Friday, May 29, 2009

Teen/YA Review: Skin Hunger

Skin Hunger, Book One in the new A Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey, is an engaging, haunting book that gripped me and left me wanting more. It begins to tell the intersecting stories of two young people, Sadima and Hahp, in a world where magic has been banned.

Sadima’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father lives in a state of deep despair, desperately trying to protect Sadima from any kind of danger, real or imagined. However, Sadima has a vigorous spirit and yearns to explore the world outside the family farm:

Sadima lay awake. Sometimes she could not keep to her bed. It felt like slender, tender hands were guiding her as she slid from beneath her blanket and dressed, then went over to the windowsill and dropped into the yard, the grass cool on her bare feet. When she was little, she had just run down the road, then across the meadow on the hill, then back, using a fruit crate she had hidden to get back over the sill. But as her legs got longer, she ran farther – and she didn’t need the crate anymore.

Sometimes she just danced in the cool night air, imagining the world beyond the goat meadows. There was a city far to the west, by the sea. Limòri. Papa said it was a wicked place, that he never wanted her to ask about it again. But Sadima had pestered Micah until he had told her all the stories he’d heard about it and everything he had overheard, too. Half the world was water, Micah said. Sadima wanted to see an ocean. To taste it.

In alternating chapters with Sadima’s story, we learn of Hahp, an eleven-year old second son who lives in Limòri with his affluent family in a world where only first-born sons are valued. Centuries have passed since Sadima’s time and magic is now allowed again but only among the wealthy. Hahp’s father sends him to the secluded wizard academy, along with nine other boys. This is no Hogwarts, though, as evidenced by the foreboding speech given when the boys enter the school:

“We have opened the Great Doors,” a grating voice said. “Soon we will close them again.”

I blinked. There was a wizard at the podium. He was glaring at us as though we had all somehow offended him. Was this the headmaster? I swallowed hard. His pale eyes flickered over the benches, and he cleared his throat but did not speak again. My heart was flailing like a bird trapped in a box. I saw my mother staring.

“The course of study is difficult,” the man finally said in a thick, strained voice, as though each word pained him. “One of your sons will emerge from the Great Doors a wizard – or none will. Some stay…” He fell silent, then went on. “Most who fail stay within our walls and remain with us, becoming part of the school.” He paused again. “Parents will be informed.”

Sadima heads off to the city to explore her own magical talent for communicating with animals and seek out a friend who passed through her town, though nothing turns out quite as she expected. Hahp begins his wizard training which turns out to be bizarre and abusive, like no other schooling you could ever imagine. Some of Hahp’s chapters featuring the cruel and sadistic academy are difficult to read but so compelling that you can’t put the book down. It is definitely not for the faint of heart.

It takes awhile to see how Sadima and Hahp’s stories will eventually connect, and, even once you figure it out, many questions remain as to how events will progress from Sadima’s time to Hahp’s time. I guess I’ll have to read Book Two to find out. My 14-year old son, Jamie, and I can’t wait.

368 pages
Simon Pulse

NOTE: Book Two, Sacred Scars, will be released on August 4, 2009.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Middle-Grade Review: The Higher Power of Lucky

Author Susan Patron won a well-deserved Newberry Medal for her middle-grade novel, The Higher Power of Lucky, which I recently read along with its excellent follow-up, Lucky Breaks.

Ten-year old Lucky Trimble lives in the tiny desert town of Hard Pan, California (population 43). Lucky lost her mother when she was eight years old and now lives (in an eclectic triple trailer arrangement) with her guardian, Brigitte, who moved from France to take care of her. Lucky worries that Brigitte misses France and might decide to return and leave Lucky alone. Seeking guidance, Lucky quietly listens in on various Anonymous meetings that take place in Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center. She thinks that if she can just find her own Higher Power like the people at the meetings, then her problems will be solved:

HMS Beagle bounded out from under the kitchen trailer to smell her and find out where she had been. “HMS” stands for “His Majesty’s Ship,” and the actual original HMS Beagle was a beautiful ship that took the scientist Charles Darwin all around the world on exciting discoveries. Lucky’s dog – who was neither a ship nor a beagle – got her name because of always being with Lucky on her scientific adventures. Also, HMS Beagle was beautiful, with very short brown fur, little dog-eyebrows that moved when she was thinking, and big ear flaps that you could see the veins inside of if you held them up to the light.

