Monthly Archives: November 2014

Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget


WonderAtTheEdgeOfTheWorldWonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget
Little, Brown, April 2015.

Hallelujah “Lu” Wonder and her friend, former slave, Eustace, run from 1850s Kansas to Massachusetts, and board a whaler bound for Antarctica in order to get rid of an evil and powerful artifact

Adult novelist, Helget, combines, not entirely successfully, two pretty disparate settings and themes here – Bleeding Kansas and the run up to the Civil War; and an adventure set on a whaling ship. Binding them together is the fantasy story of Lu Wonder and the Medicine Head her father found and, later, died for. The pacing of the novel suffers from trying to balance the too long and slower-paced set up in Kansas, with its backdrop of warring abolitionists and slave owners; and the high seas whaling voyage, which felt too short to me.

Lu, herself, narrates the book in the present tense, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address us. She is “persistent and brave and strong” and follows in her father’s scientific footsteps. She is something of an intellectual and a know-it-all, and, in this, like other character traits she is reminiscent of Lucy Darrington in Heather Mackey’s Dreamwood.

Eustace, her companion, is fleeing slavery and finds a small utopia on the whaler, where what you can do is important, not skin color, age or gender. He is the cool foil to Lu’s hotheadedness, and shows that he too has “a good knot” in his skull. Other characters don’t register much above two dimensions, particularly the stock villain, Captain Greeney, who chases Lu with the doggedness of a bloodhound.

In an author’s note at the end, Helget acknowledges Charles Wilkes as the real-life inspiration for Charles Wonder, who may also have inspired Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab. She gives some historical information about Bleeding Kansas and whaling – perhaps enough to push a reader to investigate some more, though probably not into reading Moby Dick!

Historical novels can be a hard sell to middle graders, but with an attractive cover and the combination of a spunky girl protagonist with a “hare-brained adventure”, there should be enough to get Wonder some fans.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Wild Rover No More by L. A. Meyer


Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life and Times of Jacky Faber by L. A. Meyer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

wild roverI first came across Jacky Faber when I was taking a YA library class and needed to review an audiobook. I picked up Bloody Jack, the first book in the series, pretty much by chance, and was blown away by it (also props to the reader, Katherine Kellgren, who does a bang up job of narration). Since then, I’ve been slowly chugging my way through the series – sinking into the comfort of familiarity. When I got a chance to review the final book, I couldn’t pass it up, even though I’m only up to book 6. Sadly L. A. Meyer died in July, so Jacky truly will play the wild rover no more. Anyhoo, here’s my review:

In this 12th and final book in the series, set in 1809, Mary ‘Jacky’ Faber is once again on the run from the law, and once again forcibly separated from her long suffering on-again off-again fiancé Jaimy.

As usual, Jacky gets herself in a pickle – this time she is unjustly accused of treason – and has to go undercover, initially as a governess and then as a circus artiste and exotic dancer. There is the typical fun of Jacky squeaking an escape just as the authorities catch up with her.

Jacky continues to barrel her way through life, making friends and enemies along the way, but always with humor, daring and self-awareness. Characters from previous escapades appear, both friends and foes, and everyone’s story is efficiently wrapped up, sometimes without much finesse.

Though not as fresh and original as the first books in the series – dare I say that it is a little formulaic, but I do like the formula – Wild Rover will provide fans with all the essentials of a Bloody Jack book: convoluted plot, thrills, a little saucy romance and our charmingly chirpy and resourceful heroine. New readers who start here should get enough of a taste to tempt them to go back to the beginning of the tale.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King


glory-obriens-history-of-the-futureGraduating high school senior, Glory O’Brien, drinks the remains of a bat and she starts getting transmissions from people she sees of their past and future generations.

Glory and her Dad have been essentially dormant since her mother, Darla, committed suicide when Glory was four. Now that she has graduated high school, her life no longer has a set path. Glory wakes up to the idea of setting her own direction: “Free yourself. Have the courage” is the message from the bat. King brilliantly shows her gradual movement from being a passenger on a metaphorical train, to being the driver, to, ultimately, getting off the train altogether.

Glory has had very few relationships of any sort. Ellie is her only friend, and Glory doesn’t seem to like her very much – both resenting her having a boyfriend and experimenting with sex, and despising her for  it. As she develops like an exposed photograph (Darla was a photographer, and Glory follows in her footsteps – the book is full of delicious photographic references and metaphors), she reaches out to other people and realizes that nothing is holding her back except herself.

Though Glory’s History of the Future is snappy and quippy, the actual content gathered from her visions is dire and frightening: women in certain states are reduced to the status of breeding machines and a second civil war ensues. Is this a fixed future, or one that can be changed or just a hallucination? There are no clear answers though there is a hint at the end.

This is an extraordinary, disquieting book that settled on me like a gray miasma which I had trouble shaking off. I’d recommend it for older teenagers who would be comfortable with King’s odd, yet winning, combination of big picture scifi and a slice of life of a blooming Everygirl.


Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith


WildAwakeWhen 17 year-old piano prodigy Kiri discovers that her older sister was murdered and not, as her parents had told her, killed in a car accident, her life goes off the rails.

Kiri is not particularly likable, though her snarky and brittle narration is entertainingly readable. She makes a host of poor choices, but after years of being the good girl in the family, and having iron discipline over her piano practice, the chaos that ensues when the facade is cracked is commensurately large. Obsessively playing the piano for hours, taking drugs, and not sleeping or eating, she ends up nearing a breakdown. Smith skillfully and queasily captures Kiri’s neon bright and hallucinatory wakefulness (nicely captured by the cover artwork), and her floundering to find control in her life feels very real.

As Kiri bikes around Vancouver, gripping her handlebars as tightly as she has gripped her life, she meets other lost souls. Her developing relationship with Skunk, who is looking to regain control of his life after a psychotic break, brings some balance to her life, but, in the end, it is Kiri alone who can find what is important to her life rather than what is expected of her.

Many casual references to drug-taking and a protagonist who, perhaps, doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does, make this fine book best suited to older teens.

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by Rick Atkinson


d-dayAdapted for the YA market from his adult book, The Guns at Last Light (2014), D-Day covers the planning and implementation of the Allied forces landing on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, which became a turning point in the Second World War.

Told mainly from the American perspective, Atkinson shows the reader what a huge undertaking this was, with lots of details: “For OVERLORD, the U. S. Army had accumulated 301,000 vehicles, 1800 train locomotives, 20,000 railcars, 2.6 million small arms, 2,700 artillery pieces, 300,00 telephone poles and 7 million tons of gasoline, oil and lubricants.” And the reader also gets a good feel for how makeshift some of this was too. There is a very satisfying amount of front matter to set the context, including a World War II timeline and key players, and in the back there are even more lists, charts and added interesting snippets of information, such as “The five greatest tanks of the war” which would slow the story down, but are worth putting in. My only grumble is that the map – essential! – is hidden away on pages 56-57.

Though the reader may know the outcome, this is still an exciting tale, thrillingly told. Clearly many primary sources were consulted, and Atkinson manages to keep the balance between making the story come alive with personal accounts, and keeping a larger, more impersonal picture. He doesn’t shy away from the awful blunders that were made, resulting in many unnecessary deaths, but nor does he dwell on them; and he does highlight the adaptability of the troops when faced with unexpected turns of events

However, though there is a bibliography there are absolutely no notes, so when Atkinson reports all of the conversations and briefings involving Eisenhower, Churchill et al, there is nothing to tell me where this information came from. And are the “leathery stevedores” calling out to the troops “Have a good go at it, mates!”, some atmosphere that he has conjured up, or did somebody record this? Neal Bascomb’s The Nazi Hunters was a similar rewrite for the youth market, and he managed to note all his references, and it’s a signature move of Steve Sheinkin, so I felt this was a bit lacking.

Nonetheless there are plenty of good sources given at the end, and there is a lot of information stuffed into a compact and gripping narrative, making it ideal for middle schoolers and even some high schoolers, to read for either enjoyment or research.

Secrets of the Ancient Gods by Vicky Alvear Shecter


Anubis Speaks! A Guide to the Afterlife by the Egyptian God of the Dead with illustrations by Antoine Revoy (2013)
Hades Speaks! A Guide to the Underworld by the Greek God of the Dead with illustrations by J. E. Larson (2014)

anubisIn this new series, aimed at upper elementary/lower middle school kids, gods of the afterlife take us through the myths and rituals associated with death in their cultures, as well as giving us some information about the other gods and the people of their civilizations.

Written in a exuberant, wise-cracking style, these slim volumes manage to pack in a surprising amount of information. The focus is often on creepy or grisly details, to keep up readers’ interest, but there are also plenty of straightforward facts too, including, for example, the names of the five rivers of the Greek underworld, and why Egyptian gods often are depicted with animal heads. Contemporary references are thrown in as well; there are several nods to Harry Potter, and Hades suggests that Isis could be “the world’s first stage mom.” Interestingly, there are no Rick Riordan mentions!

Both books have an underlying structure – Hades takes the reader on a tour of the Greek underworld, Anubis goes through the hours of Ra’s nightly trip through the Egyptian underworld – though there are many detours along the way for stories, background information and explanations. These can be either read as a complete story or dipped into for specific pieces of information.hades

Hades Speaks! is the more recent publication, and I prefer the way the sources have been organized in this book as they are split into primary, secondary, articles and websites; whereas those for Anubis Speaks! are all lumped together. Both books have glossaries, indices as well as guides to gods mentioned in the books. However, I did feel a little historical context might have been useful. There are no dates, and I found references to Roman and Greek versions of Egyptian mythology confusing.

