Monthly Archives: July 2016

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb

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every single secondEvery Single Second by Tricia Springstubb
Balzer + Bray, 2016

I reviewed this from an eARC, and while I don’t normally highlight that at the top of a review, in this case I think it’s quite important, as this book still seems rather unfinished. I really loved Ms Springstubb’s Moonpenny Island, and I’m just not seeing quite the same tightness in this writing as I did there, so I’m assuming (hoping!) that further editing will polish this up to the level of the author’s previous gem. But I got what I got, and here is a review of that, please just bear in mind that caveat.

The passage of time threads through this realistic middle grade story of ‘what might have been’, and how a mere second can devastatingly divert a life. Italian-American Nella’s life is changing: her school is about to close and she’s uncertain how she’ll fit in with the mostly black kids in the neighborhood middle school she’ll probably go to. And her friendships are shifting: she has always been close to Angela – secret sisters close – but a new girl, Clem, exposes their differences and they drift apart.

The book moves between Now (the end of 7th grade) and Then (from kindergarten onwards), and is driven by a tragic shooting that exposes the neighborhood racial tensions. Family secrets that have been buried, and whose corrosive effects have spread wide, are finally brought to light. The author also alludes to the passing of time in brief interspersed chapters with the thoughts of a neighborhood statue, though personally I didn’t think this added much.

The strength of the novel is its central trio. The three girls are all delicately drawn, thoroughly authentic and believable, teetering on the border between childhood and young adulthood. Their relationships with each other, and with their family members, grow and change as they navigate that tricky crossing.

In the writing itself, I felt there was rather too much telling, not showing. Nella suddenly realizes many things and then expounds on what she’s realized, without letting the reader work that out for themselves. I also found the resolution a bit too neat for a novel that was realistically sprawling.

So what can I say? The book has now been published, so I’ll look at it before I pass a definitive opinion. I feel it’s likely to have been sharpened up considerably, and will have all that I’ve come to expect from this author of excellent realistic novels.

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Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall

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space hostagesSpace Hostages by Sophia McDougall
HarperCollins, 2016.

I enjoyed Mars Evacuees (2015) very much, it was a Cybils finalist, and it made a great read for the 5th/6th grade book club at my son’s school. So I was excited to get the eARC for the sequel, Space Hostages (which was published in the UK in 2015), though it has taken me quite a while to get round to reading it.

The intrepid band of Plucky Kids of Mars, as Alice, Josephine, Carl, Noel, and Thsaaa are now known on Earth, are once again heading off into space, along with Goldfish, the “undaunted, floating, blue-eyed American robot fish, on a mission to educate youth.” This time it’s a pleasant vacation trip for a ceremony to inaugurate the Morrors’ new home planet. But on the way, their spaceship, Helen, is captured by the giant lobster-like Krakkiluks, who believe that the humans and Morrors have occupied a territory belonging to their Great Expanse.

Once again, the plot has a leisurely start, in which we find out, in a meta-twist, that the previous book was, in fact, Alice’s memoirs published in this fictional world. There is a slightly sagging middle when the Plucky Kids are separated. Alice, Josephine, Carl, and Goldfish end up on a different planet, and their exciting adventures here are rather slowed down by their, to me, tedious efforts to communicate with the indigenous Eemala (though fair play to Ms MacDougall for not having the aliens all speak English). Noel and Thsaaa have their own adventures back on the Krakkiluk ship, but both narratives felt longer than they needed to be.

I also found the characters from the previous books a bit less fresh and striking than before. Josephine is more withdrawn since Mars Evacuees was published and is duct tapeless. Carl is also rather gloomy, and Noel gets little airtime. However, Goldfish continues to entertain: “We’re going to need teamwork, and imagination, and heavy duty weaponry to handle this!”, and Helen, the wistful, sentient, poetry writing, AI spaceship in love with her captain, is an excellent addition.

Alice’s narration is as drily and self-deprecatingly witty as before – “First contact is incredibly socially awkward” – and this lightness, together with our knowledge that these are her memoirs, keep the novel from being too scary, even though some of the situations are very intense.

McDougall makes considerable effort to keep the alien species non-humanoid and diverse. Not only do they look different from us, but they have different values: the warrior Krakkiluks are obsessed with married love, but have no time at all for children. The Eemala are less original, as they feel a little like furry, flying, humans.

There is a theme of colonization, which is delicately woven in, much like the first book looked at the idea of reactions to the other. The most obvious proponents are the Krakkiluks, and McDougall spins in subtle ideas about the social and cultural implications for both oppressors and oppressed, as well as bringing it home by having Carl makes a tart comment on the colonized caring for the colonizers’ children. And the humans are not entirely innocent with their captain proclaiming “The stars belong to us.”

