Review: Quintana of Charyn

Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta, Candlewick Press, 2013. Reviewed from the Australia edition (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (Australia), 2012), a gift from a friend. will be published April 2013.

Background: This is the final of three books (and one short story) that make up the The Lumatere Chronicles. It began with Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick Press, 2010); the second book was Froi of the Exiles (Candlewick Press, 2012). Finnikin is a standalone and creates the world and characters of Lumatere; Froi and Quintana combine to make one story told in two volumes. (A short story, Ferragost, takes place during the same time as the events in the beginning of Quintana). Because of the way the story unfolds, ideally Froi needs to be read before Quintana.

So, I’m doing spoilers from here on out for both Finnikin and Froi, under the assumption that if you’re interested in reading Quintana you have already both of those books. If you have not, go read my reviews of Finnikin and Froi; read those books; then come back.

About ten years before the events in Finnikin, the country of Lumatere was invaded, the royal family murdered, and the country cursed; half the population are trapped outside in exile, half trapped inside with an impostor king. Finnikin is the teenage son of the head of the royal guard, one of the many exiles. Finnikin, despite his youth, manages to bring together the shattered and fragmented exiles, along with the help of a young woman who has visions of the lost heir of Lumatere. Together, they manage to break the curse and recover their country.

Froi takes place a handful of years later; Finnikin is now married to the Queen of Lumatere. Together, they have been working to restore peace and prosperity to their land as well as heal the harm done to it by half of their population being exiles, and half trapped in a country with an evil, sadistic ruler. Froi was introduced in Finnikin as a young orphan, raised on the streets, who was befriended by Finnikin and Finnikin’s friends. Froi was angry, hurt, violent, suspicious, needy, distrustful, hurt. He manages to find a place with Finnikin and the others, in part because he represents the lost generation of Lumaterans.

The Queen of Lumatere, the sole survivor of the massacre, wants those who orchestrated the murder of her family punished. Their country isn’t strong enough to start a war; is recovering from the harm inflicted to it to such an extent that they cannot proceed by normal channels. Froi may now be trusted, but he still has a violent, ruthless streak from childhood. He is selected to go into Charyn and assassinate their King.

Massive spoilers, now, for what happens in Froi. So in case that all sounds good, full of adventure, fights, politics, and all the sorts of things that make a great fantasy, which, yes, it is, so you want to read, go now. I’m warning you. Spoilers.

The King of Charyn is a nasty piece of business, and his fellow countrymen are either a, as nasty as he is, b, have hidden themselves away from him, or c, are trying to survive. The Charynites are hardly the evil enemy Froi was expecting.  And, the King has a daughter, Quintana. Remember Lumatere’s curse? Well, Charyn has one, also. Following the birth of Quintana, every pregnant Charynite woman miscarried and none have been pregnant since. Those girls and boys born that last year before her birth are called “last-borns.” Prophecy states that the curse of no children will end when Quintana gets pregnant by a last-born. After she turned thirteen, forced coupling has taken place in the hopes of ending the curse. I KNOW. This is the weird, twisted world where Froi finds himself, impersonating a “last-born” Charyn in order to kill the king. Instead, Froi finds himself falling for Quintana: proud, hurt, intelligent, damaged Quintana. He finds himself connecting with other people in Charyn, people like himself in that they are good people put in impossible situations.

Froi ends with Froi discovering that his family’s roots lie in Charyn, the King is dead, political instability leads to violence and armed vigilantes, a pregnant Quintana escapes, and Froi is left for dead as he tries to save her.

That leads us to

The Plot: Quintana knows that she is only a piece in a game being fought over control over Charyn. The child she carries has value, as a future king and as the curse-breaker, but she herself? Can be gotten rid of as soon as that baby is born. Quintana realizes she has to “disappear” to save both the baby and herself, and she does.

Meanwhile, Froi is recovering from the wounds he sustained in assisting Quintana’s escape. He has no idea where she is and he is desperate to find her. He is also trying to keep his newly-discovered family safe and figuring out how, with all this going on, he can remain true and loyal to his Lumaterean friends and Charynite family.

The Good: So many hurt people! Froi, Quintana, and the family he discovers are all people who have been hurt by life. Froi is about those people who, when something terrible happens, instead of being broken, they try, each day, each moment, to not become the evil that was done to them. There is comfort going on, yes; but for a good part of this book Froi and Quintana are separated in part so that they can each become more of a whole person on their own. They both save each other, and save themselves, and the big question — after, will they be reunited? — is can they stay together? Should Quintana manage to survive (remember, there are people who want her dead as soon as her child is born), she still remains the daughter of the king of Charyn and mother of the heir. Should the “best” happen and the people of Charyn get their act together and put Quintana on the throne, she’ll need to marry for political purposes, and Froi as a former street teen turner soldier is hardly someone who can remain in her life once that happens.

