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

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

Poison Diaries coverThe Poison Diaries trilogy, Book 1

Jessamine lives alone with her apothocary father in the remains of a monastery, tending their herb and vegetable gardens and keeping house while her father travels the county dosing people with his herbal remedies, searching for any books of horticulture that may have survived the burning of the monasteries, and caring for the locked garden Jessamine is forbidden to enter. Then a raggedy boy known only as Weed is brought to his father, a boy with a mysteriously close relationship with all varieties of plants, a boy suspected of putting something in the tea at a madhouse that made all the inmate sane, and something else in the town well that made the inhabitants crazy.

It’s all rather fascinatingly unhealthy—Jessamine, her relationship with her father, her relationship with Weed. She’s been alone, or alone save a man who looks down on her, for far too long; her first-person narration overflows with eloquent loneliness and desperation for human contact, and her initial reaction to Weed is predicated on her understandable need for a friend. Their romance, though it reeks of inevitability, is interesting; in addition to Jessamine’s issues, Weed is emotionally scarred and is even less accustomed to social interaction, having never really learned to bond with people. They cling to each other, both outsiders unused to being understood.

And then it trades its understated, complex psychology for an overstated, hallucinogenic quest and an abrupt ending.

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The Poison Diaries ~ Maryrose Wood (which has got to be the greatest name for an author of a plant-related book ever).

The Shifter Janice Hardy The Healing Wars, Book 1

Nya lives in an occupied city-state, struggling with odd jobs to make ends meet and trying to avoid the occupying soldiers. Her sister, Tali, is managing it easier; there are always jobs at the Healer’s League for a powerful Healer, gifted with the ability to both heal and draw pain from people and transfer it into unobtainium painium pynvium, a mineral valued for its capacity to store pain—and to release it again as a weapon. Nya is differently gifted; she can heal and draw pain, but she can’t dump the pain into pynvium; she can only transfer it to another person. Unfortunately, pynvium is a nonrenewable resource—it gets filled, it gets used as a weapon, it’s useless—and the cause of the wars that led to the occupation of Nya’s home and deaths of her Sorcerer father and Healer mother and grandmother. Now, as before the war, Healer apprentices are disappearing and there are rumors that the Luminary, the head of the Healer’s League, is looking for unusual variants on Healing abilities. When a well-dressed man starts following Nya and her sister joins the ranks of missing apprentices, Nya must break into the League, figure out what’s going on, and save Tali.

It’s really quite good. The world-building is solid and convincingly shades in an outside world while only really exploring Nya’s small corner of it.1 The darker side of healing—all healing; even typical healers experience the pain they draw before they can dump it into pynvium—and economics of pynvium as both medicine and weapon are interesting, even if the Healers’ grasp of triage and scarcity are a bit underdeveloped.2 The characters have distinct personalities with a balance of lighthearted and serious traits and they respond realistically to their shifting situations and the stresses on their society. Life is not easy for any of the characters, and they deal as individuals with the conflict between friendship and loyalty on the one hand, the drive to do what’s best for themselves on the other. Nya’s powers add an extra, difficult layer to the ethical issues she must navigate, and those powers—or at least, her knowledge of them—develop in interesting ways that fit seamlessly into the pattern of the world.

The U.K. title is The Pain Merchants. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: why do the U.K. and Australia get better titles than we do? (Except The Golden Compass, which is a better title than Northern Lights and, y’know, actually fits the His Dark Materials trilogy title.)

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1 Which seems to be in the southern hemisphere—unusual enough to be noteworthy and pretty cool. Nya’s home is in a sufficiently warm climate that she has never seen ice or snow; she only knows about it from her grandmother’s stories of their ancestors’ mountain homeland. When she thinks about leaving her city, she thinks about going south/toward the mountains. Yes, it’s possible that the mountains get snow just because they’re tall and are actually closer to the equator, but a southern hemisphere setting seems more likely.

2 Your main healing tool is a nonrenewable resource, scarcity of which is causing wars. Do you a) stop using it; b) use it to treat serious, life-threatening ailments but let minor bruises and cuts heal themselves; or c) bring all your patients back to full health, including minor bruises and cuts, even if it means not being able to treat as many patients? I see b) as a clear, sensible answer; apparently they think c) is a better idea.

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The Shifter ~ Janice Hardy

Silver PhoenixAi Ling at sixteen is educated–unusual for Xian girls–and has been rejected by the families of several potential husbands. This is embarrassing enough, though a bit of a relief, before her father leaves on an unprecedented trip to the imperial palace. After he’s gone several months longer than anticipated, however, it gets worse; Ai Ling and her mother are threatened by heavy debt unless Ai Ling become the fourth wife to a rather unpleasant business man. Rather than suffer this fate, Ai Ling runs away, going to seek her father. Of course, she finds herself pursued by demons and foul creatures, meets a few handsome men, and turns out to have been born for a Purpose.

