Monthly Archives: July 2014

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern


say what you willIn her first YA book, McGovern succeeds in creating memorably quirky characters and charting the agonizing fits and starts of first love in a romance of “oddballs finding each other”, that will appeal to fans of Eleanor and Park (Rowell, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) and graduates of Out of My Mind (Draper, Atheneum, 2010).

Amy has Cerebral Palsy and Matthew has been suffering from OCD since his parents’ divorce. For her senior year, Amy has decided she wants peer helpers instead of adult assistants, so that she can learn what being a friend means, and she prompts Matthew to be one of the volunteers after he challenges her self-professed luckiness. They become important friends to each other, and though both would like something more, they don’t know how to say it: Amy is smart and her attempts to tell Matthew how she feels are too veiled, Matthew is just scared of what expressing his feelings will mean.

As they help each other with their different fights for independence – Amy from her fiercely protective mother and also from her body, Matthew from the voice inside his head that controls his actions – the novel charts their maturing, as they discover their voices, as well as realizing and, finally, using the words that matter.

Though the other students are little more than sketches, and the plot takes a dip in the melodrama pool, readers will warm to the central two characters as they take control of their lives.

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague


saving lucas biggsThemes of social injustice, reconciliation and the past’s impact on the present, connect linked stories of fathers and children, in this thoughtful middle grade novel set in 1938 and 2014 in the mining town of Victory, Arizona.

Victory is a company town and anyone who stands up to the company is vindictively punished: in 1938, Aristotle Agrippa takes the miners on strike to win basic workers’ rights, and ends up disgraced and an apparent suicide; in 2014, John O’Malley, who has blown the whistle on the company’s dangerous fracking practices, is wrongly sentenced to death for arson and murder.

Two characters link the stories: Joshua Garrett who is a boy in 1938 and a grandfather in 2014, and Margaret O’Malley who travels from the present day back to 1938 in order to set right a wrong there which she hopes will impact on the future and save her father. Though “history resists” Margaret’s plans, the time travel element – a “quirk” of her family – is integral and allows the reader to understand how the wrongs of the present have roots in the past.

Both of these characters, and their friends and families are wonderfully realized people, and their locations and eras, particularly that of Canvasburg, the tent city where the striking miners live, feel authentic and immediate.

The resolution is perhaps a little unrealistic in its speed and efficacy, but readers will enjoy the twists and turns of these braided lives enough not to fret about that. An authors’ note on real life Canvasburgs would have been welcome.

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer


rivermanMoodily dark and sinister, The Riverman explores the line between fantasy and reality in this unsettling middle grade tale of growing up.

12-year-old Alistair Cleary is approached by the odd girl in the neighborhood, Fiona Loomis, to write her biography and, over the course of several weeks, she tells him of her alternate life in a land called Aquavania “where stories are made”, and where she and other kids have created their own fantasy worlds.  But now, the malicious Riverman, has infiltrated Aquavania and is stealing the children’s souls and making them disappear in the Solid World, and Fiona believes she is his next target. It is not clear to Alistair (or the reader) if this land really exists, and Alistair interprets her stories as a way of asking for help from a real situation at home.

The Riverman is driven by Alistair’s maturing from the simplicity of childhood: the plot pivots around him discarding old friends, and his increasing attraction to ones with more complex and ambivalent qualities.

Told in the first person and with a looming sense of foreboding, the reader is kept in the same state of unknowing tension as Alistair. However, the pacing is a little off – the middle sags and the end is very rushed with a flurry of revelations and unlikely gunfire.

At the conclusion, the reader may still not be clear what is real and what is metaphor, and while some may enjoy this ambiguity, others will find it unsatisfactory – personally I think it fell on the wrong side of that fine line. The Riverman appears to be the first in a series and will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman’s disquieting stories.

Nightingale’s Nest


nightingale's nestInspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, Lofton blends magic and realism skillfully in this contemporary middle grade coming of age tale set in a hardscrabble Texas town.

Little John blames himself for the accidental death of his sister and, since then, his family has hit hard times: Mom is going crazy with grief and Dad is drinking away his much-needed earnings. Little John sees a chance for redemption when he and his father take on some tree cutting work for the richest man in the area, and he befriends a little girl, Gayle, whose singing heals both physical and psychic wounds. But the rich man, the Emperor, wants to capture Gayle’s voice and bribes Little John to betray her.

