Sunday, November 23, 2008


The Iron Ring
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

The award-winning author of the Prydain Chronicles shows his versatility in interpreting world folklore in this novel inspired by the mythology of India. If you're a fan of folk tales, legends, and whopping great yarns, you'll enjoy this story. It reminded me of the Arthurian legend about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The hero is Tamar, the young king of a small country in a fantasy world based on ancient India. Tamar is proud, brave, and devoted to the dharma, or code of conduct, of the warrior caste - somewhat like the chivalric code Sir Gawain followed. One day a mysterious stranger appears in his court and ruthlessly turns the rules of dharma and hospitality to his advantage. In one night of gaming, Tamar wagers his life and loses. His guest puts an iron ring on Tamar's finger as a symbol of the young king's pledge to travel to the palace of Mahapura and surrender his life. Even when Tamar awakens from what seems to be only a dream, the ring remains ominously real.

So Tamar goes out on a journey to find out if his apparent dream was true, and to give up his life if dharma requires it. In his travels he is joined by a pretty gopi (cow-girl), some talking animals, a neighboring king fighting to regain his rightful throne, and other fascinating characters. He experiences romantic love, friendship, hilarious adventures, dangerous intrigues, the terror of battle, and a series of crushing losses that brings our hero so low that his heart breaks - as will yours. But even when he reaches rock bottom, even when the death awaiting him in Mahapura begins to look like an unreachable boon, big things remain in store for Tamar.

If you know who Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper is, you are already acquainted with Lloyd Alexander's gift for sharing great heroes with us. Heroes who grow and transform before our eyes in ways that surprise us and move us. Even though I don't believe in karma, I will say this: If you join Tamar on his errand of growth and transformation, you will be richly rewarded.

by Holly Black
Recommended Ages: 14+

Younger readers may know Holly Black for her work on the Spiderwick Chronicles with illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. Mature teens may also enjoy her solo ventures, such as this "Modern Faerie Tale." Brace yourself, though: it's a dark, gritty brand of faerie tale, with the type of mature themes and off-color language that call for a parental guidance advisory. Its world is like that of Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely, only without all the body art and piercings.

Kaye is a tough cookie. It comes of growing up in the entourage of a rock band, taking care of her not-so-motherly mother, and working full-time at a Chinese restaurant instead of going to school. It's a life many of us fantasize about (or did when we were younger), until another member of the band attempts to murder Kaye's mom. They end up moving back to her grandmother's house in a decaying city on the New Jersey shore, and trying to start over.

Kaye's grandmother wants the girl to go to school and prepare for a better life than her mother has. Her mother wants Kaye to do whatever she wants to do. Kaye, meanwhile, just wants to fit in with her old friend Janet's crowd. It isn't easy, when everyone remembers her as the little girl who told stories about her imaginary friends - faeries she really remembers playing with, though no one else could see them. It isn't easy to fit in, especially when the faeries start appearing to Kaye again. And this time, they have something other than fun and games planned.

Her old faerie playmates want Kaye to help them break free of the rule of the dark, cruel Unseelie Court: faeries of the night who control all the solitary (non-court) faeries in their territory, provided that a blood sacrifice is offered every seventh year. The time has come to seal the deal anew. Guess who the intended sacrifice is going to be this time? Only, the surprise will be on the Unseelie Court when they find out what Kaye has just learned herself: namely, that she isn't a mortal, but a faerie changeling magically disguised as a normal human.

Unfortunately for Kaye, her fey friends' plan is more dangerous to her than she realizes. Things grow more complicated when one of her mortal friends becomes the love-slave of a cruel faerie knight. And then there's the deeply conflicted fey warrior named Rath Roiben Rye, whose fate becomes intertwined with that of our green-skinned pixie heroine. Whatever is going to happen, it's going to be scary, violent, and complicated, with a pinch of romance and a dash of tragedy for added flavor. It may not be to everyone's taste; but if you like your urban nightmare garnished with a spritz of faerie dust, you'll be glad to know there are more books like this. So far this book has at least two companion novels: Valiant and Ironside.

The Day of the Djinn Warriors
by P. B. Kerr
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Four of the Children of the Lamp series finds twin djinn John and Philippa Gaunt in a bit of a pickle. Their mother has gone off to become the cold, logical, morally neutral Blue Djinn of Babylon. Their father has turned ancient overnight, due to an aging curse meant to keep the children close to him. Disturbances in the spirit world, a worldwide rash of museum robberies, and a chance to restore a pretty young djinn to her wax-figurelike body (and save their mother in the process) mean that John and Philippa have to travel. And that means John must leave his body at home, and both must leave their djinn powers.

It's an adventure in the world of ghosts, unusual for a bunch of people who are still living. This is no trouble for John, who spends much of the time sharing a body with the twins' friend Finlay. But other problems naturally arise. Kindly Mrs. Trump gets a knock on the head. Wise old Mr. Rakshasas sacrifices himself to save John and a disembodied djinn girl named Faustina. While sharing possession of Finlay's body, Faustina and John are unable to hide their mutual puppy love from each other.

