Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne Jones
Candlewick, June 2018.

I really enjoyed Canadian Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (2015) with its mix of beautifully written realistic prose and a magical element that just blended in. The Ruinous Sweep, an ambitious literary YA murder mystery has a similar blend of dream-like fantasy and intricately dense characterization.

In the first half of the novel, which flows from the present back to the recent and further past, 17 year-old Donovan Turner has been hit by a truck and is lying critically injured and semi-comatose in an ICU. His girlfriend Beatrice, Bee, sits with him and he starts talking but what is he trying to communicate? Woven through this is a hallucinatory account of Donovan’s evening which becomes an allegorical journey. With a too abrupt shift, in the second section of the novel, Bee starts making connections from Donovan’s hospital ramblings to his past (and the reader can make connections to his interior trek), and she launches her own investigation, though this is not a murder-mystery in a straightforward sense.

The writing is elegant and precise, sharply crafted and still staying true to the characters. Both Donovan and Bee are attractive, complex, flawed people, well-matched in their grope towards defining themselves: by nature she is “be” and he is “do” but in the novel’s present, they switch roles. Bee does, however, makes a crucial to the plot decision that just seems out of character. The adults seems a little too split into saintliness and evil, but given the guiding text maybe that’s deliberate.

Wynne-Jones has been inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of Donovan’s quest reflects Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell and Purgatory. However, there are few clues beyond the title and the epigraph that this is what the author’s doing. While I knew of the Divine Comedy, I wasn’t that familiar with it so I did a quick Wikipedia check and some of the parallels in the novel then made a bit more sense (eg Virgil, Dante’s guide, becomes Jilly, Donovan’s guide). Without this knowledge, and I suspect most teen readers will not be aware of Dante’s work beyond the title, the narrative moves into strange and weird territory without at least initial apparent reason. Maybe an Author’s Note would help? Also some of the events in Donovan’s hallucination don’t seem to make sense either as a link to his past or a clue to his present, though maybe they are an echo of Dante.

This is a challenging read to get into, but the reward is immensely fulfilling as Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s work, leads Donovan through purgatory and towards heaven. Ideal for teens and adults who seek out demanding reads.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen
Candlewick, July 2018.

A YA romance set in medieval France that is a twist on Beauty and the Beast. As in the fairytale, a cruel and heartless French aristocrat is transformed into a hideous beast, and can only be changed back when he loves and is loved in return.

Jensen adds a new character, Lucie, a maid at the Chateau Beaumont who is initially attracted to the gorgeous chevalier, Jean-Loup, but he is quickly shown to be rotten to the core when he rapes her. Thinking she is pregnant, Lucie runs off to the woods where she is rescued by Mere Sophie, a wise woman. Sophie transforms Jean-Loup into a hideous beast and allows Lucie to watch his suffering by transforming her into a candlestick (though not one that sings and dances!)

But here the story swerves from the original – Beast has no recollection of his time as the chevalier and proves to be a gentle and charming companion and Lucie finds herself falling in love with him.

Enter Rose (the Belle of this story), who is held at the chateau after her father steals a rose and is initially terrified of the Beast, falling in love with the idea of handsome Jean Loup instead. Rose is also something of a Cinderella character as she has two mean and grasping sisters.

As Lucie and Beast, and even Rose, begin to understand that love is about more than skin deep appearances, they work through their love-quadrangle (Jean-Loup being the fourth side) towards a satisfying ending beyond the traditional happy ever after wedding, aided by some magic.

The prose, characterization and plot development serve this interpretation well and will provide enjoyably lush escapism for a teen reader.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017

Hardinge (The Lie Tree, 2016) creates an extraordinary fantasy which marries a 17th century English Civil War setting with her usual dazzling creativity, deliciously deep and complex characterization, and bright, sophisticated writing.

Some members of the aristocratic Fellmottes are able to be possessed by multiple ghosts, ancestors who continue to live on by passing from body to body though, unfortunately, if too many crowd, in the spirit of the host can be lost. Young Makepeace Lightfoot, an illegitimate and lowly branch of the family, has this ability and after the death of her mother is taken in by the Fellmottes to work in their kitchen.

But she realizes that she is a spare host, being kept on hand in case a vessel for the ancestral spirits is needed and she runs away, using her wits and those of a few friendly ghosts that she has invited in, to journey across war-conflicted England, staying one step ahead of her pursuing family.

Makepeace is a trademark Hardinge protagonist: intelligent, thorny, and gutsy. But the tightrope trick here, which the author brilliantly pulls off, even adding some flourishes, is that Makepeace is host to a bear, a Royalist doctor and a Parliamentarian soldier, all of whom are fully-developed characters and have easy to follow conversations with her and each other. Makepeace has a half-brother, James, who also has the Fellmotte ability, and he is her anchor as well as the catalyst for Makepeace’s bid for freedom. This reminds me, in its profundity and authenticity, of the sibling relationship in Cuckoo Song.

At first, I found the novel to be rather slow-paced and uninvitingly grim. But I was riveted once Makepeace sets off on her own and the novel explores the political and social landscape of her country as she is hunted by her family.

As a teen, I was fascinated with the Civil War and was wholly on the side of the way more romantic Royalists. Indeed, one of my earliest historical crushes was Rupert of the Rhine (who gets a shout out here with his dog, Boy). As an older, and maybe wiser, person, I can feel much greater sympathy with the dour Parliamentarians who, while having justice on their side have a bit of a worrying hardline streak. All this to say that Hardinge does a marvelous job of evoking the divergent camps and Makepeace’s pragmatic approach to them.

Makepeace wants to do more than just get by and survive, she wants to flourish and this is an ideal novel for readers who want to do the same, whether they are middle schoolers, older teens, or adults.

Hardinge, hugely popular and feted in the UK, seems to be finding an audience here in the US following the success of The Lie Tree. Her blend of historical setting, singular fantasy, and courageously unsentimental feminist protagonists can make for a challenging and spiky read, but the balm of the gorgeous writing eases the way.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2017

I’ve only known Gratz as the author of the enjoyable Boys Own-style WWII thriller, Projekt 1065, and Refugee is a complete departure from that style to a much more serious and realistic one, which, nonetheless, makes a gripping novel.

Three stories of refugee children from different countries and different eras are woven together to show the essential truth of what it means to be forced out of your home and have to seek a new life in a foreign country. Josef is a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany who flees from there with his family onboard the MS St Louis to Cuba. Isabel and her family flee from Cuba in 1994  to the United States on a makeshift boat after her father gets in trouble with the Castro regime. In contemporary times, Mahmoud and his family flee from the Syrian civil war, heading across land and sea to get to Germany.

Gratz cleverly links the stories thematically through the dilemmas and challenges that the families face, and through the linking device of the escape across water. He even, in a final twist, brings all the stories together.

This is a middle grade novel and the author doesn’t pull his punches on the dangers that these families face and the outcomes are realistically not happy for everyone. The prose is workmanlike but still manages to communicate the emotions of the highs and lows of these children’s experiences. He also captures the warmth of the families and the drive they have to better their lives of their children.

The author includes some notes on the real life stories behind his fictional ones and includes maps (hurrah!) of the three families’ journeys.

Clearly this is an important of-the-moment topic, and Gratz makes it accessible for a middle grade reader by putting it through the eyes of kids their age and includes sufficient context to make the situations understandable without getting too bogged down in the weeds.  At the same time, by including these three diverse stories, he illuminates the universality and historical relevance of the refugee experience.