Tag Archives: mythology

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

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The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Knopf, 2019.

An oblique and confusing YA murder mystery (is it? Is that what this?) set in a remote Australian town looks at issues of identity, heritage and injustice through an Aboriginal lens.

16 year-old Beth Teller is dead but that doesn’t stop her helping her white father, a detective, who is the only person who can see her. He is investigating a fire in a children’s home which has left one dead (adult) body and a mysterious Aboriginal witness, Isobel Catching. When I was a lot younger, I was very fond of a British TV show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), about a pair of detectives, one of whom was dead. I thought this was where this novel was going. I was wrong.

Though not initially, as Beth’s narration follows her father’s investigation in a relatively straightforward, just the facts, sort of way. But added into that, she  witnesses his grief at her death in a car crash and his refusal to make peace with her mother’s Aboriginal family.

Then we get to Catching. Her evidence is given in the form of abtruse and symbol-filled free verse. I found it somewhat incomprehensible, but Beth’s dad starts picking out connections to the fire and to the history of the children’s home.

When Beth died, she had a glimpse of “what comes next” but believes she has to stay with her father until he can accept and move on from her death, and this somehow becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery; in the meantime she is “trapped between two different sides to the world” and this somehow becomes wrapped up in Catching.

In an authors’ note, the Aboriginal brother and sister team gives some background on the history and culture of their people, before and after brutal colonization, as well as explaining some of the stories that inform Catching’s narrative.

Though this short novel switches uneasily between a police procedural and an ambiguous fantasy, it brings welcome new voices to American YA literature.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019

This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.

The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.

Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.

Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.

After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.

Lovely War by Julie Berry

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Lovely War by Julie Berry
Viking, 2018

A gorgeous and lush YA romance set during World War I is framed by a quarrel between the Greek gods representing the novel’s big themes of love, war, art, and death.

When James Aldridge meets piano playing Hazel Windicot at a parish dance, they have only a few days together before he leaves for the front. They are both terribly British: shy and innocent, reticent yet thrumming with interior emotions. They have tea, stroll through parks, and go to a concert, and though they have never even kissed, it’s clear that theirs is a love for the ages.

As James is whisked off to the trenches, Hazel signs up to entertain the troops in France. There she meets up with Belgian Colette Fournier, who has survived a German massacre of her town in which all her friends and family were slaughtered. Through these two women we get to see the confining sexism of the times – neither British nor Belgian women got the vote till after the war, but it’s more the social and cultural norms that chafe here.

They both get to know Aubrey Evans, a black musician (all other main characters are white) who plays with real-life Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry ragtime band aka the Hellfighters. Through Aubrey we see the horrific bigotry that the black soldiers faced from their compatriots. As Aubrey and Colette begin to fall in love, there are warning signs that an interracial romance will be a grenade lobbed into the rigid propriety and attitudes of their “superiors”, so when Aubrey disappears, Colette and Hazel fear the worst.

Both epic and intimate, the novel contrasts the minutely detailed horrors of the trenches with the exquisite intensity of love, particularly during an enchanting interlude when Hazel and James meet in Paris. None of the protagonists are unscathed by the war but, like me, I think many readers will be swept away by the glorious story and the message that, in the end, love conquers war and death.

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.

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo

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Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
Random House, August 2017

This first in the DC Icons series, which pairs superheroes with high profile authors, is a stirring action-packed origin story for Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (though that name is never used in the novel except for the title) that will appeal to both existing fans and novices.

Amazonian princess Diana wants to prove herself to her mother Hippolyta but succeeds only in bringing trouble to their home island of Themyscira when she rescues a young mortal woman, brown skinned Alia, from a shipwreck. But Alia is a Warbringer, so Diana sets out with her to rid her of this cursed power.

Initially slow and rather wordy, the pace picks up once Diana and Alia are back in the “World of Man” and Diana experiences modern life for the first time and they embark on their quest battling those, both mortal and immortal, who don’t want them to succeed.

Told alternately from Diana’s and Alia’s points of view, the reader gets to see their similarities as children of great people who have tried to keep them safe by pushing them to the background, and they both have guts, grit, and integrity as they battle on. Their companions and comic relief, dark brown skinned Theo and Indian American Nim, also show true heroism and ingenuity when called upon. This being a YA novel, there is a hint of romance as Diana and Alia’s brother, Jason, spar for the right to protect her. The story is complete, but readers are likely to want further girl power sequels.

