YA? Why not?!

avalavender

Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

Author: Leslye Walton

Publisher & Release Date: Candlewick, March 25th, 2014

The Hook: This poignant, multi-generational not-really-YA-but-marketed-as-such debut is magical realism at its best.

The Lowdown (from Goodreads): Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration. That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo. First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.

Overall Impressions:  I had the pleasure of experiencing this book last fall as part of a panel of booksellers who were reading middle grade and YA submissions by debut authors.  We all loved this book, but we all agreed: it’s not really YA.  With its generation-spanning storyline, multiple perspectives, and languid, magical tone, it doesn’t read like YA.  It’s debatable whether the teenaged Ava Lavender is even the “main” character.  However, all of the these arguments are moot when put up against the big question: Is it good? And it is.  Wonderful, even.  It’s the perfect crossover novel, in that it will appeal to older teens and adults alike, even those who don’t usually read YA.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender tells the stories of 4 generations of women, from Maman Roux, torn away from her French village to a filthy, turn-of-the-century Manhattan tenement, to her lovely, strange daughter Emilienne, who, after being thwarted in love and witnessing its dangerous effects on her 3 siblings, resigns herself to a loveless marriage with a baker named Connor Lavender.  Together, they travel to Seattle, where they open a bakery, and where Emilienne gives birth to her headstrong daughter Viviane.  As a teenager, Viviane gives birth to twins, silent and confusing Henry, and the astonishing, winged child, Ava.  Together, this family of misfits changes their small, insular community in unimaginable ways.

The Highs: Oh, where do I begin?  This book is beautiful.  The language, the imagery, the characters… all of it, wonderful.  But for the sake of specificity:

The language: If you hadn’t guessed from the title, Leslye Walton uses words beautifully.  Her descriptions are pefect: compelling, but never overly wordy.  Also, the multiple perspectives that she employs work perfectly: Ava’s story is written in a first-person perspective, but most of the book is written in third-person omniscient, which allows for intimate looks at the inner workings of the myriad characters.  And speaking of…

The  characters:  I love all of the Roux/Lavender women, but they make up only a small part of the beautiful cast that Walton has created.  The supporting cast of characters is remarkable, and their stories are related through wonderful vignettes.

The imagery: This book is suffused with magic, both natural and inexplicable.  Walton deals with the magic of food, of a mother’s love, of love dark and unrequited, as well as the literal magic of a girl born with wings, and of ghosts and spirits.

Buzzkills:  For me, personally, I felt like the book was too short, and I wonder if perhaps that was the fault of the rewriting that preceded it being shopped as a YA novel, rather than the adult novel it was originally written to be.  It’s only 360 pages [ETA: the finished version is only 301 pages!], and I would have happily read twice as much if it meant that I got more insights into the lives of Walton’s characters.

Also, and this is the biggie, this book has some dark and disturbing imagery.  There’s some pretty awful violence and a truly horrifying rape sequence.  It’s these, along with the generally adult tone of the novel, that would make me hesitate to put it in the hands of a younger teen.

The Source: Advance copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor French pastries were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Dane is not Mr. Miyagi. Or Sherlock Holmes.

Cover art for Dead EndsTitle: Dead Ends

Author: Erin Jade Lange

Publisher & Release Date: Bloomsbury, September 2013

The Hook: Straight from the teaser – a bully and a boy with Down syndrome form a partnership and then a friendship.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Dane is one suspension away from the dead end of expulsion. Billy does not think special ed is a dead end. They both live on the dead-end, have-not side of town.

“A bully and a boy with Down syndrome. It’s the unlikeliest of partnerships, but Billy needs Dane’s help. He is sure the riddles left in an atlas are really clues to finding his dad again, and he convinces Dane to join the search. Together they work through the clues, leading to unmarked towns and secrets of the past. But they’re all dead ends. Until the final clue… and a secret Billy shouldn’t have been keeping.”

Overall Impressions:  I tore through this book, caught up in Dane and Billy D’s stories.

