Category Archives: Young Adult Books

Hunger Games – Victorian Style

I have a confession to make:  I’m addicted to Victorian “hunger games.”  No, I’m not talking about some new infestation of bastardized romance novels, like Pride and Prejudice and Decapitation or Sense and Sensibility and Swordplay. And I’m not referring to little known versions of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë novels where the heroines are marooned on an island and must eat raw monkey hearts and build canoes out of coconut trees before they can meet the man of their dreams.  (Though that would be a fun read, wouldn’t it?)

I’m talking about the recent wave of Young Adult books featuring Victorian girls and women who live on their own, run their own businesses, disguise themselves as gentlemen or sailors or errand boys, have adventures that would make most Victorian men wet their trousers, and defeat the bad guys time and time again. I’m talking about a particular type of hunger and a particular manner of survival in a time that was far too particular about what women could or could not want.

When I first noticed the growing number of YA novels about young independent women taking on the dinosaurs of the Socio-Mesozoic age, the Inner Pedantic Writer in my head said, “Oh great, just what we need! More romantic fluff for teen and pre-teen girls.” I had to agree.  I mean, isn’t it bad enough that half the YA covers show a girl and boy kissing, or holding hands, or rubbing noses, or, in at least one case, miming a sex act? Have we exhausted the supply of girl-meets-boy stories to the point where we are forced to import them from Victorian England?

After I’d read one or two of these books, though, I realized my Inner Pedantic Writer was wrong. These aren’t bodice-ripper stories for the under-aged. They are serious adventures and mysteries with brave, intelligent heroines. But I did have to wonder: Why were so many writers suddenly eager to plop their heroines down in a time and place where even getting to the scene of a crime takes almost as much imagination and plotting as an entire sci-fi novel?

“Because,” Inner Pedantic Writer answered, “freedom does not make for very exciting stories. If a heroine can be a transgendered bionic clone of Hercule Poirot, have sex wherever and whenever she wants, shoot, stab, karate chop, chainsaw or lightsaber the villains as needed, and even solve crimes in other people’s books—well, what’s left?  Where is the tension going to come from?”

That sounded reasonable. But after a little thought I realized there were two problems with Inner Pedantic Writer’s theory:

1)  It suggested that there are no major obstacles left for women and therefore any story set in modern times has to be dull because all the big issues are gone.  Clearly Pedantic Inner Writer has forgotten The Handmaid’s Tale, Bastard Out of Carolina, Speak, Try to Remember, The Murderer’s Daughters, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the dozens of other moving, powerful stories about women fighting for life and liberty in modern (or future) times.

2)  It implies that those authors who choose to set their stories in Victorian times are choosing an easy way out. But Inner Pedantic Writer knows that trying to write a mystery—any mystery—is not an easy job. Imagine if you have to figure out how your heroine is going to go out in public alone, how she can take on cases when no one will hire a lady, how she can interview victims and witnesses and criminals when no one will speak to her about such sordid things, and how, once she’s solved the case, she can deliver her findings without anyone knowing what she’s done. It’s like trying to fly a broom through a bonfire.

So, I sent Inner Pedantic Writer off to his room with an armful of books, and while he was gone, I read every Victorian series I could get my hands on.  That’s when I discovered what it is about these books that is so addictive. They aren’t just tales of mystery and romance and adventure. They’re  survival stories. True, the heroine doesn’t have to learn to find food and water on a desert island, or fight for her life in a televised game of kill-or-be-killed. But she has to find a way to be free in a society that does not want her to be free.

This type of “hunger games” has some extra complications: There is no audience or choreography, and there is no final moment of escape or victory. If the heroine fails, she will be raped or killed or, at best, left to die on the streets. If she makes herself too visible, she will be labeled a mad-woman or whore (or both) and locked away or hanged. So all her victories have to be personal and invisible. Her triumphs have to come from being quicker and braver and more cunning than the enemy. And the reward for her heroism is to live one more day as the free and independent spirit she wants to be, rather than the object she’s expected to be.

I can’t think of many stories more inspiring than that.


Here are a few of my favorites. Feel free to add to the list, or contribute your own thoughts about the genre.

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes Mysteries) – Nancy Springer

Enola is the 14-year old sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.  When their mother vanishes one day, she has two choices:  Enroll in a girl’s boarding school and become a proper lady, as Sherlock and Mycroft want her to do, or run away. She decides to run away and, somewhat by accident, becomes involved in the mystery of a kidnapped boy. Enola not only has to deal with all the usual dangers of Victorian London, she also has to contend with her brilliant brothers, both of whom believe it’s their duty to catch her and send her off to school.

The Ruby in the Smoke (Sally Lockhart Trilogy)  – Philip Pullman

Most people know Philip Pullman for his His Dark Materials series, but before there was The Golden Compass, there was Sally Lockhart—the most realistic of all the Victorian heroines listed here. Sally solves mysteries, but she suffers some very real hardships and tragedies in the process—which only make her triumphs that much more impressive.

