Category Archives: Young Adult

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), by Lemony Snicket

unfortunateIt’s hard to believe I had never read this famously gloomy (and funny) series of kids’ books, nor had my children. They’re right in line with the sort of thing we had all over the house when the kids were schoolaged, and would have been a blast to read out loud, but somehow, having picked up the first one once or twice, I never really got into them. What convinced me to finally start the series was the recent TV adaptation starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, which  has such a lovely, gloomy, quirky tone that I watched it in a couple of days and then really wanted to go back to the source material (the TV series covers, I think, the first four books of a thirteen-book series, so presumably they’re planning three seasons? Not sure).

The books are, as the narrator warns over and over, incredibly gloomy — a lot of really awful things happen to the Baudelaire orphans. Most of them are cartoonish, like Count Olaf dangling Sunny from the top of a tower in a cage, so you don’t really feel the empathy you would in a more realistic story. But then occasionally something genuinely realistic happens, like when Count Olaf hits Klaus in the face and he has a bruise for days, and you think, this is really a story about child abuse, even though it’s cartoonish and often funny. The humour comes in the narrative voice, which constantly reminds us to put the book down if we enjoy stories with happy endings. I do enjoy stories with happy endings, and I’ve been warned enough that this won’t be one, but I’m probably going to keep reading anyway!

Leave a comment

Filed under Children's, Young Adult

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

lietreeThis was an absolutely intriguing book. It’s a YA novel, but more than compelling enough to hold the attention of this adult reader. The Lie Tree is set in Victorian England and told from the perspective of a young girl called Faith Sunderly. Faith’s father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist, and Faith wants to be a scientist too. She is fascinated by her father’s fossils and specimens, but keenly aware that she lives in a world that doesn’t encourage such interests in a woman. While Faith tries to impress and emulate her brilliant, distant father, her model for how to be a woman is her mother Myrtle, who uses her good looks and charm to cajole favours from men around her, and who tries to mold her daughter into a proper young lady.

When the Sunderly family arrives on the remote island of Vane, where her father has been invited to observe some excavations for new fossils, things take a sinister turn. The novel moves from being simply a well-developed piece of historical fiction to being a murder mystery with a strong thread of fantasy or magic realism. I’ve also seen it described as “horror,” but I didn’t find that it fit that description well. There’s no gore here, but plenty of dread, as Faith discovers and learns to use her father’s most shocking and carefully guarded discovery: the Lie Tree of the title.

What I really loved about this book is that it’s one of the rare times a writer of historical fiction really gets that “strong female character” thing dead right, and you know it’s right. Faith is everything a modern reader wants in a girl character: she’s brilliant, she’s rebellious, she hates the constraints her society places on women. But she also understands and, on some level, buys into those restraints. Hardinge totally avoids the trap of making Faith a twenty-first century girl in a Victorian dress. She is absolutely a real nineteenth-century woman, looking for a way out of the box her society has placed her in — but the reader never doubts for a second that that box is real, as real as Faith’s intelligence and ambition.

This is the kind of story where there are many twists and turns at the end; situations and people will not turn out to be what we thought they were. Most importantly, Faith’s view of the women in her world, including her mother, shifts as she comes to understand them better and see in a new light what is (and is not) possible for a woman.

My dearest hope for Faith is that she grows up to be Alma from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (but with a less tragic love story, if she has to have one at all). There were, of course, Victorian women who managed to carve out a place for themselves in the world of science despite all the odds stacked against them, and once you’ve seen Faith Sunderly solve the mystery that engulfs her family on Vane, you can believe she will have the grit and tenacity to be one of those women.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

carryonI wish I could explain what Carry On is. It’s a young-adult fantasy novel and also a spoof on the young-adult fantasy novel. It’s a spin-off of Rowell’s novel Fangirl that doesn’t include any of the original characters and takes place in a totally different world. It’s a piece of fan fiction that is related to the Harry Potter series the same way the Fifty Shades of Gray books are related to the Twilight series, except that Carry On is really well-written.

In Fangirl, Cath is a fan-fiction writer. She’s writing a fanfic based on a series of books that bear a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter books, except that there are vampires too. And Cath’s wildly popular fanfic bears a strong resemblance to Harry-Draco slashfic, in that she’s taken the two (presumably straight) male leads of the original series, and written a romance between them. Carry On is that story, sort of — Rainbow Rowell has written the last book of a non-existent fantasy series that owes a heavy debt to a real fantasy series, and this shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does.

