Review: The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams

Title (year): The Golden Hour (2004)

Genre: Adventure

Other important themes: Grief, Death of a parent, Time travel, History, Finding yourself, Siblings

Age (sex) of main character: 13 (male) with a sister, aged 11, and a pair of twin friends, a boy and girl, around 13

Estimated age of intended audience: 10 and up

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic. Feelings are not shied away from, and there is grief and anger and confusion. But there are no extremes for extreme’s sake.

Narrative POV: Third-person subjective from a single POV

Writing quality: Very good. I could not put this book down. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. The basics of the story are fairly straightforward but it’s the quality of the writing that makes this such a page-turner.

Formulaic or surprising?: Definitely kept me wondering what would happen next, with some great twists and turns.

Comfort food/challenging?: Total comfort food, mostly because of the wonderful writing. The story just unfolds and carries you along.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Pretty light. Some bad things happen to the young main characters, but in the end they have support and resources to help them through it.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) The main character is white, but his traveling companions, a twin brother and sister, are described as “brown-skinned” with a Jamaican grandmother, and race is definitely acknowledged in the book. The next two books, The Hour of the Cobra and The Hour of the Outlaw, have the twins as their main characters. The author is herself a woman of color.

There is also a strong sense of the value of adults and particularly elders throughout the book. Adults are fallible like anyone else, but they are portrayed as helpful and supportive. This is not an “us against them,” kids vs. adults type adventure book.

Read this if you liked… I haven’t seen this mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve read, but to me this book was a direct descendent of the classic Edward Eager books from the 1950s such as The Time Garden, Half-Magic, and Knight’s Castle. I loved these books so much I read them again and again and bought them all off eBay so I could have the original illustrations of those early editions I’d read from the library. This book was like having another one of his to read.

Other favorites in this style that come to mind here are The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink and the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. Also A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, or any of her many series. Like L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, this might be a helpful book for someone processing grief, particularly the death of a parent.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): Yes. If you would be at all inclined to read a book with such young characters, I really recommend it. If you never read middle-grade fiction it will probably seem too light, but even if you only liked Harry Potter, you will probably enjoy The Golden Hour!

Reading Challenges for 2010

It’s that time of year… Time to set a lot of probably impossible but definitely inspirational reading goals for myself, egged on by the fellowship and community of my fellow book bloggers!

I’ve organized the challenges by when they are “due.” Some of the challenges I’ll meet with YA books, but I’d like to throw other stuff into the mix as well.

By… the end of 2010 I will have:

Read 2 books that I currently own and have never read for the Read Your Own Books challenge. I am pretty bad at reading books I own. They lose their lustre once they are sitting on my shelf. I’d much rather drool over my library request list online than peruse my own shelves. So reading two in the next year will actually be much more of a personal accomplishment than it sounds!

  1. Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick
    This was my Holiday Book Swap gift and I am actually incredibly psyched to read it
  2. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
    I really went out of my way a few years ago to find a used copy of this because I knew the library borrowing period wouldn’t be enough time for me to get through it, but I’ve never made it past the first chapter.

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Reviewed every book I read in 2010 for the Read ‘n’ Review Challenge. No, wait, that would be insane. I have an active food blog, an active life outside the internet, and a chronic illness. I’ll bargain that down to “every YA book I read in 2010.” And my reviews may be getting quite a bit more concise. (Five-star ratings, anyone?)

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Read 12 books that I’ve been wanting to read for at least 6 months for the TBR Reading Challenge. I’ll decide the books now, with the idea of reading one a month (~ish) by the end of the year. I can also make a list of alternates, in case I am not in the mood for all twelve. Audiobooks count, which is great because that’s my plan for getting through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All those endless Swedish names!

  1. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
  2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  4. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  6. A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin
  7. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  8. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
  9. The Other Wind by Ursula K. LeGuin
  10. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
  11. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
  12. Stiches: A Memoir by David Small

Alternates (all are Best of 2009 YA books I never managed to read in ’09): When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, How To Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.

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Read at least 3 books that people have raved about and I’ve always meant to read but never have for the Raved-About Reads challenge. This is a perpetual challenge, meaning there’s no set end date, but I want to highlight a few particular books I hope I get to by the end of the year. Of course my “really I must read that someday” list is much, much longer than 3! One thing that’s fun about this type of event is looking at other peoples’ “someday” lists and seeing how many I’ve already read! (I’m sure it would be the same if they read mine…)

  1. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
    It was all the insane buzz about this coming out last year that led me to read Hunger Games a few months ago. I definitely enjoyed it – I stayed up all night to finish it, actually – but I am slacking on catching up with the sequel.
  2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  3. I’ve started this once already, but it has been so raved about I want to give it a more concerted effort.