Silver Phoenix is anchored in Chinese culture, and that is its great strength. The overall idea of the plot is fairly common in fantasy, but the because the details are based on Chinese rather than Euro-American culture, it does stand out. The descriptions of food and use of hair to establish class and status are particularly well done, though perhaps we don’t need the hairstyle of servant girls described every time we see it. (The first time is great. After that, however, it’s fine to just say “her hair marked her as a servant” and we’ll get the picture, or “her hair was in two braids coiled around her ears” and we’ll get her status).

The writing generally fails to instill excitement or tension. It’s often sloppy, over-describing in some places and under-describing in others. There are also odd contradictions: “I’ve tried to kill you many times . . . . You surprised me each time you managed to live. . . . I always knew that only I could finish this task.”¹ Well, which is it, villain? If you always knew you had to finish it yourself, why were you surprised each time the demons you sent failed to finish her off? Or, if you’re burning a body on a funeral pyre and “she gently laid a yellow cloth over [dead character]’s face” before lighting it, why would you immediate say that the flames “crackled, spread, and illuminated [dead character]’s face, making him appear lifelike again.”²? If is face is covered, no one can see it.

The strengths and the weaknesses: it’s all in the details.

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¹p. 261.
²p. 196.

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Silver Phoenix ~ Cindy Pon ~ Cindy Pon’s Blog

Soul Enchilada David Macinnis GillBug’s daily life is a struggle. She dropped out of high school to take care of her grandfather, and when he died she was left with no family—really, with not much more than her grandfather had: one very nice car. A year after his death Bug is working pizza delivery and not quite making ends meet. And that’s before a demon shows up to repossess the car, and possibly her soul. Luckily there’s a cute boy who’s reasonably knowledgeable about this supernatural stuff, and more than happy to help.

After years of struggling for self-sufficiency and the need to prove, to herself and the world, that she is an adult and can take care of herself, Bug is very reluctant to even listen when someone else may be offering help, or knowledge. It’s realistic and it fits her character, but it makes for a frustrating read—I was rooting for her and so were many characters, and if she’d only slow down and listen to them, she’d have a much smoother time getting out of this pickle. Basically, she’s up shit creek and turning her nose up at everyone who tries to give her a paddle.

Luckily, the cute boy—Pesto—doesn’t give up easily and Bug softens a little by the end, so it’s not as disastrous as it could be. The romance that strikes up between the two is adorable—him failing to be anything other than an awkward nerdboy, her failing to be anything but a prickly, trash-talking, abandoned girl—and only overdone in one scene. The minor characters are great: Pesto; Pesto’s mother, combining a matriarchal force of nature and a source of comfort and gentleness; the gamer nerds working at the International Supernatural Immigration Service; even Bug’s grandfather, dead and gone though he is. It’s really the charm of these supporting characters that makes the book enjoyable, with some help from sheer silliness—who knew that hairspray was an effective weapon against demons?

Overall, it’s a book that reaches high and sometimes misses. (For instance, the high-stakes high-speed pizza delivery scene just made me want to hand both Bug and the author a copy of Snow Crash. Now that’s high-speed pizza delivery.) Still, it’s funny and cute, and it’s a refreshing change to see a working class girl and a primarily nonwhite cast of characters taking the lead.

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SoulEnchilada.com ~ David Macinnis Gill

The Lost Conspiracy HardingeLife on Gullstruck Island is smoothed by the Lost: capable of detaching their senses from their bodies and sending them far afield, they watch for incoming storms, carry messages across the island, and otherwise make themselves useful. The Lost are few and far between, and then, abruptly and without explanation, something happens to them.

Except for Arilou. The only Lost born in two centuries to the Lace, a tribe neither trusting of nor trusted by the Towners or the other tribes,¹ Arilou is the pride of her poor village. With her mind so often out of her body, her body is cared for by her younger sister, Hathin; Hathin makes sure she eats, makes sure she doesn’t get sunburned or hurt, and translates the words her too-little-used tongue garbles. But here’s the kicker: no one is entirely sure if Arilou really is Lost, or if she’s just an imbecile.

Lost or imbecile, the village has touted her as their Lady Lost for thirteen years, and with the other Lost gone, the Towners turn on her and her village. So Hathin must take her sister and run, searching for help and for answers.

It’s a really good book. The writing is deceptively straightforward, telling its tale simply but effectively, covering a variety of tricky issues without losing sight of the story being told. It delicately explores the way reasonable people are transformed into a mob, how scapegoating happens, how seeds of truth get buried in generation of myth, and, most potently, the way someone who has been ignored and undervalued comes to ignore and undervalue herself. Hathin is a great character, embodying bravery and determination, but also petty jealousy and insecurity. She brings the sparkling writing and well-developed, entertaining world to life.

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²Not entirely without reason; the Lace did kidnap and murder a mess of townspeople two hundred years ago, and the Towners did retaliate by killing all the Lace priests and Lost.

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The Lost Conspiracy ~ Frances Hardinge
My review of Well Witched