… and we’re back

I am back after a long hiatus. Starting with Christmas, I got very busy, and then I somehow with work  and  toddler, have had absolutely no time at all.  However, I am back, ready to provide reviews for all the juvenile/YA literature that happens across my path.  But before I begin, I feel the need to recap (for myself) my reads of the last few months (or what I can remember, at any rate).
Favourite book:

Katherine Applegate – The One and Only Ivan

Smart, quirky and heartbreaking, this is the story of a captive silverback gorilla and his plans to rescue himself and a baby elephant from a mall of America zoo. (Ages 9-12)

Other books I’ve enjoyed:
R. J. Palacio – Wonder

About a boy starting school for the first time. He has a serious (for lack of a better word) facial disfigurement. Braving the stares, snickers and random cruelties of the other kids, August will inspire you with his heart and humour.

Scott Gardner – The Dead I Know

Six Feet Under meets One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest (sort of) in this engaging Australian book for teens about a young man who finds employment – and a community – with an undertaker. Fantastic.

Gabrielle Zevin – All These Things I’ve Done

Futuristic Tony Soprano as a teenage girl. While the world makes NO SENSE at all (chocolate is outlawed; many things are rationed; there is a general unexplained mess), the main character and her story is absolutely fantastic. You just have to allow the world to make NO SENSE at all.

Amy Kathleen Ryan – Glow

Very much like the Star Trek episode where they steal the children and Wesley has to lead a hunger strike. While I was afraid it was going to be rather religious, in the end I very much enjoyed this futuristic novel. Two ships from earth set to find new colonies. One ship hangs back, boards and then steals all the girls on the second ship. All the adults are killed or go missing, and it is up to the boys to regain their ship and find the girls. Not without weaknesses, but quite compelling nevertheless.

Tom Ryan – Way to Go

Charming, solid read about a young man growing up in the 1990s in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, who is increasingly sure he is gay. Given the era, and the homophobia popular among his classmates and best friends, this is a major problem for him. It speaks to my youth (the era, not the growing up as a gay man), and had some fantastic cooking in it, so I quite enjoyed this one.

Jordan Sonnenblick – Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip

Great boy read about a kid who blows his shoulder and will never pitch a baseball again. Terrified he’ll lose his best friend and his identity as a cool kid, Peter turns to photography that he has learned at his grandfather’s side – and of course gets the girl.

Y.S. King – Everybody Sees the Ants

Loved this book. It had the potential to be a Holden Caufield classic (such a great narrator, themes, and innovative storytelling), but the ending let me down a wee bit. Still, an absolutely fantastic read.

Alan Cumyn – Tilt

A Canadian YA book about a very serious and intense teenager, Stan, who is struggling to hold his family of mom and younger sister together. His family and making the junior varsity basketball team are all Stan focuses on – until very sexy Janine Igwash asks him out. Somehow she manages to tilt his world completely and challenge his control effortlessly. When a runaway dad shows up with a half-brother, Stan’s world is thrown further off balance. A great short guy read, with one of the more steamy sex scenes I have read in a YA book.

Books that have been a bit disappointing:

Maureen Doyle McQuerry – The Peculiars

Someone told me this had great reviews. I think steampunk folk might get more out of it. Personally, I found the lag in the middle, and some of the awkward writing, turned me off enough that I had to put it down 2/3 of the way in.  Too many others to read.

Yvonne Prinz – All You Get is Me

While I was waiting for a copy of another farm girl book, I picked up the similarly gendred All You Get is Me by Yvonne Prince (author of Vinyl Princess, which I loved). While this book was ok, it was just ok. The politics were prominent, and while I agree with them, they could have been just a little more subtle? And why does the love interest always have to be so perfect in these books?

Horvath, Polly – Mr & Mrs Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire!

I love Polly Horvath, a local Canadian author (in particular her Everything on a Waffle). However, this one rubbed me the wrong way – particularly the hippies. There were a few too many in-jokes for adults in this one. I have to say, though, by the end, I was quite charmed by the bunnies and their inane ideas and banter – very funny, them.

