Monthly Archives: September 2015

Last Night at the Circle Cinema by Emily Franklin


last night at the circle cinemaLast Night at the Circle Cinema by Emily Franklin
Carolrhoda LAB, 2015

Three seniors spend their last night before graduation in a disused movie theater, reflecting on their friendship and their futures.

Livvy, the unfortunately named Codman, and Bertucci have been friends since freshman year and will soon be going their separate ways. The narration is split between the three protagonists, though it can be hard to detect much difference in their voices, and it moves fluidly, sometimes confusingly, between the past and the present.

The two ambitious central metaphors are not entirely worked through: Having different versions of the same story is referenced by a fictional movie they’ve seen, The Rashomon Effect, but their perspective of events just doesn’t seem that different; there are also several mentions of Schrodinger’s cat, but the idea that something can be theoretically alive and dead at the same time is rather shoe-horned onto the narrative.

Despite these flaws, the characters are appealing, the concept of the novel is intriguing, and it packs quite an emotional punch by the end.

And it has a cat on the cover.

Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom


dont ever changeDon’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom
HarperTeen, July 2015

Just before she graduates, Eva is told by her writing teacher that she needs to understand the difference between “writing that’s fictional, and writing that’s false” and that she should ask herself “what do I know?” Eva decides to spend the summer before she goes to college in Boston gaining experience rather than writing (although as she’s the narrator, it’s a little meta). She takes a job as a camp counselor, falls out with her best friends and dates three boys – all experiences which lead, if not exactly to an epiphany, to a maturing outlook.

Eva is a sharp and entertaining narrator, even if she’s not entirely likable. She’s quick to form an often scathing view of other people, considering herself “TGFI: Too Good For It.” Conversely her self-absorption means she spends little time thinking about how other people perceive her, so it is something of a harsh shock when she realizes both friends and people she’s just met find her “judge-y” and rigid.

Secondary characters are, consequently, not particularly well-developed. Eva’s friends and boy friends are only ever viewed through her eyes and so are given pretty short shrift. Her family fares somewhat better: her older sister offers Zen advice, which Eva often ignores and her mom tries, in a not necessarily practical way, to get her ready for the move from LA to Boston.

Contrary to the title, at the end of a summer of being the “Un-Eva”, her internal reflections have changed her a little, and though gradual evolution feels very realistic, it doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying read.

Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson


courage & defianceCourage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic, 2015.

World War II Denmark is hot! This gripping, lively and intelligent YA narrative nonfiction account of Danish resistance to the German occupation in World War II, takes a broader view than Phillip Hoose’s recent The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015).

While Denmark surrendered without a fight, and many Danes accepted the occupation without complaint or, in some cases, with hearty support, Hopkinson (Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, 2012) brilliantly brings to life the alternate response to tyranny through the wartime activities of, amongst others, Niels Skov, a lone saboteur, Jørgen Kieler, part of an organized resistance group, and Tommy Sneum, a spy.

A turning point for Denmark was in 1943, when the German occupation became much more aggressive, and the Danish people became aware that Jewish Danes were under imminent threat. In a superlative section, Hopkinson relates how more than 7000 Jewish Danes were swiftly whisked away to Sweden and safety in an extraordinary act of citizen defiance.

The consequences for all those who were captured – both Jewish and resistance – were harsh, and both Skov and Kieler survived grueling hardships in work camps.

There is sufficient, but not exhaustive, context and background in the main narrative with many, if occasionally random, b&w photos. Hopkinson uses primary sources throughout, though unlike Hoose she does not generate any. Thorough backmatter includes a timeline, map, bibliography, source notes and index.

Written in the style of a fictional thriller, with appealing characters and cliffhanger chapter endings, Courage & Defiance will engage and inform teen readers looking for a real life action story. Reviewed from an ARC.

