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Posts Tagged ‘YA’

magicland“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.”

That was President Barack Obama talking recently to The New York Times about what books mean to him. He reads widely, both fiction and nonfiction, for all the usual reasons: information, enlightenment, connection, comfort. “And then there has been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head.” Hence, fiction.

I am so there these days about being someplace else. And I don’t just want fictional, I want fantastical. Narnia. Middle Earth. Camelot. Fillory. The latter is found in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy and is sort of a mash-up of those famous magical kingdoms and other classic fairy-tale realms. The second season of the TV adaptation of the books begins airing tonight on the SyFy Channel, so I recently reread the third book, The Magician’s Land, to get ready. I’m not sure it will make any difference. The TV series is itself a stylish if choppy mash-up of Grossman’s books, changing some characters and events. The first season was disconcerting at times, but I still liked it. Fillory forever!

bearIf you’re looking for deep-winter magic, Katherine Arden’s richly imagined first novel The Bear and the Nightingale (Random House, digital galley) is all once-upon-a-time in medieval Russia, where a spirited heroine embraces the old myths. Vasya Petrovna, whose mother died at her birth, defies custom, her stepmother and a young priest so as to save her village, which has turned its back on the traditional spirits of the house and woodlands. Arden casts a spell with her lyrical writing, evoking Russian fairy tales and folklore, putting her own spin on the chilling story of the blue-eyed demon Frost.

wintersongS. Jae Jones sets her first YA novel, Wintersong (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in 19th-century Bavaria, drawing on German legend, Greek myth and Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market.”  It’s narrated by 19-year-old Elisabeth, the innkeeper’s eldest daughter, who has always looked after her younger siblings, including a musically talented brother and a beautiful, foolish sister. When the mysterious Goblin King chooses the sister for his bride, Elisabeth, who is strongly attracted to the eldritch stranger and who composes music, sets out to rescue her. Read the book as a fairy tale or as romantic fantasy, but by all means go back and reread Rossetti’s poem, still as irresistible as the luscious apples and quinces hawked by the goblin men.

hangingPerhaps urban fantasy is more to your liking, in which case you probably know Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like its predecessors, The Hanging Tree (DAW, digital galley) is another wild and witty paranormal police procedural. Police officer and junior wizard Peter Grant and his mentor Nightingale investigate the overdose of a teenage girl, who may have been practicing illegal magic. The case swiftly involves them in the lives of the river goddess Lady Tyburn and her extended family, as the villainous Faceless Man has returned. This is the sixth book in the series, and it’s rife with references to current pop culture and past books. Aaronovitch, a screenwriter for Doctor Who, neatly straddles the real and unreal worlds. More, please.

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invisibleSometimes you just need to get away. Could be that out-of-town isn’t enough, or even out-of- the-country. Let’s try out-of-this world.

First stop is Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library (Roc/Penguin, digital galley), where the shelves of books stretch in all directions across time and space and where hidden portals lead to alternate realities. Born and raised in the Library, Irene now works as a spy to retrieve rare volumes to add to the Library’s immense collection. On a mission to pick up a singular copy of Grimm’s fairy tales, she and her new assistant Kai arrive in a London infected by magic known as chaos, resulting in a steampunk Dickensian city whose inhabitants include demons, vampires and the Fair Folk. The rules are different here, as Irene and Kai’s pursuit of the stolen book is threatened by competing factions willing to kill for the prize. In the course of their adventures, they meet up with a Sherlockian detective, Irene’s former mentor and the evil Albion, the Library’s greatest traitor. Fans of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and/or Dr. Who will appreciate the imaginative worldbuilding, literary references and galloping pace. Sequels The Masked City and The Burning Page arrive in September and December.

onedamnedSpeaking of timey-wimey stuff, Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another (Night Shade/Skyhorse, digital galley) is also a British import, the first in the series known as the Chronicles of St. Mary’s. Time-traveling historians aren’t new — American Connie Willis has been dispatching them with elan for years — but Taylor takes the concept and runs with it. Narrator Madeleine Maxwell is a new recruit to the mysterious St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where trained historians like herself “investigate historical events in contemporary time” — yep, time travel. Max soon discovers that hurtling back centuries can be downright dangerous, as when she and her colleagues work in a World War I battlefield hospital. But that’s nothing to the Cretaceous Period, where slathering dinosaur jaws await the unwary, as well as time-traveling terrorists determined to sabotage St. Mary’s research. Really, it’s one disaster after another for Max and company, but it’s often hilarious. Good thing, because the pace is uneven, the secondary characters underdeveloped and the laws of logic don’t apply. The whole could use an editor. Still,  A Symphony of Echoes arrives next week, and I understand there will be Dodos.

