Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy

cover image for Court of FivesCourt of Fives by Kate Elliot

Jes and her three sisters couldn’t be more different, and they fight and squabble as siblings do. Yet when it comes down to it, they’ve got each others backs.  Which is fortunate, as she needs their help to do what she loves best: training for the Fives, a sport that requires quick thinking, agility, stamina, and strength.  But when Jes’ father returns from war, her plans to finally compete – something he would never approve of – are thrown in disarray.  Soon the rest of her life is as well, and Jes will need to use all of the skills that make her a great athlete to keep her family safe.

full disclosure, before I get into WHY THIS BOOK IS SO AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD READ IT:acknowledgements page from Court of Fives

(yeah, I really just put that there bc: OMG)

I adore Kate Elliot’s books, and Court of Fives is no exception.  I’ve been eager to see how/what she does with YA, and now that I have I’m so very glad she did.  I love the way that Elliot handles Jes as an athlete, and her relationships with her sisters.  And I especially love that she made Jes’ social standing so complex, that it’s not as simple as her family being rich and her father having status, nor simply that Jes and her sisters are biracial in an extremely racist society.

And I really, really, really, would love to go into more detail about WHY this book is so awesome, but it’s not coming out for another half a year, and I may want to pitch a longer/actual review.  SO YOU WILL ALL JUST HAVE TO WAIT.

Sorry! I know you all hate me now. I promise I will rave about this book in much more detail this summer, closer to when it comes out.

cover image for The Agency: A Spy in the HouseThe Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

Twelve year old Mary Quinn was supposed to hang for her crime.  Instead she was given a chance to start a new life as a pupil at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.   Now, five years later, seventeen year old Mary Quinn knows that she should be grateful for everything she has been given – and she is – yet the idea of spending her life as a tutor at the school or as a maid in someone else’s house fills Mary with dread rather than hope.  She’s not afraid of work, but she can’t help wishing that there were other options out there for an young lady with education but no family or fortune.  Then, for the second time in her life, she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity – this time, to be trained as a spy.  But can Mary keep not only the Agency’s secrets safe, but also the Agency from learning the truth about her own heritage?

This book has so many awesome moments. It also, unfortunately, has a bit too much boyfriend and not enough roller derby for my tastes.*  Still, it’s a lovely book that manages to be delightfully surprising in many ways.  It also does a wonderful job of handling Mary’s secret, which happens to be that [she’s biracial, passing for white. Also, that her mother sometimes earned her way as a sex worker.]   Mary’s status, situation, and relationships make this book a refreshing contrast to the more typical young adult novels set in Victorian London, which tend to be about young ladies of a certain social class, and treat the few non-white characters in them as oddities and visitors rather than Londoners.

*the phrase is from lj user buymeaclue.  I’d link, but the journal is now friendslocked. :p

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cover image for Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As GhostsDragonbreath: No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon

It’s Halloween night and Danny and Wendell – and the skeptical, scientific minded Christiana Vanderpool – have just encountered something far more dangerous than any monster: Big Eddy the bully. When Big Eddy dares Danny to go inside a house that everyone says is haunted, Danny isn’t worried about being seen as a coward, but he figures the house can’t possibly be any worse than having to deal with Big Eddy, no matter how scary it looks.  But is Christiana right? Are there really no such things as ghosts? Or is there really something not quite living lurking inside?

The comfort of series is that we know what we are getting. Which can sound boring and immature, but often that depends on the reader and author.  When you are 8 and still learning to read, familiarity is actually a useful trait to find in a book.  And there’s nothing boring about knowing that what you are going to get is an excellent story.  For even five books in, Vernon’s Dragonbreath series is still brilliant and funny and clever and fresh.

There’s lots to adore about this series, as I’ve talked about before, but what struck me most while reading this installment is how well-rounded the female characters are.  Quite often books that feature boys and/or are meant “for boys” (by people who divide books up in that sort of way) have female characters that are caricatures, but not so here. Dragonbreath may focus on boy characters, but the girls and women (or, rather, female lizards and such) all have personality and opinions.  And even when their opinions are incorrect (according to the boys, or the narrative) they are never framed as unreasonable or silly or lesser.  They remind me a bit of Sayer’s books in that sense, despite the obvious other differences.

She Commands Me and I Obey by Ann Leckie

It’s a testament to the complexities of the characters and cultures and worlds that Leckie creates that I’ve been sitting here for several minutes trying to figure out how to explain this short story.  (Without giving away the plot, of course.)

It’s a story about intrigue and politics. About athletes and warriors and courage.  And it’s a story about choices and morality and ethics.

Like all good political intrigues, there’s several mysteries here as well.

It’s also the story of a young boy, named Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe, a novice in the Blue Lily Monastery, and why he’s drawn to the only unnamed statue in a stadium of hundreds of statues of deified ballplayers.

