Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Are you looking for a young adult novel founded in wholesome values and featuring admirable young characters who display exemplary behavior and end up being rewarded for their good choices?

Then don’t look at Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky.

Under the Empyrean Sky

Wendig, aside from having written a number of novels and nonfiction books, runs a terrific blog called Terrible Minds. It is always insightful, always frank, frequently funny, and occasionally offensive. In a good way. Definitely worth checking out.

The novel can be called a dystopian future. It has been labeled “cornpunk,” which I think is a very cool term. In The Heartland, corn has become the primary crop for the entire world. It has been so genetically modified that it is like a weed, but a weed that has driven the world into a sharp division of the “haves” and “have nots.” The haves live in a giant flotilla in the sky, the Empyrean. All the other losers live on the ground, scrounging out existence while developing cancer and tumors from the toxic, malnourished soil.

Of course the young protagonist, Cael McAvoy, is one of these ground dwellers. He captains a salvage ship, scrounging out a meager life. He’s in love with Gwennie, his shipmate, but is facing Obligation Day, when the Empyrean arranges marriage for people of the proper age. Without giving away any spoilers, Cael refuses to passively accept the decrees from above, meanwhile trying to navigate the crummy time we call adolescence.

This is not a neat, tidy book. It features teens who: (1) swear, (2) have sex, (3) smoke, and (4) are mean to one another. They make the tough-guy characters of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders seem pretty tame, and they were shocking in their time. Some prudish readers out there might be dismayed. Let them be. Because guess what? These are things that real teens do. Though the setting is fictional, Wendig’s characters reflect real-life people. Above all, however, these characters reflect deep values: friendship, trust, love, and most importantly, fighting for freedom, autonomy, and equality. They’re rough people, for sure, but their hearts and minds are devoted to admirable principles.

In the numerous choices of YA novels, Under the Empyrean Sky stands out for being rough, fun, and thought-provoking. Other novels also present edgy characters, but lack the moral core present here. Still other novels are fun, but not substantive—fluff. And there are other novels that present warnings about environmental damage, too, but do so in a heavy-handed and unpalatable way. Wendig deftly creates a world that is frighteningly plausible, yet fully realized in its own, rather than just a cardboard backing for a moralizing tale. Although I am not really the target audience (too old by about fifteen years), I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and recommend it to all fans of dystopias, environmentalism, adventure, and high fructose corn syrup.

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Beyond The Giver: A Four- Book Review

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, did a lot of great stuff with our class. He made everything creative. We had to research endangered animals and lay out plans for a zoo exhibit for them. We wrote short stories based on Chris van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. For math, we had to create word problems, and I made a running series about a farmer named Bob Joe Billy Bob who was constantly calculating the square footage of his eggplant patch.

He also read us Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This novel introduced me to dystopian fiction, and to the concept of subversion. Imaginatively and emotionally, it gripped me. Lowry is already one of America’s most revered writers of young adult fiction (her World War II-era novel Number the Stars also won the Newberry), and deservedly so. Her writing hits that rare mark: aimed at young teens, but equally engaging for adults to read. Since I remember the book so fondly, and since I spend 10 or 12 months per year teaching teens, and because I have to teach the book next school year, I reread it this summer.

[Here’s Lois Lowry talking about The Giver.]

A young man named Jonas lives in The Community, where there is no color, no sensation, no inequality, no death. Children are assigned families at birth, maximum two per family. Sexual feeling is suppressed with a pill. When they turn twelve, they undergo The Ceremony of Twelve, marking passage into adulthood. They are assigned jobs based upon their skills and personalities. If a spouse is selected for them, they wed. When citizens grow too old, they are Released. There is no notion of life outside The Community.

books_giver[1]

Dystopias make Santa Claus sad

But when Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, a position that has been held by the same man for decades. Through his interactions with his mentor, he discovers color, feeling, and love, but also pain, suffering, and death. The novel encourages hope in a bleak, bleak world. What I didn’t know after reading The Giver was that it was only the first in a series of four books! (I didn’t know because the second book, Gathering Blue, came out in 2000, by which time I was in 11th grade).  Gathering Blue doesn’t take place in The Community, and Jonas is nowhere to be seen. Kira is an orphan with a crippled leg. She is to be killed, but she convinces the elders of her village to let her prove her worth. They give her the task of mending the robes for the singer of the Ruin Song, the village’s most sacred rite. In this task, she makes several friends and allies, including Thomas, a carver, Jo, the future singer, and Matt, a thief and scavenger. Matt really is the most memorable character in the book, outshining the strong-silent-type Kira.

[A The Giver film? Dude, this is good news!]

Pick flowers, not your nose

While the story is not as immediately grabbing as The Giver, in some ways it is a richer and more vibrant tale. The book has a flavor of Ursula K. LeGuin. The connection with The Giver is thematic. In both books, the questions about our how our livelihoods, our desires, our character, and our society all clash and connect.

In the next book, Messenger, Jonas’ and Kira’s worlds unite.

 Messenger follows Matt as a young teen (now Matty). His life in the Village had been idyllic, now that he’s straightened up and abandoned his grubby, thieving ways. But things in The Village ain’t so great any more. Refugees are bringing poverty and discontent and irritating technology with them. So what does the Village vote to do? Close the borders! Matty takes it upon himself to spread word about the closing and to find Kira to return with him (spoiler alert: she isn’t killed at the end of Gathering Blue). He ends up learning a lot about himself in the process.

Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Does anyone even HAVE a Buddy List anymore?

My reaction to Messenger was mixed. A bit of ax-grinding got in the way of a good story. For example, the Village has been introduced to Gaming Machines, a fancy new tech that is takes up everyone’s time and creativity. Lowry seems to be taking out some frustration (however well deserved) Playstation and XBox. And the scorn for isolationism (again, however well deserved) rings too obviously as a comment on American politics. I found these thematic intrusions a little irritating. And yet, in some ways Messenger is a more finely crafted and poignant novel than the first two. The connections between Jonas’s Community and Kira’s Village are also made clearer.

The fourth novel, Son, is the longest at almost 400 pages. But it has a lot to tie up. Without spoiling too much, the events of The Giver are told through the eyes of Claire, a Birthmother. It’s a fairly lightweight career: make three babies, then retire (essentially), but it isn’t held in much respect, either. When Claire gives birth, she is vaguely informed that something went wrong, she would bear no more children, and she was being reassigned. As per Community rules, she isn’t allowed to see her Product, but through a little snooping and some coincidence, she finds her son. This is the first half of the novel. When he is taken from The Community, however, she embarks on a voyage to recover him.

Fortunate or otherwise

I always held The Giver in extremely high regard, but Son tops it. Jonas is special, a Chosen One archetype. But Claire is average, maybe below average. Life in The Giver is bleak but the story content doesn’t get really grim until the end. In Son, Lowry tackles prickly topics early on. In the first two chapters, a teenage girl is forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination, and then her child is taken from her. Tough stuff. Son expands on the creative world of The Giver, too. The plot of The Giver is actually pretty static, but Son has an active plot with a determined protagonist. And perhaps what makes Son most gripping is the conflict. The conflict of The Giver is intellectual, the desire to bring sensation and memory to the community. The conflict of Son is visceral, though: a young mother is on a quest to recover her child. Perhaps my status as a “new dad” makes this element more poignant for me. But having finished Son, I now feel like Lowry’s cycle introduced me to a world, expanded it, complicated it, then brought it back together with ten times the force. So if you enjoyed The Giver, (and I’ve never met someone who read it that hasn’t), then I highly encourage you to seek out the other novels.

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Writers Writing about Writing: Bradbury and King

I don’t read many books about writing (the Craft is better learned by Doing than by Studying), but I recently read two such texts. I was hoping for a bit of a jump-start with my own writing, which has tailed off as the school year dominates my life.

The first book was a collection by Ray Bradbury titled Zen in the Art of Writing. The book is not one cohesive essay, but rather a series of essays he wrote about creativity throughout his career.  Some focused on particular projects (“Investing Dimes” is about the composition of Fahrenheit 451, “Just This Side of Byzantium” is about Dandelion Wine), while others explore his more general ideas about where creativity comes from, and about his writing process. The playfulness and nostalgia that is evident in his fiction also comes through in his nonfiction; one can almost see him grinning and hopping from one foot to the other as he composes. He engages in some “woo-woo” writing mysticism. The idea of the writer as a magician who can create amazing Somethings out of Nothing is a common one. Readers believe it because writing fiction seems like a confounding art: “How did he even THINK of that, much less write it?” Writers believe it because we like to think we’re tapping into something pretty special and unique when we compose.

My only real objection to Bradbury’s collection is the title. As a student of Zen, I find myself annoyed by pop culture’s appropriation of it to mean “anything mystical or illogical.” While there are some concepts in the essays that conincide with Zen principles (one must let go of Art in order to capture it), for the most part, Zen has nothing to do with the content. “On Creativity” or simply “The Art of Writing” would have been more appropriate, but tacking “Zen” on something can boost sales, right? The title actually comes from the final essay, in which Bradbury explains how writing can be an expression of Zen principles. A little closer, but in the essay he offhandedly confesses that at the time he wrote the essay, he had learned about Zen two or three weeks previous. So essentially, he says, “I’ve spent a lifetime writing, and I just learned this other thing that’s sort of like it, so now I’ll write on it as though I am some sort of expert.”

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the few books I have read several times. It is the book that first pushed me from “I like to write” to “I want to be a professional writer.” The first part is an autobiographical sketch that highlights aspects of his life that led him to writing. The second part contains his thoughts– all very practical and applicable, and invaluable for a new writer– about the craft. And the third part was written after his horrific accident in 1999, when he was nearly killed by an out-of-control van. The book affirms the power of writing to make life worth living, but he never claims it to be mystical or magical.

In fact, he doesn’t dramatize writing at all. King’s attitude is very workmanlike– he says writing is not much different than laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. This aspect of his attitude has always appealed to me. A writer (unless he or she is one of the few, freakish geniuses out there) isn’t born a brilliant wordsmith. A writer works, and works, and works. As a writer whose work ethic is greater than his inborn talent, I take this to heart. A writer gets better by writing, and writing a lot.

So while Bradbury and King come to their treatises with much different views, they actually unite on one single, all-important point. To be a good writer, one must write. King emphasizes this point while Bradbury tends to bury the fact that he wrote 1000 words a day for twenty years when he was starting out. But reading these books back to back did the trick– I’m squeezing in minutes of writing time now, even if don’t think I can afford to. On notepads at home, sitting on the train to work, getting up at an even more inhuman hour of the morning, whatever it takes. I will do what I must to serve the Craft.

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