Monthly Archives: October 2015

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson.


symphony for the city of the deadSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson.
Candlewick, 2015.

M. T. Anderson (Feed, 2002) uses the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich, particularly his Seventh Symphony, as a springboard to examine the Russian Revolution, the subsequent Stalinist Five-Year Plan and Great Terror, and the Nazi siege of Leningrad, in this dense, thoroughly researched and occasionally long-winded narrative nonfiction book.

Though the 1941-44 siege is the focal point, there is 150 pages of build-up, laying down the context of the tragic complexities and ironies of life under Stalin, the Friend of the People: the many purges of groups and individuals who were perceived as a threat; the paradox of a grim reality that was “too dangerously real for Soviet Realism”; and the Party interpretations of what ‘the people’ wanted and needed, that changed from one day to the next.

The depiction of life in Leningrad during the 872-day siege is beyond shocking, as the populace starves to death resorting at times to eating grass, wall-paper paste and, ultimately, to cannibalism. The turning point, at least as portrayed in this book, is when Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is premiered there, inspiring the citizens and bringing the city back to life. But this was not the only symbolic premiere: the broadcast on NBC radio solidified the new friendship between the USSR and the USA.Dmitrij_Dmitrijevič_Šostakovič_(Дми́трий_Дми́триевич_Шостако́вич)

The author does a masterful job of laying all this out and it is clearly a labor of love. The lengthy bibliography, including many primary sources, and extensive source notes show the depth of research that went into the work, and he has obviously spent much time listening and interpreting the music.

However, for a large part of the siege account, Shostakovich is off stage as he was evacuated to Moscow fairly early on, leaving the narrative without an emotional focus. Additionally, there are some extended passages of musings and interpretation that slacken the pace, and just made me want to skip ahead.

Mr Anderson is honest in his author’s note, stating that “even the basic facts” of Shostakovich’s life are disputed. As he says in the text: “In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.” This leads to some rather awkward sentences using ‘supposedly’ and ‘apparently’ to qualify the composer’s words and actions.

Nonetheless, this attractively produced book brilliantly shows how Shostakovich’s music was integral to Russian culture and identity during these turbulent years of revolution, purges and war, and while Symphony for the City of the Dead’s appeal may be limited, it will find an appreciative audience both as a narrative read and research source.

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste


JumbiesThe Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Algonquin, 2015.

11 year-old Corrine lives on a Caribbean island that was inhabited by jumbies long before any people arrived. The malicious jumbies, who take all shapes, now live in the forest and the people keep away from it, but when Corrine goes in there, it triggers a whole chain of disastrous events.

Corrine lives with Pierre, her father; her mother died a long time ago and all she has left to remember of her is a stone pendant. Unbeknownst to her and Pierre, her mother was a jumbie who was won over by love. But now her evil sister, Severine, is out to get revenge on Corrine, Pierre, and the whole island population.

Tension is ratcheted up when Severine magically ensnares Pierre, and incites the jumbies to pour out of the forest to re-claim their original home. It is left, as the reader will already have guessed, to Corrine and her new friends, Asian Dru and orphan brothers Bouki and Malik, all well-rounded characters with virtues and flaws that make them authentic and likeable, to restore balance back to the island.

Inspired by Haitian folklore and written by Trinidadian Baptiste, there is a lusciously evocative sense of place, both the cerulean radiance of the coast and village, and the malevolent gloom of the forest. And though many of the folklore aspects of the tale will be familiar – sinister stepmother, changelings, heroine tested to her limits – the unfamiliar traditions of it make for an enticing and creepy read.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley


circus-mirandusCircus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
Dial, 2015.

Since the death of his parents, Micah Tuttle has lived with his beloved Grandfather Ephraim, and has thrilled to the oldtimer’s stories of his childhood visit to the magical Circus Mirandus. Now his dying grandfather has sent out a message to the Lightbender, one of the magicians from the Circus, who promised Ephraim a miracle many years ago. But as no reply seems to be coming to his message, Ephraim sends Micah in search of the Circus to bring the Lightbender to him.

This is one of those books that has a rosy glow about it as I read it, and the wonderful illustrations, by Diana Sudyka, capture both this charm and the slightly nostalgic magic of the Circus itself.CircusMirandusinside

I loved Micah and his prickly, pragmatic new friend, Jenny Mendoza. Aunt Gertrudis, who flies in when Ephraim is dying, is a wonderfully Durslian guardian, with a good backstory. And the Lightbender himself is a bit Dumbledorian too. The Circus scenes are magical, and, in one instance, shockingly tragic.

Is this a Christian allegory? – it feels like it could be. It’s certainly an exploration of faith and belief, juxtaposed onto magic (yet another Harry Potter similarity).

