Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

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cloudwishCloudwish by Fiona Wood
Poppy, October 2016.

Australian novelist Wood returns to the world of her previous novels Wildlife (2014) and Six Impossible Things (2015) in this appealing companion novel that features some of the same characters in supporting roles.

The year eleven  students of toney Crowthorpe Academy are now back in Melbourne and embarking on their International Baccalaureate. The focus this time is on first generation Vietnamese Australian scholarship student Vân Uoc. For two years, Vân Uoc has been a quiet studious presence that few others have noticed, and she has been nursing a hopeless crush on popular blond-haired Billy Gardiner. But when she makes a wish that he would find her fascinating, it appears that there’s some magic going on, because he apparently suddenly does. Vân Uoc is tortured by the thought that either it’s a joke or a wish-induced interest that’s going to come to an abrupt and/or humiliating end.

As with Wild Life, the novel is driven by the finely drawn characters, this time with maybe just a hint of magic. The author thoroughly explores the lives of Vân Uoc’s “hard-working, first generation, barely-English-speaking” immigrant parents, and through Vân Uoc’s writing rants about poverty and prejudice shows her passionate feeling about the cultural divide she finds herself on the wrong side of. Vân Uoc herself is a quietly compelling character who has driven herself to this prestigious scholarship, while at the same time supporting the homework club that made such a difference for her, and using Jane Eyre as a role model of quiet strength and independence. Her friendship with neighbor Jess, who has a similar family background, shows the ease and comfortable happiness she feels when in her element.

The characterization of the other students is a mixed bag. The mean girls from Wild Life, particularly Holly “the perfectly formed love child of Smirk and Snarl”, never rise much above being just mean, and they are the downside of Billy’s interest, because it brings Vân Uoc to their attention. Vân Uoc’s friends, Lou and Sibylla, come with their own backstories from the previous novels, but readers without that knowledge may find them pretty thin. Billy himself is an interesting creation: is he a careless and clueless affluent kid, or is he a sensitive and observant love interest? The answer to that helps define this novel as a slice of an ongoing community’s life – he is both.

While I found this novel a little less shaped than Wildlife, which had the plot device of a semester at an outdoor education facility to give it structure, I enjoyed being with these characters and their developing selves and relationships.

Is it ok for Ms Wood, apparently white, to write from the perspective of a Vietnamese Australian? The review copy has no notes as to any research she did, but I found this interview in which she talks about working at a homework center similar to the one Vân Uoc volunteers in. This feels like a sympathetic and respectful portrayal, and is cuttingly realistic on the situation of a student from an economically challenged background struggling in such an affluent community.

For American teens, this is an engaging perspective of an outsider trying to fit in while remaining true to herself and her culture.

Thanks to Poppy and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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the-scourgeThe Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed The Mark of the Thief series, and quite liked, though not as much as many did, the historical fiction A Night Divided. But my favorite JAN by far is The False Prince, and I’m excited to say that The Scourge is almost as good in some ways and even better in that it’s a one-off!!!

Like The False Prince, the setting is an imaginary country in a sort of 16th/17th century. This time, the country is Keldan, with the population acrimoniously divided into town dwellers and the River People. The country is being ravaged by the Scourge, an incurable plague, which has so far only hit the towns. But when River People Ani and Weevil are picked up to be tested, it’s discovered that they are both infected and they are sent to Attic Island – a colony for Scourge sufferers that nobody ever leaves.

Ani is our narrator and is a typically feisty Nielsen protagonist – one who just can’t keep her mouth closed or her head down. Though not quite a female version of my beloved False Prince Sage/Jarod with his delicious snark and unreliability, it’s good to have a female action hero and one who can lead, as well as just get herself in and out of scrapes. Weevil (terrible name – sounds like a Disney sidekick) is the cooler headed of the two, and is also a love interest.

The plot rips along, and though I could see the big twist coming, it was a good one and well-executed. There is a balanced mix of tension and action, and the backdrop of the tension between the two Keldan cultures gives an interesting overlay of social injustice.

And did I say it all wraps up in one book? Hooray. The downside is that the support characters don’t really have room to develop, and it would be nice to have seen more of Della, the initially snooty townie sent to the colony with Ani.

This is JAN at her peak and I would happily press this into the hands of any middle school reader.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

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those who wish me deadThose Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown, 2014.

Like All Involved, this is an Alex Award winning book – one that was written for adults but will also appeal to teens. I was absolutely gripped by it from the opening sentence, through a couple of excellent didn’t-see-that-coming-at-all twists, to the gratifying and credible conclusion.

14 year-old Jace Wilson witnesses a murder and is placed in a wilderness program to protect him from the perpetrators. Jace, along with 6 other boys, is led into the wilds of Montana by survival specialist Ethan Serbin, but even there he isn’t safe from the sinister and scary Blackwell brothers.