With recent interest in this superhero and with a cast of multicultural characters, this is a must have title for all libraries with YA readers. Next up in the series is Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu in January 2018.

Reviewed from an ARC

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The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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raven kingThe Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
Raven Cycle, Bk. 4
Scholastic, 2016

Bringing this magnificent series to a close, The Raven King is a satisfyingly good, if not great, conclusion. There’s an elegiac feel to it, as we know it’s the conclusion of the series, and we have only one last time with our Raven Cycle friends: “king” Gansey, dreamer Ronan, magician Adam, psychic amplifier Blue, and dead Noah – all last seen in Blue Lily, Lily Blue (2014) – are joined by a new friend, Chinese-Korean Henry Cheng.

Magical forest Cabeswater is threatened by a demon that unmakes anything magical or dream-created, and the gang feel the only way to rescue it is to finally find centuries-long sleeper, Owain Glendower, and use the favor granted when waking him. They had always set this favor aside to save Gansey who, it has been foretold, will die this year after a true love’s kiss from Blue.

However, it takes almost 100 pages for the novel to get into its stride. There is a lot of catching up and scene setting which, while essential for readers new to the series, and useful for those of us who have forgotten, feels like frustratingly fragmented wheel-spinning. Once the story really gets going, however, it is as gripping, darkly atmospheric and imaginatively absorbing as previous books in the series.

As ever, the standout features of the novel are the characters, the world, and the writing. The central characters, who have grown so much and so organically, and yet are still recognizably themselves, are facing potentially life-changing, and possibly life-ending, challenges. There is even a twist I didn’t see coming, as Ronan and Adam begin a relationship.

I have to confess that when I read The Dream Thieves (2013) I thought it was a bit of a diversion from the main thrust of the Glendower plot, but I can now see how essential it was to the world building. Ronan’s dream creations are now shown to be much more integral than was apparent (at least to me).

Ms Stiefvater writes so beautifully and her use of words is beyond anything I can describe with my meager and closed thinking vocabulary. She uses repetition – “Depending on where you began the story, it was about… – as a device to reveal the multiple facets of the crystal-like story, and which gives a fairytale like feel.

As for plotting, well, I found the resolution a bit of a let down, but it works within the parameters of the novel, and only a churl would be unhappy about the ending.

All in all, this has been a superb series and, while it is definitely for more sophisticated readers who are prepared to immerse themselves in a language and world that doesn’t always make coherent sense, I feel it is one that will stand the test of time. For myself, I’ll take a break and then re-read the whole series now the arc is complete.

Dark Energy by Robison Wells

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dark energyDark Energy by Robison Wells
Harper Collins, April 2016.

I’ve read most of Robison Wells’ books and have really enjoyed the combination of interesting set ups and fast-paced action, and have always appreciated that he writes duologies, thus getting rid of the boring middle book in a trilogy at a stroke.

Dark Energy is, for the most part, a terrifically paced, tightly plotted scifi thriller set in the right now. A massive alien spaceship has crashed into the Midwest, killing thousands, and Alice’s NASA bigwig Dad is called in. Rather than leave her behind in Miami, he enrolls her into the tony Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. When the inhabitants of the spaceship finally emerge, they are surprisingly human looking, and two of them are placed at Minnetonka, but it is only when the spaceship is being explored that it emerges that all is not what it seems.

The pacing of the majority of this novel is superlative. As Alice settles into school there is little indication of the drama yet to come: she makes friends, she finds romance, and she learns the ropes. When aliens Coya and Susika are introduced to the school, there is some fun with them not knowing the ways of human world, including not understanding Alice’s teen snark, as well as some mysteries: why won’t they talk about their mother? Why don’t they wear shoes? Then the tone darkens considerably as Alice and her friends are invited by her Dad to come into the spaceship to document it. What they find is sickening and raises some big questions.

The final section, however, lost me a bit. As the true aliens emerge, they feel slightly silly early-Dr Who monsterry, and the pace becomes frantically fast and felt muddled. I felt a lot was not resolved satisfactorily, despite an end-tying up epilogue. It appears that this is a standalone, though frankly, as I was racing towards the end, I didn’t think it was going to be, as there was so much left unexplained.

Dark Energy is a step forward for the author in terms of characterization. Alice is a fully rounded, not always likeable, smart teenage girl and the support characters, including her two science nerd roommates, and her potential love interest are all several cuts above cardboard.

