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Books in Brief: Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Young adult

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley; HarperTeen, $17.99. 309 pages Ages 12 and up.

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This compelling, suspenseful, romantic and entirely original fantasy, of a kingdom in the sky at war with Earth, is told in the alternating voices of two whipsmart teens: 15-year-old Aza Ray Boyle, who has been cursed from birth with a strange lung disease that makes it harder and harder to breathe, and Jason Kerwin, her best friend, who not only knows all the emergency protocol required to keep her breathing but shares her interest in aquariums, natural history museums, astronomy, giant squid, pi etc. (Here is Aza, musing on sophomore English “The Old Man and the Sea”: “Obsessed guy. Big fish. Variety of epic fails. I have to wonder how many generations of sophomores have been oppressed by stories about this same damn thing.”) Then Aza goes into one final acute medical crisis and is lost to the world she knows, but finds herself in Magonia, above the clouds, in a world of trading ships and pirates, a world forced to steal food from Earth, a world increasingly disturbed by the environmental catastrophes perpetuated by humans, or as Magonians call them, “drowners.” Here Aza not only can breathe but has the power to change the world, if she can decide where her loyalties lie. Headley is a marvelous writer and here she creates a kind of magic, crafting an intricate parallel world, with neat alternative explanations for historical events (including tulipmania in Holland of the 17th century).

– Jean Westmoore

FICTION

Re Jane by Patricia Park; Pamela Dorman/Viking , 342 pages, ($27.95)

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In her delightful debut novel, Patricia Park uses the classic novel “Jane Eyre” as a template to examine very modern concepts: questions of identity and love, culture and conscience, even the hardships of immigration. But you don’t need familiarity with Charlotte Bronte’s novel to appreciate “Re Jane”; it’s entertaining all on its own, vibrant and witty and a hell of a lot of fun.

Of course, comparing the original Jane’s journey from orphan to governess to grown woman of conviction and means to the contemporary Jane’s story adds another level of enjoyment. Jane Re – a half-Korean, half-American orphan living with her Uncle Sang and his family in Flushing, Queens – is a college graduate who hasn’t been quite able to get her career off the ground. She works at her Korean uncle’s store, helping grouchy customers and bearing up under the cultural and familial weight of nunchi as best she can. (Her best friend, Eunice, describes nunchi as “the Eye of Sauron: an all-knowing stink eye that monitored your every social misstep.”)

Then Eunice finds an ad for a job that will at least get Jane out of her uncle’s house, where family tensions are running high. The Mazer-Farleys, Ed and Beth of Brooklyn, are looking for a live-in au pair for their adopted Chinese daughter. Jane has her doubts but escape is escape, and she accepts the position.

Reader, you know what happens next: Jane finds herself drawn to the married Ed Farley, whose wife is not a madwoman in the attic but a vegan feminist academic in the upstairs office.

Park has fun at Beth Mazer-Farley’s expense, just as she also paints a broad comic portrait of Jane’s Uncle Sang, but she never loses sight of these characters as human. When eventually Jane begins to see them in a different light as well, you know she’s firmly on the road to adulthood.

Park never feels compelled to stay exactly true to the original text, which allows her the freedom to find her own version of a happy ending.

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald