Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

loveNYC teens Claire, Jasper and Peter find their lives intersecting in unexpected, meaningful ways after the tragedy of September 11 brings them together. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, Claire is starting her day at school, Peter is skipping homeroom in favor of snagging the new Bob Dylan album, and Jasper is sound asleep. After the attack, Claire is sleepless and anxious, Peter searches for meaning in music, and Jasper shuts down. Peter and Claire know each other from school, and each make a connection with college freshman Jasper after 9/11—Peter asks Jasper out, while Claire runs into him when they are both wandering around Ground Zero, trying to comprehend what has happened to their city, their country and their lives. Slowly, as the three of them muddle through their complicated feelings, they each come to a place of healing that they never would have made it to without each other. And that’s about it. This quiet meditation about the effects of 9/11 on three different individuals isn’t so much about what happened as it is about what happened next. It’s about how we got through and how we continue to get through, and it is full of David Levithan’s trademark thoughtful observations about human nature that always get me right HERE. Like this one attributed to Claire: “If only I still had my faith in old books and reruns. They are among the things I feel have been taken from me, along with humor and hope and the ability to savor.” Or Peter’s thought about the power of music post 9/11: “We all understand that this is just music. We all understand that these songs were written Before—there is no way the band could have known how we would hear them After. But the songs ring true.” As a New Yorker who was working downtown on 9/11, I kept reading this book and saying to myself, “Yes, I remember feeling that way.” But you don’t have to have been in New York on that day to understand the feelings Levithan writes so eloquently about, because in many ways I think we all continue to share the pain and the hope that was generated world wide by the events of September 11.

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Set in an alternate-history America right after the Civil War, Patricia Wrede’s frontier fantasy details an Old West where magicians expediate westward expansion by maintaining a great spell wall that keeps the giant woolly mammoths and steam dragons at bay. Everyone learns basic spell casting in school, with the exception of the Rationalists, a group that is philosophically opposed to using magical means to make life easier. Born into a large magically inclined family, Eff is child number thirteen, generally considered not only unlucky but downright evil. Eff is neither, though she fears every moment that she is destined to “go bad.” Opposite in reputation is her twin brother Lan, born the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore destined to develop into a naturally powerful magician. When their father, a professor of magic, is given the opportunity to teach in a borderland school, he moves the whole family west where Eff and Lan both face situations that test their mettle. Soon Eff has to decide whether to embrace her questionable power or deny her magical heritage altogether. This leisurely paced fantasy has all the hallmarks of an authentic frontier journal. Like a real pioneer would, Eff mostly relates the events of her unusual family’s life with little fanfare, only wavering occasionally when confessing her insecurities about being a thirteenth child. Whole seasons pass in a few sentences if there’s nothing important to impart. Eff assumes any reader of her journal would know all about the casually mentioned steam dragons and different magical traditions, so she doesn’t go into a lot of description. This is both interesting and frustrating, as I wanted to know more so I kept reading to see if there was more! Alas, there was not. Wrede challenges you to make your own pictures of her whimsical Western world with just enough details to jump start your imagination. In addition, Wrede draws neat parallels between ideas prevalent in our Old West and her fantasy version, including the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, the concept of the American melting pot, and the age old battle between book learnin’ and common sense. This odd little tome won’t be for everyone, but having said that, if you enjoyed how Wrede and her co-author Caroline Stevermer recreated Regency England with evil wizards in the charming Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, then you will most definitely want to hit the trail with Eff and Lan. And for more alternative history fun, be sure to check out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.

Broken Soup by Jenny Valentine

broken soupEverything in fifteen-year-old Rowan’s life has felt broken since the death of her older brother Jack two years ago. After Jack’s fatal accident, her father left, her mother sank into a sleeping pill stupor and her little sister Stroma came to depend on Rowan utterly. Now Rowan’s days are an endless round of school, caring for Stroma and pretending that she’s got everything under control. Then gentle drifter Harper comes into her life. Touring around Europe in an old ambulance-turned-RV, Harper meets Rowan when he hands her a photo negative he says she dropped outside a grocery in her London suburb. Rowan’s never seen the negative before, but it seems easier to accept it than argue with a stranger. Then Bee, a pretty, friendly girl a few years ahead of Rowan in school, offers to develop the film–which astonishingly turns out to be a picture of Jack. Grieving Rowan is shocked and confused. Where did the negative come from? And if she didn’t drop it, then who did? Rowan needs answers, and the logical person to ask is Harper. Though he isn’t much help with the photo, their chance encounter begins to blossom into a romance. Meanwhile, Rowan has found a soul mate in Bee, who also has a younger sib and helps Rowan take care of Stroma. Still, the mystery of the photo nags at Rowan and as her new relationships deepen, she uncovers a hidden interconnectedness between herself, Harper, Bee and Jack that gives her hope—just as her life takes another unexpected turn. I love everything about this little gem of a book, from the evocative title and the articulate writing, to the air of romantic mystery and the riveting and incredibly satisfying conclusion. Some of Valentine’s statements about grieving just floored me with their brutal honesty. Like this one about Rowan’s parents: “After Jack died, they protected themselves by refusing to love us, the kids who still had dying to do.” Ouch! And whoa! For as quiet as this book is sometimes, Valentine knows how to get and keep your attention with sentences like that, and with the slow revealing of clues about Jack’s photo that keep you guessing. If you liked Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer or Marthe Jocelyn’s Would You, you’re gonna want to serve yourself an extra big helping of Jenny Valentine’s delicious, devastating Broken Soup. (1 weepie)