Meanwhile, there is the Queen of Lumatere, Isaboe, and her husband, Finnikin, who are two of Froi’s friends who still think Froi is on a mission to kill a king and then come home. They have no idea that he is growing closer to the enemy each day; and frankly, Isaboe could care less if Quintana lives or dies because, well, Isaboe’s mother, father, brother, and sisters were all killed because of Quintana’s father.

I want to quickly mention there is a ton of action going on here, fights and battles and scheming, and also a lot of politics, because countries are made not just from battles won or lost but also from the people who have to govern after the violence and blood. There is also humor! Because these are real people, and real people can be funny, at times I laughed over things done or said. It is not all angst and feelings. I feel I need to mention these other things before repeating why I personally loved this book: the hurt, the anger, the damaged people who refuse to be shaped by their histories. This is not about revenge, but about reconciliation and peace and forgiveness that comes after blood has been spilled. It is forgiveness that happens because “forgiveness has to start somewhere.”

Here is a quote, said by one of the characters who should hate the world: “we could look at the side of wonder. Let’s look at the side of wonder as opposed to the disastrous.” Yes, an army is coming to kill you: but a son, a mother, and a father who were separated eighteen years before are now together. That togetherness, not the army, not the separation — look on that. See the wonder.

As I got to the end of Quintana, I began to worry — how was Marchetta going to pull this together? How was she going to give her cast of characters a happy, or at least hopeful, ending? Is it enough to look for the wonder?

All I can say is, I immediately reread it because I didn’t want to say good-bye to these people. And it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Midnight Garden; The Mountains of Instead; Holes In My Brain; Dark Faerie Tales.

Review: Titanic

Titanic: Voices From The Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Sibert Honor.

It’s About: The sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic on April 15, 1912, resulting in the loss of over 1,400 men, women and children.

The Good: I believe the first Titanic movie I saw was 1958’s A Night to Remember and the first book I read about it was Walter Lord’s 1955 novel on which the movie was based.  I am by no means even an armchair expert, but I’ve read a bunch of books (fiction and nonfiction) and watched a few of the films and documentaries.

Hopkinson’s Titanic gives a thorough look at the disaster, from building to setting sail, to the night it hits an iceberg, the sinking and the aftermath. There are plenty of photographs and other original documents, adding to the information provided.

The story is told using the first-hand accounts of the men, women and children who were on the Titanic, both crew and first-, second-, and third-class passengers. While some of the people were familiar to me (teenage Jack Thayer’s miraculous survival), others were not, such as Frankie Goldsmith, a young boy travelling third-class with his family. Their voices add an immediacy to the story, emphasizing the personal stories of survival. Particularly heartbreaking are the final moments between family members.

For those who want more, Hopkinson includes a bibliography of both books and websites.

Other reviews: Bookends, a Booklist blogGuys Lit Wire; Someday My Printz Will Come.

Review: Paper Valentine

Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It’s summer. It’s hot. A mosquito virus is going around. And the body of a teenage girl has been found in Muncy Nature Park.

It’s the summer before eleventh grade for Hannah Wagner. The summer after the death of her best friend, Lillian. Lillian and her death haunts Hannah, just as the death of the teenager in the park will haunt Hannah —

No, really. Lillian’s ghost is always around, haunting Hannah. At dinner, there is Lillian. Watching TV. While at work at her cousin’s photography shop.

And then another girl is killed. Together, Hannah and Lillian begin to investigate the murders.

The Good: A ghost story: the ghost of Lillian. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that Lillian was not murdered; rather, she died from complications from anorexia. So this isn’t about Hannah avenging Lillian’s death, or Lillian trying to solve her own murder.

Paper Valentine is a murder mystery, yes; and it’s up to Hannah to solve it. Hannah, who has felt lost since Lillian’s death. Hannah, who has tried to fake it — to fake that everything is OK and that she is OK. Hannah starts to look into the murders of the girls, pushed both by Lillian and her own interest, spurred on by seeing the photographs of the crime scene. Paper Valentine is a terrific mystery, tightly plotted, and Hannah’s role as teen investigator is believably shown. Hannah is no Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars super sleuth; rather, she’s a teenaged girl with a lot on her mind who is also looking into the murders of local girls.

A lot on her mind . . .  Yes, this is a mystery and will satisfy mystery fans. But Paper Valentine is something, else, too: it’s about girl whose heart has been broken by the death of her best friend, and not just the death, but a death by anorexia. Paper Valentine is Hannah working through her friendship with Lillian, and Lillian’s sickness, and their changing relationship, and the loss she experienced. Lillian is neither beatified nor villainized, even though at times Lillian does come across as a bit of a mean girl, a bit controlling. Really, what is more controlling than haunting your friend? Who is Hannah, without Lillian? Are her old friends still her friends, or are they a habit, a hold over, a group who has lost its glue with the loss of Lillian? And is that a bad thing?