  4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
    My boyfriend’s sister, dad, and mom all love this book. They’ve passed the same copy around, from the Bay Area to Paris to New York and back here. I don’t want to miss out!

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Read at least two books written by women authors that were written and/or published between 1700 and 1900 for the 18th & 19th C. Women Writers challenge. This is where my Jane Austen addiction does me a great disservice. There’s nothing left of hers that I haven’t read at least once. I’ve read quite a bit of the Brontes as well (all they sold in English in St. Petersburg in 1998 were the classics…), so I needed go searching farther afield. I am pretty excited about this challenge. I tend to shy away from books written long ago out of fear that they’ll be dry or hard to get through, but, as the aforementioned Jane Austen addiction shows, this is hardly the case.

  1. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)
  2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

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Read 26 books, one from each letter of the alphabet (either by title or by author name) for the A to Z Challenge. I’m going to be kind of mellow about this one. I like the idea a lot, so I’ll see how far I get with either author names or titles, and sometime around June if it looks like I have a good diversity going, I may deliberately go after some of the missing letters.

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Read 25 books by authors I’ve never read before for the New Authors challenge. This should be no problem for me as most of the books I read are YA I either reserve from the library or pick up off the shelf, so I am constantly checking out new authors. This year I want to be really intentional about noting down which new authors I really like so I can watch for more work from them in the future. (In 2008 I discovered Isabel Hoving. I am still waiting patiently for something, anything new from her!)

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Read 20 books from 10 different categories (2 of each) for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge. For this challenge, each book can only qualify for one category, but I can cross over with other challenges (hurrah!), and I can figure out the books as I go along. The categories and their potential crossovers are:

  1. Young Adult (X-over with everything I already read)
  2. T.B.R. I must own these already. (X-over with Read Your Own Books)
  3. Shiny & New
    This will be nearly impossible. I don’t buy new books. Do cookbooks count?
  4. Bad Bloggers Books I get turned on to by other bloggers. This is one of my goals for the year, to learn about great new YA from other blogs.
  5. Charity Shop Hmm… Unlikely. Unless cookbooks count.
  6. New in 2010 (X-over with Debut Author Challenge)
  7. Older Than You
    (X-over with 18th & 19th C. Women Writers)
  8. Win! Win!
    A couple of books I need to read to fulfill another challenge!
  9. Who Are You Again?
    Totally unknown authors (X-over with Debut Author Challenge)
  10. Up to You!
    I get to determine this category. I want to read two fiction books, preferably YA, with queer central characters, where their queerness isn’t the main theme of the book. If such books exist.(X-over with Lambda Challenge, GLBT Challenge)

Review: The Healer’s Keep by Victoria Hanley

EDIT: Well, this is fascinating. I was going back through my book log, looking for well-loved children’s books to submit to the Top 100 Children’s Fiction Chapter Books Poll, when I came across The Seer and the Sword in my log. Apparently, I read it in 2005, and I liked it a lot as it has one my my rare asterisks next to the title in the log. Well, hmm…

Title (year): The Healer’s Keep (2002)

Sequel? Yes, I was tricked because they refer to it as a “companion book” to 2000’s The Seer and the Sword. But The Healer’s Keep was published second, and the events in it take place after the events in The Seer and the Sword. Sounds like a sequel to me. It’s the type of sequel, however, that takes place in the next generation, and ample backstory is given so the book can stand alone for a new reader.

Genre: Fantasy

Other important themes: Dreams, Magic, Love, Enslavement, Bonds of friendship, Dystopian society, Coming of age, Hero’s journey

Age (sex) of main character: 17 (female) with two more teen boys and a teen girl who also often have POV

Estimated age of intended audience: 12-17

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Fantasy, definitely, and very wholesome.

Narrative POV: Third-person subjective for several different characters, including minor characters.

Writing quality: I found the whole story to be kind of… blurry, I guess is how I would put it. I never really sank in anywhere. The constantly shifting point of view killed most of the potential for dramatic tension. The fantasy world has its own, very interesting, complex laws and rules of magic but the reader learns them almost entirely through exposition and explanation, rather than seeing them unfold within the story.

Formulaic or surprising?: Surprising to the extent that I often had no idea what was going on or what would happen next. Formulaic in terms of romance and good guys/bad guys.

