some recent(ish) reads: Seraphina, Anna Hibiscus, Charmed Life, & Mairelon the Magician

For those of you who don’t follow me on Goodreads, four short reviews of books for young people (and the rest of us, too!):

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman

This is one of those nice big books that I’d just devour in a weekend, given the opportunity (meaning, if I didn’t currently have young children). Although I read it quite randomly, not on anyone’s recommendation, with pretty much no expectations, I found myself utterly sucked into the story, the characters, the world. This is a plot-heavy book, lots happening compared to some of what I read, but the writing is also lovely. We have a real-seeming girl lead who is fearful but also hardcore, a novel understanding of dragons, a princess who’s beautiful but also likable and smart and not the female lead, compelling relationships (especially a fraught uncle-niece one), thoughtful treatment of conflict and difference (especially as the line between dragon-as-coldly-rational and human-as-warm-and-loving become blurred toward the end in neat ways), and gobs of intrigue. The end of the novel gestures strongly toward sequels; if this is the first of the series, I look forward to the rest!

It’s not pitch-perfect. There’s about a thirty-page stretch pretty far into the book that feels stereotypically books-for-teenage-girls to me, like the story and characters are in danger of going allegorical–suddenly we’re talking too clearly about self-harm behaviors, not fitting in, body loathing, hopeless crushes. But Hartman came back to the story. Occasionally, phrasing threw me out of the world, but … I mean, if I’m fretting over occasional phrasing, I must not have any big complaints, huh?

Short version: I really love this book. Great fun, with a heart.

Anna Hibiscus, Atinuke:

This is a lovely, simple book that does what it does very well. Its four chapters stand alone as stories of a child’s life. It’s not exactly easy to find English-language children’s stories set in Africa that avoid treating it as so exotic! and are also basically cheerful. This one’s funny, sweet, and interesting–and well-written, too, so it’s nice to read aloud.

Anna Hibiscus gets huge bonus points for:
1) dealing sensitively with its main character’s privilege and other children’s poverty, and
2) acknowledging that Africa is (obviously, I know, but somehow this gets missed a lot …) part of a modern, interconnected world–Anna’s aunties and uncles text each other, one of her aunts visits from the US, and her mom’s a white woman from Canada. We have both local and global here.

My only wish is for a specific location in Africa–at least a country! Noah (6) is enthusiastic about the book but wanted to see where Anna Hibiscus lives on our globe, how far she is from snow, etc. And it seems important to push against the widespread idea that Africa’s pretty much one big country/culture … not that this book makes that suggestion, but still.

The illustrations are just perfect.

Charmed Life, Diana Wynne Jones

This book is a near-perfect little package of story for the sheer fun of stories and characters, and a smart and well-written one at that. I love the little boy Cat and the way we slowly come to realize how cowed he is … and then why … and discover his true situation and strength with him. When another child, Janet, shows up on the scene, she expresses discomfort at how malleable and easily-humbled he is, and she asks something like “has something been done to you?” He doesn’t know what she means, even. Cat’s extreme lack of agency is underscored by the fact that, when he and his sister are adopted into a wealthy family, he doesn’t understand who their benefactor is or why any of this is happening … and no one will answer his questions. There’s a deep humanity about children and power here, not something that romanticizes childhood but something that takes it seriously.

I love how unrelentingly awful Gwendolyn is, and the experience of initially expecting her to get nicer or not really be so awful, poor pretty orphan girl, and what Jones does with that instead. I love the rather dense but not at all heavy-handed–efficient, let’s say–foreshadowing and clues early in the novel, and how those play out. And I love Jones’s ability to create depth of character and of place so quickly and easily, without much explanation at all … though I’m not quite sure how she does it.

So refreshing to have a female villain who doesn’t play into the standard, stereotypical female villain options.

Also, levitating a mirror and then shooting around the room on it with your friends? A+ for awesome implementation of magic.

(The only bit I didn’t like was an overly-tidy wrap-up of why some noodling-with-the-fabric-of-reality stuff was really best for all concerned, how convenient, at the end. But oh well.)

Mairelon the Magician, Patricia C. Wrede

A super-fun, fluffy little Regency-plus-magic piece without pretension, and a quick read. I like the characters: Kim, Mairelon, Hunch, and Renée are the most interesting and human, but even the totally flat comic folks work for me. The writing isn’t necessarily genius–I had a hard time buying Kim’s relentless dialect at the beginning and welcomed the plot point that allowed it to ease up–but it’s funny and generally unobtrusive.

The magic here is different from magic in many books, which is neat. It’s more a hobby for rich people than a huge element of political/personal power or a substitute for technology.

And the book’s deliciously nonsexist to boot. Kim’s gender, for instance, just doesn’t seem to matter much: her agency doesn’t hinge on the girl-dressed-as-boy thing.

I do wish there’d been a bit more. This story and its characters could have carried a longer novel, and the nutshelling at the end felt sort of surface-level.

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3 Comments

  1. QoB
    Posted 22 February 2013 at 6:57 PM | Permalink

    yay Diana Wynne Jones! Cat reappears in some of her other Chrestomanci books, but Gwendolyn, thankfully, doesn’t.
    I recommend The Power of Three of hers, as well. It’s about siblings, and talents, and power, too…

    • Molly
      Posted 22 February 2013 at 7:14 PM | Permalink

      I just read The Lives of Christopher Chant and looooved the cat descriptions–I’ll add The Power of Three to my list!

  2. Erin
    Posted 23 February 2013 at 8:02 PM | Permalink

    There is a sequel to Mairelon the Magician that I thought was quite good. I also recommend her Enchanted Forest quartet and Sorcery and Cecelia and its sequels.

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