Monthly Archives: February 2015

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero


gabiGabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Cinco Puntos, 2014.

In this wonderfully fresh and authentic debut novel, we live a year in the life of high school senior Gabi Hernandez, through her diary entries.

Gabi has a lot on her plate. Even before school starts, Gabi learns that Cindy, one of her best friends, is pregnant after getting drunk at a party; and, later, Sebastian, her other best friend, is thrown out of his parents’ house when he comes out to them. Gabi’s family has problems too – her father is a meth addict and disappears from home for long stretches of time, her mother works double shifts , yet they are still struggling to make ends meet.

All this sounds a bit gloomy, but Gabi faces her realistically messy life head on, and she is big-hearted, good-humored and resilient, as well as a perceptive observer of her life and that of her friends.

With upset and drama all around her, Gabi brings a little control to her life through reading and writing poetry in Ms. Abernard’s class. She finds writing poetry therapeutic, and “the sadness [she] feels dissolves a little bit.” Many of her moving and illuminating poems are included, and even when tragedy hits, she is able to find some solace through creating.

She is also developing as a thoughtful young woman, and examines what other take as accepted standards and behaviors, before coming to her own beliefs: on her body and skin color, sex, love, gender roles and religion

With a full cast of characters – from home and school – the reader gets an eclectic portrait of life in a working class Hispanic community, and Gabi is a joyous, bold, not perfect by any means, and utterly relatable voice from that community.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford


Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Clarion, 2014.
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

It’s Christmas time at Greenglass House, a smugglers’ inn run by Ben and Nora Pine and their adopted son, Milo. Usually this is a quiet time in the house, just the family and no guests, but this year, five, apparently unconnected, guests all appear one night. After the cook and her two daughters come to help, there is a snowstorm and nobody can get in or out. And then the mysterious thefts start.

Yes, it sounds like an Agatha Christie closed circle mystery, combined with The Westing Game (Raskin, 1978) and it does somewhat follow the tropes of both. Over the course of a few evenings, each guest tells a story to entertain the others, but all these stories have layers to them which connect to Greenglass House, and all the guests seem to be looking for something connected with the house.

Milo and the cook’s daughter Meddy, set out to investigate, and decide to treat it like a role-playing game, and so they each assume a persona, with associated powers, to do this. And these themes of disguise, layers and motives are woven both through the mystery and into the personal lives of the characters.

12 year-old Milo is at the center of it all. His parents adopted him as a foundling and he is Chinese. He clearly loves his parents, and they love him (one of the pleasures of this book is the warmth of this family relationship), but in the persona of Negret he allows himself to invent and think about his birth father.

The mystery is elegantly and satisfyingly worked out, as Milo and Meddy keep one step ahead of the thief (or thieves), and there are some significant twists along the way – though I’m still unsure if a big reveal at the end is actually necessary or adds to the story.

The writing is a little slow-paced, which makes me concerned about its kid appeal. Both of Kate Milford’s previous books have been critically well-received but are a tough sell with kids. This one seems to be less oblique, and more appealing, and I think will engage smart, middle grade readers.

Wildlife by Fiona Wood


wildlifeWildlife by Fiona Wood
Little, Brown, 2014.

In this second novel from Australian writer, Fiona Wood (her debut Six Impossible Things will be published in the U. S. in August, 2015), 10th grade students from a Melbourne private school spend a term at their school’s outdoor education campus in the mountains. Unlike most of the teen novels I’ve read recently, there are no twists, fantasy elements or teens with unspecified illnesses. The drama comes from the characters and their interactions, at a time of life when all interactions are inherently dramatic.

Sybilla Quinn is an easy going, dreamy, smart girl, who has recently been featured in a billboard ad for a perfume. This has upped her social currency to the extent that Ben Capaldi, hot boy of the class, is taking an interest in her for the first time. Meanwhile her best friend, Holly, seems ambivalent both about the billboard and Ben, as it has always been understood that in this friendship “she was the more important one.”. Introduced into this stew is a new student, Lou, who is still grieving over the death of her boyfriend in a bike accident. And then there’s Michael, who has nurtured a crush on Sib since kindergarten, while she feels a deep, but sisterly, affection, and protective concern as he’s different (in an unstated, on the autism spectrum, way).

The story of the ten weeks at camp is told by Sib and Lou in alternating, short chapters. The catalyst for the social drama is the viperish Holly, “the one who enjoys pricking bubbles more than anyone else.” Both Lou and the reader can immediately see that she is No Good, and we spend a goodly amount of time waiting for her comeuppance and for Sib to finally realize how poisonous she is.

