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Archive for the ‘YA books’ Category

Review: The Hired Girl

the hired girlSet anything with class distinctions and fancy households at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Downton Abbey. But that would be a huge disservice to The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, which has the requisite detail and decorum for a period piece, but also substance and heart.

Fourteen year old Joan’s narration begins when she pours her thoughts and feelings into the diary her teacher gifts her after her father forces her to drop out of school and earn her keep on the farm. A harsh and stingy man, he isolates Joan, treats her like a servant, and belittles her at every turn. When he tries to break Joan’s spirit after she stages a one-woman strike to gain a sliver of financial independence, she flees to the city with the meager emergency fund her dead mother left for her.

Through luck, naivete and a bit of deception, Joan lands a position as a serving girl with the Rosenbach’s, a wealthy German Jewish household. Out of kindness, the Rosenbachs hire her without references, with the stipulation that their very old, very picky Orthodox housekeeper has the final say over Joan’s employment. (more…)

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Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion rulesErin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules starts with a chilling premise: hundreds of years into the future, after humans nearly destroyed themselves fighting over dwindling resources, an artificial intelligence named Talis decided to take things into its own hands. (As Talis points out, the humans should’ve expected it: “I don’t know how it surprised people–I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”)

Talis took control of the high-power weapons that could destroy entire cities. Then it tried to dissuade humans from launching small-scale wars by installing a hostage system: the president/king/queen/ruler of every country must give up their child. The kids are educated in schools called Preceptures, and released at age 18. But while they’re there, if a country declares war on another, the children of both rulers are killed. It’s proven quite effective at keeping wars to a minimum (“The world is at peace,” says the Utterances, a collection of Talis’ collected wisdom. “And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?”)

Bow starts the book long after Talis begins his rule. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (part of modern-day Canada), is a seventh-generation hostage. She’s not far from her 18th birthday, but her nation is on the brink of war. Greta has accepted her likely death, and vows to meet it with dignity—until a new student, Elián, arrives at the Precepture. Elián’s grandmother leads an army that’s about to declare war on Greta’s country, and unlike the other students, Elián doesn’t accept the rules of the hostage system. His rebellion forces Greta to open her eyes and see things for what they really are.

Up until now, it sounds like a familiar YA dystopia. But Bow twists the tropes into something new, so it never feels like you’re reading a well-trod genre. It ties with Black Dove, White Raven as my favorite YA read of the year. Among the welcome surprises: (more…)

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black dove white ravenWith Elizabeth Wein single-handedly dominating the YA category of gutsy female pilots in wartime, it’s tempting to compare her latest novel, Black Dove, White Raven, to its predecessors, Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity. Publishers Weekly remarked on the obvious: the main characters “share an avocation with those in her award-winning novels.” Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews praised Wein’s ability to “plait together the historical record, her passion for flying and ferociously vivid characters to create a heartbreaking adventure that grounds readers in the moment even as geopolitical complexity threatens to knock them off their feet.”

Nevertheless, I’d like to celebrate an equally important but overlooked Wein trademark: friendship. This may not seem like a big deal, but how often do you come across a YA book where the main relationships are between two close friends?

In Black Dove, White Raven, there are two such friendships. And one stolen plane.

The first friendship belongs to barnstorming, daredevil pilots Rhoda Menotti (aka the White Raven) and Delia Dupré (aka the Black Dove.) They learned to fly together, star in an aerial show together, and even raise their kids—Rhoda has a daughter, Emilia, and Delia, a son named Teodras—together.

In the decade after WWI, Delia, who is black, dreams of leaving behind racially segregated America so she and Rhoda, who is white, can raise their kids together under the wide, promising skies of Ethiopia. When tragedy strikes, however, it is up to Rhoda to make Delia’s dream come true.

Emilia and Teodras–Teo for short–are also a double act. At the age of five, their mothers buckled them into the middle cockpit of the family plane, shared with them a secret hand signal, and took them up into the sky for a spin. They have been “in the soup” together ever since.

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storyofowenI’m not a big fan of dragon books, so I was skeptical when I heard the praise for E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, which got a lot of media buzz last month when it was nominated for the Kirkus Prize (it ultimately lost to Aviary Wonders Inc. by Kate Samworth).

