Monthly Archives: March 2015

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein


black dove white ravenBlack Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
Disney-Hyperion, 2015.

Aviators Celia Dupre and Rhoda Menotti , aka Black Dove and White Raven, are barnstormers in post-World War 1 America, and travel the country with their children Emilia and Teodros. After Celia is killed in a bird strike accident, Rhoda takes the two children to Ethiopia to fulfill Celia’s dream of living in a country where Teo, whose father was Ethiopian, will not face discrimination. Arriving just as Haile Selassie is being crowned Emperor, the family soon settles into an idyllic life on a coffee farm. However, by the mid 1930s, when Em and Teo are in their mid-teens, storm clouds are gathering as Italy threatens to invade.

Ms. Wein has a terrific knack of bringing to life dusty corners of history with vivid characters and intricate plotting, woven into real-life events. This slice of history in this far away setting between the wars is untrodden territory for teen books, and is really what makes this book stand out. The beauty and charm of Ethiopia sings, as the trio fly over the mountainous and unspoiled country and become integrated into their community. And her passion about early aviation and aviatrixes, which we saw in Code Name Verity (2012) and Rose Under Fire (2013), adds weight and authenticity.

The novel is a collection of stories, theme essays and flight logs written over several years by both Em and Teo, and it gives the narrative of their lives, as well as the context of the country and its situation. Wein feels obliged to give a reason for these writings being bundled together, as she has done in her previous books, though it’s unnecessary and feels a bit tortuous and rather unrealistic.

Em, in particular, is a typical strong and feisty Wein protagonist, and Teo, who is more thoughtful and idealistic, seems a bit washed-out by comparison. They take the names White Raven and Black Dove as their alter egos, and write adventures of these two characters, complete with the powers that reflect their personalities, which symbolically reference their real lives too.

Overall, I don’t think this is as strong as CNV, but I think it still has lots of original, interesting ideas and elegant writing going for it. I think its audience is younger than CNV – more 6th to 9th grade – as though it is tragic and tense, it is much less explicit; and the lead characters are younger.

Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.

A note on reading this as an eARC. The formatting was a bit messed up, and in a few places, passages were in the wrong place. Typically this doesn’t worry me – it comes with the territory – but in this case it did occasionally heighten my confusion about which character was narrating at that point. I’m also wondering if the final published version would have a map (I love books to have maps!) as I’m unfamiliar with Ethiopia and the surrounding countries and, I suspect, most readers would be too.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford; illustrated by Kelly Murphy


missing moonstoneThe Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford; illustrated by Kelly Murphy
The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, Book 1
Knopf, 2015.

In this first book in an elementary grade mystery series, 11 year-old Ada Lovelace (real-life daughter of poet Lord Byron) and 14 year-old Mary Godwin (real-life daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) decide to set up a detective agency, and their first case is investigating the theft of a jewel, the Acorn of Ankara.

The two main characters are well-delineated, though the odd couple pairing is hardly original – Ada is a brilliant mathematician and scientist but lacks (as is usually the literary case) social awareness, while Mary is more socially astute but less logical.

Stratford plays fast and loose with historical accuracy – for example, the girls were actually 14 years apart – though does come clean in the thorough Notes at the end. It did lead me to wonder, though, what was the point of using real life characters that it’s extremely unlikely the target reader will have heard of. I guess the hope is that one or two may do some follow-up research on these British proto-feminists, though they may come across some rather unpleasant facts about the complex web of relationships in this circle.

The mystery itself is lightweight, as much of the book is taken with setting up the characters and the world, and it will not stretch young readers’ detective skills too much as the resolution is delayed by the characters’ inability to find the meaning of ‘mesmerize’, a task which the reader with Google to hand will make short shrift of.

The tone is smart and cheery, aided by Murphy’s illustrations, and is appealingly contemporary despite the 19th century setting. All in all, a pleasant read for elementary school fans of mysteries, though the historical setting may make it a hard sell.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins


nuts to youNuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow, 2014.
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

It’s always tricky, judging elementary and middle grade books against each other as we do in this Cybils category. After being immersed in a complex, nuanced fantasy intended for 12-14 year olds, reading something pitched at the 8-10 year old set can feel very lightweight. I think this was probably the case for me with Nuts to You, which had few of the layers of, say, The Castle Behind Thorns, and my opinion of it suffered consequently. However, in re-visiting it several weeks later, I found it to be a sprightly and very enjoyable read.