Seen through Little John’s eyes, Lofton sparingly and evocatively captures the intense heat of the Texas summer and the desperate impoverishment of the town, and contrasts this with the ethereal beauty of Gayle’s singing, as Little John struggles to keep his promises without letting his family go under.

This is one of those sort of children’s books, like Clare Vanderpool’s, that I think adults enjoy more than most kids because of its pace and theme, though it really doesn’t do a lot for me. But I can appreciate that though it’s likely to appeal to a relatively small number of readers those that do find it will be as enchanted by Gayle as Little John.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier



I met Jonathan Auxier a couple of years ago, when he was at a school talking about his first book, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes. He was a thoroughly engaging fellow as well as an ace juggler and I warmed to him immensely. I really liked Peter Nimble, so I was excited to read his new one, The Night Gardener. Here’s my review.

Two plucky and resilient orphans confront the nocturnal horrors of an isolated house, in this superbly constructed middle-grade gothic mystery chiller.

Fourteen-year-old Molly and ten-year-old Kip have left famine-stricken Ireland and landed in hostile England. In desperation, and despite the warnings of the local villagers, they end up working for a family who live in a lonely mansion, which is built around a malevolent tree. The children quickly become aware of a sinister night-time visitor and gradually make the connection with the dramatically waning health of the family.

The tale is told from the perspective of both children: Kip is a very Dickensian orphan – an angelic mix of David Copperfield and Tiny Tim – whereas Molly is a more interestingly flawed character, and their love for each other and their yearning for a home shines through.

Auxier, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (Simon & Schuster, 1962),  has created a wonderfully paced and flowing narrative that is both a horror story and a meditation on the murky difference between stories and lies, and on the psychic damage of greed.

For readers who enjoy the dark fantastic mixed with heart, such as The Graveyard Book (Gaiman, HarperCollins, 2008) and Splendors and Glooms (Schlitz, Candlewick, 2012).

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb


The-Nazi-Hunters-Neal-Bascomb-Book-CoverCombining meticulous research with an easy to read narrative style, Bascomb has created a thrilling true tale of the hunting down, capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps.

Eichmann disappeared after the end of the war, but, in 1956, a chance encounter brought his presence in Argentina to the attention of the Israeli secret intelligence network, the Mossad. After thorough surveillance and intelligence gathering, a crack team put together and pulled off a daring and extraordinary plan to grab Eichmann and transport him to Israel without going through an official extradition process.

Bascomb explains that it wasn’t only justice that the team sought, though every one of them had lost family in the Holocaust: He shows the importance of the trial in reminding the world of the horror of the ‘Final Solution’.

Bascomb’s many primary and secondary sources are meticulously detailed in the Notes, and never get in the way of the narrative flow. A list of the many participants is included to help the reader keep track, and there is also an extensive Bibliography, Photo Credits and Index.

Adapted from his adult book, Hunting Eichmann (Houghton, 2009), this is intended for middle grade and high school teen readers and is an excellent addition to both school and public library collections.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson


impossible knifeAnderson (Speak, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) is never afraid to tackle hot button issues, and Impossible Knife is no exception. In this novel, she uses the story of a high school girl and her ex-army father to illuminate the shoddy treatment of veterans and their difficulty in reassimilating into a world that is not full of threats, along with the fallout this has on their loved ones.

After years of being on the road, Hayley Kincain and her dad are settling down, ostensibly so that Hayley can take her senior year at a high school, but really because her father is suffering with untreated and worsening PTSD. Hayley’s life experiences, as well as 6 years of unschooling, make her feel isolated from the other student “zombies” and her voice and persona is tough and snarky, though also achingly hurt and bewildered behind this hostile facade.  She meets the charismatic Finnegan Ramos, and while Finn’s attraction to Hayley somewhat strains credibility, he introduces her to a more normal teenage life. However, Hayley’s denial of her father’s condition, and of her own past, in which the parental figures essentially abandoned her, starts to break down as her father becomes increasingly erratic, lashing out at himself, strangers and finally Hayley herself.