The jacket summary makes it sounds as if Billy D tells the story – making me think just a little of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” – but Dane narrates.

Dane has strict rules – he’ll only hit someone (and never a girl or someone with a disability) if he’s asking for it. Trouble is, it doesn’t take much for him to feel a guy’s doing just that. We meet Dane when he’s beating up a guy who we learn was mocking him for not having a car. He lets a determined Billy D into his life begrudgingly. Their path to friendship is kind of a staggering one step forward, one step sideways, one step in random direction – for Dane, Billy D starts out as a way to get out of trouble at school while Billy D sees him as a possible guide/guard/help. Dane’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of car; Billy D has a fixation on finding his father. Dane verbally blows up at Billy D more than once; Billy D has a tendency to focus on things past the point of reason and well past Dane’s tolerance. Also, Billy D has never met a question he won’t ask.

The quest for Billy D’s father turns into one for Dane’s too. Absent fathers drive both boys, but in different ways.

The characters are great, fully built, and their complexity in how they react to other people believable. Lange crafted a tightly woven story.

I did see Billy D’s secret coming, but Lange handled it really well, and it’s understandable that Dane doesn’t.

The Highs: The slow growth of Dane and Billy D’s friendship, how they come to matter to one another and for Dane, Billy D becomes someone he wants to protect. Which doesn’t always work out that well, and that feels true to life.

Seely, who skateboards and works on cars, and calls both Dane and Billy on their bad behavior. She’s all-around awesome.

The relationship between Dane and his mother, who had him when she was still in high school. They may fight sometimes, but they’re a mother-son unit and they love each other. Lange chooses really interesting pieces of backstory to show their history. There’s a really awkward and painful but lovely scene where Dane is asking her about his father (not a flashback).

I love the cover.

Buzzkills:  Dane grows a lot in this story. Some of his attitudes about women still have room for improvement. There’s a kind of funny but mostly horrible scene involving Dane, Billy D and Marjorie.

The Source: Public library.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a road trip was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

What if winning means losing?

Cover art for The Winner's CurseTitle: The Winner’s Curse

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Publisher & Release Date: Farrar Strauss Giroux, March 4, 2014

The Hook: Shifting power dynamics, forbidden love and revolution. Gorgeous cover. (I’m a sucker for those.)

The Lowdown (from galley): “Seventeen-year-old Kestrel is an aristocratic citizen of Valoria, a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers. Here, a girl like Kestrel has two choices: to join the military or to get married. Despite her skills in military strategy, Kestrel’s real passion is music. Which is why she feels compelled to buy Arin, a slave sold as a singer, at auction. It’s not long before he begins to change the way she sees everything… but he himself is not what he seems. Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for him is much higher than she ever could have imagined.”

Overall Impressions:  My initial reaction when I finished (recorded in texts to Emily): “The Winner’s Curse is very, very, very good.” “Emotionally intense and thought-provoking and dang there better be a sequel.”

(FYI: There are more books coming. Sadly, they are not published yet.)

I have raved about this book in every book-related conversation for the last week. I love Kestrel and Arin and the complicated choices they face, how strongly they are drawn to one another and how they struggle to resist that pull. The storytelling shifts back and forth between the two so effectively, giving the reader glimpses into the bigger story of each of their lives and allowing you to see more of the whole picture. And thus you can cringe in advance, because this book is painful in its beauty.

Okay, from here on out, there will be spoilers.

Arin, like all his countrymen, was made a slave when the Herrani surrendered to the Valorians. He is also a spy for for a festering slave rebellion – and a good chunk of the brains for that – and he has made everything within him subsumed to that goal. Getting to know Kestrel brings him to the point where he wants two things he doesn’t know how to make co-exist.

Kestrel’s trying to walk a different balance. Her father is a brilliant general. He loves her and is proud of her, and he wants her to serve their country. But she desires neither the military or marriage to anyone she has thus far met. She wants a third option but cannot imagine it. Arin loves music and can match her intellectually but he cannot be an option. And none of this gets easier after the rebellion, when she struggles bitterly between caring for him and what she must do for her empire and friends.

