Monthly Archives: April 2015

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham


scarlettScarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham
Little, Brown, due out in May 2015

In this spirited, multicultural detective novel, Scarlett, a “freckled, cappuccino-colored, sixteen-year-old“ Muslim, takes on an apparently simple case when 9-year-old Gemma Archer asks her to investigate her brother’s connection with his friend’s suicide. But as Scarlett digs into it, she realizes it has a life-threatening link to her own family.

Set in the fictional city of Las Almas, which feels so much like New York I’m not sure why it isn’t, Scarlett Undercover has a large, mainly Muslim cast. As her Egyptian father and Sudanese mother are both dead, Scarlett has assembled around herself a new quasi-family, many of whom have a role to play in this mystery. The author deftly thumbnail sketches the many characters, even minor ones, to give them clear definition: “Sam Johnson was short, round, and topped off with a shock of indignant red hair.”

The mystery hinges around Islamic stories of evil jinn, and their leader Iblis’s battle with Solomon and all of humanity. Scarlett is a casual Muslim, though her sister, Reem, is devout, and, over the course of the book, we see Scarlett’s commitment to her faith grow as her investigations lead her into a deeper understanding of her religion. The author is not Muslim (nor am I) but appears to have done a thorough job of researching both the religion and the culture. An author’s note on what she assimilated and what she made up would be useful, though there wasn’t one in the ARC I read.

The hardboiled style is well done, and Scarlett has many neat turns of phrase: “Mr Prazsky was as hard to pin down as a soft-boiled egg.” However, though she professes to be independent and self-sufficient, the reader will easily see cracks in the façade where her vulnerability shows through, particularly when it comes to her love interest, Decker.

The novel is satisfying and complete in itself, but with this out of the ordinary and eclectic team of players, and all of the mean streets of Las Almas to go down, Scarlett Undercover feels like it could be the first in a terrific series.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for the ARC. And thanks to Little, Brown for ensuring that the girl on the cover of the book looks like a 16 year-old Egyptian/Sudanese girl.

The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days by Lisa Yee


kidney hypotheticalThe Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days by Lisa Yee
Levine, 2015.

I am a big fan of Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min trilogy, and this is another excellent, and somewhat darker and more complex, novel about how kids deal with parental expectations and obligations, and how this can distort their view of themselves.

Higgs Bosun Bing is graduating from high school in seven days and the world is his oyster: he’s been accepted at Harvard, he’s going out with the beautiful Rosemary “Roo” Wynn, he’s captain of the debate team and valedictorian. Little does he know that his answer to one little hypothetical question will pull the rug out from under him, and cause him to re-examine everything in his life before the week is up.

When a virulent smear campaign starts up at school, Higgs has to look at the narrative he has spun for himself, and the author carefully shows his slowly dawning understanding of how he misunderstood both himself and his relationships with friends and family members. It is predictable, yes, that the unknowingly arrogant putative Senior of the Year is brought to his knees by the people he has scorned for so long, but is still quite painful to read.

Higgs is an insightfully created Chinese American character, caught between two cultures. His father had set a path for his older brother – Harvard, then dentistry – and after Jeffrey was killed in a car accident, Higgs dedicated himself to fulfilling his father’s dream. There are telltale signs that’s not where Higgs’s heart lies though he has never questioned it till now, but when he meets Monarch, a bohemian spirit who apparently lives in an old Airstream in the woods, Higgs has his eyes opened to a different approach to life.

Higgs’s narration is smart and funny, though he is not always likeable, as he tries to do what he believes he must do, even as his world crumbles. His self-deceptionn only gradually emerges as the reader is allowed to see him through the eyes of those around him.

Though there are a few threads that are rather too quickly resolved or happen without too much explanation, Higgs reaches a satisfying resolution, ensuring that this novel will engage any teen who has ever felt pressured into following a track not of their choosing.

Thanks to Edelweiss/Levine for the ARC.



Pointe by Brandy Colbert


pointePointe by Brandy Colbert
Putnam, 2014.

The title and the cover of Pointe suggest that this is a ballet novel – and it is, to a degree, but it is also a complex, subtle portrait of a young Black woman who is at a point of crisis in her life.

Four years ago, Theo’s best friend Donovan disappeared and has not been heard of since. Now, a junior at high school, Theo has come to terms with the fact that she most likely will never see him again. So when he reappears and she realizes that she knows his abductor, Chris, Theo starts to lose control of her life.