Jed the squirrel is snatched up by a hawk, and manages to escape – but lands up some distance from his home. Two friends, TsTs and Chai set off in search of him and, though they find each other, they now face a new danger – one that is robbing the woodland animals of their homes.

The great strength of the book is its language. It turns out that squirrels are great storytellers and listeners, and the novel is told from their perspective, with a voice that is as chipper and bouncy as you would expect. It also uses their vernacular: powerlines, for example, are called buzzpaths and a church steeple is a “great beak that sometimes sings but never opens.” There is a human authorial voice too, that directly addresses the reader, both in the text and in footnotes. Sometimes it just comments: “What would you do, if it were you?”; and sometimes it explains expressions – a bit like Lemony Snicket without the snark: “Maybe you’ve heard the expression “between a rock and a hard place.” Now you know what it means. The “hard place,” in this situation, was the bobcat.”

The adventure is perfectly pitched for an elementary grade reader: The squirrels get into some tight situations, but these are resolved quickly, without too much threat. I didn’t find the environmental message too didactic either– it was pretty low key in the sense that the humans were just clearing trees away from the powerlines, they weren’t cutting down the whole wood. And there is some Learning for the reader too, but it is fairly low key and subtle: “Live for the moment, … But bury a lot of nuts.”

A few grumbles: I thought the book rather dribbled to an end, rather than finishing decisively; and though the author’s illustrations are sweet, some of them are confusing or too small to be helpful. Finally, I don’t think it’s a great idea to encourage kids to feed wild animals and Nuts to You definitely suggests it is.

Overall, I thought this was a light and breezy tale of squirrel heroism, infused with an understated environmental message, that will be greatly enjoyed by fans of animal books.

Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner


hold tightHold Tight, Don’t Let Go: A Novel of Haiti by Laura Rose Wagner
Abrams, 2015

This moving middle grade novel starts with the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010. 15 year-old narrator, Magdalie, and her cousin Nadine survive, but their mother and their home do not.

The novel covers the aftermath of this tragedy, checking in with Magdalie over the next two years and I appreciated that there is no suggestion of everything getting back to normal quickly. With little option but to live in a makeshift tent in a camp, the girls are thrown into a completely different life: they can’t go to school as they can’t pay for it, food is scarce, and camp life is crushing. And then Nadine is able to move to Miami as her father lives there, sending Magdalie further into a spiral of hopelessness.

Over many months, Magdalie’s anger, despair and depression at her downturn in circumstances build. It takes a visit to her mother’s hometown, an isolated rural community, to bring back the vitality, resilience and hopefulness she has lost, mirroring Haiti’s gradual healing and recovery. The novel concludes with a rosy-tinted epilogue, for the young women and their country, set in 2020

The author, who lived in Haiti between 2009 and 2012, manages to convey the camaraderie of the camps, as well as of urban and rural family life, without ever glamorizing them, and shows how the well-meaning aid organizations came to be perceived as laughably superficial, patronizing and inadequate. In a powerful historical note, she describes the background to the poverty and strife that combined to make the earthquake all the more destructive and the structural damage much more long lasting.

This debut novel is a challenging and eye-opening story for readers interested in perspectives from other countries.

The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter


swallowThe Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Tundra Books, 2014
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

Rose and Polly live next door to each other and opposite a cemetery in Toronto, 1963. Polly feels invisible as her parents take in more foster children and ignore her needs; Rose feels invisible as her parents are always away working and she only has the company of a crotchety old housekeeper. Polly is fascinated with the idea of ghosts; Rose is tortured by seeing ghosts everywhere. And then they meet up and for the first time, each of them has a friend, but their friendship is threatened by a mystery rooted in Rose’s house.

This is a truly atmospheric book – the author has created an eerie, uneasy mood as the two isolated girls take alternating (very short) chapters to tell their version of their friendship. I found it uncomfortable rather than scary, but to a younger reader it might actually be quite chilling.

Cooper has done a solid job with Polly and Rose – the girls are opposites in some ways: Polly is ebullient and full of derring do; Rose is reflective and cautious, but they share their loneliness and their longing for a  connection with their families. The support characters are few: Polly’s twin brothers, the Horrors, are the best developed – fierce and loyal; Winnie, a ghost, is rather a cliche of a haunted girl who wants to be released. The parents are mostly offstage and don’t really feel like more than stock characters.

