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Rider by Joyce Chng

I should know better than to start anything Joyce has written before bed. It guarantees I will be up long past my bed time. Happens every time.

But oh, what a problem to have. Joyce has a way with words that makes mundane things like getting to bed early enough to be well rested for work tomorrow seem irrelevant, far away. As soon as I started Rider, I more or less knew I was doomed to be up with the sun, and I was quite alright with that. The desert world she brings us to, with its encroaching sands and talented Agri-seers working with plants to try and keep the dunes at bay and people fed, is so real and dangerous and engrossing and is peopled with characters that breathe and hurt and love. I was content to be held captive.

Lifang has always been able to make plants sing, and so she ends up selected for the Agi-seers. But she dreams of being a Rider, like her sister- one of the humans partnered with the intelligent Quetz that were discovered with the planet. Humans have a partnership with the Quetz, a sort of understanding. But there are the Quetz, and then there are the Hunters, their wild cousins. And before Lifang leaves to join the Agi-seers she encounters a Hunter at a waterfall, and that encounter will change her life.

One of the things that stands out most about Rider is the culture that Joyce has woven so tightly throughout this alien world she has created. The humans are rich with it, but so are the Quetz. One of Joyce’s strengths as a writer has always been her ability to make cultures sing out to her readers. Nothing is ever shallow or simple and it adds just an enjoyable beauty to everything she creates.

Rider is a YA novel, but I would encourage adults to take it for a spin. Allow yourself to be captivated by a coming of age story that is as familiar as it is alien and let yourself grow along with Lifang.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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Saratoga Springs, 6/20/2013

I was lucky to hear a reading from this book when I saw Neil last week. It was beautiful and brilliant and eerie and if audiobooks are your thing I highly recommend getting your hands on that version.

Ocean at the End of the Lane is all at once ethereal and horrifying- a perfect mix of the mundane and the macabre, folklore and daily life woven together in ways that it make it seem that one cannot possibly survive without the other. And that is exactly as it should be. It is the story of a bookish boy who ends up walking a fine line between both worlds, seeing both the beautiful and the terrifying.

It is told from the point of view first of a man who remembers a childhood long past, and then a child caught in a nightmare. Finally an adult thinking back on that nightmare he had forgotten. It is a book about the world of adults, and the worlds of children. Leaving the hall light on at night to keep the monsters at bay, listening to parents talking as you drift off to sleep to feel safe.

It is, honestly, one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I am going to be digesting it for some time now, working through all of the little bits, the feelings and the thoughts it urged me, ever so quietly, to contemplate. It is not intentionally poetic, but it is a book that will call to the dreams, the ones who stayed up past their bed times with books, who found fairly rings as children. The ones who, maybe, imagined that a pond at the end of a lane could be an ocean as old as existence itself.

It is a book for adults, it is also a book for children. For parents to read with their kids, for kids to recommend to their parents. I will be rereading. Highly recommended.

Vodnik by Bryce Moore

Ten years ago, something bad happened to Tomas in Slovakia. Something he doesn’t quite remember, but that left horrible burns on his body and prompted his parents to move the family to America. But a house fire leaves the family in a poor financial situation and they move back to Slovakia with Tomas, now 16, who sees things that could not, should not be.  Tomas is a reclusive American boy, who wants nothing more than to watch his movies. He is not at all prepared for fire vilas, water demons, or the prejudice against his own Roma heritage.

But none of that is willing to leave him alone. Least of all Death herself who offers him a bargain he cannot help but take.

Vodnik is an excellent read for those who are looking for fantasy with a spark of something new. I had a lot of fun reading a mythology less common than the usual fantasy/urban fantasy fare, and that newness made up for the slight pacing and predictability issues that snuck in and out of the chapters. Tomas is a reluctant hero that many a young reader will be able to relate to- and he deals with some hard issues like racial prejudice and bullying that are important for folks to read and think about. It is a book about growing up, as many young adult books are, but it avoids being preachy and remains pleasant. It is a book about family and love and everything that draws one person to another.

If you are looking for an enjoyable read, give Vodnik a shot. You won’t look at a tea cup the same way again.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people (Akata Witch, pg 3).”

Sunny is a young girl who is a kaleidoscopic of impression and definition. She was born in America, though the rest of her family was born in Nigeria, where they relocated back to when she was nine. She has African features covered with an albino’s complexion. She loves soccer, but can only play at night with her brothers, her skin far too sensitive for the sun and other boys her age would not let her join in regardless.

Sunny sees the end of the world in a candle flame one evening, and soon her life is changing. She finds out she is a Leopard Person, a person gifted with abilities and part of an ancient society as a result. Soon she is living two lives, one of a normal girl her age with normal schooling and another involving learning the juju and culture of the Leopard People.  In the background, a deadly killer stalks the bush, and it will be up to Sunny and her Leopard friends to stop him.

