Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015 YALSA Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge, Update #3

I have officially finished the books from both the fiction and nonfiction lists, with the exception of Ida M. Tarbell. My library has ordered it, but I don't know if I'll even get it before this part of the challenge ends. I'll read it for the full Hub Challenge when it comes in, but I think I have clear favorites so far for both the Morris and Nonfiction Awards.  This week, I read the last two Morris Award Finalists. Both were excellent!

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Upon finishing this strange and lovely book, my first thought was, "Wow. That was beautiful."

I was immediately hooked by Ava's first words in the Prologue:

"To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth--deep down, I always did.

I was just a girl."

Chapter One was difficult to swallow and I kept getting jarred out of the story with thoughts like, "What am I reading? This is some freaky sh@#t!" I wondered if this might be one of those rare books that I would not be able to finish. I read on, thinking that I'd give it until page 50. The next thing I knew, I was on page 136 and utterly entranced by Ava and her family. I have a weakness for poetic language and this story was so beautifully crafted that it left me breathless. Truly a feast for the senses.

Ava's story starts long before she is born. Her ancestors experience the loves and tragedies that set the stage for her birth--this girl with wings who nobody quite understands. I loved the large cast of characters and the way their stories intertwined. They felt complex and sometimes painfully real, even in the context of the magical elements. What is love? Is it all about fate, or do we have the power to influence and direct its course?

This is a story about love, but it's bittersweet--heartbreakingly lovely, dark and violent, and, ultimately, hopeful.

The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston

This is Siobhan McQuaid's story just as much as it is Owen's. I loved that she gets to put her spin on events as they happen. There are benefits to being a bard, after all. I also enjoyed the theme that revolved around storytelling and its power to influence the world around us.

Their story is set in a world very much like our own, but populated by various species of destructive dragons that have influenced the course of history. I enjoyed the way the alternate history was presented, with familiar events and historical figures entwined with and influenced by dragons. Readers will recognize Hadrian, Dracula, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, and Queen Victoria, to name a few. The dragons are drawn to carbon emissions, so over the years, dragon slayers have been lured to big cities by corporations who are willing to pay big bucks to protect their factories and mines. This has left rural areas unprotected from ever-increasing dragon attacks.

When rockstar dragon slayer Lottie Thorskard suffers a career-ending injury, she moves to the small town of Trondheim with her wife (Hannah), brother (Aodhan), and nephew (Owen). Owen and Siobhan meet on his first day of school when they are both late to class. They quickly become friends. Siobhan is slightly socially awkward, but she has a wonderful wit and the ability to notice the music flowing through her life. All too quickly, Owen and Lottie approach her about being Owen's bard. Her role is not only to write songs about Owen's historic deeds, but also to put a spin on events that will teach the populace how to conduct themselves during a dragon attack--get in your darn shelter; don't stand there with your iPhone, distracting the dragon slayer while you try to get some good video.

When dragon attacks in this rural area start to noticeably increase in frequency, Siobhan and her friends discover that the dragons are expanding their hatching grounds. Their solution was pretty obvious and I actually wondered why it took a bunch of high school kids to figure it out. This was a part of the story that stretched credibility a bit. I wondered why their solution wasn't already a normal part of the dragon slayers' repertoire. Another small thing that bothered me was that I noticed several typos as I read; I hate getting thrown out of the story and having to go back and reread a sentence that doesn't make sense because of a missing word or a mismatched verb tense. The manuscript could have used another proofreading pass before going to print. This made me sad because the writing is so good overall. The cover art is also gorgeous.

Siobhan's voice grabbed me right away. I loved the way she hears music everywhere and is always composing. She even matches people with the instruments that best express their personalities. While some of the minor characters felt a bit flat and generally acted as more of placeholders, the main characters are well-developed and interesting. The dialogue is snappy and often funny, even when circumstances are dire.  Owen and Siobhan are JUST FRIENDS, which was also refreshing. It was nice that they were more concerned with saving the world and finishing high school than with getting married.

After Owen kills his second dragon we get this exchange:

"...when Owen passed me the following note on Monday morning in English, I punched him in the shoulder.

 My part was easy / I slayed it. You need a word / That rhymes with hubcap.

I didn't love the ending, but I could understand it. There is a planned sequel and I'm curious about how this critical loss will affect the ongoing story.

I'll end with Siobhan's words:

"That is the story of Owen, dragon slayer of Trondheim. And it is more or less true, but you can believe whatever you want."

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