The arc of the story follows Sib and Lou as they, credibly, come to terms with their lives and with growing up. Sib has been a drifter, and now with Lou’s encouragement, she starts to find her voice and make her own choices. And Lou gradually realizes that, even though it’s a cliche, life does go on. This character development drives the novel along at a good pace, and I found this was easily sufficient to make for a gripping page-turner – turns out you don’t need anything else if you’re a good enough writer.

A couple of quibbles:  there are a few plot strands left dangling – the oft-mentioned hunters, for example, brings a low level menace which doesn’t go anywhere; and some of the Aussie-isms are not immediately comprehensible, but Google was my friend here.

Even though Wildlife is set on the other side of the world, it is an immediately relatable teen story that reads well and easily, and I look forward to reading Ms. Wood’s next novel.

Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham


luck uglies coverThe Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
Harper, 2014.

The winners of the Cybil awards were announced on Saturday! I was a judge in the Middle and Elementary Grade Speculative Fiction category and our deserved winner is The Luck Uglies. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting reviews of all the shortlisted books, starting today with the victor.

First off, I approached this book with a warm feeling, which I realized came from the cover looking a lot like that of Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes (Abrams, 2011) – a book I’m very fond of. And actually, it’s not a bad comparison – both have a sort of magical Dickensian feel to them.

The sad sack village of Drowning is once again threatened by the monstrous Bog Noblins, and their ruler, the despotic Earl Morningwig Longchance doesn’t seem inclined to do much about it – should the villagers turn to the legendary outlaws, the Luck Uglies, to protect them? 11 year-old Rye O’Chanter is caught up in the middle of this, when she is attacked by Leatherleaf, the first of the Bog Noblins, and is rescued. Meanwhile, her mother and a mysterious friend seem to know something that could save Drowning.rye

The village of Drowning is wonderfully created – from a detailed map at the beginning (and I love a good map) to the first description: “Drowning was more of a sprawling town than a village, one built on a foundation of secrets, rules and lies, but mostly just mud.” (p. 3). And the later description of the Black Moon party at the Dead Fish Inn (p. 66 onwards) is a masterpiece of visualization – I could perfectly picture the inn and its denizens.

Rye’s family is another gem of sharply written description – her fiercely protective mother, her irritating yet endearing younger sister and even the family cat, Nightshade Fur Bottom O’Chanter. Rye’s father was a soldier who disappeared many years ago in pursuit of the Luck Uglies, and now Rye is literally and figuratively walking in her father’s boots, which (literally and figuratively) are too big for her but she comes to fill them over the course of the story.

bog noblinThe whole book is full of little nuggets of fine writing: Rye’s mother glares at someone with “all the sweetness of an overripe lemon” and ghosts are described as the lonely dead who “don’t have any hearts to go home to.” Tam’s Pocket Glossary of Drowning Mouth Speak is both entertaining and also adds a little to the lore of the world. And just check out those names!

The plot takes a little time to build up steam – Rye’s encounter with the Bog Noblin happens about a quarter of the way through the book, but is soundly constructed with a good balance of exposition and action that builds to an exciting finish.

A shout out too for Petur Antonsson’s illustrations at the beginning of the chapters, which are spot on as well – like the one’s in the Harry Potter books, I felt they added to the atmosphere and voice of the novel.

I do have a couple of quibbles – for example, Rye’s friend Folly’s family is just too big to have any memorable characters and the Bog Noblins speaking came as a surprise to me but apparently not to anyone in the book (and how convenient that the Constable speaks Noblin – where did he learn that?) – and I felt there were a couple of minor holes in the plot, though honestly nothing to get in a stew about.

Overall, this is a terrific winner for the Cybils, which I’m sure middle grade readers will thoroughly enjoy before clamoring for the sequel – due out in March.

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake


there will be liesThere Will Be Lies by Nick Lake
Bloomsbury, 2014.

17 year old Shelby Cooper leads a very structured and unchanging life – every day is the same, except Friday, but, then again, all Fridays are the same. She lives with her Mom and literally talks to nobody else, except very occasionally a guy at the library. But one Friday evening, while she’s waiting for her Mom to pick her up, she is hit by a car and then her whole world descends into chaos. She sees a coyote who tells her: “There will be two lies…(t)hen there will be the truth. And that will be the hardest of all. “. And, of course, the novel’s title does tell us that there’s some unreliability going on.

