Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Ever since Nimira came to the country of Lorinar with the intention of making her fortune, she has been leered at, exoticized, and made to feel inferior by virtually everyone she meets.  While dancing with a troupe of fellow dark-skinned “trouser girls” from Tassim who are treated as a salacious novelty act, she dreams of being discovered by a gentleman who will care for her.  Nimira cannot imagine the turns her life will take when it actually happens.

Enter Hollin Parry: handsome gentleman, scholar, rich benefactor to young singers.  Nimira cannot believe her luck when Hollin asks her to accompany him to his manor house to sing along with his automaton, a strangely realistic mechanical man who plays tunes on the piano.  When she arrives, Nimira finds that her life at Hollin’s is not all it seems, and she begins to unearth his many secrets.

I was really excited when I thought that Hollin was going to be the bad guy.  Despite having made a couple of really bad choices in his life, he’s a genuinely likable character who seems to love Nimira for all the right reasons.  And there’s nothing I like better than a well-intentioned bad guy.  But there’s a much bigger villain pulling the strings – one who’s not likable in any way.  Hollin is still a believably conflicted character, both in his thoughts and actions, and I enjoyed seeing him struggle with his decisions.  Interestingly, I feel like I came away from the book with a better understanding of Hollin than either of the romantic leads.

The biggest secret Nimira unearths is the true nature of the automaton, which is really a fairy who is trapped inside a mechanical man by a curse.  It is not a surprise that Nimira, who has been made to feel like something inhuman for most of her life and now feels indebted to a man who she does not love, is immediately attracted to Erris, who is similarly trapped and without agency in this world.  However, I didn’t feel that love develop since their conversations were so short and stilted – for reasons that make perfect sense in the plot, but it still left me wanting more.  And let’s be honest, creating really great sexual tension is tough when one of the characters is made of metal and can’t move.  This was one of a few places where I would have liked a little bit further development, which would certainly have been possible in this very short book.  I didn’t find their budding romance unrealistic, I just didn’t feel like I saw it grow.

Despite the fast-moving pace of this short book, the world-building is really well done.  The reader gets a good sense of both Nimira’s home country and of Lorinar, and they are each given their own specific character and customs.  We haven’t seen much of the fairy world at this point, but I’m sure that it will be similarly developed in later books.  Dolamore did a really nice job of using the characters’ cultural backgrounds as a base for their personal viewpoints and choices – you could see the differences between the countries in the way that characters reacted to a situation, even when they are going against tradition.  I would have loved to hear more about the politics of Dolmore’s world.  Many political intrigues are hinted at in the book, and I hope that they will move to center stage as Nimira and Erris’ story continues.

I was shocked, only a few months after the cover change to Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, to see Bloomsbury publish another book featuring a dark-skinned, black-haired protagonist with a very white-looking girl on the cover – especially since this looks like it is a cover that was created with a dedicated photo shoot rather than using stock photos.  (I could, of course, be wrong about this not being a stock photo.)  I think it’s probable that the cover for Magic Under Glass was finalized before that controversy took place, but it’s still truly disheartening to see. I hope that we will see changes when the paperback comes out.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Jaclyn Dolamore on the web.

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers has written a new novel that will strongly appeal to teens who loved Monster.  I don’t really have to say anything else, do I? You’re going to buy this book and put it in your libraries and share it with your teens.  I know I can’t wait to do exactly that.

Like Steve in Monster, Reese is a kid who made a mistake and is facing consequences that are much bigger than he ever anticipated.  Now he’s finding out firsthand how one mistake can spiral into a lifetime of them.  Reese is in a juvenile prison for stealing prescription pads from a doctor and selling them to a local drug dealer.  He’s a good kid who was in a tough situation, trying to care for his younger brother and sister while also trying to keep any money he made out of his drug-addicted mother’s hands.  And he has committed what he saw as a victimless crime – if all went well, the doctor might never even notice that the pads were missing.

Reese is a pretty self-aware young man, and even considering his difficult family life he recognizes that it is ultimately his own choice that put him in his current situation.  What he did not anticipate is the repercussions of ending up in a jail system that seems designed to drag inmates further down.  And it’s not just the dimmed job prospects and difficulty of finishing high school after he gets out – so many decisions he must make every day do not have a good option.  Should Reese ignore it when gang members brutally beat up a defenseless younger kid, or defend him?  Reese cannot be passive in situations like these, and by trying to do the right thing he ends up making enemies of other prisoners while also getting himself labeled a troublemaker by guards and risking being sent to a more dangerous facility.  Reese is quickly finding out the truth behind some of his dad’s words: “One time when my pops wasn’t being too stupid he said the streets were like quicksand covered with whip cream. You knew when they were slowing your ass down, but it always came as a surprise when you got sucked under” (pages 98-99).

At least one person in the prison system recognizes some potential in Reese and presents him with an opportunity to keep from getting sucked under.  When Reese is selected for a program that sends young, nonviolent prisoners into the workforce during the day, he makes a connection in the nursing home where he is assigned to work.  Like Steve in Monster, Reese is starting to look at his life and experiences through a new lens – not through the literal lens that Steve used in his screenwriting and movie planning, but the lens of another person’s life experience.  Reese and Mr. Hooft, a grumpy old man who at first pushes Reese away with racist comments and needling remarks about prison, are both surprised by the similarities they discover in their lives.

And while Reese’s relationship with Mr. Hooft is illuminating, it is in his interactions with his younger sister Icy that he really shines.  Even in the times that Reese is most hopeless about his own future, he is determined to protect and support his funny, precocious baby sister in achieving her goals.  And we’re not talking about just any goals – we’re talking Princeton, following that up with the White House, and finally stopping war by giving everybody free food.  This girl is going places – and her big brother is going to make sure of it.  Reese’s life never feels hopeless as long as he sees the promise in this little girl who he loves so much.

Walter Dean Myers’ ability to channel the voice of urban black teenagers is second to none, and it is this skill even more than his choice of subject matter that makes his novels appeal so strongly to urban teens.  The really astonishing thing is that he doesn’t do it by using lots of slang or dialect, which would date the book quickly – it’s almost entirely in the rhythm of his writing, and it comes through both in the dialogue and in Reese’s narration.  The reader can hear Reese’s voice, and it makes his story so much more immediate and compelling.  And Reese’s voice and story are both worth hearing.

Walter Dean Myers on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.

November ’09 Reading Log

YA

Middle Grade

Graphic Novels

Plays

Poetry

Children’s and YA Nonfiction

Adult Nonfiction

Currently Reading