Summer Reading, part 2…

or getting my YA on

Finished Beautiful Creatures last night and can’t wait to get my hands on Beautiful Darkness. I was really surprised that I enjoyed the book as much as I did. I’d been getting away from YA during the last year… I’d had a hard time finding books that I could connect with and was starting to worry that I was losing my youthful whimsy. I haven’t lost it :). Beautiful Creatures drew me in from the start. It’s not perfect—there are some scenes that turned me off, especially the party scene, and it’s YA, so there is bound to be the near insta-love element that is so common in this kind of fiction, but it worked for me.

What I find especially engaging is the way that the Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl evoke the unique character of the South. The individual voices are wonderful–especially among the adults in the book. Who doesn’t love Ethan’s kooky aunts and the magical Amma?–and the settings are nicely rendered and imagined. There is a great atmospheric quality to the narrative that almost reminds me of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches series (without all the minute details).

I was afraid this would be one of those in-the-shadow of Twilight books, but it is most definitely not. The romance between Ethan and Lena is easy and develops naturally, though you know it’s bound to happen the moment they meet and there’s that shock of attraction (and I do mean shock). There’s love and sacrifice, but it’s not a toxic love, and that’s one of the best things I can say about any YA depiction of romance.

Even as I write this, I find myself thinking of The China Garden by Liz Berry, another great YA read about a family curse and one of my favorite books. I’m sure fans of Beautiful Creatures would love it too!

Black Unicorn/Gold Unicorn

I started reading Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn a few weeks before I graduated from high school, so I was forced to return the book before I was done reading it. The title and author of the book slipped my mind, but Lee’s description of the crystalized unicorn skeleton hanging from a red-headed princess’s bedroom did not. I searched and searched for this book, but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I decided to try an image search for the book’s cover and… Voila!

There it was! The marbled cover that caught my eye so many years ago. I snagged a used copy around January, but decided to include it as part of my YA review project. It was well worth the wait, and so much better now than the first time I read it.

The image of the crystal unicorn skeleton was as strong as ever, but I found it easier to let myself be drawn into Lee’s sparse style now that I’ve become such a fan of feminist fantasy. I really loved that; the experience of reading something that I didn’t quite get when I was a teen, but made so much sense now.

The story is simple enough… Tanaquil is the somewhat neglected daughter of a sorceress who lives in a fortress. The sorceress’ magic has leaked into the desert that surrounds the fortress, enchanting the area and the peeves (dog-like desert-dwelling creatures) that live there with the power to talk. When one of the peeves shows Tanaquil a crystal bone that it dug up, Tanaquil decides to go after the peeve and help it dig up the rest. Putting the pieces together, Tanaquil soon finds herself drawn to the skeletal thing, unaware of the power that she is about to unleash and the adventure this will set in motion.

The sequel, Gold Unicorn, recounts Tanaquil’s further adventures with her sidekick the peeve as she travels the world and meets the power-hungry Empress Veriam, who wants Tanaquil to use her ability to mend things to assist her in her plan to conquer the world.

Like many fantasy novels, this series features magic, other worlds, quests, and battles between good and evil. The narrative is descriptive and filled with dry humor reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones and Robin McKinley. Both books were a treat to read after wrapping up my course reading project.

There is a third book in the series, Red Unicorn, that I have yet to read.

The Way It Is

The Way It Is by Donalda Reid

Ellen dreams of becoming a medical researcher, but in 1967, girls are not expected to be interested in the sciences, let along enroll in accelerated programs to prepare for university. Brainy and shy, Ellen has little interest in the things that the other girls at school go mad for–boys, fashion, dancing–she’d much rather spend her time in a lab learning something new. When her father suddenly realizes that life is too fleeting to waste doing a job he feels no passion for and decides to move to the Interior to run a resort with Ellen’s mom, Ellen believes they are being selfish and ruining her chances by taking her away from the program she worked so hard to get into. Never did she expect that moving to Salmon Arm with her parents would expose her to a whole new range of experiences and the chance to finally find friendship and love.

