Monthly Archives: September 2011

Young Adult – Akata Witch

Twelve year old Sunny has spent her entire life feeling out of place, first as a Nigerian in America and now as an American in Nigeria. It doesn’t help that she is an albino, forced to stay out of the sun and looking physically out of place as well. She is surprised to discover, however, that she really IS different: she is one of the Leopard People, magic workers who live amongst the regular world. But just as Sunny is beginning her initiation into magic, she is thrust into a mystery involving a serial killer that might just have ties to the magical world.

This was an excellent fantasy book.  I enjoyed reading a book set in Africa that was grounded in the realities of rural Nigeria: the buses are unreliable and crowded, but the kids have cell phones. While books that takes place on this continent are admittedly rare, the few that are published seem to depict Africa as existing in a perpetual time-warp where computers or televisions are strange or nonexistant.

But as much as the setting helps the book to stand out from the pack of fantasy novels, the writing and story work just as hard to be distinguished. The magic system was interesting; I particularly loved that learning new things led to an instant shower of magical currency. While the prejudice against free agents – children who come into the magical world without generations of family support – is a little over-the-top, I was willing to overlook it as a means for the author to both convey attitudes and do a little more-or-less subtle info-dumping.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasy. Some of the serial killing implications could be a little upsetting, but the book never becomes gory.

Chapter Books – Bye For Now

Robin is not having a good day. It’s her eleventh birthday, but so far it’s been just awful. When she blows out the candles on her cake, she wishes that she were somebody else. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a new body – that of British girl Fiona! A frantic attempt to figure out how to switch back leads Robin to discover an entire network of Wishers – eleven year old girls who have been transported to another’s body. But the magic only works until one of the bodies turns twelve – and not all of the Wishers want to wish themselves home.

A light, breezy read, this quick novel reminds us once again that while the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, there’s no place like home. We also see that when people’s expectations change, we can often rise to challenges we never thought possible. These themes make for a charming story that many girls will enjoy, and may even relate to.

There are a few plot holes, most of them revolving around the ending, but this isn’t the sort of book where one is terribly concerned with world-building or consistent magical rules. All of the girls in the book appear to have wished themselves away from relatively harmless “problems” and stress, but that’s appropriate for the target audience. If the magic age was sixteen, rather than eleven, we’d expect to see slightly more dangerous scenarios that some of the girls are thrust into, but the charming adventures of girls trying desperately to pretend to be someone else while simultaneously finding their true selves is right on target for the tween audience.

The ending (plus the subtitle “A Wishers Story”) strongly implies there will be more in this series. While the book was predictable, it was also sweet, and I will be amongst the many who will most likely read others in the series, if only because I have a weakness for switched-body plotlines.

Chapter Books – Familiars

Aldwyn is an alley cat, used to surviving by his wits. While escaping from a bounty hunter, he accidentally ends up in a store filled with magical animals and is adopted as a young boy’s familiar. Aldwyn finds he very much enjoys Jack’s company, and is desperate to keep his non-magical status a secret – a task that becomes ever more difficult when all of the apprentice wizards are kidnapped and Aldwyn must band together with two other magical animals -an illusionist blue-jay and a visionary frog – to save the children.

This was a solid introduction to a new series. The characters are likeable, if a bit tread-worn (a spunky hero, a know-it-all female, and a goofy sidekick. Can’t think where I’ve seen that combination before…) The magic system is interesting, with hints that later books in the series will further explore the human magic vs. animal magic paradigms. The plot twists were carefully foreshadowed. Kids who read a lot may see some of them coming, but I suspect that the major twists will be a surprise to most readers.

There are numerous places were the book was quite humorous, which will help a lot in its appeal. I’m doing my best not to be a nit-picker when it comes to throw-away laughs (Gilbert the frog cannot get flies stuck in his teeth, because he doesn’t have teeth!) The action was well-paced as well. Overall, a solid, though not stellar, addition to the genre, and one that most fantasy-loved kids will eat up.

