The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stefvater
Established author of teen fiction Maggie Stiefvater has written a book that departs from her formulaic paranormal romance novels. She has taken an obscure Celtic myth about carnivorous horses from the sea, spun it into a story about both humankind’s love/fear conflict with nature and its endless struggle for and against power, and made it contemporary by smoothly pairing these timeless themes with a more modern one—girl empowerment.
The two main characters have both lost their parents—not unusual on an island that is besieged by wild carnivorous water horses—and both must win the Scorpio races in order to get what they feel they cannot live without. Sean has won the races before and must win this time to gain both his freedom from a heartless employer and ownership of the water horse he loves. Puck has never run a race, no girl has, and she has only a regular horse to race against the much faster water horses, but winning is her only chance to keep her house and her dignity. They admire each other; they become true friends, and romance blossoms.
The resolution of this conflict is masterful and every reader must take a solemn vow to never divulge the ending to anyone who has not read it, or skip ahead to read the ending. It is a book for teen readers of both genders, appropriate for younger readers, and fun for adults.
This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Kenneth Oppel takes Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and looks into his adolescence for clues to the man he became. In Oppel’s telling, young Victor lives in a centuries-old fortress in Geneva with his parents, his identical twin brother, Konrad, and his beautiful cousin Elizabeth. Konrad is easy for everyone to love; Victor has a more complicated personality—competitive, brooding and rebellious. Konrad falls ill and a series of nineteenth century doctors try to cure him. In this time period, medicine and science are on a cusp, turning from alchemy and magic into sound logic and method. It is not at all clear that even the most modern doctor will cure Konrad and Victor wants to turn to the older ways and be the one to bring his brother back to health.
To do this he lies to his parents, seeks out forbidden contacts, and put himself Konrad, and Elizabeth in serious danger. Herein lies the action of the story—the perilous ventures, the near escapes, the blood and gore. But Victor is not completely in this for his love for his brother. He wants glory; he wants to be more powerful than his parents and the doctors. And most of all, he wants Elizabeth to love him and not his brother. Action does abound in this story, but the torque of psychological angst never lags behind.
Kenneth Oppel is a master craftsman of the young teen novel. He knows how to give the young reader’s mind exactly what it wants and then dole out a whole lot more: to be swept up in the thrill of adventure, to recognize oneself often, and then to be challenged to do something particularly delicious—to think deeply…
While much of Oppel’s earlier books appeal to upper elementary and middle school readers of both genders, this novel will appeal to readers of both genders from middle school on into high school. Like all of his work, this book will also be loved just as much by adults as by their kids.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
In this novel, a young woman whose darkness has been a long time coming connects with a once happy family that has recently experienced the sudden and devastating death of the father. The widow has invited the pregnant un-wed 18 year-old into her home with the intent of adopting the baby when it is born. Her daughter, in her last year of high school, thinks her mother has lost it. All three are so busy trying to save themselves from their own grief that almost no communication takes place. Aptly named, this story follows to resolution the dictum, “The life you save may be your own.”
Told in alternating perspectives of the two teen girls—Mandy and Jill—both the main and the supporting characters gradually emerge as complex and appealing individuals. Mandy negotiates with herself as she tries to both ditch her unfortunate childhood and to make better decisions for the new life she will bring into the world. Jill uses hostility as best she can to shut out others in her quest to numb the loss of her father. They are as different as two teens can be; their only common ground is the mother’s generosity and sorrow that holds them in an embrace. The magic of this story is how the author slowly brings them together to resolve the underlying and yet most gripping conflict in the plot, which is the question of the quality of life that awaits the new baby.
Zarr’s books, while clearly targeted to the teen girl audience, also fit well into the category of “If it’s good enough for a teen to read, it’s also good enough for an adult to read.” In fact this is a great book for mother and daughter to share.
The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
Mackie should not have lived long enough to become a teen. Most replacements–put into cribs when babies are taken for sacrifice– die fairly soon and are buried in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery. But Mackie’s sister and parents loved him anyway and unconditionally (not hard to imagine why most families wouldn’t) and he has loved them back. Now, however, his allergies to blood, iron, and church are wearing him down and he has to make contact with his own kind in the dark, damp tunnels to gain time.
