Friday, March 19, 2010

New Books For Spring- Hooray!

Wow, it's been a while since I've posted. But now Spring is here and so are a ton of new YA titles.

You know how it is when you're looking for a new book to read? Maybe none of your series has a new sequel out yet. You don't immediately spot anything that you were looking for, or had read about in a review. You just browse the shelves, reading publicity blurbs, looking to see what cover art catches your eye, scanning for a familiar author.

Finally you pick out a few books. A total adventure- at this point, even with some page scanning, who knows if you will be transported for the weekend and find a new favorite author to look forward to as your finger flip each page, devouring your new friend.

Or will you sit glumly in your favorite comfy reading chair, pillows propped behind you, cup of tea balanced beside you on the chair arm, plodding along through a literary landscape that you are determained to give a fair chance to- but finding your eyes more and more flicking away from the text in front of you to the OTHER new book you chose, waiting unread, a possible promise of something better?

All bibliophiles are prone to a never-ending hopefullness: Please, oh please let this book be even better than the last. Let it transport me the way my old favorites do. Let me dive down into it and not come up for air all weekend. Let me love this book and the people and places contained in its pages as much as the books I loved as a child.

Sometimes you get lucky- sometimes not. But for this past week, my luck has held! I brought FIVE new books home from the Magic Tree and they were all good. In fact, some of them were great. So let's get down to it and I'll give you the scoop!

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner, April 2010, Harper Collins $16.99

Megan Whalen Turner is a really fine writer and you may have read her first book in this series: the Newberry Honor winning, The Thief. Its sequals are The Queen of Attola and The King of Attola. The books are set in a group of countries that remind me somewhat of ancient Greece. Turner has the gift of being able to completely realize an imaginary place in such a way that you often feel as if you are getting a history lesson- a super interesting, funny history lesson of a place you wish you could have visited. Her invented culture is so detailed and so different from other 'fantasy' novels that I have to use that term very lightly here.

Although there are magical elements in Turner's books, it is used sparingly as a plot device and as a motivation for her characters. What magic or supernatural elements are here are integrated seamlessly into the story, so smoothly that if you don't keep your eyes open for it, you could almost miss it.

The previous books have centered largely on Eugenides, the 'Thief of Eddis' and his adventures, complex relationships and talent and humor. Gen appears only briefly in this book, but Turner exercises her wonderful talent for taking previously minor characters and bringing them front and center: in this case, the young prince Sophos, heir to King Sounis.

Sophos has been living a quiet life, uncertain of his own abilities, exchanging letters with the Queen of Eddis, when a brutal coup thrusts him into a web of political intrigue. As Sophos gains strength and wisdom in surprising ways, he is forced to confront his old friend Eugenides with both of them in new roles, with much greater responsibilities. The result is fast-paced action and political maneuvering with writing so clever that it makes me want to sit and talk to Megan Whelan Turner for hours about how good a writer she is.

This series is for ages 10 and up, but falls into that marvelous category of books that adults can also read with perfect enjoyment. I really hope that young fans of the Percy Jackson series read this as well.They're not about Greek gods nor ancient Greece as we know them either, but these books have a subtlety and disregard for pop culture that the Percy Jackson series definitely lacks. Start with The Thief and I guarantee that you will quickly be working through to A Conspiracy of Kings. Enjoy the journey- it is one unlike any others currently found on the 'youth fantasy' shelves.

White Cat by Holly Black, May 2010, Simon & Schuster $17.99

Thank you, Holly Black for writing a supernatural based Young Adult novel with a completely ORIGINAL system of magic! Not a vampire nor a werewolf or a faery or even a fallen angel to be found. I'm not knocking those character devices per se, but let's face it- those tropes have now been visited so many times. Am I the only one getting a little bored with it?

So many authors have chosen to simply take an 'established' framework for fantasy or supernatural device and elaborate on it, without having to build up a system from scratch that I, at least, have gotten a lot pickier about how well they pull it off.

I suppose if the end result of being bombarded with sub-standard YA books filled with werewolves and vampires trotted out strictly for marketing purposes is that I become a more choosy reader and seek out better-written, more original books then that isn't a BAD result.

But I have a feeling it isn't what publishers really want when flooding their YA shelves with anything and everything that has fangy teeth, an unnaturally long life span or a pale, confused teenage girl moping her way through several hundred pages.

But I digress- and I really really want to tell you about Holly Black's enticing new book.

Holly Black has been on my radar since her lovely collaborations The Spiderwick Chronicles with illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. I've enjoyed her later YA fantasy titles, Tithe: A Modern Faery Tale, Valiant and Ironside but I have been waiting for her to do something even better.

The current mania for things Faery in YA pop culture has produced some good books, but I always had the feeling that Holly Black could step even further outside of the mainstream and come up with something completely original. With White Cat, the first title in her new series The Curse Workers, she has done exactly that.

White Cat is in many ways, a magical realism novel far more than a straight-up fantasy. It takes place in our own modern day world, but with a twist: some people can work 'curses' - magical compulsions through the touch of their hands. Curse-working is illegal, so everyone must wear gloves and there is a political storm brewing to legalize curseworkers and recognize their civil rights.