The Highs: The scene where Arin helps Kestrel style her hair for a party. Oh my word. Restraint and tension and so sensual.

The characters’ internal struggles. Love and loyalty for their countries but also the desire for each other. The scene at the docks near the end of the book, the final scene. I mean, I want the next book, (yesterday would be good) but I would also so admire Ms. Rutkoski’s guts for ending it where she did if this was a stand-alone.

How being interested in Arin as a person slowly challenges Kestrel’s beliefs about empire and slavery in a way that hadn’t happened before.

The love Kestrel and her father have for each other, even as they attempt to out-strategize one another to achieve their own goals for Kestrel’s future.

Fantastic world-building shown by the differences in cultures and how one culture has appropriated all the works of the conquered. The personal libraries of Herrani nobles that the Valorians who now live in those houses never read but would never dismantle either.

Buzzkills:  Spoiler for a big emotional scene, so highlight the following – attempted sexual assault. Cheat as the leader of a complex rebellion seemed … increasingly focused on his hatred of / desire to master Kestrel, which in some ways I felt made him a weaker character.

The Source: Advance reading copy from publisher, obtained at conference Emily attended.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor fighting lessons were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Antici…..pation! March 2014

Summaries from Edelweiss. Happy anticipating!

Title: Half Bad

cover art for Half Bad

Author: Sally Green

Publisher & Release Date: Viking Juvenile, March 4

The Hook: “In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and fifteen-year-old Nathan, who is both. Nathan’s father is the world’s most powerful and cruel Black witch, and his mother is dead. He is hunted from all sides. Trapped in a cage, beaten and handcuffed, Nathan must escape before his sixteenth birthday, at which point he will receive three gifts from his father and come into his own as a witch—or else he will die. But how can Nathan find his father when his every action is tracked, when there is no one safe to trust—not even family, not even the girl he loves?”

Title: The Winner’s Cursewinner

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Publisher & Release Date: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 4

The Hook: “As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions. One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.”

Title: The Mirk and Midnight HourMirk

Author: Jane Nickerson

Publisher & Release Date:  Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 11

The Hook: “Seventeen-year-old Violet Dancey has been left at home in Mississippi with a laudanum-addicted stepmother and love-crazed stepsister while her father fights in the war – a war that has already claimed her twin brother.

“When she comes across a severely injured Union soldier lying in an abandoned lodge deep in the woods, things begin to change. Thomas is the enemy – one of the men who might have killed her own brother – and yet she’s drawn to him. But Violet isn’t Thomas’s only visitor; someone has been tending to his wounds – keeping him alive – and it becomes chillingly clear that this care hasn’t been out of compassion.

“Against the dangers of war and ominous powers of voodoo, Violet must fight to protect her home and the people she loves.

“… based on the ancient fairy tale of ‘Tam Lin.'”

Title: Side Effects May Vary

Author: Julie Murphy

side effects

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer + Bray, March 18

The Hook: “What if you’d been living your life as if you were dying – only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?

“When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, her prognosis is grim. To maximize the time she does have, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs-however she sees fit. She convinces her friend Harvey, who she knows has always had feelings for her, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge (humiliating her ex-boyfriend and getting back at her archnemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger). But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission.

“Now Alice is forced to face the consequences of all that she’s said and done, as well as her true feelings for Harvey. But has she done irreparable damage to the people around her, and to the one person who matters most?”

Title: Dangerous dangerous_cover

Author: Shannon Hale

Publisher & Release Date: Bloomsbury, March 4

The Hook: “Maisie Danger Brown just wanted to get away from home for a bit and see something new. She never intended to fall in love with a boy at space camp. And she certainly never intended to stumble into a frightening plot that just might destroy everything and everyone she cares about. But now there’s no going back—Maisie’s the only thing standing between danger and annihilation. She must become the hero the world needs, before she loses her heart . . . and her life.”