I've been reviewing children's and YA books for more than fifteen years. Most recently, I began reviewing The New York Journal of Books, an online review site at www.nyjournalofbooks.com. My favorites are YA fantasy and science fiction. Many of my reviews posted below first appeared on the NYJB website.
The Final Six, by Alexander Monir (HarperTeen, 2018)
Climate change has wrecked Earth with monster storms and towering tsunamis. Cities around the globe disappear under water that surges higher every day. When the last ice melts, little land will remain for human habitation. Such a scenario is not uncommon in today's dystopic YA literature.
However, Alexandra Monir gifts us with a unique story offering a solution for the dying world as leaders in American, European, and Russian space agencies draft 24 teens with vital talents for the most audacious undertaking in Earth's history.
Leo, who lives in the towers that remain above water in Rome, arrives at a news conference atop the Palazzo Senatorio. Officials announce that he is one of the selected 24, and whisk him off to the International Space Training Camp at the well-fortified Houston Space Center. Leo is thrilled because he's lost everyone he ever loved and never expected to care about anything or anyone again.
Meantime, at a high school in Burbank, an army officer tells Naomi that she's about to become one of the 24 most famous teenagers on Earth. The thought of leaving her beloved family devastates her, but the finalist teens are not allowed to refuse. Their job is to save the human race.
Officials collect 22 other teens from around the world. After a month of training, the 24 will be cut to 12, and then to the final six—those talented enough and lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to be chosen for the Europa Project.
The first group of astronauts sent to Mars a few years back all mysteriously died. This group will establish a human colony under the ice-covered seas of Europa, one of Jupiter's larger moons. The water contains a great deal of oxygen, and the sea floor is fertile, ripe for cultivation.
While the reader gets to meet many of the 24, Monir wisely tells the tale from two alternating first-person points of view, those of Leo and Naomi. Tension ratchets up as the 24 compete with one another for one of the final six places.
The plan is for the space craft to swing by Mars to collect the supplies left by the failed mission, and then to slingshot around Mars, using its gravitational field to speed toward Europa. Leo, a world-class swimmer and diver, hopes to become the mission's underwater expert.
Naomi's brilliant mind easily comprehends physics, numbers, and computers.
Naomi initially hopes to fail so she can return to her family; then she unlocks some of the secrets of the planned mission by hacking into a cyborg meant to accompany the final six to Europa. She learns that the same unmanned craft that discovered the sea under Europa's ice also detected signs of life. This reinforces her suspicions that project leaders are lying to the teens and perhaps to the world. She comes to believe she can better serve her family and the world by being part of the final six.
The astronauts in training receive a daily injection of radiation resistant bacteria (RRB) to protect them from the harsh radiation of outer space. Two teens die from the injections, one of them Naomi's roommate, who cries out, "It's alive," just before her death. Naomi swipes some of the RRB and examines it under the portable electron microscope she travels with.
Unlike all bacterial species on Earth which do not have a true nucleus, the RRB bacteria have three. They are indeed alive and are a seemingly impossible form of life. If they are not from Earth are they from Europa?
When the final six young astronauts are chosen, something doesn't seem quite right. Yet at the same time, the selection seems inevitable. The huge revelation on the last two pages also seems inevitable, and yet as right as it is surprising.
A pure science-fiction story untinged by fantasy is an uncommon thing in YA literature. A good story, relatable characters, a brief romance, and unexpected twists—what else can one ask of a book? The only negative? Having to wait a year or so until the sequel comes out!
Frozen: Heart of Dread, Book One
by Melissa de la Cruz Michael Johnston
Natasha Kestal (called Nat) and Ryan Wesson (known as Wes) live in the post-apocalyptic Remaining States of America. It’s been more than one hundred years since poisonous oceans covered half the nation and swept away everything. The land is in a perpetual deep freeze, covered in snow and ice overlying immense piles of garbage. The official currency is not dollars, jewels, or gold, but heat credits, for nothing is more valuable than staying warm.
Even teens like Nat and Wes must earn their own way in New Vegas, one of the few remaining outposts of human occupation. Wes is an expert conman, and he runs his own crew of mercenaries who are ready to do nearly anything for the right price.
Nat works as a blackjack dealer in a New Vegas casino, hiding the fact that her tiger-like eyes and the flame-shaped mages’ mark on her chest signal that she is one of the outlawed "freaks" with special powers. A voice in her head says her destiny is filled with rage and ruin, fire and pain. The voice also tells her she must journey to the Blue, a place where legends say the air is warm, the water turquoise.
And now she has the map showing the secret doorway into the Blue which lies somewhere in the poisonous Pacific. All she has to do is ask the man who owns it to give it to her. Like he has a choice.
The voice tells her to hire a runner to lead her to the Blue. Wes and a member of his crew try to scam her at the blackjack table, but one of her abilities comes to light when she makes the credits he wins disappear from the table and reappear in her pocket. But Wes comes highly recommended for the hazardous work of running, and she hires him to lead her into the wilderness.
Creatures live in the frozen wasteland that Nat and Wes must cross: sylphs, thrillers, the smallmen and the drau. Slave traders. And more of the mage-marked, like Nat. Forging an uneasy alliance, Nat, Wes and his crew escape corrupt officials, bombs, gunfire, drones and pheromone-scenting nanoparticles to reach K-town, a lively enclave ablaze in the ruins of Los Angeles.
And when the group boards a battered ship and begins the next stage of their journey, things really get tough! The Pacific is an icy watery wasteland, dark with poison and filled with monstrous bergs of floating garbage, dangerous people, and creatures that no one can imagine. And the government of the RSA chases anyone trying to escape.
Melissa de la Cruz and Michael Johnston have crafted an exciting and imaginative story that is two parts vision quest and one part adventure. For at its heart, Frozen is about two young people seeking to define their identities and trying to find themselves in a dystopian nightmare of horrific magnitude.
The well-paced action is taut, the characters diverse and finely drawn. And while this is a multiple book series, the ending of this first story is fully satisfying and doesn’t leave the reader dangling until the sequel comes out.
When examined on another level, Frozen also serves as a cautionary tale about the current state of our fragile world so badly damaged by abuse and neglect. It provides a chilling prediction of one possible outcome if our poor stewardship of Earth continues on its present path.
The Dream Thieves, Book II of The Raven Cycle
by Maggie Stiefvater
In this second of a planned quartet, Maggie Stiefvater again delivers a mesmerizing story populated with the unique cadre of unconventional characters she introduced in The Raven Boys.
The raven boys themselves number three—or four—depending on how you count them. There’s Gansey, a good-looking preppie boy from old money whose only wish is to discover the legendary Welsh king, Glendower, said to sleep along the ley line—a supernatural energy path—that slashes through their town of Henrietta, Virginia.
Adam, the scholarship boy, who escaped an abusive home life to attend the exclusive Aglionby Academy, clings to his friends as he fiercely defends his independence by trying to hold down three jobs.
Ronan, also from money, but dark money, mysterious money derived from an impossible supernatural secret he shares with his late father.
And Noah, a nearly-solid ghost energized after his bones are buried on the ley line. He has a disturbing habit of re-enacting his own violent death.
Blue, the small-town girl who tries to keep the peace and hold them all together, lives in a house filled with psychic female relatives. She herself claims no such ability, but others’ powers grow stronger in her presence. Her family foretells that when she kisses her true love he will die. She is determined to kiss no boy. Ever. Especially not Gansey or Adam.
The group faces new dangers in this sequel as they continue to seek Glendower and the promise of the great reward the king will bestow when awoken. The Gray Man, under orders of Greenmantle, arrives in town to search for an unknown item called a Greywarren that seems linked to Ronan and his family. The Gray Man is falling for Blue’s mother even as he carves a bloody path through Henrietta in his search for the Greywarren.
Early on Ronan’s newly recognized power becomes apparent: he can bring real objects from his dreams into the world—a Rosetta stone of a puzzle box; a raven called Chainsaw that seldom leaves Ronan’s side. And sometimes, things escape from Ronan’s nightmarish dreams into reality, horrible things made of claws and scales and hisses, things intent on killing him. The nebulous partition between waking and dreaming slowly crumbles for Ronan, taking the reader spiraling down with him.
Not only is the pace perfect and the action spot-on, the relationships between Blue and the boys are unexpected, unlike those found in other YA paranormal stories. The characters love each other. They hate each other. They cannot exist without each other.