paperfireAction and adventure, knowledge and power. They’re intertwined in Rachel Caine’s Great Library series, which began last year with the thrilling Ink and Bone. In that book, London book smuggler Jess Brightwell was sent off to study at the Great Library of Alexandria, which has survived through the ages as librarians rule the world by limiting access to all original books. In the second book, Paper and Fire (NAL/Penguin, review copy), Jess and his fellow students who made it through the perilous final exams are ready to enter the ranks as soldiers or scholars. But the dark side of the Library is revealing itself: Jess’ best friend Thomas has been accused of treason and reportedly executed, his girlfriend Morgan’s alchemical talents have landed her in the Iron Tower, and their teacher, Scholar Christopher Wolfe, is barely recovering from torture and imprisonment at the hands of the evil Archivist. Still, when Jess and his friends figure out that Thomas is being held captive in Rome, they set out to rescue him, braving the fearful automata of the Library and the deadly explosives of the heretical Burners. Yes, you really need to read the first book, although Caine tries to fill in gaps for newcomers. This makes for some slow going at the beginning of Paper and Fire, but the action picks up in Rome, and then it’s off full speed ahead to London and presumed safety.  Ha! I’m booking passage now for a third book.

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thegirlsI’ve been catching up with the second season of Aquarius, the NBC series set in the age of and leading up to the Manson murders in August 1969. “You’re looking at life through a dirty window,” one character says in the third episode, and I know what she’s talking about. Everything and everybody looks murky in the sepia shadows, as if the camera lens was smeared with dust.  This is in sharp contrast to the clarity of Emma Cline’s ambitious first novel The Girls (Random House, digital galley), which covers the same period, although she changes the names  and relocates events from L.A. to the Bay area.

“It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless formless summer.” This is Evie Boyd looking back from disappointed middle age to when she was 14, formless and yearning in the way 14-year-old girls are. A child of divorce set to go to boarding school in the fall, she becomes aware of three long-haired girls making their way through a local park. “Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She sees them again in a grimy black school bus, dumpster diving for food and shoplifting toilet paper. She is especially drawn to the fierce, feral Suzanne, who shepherds Evie to the rundown ranch where a troubadour called Russell holds sway over a squalid commune. Evie easily succumbs to Russell’s scruffy charisma but her loyalty and love lie with Suzanne.

These scenes from that long-ago summer are interspersed with chapters of present-day Evie, a caregiver whose house-sitting gig is interrupted by the arrival of the homeowner’s druggie son and his teenage girlfriend. The son announces Evie’s past with reverence, but she downplays her role in the famous cult because she didn’t kill anyone. Why not? For that answer the narrative returns to those hot August nights humming with menace, their chilling aftermath.

Cline’s prose is mostly hypnotic as Evie recounts that pivotal time, although the occasional overwritten sentence calls attention to itself and detracts from the fascinating story. Still, watching Aquarius, I’m ready to reread The Girls.

americangirlsIf not for Cline’s buzzed-about novel, I suspect more attention would be paid to Alison Umminger’s smart YA novel American Girls (Flatiron Books, digital books), in which the memories of the Manson murders shadow the present day.

Atlanta teen Anna is a bit of a brat and something of a mean girl at book’s beginning. Feeling left out of her divorced parents’ new families, she uses her stepmother’s credit card to buy a ticket to L.A. to see her half-sister, a striving actress. Delia agrees with Anna that their mother isn’t the best, and works out a deal so that Anna can stay with her for the summer, provided she earns money to pay back her plane fare. Conveniently, Delia’s ex-boyfriend Roger is an indie film director and hires Anna to research Hollywood murders, especially the Manson girls. Anna is surprised to discover parallels between herself and the “regular” girls who became killers, and is disturbed when it appears a stalker has targeted Delia. Hanging out on the set of a popular teen drama scripted by Delia’s current boyfriend, Anna also is exposed to competitive backlot Hollywood, where fame proves fleeting for young starlets. Meanwhile, news from back home has her rethinking her relationships.

Anna sounds like a real 15-year-old — smart but insecure, sarcastic yet vulnerable. Her candid voice reveals the complexities of her life in particular and those of girls in general. Did I mention that American Girls is also a first novel? It sure doesn’t read like one.

