Monthly Archives: May 2015

Burning Nation by Trent Reedy

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burning nationBurning Nation by Trent Reedy
Levine, 2015.

In contrast to The Luck Uglies sequel, Trent Reedy’s Burning Nation is a pretty successful follow-up to Divided We Fall. I think the difference is that this sequel appears to have been planned – it flows organically from the first book, building on the situation while keeping the same thrilling pace and gripping storylines.

17 year-old Idaho National Guard Private Danny Wright and his unit are drawn deeper into the conflict between the newly established Republic of Idaho and the Federal Government. As it escalates into full blown Civil War, Danny’s old high school friends join the struggle, initially as support and later as fully committed combatants. Fractures across other states deepen the crisis, and a darker side of the Idaho resistance emerges.

The plotting in Burning Nation is spectacularly good: the author draws the reader along through the all too believable and inevitable breakdown of law, swiftly followed by the imposition of military governance. Danny is an engagingly committed, yet naïve, protagonist – that he is a key player in this battle feels unnervingly credible – and though he isn’t the most articulate fellow, he gives the reader an absolutely visceral feel of the realities of combat.

Reedy uses a similar structure to the first book, with interspersed news reports and social media commentary giving the reader a perspective on the war that Danny does not have. However, in Burning Nation, this seems to be less about balancing the argument – there’s not much airtime for opponents of the war – and more about showing the apparent inevitability of the collapse of the United States.

There is a lot (a lot!) of brutal violence including our young protagonist killing multiple “Feds” as well as being extensively tortured himself. Danny has something of a conscience about the rampant shootings, though frequently justifies it to himself because the Feds killed his mother. Even so, much of the killing still feels sadistic and like a “badass” videogame, and Cal Riccon is being set up as one who goes too far in this respect. There is explicit reference to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the idea of being perceived as an insurgent or rebel on the one hand, or a terrorist on the other is briefly touched on.

Character development is not Mr. Reedy’s strong point. I found the initial section, in particular, confusing as there are so many characters who are just names; it feels much more comfortable when the cast is whittled down mainly to Danny and his high school friends, though even they feel pretty interchangeable.  But I liked that Danny did at least comment on the absurdity of worrying about a love triangle when all is going to hell in a handbasket around him.

It looks like the next book, The Last Full Measure, will not be the closer. I feel that Mr. Reedy knows where he’s driving this series and if he keeps up this pace and the plotting, I’m happy to go along for the ride and I’m sure many teens will be too.

The Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham

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fork tongue charmersThe Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham
Harper, 2015.

It’s sequel week at bibliobrit! Today I’ll be looking at the sequel to Cybil-winning The Luck Uglies and on Thursday I’ll review Trent Reedy’s Burning Nation, the sequel to Divided We Fall, which I reviewed last week. I don’t often read sequels as a) they’re usually disappointing, particularly if they’re the second book in a trilogy (henceforth known as DSBIT) and b) I’d rather move on to something fresh. But in both these cases, there was something special about the first book that made me want to keep reading.

Fork-Tongue Charmers sadly falls into the pit of DSBIT. It lacks the imagination of the first book and the structure is a series of mini-climaxes, none of which are fully developed. There’s too much explanation needed because the plot is too complicated, and the characters don’t really develop much from the first book. Even the map, of the Isle of Pest, feels skimpy compared to the glorious one of Village Drowning in the first book.

Earl Longchance has appointed a vicious new Constable who seems to be on a personal vengeance mission against Rye and the rest of the O’Chanter family. So they, along with Rye’s friends, Folly and Quinn, take off for Pest, the home island of Rye’s mother. But even there, they do not seem to be safe from Constable Valant.

The middle section of the book, set on Pest’s High Isle, is most satisfying and inventive. Enjoyable new characters and customs are introduced, and the plot feels like it has time to breathe. This part’s culminating battle, between the Belongers (as the islanders call themselves) and the Uninvited Longchance soldiers, has some twitches of the nimble imagination I was longing for, but is over all too quickly.

Also new are the Fork-Tongue Charmers – a shady faction of the Luck Uglies – and their leader, Slinister. He is interestingly conflicted, and makes a decent replacement for the largely absent effete Earl as the villain of the piece.

Rye, herself, continues to develop as her understanding of her family’s history grows. However, she is starting to feel more like a generic spunky, undeterrable protagonist and less like the fully rounded quirky character we came to love. And Quinn and Folly, without the backdrop of Drowning, are one-dimensional plot pawns.

If all this feels a bit harsh, it’s because Fork-Tongue Charmers felt like such a let down compared to The Luck Uglies. Really it’s still a pretty good read, but it just stumbles when put up against the profoundly gifted first born.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

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MosquitolandMosquitoland by David Arnold
Viking, 2015.