Ms. Stiefvater is at the top of her craft in The Dream Thieves. She has the uncanny ability to turn what could be stereotypical characters in lesser hands into a group of eccentric young people who captivate, engage, and yes, even break the reader’s heart at times. She creates a moody, nuanced world that is both astonishing and unforgettable.
By Sarah Beth Durst
Eve, kept under constant guard by federal agents, is moving into a new house with a new face and a new name. She’s in a witness protection program, hidden away until a dangerous criminal is captured and sentenced using her testimony. The agents tell her she escaped a serial killer. But something is still hunting her with his magic.
There’s just one problem—a very big problem. Eve has no memories of her past, and the agency is growing impatient with her forgetfulness. Her watchers push her hard, trying to trigger those forgotten memories. They arrange a day job for her at the local library where she shelves books under watch of the vigilant four-eyed librarian.
They introduce Eve to three other teens in witness protection who are ordered to befriend her and challenge her with magic. Aidan can disappear. Topher generates electricity with his hands. And Victoria turns into a snake.
Even though Eve doesn’t remember her past, she discovers she can do some magic of her own: She walks through walls, changes her brown eyes to green, and frees the painted birds on her bedroom wallpaper. So when her new friends seemingly try to kill her during a game of pool, she sends the shattered shards of a broken mirror at them to protect herself.
But Eve has another issue to contend with. Every time she uses magic, she falls unconscious and has terrifying visions. She feels someone sewing buttons into her skin. She finds herself in a tattered carnival tent where people are trapped in small, jewel-encrusted boxes dangling from ribbons, “like charms on a necklace.” Desperate eyes plead for freedom from the boxes, and sometimes blood drips from them as well.
Eve realizes that she, too, spent time trapped inside a box as the magical caravan swayed and bumped across realities to the next carnival site. “She’s broken,” a woman says when she looks inside Eve’s box to prepare her for the show. “She’s perfect,” answers a man. The voices are familiar.
When Eve wakes up from her visions (Dream? Memories?), it can be hours, days, or weeks later. Sometimes she finds herself in a hospital bed with an I.V. in her arm or at her own kitchen table sipping juice. But she can never remember what happened during her lost time. Not one thing.
Zach, a parttime library employee is the first good thing that happens to Eve. For one thing, he never lies to her like the others do—her keepers and their boss. A shared kiss sends Eve and Zach floating in air. She learns that when they kiss— when Zach inhales her breath—he receives her magic. Nothing in her visions or dreams has prepared her for this.
Eve lives in unremitting dread of her visions, her magic, and especially her memory lapses. Her constant fear and visions create an unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere for the reader, who often feels confused, as helpless and afraid as Eve. Ms. Durst weaves such a convincing spell that we might as well be trapped inside a red box or lost in Eve’s gray swirl of forgetfulness with her.
It’s hard to put down this intriguing and darkly spooky story that calls out to be quickly consumed in search of answers. Who is Eve and where does she come from? What can she do and what does she know? And most of all, can she find the killer before he finds her? Conjured spirals to a shocking and totally unexpected conclusion.
by D.J. MacHale
It seems like a normal Friday night football game on Pemberwick Island, Maine. Fourteen-year-old Tucker sits on the bench yearning (and dreading) to be called into the game as standby for the star running back. But the high school’s top player suddenly dies on the field after scoring a touchdown.
An autopsy will find no cause of death.
High on shock and adrenaline, Tucker and friend Quinn sneak out of their respective homes for a midnight bike ride around the island as they’ve done so many times in the past. Along the beach the boys witness a mysterious black shadow in the sky that first “sings” then explodes. Local authorities aren’t especially interested in the event.
A couple of days later, hundreds of military men parachute from helicopters and storm from landing vessels and take over the island. They are part of Sylo, a secret branch of the U.S. Navy. Their stated purpose? To isolate and quarantine the island because they say a lethal virus has infected Pemberwick. No one except Captain Granger, his team, and the CDC may come or go from the island.
But Tucker, Quinn, and island-girl Tori aren’t buying the official story—even though the President of the United States says on television that it’s true. Too many weird things are happening.
Why don’t Sylo and the CDC wear hazmat suits or surgical masks to protect them from the virus? Why have all communications between the mainland and Pemberwick been shut down? And why would the U.S. military chase and kill innocent islanders? Then there’s the stranger pushing Ruby, a crystalline substance that provides a temporary burst of massive power and strength. It’s absolutely harmless, the man declares, but Tucker believes Ruby killed his team’s football player.
Tucker, Quinn, and Tori attempt a daring nighttime escape from the island in her missing father’s lobster boats. Quinn sets off alone in one boat while Tucker and Tori set off in the other; both boats are headed for the mainland five miles away.
They never make it.
Instead, the trio witnesses a terrifying air skirmish between Sylo fighter jets and the black shadow crafts: Sylo loses. The mysterious crafts totally annihilate Quinn and his boat with some kind of laser beams. A Sylo submarine captures Tucker and Tori and puts them in the military detention center, erected on the site of the former country club and golf course.
The suspense ratchets up ever higher with unanswered questions. Is Sylo evil or good? Are the islanders being held in protective custody, or are they prisoners of the U.S. government? What are the black shadow crafts and where do they come from? And why are Tucker’s parents part of Sylo?
Mr. MacHale is a master of intrigue, pacing, and adventure. The plot races along and has enough twists and turns to keep readers on edge until the end. Reading Sylo is like trying to solve a mystery by glimpsing clues through the blurry windows of a speeding bullet train. Even so, many questions remain unanswered and new ones arise on the last few pages. Hopefully all will be resolved in the second book of this planned trilogy.
While the book is said to be for ages ten and up, many children of that age may not be ready for the challenging content that includes perceived parental betrayal, a best friend’s death, violent and lethal air battles between Sylo and the black flyers, the murder of apparently innocent civilians, and consumption of the performance enhancing substance, Ruby. Sylo is perhaps better left to readers who are 12 years old or more. The story is certain to appeal to that most elusive of readers: the teen boy.
The 5th Wave
by Rick Yancey
An alien mother ship circles the Earth raining down consecutive waves of death and destruction. The first wave: electromagnetic impulses demolish every form of technology. The second wave: giant tsunamis annihilate coastal cities worldwide. The third wave: an Ebola-like virus kills 97% of humanity.
The aliens need our planet for their own survival and they’re not squeamish about taking it away from us. Ho-hum. Yawn. Been there, read that—a dozen times or more.
Except . . . by the bottom of the first page (no spoiler alert required), it’s apparent that Rick Yancey has written a very different book from the usual alien invasion story. These aliens do not actually invade Earth, rather they are inserted into fetuses for future use. “Now it is only the man, the woman, the baby inside her, and the intruder inside the baby, sleeping.”
When takeover time arrives a few years later, the aliens inside the humans awaken, already prepared for their role as planetary conquerors. They have been watching us for six thousand years. They know us. They are us. How do the remnants of humanity fight that? And how can we possibly survive waves four and five?
Can an alien who lived a normal human life for years retain humanity once awakened to his true destiny? And can desperate, paranoid humans trained to kill anyone suspected of being Other still be human themselves?
Mr. Yancey explores the very nature of humanity through several characters’ points of view. Human? Alien? The reader won’t know for sure because the author provides few clues, instead allowing readers to reach their own conclusions.
Cassie is one of the lucky ones—if there is such a thing following an alien conquest. Wave three killed her mother, but she, her dad, and her little brother Sammy make it to a ragtag refugee camp in the forest. Within a few days military trucks from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base show up and soldiers load the children into a big yellow school bus, promising to return shortly for everyone else.
Cassie slips into the woods, returning only to watch in horror as the soldiers kill everyone and blow up the camp. She pulls herself together and moves on because she promised her brother that she would come for him; she promised to return his teddy bear and to take care of him.
Flash over to the base where we see medics implant trackers into the newly arrived children and technicians downloading their memory and consciousness into the mainframe. We watch drill sergeants train seven year olds to fire assault rifles and see hit squads led by teens dispatched to kill everyone who glows green when viewed through a special lens—a sure sign of alien infestation.
Flash back to Cassie and Evan, a boy who saves her life after a sniper shoots her. He lost his own family and still lives in the surprisingly intact and well-supplied family home, including a cache of chocolate. Evan goes out hunting every night but seldom brings home any game. Even though parts of Evan’s story don’t add up for Cassie, she sets off with him to rescue Sammy from Wright-Patterson.