With this contact, he soon comes up with an idea to stop the sacrifice of babies—to change the deeply troubled way things have always been for something better. This is today’s version of the common story of humankind’s vulnerability to evil: through unconditional love, the dark and scary can produce a hero who is willing to do anything to save us all.
This pleasing note of optimism comes from a novel that can only be classified a gothic horror thriller laced as it is with blood, cruelty, and decrepitude. From a novel about the saddest aspects of human life—loss and frailty—comes a novel about the best aspects of human life—genuine, deep caring for more than ourselves.
Both teen genders will like this book. It is well-told, the characters gain our sympathies, and there is more to it than scariness.
The Fox Inheritance, by Mary E. Pearson
This is the sequel to The Adoration of Jenna Fox as reviewed earlier. It follows the two friends who were in the same car crash that killed Jenna Fox. While Jenna’s parents had been able to salvage enough of her to bioengineer her back into life, Locke and Kara had only their minds preserved for 270 years. Now they have been brought to life by an evil genius who wants to use them as floor models for a business that offers a new life to those about to die.
While Adoration reads like a psychological or medical thriller, Fox is much more of an action page-turner. Kara and Locke must escape their creator into a world void of anybody they know and vastly changed. A cross-country chase ensues with spy technology and real goons on their trail. They seek Jenna, who is still alive, and resolution to the question of who they are now.
Both books are both thought-provoking and exciting to read. Girls from middle school on up will like both books and boys will certainly like the second one, so it’s worth a chance to start them with the first one.
Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Schmidt’s latest novel for middle school readers, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has many cards stacked against him. He’s got a mean older brother and a liability for a father. He’s just moved to a new school. He can’t read. He gets in fights. The principal is after him. The coach hates him. He doesn’t have a decent coat or a warm pair of shoes. His mother is sad and long-suffering.
Yet the satisfaction in this story comes not from the bad guys getting their due. Instead, the satisfaction is much deeper and broader—it comes from the reassurance that the inner self is always and truly free. In Doug’s story, this deliverance is aided by the kindness of strangers and by the gift of fine art. In author Gary Schmidt’s capable hands, its light shines right out of the pages of the book, making every day look like a fresh new spring day.
The fine art in this story is a book of John James Audubon’s Birds of America that Doug finds in the local library. Each chapter in Okay for Now is faced with a different plate from this book, and in each chapter, Doug uses that plate to further understand his world—this bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all (the Arctic Tern) and that’s what the picture was about: meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions (The Forked-Tailed Petrel). A librarian—one of the kind strangers in this book—sees Doug’s interest in this book and encourages him to make his own drawings of the plates. The librarian’s critical analysis of these plates and the part they play in Doug’s story make a good reading experience into a sublime one.
I highly recommend this wonderful book for middle school kids of both genders and for adults who like a good story.
The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
A girl comes of age during the Bosnian War and its aftermath. She then becomes a doctor in a desire to help her country recover. On a trip to deliver inoculations to orphanages, she learns of her grandfather’s death. Through her memories of her grandfather and his stories, a story of Bosnian conflict and culture emerge. By the end, the reader will not be able to pass a quiz on the conflict, but the reader will have been there, on the ground and among the people.
Obreht is a storyteller — come sit by me here and I’ll tell you a story. type of a storyteller. The main two stories here are about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. Interspersed are full, rich stories of more characters–Luka the butcher, Darisa the Bear, the apothecary, as well as chair-riveting stories like the narrator’s journey to the “crossroads.” Her writing is lean, vivid, and masterful.
This is a good book for an experienced teen reader for several reasons. The author herself is young–twenty-one when she began the novel–and her voice, though as assured as that of a seasoned writer, is that of a young person. Though her plot is not linear, experience teen readers will fall into her rich storytelling. And finally, she is a very creative and skilled writer–teens will enjoy feeling they have not read anything like this book before while recognizing its exceptional worth.