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The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2012)

In a medieval world, Ananna is a pirate princess. Desirous of captaining her own ship one day, she bulks at the marriage her parents have arranged for her in order to advance their own political and strategic agenda. So she hops on a camel and runs away. Unfortunately, her betrothed and his family take offense and send an assassin to kill her. In the process of defending herself, Ananna saves her attacker’s life, triggering a curse that binds the two together. A long road, a series of trials bring the two closer together but this is the start of a series and the romantic aspects are muted. The writing is solid, the male lead is not an insufferable pretty boy and the plot is engaging. I’ll be picking up the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, in June 2013.

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The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (2012)

Feathers fell from the sky.
Like black snow, they drifted onto an old city called Bath. They whirled down roofs, gathered in the corners of alleys, and turned everything dark and silent, like a winter’s day (Prologue).

In a world slightly distorted from our own – where magical creatures like faeries mesh in realistic and gritty fashion with our own world, similiar to Suzanne Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a novel I love love love) - a young changling, part human, part faerie, named Bartholomew is forced to hide his existance. Meanwhile, a bumbling, well-meaning member of Parliment, Mr. Jelliby, becomes unwittingly entangled in an investigation into the murder of nine changling children. When Bartholomew is tagged as number ten, he must take action to save himself and his changling sister.

With shades of Jonathan Stroud and Suzanne Clarke and a conclusion reminiscent of Pullman’s Golden Compass, Bachmann just succeeds in making this novel his own. The writing is fluid though the story alternates settings. I would have liked more attention spent on the relationship – both political and social – between the magical creatures and the humans. The atmosphere was well-developed with strong details so that I didn’t find myself skipping small chunks (as I sometimes do when the writing is poor). I was also surprised when it ended on a cliff-hanger, finding myself simultanously disappointed but also interested in the sequel (sequels?). There are characters I’m intrigued to learn more about (Mr. Lickerish) and others that skewed the rhythm (the faery woman living in a meadow in the middle of nowhere, supposedly Lickerish’s sister?).

Advance Reader Copy from BEA | Greenwillow Books | September 18, 2012

 

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

Our friendship came all at once after that, like spring floods from the mountains. Before, the boys and I had imagined that his days were filled with princely instruction, statecraft and spear. But I had long since learned the truth: other than his lyre lessons and his drills, he had no instruction. One day we might go swimming, another we might climb trees. We made up games for ourselves, of racing and tumbling. We would lie on the warm sand and say, “Guess what I’m thinking about” (p 48).

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Trojan war from Patroclus’ point of view. Patroclus and Achilles were close friends and companions in the Iliad. Their bosom relationship is often described in later Greek writings as a romantic relationship, though some dismiss this interpretation. Miller takes it and runs with it, framing Achilles and his decisions in light of his sexuality. It also reveals a very human Achilles.

This is a highly readable, enjoyable book, though I expected more literary prose. I’m a glutton for mythology and this certainly satisfied. I appreciated the very godlike qualities Thetis displayed, interactions with Odyssey great Odysseus, and the understated affection between Patroclus and Achilles. 

Only occassionally did the narrative faulter and I thought, “Really?” For example, Achilles makes a stunning first kill in the chaos of storming the beach crawling with Trojans firing arrows on the slow moving Greek boats. He throws a spear miraculously far, killing brutally. But in the next chapter, Patroclus states:

In less than an hour the raid would begin. I had fallen asleep thinking of it; I had woken with it. We had discussed, already, that I would not go. Most of the men would not. This was a king’s raid, picked to grant first honors to the best warriors. It would be his first real kill (p 220).

This is the fifth book read for Roof Beam Reader’s Magical March Challenge.

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The Returning by Christine Hinwood (2011)

Why me? Cam would ask him, Lord Ryuu’s son. Why? It may be the answer was what he had been seeking.
And so he left them, the safety, the prison of family and friend and village. Through Castle Cross he rode on and on, north and away. And that was it–was everything and more and enough. For now (p 88).