She soon meets Ben, a former heartthrob from high school, now a skilled assassin trained by the military at Wright-Patterson. He also wants to save Sammy—or so he claims. But how can she be sure he is not Other?
Who do you trust when no one is who he seems to be? And who can you allow yourself to love?
The 5th Wave is creepy good, steeped with a smidgen of classic sci-fi storytelling at its best and infused with fresh perspectives about what it really means to be human.
The book careens from one dangerous encounter to another, part War of the Worlds, part Falling Skies, part Hunger Games, but still unique and true to itself. The twists and turns and surprises continue to the last pages and skillfully set the scene for a sequel.
U.S. and international film rights have been optioned. Mr. Yancey’s book has all the makings of a topnotch movie: thrills, action, a little love. Hmmm . . . I wonder if Jennifer Lawrence could play Cassie?
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest
by Charles de Lint
Magic has consequences, warns Mother Possum, but Lillian is too young to understand what that means. All she knows is she wants to be a girl again instead of a kitten.
In her human form Lillian and her aunt live on a small, remote farm surrounded by Tanglewood Forest. After lessons and chores, Lillian spends her spare time searching the forest for fairies. It’s a magical place, the forest is, and seems a perfect home for fairies.
But all Lillian finds are cats—lots and lots of cats who follow her through the woods and meander up and down the hills and valleys with her as she explores.
After racing with a deer one afternoon, Lillian falls asleep under a tree, much as she’s done many other days. She wakes to a painful snakebite on her ankle and before she can move away, the snake strikes again, then again. Through the fog of pain and approaching death she glimpses a circle of cats gathering around, watching her intently.
As Lillian fades away, “falling upward into a bright tunnel of light,” the cats kill the snake and discuss what to do about her.
“We have to save her,” says one.
“We can’t. It’s too late,” says another.
“Unless we change her into something that isn’t dying,” suggests the wisest cat.
It’s settled. Magic pulses three times around the circle of cats—special cat magic that calls Lillian’s soul back in a blaze of light.
When Lillian awakens, she licks a paw, washes her face, and discovers she is now a small calico kitten.
Being a cat does have its advantages, but they are not for Lillian.
She finds her way to Mother Possum who changes her back into a girl after warning her to be careful what she wishes for. Magic is not free. It always has a price.
Back at the farm, Lillian discovers that the poisonous snake has killed Aunt. Fate, it seems, intends that someone should die today, if not Lillian, then Aunt.
The Creek family matriarch—a witch among her own people—sends Lillian off on a perilous quest to discover how to make things right. Lillian travels through wild lands with a trailing fox and a heart filled with determination, for she is not willing to trade Aunt’s life for her own.
Mother Possum is not the only purveyor of magic Lillian meets. The shifty Bear People trick her into working for them in return for a promise they never keep; however, the Father of All Cats and the Apple Tree Man are more helpful.
Lillian is an engaging young heroine filled with curiosity, kindness, loyalty, and the will to do what’s right. Difficult though it may be, she alone will control her destiny.
Renowned author Charles de Lint, a master of juvenile fantasy, creates a unique story that seems somehow familiar and new at the same time. Part folktale, part fable, the lyrical language is a perfect match for the web of magic and mystery he weaves.
But the story is only half the story in this lovely, thick-papered and well-made book. Artist Charles Vess often partners with Mr. de Lint, and his vibrant full-color illustrations impart luminous texture to Lillian’s mission.
In one image, Lillian as a calico kitten creeps toward Mother Possum’s swampy tree home where 100 empty medicine bottles dangling from dead branches gives the place an eerie atmosphere.
The double-page spread depicting the Bear People’s settlement is a surprising cross between a Tibetan monastery and Rivendell, the Elven village from Lord of the Rings. It delights the eyes, compelling the reader to pause and contemplate visiting such a place. Would it require a passport, one wonders?
Lillian is indeed, pure of heart, and her goodness comes full circle. The conclusion is predestined, but highly satisfying nonetheless.
The joy is in the reading: the wondrous adventures of Lillian’s journey through Tanglewood Forest and her marvelous encounters with those who dwell within its enchanted boundaries. Gorgeous pictures. Talking animals. Magic. A bit of fright. What else could a child ask for in a story?
by Jeff Hirsch
Jeff Hirsch begins his story with an intriguing concept. Over 100 years ago some sort of giant explosion separated Earth into two segments: the technologically advanced Colloquium and the mysterious Magisterium. The separation is called the Rift.
Strangely, the story never explains how this event happened or why, an omission that will bother some readers throughout the entire book.
Most citizens of the Colloquium believe the Magisterium is a wasteland bereft of life. After all, online satellite photos show nothing but darkness and desolation across the Rift. A few citizens believe a government conspiracy keeps the truth buried, that the Magisterium is filled with mutants and other oddities.
Nothing but two miles of forest and a string of red lights separates the two worlds, yet no one seems interested enough to cross the invisible line and explore the unknown.
Enter 16-year-old Glenn Morgan and her only friend, Kevin. She follows the standard line of thinking about the Magisterium, while Kevin believes the conspiracy theories insisting it’s filled with monsters and witchcraft. Glenn’s mother disappeared ten years ago and her scientist father spends all his time working on a secret project in his workshop. It seems nothing but her beloved cat binds Glenn to her life in the Colloquium.
Glenn plans to attend the space academy and travel to an Earthlike galaxy so far away that no one ever returns.
Glenn’s father is arrested when his work comes to the attention of Colloquium authorities. At the last moment, he clamps a thick metal bracelet on Glenn’s wrist. He tells Glenn that her mother had to cross the Rift and somehow got trapped on the other side. He planned for the two of them to enter the Magisterium and find her.
Now the authorities are after both Glenn and Kevin. As seems inevitable from the first page, they cross into the Rift and learn the Colloquium has been lying. Again, predictable. People do live in the Magisterium. The setting is strongly reminiscent of medieval England: tiny villages; suspicious, roughly clad people; and a crowded smoky inn with a dirty mattress in the rented room with a meat stew on the table that could have come straight from Chaucer.
The bracelet is intended to keep Glenn grounded in her reality, for the Magisterium is a strange and magical place with its own reality. When Glenn removes the bracelet, she discovers her own Affinity—magical ability —is very powerful and allows her to do things she could never have imagined.
At times, the story seems to vacillate, uncertain if it’s meant to be a middle-grade or young adult novel. The cat turns into a giant warlike creature. A beautiful swan morphs into a woman. Dancing lights reveal themselves to be fairy-like beings. Middle grade elements. Kevin is shot and several people die horrible deaths. Giant trebuchets filled with explosives destroy a village. YA for sure. It’s like Alice in Wonderland meets Jason Bourne in Fallujah.
Unfortunately, the story’s promise is never fully realized. Glenn is not an especially engaging main character, although Kevin is more so. At times, the plot is slow and murky, the characters moving from place to place seemingly with little purpose. Other times, especially in the last third of the book, the plot is fast, over violent, yet still underdeveloped.
The most imaginative element is the Magistra: who she is and why she’s there. As depicted on the book’s cover, thousands of blackbirds form her body and swirling black gown. Her power seems limitless.
The final pages reveal an unexpected and interesting twist, perhaps enough to sustain the reader through earlier chapters. The conflicting realities of technology at war with magic pose some thought provoking questions. For example, can evil done for a good cause ever be justified? And given unlimited power, can people maintain their humanity?
Interesting questions to ponder, though crossover content conflating reading ages might keep parents of middle graders from supporting Magisterium as an appropriate reading choice.
The Diviners, by Libba Bray. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.)
Evangeline O’Neill’s parents just can’t handle their boisterous daughter any longer. She drinks (to the health of Prohibition, whenever she can), she stays out too late, and she spills the beans about one of Zenith, Ohio’s golden boys during a psychic party trick.
Evie is exiled to New York into the hands of her Uncle Will, who runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (also known as the Museum of Creepy Crawlies).
It turns out this is not such a bad punishment: New York during the Roaring Twenties—the city of speakeasies, flappers, shopping, movies, and theaters. Evie’s new life is the elephant’s eyebrows, the cat’s pajamas. Uncle Will is a benignly negligent guardian who asks little of her. Soon Evie is out partying with a Ziegfield girl and her friends and making the rounds of New York’s jazz clubs.
But Evie’s life comes unglued when the New York police consult Uncle Will about a brutal murder. She accompanies him to the murder scene which has occult overtones: an inverted pentagram branded on the dead girl’s chest, and an odd note ranting about the Harlot, the Beast and the fifth offering found nearby. Evie picks up the girl’s shoe buckle and tries to reattach it, wanting to correct this small indignity.
