Marbery Lenses, by Andrew Smith – A confusing, testosterone driven tale you won’t want to put down.

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In The Marbury Lens, Andrew Smith explores two hellish worlds. In one, the day-to-day reality of Jack, Smith’s 16-year-old protagonist, the other a place of the walking dead, giant, flesh-eating insects, and violence.  Jack’s trouble begins after a night of drinking when he is abducted and about to be raped. Through sheer force of will he escapes, but his and his friend’s efforts to take revenge on his attacker go horribly wrong. So Jack flees to Europe, and following another bout with alcohol, a stranger gives Jack a pair of odd glasses, the lenses of the title, that take him to Marbury, a hidden second universe. There he encounters twins of people in his own world, including the man he murdered. In between the confusing movement back and fourth between the two worlds, Jack falls in love with a British beauty in one, while also struggling to stay alive and lead a band of young survivors of a mysterious war in the second.

In this high intensity, dual-universe fantasy, readers get a taste of what it might be like to live two lives and to never be sure which one is most real. Or, maybe they both are, and it’s only a matter of figuring out in which one you feel the most alive.

Sex  – SS – Although most of the action takes place out of sight, there are enough details to raise eyebrows.

Violence  VV– Graphic description of violent events.

Questionable Behavior — ??? –drinking, drugs, recklessness, tough language.

Not for the most impressionable.

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The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater, A Haunting Tale of Friendship, Family, Privilege, and the Supernatural

At the heart of Maggie Stiefvater’s latest work for young adults, The Raven Boys, lies a haunting tale that delivers so much more than a mere story of the supernatural, as Stiefvater’s fans have come to expect. This intricately woven novel explores the depths of friendship, the true meaning of family, the mystery of life after death, and the lengths some people will go to achieve the impossible.

Sixteen-year-old Blue Sargent’s clairvoyant mother and “Aunts” have warned her against falling in love for as long as she can remember. But these warnings come not from the the jaded wounds of the women’s own experiences, but from their reading of her future. Each has “seen” Blue’s fate: one day she will kill her “true love” with a kiss. The prophecy looms over the story like a mythical combination of the fruit just out of  Tantalus’s reach, and a precarious Sword of Damocles hanging overhead. With each page readers will find themselves alternately cheering for and worrying over the Raven Boys of the title, students at the prestigious Aglionby Academy, a private college-prep school of the rich, famous, and spoiled. The boys themselves, however, have something other than romance and mischief-making on their minds. Led by the charismatic, charming, and notably not stereotypical rich kid, Richard Gansey, III, the boys are hunting for the final resting place of the legendary Owen Glendower, a medieval Welsh noble, and “freedom fighter” who fought against the English occupation of his homeland. According to myths told about the knight, his body was brought to the Americas and buried where the mysterious powers of ancient Ley Lines have preserved him in a perpetual sleep. To the one who awakens him, Glendower will grant a wish.

But make no mistake, this is not a story of forbidden love and fairy tale quests. The boys of Aglionby, along with Blue, embark on a search for the sleeping knight that puts them all directly in the path of others searching for him, whose motives for awaking the knight involve dark secrets and revenge. Using the arts of a master storyteller, humor, imagination, and a keenly observed ear for the voices of young people, Stiefvater takes her readers deep into the individual psyches of her characters, revealing the painful truth of their longing, their losses, and the complexity of family dynamics, both the love and the hate. Along the way, Stiefvater leaves a trail of clues that point straight to the inevitable revelations about the boys’ friendships, lives, and one not so restful afterlife.

While the story hints at sexual tension, it barely moves beyond flirtatious glances between Blue and Adam, the Raven Boy who attends Aglionby on scholarship and works three jobs to pay  the hefty tuition. Mild incidents of “questionable” behavior include drinking, neglect of school work, and the practice of witchcraft. The two most violent scenes grow organically out of the story and involve the beating of Adam by his own father, and some gun play, that, while tense, spare the reader gory details.

The conclusion of this first volume of a series will leave you eager and anxious to return to the quest in the next volume.

Sex – 0

Violence – V

Questionable Behavior – ?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: What would have happened if Romeo and Juliette were something other than flesh and bone.

Few books have affected me the way Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone did. Beginning with the opening lines, “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well,” this story surprised me with its inventiveness, razor-sharp insights into the ways of the heart, and truth-telling.