The mountainous backwoods setting, from blizzarding snows to rampaging wildfires, is a huge part of the foreboding atmosphere of this novel. The monumental and uncaring power of Big Nature, contrasts with the will of the people scrambling to survive against it and each other.

Jace is a bit of a blank, though his growing confidence in his survival skills is a nice touch. However, the lead really belongs to Ethan, the tough, indefatigable trainer, who won’t stop even when he has apparently run out of options. The Blackwell brothers seem a little bit too omniscient and indestructible, but their repartee is both menacing and entertaining.

I romped through Dead in a day on the beach, and it’s perfect for that kind of lightweight, don’t need to read anything too deeply into it, mode; but at the same time the quality of the writing, plotting, and characterization put it a cut above, and make it more than just a guilty pleasure.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling and some other people (all right, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne)

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Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverHarry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling and some other people (all right, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne)
Levine, 2016.

Being a bit of a purist, I hadn’t intended to read this, but we saw it at a bookstore while we were on holiday and thought we’d give it a go. I’m glad I read it, and though it’s not got the meat of the Canon, it’s really very good, and an entertaining way of spending time.

Taking off from the Epilogue in The Deathly Harrows, The Cursed Child is centered on Harry Potter’s middle son, Albus Severus, who is something of a misfit in the Potter family, signaled by the other two kids being named after Harry’s parents. Albus is sorted into Slytherin and, rebelling against the weight of the Potter name, he befriends Scorpius Malfoy who is rumored to actually be the son of Voldemort.

A lot of the play is concerned with father-son relationships. As well as Harry and Draco, Amos Diggory appears as a loving father, still grieving over the loss of Cedric. So when Harry, in a fit of pique tells Albus that there are times when he wishes that he wasn’t his son, Albus decides to set right a part of Harry’s past and, along with Scorpius and Delphi, Amos’s niece, uses a stolen time turner to restage the Triwizard tournament so that Cedric doesn’t go into the graveyard with Harry. However, their efforts have unintended consequences.

It was good to see Hermione, Ron, and Harry (and their different iterations in the time-changed portions) as well as other familiar characters from the Canon. We have hundreds of pages of backstory on these people and this world, so the playwright is fortunate to be able to shorthand it all. Ms Rowling’s plotting and character creating skills shine, and Albus and Scorpius, and their friendship, are an exciting addition to the Hogwarts realm. But we also have the comfort of being with people we know and love, and even references to scenes from books that are part of our collective psyche.

We are, tonally, back in the world of the earlier books – there are only a few glimpses of the darkness and desperation of the much more complex and ambiguous later books. And, unlike Deathly Hallows, there is never any doubt how the play will end, though it does so with some good twists along the way.

However, this is a play not a novel, and though the stage directions (which seem remarkably complicated in places) and dialogue drive the story along, there is a lack of depth that comes from not being in any of the characters’ heads. Of course, actors will presumably bring that element, but as I’m not likely to see the play anytime soon, this is all I have to go on.

So it’s not really the 8th book, and it’s a play script not a novel, but I was engrossed by the story telling skills of Ms Rowling, the writing of the other two fellows lucky enough to be involved, and the glimpse into the future of a world I thought was finished.

Trouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly

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trouble makes a comebackTrouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly
Kathy Dawson Books, November 2016.

This satisfying sequel to Trouble is a Friend of Mine (2015) picks up 5 months later. Zoe Webster, now at the end of her junior year, has settled into the social scene at River Heights, and even has a boyfriend, football team member Austin Shaeffer. But then Digby returns with new leads on the mystery of his sister’s abduction 9 years previously.

As with the previous book, there are several strands going at once. The overarching mystery of Sally Digby’s abduction spreads its net wider as it seems to become more than just a missing girl case. There is a secondary, though interlinked, escapade, this time involving steroids and the football team. There are a few plot glitches, but I’ll put those down to reading this as an ARC

The hardboiled mysteries work well, but, for me, are really just a vehicle for the characters. The central twosome are just as charming, irritating, and sharp. Zoe’s narration shows her as the smartest and funniest high schooler around, and Digby continues to surprise with skills, self-doubt, and focus. And then there’s the crackling tension of their will they-won’t they romance, now complicated by Zoe’s relationship with Austin, and Digby’s with punk girl, Bill.

The support characters now have a bit of room to spread out and develop even more depth. Entitled rich girl Sloane shows more social intelligence and self-knowledge; Felix is still the stereotypically supersmart Asian kid and the only non-white character, but he has become the manager of, and something of a stud for, the girls’ soccer team. Adults are not just foils for the teens. Both Zoe’s and Digby’s mothers are complex, flawed, richly created human beings, and the father figures in Zoe’s life are a nicely contrasting pair.

