Mo Wren has everything she needs, right on Fox Street, where she lives with her father, her little sister, and the memory of her mother. Except girls to play with; during the school year, Fox Street has decidedly few girls. Luckily, it’s summer, and that means Mercedes is back, staying with her grandmother. This summer, though, something is different. After a year living with her mother’s new, well-to-do husband, Mercedes now notices the shabbiness of Fox Street, its chipping paint and litter. And the lady with the roses, who terrifies all the kids, is being unexpectedly nice to Mercedes, and that after a lifetime of snubbing Mercedes’s grandmother because she’s black. And then there are the strange letters from a lawyer.

It’s a bit predictable, but lovely anyway. Mo is a great, well-drawn character and an entertaining narrator. Realistically, she’s extremely observant about some things, and completely in denial about other things. Fox Street is lovingly portrayed, its community close-knit but certainly not perfect. Mo’s grief for her mother is apparent but not overdone, likewise Mercedes’s confusion and conflicted loyalties and Mo’s sister’s need for attention and approval. It’s a simple, honest, and enjoyable book.

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What Happened On Fox Street ~ Tricia Springstubb ~ Tricia Springstubb’s Blog

Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

He’s a spoiled rich kid, she’s a slum rat. More specifically, he—Colbert—is the grandson and heir of the Supreme Commander, meant to lead the Worldshaker, a giant ship that travels on water or land, constantly roving and collecting resources for the betterment of its people. She—Riff—is not considered “people;” she’s just a filthy, locked in the bowels of the ship doing the worst of the grunt work. One thing—an escape—leads to another—an accident—and before you know it, there’s a full scale revolution on the Worldshaker.

Worldshaker is strikingly similar in premise to Mortal Engines, and, like Mortal Engines, disappointed despite my love of both dystopias and steampunk. In this case, the writing is perfectly fine and both Colbert’s stepwise enlightenment and the actions of his sister provided enough interest to keep me reading, but not enough to counteract the overall lack of distinction and two frustrating strange choices.

Strange Choice Number One:
Every single person involved in Colbert’s upper-class, best-available education is completely inane. The people of the Worldshaker have lost awareness and knowledge of their history and they are obsessed with their superiority over the filthies and with cleanliness of mind and body—these are important points to convey for worldbuilding and to forward the plot, but it does not require the education of the ruling classes—through schools and tutors—to be utterly nonsensical and pointless. In fact, it would be much scarier and more believable if the teachers were intelligent and their arguments basically logical; then we could see this as a plausible world, a frightening possibility that maintains itself through manipulation and propaganda. Instead, it’s just inane.

Strange Choice Number Two:
The filthies have one major strategic advantage over the upper decks, and they don’t use it.
Spoilers abound for the rest of this section
The Filthies’ stated purpose on the ship is to keep the boilers going and, by implication, keep the big engines and machines running. That’s why they’re still fed and a sufficient population kept alive. (A small percentage of Filthies are modified into Menials, speechless servants with their brains surgically limited who work on the upper decks). That means they have control over the boilers and the big machines. They could hold the movement, and thus the survival, of the Worldshaker hostage. They could threaten to destroy the engines and strand the ship forever. They could stop the ship and take advantage of everyone freaking out to attack the upper decks. They do none of these things. It’s not even acknowledged that they have this advantage! And then one of the upper decks people threatens to destroy the ship by overheating the boilers and making them explode, and no one, including the leaders of the Filthies, thinks to have them stop stoking the boilers, or dampen them, or open release valve, or a number of other things they could presumably do. Their entire reason for existence is just forgotten.
Enough spoilers! No more below

In general, it’s an okay book with a few interesting characters, but it’s nothing special.

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Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

Book One

On Cassia’s seventeenth birthday, she is excited but nervous about her Match Banquet—nothing out of the ordinary, Society has determined that 93% of Matchees are nervous—where she will see the face of the man Society has determined to be her perfect mate, as calculated by genetics and temperament. Instead of the screen showing her the face of a boy in another city or region, she is shown someone in the same Banquet, someone from her block—Xander, her lifelong best friend. Excited—Xander is perfect, and perfect for her, after all—but a little let down—unlike most Matchees, she won’t be anxiously studying the microcard she’s given to learn about her match, because she already knows him— she goes home and puts the datachip into the screen anyway. There’s Xander’s face, but for a minute it’s replaced by a different face: that of Ky, another boy from their borough, a friend but not someone to whom anyone she knows is really close. Startled, Cassia begins to pay attention to Ky in a way she never has before. As she notices Ky’s quiet, careful life, and as she’s shocked by her grandfather’s deathbed rebellion, Cassia begins to notice the cracks in her comfortable, easy, supposedly perfect world.

It’s a well-crafted dystopia, gently but firmly ruled by white-coated Officials who always seem to have your best interest at heart. Your meals are delivered to you, specially calibrated to contain the right amount and kind of nutrition for your body. You have schooling, if you’re young, then a blend of schooling and work, also suited to your needs and abilities, and designed to both train you and test you so you can be given your permanent work assignment: your perfect job. Your perfect mate, to produce your perfect children. A pill container on you at all times, with a blue pill that has enough nutrition to sustain you for several days in an emergency, a green pill that calms you in times of stress, and a red pill that you’re only to take under the guidance of the Officials.

