Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Totally Awkward Love Story by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison


atotallyawkwardlovestoryA Totally Awkward Love Story by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison
Random House, May, 2016.

Hannah and Sam meet up in a bathroom at a party to celebrate the end of A Levels, and despite their instant attraction have to overcome many obstacles and misunderstandings before finally getting together.

Hannah (written by Ms Ivison) and Sam (written by Mr Ellen) alternate narration in this extremely raunchy, and laugh out loud funny romance. These British teenagers, on the brink of leaving school and going to college or on a gap year, spend their time drinking, smoking weed, and obsessing with their friends about sex and finding The One. I so recognized that frenzied talking about boys and sex at that age. It seems that nothing else is really that important, even though going to university is, ultimately, going to have a much more lasting impact on life.

The novel is set in a white, middle-class, heterosexual West London, and there are some changes from Anglicisms to Americanisms to keep comprehensibility up that most readers won’t notice. It’s contemporary, in the sense that all the characters have cellphones and text each other, but the sensibilities of the characters and the plot arc are such that it could have been written about my teenage years in the last century.

Hannah is a familiar figure from YA lit – the girl who thinks she’s not good enough but then, astonishingly, attracts all sorts of dishy boys. Nonetheless she’s funny, sharp, and the sort of person you’d want to spend time with. I thought the portrayal of Hannah’s friend Stella was particularly astute and recognizable. She’s the girl who likes to be in control of the social situation, and who likes to be the center of attention. She claims to put her friends first, but at crunch time, she doesn’t. The other characters, including the boys and the largely absent adults, seem a bit more generic but raise some smiles and a few nods of familiarity.

The plot, while totally contrived, moves along at a decent pace and there are some standout sections including the girls’ holiday to a Greek island (which reminded me so much of a Club 18-30 vacation I had with some friends on Rhodes) and the muddy fields of a music festival.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in a sun lounger reading this, and I’m sure many teens will do the same on a real or metaphorical beach.

Reviewed from an ARC.



The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan


bittersideofsweetThe Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
Putnam, 2016.

Set in Cote d’Ivoire, this novel brings to immediate life the horrors of cacao farming with child slaves. I’ll never feel the same about eating chocolate again.

Two years ago, 15 year-old Amadou and his 8 year old brother Seydou left their family’s drought-ridden farm in Mali to get work, but end up on a cacao farm in central Cote d’Ivoire where they are unpaid, routinely beaten, and have given up hope of ever getting home. When 13 year-old Khadija is brought to the farm, things change dramatically. For a start, she is a girl, the only girl they’ve ever seen at the farm, and she doesn’t seem to be from a Malian farm like the rest of the slaves. She immediately tries to escape, but is caught and becomes entangled in Amadou and Seydou’s lives. After brutal beatings, and much worse, the three attempt to escape, but even if they get away from the farm can they ever be safe again?

The bond between the two brothers, and then with Khadija, is gorgeously written. Arnadou’s unadorned but emotionally resonant narration shows his intense love and protectiveness for Seydou, that can also turn into the profound irritation that any sibling will recognize. Though simple farm boys – neither can read and they have little experience of urban or middle class environments – the brothers have a natural savvy, and their naivete is balanced out by their courage. When Khadija’s story finally emerges, it is a terrific way of blending facts about the chocolate trade into this fiction.

Using her experience of child labor, the author has crafted a gripping and shocking story that puts a face to a tragedy that is on the other side of the world, but which we are all complicit in. If we didn’t want cheap candy, or if we cared about where it came from, then the chain that she describes, in which farmers make next to nothing so don’t pay their workers, could not exist. She doesn’t spare us any of the brutality that her characters suffer, but manages to keep a flicker of hope for them.

The backmatter has a glossary and gives further sources to explore the issue of child exploitation.

As well as being a riveting story, Bitter Side is sure to capture the attention of teens who are invested in issues of social justice.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Dark Energy by Robison Wells


dark energyDark Energy by Robison Wells
Harper Collins, April 2016.

I’ve read most of Robison Wells’ books and have really enjoyed the combination of interesting set ups and fast-paced action, and have always appreciated that he writes duologies, thus getting rid of the boring middle book in a trilogy at a stroke.

