Category Archives: Young Adult

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone – Shannon Hale

I read Princess Academy: Palace of Stone on the recommendation of a trusted source for middle grade and YA lit. It was good. Shannon Hale is a wonderful writer and her novel, the second in a series, ventures into the murky and dangerous world of popular uprisings. Heroine Miri Larendaughter of the mountain village of Mount Eskel joins her former classmates in the Princess Academy to travel to the capital, Asland. There they will study and apprentice to learn medicine, music, ironwork, stone carving and scholastics. Miri has been accepted at Queen’s Castle, the college for academics. And the ladies of the academy will support and help their friend Britta to prepare for her marriage to the prince.

But all is not serene in the kingdom nor in its capital. The shoeless are hungry and desperate and there are salons to foment revolution. Hired assassins are in the city to dispatch the royal family. Britta becomes their main target through a careless move on Miri’s part. But there is nothing Miri can do to repair the damage. Her mind and her heart are in turmoil. She fears that the brutal tributes demanded by the king will plunge her village and her family back into starvation and despair. She is frantic to protect Britta. She finds herself stepping back from her lifelong love, Peder, who has come to Asland with her to study sculpture, even as she is attracted to a fellow student, the son of a noble, who covertly works for the revolution.

And there is the mystery of the stone. The king’s palace is made of linder, the stone quarried with great difficulty from Mount Eskel. People from Mount Eskel can speak quarry, a memory-thought language transmitted silently through the stone. But linder has other, little-known properties. Miri discovers a secret lost to the current monarchy  in a dusty tome in the palace library–a secret about the stone that could cost them their lives, or save them.

Hale has written a high-stakes adventure for a girl who knows how to ask questions but can’t sort through the conflicting answers. The story is very inventive and full of intelligent surprises that keep the plot racing along. This is one of those books that kids love and grown-ups read straight through to the last page–well, grown-ups who know that a well-made fantasy is just a good read, no matter what your age.

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone   Shannon Hale |  Bloomsbury   2012

Dark Goddess – Sarwat Chadda

Dark Goddess is an action movie–it even has car crashes. But crunched vehicles with damaged people crawling out of them is the least of it.  Sarwat Chadda’s YA fantasy is thick with werewolves, avatars, evil cackling crones, nuclear dead zones, medieval weapons, blood soaking through clothes, blood staining the snow, blood boiling to meet the moon. It’s exhausting.

Billi SanGreal is a fifteen-year-old Templar who basically does battle. All the time. Her life is one bloody battle. She has regrets about the people she has been forced to kill but she understands the larger mission. She is a Templar, set against the dark forces that threaten to overwhelm the planet. She gets very little sleep. She heads into battle on a moment’s notice. The Templar herbalist is kept busy brewing a stinky antidote to werewolf bites, Billi is always in Mortal Danger and most of the characters in the story are traitors.

Early in the book, Billi and company save a child from a monstrous attack on a remote farmhouse. The little girl’s parents are savagely ripped apart. The kid has powers–she may be a powerful weapon, actually. And Baba Yaga, the most terrible dark goddess of all, wants her. Billi loses the kid in the subway. Vesuvius erupts live on television. Buries Italy alive, again. People are freaked. Baba Yaga plans something even bigger for an encore. So Billi and the Templars head to the Russian steppes to find the kid, destroy Baba Yaga and save the world. Romanovs. Chernobyl. Bloody, bloody battles. Matryoshka dolls.

There’s a little love interest–very chaste–and a lot of chase scenes and many snarling, really painful encounters with lycanthropic shapeshifters. Battle. Battle. Battle. Boys will like this, I think. I am not so certain of the contemporary convention to cast strong independent girls as eager and relentless warriors. Mini-men or fully-empowered females? Not sure. But Dark Goddess is okay. You’d probably have to be a bit bloodthirsty to love it. And I thought everything wrapped up a little too neatly. No character jumped out at me and made me want to crack another book in the series to see what happens to them. Characterization isn’t the point. But there’s a vicious thunderstorm and a plane crash in the woods. Prop plane is totalled. No one dies. It’s a fantasy. Deus vult.

