The Best Man by Richard Peck


best-manThe Best Man by Richard Peck
Dial, 2016

Richard Peck’s perceptive and sunshine-warm middle-grade story of male role models naturally integrates a love story between two men, but is slightly marred by some stereotyped characters.

In a comfortably middle-class white suburb of Chicago, 6th grade narrator, blithely naïve Archer Magill, starts the story as a white velvet beshorted ring bearer at one wedding, and closes it as the Ralph Lauren-clad best man at the wedding of his Uncle Paul to teacher Ed McLeod. Between the two, Archer gives us vignettes of his school life, and the reader gets to know Archer’s laid back and empathetic Dad, and big-hearted Grandpa, and will understand why Archer wants to be them.

Peck succeeds admirably in creating two gay role models for Archer, though they are perhaps a little caricatured, with their emphasis on looking good (and it appears that not wearing socks with wingtips is a signifier of homosexuality). However, both Uncle Paul, a hotshot PR guy who remains close to his family, and swoony Mr. McLeod, who, literally, comes out in defense of a student bullies label as gay, embody the idea that “being gay isn’t a decision. How you live your life is a decision.”

However, the author irritatingly stereotypes female educators as either ineffectual and fluffy or battle axes, whereas dreamy Mr. McLeod, not yet qualified, is imaginative, authoritative and effective. And a British character is introduced who appears to be inspired by 1950’s ideas of what an English aristocrat should be. While this is clearly nothing like as egregious as stereotypes of people of color, it detracts and unbalances the other more realistically created characters. (I should note that none of the reviews mention these – maybe being a British female educator has just made me a bit sensitive)

There are many laughs in the novel – from Archer’s Youtube appearance with his split velvet shorts to the farce of Mr. McLeod’s first entrance – as well as more serious moments when Archer begins to get to grips with what growing up, and being grown up, mean. Overall, the author builds an idyllic, yet realistic, slice of one boy’s life, with its ups and downs, while gently slipping in a message of tolerance.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell


fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

I enjoyed Eleanor and Park (2013) very much, but I was much less keen on this overlong second novel by Rainbow Rowell.

Cath Avery is making a poor job of navigating her first year at college. She was expecting to hang out with her twin, but Wrenn has struck out on her own. Cath’s roommate, Reagan, is rather intimidating, and Cath’s writing partner in her fiction class seems to be stealing her work. But she can, at least, escape into the world of the Harry Potter-esque Simon Snow, and has her place in that world as an enormously successful fan fiction writer.

I was irritated by Cath’s drippiness, and eye-rolled my way through her frequent outbreaks of crying. How this sullen, almost silent, girl ends up attracting the charming and affable Levi is something of a mystery that I think has more to do with authorial wish-fulfillment than real life.

The novel is interspersed with excerpts from both the ‘real’ Simon Snow novels and Cath’s fanfic, usually presaging something that’s about to happen in Cath’s life. I found these extracts to be rather too long in places – particularly when Levi wants Cath to read to him (what a bookish girl fantasy that is!) – and though I mostly enjoyed these Potter-esque sections, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out Carry On (2015), Rowell’s Simon novel.

There are some interesting ideas bubbling around the idea of creative writing. Cath finds herself so much more comfortable with fanfic, writing about someone else’s world and characters – but is this plagiarism, as her fiction professor believes? And does she really need a professor to tell her to use characters and situations from her own life instead?

I listened to this book and really enjoyed much of it, but I found the pace of the second half really slow, as we wound to the inevitable conclusion. Nonetheless, Cath is a credible and sympathetic portrait of an introverted young woman, and I understand why this book is so popular with many of my library-lurking students.

The Lost Compass by Joel Ross


lost-compassThe Lost Compass by Joel Ross
Fog Diver; Bk. 2
HarperCollins, 2016.

This satisfying sequel to the Cybil-winning middle grade adventure The Fog Diver (2015), picks up immediately where the previous book left off. Following a brief introduction to get the reader up to speed the reader is plunged straight back into the post-apocalyptic world in which the Earth is covered by a sentient Fog made of nanites that are toxic to humans, and people can only survive on mountain tops and in the air above the Fog.

Chess, the fog diver, and his crew have escaped the economically stratified Rooftop and arrived at idyllic and more equitable Port Oro, where they discover that the only way to save the world from villainous Kodoc is for Chess to dive down again to find the mysterious Compass which controls the Fog. Naturally, Kodoc also wants to get his hands on the Compass and is prepared to do anything to achieve that.

It becomes apparent that the crew are more than just a serendipitously well-matched group. Hazel, the quick thinking leader, Swedish, the ingenious pilot, Bea, the preternaturally gifted mechanic, are there to support Chess as his affinity with the Fog means he could be the one to save the Earth. These four characters, plus brawling Loretta, continue to be the warm heart of the story. Though a few new characters are introduced, they pale in comparison and are more plot device than flesh and blood.

The plot is a judicious mix of action sequences and exploration of the world. Port Oro has plenty for the kids to discover and because it is a more fair and just society than that of the Rooftop, it gives Chess a reason to put himself in peril.

Once again there is some entertaining and clever word play on phrases from the old days. Norse is a tapping code used by the Vikings. The Amazons are fierce women warriors who fought battle and sold books. There is a long-running gag with Hazel keeping a Captain’s Log that begins each entry with Start-8. This is smart stuff that is perfectly pitched to be both witty and comprehensible.

The author has made the bold and cheer-inducing move of completing the series in only two books. This keeps the pace fast and the explanations brief, but at the same time doesn’t shortchange the reader. An excellent duology that I would recommend to any scifi or dystopian loving upper elementary or middle schooler.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke


Wink-Poppy-Midnight-by-April-Genevieve-TucholkeWink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke
Dial, 2016.

This is a very weird and unsettling maybe romance YA novel, in which the titular 3 white main characters trade narration. Midnight (boy) is hurting as his mother has gone to live in France for an unspecified amount of time, taking his older brother with her. Poppy who is rich, smart, and utterly self-confident, thinks she has Midnight where she wants him – adoring but not adored. But then he meets Wink, one of the plethora of Bell children. Wink is quiet, self-possessed, and obsessed with dark fairy tales. But neither of the girls are quite who they seem, and a prank that goes horribly wrong clicks the lens to a new place.

I have to say that this is not really my cup of tea, and I was rather irritated and frustrated by the turns the characters take. But I don’t think that’s a reflection of the novel or the writing, more just my preferences. Wink, in particular, is a rather fey character wanting everyone to fit into the archetypes of folklore – Hero, Thief, Villain, Wolf – and it feels like she’s from a different era to the very 21st century Midnight and Poppy.

However, the world and atmosphere is stunning and intriguing, and will appeal to readers who like Gothic, spooky tales in which the characters and happenings don’t altogether feel like they’re from this world.

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood


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


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


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.