Young Adult – Bumped

Melody is eagerly (mostly…) awaiting the moment that she has been preparing for through the past several years: the day her sperm donor will be announced and she can finally join the ranks of her schoolmates in “pregging for profit.” In a world where The Virus has rendered everyone over the age of 18 infertile, teenage pregnancies are highly encouraged, with the resulting babies given up for adoption immediately – if not presold ahead of time. A well-handled bump can mean a free ride to college, a car, all sorts of perks, and Melody’s parents have been grooming her for years for this opportunity. But Melody didn’t count on an unexpected visit from her long-lost identical twin sister Harmony…

There were times when I doubted the plot, and a few places where the characters didn’t seem to be acting consistently, but I was willing to overlook most of the flaws because I thought the world building was absolutely fabulous.

The slang Melody uses was pitch-perfect in that it was not quite like anything people say today but was close enough that it seemed like a logical progression for twenty years from now, plus was always understandable. “Neggy” for instance, needed no explanation even though it was completely made up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the world in which Melody and Harmony live.  I’d love to see how other people are reacting to this mess of a world. I think it’s a great sign that the world-building was on target when I’m spending so much time thinking about all of the stories that could still be told about this made up universe.

The book was not perfect. There was more than one “Wait, s/he’s doing *what?*” moments. Characters are allowed to be unpredictable, but a complete 180 doesn’t makes sense when we don’t see it coming and there’s no real explanation. There were a few places where I felt the presence of plot holes looming, but I didn’t let them get in my way for the most part.

Recommended for teens who like dystopian fiction, speculative fiction, or quick light romances.

Chapter Book – Searching for Shona

As the inhabitants of WWII Edinburgh prepare to evacuate their children to keep them safe, privileged but lonely Marjorie strikes up a friendship with the bold orphan Shona. Marjorie is dismayed when she finds she’s to be evacuated to cousins she has never met in Canada, and, in a moment of uncharacteristic recklessness, offers to switch places with Shona, who is about to be evacuated to the countryside. Marjorie almost immediately regrets her decision, but the die has been cast, and she is left to pretend to be Shona for the next six years.

I enjoyed this cute light tale, but I can see why it is not more widely known. I could suspend disbelief for the switch itself, but Marjorie’s reaction is rather unrealistic. Her biggest concern seems to be that Shona will be upset that she can’t investigate her family tree while in Canonbie. This from a shy, retiring girl who is used to having the best of everything and is now suddenly penniless without the slightest ability to return to her former life.

I’m a sucker for evactuated-from-the-Blitz stories (the best of which is Goodnight, Mr. Tom) so I still enjoyed the story, particularly the interactions with the sisters who take in Shona and another orphan. The book ended somewhat abruptly, however. We’re with Shona for about a year, and then suddenly it’s six years later and the war has ended. I appreciated the neat wrap up, but there could have been more lead-up to help us understand why Marjorie is so accepting of her fate in the end.

Young Adult – Sweet Venom

Grace is excited to move to San Francisco, but a little nervous at the same time. It doesn’t help that she’s suddenly seeing terribly monsters everywhere. Monsters that no one else seems to notice, until the day another girl appears, chasing the monster – a girl who just happens to look exactly like her. Grace always knew she was adopted, but now she’s not just an identical twin, but a descendant of the Gorgons, destined to fight mythical monsters?

This was a quick, eventful read, a solid book without being stellar. While the attitudes of the girls are completely different, and what let me tell them apart, their voices were a tad too similar. Bumped also features identical-twins-separated-at-birth with both girls giving us their first person narrative, but in that book the girls had distinct speaking styles, whereas here they did not.

The general idea – descendants of the Gorgons fighting monsters – was good, if not terribly inspired. I think my general inability to muster up any true enthusiasm has to do with a trend I’ve been seeing in a lot of YA books lately: the desire to create an entire series waters down each individual book. I think this book should have been merged with its sequel to create a stronger work. Nothing really happens here, it’s all set up for the next book in the series, filled with foreshadowing and several obvious attempts to set up the characters for action-packed adventure later on, but with no real payoffs in this installment other than the girls meeting one another.

That being said, it’s still a fun read, and the second in the series will no doubt have legions of fans eagerly awaiting its release.