Alice’s mother was Navajo and, confounding my initial dark thoughts of token diversity, Navajo rituals and traditions are integral to the plot. According to the author’s note at the end, he has some personal experience of these and has run his writing past experts. I’m no Debbie Reese, and I’m sure she will thoroughly analyze Dark Energy, but it does appear to me that Mr Wells has done his due diligence and used his knowledge respectfully. Update: Debbie Reese has reviewed Dark Energy and does not recommend it.

I hope between ARC and publication, the ending will get sorted out because I feel this could be Mr Wells’ best novel to date. However, even as it stands, it will have plenty of appeal to teen readers who enjoy scifi in a current day setting, and those who look out for strong female leads.

Thanks to Harper Collins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Just a couple of postscript gripes. The title seems a bit lame and generic – there’s a prologue that sort of justifies it, but that feels bolted on and even says “This story isn’t about dark energy.” And the cover (at least on the digital arc) appears to show a truck, whereas Alice’s car is, crucially, a BMW 550i GT.

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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bayou magicBayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2015.

This is my last review from the Cybil shortlist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Though it wasn’t one of my top contenders, it’s an enjoyable and well-written fantasy set in the Bayou Bon Temps on the Gulf Coast. And it has African mermaids

Nearly ten-year old Maddy Lavalier Johnson is the last of her family to leave New Orleans for a bayou summer with her grandmere. Unlike her prissy older sisters, she loves running through the bayou, getting dirty, and becoming friends with Bear, a neighborhood boy. As they airboat around the swamp, her grandmother’s mystical tales of her ancestors start to come to life, and when tragedy strikes, Maddy is able to realize her dream of being a hero.

There’s an excitingly rich stew of ideas in here: Nature vs. the city, what being a friend means, environmentalism, African culture, and family lineage. But because it’s a short book, I think some of the ideas get a bit short-changed. The plot makes some jarring leaps, and it feels a bit over-stuffed sometimes, with the characters talking in shorthand.

And there’s a equally enticing stew of characters. Maddy at age ten is characterized by “Change. Energy. Luck.” and Bear at eleven is “Patient. Sensitive.” These two, along with wise Grandmere make an appeal central trio, and there’s a whole bunch of support characters that feel authentic without getting into Southern Whimsy. Maddy and a majority of the characters are African American, and the evocation of the community as well as its physical and spiritual roots make this a truly diverse book.

The writing is sensitively done – it feels crafted without being over-written; and the foreshadowing of the environmental tragedy is really well done. There’s an occasional slip into didacticism, particularly when Grandmere is demonstrating an oil spill, but it is useful information and will appeal to environmentally conscious kids.

The first third of the book worked really well for me, but after that it gets a bit too hurried and crammed. Nonetheless, this unusual blend of magical realism and real life tragedy should have a wide audience.

Rise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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Rise-of-the-WolfRise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Mark of the Thief series; bk. 2
Scholastic, due out January 26, 2016.

Part two of Jennifer A. Nielsen week!

In this satisfying and exciting sequel to Mark of the Thief, “runaway slave with magic” Nic continues his fight against the Praetors in Ancient Rome. Having stolen a magical bulla from Caeser’s tomb, Nic is now on the trail of the powerful Malice of Mars, which is buried in a temple that only he has the key to – at least everyone thinks he has the key, though Nic has no idea what or where it is.

Ms Nielsen writes terrific action scenes – they’re grippingly exciting, particularly the chariot race at the Ludi Romani, which races along with dramatic twists and turns, and the climax in the temple, which is chilling and cinematic.

Nic remains an engaging narrator with his sharp wit and intelligence, and other characters re-appear, and have developed depth and complexity: Aurelia, the feisty plebeian, continues to joust with Nic in a way that can only mean that they’re destined for each other; Crispus more clearly emerges as the straight man to Nic’s magic and quips; Livia, Nic’s sister, stops being a drip (mostly); and their grandfather General Radulf develops a second dimension.

However, there isn’t as much interesting stuff about Ancient Rome as there was in the previous book, and, I must admit, I got a little lost in the ins and outs of the back story to all the magical items, though it was fine to just roll with it. The plot is probably more complicated than I’d like, but it rattles along with some good twists and reveals. And I do dislike a cliffhanger ending – I feel novels should be complete in themselves, even when part of a series.

Nonetheless, this is a very solid sequel, which middle grade fantasy action readers are sure to enjoy and I look forward to the final book of the trilogy.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.