeds where so many have failed.  Rather that writing a story that follows on directly where the previous left off, Kaufman and Spooner, have chosen to create a series within the universe of the first and while referencing characters from the previous book, they  introduce a new cast of characters in a fresh context.  It works; and more importantly, even though it is a series it operates effectively as a stand-alone novel.

This Shattered World focuses upon the characters of Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac who live on Avon.  From opposite sides of the track, the romantic elements provide unquestionable parallels with Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story type narratives.  This is a planet at war, with Jubilee representing the forces sent to crush the brewing rebellion in which Flynn plays a key role in.  Kaufman and Spooner’s writing is compelling and their development of character is admirable.  They have crafted a story which investigates intelligently the nature of political uprisings from both sides, along with the real cost to the humans involved.  Furthermore, and developing the Science Fiction elements of the story, This Shattered World, continues to explore how Scientists might manipulate people and technologies, calling into question ethics and morality.

Although I probably wouldn’t use this kind of book in the classroom as a shared novel; falling loosely into the Dystopian genre, it is something that I would definitely recommend to students from year nine or ten upwards.  For me, it is more Science Fiction than Dystopian and is a great story to extend students beyond The Hunger Games, while whetting their appetite for more sophisticated texts. Senior students may find it useful for an independent study, comparing the book with either Dystopian or Science Fiction titles.  However, to be fair the book probably lacks the kind of depth required for the rich analysis undertaken in higher level literature courses.

Apparently there is another story in the series yet to come.  I understand that this one explores life on Corinth and no doubt introduces readers to another amazing world and great cast of characters.  Why stop at three books?  It seems to me that Kaufman and Spooner are really onto something here and I have no doubt that they could write another ten books in the Starbound universe.  Go for it ladies; what the world really needs is more Science Fiction written by women for women!

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**Allen & Unwin provided me with a free review copy for this book.  I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.**

“Twinmaker: Crash” by Sean Williams, Allen & Unwin (2014)

crash

I was captivated by the first instalment of the Twinmaker trilogy Jump (you can read my review here) and was consequently eager to sample the next offering in the series by acclaimed South Australian author Sean Williams.

In Crash, Williams continues to follow the story of Clair as she is pursued by dupes whilst continuing to seek the truth about d-mat and track down the elusive Q.  Crash has a similar energy to the first episode although this time I did find the constant chase across the globe and resurrection (and re-resurrection) of minor characters wearisome at times.  Crash adds a host of new characters to the mix to further complicate the plot.  Of particular note is the rather mysterious Devin and multi-talented PK (Peace Keeper) Sargent, both of whom keep the reader guessing as to their motives.  The relationship between Clair and Jesse continues although I was a disappointed that my understanding of Jesse failed to deepen with him still feeling a little underdeveloped.

Williams continues to make thought provoking and insightful statements related to the role of technology in the modern world.  However, I did not feel that in Crash he added any additional ideas to those that were introduced in the previous volume.

This is a very long and somewhat dense novel when one considers that it is aimed for the Young Adult audience.  Regrettably, this probably places it outside the interest level for many of the adolescents I teach.  Furthermore its length may restrict its use in the classroom.  On a more positive note, excerpts of the text might provide valuable insights and a discussion point for use in the Science classroom, particularly those touching upon ethics as they relate to technology.

Overall, a fast faced novel with equal measures of energy and intrigue, well suited to Science Fiction devotees within the upper age bracket of the Young Adult genre.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**Allen & Unwin provided me with a free review copy for this book.  I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.**

“These Broken Stars” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Allen & Unwin (2013)

These Broken Stars

It’s a night like any other on board the Icarus.  Then catastrophe strikes: the massive luxury spaceliner is yanked out of hyperspace and plummets into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendensen survive.  And they seem to be alone.

Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe.  Tarver comes from nothing, a young war hero who learned that long ago that girls like Lilac are more trouble than they’re worth.  But with only each other to rely on, Lilac and Tarver must work together, making a torturous journey across eerie, deserted terrain to seek help.

Then, against all odds, Lilac and Tarver find a strange blessing in the tragedy that has thrown them into each other’s arms.  Without the hope of a future together in their own world, they begin to wonder – would they be better off staying here forever?

Everything changes when they uncover the truth behind the chilling whispers that haunt their every step. Lilac and Tarver may find a way off this planet.  But they won’t be the same people who landed on it.

These Broken Stars is a timeless love story about hope and survival in the face of unthinkable odds.