The Arctic Code by Matthew J. Kirby


arctic codeThe Arctic Code by Matthew J. Kirby
Dark Gravity Sequence*; Bk. 1
Balzer + Bray, 2015.

I’ve been a big fan of MJK since The Clockwork Three (Scholastic, 2010), so I was excited to read this venture into series fiction. And while it’s no Icefall (Scholastic, 2011), it will have great appeal for tweens who enjoy fast-paced speculative action.

In this scifi adventure, a new Ice Age has hit the Earth. 12 year-old Eleanor Perry sets off to find her mother, who has gone missing in the Arctic while working for the (possibly villainous) Global Energy Trust.

Eleanor is a tough, resourceful and determined girl and gathers around her a likable team of characters: In Alaska, she meets up with Luke Fournier, a Han Solo-type, in a nicely constructed Wild West style scene. Later, at GET’s research station in the Arctic, she joins forces with Finn and Julian (who add some diversity with their “deep-brown” skins), whose scientist father is also lost with Dr. Perry. However, the villain comes as no surprise and is pretty boilerplate.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, but should work well for upper elementary readers. The science behind the Freeze and later plot twists is succinctly and clearly explained, if a trifle clunkily inserted

The plot chugs along at a good pace, though there are a couple of leaps of credibility – could three kids really walk 32 miles in a polar storm without any equipment? And how does GET keep its nefarious doings under wraps in the world of the Internet? The climax also feel a little rushed, with explanations and action rapidly piling up.

Nonetheless, this is a solid recommendation for kids who’ve enjoyed The Jupiter Pirates series, and the sequels are nicely set up for Eleanor and co. to travel around the world to save the planet.

*I’m not quite sure why the series is called this, as it appears to be about Dark Energy. Maybe they’re the same thing?

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert


convictionConviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Disney Hyperion, 2015.

This rich and complex YA story of faith and fathers is set in a conservative white Christian community in California’s Central Valley. 16 year-old Braden Raynor is a witness when his father kills a Hispanic police officer – but is it deliberate or an accident? Long submerged family memories bubble up when his estranged half brother, Trey, moves back from New York to be his guardian while their father awaits trial.

Braden is a high level baseball pitcher, and his relationship with his coach-father is somewhat akin to his relationship with God: He worships both of them, and believes these absent fathers expect complete loyalty. Twisted into this, is his certainty that playing baseball can bring salvation for him with both. His father believes in “stern discipline” and has already driven Trey away; Braden will do anything to meet his father’s (Father’s) expectations and remain the ‘good son’.

When he was a baby, Braden’s mother abandoned him to become a dancer; and when he begins a relationship with an adopted Chinese girl, his feelings of being discarded are reflected in her uncertainty about her birth parents.

The portrait of the Church community is even-handed and not disrespectful, but doesn’t offer excuses. The pastor has spoken out about homosexuality and there is more than a whiff of racism in the attitudes towards the immigrant population of the next town.

I thought the pace was measured, but some may find it slow, as the narrative moves inexorably towards the trial, while flashing back through the past. It is clear that Braden is holding information back from both the police and the reader, and the gradual reveal of the truth brings depth and resolution to the characters and the novel.

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd


key to extraordinaryThe Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd
Scholastic, due out in February, 2016.

Though similar in tone and style to Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic (2014), this whimsical story of friendship, family, ghosts and magic in the Tennessee mountains is not quite as successful. But it is an early ARC or maybe I was just less in the mood for it this time around.

Emma Pearl Casey and her brother, Topher, live with their grandmother at the Boneyard Cafe, a re-appropriated old church on the edge of a graveyard in Blackbird Hollow. Times are tough for the town and for the cafe, and it looks like Granny Blue will need to sell out to a grasping property developer. But the women in Emma’s family have always had extraordinary destinies, and there is an old ghost story about hidden treasure which Emma believes she can find and save her home.