The pacing is very slow to begin with as the author builds up the mystery and mood, but takes off once the girls start investigating the mystery and the final section is dramatic and moving.

However, (spoiler alert) there is a huge twist at the end which just doesn’t make sense and feels like a cheat. There are some clues, but we are misled, and some significant information is withheld from the reader, making it impossible to work out for yourself what’s going on.

This is an unusual book, with a terrific atmosphere and will appeal to middle graders who like off the beaten track ghost stories.

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

USA cover

USA cover

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2015.

Marcus Sedgwick is a prolific and inventive writer. And a bit of a dish, judging by his cover photo. I have really enjoyed his two previous books: Midwinterblood, which won the Printz for 2013, is a collection of unsettling and creepy interlinked stories; and She is Not Invisible, a terrific mystery with a blind girl finding her way in New York, wrapped around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe” and coincidences.

His new collection of stories, The Ghosts of Heaven, has a little of both – connected stories and a fascination with a phenomenon that promises meaning outside ourselves. There are four loosely connected stories, or quarters, set in different time periods. They’re presented in chronological order, though in an introductory note the author suggests that they can be read in any order. Within each quarter, spirals play a significant, though differing role.

In the free verse prehistoric story, Whispers in the Dark, a young woman accompanies an elder to the caves, where paintings are made to bring magic to help the people hunt. In the dark, she sees spirals like the ones she has drawn in the sand with a stick, and she stumbles on the thought of the written word.

The Witch in the Water is set in the 18th century in an isolated English village. A new priest, burning with fervent desire to root out witches, sees a young woman, Anna, dancing in a spiral after the funeral of her mother. Her mother was a “cunning woman” and Anna takes after her – and this, combined with her brother’s epilepsy and some vindictive villagers, leads to an inevitable Thomas Hardy-esque fate.

British cover

British cover

In the Gothic 1920’s tale, The Easiest Room in Hell, a naïve and altruistic doctor keeps a journal when he starts a new job at an insane asylum, which has a massive central spiral staircase. One of the inmates is terrified by this shape, which seems to go into the “darkest depths” at one end and into the “expansive heavens” at the other.

Finally, The Song of Destiny is set on a huge space ship spiraling through time and space as it transports 500 people to a New Earth. Keir Bowman (2001 references!) is a Sentinel who wakes up for 12 hours every 10 years to ensure all is well. On one of his shifts he believes he sees another person, and, on another, he hears a signal from space that suggests there’s another life form out there.

The quarters reference each other and are connected by thematic threads including solitude, both imposed and sought, discovery, connection and death. Though written in different styles, they all share a disquieting atmosphere of dread. I felt that the middle two stories were much more successful than the top and tail – I found the verse rather stiff and uninvolving in the prehistoric story; and the scifi quarter ends up in a swirl of pseudo-meaningful metaphysics.

However, that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure other readers will prefer different stories. But whatever floats your boat, this is a stylish and erudite collection that will appeal to mature teen and adult readers.

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell


castle behind thornsThe Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell
Katherine Tegen Books, 2014.
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

Sand wakes up in the fireplace of the castle that was ruined by an earthquake many years before, and is now hidden behind a thick ring of thorns. He doesn’t know how he got there, and as he walks around and sees the utter destruction of everything in the castle, he begins to realize that it was not an earthquake that sundered the castle, but something more powerful and otherworldly. As he sets to mending everything, he starts to bring the castle back to life, including a girl who died many years ago. As their friendship grows, they begin to see that their task is more than just physically mending the castle, but psychically mending it too.

I loved that this book is gripping from the first sentence. There is no set-up, we are just in the fireplace with Sand, as bewildered and uncomprehending as he is. From there, I enjoyed his exploration of the castle, and then the way his imagination helps him to start mending and surviving, which reminded me in some ways of the early parts of Andy Weir’s The Martian.

Sand and Perrotte are believable, appealing and intriguing – both in their pre-castle existences, then when they create their own world in the castle, and finally even when they recognize that they must face what they were before, as they leave the castle. Though I would say I thought they and their proto-romance felt older than 12/13, but maybe that’s just the Middle Ages for you.

