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.
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.
Whatever Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen is an author who aspires to express what her readers are feeling. She writes to an audience of teenage girls about the challenges of maintaining equilibrium in the face of adversity. The appeal of her books lies in the first person narrative voice of genuine and likable characters who work through their own reactions to difficult events in their lives. While she does not shrink from difficult subjects, neither does she indulge in shock value. Her steadfast message is one of the value of being real, forgiving, and true. This, and her natural writing style, make her books suitable and of interest to girls as young as middle school and enjoyable reading for their parents as well.
In this book, Dessen’s latest and seventh novel for young adults, seventeen-year-old Mclean tells the story of her reaction to her parents scandalous divorce. She struggles with a loss of identity, resentment, and disorientation. After several moves with her dad, a consultant for a restaurant chain, she lands in a town where the people she encounters begin to help her bring her life back into focus, if not to stability. For Dessen fans, it is another visit to her emotionally satisfying fiction; for those new to her writing, probably the first of many.
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly
Jennifer Donnelly has written a book in an authentic teen voice in the tradition of Holden Caulfield that is highly educational, both about music and about the French Revolution. The narrator is a teen girl in her last year at a prestigious New York prep school. She has recently suffered a family tragedy and is tormented by what she views as her responsibility for that tragedy. Her often absent father whisks her away to Paris, thinking it would be good for her to get away.
In Paris, Andi discovers an old diary hidden in a secret compartment in a centuries-old guitar case. She has in her hands the guitar and the diary of another teen girl who lived during the French Revolution. Though all Andi can think of is leaving Paris and her father, as she slowly reads this diary she gets drawn further and further into the life of Alexandrine, her eighteenth century counterpart, until she is, in fact, there on the streets of revolutionary Paris. Even for readers new to the story of the French Revolution, Donnelly’s account is thorough and illuminating.
The second major theme of this story is music, specifically, the tradition of music that passes from the earliest classic composers all the way down through modern rap music. Andi is a serious musician; in fact, her music is all that keeps her together for most of the novel. Her musings on styles and compositions throughout this story should be of great interest to any teen interested in music.
Teens of both genders, both young and old, will like this book. It is history, it is music, and it is the pursuit of personal strength in the face of the worst of odds.