Any girl who has ever been the awkward, shy, smart girl who always sits at the back of the room in class can relate to Ellen. Too tall, too smart, and too out of touch with the things that other students her age enjoy, Ellen feels that she will never fit in and so does her best to become “invisible”. After years living in the same place and going to school with the same set of students, Ellen perfected her invisibility, but moving to Salmon Arm changes all that and forces her to cope with the experience of being the new one in town. One of the scenes that I most enjoyed was the one where Ellen goes to register for classes. The high school in Salmon Arm doesn’t offer a science program like the one she was participating in, so she has to compensate by taking the most advanced science courses the school offers. Of course, when the school councilor sees the courses she selected, he tries to dissuade her on the basis that she’s a girl and no girls take those classes. It’s one of the first scenes when Ellen is forced to stand up for herself and come out of “invisible mode,” and it’s a great reminder of the strides women have made that girls today can take any classes they want (I was one of two girls in my graphic arts class through middle and high school; gender is still an issue in schools with regards to the kind of classes girls will enroll in, but I never had to defend my right to enroll for the class).

Gender issues aside, the novel also deals with racism and miscegenation. The resort that Ellen’s parents rent is located on reserve land, as Ellen soon discovers, though the Indians who live on the reserve are not allowed to run the resort or make use of the property. Ellen feels strongly about the discrimination against Salmon Arm’s Indian population and starts to take note of the ways in which the Indians are made to feel like second-class citizens when in town. When she makes friends with Tony, the only Indian student at her school, Ellen wants to learn more about him, his people, and the impact of race on his life. The novel is eye-opening and insightful, especially for readers who may be unfamiliar with the history of Canadian Indians (or Native Americans in general). The dynamic between Tony and Ellen is great; they get to know each other in a way that is sweet and realistic. Neither of them are made to appear as victims; both encounter sexism and racism, but they face it and stand up to their beliefs.

Ellen’s gradual transition from shy nerd to confident, bright young woman, also comes across as a natural part of the plot. There is no sudden Cinderella-esque transformation. Ellen changes her style and tries to do some of the things that other girls like to do–like going dancing–but she does not suddenly become the life of the party or the most popular girl in school. I liked that; it’s another one of those elements that made Ellen a relatable character.

I really enjoyed the novel. It made me realize that I haven’t read much on the ’60s, though it’s such a fascinating period. Oddly enough, when Ellen was helping Tony look up information on schools and scholarships, I kept waiting for her to log on to her computer… then I would smack myself and remember that the story is set in 1967. Shows I’ve become way too accustomed to the presence of technology in my readings.

I received my copy of The Way It Is from Second Story Press.

Random life update & a quickie review

One research paper and one final project to go… Plus, I start a new job on Monday 🙂 . Going to have to re-work my blogging, reading, commenting time to fit into my new schedule, but hoping that things will settle down soon. Also, only two more classes to go after this term! After nearly 8 years of uni, I am happy to say that this will officially be the last term (for the foreseeable future, at least).

Vixen by Jillian Larkin

It looks like flappers are the new vampires… possibly, maybe. With Bright Young Things by Anna Godberson currently on the shelves and Vixen by Jillian Larkin coming out in December, the ’20s may very well be the next YA trend. I signed up to receive an ARC copy of Vixen as part of B&N’s Teen First Look Book Club for November because I love the ’20s (the early 20th century is my second historical obsession, after the Victorian era), and the plot sounded intriguing. Three privileged girls living in ’20s Chicago trying to find themselves amidst the danger and glamor of speakeasies, gangsters, and flappers. One is looking for redemption, one for a chance at life, and the other for something she can’t quite understand. I wanted to read more.

Like many YA novels, this is a coming-of-age story, except that it’s really three coming-of-age stories held together by one girl’s story. If it weren’t for Gloria, Lorraine and Clara’s stories would be entirely unrelated. This was one of the problems that I had with the novel. I couldn’t stand Gloria or Lorraine, both read like whiny, over-indulged socialites playing at life among the lower classes. Lorraine just seemed petty and entirely lacking in any sense of self-esteem, while Gloria seemed like a bland, little white girl with a sudden need to rebel and escape dull society life. I only really cared for Clara’s story–the country girl from Pennsylvania who moved to New York City, fell in with the flapper crowd and made a mess of things. Arrested after a raid, Clara is shipped to Chicago under threat of reform school unless she shapes up, and her Aunt Bea, Gloria’s mother, will make sure that she does or else. Perhaps it was Clara’s effort to make others believe that she’s changed, or perhaps it that she comes across as a much more self-aware individual than Lorraine and Gloria, but Clara’s chapters were the only ones that I really enjoyed and looked forward to… I would speed read Lorraine and Gloria’s sections to get back to poor, Country Clara. Think I would have enjoyed it more if the author had used one perspective, rather than three.