When I was reading the Cybil finalists, this one fell to the bottom of my pile as I’d read Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse a while ago, and found it pretty ho hum. However, from the first page I was absolutely loving this – that inner feeling of ‘this is really good!’ and, as I approached the end, I got the internal ‘please don’t blow the ending’ wobble and Haskell doesn’t, the ending is satisfying, coherent and gratifyingly complex.

The themes of what forgiveness actually means, friendship and spiritual (and physical) mending are beautifully integrated, and are, I think, meaningful to middle graders. This is an elegant and polished fractured fairytale, laced with some early Christianity, that should have great appeal for sophisticated readers.

Geek Girl by Holly Smale


geek girlGeek Girl by Holly Smale
HarperTeen, 2015.

Geek Girl is an awarding winning and, apparently, much loved series in the UK, and this first volume, now published in the US, has garnered more than decent reviews here. But it did very little for me.

In this ugly duckling story, socially and physically awkward teen Harriet Manners is discovered by a modeling agency and, in a bid to change herself and improve her bottom of the barrel status, agrees to become the face of a major fashion brand. However, after alienating her best friend and her stepmother, it is not long before she realizes that transformation comes from the inside not the outside.

I can see why these transformation stories are so popular. As a pimply, heavily bespectacled, teenager, I enjoyed the sort of fantasies about frumpy girls having their, very hidden, beauty uncovered, which Jilly Cooper specialized in. And who wouldn’t want to be sought out by a top modelling agent (and, of course, a top male model of suitable age) and be thrust into the pages of Vogue, while, at the same time, feeling intellectually above the superficiality of the fashion world.

But I just found this version to be glacially-paced, with a credibility stretching plot – even for a modern day fairytale. And, annoyingly, despite its length and Harriet’s narrative wordiness, the actual makeover/transformation (always the best episode in America’s Next Top Model) is rather skipped over. The cast of characters – family, school and modeling world – is irritating and unlikely, including a very dated stereotype of a gay man straight out of the era of Are You Being Served?

Tween and teen readers looking for a lighthearted social rags to riches transformation via modeling would do much better with Sophia Bennett’s far superior The Look (Chicken House, 2013).

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry


JupiterPiratesThe Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry
Harper, 2014.
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

In 2346, Jupiter and her moons have been colonized into the Jovian Union, and the Union has an uneasy truce with Earth. Jovians 12 year-old Tycho Hashoone and his family own and operate the privateer ship, the Shadow Comet – like legalized pirates, they can capture treasure from Earth-operated space ships. Their capture of one such space ship is more than they bargained for when it opens up a whole conspiracy.

There’s not a lot of science fiction for younger readers, and this is made extra appealing by smartly combining space travel with the conceit of arrrr-style pirates, using all the old nautical language and terms, detailed in a very through glossary.

The portrait of the family is well done. The somewhat unconventional switch of having the mother as the captain is nifty, and, even more out of the ordinary, the father takes a subordinate role. The three kids are nicely delineated (shades of The Expeditioners but not as nuanced) and their competition for the future captaincy provides some tension, and presumably a thread for the series. I found old Huff, the grandfather, a bit of a bore, but he does add color with his bionic body and rough language and manners.

I thought the plot was exciting, well thought through and executed, and the pacing is just right, with an exciting start, some exposition and then a thrilling climax, and – bonus! – it’s a complete story. The story is complex, though not onerously so, though the conspiracies and disguises didn’t feel particularly original. The writing is workmanlike and gets the job done of keeping the plot moving and shaping the not particularly nuanced characters.

However, the world building is pretty limited. Beyond the richly created pirate world, the rest seems fairly standard future stuff – pressure domes, lasers, artificial body parts and ‘mediapads’ which seem remarkably like iPads, though the character names are colorfully interesting, for example Mox Thoadbone, and Threece Suu. However, this could just be because this is the first book in the series, and having established the characters and the outline of the world, more can be filled out in later books.

One smallish grumble – I found the map at the front irritatingly unhelpful. I couldn’t find half the places mentioned, and several of the places on the map weren’t in the book.

Overall, I enjoyed The Jupiter Pirates a lot. It was a pretty swift and straightforward read, and I could see myself recommending it to a lot of younger readers.