 

 

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weekendersBeyonce hasn’t cornered the market on lemonade. Riley Nolan Griggs of Mary Kay Andrews’ new beach-ready novel The Weekenders (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is batting at lemons as soon as she sets foot on the ferry for North Carolina’s Belle Isle. Her soon-to-be ex-husband Wendell has missed the boat again and isn’t answering his texts. This Memorial Day weekend was when they were going to tell their 12-year-old daughter Maggy that they’re divorcing, maybe break the news to Riley’s formidable mother Evelyn, who dotes on the son-in-law who now runs the family real estate business. Then, right in front of everybody — Riley’s best friend Parrish, her little brother Billy, the gossipy neighbor known as Belle Isle Barbie, old flame Nate — a process server shoves an envelope in Riley’s hands. And more lemons await — a foreclosed house, family secrets, financial scandal, hurricane warnings. And murder! Really.

Andrews packs The Weekenders with all the requisite romance, drama and breezy wit readers want, but she also includes some heavy-duty stuff they might not expect. But before she began writing under the Andrews pseudonym, Kathy Hogan Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity series of mystery novels, and she knows how to balance dark times with lighter moments and hopeful hearts. Her well-drawn characters help, especially former TV reporter Riley, dealing with a cheating husband, a manipulative daughter and screwball relatives (talking about you, Aunt Roo), all the while trying to remain true to herself and her dreams. A highlight is her stint as the host of an online video show where she has to wear clothes provided by sponsor Floozy and interview hucksters promoting breast augmentations and colon cleanses. But Riley discovers she’s adept at turning lemons into lemonade, maybe mixing it with some limoncello for added oomph. Just what you want for the beach. Tart and sweet.

summerdays“Summer loving had me a blast…” The whole time I was reading the stories in the stellar anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), I kept singing under my breath the song from Grease. You know: “Summer sun, something’s begun/ But oh, oh, these summer nights.” Editor Stephanie Perkins has gathered contemporary love stories by a dozen authors with YA cred, and their tales range from realistic to fantastic, funny to serious while capturing the ups and downs of first love.

The teens in these stories find love and romance at summer camp, summer school, a mountain park, a spooky carnival and a haunted resort. Nina LaCour’s “The End of Love,” has narrator Flora re-meeting the girl of her dreams while coping with her parents’ divorce. In  Jennifer E. Smith’s “A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong,” a day-camp counselor’s crush helps her understand an autistic boy. Francesca Lia Block strikes a wistful note in “Sick Pleasures,” while Libba Bray goes full-out zombie war in “Last Stand at the Cinegor.” Lest you think that’s weird, check out Leigh Bardugo’s lyrical fairy tale mash-up of mermaids and monsters, and revel in the darkly comic magic of Cassandra Clare’s “Brand New Attraction.” My favorite is the final tale, Lev Grossman’s “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” in which two teens are caught up in a time loop, repeating the events of August 4 every day a la Groundhog Day, apparently forever until the reason reveals itself.  “Summer days, drifting away. . ”

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librarysoulsRansom Riggs’ main characters aren’t funny peculiar but peculiar Peculiar with a capital P — children and young people with special gifts and odd attributes who live in time loops where days repeat and they don’t age. This much we learned in Riggs’ fantastic first book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, in which American teen Jacob Portman explored his grandfather’s past at a decrepit orphanage in Wales and discovered his own talent for discerning the monstrous Hollowghasts that devour Peculiars’ souls.

The exciting second book, Hollow City, picked up right where the first left off, with Jacob and his small band of friends fleeing the isolated island time loop and ending up in World War II Britain. Superstrong Bronwyn carried a trunk on her back containing their beloved teacher Miss Peregrine, changed into bird form. Fending off enemies right and left in the middle of the London Blitz, Jacob and company sought the still-human Miss Wren with help from some peculiar pigeons at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They also found some more peculiar kids and animals, but the “hollows” and their minions, the “wights,” were in hot pursuit. Time was running out to turn Miss Peregrine back into her human form.

And that brings us to the third, and presumably final Peculiar tale, Library of Souls (Quirk Books, library hardcover), which builds on everything that has gone before and goes deeper and darker before coming full circle to a satisfying finale. But first Jacob must learn how to control the hollows, and he and his flame-throwing girlfriend Emma must rescue not only Miss Peregrine but also their bartered friends. Victorian London, here they come! The fate of all Peculiardom hangs in the balance.

