Category Archives: Young Adult

Switched – Amanda Hocking

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Amanda Hocking has gotten a lot of ink for her non-ink success writing paranormal romance novels for e-readers and self-publishing and marketing them online. She’s also become a millionaire in the process and landed a hefty advance from a legacy publisher. So I read the first volume of her Trylle series in paperback. Switched tells the story of Wendy, a misfit who was nearly killed by her own mother at her sixth birthday party. She is a difficult, surly child and teen who gets kicked out of every school she attends and has grown up fatherless, with a mother confined to a mental asylum and a doting big brother and aunt who go to considerable lengths to protect her.

It’s a very lively story with plenty of violence, smoldering eyes, emotional conflicts, near-fatal misunderstandings and magical trappings. Wendy discovers that dear old homicidal mum isn’t really mum at all—something the woman has insisted since the infant was handed to her in the hospital. Wendy has been switched with a boy who disappears. She is a changeling, and something else—she is a troll.

Hocking says she researched what was selling in an effort to teach herself to write best sellers. She seems to have settled on a good strategy. Reliable YA readers tell me that Switched is a typical paranormal romance with a predictable plot. I thought the characters were flat and clichéd. Those shortcomings seem to make the book no less satisfying to its legions of avid fans. So, huge kudos to Amanda Hocking for pulling off a literary and financial coup.

Switched is readable but there are strange lapses of spelling and grammar that should have been smoothed out by the editors at St. Martin’s—here’s a quote from an educated member of royalty who is portrayed as one of the elite: “She looked at Finn, but gestured to me. ‘This is her?’ ” (sic) That was not meant as some type of colorful idiom. It was just horrible, incorrect English. Came a few paragraphs after a glaring misspelling. Even the open to the book is poor English, obviously so. “A couple things made that day stand out more than any other. It was my sixth birthday, and my mother was wielding a knife. Not a tiny steak knife, but some kind of massive butcher knife glinting in the light like in a bad horror movie. She definitely wanted to kill me.” (sic)

Aaack.

I wasn’t a fan of Twilight—thought it was a terrible example of how to be a vapid female and fall in love with and pursue an abusive and deadly male. Read a couple of the books to try to figure out their appeal and decided they were just stupid. Despaired of the state of intelligence of millions of teenage girls. Nasty bitchy clique books fall into the same discard pile. Now I’ve read the source of much Internet buzz and a personal fortune. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be but Switched does nothing to relieve my cynicism.

The English language is so magnificent and there are such powerful storytellers out there. Pandering to the least common denominator may be the way to amass a pile of money. But that’s all it is. Maybe Hocking will develop more sophisticated storytelling now that she doesn’t have to crank out a new book every couple of weeks—and maybe St. Martin’s press will gift her with a more rigorous editor.

Switched (Trylle Trilogy)   Amanda Hocking | St. Martin’s Griffin   2012

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight – Jennifer E. Smith

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The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is a YA novel that, incredibly, has no suicides, drug addictions, depression-inducing bullying, vampires or werewolves at the heart of the plot—or anywhere on its pages. Jennifer E. Smith’s book is also readable, if somewhat relentlessly introspective. The narration is first-person—a 17-year-old girl who examines her fears and emotions incessantly, and a tad tiresomely, but manages to navigate from start to finish at a reasonable pace anyway.

I suspect the obsessive self-examination is a teen tendency I have mercifully forgotten so it probably makes sense to the intended readers. And the story is not bad—a real fairytale with a handsome, witty prince who rides to the rescue, an attractive and beleaguered heroine who is stubborn, plucky and smart enough to know when to change her mind, and settings and events worthy of a Disney princess animation. There is a missed flight, an overnight change of venue from New York to London, a charming wedding, a graveyard and a few other locations that reflect upscale finances and a remove from gritty reality. Very aspirational.

The crux of the story is the validity of the concept of love at first sight in a world of divorce, remarriage, confused loyalties and sudden infatuation . The book is an extended experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis, find out how to deal with love and loss when neither is simple or pain-free, and resolve the conflicts of the heart. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is very sweet, funny and entertaining. In the YA world of today, that’s really a refreshing change.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight   Jennifer E. Smith | Little, Brown and Company   2012

Finding Miracles – Julia Alvarez

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Milly—Mildred Milagros Kaufman—doesn’t talk about the fact that she was adopted as an infant in a country ripped apart by war. She’s a teen in a small Vermont town and her sister Kate, kid brother Nate, mom and dad are all the family she wants. But when a new boy arrives at Ralston High, a refugee from that same country, Milly can’t avoid her own discomfort with the questions his presence raises.

