Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nobody's Princess by Esther Friesner

Main character: Helen of Sparta
Location: Ancient Greece
Time period: Bronze age
Genre: YA Fiction, Greek mythology

Nobody's Princess is a very entertaining take on the legendary Helen of Troy before she became so legendary.

From her very earliest years, Helen has known that she was loved, favored even, by her parents and under the special protection of the goddess Aphrodite. She also learns that she is beautiful and that beauty wins her attention and approval that she doesn't necessarily earn--as her twin Clytemnestra is always eager to point out.

Helen, however, is not content to be just a pretty princess. She wants to learn to be a warrior. She manages to convince her brothers' teacher, Glaucus, to teach her too. Her brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, are skeptical at first, but her determination not to quit no matter how hard things get soon wins them over. When Clytemnestra goes to Mykenae to marry Prince Tantalus, Helen and her brothers accompany her and here Helen's adventures really begin.

Esther Friesner does a great job in reimagining various stories from Greek mythology and fitting Helen into them. This Helen is courageous, rebellious, loyal to her friends, and no fool when it comes to dealing with braggarts--even when they are some of the most famous and admired heroes. These men create the myths that we know today because the truth will not win them fam and glory. What story would you rather hear--that Herakles defeated the seven-headed Hydra or a bunch of swamp snakes?

It's difficult to see how this Helen will grow up to be the selfish and vain queen whose actions lead to the destruction of Troy, as in Caroline Cooney's Goddess of Yesterday but I could being to see how her need for adventure and her chafing at being confined (even if that confinement is in the most luxurious of palaces) might lead her into running away from a loveless marriage.

The story continues in Nobody's Prize.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Garden of Eve by K.L. Going

Main character: 10-year-old (almost 11) Eve
Location: a small town in upstate New York
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Fantasy, Death, Grieving

I picked this book up after a couple of teens told me they had read it and enjoyed it.

Evie is mourning her mother, who died of cancer not long ago. Her father, too, is in mourning, and their grief has isolated them from each other. Evie's father, an orchard worker, has bought an apple orchard that is regarded as cursed by the people in the town. Evie is not happy at having to leave her Michigan home and is even less happy when she discovers that their new house faces the cemetery. There's a funeral going on as they pass the cemetery, and only one pale-faced boy notices them as they drive past. As Evie slowly begins to learn more about her new home, some strange things begin to happen--things that would seem natural in the stories that her mother used to tell her but which her father tells her flatly can't really exist.

Evie meets the pale-faced boy in the cemetery, playing among the headstones. He introduces himself as Alex, and tells her that he just recently died of leukemia--it was his funeral that she saw when they first came to town. Maggie, the elderly sister of the man who previously owned the orchard, gives Evie a box. It's a present he left with Maggie before he died, telling her to give it to Eve when she came. But Evie never met the old man, so how could he know that she would be coming? The box contains an old seed which just might have come from the Garden of Eden. If Evie plants it, will she be able to see her mother again?

This is a beautiful little book, full of loss and grieving, but also with hope and healing. Like Pieces of Georgia by Jennifer Bryant, Evie is missing a vibrant mother and finding it difficult to connect with an uncommunicative father. There is a poignant moment when her father confesses that sometimes he would hide in the shadows listening to Evie and her mother tell each other stories and wishing that he could join them. The revelation that her father sometimes felt left out gives Evie a bit of insight into him and draws them closer together. The biggest mystery--how did the former owner know about Evie--is finally answered in a birthday card that her mother wrote before she died. It wound up being a much simpler explanation than I was imagining, but no less satisfying.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers

Main Character: 15-year-old Jesse
Location: New York City
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

Jesse is a young African-American teen growing up in the 'hood. Rise is an older boy who has been Jesse's friend since forever; they even did the blood brothers thing when they were little. Well, Jesse was too scared to actually cut his finger but when he fell and scraped his knee, Rise cut his finger and they mingled blood then. They are as close, if not closer, than actual brothers. But lately, Jesse has been noticing a change in Rise.