Images of the dead girl’s life and her final moments of horror flood unbidden into Evie’s mind. For Evie is a diviner, someone who can “read” objects belonging to people and learn about their secret lives. Evie never talks about her power. It scares her.
When she did the reading in Ohio, it was a mistake she doesn’t want to repeat. But when the second murder surfaces, and then a third, she realizes she can use her power to help catch the killer, if she can convince Uncle Will to let her, and if the killer doesn’t get to her first.
There’s a sense of impending doom, a gathering of characters for an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. The reader can all but see the roiling black clouds piling atop one another in the distance. It’s like the Great Gatsby meeting Hannibal Lecter, or Stephen King meeting, well, Libba Bray.
This is the first of a planned trilogy: a big book, not just in size but in scope and concept. The story sprawls across time and place, putting us into the minds and lives of not only Evie, but the cast of the other paranormally talented people who will help her in the epic battle against a terrifying villain.
There’s Sam, who tells people not to see him—and they don’t. Memphis the healer, and his little brother Isaiah who sees the future. Blind Bill, Miss Addie, and Miss Lillian. All have their own special powers, but not all of them are who they seem to be.
Evie is a realistic and likable heroine, sassy one minute, scrappy the next. The quirky secondary characters—including the dilapidated death house—are vividly rendered. The complex plot is intriguing and engages the reader as it weaves its way through the pages of this brilliant book.
Libba Bray has created a mesmerizing concoction of the paranormal mixed with horror, well seasoned with captivating period detail. The giddy exuberance of the Roaring Twenties thumps up against an increasingly threatening atmosphere in which an ancient evil arises from the dead to take over the world and remake it in its image.
The sparkling setting and the darkly sinister atmosphere combine to make a veritable chiaroscuro best savored in long sittings under a good reading light. Be sure to lock the doors first; you never know what wants to get inside.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick Press)
Mix a master puppeteer named Gaspar Grisini, tormented witch Cassandra, two orphans named Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, and a kidnapped little rich girl called Clara and what do you get? The joy of reading this astonishingly original novel by Newbery Medal winner, Laura Amy Schlitz.
Set in Victorian London, this darkly Gothic jewel opens simply enough when Clara Wintermute begs her wealthy father to bring Grisini’s puppet show to the family home for her twelfth birthday party.
Clara offers Grisini’s orphaned assistants, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, tea and toast in the drawing room while Grisini prepares for the puppet show. The splendor of the Wintermute mansion dazzles the orphans as much as the clever dancing puppets dazzle Clara.
Clara is the sole survivor of several siblings who succumbed to cholera; she lives with that guilt and the fear that her parents wish she had died instead of her twin brother. But when she goes missing the day after the puppet show, her distraught parents are frantic to find her.
Grisini is questioned by the police, as are Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. The police search their shabby rooms in a boarding house for clues to Clara’s disappearance but find nothing. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall discover and report Grisini’s criminal past to the police. For it turns out that Clara is not the first child to disappear after one of Grisini’s puppet shows.
Just as Grisini is ready to collect the ransom from Clara’s father, he’s injured in a fall at his boarding house when he tries to teach the orphans a lesson about talking to the police. When he regains consciousness, however, he cannot collect the ransom. Instead, Cassandra is calling him, and he must yield to her magical summons.
Against his will, Grisini joins Cassandra at her bewitched country estate, Strachan’s Ghyll. The two have a long history of magical rivalry, for Grisini is not just a skilled puppeteer, he is an expert and evil magician.
Cassandra wears a stunning fire opal around her neck that’s imbued with the ability to create powerful spells. It also both speeds her death and strengthens her powers. She wishes to rid herself of it, but she cannot give the opal away; it must be stolen from her. Grisini wants the opal for his own purposes even though he knows its dangers.
With a misleading letter, Cassandra lures Lizzie Rose and Parsefall from London to her estate with a promise to bequeath them all of her treasures. Even though the children don’t know her, they are so desperately poor and alone, they make their way to Strachan’s Ghyll to meet with Madama, as Cassandra prefers to be called.
Unbeknownst to Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, they are carrying the kidnapped girl Clara with them. She is hiding in full sight, for Grisini has turned her into a ballerina puppet. The opal allows Cassandra to enter Clara’s mind; the girl can see and hear and think, even though she is tiny, and her limbs are now controlled by puppet strings.
The action soars to unexpected heights once all the characters have gathered around Cassandra’s bedside at Strachan’s Ghyll, as the children’s true natures guide them to take the actions that result in the destined consequences.
The story’s closing is well rounded and extremely satisfying. The setting swings between abject poverty and resplendent riches; the characters are well drawn; and the story is uniquely intriguing.
What more can a reader ask? Capable middle-grade readers—such as those who managed the Harry Potter books on their own—can successfully tackle Splendors and Glooms. It also makes a dazzling read-aloud book for anybody who enjoys hearing the spoken words of a brilliant story well told.
"The Polar Bear Scientists," by Peter Lourie (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The helicopter skims over the Arctic ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. A scientist leans out an open window and aims his gun at the large male polar bear racing below. An electronic orange sighting triangle appears on the bear’s shoulder. The scientist squeezes the trigger. The small explosive charge sends the tranquilizing dart flying straight and true. Thwamp!
Over the next few minutes, the helicopter circles a short distance away from the bear, waiting for the anesthesia to take effect. The bear slows to a walk. He stumbles over a block of ice. His back legs give out, but he lurches to his feet once more. A few steps later the dazed animal drops in slow motion, falling flat out on the ice, limp and unmoving, eyes open in an unseeing stare.
The pilot lands the helicopter and the scientists begin their work. They measure the bear’s height, girth, and weight. They take samples of blood, hair, feces, fat, and fur. A unique identification number is tattooed on the bear’s gums and a tag attached to his ear. The scientists work quickly – they have about an hour before the bear regains consciousness. Maybe there’s time to ‘shoot’ another polar bear or two before the long spring day turns to midnight dusk. Then it’s back to the lab to enter the day’s findings into the computerized databases for further study.
And go goes the life of the polar bear scientists, a dedicated team of individuals who work with the U.S. Coast Guard Polar Bear Research Project. During the two months of late spring, the scientists capture and tag seventy to one hundred polar bears. Following the bears and analyzing the massive amount of accumulated data allows the scientists to assess the bears’ individual and collective health.
The U.S. has been studying polar bears since the late 1960s. Polar bears are an international species, and all the nations that border the Arctic – the U.S., Soviet Union, Canada, Demark, and Norway – share the research and management of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 remaining wild polar bears. It’s important work. While these powerful animals are at the top of their food chain, their continued existence is threatened by a decline in their habitat due to climate change.
Author Peter Lourie makes a fascinating and compelling case for the importance of studying polar bears. For they are the apex predators of the Arctic – the gigantic white canaries in the mines that tell us something is not right with their world. Warmer weather means less sea ice, and polar bears are most effective at catching seals from the surface of the sea ice. Bears are fewer; they are thinner; some even drown at sea searching for an ice flow strong enough to support their weight.
The Polar Bear Scientists is the newest entry in the publisher’s outstanding series called Scientists in the Field. In these books, authors spend time in the field with scientists working in a variety of environments. The scientific details in The Polar Bear Scientists are clear and concise, making the complex concepts more easily understood. The book closes with an excellent polar bear field guide and a list of resources. Young readers might have appreciated a section telling them what they could do to support polar bears and their habitat.
The photographs of the scientists at work and the bears in action are exceptional. However, the images of grinning scientists cradling anesthetized cubs with vacant eyes are a bit unnerving, reminiscent of the photos of yesteryear in which hunters proudly posed with their kills.
One of the more interesting topics is too-briefly explored. The Inupiat people of the Arctic harvest bowhead whales for sustenance each fall. The people pile the whale carcasses outside their villages. Local polar bears gather in large numbers at these bone piles to forage for much needed bits of meat, fat, and cartilage when the sea ice retreats north. The image of the bears huddled amongst the whale bones is sobering. What does it say about how we’ve managed our world when one of Earth’s most magnificent predators is reduced to scavenging scraps for survival?
“Shine,” by Lauren Myracle, (Amulet – imprint of Abrams Books).
