Friday, August 6, 2010

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown, May 2010) is amazing. No two ways about it. It's also taken the #1 spot as the scariest book I've read this year.

What it's about: Nailer Lopez is employed as a ship breaker on a light crew. All day, he and his team work on wrecked ships in the Gulf of Mexico, salvaging what they can. Light crews, as opposed to heavy crews (not dark crews), are in the business of salvaging copper and other lightweight materials from the ships of yesterday. It's dangerous, it's toxic, and Nailer knows that as soon as he hits his growth spurt, he's done for in terms of being able to work on his crew. The people who live on his beach are mostly laborers, short on leisure time, money, and most importantly, loyalty. Then Nailer and his friend find the greatest treasure of their lives. After a hurricane, and we're talking a hurricane that makes Katrina look like a light drizzle, they find a wrecked boat full of riches. Only two things stand in the way of Nailer's life of luxury: His violent, greedy father and the girl, dubbed Lucky Girl, that he finds aboard the wreck. Keeping one step ahead of his father is a full-time job for Nailer, who knows that if Lucky Girl is discovered before she can find her people, she's as good as dead.

Salvaged thoughts: My only reservation about Ship Breaker is something that comes from entirely inside my own head, not the book itself. I really, really worry that this book is going to get pigeonholed as a "boy book," action and adventure and light on everything else. It has some amazing action, don't get me wrong, but it's so much more. With the Gulf Coast oil spill, it's timely, which is a very frightening thought considering that the lead time on novels is 18 months, give or take. The worldbuilding is extraordinary. Bacigalupi uses a third person voice that's anchored in events of the present. He doesn't bother providing much background on Nailer's world all in one or two data dumps, just throws in details as Nailer sees them. As a result, the details add up and you get to see that not only is Nailer living in an environmentally damaged world, but it's a world that's run by some really super-corrupt, super-evil people. Of course, Nailer doesn't take the time to think about this super corruption because he has much more important things to think about, like his daily survival. The book can be appreciated as a straightforward environmental thriller, sure, but it's also literary and horrifying in a psychological way. And lest you think I focus on the scary stuff, I also have to say that I found Nailer to be an inspiring character. He is morally upright and, in the immortal words of Dumbledore, makes the right choice between what is right and what is easy. He lives with so much uncertainty and violence, but triumphs over them when faced with tough decisions.

I could be entirely wrong about this pigeonholing. I hope I am. I'd love to see this book honored during the YALSA awards in January.

In other thoughts, 2010 has been a good year for adult authors writing YA between this and The Carrie Diaries, yes?

Review at io9 || Paolo Bacigalupi's blog || Review at Kids Lit

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