Book Review: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.

Book Review: Song of the Current (June Uppercase Box)

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Tolcser, Sarah. Song of the Current. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.

Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing.

I’ve never been a big fan of pirate stories. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies admittedly lull me to sleep. Novels set at sea or within a boat have never been my first choice of reading material. So, when I saw a copy of Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current in my June Uppercase Box, I steeled myself for disappointment.

And I’m happy to report I was wrong. Very wrong. Tolcser’s novel is quite possibly the best book I’ve received from Uppercase and one of my favorite reads of 2017 (so far).

Caroline “Caro” Oresteia has spent her life on the river aboard her father’s wherry, Cormorant. She assists her father in delivering cargo and the occasional shipment of smuggled weapons. Caro’s father converses heavily with the god of the river, and Caro hopes that someday she too might have an experience with the divine. In the meantime, Caro’s focus is singular: she wants to take the reins of Cormorant upon her father’s retirement.

Caro’s life changes when she and her father sail into the town of Hespera’s Watch. There, the duo learns that a group of outlaws known as the Black Dogs have destroyed wherries in pursuit of an important piece of cargo. When officials in Hespera’s Watch cannot convince Caro’s father to carry this cargo to the intended recipient, he is jailed. Caro, in exchange for her father’s freedom, decides to sail Cormorant on her own and make the delivery. Caro is given a letter of marque and strict instructions not to open the box she is transporting. But, after a close scuffle with the Black Dogs, Caro can no longer resist—she has to open the box. What is inside? Why are the Black Dogs determined to confiscate it? Will Caro free her father?

Song of the Current’s strengths lie in its pacing and characterization. Whereas most novels that take place at sea tend to feel slow, the urgency behind Caro’s mission keeps the action moving. And Caro Oresteia is an intriguing, multi-faceted protagonist. Her love of the water, fierce loyalty to her family, and desire to converse with the gods will have the reader rooting for her from the book’s very beginning.

There is little to dislike in Tolcser’s tale. Those unfamiliar with sailing (like me!) might struggle with the nautical terminology, though Tolcser’s website contains a glossary. There is also an undefined though clearly burgeoning romantic relationship at the book’s end, and I wanted a bit more clarity. There is a sequel slated for next summer, though, so I’m hoping to receive answers then.

I am excited to recommend this book to my students, particularly those who enjoy novels with lots of action and suspense. Song of the Current makes some great social commentary as well—there are themes of political coercion, class warfare, and revolution. I can only hope that discussing Tolcser’s novel with my students will hold me over until the release of the sequel.

Book Review: Caraval

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Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. Flatiron, 2017. Print.

As an aspiring author, I am always eager to hear how today’s popular writers overcome rejection and adversity.

I was fortunate to see many great young adult authors at this year’s BookCon, among them Stephanie Garber. Sitting on a panel with other YA authors, Garber talked about the sacrifices she made while penning her novel Caraval, including moving back in with her parents and dealing with various rejections from publishers. This surprised me as I’d seen Caraval’s beautiful cover on bestseller lists and Instagram posts. The humility and friendliness Garber displayed made me even more anxious to get my hands on Caraval.

Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella have grown up hearing fantastical stories of Caraval. A mixture between a carnival, scavenger hunt, and circus, Caraval takes place at a different location each year and is orchestrated by a mysterious man named Legend. Although Scarlett has longed to attend the event since childhood, she remains planted on her home island of Trisda, carefully watched by her cruel and abusive father. When her father orchestrates a marriage between Scarlett and a mysterious Count, Scarlett feels the remainder of her life has been mapped out. She might not ever get to see Caraval, but the marriage will present her with the opportunity to get away from her father and take Donatella with her.

Just as Scarlett has accepted her fate, she receives a personal letter and invitation from Legend himself. She at first resists the idea of attending, but after some forceful persuasion from her sister and Julian, a mischievous sailor, Scarlett finds herself heading to Caraval. Participants are tasked with solving a mystery using various clues spread throughout the island. After Scarlett and Donatella are separated, Scarlett is horrified to learn that, this year, the game will revolve around locating her missing sister. Scarlett must work quickly in order to locate Donatella and return to Trisda before her upcoming wedding. Will the sisters ever be reunited? Can Scarlett trust Julian? And why did Legend request Scarlett’s presence?

Although fantasy is not my favorite genre, I have read a few novels with such fantastic world building that I’ve suspended my disbelief: the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and now Caraval. This novel is drenched in imagery—rich descriptions of clothing and jewelry, vivid landscapes and interiors, various magical items and people, etc. Like all well-written fantasy novels, readers will believe the possibilities are endless for Scarlett. It is feasible that she would find a hidden passageway or take a potion that turns her world black and white or bring the dead back to life.

There are moments, however, when the descriptions in Caraval teeter toward ridiculousness. For example, a book in the novel is described as being “the color of dark fairy tales”. Two of the main characters are also extremely flat: Scarlett’s father and Scarlett’s fiancé.

Still, Caraval is a truly magical read from beginning to end, and students will be enraptured by Scarlett’s tale. There are a variety of ways to use this novel in the classroom. I’m planning on having my students annotate passages from Caraval when teaching imagery. With such lush, fantastic writing, there are few texts better suited for the job.