For our final review of the season, squashed in at the 11th hour, we bring you a quick and dirty final roundup to shed a little bit of love on some books that we never got to discuss at length but that we still think deserve a little attention.
This is music in book form. It’s difficult and dense and so gorgeously written it’s sometimes hardly comprehensible; these sentences don’t flow so much as wind sinuously around themselves, obscuring and revealing meaning; it’s also a sequel to a decade-old title. So no wonder no one is talking about it. But we should give it some attention, because this is also a beautiful tale of identity. What does it mean to be Indian in America was Dimple’s question in Born Confused; here, the underlying question is what does it mean to be American in India, but also Indian. This is a love story for a country, a culture, and a sexy guy. It’s never going to reach a wide audience, but for the reader it touches it will be a significant work. And it’s just gorgeous.
I don’t think many people read this one; it landed on my desk, it was short, and it featured faeries so I thought why not? This is a strange book — a connected collection of brutal, bizarre short stories that are dark fantasy (PW said it’s “Charlotte’s Web by way of Neil Gaiman,” which is pretty much 100% spot on), and I wish I had time to reread it to see if the strangeness amounts to mere whimsy or unexpected riches. Even if it’s just whimsy it’s worth a look for the way it describes ugly things beautifully, and some of the story-chapters stand alone as lovely pieces regardless of the whole. Also, illustrations! I’m classifying this as a dark pony, really, because it’s so far off any radars and because it seemed more style than substance (although seriously, lots of style) to me, but you never know. And, in all fairness, it does linger.
(Weirdly, as I was pulling up the publisher page to link the cover image, I noticed that they have this listed for age 9 and up, and I am sitting here thinking about how it changes my take if I think of it as a middle grade book. Maybe this is a Newbery dark horse instead?)
I can’t ultimately support this as a contender because they dinna say dinna in Ireland (I did a lot of Google searching about this, and because of Outlander there is a great deal being said about dinna). The brogue in general was a constant sore spot, and because it’s used throughout, it really diminished my final assessment of this book — it had a small but perceptible affect on how I gauged the voice, the setting, and the story, plus of course my old friend accuracy. But as a genuinely scary younger YA (right on the cusp and perfect for 10-14) this otherwise knocks it out of the park. Auxier’s writing is atmospheric and moving, avoids easy answers, and will keep readers up way too late. A very nearly perfect genre book, playing to rather than subverting the tropes, and doing it magnificently deserves some notice even if there are significant but n=minor flaws. Themes of truth and lies, family, and the way we shape our destinies weave in and out with great skill.
I went on record about my issues with some aspects of the depiction of epilepsy in 100 Sideways Miles. Disability is one of those elements that can be really hard to get right, and this happens to be a disability (or condition; I wouldn’t have used disability as a term if Disability in KidLit hadn’t classed epilepsy that way, actually) that I know an awful lot about. Also, strangely, there were three books this year with epileptic protagonists. Except here the epilepsy is a bit of a sleight of hand, and it works wonderfully — first the condition and the way it can affect a family are handled realistically and gracefully, and then this actually turns out to be a thoughtful, complex dual world fantasy where the epileptic hallucinations, which I had wondered about as the one unrealistic element of the depiction of the condition, turn out to be something much stranger. It’s serious, thought-provoking, and complex, and if I found the secondary world more immersive and fascinating — well, I think that speaks to craft; it’s only half the book, but I remember quite a lot about it even months later. If that weren’t enough, this is a book that manages to be diverse in about a dozen different ways without ever seeming messagey or as if the authorial voice is intruding on an organic story, an achievement that speaks even more to craft. Duyvis has a deft hand, light touch, and a fertile imagination — I am very much looking forward to seeing what she does next. I don’t think this one has a real shot, although mostly that’s a gut reaction (it’s fantasy, did I mention that?), but it certainly deserved its four stars and I am very glad to have read it — and if I’m wrong about it having a shot, I won’t complain. I’ll be adding it to my booktalk roster too; there’s loads of appeal on top of the thematic depths.
This old style grand adventure was wonderful and odd. The style is utterly unlike anything I recall reading, and I wonder if it’s equally unusual in its native French. The translation seemed largely excellent (although I did wonder about the occasional not translated passages — were those English in the original? Was it intentional that I couldn’t understand what was being said? If it was, then great job; otherwise, translation flaw). I am very much looking forward to the second book, and I think the combination of some minor issues that might be translation related plus the position as first in a duology make this an unlikely contender. Although, five stars… Either way, it was a fabulous journey to take and I am so glad Jen’s starred review spreadsheet brought this one to my attention.
And finally, from Joy, one last dark horse that she argues has what it takes to go the distance:
The Riverman is one of my favorite books–for any age–of 2014. It’s complex, moody, and at times, genuinely disturbing. Aaron Starmer is an inventive storyteller who plays with time and what it means to “grow up” in fascinating and challenging ways. Authorship, creativity, voice, and power are also explored in this story that, when boiled down to the elevator pitch, is about a boy who isn’t sure if he can believe the girl next door when she says she has the ability to travel to a magical alternate universe.
So here’s why it should be a Printz contender: in terms of biological age, yes, the protagonists of The Riverman are on the cusp of adolescence, but in terms of time lived and experience they’re much older. Alistair and Fiona spend a lot of time in (the unfortunately named) Aquavania, where time doesn’t operate in the way we understand it in the real world, so they’re twelve, but they aren’t really twelve at all. When you consider that these are the two main voices in the novel, and that they’re speaking from years of experience about events and decisions made that launched them into maturity, The Riverman covers territory that would fit in any young adult or adult narrative. If I were at the table, I’d be beating the drum for this book loudly and persistently, but I’m realistic enough to accept that it would be an enormous surprise for The Riverman to show up in the Printz winners’ circle on Monday.–Joy Piedmont