Tin by Pádraig Kenny

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Tin by Pádraig Kenny
Chicken House, 2019

The cover and title rather misleadingly suggest a quest akin to the Wizard of Oz, and I found it puzzling that the author has his breath taken away by it given that it seems unconnected to the story. Having said that, it is a very attractive cover and may well pull in some readers looking for warmly human speculative fiction.

Set between the wars in an alternate steampunk England, this novel brings charm and exciting adventure to a story about home and family. 

Living with a incompetent and unlicensed engineer and an oddball group of “mechanical” children, 12 year-old Christopher had always thought he was a “proper” boy, but an accident reveals that he too is constructed of metal and he is a rare and illegal machine with a transferred soul. 

When Christopher is kidnapped by a government agency, the misfit mechanicals, Jack, Round Rob, Gripper, Manda, and their human friend, aspiring engineer Estelle, set off in pursuit. Along the way, they go to Ironhaven, the town where discarded and broken mechanicals go, to seek the help of the country’s most gifted engineer. Switching narrative point of view between Christopher and Jack, the reader can follow both strands of the story leading to a revealing climax in an old prison. 

This world of magically created, and all-white, mechanicals lacks some logic. Christopher is haunted by vivid sensory memories of his home and mother, but these turn out to be false memory “patches.” Jack and the others, particularly Rob, though lacking souls have definite personalities, can make decisions, feel despair and joy, love and friendship, and I found myself wondering how they differ from real children or even “ensouled” ones like Christopher. 

The switches of narration, especially at the end, get confusing and there are a lot of pseudo-scientific terms thrown around which are incomprehensible and irrelevant. I also found the end battle to be rather overdone given the more sophisticated storytelling that led up to it.

But that said, I liked this more than my review above might suggest. The characterization, problematic or not, is well done and the team of mechanicals and their human companions are delightful and sympathetic. The author has a fine imagination and the world he has built here could certainly sustain some more stories. And while I started by grumbling about the misleading Wizard of Oz cover, the mechanicals do find out that there’s no place like home.

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The Disaster Days by Rebecca Behrens

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The Disaster Days by Rebecca Behrens
Sourcebooks, October 2019.

13 year old novice babysitter Hannah is looking after her neighbor’s children in their isolated island home when an enormous earthquake hits. Cut off from Seattle, the nearest city and with no power, no internet, no phones and no adults, Hannah has to work out how to keep 3rd grader Oscar, 5th grader Zoe, (and Jupiter their guinea pig) safe until help reaches them. 

Hannah is credibly clueless but she is grittily determined to keep her charges safe. Her narration is authentically straightforward as she initially makes some poor decisions, leading to injuries to both children, and she herself is struggling with asthma as she left her inhaler at home.

Without Google or an adult, the kids are initially helpless, struggling with shelter, food, and other basics of survival. But by pooling their knowledge and resources and by using encyclopedias and old manuals they make the best of what they have. Hannah even manages to ward off a brush with a bear.  The novel is set over the three days in which they’re stranded, but towards the end I felt the author added plot excitement by having them walk to find help. In real life, they would probably have been safer staying where they were and waiting for help to find them, particularly given the various injuries they were suffering.

Though set in the Pacific Northwest this tense tale of post-earthquake survival is equally relevant to other areas where natural disasters are a constant threat, and may encourage middle grade readers to think and find out about their family and school disaster plans.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Color of the Sun by David Almond

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The Color of the Sun by David Almond
Candlewick, 2019.

In Little Felling in the North-East of England, the body of a teen boy, Jimmy Killen, is found. Davie sees the body and then sets out towards the top of the hill outside the village looking for the suspected murderer, a teen boy from the Craigs, a rival family to the Killens.

As he wanders on this hot summer’s day, he encounters and converses with several people, including an old priest, two young girls, the Craigs, a dog, an old man who lost his leg in a mining accident and a gardener as well as his recently deceased father.

Set in an unspecified post-war era, the spare lyrical prose and dream-like mood hint at a larger journey towards manhood as artistic, imaginative Davie absorbs and reflects on the tales, both real and apocryphal, that he is told along the way.