Marissa Meyer – Cinder

I can’t say as I was disappointed by this, as I had no particular hopes. But it was rather uninspiring. Cinderella as a cyborg. Not bad, but very predictable and unremarkable.

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

This started out beautifully, with very strong writing and fascinating characters and mysteries. By the end, it was just kind of weak and meh? There will be sequels, but I won’t be tuning in.

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Wisdom’s Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Wisdom’s Kiss is an odd little book.  I did enjoy reading it – it is very whimsical and clever.  The storytelling was unusual enough to add a degree of freshness to what might otherwise be a hackneyed fairy tale.  Several characters tell the story in a diary style, or as a memoir, and there are other chapters written up like encyclopedia entries and a play.  Each character’s very individual voice makes for an interesting series of observations on the plot – from the level-headed and kind-hearted Queen Mother Ben, to the opinionated Princess Wisdom (“Dizzy”), and to the pompous and self-involved performer “Felis El Gato, Impresario Extraordinaire, Soldier of Fortune, Mercenary of Stage and Empire, Lord of the Legendary Fist of God, Famed Throughout the Courts and Countries of the World and The Great Sultanate: The Booted Maestro”.  Admittedly, several of these voices (like the last two) were rather annoying and I found myself feeling very grateful that they were interspersed with so many others.  In particular, the play was entertaining with its out-dated and purple language – full of asides and overly-dramatic speeches.  The one aspect of the form that I didn’t enjoy was the tendency to introduce some unfamiliar thing with a mention, and then have it fully explained in a following chapter written as an encyclopedia entry.  It was both a bit obtuse (because I felt like I was missing something) and too explicit (because by the time the encyclopedia entry came along I felt like I had pieced it together).

In terms of the plot: there is Princess Wisdom who finds herself engaged to a man she doesn’t love and whose mother is after the kingdom.  There is Fortitude, a maiden who can intuit the future and who has been in love with a young fellow named Tips, now a soldier, her whole life.  Throw in an emperor, a circus, a conspiracy or two, a giant golden orb, a cat and a bit more magic, and you have yourself an entertaining fairy tale.  I wasn’t able to predict the exact climax, or one of the pairings, and that was a nice feature.  Again, for a fairy tale type story, I found the plot relatively fresh.

My preference is still Dianna Wynne Jones or Ella Enchanted author Gail Carson Levine for this type of book.  However, Wisdom’s Kiss was fun and reasonably unique.  Good for those young, clever readers looking for a magical tale (9-12).

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A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

There is a distinct potential for cheesiness in the concept of A Long Long Sleep – a sleeping beauty/dystopia mash-up.  However, I found that the writing was excellent, and that the issues raised were so compelling that there was no hint of cheesiness.  It actually had unexpected depths and an extremely compelling story.

Rosalinda Fitzroy is the daughter of the most powerful corporate leader there is.  She has just woken up from a sixty-two year sleep in stasis.  Waking up was hard – her body is wasted and barely functional after her long sleep.  The world into which she emerges is even harder to face – her loved ones are long dead, and the catastrophic Dark Times and subsequent Recovery have altered her world drastically.  Though she is heiress to her father’s empire, Rose finds she doesn’t fit in anywhere, and that her only escape is through her art that is augmented by the vivid stasis dreams she has been immersed in.

However, as Rose faces the painful aspects in her past, she slowly begins to recognize the source of her alienation and timidity.  Helped by Brendan, the young man who woke her up with a kiss (mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), and a genetic oddity, Otto, Rose slowly confronts what has happened to her, and questions the memory of her devoted parents.

The themes Sheehan touches on in this story were deeper than I had expected: corporate control; inequitable distributions of wealth; the dangers of genetic engineering; the allure of drugs as an escape from reality; parental neglect and abuse of power; and the process of aging or staying young while the world ages around you.  Without giving anything away, the relationship between Rose and her childhood love Xavier was touching and heartbreaking – beautifully drawn out and agonizing in a very compelling way.

