Piratica, by Tanith Lee

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Miss Artemesia Fitz-Willoughby Weatherhouse falls down the stairs one day at her posh lady’s school, and suddenly remembers her childhood as a pirate. Fed up with her current life, Art sets off to regain her old one, when she used to travel the seas on her mother’s pirate ship. However, Arts mother died many years ago, and when Art finds the old pirate crew everything is not what it seems. In fact, Art’s mother was a famous actress, and the pirate adventures that Art remembers actually took place on a stage. This new information hardly phases Art, who captures a ship and turns her band of actors into a real pirate crew. It turns out that one part of the stage show is real, and Art and her crew take off on the trail of a treasure, all the while being followed by the infamous, beautiful pirate Goldie Girl and her bloodthirsty crew.

For a book that seems so light-hearted and adventurous, the two main characters are surprisingly dark. Art is almost scarily driven to succeed as a pirate, and her eventual love interest, Felix, has a tragic past that informs his current life. Some levity is added by the crew of pirate actors, who are charmingly funny and given to declaiming. Lee’s novel moves quickly, and Art’s ploys as a pirate are clever. The book is fun to read when the pirate antics are going full storm, and Art is a truly independent and capable female lead character. However, I did not get everything I wanted out of this novel, perhaps because I was anticipating something a little more heavy on the adventure and less on the characters’ deeper, darker motivations. One other small quibble: Piratica is a truly awful title.

King Dork, by Frank Portman

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The Catcher in the Rye changed Tom Henderson’s life. But not in the way you think – he’s not a part of the Catcher cult, who carry the book everywhere and idolize Holden Caulfield as the perfect teenager. It was Tom’s dead father’s copy of the book that changed his life, when Tom finds a mysterious note written inside. Notes in several of Tom’s father’s old books lead him into a strange conspiracy involving his father’s death and the Vice Principal’s seedy past. At the same time that Tom is investigating the mystery of his dad’s library, he is also trying to navigate the strange world of girls, several of whom suddenly and strangely drop into his life. Add to this the daily struggle that is high school, and Tom’s best friend Sam’s constant re-vamping of their band, and Tom’s life is suddenly very complicated.

Portman’s first novel is a brilliant, cynical look at the life of a high school dork. That he leaves the plot’s complex intricacies fairly open-ended and unresolved at the finish of the novel was a perfect reflection of Tom’s high school life, where nothing ever has any deeper meaning. The Catcher in the Rye allusions add another layer to this pastiche of a teenager searching for something. Tom’s narration is caustic, thoughtful, and most of all funny. It is easy for most readers to relate at some level to a clever outsider, and Tom fills that role well. However, Portman never lets his novel fall into the typical YA cliches. Instead, he consistently challenges and surprises the reader, and also treats them to a really excellent book.

Catch, by Will Leitch

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The Temples family is like royalty in tiny Mattoon, Illinois, and Tim Temples is no exception. A popular high-school athlete going into the summer after his senior year, Tim is on his way to college, and he is preparing to leave his comfortable life as a big man in a small town. Hanging over him are the failures of his older brother Doug, who used to be a hero to Tim. After losing out on his minor-league baseball contract and dropping out of college, Doug is now back in Mattoon, and his relationship with his family is strained. While Tim works a summer job at the local Lender’s bagel factory, he meets an acerbic older woman, Helena. She is unlike anyone Tim has ever known in Mattoon, and their confusing, exciting relationship challenges and matures Tim, helping him make his choice to move on.

While Catch sometimes feels formulaic, Leitch’s love for the small-town Midwest keeps the novel fresh. Tim’s complex inner life shines through in the narration and when he is with Helena, in a way that rarely comes out with his family or his jock friends. There were a few things I found distracting about the novel – occasional stilted dialogue, and the frequent sports references, especially all the shout-outs to my favorite baseball team’s fairly recent real-life games. The story is pervaded with a sense of place, and the Cardinals references help reinforce that very Midwestern feel. Despite some flaws, Tim and his coming-of-age story are surprisingly affecting by the end of the novel.