Theo relives her secret relationship with Chris, which started when she was 13 and he was 18. It would be destructive at any age, but at her young age it is clearly abusive. But Theo did not see that then, nor does she fully understand that now, and when he just walked out of her life, she became anorexic as a way of getting to grips with the emotional disruption. After her parents intervened, she got back on track but the life of a dancer is not an optimal one for a person with an eating disorder, even if she does not recognize it herself.

Debut novelist Colbert has done an exceptional job of creating a narrator who is multi-dimensional, nuanced and, at times, infuriatingly misguided. Though Theo is an extraordinarily good ballet dancer who is on track to become one of the greats, she is also a confused and challenged 17 year-old. Theo’s distorted perceptions on many aspects of her life are written so subtly that it takes a while to understand how wrong she is.

Theo has solid relationships with her parents and her two close friends, but Colbert has made the interesting decision to keep both Donovan and Chris virtually silent, so we only ever get Theo’s perspective of what happened four years ago, and what is happening now. And then there’s Hosea – who plays piano for her ballet class, is at her school and sidelines in dealing pot. Theo is undoubtedly attracted to him and he is to her – but he has a longstanding girlfriend that he isn’t inclined to finish with. I found this thread a little frustrating as Theo doesn’t seem to realize what is going on when Hosea wants to keep their relationship a secret (just like with Chris, though for different reasons), and it is only towards the end of the book that she sees the truth.

Race is a quiet undercurrent throughout the book: Theo and Donovan are Black in a largely white town, and it’s unstated, though maybe hinted at, that the reason she and Donovan were targeted by Chris is because they’re Black (Chris’s race is unclear, I think); Theo is the only Black dancer in her class and there are very few Black ballerinas who have reached the top, so she feels to has to work harder than her classmates, particularly with the ultracompetitive auditions for summer intensives looming.

There is a lot going on in Pointe, and though Colbert meshes everything together well, the arc of the plot seems a little unbalanced, and I would have liked more of the resolution and its aftermath, as well as more of Donovan’s story.

Overall, I think Pointe, with its multi-faceted appeal, will be perfect for a diverse range of readers looking for something both challenging and thought-provoking.

The Perfect Letter by Chris Harrison (yes, *the* Chris Harrison)


chris harrisonThe Perfect Letter by Chris Harrison
Dey Street Books, May 2015 (the day after the new season of The Bachelorette starts)

Adult romance novels are not usually my cup of tea, but as my teen daughter and I are avid fans of The Bachelor (affectionately known as The Bach in our household) and The Bachelorette, I couldn’t resist this when I saw a review copy was available. It’s an engaging, if not particularly original story, that will please fans of Nicholas Sparks’s oeuvre as well as the built-in Bachelor Nation audience.

Leigh Merrill seems to have it all – she’s a highly sought after editor for a respected publishing house in New York, and she’s dating the handsome and rich Joseph Middlebury who is besotted with her. After ten years away from her home state of Texas, she returns for a writers’ conference, and opens up a whole can of worms when her past comes back to bite her. And her past includes Jake, a rugged, and occasionally shirtless, cowboy, just out of jail for a crime he, naturally, did not commit. perfect letter

Of course Leigh is going to dump poor uptight Joseph for swoony Jake (even though few women in their right minds would actually do so), but Mr. Harrison does a decent job of making her decision process credible. He also does a fine job of creating the erotic chemistry between Leigh and Jake, though somewhat clunkily attempts to show Jake as an intellectual equal with Leigh by having him read Anna Karenina in jail.

Just when I thought I could see all the way to the sunset ending, in comes a whole new subplot. Mr Harrison is really good at writing skincrawlingly unpleasant characters – both Dale Tucker from Leigh’s youth and Russ Benoit from the present are genuinely nasty creations, who, in their own ways threaten both Leigh and her relationship with Jake.

So, yes, it is a familiar formula, but it slips down as easily as watching two hours of reality romance with a pitcher of margaritas and, speaking for the audience I’m familiar with, will be a pleasure, both guilty or otherwise for many teens.

Thanks to Dey Street Books and Edelweiss for the eARC

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose


boys who challenged hitlerThe Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2015.

This riveting nonfiction account of a little known piece of World War II history tells how a group of teenage boys catalyzed the Danish resistance after the Germans occupied their country in 1940.