Julia Alvarez has written a journey of discovery for Milly and all internationally adopted kids who don’t know their biological origins in Finding Miracles. It’s a young YA book, complex issues simplified enough for easy comprehension. Milly struggles to deal with Pablo, her own ambivalence about knowing more, and the shifting emotions in her family as they befriend Pablo’s family and hear the tragic stories of political murder and genocide. Wealthy Grandma Kaufman, the perpetually unhappy Happy, is a temperamental diva and Milly is sure she doesn’t consider her a real member of the family.

But people and things are not exactly what they seem in this story and the events and characters shift, reconfigure and expose both open hearts and uncomfortable truths. Milly discovers her own courageous voice, sets out to visit the land of her birth with Pablo’s family, and grows up, testing friendships and family ties as she comes to terms with the terrible history that determined her life–and the warm people who value and love her.

Finding Miracles tells about loss and a lot of it is ugly. But the adventure contains plenty of laughter, hope and affection, too. Cultures are contrasted and presented evenhandedly. Different generations find common ground. Happy finds her happiness at last and generously shares it with the rest of the family. Milly reclaims Milagros as her name as she makes her peace with being a child of two traditions and celebrates her own colorful life. And she falls in love, of course, with two countries and one boy and the miracles that make her exactly who she is.

Finding Miracles  Julia Alvarez | Alfred A. Knopf   2004

angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging – Louise Rennison

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angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging is obviously a YA title. It’s also a very funny book. Louise Rennison must be trapped in adolescence to nail a mid-teen girl’s stream of consciousness so spot on. The girl whose consciousness we inhabit for the space of this novel is British and her idiom is public school Brit but written so clearly that you miss nothing if you happen to be an ignorant Colonist. So the humor is freely available and the protagonist, Georgia Nicolson, is a wit.

Georgia and her friends are preoccupied with various boys who do and don’t pay attention to them, expend a lot of effort to disrupt their classes and exasperate their teachers, visit a boy who gives free snogging lessons in his bedroom when his parents are not home, obsess over body parts that do not add up to perfect, attempt to subvert the unattractive uniform policy at their school, spy on the girlfriends of their oblivious heartthrobs and generally act like teenage girls in a losing battle with hormones, siblings, feral pets and irritating parents.

A big nose is cause for despair.  A friend who might be seeing your hoped-for-against-all-odds boyfriend is an instant enemy. A professor explaining atoms with the help of a couple of billiard balls is ripe for ridicule. A rescue cat that might be part wild animal likes to play rough with the neighbor’s pet guinea pig. Boys’ hands, seemingly detached from their brains and all awareness, come to rest on key pieces of anatomy. Briefly and without comment. Hilarity rules practically all the time because anything might start a highly-contagious case of the giggles. Parties are fraught with peril because anyone might show up with or leave with anyone and you could get a spot on your chin or smile too broadly and make your nose look bigger or accidentally shave your eyebrows off while trying to pluck them in preparation for the gorgey bloke you could snag at the party.

Georgia survives somehow. Her parents are longsuffering, if not always clued-in. Her three-year-old sister is cute and only pees in Georgia’s bed occasionally. Her best friend shares her travails with two impossibly good-looking blokes in the same family. Her dad goes to New Zealand when he becomes redundant and she might have to move. Life is never dull. But it’s always ripe for a good one-liner and Georgia does not lack in the humor department.

A shout-out to my friend Carol who raved about Rennison’s books and told me I was missing a good laugh by not reading them. And to my uber-literate teen who told me to read them a couple of years ago when I bought her a few—and who lent me this one. angus (the feral cat), thongs (uncomfortable) and full-frontal snogging (mostly imagined) might take you back to the heady daily drama of navigating adolescence along with your fabby friends in a world of shirty swots, prats, tossers and gorgey porgy could-be-a-boyfriend boys. Funny enough even for naff grown-ups. Borrow it from your kid.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, Book 1)
Louise Rennison | HarperTempest  1999

Graceling — Kristin Cashore

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Katsa can attack faster than the eye can track and kill a man with her bare hands. From early childhood, she has been a prodigy with every kind of weapon, able to outguess and out-fight any opponent. She is a Graceling, born with one blue eye and one green, and a skill that makes her dangerous and nearly invincible. And she is the ward of her uncle, a king who uses her to instill fear and groveling subservience in his subjects.