Space Hostages can stand alone as there is a quick catch up at the beginning, but readers would be missing out if they started here. Overall, this is a very entertaining, intelligent, and imaginative sequel but, though satisfying, is just not quite as good as Mars Evacuees.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Front Lines by Michael Grant

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front linesFront Lines by Michael Grant
Soldier Girl, Bk. 1
Katherine Tegen, 2016

Launching a new series, spec fic author Grant (Gone series) gives us an exciting World War II action novel with an alternate history twist – in 1940, the draft was extended to all American citizens, regardless of gender. The novel follows three young women who enlist in the army in 1942: white Rio Richlin from rural California who goes into the Infantry as a sharpshooter, African American Frangie Marr from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who becomes a medic, and Jewish Rainy Schulterman from New York City who lands up in Army Intelligence. We spend a little time establishing their home lives, then go through basic training with them, and finally, in the second half of the book get to the “blood and guts” as they all end up in the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.

The characters, and their motivations, are well-developed. Numerous secondary characters are introduced and while some stand out, many are just a name and a hair and/or skin color. Each young woman has a romantic interest or two, though this is not really a significant part of the book

Though the book, told in the present tense, is lengthy, it moves quickly, particularly once the action moves to North Africa. The details of the fighting, the injuries and death, and the speed with which a situation can change, are captured, and though Grant does not spare the gory details he does so in flat prose which takes some of the horror out. Kasserine was the first major American offensive on that side of the Atlantic, and the lack of experience, particularly among the officers, is shown effectively.

Rio faces challenges, as a female in what has traditionally been all male territory, from the petty slights to the entrenched attitudes and chauvinism; and this is increased for Frangie who also has to face racial prejudice and for Rainy facing anti-Semitism as well. The harshly prejudicial language used is of the times, though, perversely, punches are pulled with what would undoubtedly have been the ubiquitous curse words.

For me, the big question is what’s the point of the twist? Yes, it’s a significant change that American women were on the front line in WWII – but nothing else is different and their presence doesn’t seem to make a difference. And it seems to me that the experience of the main characters is pretty similar to that of their male counterparts. Perhaps it feels a little more shocking that Rio finds a grim satisfaction in killing the enemy, but none of the other female characters, lead or otherwise, are shown to have that cold instinct, and neither Frangie nor Rainy, despite being in battle, are armed. In his author’s note, Grant highlights Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Disney Hyperion, 2012) – not as an influence, but as something he aspired to – but CNV is a fictional account of something that could actually have happened. So Front Lines feels a bit gimmicky compared to that.

But it’s timely, with the Senate very recently passing a bill that would require young women to register for the draft. It could also be a great way to get American teen readers interested in World War II, and as it is largely historically accurate, that’s not a bad thing.

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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highly illogical behaviorHighly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Dial, 2016.

In Highly Illogical Behavior, Whaley (Where Things Come Back, 2012, and Noggin, 2014) has done an exceptional job of creating an authentic character who has a mental illness that is integral to the plot, but makes this an appealing and witty YA coming of age novel, rather than an ‘issue’ book.

16 year-old Solomon Reed has not left his house for over three years – he’s agoraphobic and prone to panic attacks. But fellow teen, and amateur psychologist, Lisa Praytor remembers his last day at school when he submerged himself in a fountain, and is determined to meet him so she can ”fix” him and write a scholarship winning essay about her experience with mental illness. Unaware of Lisa’s ulterior motive, Sol quickly finds the pleasure of having a friend, and this is increased when Lisa’s handsome and easygoing boyfriend, Clark, starts coming along too.

Told alternately from Sol and Lisa’s third person points of view, this novel quickly builds up a portrait of thoroughly and realistically complicated teens on the verge of adulthood. The characters of the white central trio are beautifully illuminated as they play board games, watch movies, and discuss Star Trek: The Next Generation. As their friendship deepens, their trust in each other grows, but the shaky foundations on which it is built looms just offstage.

The plot flows in both predictable and unexpected directions, as Sol starts to break out of his “quiet and mundane” life, and though the question of the trio’s future, together and singly, is never far from their thoughts, it is rarely tackled upfront. There is a climactic scene, but the book closes with many strands not tied up, or ever explained, and feels a little messy, just like life.

The novel’s tone, flawed but lovable characters, and plot arc are reminiscent of John Green, and should have wide appeal to teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC