Fire Color One by Jenny Valentine; Philomel Books, 228 pages ($17.99). Ages 12 and up.
A 16-year-old arsonist reconnects with the absentee millionaire art-collector father she’s been taught to hate in this beautifully written, wondrously plotted novel that is equal parts love story, thrilling mystery, meditation on art, and harrowing tale of family dysfunction. Iris lives in L.A. with her conniving, avaricious mother Hannah and her mother’s boyfriend, a wannabe actor named Lowell (“Lowell’s teeth are toilet-bowl white.”). Iris’ only real connection is with Thurston, an older teen and soulmate she meets while out setting a fire and who has emancipated himself in court from his own awful family (described as “gun-toting, stranger-bashing, rage-twisted, tightfisted creationists”). Hannah and Lowell whisk Iris away to London, telling her she’s about to be arrested for her latest fire, and then inform her she’s going to meet her father, who is dying of cancer. Iris’ conversations with her dying father are a revelation, as she gains a new awareness of herself and a far different version of her past than the one Hannah constructed for her. Valentine masterfully develops the narrative, starting with Ernest’s funeral, and filling in the back story. The writing is wonderful and often darkly funny: Iris, observing her mother waiting to cash in on her husband’s death: “It was clear she was just killing time, waiting for the Grim Reaper to arrive, looking at her watch like he was late and she was paying him by the hour.” And the mystery at the heart of the novel is revealed in the most perfect way possible. Valentine says the novel was inspired by her father’s death from cancer: “My dad died and at his funeral I saw him from a whole new angle, and it was a profound experience. I had to look at that. I had to make use of it somehow.” This is only her second novel since her stunning 2010 debut novel “Me, the Missing and the Dead” won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize under the title “Finding Violet Park.”
The Castle in the Mist by Amy Ephron; Philomel Books, 167 pages ($16.99).
In her first novel for children, Amy Ephron - younger sister of Nora and Delia - offers a delightful tale in the vein of such beloved children’s classics as “A Wrinkle in Time,” “A Little Princess” and more recent book, Cornelia Funke’s “The Thief Lord.” With their mother very ill and their father a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Tess and Max have been sent to their Aunt Evie’s house in the English countryside for the summer. While out wandering one day, Tess glimpses what seems to be a castle in the mist. She finds a key that unlocks an ornate gate and meets a boy her own age named William who lives in the castle with its marvelous grounds of rose garden, pond, sculpture garden, hedge maze and menacing Hawthorn trees. Tess and Max return together for a magical afternoon with William including a ride on a carousel and Tess’ first awareness that there is some kind of magic at work, a barrier between the known and a terrifying unknown. A magical evening, a lunar eclipse, a terrifying disappearance, a wild ride on a black stallion and a wish come true are all part of the enchanting mix as Ephron brings her tale to a perfect finale, with William’s back story finding modern-day echoes in his friends’. The marvelous map of the physical castle grounds at the beginning and one of the magical world at the end are by Russian artist Vartan Ter-Avanesyan.