Friday, January 25, 2013

What we're reading: Fairy Tale legacies

There's been a big trend in recent years to rediscover old fairy tales as the basis for new YA fiction. Two of my favorites are Deerskin (a tale with a rather horrifying premise, definitely for older teens), by Robin McKinley, and Cinder (a futuristic sci-fi android version of Cinderella), by Marissa Meyer, and I also liked Sisters Red (Little Red Riding Hood all grown up and hunting werewolves) by Jackson Pearce. We in fact have a book list attached to our catalog (as well as in print in the libraries) called "Fairy Tales Retold," listing similar titles.

This trend has also caught the attention of moviemakers, so we've seen Beastly (Beauty and the Beast, based on Alex Flinn's book), Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, and (coming soon) Hansel and Gretel gain new life on the screen as well as between the pages of books. And the phenomenon has even moved onto our television screens in such shows as "Beauty and the Beast" (again) and "Once Upon A Time."

One of the latest entries into this subgenre of teen fiction is Kill Me Softly, by Sarah Cross, and it has similarities with the last-mentioned TV show, in that it is not based on one fairy tale but rather incorporates characters from many, all gathered in one special location. Mirabelle, just about to turn 16, has finally decided, after living an exemplary life as the ward of her two godmothers, to disobey their orders and revisit Beau Rivage, the town where she was born. She wants to go there as a sort of pilgrimage, because her parents died there in a fire when she was an infant; she wants to see where they are buried, as well as get a perspective on her past. Since she knows the godmothers will throw a hissy fit and forbid her from going, she has actually created a false trail for them to follow (an email correspondence with a fake boyfriend), which means no one knows where she's gone.

Upon her arrival, she realizes fairly quickly that Beau Rivage contains a strange cast of characters who seem eerily familiar: a pale girl with red lips, black hair, and an apple fixation; an obnoxious party boy who's beastly to everyone he meets; and an overly friendly guy who has a thing for damsels in distress. She finds out that curses are real, and that fairy tale characters weren't just people in the wrong place at the wrong time, but avatars pre-destined to play out their fate. Mira herself has a destiny to embrace or resist, but she is drawn into the lives of two brothers who aren't part of "her" story and discovers that love has thorns.

I liked this book; I found Mira's quandaries a little over-angst-y and repetitive, and I saw the plotlines coming far in advance of their appearance, but that may be because I am more familiar with fairy tales than most. Anyway, in general it's a fun and interesting read, and I liked the avatar idea. If you don't know what I mean by that, here's a definition: An avatar is "an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea." What it means in this case is that people are born into their roles (doomed to sleep for 100 years, destined to save the princess with a kiss, etc.) and (unless they can find a creative way to get around it) are stuck fulfilling them no matter what. Watching Mira realize that and then try to figure a way out of it was engaging.

I'd give it a 3.5, and I approve of the cover--it goes well with the story.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Top 50 new YA books at BPL

These are the books that checked out most frequently (in descending order from top to bottom) from Burbank Public Library's teen new fiction sections during the past three months. A few notes and observations:
  • The books in boldface have been reviewed on this blog;
  • It looks like fantasy, dystopia and science fiction remain dominant popular genres;
  • If you are a teen who has read one of these books and would like to send us a review, we will happily publish it!
  • And if you want credit for service hours, we will give you one hour for each book reviewed according to our guidelines.
The Raven Boys / Maggie Stiefvater
Carnival of Souls / Melissa Marr
Every Day / David Levithan
Keep Holding On / Susane Colasanti
Hidden / P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

Throne of Glass / Sarah J. Maas
Such Wicked Intent / Kenneth Oppel
Second Chance Summer / Morgan Matson
Necromancing the Stone / Lish McBride
Between the Lines / Jodi Picoult & Samantha van Leer
Seraphina / Rachel Hartman
The Kill Order / James Dashner
Insurgent / Veronica Roth
Through to You / Emily Hainsworth
Rift : A Nightshade Novel / Andrea Cremer
Rapture / Lauren Kate
Insignia / S.J. Kincaid
Underworld / by Meg Cabot
The Rise of Nine / Pittacus Lore
Pushing the Limits / Katie McGarry
My Life Next Door / Huntley Fitzpatrick
Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You / Joyce Carol Oates