An angel challenges Uncle Nimrod's faithful butler Groanin to a wrestling match. Venetian explorer Marco Polo returns from the dead to help solve a mystery stretching from medieval China to present-day Scotland. By granting three wishes to a kind passerby, Philippa unknowingly touches off a series of lifechanging events. And an evil djinn uses Faustina's foolish brother Dybbuk to advance a heinous plan that involves an army of terra cotta warriors, the souls of millions of children, and the balance of good and bad luck throughout the world.

All this, and much more besides, happens in this one action- and adventure-packed book. It has all the humor, youthful romance, puzzles, thrills, chills, and magical weirdness you could wish for. Plus, it comes with the assurance that the series will continue, since Book 5 - titled Eye of the Forest - has already been released.

Summer Ball
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Travel Team, Danny Walker and two of his friends follow up their victory in the national 7th grade basketball championship by going to - you guessed it! - a summer basketball camp. If being cut from his town's travel team because he was too short tested a basketball wizard's faith in himself, imagine what happens when he is thrown together with top-talent players up to a year older, and a foot taller, than he is!

Again, Danny suffers a crisis of confidence. It can't help to have an irredeemably nasty coach - the type who would advise his most gifted player to consider playing soccer instead. Coach Powers browbeats Danny's morale to a new low. A jealous (and obnoxious) rival adds to the challenge. But with the support of his friends and teammates - to say nothing of his main girl Tess - he rises to these new challenges and leads yet another team to an awe-inspiring victory.

I'm not much of an athlete. But I'm no snob either. Sports stories always get me choked up. The world of athletics often forms the background for great stories of adversity and triumph, quests for self-knowledge, and a display of skills that can be as exciting as the duels of wands and weaponry that fantasy fans thrive on. Sports journalist and youth basketball coach Mike Lupica makes use of these strengths to score a slam-dunk for young readers' entertainment, especially of interest to kids who like sports.

by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 12+

The author of the youth basketball novels Travel Team and Summer Ball turns to the world of baseball for this tale in which family love, friendship, and a talent for throwing fastballs come to the rescue of a Cuban orphan in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Michael Arroyo lives alone with his brother Carlos, who struggles to keep their little family together by working two jobs and pretending their father is in Florida, taking care of a sick uncle. Actually, their father has been dead since the spring. If the Official Persons learn of this before Carlos turns 18, the boys may be forced into foster care and perhaps separated.

Meanwhile, Michael is pitching for a baseball team that may make it all the way to the Little League World Series, particularly with the heat Michael has been hurling. But these plans, together with the Arroyo boys' secret, are suddenly in danger of crumbling when a rascally rival challenges Michael's claim to be twelve years old. How can they prove his age when his birth certificate is back in Havana, and when the very people they need helping them could also tear their family apart?

This book has its share of suspense, not only of the usual sports-story variety where the hero's team snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, but also as Michael's whole world threatens to collapse around him. But it isn't all unpleasant. Besides the crisis of a fatherless baseball prodigy who almost misses his one chance to make it to the big time, the story also has a bit of youthful romance, a strong dose of humor, charming surprises, and some novel uses of a good pitching arm outside of regulation baseball - such as catching purse snatchers!

by Stephenie Meyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first book of "The Twilight Saga," which continues in New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. In my short time as a bookseller I have sold more copies of these books than just about anything else. Owing in part to the hit movie based on this book, everything vampire-related is absolutely flying off the shelves, including Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Series, which I haven't read yet. Vampires are the hottest thing in the YA fantasy world right now; and with a Harry Potter movie around the corner, that's saying a lot.

To be honest, Twilight has been on my "haven't read yet" list for quite some time. In spite of the urgent advice of many readers, I simply never got around to it until the movie was about to come out. But at last I finally read it and saw the film, in that order; and now you can rest assured that I will soon devour the rest of the series.

At the beginning, it seems to be little more than a clever teen romance novel, featuring a couple of unusually interesting high-school-age characters. Soon after moving from sunny Arizona to her father's perpetually rainy town of Forks, Washington, Bella Swan becomes fascinated with a drop-dead gorgeous classmate named Edward. Meanwhile his fascination with her is tinged with hostility.

Soon, however, the fiercely independent, physically clumsy girl and the pale, clammy boy whose eyes change color begin to grow more comfortable with each other. This is to say, they learn to feel increasingly uncomfortable when they're not together. But they are slow to recognize true love growing up between them. Perhaps this is because, as a vampire, Edward thirsts for human blood... especially Bella's. Or maybe it's because, as a mind-reader, Edward is confused and frustrated by his inability to read Bella's thoughts.

Somehow, figuring out Edward's chilling secrets doesn't scare Bella. In fact, the only thing that scares her is losing him. And even though his whole family is a coven of vampires (the nice kind, who only prey on animals if they can help it), they recognize that Bella is Edward's only chance for true happiness. But how long can they be happy together when she is mortal and he isn't; when he constantly needs to guard against harming her fragile frame; when a vampire-hating tribe of werewolves is committed to guarding Bella from Edward; and when a truly unstoppable predator - one with no qualms against taking human life - marks Bella as his prey?

As you read this book, be prepared to fall in love with a surprising heroine who little knows how beautiful she is to others. Be prepared for the inevitable shift from a pleasantly chilling love story to a taut chase thriller. Be prepared for swiftly climbing tension levels as Bella's hunter closes in by instinct and deception, and as the stakes for her survival - as a human or as a vampire - take in the future happiness of families in more than one world.

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