Dark Goddess (A Devil’s Kiss Novel) (Devil’s Kiss Novels)   Sarwat Chadda | Hyperion   2010

I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter – Lynn Cullen

Cornelia van Rijn lives in dire, dirty poverty with a genius who acts more mad every day. Her mother is dead of plague, her beloved brother Titus marries well and leaves her to look after Rembrandt. The painter is incorrigible and the only attention he pays to his daughter is to criticize and to foil her at every turn. Cornelia knows everything there is to know about painting but girls don’t paint. And girls whose fathers paint strange, dark, thickly-pasted work that no one will buy have few prospects. Then Cornelia meets Carel, the son of a wealthy shipping family, who loves painting and who is attracted to the proud, shabby girl with more on her mind than fans, gloves and flirtations.

Lynn Cullen has sketched a world rich in detail and rife with tragedy for her 17th century heroine. I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a convincing historical YA that is a pleasure to read and fascinating to unravel. Who is the strange man Cornelia sees wandering past their house so often while her mother is alive? Why does her father ignore her and why did he never marry her mother? How does he keep painting, day after day, claiming to channel visions from a God he doesn’t even believe in? How hard would it be to turn out the light, smooth paintings that collectors would actually buy? And why does Rembrandt forbid Cornelia to see Carel, the only bright spot of hope in her drab life?

Plague revisits the city. Rembrandt’s paintings are refused and he has only one pupil left, the earnest Neel who worships him and is drawn to Cornelia. As she is pulled deeper and deeper into a mystery about her life she can’t begin to unravel, she discovers a nude portrait of her mother hidden in the attic and is shocked at the impropriety and the implication. Her beloved mother was just Rembrandt’s nude model and lover. No wonder the painter treats her with disdain. And yet, more complex explanations seethe just under the surface.

Very good YA. The historical is the reason for the story so this is not just a mindless boyfriend novel to hook teenage girls. Cornelia has more than a prom date at stake and the deaths in her world aren’t just a reaction to dysfunction. Yet her issues, the impossibility of claiming a career as an artist, the uncertainty of her place in a family, the confusion about who she really is, are as urgent and inescapable as any coming-of-age story. This one gains some heft from its undeniably serious core. A fairly quick read and an enjoyable one. I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a book title that contains a clue to the momentous choice Cornelia will have to make.

I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter   Lynn Cullen | Bloomsbury   2007

The Keeping Place – Isobelle Carmody

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The fourth volume in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles was going to be my last for a while. I found the first four books at the library so decided to try them–and they are a really good fantasy. This latest one leaves so much hanging that I wish I’d found all eight. In The Keeping Place, war comes to the land and the Misfits reluctantly agree to aid the Rebels in an elaborate plan to take over the Council Lands in a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers. But traitors have infiltrated the Rebels, treachery among the Rebel factions threatens mayhem, Rushton, the lord of Obernewtyn has gone missing, and Elspeth is under pressure to find the machines that destroyed most of earth in the Great White before they can be used again.

That’s the short version. Elspeth is in charge during Rushton’s absence and Obernewtyn’s protection is beginning to unravel. The various guilds are inventing new ways to perform their duties–one has created diving gear to explore an underwater ruin from the Beforetime, another is split in two groups and part of the guild is training itself to be knights and spies. Dragon, the powerful feral child Elspeth found on a previous journey, is still in a deep coma but her tortured dreams transfer to everyone in Obernewtyn and no one can sleep easily. Maruman, the old cat-medium who is devoted to Elspeth and her fated quest, delivers more urgent exhortations to find the clues to the whereabouts of the deadly machines. Ariel, the angelic sadist who left Obernewtyn to join the religious cult, the Herders, appears in Elspeth’s dreams and threatens her life and all she holds dear.

When Elspeth receives disturbing news about Rushton, she knows it is time to act. The Misfits had voted to abstain from any rebellion and pursue a path of peace in their mountains but they are drawn into the battles and into grave danger. Many things don’t seem quite right and suddenly real horrors and betrayal rip apart fragile coalitions and unimaginable depravity comes to light. Elspeth re-connects with Swallow, who is now king of the elite band of gypsies who are indebted to her. She travels the perilous dreampaths to search for clues and to attempt to heal Dragon and bring back Rushton. Her dreams are increasingly troubled, increasingly violent and increasingly real. Being in charge means having the power of life and death and Elspeth is a reluctant but decisive leader.

