Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: The Thirteenth Child

The Thirteenth Child
Patricia C. Wrede
2009; Scholastic; 978-0-545-03342-8 (hardcover)

Summary: In a version of 19th century America that is infused with magic, Eff is afraid of what she's capable of. Eff, you see, is a thirteenth child. Her twin brother Lan, the seventh son of a seventh son, is destined to be a great, powerful magician. But a thirteenth child will turn evil, spreading darkness and despair: a fact that Eff's extended family won't let her forget. Rescued by a move out West with her parents and siblings, Eff grows up and tries to control her magic while finding her place.

Three Things to Know About The Thirteenth Child

#1: Self-fulfilling prophecies can be defeated in several ways.

In Eff's world, it's common knowledge that a thirteenth child turns out badly. With just a look, they can make your bunions hurt more or sour the freshest milk. Due to this stigma, Eff is made miserable during her early childhood. And these scars remain with her, even after her family's move to Mill City. She hides the fact that she's a thirteenth child and still remains distant from most people, too scared of their reactions to her birth order. It's fear that also keeps Eff from fully developing her powers, to the point that spells she tries to cast fizzle out. And in those moments when she loses her control and lets go, she frets and worries, eaten up by guilt. It's only as she learns and finds confidence in a different form of magic that Eff is able to overcome-somewhat-the stigma of being a thirteenth child.

#2: An alternate world exists thanks to its roots in our world.

An expert at creating alternate universes thanks to the Kate and Cecilia trilogy written with Patricia Stevermer, Wrede creates another engaging what-if world. In this novel, magic mingles and infuses the American frontier, transforming Minneapolis on the Mississippi into Mill City on the eastern bank of the Mammoth River. Not just the river separates the civilized, safe towns from the wide-open, dangerous West; there is also the Great Barrier Spell, holding out the steam dragons and other fearsome creatures. This spell is an example of one school of magic, the Avrupan, contrasting with the Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan. These varying schools add complexity to the novel and also help explore the struggles of Eff as she tries to control her magic.

#3: There is room for different theories.

It's not too strange that in a world where magic extends to shoo-fly spells, there is a group that shuns any kind of magic. Known as Rationalists, these people feel that magic is a crutch. In the eyes of the Society of Progressive Rationalists, only through hard work, with your mind and your hands, should you achieve success. It might be a strange viewpoint to the people of Eff's world, but it also reflects the American values that exist in our society. One of the most pervasive American myths is the Horatio Alger idea, that a young man can go far thanks to brains, luck, and pluck. The Rationalists represent this ideal within the novel, and their lack of reliance on magic is shown to have an unexpected benefit by the end of the story.

Both a rollicking adventure and an insightful character study, The Thirteenth Child proves that you can combine contrasting elements into one story. Whether it is style or genre, these elements can be mixed together, faithful to each aspect while becoming something new. But beyond this accomplishment, Wrede has created a wonderful story. Recommend this novel, the first in a new series, to fans of the Kate and Cecilia trilogy or Gary Blackwood's The Year of the Hangman.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Shiver

Maggie Stiefvater
August 2009; Scholastic; 978-0-545-12326-6 (hardcover)

Summary: Even before she was attacked by them, Grace has been mesmerized by the wolves in her backyard. In particular, it's the yellow-eyed wolf, the one who saved her from the other wolves during the attack, that Grace watches. And then one day, a boy with the same eyes as her wolf comes into her life. As she learns that the boy named Sam and the wolf are one and the same, Grace finds herself falling even more for him. And for Sam, he's loved Grace for years, just from watching her; just by talking to her makes him fall head-over-heels for her. But the cold makes Sam shift from human to wolf, and he thinks his next shift will be his last. When the cold of winter comes, he'll be a wolf forever. As winter comes closer and closer, Sam and Grace must find whether their love be enough in spite of their natures.

Two Things to Know About Shiver

#1: Paranormal romance can exist in the real world.