I’m sure Long Long Sleep will not be for everyone, but I was pleased to find that it had appeal beyond the fluffy romance crowd.  Though nowhere near as gritty and dark as dystopias like Ship Breaker or Elephant Mountains, it had issues that cut to the core of our society and psychology.  I hope many people read and enjoy this most excellent book.

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Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Dalí claimed that “the only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.”

The difference between Ship Breaker and other YA dystopias is that Ship Breaker is a dystopia.

And no wonder this is a darker read: Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl, an award-winning and bestselling adult novel.  More so than other YA dystopias, Ship Breaker hovers on that increasingly narrow precipice that separates teen and adult fiction.  Say what you will about the violence of Hunger Games, or the bleak plot of Blood Red Road, Ship Breaker is a much more complicated, grown-up world.  Many other YA dystopias that I have read (Divergent, Matched, Hunger Games) are built on an interesting premise as a kind of “what if our world were like that?”  Whether it’s teens who must choose a vocation or partner for life at a certain age, or even a more complex hierarchy of cities all serving a privileged core, these worlds all have boundaries.  They exist simply within the bounds of the novel, and it feels like the whole society can be encapsulated and explained within these pages.

Ship Breaker does not have this same feel at all.  Rather, it feels like a vast world full of unexplained technologies and social structures.  Why  are there half-dog-half-men creatures?  Where do they come from?  We have a glimpse into the main character, Nailer’s world, and it is filled with so much detail and complexity, that one can only guess at what the rest of the world must be.  So whatever else it is, Ship Breaker is a gritty and startlingly intricate vision of the future.

It begins with Nailer, a teen who is probably fifteen but doesn’t really know his own age.  Because he’s so small, he can still work the light crew, stripping old tanker ships of their copper wiring to make his scavange quota.  He lives on a beach somewhere in America’s Gulf Coast region, an area polluted by poisons excreted by rotting tankers, and populated by impoverished and desperate people.  Life is cheap here – those who can’t make quota, who are too big for light crew or who are too weak for heavy crew must fend for themselves.  All too often this involves selling themselves – their organs or reproductive materials – for enough money to survive.  Everyone dreams of a Lucky Strike and loyalty to one’s crew is the only type of fellow feeling there is.

Though he is a dreamer, Nailer always makes quota and he has a family of sorts in his best friend Pima and her mother.  His own mother is dead, and his father Richard Lopez is a violent drunk at the best of times.  The opening pages include Nailer’s near-death in a vat of oil and a deadly tropical storm that wrecks the settlement and kills several people.  It is immediately clear why Nailer’s people place their faith in luck; although for his part, Nailer vows to be smart and lucky.

After the destructive storm, Nailer finds what should be his Lucky Strike – a wrecked clipper ship with a fortune of scavenge.  However, he also finds a half-dead girl named Anita on board.  Tying his fate to hers will be the biggest risk of his life, but he finds himself compelled to help this wealthy “swank” who seems truthful despite the lies she tells about herself.  Together they undertake the most dangerous of adventures.

There are people today who make a living breaking ships to recycle materials and scavenging on top of enormous landfills.  In many ways Nailer’s world, with its oil shortages and population surpluses, is only a few steps away from ours.  In other ways – in the genetically engineered monsters that are a combination of man/dog/tiger/hyena – I found it came entirely out of left field.  Nailer’s existence is described in intricate detail – the slang, the code of honour, the tattoos and world view.  We also  get a glimpse at Anita’s swanky world – full of luxury items, bodyguards and comfort – not too dissimilar from what it  is to be a billionaire heiress today.  Bacigalupi does a beautiful job in capturing these existences and hinting at a richly complex world that exists in between these extremes.