When a daring move uncovers a major clue to the location of the death machines, the impact is muted by the terrible human tragedy a different search unearths in a Herder cloister. It seems as if many more Misfits will die before Elspeth can disable the system to destroy the planet for good–and those who are left are damaged, possibly beyond repair. So I’m quite curious to see what happens next. Obernewtyn is a complex and well-drawn world full of compelling characters, unexpected plot developments and chilling detail. I’ll have to prowl the YA section to discover 5-8 so I can learn the ultimate fate of a heroine whose journey equals that of any male protagonist in a fantasy/sci-fi fiction.

The Keeping Place: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 4   Isobelle Carmody | Random House   2008

Ashling – Isobelle Carmody

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An ashling is a dream that calls you to a task. That is wisdom from the language of the beasts whom Elspeth can communicate with through a silent mindspeak that is one of her Talents. Elspeth is a Misfit, a human with powerful mental abilities that make her a pariah to the untalented people who rule her world. What is left of earth after a blinding holocaust called the Great White is a poisoned, treacherous, mistrustful and power-mad place in which anyone who is different is at terrible risk. Rather like our own civilization, as a matter of fact.

In Ashling, Isobelle Carmody continues the fantasy saga of Elspeth and a cast of original characters, including a cat who has visions and a horse who styles himself Elspeth’s protector. The Misfits live in a remote mountain compound called Obernewtyn, led by a latent Talent named Rushton who is a direct heir of Obernewtyn estate’s founders. His ancestors include people who ived before the Great White and seemed to know about, and likely possess, some of the Talents. Elspeth is the Seeker, the one selected to find the death machines used centuries before to destroy much of the planet and disable them so they can never be used again. She is not the only one interested in those machines.

But this heroine’s journey is a long and winding road and in Ashling Elspeth saves a gypsy woman about to be burned at the stake by Herders and is sent by a prophecy in a dream to a stronghold of the Council to return the comatose gypsy to her people. The adventures that ensue cost lives and threaten hers, put her in the crosshairs of some extremely nasty people, see one good friend sold into slavery and badly damage the mind of another, and connect Elspeth with a mysterious gypsy who holds her to a mutual pledge of support in the coming wars and rebellions.

The Misfits from Obernewtyn end up traveling to a desert culture to participate in fierce battles with some cruel and hostile rebel factions who regard them as worthless freaks. They fail to win the support of the rebels. But the experience reveals who and what the Misfits are meant to be and shows them there will be no easy solutions to their problems. Elspeth learns that her life is driven by the portent and burdens of her calling but that her challenge is to find the courage to live in-between the dangerous quests. She develops some odd method of healing grievous wounds to her own body, doubtless a useful skill as she seems to get bloodied and battered a lot.

I do think this third book ratchets up the tension nicely and the series is convincing and worth reading. One more book to go of the first four I checked out of the library in a batch. I do want to finish all eight but I’ll probably take a break and read some different novels before I go looking for the remaining Obernewtyn Chronicles.

Ashling: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 3   Isobelle Carmody | Random House  2007

Bitterblue – Kristin Cashore

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The Queen of Monsea is eighteen years old and she has been trying to sort truth from lies since she was thrust onto the throne at age ten. Lies are the currency of her kingdom, a blighted, twisted, shifting land tortured into madness by her father, a man with a horrible gift for controlling people’s minds.

Bitterblue is the eponymous heroine of Kristin Cashore’s latest volume in the Graceling series. Bitterblue tells the story of her desperate attempts to sort truth from treachery, friend from foe, wisdom from the insanity that grips her kingdom. Closest to her daily and least explicable are her advisors, a small group of men who keep her plied with paperwork and never have a direct answer for any of her questions. Her true friends, gracelings who each have an odd and powerful talent, come and go, offering comfort and counsel, fighting for the rights of people in corrupt kingdoms, removing evil monarchs in the seven kingdoms from their thrones, and guarding Bitterblue from the deadly assaults that dog her every move.

