I just finished reading a wonderful short novel “The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy “ by Jeanne Birdsall
It is about the summer vacation of a family of four, very independent sisters and their widowed father. They rent a cabin on a large estate in the Berkshire Mountains. During their stay they meet a young boy who lives on the neighboring estate. The boy keeps trying to tell his domineering mother that he wants to study music instead of going to a military academy, but the rambunctious adventures of the four girls keep getting in the way and convince his mother to send him to military school a year early. The boy finally gets his mother to pay attention thanks to the help of the girls and their father. There are strong overtones of Little Women and Madeline L’Engle.
The interesting thing about this choice in novels was how I discovered it. I found it by looking through a list of award winning young adult novels. Over the past six months almost all of my leisure fiction reading has come from the shelves of the young adult section. First there was Philip Pullman’s brilliant Sally Lockhart novels about the steely adventures of a young woman trying to get ahead on her own in Victorian London, then it was Pete Hautman’s Invisible, No Limit, and Godless. I’ve read a few young adult novels on and off over the past 15 years but the bulk of my leisure fiction has been science fiction and fantasy. So what prompted the change?
Whenever I walk into a second hand bookstore, especially one with a good sf/f section that goes back a few decades I’m struck by the slimness of the mass-market paperbacks published during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Authors like Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, John Brunner, Barry Malzberg, and Phil Dick churned out short novels on an annual basis. As with all things the quality varied but the time it took to discover the quality of a piece of work was smaller than it is today.
A few months ago I tried to wade through Pandora’s Star by Peter Hamilton, which is over 1000 pages long in paperback and is the first part of a two book series. This is insane. Granted there were some good passages in the book but most of it was endless transporting of characters from one planet to the next in order to setup another confrontation or scene. But the confrontations never amounted to anything, everything was build up. At least until I gave up about 400 pages in. I wasn’t going to spend the hours needed to read 2000 pages for a conclusion that may on may not justify the buildup.
So I’ve left mainstream SF behind and delved into the YA world where I can read a book in a single evening and still get a thrill out of well-crafted characters and interesting plots. Philip Pullman is especially good; his plots in the Sally Lockheart series are easily as baroque as those by Peter Hamilton but they take place in less than half the total verbiage. See John Clute on Hamilton’s latest, The Dreaming Void.