The Oyster Thief by Sonia Faruqi

Told in third person from the perspectives of Izar, the adoptive son of a wealthy and avaricious owner of the oil company Ocean Dominion; and Coralline, a gentle mermaid who is an assistant at an apothecary, The Oyster Thief is a world of juxtapositions, of mermaids and men, water and fire.

When he is young, Izar’s adoptive father tasks him to invent underwater fire so that Ocean Dominion can scour the ocean floor for treasure while destroying the settlements of merpeople in the process. As is evident from this plan, the people at Ocean Dominion regard merpeople as lesser than humans–even monstrous. In contrast to Izar, Coralline is an apothecary whose goal is to heal and care for other merpeople.

Sonia Faruqi switches between the two characters to show how their lives run both parallel to and in contradiction with each other until their storylines meld together into one. The Oyster Thief touches on the concepts of true love and why people are not always how they seem. Coralline with her healing and Izar with his destruction seem natural enemies, yet they grow steadily closer to each other as the story progresses. I liked how Izar and Coralline’s actions are contrasted with each other by how differently each reacts in a similar situation.

The underwater world Sonia Faruqi builds is very well thought out; the merpeople’s food, customs, currency, and so forth are all considered, which makes the story more realistic. I thought the story was well-researched: for instance, species of algae and sea creatures, the physics of the underwater world, and scientific explanations for anomalies that occur (such as underwater fire) are specified. The incredibly logical explanations of the world help make the novel believable and sophisticated.

I did think that sometimes too much time was spent explicitly contemplating ironies or thematic concepts in the story that usually are interpreted by the reader, and many words are also spent giving a specific reason for a character’s actions. However, the novel’s concept is quite intriguing, and the many contrasts in the novel do lend themselves to a lot of irony that might require explanation.

I particularly enjoyed the characterization of the muses Pavonis, Altair, and Nacre (a muse is basically a merperson’s chosen companion, such as Coralline’s shark friend, Pavonis), as they are very developed and lovable characters.

In The Oyster Thief, Sonia Faruqi exemplifies how even the most contradictory matches–Izar and Coralline, poison and medicine, fire and water–can combine to form something healing and possibly incredible.

– Mia T.

The Oyster Thief by Sonia Faruqi is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

An outlier from the usual fairy-tale-based fiction, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert is a unique, compelling book with twenty-first century references and a search for a mysterious, magical wood. Both the title and the cover intrigued me into picking up the book. I read the synopsis, which also seemed intriguing. But when I began to read, I was pulled into a story that I hadn’t quite anticipated–though it was still quite intriguing.

I’ve found that most books based on fairy tales have the protagonist enter the fairy tale world within the first half of the book (if they aren’t there already). However, The Hazel Wood is not based mainly in the fairy tale world, but on a search to find it. The novel begins similarly to a realistic fiction novel with a main character named Alice Proserpine. She and her mother, Vanella (Ella), are constantly on the road, moving from town to town. Alice lives with an unease; her memories seem off, as if she doesn’t fully fit into the world.

Unsettling events seems to follow the mother and daughter. Alice doesn’t know why, but she does know that her mother refuses to speak about her mother–Alice’s grandmother–Althea Proserpine.

Althea Proserpine is the reclusive author of the book of fairy tales Tales from the Hinterland. It’s a difficult book to get a copy of, but its fans are extreme. Alice has never been allowed to read the book, and has only snuck in a few lines from a story called “Alice Three-Times”.

When Alice’s mother receives a letter saying that Althea has passed away, she seems to relax. However, just when she marries and they finally slow down, Ella disappears. Alice, who has been struggling with going to a school full of rich kids (her step-father lives in a rich neighborhood and was able to find her a place in the school), must take on the much larger problem of finding her mother. She and an extreme fan of her grandmother’s stories named Ellery Finch begin a search for Althea’s estate, the Hazel Wood, which is just the place where Ella ordered Alice not to go.

During their search, Ellery and Alice notice characters from Tales from the Hinterland who have somehow left their world, and Ellery tells Alice parts of Althea’s stories, which are horrific and evil and not at all happily-ending.

Sprinkled with references to our popular culture, The Hazel Wood takes place mostly in the modern world, and is understandable for a young adult audience. I liked how Melissa Albert uniquely did not embellish the story with unrealistic romance or happy endings, which made the story more realistic: Alice’s stepsister is not ugly or really unkind to her, not everyone leaves the Hazel Wood, and the protagonists of some fairy tales are evil.

The Hazel Wood is a wonderful book to read if you are searching for a non-cliché young adult novel that puts an eerie spin on fairy tales.

– Mia T.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, begins with Scarlett Dragna, who lives on a secluded isle with a cruel father who uses his daughters’ love for each other to control them. Whenever Scarlett does something wrong, her father punishes her sister, Donatella (Tella), instead. Scarlett banks her and her sister’s safety on her upcoming arranged marriage to a count whom she has only conferred with through letters. 

For years, Scarlett has written to Legend, the mysterious master of Caraval, hoping that he will bring his extravagant performance to her isle. Finally, when Legend writes back with three tickets to Caraval (which will be taking place on a magical island this year), Scarlett thinks she Tella would be better off not going. However, Tella has other ideas.

Far more bold and far less of a worrier than her protective sister, Tella and a strange sailor, Julian, conspire to bring Scarlett away from their father to the island where Caraval will be that year. When Tella suddenly disappears, Scarlett, who would do anything for her sister, begins to find that Tella has a greater part in Caraval than Scarlett had known. The only way Scarlett knows of that will reunite her with Tella is to win Caraval.

Caraval is Legend’s once-a-year performance which takes place over the course of five nights. Ticket holders can choose to either watch or play the game. The year Scarlett plays, the stage is a village, where the audience members who have chosen to play the game stay. Each night, Caraval fills with magic and illusions, and the players search for clues to guide them to the final prize. Scarlett finds herself in a performance where reality is blurred; it becomes difficult to differentiate the real people from actors who are simply playing parts in the game.

With Stephanie Garber’s beautiful descriptions and elegant characters, Caraval is one of my favorite young adult books. I particularly enjoyed reading from Scarlett’s perspective because her personality is not necessarily standard of a fantasy novel’s heroine, but her love for her sister motivates her throughout the book. By the end of Caraval, she has noticeably grown. Scarlett also describes senses and feelings with color, and the vivid imagery that results is magical. 

The story of Scarlett and Tella is continued in Legendary, which is written from the perspective of Tella. 

Caraval’s fantastic characters, vivid descriptions, and unanticipated turns make the book so difficult to set down. Stephanie Garber’s exquisite writing is a wonderful gift to read, and I highly recommend Caraval.

– Mia T.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall is one I have been reading for years and have yet to tire of. The series is about four sisters named Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty. Shortly after Batty, the youngest, was born, their mother passed away, leaving their father to care for them. Mr. Penderwick is a botanist who throws out Latin phrases along with advice to his daughters. He can be quite lenient and unsure of his judgement, but he has his daughters’ respect and love. 

I love how each of the sisters is so unique and wonderful in their own way, and how Jeanne Birdsall writes from their perspectives is amazing. The sisters have such contrasting qualities, but these qualities compliment each other. Their father raises them with solid values, and though they make some mistakes, they are incredibly down-to-earth characters who find ways to solve any issues they have.

One aspect I find entertaining about their relationships with each other is the meetings they have, which are called “MOPS”, or Meeting of Penderwick Sisters. The sisters discuss problems they’ve noticed with their family or friends, and how they may be able to solve them. Despite their separate personalities and occasional arguments, the sisters are still so close and supportive of each other.

Rosalind is kind and compassionate, and is a wonderful older sister for her siblings. She is especially fond of her sister Batty, who is very attached to her. Her maturity and leadership results in her sisters looking up to her, even when she questions her own abilities.

Skye is adventurous and impatient with frivolity. Her relationship with Batty is entertaining to read about; Skye is uncertain with how to act with her younger sister while maintaining a tough exterior. 

Jane is a writer, with her mind constantly wandering, even during conversations (which tends to irritate Skye). On the Penderwicks’ trips throughout the series, Jane consistently manages to haul a stack of books with her. 

Batty is curious and shy, and she loves animals. Her sisters are protective of her, even if some of them pretend they aren’t. 

As the series progresses, the sisters grow older, and their changes in character are interesting to see. Though the plots of these books don’t revolve around a real villain or conflict, the stories are still so exciting, engaging, funny, and heartwarming. This really is a wonderful series, and the audiobooks read by Susan Denaker are amazing as well!

– Mia T.

The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Favorite Fictional Parents

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of some of my favorite fictional parents, as some of them play such a big role in raising their children to be the heroes we love to read about.

Martin Penderwick (The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall): One thing I love about Mr. Penderwick, who is a botanist, is that he always seems to have a phrase of Latin to toss to his daughters, most of the time leaving them to puzzle it out. It is not easy to raise four daughters on your own, and by looking at his daughters, you can see he did quite a nice job.