The plot and action of Ship Breaker move along well.  True to the YA form, there is not a lot of waste in this novel, and we move reasonably quickly into the meat of the story and drive towards the finish.  The strongest element (and the most enigmatic) of the story is Tool, a gigantic dog-man creature.  He is supposed to have an overwhelming loyalty built into his genetic code, but Tool serves no master except for himself.  Instead, Tool chooses to help those around them as it suits him.  He serves as an unlikely ally for Nailer, who is initially terrified of him.  And when he decides the risk is no longer worth it, Tool departs.  It is no surprise that the sequel to this novel begins with Tool’s fate (a first chapter is helpfully included at the end of Ship Breaker).  Tool somehow reminded me of Asimov’s robots – designed to serve humanity, though exhibiting a will to live of his own.  He was compelling, and I am keen to hear more of his fate.

The rest of the characters were quite well described (particularly Nailer), but were not the strong point of the novel.  In particular, I was frusterated by Richard, Nailer’s father.  As a drunk, drugged-up and abusive father he was terrifying and all-too believable.  The scenes between him and Nailer were heartbreaking in their emotional and physical violence.  What I could not believe is that this monster of a man was somehow capable of masterminding a complex and sustained criminal conspiracy.  His portrayal as a substance abuser with long blackouts just didn’t translate consistently to his identity later in the novel as a respected leader of evil men.  As a result, the conflict between Richard and Nailer – so crucial to novel – was undermined because it felt forced on the story as a plot and thematic device.  That said, the father/son conflict still managed to be fairly compelling and powerful.

I very much enjoyed Bacigalupi’s creation – it felt gritty and real, and a departure from others in the genre that come off feeling shiny and tidy in comparison.  That said, I’m not sure everyone reading these YA dystopias will love it as much.  There was no love triangle in Ship Breaker and no easy answers.  Like House of the Scorpion or Oryx and Crake there are nightmares in this world and very few safe havens.  Unlike the middle-class ethos of some YA dystopias (all will be well if you just conform to society’s demands – a precept the main characters universally reject), there is no safety in Ship Breaker.  Normal is painful and marginal – the only possible escape from an already precarious existence is to risk everything.

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Bunheads by Sophie Flack

After watching Black Swan and The Company and reading Ballet Confidential and Bunheads in the past year, I’m coming to the conclusion that all stories about serious ballet dancers have the same themes.  Driving ambition, punishing work, all-consuming competition, incredible discipline of mind and body, and inevitable breakdowns of both.  Apparently being a ballet dancer is one of the most punishing and un-glamerous careers possible.  So glad I’m short, ungraceful and clumsy – I just never had to face this painful existence.

I picked up Bunheads because of the beautiful cover, and because in honour of a well-loved former co-worker, I scope out interesting ballet books (she is a dancer).  While Bunheads was nowhere near as dark as Black Swan, I did find myself thinking of that movie a lot as Hannah, the main character, subsumed her life, emotions and health to being a ballet star and achieving the elusive solo.  Hannah is a nineteen-year-old dancer in the prestigious Manhattan Ballet.  For the past ten years she has dedicated herself to this life of constant rehearsals and nightly performances, and she has loved it.  However, when she meets a handsome college student, Jacob, Hannah begins to question why she can’t have a life, and begins to wonder about all the things she might be missing out on.

When an instructor suggests that she lose weight (she is still willowy and thin, but has begun to develop – gasp – breasts!), Hannah is thrown into further conflict – and experiences severe embarrassment at needing a bra.  Through the book she alternates between fanatic devotion to dance – working out constantly to lose weight and develop her stamina and perfect ballerina figure – and a frustration with all the outrageous demands from the unyielding directors who see her as little more than an object.

The author, Sophie Flack, apparently spent nine years with the New York City Ballet, and this novel is clearly based on her experience.  It’s a certainly well-described experience.  I was sunk right into the world of aching muscles, bone-tired exhaustion, and the exhilaration that comes with performance and completing a dance beautifully.