Who is Hannah, what does she like, what doesn’t she like, now that Hannah is gone? Is she still the girl who dresses each day with unique creativity — is that really who she is? Or is it who Lillian wanted her to be? Lillian had been invested in appearances and what other people thought, something she reminds Hannah of over and over, so Hannah being attracted to “bad boy” Finny is something that Hannah-before may not have done. Yes, Finny is a bad boy . . . . or is he? Rather, he’s a classic book “bad” boy, in that “bad” is not about the actions or character of a person, but, rather, certain things about him have been coded to say “bad.” He’s of lower socioeconomic status. As a child he acted up sometimes in school, because he lacked the verbal or other skills to process what he was going through, so his failure to conform to the “quiet” role marked him as “bad.” His clothes say “bad boy.” I confess, since one of my pet peeves is determining a “bad boy” is “bad” based on things like clothes, boots, tattoos, and hair rather than actions, I adored that Paper Valentine examined this type of judgment to look deeper at who Finny is rather than his choice of hair color or shirt.

A couple of other random observations about things I liked: Hannah is part of a healthy stepfamily. She has a caring stepfather and that is just part of the story, no drama. Hannah has a good bond with her younger sister, Ariel: just the right mix of teasing and frustration and love. Hannah herself is a good girl, and has enough self-preservation to not allow Lillian’s loss to destroy her. It doesn’t stop it from affecting her, and Paper Valentine is as much about dealing with grief and loss as it is about murder. The setting of a town in a heat wave is so wonderfully detailed that even though it was a chilly November while I was reading it, I wanted lemonade and air conditioning.

One last thing. This may be a spoiler for some, so skip this paragraph if you are ultra sensitive about such things. I don’t think Paper Valentine is necessarily a ghost story. If you want to,  you can read it that way: there is Lillian, and at some point Hannah sees the ghosts of the dead girl, and there is a seance or two that you can read as paranormal. But, if you want, you can also read this as a girl who is grief stricken and not ready to let go of a friend, and believe that Lillian is not “really” a ghost. The plot, the mystery, and the resolution all work with both readings.

Officially, I’m going to call this a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Why? Because I adored Hannah; I loved the mystery; and I believed I was in a sleepy small town during a heat wave.

Review: Listening for Madeleine

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Madeleine L’Engle, beloved author of A Wrinkle In Time (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1962).

The Good: How to write a biography of Madeleine L’Engle, especially when so many people think they know her from her memoirs and what is believed to be autobiographical elements of her fiction? Making it that much more complicated is the controversial 2004 The New Yorker profile by Cynthia Zarin, The Storyteller.

I’ll be honest: I’m a Madeleine L’Engle fan. I’ve read almost all her books — her fiction for all ages, except for a couple earlier hard to find books; her memoirs; but not the overly religious works.

A Wrinkle in Time was the first book of L’Engle’s I read; next was Meet the Austins. I tracked down books, waited for new ones. Enjoyed “discovering” books and chatting about them with friends. I read the Crosswick Journals and believed in the life she presented. So when I read that those stories were, well, not accurate, that, at best, L’Engle omitted some things or painted other things in the best possible light, I felt — relieved. And liked her all the more for it. Knowing that the idealistic version of things was just that, not real, was reassuring in that there was nothing wrong with me or mine for not living in such a golden place. And more than that, L’Engle was as human as the rest of us, doing what she could with what she had, making mistakes and moving forward.

So, that’s the mindset I had going into Listening for Madeleine: a fan who wanted to know more about an author I admire and wasn’t expecting perfection. I read this as a book for similar readers: oh, the works we like may be different, but this is for people who know L’Engle through the books they’ve read.

Listening for Madeleine begins with a short biographical introduction, to give the reader a background for the essays to come. Instead of putting together a biography, Marcus puts together a history of L’Engle from a series of essays by people who knew L’Engle at different times in her life. The essays are divided into sections reflecting L’Engle’s life: Madeleine in the Making; Writer; Matriarch; Mentor; Friend; and Icon. Some are by people who were very close; others reflect fleeting meetings. I enjoyed reading about the essays; seeing when things matched from person to person, when they didn’t (because perspective influences memory and experience).

Another part of Listening for Madeleine I found fascinating was the look at publishing. I recognized some of the essay writers. And some of the details — like the signings at conferences — were so familiar!