Simon Snow is an orphan with mysterious powers who attends a special school for kids with magical abilities, located somewhere in England. Sound familiar? It is and it isn’t Harry Potter — it’s Rowell celebrating all the things she loves about the series and also putting her own spin on the things she’d like to see done differently. At the heart of the story is Simon’s love/hate relationship with his roommate Baz, as well as, of course, an epic conflict that could destroy not only the magickal but also the Normal world. It’s smart, it’s funny, and I found it a real page-turner. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Young Adult

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #1), by Rick Riordan

magnuschaseAfter dealing with the Greek gods in the Percy Jackson books, the Roman gods in Heroes of Olympus, and the Egyptian pantheon in the Kane Chronicles, Rick Riordan has a new series out, and it’s probably inevitable that he would look north to the colourful characters who populate the halls of Asgard.

This new book follows familiar territory for readers of Riordan’s books. Magnus Chase is a teenage boy who’s been homeless on the streets of Boston ever since his beloved mother died several years ago. Magnus never knew his dad, and as it turns out there’s a very good reason for that: his dad’s a Norse god. When an unfortunate encounter gains him an entry to Valhalla (and his own personal Valkyrie), Magnus learns the truth about his complicated family tree and, of course, learns that he has to save the world.

Riordan’s trademark humour, and his ability to weave ancient myths into the fabric of modern teen life, carries this book as it has all the others. I find these books very funny, enjoyable, and a great way for kids to learn about mythology. Fortunately there are enough polytheistic religions (with a history of human-god interaction to produce demigod children) to keep him busy for awhile. I’m hoping after Asgard, we’ll get to explore the gods and goddesses of Hinduism, which may give Riordan enough material to keep writing till he’s ready for his next reincarnation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Young Adult

The One Thing, by Marci Lyn Curtis

theonethingMy daughter, a discerning teenage reader, read this YA novel a little while back and was telling me about it with great enthusiasm. She made it sound so interesting that I decided I should read the book myself. Unfortunately, I would have enjoyed it more had I not been spoiled on a major plot point — yet that spoiler was the very thing that drew me and made me want to read the novel. I’m not going to spoil it for you, though, so perhaps you’ll read and enjoy it.

The narrator of The One Thing is teenage Maggie, who was enjoying a normal, soccer-filled adolescence until she lost her vision. She’s not adapting well to being blind, and her snarky, far from optimistic voice carries the novel. Curtis does a great job of portraying Maggie as far from the stereotypical “inspiring” disabled person, although sometimes she strays a bit too far in the direction of being simply unlikeable. 

One day, in the office of her parole officer (she’s been getting into a little trouble since getting sent to a special school for the blind), Maggie sees a ten-year-old boy named Ben who walks with crutches.  That’s the odd thing: she sees Ben. She hasn’t seen anyone or anything for months — so why can she suddenly see this kid?

From that one inexplicable circumstance the story spins out into a tale of friendship, family, and learning to live with loss. It’s a good story, but it’s a bettr one if you don’t get spoiled, so I’ll stop here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

Another Day, by David Levithan

anotherdayDavid Levithan’s Every Day was one of the most creative, original stories I’ve read in a long, long time. Another Day is a parallel novel that really only works if you read and loved Every Day. This new novel goes back through the same story, but from the point of view of Rhiannon, the girl A. falls in love with in Another Day. It is definitely not as fresh or original as Every Day, but it does fill in some blanks and answer some questions from the first book. Both books end at the same point, with the feeling that there could be more to th story, so I’m still hoping for a third volume that will take the story further and tell me what happens to both A. and Rhiannon ….

Leave a comment

Filed under Young Adult

Dear Canada: Flame and Ashes, by Janet McNaughton

flameandashesI’ve known and admired Janet McNaughton for years, though I haven’t read all of her recent young-adult novels — she is very prolific! Last week, she and I were invited together to do a panel discussion at the library, as we had both written about the 1892 Great Fire of St. John’s, and we were both nominated for Atlantic Book Awards. (Neither of us won in our respective categories, but all the nominated books were great: go read them!) In preparation for the event I decided I should read her latest novel, part of Scholastic Publishing’s “Dear Canada” series of YA novels about Canadian history.

Flame and Ashes tells the story of eleven-year-old Triffie, the pampered daughter of a wealthy St. John’s merchant whose life changes dramatically when a fire sweeps through the city, destroying downtown homes and businesses. Triffie’s voice is lively and engaging, and the research into the fire and its aftermath is impeccable, with the facts smoothly woven into an interesting narrative that tells an important coming-of-age story for Triffie. I highly recommend this for young readers and older ones who want to immerse themselves in a key moment in Newfoundland history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical, Young Adult