uprootedIt’s difficult to love a girl born in a Dragon year – there is always the possibility that she will be chosen by the Dragon and, even if she returns, she will be a different person than the girl you knew.

Every ten years the Dragon comes to the valley to claim a girl to come and live with him in his tower. He isn’t a real dragon of course, but a powerful wizard, tasked with keeping the valley safe from attack and in tribute, every ten years a new girl is given to the Dragon. What happens to those girls is not clear, just that when (if) she comes back she is much changed and soon leaves again to live in one of the distant cities or universities.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik is about Agnieszka, unexpectedly chosen by the Dragon over the beautiful and clever Kasia. Terrified and homesick, Agnieszka must find her role in the Dragon’s life; he is curt and circumspect with her, but  never harms her. It is only by accident that she finds that she is to learn magic from the great wizard but magic comes to Agnieszka reluctantly and she struggles to learn the simplest spells. The Dragon is deeply annoyed with her and Agnieszka is miserable until one day she comes across an ancient book in the Dragon’s vast library. The Dragon dismisses the spells in the book as impossible but they come easily to Agnieszka and suddenly the world of magic opens to her. When the valley is suddenly attacked, Agnieszka and the Dragon must combine their magic to save their people and their valley.

Full of action and vivid descriptions, Uprooted grabs you right away and doesn’t let go. Agnieszka is sympathetic and relatable without becoming saccharine and while her magic is powerful, it is her gritty courage and unshakable love and loyalty that save the day. I especially love the way the magic is described, not as a tool to be thrown but as a living creature to be coaxed and encouraged or how her magic and the Dragon’s compliment the other and intertwine to become more powerful.

Mostly though, Uprooted is about finding your own strength, learning to trust yourself, believing in the power of love and finding magic in the unexpected. Highly recommended.

dollbabyA big-hearted coming-of-age debut set in civil rights-era New Orleans.

When Ibby Bell’s father dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1964, her mother unceremoniously deposits Ibby with her eccentric grandmother Fannie and throws in her father’s urn for good measure. Fannie’s New Orleans house is like no place Ibby has ever been – and Fannie, who has a tendency to end up in the local asylum – is like no one she has ever met. Fortunately, Fannie’s black cook, Queenie, and her smart-mouthed daughter, Dollbaby, take it upon themselves to initiate Ibby into the ways of the South, both its grand traditions and its darkest secrets.  For Fannie’s own family history is fraught with tragedy, hidden behind the closed rooms in her ornate Uptown mansion. It will take Ibby’s arrival to begin to unlock the mysteries there. And it will take Queenie and Dollbaby’s hard-won wisdom to show Ibby that family can sometimes be found in the least expected places.

For fans of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Help , Dollbaby brings to life the charm and unrest of 1960s New Orleans through the eyes of a young girl learning to understand race for the first time. By turns uplifting and funny, poignant and full of verve, Dollbaby is a novel readers will take to their hearts. (description from publisher)

princess academyMiri feels useless.  While her father, sister, and all of her peers work in the quarry mining linder all day, Miri is forced to stay out of the quarry and tend to her home.  She believes that her father keeps her home due to her small stature, and this makes her a burden for the entire Mount Eskel village. When it is announced that the prince will be choosing the next princess from among the girls of Mount Eskel, Miri believes that this is her chance to prove her worth to her father and her community.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is a gem of a book. One of the biggest criticisms of middle grade fiction is that authors often tell, rather than show. They tell the reader how to feel about a character without letting the reader get to know the character on their own.  But Hale masterfully shows the reader that Miri is moral, quick witted, funny, loyal, and strong through Miri’s words and actions.  Just like Miri, the reader is conflicted about whether she would be better off marrying the prince and getting to travel and learn or if she should return to her village that she loves to help better her people.  This is a conflict that many smart, talented young women deal with as they make their transition from hometown life, to college, and then to a career.

While there are a number of fantastic princess books from Ella Enchanted to The Secret Lives of Princesses to The Princess Knight, Hale is able to do something unique with this book.  She isn’t just presenting an internal conflict of a young woman wanting to prove herself (although that conflict plays an important role in the novel), but Hale goes beyond that to create a protagonist that understands the importance of community and family.

Adam Newman’s destiny has been predetermined as far back as he can remember in Francesca Segal’s debut novel, The Innocents.

In his close knit Jewish community of North London, Adam has known everyone since birth, including Rachel Gilbert, to whom he is now engaged.  Adam and Rachel have been a couple since their were 16 years old and their wedding is fast approaching.  The couple has a seemingly perfect life – Adam has been embraced by Rachel’s family, especially her father, who has become a father figure to Adam after he lost his own father at a young age.

Their life is moving ahead rapidly when Rachel’s cousin, Ellie, surprisingly appears in town and everything Adam has every known is thrown into upheveval.  As his attraction to Ellie is growing, he is torn between the life that has been scripted for him and a life that he never could have imagined with a person he has not seen for years. This love triangle is coupled with another scandal that could tear his new family apart.

Segal takes her inspiration from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, but spins a story that is fresh and modern.  I am eagerly waiting for Segal’s next novel.

 

One of the most buzzed-about books of the summer, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker raises the question:  what would happen if the Earth’s rotation suddenly began to slow down?  Narrated by 11-year-old Julia, the novel explores not only the ramifications of this global disaster but also how it affects the already tumultuous time between childhood and adolescence.