In particular, her characters were well-realized.  Hannah was complex and the conflict she felt between her dance ambitions and desire to experience real life was palpable.  I also loved and hated Zoe, her best friend.  Though Zoe is petty, often mean, and self-centred, she is also a loyal friend when it really matters and an extremely hard worker.  Her family is ridiculously wealthy, but she is almost entirely neglected by her mother, and though she is priviledged, she earns her dance recognition through hard work.  Flack created a wonderful character here – one that you can’t help but hate on occasion, but one who is clearly damaged and ultimately caring beneath her hostile shields.

All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book.  Perfect for aspiring dancers, but also a well-drawn coming-of-age book for a world completely different from the norm.

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Outlaw by Stephen Davies

Outlaw goes on sale in a couple of weeks.  It’s another book passed on to me by a publisher’s rep a couple of months ago, with a promise that it is an absolutely fantastic boy book.  Action, adventure, the whole deal.

And, you know, it was pretty good.  Davies tells the story of Jake Knight, a fifteen-year-old completely bored with his stuffy British boarding school.  To spice up his life he creates urban adventures with his friends – elaborate games of “find the thimble” using GPS and parkour skills to find and hide objects in improbable areas around town.  When he breaks into a local prison to retrieve an item, Jake is kicked out of school for the rest of the semester.  To his delight, he is sent back to his current family home – in Burkina Faso in West Africa.  His dad is the British Ambassador there, and as Jake arrives he fantasizes about the adventures he could have in Africa.

Because this is a novel, Jake’s desire is granted with a vengeance – he and his younger sister are kidnapped from an elaborate dinner.  They are taken to the desert and find themselves among thieves, terrorists, outlaws, and at the centre of a large military conspiracy.

What I liked:

The action is well done.  I liked the parkour and building hopping.  Technology was well-integrated into the story and rather believable.  The evil gold companies and Robin Hood themes running through the story were fun and appealing.  The character of Yakuuba Sor, the outlaw they run into, was absolutely fantastic; it is impossible not to fall in love with him a little.  The use of African languages and a bit of French added depth, and I so enjoyed all the African proverbs.  Finally, I was won over a bit by the fact that this is an honourable book, written by someone who lives in Africa, used actual places and cultures, and who is concerned to educate and inform people about the issues of the region.

What I didn’t like:

The simplicity of some of the supporting characters, like Jake’s rather one-note mom.  The inconsistent reading level was also frustrating.   Except for a shocking bit of violence, Outlaw would be fine for ages 10 or 11 and up; because of that one scene, I wouldn’t want to give it to anyone under 12 or 13, even though the story and writing level is generally pitched younger.  Jake’s sister frequently bothered me – I wanted either more or less from her.  She obviously had stuff going on (like a crush on Yakuuba, I think), but she came off as rather flat all the same.

Overall, a good action-adventure.  I would probably recommend buying it in paperback rather than hardcover.  But the setting and story combine to make it a relatively unique and fun read, with important enough themes to make it a somewhat thoughtful book.

 (The much-superior British cover)

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Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver has been all the rage for the past couple of years among the teen vampire/werewolf fan set.  And I can see why: it’s got the same obsessive relationship stuff (almost but not quite as chaste as Twilight); the same star-crossed species theme; and a similar paranormal ethos.  Like Bella, Grace abandons friends and family (though, to be fair, her family abandoned her first) to be with her non-human boyfriend all the time.  She also watches him go wistfully, wishing she could transform herself in order to be like him.  Meanwhile, Sam the wolf (like Edward the Vampire) would give anything to abandon his supernaturalness and just be human.  Both boys also quake with repressed sexual desire for their loved ones (though SPOILER Sam’s release comes a lot quicker than Edward’s, and without marriage – which, frankly, I found refreshing).

I didn’t mind Shiver, but it certainly didn’t rock my world.  The concept was not bad – humans bit by werewolves transform according to the temperature, which mostly leads to human summers and wolf winters.  There are a lot of inconsistencies in this setup (what if you move to Florida where it’s always warm?) and the execution (Sam’s transitions initially don’t make a lot of sense)… but gradually most holes seem to be mostly filled by the end.