It was an accident that I read this book. A good friend brought back an ARC from an ALA conference and urged me to read it. I reluctantly accepted the loan because I trust this friend’s assessment of what I like to read, even though this didn’t seem to be it. I don’t like books set in redneck hamlets. I don’t like books where drugs are as important as the characters. And I don’t like books that depict horrible hate crimes such as bashing in a teen’s head with a baseball bat and stringing him up to a gas pump with a nozzle shoved in his mouth because he’s gay. No, I really don’t like this sort of book. I’m into speculative fiction, where if things get too rough, you can tell yourself it’s just a story.
Shine is real. We know there are plenty of places out there like Black Creek, North Carolina where intolerance and bigotry reign, and people who are different are not tolerated. We know people devastate their lives and their families with drugs, and that children are molested while those charged with caring for them pretty much ignore it. But sometimes it is good and even necessary to step outside our literary comfort zone and read a book that makes us uncomfortably squirmy.
Shine is amazing and one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long time. Without a doubt, Myracle has written a miracle of a story. Protagonist Cat is sixteen, a combination of common sense and heart-wrenching innocence despite an awful incident that happened when she was thirteen. Cat’s voice is spot-on, a perfect meld of southern/country/mountain dialect. You can almost hear the twang when she talks. The secondary characters – many of them deeply flawed – are very well developed, all the way from the members of the local posse to the guy who makes meth in a trailer out in the woods. There are no clichéd characters here. And while Cat’s friend Patrick is comatose from the attack, we know as much about him as the other characters through Myracle’s skillful weaving of past and present.
When the local sheriff doesn’t make any progress in the investigation into Patrick’s beating, Cat figures it’s up to her to find out the truth. She sets off to methodically interview everyone who saw Patrick that night and to revisit the places where he was last seen. Who nearly killed Patrick? One of his so-called friends? A stranger just passing through? The college boy Cat meets in the library who knew Patrick? With unwavering determination Cat pieces together a picture of what happened that terrible night. As she gets to know the people she thought she already knew, Cat learns that everyone has secrets, and that some are uglier than others.
The author keeps us in suspense from page one to the end as she spins this wonderfully written and superbly constructed story. Voice. Characters. Plot. Pacing. Surprising insights. Shine has it all. Cat grows from a naïve girl to a self-assured young woman as she pushes forward her investigation to a stunning conclusion that will leave your heart racing. She is a brilliant light who guides us through a dark landscape. Do yourself a favor: don’t miss Shine.
Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact, by A. J. Hartley
When 11-year-old Darwen Arkwright spots a birdlike creature with leathery wings, short clawed arms, and a human face flying through a busy shopping mall, he chases it into an odd little shop that stands at the end of a nearly deserted corridor. A sign hanging above the door reads, “Mr. Octavius Peregrine’s Refractory Emporium: Mirrors Priceless and Perilous.”
As Darwen looks around the store, he notices one mirror swinging back and forth. When he examines it, he sees not his own reflection, but that of the flying flittercrake (as they are properly known) leering back at him. Dozens of mirrors cover every wall in the store because the proprietor sells nothing but cracked antique mirrors with peeling paint at ridiculously high prices (as in $5000, marked down from $8000). Mr. Peregrine says Darwen is a mirroculist, a person who can see into other worlds through mirrors, but only after sundown. He gives Darwen a small square mirror to take home, a mirror that turns out to be as priceless and perilous as advertised.
And so the adventure begins. Darwen seems an unlikely hero. He’s a bit scrawny and newly orphaned, and he’s just moved from England to live with his Aunt Honoria in Atlanta. She sends him to a posh private school called Hillside Academy, where he doesn’t quite fit in. His working-class accent and general lack of knowledge about all things academic make him the target of ridicule from the popular kids.
Most of the teachers aren’t very fond of Darwen, either. However, scrappy Alexandra and studious Rich befriend Darwen and are soon privy to his secrets.
Darwen hangs the mirror Mr. Perigrine gave to him on the inside of his closet door. The very first night he sees a lovely forested land in the mirror instead of his own face. Boys being boys, he climbs through the mirror and enters the forest. The dellfey – little winged people similar to fairies—inhabit the land that is called Silbricia, along with a host of decidedly dangerous creatures such as scrobblers, gnashers, and shades.
The scrobblers have tusks, apelike arms, ride monstrous motorbikes, and carry nets big enough to catch children with. The gnashers have no head or eyes, but instead, possess a mouthful of terrible teeth on their chests. And the shades, well, it’s best to avoid talking about the shades at all.
Darwen, Rich, and Alexandra dub themselves the Peregrine Pact, and are soon enmeshed in a struggle that impacts the future of Silbrica, Hillside Academy, and perhaps the world itself. For the Guardians of the Gates are asleep on the job and no one but the three friends stand between our world and the scrobblers who are mounting an attack. They’ve done it before.
Darwen and Rich found the evidence during an archeological dig at Hillside Academy—a scrobbler skeleton in a Civil War uniform. It turns out that the school is an ancient portula between the worlds.
Darwen and his friends return time and again to Silbrica and witness the dellfeys’ forest degrade into a wrecked industrial landscape as the scrobblers build mountains of machinery designed to stretch Darwen’s mirror from the inside to allow them egress. To make matters worse, the scrobblers require something that only human children possess to power their quest. The story races to a chaotic conclusion during the Hillside Halloween Hop. While the other students are obliviously celebrating the holiday, Darwen, Rich, and Alexandra are fighting to defeat the invaders.
Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact is jam-packed with action from the first to the last page. The characters are well drawn, the alternative world fully developed, and the situations deliciously scary. There hasn’t been such a “mirroculous” adventure since Alice climbed through the looking glass to play chess with the Red Queen. Monsters, machines, and mayhem—this imaginative story has it all, making it an enticing selection for young readers who fell in love with The Golden Compass and The Chronicles of Narnia.
A Web of Air: Book 2 in the Fever Crumb Series, by Philip Reeve
The brilliant Philip Reeve has once again gifted readers with a delightful new tale. A Web of Air, the second book in the Fever Crumb Series, is set in a distant dystopian future that is so devolved it suggests medieval England all tricked out with touches of ancient (meaning today’s) technology.
While we don’t know for sure, it seems much of the world was destroyed long ago by climate change, nuclear war, earthstorms, and plague. America is believed to be a wasteland, although a transformed Europe has survived. Popular lore says mankind was justly downsized.
Fever is the only female member of London’s Order of Engineers, an elite few who struggle to learn what they can of knowledge long lost. In the first book, Fever, who only cares about rationality, is sent on assignment to help an archeologist identify some newly unearthed technology. She’s soon embroiled in irrational conflicts not of her making, and escapes London in a traveling theater with two children she rescues. The wheeled theater trundles to the city of Mayda where the troupe performs plays to entertain the residents. Fever adjusts—in her own way—to the irrationality of theater life, and cobbles together the only electrical stage lighting seen in any theater.
Mr. Reeve, who expertly creates new worlds, has built Mayda on the inside slopes of a giant crater along a coast. Homes and shops ascend and descend the inner cliffs on funicular rails counterweighted by massive water tanks according to the time of day or the wishes of the inhabitants.
Along one of these vertical pieces of property Fever encounters the mysterious young recluse called Arlo Thursday. Arlo’s only companions are angels, large gull-like mutated birds with human DNA in their genes. The birds, while not too bright, can speak, and they sport fingers on the tips of their wings.
It’s rumored throughout Mayda that Arlo is working to build a flying machine. When Fever discovers a sophisticated paper glider near his home, she tracks Arlo down to convince him that he needs an Engineer such as herself to complete his work. Some people don’t much care if Arlo succeeds or not, but other groups have their own agenda.
Followers of the Sea Goddess cult say it would be sacrilegious for man to fly once more. The Oktopous Cartel wants to seize the flying machine and use it as a military weapon to wrest control from others. And London’s Engineers want to destroy it because flying conflicts with their plan to put the entire city of London on wheels so it may roam freely across the land. Ruthless enemies are prepared to kill Arlo and Fever to possess the secrets of flight.
A man who Fever believes is her friend betrays her, and she escapes with Arlo and his half-finished flying machine to the Ragged Isles, a group of small islands off Mayda where Arlo’s father once built ships. All of Arlo’s family and their holdings were destroyed by a giant wave years ago, and only scattered ruins remain. Arlo and Fever set to work building the flying machine on the top of a wrecked tower. Arlo fails at the first attempt to fly it because he is too big and the old engine powering the craft is too heavy. Fever strips down an automated creature similar to a spider that has guarded Arlo and his family for many years and removes its power source. The lost technology proves to be a small egg-like device that Fever inserts into the plane. She will fly the lightweight craft with its new engine.