Old Photographs

Old Photographs by Sherie Posesorski

Phoebe is your average girl–she does alright in school, enjoys sports, and has a terribly distracting crush on Colin, the top debater from the local boys school’s debate team. Trying to while away the summer months while her only friend, Yuri, spends the holidays in Tokyo, Phoebe passes the time cycling and reading Agatha Christie novels (Yuri’s favorites). One day, Phoebe spots a garage sale and decides to take a look around. Sure enough, she finds all kinds of treasures, but the best find of all is Mrs. Tomblin, the elderly woman running the garage sale. Noticing a couple trying to take advantage of Mrs. Tomblin’s too-trusting nature, Phoebe steps in to make sure she isn’t abused and soon learns why Mrs. Tomblin is being forced to leave the home she’s lived in since she was married. Taking to her, Phoebe starts to learn more about Mrs. Tomblin, offering her assistance whenever the happen to meet her. When Mrs. Tomblin becomes the victim of a crime, Phoebe wants her friend to receive the justice she deserves–the last thing she expects is to find herself caught up in a mystery the likes of which only Miss Marple can solve… Does Phoebe have what it takes to become the Toronto Miss Marple and solve the case?

Old Photographs was a treat to read. Phoebe comes across as a real teen with all the insecurities and idealism that comes with being a teen. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and new stepfather, she misses her family, and she wishes she could understand how to make things better for everyone involved, but she isn’t perfect and this isn’t a fairy tale. Family life is depicted in all its messy, irrational glory, as are the feelings stirred by poverty and privilege. Her crush on Colin is sweet and entirely understandable–smart boy with an Irish brogue, what girl wouldn’t crush on him? But what I found most thought-provoking and inspiring about the novel was its very real treatment of aging and Alzheimer’s. I haven’t read many Young Adult novels that touch on the subject, most being the sole territory of the young and adventurous; Phoebe’s relationship with Mrs. Tomblin illustrates all the frustrations that this terrible affliction causes. The only other YA novel I can think of at the moment that explores aging in such a manner is April and the Dragon Lady, but I think this is a topic that is relevant to many teens living with grandparents or near elderly neighbors (all the elders near me love to terrify me at least once a month by forgetting to turn their stoves off). I really enjoyed Phoebe’s transition from reader to sleuth, and couldn’t wait to see where her investigations would lead.

I received my copy of Old Photographs from Second Story Press. You can learn more about the novel and Sherie Posesorski here.

You can find Old Photographs at The Book Depository and Amazon.

Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

I so wanted to like this book. When I first read about it (during the great cover controversy), I was taking a class on multicultural books for children and teens and I thought it sounded perfect for the unit on literature on Asian culture, but I wasn’t able to get a hold of one of the three copies in my local library system until two weeks ago.

The premise (highly reduced to the basic plot): Asian fantasy with a female hero.

Ancient Chinese fantasy world? Definitely something I can enjoy. Female hero? Have you read this blog before? I crave books with sheroes.

The execution, however, was another matter. The writing is flowy and lyrical, just what you would want in a story that almost reads like a myth, but I just couldn’t get into it. It took me a week to get halfway through the novel, which felt terribly long considering this is a genre I usually gobble-up in a day. I asked myself if I really cared if I never learned what happened to Ai Ling at the end and realized that I didn’t and could just let it go.

I wish I could have enjoyed this, but something about the pacing and writing style just didn’t work for me. It sounds like a very interesting book and I’m sure other readers will really enjoy it, but it was starting to feel like I was reading it just to prove some point that I didn’t need to prove.

The Slave Dancer

I am taking a class on multicultural materials for children and young adults, and the first assignment is to read two selections related to African-American culture. I don’t usually post on the readings that I complete for school, but since these are mostly YA books, I thought they might be of interest. My first selection from the reading list was Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer.

