Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud


hollow boyThe Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 3
Disney Hyperion, 2015

In Lockwood & Co.’s strong third outing, Stroud continues to develop the characters and the world in ever more rich fashion. The Chelsea area of London is suffering an intense epidemic of supernatural hauntings, and all the top agencies are baffled about where the Source could be.

Meanwhile, the three psychic investigators at Lockwood & co – the charismatic Lockwood (I picture him as a youthful Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes), the nerdy and brilliant George, and the super Sensitive Lucy Carlyle, our narrator – are busy but with much lower profile cases. So busy, that Lockwood decides to bring in a new employee: “coffee-skinned” Holly Munro. Lucy immediately resents Holly’s elegant looks and efficient work-habits. And, even worse, her apparent appeal to Lockwood.

The first section in the book is a leisurely paced catch-up, and also serves well as an introduction to readers new to the series. Then the tempo, intensity and horror ratchet up as the agents work their way into the Chelsea hauntings, ending with a prolonged night of terror in an old department store. Ends are left open for another book.

Lucy is maturing into a young woman, in terms of both her skills and her emotions. She is a flawed and somewhat impetuous teen, and rather willful about using her ability to communicate with Visitors, particularly as this is more easily done without the usual protections.

Lucy’s deep attraction to Lockwood grows, and she learns more about his personal history. He continues to be the flamboyant figurehead of the agency and the book, and is starting to show some interesting weaknesses: he shows very little understanding of Lucy’s feelings, and closes off any discussion about that and about his past.

Holly is an excellent addition, not least for adding a darker skin tone, and also for the frisson of romantic tension she generates. George, after his bid for attention in the last book (The Whispering Skull, 2014), now appears to be happy to stay in his support role. The skull provides some welcome Bartimaeus-tinged light relief.

This is a middle grade series that shows no sign of flagging. Mr Stroud has created an extraordinarily detailed world peopled with fine three-dimensional characters, and guides them through a marvelously well-paced and intricate plot. Can’t wait for the next one.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman; illustrated by Brendan Shusterman.


challenger deepChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman; illustrated by Brendan Shusterman
HarperTeen, 2015.

Inspired by his son’s battle with mental illness, Neal Shusterman (Unwind series, Simon & Schuster) has written an intense, unsettling, but often witty and funny, YA novel putting the reader in the head of 15-year-old Caden Bosch, who suffers from a form of schizophrenia.

Initially, Challenger Deep is disorienting as the narrative moves between Caden’s increasingly unfocused reality and his delusional world on board a pirate ship. But once he is admitted to a juvenile psychiatric ward and put on a regime of therapy and medication, the connections and overlaps between his two realities become clearer.

As the ship heads towards Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean, the climactic, and metaphorical, choice for Caden between abandoning himself to the abyss, or fighting to ascend onto dry land comes into focus.inisde challenger deep

Wild swirling illustrations, full of intricate amorphous shapes by Brendan Shusterman, from his time “in the depths” pierce the text. There is also an author’s note on his family’s experience of mental illness and a thorough list of resources is included.

The challenging narrative structure and shrouded metaphors, along with bleak insights on mental illness and the frequently blunt way in which it is treated, make this a book for mature readers.

(Note: This was the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – hurrah!)

The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond


tightrope walkersThe Tightrope Walkers by David Almond
Candlewick, 2015.

Set in Tyneside, England in the 1960’s, this magnificent, poetic novel examines a life balanced between past and present, good and evil, peace and violence.

Dominic is the son of a manual laborer at a shipyard, but in the post-war era of crumbling class hierarchies, his sharp mind gives him an alternative to this path, through a grammar school education. He dreams of being a writer and, though not altogether fitting in at the middle class school, he does well.

Dom has two significant relationships outside his family, both friends from early childhood. He shares the delight in literature and poetry, as well as hippie ideals, with artistic Holly Stroud, whose father has a white collar job at the shipyard; she represents the light, the angelic, the heavenly side of Dom’s life. Satanic Vincent McAlinden keeps his feet down in the muck, and he and Dom kill small animals, go thieving, fight and kiss. And in the middle is the tightrope that Holly can dance on, and Dom stutters and wavers across.

The ethereal writing shows both the glory of the heavens and the rooted appeal of the earth, and Dom drifts between both, neither wholly of one or the other. The lyrical passages in the hills outside their town sharply contrast with Dom’s matter of fact and matey day working in the shipyard.