In this serenely paced debut novel, Hinwood examines the effects of war on a community. Cam was the sole survivor from his small Downlander town of Kayforl after their loss in the war against the invading Uplanders. He returns without an arm to a community that wants answers for the deaths of its other members. Unwilling to relive the war or explain his return, Cam faces suspicion. At home, his father’s unwillingness to assign Cam work makes him feel a prisoner. He leaves for the North, for answers as to why the Lord’s son, Gyaar, spared his life.

Chapters follow different characters from Cam’s town and from the capital where the victors reside. The edges of these vignettes overlap and make a whole at the end. The plot is nuanced and the interactions are loaded with subtle glimpses into the truth of these people and their lives…

But I found myself very uninterested. The book was well done, I believe it accomplished what it set out to do, it just wasn’t a story I was interested in as a whole. Some of the storylines were more interesting than others but I didn’t feel wholly satisfied with any of them. I enjoyed the writing and the pace, I just didn’t connect strongly with the story or the individual characters to feel invested.

There is a good review from Kirkus that explains much of what is excellent about this novel. Other reviews: A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, Publishers Weekly, SFWP, Chachic’s Book Nook and Persnickety Snark.

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Blood Red Road by Moira Young (2011)

I seen them squiggles before, I says to him. On landfill junk. I spit on the ground. That ain’t nothin special. Bloody Wrecker tech.
Oh no my dear, it’s good Wrecker tech. Noble even! From the very beginnings of time. Those squiggle, as you call them, are letters. Letters joined together make words. And words tell a story. Like this one (p 121).

Sometime in the future, the world has been devastated by the Wreckers and their technology. Along the banks of a dried-up lake, Saba lives with her twin brother, Lugh, her father and her younger sister, Emmi. Since their birth, Saba and Lugh have been inseparable.  

Then some men ride into town on the heels of a dust storm, snatching Lugh away and killing their father. Saba sets out to find Lugh, accompanied by a persistant Emmi. Together, the pair brave the cheats, robbers, and slavers of Hopetown – the nearest settlement – where they learn Lugh was taken by a man who calls himself the King. They are helped by a handsome rogue named Jack and a band of female fighters called the Free Hawks.  Along the way, Saba discovers she is a ferocious fighted herslef and she forms a bond, albeit reluctantly, with her sister and Jack.

The minimalist style of this novel appealed to me immediately. Saba’s dialect (she is illiterate) was also a welcome change. These two factors led to a quick reading of this seemingly long novel. The action starts immediate and rarely slows.

It wasn’t until the later episodes, when I believe the world building was crossing over to improbable, that my adoration wavered. Giant, flesh eating worms with claws? Too Tremors and where the heck did it come from. No other mutant animals until this point. Lugh’s (easy) rescue and the Tonton’s actions? Where was the basis for that? I was left scratching my head. Even the casualties seemed required and unnatural (and the King’s death – ridiculous!).

When Jack rode away, I thought of the poem “My love is like a Red, Red Rose” (read it on WikiSource). Oh, he loves her so much! Then he rides away leaving only promises. Hum. Highly suspect.

Lots of adventure, well-written and it includes the steamy but brief romantic scenes adolescent girls love. I think this will be enjoyed by both boys and girls.

Read other reviews:
Ms. Reader Pants
Hitting on Girls in Bookstores
LA Times

ARC | Margaret K. McElderry Books | June 7, 2011 | ISBN 978-1442429987  | 464 pages | Ages 13 and up | $17.99

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The Kingdom of Childhood by Rebecca Coleman (2011)

I rose to stand, lifting my lantern, and I thought: as surely as one of these lanterns can light the next, so has the fire in him rekindled the fire in me. Where once I died down to nothing, I was alive again, and all was his doing. I was afire with him, and for once the thought was not terrible (p 197).

Stuck in a loveless marriage, Judy enters into a sensual affair with sixteen-year-old Zach, a new student at the Waldorf school where Judy teaches kindergarten. What begins as a mutually titillating experience soon becomes destructive.