Shelby is an engaging narrator – supersmart, funny and very in tune with what’s going on. She directly addresses the reader and makes quirky use of space and typed symbols (some of which I may have lost as I was reading a digital review copy). Eventually, it emerges that she’s deaf – though there are plenty of clues along the way – and this seems to explain why her mother is so protective. But after her accident, her Mom whisks her out of the hospital and they take off, with her Mom spinning a bunch of ever changing stories as to why they’re apparently on the run.

Shelby’s observations give a really good sense of place, whether it’s the towns of Phoenix and Flagstaff, the deserts, mountains and forests of Arizona or, best of all, the Grand Canyon. Her descriptions have both a physical and emotional element, and the feel of each place is also part of the narrative.

So far, all great. This is a wonderful novel, with an appealing protagonist who is put through the wringer, by circumstances that are far beyond her control, and rises to the challenge. Much like Mr. Lake’s enjoyable Hostage Three (2013), which has a similarly smart and self-reliant heroine who is thrown into an unlikely, but not incredible, situation and makes her way through.

But, sadly, for me at least, woven through Shelby’s actual story, is a parallel fantasy/allegory in which she is on a quest in a space called the Dreaming, accompanied by the coyote, or Coyote. I have two significant problems with this strand of the novel. Firstly, my inner Debbie Reese has a concern about this generic hodgepodge of Native American myths, which are uncredited and seem tailored to Mr. Lake’s whim. Second off, these chapters are really boring and I read in dread of the next tiresome installment – much like I wearily plodded through the Bran and three-eyed crow sections of the Game of Thrones books.

Are the Dreaming chapters necessary? Well, I’m not a Printz-winning author like Nick Lake, but I would be inclined to trim them right down – yes, they give us some psychological insight into Shelby’s past and future but I don’t think they need to do so at such dreary length.

So, a qualified recommendation overall – loved the realistic section, did not enjoy the fantasy.

Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.

The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold; illustrated by Emily Gravett


imaginaryThe Imaginary by A. F. Harrold; illustrated by Emily Gravett
Bloomsbury, 2015 (U. S. publication in March).

My first five star book of the year!

Amanda Shuffleup has a friend, her best friend, Rudger, but Rudger (not Roger) is not real, for Amanda is a girl with a huge imagination. She and Rudger happily spend their days on alien planets, in a submarine or a hot air balloon above “the steamy, sticky South American jungle”. But when an evil man, Mr. Bunting, who feeds on imaginary friends goes after Rudger, Amanda ends up in hospital and Rudger is left to fend for himself. Can he get back to Amanda and can he avoid being sucked into the villain’s hideous maw?

This is a spirited, completely charming, slightly scary and, yes, hugely imaginative novel. English writer and poet A. F. Harrold has created an extraordinary world of imaginaries and reals. Amanda is a “rare kid…a really sparky one” who can create an imaginary friend – most children “who need Friends, or who want Friends… don’t have enough imagination to dream one up.” Luckily for these kids there is an Agency of cast off imaginaries, living in a Library (where else are you going to find so much imagination?) who can swoop in and help. But once children discard or forget their imaginary, the Friends don’t have much time before they Fade.imaginary-inside

Amanda is a delicious character – precocious, a little annoying but always full of wonderful ideas. And Rudger, her faithful sidekick, who comes into his own after her accident, uses all his courage and imagination to find his way back to her. All the support reals – adults, children and villain – are somewhat stock but are brought alive by the writing combined with Emily Gravett’s marvelously Quentin Blake-esque illustrations (it’s something about their sharp noses and thatch-like hair that reminds me of QB). The imaginaries are where Harrold, in particular, has a riot: there’s a pink T. Rex called Snowflake, a perpetually bouncing ping pong ball and The Great Fandango, who looks like an old Victorian schoolmaster.

The writing is whimsical and polished. It’s a short book but not a word or illustration is wasted, and includes many glorious images: I chortled heartily at the idea of Rudger, dressed as a girl, clinging to the windscreen wipers of a moving car, with the wind blowing his skirt up (don’t try this at home, kids). And though a kid may not get the full nuance of “It was like walking into a cartoon after spending a day in a subtitled black-and-white French movie”, they will certainly know that feeling.

As a book about friendship, memory, loss and imagination, this will hit the sweet spot for 3rd – 5th graders, though could also be enjoyed by both younger and older kids, and would make an utterly fabulous read aloud.

Thanks to Netgalley for the digital review copy, but I can’t wait to see a print version to get the full effect of the illustrations.