Just as the essays sometimes said as much about the teller as L’Engle, I’m sure my takeaways tell something about me. I enjoyed most those that said L’Engle made her writing a priority and talked about how she handled that role. I was also fascinated with the “facts” versus “fiction”, and the reactions to the Zarin article. Given L’Engle’s age, I understand the desire to ignore, hide, or pretend that certain things weren’t true (specifically, her son’s alcoholism) and the belief that some that revealing this was someone a betrayal or hurt or just plain wrong. I understand because I’ve seen that same attitude in older members of my family. And, as with family members, I understand and disagree. I don’t think pretending some things don’t exist help anyone. And even as I write this, here is part of the complexity of what is going on, in that I don’t “know” anything about L’Engle and the things she preferred not to share publicly beyond my interpretation of what is said in these essays.

Other reviews: io9; Bookforum; The New Republic.

Review: Moonbird

Moonbird: A Year On the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award. Edited to add: Sibert Honor.

It’s About: B95 is a rufa red knot, first tagged in Argentina in 1995. Since then, B95 has been seen again and again, not just in Argentina, but along the varied places in the migratory cycle of a rufa red knot: Argentina, the Delaware Bay, Canada. Moonbird (a nickname for B95) uses the life and journey of one small bird to show the intricate life of this small shorebird, as well as bigger lessons about ecology, interdependence and extinction.

The Good: As you may remember from my review of Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, I am not an animal person. For readers who are animal people, Moonbird is an easy fit and recommendation. Nature lovers will love it. It also shows, from the many scientists and volunteers who appear in the book, the various career and vocational paths for those who love animals. I already know who I’ll be recommending this book to.

The good thing about being a non-animal lover reading a book like this is I don’t get swept away by the topic. See, in nonfiction, I have to be vigilant and aware to make sure that my liking a topic or subject matter doesn’t influence what I think about the actual book. What is it about Moonbird that made it a finalists for the YALSA Award of Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, an award to “recognize the best in the field of nonfiction books (at this time, only books will be considered for the award) materials for young adults,” and it must include “excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults.”

Most of Moonbird is about the year-long migratory cycle that the rufa red knots make. Woven in is deeper information, from the process of banding birds (how the birds are captured, the color-coding different countries have used since 2003) to the relatively recent discovery that the Delaware Bay is one of the stops on that path. This is a part of New Jersey culture I didn’t know about, not at all! I love how Moonbird doesn’t just present facts and figures; it explains how that knowledge was gained. It’s not just the findings of scientists, it’s also the work of scientists, which is always ongoing.

The number of rufa red knots have dropped since B95 was first seen. Part of that has to do with their journey. The book starts with Argentina, where B95 was first tagged, and the food sources that the shorebirds pursue, moving on in a set pattern to best take advantage of the ideal food sources and temperature. If something happens to one part of that intricate chain, it affects all, which is why the threat of extinction now exists for a bird that was plentiful just a couple of decades ago. When I went looking for more information, I found A Red-Knot Celebrity Is Back in Town from The New York Times, dated this past May! B95 survives.

For how much longer, though? B95 is the perfect bird to use to illustrate the dangers of extinction, the intricacy of the earth’s resources and how different organisms and animals rely on each other and are interdependent.

I can easily see why Moonbird is a finalist. For “readability,” it combines narrative and information seamlessly. The research is explained in the Appendix and Source Notes, as well as the author’s own knowledge and experiences with rufa red knots. While this is about a shorebird, I also see it as inspiration — not just “what you can do” in terms of the rufa red knot as Moonbird spells out in the Appendix, but in what a teenager who loves science can do in terms of a career. Isn’t “best” about that type of inspiration? And while I personally am more a history nonfiction reader, I love that there are such terrific science nonfiction books for readers!

Other reviews: Bookends, a Booklist blog (this includes Common Core connections); SLJ Heavy Medal; LibrariYan.

Review: Kill Me Softly

Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross. Egmont USA. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Mirabelle has been raised by her godmothers, Elsa and Bliss, since the death of her parents while she was still an infant. As Mira’s sixteenth birthday approaches, she decides that she wants to find out more about the place she was born and about how her parents died. Her godmothers won’t allow her to return to her birthplace, Beau Rivage, as strict about that as they are about Mira not being in a car with a teen driver, not getting her ears pierced, not being allowed to use a razor to shave her legs.

Mira’s plan is to get to Beau Rivage and then . . . . What? She planned for months to get there, but now that is there, what to do? She’s too young to rent a hotel room, doesn’t want to camp outside, and is drinking lemonade after lemonade to be able to stay in the cafe of the casino Wish when she meets Blue and Freddie, two local teens, and then Blue’s older brother Felix. Blue tries to scare her away; Felix offers her a room in the casino, no strings attached.

Almost like a fairy tale, Mira falls for Felix and falls into a friendship with Blue, Freddie, and their other friends. Except it’s not a fairy tale. Except it is. Beau Rivage has secrets, but not the secrets Mira was looking for. Instead, it turns out to be a place where fairy tales are real. People are cursed, to be villians and heroes and victims, and this happens again and again and again. Year after year after year. There are some modern twists and turns, but the people who are raised here are well aware of the fate of those cursed.