The story begins in Germany when Judy is a ten-year-old child. She finds solace from her mentally ill mother and adulterous father in a neighbor’s barn. There she is befriended by an older farm boy, Rudy, with physical prowess. As they bond over sled rides and their mutual dislike of German fairy tales, a subtle sexual undertone emerges and the two share an overly friendly kiss.

But it isn’t until Judy’s self-medicated and disassociated husband, Russ, uncovers Judy’s dark passenger that the reader begins to understand Judy is malicious and unstable.

Coleman’s language, the novel’s pacing and alternating perspectives combine to make an engrossing read. There is a depth to Judy’s character that had me at turns commiserating then chastising then sympathizing all over again. Her logic, at the beginning, seems rational. When she pinpoints the moment she becomes a child molester (forcing an unwilling Zach), the reader is tempted to agree – forgetting she has been molesting him from the first.

While Zach’s persepctive was interesting, he really never rose about ‘horny teen’ in my estimation. Not to say his brutality didn’t give the book more dimension. But he was in a circumstance he had little control over and was every bit the victim. Altogether a fascinating, well-structured and evenly paced read.

School Library Journal’s blog “Adult Books 4 Teens” recommends it to high school students.

Read other reviews:
Jenn’s Bookshelf
Dreaming in Books
Good Books and Good Wine
Write Meg!

Library copy | MIRA | ISBN 978-0778312789 | Ages 18 + | 338 pages | $15.95

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The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill (2011)

Someone watched him.
She had been sleeping – a long, troubled sleep. And something – She did not yet know what – had woken Her. Partially. She couldn’t move, though. Not yet (p 65).

Jack has always felt invisible and lonely. When his parents split up, he is taken to his Aunt Mabel and Uncle Clive’s house in Hazelwood, Iowa. His arrival does not go unnoticed.

Frankie was the first to notice. Four years ago, Frankie went missing. Some people in town began to forget that he ever existed. But not his sister, Wendy. She clung to his memory even as pictures of him began to fade. Then Frankie, disfigured and mute, was found and returned by Clive. But his scars have memories and he knows things.

Clayton Avery notices too. His ears are ichy, like there’s a bug in them. But he doesn’t understand why and his father, the richest man in town, dismisses him angrily. Then it becomes clear Mr. Avery would like to Jack dead.

The Mostly True Story of Jack is a good first offering by debut author Kelly Barnhill. The opening sequence gripped me but my attention waved as the novel lengthened and the foreshadowing was too thickly laid. The underlying themes of friendship and storytelling (i.e. knowing most of the story) were well done, but the magical elements were poorly developed compared to other fantasy books I’ve enjoyed. I didn’t feel transported to a magical community.

Is it Newbery worthy? Not according to Nina Lindsay. While it is a book I could easily booktalk and recommend, I’d also say it falls short of Newbery standards.

Read other reviews:
Geo Librarian
The Boy Reader

Advance reader copy (print) | August 2, 2011 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | 336 pages | Ages 9-12 | ISBN: 978-0316056700 |$16.99

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Flutter: The Story of Four Sisters and One Incredible Journey by Erin E. Moulton (2011)

“Monarchs are stronger than they look, baby,” Mama said, “and they have a powerful sense how to get where they are going, even if they have never been there before. And how to get home, for that matter. They’re resilient, strong, and smart, especially when traveling together” (p 164-5).

This adventure begins serenely. Maple Rittle and her older sister, Dawn, are carving pumpkins in preparation for Halloween on the mountain. Mama is humming in the kitchen with Beetle, the youngest Rittle, while daddy prepares Maple’s pumpkin. Maple chances to see a monarch butterfly outside the window though it is late in the season for it to be so far north.

The calm is suddenly interrupted with a scream when the fourth Rittle girl arrives prematurely. With their little sister fighting for her life in the hospital, Maple knows a miracle is needed. So she and Dawn head down river to find the Wise Woman and miracle water to cure Lily.

What begins as a journey of hope quickly turns dangerous as the girls encounter rocky rapids, hungry bears, and murderous poachers.