Despite Karou’s mysterious background and history, and the tattoos of eyes on her palms, she is, for all she knows, a normal human art student, studying in Prague. Okay so she was raised by Brimstone, a half-beast, half who-knows what else, with ram’s horns, who deals in teeth and wishes. Written in close-in third-person narration, the beauty of this story resides in its ability to keep the reader, and the protagonist guessing about Karou’s truth. Interspersed with the story of Karou, who using enigmatic magic portals to other locations on the globe, Taylor introduces a character of ethereal background, Achiva, whose sole purpose initially seems to be to thwart Karou’s errands to collect teeth for Brimstone.

With each reveal, the story becomes more and more intriguing, drawing the reader into the world of the Chimera and its battle against the Empire of “Angels.” But this story is no mere fantasy concerning forbidden love. This complex tale explores the nature of war, the process of empire, and the slippery definitions of good and evil in a world where truth seems to depend on one’s personal perspective and the vagaries of a war dependent on tightly controlled knowledge. In Taylor’s story of betrayal and redemption, hope and despair, the final, devastating passage drives a shattering wedge between Akiva and Karou’s that makes waiting for the next installment (due out November 2012) feel something akin to the torture the two deeply drawn protagonists experience themselves.

The frank discussion of passion, sex, and love make this appropriate for older YA readers, but most of the “action” takes place off screen and the love relationship at the center of the story involves a deep exploration of the joy of intimacy, trust, and the giving of oneself to another.  For your fantasy lovers, this is a must read in the vein of Kirsten Cashore’s Fire.

Sex = S
Violence = V
Questionable Behavior = ?

A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Witcomb’s supernatural exploration of the possibility of second chances and the endurance of love.

(This review is from a now defunct website I previously published, but I found myself thinking about this book recently, and thought I’d resurrect the review in order to let older readers in on this gem.)

Deliberately crafted and deliciously written, A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb offers a of sensual exploration and emotional complexity that stands out for its literary quality and grace, although who it’s intended audience is may confuse you. The story follows Helen, a spirit, or being of light, of uncertain age who spends 130 years tying herelf to the living. By doing so she is able to continue her tenuos hold on her memories and life as one of the quick. When she encounters James, another being of light who has managed to take over the body of a living boy, she is overjoyed to find someone with whom she can communicate, and begins a relationship that quickly changes her “life.” When she is seduced into inhabiting the empty shell of a human girl, the love affair that follows seems mostly about reveling in her new found body and the exploration of the senses. The two formerly light spirits commandeer the bodies of teenagers whose lives seem destined to end sooner rather than later, but the two spirits seem determined to “live” again. When James abruptly discovers the reason for his long banishment from heaven. Helen is left to struggle to uncover her own reason for exile.

Although the lives of the people whose bodies they take over seem almost too complex and dreary to believe, Whitcomb does manage to tie their tragedies into the plot by forcing the body “snatchers” to live within the complex parameters of their hosts, and in this way the story literally allows both the characters, and the reader, to live within another’s skin

Although Helen finally comes to terms with the reason for her own private hell, though stunningly painted, feels too laden with adult knowing (she has lived for over 130 years, after all) for it to have any real impact on a young reader. Although I did enjoy a cathartic cry at the grand reveal at the end, it is not likely to be read by many of the in tended audience with the same emotional impact. However, the graphic sex scenes and genuine voices of the characters will certainly keep them reading.

The stark contrast between the beautiful prose and the modern day language of the spirit’s two young hosts, if nothing else, casts an uncomplimentary spotlight on the crassness of modern culture.

Recommend this to your older, more literary-minded readers and they will thank you.

Violence – V

Sex – SS

Questionable Behavior – ?? (expect discussions of rebelliousness, parental neglect, drugs and suicide.)

The Twilight Saga: More Tease, Than Adventure

Stephanie Meyer’s immensely popular vampire series, The Twilight Saga needs little introduction, but the mature content and philosophical questions the novels raise are rarely discussed in the popular media or reviews. The series focuses on the intricately woven relationships among a human (Bella Swan), a vampire (Edward Cullen), a werewolf  (Jake Black), and their families and friends. While the books are more love story in the vein of chick-lit tease than fantasy/adventure, and the writing is long-winded and cumbersome, fans have proven that quality is not always preferable to quantity.

Fundamental to the story are the inherent difficulties of being in love with a vampire  (or a werewolf, for that matter). Issues of who loves whom more take up most of the discussion, but the plots of the four novels do concern several very normal issues related to family, love, and sex. Meyer, despite her focus on the very realistically drawn life of teenagers, raises some serious questions, such as what it means to be human, the nature of the soul, and the need for interconnectedness. Meyer’s characters struggle deeply to justify their decisions, do not make any choices lightly, and model restraint on many fronts. Nevertheless, these stories do not pretend to teach lessons, nor are they appropriate for young readers.

