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.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
History is one of the four core subjects that educators have decided all children need to study, the other three being English, math, and science. This is because there are lessons to be learned from history that one hopes will improve the quality of life for us all. That is why the Salem witch trials that took place in 1692 in Massachusetts hold a hallowed place in history curriculum. It is a clear lesson as to what can happen when superstition, fear, religious zealotry and what author Thomas Cahill once called “the need to lay blame and shed blood” coaelesce.
In The Heretic’s Daughter author Kathleen Kent has told the story from the fictionalized point of view of her ancestor–the daughter of a woman named Martha Carrier who was hanged on August 19, 1692 because she would not confess to being a witch. (If you confessed, you were simply imprisoned–oh, wait till you read about their prisons!) I learned about the Salem witch trials as a student, I taught them as a teacher, but never have I really understood what it was like until I read this book. Perhaps it is the author’s connection to the event, perhaps it is her meticulous research, perhaps it is the realistic detail she uses–the end result is a bright light shining on a significant piece of our history.
Reading this book also reminded me of why a strong independent reading program is so important for schools. This is a book that kids will love to read, from grades eight through high school. It is a book they can read in a week or less and that can teach them more about U. S. History than anything they will learn from a minute here and a minute there in their history classes.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
Frankie Landau-Banks just wants to be let in. As a sophomore at a prestigious East Coast boarding school, she is very happy that a really popular senior thinks she is adorable. But he and his buddies have the camaraderie, the intellectual repartee, and the bonding that appears to be creating a potential springboard for their future lives. That’s where Frankie wants to be, but her boyfriend cannot imagine including her. Smart, philosophical, and highly creative, Frankie wants both to be arm candy and also to be, not only included, but the leader of the pack. She will have to choose, and though the going gets rough, she will choose and she will eventually be happy with her choice.
Author E. Lockhart writes books for teenage girls that helpfully explain boys to them and that also encourage girls to not become dependent on boys for their own identity. She does this in a very entertaining and light-hearted fashion–her books are page-turners. well-written, entertaining, and helpful. The Disreputable History of Franki-Landau-Banks won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is a pleasure to recommend it for teenage girls–the content is even appropriate for middle school girls, though high school girls will probably find it more interesting.
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.
Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
It is 1797 in London and a young girl has just been put out on the street. All of her family has died of the pestilence and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. Oh, wait! Soon she is robbed of even those by a gang of orphans in need of new clothes. The girl who has her new clothes looks back at her and says, “Well, come on then. And quit your sniveling.” The girl, who narrates this story, writes, “I snuffles and gets up.”
She weeps, she trembles, she mourns, but she keeps getting up throughout this highly entertaining story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become a ship’s boy, avoid being hung for thievery, and get enough to eat. I usually demand more than pure entertainment from the books I read–I want to be able to see the world in a new way or learn something thrilling–and I usually don’t like series books, but I finished this book with a single thought: I wanted the next book in the series.
The character of Mary who becomes Jacky leaps from the pages. The endless series of riotous adventurous never seem contrived. All resolutions feel perfectly apt. Danger never dissipates, but evil always gets its satisfyingly just desserts.
Bloody Jack will be enjoyed by kids who liked The Unfortunate Series of Events in their younger years, middle school and younger experienced readers who will not be confused by the occasional “guttersnipe” dialect of the narrator (“prolly” for probably; me mum and me pop, etc), high school readers who need a break from fantasy, teen-age angst, and vampire genres, and adults who just like to have fun reading. Attitudes towards the innate differences between the genders are of course amply explored and the romance is tender and true and not excessively graphic. I recommend not trying to find out if the author is male or female until you have read at least one book in the series.