Jesse and his friends have a social club, the Counts, which has a 40-year heritage. But when Mason joined the Counts, he seemed bent on taking it over and turning it into a gang. When Mason went to jail for robbing a bodega, Rise began following in his path, trying to become the group's leader and trying to take it in a direction that worried Jesse. The bodega that Mason robbed is firebombed. Did Rise have anything to do with it? Did Rise drop a dime on a Diablo in retaliation for a drive-by? Just what is going on with Rise?

Jesse is a good kid, struggling to grow up in an atmosphere that keeps him worried and nervous all the time. He takes refuge in his art, just as his friend C.J. takes refuge in his music. Rise had been a good kid, too. Only a few years before, he had talked about how drugs and crime were doing no good for their neighborhood, so why was he now talking about taking that path?

Walter Dean Myers has written another powerful novel (but, really, were you expecting him to do otherwise? This is Walter Dean Myers we're talking about.) Christopher Myers contributes the portraits and comics that Jesse draws in the novel. These pen and ink drawings not only illustrate parts of the story, but expand on them, such as the panels showing a drive-by shooting. Like Jesse, I felt nervous and anxious through much of this book. From the title, you know that things will not end well for Rise, but the stress was affecting everyone. Jesse's dad, in particular, is feeling the strain and lashes out in a way that is shocking but also, sadly, understandable. I have hopes for Jesse and his life after the end of this book. I would like to think that he will grow to be a good man himself.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Leven Thumps and the Eyes of the Want by Obert Skye

Main Character: Leven Thumps
Location: Foo, and the human world
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: J Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Leven Thumps #3

This is the third volume of the Leven Thumps series, and I am still finding that I like some parts while other parts still annoy me. I will admit that the balance is tipping and I am not as annoyed as I was in the earlier two books. This gives me hope for the next one in the series.

As in the previous book, the storyline that grabbed me most was the one dealing with Tim, Ezra, and Dennis, along with the remnants of Sabine. The fact that Ezra is really made up of Geth's darker emotions is something I find really interesting. It reminds me of an early Star Trek episode where an transporter malfunction caused Kirk to split into two--one "good" and one "bad,"--and the point was that you really needed both halves to cope effectively in the world. Maybe that's why I find Geth a little bland--though it may also be his lithen nature which puts all trust in fate. It is mentioned a few times in the book that Geth, now that he has been restored to his proper form, is shrinking; I wonder if this is because he is incomplete without Ezra. In the meantime, I still just love the image of Ezra as this spitting mad toothpick with a purple cellophane tassle on his head.

I am also beginning to feel some sympathy for Janet--at least for the will-of-the-whisp Janet that has been trapped in Foo. She is, probably for the first time in her life, examining her life and finding herself wanting. Now that she has come to that realization, it seems as if she is going to actually do something though I'm afraid she's going to wind up on the wrong side of the coming battle. I would really like to see an reconciliation, or at least an encounter, between her and Winter. Notice how I (just like the book) am focusing totally on the sliver of Janet that's in Foo, and not paying any attention to the corporeal Janet back on earth. But now that I mention it, I wonder if losing a bit of her is having an effect on Janet--a parallel of the Geth and Ezra storyline.

Leven finally figures out his place in Foo and it's not much of a surprise, especially for anyone who has read Lois Lowry's The Giver . Still, it was handled very nicely, and I was surprised by the identity of the Want. This volume ended on an up note, and would have made a satisfying conclusion to the series if it weren't for a few loose ends. The title of the fourth book, Leven Thumps and the Wrath of Ezra, promises to tie up at least some of those loose ends and focus on my favorite plot.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Green Man by Kate Sedley

Main Character: Roger the Chapman
Location: England and Scotland
Time period: 1482
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Historical
Series: Roger the Chapman #17

I am a big fan of historical mysteries, so when our library got the new Roger the Chapman book I had to take a break from YA Fantasy and put The Green Man at the top of my to-read pile.

