Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Books in Brief

I've just read three great books in advanced reading copies (ARCs), and, while I want to review each more fully, I have to record my initial impressions before I forget. (And, to be honest, I may not get to write fuller reviews any time soon... or ever.)

The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson, is a terrifically engrossing YA novel. Sophie Hunter, a boarding school student in 1930s Edinburgh, finds herself enmeshed in geo-political intrigues brought on by rationalist science run amuk. Oh, did I mention that this is Edinburgh in an alternate history, where Wellington lost at Waterloo and Oscar Wilde became an obstetrician? (That latter point doesn't really matter much as far as I can tell, but it's the kind of funny detail that animates the book in places.) While, as Becca said, its intended audience may not really "get" the ways in which Sophie's history has deviated from our own, the plot and characters are so engrossing as to keep them reading anyway, and maybe learning some intellectual history along the way. Science and spiritualism are allied in this world, making for some intriguing new technologies and some dangerously powerful people. Fair warning: the novel is the first in a two-book series, and several threads are left hanging for the next book. (Due out in July; I got the book from Becca, who got it from Jenny.)

Steinbeck's Ghost, by Lewis Buzbee, is a middle-grade novel that should appeal to all kinds of readerly kids. Travis Williams is 13 and living in Camazotz. Well, it's really a new development in the Salinas Valley, Santa Lucia (Bella Linda Terrace, to be exact), but Travis finds the "perfection" of his new development, his new house, and his parents' new jobs, mind-numbing and soul-destroying. Going back to his old neighborhood he learns that the John Steinbeck Public Library is slated for closure, and is energized by the librarian to do something about it. With a great cast of characters--including his best friend Hilario, the librarian Miss Babb, and a reclusive author--Travis discovers some secrets about his neighborhood and about Steinbeck that can--maybe--save the library. This book really gets the pleasures of reading and rereading; it had me wanting to spend more time in my library, too. (Due out in September; I received this book from the author.)

Moribito, Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi, tells a fantastic story set in an imaginary version of medieval Japan. The woman warrior, Balsa, rescues the Mikado's second son from a near-fatal accident, and finds herself caught up in adventure in which it's not quite clear which side she should be on. Along with a healer and an elderly magic-weaver, she protects the boy, Chagum, from an invisible monster--and, perhaps, from his father. While in places the translation feels a bit pedestrian, the characters and the action in this book are so engrossing as to pull the reader along. (Due out in translation in June, this is the first book in an already popular Japanese series. I received the book from Cheryl Klein at Scholastic.)

While these three books are all very different, aimed at different audiences, with different styles and entirely different plots, I'm intrigued as I write this to realize that all three take the notion of a spirit world very seriously, and all are centrally concerned with the power of story--of books, oral tales, and mythic narratives--to shape reality. Their delights are many and varied--keep an eye out for them!

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