I really loved the author’s 2015 The Tightrope Walkers and this has some of the same virtues, but feels much slighter and less grounded. Here, Almond creates a wonderfully atmospheric picture of that stage in life when childhood is left behind but adulthood has not yet been reached and of an England that no longer exists if it ever did. But I feel the setting and meandering pace will likely limit its appeal to American teen readers, as well as the Geordie dialect and customs.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi

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My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
Dutton, 2019.

My second novel review about a space-obsessed middle grade girl set in the 1980’s! 

Zoboi’s (Pride, 2018) middle-grade debut is set in Summer 1984 when 12 year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has been sent from Huntsville Alabama by her mother to stay in Harlem with the father she hardly knows. It’s never made very clear why Ebony-Grace is sent, but there are hints that her grandfather is in some sort of trouble.

Encouraged by her Grandaddy, a pioneering black engineer for NASA, Ebony-Grace spends most of her time in her “imagination location,” living out Space stories inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek, and superheroes. In these stories, he is the heroic Captain Fleet, she is Space Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and they have intergalactic adventures in the Mothership Uhura.

But this “crazy” behavior has isolated her in her hometown and now threatens to do the same here, even with her friend Bianca who had been a willing game participant three years ago. Bianca is now a rapper and breakdancer with the ice cream-themed 9 Flavas girl crew and when Ebony-Grace tries to behave like a “regular and normal” kid and fit in with them, they dismiss her as a “plain ol’ ice cream sandwich! Chocolate on the outside, vanilla on the inside.” The alien environment of Harlem with its graffiti, loud music, crowds of fast-talking people, breakdancing, and double Dutch pushes her further back into her comfort fantasy zone. Ebony-Grace presents as neurodiverse, though this is never made explicit, and her social struggles feel overwhelming and unresolvable, though the ending suggests that she may be on the road to change. 

Though I found the plot confusing and muddled and the resolution to be problematic, the author does effectively evoke the spirit of mid-80’s Harlem with many musical, cultural, and news references. Readers who enjoyed Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2010) may appreciate the period feel of this book too.

Review based on an ARC.

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Wendy Lamb Books, 2019.

It’s 1986 and 12 year-old autistic and nonverbal Nova Vezina and her older sister, Bridget, have been in 11 foster homes in 7 years. But now Bridget has disappeared and Nova has been placed with kind and thoughtful Francine and Billy. Nova has to start at yet another school and undergo yet another round of testing which will inevitably conclude “Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.” Bridget has always protected Nova from this hateful label, saying she’s smarter than people think and that she’s a “thinker not a talker” and the author does a wonderful job of showing the truth of this. Alternating chapters from a third person POV and letters that Nova writes to Bridget (just “scribbles” to everyone else) take the reader inside Nova’s head, giving an empathetic account of her rich thought processes as well as their external manifestations as she settles into her new home and classroom.

Bridget, and hence Nova, is deeply interested in space exploration, and Nova, clutching her NASA Bear and listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, counts down the days to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the First Teacher in Space. But she’s also waiting for Bridget to keep her promise to be there for the launch though the reader may begin to suspect that there’s more to her absence than Nova understands. It’s only when Challenger explodes that the pieces fall into place for Nova.

A couple of concerns. As middle grade readers may not be aware of the Challenger disaster, it may come as a significant shock to them and tip what is already a very sad story into one that carries too much weight. Setting it in 1986 means that there was less understanding of Nova’s condition and less options to help her communicate; Things have changed (as the author explains in a note) but readers may not be aware of this and though both Bridget and her new foster family resist the term “retard” it is still used by responsible adults, even if they are signaled as lacking understanding.

I feel that there’s really could be two novels here: one about Nova and Bridget and one about the doomed Space Shuttle, and though the author does a decent job of making it one novel it does feel a little overstuffed. Nonetheless, the author’s personal experience and her professional experience working with autistic kids brings authenticity to this poignant slim volume. 

Review based on an ARC.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.