Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond


only thing to fearThe Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond
Scholastic, 2014.

Many decades ago, the Nazis crushed the Allies by using genetically enhanced “Anomalies” and now occupy Western Europe and the Eastern United States, and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is controlled by the Soviet Union, Japan and Italy. Since the death of her mother in an unsuccessful Alliance uprising in Virginia, 16 year old Zara and her uncle have been laying low, but the brutal execution of one of their neighbors, and a visit from one of the rebels’ leaders brings them back into action.

I found the speculative setting slightly odd. Though the current Fuhrer is Hitler’s great grandson, there seems to have been very little progress since the 1940’s, which felt unrealistic, particularly since, in 1942, Hitler’s scientists managed to create a person who can fly. (And, yes, there are shades of Robison Wells’ Blackout series).

Zara herself is a rare Dual Anomaly – her powers are inherited through her Japanese father – she can control the air and generate lightning. And she has (of course!) a love interest – a good German. You can tell he’s on the right side, though, because he has green eyes with flecks of gold, rather than the cruel/steely blue eyes of all the other Nazis. Zara takes her time to trust him and, unexpectedly and delightfully for a dystopian heroine, eschews a kiss in favor of the mission. Don’t worry, the snogging is only delayed a bit.

The novel takes a bit of time to get going, as the world is being established, but it does build up a head of steam once Zara and co. join the Alliance, and the climactic missions are cinematically thrilling and satisfying. Many threads are left loose enough for a sequel, though, equally, it works as a standalone.

The Only Thing to Fear is a straightforward and exciting piece of alternate history, and though I didn’t find the setting entirely credible, I think it should appeal to middle graders who enjoy dystopias and action.

Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson


love is the drugLove is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Levine, 2014.

I reviewed The Summer Prince last year (not on this blog) and I thought it was a compelling and rich entry in the dystopian genre, crammed, though maybe overstuffed, with original and unconventional ideas. So I was excited to pick up Johnson’s new book, which is a standalone, not a sequel to Prince. Just as a note, though I’m a Roxy Music fan, it’s unclear to me why this book has been saddled with such a lame title and Divergent-esque cover – neither sell the book on its strengths, and both of which may give expectations that won’t be filled.

Set in the just-around-the-corner future in Washington DC, Emily Bird is a Black student at a prestigious Washington DC high school, with an ambitious boyfriend and somewhat distant, scientist parents who work for the government.

When Emily Bird wakes up in hospital, her last memories are of a party, several days before, at which she spoke to a mysterious government contractor. Meanwhile, there has been a bioterrorist attack on the country, millions are dying and Venezuela is blamed. Locked away in her memory is a vital piece of information and it’s a race for her to recall it before the contractor can stop her.

Johnson uses the metaphor of the Trojan horse several times, and this novel is indeed one. Outwardly it’s a speculative conspiracy thriller, with an all too plausible plot. But inside, it’s really about the protagonist’s breaking out from compliant Emily, set on the rails, to independent thinking Bird who wants what she wants, not what is expected of her. And part of her metamorphosis is dumping Mother-approved stuffed shirt Paul, for mesmerizing Coffee, the Brazilian chemistry-loving, politically savvy hottie (though several references to his curly hair looking like “fat worms” makes him sound distinctly unsexy).

And in truth, the inside is the better book – as a realistic novel about a teen taking the reins and blossoming into a young woman it works very well. But as a thriller it’s too talky and sluggishly paced, occasionally didactic, and confusing, with some of the big reveals muffled in a host of detail.

Love is the Drug has a widely diverse cast of well-crafted characters, and Johnson is exquisitely skilled at introducing their race and social standing subtly. Bird herself is a wonderful creation, and her relationships with schoolmates, friends, family, and, particularly, her challenging parents are superbly drawn.

Johnson’s writing is literate and crafted, a sentence like “her heart feels like a piece of pounded citrus, peeled apart by clumsy hands” is marvelously evocative. But for me, it is too often needlessly florid as in “a creation as unprecedented and unique as her patron iconoclast.” In addition, the novel occasionally breaks from the third person into the first or second person for no explicable reason – I was expecting this to resolve by the end but it just didn’t.

Love is the Drug is a winner for readers who are more interested in characters and ideas than pageturning plot,

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince


tomboyTomboy by Liz Prince
Zest, 2014.

Liz Prince always wanted to wear boy’s clothes and take part in activities that boys flocked to, like baseball. She wanted to be a boy, not because she felt she was a boy, but because she felt that boys had all the fun. She had a handful of friends – other tomboys or boys. And she had crushes on boys – mostly unrequited, though not in one rather cruel instance – and sometimes on her friends who were boys, which mostly didn’t work out too well.

