Recent reads: YA fantasy, MG fantasy, YA non-fantasy, Adult mystery

reviews of cashore, hardinge, bardugo, penny, thomas

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to read a bunch of good books. Among them were young adult and middle-grade fantasy, young adult non-fantasy, and an adult mystery. I’ll review them below and rant a bit about how books are categorized on the shelves.

Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fantasy

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Cashore says she originally wrote this book as a choose-your-own-adventure. In post about her writing process, it’s clear that she revises a lot, and Jane Unlimited wound up drawing on the notion that multiple potential universes exist at the same time, and our choices have big effect. The central character travels to a house on an island where she winds up dealing with art theft, or a spy ring, or several other possibilities. It’s fun to read.

I picked this book up partly because Cashore wrote a series I like, the mega-selling Graceling series, which is traditional YA fantasy, ie, there’s a created world with a king and magic. Usually if an author is selling well, everybody from the editor to the agent to the writer is reluctant to do something different. They’re afraid to disturb a ready-made audience. That Cashore wrote this different kind of book is a tribute to her creativity and to the power she has as a best seller.

This book is shelved with what B&N calls “teen” books, though the character is old enough to have dropped out of college.  Sometimes books like that are classified as “new adult (NA),” but at least my small B&N doesn’t know what to do with that category. I’m not sure anyone does.

Wonder Woman by Leigh Bargudo

Leigh Bardugo wrote the fabulous Six of Crows duology (think “Oceans 11” in a fantasy world). I love that series and I also like the Wonder Woman movie, so this book had promise for me. I wound up disappointed. For me, the book had too many fight scenes, though I don’t know what else I expected in a super-hero story. I think I’m just not the right reader. It’s well written and worth a try.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Set in nineteenth-century England, this story draws on the scientific excitement around evolution and the discovery of dinosaur bones to create a mystery about the rivalry between scientists. The central character is the daughter of a well-known scientist who’d like to do similar work, and one of the book’s big themes is how the limitations on women bar her from that doing that with any ease. Attitudes toward woman are a big theme in this book.

My B&N shelves this book in “teen,” or YA, a category that means for readers 12 and up. To me, however, it reads more like a middle-grade book (ie for readers 10 and up). The central character is 14, which is young for a YA book. Also, while she and a local boy cooperate to catch a killer, there’s no romantic spark between them.

This is irrelevant to what the bookstore does, but I’m annoyed when people use “young adult” as a euphemism for “child,” as if it was insulting to call readers middle-grade or even chapter-book readers children.

I feel a rant building about how some genres are devalued because their readers are devalued, but I will spare you.

YA non-fantasy

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

By page 10 of this book, the African-American central character is in a car when a policeman pulls it over and winds up shooting and killing the driver. She’s the only witness which means she’s under a lot of pressure from different directions. She’s also traumatized by seeing a friend shot.

It’s a timely book, and Thomas handles the subject with nuance. I recommend this book for readers of all ages.

I am apparently still ready to rant about the sorting of books. If Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird was published today, they’d be on the YA or MG shelves. Adults wouldn’t even know about them.

Adult mystery

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

This is the most recent in a long series of mysteries featuring Armand Garmache, now Chief Superintendent of the Surete du Quebec. If you haven’t read any of them before, I recommend starting with the first one, Still Life.

To me, plot is the least important part of any of these books. Instead, they have two outstanding qualities. The first is heart. Penny is most interested in how her characters interact and relate, and particularly in how they find community after a crime has disturbed it. The second relates to the finding of community and that’s a sense of place. They’re set in Three Pines, a village in Quebec that doesn’t show up on the maps.

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