Bella Swan, despite, or maybe because of, her klutzy vulnerability is hardly a role model for the modern young adult, but the depth of her personal connections to her parents, and the two men she forms relationships with are passionate and complex. She demonstrates care and affection without seeming one-dimensional, but her insecurity and cloying sense of unworthiness overshadow what otherwise could be a healthy example of devotion and steadfast love. Her infatuation with Edward felt tiresome at times, but young people, in the throes of young love ( or first crushes) will find the scenes of passion and physical longing titillating.

Edward Cullen, as seen through both Bella’s and Meyer’s eyes, comes across as annoyingly, perfect – the prize that any female would literally die to possess. His attraction to Bella is tied, in the beginning, to a mostly physical need, one that could destroy her if allowed to follow its natural course. But as the novels progress, Edward gains a bit more “humanness” and their relationship similarly grows in depth and complexity. However, to me, Edward never overcomes the initial impression he makes as a cold, unattainable hunk. In the final novel, even in his role as protective and smitten father,  he feels distant and constrained.

Jake Black, in contrast, is all emotion and raw physical energy. Frustrated, impulsive, and outspoken about his distaste for the “blood-suckers” Bella has taken up with, he comes across as mostly consumed by his rage and jealousy, rather than truly being in love with Bella. His Native American heritage adds little to the plot other than providing the author with a few handy opportunities to explain backstory. Nevertheless, his connection to his family, his friends and his tribe demonstrate powerfully the importance of trust and connection to community. Jake’s obsession with Bella seemed to me to be selfish and irresponsible, not to mention self-destructive.

While the sexual tension in the first two novels in the series rests mostly on warnings about the dangerousness of sex  and “interspecies” relationships, the second two deal directly with passion, lust, and physical need. The most intimate acts occur off screen, but there is plenty of discussion of what went on to help even the most innocent reader fill in the blanks. In addition, the novels contain fairly graphic descriptions of violence. Scenes involving clashes between humans and vampires, and various vampire clans with each other are common and vividly drawn. Torture, both physical and mental, also figure heavily in the story.

Finally, Bella displays a total lack of concern for her physical well being and her stubborn refusal to see the relationship as anything but eternal are part of the story’s appeal. But coupled with questionable behaviour, such as driving at recklessly high speeds, and nonchalantly putting herself in dangerous situations, and a blatant emphasis on materialism including a tantalizing obsession with wealth, jewellery, expensive cars, houses, and throw-away designer clothing, make these novels inappropriate models of behaviour for young readers (9-11). Parents of older children will want to be ready for questions about love, death, money, and sex.

S= Sexual tension but no real details

VV= some very violent and bloody encounters with graphic details

??=Bella’s disregard for her own life leads her to engage in some questionable behaviour

Finniken of the Rock: Moving from fear, violence, and despair, ultimately to love and hope

Finniken of the Rock

In her fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock, Melina Marchetta paints a world filled with fear, violence, and despair. Finnikin and his band of stragglers from the fictitious medieval kingdom of Lumitair, search for the lost heir to the throne, as they unravel the mystery of what actually happened during the fateful night in Finniken’s childhood that is referred to only as “The Unspeakable.” During this defining moment in the recent past the royal family of this peace-loving kingdom was slaughtered and the kingdom overrun.    Accompanied by his mentor and guardian, Sir Tofur; Evagaline, a young religious novice with the gift of “walking” in the dreams of others; a young thief named Froy, and Finnikin’s father whom the band rescues from the mines where he has been imprisoned for most of Finnikin’s life, Finnikin’s must gather the dispersed and destitute refugees from Lumitair and find the lost heir who is believed to be still alive but imprisoned in the cursed castle. Finniken must prove his worth as he struggles with the same prophecy’s warning about him: that the heir must shed his own blood in order for Finnikin to become the king. With a practiced eye, Marcetta also deftly inserts a touch of romance and a bit of magic that adds a layer of tension to an otherwise standard quest adventure.

Filled with language fraught with double entendres, and more than few overt references to sex, as well as the special vulnerabilities that women and children suffer in wartime, the story might prove disturbing and confusing for younger readers. The violence and objectification of women as sex partners, an integral part of the emotional core of the story, are truthfully and honestly related. While magic and mysticism figure heavily in the plot, the more realistic aspects of the book lend the story a layer of verisimilitude and truth that make this story more an allegory for modern day geopolitics than a true fantasy novel. This is not a light adventure story but for the reader interested in the genre, it is well worth reading.

Recommended

SS = Sex, VV= Violence