Mira is not. Mira didn’t read many fairy tales growing up and has just a vague knowledge of them. She’s about to find out: fairy tales are more than princesses and princes. Fairy tales are dark and dangerous. Mira was born in Beau Rivage and now that’s back — what tale is hers? What role is hers?

The Good: Kill Me Softly had me at fairy tale. I was the type of child reader that read fairy tales, and as a teen delighted in discovering the real, original fairy tales. I have to say, I don’t remember there being many teen versions of fairy tales, the way there are so many nowadays. (Note how I don’t say that they didn’t exist — just that I don’t remember them!) I adore how many there are now, and I especially like how Kill Me Softly uses so many fairy tales. I also like how it works for two different types of readers: those, like me, who are familiar with the tales being referenced, and those who, like Mira herself, don’t known much beyond a general Disney-level familiarity.

As someone familiar with fairy tales, it’s fun to play “guess the story” with a side of “oh, this has to be a story but which one?” Then, to consider what it means to be born under a fairy curse, for good or bad — and to know it. To know your fate. Is it better to be protected from it, to be kept ignorant of it, like Mira? Or is it best to know from a young age your fate, like the friends she meets in Beau Rivage?

Ignorance: Mira’s godparents don’t tell her about her true history or Beau Rivage. Even when Mira starts learning things, there is so much to know, too much, that just finding out “fairy tales and curses are real” is not enough to grant knowledge. Even when it is, some fairy tales are specifically about questions and answers, about asking or not asking, knowing or not knowing.

Fairy tales often contain some romance; and here, I kept wanting to call this “Kiss Me Softly” because of the love triangle involved. Mira is attracted to Felix, and those feelings are strong, but she also feels something for his younger brother, Blue. Part of the reason I enjoyed this triangle was because of how true Mira’s feelings are; part is because it made me wonder how much was “real” and how much was a fated tale; and because it raised the question, can one outrun their fate?

I have a soft spot for stories about fate, in part because I don’t believe in it. So what I like best about stories about so-called fate, even when, as here, something is really, truly fated, is how there are loopholes. How things don’t always end up the way you think, even though it seems to be spelled out a certain way. Fate is like prophecies, and as the Master told Buffy, “prophecies are tricky creatures. They don’t tell you everything.” Once Mira realizes what her fate is, what can she do about it?

There are some flaws here — The Book Smugglers review, below, point them out — but I was still entertained by Kill Me Softly; and the world of Beau Rivage stayed with me after I left this book behind. I like that type of stickiness from a book.

Other reviews: Writing YA; The Book Smugglers; Book-A-Holic.

Review: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2012.

The Plot: Hadley is four minutes late for her plane, the plane to London to take her to her father’s wedding. Now she has to wait for the next one, and if she is lucky, she may be able to get to the church on time. Yes, Hadley should have given herself more time, more time to get to the plane, more time before the ceremony, more time — but. Well. It is her father’s second wedding: the wedding that is happening because when he moved to England for a semester as a visiting professor, he never came back.

No, really. Instead of coming home after one semester,  he divorced Hadley’s mother, stayed in England and now is marrying Charlotte. Hadley has never met Charlotte and doesn’t want to go to the wedding. Which may explain why she planned on flying out at the last possible moment . . .  and now that has changed into the last-last possible moment.

While waiting for the next plane to London, Hadley meets Oliver. He’s handsome and funny and it turns out he is in the seat next to her. The missed flight may just be the best thing to happen to Hadley.

The Good: It was post-Hurricane Sandy, four days without power. I had just finished up reading the National Book Award finalists. I looked over the piles of books and saw a sea of dystopia and survival and loss and just couldn’t.

The I saw The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. A romance? Yes, please! Just what the bibliotherapist ordered. Did it deliver exactly what I needed? Yes, and then some! There is so much to love about Hadley, Oliver, and Hadley-and-Oliver, including that they are two smart, funny, bright teens. I love how the two of them were thrown together but it wasn’t sparks from the beginning. Considering half the book is “waiting in an airport” then “sitting in a plane”, a lot depended on the conversation between the two of them, and wow, it worked. And then when the plane landed, and Hadley had to go off to her father’s wedding while Oliver had his own business in London, then what?

Hadley has to go to her father’s wedding; the wedding (and meeting his fiance) that she dreads. Hadley’s anger at her father is even better than deeply felt and wonderfully conveyed. It is entirely justified and pure in its self righteousness. Hadley and her parents were a close family unit before her father left for England; her mother’s own career kept her and Hadley from joining him. He met Charlotte, divorced his wife, stayed in England. Who is in the right here? Who is in the wrong? Simple, right?

