Monthly Archives: June 2016

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

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when-i-was-the-greatestWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum, 2014
Audiobook read by J.B. Adkins

This award-winning slice of life from a rundown block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn is chock full of heart. 16 year-old Allen Brooks aka Ali, is the narrator and our guide to his friends, family, and neighbors, and the events of one summer.

With a meandering and leisurely plot, the author focuses on creating fully rounded, authentic, endearing, and sometimes flawed, primary and secondary characters. Ali himself has been training with boxing coach Joe Malloy for years – hence his nickname – but is too scared to actually enter a fight. He has an inner moral compass, strength, and light, that makes you pull for him all the way. And you can see the roots of this integrity from his family – Doris the strict matriarch, Jazz, his younger sister with an old soul, and John his estranged and still loving Dad.

Also central are the two brothers who live in a broken down apartment next door: Noodles is Ali’s best friend and is full of anger and pride, and Needles, a gentle spirit with Tourette’s Syndrome, who manages his outbursts by knitting.

After a relaxed introduction and tour of the neighborhood, the narrative focuses on the boys going to an illicit, adults-only party. It’s punching way above their weight, and what happens there sets the course for the rest of novel.

But really, the plot is not the point. Though there is an ominous gun on the cover, albeit one in a crocheted cover, it is not the sort of ‘urban fiction’ (a label which I find patronizing) with gangs and gunfights. Instead we are shown the tight knit love, family ties, and loyalty of real, sometimes troubled, people.

This is a character-driven novel which is not usually my cup of tea, but listening to it was a delightful and engrossing experience. J. B. Adkins reads with a vivacity, humor, and innocent excitement that brings all the characters to rich life, though I somewhat question the way he reads Needles to make him sound a little simple, but maybe that’s the way it’s written.

This is my first Jason Reynolds novel, and as he has several other YA books about the contemporary black experience, it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

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lie treeThe Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2016.

Frances Hardinge has the whole package – her plots are sinuously creative, her characters are full of light and shade, and her writing is beautifully crafted without feeling in the least bit labored. I gushed about Cuckoo Song a while back, but sadly have not written reviews of her earlier books; I would encourage you to seek them out, particularly the two Mosca Mye books, Fly by Night and Fly Trap, which are as brilliant as her other books, plus are snortingly funny.

And here is a review of her latest, which was shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Carnegie prize. The Lie Tree has all Hardinge’s signature creativity, smart and stylish writing, and deep characterization, woven into a gloriously evoked Victorian mystery.

The Lie Tree is set in the late 1860’s, 9 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. With disgrace in the natural history world looming, the ramrod proper Reverend Erasmus Sunderly has taken his family to Vane, a fictitious Channel Island, under the pretext of getting involved in a cave excavation there. But the scandal follows them to Vane and now, ostracized by the local gentlemen naturalists, the Reverend behaves erratically, as he seeks to hide and protect a plant specimen that he believes has fantastic powers.

His daughter, 14-year-old Faith, is the novel’s protagonist and is a typical Hardinge creation: outwardly she is “dull. prim, shy” with “wooden features and a mud-brown plait”, but inwardly she seethes with ‘unladylike’ intelligence and curiouslty, which she both relishes and is nauseated by. Told by her father that “A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing”, she strives to fit in, but her acuity won’t let her as events on the island take a dramatic turn.

The setting and contemporary mores are crucial to this novel, particularly the perception of women as lesser than men. As one character comments the female mind is “quite delightful in its own right! But too much intellect would spoil and flatten it, like a rock in a soufflé.” On the verge of adulthood herself, Faith sees her mother using coquettish charm to bend men to her will, and burns at the humiliation of it, without realizing that Myrtle is using one of the few tools allowed to her.

And I’ve gone all this way without even mentioning that this is a fantasy novel. The Mendacity Tree of the title is a marvelous creation at the center of the plot, as well as being a device to give devious power to Faith.

But for me, this is more about the emergence of a young woman accepting herself, using her sharp mind, and preparing to take society head on. Ideal for readers who want to do the same.

Just a note on the American cover: Did the illustrator actually read the book?

The Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy

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last full measureThe Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy
Divided We Fall, Bk 3
Scholastic/Levine, 2016

The 2nd Civil War, which 18 year-old Danny Wright was accidentally instrumental in starting, rages on as more states secede from the Union. Danny and friends are now back in Freedom Lake, Iowa, which is firmly under the thumb of the white supremacist Brotherhood of the White Eagle. Danny is no longer interested in fighting, and can think only of getting out of the war, so when he comes across a resistance movement that is planning to do just that, he is eager to join. But can he ever truly escape?

This lengthy final book in the trilogy once again gives Danny many moral challenges and decisions to make, and many bullet-intense action sequences. However, unnecessarily longwinded news bulletins, from the rest of Pan America and the world which is crumbling into World War III, slow the pace to a crawl and take the focus off the main story.

Does this work as a possible parable for the near future? Parallels are drawn with the Nazis in World War II, and some of the language and arguments put in the mouths of characters in the book, both national and international, is not too far off what we’re hearing now. Though Danny himself does not “give a shit about any of that liberal versus conservative stuff”, I suspect that with the possibility of President Donald Trump looming, many readers may be more politically conscious. There is even a sly poke at Trump, as Mexico closes the border to fleeing Americans.

Reedy has succeeded rather too well in giving his protagonist the authentic voice of a not particularly well-educated or articulate teen boy, and while this was not too much of an issue in the first two books, it becomes very grating now – the number of times Danny describes something as “jacked-up” is off the charts, and describing his girlfriend as hot because she is carrying a rifle feels distinctly icky. Danny’s close friends still don’t have much dimension, and the plethora of other characters are usually nothing more than a string of names, though I grew rather fond of Mrs Pierce, the elderly and sage leader of the resistance.