This was getting a big push at the ALA  annual conference, and lots of ARCs were being handed out. I do wonder a little about how widely this will appeal to kids, but there is definitely some sort of audience for this type of thoughtful fantasy.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez


out of darknessOut of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
Carolrhoda LAB, 2015

Set in East Texas in 1937, this compelling YA novel uses a real life explosion at a school as the backdrop and metaphor for the powerful racial tensions of the time. Mexican American Naomi and her half siblings move to New London, Texas, to live with white oil worker Henry Smith, Naomi’s stepfather and the twins’ father. The 7 year-old twins, Cari and Beto, who look white, settle in well at school, whereas teenaged Naomi, who does not, has to face her schoolmates who hate her or lust after her because of her skin color.

Into this mix comes Wash, a young African American man from an upright home, who is saving to go to college. He and Naomi fall in love, and the sizzling chemistry between the two is beautifully evoked. Starkly contrasted to this is the toxic tension between Henry, wavering from the born again Christian path, and Naomi.

The novel is direct about the harsh, brutal and commonplace racism that Naomi and Wash face, and they are both victims of casual and cruel taunts, with no redress. The novel is not all darkness, though: there is some kindness, love and friendship, but for Naomi the fear and the foreboding never really go away except when she is in the woods with Wash.

The book is split into short sections, told in the third person from different points of view: Naomi, Wash, Beto, Henry and the Gang – a chorus of racist teenagers. The rhythm and pace of the book is set by the length of these sections, gathering urgency in the explosive, both literal and metaphorical, last quarter of the book.

Ultimately, none of the characters can escape their fates, and the brutally shocking ending, along with all that has gone before it, make this a grueling and challenging but worthwhile and enormously important read. In the Author’s Note, Ms. Pérez (The Knife and the Butterfly, 2012) states “The work of this book…was to bring to light experiences and narratives that might otherwise go unacknowledged” and she has achieved that admirably.

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall


mars evacueesMars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall
Harper, 2015.

Narrated with entertainingly British self deprecation and sang froid by 12 year old Alice Dare, this intelligent and thought-provoking tween novel uses a scifi setting to mirror contemporary concerns about differences.

When the Morrors invaded Earth, they blocked out the sun to make the planet acceptably cold for themselves. Now with a new ice age threatening, and constant battles overhead, Alice and 300 other kids are evacuated to Mars, where terraforming has allowed human stations to be set up.

However, when all the adults disappear from their base, the kids quickly form into warring factions (a la Lord of the Flies), and Alice and her friends, Filipino-Australian brothers Carl and Noel, and Anglo African Josephine, are on the outs. So, along with Goldfish, a robot teacher, they decide to journey across unknown terrain to find another human base – a journey appealingly reminiscent of Andy Weir’s The Martian (Crown, 2014), as the kids have to use their ingenuity to MacGyver their way over obstacles and through alien attacks.

Much of life on Mars and on the gradually cooling Earth will be completely recognizable to 2015 kids: the main characters deal with difficulties in convincingly distinctive ways; relationships between families and peers haven’t changed; school, whether a traditional girls boarding school on Earth or with the hilariously self-important Goldfish on Mars will feel utterly familiar.

Similarly, the central dilemma of Mars Evacuees is a futuristic twist on a common current theme: how to react to the ‘other’: The invasion of Earth by the Morrors has caused Earth’s people to unite to fight back, but it is the kids’ empathy that shows a more positive way forward.

Though the book is a little slow to get going, its winning combination of attractive and diverse characters, cinematic world building, and smart scifi, will have broad appeal to middle schoolers, and with the sequel already published in the UK and getting great reviews, this is definitely a series to get started on now.

Judge Hayley


Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-LgOnce again I’m thrilled to have been selected as a judge for the Cybils – the awards for children’s and YA literature selected by book bloggers. For the fourth year, I will be joining some other fab bloggers to look at elementary and middle grade speculative fiction.

In my previous stints, we chose The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy, The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen and The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham – all excellent and highly entertaining reads.

The Cybil awards look at both literary merit and reader appeal, which (I think) gives them a leg up on the higher profile awards like the Newbery, which don’t have to take readers into account. Which, again in my opinion, is why they’ve sometimes ended up with some duffers that no kid would ever willingly read.

Anyway, the Cybils are currently in the nominations phase, which is followed by the panelist stage, in which some mighty speed-reading bloggers whittle the enormous list of nominations down to a manageable number. Then between January 1 and the middle of February, we judges read and pontificate, before selecting a winner!

A Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith


sense of the infiniteA Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith
Katherine Tegen Books, 2015.

Just before she started high school, Annabeth had found out the truth about her never-known father: he had raped her mother, and her subsequent pregnancy had forced her to leave college early.. Now Annabeth is starting senior year, and this festering knowledge, which she sees as a monster inside her, begins to affect her and her relationships.