No. And yes . . .  Meeting Oliver helps Hadley to come to terms with her family history. He doesn’t help her, he’s not some wise-speaking guru, he’s just a guy who completed his freshman year at an American college, an ocean away from his British family. It’s meeting him, flirting and laughing and talking and listening, and realizing what is important to her, that helps Hadley. OK, this may be a bit spoilerish, but c’mon, you know that a happy ending in all things is guaranteed in this book, right? I won’t explain the specifics; I will say that Hadley learns that sometimes you forgive a past hurt because, well, holding onto a grudge is painful and damaging. I loved that I believed Hadley working out things with her father: it was not simplistic, and it did not ignore or excuse what he had done.

What exactly did her father do? This is where I can’t help my bias as an adult reader who is closer to the ages of the parents than the teen. Statistical Probability gives a nuanced look at what happened with Hadley’s parents while never telling too much, because, frankly, most teen readers wouldn’t care. (That I want the adult book about Hadley’s father is just my own curiosity.) Smith smartly sets this book at over a year since the father left; so while Hadley remembers her heartbroken mother crying, her mother as she is today is a woman with a boyfriend who is supportive of Hadley having a healthy relationship with her father and his new bride. This allows Hadley to work through her own emotions, and what she wants her relationship with her father to be, without having to worry about hurting her mother.

Because this combined a romance with a realistic and beautiful look at family dynamics, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Emily Reads (haiku); BiblioFile; BookEnds at Booklist; Bookshelves of Doom; Jen Robinson’s Book Page; Stacked.

Review: Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor by Tana French. Viking Adult. 2012. Personal copy. This is my Thanksgiving Holiday Read, a review of something that is not a YA book. (Yes, it’s the day after, but you have the weekend to read it!) Book 4 in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Previous books: In the Woods; The Likeness; and Faithful Place.

The Plot: Patrick Spain is dead, as are his two small children. His wife is in critical condition. They were found in their new house, in a development never finished, one of Ireland’s “Ghost Estates.” Mick Kennedy (nickname Scorcher) is the investigating detective. taking a risk on Richie, the rookie on the team.

Mick takes pride in what he does; and he follows the rules; and he gets the job done. Not many could take a case with dead kids, for instance; Mick does.

The Spains lived in a development called Brianstown. Before the fancy, unfinished, poorly built Brianstown, though, it was called Broken Harbor. Broken Harbor was where Mick’s family spent a week of vacation each summer, back in the day when families where happy with a week in a caravan and the beach and ice cream. Something happened to Mick’s family back then, but Mick isn’t going to talk about that. He’s not going to think about that. He’s going to solve the case, of what happened to the Spains.

The Good: Yes, I skipped the middle two books in this series. It was no problem, really; each book stands alone, loosely tied together by the members of the murder squad, yes, but with shifting main characters. So while I didn’t experience Mick as seen through the eyes of others in the earlier books, it didn’t impact how I read this. I could tell from how Mick treated Richie that Mick could sometimes be a bit of an annoying stick in the mud, particular about things being done the right way and only he, Mick, knowing that way. Of course, now I want to go back and read the two that I skipped!

They mystery is, of course, who killed the Spain family, who left Jenny Spain for dead? Mick is a by-the-book man, who believes that usually people “invite” crime in. There is something, somewhere, that made the crimes happen; it doesn’t come out of the blue; if a family member usually did it, look at the family; and these are what guides his investigation. Richie, younger, questions why Mick isn’t open to more possibilities. The tension between the two, the disagreement on what to look at and what to not look at, creates some of the tension in this novel. Even though this is told by Mick, at times I was sympathetic to Richie’s arguments, or saw the things Mick couldn’t recognize.

The other tension comes from Mick himself. What happened to his own family, years ago, at Broken Harbor, is a secret he slowly reveals to the reader. What is more quickly shown to the reader is Mick’s younger sister, Dina, who is flighty, irrational, mentally unstable, and has only her family to take care of her. Since their other sister has her hands full with her husband and children, it’s up to Mick to caretake Dina while delving into the murders of the Spains.

There are several ghosts in Broken Harbor. The Ghost Estates: the ghost of the broken dreams of posterity and promise, the ghost of success and happiness. It is Mick’s own ghosts, too, of what happened to his family. It may be even more than that. One of the things I loved about In the Woods is that there was a possible fantastical element to it, if the reader wanted to believe in it. Children disappeared, and was it for something a bit unreal, something pagan leftover in the woods? Here, Mick discovers that the house the Spains lived in, like that of their neighbors, was poorly constructed. The Spains tried to hide it with furniture and paint… except for the holes in the walls and baby monitors in odd places and a trap in the attic. What was going on in the Spain house?