But it is only when she starts talking to an older woman, Harley, that she begins to sort out who she is and where she could fit in. Harley asks: “Do you hate girls? Or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?” – though at the time Liz doesn’t see that there’s a difference to these questions. It’s only later, when she’s reading a zine, that she comes to the realization that she “wasn’t challenging the social norm, [she] was buying into it!” by believing that girls could only be giggling cheerleaders in pink frocks. She has the epiphany that she could be a girl on her own terms, and having made that realization, she can find a community.tomboy_excerpt_panel_v2_blog

Told by the current Liz, who occasionally breaks into the narrative to comment on her younger self, this graphic memoir uses simple line drawings to keep the story moving along, with occasional breaks into diagrams using those international symbols of male and female from bathroom doors, along with mathematical symbols.

As a tomboy myself – not as hardcore as Liz, but not as weedy as the celebrity she calls out – I found this a very sympathetic read. And though the conclusion she comes to, that we should all be accepted for who we want to be, sounds glib on paper, I think we can feel the struggle it was for her to get to that point and actually believe it. I work with teenagers, and I see some of them having the challenges that Liz had to find their place in the world, and I applaud any book that is as honest as this one about the thorny path that can take.

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics edited by Chris Duffy


above the dreamless deadAbove the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics edited by Chris Duffy
First Second, 2014.

Perhaps because of my age and upbringing, I have a particular fascination with the First World War. Or perhaps it was because I saw a high school production of ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ in my formative years. Whatever it is, I find myself drawn to the bitter gloominess of novels like A. J. Cronin’s The Stars Look Down, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and, for younger readers, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. So this was a natural for me to pick up from the review table, and I think it does a decent job of portraying the era to a generation (and a nation) that has little interest in it.Geroge Pratt

This collection of powerful WWI poetry, “adapted” (which seems to mean arranged and illustrated – the poems are not edited) by graphic artists, is intended as an introduction to both the Trench poets and, to a lesser extent, to the Great War itself. The selection of poetry is solid but not particularly adventurous – no women, no nationalities outside Britain and Ireland, – and focuses mostly on well-known names such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. Though to be fair, ‘well-known’ in this context is probably overstating the poets’ reputations considerably. The theme of the majority of the poems is spelt out in Patrick MacGill’s prose piece The Great Push: “Why have millions of men come here from all corners of Europe to hack and slay one another?”

simon ganeThe illustrations, from a wide range of European and North American cartoonists, are all black and white, and range in style from straightforward playing back of the words (All the Hills and Vales Along, Repression of War Experience), to more interpretative impressions (all of Wilfred Owen’s four poems), though few stray beyond images of helmeted Tommies in the trenches. Do the illustrations add to the poetry? At best they elucidate the mood and meaning of the words, and, at worst, don’t get in the way. Hunt Emerson’s gonzo cartoons accompanying bawdy soldiers’ songs give some welcome counterpoint to the otherwise bleak and downbeat atmosphere.

Backmatter includes helpful notes from the artists about their interpretations, as well as some explanations of words and particular images, brief bios of the poets and the comics contributors and further reading suggestions.peterkuper

Though this is the centennial of the outbreak of WWI, it is not a war which most Americans, much less teens, feel a connection with, so this illustrated volume of great poetry could provide a way in for some readers.

Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe


death coming up the hillDeath Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

1968 was a momentous year for America – the Vietnam War, civil rights unrest, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Nxion is elected President  – and we see it all through the eyes of 17-year old Ashe Taylor. Reflecting the conflict in Asia, his parents are also fighting – his activist mother and racist father met in college and only married when she became pregnant, and are now heading into the “minefield of divorce.” (There are a lot of battle metaphors).

Over the course of the year, Ashe’s clear, anguished awareness and understanding of his world, both close to home and beyond, grows, through his relationships with his hippie girlfriend, his History teacher and his mother.

Told in 976 haikus, one syllable for each of the 16,592 American soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1968, this is a short, sparse read where we are left “to fill in the gaps.” Though a clever intellectual exercise (or gimmick, if that’s the way you feel), the structure detracts from the flow of the novel making it choppy to read: It is written in whole sentences but arranged in the traditional 5/7/5 haiku format. And while we get to know Ashe, his parents and girlfriend, some significant events are given only a glancing reference.