Fever and Arlo believe no one can find them, but one of the angels tells a Cartel member where they are in exchange for lovely snacksies. He just doesn’t know any better. Will those who crave the flying machine succeed? “Floatyboat! Big floatyboat,” the watching angels scream in warning.
The story careens to an exciting and surprising conclusion.
Fever is an engaging heroine, intelligent yet oddly naïve in the ways of life. Mr. Reeve is a talented world-maker and first-class storyteller. What more could a reader ask for? How about the quick arrival of the third book of the series, Scrivener's Moon, now available in the U.K., but sadly, not yet in the U.S.
The Eleventh Plague, by Jeff Hirsch
Jeff Hirsch’s debut novel, The Eleventh Plague, is a commendable addition to the dystopian genre so popular among today’s teen readers.
Allegedly coined by British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, dystopia describes a time and place filled with decay, misery, fear, and oppression. In these dystopian futures, civilization has crumbled, leaving behind a bleak landscape filled with ruined remnants that only hint of the freedom and prosperity that make up the world we know. Human hubris and greed are the usual causes for such dystopias.
And so it is with The Eleventh Plague. Jeff Hirsch creates an all too possible future in which war has destroyed most of America’s infrastructure and a deadly strain of influenza has killed two-thirds of its population. Fifteen-year-old Stephen Quinn, his father and grandfather are among the survivors. They trudge through rusting theme parks, devastated malls and empty towns enduring severe privation and brutal weather as they salvage anything that might be worth bartering for food and supplies at regional trade gatherings.
Steve’s grandfather, who is being buried as the book opens, wields a powerful, domineering influence that leaves a legacy of distrust that shaping Steve’s beliefs and actions. Shortly after the burial, Steve and his father encounter slavers, the “brutal scum” who capture people and sell them to those few groups with enough money to buy slaves. Steve and his father evade the slavers, but Steve’s father is critically injured during the escape.
When the slavers disappear and a group of friendly people discover Steve and his now unconscious father, it appears that Steve’s luck has changed. The group is from Settler’s Landing, a hidden community that seems too good to be true. As in the rest of the country, electricity and running water are distant memories, but the settlement has intact houses, real families, a school, crops and even leisure time activities such as baseball and barbeques. Steve is welcomed to the town, but a few residents believe he and his father are spies from Fort Leonard, a less prosperous settlement a short distance away.
Powered by his grandfather’s strong opinions, Steve at first distrusts the new life being spread out before him like an unfamiliar feast. As the town’s doctor cares for Steve’s father, he befriends some of the townspeople and attends school for the first time in his life. There he meets Jenny, a Chinese girl taken in by another family. Everyone believes China sent the flu to America, so Jenny is viewed with suspicion and has no friends outside her adoptive family.
As boys often do, Steve gets into a fight with another boy named Will Henry, son of the town’s most prominent citizen. The Henrys never wanted Steve to come to Settler’s Landing and they’ve always hated Jenny. She’s a strong, defiant girl who won’t tolerate being mistreated or unfairly labeled. One night Steve and Jenny play a prank on the town that goes horribly wrong. They set off firecrackers to frighten farm animals into stampeding. Residents of Settler’s Landing believe that Fort Leonard is attacking them so they mount a counteroffensive. Fort Leonard responds in kind. Chaos and battle ensue as both sides misinterpret what’s going on.
Steve shows significant character development during the story, which makes it difficult to accept that he’s willing to risk his new life and that of his friends because of a petty dispute. That may not be his goal, but it is the result of his actions. Settler’s Landing and Steve himself are forever changed because of what he and Jenny do. But they redeem themselves in a series of heroic acts in the fast-paced conclusion. The surprises keep on coming until the final pages.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not include the influenza virus on its list of bioterrorism agents, although it probably belongs there. The first cases of human avian influenza (bird flu) were identified in Hong Kong in 1997, and although the disease is not highly contagious, the mortality rate still approaches 60%. Who knows what nightmare scenario a genetically altered and weaponized flu virus as envisioned in The Eleventh Plague could produce?
Mr. Hirsch delivers an intense and thought-provoking glimpse of one possible dystopian future. And he provides something that similar stories don’t always offer: hope and a chance for redemption. This stand-alone novel is a pleasant change from the trilogy format of so many others in which one must read all of the books to glean the entire story. It’s enjoyable to have it all told in one novel.
This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
This YA novel unquestionably lives up to its claim as the prequel to Mary Shelley’s classic story. Mr. Oppel populates his novel with younger versions of the same characters as Shelley’s book: Victor Frankenstein and his two younger brothers, Ernest and William; feisty Elizabeth Lavenza, a distant cousin adopted by the wealthy Frankenstein family; and close friend, Henry Clerval; however, Dark Endeavor gives Victor an identical twin brother, Konrad, who serves as the catalyst for Victor’s quest for a potion that may (or may not) cure fatal illness and bestow near-eternal life.
Set in a darkly Gothic chateau outside Geneva at the end of the 18th century, the story opens when Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth discover a secret passageway that leads deep beneath the chateau to a derelict laboratory in a library filled with old books of alchemy, including Agrippa’s Occulta Philosophia. The teens’ father finds them in what he calls the Biblioteka Obscura (Dark Library) and demands they promise not to return.
Soon Konrad falls dangerously ill with an ailment that doctors of the time cannot cure. Victor is determined to do whatever it takes to save his beloved twin. He returns to the Dark Library with Elizabeth and Henry and stumbles on Agrippa’s claim to have developed a formula that promises to remedy human suffering and prolong life. The trio finds their way to Polidori, a discredited alchemist living in Geneva who agrees to translate the formula for the Elixir of Life, written by Agrippa in an ancient script called the Alphabet of the Magi.
Polidori translates the formula that calls for three ingredients that Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry must procure to make the Elixir. The first is a rare lichen that grows at the top of the tallest trees in the Sturmwald, the forest outside Geneva. The glowing lichen must be harvested at the dark of the moon. Victor makes a potion recommended by Polidori that bestows the “vision of the wolf” to those who ingest it to help him see during the midnight mission.
The second ingredient is oil from the head of the coelacanth, a fish presumed extinct, but which actually lives deep inside a series of caves bordering Lake Geneva. Victor returns to the forbidden library once more and finds a formula for “flameless fire” in another book of alchemy. He prepares the concoction to help guide the seekers through the wet darkness of the labyrinth-like caves where their torches might fail.
After Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry survive harrowing adventures to gather the lichen and oil, a young doctor armed with new medical techniques arrives at Chateau Frankenstein. He administers a dangerous treatment to Konrad who immediately improves. The plan to make the Elixir is temporarily forgotten.
A love triangle between Elizabeth and the twin brothers becomes apparent. Elizabeth and Konrad declare their devotion to each other, not knowing that Victor harbors deep feelings for her as well. But Elizabeth’s real feelings are not as clear as she believes them to be. She’s a chronic sleepwalker and turns up in Victor’s bed one night, curling close beside him. Torn between desire and doing what is right, Victor takes her back to her own bed. But it is his name, not Konrad’s, that she murmurs in her sleep as Victor leaves the room.
When Konrad suddenly falls violently ill again, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry return to Polidori. He has now finished translating Agrippa’s work and reveals the third element needed to complete the Elixir of Life. The ingredient is readily available but requires a sacrifice from Victor that is both personal and painful. A stunning betrayal follows that severely tests Victor’s resolve and loyalty.
As most of the characters in this story are male, it may well appeal to that rarest of reader, the teen boy. Victor is passionate and often torn by contradictory emotions. Konrad is steadfast in all that he does and believes. And Elizabeth is a strong young woman who proves herself as brave as anyone during the group’s perilous adventures. Much like Mary Shelley, she too is a woman ahead of her time.
With the final pages, the author deftly sets the scene for the second book in the planned trilogy. In Shelley’s book, first published anonymously in London in 1818, Victor attends a German university where he excels in chemistry and science. He learns of galvanism, the method of using electricity to reanimate the dead. Even though the astute reader can guess what will happen in Mr. Oppel’s second book, reading more about the origins of the enduring story of Frankenstein and his monster is something to look forward to. Mr. Oppel writes a book that is both fascinating and unique as he creates Victor Frankenstein’s early life in a way never before told.
“The Elephant Scientist," by Caitlin O’Connell & Donna M. Jackson (Houghton Mifflin Books).
