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Weekly Reviews: Magic
Today’s three reviewed novels share elements of the supernatural and magical realism.
What teenager doesn’t wish for a superpower, if only to imagine themselves less under the control of the adults in their lives? In a series of connected vignettes, What the Family Needed introduces seven members of one family who grapple with special abilities. I love the reviewer’s comparison to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which won a 2011 Alex Award.
Teens might also try Steven Amsterdam’s first novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming. This, too, is a series of vignettes, all about a boy who begins by fleeing with his parents as an apocalypse approaches. Each chapter moves his story forward in time by a couple years into an increasingly dystopian future.
Next up is Rita Leganski’s debut novel. One part of the magic of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is its 1950’s New Orleans setting. The other is young Bonaventure’s exaggerated sense of hearing, which gives him access to a series of secrets. He can hear colors and the stories of inanimate objects, he can hear his dead father’s spirit, and he has a gift for healing the hurts of those close to him. The beauty of Leganski’s writing has been receiving raves.
The most fantastical of the three, Sister Mine is an urban fantasy based in Afro-Caribbean mythology that is all about family. io9 calls Nalo Hopkinson “one of the best fantasy authors working today.” And a recent Los Angeles Times article credits her with “helping to pave a way for writers of color to enter the mainstream of the SFF genre.” She contributed to the founding of the Carl Brandon Society, an organization devoted to exploring race and ethnicity in speculative fiction.
Adult/High School–During a crisis, 15-year-old Giordana’s young cousin Alek asks whether she’d rather fly or be invisible. Giordana chooses invisibility, and Amsterdam’s novel follows her family through a lifetime of magic whenever they need it most–during times of sadness, confusion, or strife. At the center of this family epic is Alek. As the family members tell their stories about experiencing a superpower, their meditations inevitably come back to Alek as he progresses from being a precocious boy to a troubled teen and, later, into an inscrutable man. Once it is their turn to be gifted with something extraordinary when they need it most, they must ask themselves if everything they knew about Alek, madness, and magic is correct. Like Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Knopf, 2010), Giordana and her family revolve around someone who is both extraordinary and frightening, someone obviously struggling with living in the regular world. The characters’ individual experiences with a special gift strip away their attempts at being “normal” and offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be Alek–burdened with the ability to help, saddled with the others’ secret thoughts, and tasked with balancing magic and madness. Readers who like to delve into magical realism will be fascinated as this family’s saga unfolds and the price of superpowers is paid.–Meghan Cirrito, formerly at Queens Borough Public Library, Jamaica, NY
Adult/High School–While young Bonaventure Arrow has never uttered a sound, he hears everything, from the colors of the balloons on his first birthday to the ocean waves that emanate from a jar of sand to the voice of his dead father, whom he never met. Clearly, Bonaventure is a special child, and he has a destiny to fulfill. William Arrow was murdered in a New Orleans supermarket just before Christmas by a mentally disturbed war veteran, a mysterious man known as The Wanderer. William’s spirit is restless, and he stays close to his family, communicating only with his gifted son and agonizing over the grief felt by both his widow and mother. Told in the omniscient third person, the rich narration has a lyrical storytelling quality, capable of transporting readers to a faraway place a long time ago–in this case, New Orleans in the 1950s. The boy’s fate is entwined with that of the hoodoo practitioner Trinidad Prefontaine, a woman who sells baked goods with a side of gris-gris–magical charms. Secrets abound in this multigenerational tale that combines the mystical and the spiritual with strong themes of love and letting go, and of acceptance and forgiveness. Teens will be drawn in by the magical realism that suffuses Leganski’s novel, which also manages to touch on issues of race and social class. Teens who enjoyed the movie version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will find much to like here in a novel also reminiscent of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.–Paula Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Adult/High School–Born conjoined, Abby and Makeda are twin children of a celestial demigod and a human woman. Their separation left Abby with mojo like her celestial relatives, and Makeda without, just like the regular “claypicken” humans with whom she goes to live. Their parents were harshly punished for daring to bring them into the world: their mother was turned into a creature and banished; their father had his mojo torn from his soul, then the two pieces were hidden. When Abby and Makeda’s celestial cousins accidentally release their father’s soul, it inhabits a kudzu plant and goes in search of his mojo. The twins reunite–squabbling all the way–to find and save their father. In the process of hunting him, Makeda learns the truth about her birth, her father’s punishment, and the price she may have to pay to help him reconnect with his mojo. The comingling of the fantastical and the real world in this urban fantasy is seamless and surprisingly credible. One element that ties the mystical so tightly with the real is family drama: intriguing even with regular humans, but this family drama is ratcheted up by curses, shape-shifting spies, and relatives who can use the elements of life itself to bring comfort or misery. The complex relationships and knotty family ties, all with a tasty supernatural flavor, will appeal to a wide range of teen readers.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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