I had heard a lot of great things about Maggie’s Stiefvater’s first book, Lament. Bad faeries, celtic music, romance – sounded right up my alley. But I admit it – I am a deeply shallow person. I couldn’t get past the cover. After reading and enjoying her second novel, Shiver, I heard that Lament had been reissued with a new cover – still not one that I loved, but at least I’d be willing to read it in public. So I gave it a shot, and found a beautifully written book that didn’t really do it for me. Just one of those books where I didn’t make a connection with the main characters – happens to us all. But there was this one character – James – who I couldn’t get enough of. Great snarky voice, loaded with insecurity and unrequited love, wicked sense of humor that he uses to mask his vulnerability, plays the bagpipes – admit it, you love him too. And now Maggie Stiefvater has given him a whole book of his own. Excellent choice. This is a main character who can carry a book in a way that Dee never could, and James makes Ballad shine.
Dee and James are now attending Thornking-Ash, a school for students with exceptional skills in music performance – a school that has the added task of protecting especially vulnerable teenagers from the faeries who found Dee and James in Lament. Fortunately for the readers if not the students, the school does not do an especially good job at that task. James quickly attracts the attention of a leanan sidhe, a faerie who feeds on the creative energy of geniuses. A collaboration with Nuala guarantees that James will use his talent to it’s fullest – she acts as a muse, inspiring her partners to works of creative genius. On the other hand, it also guarantees his early death. Nuala and James are both characters who are working through a multitude of insecurities, vulnerabilities, and other issues, and their growing genuine care for each other is tentative and fraught.
While telling the new story of James and Nuala, Ballad also shows Dee and James dealing with the repercussions of the traumatic events that they experienced in Lament. Both characters are hurting, and lingering underneath the distance between them is a strong desire to reconnect with each other. Stiefvater uses Dee’s unsent text messages to James to bring this to the surface – a device that works well here. And James still feels deeply for Dee – sometimes seemingly against his will. It’s a difficult, testy relationship, shown right at the moment when all the things that have been buried deep in the past are right on the surface. Stiefvater does not shy away from the difficulty of it, letting her characters be awkward, contrary, and downright cruel to each other. Assuming that there will be another book, I looks forward to seeing their friendship continue to grow and change.
Maggie Stiefvater on the web.
Review copy provided by publisher at BEA.
A conversation about metaphysics between a teenage scientist and her husband, who is a giant talking polar bear. Right now you’re either pulling a face at me or you’re hooked, right?
I was pretty hooked. This is not a story that pulls punches with the absurdity of it’s premise. Durst’s novel is a re-telling of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Now, the original is a strange and compelling story that leaves a lot of strange gaps in the plot – gaps that are just begging to be filled in and explored by an enterprising YA author. So it’s no surprise that this story has already been tackled multiple times, most memorably in Edith Pattou’s exquisite East. The strangeness of this particular story is brought into sharp relief by Durst’s choice of a modern setting, and it can be jarring – both for the reader and the characters. But if you’re willing to suspend a little disbelief, you will find a wonderful love story and an epic adventure in Ice.
Durst’s take brings in some unexpected elements. Myth and science are married in many ways in this novel – most literally in the actual marriage between Cammie, an 18-year-old arctic scientist, and Bear, a giant mystical polar bear. Durst also throws an interesting touch of religion into her explanation of Bear’s strange powers. It’s a wonderful mix, especially when Cassie and Bear find an elegant way to bring their talents together, using Cassie’s scientific expertise to help Bear’s magical purpose along.
In the original story, the heroine saves the polar bear through her exceptional laundry skills. Cassie brings a little bit more to the table. She is a dedicated scientist even at 18, and her passion for the arctic is palpable even at times when the brutal wilderness is moments away from killing her. She is a risk-taker who will throw herself whole-heartedly at a problem, usually without much of a plan. But her determination and ingenuity see her though, making her a pleasure to read.
I did sometimes find the plot of the book fragmented. Cassie’s goals change several times over the course of the novel, and some of those goals feels much more urgent and are better at driving the story. I felt this most in the parts of the story that dealt with Cassie’s mother, who Cassie is so dedicated to saving in the book’s beginning, but who never becomes an important part of the story after she has been saved. I would have liked to see more growth in that relationship. The second half of the novel gives Cassie one clear goal – to find Bear and bring him home. This brings the story into sharper focus, and also brings Cassie’s best qualities – her determination and fortitude – to the forefront. Cassie is a kick-ass girl, and she gets to show her grit when this thoughtful story turns into an epic survival adventure in the frozen north.
Sarah Beth Durst on the web.
Review copy provided by the publisher at the author’s request.
Kidnapping. Alcoholism. Loss of faith. Budding romance. Distant parents. Distant friends. Depression. All in a novel that’s about as thick as my pinky finger. Sounds sort of awful, doesn’t it? Luckily, this novel was written by Sara Zarr, who is more than capable of packing a lot into a slim volume – both in terms of content and emotional impact.
In Once Was Lost, Zarr parallels the many small tragedies in one person’s life with a larger tragedy in the community. Sam is hurting, and the religion that has been a comfort to her for so long has turned confusing and constricting. But where can Sam take her questions? Not to her dad, the local pastor, who seems to have time for everyone’s crises except Sam’s. Not to her youth group friends, who can’t help seeing Sam as the pastor’s kid and don’t include her in social activities that Pastor Charlie might frown on. And certainly not to her mother, who hasn’t called Sam once since being forced into rehab after a drunk driving accident.
While Sam is dealing with her own difficult issues, a young member of the congregation goes missing. Jody Shaw’s disappearance brings the church and town communities together in many ways, and Sam throws herself into the search efforts. While the mystery of what happened to Jody may seem like it would be the center of the book, in reality it acts more as a catalyst for Sam’s personal issues. By pushing her dad even further into his work and bringing a sense of immediacy to Sam’s questions about her faith, this tragedy becomes a major part of Sam’s internal struggle.
Perhaps the saddest and most fully realized part of Zarr’s novel is Sam’s relationship with her father. Every time Pastor Charlie dashes off to help a member of his congregation, leaving his struggling daughter to fend for herself in questions of faith and questions of what to have for dinner, my heart broke a little bit. Sam’s pain is so obviously visible, but the person who has always been closest to her cannot see it – or chooses not to. The difficulties Sam faces in the community and in relating to her dad are handled exquisitely in the novel. This seems to be a story that hits close to home for Zarr, and in writing it she has given us her best book so far.
Sara Zarr on the web.
Review copy provided by publisher at BEA.