The scientist perches atop a concrete bunker peering through binoculars at an elephant family whose matriarch leads her charges to the Mushara waterhole in the midst of a Namibian scrub desert. The wise old matriarch suddenly stops and shifts her weight, tilting forward on her toes. Her followers do the same. The matriarch holds still as stone, occasionally lifting a foot and shifting it, or stretching out her trunk along the earth as if seeking an answer to an unknown question. Finally, the matriarch deems it safe to continue and the elephants in unison move toward the waterhole.
This elephant behavior had not been previously documented; however, elephant scientist Caitlyn O’Connell recognized this unusual performance from her time spent studying insects.
She’d watched tiny grasshopper-like insects called planthoppers communicate with others of their species by transmitting calls through their feet and vibrating the plant on which they rested. Was it possible that these mighty mammals were somehow communicating in a similar manner to that of a diminutive insect?
Follow Caitlyn O’Connell, “Mother of All Elephants” (so nicknamed by indigenous villagers because of her concern for the animals) as she tracks and studies wild elephants in two national parks in Namibia along the coast of southwest Africa.
Dr. O’Connell had several goals. People established farms and ranches along the edge of the parks, making the crops readily available to resident elephants. It turns out that elephants are very fond of corn and other human crops, food desperately needed by a populace that lives at the subsistence level. She sought to decrease human-elephant conflict by helping to protect farmers’ crops from elephant foraging. Harmless ways to warn elephants off farms included battery-operated car alarm triggered by trip wires, electrical fences, trenches, and barriers formed of crops such as red chilies, known to be unpalatable to elephants. Dr. O’Connell hoped to develop a better alternative. Ultimately, recordings of elephant alarm calls proved quite effective.
Once harvest season ended, Dr. O’Connell was free to pursue her other goal, the study of elephant culture and communication. She and her photographer husband, Dr. Timothy Rodman, recorded many of their astounding findings in words and images.
For example, the basic elephant family unit is formed of adult females and juveniles of both genders; however, when young males reach adolescence, their testosterone-driven unruliness means that the females force them from the herd. They join separate groups consisting of adult males, whose presence not only settles them down, but also actually decreases their testosterone levels. One of the more evocative photos in the book shows an adult bull elephant comforting a seemingly despondent adolescent male.
Dr. O’Connell and her associates then turned to the question: Can elephants “hear” with their feet? A CT scan of an elephant foot shows the animals stand on tiptoe with their heels elevated by a cushiony pad of fatty tissue. The fat resembles the “acoustic fat” found in marine mammals known to send and receive sound vibrations.
Through several seasons of research with the wild elephants using delicate seismic equipment, Dr. O’Connell confirmed that elephants can indeed feel vibrations through their feet and that these vibrations serve as a form of communication. These ground signals are distinct from the subsonic rumblings elephants emit that cannot be heard by humans. Working with a captive trained elephant, Dr. O’Connell later verified her findings.
After the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Thailand in December 2004, the media was filled with stories of elephants and their heroic deeds. The story of elephants racing to the devastated shoreline to rescue children after the tsunami has pretty much been discredited. But many sources reported that elephants seemed to feel both the precipitating earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Unexpectedly agitated elephants carrying tourists on their backs ignored their mahouts’ orders and raced for the hills after helping their chained comrades to free themselves. Dr. O’Connell’s work helps to explain that phenomenon.
The Elephant Scientist is the newest entry in the publisher’s outstanding series called Scientists in the Field. In these books, authors and their photographers spend time in the field with scientists working in a variety of environments.
Other recent books in the series feature scientists who study frogs, manatees, sea horses, honeybees, and bats. The Elephant Scientist, with its clear writing, concise explanation of complex concepts, and exceptional photography, is a first-rate addition to the series. Many people feel a special affinity to elephants because of their strong and loving family bonds. While humans share more DNA with chimpanzees than with any other animal, we are perhaps more like elephants in matters of the heart.
“Divergent,” by Veronica Roth, (Katherine Tegen Books – a HarperCollins imprint).
Dystopian novels are a hot commodity in today’s YA market, and Divergent, first of a trilogy by a debut novelist, is a powerful entry into the genre. Beatrice lives in a dystopian future Chicago in a society divided into five factions, each dedicated to fostering a particular virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peace), and Erudite (intelligence). Working together, the factions are meant to maintain a near perfect society.
Every year on an appointed day, sixteen-year-olds take aptitude tests to help decide which faction they will join. That day is followed by the Choosing ceremony where most, but not all, young people elect to stay in the factions of their family. Beatrice fully expects the aptitude test to show that she should remain in the Abnegation faction with her parents. It’s important to pick the right faction because faction comes before family, and faction is forever.
But something is very odd about Beatrice’s aptitude simulations. The tester says Beatrice’s results are inconclusive because she displays equal aptitudes for Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite. People with such diverse results are known as Divergents. The tester warns Beatrice never to tell anyone about the results because being Divergent is dangerous and could even mean her death.
Beatrice chooses to join the Dauntless faction at the Choosing ceremony and renames herself Tris. She struggles with the extremely competitive initiation into the Dauntless. Only half of the potential initiates make it; the others become factionless, the faceless, homeless people of the ruined slums. The story is exciting and fast-paced. The reader will race through its 485 pages, sensing that a growing conflict threatens to tear Tris’ world apart.
Stunning betrayals occur as Tris remakes herself into an ideal Dauntless member, afraid of nothing or no one. Violence permeates the story, sometimes to an uncomfortable and even shocking degree; the reader may wonder if the story wouldn’t be just as effective with less of it. Still, like all good books, it ends with a glimmer of hope and enough promise to make the reader anticipate the second book of the trilogy. A big question needs to be answered: What exactly does it mean for Tris to be Divergent?
Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare. (Simon & Schuster)
All avid readers get lost inside their books when reading great stories. But when I can’t stand to put the book down, can hardly wait to get back to it, and wonder what the characters are up to when I’m not reading about them – well, that’s a really great story. Clare keeps on getting better, weaving here an intricate and intriguing prequel to her hit series, Mortal Instruments.
Set in Victorian London, Tessa journeys from New York to find her brother who has sent for her. However, she is whisked off the docks and taken instead to the home of the Dark Sisters, two evil women who are charged with teaching Tessa how to use the powerful ability she does not yet know she has. Just before being sent off to marry the mysterious Magister, the London Clave of Shadowhunters rescues her and takes her to their magically-protected Institute.
Readers of the Mortal Instruments will know these are Nephilim whose sworn duty is to fight demons and maintain an alliance with the vampires and warlocks of the Downworld to help protect Mundanes (humans). Tessa and her new friends face the power-hungry Magister and his growing army of clockwork warriors. Every chapter brings a surprise or an action- filled fight between the Shadowhunters and their enemies.
I’m not normally a fan of prequels, but the Mortal Instruments trilogy was so strong, I was fascinated to read the Shadowhunter history. The classy cover promises as much as the book delivers. This exquisitely crafted book, infused with a deliciously dark atmosphere, should not be missed by those who love the supernatural genres.
Zombies vs. Unicorns, by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. (Simon & Schuster)
“Since the dawn of time one question has dominated all others: Zombies or Unicorns?” Thus begins this highly enjoyable anthology by 12 of today’s top teen writers. While each story is a star in its own right, perhaps the most entertaining part of the book is the snarky dialogue between editors Black and Larbalestier in which each promotes her view of the vices and virtues of the disparate beasts.
You may be surprised to read that some unicorns are killer creatures and not the sweet horned-horse that little girls love, while some zombies are loyal and loving, capable of meaningful long-term relationships! The stories are as different from one another as are the authors. There’s Carrie Ryan’s, “Bougainvillea,” set in the world of her “The Forest of Hands and Teeth,” in which zombies may very well win the world; Kathleen Duey’s, “The Third Virgin,” in which we meet the unicorn that steals part of a person’s life while giving some of it back; Libba Bray’s, “Prom Night,” and Scott Westerfield’s, “Inoculata.”
The book came into being as the result of a series of blogs between the editors, perhaps the first book to be born of blogging (or at least perhaps the best). Fun to read, disturbing at times, I raced through this innovatively-jacketed book in a couple of days wishing for more. So who wins? Zombies or unicorns? Each reader will have to decide. I preferred the darker zombie stories, yet would much rather meet a unicorn!
Chime, by Franny Billingsley (Dial).