Recently moved to Mississipi (aka Mosquitoland) with her father and new stepmother, 16 year-old Mim overhears a conversation that suggests her mother is ill, so she embarks on a 947-mile journey to Cleveland, Ohio to see her.

Mim is a humorous, intelligent and engaging narrator who defines herself as “a collection of oddities” and her entertaining odyssey, narrated through a journal and letters, is never straightforward, but “detours are not without purpose.” Mim has accidentally blinded herself in one eye, by looking at an eclipse, and this lack of visual perspective is a metaphor for how she views herself and other around her, particularly her parents and stepmother, and her encounters with different characters, both good and evil, develops her insight.

Along the way, Mim picks up two traveling companions: Walt, who has Down Syndrome, and gorgeous Beck. They both are able to understand her in a way that offers Mim an alternative idea of family: “If you can find [one person who gets you], you’ve found home.”

It is not clear to the reader (or even to Mim herself) whether she is simply on the far end of quirky, or is suffering from genuine psychosis as her father believes. Once again (see All the Bright Places) we have a teen with an unspecified mental issue – and in this case it is not entirely clear that she has one at all – who decides that medication is not for her. I’m in no way a mental health expert, but I do worry about the trope that taking medication in some way dulls you and makes you a “Generic”.

Also of concern is Mim’s ritual of using her mother’s lipstick as “warpaint” and referring to herself as a “Cherokee chieftess.” It is written (both by Mim and Mr. Arnold) with a knowingness about stereotypes, but I should point out that it has been called out by Debbie Reese.

This original, episodic novel has a slightly hallucinogenic tone that fits perfectly with the nature of a symbolic quest, and will appeal to teen readers who enjoy idiosyncratic characters and inventive writing.

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

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divided we fallDivided We Fall by Trent Reedy
Levine, 2014.

Combining gun-toting action with moral ambiguity, this first book in a YA trilogy, set in a just over the horizon future, starts with an all too believable clash between the state of Idaho and the Federal Government, that rapidly escalates into a military standoff. In the center of this is 17-year-old Danny Wright, a private in the Idaho National Guard whose accidental shot seems to precipitate the crisis.

Danny is a typical high school senior in Freedom Lake, Idaho, who enjoys football, partying and rodeo, and he is also intensely proud of being a soldier as his now-dead father was before him. Danny’s confusion and testosterone driven choices feel real, and make him an unusual and well-developed protagonist. Other characters, both teen and soldiers, however, feel rather interchangeable and generic.

Reedy (Words in the Dust, 2011) sets up an intriguingly complex situation, with both sides of the conflict given airtime through snippets of news reportage and social media, though the constitutional issues are explicated rather clunkily, and unnecessarily, through a school civics class. The book doesn’t fall definitively on either political side, but Danny, again unusually, is definitely on the conservative/libertarian end of the spectrum. His girlfriend, JoBell, is initially the mouthpiece for the liberal argument, though later becomes more layered

Danny faces several moral dilemmas with no easy choices, and there are real consequences for his decisions that he cannot always justify. Once the rather slow set up is complete, the pace of the action rattles along, ending with a cliffhanger that will leave teen readers excited for the next installment.

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

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ZeroesZeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti
Simon Pulse, due out in September 2015.

All Ethan wanted was a ride home. But instead, he gets himself into a tangle of trouble including drug dealers, bank robbers and Russian gangsters. But Ethan is no ordinary teenager – he and other teens have special powers. Some might call them superpowers.

Unlike the superheroes we’re used to, these otherwise ordinary teens’ powers are somewhat more amorphous, and none of them involve enhanced physical powers or prowess – there’s no flying, punching or wielding magical hammers. Mostly, their powers seem to relate to controlling and feeding off connections, human or otherwise. There is no explanation for why these teens have these powers beyond some speculation that they were all born in 2000 – a touch of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children?

Initially, there’s a group of five: “The Zeroes, they’d called themselves as a joke. Like heroes, but not.” Riley aka Flicker, a blind girl, can see through others’ eyes; Thibault aka Anon can make people ignore him; Ethan aka Scam can talk himself into anything he wants, Nate aka Bellwether (and sometimes snarkily referred to as Glorious Leader) can focus crowds onto himself and control them; Chizara aka Crash can crash electronic devices and connections. And then Ethan meets up with Kelsie: her powers are linked to the emotions of a crowd.

Initially I found the novel hard work and slow going – there are a lot of characters to assimilate, and their powers are a little tricky to understand. But by about a third of the way through, once the Zeroes are established and the plot becomes more focused, it takes off, and becomes a compelling action thriller with a stunning climax, both satisfying and emotional.