The bad news is that we’re left on a pretty abrupt cliffhanger. The good news is that there’s more to come from River Heights.

Thanks to Kathy Dawson Books and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

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scorpion rulesThe Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2015.

400 years ago, the world collapsed into warring factions, and Talis, an Artificial Intelligence, imposed order by keeping the children of the political leaders hostage and under promise of death if their faction declared war. 16 year-old Greta is one of these Children of Peace, kept in a Prefecture in Saskatchewan. When a new alliance is formed that borders on her Federation, and their hostage Elian is brought to their Prefecture, Greta’s fear that she will soon be summoned to die for her mother’s decision seems about to be realized.

Bow (Plain Kate, Levine, 2010) has created an extraordinarily detailed and coherent world. Within a few pages, she answers all my ‘hang on, how does this work?’ questions, and though the logic of these hostages is quite horrible, it also actually makes sense. The decisions that Talis has taken on behalf of the world, in terms of peacekeeping, technology, and infrastructure, are brutally austere, and yet also something that could easily be in our future.

Greta is a challenging character and narrator. She is a rule abider, and follows what is expected of her as both a Princess (the world has gone rather feudal) and a Child of Peace. This makes her initially somewhat stiff and unlikeable, and it does appear that we are going to go down the well-trodden track of her only seeing the error of her ways when the defiant and rebellious Elian turns up. But Ms Bow is far too skilled a writer for that, and the second half of the book is full of thrilling twists and turns, as Greta takes hold of the power she did not realize she had.

The large cast of multicultural support characters, both human and AI, are vividly drawn and fit into the world with ease. Princess Xie, Greta’s roommate and best friend since she first arrived at the age of 5, is emotionally exquisite and is shown to have far greater understanding of the system than anybody else. And Talis, despite being the world-ruling AI, is also hilariously and scarily flippant about his power and decisions.

Talis’s rule is to ‘make it personal’, and Ms. Bow has written a very smart novel about the conviction and perception of those individuals who challenge the imposed solution despite the stupidity of the human race. This is the first book in a series, and fans of intelligent dystopian fiction will love it.

Replica by Lauren Oliver

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bookcover_replicaReplica by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2016.

With this very enjoyable first book in her new duology, which takes on the big theme of what it means to be human, Lauren Oliver returns to the sci fi/dystopia genre of her splendid Delirium trilogy.

Lyra and Gemma are both connected with the mysterious Haven Institute which is situated on a remote Florida island. Lyra, or 24, is one of the many replicas (or clones) that live there. Gemma’s father was one of the founders of Haven. When a bomb goes off on the island, Lyra escapes and Gemma makes her way down to Florida – from their different perspectives, they both want to find out who they are and what Haven’s purpose really is.

Told from the perspectives of Lyra and Gemma, the author has taken the interesting if not entirely successful decision to write this as two novellas rather than the usual interleaved chapters. I applaud trying new things, but I feel maybe it would have worked better in the traditional way. In the intro, Ms Oliver talks about the Rashomon effect, but it is much harder to detect this when you are not reading the two accounts side by side, particularly in an eBook.

The created world is thought-provoking and cohesive, and, as she did with Delirium, the author gradually drops in new information to build a fuller picture, but does this without ever leaving the reader frustrated or confused. The science of what is going on at Haven comes in a couple of big information dumps and I found it a bit confusing, though I suspect it’s not essential to follow precisely. Suffice to say that the scientists at Haven are Up To No Good.

I really like the two narrators and the voices that Ms Oliver has created for them. Lyra is precise and a little cold. Ms Oliver is largely successful in creating a character that knows nothing about the outside world, except what she has occasionally seen on TV or overheard from the Haven staff, and then to convey her wonder and confusion as she encounters it. Gemma becomes more intriguing as we get to know her and her family background.

Both girls have love interests (and all main characters appear to be white). Lyra flees from Haven with hunky 72, who is of the silent brooding but “beautiful” type, and Gemma’s ride to Florida is Pete, who is of the fresh-faced, handsome, nice, and inexplicably drawn to the outcast girl type. Neither really develops much beyond that. As the young women dig deeper into who they are, their beaux’ responses add new dimensions when the idea of love as a marker of humanity is explored.

The plot rattles along, with twist following twist, and the two accounts add developments without being repetitious. Unfortunately, the novel just sort of ends on an incomplete note, so we’ll have to wait for the concluding sequel, though yay for dropping the treading water middle book of a trilogy!

Ms Oliver’s books are always worth reading, whether realistic or speculative. Fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed, and Replica could well attract some new readers.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.