She sneaks out of the castle at night, disguising herself to roam the city and discover what kind of people she rules. In her travels, she is nearly discovered, often endangered and falls in with some clandestine printers, a rakish Robin Hood, and a surreptitious literacy teacher. Some force is keeping the population in the kingdom illiterate and uneducated, although her advisors tell her the castle and kingdom is 90 percent literate. Someone else is killing the truthseekers, the people who search for what really happened during the murdered king’s reign of terror and collect evidence for remuneration and reparation.

Bitterblue’s inner circle, courts, guards and nearly everyone she deals with are not to be trusted and many are actively working to undermine her. The book is dizzy with uncertainty for as long as it takes Blue to begin sorting through the lies, half-truths and rewritten history. It is disorienting to read—the experience of the heroine is the reader’s as well. And the dawning clarity, even as it comes as a relief, reveals the perverse horrors of the real history of Monsea under Bitterblue’s vile father. Even the palace friend who helped Blue and her mother to escape the king before he could practice his sick atrocities on the child has layers of guilt and loathsome memories that devour him.

Blue deciphers a bewilderinging code her mother has embroidered into bed linens and carved into a keepsake chest. The disjointed information the messages impart can never be clarified–her mother was killed by her father as she sacrificed herself so that Blue could escape. But Blue’s persistence and her friends help her to dig for the truth, an unlikely friendship begun in deception evolves through betrayal into a lasting bond. There is not a boring passage in the book.

Bitterblue is a YA fantasy but I begin to think that is a convenience of marketing and shelving. A really good fantasy is suitable for adults and teens—it’s a story that engages and entertains and shouldn’t be pigeonholed. I like Cashore’s work and her worlds. Bitterblue is a strong story to match the others in the series. With any luck, Cashore will continue it.

Bitterblue (Graceling)   Kristin Cashore | Dial Books   2012

Bunheads – Sophie Flack

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Bunheads is a coming of age story for balletomanes—or teen ballerinas, or anyone interested in the world en pointe. Sophie Flack writes her first-person life-of-a-company-dancer in a smart, straightforward voice. Heroine Hannah Ward, a member of the corps de ballet in a company meant to be the New York City Ballet, is both naïve and self-aware, half-starved, and an almost-standout in the troupe of dancers vying for solos and promotion to soloist.

The story is entertaining but not exactly engaging. Nothing actually happens. The dancer does question her choice of lifestyle and her own dedication to giving up everything for those exhilarating moments in the spotlight. She grapples with first boyfriends, the lure of the world beyond the stage and the rehearsal rooms, an ounce or two gained and the resultant hunger, exhaustion, sore feet and pulled muscles. She shares the triumphs and disappointments of the other girls in her dressing room as they swig Diet Coke, obsessively check casting posts and offset catty remarks with camaraderie.

It seems very real—even though it is endlessly irritating to read Avery Center as a stand-in for Lincoln Center. Avery Fisher Hall is the home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and I wished Flack had selected a fictional name that seemed less like a repeat mistake. But mostly I kept waiting for the story to begin. That’s probably unfair—Bunheads (the title is a common, slightly dismissive name for ballerinas who coil their long hair into a bun every day for rehearsals and performances) does recount life in the ballet. For its intended YA audience, that is likely enough. But it felt more like a recycled journal than a novel–and the jacket copy reveals Flack was a company dancer with NYCB before quitting to pursue a creative writing degree. 

The details are believable and authentic. The characters are very lightly sketched and somewhat cliché—although people like them do exist in the dance world and the wealthy environs that support major companies. My roommate is a dancer so I could follow along and recognize the rituals of practice and preparation for going onstage. Someone who knows the French terms for ballet moves would get a more vivid picture of the scenes portrayed but it isn’t essential to know ballet to understand what is happening.