Particularly lovely is the family dynamic. Mam leads the way, literally and metaphorically, for Holly and Dom on the tightrope. His father plays the hard man, but his tender feelings for his son emerge, and it becomes clear that it is only the timing of his birth that has destined him to work as a caulker.

Sadly, the deeply evocative reflection of both the time, and, particularly, the place, with its dialect and unfamiliar customs, will likely limit the appeal of this novel. However, mature teen readers will relish Almond’s assured, graceful, and fluid use of language.

The Fall by James Preller


the fallThe Fall by James Preller
Feiwel and Friends, 2015.

After his classmate Morgan Mallen commits suicide, Sam Proctor writes in a journal to examine his role in her death.

Morgan was relentlessly cyberbullied, with alpha girl Athena goading others to do it, including Sam. But Sam did more than just write (among other things) “I’d rather crawl inside an aardvark’s asshole than spend two minutes with you” on Morgan’s webpage. he had started a friendship in real life with her, but one he was too embarrassed, ashamed and scared to take public.

The writing is spare and straightforward, and authentically captures the voice of an adolescent boy, with its earnestness, flashes of humor and occasional whining. Each chapter is short, as Sam only commits to writing for 15 minutes a day, and the subject of the daily entries moves between the past and the present.

Initially, Sam seeks self-exoneration for his actions: others wrote far worse, other called her names in the corridors at school, others dictated the rules of the game. After all, Sam is a “nice guy”, and a follower, “happy going along for the ride.”. But he gradually realizes that he did play a significant role in Morgan’s death, even if he would never think of himself as a bully.

I found the ending a little unsatisfactory. The bad girl gets her social, if not legal, comeuppance, and Sam exposes the hypocrisy of his classmates. But though he is now fully aware of the damage his actions have done, he is let off the hook by an unlikely plot twist.

This book should be widely read by middle schoolers. The subject is topical and though Mr. Preller doesn’t really offer new insights, he does a sound job of showing the animal ugliness and herd mentality of contemporary bullying, along with gently suggesting how it could be counteracted.

(Note: even though his book has now been published, this review is of an ARC)

Inside Elections series


mediaMedia: From News Coverage to Political Advertising by Sandy Donovan
Political Parties: From Nominations to Victory Celebrations by Stephanie Mcpherson
Special Interests: From Lobbyists to Campaign Funding by Sandy Donovan
Voters: From Primaries to Decision Night by Robert Grayson
Lerner, 2015.

This is typically not the sort of book I review, or indeed even read. However, even though I’ve been in the U. S. for nearly 20 years, I still find the political system a little confusing, so when these books popped up on the review table, I grabbed them, mostly for personal interest. And they proved to be very informative, nicely laid out and all round pretty good for a politically curious middle schooler. They are, however, stingingly expensive at $26.65 each for 64 pages.

With a much broader scope than typical middle grade books about elections, each book in the Inside Elections series contains an in-depth look at a key factor that can influence the results of an election: the media, special interests, political parties, and voters.

Media looks at the role of political advertising, news coverage and the Internet in influencing the outcome. Special Interests  examines campaign funding and the people and organizations behind it. Political Parties looks at minority parties, factions and how they work to get candidates elected. Voters takes on the fiendishly complex voting system.special interests

The text heavy books are made more readable by being broken into short chapters with multiple headings, bullet-pointed lists, graphics, tables, colored sidebars and photographs. Keeping a strictly neutral line, the books show pros and cons on such topics as social media’s role in election discussions, and super PACs.

Each books includes sources notes, a glossary, selected bibliography, further information, and an index.

Up to date, timely, and offering opposing viewpoints, these books are recommended for middle school and public libraries, and their readers who want to know more about what goes on behind the scenes in the U. S. electoral system.

Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco by Judith Robbins Rose


look both waysLook Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco by Judith Robbins Rose
Candlewick, 2015.

11-year-old Mexican American Jacinta wants an Amiga like her friend Angélica has – someone to take her places and buy her things. She sees her chance when local news anchor Kathryn Dawson Dahl comes to their youth center to do a report. Jacinta manages to worm her way into Miss’s life, and begins to enjoy what she perceives as the power and privilege that goes with being white.

But Jacinta’s family circumstances are fragile: her parents are undocumented and Mamá is back in Mexico with her sick mother, and has no easy way to get back; her family in America are living hand to mouth, working low paid jobs with no security. When her father is arrested and deported, Jacinta gets to see that even being white and a media star doesn’t help, and sometimes hinders, when you are up against the system.

