When I was about eight or nine, I saw a poster in my library for the ALA Book Awards. It freaked me out for a second, because ALA were my initials, and I was certain, for a few heart-pounding seconds, that I had won some sort of award. (I was a fairly weird child, obviously!) A kindly librarian explained what the poster really meant; the ALA is the American Library Association, and they give—surprise!—awards each year to great books.
Once I got married, my initials became ALaS (I didn’t keep my married name on paper, but it is still part of me, hence that lowercase "a"). And, since I’ve been an inconsistent reader lately, unable to finish any book but with these three books I did manage to finish waiting to be written about, I’ve decided to write this book note as the ALaS Book Awards. Just because. Here we go!
The ALaS for Book Everyone Should Read, It’s That Good:
Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. The basic concept: an meteor, large enough to be seen on earth, is set to hit the moon. What scientists don’t realize, though, is that the meteor will knock the moon off its axis. The resulting effects get recorded in Miranda’s journal. Food vanishes, electricity is sporadic at best, winter’s coming with no natural gas. Plus: tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding, volcanos. The way the novel makes you fear is by presenting something so plausible. It is a fascinating story. Serioiusly: you will love this book!
The ALaS for Coolest Book
Just In Case by Meg Rosoff. Rosoff’s first novel, the unforgettable How I Live Now, is one of my favorite adolescent-lit reads. So when I spotted her new book, Just In Case, waiting to be put on the new-book shelf at the library, I confess: I didn’t put it on the shelf. I checked it out to myself and read it. This is entirely different than her first novel, but still delightful. It’s about a boy, David Case, who decides that Fate is out to get him. And everyone he loves. To trick fate, he changes what he wears, who he hangs out with (namely: almost nobody), what he does (he becomes a long-distance runner), even his name (to Justin—get it?). The book is alternately hilarious and sad, filled with real characters and difficult situations. Ultimately it makes you think: just how is it that we become who we are? Is everything decided beforehand, our choices simply illusions? For example, Justin wonders "whether the things that killed you were not only the crashes and explosions from without, but the bombs buried deep inside, the bombs ticking quietly in your bowel or your liver or your heart, year after year, that you yourself had swallowed, or absorbed, and allowed to grow." He wants to be able to trace the arc of his decisions to a preferably safe and happy ending, and he is finally able to snap out of his funk when he realizes that no one gets to do that.
The ALaS for Weirdest Book:
The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. I wanted to read this book based on just two things: I loved Swanwick’s Bones of The Earth (time travel to the epochs of the dinosaurs), and I thought the title sounded intriguing. When I actually started reading it, I discovered something much different than the typical fantasy novel I had expected. What I really kept thinking was this is the kind of book my dad would have liked. There are foul-mouthed dwarves, back-stabbing lamias, seductive and ruthless elves, all mixed up in this strange society of magic and metal. The iron dragons of the title are a conscious, thinking mix of technology and magic. The main character, Jane, is a changling who works as a child laborer in a plant that makes steam engines, and she escapes by making a pact with an ancient, rusted iron dragon. It’s a sort of cyberpunk world, ruthless and edgy, with throwbacks to pagan rituals mixed in with technology. It’s also a story about how our fates (there it is again, fate) intertwine with each other, how some people seem to be almost unavoidable in our lives, what we do with the choices we have. How to change our circumstances, as in this idea: "There is a logic to the shapes of lives and relationships, and that lgoic is embedded in the stuff of existence. . . . We are all of us living stories that o some deep level give us satisfaction. If we are unhappy with our stories, that is not enough to free us from them. We must find other stories that flow naturally from those we have been living." Definitely a weird book, but I also really, really enjoyed it; I wanted to know how the story ended, and the new world Swanwick creates is just that: no throwbacks here to Tolkein or any other fantasy you can think of. Don’t read it, though, if you like your fantasy soft, because there is nothing gentle here.
There you have it: the first (annual? weekly? bi-monthly? ever?) ALaS awards. Happy reading!