Review: Zombie Baseball Beatdown

Zombie-Baseball-Beatdown-by-Paolo-BacigalupiThis review originally posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Recently, I ordered several books for our school library, including this much-hyped middle grade novel about immigration reform. I mean, about conditions in the meat processing industry. No! It’s about corruption in the legal system based on the evils of money. Ack! What I am trying to say is, a novel about ZOMBIES. Yeah, that’s right! It’s about zombies, and baseball. Or so I am reminded, when I look at the cover….

Okay, I should be fair. This was actually a pretty darn good book for what it is, and even though I’m about to point out its weaknesses, it overall gets a thumbs-up from me. Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi is a grody, funny adventure story of the classic “groups of kids running around with curiously little parental supervision” sub-genre. It’s a buddy story, written in an accessible style, with plenty of the stuff that middle school boys like: slapstick, comic books, sports, video games, cars, oblivious adults, crazy heroics, poop. You know: the good stuff. I found myself smiling, compulsively turning pages, reading choice bits aloud, and rooting for the good guys. It was a fun read.

On the other hand, Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a not-at-all veiled polemic against racism, the meat industry, American immigration policy, and big business. As my husband, who is an expert in such things, reminds me, zombies are always political metaphors. And of course, subtlety isn’t really in order when you’re writing middle grade literature. That said, ZBB really lays it on thick. My personal politics weren’t offended by the book, but it didn’t take much imagination to realize that plenty of readers would be completely turned off by the story’s message and end up walking away from what was otherwise a fun story. Obviously the use of fiction to promulgate ideology is nothing new (hello, pretty much everything you ever had to read for a high school English class) but a lighter hand with the vituperation might not have been uncalled-for here.

As an adult reader of a kid’s book, I was uncomfortable with the violent ideation. It bothered me that almost all of the protagonists’ (adult) nemeses conveniently got zombified, providing the kids with ample excuse to beat them up with baseball bats. I mean, I’m not so far gone that I can’t see how this would appeal to a middle schooler’s sense of justice; heck, some of these adults were so rotten before become zombies that I wanted to smack them myself. But there are a few violent (for a middle grade novel) moments where the kids get to deliver what ought to have been fatal beatings to adults in their lives, and they left me feeling a little disturbed. The inevitable zombie apocalypse scene blithely glosses over the fact that the kids are bludgeoning their erstwhile parents and neighbors.

Looking back on the novel, I realize that there are really no positive adults in this book, and ZBB fails the Bechdel Test big time. I’m not really counting that as a flaw here; it’s clearly a book intended for young guys, and the characters are pretty awesome. Our main character is a smart (but not caricature-smart) Indian-American boy who isn’t much of a baseball player but has a good head for stats. One of his friends is a courageous, big-hearted Mexican-American boy from a family of illegal immigrants, and the other is a Martin Riggs type with a rough home life. Together, the trio face enemies small, large, bovine, and undead. The ending is deliberately untidy, in such a way that felt exactly right to me and will frustrate the heck out of its target demographic.

Ultimately, this is a book that I’ll still sincerely recommend to kids who will either gloss over the politics or not mind them, and it’ll have a prominent place in our Halloween book display next October. It may make Cory Doctorow’s YA lit look subtle in comparison, but Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a zombie-infested revenge fantasy filled with lots of cow poop — what’s not to love?

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Review: Eon and Eona

eon and eona Eon: Dragoneye Reborn and Eona by Alison Goodman

My rating: 4 out of 5

My copy of Eon: Dragoneye Reborn had been sitting on my classroom library shelf (and on my to-read list) for a while before I finally felt the urge to tackle it. I had some doubts; I had heard a lot about it, particularly when I’d been doing research on YA books with LGBTQ characters, but was worried that it would be all hype and no bite. After all, there are an awful lot of mediocre YA books out there with dragons in them; as a teen, I would have consumed them all haphazardly regardless of quality, but as an adult reader I have less time and broader interests. When it came time to close up my classroom for Christmas break, though, I grabbed Eon and took it with me — and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t really what I was expecting, but it was a darned good ride.