Comfort food/challenging?: Definitely on the comfort food end of the spectrum.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Although there is slavery and cruelty, the book is not particularly dark, and the scenes where danger looms are described in a somewhat detached manner so they are practically over before you can get scared or tense.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Nothing of that sort here.

Read this if you liked… If you have enjoy sort of vague YA fantasy with an interesting world but not intensely developed characters… well, this describes too many books to name here, but if this is your thing, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): No. For lovers of YA fantasy only, in my opinion. I should say here, however, that this book won a lot of awards, both from critics and from young readers’ choice, so I might be the only one who doesn’t love it.

Best of 2009 – *My* 2009, that is ~ Children’s & Middle Grade

Almost all the books I read are from the library. People give me books sometimes, or I pick them up for free out of boxes on the sidewalk, but those don’t tend to be the ones I read. I am constantly amazed at how many people who live here in the city don’t realize that you can order books through the public library website and have them delivered to your branch.

(On a side note, I think this function of the library is the best cure ever for late-night-internet-shopping syndrome. Do you know the thing I’m talking about? Late at night when you’re surfing the web, slightly sleepy, defenses down, and cute jewelry from Etsy or marked-down T-shirts from Threadless are just a PayPal click away? What I do is read book blogs and reviews and bestseller lists and Amazon, and then I make a list of all the books I want to read. Every delicious, enticing story and vibrant, juicy cover. And then I buy them ALL. Except when I “order” them, I’m submitting a reserve to the library, and, far from there being any shipping costs, in a few short days they arrive a couple of blocks from my house, free of charge and all mine for the next three weeks. What could be better than this?)

I keep of list of everything I read, and I have a pretty simple rating system: an asterisk next to the title of a book I enjoyed. Eventually I had to create the “1/2*” and the “**” for those books that either don’t quite rate or totally transcend the single star. Because I get all my books from the library, the books I read aren’t always the most recently published. Partly this is because it’s somewhat random how a book catches my eye – rather than a bright display of new releases at the front of the bookstore, it might be a friend’s recommendation, an older book by an author I’ve just discovered, or just something that looked interesting on the shelf. And partly this is because there can be quite a steep waiting time for popular new releases – my library has in total 48 copies of The Hunger Games with 54 people waiting in the queue to read it. And this for a book that was published last year! But I am clever at reserve-list management, creating a good mix of popular titles I’ll have to wait for and titles I’ll be able to get right away, so that my book supply remains steady at about 10 books every two weeks.

Which brings me to the Best of 2009. Since I’m not particularly following publication trends, I’m referring to the best of my 2009; the books I read this year that most impressed me, moved me, kept me up all night turning pages. I’ve split my “besties” into categories, and I’ll start here with books for children/middle graders, since there aren’t too many on the list.

My favorite books for children/middle graders read during 2009:


Eva Ibbotson – The Star of Kazan (2004)

Last year I read a great memoir by David Sheff called Beautiful Boy, and in it he writes about reading to his daughter a book by her favorite author, Eva Ibbotson. I had tried reading Ibbotson before – her book Island of the Aunts – and found it too silly for my taste and not very engaging. But something about how Sheff described the book they were reading made me want to try again. So I asked my library for The Star of Kazan and thus began my love affair with Eva Ibbotson.

When I talk about Ibbotson I find myself using sentence after sentence of exclamatory facts. She’s 84 years old and still writing books! She wrote her first book at age 50! Since then she has written 14 books for children and 8 books for teens and young adults! She was born in Vienna fled the Nazis as a child! She writes equally compellingly about old Austria, WWII-era British society, and the refugee experience!

The Star of Kazan is set in old Austria and is one of her children’s books, though it’s a sturdy, well-crafted tale that I think could delight a reader of any age. It’s a mystery and a “girl on her own figuring out which adults to trust” story, with classic themes of longing for home and finding your real family, whatever that looks like in the end.  The book has a magical feel and a sense of wonder and possibility, though it contains no actual fantasy or magic, that reminds me very much of The Secret Garden. After I finished Star of Kazan I immediately set about reading nearly everything else Ibbotson has written (there are still some books that aren’t for me, but it’s amazing what variety she has in her genres!).

Trenton Lee Stewart – The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007)
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008)

The Mysterious Benedict Society was destined to be an instant classic. Like The Dream Merchant, one of last year’s favorites by Isabel Hoving, and like countless books before it, The Mysterious Benedict Society books contain a special school for gifted children, a world in which certain skills and abilities only children possess allow them to go places and do things adult cannot, and of course chapter after breathless chapter of dangerous quests, puzzles to solve, and mysteries to unravel. What child could resist?

