Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth, Hyperion, 2016. ISBN: 9781484752746. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Sophomore year should be great. At least that’s Emma Allen’s expectation. She’s going to be assistant stage manager for the drama club’s production of Hamlet, she has a new hairdo that makes her feel cool, and her crush, Brandon, is directing. All should be well, but we know how that goes. In short order, her best friend, snubbed for the part she wants, stops talking to her, she’s bumped up to stage manager, and Josh, the soccer player who got the lead, can’t remember his lines.
If all that weren’t enough, the guy in charge of the stage crew defies the club’s adviser and cuts a hole in the stage to serve as a trap door. When Emma falls through it, she finds herself in a very different theater—one in London and in the year 1601. Her new hairdo has the people behind the curtain thinking she’s a boy. That is all but one very sharp and attractive young man.
As Emma tries to navigate between everyone’s egos and feelings as well as through the intricacies of two theaters several hundred years apart, it’s a miracle she doesn’t have the mother of all meltdowns. Instead, she discovers inner strength and wisdom that allows her to do the impossible while meeting the original Bard himself.
This is a finely crafted, often funny story that will grab theater loving teens as well as those who like romance, strong heroines and complex plots. It’s a definite add for school and public libraries.
Poison’s Kiss by Breeana Shields, Random House, 2017. ISBN: 9781101937822. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Imagine being tossed away by your parents, living in an orphanage as a very small child. How would you feel? Wouldn’t you attach yourself to someone, anyone who showed you the slightest bit of attention? This is what happened to Marinda. Her life became immensely complicated not long after. She was subjected to endless snake bites on her wrists and ankles, each one heightening her own poisonous, to a point where she become a Visha Kanya, lethal servant of the Raj, able to kill with a kiss.
By the time she realizes the web of control around her, it’s too late because her controller, Gopal, has brought her baby brother to her and every time she tries to rebel, Gopal threatens little Mani. His control only strengthens the one time she tries to run away and now Mani pays a daily price that forces Marinda to kill even though she’s seen things that start her down the path of doubt.
When she’s ordered to kill Deven, a boy she knows through his friendship with the owner of a bookshop she works in part time, that ramps up her questioning of the whole ‘I’m killing bad guys for good causes’ ethos because she knows he’s a very kind and caring boy.
Her doubt sets in motion a series of events that put her in serious peril, Mani in equal peril, costs the life of a friend and land her in prison. Teen lovers of myth-related fiction will follow Marinda, Mani and Deven as their paths cross on the way to solving the mystery of who she’s really been working for as an assassin and how she can free herself and her brother from such a scary and cruel life. The book ends in a satisfying ambivalence…Readers can imagine what happens next, or wait for what I hope is a sequel. In either case they won’t feel cheated. It’s an excellent choice for school and public library collections. The author’s notes at the end explaining where the idea for this story came from and how she developed it are enlightening.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, Delacorte Books for Young Readers (October 11, 2016). ISBN: 9781101939758. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Anyone unfamiliar with the sub-genre of magical realism will understand what it typifies after reading this book. When readers first meet Emmaline, her history is a bit cloudy, to herself and the reader. In fact, it won’t be until very close to the end before that’s sorted out. No matter, for a lot takes place on the journey. She has what she calls the stillwaters (we know it as tuberculosis). She’s one of numerous children in varying stages of the disease in a former mansion away from populated areas because of the illness, but also because it’s during World War II and the Germans have been bombing England mercilessly.
Emmaline is closest to Anna, the sickest child there. The older girl may be gravely ill, but can still give love and nurture to Em. Even so, when Em begins seeing winged horses in the mirrors, she can’t bring herself to tell Anna, at least at first. When she sneaks into an abandoned garden, a place strictly off limits, she discovers one of the winged horses with a broken wing has entered our world. Em soon learns that the horse, named Foxfire, is being hunted by a black winged horse from beyond the mirrors and she must do everything she can to protect the injured animal.
Doing so involves risking her own fragile health, disobedience and struggling to decide who she can trust. Managing those challenges makes for an absorbing, albeit somewhat dark read. Despite the darkness, many younger teens will find this book almost impossible to put down. The blend of mystery, magic and suspense will draw them in and keep them reading.
Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton, Viking Books for Young Readers (March 7, 2017). ISBN: 9780451477859. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
One hallmark of a good second book in a series is the ease with which a reader can slip into it. When the world, plot and characters are as complex as they are here, finding it easy to re-enter this world speaks highly of the story.