On the night that she and a small crew of clandestine Council members–a secret band of plotters and warriors throughout the seven kingdoms who try to right the abuses of power–rescue a kidnapped old man from a corrupt neighboring king, Katsa encounters another Graceling, a prince with a silver eye and a gold eye, who identifies her. The discovery will place her life and the rescue in danger but some impulse prevents her from killing and she leaves him unconscious as the Council members make their escape.

The kidnapping is the tip of a horrible mystery that unravels amid murder, power-grabs, abuse and perversion. Katsa refuses to carry out an order from her uncle to torture a man who will not hand over his daughter and a large dowry for a doomed arranged marriage. She stuns herself by walking out of the palace, reclaiming control of her life and her deadly Grace. But she is now a hunted enemy of King Randa, forced to leave behind her faithful serving woman and her best friend, the king’s son Raffin, who has no stomach for his father’s greed and oppression.

And Katsa has gained an unwelcome ally—Po, a prince of Lienid, grandson of the kidnapped old man and the Graceling who identified her on her mission to free the grandfather. Po’s Grace is sensing—he has an uncanny ability to know what someone is thinking about him and to feel when something or someone is approaching. Katsa considers Po’s gift to be a direct threat to her autonomy and resists her growing feelings for him.

Too much detail would spoil a fast-paced, surprising plot full of adventure, terror, difficult lessons about trust, struggles to gain control of lethal Graces and to survive, dawning awareness of the evil and perversion masked by a hideous Grace in one of the kingdoms. The major characters are all extraordinary for their times, respected and feared by the general populace, strong, plucky, beleaguered, and challenged at every turn by impossible tasks they must complete to defeat the darkness creeping over the kingdoms. Katsa sheds some of her defenses to uncover her real Grace and to save an appealing child princess who is tough and wise beyond her years. Po breaks through the walls around Katsa but cannot save himself from a wrenching sacrifice to protect the child. The journeys are epic and full of danger—the characters are very decently drawn and sympathetic. The story is an exceptionally dark fairytale with pain, heartbreak and determination replacing magic spells.

Graceling is labeled a YA book but it’s an engrossing, convincing and terrific read for anyone who loves a good story. Kristin Cashore has written a prequel of sorts—Fire, published second in a 3-book series, precedes the events in Graceling but it isn’t the story of the Graceling characters. Bitterblue, scheduled for May 2012 publication, is the sequel to Graceling, a more conventional sequel that tells the story of the small princess from the first book as she becomes the queen of her land. Both Fire and Graceling are award-winning bestsellers so my recommendation of Cashore’s work is just an echo of her wide market appeal and solid ability to tell an absorbing tale.

Graceling   Kristin Cashore | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2008

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002

The Looking Glass Wars – Frank Beddor

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Alyss Heart is a feisty, pampered, imaginative seven-year-old princess in Wonderland and it’s her birthday. The entire queendom clamors at her feet, with endless displays of the wonders of White Imagination, crystal technology and All Good Things that leave the restless little girl slightly bored. Soon enough she slips away to get into some mischief with her soulmate-playmate Dodge, the son of a distinguished guardsman knighted by Alyss’s mother, Queen Genevieve herself.

Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars is the first volume of a trilogy that re-imagines Lewis Carroll’s epic tales. No White Rabbit in this story but there is a Mad Hatter of sorts, and a Red Queen and a really awful Cat, not Cheshire. Beddor takes the richest of material and imbues it with the threat of deadly jabberwocks, stoned caterpillars and so many mirrors that we see reflections of reflections, each with its own distorted image.  

The royal birthday festivities are fatally interrupted when Genevieve’s elder sister Redd and her lethal minions arrive. Redd’s favorite cry is “Off with their heads!” and she proceeds to do just that, reclaiming Wonderland for herself and laying waste to the Heart Palace and everyone in it. Alyss escapes through a looking glass with her bodyguard, the knife-slashing, blade-wielding Hatter Madigan. They jump in the Pool of Tears where Alyss loses her grip on Hatter and emerges in a puddle in London while he pops out in Paris. Back home in Wonderland, blood flows crimson over the land and a reign of horror begins.

Alyss soon finds that her insistence on the reality of Wonderland and her own royal birthright is a source of mockery and danger. She takes up with a Dickensian band of street urchins, is hauled off to an orphanage, adopted by an Oxford cleric and moves to a rambling house in the countryside that abuts the property of the Reverend Charles Dodgson. Alyss Heart becomes Alice Liddell, a beautiful but troublesome child exploding with imagination, impossible tales and far too much attitude for her own good. Dodgson is charmed by her, coaxes her fairytale autobiography from her and turns it into an epic fantasy for publication, the ultimate betrayal.