The Churchill Club

When the Nazis marched into Denmark in April 1940 there was little opposition, and most Danes quickly settled into a life governed by Germans. However, a group of teenage schoolboys, inspired by the stand that Norway had taken in the same circumstances, decided not to take it lying down; so Knud Pedersen, his brother and friends formed, initially the RAF club in Odense, and then, later, the Churchill Club in Aalborg. Without any training and with little planning, they committed acts of sabotage, which though mostly minor – stealing guns, sabotaging cars – were a thorn in the side to the ruling Germans. Eventually the boys were caught and jailed for several years in Denmark, but their acts and subsequent trial and imprisonment, became the catalyst for more significant and organized resistance. Released before the war ended, many of them joined the ‘professional’ resistance and continued the covert war against the occupiers.

Hoose (Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, 2009) came across this story while in Denmark and pursued it several years later with Knud Pedersen himself. Most of the book is in Knud’s own words – either from interviews he had with Hoose or from his book published after the war – and these recollections are remarkably evocative and articulate. Much as he did with Claudette Colvin, Hoose surrounds his subject’s words with the necessary context to help the reader grasp the full historical significance. It is a thrilling story of schoolboy bravado which reads like a Boys Own adventure, and it is really only the Epilogue that reveals the toll that imprisonment took on most of these pioneer resistors, as Knud’s own account underplays the traumas.

The book is filled with lots of decent-sized relevant black and white photographs (not great resolution in the ARC, but I assume will be better in the published book) as well as Knud Pedersen’s sketches, which bring a personal note to the illustrations. The Selected Bibliography and Notes are thorough and, though not Steve Sheinkin-exhaustive, are substantive enough for a research project.

This is a gripping, well-told story that will appeal to teen fans of both narrative nonfiction and adventure fiction, and would pair well with Margi Preus’s Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012), a fictionalized tale of youthful Norwegian resistance.

Reviewed from an ARC.

A couple of notes:

It seems that wartime Denmark is suddenly hot! Sandi Toksvig’s novel Hitler’s Canary, originally published in 2007 by Roaring Brook has just been re-issued by Square Fish, and Deborah Hopkinson’s nonfiction Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark (Scholastic) is due out in August. The latter looks like it will cover some of the same territory as The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, along with the timely mass covert evacuation of Danish Jews to Sweden (which readers may be familiar with from Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars)

The ARC I’ve got is called The Churchill Club: Knud Pedersen and the Boys Who Challenged Hitler and this has changed into The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club for publication. It makes a lot of sense to do that – we are now so far away from World War II in Europe that I suspect that, sadly, Churchill has far less recognition that Hitler.


Forever for a Year by B. T. Gottfred


forever for a yearForever for a Year by B. T. Gottfred
Holt, July 2015.

I’m going to use the words ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ (and synonyms) a lot in this review – because the wonderful strength of this teen novel about first love is its, uh, honesty and authenticity.

Carolina and Trevor meet on the first day of high school and within a week are passionately in love. But can they transition from the all-enveloping intensity of “falling in love” to the more stable “being in love” or will their love flame out?

What I really love about this book is that the teen characters, from dual narrators Trevor and Carolina, to their friends and acquaintances at high school, all feel honest and authentic (told you!). They are not the smarty pants teens of so many YA novels with their supersharp quips and quotations from classic novels/poems/movies. Of course, the downside of having real teens as your narrators is that they can sometimes be awkward, inarticulate, self-centered and occasionally banal.

Both Trevor and Carolina have troubled family backgrounds – her father is a philanderer, his mother tried to commit suicide. This background makes the couples’ investment in their own relationship too much and it can’t stand the weight of their needs. And their parents, though realistically flawed and untrustworthy, are also rather more wise and open with their offspring than seems credible.

The progression of their relationship is believably portrayed. Of particular note is the way the author tackles their sexual relationship – it feels refreshingly real and an antidote to slick movies and novels, and could even be considered educational for both young men and women. Their parents’ attitude and responses to it, particularly Trevor’s mother’s, are quite splendid and should be read by every teen embarking on a sexual relationship.

Though Trevor and Carolina are at the heart of the book, also convincingly done is Carolina’s shifting girl friendships as new social groups and relationships open up. Her BFF from middle school, Peggy, throws her lot in with the popular girls, leaving Carolina half-reluctant half-relieved behind.

My only very minor grumble is that I found the very last chapter a little tacked on and wasn’t quite sure what it was meant to be – I felt the book had already concluded and resolved and didn’t need anything extra.

As this is a truthful depiction of first love, warts (not literally) and all, it does means that there’s some pretty salty language and situations – so perhaps best for 14 year old and up.

Reviewed from an ARC.

How to Win at High School by Owen Matthews


how to winHow to Win at High School by Owen Matthews
HarperTeen, 2015.