I read Shiver slowly, so by the end it did seem to be a bit of a slog for me.  I found myself just wanting it to be over, and having a pretty good idea of where it was going (I think one major thing surprised me.  The rest, not so much.)  But I think if you read it all in one go, you’d enjoy it a lot more.  Good for Twilight fans, though not nearly as captivating.  Unlike Twilight, though, I didn’t feel vaguely dirty when I finished Shiver.  The main character has a lot more agency than Bella did, and though she moons over Sam, they have a pretty interesting connection and it’s not quite as mindless (or repetative) as Bella’s mooning over Edward.

That said, I did think Wolf Blood by N. M Browne was a whole lot more interesting take on the werewolf dynamic.  Really great, strong characters driving that – with some good substance, and an even stronger connection to the real animals than Shiver  (even if it did drag a bit in the middle also).  (And for a better book about the cold, read Iain Lawrence’s spectacular Winter Pony).

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Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence

For days I have been in a land of ice, snow and frozen vistas.  I have shivered through the nights and sweated with back-breaking labour during the days…  Well, not really.  I’ve been sitting indoors on comfy furniture reading the extremely evocative new novel by Canadian author, Iain Lawrence.

A co-worker passed Winter Pony on weeks ago with high praise.  But true to form, I had other books on my list, and I put it off.  I had no idea what was waiting for me.  This is the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s epic quest to reach the South Pole – a race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  The novel is told from an overarching historical vantage point, and from the point of view of one of the animals brought by Captain Scott – a plucky, if tired, pony called James Pigg.  Lawrence imagined much of this story, but he also stayed true to the facts wherever possible, and obviously immersed himself in the historical record, and the lives of ponies.  This book was startling and left me feeling mournful and rather chilly.

I won’t ruin the story for those who don’t know the tale of Scott’s voyage – as I didn’t.  Lawrence claims he might not have written the book if he had known what it would entail; similarly, I’m not sure I would have read it if I had known the journey I was on.  But once I started I was captivated.  The writing is excellent, and though there is a lot of bleakness, there is humour and comfort also.  The scale of hardship, compassion, and betrayal in this book is hard to fathom, and I sat puzzled by the recommended age level of 9-12.  They want 9 year olds to read this?  I’m not sure I was old enough for it!

To sketch it out: our white pony is captured in his youth from the mountains where he was born wild and free.  For years he is overworked and beaten by cruel men.  One day he is bought and sent on a long journey by train and then boat.  He finds himself among kinder men than he has ever experienced, but also in an unimaginably harsh climate.  Named James Pigg by the Englishmen, he is part of a team of ponies and dogs gathered together to help Scott reach his destination.  The scale of these preparations is remarkable: first the men, dogs and ponies travel south during the summer, laying down the supplies they will need the next year.  Then they return to their base camp to wait out the winter.  The next spring they venture out again in a long dash over hundreds of miles to reach the South Pole.  And this is all in a tense race against Amundsen – never really knowing if he has already stolen their prize of becoming the first to reach the Pole.

The relationship between the men and ponies was incredibly touching to read.  Through James Pigg’s eyes, the reader sees Captain Scott as a brave, compassionate, and driven man who refuses to yield before his ambitions.  The themes of this novel are incredibly grown-up – but they are told largely through the eyes of a rather child-like pony, which renders it all a bit softer and more bearable.  I think it would be a wonderful book to experience with children.  I cannot help but think it would be a memorable read, and one that might lead them into finding more fiction or nonfiction about these adventurers.

By all means, immerse yourself in this frozen world – but make sure you pack plenty of provisions, and that you don’t get lost on your return journey.  This is not a voyage for the faint of heart.