Though the author is white, she seems to have been thoroughly grounded in the community she writes about and has a strong empathy with the families in these dire circumstances.This is pitched at middle graders and doesn’t spare the challenges of life outside the barrio blanco, nor does it shy from showing the unthinkingly exertion of white privilege.

Jacinta can be a bit of a pill – she’s jealous and very self-centered, though this is, of course, entirely reflective of a real tween. But she does learn about herself and becomes aware of her position straddling the line of two lives, and not entirely fitting in with either.

Though Jacinta’s life does reach a relatively neat resolution, the author makes it credible as well. The white family will still be part of it, but is not the lifeboat that Jacinta first thought it could be. Her family is still spread across two countries and their economic challenges will not go away. But Jacinta has discovered the power of education, and the power within herself to make changes.

I think this is a terrific middle grade book that puts real faces onto the political issue of undocumented immigrants. I just wish the girl in the otherwise appealing cover illustration had looked more Mexican.

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce


astounding broccoli boyThe Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Walden Pond Press, 2015.

11 year-old Rory Rooney has been a target for bullies, and now, to make things worse, his skin has turned a broccoli shade of green. And then it turns out that the only other occupant in the isolation ward he’s put in is none other than his nemesis from school, Tommy-Lee ‘Grim’ Komissky.

Inspired by comic book heroes, Rory comes to the obvious conclusion: being green has made them Super, and it seems that he can now “slightly teleport” and has a “200 percent brain”, and Tommy-Lee can open any locked door. But with the ‘Killer Kittens’ cat flu virus rampaging across England, and reports of aliens terrorizing London, it seems that these self-styled Knights of Green have never been more needed.

Written with a deliciously straight face, this novel has all the absurd comic elements you’d expect from the author of Millions (2005) and Cosmic (2010). The two unlikely companions have several slapstick night time escapades in London, including releasing all the animals from the zoo, and accidentally breaking into Buckingham Palace.

Along the way, they are joined by a third green kid, the mightily knowledgeable and bossy Koko Kwok. There is a lightly touched on examination of race, which is perfectly pitched at the likely reader. The three kids were originally “Chinese, pinkish white, [and] kind of brown [Rory is Guyanese-Irish]”, and Koko suggests that if everyone were the same shade of green, there could be “Peace and Harmony”.

The plot may be a little long-winded for an upper elementary/lower middle grade read, and some of the British colloquialisms could be confusing. but as the three kids learn about their real strengths, and their friendships deepen, the plot rattles along to a dramatic and exciting climax. All is revealed in the end, though the reader, even without an Astounding brain, may have worked it out well before Rory does.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson


nimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson
HarperTeen, 2015.

Ballister Blackheart, archvillain and nemesis of heroic Ambrosius Goldenloin, suddenly finds himself with a new sidekick – a young girl called Nimona. Nimona is a highly gifted shape-shifter – she can switch from shark to cat to dragon and back supersmoothly.

But it turns out the real villain at work here is Goldenloin’s boss at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, who is plotting against the kingdom.  In fact, the lines between good and evil turn out to be very much grayer than the names suggest – hatchet-faced Blackheart is actually quite warmhearted, and blond-tressed Sir Goldenloin is a weak and malleable pawn of the Institution. And for supposed arch-enemies, their bond goes back a long way, and is intriguingly fluid.nimona characters

Nimona is a sharp-witted, punky, and determined protagonist, and one that is not quite the naif she first appears to be. And further compounding the play on stereotypes, Nimona shows herself to have more of a thirst for evil deeds than Blackheart does, as she eggs him on to commit acts of villainy.

I loved the world that Ms. Stevenson has created here: it is a full-blown medieval kingdom with knights, wenches, jousting and castles; but it also is equipped with the most up-to-date technology.

blackheartThe illustrations, which are laid out in traditional panels, are focused more on the characters, who convey much with minimal lines, than on the settings which are as minimal as you might find in a black box theater. I found some of the details of the images a little hard to distinguish, and some of the type a little on  the small side (getting old here), so I do feel like a larger format book would give the graphics just a bit more room to breathe.

Originally an award-winning webcomic, I think Nimona will be as successful as Ms Stevenson’s previous book Lumberjanes (BOOM! Box, 2015), and could well have the same middle grade crossover appeal as the graphic novels of Raina Telegemeier.