Roger is a chapman, a traveling peddlar who sells sewing notions and ladies' finery--things that can fit confortably into a backpack. In earlier books in the series, he has also acted as a spy for Richard of Gloucester (who will before long become King Richard III.) In this book, he has been requested to act as a bodyguard for Alexander, Duke of Albany, the younger brother of Scotland's King James III. James is an unpopular king among the nobles and populace alike, and the English believe that if they can lead an army to Scotland and provoke James into battle they would have the chance to put Alexander on the throne. Alexander is afraid that someone among the English will try to kill him, or possibly one of his own retinue. He knows Roger from an earlier encounter and insists that Roger is the only one he can trust to protect him.

Ever since reading Josephine Tey's excellent book The Daughter of Time, I have been a firm believer that Richard III has been wronged by history (and particularly by Shakespeare.) One of the things that I like about this series is the portrayal of Richard as a amiable man--a shrewd tactician and able warrior, but a man with a sense of humor and a keen judge of people. So I experienced an unexpected chill when Roger overhears a conversation where Richard asks what Albany intends to do with his nephews when he attains the throne--foreshadowing the fate of the little princes in the tower.

Kate Sedley obviously knows her time period well, and includes enough social and political background to set the story firmly in its historical setting. It is the characters that keep me reading, not the mystery. We could actually have a book with no deaths at all and I would be perfectly content. I want to continue to see how Roger is affected (or indeed if he is affected) when Richard attains the throne, and again when Henry VII becomes king.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Ever by Gail Carson Levine

Main Characters: 15-year-old Kezi; and Olus, god of the winds
Location: undetermined
Time period: undefined, but in the distant past
Genre: YA Fiction, Fairy Tales

Like Fairest and Ella Enchanted, Ever is a fairy tale that has some familiar themes but is a wholly original story. This one has the flavor of the Middle East and western Africa.

Olus is the Akkan god of the winds. He is also the youngest god--the next oldest is 412 years older--and has no one to play with. So he spends much of his time watching humans and wanting to make friends. Needing to find a land where he is not recognized, he travels east and disguises himself as a goatherder. He falls in love with Kezi, a young girl who is always dancing and weaves the most beautiful rugs. Sadly, because of a rash oath made by her father, Kezi is to be sacrificed to Admat in a month's time. Can Olus and Kezi find a way to fulfill her father's oath and yet still be together?

The book is told in alternating voices by both Olus and Kezi, so we get to know both of them. To my mind, Kezi is the stronger character. She is a loving, devout and dutiful daughter, but also strong-minded and independent. She does not want to be sacrificed, but she does not want her father to be an oath-breaker. She and Olus must each go on a quest, and only if they both succeed will they be able to be together. If either fail, they will remain eternally apart.

Some readers may be bothered that there is a conflict between a polytheistic culture and a monotheistic one--especially since Olus and his fellow gods are made manifest while Admat remains hidden. However, I think that most will be able to accept this as a lovely and exotic love story.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Little (Grrl) Lost by Charles de Lint

Main Characters: Elizabeth, a 16-year old Little; and T.J., a 14-year-old human
Location: the suburbs
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy

Due to some bad investments, T.J.'s father has lost the farm that she grew up on and the family has had to move to the suburbs. It's never fun moving, having to get used to a new place and make new friends, but what hurts T.J. the most is having to give up her horse, Red. Late at night, she hears scritching sounds within the walls of her bedroom and imagines a family of cute little mice. She is shocked when a small door in the baseboard opens and out comes a girl only 6 inches tall! Despite her size, Elizabeth is a fairly typical teenage girl rebelling against a life she finds too restictive.

The girls slowly become friends, despite Elizabeth's ingrained distrust of Bigs and T.J.'s tendency to over-protect her. They decide to seek out an author who has written some children's books about Littles and who might actual believe in them, but on their way T.J. is swarmed by a group of bullies who takes the backpack where Elizabeth is hiding.