The princess thinks she has found her amanuensis, a willing scribe for her true tale and identity, someone whose work will validate her wild claims. Instead she hands her life to that ultimate predator, the writer, who twists and reshapes it into a fiction of his own design and plunges her into an identity crisis and the depths of despair.

Beddor has a lot of fun with his source material and uses it to construct a breathless read through fantasy, magic, epic battles, evil doings, love, loss, courageous deeds, and adventures that test the adults and mature the children. The Looking Glass Wars is thoroughly enjoyable—a tale for tweens, teens and adults who have no trouble believing, as the White Queen does, “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The Looking Glass Wars    Frank Beddor   Penguin Group   2006

Gifts — Ursula K. Le Guin

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The idea for booklolly appeared as the August hurricane ended. It wasn’t much of a hurricane if you lived in Manhattan–we are pretty immune to weather here. Nothing like those tropical blows that turn life upside down in places like Florida or the Caribbean. To be immersed in a hurricane is electric and exhilarating, not to mention potentially dangerous. But Manhattan is not Marathon or Miami so the hurricane was even less remarkable than the earthquake, although it was interesting to have them in the same week.

Then the gods struck. I was musing on my favorite literary quote –You must change your life–and wondering how under heaven to do that when the thought popped up: Read. Read a book every day. Completely crazy. Perfect though, so I tried it, gratefully setting aside the unrewarding slog through tedious, underpaid work for a faceless client and opening a book. Ursula Le Guin is an old favorite in my library and I counted on Gifts to be a good read. Not disappointed.

It took some time to convince myself that a year-long challenge to read a book a day wasn’t insane, irresponsible and just plain impossible. Actually, it might be impossible. But I can’t ignore it. Reading Ursula Le Guin was fabulous so I made a blog, collected a bunch of books, tried reading a few at one day each, discovered how all-consuming that would be, and decided to do it anyway. Hurricanes and earthquakes will seem like child’s play after a year with 365 books in it. Here is my debut effort with more, much more, to come.

Gifts is positioned as a YA book but, like all of Le Guin’s writing, it is a story for anyone who loves to read. Her own gift is for making worlds in clear, fluid prose and spinning a tale that is readable and thoughtful. The beginning of chapter two seemed like a blessing for this mad venture to read a book every day for a year to change my world.

Le Guin writes in the voice of Orrec, the story’s protagonist:

To see that your life is a story while you’re in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well. It’s unwise, though, to think you know how it’s going to go, or how it’s going to end. That’s to be known only when it’s over.

And even when it’s over, even when it’s somebody else’s life, somebody who lived a hundred years ago, whose story I’ve heard told time and again, while I’m hearing it I hope and fear as if I didn’t know how it would end; and so I live the story and it lives in me.

Orrec lives in the Upland tribes with his brantor father, the ruler of their tribe, and his Lowland mother, a storyteller who came to the Uplands as the spoils of a raid. The people of the Uplands have strange gifts that allow them to summon animals, twist bodies into grotesque shapes, wipe a mind clean as a slate and “unmake” something, or someone, into a lifeless mass. Unmaking is Orrec’s father’s gift and it is passed from father to son, just as a mother’s gift is passed to her daughter.

Gry, the daughter of an animal caller, has the gift but refuses to use it to lure game to the hunt. Instead, she is a powerful animal trainer and Orrec’s best friend. The two explore the boundaries of their hillside world, befriending a stranger who wanders into their lands and telling him tales of the doings of the Upland people. Threats from neighboring tribes are a constant danger and Orrec’s inability to summon his gift imperils his tribe and angers his father. But one day Orrec’s gift bursts forth with terrible consequences and he learns he cannot control it.

To prevent the destruction of everything he loves, Orrec becomes blind – what he cannot see he cannot destroy with a glance. As he discovers how to navigate a world without sight, his mother tells him the tales of her people and Gry teaches a dog to guide him through the forests and trails. But tragedy strikes, ripping open the fabric of ordinary days and forcing Orrec to confront the truth of his life and his real gifts. In the pain of loss Orrec must find the way forward and decide, once and for all, how to use what he has been given.

Gifts is an allegory for a society half-immersed in darkness and the steep costs of turning away from the light. The characters are sympathetic and the details of the world give it heft and shape. It’s hard to read Gifts and not compare its hardscrabble combative culture to the chaos that surrounds us. But the thread of hope that delivers a satisfying end to the adventure is the centrality of story to the plot.

It is our stories that weave our world, that send us into hiding or battle, that summon our gifts. The book was good way to set out on a year’s journey – from a master storyteller, a genuine gift.

Gifts — Ursula K. Le Guin | First Harcourt paperback edition 2006