With the success of Twilight, the hot trend in YA literature is romances between a human and a supernatural creature. The newest choice is Shiver, which draws inspiration from The Time Traveler's Wife and harks back to Blood and Chocolate. This novel is firmly its own, though--and well-grounded in reality. There are rules that dictate how Sam shifts from human to wolf, and they're thought out and sensible. This grounding shifts the mystery and magic from the paranormal to the romance. And who doesn't think love is a mystery? It's a wonderful choice and heights the appeal of the novel.

#2: Differences can be opportunities.

Sam and Grace have very different personalities. Sam is sensitive and creative, a poetry reader who creates his own music lyrics. Meanwhile, Grace is practical and scientific, interested in the tangible. The chestnut is that opposites attract--but these personality contrasts could break up a romance. Instead, though, both characters seem inspired by their romantic interest to become more well-rounded. Grace learns to understand poetry, hearing the beauty in the words. And Sam finds himself thinking scientifically, searching for a cure to his lycanthropy. It's thanks to the evolution in both characters that their love has a chance to survive.

Dreamy and atmospheric, yet shot through with tension and mystery, Shiver ably balances character and plot, romance and action. Maggie Stiefvater has said she wanted to write a book that would prompt readers to cry as they read, swept up by the romance and the worry. Stiefvater succeeds in this goal, creating an entrancing read even for non-fantasy readers. Pair this with Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side (my review) to create an "After Twilight" reading list.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: The Miles Between

The Miles Between
Mary E. Pearson
September 2009; Henry Holt Books for Young Readers; 978-0-8050-8828-1 (hardcover)

Summary: For Destiny, it's all about keeping her distance. Abandoned by her parents in favor of her younger brother, she won't let herself make friends or get comfortable at her boarding school. After all, she'll just have to move on, going to a new school at the whims of her parents and their lawyer, Mr. Gardian. When she unexpectedly gains a car, though, Destiny decides to go on a road trip, joined by three schoolmates. As they travel to her hometown, Destiny begins to see all the connections she has . . . and those that she doesn't.

Reminiscent of her earlier work The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E. Pearson's new novel uses the classic road trip structure to explore friendships and family. The reader is sucked into the story, in spite of Destiny's distance and slowly-revealed unreliability as a narrator, as the truth about her past is discovered. In addition, the desire to have a fair day seems to speak to an essential teenage want; captured between childhood and adulthood, adolescents are slowly realizing that even though fairness isn't automatic, it is possible if you fight for it. Seeing the characters strive for one fair day, a day where everything is just and right, makes for an inspiring, compelling read.

As a side note, I can't help preferring the cover on the ARC I received to the final cover. The final cover seems more like a middle-grade novel to me. Take a look at the ARC cover, as seen for this audiobook version, and weigh in with your thoughts!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ALA Annual 2009: By the Numbers

6: Authors Met
Justina Chen Headley was so pleased to hear feedback about her books, and was a delight to talk to. David Levithan laughed at my Team Peeta t-shirt. Melina Marchetta gave a wonderful Printz Award acceptance speech, and then was just as wonderful in conversation. E. Lockhart shared details about her upcoming books after presenting a knock-out speech exploring the inspirations for her award-winning The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Libba Bray and Sara Ryan remain separated at birth.

4: YALSA Events Attended
The Happy Hour and Fashion Show was a hoot and a half, not to mention a great time to reconnect with friends and colleagues. Thanks to the generosity of School Library Journal, I got to attend the Edwards luncheon for the first time, and got treated to a stellar speech by Laurie Halse Anderson. The Morris Award Presentation and YA Authors Coffee Klatch was another first-time event for me, but I'll definitely be attending this again! And finally, the Printz Award Reception was full of wonderful, compelling, funny speeches, followed by a fantastic reception.

3: Board of Directors Meetings Attended
This is a bit of a cheat, since I had to attend the Board meetings as an ex-officio member. But I greatly encourage all YALSA members to attend occasional Board meetings and read the available documents and minutes. The YALSA Board of Directors are the people who are setting YALSA's course, and being aware of what's being discussed or showing up to voice your opinion is your benefit as a member.