Different illustrators have been used – again I prefer those in Hades as they seem a little more polished and are sharper in the black and white format. In both cases, they work well to add visual interest and depth to the text as well as breaking up the pages of words.

My biggest beef is that the voice gets a little wearing. The position is that both gods feel disrespected by their fellows, and make many, many mentions of this. It is amusing – these high powered deities have the same sibling issues as the rest of us! – but gets a bit one note over the course of 100+ pages.

Though I prefer Marcia Williams’ graphic novels, I think this series is, nonetheless, a great addition to mythology section of school and public libraries – it’s way more fun than D’Aulaires or the Donna Jo Napoli books, though less exhaustive; and is more accurate than the popular graphic Amazing Greek Myths of Wonder and Blunder by Michael Townsend.

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


afterworldsScott Westerfeld gets very meta in Afterworlds. Weighing in at 599 pages, this is really two quite disparate books presented in alternating chapters – one about a writer and one is her actual novel. Darcy Patel, the writer in the ‘real world’ is a high school graduate who bashed out a novel during NaNoWriMo, which was snapped up by a publisher for a large advance. Darcy takes the money and moves to New York to live in “YA heaven.” Lizzie Schofield, the “protag” of her novel Afterworlds, survives a near-death experience during a terrorist attack when she is saved by a “hot Vedic death god”, falls in love with him and becomes a psychopomp – a guide of souls to the afterlife.

The hook that links these two stories comes from Darcy’s editor: “Your first novel is like your first relationship. You won’t really understand the decisions you make until years later…And you’ll probably screw up the ending.” Because Darcy’s story is also a romance, as she meets a fellow writer, Imogen Gray, and falls in love for the first time. And links can be found as the reader sees Darcy’s real life leaking into the re-write of her novel – from the co-opting of her agent’s apartment to the use of the world panopticon, we follow her development both as a person and as a writer.

Darcy’s story also includes the nitty gritty of publishing a book – from the endless re-writes and edits, to book tours and even the pressure of needing to start Untitled Patel, the yet to be named sequel to Afterworlds.

Meanwhile, Lizzie’s story is a more than just a slightly cheesy paranormal romance. By lifting themes from the Hindi scriptures, the Vedas, Darcy elevates the world building (while questioning her appropriation), and also adds in a chilling mystery. Westerfeld manages to make novel-within-novel Afterworlds feel like a something a gifted American-Indian teenager could have written, while keeping it as a genuinely gripping and layered piece of writing.

To be honest, I was much more interested in Darcy’s chapters – living in an old dance studio in Chinatown, falling in love with a sophisticated writer, and being a highly paid novelist with “juice” is a much more appealing fantasy to me than being swept off my feet by a hunky 17 year old. But I can see that for a teen reader it might well be the other way round – just showing my age.

Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson


boys of blur12 year old Charlie Taylor and his family return to the small sugar cane town of Taper in the Florida swamps, for the funeral of his stepfather’s high school football coach. Charlie and his newly discovered cousin, Cotton, take off into the cane fields where they come across a mysterious man with a helmet and sword, flanked by two panthers. When Cotton disappears later, Charlie ventures back into the swamp to find out and destroy what is plaguing Taper.

There’s lots to like about Boys of Blur. First off, it’s not only short, it’s a stand alone with no cliff hanger ending to make you wait for the sequel. That might sound a bit backhanded, but, truly, it’s great to have such a nimble read with no sagging in the middle, while characters angst over something to fill up more pages.

I also love that this is about boys and their families, and Charlie ends up with a spectacular family: “two half brothers, one half sister, one step-second cousin, three moms, one former foster mother and two stepdads.” They are strong people, who have endured abuse, sadness and loss, but they have made good choices and decisions to get to a kinder place, and they support each other.

The cover, and the Prologue, about the “boys who are quicker than flame” work elegantly together to create a mood and a tension. The gather-round-the-fire cadences of this short section set up the story, and introduce an element of chill: “There’s quick and there’s dead.”

And the setting is evocative: Taper is a small town “out in the muck, where a sea of sugarcane stops and swamps begin.” High school football is part of the pulse of this town, along with the rivalry that goes with it. Charlie’s connection to two of the area’s most prestigious players puts him in the spotlight – everyone wants to know “You got any speed?”

But I really stumbled with the fantasy element: It’s so complicated and seems so random – why here? why now? There are references to Beowulf – and for readers who don’t know about Grendel, Cotton mentions the epic poem a couple of times as a hint to us – but it’s not a re-telling, so I don’t feel it makes the lore any clearer. The Beowulf connections actually seem pretty light – for example, as far as I can tell (from my reading of the Wikipedia entry and recollection of the 2007 movie with Angelina Jolie!) Grendel’s mother doesn’t make zombies – though it may spark enough of an interest in a middle grade reader to at least look at the graphic novel version.

What I really wanted this book to be, was more about Charlie’s real life situation, which seems a very rich vein to mine, and less about being chased by the odiferous undead around the cane fields.