Adams Higgs thinks he’s been a loser all his life. Now that he’s starting junior year in a new high school, he decides to take on, and win at, high school. Coached by his older brother, who was a ‘god’ at high school till he was paralyzed in a hockey accident, and inspired by Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Adam starts by selling homework to the popular kids but soon moves on to even more illicit services for them.

Adam wins the superficial trappings of success – the girls, the parties and the popular friends – but always wants more and never really becomes an integral part of the group. Despite the groundedness of his siblings, and his girlfriend, he ignores their advice and inevitably spirals down Tony Montana’s destructive path, though doesn’t go out in quite the same blaze of glory. In fact, considering his crimes, Adam gets off pretty lightly.

The book is written in very short chapters – from as little as one to word to, at most, four pages – in a vernacular style that is like a prose poem with some concrete elements and rap rhythms. The voice is cynical, scornful and knowing, representing “our boy” Adam’s point of view, and is interwoven with the small voice of Adam’s conscience.

Though it looks off-puttingly large, How to Win is actually a very quick read, and the style and subject matter could give it appeal to reluctant YA readers.

Hansel & Gretel re-told by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti


hansel & gretelHansel & Gretel re-told by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
Toon Graphics, 2014

In 2007, Lorenzo Mattotti created India ink drawings for an exhibit accompanying the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Hansel & Gretel. These illustrations are now published with Neil Gaiman’s re-telling of the story, in a splendid picture book for older children.

Gaiman’s story is a fairly straightforward version of the tale, going back to the Grimm original – in which it is the heartless mother, not a stepmother, who persuades the rather feeble father to lose his children in the forest; and it is Hansel, the younger sibling, who lays the trails of pebbles and then breadcrumbs, not Gretel.h&g

Food plays a prominent role in the story which makes it feel more real and less like a fairytale: Gaiman lays out the reasons for the lack of anything to eat – war and weather – leading to the abandonment of the children, and in the historical note at the end, it is suggested that in the Great Famine of 1315 this did actually happen along with the cannibalism that leads to the abundance at the old woman’s cottage.

hanselThe writing is conversational, and having just seen Neil Gaiman in person, I could hear his voice in the rhythm of the words and the construction of the sentences. This low key, almost informal, style makes for a more chilling contrast with the horror of the story: in fact, the old woman’s intentions towards Hansel are rather casually slipped in, as though, really, roasting young children is something of an everyday occurrence.

Mattotti’s illustrations are anything but low key: great swirls of dark ink loom and lours ominously over and around the small, silhouetted children; and white is used only sparingly to show, for example, the outlines, the bones as it were, of the old woman’s cottage. Whereas Gaiman’s text is casual, and all the more creepy for that, the artwork, by contrast, is dramatic and bold. But together the words and the pictures work to present a fresh, if not original, take on a well-known tale, and one that would make a marvelous readaloud for older kids.

Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb


moonpenny islandMoonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb; illustrated by Gilbert Ford
Balzer+Bray, 2015.

Set on Moonpenny Island, a “a dot, a titch, a pinch” in Lake Erie, this tale of friendship, fossils and forgiveness is exquisitely written and wonderfully insightful. Flor and Sylvie are “each other’s perfect friend” and have always been completely transparent to each other. But when Sylvie announces that she is going to school on the mainland and will live with her aunt and uncle there, it becomes clear that there are things she hasn’t told Flor. So now Flor is left as the only 11 year-old on the island, and it seems that her family is drifting apart as well.

Told in the present tense, the third person narrator shows both affection and acuity towards Flor. Two connected strands weave through the book and are embodied in a visiting geologist, Dr Fife, and his daughter, Jasper. Jasper is fascinated by evolution and how species must change and adapt over time, and Dr Fife’s area of expertise, trilobites, demonstrates this, particularly in the area of vision. And vision is also the second strand: “How often do we look at something and not really see it?”

It even has a map!

It even has a map!

Springstubb does an extraordinary job of bringing these two themes explicitly but not heavyhandedly, to Flor’s situation. She must change and adapt because “time’s not supposed to stand still…it’s supposed to march on”; and the only way she can do that is to be naked and vulnerable, like a trilobite was when its shell got too small and before the new shell had grown. It is only by using her powers of observation, and seeing through others’ eyes that Flor will begin to be able to “map the ways of the heart.”

I thought I’d overdosed on realistic novels about girls on the cusp of adolescence, but this gem brought me back into the fold. I believe this superb novel showing “life at its most glorious, unpredictable best!”, where not a word is wasted, will be enjoyed by many readers and can open their eyes to what growing up means.