With the now-requisite death of a major character, and a somewhat foreboding ending, Reedy finishes off the trilogy in what should be a satisfying and emotional way. However, by that point I was just skimming through to get to the end, so I was more than a little disappointed that what had started out so promisingly in Divided We Fall, ended up an overly ambitious and somewhat flabby damp squib.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern

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just my luckJust My Luck by Cammie McGovern
Harper, 2016.

After the exceptionally good YA novels Say What You Will and A Step Toward Falling, both featuring protagonists with physical and/or mental disabilities, Ms McGovern has now successfully turned her sights on middle graders, with the quiet and sweet Just My Luck, narrated by a character who has family members with these challenges

4th grader Benny Barrows has his own struggles with spelling, math and friendships, as well as coping with the demands of an autistic brother, and now his father has suffered a brain aneurysm, which Benny feels partially responsible for, and is still not his old self.

Benny is an observant and thoughtful kid, and seeing the world through his narration gives readers an opportunity to appreciate a life full of personal and family problems: “The one thing you’ve learned in fourth grade is that you’re bad at everything that comes easily to other people.” But Benny is as stoic as his mother who holds the family together financially and more importantly, emotionally: “You don’t think you could ever, in a million years, handle it, and then it happens and you do.”

Benny has a talent for making stop motion videos with his Lego minifigs, and he uses this as a way of expressing his feelings, as Yoda, for example, says “People you still are, though look different you do.” He is also inspired by Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard, and while Debbie Reese will doubtless not approve, it does at least come with a warning about negative stereotypes from Benny’s mom.

The plot culminates in a Barrows family carnival to raise money to pay some of the father’s medical bills, and they find that friends, neighbors, and classmates have been eager to pitch in and support the Barrows, but did not know how to do it. It seems a little unrealistic, however, to think that the $600 raised will do anything other than make a very small dent in the healthcare costs.

The author has used her experience working with mentally challenged kids to craft a modest book full of thoughtful wisdom, which will appeal to kids who have enjoyed Cynthia Lord’s Rules.

I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan

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i woke up dead at the mallI Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan
Delacorte, 2016

In this inventive and charming YA supernatural romance, 16 year-old Sarah Evans wakes up dead in Minnesota’s Mall of America, still in the mango chiffon bridesmaid’s dress she was wearing when she was poisoned at her father’s wedding. Along with a group of other murdered young New Yorkers, Sarah must deal with unfinished business from the living world in order to move on to the next life.

Playwright Sheehan has constructed a clever and entertaining afterlife, though it doesn’t always make logical sense. The teens must work their way out of Limbo through revisiting a day in their lives, going to their funerals, and sharing in a therapy group. Their “death coach” Bertha, is an Angel, and there is an authority figure, but this hereafter does not overtly fit into any specific religious tradition.

Sarah’s lively, funny narration, liberally sprinkled with morbid wordplay, brings a light touch to this grim situation. She starts a forbidden-in-the-afterlife romance with Nick, and though their attraction in death is instant, it emerges that they have glancingly met many times in real life but never connected. The other teens, apparently all white though economically diverse, are an endearing bunch, and we learn about their lives and deaths as they each find peace and move on to their next incarnations.

With the message that life is precious and you should enjoy it while you can, wrapped up in a humorous and heartfelt story, this will have wide appeal for teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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raven kingThe Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
Raven Cycle, Bk. 4
Scholastic, 2016

Bringing this magnificent series to a close, The Raven King is a satisfyingly good, if not great, conclusion. There’s an elegiac feel to it, as we know it’s the conclusion of the series, and we have only one last time with our Raven Cycle friends: “king” Gansey, dreamer Ronan, magician Adam, psychic amplifier Blue, and dead Noah – all last seen in Blue Lily, Lily Blue (2014) – are joined by a new friend, Chinese-Korean Henry Cheng.

Magical forest Cabeswater is threatened by a demon that unmakes anything magical or dream-created, and the gang feel the only way to rescue it is to finally find centuries-long sleeper, Owain Glendower, and use the favor granted when waking him. They had always set this favor aside to save Gansey who, it has been foretold, will die this year after a true love’s kiss from Blue.

However, it takes almost 100 pages for the novel to get into its stride. There is a lot of catching up and scene setting which, while essential for readers new to the series, and useful for those of us who have forgotten, feels like frustratingly fragmented wheel-spinning. Once the story really gets going, however, it is as gripping, darkly atmospheric and imaginatively absorbing as previous books in the series.

As ever, the standout features of the novel are the characters, the world, and the writing. The central characters, who have grown so much and so organically, and yet are still recognizably themselves, are facing potentially life-changing, and possibly life-ending, challenges. There is even a twist I didn’t see coming, as Ronan and Adam begin a relationship.

I have to confess that when I read The Dream Thieves (2013) I thought it was a bit of a diversion from the main thrust of the Glendower plot, but I can now see how essential it was to the world building. Ronan’s dream creations are now shown to be much more integral than was apparent (at least to me).

Ms Stiefvater writes so beautifully and her use of words is beyond anything I can describe with my meager and closed thinking vocabulary. She uses repetition – “Depending on where you began the story, it was about… – as a device to reveal the multiple facets of the crystal-like story, and which gives a fairytale like feel.

As for plotting, well, I found the resolution a bit of a let down, but it works within the parameters of the novel, and only a churl would be unhappy about the ending.

All in all, this has been a superb series and, while it is definitely for more sophisticated readers who are prepared to immerse themselves in a language and world that doesn’t always make coherent sense, I feel it is one that will stand the test of time. For myself, I’ll take a break and then re-read the whole series now the arc is complete.