I enjoyed Death more than I thought I would – Ashe is engaging,the story moves along at a great clip and I was moved by his family’s plight. I think that like Kwame Alexander’s Crossover (HMH, 2014), the brevity of the novel, and its subject matter, could give Death some reluctant reader appeal.

Dead Zone by Robison Wells


Blackout by Robison Wells, HarperTeen, 2013
Dead Zone by Robison Wells, HarperTeen, 2014

As this is the second, and concluding book, in a series I thought I’d start with my review of the first book, Blackout. And hooray to Robison Wells for ending it at two, thus avoiding the filler middle book in a trilogy syndrome!

black outTeen terrorists with superpowers are crippling America’s infrastructure in this YA scifi action pageturner. They have been deliberately infected with the Erebus virus, which manifests itself with apparently random super-abilities. But now there are teens who have unwittingly caught the virus, though the authorities can’t tell the difference.

The story is told from four perspectives – Alec and Laura are terrorists, Aubrey and Jack are not – but the characters and voices are thinly developed and are little more than an extension of their powers: Alec can create false memories and is sneaky and manipulative; Aubrey is a shy wallflower who can make herself invisible.

Much like Wells’ Variant (Harper, 2011), the fast-paced plot sags a little in the middle then revs up to an explosive finale and cliffhanger ending. Questions about Erebus and the terrorists are left unanswered and, though the X-Men are at least acknowledged, the central ideas are somewhat derivative. Nonetheless, readers who enjoy high speed thrillers will find plenty to like about Blackout and will be eager for the sequel.

And here comes the sequel….

Dead ZoneRussia has invaded the Pacific Northwest, using an incredibly powerful mutant who has the super-ability to knock out all power within an 8 mile radius. Aubrey and Jack are in the American army now, along with a couple of new lambda (as the mutants are referred to) friends, and they are put on the frontline to eliminate this weapon.

As in the previous book, characterization in pretty shallow – plot and action thrills are the purpose – but it is structurally more coherent and tighter than Blackout, making it easily accessible as a standalone. Jack and Aubrey take up the lion’s share of the narrative, and the other two viewpoints, while significant subplots, are cursory. Explanations are clearly for cissies, so we never really get much of the big picture as to why bad ol’ Russia came up with this complicated plan to undermine the U.S., and questions raised in Blackout are quietly (and wisely) ignored – though they may have been covered in the Going Dark novella, which I haven’t read.

There are some thoughtful conversations on the use of the teens as “assets”, and some not very original thoughts  about being a soldier (“war sucks”). Occasionally, Wells get a bit too Tom Clancy in his descriptions of guns and vehicles, which slows the pace and feels like padding. Though Aubrey, in particular, is affected by killing enemies, most of the lambdas become stoic about fighting a war pretty quickly, and the occasional reminiscence about burgers and dances bring the characters back to regular teendom.

All in all, Dead Zone is a rollercoaster action fest, and I felt that the clarity of the plotting made it a superior read to Blackout.

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos


scar boysThe Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
Egmont, 2014.

At the age of 8, Harry Jones is horribly burnt in a lightning strike. He was never a particularly popular boy, but now his severely scarred appearance puts him at the bottom of the social order, and he is relentlessly bullied and friendless. And then one day, Johnny McKenna – full of “Reaganesque charm” – befriends him and his life changes dramatically. As Johnny’s sidekick, he has a social group, though he understands the role he must play with Johnny – always kowtowing to him, never talking back or questioning. After a disastrous encounter with a girl, Harry’s gloom is lifted when Johnny suggests they form a band. And his life changes again as Harry discovers the power of music. The Scar Boys, as Harry names them, get good and then even better when they replace their bassist with a girl, Cheyenne Belle. But once they go on tour, the splits begin to show.

Written as a college application – going considerably over the requested 250 words – the novel’s strength is in the characters. In what is a quick read, only 237 pages, the author manages to breath life into a large cast of flesh and blood people, even those in minor roles like the drummer and his father. As Harry reflects on his adolescence and his relationships with the band members and his parents, we can feel his development from social pariah to the young man who, with perspective, understands he must take control of his own life.

This immensely enjoyable read is set in the 80s, drawing on the author’s own band experience, but is still relatable for today’s teens. It’s for anyone who has ever felt the world was against them or who has felt like a “freak”, for anyone who has found a way out through playing or listening to music, for anyone growing up from teen to adulthood.

A nice bonus for older readers is the evocation of the era, and each short chapter is headed up with a song appropriate to its contents, giving a playlist or a soundtrack to the novel.