At the end of the first book Amani was intent on freedom and exploring her relationship with Jin. What she finds here is the loss of both for much of the story. Awakening from the effects of her bullet wound would have been enough trauma for most, but Amani isn’t like the majority of women in her war torn world. As soon as she’s able, it’s right back to fighting, using her Demdji powers to help free prisoners. Unfortunately, she soon becomes one herself and after being betrayed by a family member, is trapped in the sultan’s harem.
What happens there, who is an ally and who is a betrayer, not to mention what happens among the ever shifting alliances between the varied warring factions, makes for a gripping and often brutal read. While this is an excellent fantasy, it’s not for the faint of heart and will leave readers hungry for another installment. Prospective readers are encouraged to read Rebel of the Sands first in order to get full benefit from the story.
Given to the Sea by Mindy McGinnis, Putnam, 2017. ISBN: 9780399544613. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Set in a most unusual world, with a mythology/prophecy that dooms a chosen child to grow into a woman, bear a girl child and then drown herself with everyone in the realm knowing that the same fate will be repeated. This is Khosa’s reality. Her mother effectively set her up by getting impregnated by an unusual soul, something Khosa doesn’t learn until well into the story. That choice complicated her life and imperiled her ability to fulfill her destiny. Her somewhat sheltered life is exploded when the shepherd village where she’s being raised is overrun by the Pietra, a warlike clan who are slowly starving. She flees, arriving bloody-footed at the gates of the castle.
Then there are Dara and Donil, last surviving members of the Indiri who were adopted by the queen of the major race on the island where everything takes place. Add in a growing, but extremely confusing attraction to Khosa by Vincent, prince of the kingdom, and the emotional and political entanglements in the story are quite something.
There’s also the question of whether the prophecy surrounding the Given, those women destined to give themselves to the sea, is accurate, or if those women have been victims of coincidence. This tale, told in alternating viewpoints from Vincent, Khosa, Dara and Donil, as well as Witt, the leader of the Pietra, is full of dark and violent events and actions, but is nevertheless riveting. Fragments of truth and of what happened in ages past trickle down as all the players march toward an ending that leaves almost everyone in a place that is sad or bleak.
This isn’t for the faint of heart, nor for those who are looking for a casual fantasy read. It’s good, but perhaps a bit too ambitious.
The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney, Flux, 2011. ISBN: 9780738725826. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Donna Underwood is missing important things—her father, who was killed in a vicious Fae attack when she was seven, her mother who lost her mind when the attack happened, and any hope of feeling normal, or being treated that way due to the damage to her hands. That happened during the attack that killed her dad. She’s been raised by an odd partnership, living with a woman she calls her aunt, while being protected and closely watched by an odd and secretive pair of men leading a mysterious, magical order whose members included her parents.
Her hands were badly damaged by a magical creature that was controlled by wood elves living in our world who are arch enemies of the order. Maker, a tinkerer and researcher member of the order, repaired her hands, which now consist of a blend of flesh and silver, so she wears gloves most of the time to hide them. It was the relentless harassment from another girl at school that caused her to lose restraint and show how powerful she could be. Ever since, she’s been involved in a mostly home-schooled routine.
If it wasn’t for her best friend and next door neighbor, Navin, she’d go stir crazy. When he invites her to a party, she’s ambivalent at first, but boredom and lack of contact with other teens motivates her to go.
It’s there she meets Xan, part Fae who feels an instant connection to her. While she’s wary of him and the mysterious vibes he gives off, her curiosity and attraction to him are stronger. Before long, they’re forced to partner when the wood elves kidnap Navin. Getting him back involves stealth, bravery and the shock that accompanies discovering people aren’t who you believed they are.
This is a dandy beginning to a solid urban fantasy series for teens. I really enjoyed it and am awaiting a copy of the next book. This is a great choice for any library where teen readers like carefully crafted fantasy.
Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. ISBN: 9780553524840. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
When she wants or needs to, Julia can make it so nobody can see her. For an orphan teen who works for a small gang as a thief in a dark alternate reality, that’s a very good talent to have. She’s obsessed with ‘cleansing,’ the government’s ritual drowning of witches in the river running through the city. It’s what happened to her mother years ago and the connection, while nearly impossible for Julia to explain, is strong. Her connection to her brother Dek and Wyn, the boy she loves, but can’t quite get to love her in return, are the other strong bonds in her life.
The story opens in an intriguing way, alternating between vignettes where people become victims of an unnamed and vaguely described monster who kills each one while removing the top of their heads, and Julia’s latest assignment—to work as a maid for a mysterious rich and elderly woman, Mrs. Och. She’s tasked with spying on everyone in the household and sneaking past locked doors to gather additional information. Whoever is paying her gang leader, Esme, for the information is paying well while being mysterious and vague about what they want or expect.
