When I reviewed the first of the trilogy, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, I wasn't sure whether I whether I wanted to get involved with the paranormal side of the character. But the character, ah, the character! Mara Dyer is one of the best ... tough, determined, sometimes so angry at what's been done to her and her friends and family that she's a menace, a danger, a disaster crashing into your reading room and your heart (or that's how it felt to me). The second book, The Evolution of Mara Dyer, filled the promises of the first and (I have to confess) induced me to place the earliest "pre-order" I've ever placed for a book ... I needed to know where author Michelle Hodkin would take this.
And it was worth the wait.
Mara Dyer and a few other teens find themselves part of a complicated medical and psychological experiment tied to a mutant gene that sometimes stays quiet, and sometimes "manifests." And when it does affect the person hosting it, the gene produces paranormal abilities: the ability to persuade near-hypnotically by voice, or to hear someone's thoughts, or, in Mara's case, to damage and even destroy one's enemies. Threads from the earlier books revealed that the effects of this mutant gene were present among people for generations -- creating some of the powerful dark myths of humanity.
What's not clear until the third book, though, is whether Mara must give up all the complex other parts of herself to fulfill where the gene leads (and whether she can ever rediscover her connection to Noah, another genetically influenced teen who's vanished) -- and, more urgently, whether the teens can hold their own against a sophisticated cabal of adults who variously want to treat them as experiments, manipulate them to change the world, or aim them like weapons without volition.
This is neither a Hunger Games trilogy nor a Harry Potter adventure. Mara's genetic burden isn't likely to add up to a happy ending, and she's carrying a burden of guilt for her own actions that's rapidly crippling her emotionally. I wasn't fully satisfied with the ending -- like many other readers, I felt there were plot threads that hadn't quite come clear -- but I wouldn't have missed this for anything. It's left me a bit confused, a little heartbroken, on edge, questioning ... and wow, any book that does that, well, that's a book I want to re-read. Later.
Buy the trilogy for yourself, or if you're giving it to a "young adult," follow up on your gift by getting some discussions going on the violence, malevolence, and yes, retribution in the compelling thriller. (The author's website is not up to date as I write this, but still: visit it here.)
We had one of those mysterious married-couple-miscommunications on CONVERSION, Katherine Howe's intriguing exploration of a prep school in Massachusetts where the girls under the most pressure in their college applications are becoming ill, one after another. I thought Dave said I needed to read it; he can't recall ever hearing about it! Never mind, it was well worth getting a copy. New Englanders may guess from the setting -- Danvers, Mass., which was the site of the Puritan-era Salem Witch Trials -- that wrapping the students in a modern-day media circus can't disguise the contagion of their disorders, or the suspicion that these are being orchestrated in some way. The author's parallel story, among the original group of "Salem" girls, probes the life of the one accuser historically known to have admitted her illness wasn't a result of witchcraft. But even realizing the narratives are intentionally parallel doesn't spoil the quick and emotionally powerful movement of Howe's binocular plot. I enjoyed this, and I already know which teenaged girl I'm giving it to. Author website here.
The publisher of THE BORGIAS by Jean Plaidy sent a copy here, as part of a promotion recently. I'm not sure what the timing represents -- the two historical novels that make up this chunky paperback feature Lucrezia Borgia, famous for her 15th-century life of intrigue (Madonna of the Seven Hills; Light on Lucrezia). Betrothed and finally married as a teen at a time when, among powerful European leaders, such contracts were common, Lucrezia wielded immense power as part of Italy's most forceful -- and maybe least gentle! -- family. Today her name is associated with both intrigue and poison.
But when Jean Plaidy -- actually one of the many pen names of Eleanor Hibbert (you may know her better as Victoria Holt; check out her astounding literary life here) -- wrote this pair of novels in 1958, her research led her on a very different path. As a result, this pair of books is less in the mystery genre, and more along the line of a sweet and decent girl who became an assertive teen and then a victim of the sexism of her time. Plaidy's pacing and narrative hold up well, and the story still is fresh and surprising. But it's actually a bit tame compared to today's YA ficton! So if you're teasing a teen into history with the vicious side of the Borgias and similar nefarious figures of the past, consider adding this one to the stack for a surprising "other side" to the Borgia saga. I've set my copy aside for a playwright who may use it for reference.
Making a holiday shopping list? After you think about these, consider delving into the titles that were nominated this year for Edgar Awards, at the pinnacle of mystery writing:
All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Juvenile)
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
(Random House Children's Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy
(Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Razorbill)
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
(Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
And I'll have a few more titles to mention before the holidays arrive.