Like the other works of Leckie’s that I’ve read (and loved) it’s also a story about change and sacrifice, and how change is always both gradual and sudden at the same time.

It’s truly excellent, and I know I’m not the only one that nominated it for a Hugo.

cover image for Killer of EnemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

Seventeen year old Lozen’s life has never been exactly easy.  Her family was never among those who could afford genetic modifications or the latest tech implants.  But once upon a time they had their own home, and pets, and her father and uncle were still alive.  Now it’s just Lozen, her younger siblings, and their mother – and all four of them are trapped behind prison walls that exist to keep monsters out and them in.  Lozen knows how to hunt the monsters though – that’s why The Ones in charge have let her and her family live.  It’s also why they hold her family hostage, ensuring her compliance.  Lozen knows that if she can just manage to get them all outside of Haven’s walls and out of sight of the guards, they’ll be able to once again survive and live on the land that her people have called home for centuries.

I really wanted to love this book. She’s a monster hunter, for goodness sake!  (Plus, how many dystopias are out there that feature Native American characters?) And for the first third or so, I did love it.  But the pacing grew increasingly uneven, our introduction of each succeeding villain became too repetitive, and one of the twists just didn’t quite work for me.  Still, it’s a good book, with some very excellent lines and scenes, and think it should be in every library’s young adult collection.

cover image for Etiquette & EspionageEtiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

Sophronia does an excellent job of getting herself into trouble and embarrassing her older sisters, but she is perpetually floundering, stumbling, and tripping when it comes to being a proper young lady.  Fortunately (for her mother’s nerves, if nothing else) Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is willing to take Sophronia in.

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books are set in the same alternate steampunk universe as her Parasol Protectorate series, so of course Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy is not quite what Sophronia expected, and her lessons include much more than how to curtsey properly.  Yet, it’s full purpose, and her reason for being there, remain a mystery to her long after she climbs on board (yes, on board), creating a useful narrative trick for controlling the pace and for keeping readers guessing – and turning the pages.

It’s the kind of story that would likely come across as a bit overdone and over the top if it were written by someone else, but Carriger manages to carry it off with style.

Unfortunately, there is a rather large misstep about a third of the way through the book, when the only character of color is introduced in a way that isn’t at all logical or appropriate.  While this same character is shown in an admirable light for the rest of the book, that doesn’t excuse the author and editor leaving in a description that makes no sense and is based on caricatures.  Which is a shame, because the rest of the book is delightful.  It tweaks it’s nose at gender conformity, flirts a bit with critiques of class and inequality, and isn’t afraid to show complex relationships among female personages.

cover image for AlwaysAlways by Emma Dodd

Whether sad or happy, naughty or nice, a small elephant is always loved.

This is hardly a unique premise, but it’s not like there’s never a demand for new books for parents to give their little ones, telling them they love them. Dodd’s illustrations are adorable and the sparkle throughout the book – ranging from a few glittering stars to a large shiny lake – help make it memorable. Which is exactly what one looks for in this kind of book.

cover image for MirrorMirror by Suzy Lee

A sad little girl finds something surprising in her reflection.

The blurb on the back of the copy I read claims that the ending to this story “provides a gentle reminder that every action has consequences.”

My friends, the twist at the end of this story is no “gentle reminder.”  It’s a bit of a mind bender actually, seeing as how [spoiler alert! – it’s unclear if it’s the original little girl or her reflection that pushes the mirror over and makes the other disappear].  All of which makes Mirror a great example of why I love Suzy Lee’s books AND why I think they are a fantastic example of speculative fiction in picture books.  (Yes, these two opinions are very related).

cover image for Is There a Dog in This Book?Is There a Dog in This Book? by Viviane Schwarz

Having established that There Are Cats in This Book (or wait, are there????), Schwarz and her feline creations must now determine if this new book also contains…a dog!

These books are so clever and funny, and do such a great job of breaking the fourth wall, that it makes me incredibly sad that they are not all still available to order for the library.

cover image for The Fly on the WallFly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee knows that the way to fit in at her alternative arts focused high school is to stand out, but she can’t quite manage to stop getting noticed for the wrong things.  In fact, her problems just keep piling up: Boys baffle her.  All of them, really – but especially Titus.  Her drawing teacher is less than appreciative of the comic book style art she favors.  Then there’s the news that her parents are getting a divorce, and her dad is moving out.

In a moment of frustration, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys locker room, to see what they are like when they aren’t around girls. Maybe then she could at least figure boys out.  Then she gets her wish. Literally.

I can’t overemphasis how weird this book is.  Because yes, it’s a remake of metamorphosis, set in an alternative high school in New York City.  It’s also fun and quite brilliant, tackles bullying, friendship, and of course dealing with crushes, lust, and hormones.