Emma, her BFF Cody Belle and a new friend Earl, make an appealing central trio. They are loyal, earnest and funny. Granny Blue, who looks like “a walking, talking rock song” is a terrific creation, and her gang of friends, the Pancake Club, are something that Emma aspires to, even as she dreads school because of bullying about the scar from her cleft lip surgery.

I found the whimsy a little too much – there are too many capitalized magical happenings that seem to pop up to move the plot, along with convenient symbolic and enchanted flowers. But as with Snicker, the author manages to pull it all together for an intensely emotional climax. The build-up is less coherent though and some of the plot feels like it could do with some paring away to get to the main thrust.

Nonetheless, I think the final version of the book will be well worth reading, and fans of Southern magical whimsy titles like Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky (Dial, 2012), are sure to find much to love in it.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Rig by Joe Ducie


rigThe Rig by Joe Ducie
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, due out in October, 2015.

This action-packed scifi thriller will appeal to fans of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner and Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books.

15 year old Will Drake is taken to The Rig – an old oil rig that is now, in 2025, the world’s most secure juvenile prison. Will has escaped from three previous jails, and it’s not long before he starts looking for a way out of this one. But there is more to The Rig than just inmates, guards and cells – there is a secret underwater facility that dramatically changes everything.

In the well-written and well-paced opening section, Mr. Ducie spends some time getting all the pieces in place. Characters are introduced, and though not particularly well-developed are good versions of their types – nerdy friend, attractive girl, cruel guards, prison yard bullies, overconfident warden – and are from all around the world so there is some diversity including Will who is biracial (though fortunately they all speak English, bar one). Time is spent establishing the physical set up of the prison and the daily regime, building tension and giving a good foundation for the action to come.

And boy does it come. Written cinematically, the thrills, reveals and chases pile up as we find out what The Rig is really all about and dash towards the climax. Though well-plotted, the writing gets a little sloppy here, as the voice wavers between serious action and teen talk.

This feels like it should be a one-off with an open ending, but I’m assuming it will turn into a series. It would be nifty if Mr. Ducie was given time to craft a sequel, so that it could be as original and tight as The Rig.

Thanks to HMH and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley


9780373211753_BBWhat We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Harlequin Teen, due out November 2015.

It turns out to be transgender week at bibliobrit! It’s terrific that there are starting to be books for kids of different ages on this important topic.

This is Ms. Talley’s second novel: I very much enjoyed the brutally powerful Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now the absolutely cracking What We Left Behind has even more maturity and sophistication.

Toni and Gretchen meet cute and fall in love at the junior homecoming dance. Fast forward to the first year of college – Toni is at Harvard and Gretchen at NYU. Can they make a long distance relationship work?

This is a really talky novel, entirely driven by the two main characters in their alternating narration and I became thoroughly invested in these two and their relationship. Toni, probably the flashier of the two, spends her first year at Harvard exploring her gender identity. It is a wonderful portrait of a questioning teen – serious, looking for a definitive answer, trying out new labels and new pronouns, and, yes, also slightly irritating. Toni’s group of friends at Harvard are a racially diverse group of, mainly, transgender men. They are juniors and have the certainty and assurance that Toni longs for.

Gretchen initially seems less interesting – she is something of a doormat to Toni, a follower and a listener. At NYU, she becomes close friends with Carroll, a gay young man from rural New Jersey who is out for the first time, and this friendship is something of a celibate mirror of Gretchen’s relationship with Toni. However, as we’re shown in a couple of cleverly placed flashbacks to their high school years, Gretchen’s decision to go to New York instead of Boston, is a crucial part of her development as an individual.

This is also, if only incidentally, a wonderfully drawn portrait of two people’s first experiences of being at college with all the fire hose gush of experiences – academic, personal and social – that brings.

By focusing on these two characters and their growth and development, as well as a fine and diverse range of support characters, Ms Talley has written a magnificent and timely novel that should be in all high school libraries and teen collections.

Reviewed from an ARC.