When his mother asks him to fetch some candles from his Aunt’s house, Jessie Bollier did not imagine that he would soon find himself aboard a slaver bound for Africa. Pressed into service, Jessie is captured for his skills as a fife player; Captain Cawthorne needs a slave dancer, and he is going to have to play that part or face the consequences of defiance. Aboard The Moonlight, Jessie learns much about the cruelties of the slave trade, and the evils that drive men to torment one another without cause. Though disgusted by the situation aboard the ship, Jessie is unprepared to witness the horrors that accompany the trafficking of slaves. Tormented by his role as slave dancer, Jessie comes to hate everyone aboard the ship–the captain, the crew, the slaves, and himself–everyone that reminds him of his helplessness. But when the ship is wrecked during a storm, Jessie finds the strength to swim to freedom in the company of a young slave boy. Jessie soon learns to communicate with the boy and finds a way to deal with the consequences of his life-altering journey aboard The Moonlight.

I found that Jessie’s story does not focus on the experience of the slaves as much as on his perception of the twisted sense of morality and justice that drives his fellow crew members.  While the narrative is grim, Fox does not dwell too much on the conditions of the slaves. The amount of description is appropriate for the intended 10-14 year old audience, and the issues raised by Jessie’s account can serve as a conversation starter for a discussion on ethics and compassion.

A Scholar of Magics

Jane Brailsford is one of my favorite characters in Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics. In A Scholar of Magics, Jane returns, bringing her cool sense of logic and fashion to Glasscastle University when more than magical studies are underway.

A full witch of Greenlaw and friend to Faris Nallaneen, warden of the north, Jane is no helpless female. Set in an alternate Edwardian England, Jane is no stranger to motorcars, magic, and intrigue. When the warden of the North sends Jane on a quest to Glasscastle  to convince the truant warden of the west to take up his duties, Jane finds herself embroiled in a magical plot of global proportion.

Inviting herself for a stay in her brother’s home, he being a fellow of the exclusively masculine Glasscastle University, Jane meets Samuel Lambert, American sharpshooter-cum-research subject and roommate of Glasscastle fellow Nicholas Fell–the reluctant warden of the west.

Jane has a talent for getting into trouble and this time is no exception. When Fell’s study is looted by a mysterious man in a bowler hat, Lambert and Jane decide to follow a trail that leads them ever closer to danger and discovery.

Whereas A College of Magics was a sort of female bildungsroman, A Scholar of Magics is definitely an adventure.

I found that the sequel was a lot more fast-paced than the first book in the series, but this is understandable given that the first book documents Faris and Jane’s school years, while the sequel takes place over the course of a few days.

Much of the novel is taken up with Lambert’s thoughts concerning Glasscastle and his position as an American outsider, but his insights were interesting and often gave way to heated discussions with Jane or Fell.

Overall, I like Scholar even more than I like College, which is not something that I say very often when it comes to sequels.

Leviathan cometh

Scott Westerfield is going to be reading from Leviathan at Books & Books this Sunday at 6 pm. I so want to go! I’ve never read Westerfield’s novels, but this book has really sparked my interest. Steampunk and a girl a disguised as a boy, this is definitely a book to add to my “to read” list.

If I get to go to the event, I’ll post pictures and such :).

the duchess and the tower

On a quest for strong female characters in fantasy fiction – Part Deux

college of magicsI love a good bildungsroman and if it  breaks the mold of male coming-of-age stories, even better. Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics is most assuredly not your typical coming-of-age novel.

Set in an alternate Belle-Époque Europe  where elemental magic can be harnessed by a select few, the novel follows the adventures of Faris Nallaneen, Duchess of Galazon as she  learns the meaning of duty, responsibility, and love.

Shipped off to Greenlaw College until she reaches her majority, Faris is certain that her Uncle Brinker, steward of Galazon, is intent on keeping her out of the way so he can perform his own devious end. A college for the magical education of young women, Greenlaw is protected by powerful wardens that deny the practice of magic on school grounds. In Faris’s opinion, the place is just another finishing school.

Desperate for Galazon, Faris finds an affinity with the prim and anything-but-proper Jane Brailsford, whose friendship keeps Faris from becoming too homesick and forces her to view her duty to Galazon and the magic of Greenlaw in a new light. But there is more to Galazon than skipping class for a pot of tea and three-volume novels in Jane’s study, as Faris soon learns. Making an enemy of Menary Paganell, Faris begins to see that some magic is deadly and there are those who would use it for their advantage.

A dangerous trip across Europe, a magical quest, mysterious characters, and political plots make Faris’s coming-of-age quite an adventure.