A Spy in the House (The Agency Series) – Y.S. Lee

Mary Quinn, a 12 year old orphan and thief, is about to be hanged when a stranger saves her and brings her to a private academy for girls. When Mary turns 17, the headmistresses of the school recruit her for their all female spy group, The Agency, and send her off on her first case: to spy on a wealthy businessman suspected of smuggling. In the process, she enters into a very complicated romantic relationship, and discovers some long-hidden secrets from her past.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce Series) – Alan Bradley

12-year old Flavia de Luce is not technically a Victorian heroine, since she lives in post-WWII rural England. However, her family is landed gentry, and though they’ve fallen on hard times, their lifestyle and attitudes are nearly the same as their Victorian ancestors’, complete with manor house, cook and driver. Also, Flavia’s favorite “playroom” is a perfectly preserved Victorian chemistry lab left behind by her great Uncle Tar.

The Diamond of Drury Lane (Cat Royal Series) – Julia Golding

Also not technically Victorian, as it takes place in the 1790s. But Georgian England had many of the same constrictions as 19th century England, and the dangers the main character faces are nearly identical. An orphan living in a theater in London, Cat Royal accidentally stumbles onto a plot involving a stolen gem, a runaway slave, a political outlaw, and a very nasty boss of the streets.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot  – Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Authors Wrede and Stevermer married fantasy to Victorian society to create a nobility based as much on magical prowess as on inheritance. The two cousins, Kate and Cecelia, write to each other about everything from romance to court intrigue, but are eventually caught up in a plot involving a twisted Marquis and an enchanted chocolate pot. Full of humor as well as adventure.

A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy) – Libba Bray

Another marriage of fantasy and Victorian society, but with a touch of horror and the supernatural thrown in.  When 16 year old Gemma’s vision of her mother’s death comes true, she is sent to a girls boarding school with a mysterious burned out wing. At first, she’s snubbed by all the girls, but eventually she forces her way into a clique. As her visions continue, she discovers that she and the other members of her clique can enter a secret realm through her visons.

(This post first appeared on

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Book Review: Try to Remember

Iris Gomez’s TRY TO REMEMBER is a beautifully written novel that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat–not through a steroid-pumped plot, but by painting the very real terror of an immigrant teen’s life. Deportation, jail, drugs, rape, pregnancy–these are all the dangers awaiting Gabriela de La Paz, adolescent daughter of Colombian immigrants. The reader spends most of the novel dreading the moment when one of these dangers will bring her down. But this is not just a story about the hazards of being an illegal immigrant. It’s a story about the dangers of family: How the same people who are supposed to help us can drag us under.

When Gabriela’s proud, temperamental father begins to behave in increasingly bizarre, even violent ways, the effect on her family is like a time bomb suddenly appearing in their livingroom. Gabriela’s mother refuses to acknowledge the change. Her brothers find ways to escape, through work and friends and drugs. Only Gabriela–barely a teen when the novel opens–can keep the family from blowing apart.

Iris Gomez is an award-winning poet and immigration lawyer. She was born in Colombia and writes with the kind of intelligence, authority and lyricism that even her fellow countryman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would have to admire. TRY TO REMEMBER is a stunning debut novel. And in Gabriela de la Paz, you will find one of the most intelligent, sympathetic and unique characters you have ever met. A must-read!

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Book Review: Oliver’s Surprise

To cynical adult readers, it might seem like every bump on the head in a middle grade or young adult novel results in time travel and world-leaping. Yet anyone who truly understands the genre can tell you this is as valid a literary device as sniffing madeleines in a Parisian cafe. (And certainly more believable than faxing oneself back in time!)

Carol Cronin’s YA novel, Oliver’s Surprise, begins with the traditional bump on the noggin. And yes, Oliver gets whirled back in time—in this case to the Great Hurricane of 1938.  But Oliver’s Surprise is anything but a typical time-travel story.

For one thing, Oliver doesn’t run into a lot of historical figures. He runs into his own grandparents.  He even ends up being a guest in their house, and though they don’t have any idea who he is, he quickly figures out who they are.  This makes life a little tricky for him.

Also, unlike many time-travel novels, Oliver doesn’t end up in the right place at the right time. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. A horrible hurricane is coming, and not only is it going to devastate the little Rhode Island town of Dutch Harbor, it’s going to kill a lot of people: the men he’s working with at the docks; maybe even Finn, the boy who’s befriended him. Should he tell them? Would they believe him if he did?

Last but not least, the main character in most time-travel stories ends up “saving” history in some way: teaching King Arthur, inspiring Shakespeare, making sure the hero’s parents meet and get married. But Oliver’s Surprise is more about the past coming alive, how death and loss experienced in the moment are so much more acute than what the history books describe. Yes, Oliver does end up having an effect on history, but it’s a lot subtler and more personal than what readers are used to.

