Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner


dead i knowThe Dead I Know by Scot Gardner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Moving between mordant humor and contemplations on life and death, this compelling, compact Australian novel is narrated by Aaron Rowe as he starts work at John Barton’s funeral parlor. He is a reticent and troubled young man, though we only gradually learn the full extent of his problems, and his new job satisfies his need for certainty and order. His home life is a mess: Mam is descending into dementia and at night, Aaron’s sleep is beset by an unfolding nightmare about a dead woman.

Aaron’s narration is scattered with precise descriptive vocabulary – examples include lugubrious, unmanned and lucid – which, along with his musings on death and the dead, show him to be unusually literate and reflective. He is calm with, and accepting of, death, even as he responds with “abject and irrational fear [to] the raw emotions of those left alive.” The occasional flash of black wit leavens this intense novel, without breaking the mood or seeming out of character.

The Barton family are wonderfully drawn: John is quiet, neat and methodical, while his wife and daughter are vibrant and chaotic – and it seems Aaron ultimately needs both to flourish. Everything he has walled up begins to seep through, and he begins to accept that he feels “hungry for a place in the world.”

As the mystery of Aaron’s life is slowly unraveled for both himself and the reader, a resolution evolves that flows from the characters and the situation and, even in only 201 pages, will leave thoughtful teen readers more than satisfied.

The Search for Baby Ruby by Susan Shreve


baby rubyThe Search for Baby Ruby by Susan Shreve
Levine, 2015.

At the start of this rather lacklustre mystery, the battling O’Fines family is in Los Angeles for oldest daughter Whee’s wedding. 12 year-old Jessica is looking forward to the pre-wedding dinner, but is obliged to stay in the hotel room to look after her brother’s baby, Ruby. She consoles herself by going into the ensuite bathroom to try on Whee’s bridal dress and make-up, but when she comes out, Jess is horrified to find the baby has disappeared. Ashamed and scared, she decides to find Ruby herself with the assistance of her older sister Teddy.

The O’Fines are quickly sketched out: amiable but sloppy Dad is divorced from cougar Mum, and hapless brother Danny is married to astringent Beet. The heart of the book, however, is Jessica and Teddy and their close relationship. Though they appear to be opposite ends of the behavior spectrum – Jess is the compliant, good girl; Teddy is the shoplifting bad girl – these are just different reactions to a deep-seated anger about their circumstances. Over the course of the novel, the fractured family starts to pull together, and Jess and Teddy both realize that they need to be true to themselves.

But the mystery is lame and it just doesn’t hang together – though there is a motive, the kidnappers’ plan seems entirely random and doesn’t actually make sense, the red herrings are very pale pink at best, and the resolution is weakly straightforward without the hint of twist. And I just didn’t find Jess’s actions credible – even my son, who can be rather dimwitted at times, would know that when a baby disappears you tell an adult immediately and don’t wander around looking for clues. (It should be noted that I was reading an ARC, so maybe it’s been tightened up).

This is really pretty feeble, and upper elementary/lower middle grade kids looking for mysteries would do way better with Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series or one of Peter Abraham’s Outlaws of Sherwood Street or Echo Falls books, all of which are much better plotted and written.

A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall


little something differentA Little Something Different by Sandy Hall
Swoon Reads, 2014.

Maybe I swung back a bit too far from Little Peach with this completely frothy romance – it was certainly an enjoyable, if slightly saccharine, read.

Lea has just started university, Gabe is a junior. They meet on the first day of a creative writing class and are immediately and strongly attracted to each other – but shyness, diffidence and misunderstandings all contrive to keep them apart. Will they ever get together? (spoiler alert – did you see the name of the imprint?)

The tale is told from 14 perspectives – though not those of the principle characters. It seems everyone in this college town is invested in these two adorable lovebirds getting together, including friends, their creative writing professor, a barista, a waitress and a squirrel. Yes, a squirrel. Even mean fellow students, ‘angry’ Victor and ‘snarky’ Hillary, can’t help but root for them.

So it is a bit frivolous and, sure, by the end of “April” I was getting a little impatient for them to just get on with it. And the characterization… but, really, that’s not the point is it?

Ideal for middle grade and teen readers who just need a bit of escapism.

Little Peach by Peggy Kern


little peachLittle Peach by Peggy Kern
Balzer + Bray, 2015.

Little Peach is a short and absorbing page-turner with an important message: It is a glimpse, albeit a fictionalized one, of what is happening to some very young girls. The novel feels very realistic and gritty, and is completely depressing and upsetting – I usually don’t read this sort of unrelievedly grim novel, but as it is one of the nominated books for YALSA’s best fiction list for young adults, I knew it would be worthwhile.

14 year old Michelle is forced to leave home after her grandfather dies and her drug addicted mother feels her daughter is threatening her relationship with her boyfriend. Chelle gets a one way ticket to New York to meet a friend, but on arrival, realizes she has no way of finding her and no money to go back to Philadelphia. In steps smooth Devon, who offers assistance, food and a bed for the night. Though not unaware, Chelle is naive enough to accept his help at face value, and within just a few days is forced, though with a velvet glove, into prostitution, along with the two other girls in Devon’s ‘family’.

