Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

In the latest episode of Kenneth Oppel’s Victorian steampunk fantasy, young pilot-in-training Matt Cruse and scientific wunderkind Kate DeVries go back up, up, up into the wild blue yonder, only this time they continue on—into the black maw of space. Since their last adventure in mid-air, Matt has been attending the Airship Academy to get his pilot’s license, while Kate has been busy presenting and promoting her zoological discoveries: the cloud cat and the electrifying aerozoanian. But when they are offered the chance to be members of the crew of the Starclimber, the very first vessel to go into outer space, they drop everything to be a part of the historic event. The project is plagued with problems from the beginning, including terrorist attacks by the Babelites, an underground group that believes Man shouldn’t tread on God’s doorstep, mechanical failure on an astronomical scale once they are aloft, and bizarre alien lifeforms that threaten to destroy their fragile ship. Still, cool-headed Matt has proven he can handle any situation, as long as he is confident of Kate’s love. But when Kate announces that she is to be married to another as soon as they land, Matt is plunged into a depression deeper than the blackest Black Hole. Can Matt and Kate put aside their romantic tensions to save the Starclimber and their fellow space travelers? Or will the ship fall from the sky on her maiden voyage like an astral Titanic, dashing her crews’ hopes and lives and the young lovers’ broken hearts onto the unforgiving ground? Oppel’s ability to write perfectly paced, page-turning prose has not lessened in this third volume of Matt and Kate’s sky-high adventures. I always know I’m in for a treat when I crack open one of Oppel’s books, and so far have never been disappointed. The pseudo-science in this one is especially fun, as Matt and Co. use actual principles of physics and biology to get themselves out of various stellar scrapes.  While you can read this astral adventure/romance on it’s own, you’ll probably want to go back and hitch a ride with M &K in Airborn and Skybreaker.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

“We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers. We danced with witches and kissed monsters. We turned us into wintergirls and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.” Lia and Cassie have been best friends since they were little girls. They did everything together: sleepovers, ski trips, and, as they got older, starvation. Egging each other on in a deadly competition to be the thinnest, Lia developed anorexia, while Cassie became the bulimic. Now Cassie is dead, and Lia is left to fight her silent desperate battle with food alone. Haunted by Cassie’s ghost and the painful memories of two stints in rehab that didn’t take, Lia can’t seem to muster the strength to either kick her disease once and for all or join Cassie in what sometimes feels like the blissfulness of death. Instead, she drifts through her perpetually hungry existence a wintergirl, “a ghost with a beating heart,” not quite alive and not yet dead. She has gotten so good at manipulating her divorced parents and her shrink that no one knows just how close to the edge she really is. Deep down inside, Lia wants to hang on. If she could just find something to hang on to. Using lyrical language and a touch of dark fairy dust, award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson shines a powerful light on the secret world of eating disorders. Her characterization of Lia is morbidly compelling, and once Anderson has you in the icy grip of her persuasive prose there is no breaking her hold until you discover what Lia’s fate will be. Brutally honest and incredibly well-crafted.

The Fetch by Laura Whitcomb

The Fetch is one of those rare books that took me completely by surprise. An inspired combination of history, religion and the supernatural, Laura Whitcomb’s unique if sometimes ponderously paced second novel pushes at the boundaries of teen literature, nudging the field in a startling new direction. Calder was nineteen years old when he died and became a Fetch, one of the few souls chosen to escort the newly dead into Heaven. Always dutiful, he has never wavered from his task even though he is nagged by feelings of insecurity and doubt as to why he was called to such a sacred post. But when he sees a beautiful woman with red-gold hair nursing her ill child, he falls instantly in love and is for the first time ever compelled to go back into the land of living in order to be with her. What he does not discover until later is that the woman is Alexandra Romanov and her sickly child Alexis Romanov, heir to the Russian throne. Once he realizes that there is no way he can take the woman from her husband and family, it is too late. Calder is stuck on the earthly plane, trapped in the bearish body of none other than the infamous Rasputin, the “mad monk” and questionable spiritual adviser to the Romanovs. Meanwhile, Rasputin’s soul is running amuck in the Land of Lost Souls, raising a spirit army who see Calder as their enemy and are determined to keep him from Heaven. Those familiar with history know that the Imperial Family comes to a tragic end during the Russian Revolution. Calder as Rasputin is able to save two of the Romanov children, Anastasia and Alexis, although they are stuck in a limbo between life and death. Now he must embark upon an impossible quest to deliver the children to Heaven and find his way back to the Fetchkind. Reading this book is like being lost in a fevered dream. Calder’s quest is hazy and exhausting, plagued with flashbacks from his past human life and avenging demons from this one. Years can pass in few paragraphs, while some legs of the journey take pages. Like Ana and Alexis, some of you will simply want to put your head down and go to sleep after several promising leads turn out to be dead ends. This densely written tome, loaded with literary and religious symbolism, is not for all of my teen reader peeps. But for those who savor a challenge and stick with Calder to the end, a paradise awaits. Whitcomb’s gorgeous descriptions of the afterlife are comforting and original, and my heart lifted as almost never before when I read the final few pages. Pacing aside, this strange bird of a novel is quite a start to the 2009 year in YA lit.