A breeze rattled the found object wind chimes at the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, and the high desert air carried that sound in front of it, all the way across town, down to the three trailers at the very end of Hard Pan. Just the sound of those chimes made Lucky feel cooler. But she still had doubts and anxious questions in all the crevices of her brain, especially about how to find her Higher Power.

Lucky has plenty of friends – both young and old – in Hard Pan, including 5-year old Miles who carries the book Are You My Mother? everywhere with him (one of my own favorites!) and Lincoln, Lucky’s classmate who is a knot-tying expert.

When Lucky becomes convinced that Brigitte will return to France, she grabs her ever-present backpack/survival kit and runs away from home. Things don’t go quite as planned, though. Lucky discovers plenty of trouble along the way but also some important lessons about the meaning of family.

In the second book, Lucky Breaks, Lucky finds a new best friend – her first girl friend ever – among some visiting geologists. On the eve of her eleventh birthday, Lucky is yearning for adventure and excitement with her new friend, but she gets more than she bargained for.

Both books are written with warmth and wit. Lucky is a wonderful heroine, trying to find security and friendship among the eccentric characters of her hometown. Hard Pan is a unique and endearing character in itself. You’ll wish you could visit Hard Pan yourself to eat at Brigitte’s café and hang out with Lucky and her friends. I’m looking forward to the third and final Lucky book.

The Higher Power of Lucky, 144 pages, RL= 5.9, Aladdin Paperbacks
Lucky Breaks, 192 pages, RL=6.0, Athenuem

Friday, May 15, 2009

Teen Review: Nothing But the Truth

A wonderful teen blogger, Miss Erin, recommended North of Beautiful by her favorite author, Justina Chen Headley. My library didn’t have that book yet, so I picked up another of Headley’s novels, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies). I wasn’t disappointed.

Patty Ho is dealing with all the typical problems of a freshman in high school – trying to fit in, wanting the school’s soccer star to notice her, and worrying about seeming too smart to be cool. But Patty also feels torn between two worlds: her mother’s Taiwanese world and the mostly-white world of her high school. In these excerpts from her English assignment to write the Truth about herself, Patty describes herself:

Truth: I am a fourteen-year-old stick-thin giant who is imprisoned in the house of midgets. My mother barely squeaks over five feet tall, and calling my big brother Abe “big” is a misnomer when I’m a good five inches taller than him. I have to assume that my height comes from my father, but he’s a short story in our home. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, Stanley Peter Johnson transferred from Berkeley to study at the University of Taipei for a year. He conquered, he came, and he left with a couple of made-in-Taiwan souvenirs: my mom and Abe. Apparently, his American dream didn’t include a mixed-race family of four. So for my second birthday, he gave me a good-bye kiss and vanished. End of story.

…But it is also true that I can pass. I can pass biology (miraculously), notes in class (well), and plates of food (perfectly). I cannot pass out (Why be out of control when I’m never in control in my prison cell of a home?) or pass a basketball (which bombs the theory that all tall kids can be basketball stars).

But I cannot pass for white or Asian.

At the end of the school year, Patty’s mother makes unexpected – and unwanted – plans for her summer: math camp. To make matters worse, Patty’s English teacher correctly assumes that Patty wrote her yearlong Truth project in only one night and reassigns it to her for the summer. Patty heads off for camp, certain it’s going to be torture, and uncertain of how she’ll write the truth about herself when she isn’t sure what that is. But unexpected opportunities arise at camp, and Patty begins to open her mind to new possibilities about herself.