The novel and its sequel, Eona, take place in a fictional country that bore an initial overwhelming resemblance to feudal China (although as the story goes on, strong Japanese and other Asian elements are woven in). This country is protected by twelve energy-dragons, each corresponding to cardinal directions, elements, and the signs of the Chinese zodiac. The general population can’t see or sense the dragons, but every generation produces a handful of boys who possess not only the ability to see the dragons but to work with them as Dragoneyes. These boys are identified, trained, and then presented for that year’s ascending dragon to choose between. If chosen, the boy will partner with the dragon, gaining supernatural powers and great social prestige in exchange for allowing the dragon to sap his vitality or hua. Over the course of the twelve years of partnership, these boys become old men.

Eon is one of the boys who wants to become a Dragoneye, but he has two major hurdles to overcome. First, he is physically handicapped in a culture that shuns any signs of physical imperfection — and because part of the selection process involves martial arts, he is at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

Eon’s second obstacle is that he is actually a girl in disguise. In this fiercely patriarchal land, women aren’t allowed to become Dragoneyes — in fact, they’re really not allowed to be anything. Females have no value beyond servitude and breeding stock; they have no education, no rights, and no voice. Eon, who has been pretending to be a boy for so long that he thinks of himself as male, is hoping to maintain his secret and be chosen by that year’s dragon so that he can ascend from poverty, bring honor to his sponsor, and have a chance at a real life.

Balancing out these two problems, Eon is powerfully gifted at being able to see the energy-dragons. Most potential Dragoneyes will only see their own dragon; Eon can see all of them, at will, and seems to be able to communicate with them to some degree.

It obviously wouldn’t be much of a book if Eon wasn’t chosen by a dragon, so I was prepared for the anticlimax of the selection ceremony. That’s when Goodman delivered her first “gotcha” of the story, which I won’t divulge in the hopes that you’ll read it for yourself, but which lays the foundation for the entire saga.

From that point on, Eon and Eona comprise a riveting tale of secrets, betrayal, revolution, war, survival, and redemption. Despite the invisible drove of dragons on the margins, the books never really feel like fantasy novels. Instead, the emphasis is on the human characters and their struggles to come to terms with themselves, each other, and their circumstances. Eon must decide who he or she truly is, and what sort of person s/he wants to be, as power threatens to corrupt. Her friends and compatriots, many of them also with unique gender-identity issues (this is a land where eunuchs are still commonly used as servants, and where male-to-female transgendered people can possess a certain amount of spiritual capital, similar to the “two-spirits” of the Cherokee nation) must establish their roles in the maelstrom that comes to surround Eon and the young emperor. The emperor must decide how to save his country and what relationship he wants with a Dragoneye that he may or may not be able to fully trust… And as Eona begins, Eon’s chief antagonist must also determine whether  he is villain or antihero.

Goodman treats all of her characters with even-handed respect, by which I mean she doesn’t use these novels to make some sort of political or social statement about sexuality and gender identity. Eon, Lady Dela (M-F transgender) and Ryko (eunuch) are merely people with the same sort of troubles and triumphs and day-to-day lives as everyone else around them. It’s refreshing to see LGBTQ characters in a fantasy or science fiction novel period, but doubly great for it to be a “no big deal” sort of depiction. (Okay, so Eon’s issues are a big deal, but that’s more in terms of her society’s attitude toward women than anything else.)

Ultimately, Eon and Eona reminded me a bit of Mulan, a bit of stories in the vein of The Last Airbender, and a bit of samurai-type epics like Shogun. It reads at times like a historical fiction and at times like a light fantasy, and has elements that will appeal to male or female readers — a nice thing to find in a YA novel. Mostly, though, it was a lot of fun to read and definitely well worth the time (and the wait).

Review: Going Bovine

Going Bovine book coverGoing Bovine by Libba Bray

My rating: 4 out of 5

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book review, but I thought I’d give it a go again because I’m trying to process my thoughts about this novel. I had been intending to read Going Bovine for some time (it came out in 2009) but hadn’t ever gotten around to it until this Christmas break. I like to read the books recognized for the Michael L. Printz Award, which focuses on YA books written with great literary merit. I try to have as many of these books on my classroom library shelves as I can; I love the idea of sharing books that are interesting to teens, written for teens, that are also artful.

That being said… sometimes I wonder if the Printz Award is more about an exercise in YA writing, rather than books that real teen readers actually want to read. Several of the books I’ve read from the Printz list are inarguably well-written, but I have a really hard time knowing which of my kids would like them — and when I recommend them to my students, I often get pretty lukewarm reactions. (Recent example: Punkzilla.) It’s kind of like the Pulitzer, y’know? Everyone knows that Pulitzer Prize-winning books are amazeballs, but does anyone actually read them?