Flack’s book will take the reader on a backstage tour of a life most people see only from the glamorous side. Bunheads is a little like the double-decker Big Apple bus tour that Hannah and her non-dancer boyfriend manage on one of her rare days off. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a foreign culture, but only a glimpse. As a primer for pouring yourself into a monumental challenge and then knowing when to walk away, the book is instructive. As an encounter with the fierce, demanding absorption required to scale the heights or accept the limits of an extraordinary profession—not so much. For that, better to read a dancer’s memoir–both messier and more memorable than a young adult romance delivered through the medium of ballet.

Bunheads   Sophie Flack | Little, Brown and Company   2011

The Musician’s Daughter – Susanne Dunlap

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Theresa’s world is shattered on Christmas Eve when members of her father’s orchestra bring his broken body home. Her 8-year-old brother is devastated; her pregnant mother goes into shock. Murder is not unusual in eighteenth century Vienna but Theresa’s father was supposed to be performing with concertmaster Franz Josef Haydn at the court of Prince Esterhazy, not wandering on the banks of the Danube by a Gypsy encampment. His valuable violin is missing; Theresa removes an odd gold pendant from his neck.

No one has any answers for her but Haydn gives the family his own Christmas bonus from the prince and hires fifteen-year-old Theresa to help him write down his music. Theresa’s father had a secret life his family was completely unaware of—Haydn has a secret that will end his career and his own clandestine political activities if it is discovered. He is losing his sight. Because Theresa is a fine musician, trained by her father, she can transcribe Haydn’s singing into orchestration. But her hopes of using her viola to earn a living by teaching music are dashed when her mother sells the instrument to pay for her brother’s apprenticeship with a luthier.

There is far more peril around the musical performances of a court than might be expected. A wealthy uncle who could provide a dowry for Theresa is a dangerous blackguard. The Roma people Theresa encounters when she braves a trip to their camp to find out how her father was killed are not crude and threatening—they are talented, intrepid and in debt to her father. They also recognize the mysterious gold necklace that Theresa now wears.  She comes quickly to rely on a young musician who tries to help her while protecting secrets of his own—and realizes she is attracted to him. Haydn knows more than he is telling. The more she finds out about her father the deeper the mystery and the greater the menace.

The Musician’s Daughter is a fast-paced, historical YA with a daring and self-aware heroine who pushes back against the conventions of her time. She wants to know why her father died. She wants her own choice for marriage and she wants to play the violin—the instrument she loves best. She opposes all the forces arrayed against her quietly but insistently. The portrayal of the society that makes no allowances for a young woman’s ability and gifts reminded me of Rita Charbonnier’s Nannerl, Mozart’s big sister who was a musical prodigy, denied her talent and opportunity because scarce resources would always be given to a brother. In fact, Charbonnier is included in the author acknowledgements so there may be a cabal of novelists out there, righting history’s wrongs against talented women, real and fictional. We can only hope. Meanwhile, I’m passing this book to my seasoned in-house YA critic. I suspect we will agree that it was worth the read.

The Musician’s Daughter   Susanne Dunlap | Bloomsbury U.S.A.   2009

See related post: Mozart’s Sister


The Lighthouse Land – Adrian McKinty

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The Lighthouse Land is a science fiction first-of-series by Adrian McKinty that is probably tagged as a YA novel. It’s not in the angst and sex tradition of formula Young Adult lit so it will work for younger children, too, and I enjoyed it—one of those ageless stories that are just great escapist reading.

Jamie O’Neill hasn’t spoken since the cancer specialists removed his left arm, saving his life, and his father decamped from Manhattan to the West Coast to live with his girlfriend. His mom moved the two of them to a ratty Harlem apartment with cheapo rent, spotty heat, a resident bully and holes in the ceiling, to make ends meet. Ends don’t often meet—the medical bills aren’t covered by insurance and dear old dad is a deadbeat with a new house and a new wife. So Jamie has nothing at all to say.

Then mom inherits a tiny island off the coast of Ireland with an ancient lighthouse, a half-submerged causeway to the mainland, a title and a modest trust. Jamie bids farewell to his elderly chess partner and good friend from the local library, Thaddeus, and the adventure begins. It’s a real adventure. Their new cottage is safe, solid and comfortable; the lighthouse is a thousand-year-old ruin that predates the Vikings; a friend from the regional high school is a math whiz and a cool guy; and Thaddeus has given Jamie a laptop that speaks typed conversations aloud so he can communicate better until he finds his voice again.

