Sunday, February 27, 2011

Young Adult Reading: VIRALS by Kathy Reichs; THIS THING CALLED THE FUTURE by J.L. Powers

Here's a contrast of approaches: a noted crime novelist slips away from her much-appreciated series to write a story for teens -- VIRALS, by Kathy Reichs -- and a story seeker pauses in her research to spin her second novel for young adults: THIS THING CALLED THE FUTURE, by J.L. Powers. Both rely on twists of language and on the contrast between believing the world will turn out okay, and finding out that the responsibility for that good stuff is on your own shoulders after all (ouch).

I grabbed VIRALS right away because I'm a huge fan of Reichs's Temperance Brennan series that features a forensic anthropologist based in Canada and sometimes in North Carolina. The series is also now a TV show, Bones. And I was hoping Brennan would appear in this South Carolina island adventure.

Scratch that one. Brennan gets mentioned a couple of times, and Tory Brennan, her niece, is glad to be compared with her risk-taking, brilliant aunt. But there isn't even a cameo for the seasoned investigator. Tory and her friends accidentally trip over an illicit science experiment when she and her three friends -- all boys -- decide to rescue a wolfdog pup that's been captured and turned into a lab project on the nearby island where their parents mostly work. And the pup is really, really sick:
I looked down at Coop, sleeping in his improvised burrow. "I'll take care of you," I whispered. "Just get well.'

Outside, thunder rolled.
For Tory, whose mother died in a car accident and who is now living with the father she didn't even know existed until this year, there's way too much to adjust to in her life. Rescuing a puppy evens the odds. What she and her friends don't know, though, is that the pup is infected with a virus that can leap to them, too. And its effects are transforming -- if I mention the Fantastic Four, only the oldtimers and the history-of-comics folks will get this, so ... let's say that the virus has the potential to change the DNA of people who host it. Uh-oh. Rescuing the puppy and dodging the violent criminals might be the easy parts.

Jumping into South African urban life with fourteen-year-old Khosi, whose father can't afford the bride-price to marry her mom, provides a shattering contrast -- so don't read these two books back to back! They're for entirely different parts of the psyche, anyway. Where Reichs proposes that military- or crime-fueled science could invade the lives of a group of bright teens, J.L. Powers instead follows a real virus: HIV, which is so dangerous that it's spoken of sideways as "the disease of these days." Not only can it kill you if you catch it, but Khosi has to deal with the threat of a "dirty old man" willing to rape her, in hopes that forced sex with a virgin might cure him (or at least entertain him; he's awful). Her mother comes home from work terribly ill; her far-away father may have a newer, younger girlfriend; and the person who keeps rescuing her, as well as befriending her little sister Zi, is a breathtakingly good-looking boy practically her own age, Little Man, whose dark eyes, strong muscles, and unexpected kindness are pushing Khosi off balance.

Plus she has choices to make between the powerful traditions of her people, complete with herbal healers and ancestral voices that speak to Khosi and nudge her along, and the modern science and medicine that her mother says make up the right route for South Africa's future.
Inkosikazi Dudu has gone inside. But if she were standing in front of me, would I say the words that are flooding my mind? I'll be watching you. And if you dare do anything to my family, if you dare try to curse us, I'll come after you. I don't know how but I have friends and they'll help me.

Looking at the quiet neighborhood, the warning seems really crazy.
Where Reichs experiments in her book with "teen language," Powers fills her conversations with Zulu words that cling to the fabric of community and heritage. Where Tory Brennan is running from what's left of her family, Khosi is desperate to find ways to save what's left of hers.

Get both books. Reichs's book came out in November; the one from Powers is due out in May but you can pre-order it, so you won't forget it for your summer reading stack. So take advantage of that time gap to enjoy these a couple of weeks or months apart. I think Khosi is a true hero; I think Tory is a starting place for a sci-fi (even graphic novel) sequence. Might as well enjoy each!

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