I believe Kirkus reviewed this book well:

While readers will turn pages to discover how all this is resolved and will sympathize with the girls’ motives for the trek, they’ll likely not buy that youngsters of these ages would believe in a magical presence and potion, and the sheer number of dangers strains credulity. Disappointing is the butterfly metaphor: Maple continually notices a monarch that acts as an encouraging totem and spirit guide at various dramatic stages throughout the novel. In the end, this turns out to be an unnecessary motif, because the girls ultimately learn that love and pulling together are really what effect miracles.

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between this book and Birdsall’s Penderwick series. The titles are superficially similar. Both families have four girls and a dog with almost human-like intelligence. While I favor Birdsall’s writing and characters, the Rittles are a force in and of themselves and soon carve out a very different story from the rosie Penderwicks. Maple is tenacious and true, though I found it hard to believe a girl of Dawn’s age would embark on a miracle mission without simply asking her grandmother to take them to the Wise Woman. I would have liked to see more of the family before the girls set off.

The writing is fairly good and at times, very strong. I look forward to more from Moulton. The cover is beautiful and attractive. I’m sure it will circulate well.

Library copy (print) | Philomel | May 12, 2011 | 208 pages | ISBN: 978-0399255151 | Ages 9-12 | $16.99

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Wild Wings by Gill Lewis (2011)

At first, all I could see was the head of a bird above a pile of sticks, a creamy head with a brown stripe across the eye. Then the rest of the bird appeared. It was huge, with dark brown wings and a white belly. There was something prehistoric about it, like a beast of a lost world, too big for this landscape (p 28).

The first time Callum saw Iona McNair, she was standing as if frozen in a cold river.  Moments later, she plucks a trout out of the water with her hands. Callum’s friends Rob and Euan recognize her though, and send her away. Torn between his mates and a girl he finds intriguing, Callum doesn’t always do the right thing. But she has shared a secret with him. Osprays have returned to Scottland and they are nesting on Callum’s farm.

This story had shades of Bridge to Terabithia and Flipped to it but the characters here are never as fully endeared to the reader as they are in those excellent books. However, characters are clearly draw and their interactions realistic, though unsentimental and blunt in their portrayal.

The writing is stronger when the author tackles nature and the animals therein; therefore, readers will eagerly follow the female osprey, Iris, whose journey from Scotland to Africa and back again is tracked by Callum, his buddies and eventually their whole school. Some of my favorite chapters were those intermittent ones told from Iris’s perspective.

The novel includes beautiful illustrations by Yuta Onoda. It has received a starred review from Kirkus.

Library copy |  Antheum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster | 304 pages | May 24, 2011 | ISBN 978-1442414457 | $15.99

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A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (2009)

24th October 1936

I did have several thoughts last night after I put my books away, but they were pathetic rather than profound. They were, I must admit, mostly about Simon Chester, Rebecca’s son (p 15).

This is the first book in The Montmaray Journals series, chronicling the royal family of the small, fictitious island country of Montmaray, located just northeast of the Bay of Buscay.

Sophie begins her journal on her sixteenth birthday. She lives with her uncle, the mad King John, her cousin, the intellectual Veronica, and her sister (who would rather be a boy) Henry. Toby, her charming elder brother is in England at school. Rebecca, the housekeeper, does little house work, spending most of her time caring for the King. But Rebecca’s son, Simon, is the object of Sophie’s ardor.

Few villagers live on the island but when two German’s arrive, their small island life hangs in the balance between the Facists and the Communists.

This book begins slowly, building late toward a faster paced climax/denouemont. It is a book with a lot of atmostphere, gothic overtones, and foundation in history. For me, it slumped in sections and took too long to plod through. I expected something to happen and so little did, until everything came to a head in at the conclusion.

There is a possible incestuous/homosexual relationship alluded to in very loose terms but not explored. Otherwise, it’s a pretty gentle read for the 6th through 8th grade kids. It is on the 2012 Garden State Teen Book Award ballot.