Because the ability seems to be genetic, there are Mafia-like 'curse families'. Cassel comes from a family of grifters and enforcers tied to the famous Zacarov crime family. He's the only person in his family who's never shown a talent for curses, but he can run or recognize a con with the best of them.

But it isn't just the originality of the magic Holly Black has created, or even the taunt mystery/horror/crime suspense plotting (and make so mistake, there is some dark stuff here). She also handles the basic situations of school, classes, friends, and other ordinary teen issues very deftly- just as the strange magic of curseworking and the sinister criminal underworld is a part of Cassel's life, so is worrying about girls, getting homework done and not getting thrown out of school.

Cassel is an appealing character who is trying to unravel a dark secret in his past. His family are a believable mixture of love and danger- threatening Cassel even when they try to protect him. All of the supporting characters are interesting enough to warrant books of their own and I am really looking forward to seeing Black open up this world further to us now that White Cat has laid the basic premise down. It's such an appreciative thing to watch a talented author really stretch out her legs and blaze a new trail with a totally different concept. Reading this book was made even more pleasurable because now I can't wait to see how Holly Black's new version of our world evolves next.

Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve, Scholastic Press, April 2010, $17.99

All of Philip Reeve's books deserve a wider readership and more appreciation here in the US. The current mania for steampunk is a genre that he fits well within- but is not entirely encompassed by, which only goes to show the incredible scope of his talent.

I was first introduced to Philip Reeve's amazing gifts when I read his Hungry City Chronicles, about a bleak future where giant mobile cities travel on tank-like treads across the continent, foraging for supplies and looking for smaller, weaker towns and burroughs to take over. The originality of the concept was balanced out by appealing characters, just enough science so the whole thing didn't seem totally wacky and fast-paced action writing.

Next I read Larklight and it's charming sequels Starcross and Mothstorm. Set in a steampunk-esque, Neo-Victorian future that called to mind Neil Stephenson's fabulous adult book The Diamond Age, the Larklight series showed the breadth of Reeve's talent for delicate humor, period slang, pirate swagger and a good-old fashioned adventure yarn worthy of Horatio Hornblower or L Rider Haggard.

But I feel like he's raised the bar again with Fever Crumb. This book is a sort of 'prequel' to the Hungry City Chronicles. If you've already read them, you will immediately be sucked into this 'past/future' version of a world you've already been to. But if you haven't, never fear! Fever Crumb is a good jumping off point- full speed ahead.

The book is set in a future London whose nation was destroyed hundreds of years before by the collapse of technology and the arrival of an advanced race known as Scrivens for the ink-like marks upon their skin. Just decades earlier, the humans overthrew their Scriven masters and hunted them all down. Now there are uneasy rumors of the coming of the Movement- dangerous outlaws who possess the old tech and travel on giant tank-tread vehicles, moving towards London from their strongholds in the north. The last remaining member of the old Skinner's Guild is always on the lookout for 'patchskins' - Scriveners or half-bloods trying to hide and survive among humans.

Fever Crumb, a young orphan girl comes of age sheltered from the tense and sometimes violent city around her. She has been brought up by the Engineers' Guild- a small society of scientists and scholars who live mostly apart from the bustle of London and try to puzzle out the new world emerging around them, as well as the remnants of the old one that is still hidden. Fever has strange dreams, memories that do not seem to be her own and is the key to a puzzle that could save the city from erupting into war and flame.

As compelling as the story of Fever Crumb is and as well-drawn and admirable, despicable, brilliant or wondrous as the characters are, it was the City of London itself that drew me in the most. Just as in his earlier books, Reeve's writing has the remarkable trick of imbuing objects that we mainly consider to be inanimate such as houses or cities with so much character, color and liveliness that they develop personalities all their own. Just as you might visit London today and walk down an old street and picture staid Victorians, Tudor revels or Roman fortifications, you will visit the London of Fever Crumb and look for tantalizing hints of your own present day reality.

Reeve manages to capture the incredible age of this future London and show a very believable path of how it might have traveled from today to the time of Fever Crumb. His future London is inhabited by familiar pubs, alleyways, markets and lanes, but includes briefly glimpsed wonders - a cab driver named Bert @tkinson, sedan chairs straight out of Elizabethian times, a gaggle of bright-robed religious figures dancing through a crowded street and chanting "Hari, hari potter! Hari, hari potter!". The most common epitaph heard on the streets is "Blog off!" or " Blog you!"

He combines all this and more and it never once feels forced or twee or trite. It is a world where the ancient London of the Romans and the glittering high-tech London of our own Millennium and the foresight of a ribald, surging, struggling future London yet to come are so masterfully commingled that you want nothing more than to walk about in its mud and cobblestone for a few more days yourself, drinking it all in and already regretting when you will have to finish the book and go home. On the inside title blurb of this book, it is described as " haunting, arresting and astonishingly original'. I really cannot put it any better myself.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Little Brown, May 2010, $17.99

Again, one of the greatest gifts that Harry Potter's legacy has really bestowed on American children is not only the joy and entertainment from the books themselves, but the fact that it has enabled us to open our eyes to an entire world of children's writers. The success of Harry Potter and other books such as Inkheart, the Thief Lord and the Bobby Pendragon series has finally convinced the publishers of children's books that we Americans can and will read books from other countries. The Prince of Mist is written by one of Spain's premiere young adult writers and even its English translation seems to carry a sort of haunting echo of the language it was written in.

