THE FAULT IN OUR STAR (The Age of Miracles, Red Shirts, and Railsea): Given the fact that I've now read everything that China Mieville and Neal Stephenson have ever written, I'm pretty much past the point where I can credibly say I steer clear of sci-fi. And given the fact that I read The Hunger Games and The Fault in our Stars, and that Amazon keeps recommending spa treatments and fragrant soaps to me, I can't really claim to be too old and too male for YA. But I just read, in succession, the three books in the title, and I have thoughts.
Seems like over the last couple of months, everybody was yelling at me to read Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles. Well, not everybody, but Terry Gross, Amazon recommendations, and Grantland, and I imagine that triangulating from those three sources yields a pretty accurate prediction of my tastes. Turns out that "pretty accurate" is not the same thing as "perfect." Leave aside that the standard YA voice -- that of a teen, or in this case a tween -- is a systemic problem for me, because it seems to limit the range and complexity of the narrative voice. On that, your mileage may vary. The main problem with Miracles is that it seems to be a carefully composed arrangement of unfinished thoughts.
The less-important manifestation of that is in the novel's inconsistent treatment of science. Some phenomena are unexplained, some are explained in painstaking realistic-sounding detail, and some are ascribed obviously nonsensical explanations, plus the book misses some pretty obvious consequences of its central premise. People can accept magical realism in lieu of science, but if you're going to go the science route, you have to go all-in. But the book's halfheartedness about science is of a piece with its halfheartedness about plot. Spoilers follow: the novel is about the beginning of the end (and brims with "this was the beginning of the end" portents), but it really reads more as "the middle of the beginning of the end, after the actual beginning of the beginning of the end but way before we get to where the end is really underway." So it's not a story about either the inevitable end of everything or about how people manage to adapt successfully to changes, thus staving off the end. Instead, it's about the dumb ideas people have that don't really work (the real-time movement; greenhouses). Even love affairs don't go anywhere -- romances are uprooted before they flower and disappear without resolution. I can't recall a novel as unsatisfying as this, or so much more average than its critical reception.
Which makes Red Shirts such a nice companion. I am not generally a John Scalzi fan, since what I've read of his tends to treat spaceships and aliens as the point, rather than the medium to get the point across. But Red Shirts is a great response to that, simultaneously an acknowledgement, critique, and send-up of sci-fi conventions and bad science (like that in Miracles. Its premise is that bit players in a Star Trek-like scenario realize they are stuck in a bad sci-fi narrative and look for a way to save themselves from being killed before a commercial break. This is (the book acknowledges) not entirely original, but the execution is (pun intended) stellar, and the resolution therefore is satisfying and surprisingly cogent. It's not challenging, but it's good summer fodder.
And then there's Railsea, China Mieville's first YA novel. Frankly, the only early hint that this is YA is that its protagonist is a teenager; the only confirmation that this is YA is that by the time you get to the end, there hasn't been any sex or f-bombs. Mieville, whose elliptical language is right in my reading wheelhouse, doesn't bother to dumb down his writing for a YA audience, and goes right on troweling layers upon layers of sentences, letting readers infer meanings from context, playing with ideas of text and narrative. The whole thing is kind of a mash-up of two jokes, one a riff on dueling Moby Dick stories, the other a kind of Monopoly fairy tale. Mieville also is a master at what Walker doesn't do so well -- setting up an impossibility (in this case, the notion of oceans made entirely of navigable railways) and then carefully mapping the consequences. In any event, this is not his best work (for my money, that's The City and the City, which probably doesn't even qualify as sci-fi), but it's plenty worth the time.
If anybody is still reading, now is the part where you tell me what I should be reading during the rest of this summer.