Mick grew up in before the success a younger generation knew; the loss of that, perhaps, hits him and his generation a bit less than those who always knew plenty. He and his knew about wearing hand me downs or second hand clothes; for someone like Jenny Spain, though, those things would be a sign of failure. Broken Harbor isn’t just a murder investigation: it is also a look at economic prosperity and it’s loss. It’s a look at what that loss does to a person.

Broken Harbor is also a glimpse at the Ireland before that success, in the story of Mick and his family. Let me tell you: I really liked Mick. When I couldn’t understand his relationship with his sister, Dina, I reminded myself that (while he is roughly my age) his was a culture of  “what would the neighbors say” and “we take care of our own.” That, I could understand, and Mick’s and Dina’s tragedy is that neither of them can move beyond that. Still, they take of their own. That’s something, right? Broken Harbor, or broken people, and which people can put themselves together and which people don’t? What do you do when the wolves are at the door? For all that Jenny Spain doesn’t want to buy used clothing, who am I to judge, because neither do I.

Because this book has just the right mix of elements to intrigue me, because I liked Mick, because I felt sorry for the Spains, because the story haunts me, because I want to read the books I missed, because I want to read more about Ireland and the ghost estates. And because I was reminded of Ken Bruen‘s books. (Note to self: need to catch up with Jack Taylor and see how he’s doing.) This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: S. Krishna’s Books; Rhapsody in Books; NPR.

Review: Pale

Pale by Chris Wooding. Stoke Books. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: The Pales have white hair and skin and spooky eyes. They are the fortunate, or unfortunate, ones who have received the Lazarus Serum that brings them back from the dead. Their heart stops beating, they don’t breath, they are dead . . . but they keep going. They don’t grow old.

Jed and his friends mock and beat up the Pales who go to their school. They are strange and different. The law may say they have to go to school, but the law also says that if they are dead, they no longer own what they once did. They live in a part of town called “the Graveyard,” because no one wants them. Jed’s father is one of those “afterlife lawyers” who specializes in making sure that the Pales’ families, not the Pales, get their homes and property and money.

Then Jed gets in a car accident. He’s given the Lazarus Serum. He becomes a Pale.

The Good: I love Chris Wooding’s books, and I hadn’t realized he had a new one out until I saw this at NetGalley. When I began reading it, I was surprised at just how short it was. As Wooding explains at his website, Pale was written for Barrington Stoke UK, a publisher specializing in “reluctant or dyslexic readers.” This past year, Lerner began distributing Barrington Stoke books in the US. So, that explains both why I hadn’t heard about Pale, as well as the shortness of the book.

Pale is quick moving: Jed is all action, and it’s all immediate. The plot moves swiftly, from Jed beating up Pales to then being one. The dilemma is simple: Jed becomes what he despised. What happens now to his family, his friends? Who is he now? None of this self-examination takes much time, and is done within the context of getting beat up or running away or standing up for himself.

Pale has an interesting idea — the dead come back and they’re not really wanted — and it’s basically a conversation starter for the reader. For a short book, it’s full of things that will generate discussions: why would someone take the Lazarus Serum? If people don’t want their families and friends to do, why reject them? Why does Jed and his friends bully the Pales? Etc., etc.

For me, it was nice to have a quick shot of Wooding. The appeal for reluctant readers is obvious: easy to read, short, action, but with things to really think about, and an exciting idea. While I want more, this delivers exactly what it promises: a book to entice and excite reluctant readers.

Other reviews: Turning the Page; Always Cooking Up Something.

Review: Endangered

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie, 14, is in Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo) visiting her mother, who runs a sanctuary for bonobos. During the school year, she lives with her father in America.

Sophie saves a young bonobo who she names Otto; she cares for him, beginning to understand, a bit, why her mother does what she does; why, when her American born father’s company transferred him back to the United States six years ago, her Congolese mother chose to remain in her country and not go with her husband and daughter.

Sophie’s mother is in a remote part of the country, leaving Sophie and the sanctuary workers behind caring for the bonobos, when violence breaks out. An armed revolution has begun. Sophie’s American father and American passport may save her, give her a way to escape the violence, but Sophie cannot bring herself to abandon Otto. Sophie decides to stay with Otto. When the sanctuary itself is attacked, Sophie has to figure out a way to save herself and Otto.

The Good: I’ll be honest; this is another book that I was nudged to read because of it being named a finalist for the National Book Awards. Here, the reason is that I looked at the cover and thought, “animal book,” and I am not an animal person. No, really, despite sharing the house with three cats, six chickens, seven hermit crabs, two ant farms and (on a temporary basis) a bearded dragon. Plus, technically, the crickets that the bearded dragon eats.