Dark Energy is, for the most part, a terrifically paced, tightly plotted scifi thriller set in the right now. A massive alien spaceship has crashed into the Midwest, killing thousands, and Alice’s NASA bigwig Dad is called in. Rather than leave her behind in Miami, he enrolls her into the tony Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. When the inhabitants of the spaceship finally emerge, they are surprisingly human looking, and two of them are placed at Minnetonka, but it is only when the spaceship is being explored that it emerges that all is not what it seems.

The pacing of the majority of this novel is superlative. As Alice settles into school there is little indication of the drama yet to come: she makes friends, she finds romance, and she learns the ropes. When aliens Coya and Susika are introduced to the school, there is some fun with them not knowing the ways of human world, including not understanding Alice’s teen snark, as well as some mysteries: why won’t they talk about their mother? Why don’t they wear shoes? Then the tone darkens considerably as Alice and her friends are invited by her Dad to come into the spaceship to document it. What they find is sickening and raises some big questions.

The final section, however, lost me a bit. As the true aliens emerge, they feel slightly silly early-Dr Who monsterry, and the pace becomes frantically fast and felt muddled. I felt a lot was not resolved satisfactorily, despite an end-tying up epilogue. It appears that this is a standalone, though frankly, as I was racing towards the end, I didn’t think it was going to be, as there was so much left unexplained.

Dark Energy is a step forward for the author in terms of characterization. Alice is a fully rounded, not always likeable, smart teenage girl and the support characters, including her two science nerd roommates, and her potential love interest are all several cuts above cardboard.

Alice’s mother was Navajo and, confounding my initial dark thoughts of token diversity, Navajo rituals and traditions are integral to the plot. According to the author’s note at the end, he has some personal experience of these and has run his writing past experts. I’m no Debbie Reese, and I’m sure she will thoroughly analyze Dark Energy, but it does appear to me that Mr Wells has done his due diligence and used his knowledge respectfully. Update: Debbie Reese has reviewed Dark Energy and does not recommend it.

I hope between ARC and publication, the ending will get sorted out because I feel this could be Mr Wells’ best novel to date. However, even as it stands, it will have plenty of appeal to teen readers who enjoy scifi in a current day setting, and those who look out for strong female leads.

Thanks to Harper Collins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Just a couple of postscript gripes. The title seems a bit lame and generic – there’s a prologue that sort of justifies it, but that feels bolted on and even says “This story isn’t about dark energy.” And the cover (at least on the digital arc) appears to show a truck, whereas Alice’s car is, crucially, a BMW 550i GT.

The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle


the-great-american-whateverThe Great American Whatever by Tim Federle
Simon & Schuster, 2016.

6 months ago, 17 year-old Quinn Roberts’ sister was killed in a car accident, and since then 17-year-old Quinn and his mother have withdrawn into their home – no school, no paying bills, eating junk food. Now Quinn’s best friend is determined to get him back out of his shell, and over the course of a few days, Quinn comes to understand both himself and his sister more, as well as try some new experiences, before setting his course for the future.

Quinn narrates with charm and wit, often breaking the fourth wall to address the reader directly. He is gay, but believes, erroneously, that nobody in his life knows this, unjustifiably afraid that it will shock and repulse his friends and family. He is a movie buff and aspiring screenwriter and there is much entertainment from him re-writing scenes in his life as a screenplay so they play out the way they should do, as well as plenty of movie references and recommendations

There are some surprises along the way: Quinn’s first relationship, with college student Amir, turns out to be a short-lived fling, but a great start to his romantic life; and he discovers he didn’t know his sister nearly as well as he thought.

Federle has written a couple of middle grade stories about a theater loving kid, and fans of those novels will have no trouble recognizing his style, albeit raunchier and less sugar-coated in this one. His tone is an easy sweetness that is appealing and comforting, if not boundary challenging (though I’ve just noticed that Kirkus calls Quinn “A Holden Caulfield for a new generation,” so maybe I’m wrong about that).

Apparently this was initially drafted as an adult novel with all the characters ten years older and there is a hangover of this in that a 30-year old character feels a rather more jaundiced 40. It definitely makes sense to young it up for a YA audience, and those who have read and enjoyed his previous middle grade novels, as well of fans of well-written easy reading realistic novels, will find plenty to like here.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

The Parent Agency by David Baddiel; illustrated by Jim Field


parent agencyThe Parent Agency by David Baddiel; illustrated by Jim Field
Harper, May 2015.