Needless to say, Gretchen spying on the boys is hardly an appropriate thing to do, but she’s a fly o the wall and therefore has remarkable peripheral vision and she’s trapped in the room – not peeking through holes in the wall.  Most importantly, Lockhart handles the situation really well, both in terms of Gretchen’s decisions and how the boys are treated by the narrative.

cover image for Our Only May AmeiliaOur Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

May Amelia is the only girl in her family, and she just so happens to also be the only girl among the pioneers who have settled along the Nasel River in the new state of Washington.  Being the only girl isn’t always easy, especially when her mother keeps trying to turn her into a Proper Young Lady, and her grandmother finds fault in everything she does.  But no matter how many scrapes she gets into, she’s still the only May Ameilia they’ve got.

May Ameilia’s voice is really what makes this book work as well as it does. Her syntax, phrasing, and perspective transports readers to a different time and place.  Inspired by a journal Holm found that was kept by one of her own ancestors, the novel is told in first person and covers a year or so in May Amelia’s life.  Solid and entertaining, Our Only May Amelia isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it manages to be unique and memorable.

I also want to note that there’s not any significant discussion of the impact that pioneer settlement had on the people who were already living in the area when the settlers came, as it’s told from May Amelia’s point of view.  The narrative is respectful of the rare Native American characters in the book, but of course not everyone in the story is.  I didn’t see anything that makes the book inappropriate for youngsters (although I’m also hardly the best judge) but a follow-up discussion with readers would be appropriate if possible, especially considering how rare Native American voices are in most library collections.

cover image for Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Nothing newsworthy happens in Lily, Arkansas. Families scrape by – or don’t, and leave their loved ones to grieve.  But reporters begin to descend upon the small town when someone claims to have spotted the Lazarus Woodpecker, previously thought extinct.  For seventeen year old Cullen the return of the Lazarus Woodecker is merely a source of irritation and occasional amusement.  Until his younger brother, Gabriel, disappears and Cullen is left wondering if Gabriel will ever manage to find his way back home as well.

Like a lot of coming of age stories of this type, Where Things Come Back felt like it was trying too hard to be clever and introspective.  Also, the split in narrators was confusing (I suspect it was partly meant to be) and the missionary’s point of view felt forced rather than authentic. I know a lot of people loved it (it did win the Printz award after all) but I was more than happy to send my copy back to the library.

cover image for The Tropic of SerpentsThe Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Despite the tragic events of her first expedition, Isabella remains determined to continue her study of dragons.  In their natural habitat, if possible.  Now there is an added urgency to her research, as Isabella – and her colleagues and sponsor –  fear that new information about dragon skeletons may threaten their survival. When the crew set off to a spot in Eriga known as the Green Hell in search of the swamp-wryms who dwell there, they are forced to face not only inhospitable habitats, but dangerous politics as well.

As I said in my review of the first book in this series, Brennan is attempting to do a thing here that I appreciate but I’m not quite certain about: Lady Trent’s world is clearly a colonial one, with all the problems and attitudes that creates, and Isabella has not been immune to such conditioning.  Her years of travel and research have taught her to view the world slightly differently, however, and so the Lady Trent that is narrating the expeditions has a less colonialist view than the Isabella whose actions we see.  It often becomes a clever way to acknowledge the problems of colonialism while being realistic about the kind of views a woman of Isabella’s position would have. I’m just not sure that it always works.

That said, I still absolutely adore these books as they are full of wonderful things that I love to pieces. Dragons! of course. Interesting ones that are as varied as any other real genus. Clever women who do Science! You get the idea. And running through it all, Lady Trent’s engaging personality and the pleasure of reading about an accomplished woman with a full life.

The Goblin EmperorThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia has lived his life in exile, cast out with his mother from his father’s court.  Since her death he has been raised by a courtier who was more than happy to take his frustrations out on the friendless boy.  With three older brothers, no one ever expected the half-Goblin Maia to ascend to the throne.  But when a suspicious accident leaves the king and the elder princes dead, Maia is thrust into a dangerous and unfamiliar court.  Ostensibly the most powerful person in the land, Maia nevertheless is as isolated as ever.  Only now he’s trapped by custom and responsibility, and is almost certainly a target by those who covet his crown. Determined to do right by his people, Maia must somehow find a way to make allies and root out his enemies.

An absolute pleasure to read, The Goblin Emperor is a story of intrigue and suspense told on an intimate rather than epic scale.  Maia’s desire to be just and competent, to be the kind of ruler his people deserve, despite his lack of training, has us rooting for him from the start.  Don’t be fooled by this novel’s idealistic point of view and steady unfolding of events, there is plenty of nuance  here, and the narrative’s affirmation of the value of humanity (and goblinkind) is one based on a spectrum of experiences, not a black and white view of Good versus Evil.

I sincerely hope there is a sequel coming (or, at the very least, that we get more books by Addison) and I suspect this will become one of my comfort reads in years to come.