3: Boxes of Books Shipped Home
I'm eagerly awaiting getting my boxes of materials. True, there were much fewer ARCs available than in past years, as well as less swag as a whole. Yet I thought I still came away with several books that I'm excited about and that I'm looking forward to reading.

2: ARCs Already Read
Waiting for reviews, that will hopefully come next week, are two new books from fantastic authors. First, there's The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, acclaimed author of A Room on Lorelei Street and The Adoration of Jenna Fox. And then there's Shiver, the widely-discussed novel from Maggie Stiefvater. Both were fantastic, and I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts with all of you!

2: Great Roommates
I've been rooming with Liz Burns (of Tea Cozy) and Sophie Brookover (of Pop Goes the Library) for years, and they're not only considerate roommates but great friends. They always provide another way of thinking about issues and are founts of knowledge.

1: Presentation Made
I spoke about historical fiction at YALSA's Genre Galaxy on Friday. I had a great time talking about this often-unappreciated genre, and had a fantastic time at this event.

I hope everyone who attended Annual had a good time, and I'm excited to be back to blogging, my batteries recharged and my bookshelves overflowing.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Hiatus: ALA Annual

From Thursday July 9th through Tuesday July 14, I'll be attending the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. Therefore, the blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks. If you'd like to see my stream-of-consciousness thoughts about the conference, check out my Twitter. Thanks, and I hope to be back with lots of books to discuss!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Review: Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side
Beth Fantaskey
2009; Harcourt; 978-0-15-206384-9 (hardcover)

Summary: Jessica is looking forward to a good senior year. Hanging out with her friend Mindy, avoiding the villainous Faith Cross, and maybe getting closer to Jake Zinn: Jessica's got it all planned out. But then, a strange exchange student named Lucius Vladescu arrives, all pale and exotic. And Lucius isn't in America to experience an American high school. He's actually a vampire prince, and he wants Jessica to live up to the terms of a pact signed between their families. Jessica, who knew she was adopted, finds out that she's from a family of vampires, and is now the princess of the Dragomir clan. And if that wasn't bad enough, that pact? It bethrothed Jessica to Lucius. There goes senior year . . .

Two Things to Know about Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side

#1: Is it nature or nurture?

When Lucius arrives in her life, Jessica is a typical American teenager: she follows trends even though they don't suit her, is vocal about making her own choices, and disagrees with her parents' lifestyle. Slowly, as she learns more about her heritage and her birth mother, Jessica begins to realize the power she has in being herself, even if it means she's different from everyone else. Indeed, it is her uniqueness that helps give her power. But she still has that sense of herself as Jessica, and still values her freedom. By the end of the novel, it's clear that Jessica is drawing upon her natural talents and her learned behaviors to achieve what she wants.

#2: Vampires don't have to be supernatural.

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side plays with the conventions of vampirism, creating individuals that aren't that different from humans. Lucius and Jessica both are able to control their vampire natures except in times of high emotion or stress, and even then, they remain civilized. It's hard to picture Lucius just ripping open someone's throat. Instead, these vampires seem to be much more tied to the metaphorical roots of the creatures. After all, vampirism has long served as a metaphor for sex and intimacy, a connection that Lucius directly makes: sex is one thing, but sharing blood is the most intimate act between two people. In this way, Fantaskey ups the romance and removes some of the spookiness from vampires. Certainly it seems that Jessica falls for Lucius not because of his vampire nature but because of the romantic, passionate behavior he exhibits.

An enjoyable twist on the cliched vampire romance, Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side will definitely appeal to teen readers. The princess in disguise plot is fully explored over the course of the novel, anchored by the likable, believable Jessica. And her vampire suitor is equally realized, thanks in part to the letters he writes that are sprinkled through the text. Supporting characters like Mindy, Faith, and Jessica's parents also get their moment to shine. Moving along at a brisk pace, the novel wraps up the romance between Jessica and Lucius without trying to unnecessarily prolong it. Recommend this romance to any teen left cold by the Twilight frenzy.