Odd vintage photographs again enhance the atmosphere and Riggs’ world-building. Wouldn’t the Peculiars make a great Tim Burton movie? We’ll find out in spring 2016.

 

 

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watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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darkestOnce upon a time — actually, the last few months  — I’ve been leading a double life. By day, I’m reading literary fiction and crime novels, but by night I escape to the paranormal via YA novels. Oh, the adventures I have among ghosts and witches, heroes and villains, changelings and dreamwalkers.

High school student Hazel is also leading a double life in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest (Little, Brown, library hardcover). Hazel wonders why she’s so tired in the mornings, unaware that her nighttime dreams  of being a warrior in the service of a fairy king are true. It’s part of a bargain she made to help her musically gifted brother Ben. Both Hazel and Ben are fascinated by the glass coffin in the forest near the town. Inside resides a sleeping fairy prince, a tourist attraction in a land where humans and fae warily co-exist. But then the coffin is destroyed, the prince disappears, and this already odd world falls out of kilter. As in her vampire novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black excels at mixing the ordinary  (school, parents, teenage crushes) with the extraordinary (changelings, unicorns, curses). She transforms fairy tale tropes with modern, snarky charm.

nightbirdAlice Hoffman’s many adult novels are suffused with a lyrical magical realism, which also informs her new novel for younger readers, Nightbird (Random House, digital galley). In the small Massachusetts town of Sidwell, residents hold an annual pageant about the town’s long-ago witch. But 12-year-old Twig and her mother, a talented baker, never attend, continuing to lead an isolated life in an old house, where Twig’s older brother James hides inside. Only Twig knows that James comes out at night, unfurling the black wings he’s had since birth, the result of the Sidwell witch having cursed the male side of the family. Twig is afraid someone is going to discover James on one of his nighttime flights; already there are whispers of a shadowy, flying monster. When a new family moves in down the road, Twig makes a good friend and James falls in love, but all is complicated by strange graffiti in town, a mysterious boy, and a woods full of small, endangered owls. Hoffman’s light touch casts a memorable spell. In Sidwell, even the library and the apple trees appear enchanted.

shadowcabMaureen Johnson left fans hanging on the edge of a cliff two years ago with The Madness Underneath, the second book in her enthralling Shades of London series, when she apparently killed off a major character. But never fear; she’s not Veronica Roth, thank goodness (yes, I am still bitter about Allegiant). In The Shadow Cabinet (Penguin Young Readers, purchased e-book), American student Rory Devereaux and her secret London ghost-busting colleagues have the mad skills to save one of their own. Maybe. While team leader Stephen hovers between life and death, Rory and squad members Boo and Callum try to find Charlotte, a student apparently kidnapped by her crazed therapist Jane, who hopes to resurrect the two leaders of a 1970s cult. But that’s just part of a hair-raising plot that also includes the disappearance of 10 other girls, a mass murder and a conspiracy threatening London at large. Readers who like Ben Aaronovitch’s adult Rivers of London series will appreciate the similarities in tone as Johnson leavens the scary with the humorous. Super supernatural.

mimeSamantha Shannon kicked off a projected seven-book series in 2013 with The Bone Season, a wonder of intricate world-building and spirited adventure. I wouldn’t attempt reading the series’ second book, The Mime Order (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), without reading the first, so detailed is this futuristic London ruled by the corporation Scion, peopled by a thriving underworld of outlawed clairvoyants, and threatened by the otherworldly race known as the Rephaim. Having escaped from the Oxford prison colony controlled by the Rephaim, dreamwalker Paige Mahoney is the most-wanted fugitive in London. She’s rebels against the quasi-protection of the manipulative mime-lord Jaxon, a Fagin-like figure, but really runs into trouble when she encounters the Warden, the enigmatic Rephaite who was both her captor and mentor in Oxford. Scion seeks both of them, and unless Paige can carry out a complex scheme to become a mime-queen, they’re doomed. Five more books? Really?

wallsaroundNova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us (Algonquin Young Readers, digital galley) stuns with its intertwining narratives of mean girls, ghost girls and aspiring  ballerinas. Amber is an inmate at a secure juvenile detention center, imprisoned for having killed her stepfather. Violet is a talented ballet dancer headed for Juilliard. Their stories unfold in alternating chapters, three years apart, but are linked by Ori, who becomes Amber’s cellmate after Violet testifies against her in the murder of two dancers on a hot summer night. Secrets abound, and the revelations are all the more disturbing for the lyricism of the writing. What really happened the night the prison doors opened as if by magic? Shiver.

 

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