All would be well in this new adventure, until the boys discover a secret room at the top of the lighthouse tower with a strange golden device that might be the fabled magical Salmon—and it is, of course, and it is also a port key that opens a wormhole to another planet in a galaxy with two moons and a civilization in peril. Jamie, the future Laird of Muck Island, is a descendent of the Ui Neills, the last of the Irish kings. On a clandestine visit to the distant land, he discovers that the daughter of a local leader has been waiting in a lighthouse on a coastal island for the legendary Ui Niells to return to help her people deflect a raid from barbarians who arrive in massive ships made of glaciers.

The Lighthouse Land is a great quest with all the requisite strategic planning, hopeless lack of battle technology to defeat the invaders, kids on their own facing down enormous peril, the beginnings of a love interest, time running out (not to mention the inexplicable battery on the wormhole-creating Salmon), outrageous attempts to frighten and defeat the iceship marauders, and a few strange tokens of an endangered world with odd animals and appealing, human-like people. Jamie and his friend Ramsay are in as much danger as the people they are trying to save. More to come in this saga—it’s a trilogy—and I suspect the second and third books will be as entertaining to read.       

The Lighthouse Land (Lighthouse Trilogy)    Adrian McKinty | Amulet Books   2007

Body of Water – Sarah Dooley

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Body of Water is a YA book that could work as well for middle grade readers. It deals with homelessness, poverty, disaster and the meaning of friendship. Sarah Dooley opens her novel with the devastating fire that destroyed the Goforth-Shooks’ trailer in their trailer park. Ember, twelve, her seven-year-old sister Ivy and her mother and father are safe but Ember’s dog, Widdershins is missing and they have saved nothing from the fire.

The family is Wiccan or Pagan—mom reads Tarot and dad has converted, which effectively alienates him from his devout Christian mother. Their beliefs do nothing to endear them to their neighbors in the trailer park either. One of those neighbors likely set the fire—and it may have been Ember’s best friend Anson. They go overnight from poor-scraping-by to poor-living-in-tents-in-a-campground with one set of clothes each. Ember’s donated sweat pants and tee shirt don’t fit, her bra is two sizes too small and the ancient penny loafers she finds in the discard box in a church basement give her blisters.

Her heart is broken but she has to keep up a front for Ivy and for the mother and father who find no work. There is a daily scramble for loose change to pay the campsite fee and buy bologna and donuts to fill up empty bellies. Ember floats in the campground lake, a manmade recreation feature that drowned a small town, as a way to leave the reality of her life behind and grab a few moments of peace. She determines never to make another friend and spins the tallest tales to keep the other kids in the campground at bay.

Every week her college student brother picks her up outside the camp for a clandestine visit to the ruins of her home. She hunts for Widdershins in vain and salvages scraps of junk from the ashes to prepare a spell that will curse the boy who set the fire. Ember manages to function pretty well, despite her self-imposed isolation and the circumstances, but as the summer winds down she is drawn into very cautious friendships with a few other kids. One family won’t admit it but they seem to be living in the campground fulltime, just like the Goforth-Shooks.

Body of Water explores many of the simpler rituals of Wiccan belief and makes an indirect case for empathy and tolerance. The family is in denial and in terrible straits. Everyone keeps important secrets from each other. Ember misses her old best friend and her beloved dog. The resolution of the dilemmas isn’t neat and comforting. Some very good surprises happen and some changes come about reluctantly. Nature and the elements aren’t finished with the Goforth-Shooks and they are still nomads at the end of the book—although more hopeful ones this time. Ember rediscovers her open heart and chooses blessings over curses.

The sadness of the circumstances in the story is offset by the resilience of the children. But it reads like a true tale and so stands as a fictional indictment of how we ignore and marginalize people who are victims of disasters. Body of Water humanizes the inconceivable challenges of a poor kid who maintains a strong sense of self despite a relentlessly hostile and indifferent world.

Body of Water   Sarah Dooley | Feiwel and Friends   2011