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Half World by Hiromi Goto

Half World is one of those books that I pick up from time to time from the Children’s section where I work.  I find a poor, neglected volume that is due for return to the publisher, but which I can’t send back before at least trying first. I was somewhat surprised to find Half World on my returns list – not only is it an award-winner with an amazing cover, I was sure it had enough buzz to propel it along.  But life is tough at my bookstore – often without a staff member to love and recommend it, a book will die an undeserved death.  This is why I constantly lament the imbalance in my time/book ratio in life.  This time my efforts were rewarded – I found Half World to be a solid, satisfying fantasy with enough unusual elements to make it very enjoyable.

I loved the setup for Half World: there are three realms of existence: the Spirit Realm, the realm of Flesh, and Half World.  These realms are meant to be interconnected – we pass through Flesh to Spirit, or to Half Life if we must cleanse ourselves of something.  After a stretch in Half World we find release as a spirit; when our energy begins to flag we are reborn as flesh.  But somehow these realms have become disjointed: the spirit realm is drifting away as spirits forget their connection to flesh and slowly fade from existence; the flesh world is filled with dismay and discord without the release provided by the other two worlds; and those in half life are trapped, repeating their trauma and reliving their nightmares for an eternity.

In comes Melanie Tamaki, an unhappy fourteen-year-old who has been neglected by her mother and outcast by her peers.  Melanie doesn’t know that she belongs to two realms: her mother became pregnant in Half World and journied to the Wold of Flesh to raise her daughter.  Now, fourteen years later they are both being called back to repay a debt and to account for the impossibility of this life that was created in Half World.

Once it gets going, Half World becomes one of those child/teen-goes-to-a-strange-world-and-saves-it-then-returns-home-with-a-solution-to-his/her-original-problems book.  It’s such an overused plot that I have become quite impatient  with it.  Unless the book is special – we’re talking Narnia special – then I get very bored and annoyed.  I think I find these books tedious because they always end the same way – the world is saved and the character returns home with more than they originally sought.  If the ending is going to be that predictable, then I darn well want the main story to be unique and fascinating.

In this case, it was almost fascinating enough.  There is not much that is truly unique about Half World, but it does contain some great elements capably combined.  The feel is very Neil Gaiman, with a disturbing alternate world and some kind and clever guides (I’m thinking Neverwhere and Coraline in particular).  It has just the same level of threat and violence that you would find in one of his books.  The great villan (I won’t ruin his secret, which is one of the best parts of the book) is Mr. Glueskin.  In his gloopy, sticky and disguisting appearance, he reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and slimy, depressed Howl.  These are wonderful authors to borrow from, and Hiromi Goto does a good job of creating a similar feel, but with a concept that stands all on its own.

The main character was interesting – Melanie has a good heart, but trouble remembering things, and she has never fit in.  I am actually quite pleased to see that there is a sequel coming out next spring because I’d like to see her grow up – there was just a hint of what she could become in this novel.  I would also enjoy seeing her in love, and being loved by someone romantically.  I think she could be remarkable if she was ever in her own element (I’m not sure what that would be though – she navigates our world and half world well, but doesn’t belong to either).

So I have been won over, and the book will stay on our shelves.  I enjoyed the Japanese elements and fantasy that borrowed from Asian sources.  There were amazing illustrations, and an interesting enough tale and characters to keep me moving through the well-drawn (though familiar) plot.

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Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce.  In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

I actually saw Tamora Pierce once.  Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared.  Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned.  I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason).  I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore).  And of course I loved it.  At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.

Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them!  Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series.  I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.

Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall.  However, Alanna has other plans.  She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk.  Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks.  The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues.  The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.

When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series.  Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with?  (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy)  Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend.  I’m never quite sure what age it is written for.  As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot.  However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course).  Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses.  I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one.  In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail.  But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…

There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books.  They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read.  However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna.  The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these.  The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.

Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword.  Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today.  They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.

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Filed under Books I've Enjoyed, Books I've loved, Fantasy, Just Read, Middle Grade Fiction, Must-Reads!, Young Adult books