Since freshman year, she and Noe have been the tightest of friends, though the dynamic of the friendship is clearly set that Noe has the power and Annabeth goes along with it. Annabeth now begins to tentatively branch away from Noe: She meets a boy at the homecoming dance, she makes friends with Noe’s latest boyfriend, and she sticks with their dream of going to Northern University, even as Noe decides to go to the local college.

As the narrator, Annabeth is a gem. She’s at heart a nature girl, but has sublimated this as Noe is not. However, it breaks through in her language: “All I knew was that I felt happy and loved, a trembling leaf on the great big tree of the world.” Ms. Smith (Wild Awake, 2013) has a masterly hand with similes that are often surprising and always evocative: “Some friendships ended all at once and some were like Athenian ships, each part slowly replaced over the years until one day, even if you had never left the deck, you couldn’t recognize it any more.”

The author brings a maturity to this novel that was slightly lacking in her debut, which I found a little overwrought. The characters are all as real as life and their responses to their situations feel true. The friendship between the two girls ricochets with authenticity as they grow and then break apart

The novel bracingly takes on some universal teen issues: bulimia, depression and closeted homosexuality. It may be controversial because of the matter of fact way that (spoiler alert) Annabeth enjoys a casual sexual encounter, finds out she’s pregnant and then has an abortion and refuses to feel sad or guilty, but I LOVED that.

As Annabeth, forever clutching her copy of (the fictional) How to Survive in the Woods by Wilda McLure , heads towards graduation and the next chapter in her life, her experiences have led her to a peace and resolution that feel truthful and optimistic.

With the subject matter and initial slow pacing, this one’s best for more mature teen readers.

The Leveller by Julia Durango


levellerThe Leveller by Julia Durango
HarperTeen, 2015

Set in the near future, this entertaining and fun YA scifi  thriller will appeal to gamers and dystopia fans. Nixy Bauer is a Leveller – she’s commissioned by parents to go into a virtual reality game world called the MEEP to haul their kids back into the real world: “I’m fast and I never fail to deliver.” Now she’s being asked by Diego Salvador, “zillionaire founder” of MeaParadisus Inc. aka MEEP to level his son, Wyn, who has apparently blockaded himself in his custom created virtual world behind a maze of obstacles, and isn’t planning to come back.

MEEP is nicely set up – teens can create their own worlds and their own avatars, all while in a trance in their own room. They can battle skeleton armies, tote laser guns and add physical enhancements to themselves, and be as brave, popular and attractive as they desire. But while a few questions are raised about the ethics of virtual reality versus its potential benefits, the emphasis is really on the action and a perfunctory romance.

Nixy’s narration is a combination of teen snark and hardboiled bounty hunter, quirkily laced with a couple of Norwegian curse words, and she is as confident and competent in the real world as she is in the virtual one. However, other characters including her game developer parents, her long time friends and her new lurve are thinly sketched, and the villain of the piece (or is s/he?) seems a little too convenient to be credible. Though some of the characters have possibly Hispanic and Asian names, there is little in their physical descriptions to confirm their ethnicity.

Much like the timer hacks that the gamers use to prolong their stay in the MEEP, Ms Durango has tacked on a few unanswered questions and a couple of loose ends to extend the book to a sequel. Please don’t do it. The Leveller is a fine read as a standalone but almost certainly won’t take the weight of a second book.

See No Color by Shannon Gibney


see no colorSee No Color by Shannon Gibney
Carolrhoda Lab, due out November 1, 2015.

This excellent novel about understanding identity focuses on 16 year-old Alexandra Kirtridge – a baseball phenom and a transracial adoptee, a person of color adopted into a white family. Up until now, her life has been focused on baseball, encouraged by her father, who is also her coach, but a series of events, precipitated by her 11 year-old sister asking “What do you all make of Alex being the only black person in our family?” causes her to examine deeply who she is.

Her parents have done what they feel is their best for her, but once Alex begins to explore who she is, she comes to believe that they have tried to make her white, like them. Instead of celebrating her blackness they proclaim that “We don’t even see color.”. She feels unmoored – the black kids at school bully her for her white clothes and speech, and her skin color separates from the white community. As Alex gropes towards understanding and owning herself, her first visit to a black hairdresser brilliantly encapsulates her and her family’s struggles.

Along her journey, she starts dating a black boy, seeks out her birth father and her physical development threatens her baseball star status. Each of these way markers brings Alex closer to understanding her present and future identity.

Alex is a well-written confused and searching teen, maybe somewhat autobiographical judging by the author’s blurb. There are no easy answers for her, and what she believes are solutions may not turn out to be. I found her emotional journey a little unsatisfying and somewhat muddled – it did not seem to evolve organically but rather was a series of plot points. But there is a wholly realistic feel to the resolution and Alex’s conviction that she knows her direction if not the endpoint.

There are few books for teens about transracial adoptees, so this culturally significant book should definitely be on the shelves of public and middle/high school libraries.