The Dashwood Sister’s Secrets of Love, by Rosie Rushton

The Dashwood Sisters Secrets of Love

In a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the sudden death of their father places three very different sisters into a life of relative poverty. Ellie, the sensible one; Abby, the romantic troublemaker; Georgie, the tomboy; and their frazzled mother are suddenly forced to move to the small town of Norfolk on the coast of England, and their beloved family house is left to their father’s awful new wife. While the plot focuses on the three sisters romantic exploits in the new town, the book’s real center is the girls’ struggle to adapt to their new surroundings and circumstances. It is their relationships with Blake, Nick, and Adam, as well as their strong bond as a family, that eventually help the girls accept their new home.

I was surprised to find a generous portion of Austen’s novel Emma inserted into the plot, as the basis for Abby’s relationship with Nick. While Rushton’s novel certainly does not have the depth of either of Austen’s classics, it was pleasantly readable and engaging, with three likable main characters and will appeal to many teenage girls – or to anyone who, like me, is a sucker for anything Jane Austen.

I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

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Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabdriver and perpetual underachiever. His best friend is a smelly old dog, and his only social interactions are card nights and getting yelled at by his mom. But shortly after he stops an incompetent bank robber, Ed’s life changes abruptly. Someone is sending him playing cards in the mail, and those cards send him on a mission through his run-down Australian town. Every card connects him to four people, and Ed makes a difference in each person’s life. These connections are also starting to shake Ed out of his complacent existence. But he has no idea where the cards are coming from, or to what they might be leading him.

The set-up for this book was original and interesting, and Ed is the kind of lovable loser who inspires compassion in readers. He’s also a funny, self-deprecating narrator. I did have a few quarrels with the book. While the process of seeking out the people from each card and connecting with them was subtle and compelling, the tactics of the mysterious person who sends Ed the cards took away from my enjoyment of the novel. I never understood why there was a threatening figure telling Ed what to do, it was never made completely clear why Ed was chosen by this figure, and his motives were never explained. It is intimated by the text that this figure is the author, but this idea is never really explored. The scene where the mystery man meets with Ed feels heavy-handed and resolves little. I would have preferred either more or less resolution – either resolve the matter completely, or leave it open-ended. My other, much smaller quibble was with the author’s consistent use of very short paragraphs and sentences broken into pieces in order to place emphasis. This is a pet peeve of mine, and it was a device used often enough for me to find it distracting. Despite these issues, I found Zusak’s novel thoughtful and Ed’s journey moving.

Trickster’s Choice, by Tamora Pierce

Trickster’s Choice

Aly’s only ambition in life is to be a spy, like her father, but her parents won’t allow it. So when she is kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery in the Cooper Isles, Aly is prepared to collect imformation for her spymaster father, and then to escape back to her family. But when a God appears to her and makes a deal, Aly accepts. She is bound to stay with her captors and to protect the Balitang family’s children for one year. As Aly learns why the Balitangs are in exile from court and works her way into the family’s trust, she discovers that she is in the middle of a burgeoning rebellion. Aly is swept up in the excitement and intrigue, as well as the friendships and romantic relationships she establishes in the Copper Isles. She makes herself indispensable to the Balitangs and to the rebellion, and at the same time finds her own destiny.

Aly is a clever, engaging heroine, and Pierce’s world is full of excitement and intrigue. It is obvious that Pierce’s work on her earlier books set in the same world have led to a very complex, well thought out fantasy setting for the book. While Aly does sometimes come across as much more talented and clever than anyone has a right to be, she has her share of flaws. These flaws, along with her humanizing relationship with Nawat and her sassy humor, help keep her from becoming a too-good-to-be-true heroine. The fast moving plot and the strong female characters will make this book especially popular for girls who enjoy fantasy.