Through their separate adventures, as T.J. searches for Elizabeth and Elizabeth searches for herself, both are able to grow and learn and lose some of their self-centerness. Elizabeth finds a whole world of magical beings and finds out about her own family history--things her parents never told her because fear and distrust isolated them. T.J. learns to stand up for herself and that first impressions are not always right; she even discovers that an older brother can become a friend.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Maude March on the Run! by Audrey Couloumbis

Main Characters: Maude and Sallie March
Location: Missouri, Colorado
Time period: 1860s
Genre: J Fiction, Historical Fiction, Western
Sequel to: The Misadventures of Maude March

Sallie and Maude's safe haven with their Uncle Arlen is not as permanent as they hoped. He receives a telegram from in the Colorado Territory and feels honor bound to help an old friend in trouble. Maude is still working as a waitress and baker at the saloon, Marion is in charge of the livery stable, and Sallie, still dressed as a boy, helps out in the smithy. Things should be all right, but Sallie is uneasy without Uncle Arlen. Turns out she's right--Maude is recognized and arrested, Sallie and Marion break her out of jail, and the three of them are on the run again. Not knowing what else to do, they set off for the Colorado Territory.

What follows is a series of adventures, much like we saw in the first book. The legend of "Mad Maude" March and her gang continues to grow, and this time they encounter various wannabes claiming to be the notorious Maude. The real Maude is in the odd position of not wanting the notoriety of her undeserved reputation, but not wanting these pretenders riding on her coattails, either. Fortunately, some people seem more likely to believe Maude's side of the story and it does look like she'll be able to clear her name eventually.

Though at first I felt that Uncle Arlen's leaving was just a plot device to force the girls onto the trail again, it ties back in nicely. Besides Marion, the girls gain friends in John Henry Kirby, a newspaper man who also writes the dime novels that Sallie loves so much; in fact, he's the one that wrote the stories about Joe Harden that got Marion in trouble in the first book. They also meet a medicine man and his wife who take them under their care, and a wagon train of women heading west to find husbands. These characters add some richness and depth to the story.

It's doubtful that the safe haven they find at the end of this book will be permanent either--Maude and Sallie do not seem the type to settle for a peacefull life--and I would be glad to follow any further adventures that come.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Saga by Conor Kostick

Main Character: Ghost, a 16-year-old with no memory before age 9
Location: Saga, a virtual reality game
Time period: sometime in the future
Genre: YA Science Fiction/Fantasy
Sequel to Epic

After reading Epic, I was really looking forward to reading its sequel, Saga. Since Epic ended with the destruction of the game that was ruining their world, I expected Saga to deal with the rebuilding of their world. I was wrong, but I wasn't disappointed.

Saga is another massive virtual reality game, but in this one the NPCs (non-player characters) have become sentient. They live their own lives in a futuristic society where socio-economic classes are kept strictly in their places. Ghost is an airboarder and member of a small punk gang made up mostly of red cards, though Ghost herself has no card and no official identity. She has no memory of her childhood, and her outsider status has turned her into a master thief. She and her friends, Athena the computer hacker, Nathan the artist, and Milan the street tough, are part of an anarchic movement which indulges in outbursts of vandalism, though Athena dreams of fighting the system from within the system. That will be difficult because their world is controlled by the Dark Queen, an ancient and tyrannical character who has gained her place by assassinating all her rivals.

Saga has now come into contact with New Earth's computers. Erik and his friends think that it is just a new game and they clip in, create new characters, and start to play. This causes some consternation among the inhabitants of Saga, who begin speculating about the mysterious people who suddenly appear and disappear. When Erik, through his avatar Cinderella, learns that the characters of Saga are real, he is shocked and distressed. But by then the people of New Earth are trapped in the Dark Queen's plot.

Though the book was not what I expected or anticipated, I still liked it. I was quickly caught up in this new world and the reality of these characters. Ghost and her friends are very likeable, and seeing circumstances through the eyes of the Dark Queen gave an interesting dimension to the story.