Today it’s part two of debut-children’s-novels-from-British-comedians-who were-famous-before-I-left-Britain-in-1997 week! Today’s author, David Baddiel, is best remembered by me for the History Today sketches that he did with Rob Newman. As with Julian Clary (Monday’s author), Mr. Baddiel has since gone on to many more things.

Barry Bennett keeps a list of why his parents are inadequate: they’re poor, boring, tired all the time, won’t let him do what he wants to do, and seem to like his younger twin sisters more than him. After an argument with his Dad about his imminent tenth birthday party, Barry is transported to an alternative world, where the kids are in charge and they get to choose their parents.

The story is structured so that over the course of five days, Barry gets to try a set of parents that are the opposite of each one of his parents’ failings: the fabulously wealthy Rader-Wellorffs, the famous Vlassorina pair, the fitness fanatical Fwahms!, the lackadiasical Cools, and the Bustles who act like they prefer him to their twin daughters. Each segment is amusingly broad, and the quest structure keeps things moving along nicely. Of course this is a tale of the grass being greener on the other side, and readers won’t be surprised by Barry’s final decision.

The slapsticky, often potty, occasionally questionable, humor will appeal to elementary grade readers, and Jim Field’s cartoony illustrations fit perfectly with this tone. However, many of the jokes are really pitched to adults, and British ones to boot – few kids (or Americans) are going to get that Jamie Gherkiner is a play on Jamie Oliver. Additionally, some of the word play is a bit strained: Countries in the alternative reality include United Kid Dom and Boysnia Herzogeweeny.

Barry is a typically self-centered nearly ten-year-old, and many kids will be able to relate to his frustrations with his parents. However at times he can be a bit selfish and, occasionally, rather mean. Of course, this is part of his ‘journey’ as he grows to realize that loving parents don’t necessarily have all the superficial trappings he might want, nor will they give in to his every whim. The ending is entirely expected but satisfying nonetheless, even if it is a little corny and very unlikely.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the eARC.

The Bolds by Julian Clary


BoldsThe Bolds  by Julian Clary; illustrated by David Roberts
Carolrhoda, 2016

This week is debut-children’s-novels-from-British-comedians week! Or to be even more precise debut-children’s-novels-from-British-comedians-who were-famous-before-I-left-Britain-in-1997 week! Today we have a book from Julian Clary, best known to me for his partnership with Fanny the Wonder Dog, as the Joan Collins Fan Club, but who has since moved on to many other things. Thursday will be David Baddiel.

This amiable and silly elementary grade fantasy about a hyena family, the Bolds, who live as humans, subtly takes on fitting in, tolerance, and difference.

In the guise of two British tourists who get eaten by crocodiles, an African hyena couple move to suburban England, get jobs, have children, and make friends with everyone except their grumpy neighbor, Mr. McNumpty. It is only when they visit a safari park and meet another family of hyenas, that they decide to do something potentially very foolish.

Camp British TV personality and comedian Clary’s somewhat nannyish narration gives zip to this episodically structured novel. The Bolds, like all stereotypical hyenas, laugh uproariously at everything and their buoyant optimism and can do attitude gives the novel charm. Roberts’ ebullient and toothy illustrations and Mr. Bold’s many corny jokes – his job is to write the riddles for Christmas crackers – keep the tone playful, and there’s some potty humor thrown in as well.

It would have been nice for there to have been a suggestion that there is more to Africa than wild animals and safaris, but this is just not that sort of book. Amusing and cheerful, this will have wide appeal to reluctant readers, as well as lovers of the absurd.

Summerlost by Allie Condie


Summerlost_BOM.inddSummerlost by Allie Condie
Dutton, 2016.

Ally Condie’s (Matched trilogy) first middle grade realistic novel is a warmly touching story of grief, dreams and differences.

12 year-old biracial Chinese-American Cedar Lee and her younger brother, Miles, and mother are recovering from the death of her father and other brother, Ben. Settling into a new summer home in the town of Iron Creek Utah, Cedar starts to come to terms with her grief as she makes a friend, Leo, and they get jobs at the Summerlost Shakespeare festival, where they investigate the long ago death of one of the stars, Lisette Chamberlain.