I wondered at first whether I would relate to Patty’s mixed-race difficulties, but her struggles to find her identity and fit in are universal insecurities that every teen (and adult!) deals with. Headley is a wonderful writer, and Patty is a very likable narrator, telling her story with honesty and humor. I had trouble putting this book down and cheered for Patty through her tragedies and triumphs. I look forward to reading more of Headley’s novels.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Middle-Grade Review: Pendragon Before the War

May 12, 2009, is a big day for fans of D.J. MacHale’s time and space travel adventure series, Pendragon. Today is the release date for Book 10, The Soldiers of Halla, the final book in the series. I haven’t read this latest release yet, but I did recently read two add-ons to the series that will satisfy any Pendragon fan looking for more. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Pendragon series, take a look at my earlier review).

Three new paperbacks were released earlier this year called Pendragon Before the War, all prequels to the main Pendragon series. I recently read Book One of the Travelers, written by Carla Jablonski, and Book Two of the Travelers, written by Walter Sorrells. Each of these quick reads provides the background story for three of the Travelers from different territories, filling in the details of their lives before they became Travelers.

In Book One, we read the back stories of Kasha, the klee from Eelong; Gunny Van Dyke from First Earth (my personal favorite); and Vo Spadar from the water territory of Cloral. A third of the book is devoted to each of them, with details of the life-changing adventure that led to their becoming Travelers. Bobby’s Uncle Press is a presence in each of the stories, introducing the new Travelers – or in some cases, their predecessor – to the wider world of Halla and the responsibilities of being a Traveler.

In this passage from Kasha’s story, Kasha’s father, Seegen, has just met Press and learned about the Travelers. On Eelong, the ruling race are klees – large cats with speech and well-developed technology – and humans belong to a slave race known as gars. Here’s part of the illuminating conversation between Seegen and Kasha:

“What is that?” Kasha asked. She noticed he was wearing a cord around his neck with a large ring dangling from it. The ring had some kind of stone in the center, and what looked like etchings all around the stone. She’d never seen it before.

Seegen looked down at the ring. He took a moment before answering. “It is a gift. And a responsibility.”

“The ring is a responsibility?” Nothing her father was saying was making any sense.

“I had an extraordinary experience today,” Seegen said. He stood and paced. “I met someone very unusual.”

“Who?” Perhaps this meeting would explain her father’s odd behavior. Could he have met with some of the Council of Klee?

“A gar. A gar named ‘Press’.”

“The gar had a name?” Kasha hadn’t realized gars had names. Then she remembered that many families named their household gars. They often developed strong bonds with them. “Whose gar is it?”

“This gar is not owned by anyone.”

“A rogue?”

“No! He is his own person. He is not like any gar I have ever known. Ever imagined.” He shook his head. “Nothing is.”

“Nothing is what?”

“As I thought.”

In Book Two, I read the stories of Aja Killian and the addicting virtual reality of Lifelight; Alder, the Bedwooan knight; and Elli Winter of Quillan. Book Three (which I haven’t read), written by Walter Sorrells, includes back-stories for Loor, Patrick Mac, and Siri Remudi.

Although all three Before the War books are written by other authors, they are based on D.J. MacHale’s books (and written with his supervision) and are even true to his writing style. I couldn’t tell they weren’t actually written by him. I enjoyed the prequels very much and would recommend them to any Pendragon fan who can’t get enough of Halla and its Travelers. In fact, just writing this review has reminded me of how much I love this series – I can’t wait to read the final book!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Teen/YA Fiction Review: Wake and Fade

The first two books of a planned trilogy, Wake and Fade (Simon Pulse) by Lisa McMann are two of my favorite teen books from the past year. I lent the books to a 17-year old friend of mine who agreed that these two quick reads were exciting and suspenseful.