So, yes, this is an “animal book” in that Sophie rescues and cares for Otto, a bonobo (a great ape, not a chimpanzee). Endangered will deliver what readers who want animal books want: the bonobos are front and center. The reader learns a lot about bonobos, why they are in danger (the violence in the country they live, as well as hunters and poachers), why a sanctuary is needed for them, why humans (such as Sophie) care for bonobos, how the bonobos interact with one another, and efforts to have the bonobos live in the wild without being in danger from humans. Endangered provides this information but never dumps it on the reader; it is always conveyed as part of the story, of what either Sophie is learning or observing as she takes care of Otto.

The bonobos live in Congo; and the situation there isn’t simple. As Sophie says at the start, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Where Even the Bullet Holes Have Bullet Holes.” Sophie was born there, raised in the capital of Kinshasa for her first eight years, and now returns every summer. She is half American, and half Congolese, and Schrefer paints a portrait of a girl who is both insider and outsider in both worlds she lives in. In the States, she’d “been the only African girl in the whole school. I’d gotten plenty of looks, with my plastic slippers and hair whose kinkiness I hadn’t decided whether to embrace or fight.” In Congo, she is sometimes called “mundele,” because “any white person was called a mundele. It was a sarcastic way to paint anyone who as white as stuck-up. While my dad is white, my mom is black.”

By having Sophie be part American and part Congolese, Sophie has insider knowledge of what is happening in Congo and the history of that region and language. It also makes her enough of an outsider that when she ends up her own, with Otto, she has to be careful when she meets others Congelese. A revolution is going on, and she knows she is at risk, as a female and as an American. Endangered is a look at a country, it’s history and people and complexities. It’s not all violence and bullets — far from it. More on that below.

When the revolution breaks out, Sophie does not take advantage of the escape offered because of her passport because she refuses to abandon Otto. On one level, it’s because of her tight bond with Otto; go deeper, and it’s Sophie’s sense of responsibility because she fears that Otto has so bonded with her that he will not survive without her; go even deeper, and it’s about Sophie’s own issues from having been “abandoned” by her mother when her mother chose the bonobo sanctuary over moving to America with her husband and daughter. Sophie sacrifices safety and comfort to protect Otto. Endangered is also a coming of age story as Sophie matures, growing in understanding and acceptance of her mother’s own choices (including the realization that the choices weren’t simple) as well as her own choices in deciding to risk so much for a bonobo.

The risks of being in the middle of an armed conflict — Schrefer handles this with a perfect touch. The violence and risks are clear from the first page (bullet holes have bullet holes); and, yes, people are killed. People Sophie cares about are killed. There are scenes that are heart-breaking, but Schrefer knows just what to say and what not to say to portray the danger while not being unnecessarily graphic. For example, Sophie often observes the risks a girl faces alone. At the start she is in guarded areas, and later on she has to figure how to hide from others. Sophie never specifies that what she fears is sexual assault and rape.

Endangered becomes the ultimate survival story when Sophie refuses to leave Otto. The sanctuary is attacked, and Sophie escapes into the bonobo enclosure that is protected by an electrified fence. She is safe from the armed combatants but can hear the gunfire and screams; she has also locked herself into an enclosure with adult bonobos who may see her, a human, as a threat. There is no food, no shelter, and she has to care for Otto. As time passes, the enclosure no longer is safe and Sophie is forced into the countryside, trying to find a way to get to her mother.

As mentioned earlier, Sophie has much to fear, as a young girl traveling alone; as a person travelling with a bonobo that some may view as a food source. Sophie meets people as she travels, people who help, people she has to hide from. The diversity of the people of Congo is shown in her travels, as well as the staff at the sanctuary; while Sophie is caught in the midst of a revolution, it’s quite clear that Congo is more than a place of violence. One of the things I really liked about Endangered is the way it portrayed Congo and its people and its history. Sophie being forced outside the sanctuary and enclosure is another example of how Endangered is has multiple layers: the surface one of Sophie and Otto’s journey; the deeper one of Sophie being forced out of her childhood, having to rely only on herself, not on parents or friends or country.

I don’t want to spoil what happens, or give away the ending, because I know many people read to find out what happens. I will say that I liked how Sophie’s journey ends; I love the woman she becomes; I like that the ending is hopeful but not unrealistic and that what happens with Otto is likewise true to the situation rather than a Hollywood movie.

Endangered is easily one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012, because I adored Sophie even when I was yelling at her about her choices. I’ll be honest, I’d have gotten into the van for the airport and waved good-bye to Otto. This is a favorite book because despite being the non-animal person I ended up caring for Otto, and understanding why Sophie and her mother do what they do. More reasons I love this book: because I learned about the situation in Congo and the impact of wealthy foreigners on that country; because Sophie was smart and a survivor; because of the suspense and tension about what was going to happen to both Sophie and Otto; and because no easy, simple answers were given about Sophie, the bonobos, Congo, or the Congolese.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; A Patchwork of Books; Bookshelves of Doom; and The New York Times Book Review.