As the body count climbs, Julia discovers more of the mysteries at Mrs. Och’s home and begins to put puzzle pieces together. Readers are taken on a neatly crafted ride that involves more witches, three magical siblings locked in a monumental struggle, discovery of her own heritage and powers, as well as a desperate journey to save someone at the heart of everything.
While there is violence in the story, it’s central to the plot and hardly a deal breaker in terms of adding this book to either school or public libraries, because fantasy-loving teens will devour the book. It’s a dandy first entry in a planned trilogy.
The Iron Trial (Magisterium) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, Scholastic Press, 2014. ISBN: 9780545522250. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
What happens when you fail at failing? Meet Callum (Call) Hunt. His dad has warned him about the danger of magic for as long as he can remember, but never got into specifics. Now he’s been summoned to a test, the Iron Trial which will determine his ability to be accepted at the Magisterium, a super secret underground school for magicians. What he doesn’t know is what happened in the bloody confrontation when he was an infant and what his father found that led to the fierce prohibition on magic.
Despite his best efforts to fail the tests, Call is whisked away to the school where he finds himself rooming with teens Tamara and Aaron. What follows involves the classic battle between good and evil, learning to be comfortable in his own skin and adopting a totally forbidden pet while developing trust and friendship with his new roommates. The story includes very interesting creatures, Some of the oddest food around, battles, a dandy twist near the end and a nice ride as Call learns his place in the world, as well as what was and wasn’t true about his past.
Four more books are planned (two out as of this review), so young readers hooked by this one will have plenty to anticipate. It’s an engaging story with lots of action and mystery to go with the wizardry.
Rebel Flight: Book One of the Darkbeast Chronicles by Mindy Klasky, Book View Cafe (February 28, 2017). ISBN: 9781611386646. (also available in ebook format) Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
If for the entire twelve years of your life you’d believed that certain things were true and immutable, but when crunch time came, you acted in complete defiance of them, how would life unfold from that point? This is the reality Keara has entered. Before the defining moment when she realized her attachment to Caw, her Darkbeast, was too strong and important to break, she obeyed her strict mother’s rules. In addition, she barely questioned the religious structure that included slaying your Darkbeast on your twelth birthday, paying tithes, wearing a tax tattoo that had to be renewed every year, as well as accepting the brutality inflicted by white robed inquisitors when someone strayed from the boundaries imposed by religion.
However, her bond with Caw, the raven-like Darkbeast who has become as much a part of her life as anything, is too strong and when it comes time to kill him, she rebels. After letting him fly free, she flees he village of Silver Hollow, traveling at night until she catches up with the theater troup that had performed in her village just before her flight. Something in their freedom and skills lit a fire in her and she’s sure that joining them and traveling ever further from her village will be her salvation.
What she finds after the Travelers accept her, is a mix of friendship, scary moments, betrayal and a big surprise at the end of the story. Readers will fall easily into this well-crafted world and find themselves attached to various characters. Caw, Keara’s Darkbeast, comes across as both wise and wry, while Keara is both courageous and at times foolish, not unusual for a girl her age. It’s a fascinating read and leaves one eager to learn what comes next for them.
Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Maggie Stiefvater & Jackson Pearce, Scholastic Press (April 28, 2015). ISBN: 9780545709262. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
When you live in a world where magical creatures are real, you love Unicorns and you can talk to any animal, it’s pretty difficult to hide that fact, or be taken seriously by adults. Meet young teen Pip Bartlett, resident of Atlanta, Georgia.
When one of the other students in her class has her parents bring their herd of trained unicorns to career day, it’s a perfect storm of opportunity for Pip. As soon as she sees them, she rushes over and starts talking. Unfortunately, there’s competition among the herd and once they realize Pip can understand them, it becomes a madhouse as various unicorns want her to tout their appearance and assets. The end result is disaster, leading to her being exiled to her aunt’s home for the summer. However, that’s not such a bad punishment because Aunt Emma is a veterinarian, running the Cloverton Clinic for Magical Creatures.
Pip brings her favorite book, Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures with her, and as she meets (and helps treat) new species, she appends its original entries with stuff she learns. She also makes friends with Tom, a boy her age who lives close by the clinic. Despite Tom being a bit spleeny, they become good friends and help each other as an unusual infestation hits Cloverton. By the end of the story, Pip has encountered a myriad of new critters, as well as proven to others that she’s not an annoyingly delusional kid.
This is a fun, fast read with a plot and illustrations that will captivate younger teens, especially those who like light fantasy. It’s a very good option for both school and public libraries.