Zeroes is a contemporary superhero book with a realistic setting, unlike the somewhat similarly themed Blackout series. There is a diverse cast – Riley is blind, Chizara is Nigerian American, Nate is Hispanic and they have a range of family and economic backgrounds – and the authors take time to establish them as characters beyond their powers, though at risk, I suspect, of losing readers looking for something more concrete and fast-paced. It also explores the dark side of their powers, even as the teens learn to amplify and control them “no power came without a cost.”

Clearly there are going to be sequels. After all, it would be a shame not to build on the effort of creating and bonding the 6 characters, and establishing the fictional West Coast Cambria City. And to that end, there are some loose ends: Nate’s Ultimate Goal and the role of this “superpowered posse” is unclear, even, it appears, to himself; and there are some tentative romantic coupling ups within the group too.

This is a cinematic novel with layers of ambiguity and complexity and is bound to attract a wide teen readership.

Thanks to Simon Pulse and Edelweiss for the eARC.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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dumplinDumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, due out in September, 2015.

Willowdean Dickson does not shy away from the description ‘fat’: “It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it.” She has always been comfortable in her skin, but then she meets Bo, the summer before junior year; she is attracted to him but feels ashamed of her body, and the relationship fizzles out. Still grieving over the death of her Aunt Lucy, and struggling to work out her relationship with her mother, Will decides to enter the local beauty pageant and a group of nontraditional pageant girls join her. But this causes a split with her best friend, Ellen, and it becomes clear that they have been drifting apart.

I spent several enjoyable hours in Will’s head. She is entertaining, and occasionally laugh out loud funny, as she finds her way through the tricky world of being a teenager – friendships, boyfriends, parents and herself. The book centers on Will’s bond with Ellen, and its development and maturity, but there is also growth in her connection with Bo and, particularly, her former pageant queen mother. Though the book isn’t really about pageants, it gives an affectionate behind the scenes look at the importance of such events in small town Texas.

Will is honest about her body, and the restrictions she imposes on herself because of it: “There have been times when I really stopped myself from doing something special. All because I was scared someone might look at me and decide I wasn’t good enough.” Her aunt died young because of her weight, and Will becomes aware of how Lucy’s body constricted her life: “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t and no one made her believe otherwise.” And this awareness is what leads her to enter the pageant.

I really like that the resolution to Will’s story is not that she loses weight, indeed, other than the occasional hint from her mother, which makes her sad rather than motivated, there is no mention of dieting. Similarly her pageant cohort do not try to change themselves to fit in, but rather attempt to expand what pageant beauty means.

Dumplin’ is a delectable read that will be appreciated by teens who don’t fit societal norms, as well as Dolly Parton fans.

Thanks to Balzer+Bray and Edelweiss for the review copy.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

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lies we tell ourselvesLies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Harlequin Teen , 2014

It’s 1959 in fictitious Davisburg, Virginia, and it’s the first day at previously all-white Jefferson High School for ten Negro students, including senior Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister, Ruth.

For the first 50 pages of this brutally powerful novel, we live through that day with Sarah – from walking through hundreds of viciously angry white people in the parking lot, to the hell of the school corridors where constant abuse, and more, is thrown at her, to the passively hostile indifference of most of the teachers. All day, she is assaulted from all sides, and it is almost unbearably painful to read.

It doesn’t get any better in the ensuing days. But then Sarah is put on a French project with a white girl, Linda Hairston, and there is a spark of attraction between them. But how can that be? Linda is the daughter of one of the most vehement supporters of segregation in the town, and Linda, herself, believes that integration is “unnatural.” Both girls are deeply disturbed by their mutual attraction.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Linda, each chapter headed up with a lie such as “I don’t care what they think of me” and “None of this has anything to do with me”, Lies traces how both girls not only challenge their own perceptions, but also those of their parents. Talley does load the dice a bit – not only is Linda’s father a vicious racist, he also physically and verbally abuses his daughter. But Sarah is honest too, about the pressure from her parents and the NAACP for her and Ruth to be among the pioneer Negro students at this school, even at the risk of physical and psychological damage.

Is it too much to overlay a story of lesbian awakening onto the already inflammatory events of school desegregation? It does feel a little contrived, a little ‘of all the gin joints,’ that it should happen to these two girls, when there is already so much drama. But Lies is a long leisurely book and there is time for both the development of their relationship, and for Linda to realize the worthlessness of intellectual ideas if you are not applying them to actual people.

The language and intense situations give a reality to this book, but also make it best suited for mature readers.