Tiger Lily / Jodi Lynn Anderson
Team Human / Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
Son / Lois Lowry
Shadow and Bone / Leigh Bardugo
Masque of the Red Death / Bethany Griffin
Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses / Ron Koertge
Incarnate / Jodi Meadows
The Fault in Our Stars / John Green
Effortlessly / Kiersten White
The Diviners / Libba Bray
Two Truths and a Lie / by Sara Shepard
The Turning / Francine Prose

Such a Rush / Jennifer Echols
Send / Patty Blount
Origin / Jessica Khoury
Haunting Violet / Alyxandra Harvey
The Crown of Embers / by Rae Carson
City of Lost Souls / Cassandra Clare
Body & Soul : A Ghost and the Goth Novel / Stacey Kade
Black Heart / Holly Black
Yesterday / C.K. Kelly Martin
The Vanishing Game / Kate Kae Myers

Something Strange and Deadly / Susan Dennard
The Shadow Society / Marie Rutkoski
Mothership / Martin Leicht and Isla Neal
Monstrous Beauty / Elizabeth Fama
Messy / by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
Libriomancer / Jim C. Hines

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Here be dragons!

After reading The Hobbit for 6+7 Book Club and rediscovering how much I enjoyed the conversations between Bilbo Baggins and Smaug the dragon, I decided to check out some more recent offerings in dragon mode, specifically in the YA section, to see if they live up to the high expectations of a dragon aficionado.

I have always liked dragon stories, from Ruth Stiles Gannett (My Father’s Dragon) to Bruce Coville (Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher), Cornelia Funke (Dragon Rider) and Patricia Wrede (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles), from Ursula K. LeGuin (the Earthsea books) to Anne McCaffrey (her Dragonriders of Pern series), as well as Robin McKinley, Christopher Paolini—they go on and on. Here is a good list of dragons in literature from Wikipedia, and this is by no means comprehensive! And of course there are all the books in which dragons only play a tangential part (like the Harry Potter books and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series)! Here are some more...

The first book I read was actually written in 2007, but I missed reading it then, and since a sequel came out just this month, I thought I should read the first before trying the second, so I took home Dragon’s Keep, by Janet Lee Carey. This book is set some 600 years after the time of Merlin, and the characters are descendants of a disgraced and banished younger sister of King Arthur. They have been waiting on their remote island for the fulfillment of Merlin’s prophecy that the 21st daughter of their line would return to England to marry the current heir to the throne and restore the family to glory (or at least that's how they interpreted the prophecy!). There’s just one problem with this: The princess, Rosalind, who is to fulfill this destiny, was born with a dragon claw as the ring finger of her left hand. No one but her mother is privy to this disgrace, and her mother has set a fashion that royal ladies are gloved at all times to hide Rosalind’s secret.

This book started slowly, and I didn’t care for the language or style of narration—not that it was badly written, it just didn’t flow for me. Also, I felt the author spent way too much time on the weeping, wailing, and pursuit of cures by the queen and the princess regarding her “cursed” finger. Too much repetitive surface stuff, not enough content. I almost put it down unfinished—but then the dragon who lives on nearby Dragon’s Keep comes and carries Rosalind off, and the story takes a turn for the entertaining. The interaction with the dragons made all the difference, and I ended up enjoying this story more than I expected to from the first half. The sequel is Dragonswood, set a generation after this book but still on Wilde Island. (Haven't read that one.) My rating for Dragon's Keep: 3.

The thing about dragon literature that is most fascinating is how the author conceives of them—as dumb beasts, as telepathic partners, as a wily race of tricksters, as a separate but equal civilization—and what details this provokes in the authors’ treatment. Do the dragons speak, do they have their own language, culture, and traditions? and how do they interact with and view humans? Are they oblivious, indifferent, antagonistic, fascinated, assimilationist…the options go on and on, and this is the heart of good science fiction—the What if? question pursued.

