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.
Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce
This is Elizabeth Bunce’s second novel and the first in a new series. I loved her first book, A Curse Dark As Gold, an intriguing interpretation of the Rumplestiltskin folktale, and I eagerly looked forward to her next book. A genre, fantasy series, usually less favored by me, Star Crossed nevertheless delivers on many of the same levels: a strong, resourceful, true-hearted heroine; a diverse cast of interesting characters; vivid description; and the entertainment of life’s deeper questions.
Set in a fantasy world that atmospherically parallels eastern Europe in the late middle ages, this tale is narrated by a girl who has had to make her way into a hostile world at a very young age. She is on a singular mission—to stay alive. She becomes a very good thief, forger, and spy. But a near brush with death from a failed caper at the beginning of the story propels her into a mountain castle. Here she will sit out a snowbound winter with a cast of characters at the center of a budding rebellion.
Celyn, as she calls herself, is afraid of nothing. She uses her talents to find out everything there is to know about the castle and its inhabitants, slowly flushing all mysteries into the light. The reader comes along on her journey, flinching at her every daring move, as each of the characters slowly but inevitably reveals the clarity of their position in the central conflict.
Celyn is tough, resilient, and clever; she knows and protects good whenever she sees it. Readers of all ages who have enjoyed the Bloody Jack books will also like this book. The plot is tightly wovern and requires the reader to pay attention and work things out, but there is nothing inappropriate for the youngest of accomplished readers.
The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
Set in rural nineteenth century England, this book relates the story of girl on the cusp of womanhood who gets a good look at the pre-ordained life spreading out in front of her and makes the decision to run–with her horse and her uninvited misfit of an adopted younger brother who has reasons of his own to run. She makes the choice to suffer hardships, as long as they are of her own making, rather than be less than what she thinks she can be. And suffer she does; though a reader might expect reward to come from all the suffering, this book does not take the expected turns–this young woman who wants to control her own destiny learns the difference between when she owes her attentiveness to others in her life and when she does not. She has to become ever stronger.
The Bride’s Farewell is a good book for high school girls. It is of a reading level that middle school girls can handle, but though there is no graphically inappropriate content for younger girls, there are themes underlying the main one of making one’s own way in a difficult world that are fairly mature, like the importance of knowing when a man will be a good one to trust your heart to. It has the added attraction of having lots of horse lore in it, thus also making it appealing to lovers of horses.
This is a well-written story that is compelling and fun to read. It is of value to young women on the cusp of their mature lives. It delivers both good entertainment and worthy illuminations–the kind of book I like to recommend.
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve
After the Romans left the British Isles in the fifth century A. D., there were many centuries of pillaging and plunder by one tribe or clan upon another until it became a unified country. It must have been excruciatingly painful to try to raise crops and families. One legend gave them hope, and indeed continues to give hope to this day. That legend was of Arthur, the king who, with the help of a somewhat magical destiny, created a golden island of peace for a short period of time. The legend said it could be done once, so it could be done again.
Well, Philip Reeve has exposed that legend for what it was–a really good story. But no matter, it is the story that everybody needed anyway. Best not to go by the truth on the ground for historical inspiration–we humans are much better at story than we are at deeds. And Philip Reeve is an excellent writer who tells a really good story about an orphaned slave girl who was there and who may have been the only one with any common sense. So in this book, we get hope renewed by trading the ancient story of a legendary and peace-loving king for the modernized story of a sensible and strong-willed girl.
Fans of Reeve’s Mortal Engines series will like this book as will upper middle school and high school readers who enjoy stories of historical fiction with strong girl characters.
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
Exiled to Siberia. After several weeks on a train, “enemies” of the Russian state have been dropped off to be forgotten in this nearly empty five million square miles for four hundred years. Ten-year old Esther Rudomin’s parents and grandparents are accused of being capitalists by the occupying Russians in 1941. They are yanked from their life of luxury and privilege in Vilna, Poland one morning and thrown into cattle cars with nothing but what they can carry. They end up being “lucky” for they are Jewish and the Germans who invade soon after did not practice the art of exile.
Esther spends the next five years in Rubtsvosk, Siberia. Extreme cold, constant hunger, filth, and fear are her constant companions. Yet she can still fret, like any young adolescent, about fitting in with her peers to the point that she will sacrifice food if it means she will belong. She creates, through pure force of will, the early teen years that she desires and when it is time to leave, she experiences the separation anxiety any teen feels when they must leave the first world they have created for themselves.
This is a story of resilience, pride, and determination, an intimate portrait of one slice of a significant time in relatively recent history. Girls from about fifth grade up to early high school will appreciate this story.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
A good part of being a teenager is the uncovering of mysteries about one’s own self. Lucy has more of a task with this than most teenagers since she is the target of an ancient curse, one based on the song Scarborough Fair. In a contemporary teen setting, Lucy must first discover the nature of a curse that threatens to irrevocably determine an unacceptable fate. Then, with the help of foster parents and a loving boyfriend (as well as the modern advantage of technology) she must try to break the curse.
A little of the supernatural really makes this story of strength, courage, and love sparkle. The obstacles are powerful, the drive for resolution is intense, the strength of love is thrilling. Teenage girls in my eighth and ninth grade classes last year were thrilled with this book. While there is some violence and moderately inexplicit sex, including a slightly surreal rape scene, the overriding theme is the power of love and resolve in overcoming adversity.
Savvy by Ingrid Law
Ingrid Law clearly has a savvy for writing a story so enthralling that it captures a nine year old’s attention from the very first page. My daughter would not put this book down. I was also drawn in by the pitch perfect dialogue and sweet tale of misadventure. The main character, Mibs, is part of a family where most everyone inherits a unique savvy on their 13th birthday. Think x-men meets rural mid-western family. For example, Mibs mother’s savvy is doing everything just right, while her grandmother’s was the ability to capture songs in jars. Mibs birthday plans are ruined when her dad gets in a very bad accident. The misadventure that ensues all stems from Mibs attempt to get to the hospital to save her father. This book has just the slightest hint of romance, and the emotion of worrying about a very sick father. However, there is nothing even slightly inappropriate in this book for a much younger advanced reader. This book is a great and captivating read for third graders on up.