While I was unable to type comfortably, books piled up on my desk for review. Not too many books, since I was also unable to look down to read for as long as I wished, but here are three that I still want to share.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. Every ten years, the Dragon comes to Agnieszka’s village to choose a young woman to come to his tower to serve him for the next ten years. Agnieszka and her best friend, Kasia, are born in the year from which a girl will be chosen, and all of their lives, they and everyone they know has believed that Kasia will be chosen. She is the most beautiful and has been raised to have all of the skills a maidservant would need. Agnieszka dreads letting go of her dearest friend, and she knows she will never be close to her again, because once the Dragon— who is a powerful wizard—is finished with a girl, she is changed and usually goes to live far away from her family.
No one is more surprised than Agnieszka when she is chosen instead of Kasia. She is not ready! She has never been prepared for a life of service! But the service the Dragon requires is nothing that anyone in the village has ever imagined, and Agnieszka is more than ready.
This adult fantasy novel is filled with magic, terrifying danger, and a bit of romance. A fast-paced read, it is the beginning of a series that will have tremendous appeal to teens, as well. There is occult content and a sex scene, so use your best judgment.
Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Schmidt. Jack’s family took in a foster child, Joseph, even though all of the authorities warned them that he was trouble. He had almost killed someone, he had been in jail, and, at the age of fourteen, he had become the father of a daughter named Jupiter—a daughter he was never allowed to see. Jack was around Joseph more than anyone else, however, and although he could see the pain and anger that was constantly seething within him, Jack watched him stare up at the night sky through their bedroom window every night, searching for Jupiter, and he knew that there was love and anguish inside Joseph, as well. Besides, Rosie the cow loved him, as she showed each morning and evening when Joseph milked her, and “you can tell a whole lot about someone from the way cows are around him.” (p. 32) A boy with Joseph’s past, though, often has too many things already stacked against him to ever be able to live a normal life.
Gary Schmidt is one of the best children’s writers around. His sweet, often humorous prose pulls hard on the heartstrings as he tells a story that could have been too coarse in lesser hands. He sympathetically yet realistically portrays the struggles of a young boy whose actions would be seen as honorable and responsible in an adult man, but at his age could only bring grief and punishment. A Calvin College professor, Schmidt writes stories that show ordinary, church-going families giving sacrificial love so quietly that it either goes unnoticed or is misunderstood by those around them. My favorite books by Schmidt are the Newbery-Honor winning The Wednesday Wars and its companion novel, Okay for Now. Orbiting Jupiter, although it is quite brief, is intended for a somewhat older audience.
The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. Since The Problem started decades ago, ghosts and hauntings have been on the rise everywhere, and because children are much more sensitive to otherworldly phenomena than adults are, the most talented children have been trained to capture and exterminate Visitors, working through the night and often losing their lives in the fight. Lucy Carlyle is able to see apparitions a bit, but her real talent is in hearing them, as she does when she hears the last words of a famous celebrity, reopening a cold murder case and throwing her employer, Anthony Lockwood, into the public eye.
This first volume of the “Lockwood & Co.” series is flat-out scary. Do not expect a Scooby-Doo ending that shows that all of the frightening elements were no more than smoke and mirrors. Stroud dishes up hair-raising scenes involving both ethereal and human adversaries, with lots of bravery and bravado on the part of the heroes. The tone is thoroughly British and quite charming, as when Lucy and Lockwood settle down to a cup of tea before going upstairs for a ghostly battle during which they burn down the house. The characters are engaging, the action is nonstop, and the dialogue is as sharp as their rapiers. For tweens and young teens who don’t mind sleeping with the lights on.
Disclaimer: I read advance reader copies of Uprooted and Orbiting Jupiter, and I read a library copy of The Screaming Staircase. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employers or anyone else.