Going Bovine was really well done, and I enjoyed it enough to knock it out in one day despite my increasing inability to focus on a book. And I’m going to put it out there for my kids to try. But I’m not really 100% sure what they’ll think…

This book tells the story of Cameron Smith, a disaffected sixteen-year-old boy who thinks his life pretty much sucks up until the point when it actually sucks — that is, the day he is diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (better known to most of us as mad cow disease, a fatal neurological disorder). We first realize that all is not right in Cameronville when he begins hallucinating, seeing a pink-haired angel following him around as well as a legion of enormous fiery creatures that seem to be trying to burn the world down.

After Cameron is hospitalized, the angel reappears and lets Cameron in on a little secret. Yes, he has mysteriously contracted CJD… but there’s more to it than that, involving a time-traveling scientist named Dr. X and the fire giants’ leader, the nefarious Wizard of Reckoning. If Cameron will accept the angel’s mission and undergo a quest to save the world from the Wizard, she tells him, then Dr. X may be able to cure him and save his life.

What’s a teenage boy with a death sentence to do? He recruits a sidekick (inevitably, a hypochrondiac Hispanic afro-wearing video-gaming Little Person named Gonzo), sneaks out of the hospital, and begins following a loosely-constructed trail of clues to track down Dr. X and save the world. As time goes on, it’s increasingly unclear whether Cameron is actually trekking across the southeastern U.S. or if his quest is the product of a disintegrating mind as he lies in his hospital bed. The result is a satirical, sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious, and often hallucinogenic tale that, surprisingly, works.

I liked this quotation from a Goodreads reader review:

Imagine Brian Lee O’Malley surrendering his masterpiece Scott Pilgrim series to Bob Dylan, Scott Adams and Jack Kerouac. The constraints are Scott Pilgrim is now a stoner who has mad cow disease, Ramona is a punk rock angel who flies in and out of Scott’s life, and Wallace is a hypochondriac dwarf human. They all take a road trip through the dirty South and face many a task. New Orleans blues legends, smile cults, eskimo rock bands, evil snowglobes and the occaisional [sic] viking gnome.

(I’d also throw in a bit of Neil Gaiman; Going Bovine reminded me at times of American Gods.)

So what’s “wrong” with the novel? Why am I unsure whether it will actually appeal to my YA readers? I have three thoughts on that subject:

  1. I’m a character-driven reader, and Bray’s characters always turn me off. Gemma Doyle drove me insane, and Cameron’s not exactly the first person I’d choose to go on a roadtrip with. And while I totally get what Beauty Queens was trying to accomplish, its cast was just waaaaaay too much for me. That said, most kids who’ve read the Gemma books love them, so maybe it’s just me. And I certainly encounter a fair number of Caulfield-esque, stoner boys in my line of work.
  2. It’s really, really weird — and most of my teens have a pretty low tolerance for absurdism. They’ll read fantasy or science fiction, but satire flies over their heads and this sort of free-wheeling plot entanglement seems to be kryptonite to them. I think absurdism (whether a la Douglas Adams or as an attempt to capture drug trips/mental issues on paper) requires not only a high level of intelligence and reader buy-in, but a sophisticated sense of humor. It’s challenging to find a kid who possesses those things and who wants to read about a kid like Cameron.
  3. It’s also — at least for this consumer of plot — fairly predictable. The breadcrumbs Cameron follows, meant to be so random that they almost have to be the result of a diseased brain, are glowingly obvious to readers who know their quest tropes. There’s relatively little doubt as to what is really going on (although it’s pleasant to read the story as a straight-up magic realism quest) or as to what the end result will be. I’m not sure that predictability is a problem for most YA readers, but I thought I’d throw that one out there.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and I’d recommend it to other adult readers of YA literature if they’re the sort who are tolerant of absurdism and somewhat unlikeable protagonists. (In fairness, Cameron becomes much more likeable as the book goes on — it’s not much a spoiler to say that this is essentially a character redemption tale.) I’m also glad that I have it as an option for my students, in case the right one comes along. It is a very well-executed book, deserving of the Printz; it is not my favorite book ever. But maybe it will be yours!