The books are also smart. When characters are meant to impress us with their clever solutions to puzzles and problems, their solutions actually are clever. The mystery part of the plot gets a little convoluted at times since it depends heavily on science that exists only in the world of the book, but the author rarely if ever uses that science to move things along in ways that are obviously just convenient or contrived. There’s a third book in the series already out, and I guess I’m totally hooked since I was considering adding its title to the “Best of” list even though I won’t read it until next week!


Kirsten Miller – Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City (2006)
Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb (2007)

I’m a sucker for underground cities. Particularly in New York. If you write a book or make a movie about people living or adventuring in the vast network of tunnels and cells and abandoned chandeliered Victorian subway stations underneath a city, I’m probably going to read or watch it.

So when I picked up a book about a spunky group of talented teens exploring the “shadow city” beneath New York, author Kirsten Miller really didn’t have to much more than possess the ability to string words together in vaguely readable fashion to have my devoted readership. Happily she can do more than that, including creating a fun cast of characters, each with their own special skills and quirks, and a fast-moving plot full of unexpected twists. These aren’t the best books out there. I don’t know if I would recommend them to other people, which is usually a good indicator to me of how good I really think a book is. But they’re not guilty-pleasure bad either. (“Some people have their bodice-rippers, I have my underground cities books,” she said primly, blushing as she tried to slide the battered book beneath the folds of her skirt.) I think the first book is definitely worth checking out and, if you enjoy that one, know that the sequel is even better.

Shannon Hale – The Goose Girl (2003)

The Goose Girl is a classic fairy tale. All the themes are there – lonely childhood, betrayal, royalty in disguise, coming of age, discovery of magical powers, tests of faithfulness and kind-heartedness, special bonds with animals and the natural world. The tale is told in a straightforward manner, well-executed but without a lot of writerly tricks or flourishes. But I could not put this book down. When I was away from it, all I could think of was getting back to it. I never felt like I knew what was coming or what direction the story would take, so it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I’ve since tried to read the sequel, Enna Burning, and was so bored I was unable to make it through the first half, which of course makes me totally question my passion for The Goose Girl, but I know what I felt. I wish the next book had been as heart-stoppingly compelling, but at least as a stand-alone, The Goose Girl will always have a special place in my heart.

Review: Skin Hunger & Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

Title (year): Skin Hunger (2007)

Sequel: Sacred Scars (2009)

Genre: Dark fantasy

Other important themes: Magic, Adults vs. Kids, Friendship, Memory, Struggle to survive, Cruelty, Untangling the puzzle

Age (sex) of main character: Female, 17-?; Male 15-16

Estimated age of intended audience: 14-adult

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Edgy, dark, and very stylized

Narrative POV: The books have two narrators who alternate chapters. One story is told in third-person limited, the other in first-person narrative.

Writing quality: Very well written in terms of the immediate. Characters are subtly drawn and settings are vividly brought to life. Overall, however, the story requires a great deal of patience from the reader. Only well into the first book do we see how the two stories intertwine, and even by the end of the second book all the various threads are still unresolved. The story is strangely compelling, nonetheless, and while I usually don’t have the patience to wait this long for the denouement I know I’ll be eager to read Book 3.

Formulaic or surprising?: These stories are unique. I’ve read two of the three books of this trilogy (the third is still unpublished) and still have no idea what’s going on or where the books are headed.

Comfort food/challenging?: Challenging to the extreme. There is very little action in this book, very little magic, even. There are depictions of terrible cruelty and suffering inflicted on children/young adults by older adults. And if you are the type of person who likes to flip to the end of a scene or the whole book to see how a tense situation resolves, there’s no resolution offered so far!

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Very dark, very grim. Even the strongest relationships are fraught with violence and betrayal. The set-backs for both main characters are almost unrelenting, though there is still the sense that a happy ending or some sort of resolution may be reached by the end of the trilogy.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Many of the central characters come from working class backgrounds, though mentions of class function stylistically (as they do in fairy tales, e.g. “the Gypsy,” “the poor woodsman”) rather than as an exploration of working class lives.

Read this if you liked… The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. Anything by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; these books have the same sense of “not playing by the rules” that is fairly unusual in books that deal with magic.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): If you don’t usually read books that have “magical” elements, but have the patience for dark, grim tales full of tension and suspense, I would definitely give at least the first book a try.