Ms. Kern captures the speed and ease of Chelle’s downward spiral – it’s inevitable and predictable. The abuse and degradation Chelle faces is clear and horrifying, though it is not graphic or prurient. On several occasions, Chelle, now re-named and tattooed as “Devon’s Little Peach,” tries to think of a way out, but her fractured family life, her increasing addiction to drugs and dire economic situation leave her feeling without options.

Chelle’s yearning for security, home and a family blind her to what is really going on. It is only when one of the other girls vanishes, that she faces her situation head on and some faint tendrils of a different future sprout, but it would not be a true reflection of life for there to be any sort of happy ending and there isn’t.

Chelle appears to be African American, and I inferred that Devon and the other two girls were as well, though I don’t believe it is clearly stated. It is not suggested that race is the catalyst for Chelle’s hardships, rather it is her individual circumstances.

The author’s note (and I read an ARC, so it might have changed) includes a staggering statistic that the “in the United States, the average age of entry into prostitution is 13” but no source is given. Apparently this is a commonly used ‘fact’, though one that has been disputed for some time. Additionally, Ms. Kern doesn’t give any concrete suggestions for actions that a teen reader might be feasibly able to take; nor does she include any organizations or resources that could be helpful.

This is not a book for a teen to read casually, but it powerfully, and without exploitation, shows an aspect of American life that it real and should be known.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness


RestOfUsJustLiveHere_EpicReadsThe Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
HarperCollins, due out October, 2015.

In Hamlet, the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mere bystanders, but they get to present their own view in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And so it is with Patrick Ness’s clever new fantasy: In the chapter headings, we get a brief précis of how the Immortals are coming to take over the Earth and are challenged by kids with names like Satchel and Finn; but this is only the backdrop to the lives of four teens who are about to graduate. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they notice and comment on the action and occasionally, and at one point crucially, their lives intersect with it, but they are much more concerned with their own issues.

Mr Ness is slyly amusing about teen fantasy lit tropes. There have been several previous invasions of this small town in Washington state – vampires, soul-eating ghosts – which the population has stoically endured. Adults don’t seem to notice anything wrong and only indie kids are able to battle these forces – in fact, the invaders are entirely uninterested in the regular kids.

But what of the UnChosen ones that this novel largely focuses on? It’s a very fine novel of friendship, growing up and dealing with the hand that Life has dealt you. Narrator Mikey, his sister Mel and their friends Henna and Jared are close to graduating from high school. Mikey and Mel’s family life is challenging – their mum is an ambitious politician, their dad is a checked out alcoholic – and both have suffered from anxiety and control disorders. Henna’s parents want her to go with them on a Christian mission to the Central African Republic, and Jared is gay, though has never had a relationship. (And he’s one quarter God, which seems to break the fantasy fourth wall just a little).

The characters and their personal drama, for which so many speculative novels are metaphors, are scrappily realistic. Mikey gets help when his OCD starts to get out of hand; his long unrequited crush on Henna reaches an unanticipated resolution; they are all ready to move on to the next stage of life.

Mr Ness has a pretty varied resume, though has often juxtaposed real life with fantasy. This is his first novel in which the fantasy is the scenery with the realistic novel in the foreground, and I think it will rightly appeal to a broader range of readers than his previous novels.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern


step toward fallingA Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
HarperCollins, due out October, 2015.

Following the splendid Say What You Will, Ms McGovern’s new novel again succeeds in showing, not telling, that getting to know individual young adults with mental and physical challenges can change perceptions of them along with other people with disabilities.

High school seniors Emily and Lucas both fail to help mentally disabled Belinda when she is being sexually assaulted at a high school football game. As punishment, they must help out at a “Boundaries and Relationships” class for mentally disabled young adults. However, they both come to believe they need to do more for Belinda herself, so, as she loves acting, they decide to put on a play of her favorite movie, Pride and Prejudice.

Told from Emily and Belinda’s points of view, their perspectives are enlightening in both style and content. Emily is a pretty standard, though thoughtfully written, YA lit geeky teenager with geeky friends and geeky fixed ideas about other people. Belinda’s narration is much more original. We learn about her worldview, her disability and her family’s methods of dealing with it, in a straightforward and at times gauche tone. Is there a whiff of authorial patronizing? I don’t think so – Ms. McGovern works with special needs kids, and gives the reader the opportunity to see that there are many different types and gradations of mental disability; even Belinda (and her family) have their own prejudices about the other students in her classroom.

Of course, it’s not entirely original to reference Jane Austen to suggest that the social stratification at a contemporary high school is as rigid as that of early 19th century England. But McGovern uses this as a jump off point to look at more than the prejudice a geek has for a football player; she also tackles both the personal and collective preconceptions about mental disability that the characters (and maybe the readers) have.

Unlike P&P, A Step Toward Falling does not tie all the ends up with everyone’s future secured. In fact, they are notably, and realistically, not tied up. In Belinda’s case, the author weaves in facts about how challenging it can be for those with disabilities to find any sort of work, let alone something that they might find satisfying.