The next book I read—Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, written in 2012—takes a completely different approach from Carey’s. In the kingdom of Goredd, humans and dragons have maintained an uneasily negotiated peace for four generations. The saar (dragons) are able to take human shape, and have become a presence at the Goreddi court as ambassadors, as well as lending their emotionless but highly intelligent and precise talents as teachers at human universities. (They reminded me of Spock!) As the book opens, a member of the Goreddi royal family has been murdered in a fashion that suggests draconian involvement. Seraphina Dombegh, assistant music master to the court and pupil of the dragon Orma, is, because of her familiarity with dragon culture, drawn into the investigation by the captain of the Queen’s Guard, Prince Lucian Kiggs. But amidst the suspicion and distrust between humans and dragons revived by this murder, Seraphina also has a personal secret that makes her involvement perilous for her and for those she loves.

 This elegantly written book was instantly and completely involving. After reading the entire story (in one day) and coming up for air, I had a lot of questions about the dragons’ background and how they came to take human form when so many of them so despised humanity; but while I was in the moment, all I could do was admire the emotional and philosophical complexity of the society that Hartman created and get completely caught up in Seraphina’s story. The world-building was consistent, perfectly plausible, and more than a little fascinating. I also appreciate the fact that although she plans a sequel, Hartman wrote this book as if it was a stand-alone, and the conclusion is satisfying. This one is definitely a book to top the list of “Dragons in literature.” My rating: 5 / 5.

In the course of all this reading about dragons, I also remembered Tolkien’s other, little-known fable, Farmer Giles of Ham. Farmer Giles is fat, red-faced and slow, and, like Bilbo, seems to encounter his adventures almost by accident. A rather deaf and short-sighted giant wanders onto his land, and Farmer Giles manages to get rid of him by shooting at him (and missing) with a blunderbuss. This act makes his village view him as a hero, and results in the king of the land giving him a fancy sword famous for dragon-slaying. Meanwhile, the giant returns home to tell his friends that there are no knights left to withstand them, so a dragon decides to chance his luck in the neighborhood, whereupon everyone expects poor Farmer Giles to deal with him, with rather hilarious results. If you liked The Hobbit, don’t forget Farmer Giles!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What we're reading: realistic fiction

Dead to You
by Lisa McMann
243 pages (but with large type and airy spacing, this is a fast read)
Realistic fiction
Grades 8 and up
Reviewed by Melissa

Lisa McMann’s latest book, Dead to You, is as odd and quirky as her other books, although this one does not have any paranormal elements. We are reading Wake for 10-12 Book Club next month, so some of you will get the opportunity to judge for yourselves whether you like her style of writing and storytelling. I find the bare-bones narrative quite appealing, especially the way the information is all filtered through the first-person psyche of her protagonists.

In this book, Ethan has had a rough life. He was abducted by strangers from the sidewalk near his home, in front of his horrified little brother, Blake, when he was just seven years old, and has only now, at age 16, figured out that the woman he knew as Ellen must have abducted him. He found his photograph on a website displaying pictures of missing children, contacted his birth family, and is being reunited with them. This should be a happy ending to what is usually an unresolved mystery, and it first. But soon, a combination of family troubles and Ethan’s memories (and lack of them) from his past begin to interfere with the joyful reunion and the resumption of “normal” life.

Most kids, at some point in their lives, wonder what it would be like to have different parents--usually when they are in the middle of an argument with the ones they have. Most kids ponder the possibility: Could I have been adopted? Do I have birth parents out there somewhere who are more like me? How is it that I feel like an alien in this family? Why don’t I fit in? In this book, Ethan actually gets to find these things out, but the answers aren’t as clear-cut as everyone would wish them to be. I thought this was a really interesting premise for a book, and that McMann wrote it well. Check it out for yourself, and see what you think!

I did not think the cover was in any way tied to the content of the book. I would rate Dead to You 3.5 out of 5--it was good, I enjoyed reading it, and I got something out of it.