It would be easy to dismiss Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s collaboration as simply being a rehashing of Titanic albeit in space.  At first glance this is what I thought I was dealing with and refreshingly I was proved wrong.   Kaufman and Spooner seem to have discovered a new Science Fiction sub-genre and one that may take the genre to an audience that it has previously struggled to connect with.  In doing so, I suspect that they may also have upset many Sci-Fi purists who, on the basis of its strong romantic elements, may disregard the book as a work of fantasy.  I don’t agree with this.  For me, the questions raised by the story place it firmly within the realm of Sci-Fi.  However, the strong feminine perspective will certainly ensure that the story will find an audience amidst the same readers that once gorged themselves on vampires, werewolves and witches.

This hefty book of some 374 pages won’t deter avid YA readers. However, its size will probably place it out of reach for shared classroom study and also beyond the appeal of the more reluctant reader.  It will serve as a great extension book for students in the middle years; particularly for those new to Science Fiction.  The book is expertly crafted and highly engaging, although it does lack the lyrical beauty that would elevate it to the realm of literary fiction.  It is a riveting tale of survival set in a delicious setting that captivates the mind.  I couldn’t put it down!

Despite being part of a trilogy, These Broken Stars works well as a stand-alone novel.  Kaufman and Spooner avoided the temptation of employing the cliffhanger ending.  Instead, they rely upon the strength of their characters and world as being enough to tempt audience back to seek out the next installment.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**Allen & Unwin provided me with a  free review copy of this book.  I have otherwise not been paid or rewarded for a any review or endorsement of this book and the above opinions reflect my unbiased view.**

“Twinmaker :Jump” by Sean Williams, Allen & Unwin (2013)

Jump

If you could be anywhere in a moment,

where would you go?

If you could change your appearance in a minute,

what would you choose?

If you discovered something was very wrong with

this perfect world, what would you do?

A pre-released copy of Twinmaker: Jump made its way into my hands recently and I’ve been doing virtual back flips ever since.  Sean Williams is an Adelaide writer who made his mark on the Science Fiction scene a while ago and has chalked up some 40 novels and a collection of awards to his name.  This is his first flirtation with Young Adult Fiction and after reading this book I hope he stays here.

Twinmaker: Jump is the first in a trilogy exploring a future world dominated by technology; specifically d-mat, a seemingly innocuous box, possessing the ability to transport people from place to place in the blink of an eye.  The technology has revolutionised life on earth, eliminating all our pressing problems (overpopulation, food production, transportation, pollution, fuel sourcing).  Life seems perfect for seventeen-year old Clair who quite literally has the world (and everything in it) within her virtual grasp.  She spends her ample free time partying, social networking, constantly connected to the information network, Air, through tubes in her ears and lenses embedded into the retina of her eyes.   Clair’s utopian world is thrown into turmoil when she attempts to save her best friend Libby, the victim of a chain letter promising physical improvement.  She soon discovers that this quest has transformed her into the most wanted woman on the planet.

The greatest strength of this novel is the faced paced and edgy plot.  It is unpredictable and, for the most part, believable.  Clair is a strong female character who goes on a journey that is both amazing and transformational.  I identified with her strongly and I don’t doubt that many readers will feel the same.  However, I did feel that many of the supporting characters were somehow underdeveloped.  I wanted to know Jesse more and felt that by the end of the novel he was still intangible and a little fuzzy.   More pertinently, I needed to understand Libby more.  We hardly meet her and yet I struggled to like her.  This was a major problem for me because I really wanted to care about her plight and I didn’t.

Williams raises some captivating questions about the extent to which technology has been absorbed into our lives and more importantly, what might happen if we allow that technology to become a part of us.  Should we give it the ability to change us, potentially shaping us into something that is no longer part of who we are?  Do we risk losing that which makes us human?   Williams has created a world that young adults will instantly resonate with.  I read the first few chapters to a year eight class and they immediately made connections with Clair’s world and their own.  Even so, I had a lot of questions that still needed answering especially in relation to the social and political structure of Williams’ world which seems to break every rule of economics.

Twinmaker: Jump is a fast paced, gripping page turner.  I was precariously perched on the edge of my seat all the way.  As I reached the last few chapters I found myself silently pleading to my two year old, “Please don’t wake up from your nap now. . .  I won’t cope if I don’t find out how it ends.”   It didn’t seem to matter.  The baby slept and I finished the book but Williams left so many questions unanswered I was left aching for more regardless.  I only hope he puts me out of my misery soon and I don’t need to wait too long for the next installment Twinmaker: Crash.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

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