Though well-crafted and well-executed, the world itself is nothing we haven’t seen before, really, and it’s a bit heavy-handed in its use of poetry as a motivational force. The characters, however, make it special. Cassia is a good narrator, observant and intelligent but invested in the world and narrative in which she was raised. Her confusion and uncertainty are strong enough to ring true, but not so strong that they annoy the reader, who comes to the book automatically distrustful of the society. Though there is a love triangle between Cassia, Xander, and Ky, it’s not melodramatic or overdone; she’s never really dating either of them and is generally truthful, so it’s more a tension between possibilities than between attachments. Behind and beyond the romance, they are both her friends, and good ones at that.

And everyone’s just so nice. Cassia’s parents and grandparents knew and know the flaws of the system, but they are nice, loving, caring people, who just want what’s best for everyone. They make the choices they do deliberately, to protect and provide for their children. There is a villain in the story and she is an official, but she is outnumbered by officials who are just doing their jobs and keeping society comfortable and safe. She is also clearly reacting to the situation in front of her, and we as readers never fully know what that situation is.

The book suffers primarily from its vagueness in describing what’s going on outside the central territories. We know there is conflict between the society and people at the edges of the territories it controls, but it’s never entirely clear what either the citizens believe is going on, or what is actually going on. The epilogue indicates that we’ll learn more about the situation in fact in the next book(s), but it lacks the perspective that the propaganda would have provided. Nonetheless, it is an extremely well-written and enjoyable book, with a number of sympathetic characters who are trapped by the world they have perpetuated.

With all its focus on mate selection, it’s also a very odd book to read while traveling to go to a couple of weddings.

November 2010

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Matched ~ Ally Condie

Reckless Cornelia FunkeAfter his father’s disappearance, Jacob Reckless is looking for answers and an escape from his life, his mother’s grief, and his brother’s neediness. He finds escape, and maybe a chance at answers, in a magic mirror he finds in his father’s study. Through the mirror is a medieval world full of the stories on which Jacob had been raised—there are witches who eat children, princesses with golden balls or eternal sleep, magical transformations, and treasure galore.

Twelve years later, Jacob is a treasure-hunter of renown with a fox companion and a stash of helpful magical items, and the world is at war: the Goyl, an angry, stone-skinned race are slowly defeating the human empire, due to a combination of better engineering, better tactics, and magic that lets the scratch of a Goyl’s stone claws slowly transform a human into a Goyl, body and mind. The human memories and consciousness dies as the body is transformed. And Jacob’s brother, Will, has followed him behind the mirror and fallen victim to a Goyl’s claw. There’s nothing to be done but go a-questing for something, anything, that might save Will from ceasing to be Will.

The exposition is a bit jerky, jumping between perspectives and characters too quickly to allow the reader to really get pulled into the story as early as I would have liked. Once the initial setup is complete, however, Reckless is a smooth, well-written—and well-translated—ride. It’s most-exciting for its world-building; it invents a new world and new stories, but also integrates familiar fairy tales in pleasantly dark, creepy ways.

The characters are well-developed and realistic. Unusual for a kid’s book, the main characters are in their early- to mid-twenties, and that’s accurate for their emotional development—they’re still dealing with sibling rivalry, abandonment issues, and jealousy, but they are dealing with them as adults, who are generally comfortable with who they are and their place in the world. I’m generally in favor of adults reading children’s books, but this goes beyond that; it’s really an all-ages book, like my recollections of The Hobbit—an adventure story not grounded in a particular stage of life. I love the exploration of the world and of the self that one generally finds in middle grade and young adult books, respectively; but this is good, too.

September 2010

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Reckless ~ Cornelia Funke

Voices of Dragons Carrie VaughnKay is a normal teenager: bored of life in a small town, feeling pressured on the sex/relationship fronts, and quietly rebelling against her parents by doing something that either no one will know, or she’ll die doing it: rock climbing on tthe border with Dragon. There’s only been one period of open hostilities between humans and dragons in living memory: right after World War II, the dragons came out of hiding and they and the humans walloped each other before writing a treaty that gives the Dragons several chunks of land in the far north, humans the rest of the country, an agreement to never cross the border, and no ongoing communication between the two factions. As long as Kay doesn’t cross the border she isn’t breaking any laws, and she doesn’t expect to even see a dragon—they rarely come so close to the border.

But, of course, she does meet a dragon, who’s hanging out by the border for much the same reason she is: adolescent rebellion. The two develop a friendship, but it—and their peaceful lives—are threatened when the U.S.military starts encroaching on Dragon territory.

I found Voices of Dragons to be heavy-handed: about the war, about Kay’s best friend pressuring her to get a boyfriend and get laid, about the friendship between Kay and the dragon, Artegal. It tries so hard, but never quite pulls it off. The escalation of the conflict and changing public support was well done, but the military men behind it are charicatures and the politics and political figures behind them are never seen or explored. It’s refreshing and realistic that a straight, sexually active teenage girl would put pressure on another straight girl to become sexually active and Kay’s hesitant, nervous, and thoughtful approach to a relationship fits, but her thinking on sexual contact beyond kissing is unexpectedly flat and simplistic. In her other major relationship, it takes such great pains to give Kay and Artegal similar motivation and to emphasis the ways in which they are alike that it neglects to give Artegal a distinct personality. The strongest part of the book is definitely the middle; the beginning is slow and the ending resolves almost nothing—without being a clear lead-in to a sequel—but the middle of the book contains a powerful and compelling portrait of grief. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to rescue Voices of Dragons from mediocrity.

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Voices of Dragons ~ Carrie Vaughn ~ Carrie Vaughn’s blog, Filling the Well