I read this book several weeks ago and held off on blogging about it because, frankly, I was disappointed.  But I realize now that perhaps I just went into it with the wrong expectations.  As a reader who adores sci-fi and fantasy literature, I felt that the earth’s slowing rotation and its effects were extremely underdeveloped.  I wanted more information about why it happened, good descriptive passages about the effects it had on life all over the planet, and to feel the sense of danger and dread that should have been felt with this sort of catostrophic event.  But that’s not really the focus of this book, and if you go into it prepared to practically ignore the science of it all, it becomes a better story.

The Age of Miracles is really a coming-of-age story about Julia, who just so happens to live in a time when the earth’s rotation is slowing.  It’s a novel about growing up and the changes that come along with it no matter what kind of crisis is happening in the outside world: friends still grow apart, bodies still change, your parents still don’t understand you.  The passages focusing on Julia’s feelings and her relationships are beautifully written.  Walker quickly draws the reader into Julia’s story and makes you care about her; you’ll want to jump right into the book and punch the bully who picks on her at the bus stop right in front of the boy she likes.  Overall I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a nicely written coming-of-age story in a unique setting, but aren’t too concerned about sci-fi elements.

As soon as I discovered that the first chapter of Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake was about her collection of plastic ponies, all gifted to her by past boyfriends, I knew I was in for a random and hilarious read.  The book is a collection of humorous essays about Crosley’s life, including everything including her quest to find out the true meaning behind her name, starring as Mary in the camp Christmas play despite the fact that she’s Jewish, and her brief stint as a vegan.

Crosley’s essays are witty and relatable.  I know that as a child of the ’90s, I appreciated her chapter-long ode to the computer game Oregon Trail.  Because really, didn’t we all watch our oxen die as we tried to ford the river?  Though some of the essays didn’t seem to go anywhere and forced me to do a bit of skimming, for the most part the book is very entertaining.  One of my favorites was the story of her first real grown-up job in publishing and the suddenly evil boss she had to deal with.  Her solution?  Decorate a giant sugar cookie in the image of the boss’ face and give it to her.  If you’re looking for a good laugh, Sloane Crosley’s book is for you.

They were just six days at the end of a miserably hot summer. Yet to 13-year-old Henry those six days will change everything about his life in Labor Day by Joyce Maynard.

For Henry, the days pass monotonously – his emotionally fragile mother Adele has mostly checked out of life, rarely leaving the house. His father has a new family on the other side of town. Henry, lonely and awkward, and at that stage when you know so much and yet so little, just wishes something would happen. And then, Frank, bleeding and limping, walks into their lives. Henry has no idea how different he will be in six days. He will learn how to bake a pie, how to throw a baseball, the pain of jealousy and betrayal, and the power of love. Those six days will shape him into the man he will become.

Frank is an escaped prisoner who has been serving time for murder who seeks sanctuary with Henry and his mother. He is kind and thoughtful and soon Adele and Frank fall in love. They make plans to escape together to Canada. Henry struggles with this new person in their lives – relief that he is no longer the only person responsible for his mother’s happiness, fear that he’ll be left behind.

Narrated by Henry as an adult looking back on those six days, you hear the angst of the teenager softened by the perspective of time. It is written with simplicity and eloquence and a sympathetic understanding of the emotional complexity of people. The extended epilogue –  particularly the last sentence – brings the story to an especially yet realistic satisfying conclusion.

Plastics.  Graduation season is upon us, and thus it would be a great time to renew your familiarity with the iconic American classic film, The Graduate.

It has a love story, a coming of age story, a timeless Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, and a handful of memorable quotes we still bandy about today.

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

Like all boys growing up in Rome during the 1930’s and 40’s, the author was expected to join Balilla, Mussolini’s Fascist Youth Organization in Italy.  An unwilling participant, he counters this activity by becoming a bicycle runner, secretly delivering pamphlets and other materials to members of the Resistance.  Later, near the end of the war, after Italy has surrendered to the Allies but is still controlled by a puppet German government, Romagnoli flees Rome to avoid military conscription.  Hiding in the remote mountainous countryside, he becomes even more dangerously involved in the Resistance, working with both American and British soldiers.

But The Bicycle Runner, which covers his life from ages 14-25, is much more than a war story.  In fact, it reads much more like a coming-of-age novel, full of the usual adolescent angst weaved together with plenty of humorous anecdotes.  Examples include his descriptions of fearful confessions to the local priest (which the entire congregation can hear)  to his first experiences with love and lust.

The author may be better known for co-hosting the first American television program on Italian cooking, The Romagnoli’s Table, for which he  coauthored two companion books.  Though he passed away in December of 2008, the love for his native land and culture comes through strikingly clear;  the subtitle, A Memoir of Love, Loyalty and the Italian Resistance, is perfectly appropriate.

girls-in-trucks2Sweet coming-of-age saga meets Sex-in-the-City.

This single phrase describes Crouch’s debut novel Girls in Trucks, in a nutshell.  What starts out as a pleasant story about a young Southern debutante, full of all the appropriate adolescent angst, suddenly and surprisingly turns into a slightly tragic sitcom version of the once popular TV show.  I actually liked the first part better, though the novel is really a collection of stories pieced together in the appearance of a novel.  Still, this will prove to be hugely popular, especially with the twenty-something crowd,   as the author effectively captures not only the charming Charleston, South Carolina dialogue and decorum, but also replays the New York City scenes with a saucy wit that leaves the reader both in laughter and in tears.  Warning:  it doesn’t end at all the way you would expect it to —  you’ll just have to read the book to find out for yourself!