Hayley’s vulnerability feels very real, with the imagery of edges and lines between light and dark reflecting her emotional state, and though there are no easy solutions, a crisis does bring a fragile resolution as she finally faces “the difference between forgetting something and not remembering”.

A Horse Called Hero by Sam Angus


A Horse Called Hero by Sam Angus jacket imageFollowing Soldier Dog (Feiwel, 2013), Angus now takes on the home front in World War II in this tender and melancholy middle grade novel about the relationship between a boy and a horse.

In 1940, 8-year-old Wolfie and his older sister, Dodo, are evacuated from London to the rural southwest of England – their mother is long dead and their father is fighting in France. Within days, they find out that Pa, a World War l cavalry hero, has been arrested for desertion and they are ostracized by the villagers. They are taken in by the kindly local vicar and his schoolteacher daughter, and when Wolfie finds an abandoned foal, all his longing for his father becomes focused on raising Hero.

Seen from the perspective of both, fully-realized, siblings, with the fierce relationship between Wolfie and Hero evocatively captured at the heart of the story, Hero is tonally and thematically somewhat reminiscent of The Railway Children (Nesbit, 1906).

Towards the end, an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence tips the story into melodrama, and the intensity unbalances the novel, losing the quiet and delicate power of the earlier story. Too many plotlines are only half-developed, and the abrupt and confusing climax left me wanting more closure.

An author’s note gives some historical background on many of the topics covered in the book.

For horse lovers and readers who enjoy more reflective stories..

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell


mitchell_freedom-summer-murdersWritten in a clear and direct style, and illustrated with contemporary photographs and documents, this is a dramatic and easy to read teen nonfiction book, in the style popularized by Steve Sheinkin (Bomb, Flash Point, 2012).

As a Brit, I’m probably less knowledgeable about the Freedom Summer than many Americans. So reading this upper middle grade/high school book, marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi and the murders that directed the nation’s attention to racial injustice in the Deep South, was a good introduction.

Using many primary sources, including interviews that he conducted, Mitchell gives some background on Jim Crow segregation and the intentions of the Freedom Summer, but focuses mainly on Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, their murder and the long haul to bring their killers to justice, or, at least, accountability.

He clearly makes the point that this case only became high profile because two of the victims were white, and that many black people had been murdered without the FBI or national newspapers getting involved, and he leaves the reader with the thought that even today “freedom is a constant struggle”.

Back matter includes exhaustive source notes, a bibliography, a not particularly helpful map of Mississippi, and a useful index. However, a more linear structure and a cast of characters and organizations (as in Neal Bascomb’s The Nazi Hunters) would have given more clarity for readers. Nonetheless, The Freedom Summer Murders is an excellent addition to school and public libraries on this historical event that still reverberates today.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel


boundlessI met Kenneth Oppel at the ALA conference a couple of years ago and I must confess that I did develop a bit of a literary crush on him. Putting that aside, though, The Boundless is a really terrific read.

In this riveting middle grade thriller set on The Boundless – a seven-mile-long train crossing late 19th century Canada – Oppel (Airborn, Eos, 2004) mixes railway history, creatures from folklore, and a splash of steampunk into an exciting yarn about a boy seeking his own adventure.

Will Everett has always felt himself to be in the shadow of his father’s adventures, but when he inadvertently gets on the wrong side of a gang of ruthless thieves who are after a diamond encrusted golden railway spike which is hidden on the train, he has to rely on himself, along with two mysterious new friends from the Zirkus Dante: the ringmaster, Mr. Dorian and Maren the Marvelous, a young wirewalker and escape artist.

The characters that Will encounters as the train rattles across plains and through snow-laden mountain passes, are fully developed and the lead ones, even the cold-hearted villain, are especially richly layered and intriguingly complex.

The novel, written in the present tense, swings between cinematic action sequences and detailed and enthralling descriptions of the settings. Along the way it touches lightly, but not superficially, on class distinctions, conflict between Native Americans and settlers, and exploitation of the colonists. Culminating in a thrilling and satisfying resolution that loops back to earlier events, there is a hint that we may see further adventures of Will and Maren in the future.