The Astounding Wolf-Man: vol. 1 by Robert Kirkman and Jason Howard

My favorite superhero has always been Wolverine. So imagine my surprise and delight to discover this new wolf on the block! Cosmopolitan CEO Gary Hampton is attacked by a wild animal while on a routine camping trip with the wife and kid.  He awakens from a coma to find that he has been bitten by the werewolf bug. Unlike traditional howlers, Gary can change into a powerful wolf man each night at will. He only loses control of himself once a month when the moon is full, so he takes special precautions to make sure that while under the lunar influence he doesn’t eat his family. He is mentored by Zechariah, a turtleneck wearing Sean Connery-esque vampire, who teaches him how to harness his powers and hooks him up with some sweet superhero gear. Soon Wolf-Man is taking a bite out of crime and loving every minute of it. Until the night where he meets up with a pack of his own kind, who tell him that Zechariah isn’t what he appears to be and that Gary shouldn’t trust him. Who is Zechariah? And what does some dusty old vamp want with a virile wolf-dude anyway? I love Jason Howard’s angular, sharp, square-jawed style, even though he takes a little too much joy in splashing the blood around whenever Wolf-Man raises a ruckus with some baddies. Still, despite the gratuitous gore, I really dug this story of a struggling superhero trying to find his way when no one will tell him the truth. The Astounding Wolf-Man has an impressive pedigree, penned by none other than the zombie-rrific Robert Kirkman, author of the awesomely awful The Walking Dead.

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

In 1943 Louisiana, nineteen-year-old Ida Mae Jones wants nothing more than to contribute to the war effort like her big brother Thomas. She’s tired of serving on the home front, where all women can do is save bacon fat for machine grease or donate their silk nylons for parachutes. Like her father before her, Ida Mae has the flying bug and won’t be happy until she’s piloting a plane for Uncle Sam. There’s just one lil’ problem: Ida Mae is an African American woman, and although black men are allowed to enlist and serve in segregated units, women are not welcome as pilots or soldiers in the United States Army. But just when Ida Mae has given up all hope of realizing her dream, she hears about the WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots program. Due to the shortage of able-bodied men, the Army needs female pilots to ferry planes across the US to drop-off points where they can then be flown overseas to the battlefields and Ida Mae is determined to become one of those women. To the horror and dismay of her friends and family, armed with just her father’s forged pilot’s license and her light skin, she enters the WASP training program as a white female pilot. Her fear of being found out  is quickly eclipsed by the thrill of flight and the close friends she makes at the training center. But her family and her roots are never far from her mind. Exposure as a black woman would mean expulsion from the program, criminal arrest, or worse. Can Ida Mae make it as a black woman in a white man’s Army? Will she even want to after facing discrimination, ridicule and the death of a dear friend? Sherri L. Smith’s fourth novel is a high flying historical adventure, full of thrills and spills, but also jam packed with fascinating historical facts about the amazing WASP and their unique brand of heroism.

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

Short and bowlegged with a snub nose, protruding chin and unfortunate tendency towards bad practical jokes, fourteen-year-old Halli Sveinsson is nobody’s idea of a hero. He loves to listen to the ancient tales of all-mighty Svein, the fearless founder of his House who never hesitated to settle a quarrel with cold steel and made the Valley safe by defeating and banishing the man-eating Trows to the windy moors. But that was long ago. Now the different Houses in the Valley settle disagreements by wielding lawsuits, not swords, and peace is maintained at any cost. As the second son of the House of Svein, Halli has little to do but twiddle his stubby thumbs and dream of adventure—until the arrogant Hakonsson family comes to call. Expecting hospitality from the House of Svein, the Hakonssons get food poisoning instead when fun-loving Halli dumps some dung into their ale. Incensed at having been made fools of, the Hakonssons retaliate with murder, an act that sends Halli on an odyssey of revenge. But unlike the warrior heroes of his favorite stories, Halli barely knows which end of a weapon is up and is soon in way over his head trying to bring honor back to his House. By relying on his wits and some unexpected help from the clever Lady Aud, Halli discovers that heroes are made, not born, and just because he doesn’t look the part doesn’t mean he isn’t fit to hold the sword. This is just a rousing, good old-fashioned Norse-flavored adventure tale, complete with an unlikely hero, a blood thirsty villain, a few terrifying monsters and an impossible quest. Author Jonathan Stroud, the hilarious voice of the canny Bartimaeus, inserts loads of his trademark humor here, even as he imparts a serious message about not putting too much stock in hero stories when our own adventures can be just as exciting. I quite enjoyed passing through Stroud’s Valley, and I think you will too!