Arthur Weasley (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling): Always intrigued by the various creations of Muggles, Arthur Weasley is not your typical wizard. He seems a supportive dad, with his son Ron looking to him for answers to questions, and though he can get a bit carried away with tinkering with Muggle objects and his fascination with “escapators”, his wife Molly tends to keep him in check.

Molly Weasley (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling): Loving and warm–though sharp at times– Mrs. Weasley treats Harry as one of her own children despite her already large family of seven kids. The wondrous food produced in her kitchen is one of Harry’s most favorite parts of staying at the Burrow. Though she is motherly and kind, it’s also best not to get on the wrong side of her wand; even her sons shrink from her anger although they are taller than she.

Sally Jackson (Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan): Sally Jackson shows true strength by raising a child on her own (a demigod, at that). Her love for her son, Percy, is evident in her willingness to live with a putrid-smelling man in order for the stench to cover up Percy’s demigod smell from creatures of Greek myths. Sally’s affection for her son is amazing, just like her seven-layer dip.

– Mia T.

Book List: Exploring New Genres

I used to find myself generally only reading books from two genres, and constantly rereading the same books. However, when I started trying out new books in different genres, I expanded my love for different styles of writing and discovered some really wonderful books. Although I still love fantasy and realistic fiction (and rereading), I also enjoy other genres. I think reading or at least exploring new genres is a great way to discover some extraordinarily good books that I may never have chosen to read had I not strayed from my usual genres. Here is a list of books, each from a different genre, that I recommend. I hope this may help you discover new books and genres you love or maybe just help you if you are looking for a good book to read.

Fantasy: The Goose Girl (Book 1 of The Books of Bayern) by Shannon Hale: The Goose Girl is based off of the Grimm fairy tale with the same title, however, Shannon Hale greatly expands on the world, history, and story while still maintaining the feel of a fairy tale. I really loved the way Shannon Hale augmented on the original story, and the characters are complex and well-developed. Although this book is the first in a series called the Books of Bayern, The Goose Girl ends well as its own story too. I really love this series and Shannon Hale’s writing style.

Dystopian: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: (This book could arguably be fantasy too). The Age of Miracles follows a young girl named Julia as she goes through the usual self-discovery of a middler schooler while, on a larger scale, the “slowing” starts. This is when the earth begins to rotate steadily slower, the effects of this growing more dangerous by the day and causing major changes in Julia’s life and the world. I liked this book because it wasn’t like the other dystopian books I had read. Although the slowing is is occurring throughout the novel, the story is a bit more like a realistic fiction because Julia’s experiences are characteristic of a normal girl at her age. The book also happens during the apocalyptic event, while a lot of other dystopian novels take place after an apocalyptic event.

Magical Realism: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton: This beautiful and unique book is narrated by Ava Lavender as she tells her family story beginning with her grandmother’s, then her mother’s, leading up to her own. Ava’s mother’s side of the family was very unique and were known for strange things to happen to them. This carries through the family, for Ava is born with wings. This anomaly puzzles everyone and draws the dangerous attention of some. This book left me in awe at how a beautiful yet harrowing story could be told with such consistent, poetic, and exquisite narration.

– Mia T.

Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Willow Chance—a gardener, a once-orphan, an intellectual—is no ordinary twelve-year-old. Some would call her a genius. Willow’s great curiosity and knowledge help her understand aspects of the world, but sometimes keep others from understanding her. Her highly analytical and sharp mind alienate her from the majority of her peers, and Willow’s adoptive parents worry for her social life. When a tragic accident snatches away the two people who loved Willow the most, Willow is forced to adapt to a new life in which she doesn’t understand everything the way she used to.

On her path to find her new place in the world, Willow, once more an orphan, unintentionally brings together a Vietnamese family, an unmotivated counselor, and a taxi driver. She fills in the missing areas in the lives of these people, and they wish to return the favor. Counting by Sevens is a beautiful story of persistence, strength, metamorphosis, and the meaning of a family.

I read Counting by Sevens a few years ago, and recently read it again. This time around, I was able to appreciate and understand the story and its themes on a deeper level. The characters are all so unique and well-developed, and their metamorphoses catalyzed by the arrival of Willow Chance into their world are truly inspiring. Holly Goldberg Sloan exhibits a beautiful, flowing, and poetic narration which captures an incredible gamut of emotions. Her ability to convey such emotions through the complex characters she creates is amazing, and it contributes greatly to the essence of the story.

One thing I enjoyed most about this book were the intriguing metaphors that are sprinkled throughout the story. These perspectives and ideas of life are so clever and pretty, and they augmented the impact of the novel for me. The beautiful narration of Counting by Sevens combined with the strong, funny, unique characters build a touching novel of acceptance and the importance of both individuality and connections.

-Mia T.

Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library