The writing in Oliver’s Surprise is tight and evocative, and Carol Cronin—former member of the U.S. Sailing Team and winner of two races at the Athens Olympics—is able to completely immerse us in the world of skiffs, schooners, goosenecks and derricks. And Laurie Cronin’s beautiful illustrations give the book a warm, nostalgic feel.

My only complaint about Oliver’s Surprise? It felt much too short. I wanted more of Oliver, more of his world, more about the hurricane. But since Ms. Cronin has already written a sequel, I guess I won’t have to wait very long.

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Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Steampunk! Steampunk! Steampunk! The word’s all over the blogs and book sites, all over Twitter. I’m even thinking of naming my next dog “Steampunk.” And yet, there’s nothing new about the genre. If you count Jules Verne, this stuff’s been around for at least 150 years.

What is new is steampunk’s growing popularity in the young adult market. D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines—the list of imaginative, engaging titles for YA readers keeps growing. And though no steampunk novel has yet reached the heights of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, it’s probably only a matter of time.

So, enter Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, the newest addition to the steampunk catalog. Westerfeld (author of the terrific Uglies series) doesn’t do anything very different from his predecessors. He’s got the historical period (World War I, in this case) to monkey around with. He’s got the elaborate, steam-driven machines and disgusting bio-mechanico hybrids. He’s even got a war between the two technological societies. But the one thing he does that most steampunk novels fail to do is tell a story even a 10-year old can understand.

The story starts with Prince Aleksandar, 15-year old son of Archduke Ferdinand, getting whisked away on the night his father and mother are assassinated. He and his guardians escape in a “walker,” a tank that moves on mechanical legs instead of treads, and they are chased by even bigger walkers and other monstrous mechanical devices. The goal?  Get Alex to a safe place and wait out the war.

Enter our second character: 15-year old Deryn, a Scottish girl who’s disguised herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Where the Germans and Austrians do everything with steel and steam, the Brits build everything from genetically engineered animals. So Deryn’s ship is a giant whale with a host of symbiotic creatures living inside its gut. The creatures expel hydrogen, filling the whale, and what should be a gentle ocean-bound giant becomes a high-flying military airship.

As you might expect, Alex and Deryn eventually cross paths. The collision between their different technologies, cultures, politics and personalities not only provides great tension and pathos, but also sends them careening toward the very center of the Great War.

Leviathan is a fun read, and Westerfeld tells it well.  But what really makes Leviathan stand out is its accessibility.  Most steampunk novels sag a little (or a lot) under the weight of their historical and technological details.  In the worst cases, it’s enough to make your eyes roll back in your head.  But Westerfeld has struck a balance, creating a world rich enough to fascinate, but simple enough that even the youngest YA reader can understand what’s going on.  That’s no small feat in this genre.

Finally, I have to mention one non-literary reason to rush out and buy Leviathan: the beautiful artwork. From the stunning cover and end-papers to Keith Thompson’s captivating black-and-white drawings, the pages of Leviathan are as much fun to look at as they are to read. And that’s saying a lot.

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The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
A boy wakes up in a pitch-dark elevator that seems to go up forever. He can’t remember who he is, why he’s in the elevator, doesn’t know where he’s going. When the elevator finally stops, he finds himself in a strange farm community run by boys—only boys.

The farm (called “the Glade”) is surrounded by a massive stone maze,and every day the boys send runners out to explore the maze and search for an exit. But there are monsters in the maze—half-living, half-mechanical creatures that will tear apart anyone they catch—and, as if that isn’t bad enough, the maze rearranges itself every night.  So every morning, the runners must start all over again.

That’s how this brilliant new book from James Dashner begins, and in the hands of other writers, it could have turned into a gray, predictable allegory for life, futility, art, etc. But The Maze Runner is anything but gray or predictable.  There is no Lord of the Flies style anarchy, or Ender’s Game “us against the buggers” simplicity.  The society the boys have created is tightly structured and stresses safety and responsibility above all; and yet, people still die.  Thomas, the main character, may be a hero or he may be in league with their captors—no one is really sure.  Even the Glade may not be what it appears to be:  It could be a prison, or it could be the last safe haven in a post-apocalyptic world.  No one knows, because no one can remember anything more than a few hints and flashes of life before the Maze.

And then, of course, everything changes.  The day after Thomas appears, a second new prisoner arrives in the elevator:  a girl—the only girl ever sent to the Glade.

Intense and tightly plotted, The Maze Runner falls squarely in the page-turner category.  And though I was  a little irritated to discover that this is the first book in a series (a small bit of information conveniently omitted from the cover, for some reason), I still think The Maze Runner is one of the best additions to YA fiction this year.  I just hope Dashner won’t take too long to finish the remaining volumes.

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