The main character, seventeen-year old Janie Hannagan, has an unusual problem: she gets pulled into other people’s dreams. Her knowledge of her classmates’ worst fears and weirdest fantasies, plus her inability to control this strange gift, has forced her to remain a loner. Wake opens with one of these bizarre episodes:

Janie Hannagan’s math book slips from her fingers. She grips the edge of the table in the school library. Everything goes black and silent. She sighs and rests her head on the table. Tries to pull herself out of it, but fails miserably. She’s too tired today. Too hungry. She really doesn’t have time for this.

And then.

She’s sitting in the bleachers in the football stadium, blinking under the lights, silent among the roars of the crowd.

She glances at the people sitting in the bleachers around her – fellow classmates, parents – trying to spot the dreamer. She can tell this dreamer is afraid, but where is he? Then she looks to the football field. Finds him. Rolls her eyes.

It’s Luke Drake. No question about it. He is, after all, the only naked player on the field for the homecoming game.

Nobody seems to notice or care. Except him. The ball is snapped and the lines collide, but Luke is covering himself with his hands, hopping from one foot to the other. She can feel his panic increasing. Janie’s fingers tingle and go numb.

Luke looks over at Janie, eyes pleading, as the football moves toward him, a bullet in slow motion. “Help,” he says….

Janie lives a solitary life, never knowing when she’ll be pulled into someone else’s dream and temporarily paralyzed. She learns how to get by and what kinds of situations to avoid (like study hall after lunch), but then she gets pulled into a recurring nightmare where she is not just watching but is a participant. Janie tries to make sense of the frightening dream and figure out what to do about it.

Meanwhile, Janie finally finds a friend who she can trust and confide in. She also learns that she can control certain aspects of her strange ability, though it’s a long and difficult process, as she struggles to gain critical information from the nightmare and help its dreamer.

In Fade, Janie uses her unique talent to help the police find a sexual predator at her high school. I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because it would give away too much of the first book. Both books are filled with fast-paced suspense, mystery, a little romance, and no small amount of creepiness. I really enjoyed them, as did my husband and our 17-year old friend, and I’m looking forward to the third book, Gone.

Wake 210 pages
Fade 247 pages
Simon Pulse (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Best for ages 15 and up, due to sexual content and some violence

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Middle-Grade Review: The Gate of Days

I’m a sucker for time-travel stories. My favorite books and movies all have a time travel theme, so I knew I’d love The Gate of Days (Scholastic) by Guillaume Prévost, the sequel to The Book of Time, which I read last year. My 14-year old son, Jamie, enjoyed both books, too.

The central character of this exciting and fast-paced time-travel series is Sam Faulkner, a 14-year old boy who lives in Canada. As the first book opens, Sam’s father has been missing for ten days, and Sam is staying with his grandparents. When Sam pokes around his Dad’s house, he discovers a strange stone statue in the basement that heats up when he places a coin in it and touches it:

When Sam was finally able to raise his head, he nearly fainted. He wasn’t in the storage room anymore. He wasn’t anywhere he knew. A rocky beach with a thin strip of sand and a vast sea stretched away in the distance, and he seemed to be halfway up a wild outcropping of rocks and thick grass. What had happened to him? And what had happened to his clothes? Instead of his jeans and T-shirt, he was now wearing a sweat-soaked long shirt that covered his arms and legs, and itched as well. And what about his burns? He could still feel the sting of the fire that had consumed him when he’d touched the stone, and yet his skin was miraculously whole, as smooth as a baby’s. As if it had all been nothing but a dream.

Both books are quick reads, filled with lots of action and vivid descriptions of the exotic places and times that Sam visits as he searches for his Dad. His twelve-year old cousin, Lily, helps him, as he tries to stay clear of his aunt, who thinks he’s a bad influence on Lily.

The suspenseful plot keeps you turning pages way past bedtime, with well-drawn characters and exciting and varied settings. The only problem is that, like its predecessor, The Gate of Days ends with a major cliff-hanger, and now Jamie and I have to wait for Book 3 to find out what happens next!

249 pages
Reading Level = 5.7
Arthur A. Levine Books (a Scholastic imprint)

NOTE: Book 3, The Golden Circle, will be released on September 1, 2009.