This is an old-fashioned story that took me back to many of the books I loved growing up. It has a straight-forward quality and subtlety that is found in books such as The Dark is Rising, A Wrinkle in Time or White Ghost Summer. All of these books were written many decades ago now, but the particular magical touch of their prose is all too seldom found in modern children's books these days.

There is no marketing agenda at work here, no movie tie-in planned, no desperate references to modern day music or brands in an effort to grab the interest of busy kids who will just as quickly turn to a text or a Nintendo. These books were written and created for a child who WANTS to read, who is willing to allow the story to unlock itself and patiently pursue the mystery along with its protagonists. The Prince of Mists works in a way that would not have been successful if Zafon had tried to 'modernize' his style of writing and it is a stronger book because of it.

During World War Two the Carver family leaves the more dangerous Spanish capital and moves to a small village on the coast. In an old house filled with stories and secrets that hides an overgrown path to a garden of eerie statues Max and Alicia Carver begin to feel increasingly uneasy. More of the village secrets are explained by their new friend Roland who helps them to explore both the village and the mysterious shipwreck that lies just off the coast.

The Prince of Mist leads you carefully down the chilly fog-shrouded morning on the beach before the sun has warmed up the sand and through the quaint, but somehow secretive village with Max and Alicia. This is a creepy book, in the best shivery way. A ghostly book for curling up with on a rainy summer afternoon, when a thunderstorm has made the sky darker than usual, or at night in a cabin at camp, reading by flashlight under your covers after lights-out.

This book has the haunting tone of some of the best magical realism. In many ways I was reminded of the careful touch of South American writers such as Isabele Allende or even Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Zafron's elegant prose, simple, well-crafted characters and ghostly mystery story may not have all the bangs and whistles and explosions of many modern-day children's books, but it has the indefinable charisma and enticement of the books of my childhood and it was a pleasure to travel back there again.

The Carrie Diaries by Candance Bushnell, Harper Collins, April 2010 $17.99

I wasn't planning to read this book. I watched Sex and the City over the years like most women and enjoyed it, but I was never as 'into' it as a lot of people were. I liked the series more than the actual book that inspired it, so when I saw that Candance Bushnell was going to jump onto the YA bandwagon I was a little apprehensive about it.

Part of that apprehension isn't the author's fault. I get tired of adult authors in general who need to find fulfillment by writing for teens or famous people whose children's books get published only because they're famous while other writers languish in the slush pile.

But then I thought about all the teen girls who have been watching reruns of SATC and would pick up this book just because of that. I have to admit, I was curious too. Could I tie the vivacious Carrie Bradshaw that Sarah Jessica Parker portrayed so effectively to a younger, less self-assured Carrie? And what would her FRIENDS be like? Hmmm...

The answer is yes and no. Because the book needs to be set in a certain time period to jive with the time in which the original book and TV series took place, it does seem slightly dated. So ok, it's a sort of 1990s period piece. But here's the thing:I liked this book. I liked the young Carrie and I liked her friends. Their small-town hi-jinks reminded me of some of the silly fun my own friends and I got up to in the late 1980s. Her friends were as varied, interesting and loyal as the gals from SATC - if somewhat less slutty.

But even as far as that goes, the issues of sex, love, acceptance, crushes, grades and the pressure to get into a good college are firmly and realistically dealt with. I can see the Carrie of this book going on to become the Carrie I fondly shared Cosmos with through the TV screen. And although I am pretty sure moralizing or 'life lessons' are not what Bushnell was going for, the book does offer many of the same positive messages I got from the TV show: Be true to yourself. Look out for your friends. Your girlfriends are more important to you than random boys who want to make out. Love and forgive each other. Do what you want to do, but don't lose perspective on who you are and who you want to become.

In fact, the only real criticism I've read came from a review in Salon and it pointed out various discrepancies between wiki that had been canonized by either the show or the original book (Carrie's sisters- how many are there really?, the type of purse her mother left her,what year certain events happened, etc.). Now I am not saying continuity isn't important. But I think a lot of that lies in just how invested you are in a particular world. I know those little mistakes are sloppy editing- but since I wasn't that emotionally invested in the reality of the SATC world, it just didn't bother me.

Is this going to be my favorite book of the year? No. But is it a solidly- written, entertaining coming of age story PERFECT for any teen (or mom of a teen trying to find something to discuss) to put into her beach bag this summer? Absolutely. Clink your non-alcoholic Cosmos, young ladies and dive in!

1 comment:

  1. It took me much time to read your blog, you'd better split the whole passage into several parts so that we could read it more leisurely.

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