I was excited to read Akata Witch. A fantasy novel so rich with African culture is a rare treat and I loved every page. I read so much fantasy, most of it taken from European roots, Akata Witch serves to refresh the genre, adding something brilliantly unique to the mix. There are familiar themes of being the odd man out but they are taken in a brilliant new context- an albino in Africa, an American in Africa, a Leopard among Lambs. If you like your fantasy rich with culture, bright and alive within its setting, Akata Witch is not a book to miss.

Beyond that, the characters were endearing in their humanity. Never infallible, not always likable, but always human. Even with a juju knife in hand or calling their spirit face forward, each character sparkled with humanity. These are people I would like to meet, to chat with, to learn from.

Akata Witch, simply put, is a beautiful book and not to be missed. Young or old, this book has something for you.

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Sophie is a young girl who can do nothing to fill the shoes her mother has set out for her. Not that the shoes are a particularly good fit, but Sophie bows her head and takes her mother’s sharp comments in silence. When her mother has to move for schooling and work, Sophie spends a summer with her aunt and grandmother on what is left of the familial plantation in Louisiana. There she meets a mysterious, magical entity that sends her back in time. But Sophie quickly learns that adventure isn’t as grand as books generally make it seem, and that family has as much to do with emotion and experience as blood.

The Freedom Maze is an absolutely stunning book. I was honestly unable to pull myself away, needing to know how Sophie would survive her unexpected change in circumstance. Ms. Sherman obviously put an immense amount of time and love into researching for her story- the setting is heavy with life, the characters all effortlessly settle into a seamless whole. Unlike many books that deal with the issue of slavery in the South, The Freedom Maze is less concerned with the slavery itself, focusing instead on the people slavery made- how each side of the equation reacted and acted within the circumstance of their birth and skin color. Sophie is a unique entity, a young girl who when thrown into the past is mistaken for a mixed blood accident of an influential white male and a slave woman, not entirely because of her skin but because of her demeanor. She is so used to deferring to her mother it is impossible for her to pass as a young lady of proper birth in the past she finds herself in.

The book is about watching Sophie grow aware of, and grow out of, her self-imposed slavery. It is a beautiful book, and one everyone would benefit from reading.

The Inquisitor’s Apprentice by Chris Moriarty

It was an accident, Sacha revealing the magic behind a seemingly innocent bit of Jewish food in a time and place where homegrown magic is frowned upon if not illegal. Sacha, who seemingly has no magical talent of his own can see witches. Thus starts his apprenticeship to Maximillian Wolf and his entanglement with historical greats like Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, and Teddy Roosevelt as a deadly sort of magic unfurls around him. Sacha and fellow apprentice Lily will follow Wolf through a New York City that is wavering between magic and machine, trying to stay ahead of the shadow dogging him.

I fear this book may have been written for me. I have a dreadful soft spot for well done alternate histories, and The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is a perfect blend of early immigrant New York City and all of the mythologies and cultures that migrated in with Her people. The city is perfectly entangled, each street has its own personality, each block feels like city in itself. And the characters Moriarty has peopled her book with…They are all so wonderfully, hilariously human. It makes the book a pleasure to read.

I have a soft spot for YA fantasy novels- there is something straightforward about them. The well done ones know what they have to say and go straight-about saying it. It is up to the reader to fumble their way to a meaning. It will appeal to any age- there is something for everyone to absorb and enjoy.

From Jewish demons to Wall Street devils, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice has enough to draw any reader in, and will keep them turning pages.

Across the Great Barrier by Patricia C. Wrede

Eff is a Thirteenth Child, and while she has more or less overcome the assumption she is an avatar of misfortune as a result, she is still working at smoothing out her magical talents. As she finishes up her schooling as a child her brother Lan, a fortuitous seventh son of a seventh son, urges her to consider higher schooling in the east. But Eff’s attention turns ever westward, to the wild lands beyond the barrier. She takes on a position as assistant to the menagerie attached to the school she just graduated from, and from there, is brought along on a survey expedition through the lands unprotected by the barrier. As the survey stumbles upon magical animals in places they should not be as well as a puzzling collection of what look to be petrified animals, Lan’s schooling comes to a stop in a horrifying tragedy.

Across the Great Barrier is the second book in the Frontier Magic series, and is a fascinating mix of Little House on the Prairie and Harry Potter. I am particularly fond of magic being used for mundane things, so the way Wrede has written magic being utilized by folks trying to make their way on the frontier pulled in my attention, and the edge of danger that life style and the world Wrede has built with its steam dragons, mirror bugs, and Columbian Sphinxes kept me frantically turning pages long past when I should have been sleeping. Beyond that, everything I can ever remember enjoying about being a child is represented, in some way, in these books. The little experiences and triumphs, even the flat failures and disappointments- things I can, as an adult look back at with a crooked grin. These are books shelved in the children’s section, but are by no means books just for kids.

Enjoyable, fun, highly recommended.