It’s been ten years since Franny Billingsley’s last novel, but the wait is well worth it. Chime is brilliant in design and execution, and in its extraordinarily innovative use of language. Briony and her oddly addled twin sister Rose, live in a village at the edge of a dank dark swamp haunted by the Old Ones. Briony sees the swamp spirits, a sure sign of being a witch, she believes.
Briony must be a witch. Her stepmother told her so. The now dead stepmother explained how Briony hurt her sister, flooded her father’s parsonage, and set fire to the house. Now Briony lives in a nightmare miasma of guilt and self-hatred, blaming herself for her family’s terrible string of tragedies. She fears that the village will discover she’s a witch and hang her for it.
Then Eldric comes to the village, all tawny and gold, watching Briony through his lion’s eyes, playing make-believe games with her, falling in love with her. And chasing after Eldric comes the enigmatic Leanne whom Briony immediately distrusts. Through a series of misfortunes Briony finds herself on trial as a witch, facing the hanging that she’s reconciled herself to.
But secrets come out. Rose has her share, as does Cecil, the other young man who loves Briony. Briony herself holds many secrets and she doesn’t even remember most of them. This book races along to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Fantasy fans, mystery fans, and fans of love stories are certain to enjoy this superbly-crafted novel that speaks to the power of trust, truth, and love.
Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse).
I must admit that when I first heard of the genre “steampunk,” it held no interest for me. But after reading Westerfeld’s brilliant Leviathan, and the super sequel Behemoth, I’m a big fan. (See the review of Leviathan below.)
Westerfeld is among the top dozen YA novelists writing today (IMO) and he proves it in Behemoth. Clanker Alek is heir to the Austrian empire, while Darwinist Deryn (a girl posing as a boy) is a lowly midshipman on the giant British airship Leviathan. The organic ship is off to the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to keep the country from entering WWI on the German side.
Alek and Deryn are both on the run, working hard to avert all-out war.
Alek escapes the Leviathan in Istanbul and joins a revolutionary group trying to overthrow the Sultan, while Deryn has a secret mission that involves sabotage of a giant Tesla cannon and releasing some very nasty genetically engineered barnacles that will allow the Behemoth to devour two German ships. The interweaving of real and imagined history with the Clanker and Darwinist cultures, all tied up with a great big red ribbon of adventure, makes this a sequel to be savored. Compelling black drawings add to the excitement. The only problem? I’d like to see more of the Behemoth – maybe in the next book, Scott?
"Paranormalcy," By Kiersten White. (Harper Teen).
Evie has lived at the Canadian headquarters of the International Paranormal Containment Agency (IPCA) most of her life. Her job? Tag vampires and bring them in. Restrain werewolves during the full moon. And force fairies to do her biding with named commands that must be obeyed. Evie’s BFF is a mermaid. She just broke up with a hot fairie and started a semi-romance with a – well, she’s not quite sure what he is. Turns out the sexy new shape-shifter is born of a human father and a water sprite mother.
Paranormals are endangered species for the most part, and the IPCA does what it can to protect them. Or so Evie believes. As far as Evie knows, she’s the only human who can see through the glamours that paranormals wear to disguise their true selves. That’s why the Agency keeps her, right? But Evie discovers she herself is classified as a Level 7 Paranormal of unknown origin and is marked for “observation.”
Suddenly there’s a new player in town. Something – or someone – is killing paranormals with skill and apparent ease. They’re dropping by the dozens around the globe. As Evie learns more about this new threat, she discovers hints about her own origin. And it’s pretty scary stuff!
This is Kiersten White’s first novel, and it’s a winner! Better than Buffy, it’s innovative, fast-paced, filled with well-crafted characters, and not to be missed. The fairies are chilling, the werewolves unexpectedly charming, and the vampires – well, what can you say about vampires. No one likes them. Evie is funny, sad, complex, mysterious, all in all, an admirable and lovable heroine. Hey Kiersten, when is the sequel coming out?
“Sapphique,” by Catherine Fisher. (Dial).
Sequel to the magnificent Incarceron, Sapphique takes us deeper into the evil sentient prison where Attia and Keiro struggle to escape. On the outside, Finn and Claudia are also struggling. Finn must convince a hostile Queen that he is the missing Prince. Claudia’s fate is tied with Finn’s. Both will die if he is found to be an imposter. Inside Incarceron, Claudia’s father, the Warden, joins forces with Attia, Keiro, and the crazed magician Rix to thwart Incarceron demented desires. The story races along as suspense builds. Menacing beings populate Incarceron, but the chain-gang creature is one of the scariest in recent literature. Both worlds are disintegrating as Incarceron shuts down life support for its millions of inhabitants, and the outside world crumbles to reveal the sham that is the Era. This is fascinating, enthralling, a must-read.
“Fever Crumb,” by Phillip Reeve. (Scholastic)
Turns out that I liked books about dystopian futures long before the genre had a name (or maybe it did have a name but I didn’t know it). There’s George Orwell’s, “1984,” which I read in high school years before that not-so-fateful-after-all year. And Margaret Atwood’s, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a chilling story of a far-right future in which women are wives, servants, or unwilling breeders.
Reeve’s “Fever Crumb” has garnered a number of well-deserved starred reviews. Not only is he an excellent writer, but an expert in creating new and scary worlds. (The paper boys are pure genius – and I don’t mean boys who deliver the newspaper.) Talk about dystopia, this novel is set in London in a distant dystopian future that is so devolved, it might remind the reader of a Medieval England all tarted up with touches of ancient (meaning today’s) technology.
Fever is the adopted daughter of Dr. Crumb, and the only female member of the Order of Engineers. The Order lives inside the massive metal head of an unfinished statue of the former not-quite-human Scriven leader. Fever, like all the Engineers, cares only about rationality, or so she believes until she’s sent on assignment to help an archeologist identify some newly unearthed technology.
Soon, Fever learns that some of the best things in life are irrational. Children. Flowers. Art. Dried tea leaves carried halfway around the world just to flavor hot water. Once ensconced in her new setting, strange yet familiar memories begin to haunt Fever. For she is much more than the only female Engineer. She’s a living repository of lost Scriven knowledge.
Fever is a charmingly naïve heroine caught up in an unstable society about to undergo massive changes. Follow Fever’s adventure from a cloistered life, to life on the run as she flees her newly-discovered mother to an unknown future taking with her the children she swore to protect. Only negative? I just received Scholastic’s Spring 2011 catalog and the order form says the sequel, “A Web of Air,” has been postponed. Aw phooey!
“Dark Life,” by Kat Falls. (Scholastic).
It’s a hundred years in the future and the sea has swallowed up much of the land. Topside, thousands of people live in tiny stacked apartments. A few courageous families have homesteaded the ocean floor, farming kelp and raising fish in exchange for Topside supplies and liquigen, the fluid that allows them to breathe underwater. The rollicking good tale of families, pirates, and a corrupt government is entertainment enough. But the details of the undersea farms are fascinating. Deep-sea vents heat inflatable houses. Bubble curtains keep “livestock” from escaping. Some settler children develop unique gifts, such as dolphin-like sonar and the ability to deliver electric shocks like eels. Teen Ty and Topsider Gemma join forces to stop the outlaws who threaten the settlers’ existence.
"Leviathan," by Scott Westerfeld. (Simon Pulse).
This hefty book is an example of ‘steampunk,’ a genre combining fantasy with alternative history. In this story, World War I has just broken out, but it’s unlike the war we learned about in school. Deryn trains with the British Air Service while masquerading as a boy. Her airship is the Leviathan, a polyglot life form manufactured using the genetic secrets discovered by Charles Darwin. Alek is heir to the Austrian throne, fleeing his country in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a giant walking war machine that runs on steam and diesel. Clanker Alek and Darwinist Deryn join forces in an unexpected way. Fanciful illustrations enhance this wonderfully constructed world that’s filled with nonstop action.
"Incarceron," by Catherine Fisher. (Dial).
Two worlds collide in this brilliant story of a dystopian future. One uses technology to maintain the pretense of life in the 17th century. The other uses technology in a much different way. Centuries earlier, undesirables were sealed inside a vast prison called Incarceron. The prison attained self-awareness and tyrannically rules over its inmates. People inside say no one ever enters, no one ever gets out. But young Finn is determined to escape. Outside, in the faux 17th century, Claudia, the daughter of Incarceron’s warden, searches for her own escape from an arranged marriage and the rules of a stagnant society. But where is Incarceron? Identical crystal keys let Finn and Claudia communicate with each other, and ultimately, for Claudia to enter Incarceron.