The book doesn’t seem quite sure of what it is – a mystery? A supernatural fantasy? Or both these things lightly mixed into a coming of age story. In the end all the different threads just fizzle out leaving nothing but Cedar’s strong bond with her family and her growing friendship with Leo against the backdrop of the festival.

Condie skillfully show different facets of Cedar’s intense anguish about the loss of her father and brother. She is angry at the randomness of their deaths, caused by a drunk driver: “It’s not right that something so big, your entire life, depends on a million tiny things.” Small objects appear on her windowsill that remind of Ben, and she and Miles become deeply invested in a macabre plot-line in a soap opera. Yet she also guiltily recognizes that Ben, who was mentally disabled, could be annoying and demanding.

Cedar knows what it’s like to be different as she resembles her Chinese father but lives in her mother’s White world. She has also experienced it through people’s reactions to Ben. She bonds with Leo because he marches to his own drummer, though there is (maybe) a hint that there is something more to his social unconventionality.

Though this is completely different to her YA dystopic Matched trilogy, Condie’s name is probably enough to get this into middle grade collections and into the hands of readers who enjoy sweet, emotionally satisfying reads.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas


darkest-cornersThe Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas
Delacorte Press, April, 2016

Inspired in part by the West Memphis Three, this is a gripping but muddled and overwrought mystery set in the white community of Fayette, PA.

Ten years after Tessa Lowell and Callie Greenwood were key witnesses in the conviction of the Ohio River Monster, killer of four young women including Tessa’s cousin, another murder takes place which raises doubts that the right man is now on death row. Filled with guilt that they may have been instrumental in an innocent man’s conviction, Tessa and Callie, now 18 years old, decide to investigate the murders themselves.

The blue collar milieu is evoked well, particularly that of the bored and prospectless teens, and the author does a good job of showing the long term effect the murders had on the families in this small town community. Tessa’s narration is fairly standard disaffected teen girl, though her dysfunctional family background is vividly written.

The oddly paced plot is filled with wheel-spinning dead ends followed by an overstuffed finale that lacks suspense. Coincidences abound, and a late entering twist offer a satisfying, if not particularly credible, solution.

I reviewed this from an ARC, so it may well be tightened up before publication, and heavy promotion suggests that the publisher has confidence that this serial killer psychological thriller will intrigue teen readers.

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes


bayou magicBayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2015.

This is my last review from the Cybil shortlist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Though it wasn’t one of my top contenders, it’s an enjoyable and well-written fantasy set in the Bayou Bon Temps on the Gulf Coast. And it has African mermaids

Nearly ten-year old Maddy Lavalier Johnson is the last of her family to leave New Orleans for a bayou summer with her grandmere. Unlike her prissy older sisters, she loves running through the bayou, getting dirty, and becoming friends with Bear, a neighborhood boy. As they airboat around the swamp, her grandmother’s mystical tales of her ancestors start to come to life, and when tragedy strikes, Maddy is able to realize her dream of being a hero.

There’s an excitingly rich stew of ideas in here: Nature vs. the city, what being a friend means, environmentalism, African culture, and family lineage. But because it’s a short book, I think some of the ideas get a bit short-changed. The plot makes some jarring leaps, and it feels a bit over-stuffed sometimes, with the characters talking in shorthand.

And there’s a equally enticing stew of characters. Maddy at age ten is characterized by “Change. Energy. Luck.” and Bear at eleven is “Patient. Sensitive.” These two, along with wise Grandmere make an appeal central trio, and there’s a whole bunch of support characters that feel authentic without getting into Southern Whimsy. Maddy and a majority of the characters are African American, and the evocation of the community as well as its physical and spiritual roots make this a truly diverse book.

The writing is sensitively done – it feels crafted without being over-written; and the foreshadowing of the environmental tragedy is really well done. There’s an occasional slip into didacticism, particularly when Grandmere is demonstrating an oil spill, but it is useful information and will appeal to environmentally conscious kids.

The first third of the book worked really well for me, but after that it gets a bit too hurried and crammed. Nonetheless, this unusual blend of magical realism and real life tragedy should have a wide audience.