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver


vanishingVanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, 2015 (due out in March)

High school senior Nicole and her sister, Dara, were born less than a year apart and have been inseparable in that love-hate way of close siblings. But after the sisters are involved in a car accident in which Dara is seriously injured, their relationship deteriorates – they barely speak to each other and their fermenting rivalry over Parker, the boy next door, further widens the split. Meanwhile, a local 9 year-old girl has gone missing while in the care of her older sister, and when Dara goes missing on her birthday, Nick suspects there is a connection.

Oliver has got a gift for creating interesting, credible characters and I appreciate that they usually come from unexceptional, blue collar homes. In Vanishing Girls, she perfectly captures the sororal dynamic between Nick and Dara, and we see it from both sides as the sisters narrate different chapters. Nick is the ‘good girl’ and is scornful of Dara’s more outgoing, devil may care attitude, while envying her looks and popularity. Dara is ‘the attractive one’ and resents Nick’s ability to please adults, while scoffing at her compliance and squareness.

But this is a strange mixture of a book. It starts out as a fairly straightforward realistic novel, and even has a bit of lighthearted fun as Nick gets a job at a local theme park. Then it builds in two mysteries – what led up to the car accident (Nick has one of those convenient YA literary bouts of amnesia, and Dara isn’t saying) and what has happened to little Madeline Snow. And then, finally, takes a turn to the dark, with the last half of the book being a blow by blow account of the evening of Dara’s birthday, in which both mysteries are not only shown to be linked but are resolved. Plus, of course, there is the love triangle, with the unremarkable, and only sketchily developed, Parker.

This weird juxtaposition of moods, combined with a complicated time structure and a mishmash of straightforward narrative along with emails, diary entries, letters and local news reports, makes this a more ambitious but less successful novel than, say, Oliver’s Panic (2014). I feel that less might have been more in this case, and that the revelations at the end weakened the novel, rather than augmented it. But that’s just me.

Nonetheless, it’s a gripping page turner, and I ripped through it in a couple of days. I always feel a little thrill when I see Lauren Oliver’s name on a novel, but I’m just not sure she’s entirely found her own groove. This one is reminiscent of recent novels like  E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (Delacorte, 2014) and Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar (Dutton, 2014), as well as throwing in the before/after structure of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun (Dial, 2014). There’s enough good stuff in Vanishing Girls for me to recommend it, but I’m still waiting for Ms Oliver’s Big One.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the free review copy.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon


HowItWentDownHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Holt, 2014.

* Just in – How It Went Down is a Coretta Scott King Author Honor book. Congrats to Ms. Magoon!

16 year old Tariq Johnson is shot by a white man, Jack Franklin. Franklin is picked up by the police, but within hours is released without charge. Through the voices of multiple characters, Magoon (The Rock and the River, Aladdin, 2009.) explores the shooting itself, the aftermath and the effect it has on T’s family, friends, and community.

There are few solid facts about the shooting – was Tariq running away from a store or just running towards home? was the man who stopped him on the street white or a light-skinned African American? did T have a gun or just a Snickers bar? Even those who witnessed the shooting have different answers depending on who they are.

We never hear from Tariq himself (or Jack Franklin), but we see different perspectives about him: from his family, his best friends since boyhood, and the local gang members who thought he was joining up. There is no definitive version; as his sister concludes: “Tariq was just Tariq.”

The ripples spread much wider than the neighborhood, once a morally compromised senatorial candidate decides to use the shooting as a platform. And we witness how over the course of nine days, T’s shooting becomes a media cause célèbre, and then is forgotten to the wider world, but has had a lasting impact on the neighborhood.

Two characters lives’ are seismically shifted by T’s death, and these two, Jennica and Tyrell, are the emotional heart of the novel. Jennica, the girlfriend of a high ranking gang member, tries to administer CPR to Tariq and in the aftermath of the shooting she begins to question her life as an attachment to the gang. Tyrell was Tariq’s long time best friend and has ambitions way beyond the neighborhood, but doesn’t know if he can resist the pressure of joining the gang without T’s protection.

Though the multitude of voices is hard to separate out at first, Magoon wisely starts with stock characters (the grieving mother, the wise old woman, the gang leader etc.) to distinguish them but then is able to create individuals with distinct and nuanced thoughts.

Many issues are raised: gang membership, white privilege, and political exploitation of death, and Magoon allows readers to make their own conclusions, albeit with a pretty clear agenda of her own. Some of the resolutions reached are a little glib, but I think work for a book intended for mid-teens. Published after the recent, highly publicized, death of Michael Brown and in the wake of the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman, this is a timely glimpse at what it means to live and die in an impoverished inner city neighborhood.