Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

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Wildthorn

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The Boneshaker Kate MilfordIt’s 1913, and Natalie Minks has two main goals in life: to make her clockwork airplane work, and to figure out how to ride the unusual bicycle that she’s convinced is the fastest in the world. Her life gets much more complicated when a traveling medicine show comes to town, bringing highly unusual and rather threatening medical men, mysterious remedies, and automatons that don’t need to be wound. Her town isn’t completely helpless—there’s more to several residents than meets the eye, include an old black man who once won a bet with the devil, and Natalie’s mother herself. Nonetheless, the danger is very real, and very close to home.

It’s a beautifully written book, redolent with love of storytelling, folklore, and traditional music. It’s not as tightly-woven as I wanted it to be, though; I had to Google Wilbur Wright’s death in order to figure out when the book was set, and a few times times minor characters were so briefly mentioned or lightly sketched that I had forgotten them by the time they reemerged with some importance later on. Similiarly, there are some interesting, important-seeming elements that are never explained; vagueness that contributes to a creepy, tense atmosphere early in the book is ultimately unsatisfying when clarity never emerges.

Natalie is a spunky tomboy, but not without context—she fits in perfectly with her mildly unconventional family, and if some of the townspeople aren’t overly approving of her choices of overalls instead of dresses, they tolerate her with affection. Her best friend is an effective foil: femme and frivolous, but brave when necessary. Natalie’s close-knit family is lovingly but honestly presented, with its members’ foibles and frustrations, its secret-keeping and its worry about Natalie’s mother, who is increasingly unwell—and Natalie’s obliviousness to her mother’s illness also has a ring of truth.

The Boneshaker is a version of the old Devil at the Crossroads motif, and it plays well with the guilt, desperation, hubris, and determination of the several characters who face the Devil across the campfire.

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The Boneshaker ~ Kate Milford’s The Clockwork Foundry

A Northern Light Book Cover by Jennifer DonnellyOne day in 1906, a guest staying at the hotel where Mattie works asks Mattie to burn a stack of letters. Then the young lady goes off boating, turning up twelve hours, dead. Mattie is left with the stack of letters, her promise to burn them, and many questions. Mattie pieces together what happened to the dead woman amidst her own indecision about the future: whether to follow her love of books and writing to Barnard College in New York City or whether to stay in the sleepy upstate New York farm community with her family, the neighbors she’s known all her life, and the boy she’s sweet on.

That boy, Royal, happens to be a royal ass. A pretty ass, and one who pays unprecedented attention to plain Mattie; it’s no mystery why she goes around with him. As an adult-type reading it, I didn’t have much patience for the elevated position Royal gets in Mattie’s indecision. You feel like you’d be betraying your dead mother by leaving your father and sisters to go to college? I still think you should go to college, but I can respect your inner conflict. You like snogging the jerk who doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t respect you, and is really mean to people you care about it? Dump him and go to college. You’ll find someone else to snog. Maybe someone you can have an actual conversation with, hm? Mattie’s desire to be happy with Royal is understandable and realistic, but it’s frustrating.

Despite the frustration, it’s a very good, and enjoyable book. Mattie has a nice balance of spunkiness and nervousness, intelligence and a hint of naivete. and the book is filled with rich detail on early twentieth century Adirondak life, complete with troublesome tourists, cattle disease, hard childbirth, hunger, small-town gossip, racism, and casual domestic violence. At times, Mattie’s earnest complaints that the lives of her neighbors are more interesting than the civil, stiff lives portrayed in Austen and Dickens, and that books don’t tell the truth, become tedious; firstly, we got the point the first time she said it, and secondly, we must agree with her to some extent or we would have picked up a different book. These small faults aside, it’s an absorbing book with a heroine it’s easy to root for, even when she’s being a bit daft.

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A Northern Light ~ Jennifer Donnelly

the unnameables Medford has grown up on an island where everything Useful is Named – Herding Animals, Tanning Bark Trees, bowls, spoons. People are Carpenters, Carvers, Weavers. Anything Useless is Nameless and ignored – seabirds, shells, weeds. And then there’s Medford Runyuin, foundling, with a name that doesn’t mean anything. Apprenticed to a Carver, Medford wants nothing more than to become a Carver himself, respected on the Island. He doesn’t want to keep secretly carving things with no Use – a bowl with a squirrel curled up inside, a walking stick with a bird for a handle. Except, he kind of does want to keep carving them, Useless and Nameless though they are – and possibly even Unnameable and dangerous, capable of getting him banished from the Island.

The Unnameables is quite charming. It’s Medford’s coming of age story, it’s the story of a community adjusting and shifting, and it’s a story about art. It’s so gentle that it’s easy to see it as a happy story of acceptance, but it’s not quite. This model of community risks the tyranny of the majority, and is so isolated that the minority have no other options – there aren’t sub-communities and even their knowledge of the outside world is minimal. This threat is realized in the novel; Medford needs to fight for his right to carve what he wants and still be part of the only community he’s known. The novel presents its resolution as a happy ending, but I’m not satisfied; there will be dissent in the future, it will be as hidden as the carvings under Medford’s bed and make someone just as miserable as his secret carvings Medford, and even if it does come into the light, next time the community may not have the flexibility to find an accommodation. They deal with Medford’s situation, but they don’t think about the broader ramifications for their society.

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The Unnameables
Ellen Booraem ~ Ellen Booraem’s Blog, Freelance Ne’er-do-well

Graceling Kristin Cashore Miriam Newman YA Lit ReviewsIn the Seven Kingdom, some people are Graced: recognized by mismatched eyes, the have a special talent, a Grace, of one sort or another. It could be cooking or swimming, or it could be mind reading. Or it could be killing.

Katsa has trained since she was a small child, learning to control her Grace such that she can disarm or injure instead of killing, something she does as rarely as possible. Like all Gracelings in the kingdom, she belongs to the king and must do as he asks. He asks for her to torture and kill his disobedient subjects, publicly, to bring fear and compliance from the rest of the populace. Behind the king’s back, she and few allies work against injustice in other kingdoms.

Katsa’s delicate equilibrium is disrupted with the arrival of a Graceling prince from a faraway kingdom. Unafraid to meet her eyes – one blue, the other green – Po asks questions she’s been trying her whole life not to answer.

Graceling revolves around identity. Gracelings, easily recognized by their eyes, their places in society are set, whether they are glorified slaves, cast-offs, or honored. Typically, a Graceling’s eyes settle before they demonstrate a particular aptitude for one thing or another; from that point on they are scrutinized until their particular skill becomes apparent. Then, society defines them largely by their Grace, but, as always, the gap between society’s identification and one’s self-identification has the potential to be vast. Being Graced magnifies this potential tenfold.

Katsa is seen as a Graced fighter at best, a Graced killer or a Graced thug at worst. She fears her Grace and hates much of what she does with it, but it cannot be ignored. She hates her reputation, but she knows it to be based in fact, and therefore cannot construct an identity for herself which does not revolve around the cruelty she perpetrates on the king’s behalf.

Luckily for Katsa, identities can be redefined, and both journeys and new acquaintances can catalyze such a reformation.

Follow-Up Post

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My review of the prequel, Fire

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Graceling
Kristin Cashore