Review: Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

I had no idea this book was from 2007. I had never heard of it until I was collecting titles from the Children’s Choice Awards (this one was shortlisted for an award, I’m not sure what year). Read on without fear of spoilers (though the major themes of the book are discussed below).

Title (year): Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (2007)

Genre: Coming of age/Realistic setting

Other important themes: Memory, identity, the subjectivity of truth, falling for troubled boys, high school, mix CDs!

Age (sex) of main character: 16 (Female)

Estimated age of intended audience: 15-17

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic. There is discussion of birth control and suicidal thoughts, but these aren’t played for shock value or edginess, just as facts of life. The protagonist has decent self-awareness as well as flaws.

Narrative POV: First person

Writing quality: I’d give the writing a solid B. I was definitely interested enough to keep reading. There are some quirky parts, but on the whole the writing doesn’t stand out as particularly humorous, poetic, or funky – just basic story and characters.

Formulaic or surprising?: A few surprises, mostly in some of the stops the story made on its way to an inevitable conclusion.

Comfort food/challenging?: Comfort food, all the way. There is nothing in this book to shake you up or make you go, “Hmm.”

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Light, despite some brushes with darker themes.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Protagonist is adopted (this is revealed on the first page of the book). Her (adoptive) father is white and her mother is half-white, half-Japanese, but race is not ever substantially addressed in the book.

Read this if you liked… Meg Cabot books like All-American Girl and Pants on Fire (her non-supernatural, non-wacky-slapstick, regular-girl stories), Sweethearts by Sarah Zarr, Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell, How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): No, although I did enjoy this book more than this review makes it sound. It was the kind of book that is a nice light story where you know everything will be OK in the end, but it didn’t stick with me much afterwards.

Review: Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Hey, it’s the debut of my rating system! I kept waiting for the perfect book to review, but tonight I decided to just start with the most recent one I’ve read. I hope it will get to the heart of things and prove helpful to people looking for YA books that match their tastes. And just so you know, there are no spoilers here (I just hate reading reviews that spoil major plot elements or twists – it kills my desire to read the book.)

Title (year): Bloodhound (2009)

Sequel?: Yes! I strongly recommend reading the first book in the series, Terrier, first. But read on, and if this book sounds like it would interest you, check out Terrier.

Genre: more Historical than Fantasy (the world is similar to medieval Western Europe, and has some magic/ghosts in it)

Important themes and topics: Coming of age, Crime/Law/Ethics, Poverty & Power/Class issues

Age (gender) of main character: 17 (female)

Estimated age of intended audience: 12-16 (but there’s fairly casual sex in it)

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Surprisingly gritty, even the main characters do morally questionable things (like take bribes or kill people). There’s a real sense that people are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances, but it also has that fantasy-book quality where you feel certain that ultimately everything will turn out OK.

Narrative POV: 1st person

Writing quality: I’d give it a B. It’s written in a very straightforward style that doesn’t have any of the dreamy quality fantasy novels often have, if that makes any sense to you. The story moved along well and the characters and settings were well fleshed out, but there were still some sections that moved frustratingly slowly.

Formulaic or surprising?: The plot, while it had a few surprises, was still fairly predictable. The pleasure is more in accompanying a likable character on her journey than in the journey itself.

Comfort food/challenging?: A little bit challenging out of context, but if Tamora Pierce in general is comfort food for you, then this will be a nice warm bowl of mashed potatoes.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: In between dark and light. The setting is urban, poor, and very violent, but the characters have good hearts and sweet friendships, and, as I said above, you never feel like things will get too bad.

Who might identify with this book? (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class?):

–A++ for strong female characters. The two leads are both women and they don’t get their power handed to them or dictated by anyone.

–The many-hued people who populate this world are all just scenery.

–The one gay character is peripheral and hides the fact that he is gay.

–There is a transgender character and I personally felt like while they were treated with affection and perhaps viewed in a way in keeping with the time period there was no respect shown by the author or the protagonist for the character’s personal gender identification (in terms of pronoun use, etc.). The book really dropped the ball on an opportunity to communicate with modern readers about a very current topic.

Read this if you liked… Any Tamora Pierce, of course (she’s most famous for her Alanna: Song of the Lioness Quartet), though this one is aimed at an older crowd than many of her books. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest and The Blue Sword. A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce. Maybe even Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, though that was written for an adult audience.

Genre-bender? (i.e., recommended to ALL regardless of your usual preferences): No, not worth leaving your comfort zone for (few books are, eh?).