This novel succeeds both as entertainment and as a campaign for tolerance and action – readers who dropped by for the fun may well find themselves walking out with a fistful of pamphlets and a resolution to make life better for others.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Connect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague


connect the starsConnect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
HarperCollins, due out in September, 2015.

I am a big fan of last year’s Saving Lucas Biggs, so I was excited to read the next novel by this duo. They have kept the same thoughtful and lush character development along with a fine and evocative sense of place. However, this time I found the plot less credible, or maybe, with the previous novel, I was just more prepared to put my quibbles aside.

7th graders Audrey and Aaron both have uncommon abilities: Audrey knows whenever someone is lying and Aaron can remember everything he’s ever read, heard or seen. After they both become embroiled in social drama because of their abilities, their respective parents decide to send them on a 6-week outdoor camp in Texas, along with 14 other kids and led by an ex-college football player, Jare.

Narrated by Audrey and Aaron in turn, the initial days on the camp as they hike and have team challenges are well-written, though definitely feel like they’re not breaking new ground. With the help of two other exceptional kids – Louis has hyper senses and Katie is extraordinarily empathetic – Audrey and Aaron begin to realize that their “unsuperpowers” are also a gift, as well as a burden as they start to see the point of view of others.

Middle grade is the perfect age for this theme: the kids get a glimmering of the thought they are only a tiny part of the world and that it’s not all about them; they need to learn to walk “in other people’s shoes.”. Audrey starts to understand that lies are told for different reasons, not necessarily because people just don’t want to tell the truth. Aaron learns that regurgitating pages from an encyclopedia is not the same as thinking about what someone actually wants to know.

This would have been enough for a fine, if quiet novel, but the authors decided to introduce some drama, which I can understand if not really agree with. There are two malicious kids, who are pretty one-dimensional, even when our kids use their abilities to divine the reasons behind their meanness. And when one of them goes missing and the kids think Jare has killed her, the whole shebang becomes highly implausible.

Nonetheless I think middle graders who enjoy realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy and adventure will connect with the “Fearless Four” and enjoy the ride.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War; illustrated by Jim Kay


greatwarThe Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War; illustrated by Jim Kay
Candlewick, 2015.

It is hard to make World War One relevant to contemporary kids, particularly American ones; this handsome collection, is a valiant attempt to do that by focusing on the short and long-term effects that the war has on different children.

These eleven exceptional stories, written by authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Marcus Sedgwick and Tanya Lee Stone, are each inspired by a military or civilian object. These come mostly from the Imperial War Museum collection and include a war-time butter dish with an inscription from the prime minister, a Victoria Cross, sheet music and a soldier’s writing case.Great War Warhorsefield

Most are set in England, but there are also stories from Ireland, France, America, and Australia. Some take place during or immediately after the war and others in more contemporary times. Each looks at the toll, both direct and oblique, that the conflict has on a child, and how it transformed everyone’s life, rarely for the better. This is particularly poignant in Sheena Wilkinson’s quietly moving “Each Slow Dusk” as well as A. L. Kennedy’s more immediate “Another Kind of Missing”.

great war tankBinding the collection together are Jim Kay’s (A Monster Calls, 2011) exquisitely beautiful ink and charcoal war scenes, which are shown both as double page spreads and then as shards and splatters across other pages.

Back matter includes photographs of the objects with accompanying information, and short bios of the writers.

Like the similarly intentioned Above the Dreamless Dead, this was originally published in the U. K. in 2014 to mark the centenary of the start of the war and is also a worthy addition to middle and high school libraries, as well as public library collections. However, I think both short stories and historical settings can be a hard sell, so the combination probably means few kids will pick it up, though Jim Kay’s illustrations could reel some in.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


simon vs the homo sapiens agendaSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, 2015.

Combining an upbeat and breezy tone with thoughtful reflections on contemporary social mores, Albertalli’s debut novel will appeal to readers looking for an older and more realistic version of Tim Federle’s Better Nate than Ever (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

High school junior Simon Spier is a modern sort of gay teenager: He has not come out but is entirely comfortable with himself, and has no fears of being ostracized. However, he is in an anonymous email relationship with another gay junior, Blue, who is more secretive about his sexuality. As Simon’s feelings for his unknown correspondent grow, he becomes increasingly frustrated about the concealment, particularly as his straight friends start to pair up. Meanwhile, another student tries to use his knowledge about Simon to gain an entrée into his social circle.

With the maturing Simon at the center surrounded by a richly developed family and group of friends, the novel’s adorable frothiness also allows for hard-edged and important questions: Why are straight and white the default? Why do you only have to come out if you’re gay? Even though Simon is not afraid of coming out in the way he might have been in an earlier era or with a different family, he still feels the enormity of “crossing the border”, knowing that once his secret is out there, there’s no coming back.

In a flurry of resolution at the end, Simon realizes how little he knows about even his close friends: as Blue says, people are “vast houses with tiny windows.” Only when Simon stops focusing on himself and asks them questions does he discover the secrets and layers of their lives.