Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

From the back cover:
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or by chance, he discovers an exquisite ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life…

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.

Ship Breaker won the Printz Award this year, and I must say I think it deserved it! It took a little while to grow on me, but I liked it a lot by the end.

At some unspecified point in the future, a community of people has sprung up on Bright Sands Beach (on the Gulf Coast) where the best work to be found is on crews breaking down giant, rusting wrecks of oil tankers. Everyone toils away to meet their quota, all the while dreaming of the lucky strike—oil or other scarce commodities—that could make them rich. Nailer Lopez is fifteen years old and works on the light crew, where his job is scuttling through pipes to scavenge copper, aluminum, and nickel.

After a near-death experience during which his wits and luck save him from drowning in a pocket of oil, Nailer is christened Lucky Boy by his friends. This moniker seems apt when he and his friend Pima discover a valuable wreck left behind in the wake of a hurricane. They set to work stripping it but are stunned to discover a survivor—a very wealthy girl named Nita Chaudhury, who promises her father will reward them for saving her life. When Nailer’s drunken and dangerous father Richard discovers the wreck, however, he opts to trade Nita to her father’s enemies, which forces Nailer to make a whole bunch of difficult decisions.

When he and Pima find the wreck, she urges Nailer to be smart about it. In her eyes, “smart” seems to involve profiting enough to obtain a position of power on Bright Sands Beach. Nailer is aiming higher, however, and makes Nita promise to take him and Pima away and into a better life. The choices he makes from that point on are partly in pursuit of this goal, but also out of a growing sense of loyalty towards Nita, who proves herself capable and quickly loses her prejudices towards those less cultured than she. There are many times where he could have walked away and abandoned Nita to her fate but doesn’t, and ultimately, his concern for her works out in his own favor.

The story ranges over a few different settings, from the beach to the drowned docks of “Orleans” to a clipper ship crewed by people loyal to Nita’s father. As a big fan of the Hornblower series, I liked the ship the best. I hadn’t realized how much I missed depictions of naval battles until the awesome sequence wherein Nailer’s familiarity with the coastline results in a surprise advantage over a superior foe. In fact, the whole final sequence of the book was quite exciting, and makes me think this would make a good movie.

I also found it interesting that the main villain of the work is Nailer’s father, Richard, because Nailer harbors such conflicted feelings about him. He remembers the man his father used to be before his mother died, and though Richard’s now more likely to be high and abusive than relaxed and kind, Nailer feels obliged to care about him and give him chances to be a better person. After many disappointments, he finally realizes that Pima and her nurturing mother, Sadna, are his true family and is able to muster the strength to stop believing that his father is capable of turning over a new leaf at this point. Essentially, he’s a victim of domestic abuse who finally achieves the strength to say, “I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore.”

Lastly, Ship Breaker is commendable for its effortless portrayal of characters of many ethnicities. None of the lead characters is Caucasian. Their skin color is mentioned as part of their physical description, but doesn’t factor in to their relationships at all. Characters are judged purely based on their individual actions. If anything, the only real prejudice left in the world seems to be between the rich (or “swanks”) and the poor, but Nailer’s actions convince Nita, at least, of the errors of her ways, especially since he proves fully capable of functioning in her world if given half a chance.

Although initially a little frustrating—despite my love for dystopic YA, I still get a little frustrated with crappy situations that just seem to be getting crappier—Ship Breaker turns out to be a well-crafted and riveting tale.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: B+

From the back cover:
Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That’s when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Doesn’t this sound like the premise for a geeky TV show or movie? It certainly had that sort of vibe at first, with narration and dialogue that prompted me to mentally cast Simon Pegg in the role of Ed and Nick Frost as his annoyingly childish friend, Marv.

Pretty soon, though, things got a lot more serious. The cards Ed received sent him on a variety of missions, from kind of sappy things like spending time with a lonely old lady and rustling up a congregation for a priest to more dangerous ones, like dealing with a drunken lout who abuses his wife. I liked that the messages for Ed’s three best friends were the last tasks he had to complete, and that it forced him to take the scary steps of breaking through the pattern of superficial interaction he’d had with them and finding out their secrets, fears, and what it was they really needed. The resolution of Marv’s message was particularly moving.

The writing was often funny, but sometimes a little too pretentiously poetic. Example: “Voices slam and the door shouts shut.” Things like that disrupted the narrative flow of the story with their clunky construction. Plus, they conjured memories of high school creative writing assignments, which is seldom a good thing.

The ending was weird and very disappointing. The identity of the person behind Ed’s mission made very little sense. Zusak apparently felt the need to reinforce the already-obvious point that Ed’s not actually the messenger, but the message, and it concluded things on a rather confusing note.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff: B+

From the front flap:
This is a story about love.

It’s also a story about hate, which is why I left New York in the first place. You don’t fly halfway across the world to live with a bunch of people you never met, just for a laugh.

I guess if I’d known where it was all going to lead, I might have thought twice about stepping onto that plane. I might have worried a little more about Edmond being my cousin.

And me being fifteen.

But I didn’t. And in the end, those things didn’t matter as much as you think they would.

In the end, the world had bigger things to worry about than us.

New Yorker Daisy has gone to visit some English relatives over the summer. At first things are idyllic, but a few weeks after she settles in, terrorists invade and occupy England. Daisy is separated from all but one of her cousins, a 9-year-old girl called Piper. At first, they’re living in the home of one of the military commanders, but soon are on their own as they try to find home and the others.

How I Live Now is a good book, but it seems sort of a surface-level account of what happened, particularly regarding the relationship between Daisy and Edmond. Also, the ubiquitous YA gimmick of missing or dead parents is used liberally.

I did like the examination of how war affects a civilian population, and how Daisy begins to feel responsible for Piper’s safety, her first time loving someone more than herself. Passages of extensive travel usually bore me, but that wasn’t a problem here.

This isn’t really a book about a war, and it is largely a story about love, but it’s mostly a tale about finding a place to belong and realizing what kind of person you want to be. I look forward to reading more by this author.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: A-

From the back cover:
From her first moment at Merryweather High, MJ Sordino knows she’s an outcast. She busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops—a major infraction in high-school society—so her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t know glare at her. She retreats into her head, where the lies and hypocrisies of high school stand in stark relief to her own silence, making her all the more mute. But it’s not so comfortable in her head, either—there’s something banging around in there that she doesn’t want to think about. Try as she might to avoid it, it won’t go away, until there is a painful confrontation. Once that happens, she can’t be silent—she must speak the truth.

Speak does an excellent job capturing the voice of a clever, angsty ninth grader. A lot of the things she says (it’s first person, but whether it’s a journal isn’t clear) are overly melodramatic, and sound much like the sort of symbolic crap that I once wrote in my journal. This is occasionally a little annoying, but since the same could be said about most ninth graders, it worked for me. I listened to an unabridged audio version. The girl who read it, Mandy Siegfried, was awesome. Very authentic voice for a fourteen-year-old, and she (or someone) even made up tunes for the little snippets of the school cheers that are included, which was amusing.

It’s not a real surprise what’s happened to MJ, but even so—when the details are finally revealed, they still carry impact. Despite the blurb up there about the painful confrontation being the catalyst, I found her change to be a gradual one, which I liked, so there wasn’t exactly one single event I could point to that brought about an end to her silence. Although MJ’s muteness and mental retreating are frustrating, the wry analysis of high school and her other various experiences makes her a likable character. Now that it’s over, I find that I’ll actually miss hearing her. Kind of ironic, given the whole point of the thing.

Speak is a Printz Honor book. It’s good. Check it out.