Even the premise sounds nonsensical: the story is set in contemporary Canada, but in an alternate version of history where dragons are real. Dragons, it turns out, are addicted to fossil fuels, so they will attack anything that spews carbon: factories, power plants, oil rigs. After the industrial revolution, dragon populations skyrocketed, and cities employed teams of official dragon slayers to combat the problem, leaving rural, less wealthy areas virtually unprotected.

As bizarre as it sounds, the premise works because the dragons don’t feel forced. Johnson manages to make the dragons a believable force in geopolitics. We get glimpses of their role in World War II, the building of the Suez Canal, the First Gulf War, and the power of corporations to influence public policy. You could interpret them as a metaphor, and they do shine a light on all kinds of real-world problems, from environmental decay to celebrity culture and socioeconomic inequality. But leave that to the Common Core curriculum. I had much more fun admiring how Johnston inserted dragons into everyday activities. Think Driver’s Ed is boring? You might miss the boredom if you had to deal with a lesson on what to do if a dragon goes after your car while you’re driving down a lonely road. (more…)

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Fall Sequels

whisperingskullNow that it’s October, the sequels/companion books are starting to roll out. Here are just a few I can’t wait to get my hands on:

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis (published Sept 30)

This one takes place 40 years after Elijah of Buxton! Hope it’s as quirky and funny as its predecessor.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud (Sept 16)

Looking forward to more madness from the ghost-hunting, teenage underdogs of Lockwood & Co.

Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George (Oct. 7)

ds3_cover_408x630The temperamental, constantly shifting castle in this series is probably Hogwarts’ cousin–and the most interesting character in George’s series. Hoping to get more of the castle’s history in Thursdays.

The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde (April: UK. Oct: US)

“Quark!” said the Quarkbeast. More physics jokes, please.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (Oct. 21)

Book 2 ended on a cliffhanger, and given that this one is #3 in the quartet, it probably will too.

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ShadowHero-Cov-final1Grab a timer. I challenge you to name all the Asian and Asian-American superheroes you can think of in one minute. Go.

OK. Who did you come up with? How many were you able to name?

My point exactly. Unless you’re a diehard comic book buff, that was probably a frustratingly long and fruitless minute. When was the last time (or first time) superhero blockbusters, and their inevitable summer sequels and spin-offs, have featured persons of Asian descent gowning up in spandex to save the world?

Enter storytelling geniuses Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, hits all the marks of a great comic book–vibrant action sequences, ruthless villains, hero-defining moments, vigilante justice, justice in upholding the law–while finally giving a face to the mysterious Green Turtle. Take a step back, and his origins story is also a playful and nuanced exploration of the Chinese immigrant experience in pre-WWII America, as well as Chinese history, culture, and personal identity.

Growing up in Chinatown, teenager Hank Chu’s biggest dream is to carry on the family grocery business. Then there are his mother’s loftier aspirations for him. In a comedic turn of events involving a bank heist, a high speed car chase, and an appearance from a caped hero called the Anchor of Justice, Hank’s mom becomes determined to transform her reluctant son into the first Chinese-American superhero. Appropriately, Hank’s initial crime fighting escapades are downright embarrassing until, in true superhero tradition, personal tragedy propels him to embrace a new identity as the Green Turtle.

(more…)

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I’m partway through Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it’s so good I can’t wait to finish it before writing a review. Written in the style of an A-Z guidebook, it’s best appreciated by connoisseurs of the genre, hardcore fans and weary eye-rolling readers alike. Jones skewers clichés, inconsistencies and the often faulty logic found in fantastical realms (as Jones helpfully reminds us, the Rules were created by the “Management,” aka fantasy authors, so it’s no use blaming her). It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Here are just a few of the delights:

CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER…It is thought that the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.

Of course. Who hasn’t wondered at the obvious impracticality of fighting, riding and trekking with a billowing blanket strapped to your neck?

FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile TREES. There will be giant SPIDERS too…

One of the many clear references to Middle Earth (“SPIDERS…lair in certain WOODS and in CAVES, where shorter and slighter Tourists may be seriously inconvenienced by their gigantic webs made of sticky, rope-thick strands. Often only a special SWORD will cut these webs, and it usually takes two or more Tourists to defeat the Spider.”)

Jones seems to be targeting copycat Lord of the Rings epics, and because Tough Guide was written in 1996, she didn’t have a chance to reference the Harry Potter craze, so we can only imagine what she would have done with that.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Hmm. Good point. Someone should get on that and invent Sauron’s XX cousin.

More to come once I’ve finished the book, including a note about the guide’s attitude toward names with apostrophes.

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