Monthly Archives: January 2017

Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes


garveys-choiceGarvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
WordSong, 2016

Middle schooler Garvey feels like a misfit in his family. Though his mother supports and encourages his reading – he loves sci-fi – his father is perpetually trying to get him to play sports and his athletic sister affectionately calls him “chocolate chunk.” He is teased at school for his weight too, but then he is encouraged by a new friend, Manny, who suffers from albinism, to ignore the taunts, and when Garvey discovers Chorus he finds his place in the world.

This brief and poignant verse novel manages to dimensionalize fully a boy’s life in its simple stanzas. The sparse text doesn’t waste a word and an author’s note explains the use of the Japanese tanka form – 5 line verses with a 5 7 5 7 7 syllable scheme.

The novel is written from Garvey’s perspective allowing the reader to feel his hurt and confusion at his father’s expectations, gradually turning to pride and confidence in his achievements. Garvey has used food as a comfort and to fill the hole created by his father’s disappointment but now, as he and his father bond over the music of Luther Vandross, he finds he’s eating less.

The lovely, understated cover reflects the quiet warmth of Garvey’s metamorphosis. Readers will find they can read about Garvey’s choice in less than an hour, but his voice will stay with them for much longer.



Liberty by Kirby Larson


libertyLiberty by Kirby Larson
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed Ms Larson’s historical novels, particularly Hattie Big Sky (2008) and The Friendship Doll (2011) (both of which I read pre-blog, so no reviews I’m afraid). Liberty is the third book in a elementary grade series which uses the device of a kid and a dog to explore different experiences in World War II America. The books stand alone, and will appeal to readers who enjoy dog stories and historical settings (duh).

Liberty is a touching story with a boy and a dog at the heart of a tale set in New Orleans in 1944.

White 5th grader Michael ‘Fish’ Elliott is working hard to overcome the effects of polio on his leg, and when he adopts a stray dog, Liberty, she gives him the incentive to try harder. With Pop away building bridges for the Allies, Fish lives with his sister Mo, and Liberty opens up their neighborhood to them.

Larson skillfully squeezes a lot of thematic weight into the supporting characters – enough to be informative and maybe pique some interest for further pursuit, but without getting didactic. Fish’s friend and neighbor Olympia is “dark-skinned,” and through her he sees the prejudices and exclusions of Jim Crow. Mo wants to be an engineer and, though she works for Andrew Jackson Higgins whose company produces the “boats that will win the war,” there is little opportunity for her. Erich is a young German, though not Nazi, prisoner of war at Camp Plauche in New Orleans, and Fish reminds him of his younger brother. All these strands are pulled together when Liberty runs off after a storm.

Fish is an inventor and fixer, inspired by Edison and Higgins: he likes to work through tricky problems and find practical solutions, whether it’s training Liberty or exercising his knee. He is an earnest, engaging character, and his love for Liberty brings out his determination and confidence.

Ms Larson includes information about the era in an Author’s Note. Mo predicts that it will be different for black people and women after the war and, of course it is, to an extent. But 70+ years on, and there are still different standards for black people and women, and the reflective reader will realize that.



The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


pearl-thiefThe Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Disney-Hyperion, May 2017

At the start of this mystery novel, set in pre-World War II Scotland, 15 year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart arrives back from finishing school in Switzerland. Sitting down by the river on her grandfather’s estate, she is knocked unconscious, and her gradual recollection of what led up to this attack is the key to the whereabouts of some missing river pearls and the identity of the thief.

The mystery itself is not particularly gripping or original, but it is a hook to hang the development of Julie, later to become Verity of Code Name Verity (2012), on. She loves putting the pieces of a puzzle together, she enjoys fooling people, and she relishes leading a conspiracy. She is empathetic, adventurous, impulsive, brave if somewhat foolhardy, willing to give anything a shot, and discontented with the lot of women in this era. As you can see, these are threads that will lead her to her role in that outstanding novel.

The Pearl Thief is also interested in social justice, through its portrayal of the McEwen family who are Travellers, often disparagingly referred to as “tinkers.” Many of the establishment figures, from the police to the librarian, are quick to jump to conclusions about their morals and behavior, instantly blaming them for everything from theft to murder. Julie, however, is less bound to this and takes their side (I can’t say I’m wild about this trope of the tolerant toffs and the bigoted working class). Ms Wein’s note on Travellers is a model of explanation and caveat.

Julie is yearning for romance, and her description of her relationship with Ellen McEwen suggests that her feelings are more than just that of a friend. The two girls along with their brothers, make an appealing quartet as they investigate the mystery.

As with her other novels, but particularly for me, Black Dove, White Raven (2015) Ms Wein evocatively and exquisitely describes the period and the setting. The death of Julie’s grandfather, the Earl of Strathfearn, means the family must sell off his estate to pay off his debts, and that melancholy task gives added resonance to Julie’s description of the countryside (though they do have a castle to go to, so let’s not shed too many tears).

This is an early ARC, and it has some issues that I’m sure will be sorted out. I found some of Julie’s narration and breaking of the fourth wall to be a bit too jolly hockey sticks (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “used to describe a woman or girl of a high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys most people.”) The tone shifts around a bit as well, but I suspect both these quibbles will be fixed before publication.

CNV was such a great novel, and though Ms Wein’s subsequent novels have been very good, they have not achieved that same level. Nor, currently, does The Pearl Thief, but it is still a fine historical mystery novel with an engaging and complex narrator and some thoughtful ideas about society in 1938.

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.



Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel


every-hidden-thingEvery Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster, 2016.

I’m a big fan of Kenneth Oppel’s and have reviewed several of his books here, including my first ever bibliobrit review. He is able to move comfortably between genres and age groups, and still write consistently excellent novels.

Every Hidden Thing is an engrossing and fast-moving historical YA adventure, set in the time of the “Bone Wars” aka the “Great Dinosaur Rush” of the late 19th century, when rival paleontologists raced to dig up fossils in the West, newly opened by the transcontinental railroad.

The two teen narrators, Samuel Bolt and Rachel Cartland, are the children of rival paleontologists, and aspiring paleontologists themselves. The Bolts are charismatic, emotional, and on the fringes of the establishment; by contrast, the Cartlands are meticulous, academic, and highly respected. As these two set out to Wyoming with their teams – the Bolts running on desperation and ambition, and the Cartlands highly organized, well-funded, and prepared – they are both searching for the Black Beauty, a giant carnivorous dinosaur whose tooth has been uncovered.

Based on real life rivals, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, the two fathers indulge in all sorts of underhand and nefarious behavior to slow down or divert the other. But, would you believe it, Sam and Rachel fall in love, and plot to find the Black Beauty for themselves. The plot rattles along with the race to uncover and name new dinosaurs, and all the while the search for the big rex is on.

The star-crossed lovers are well-drawn, differentiated characters. Rachel, in particular, stands out as a girl trying to make her way in a time in which women were expected to do little except get married and have children. She is the only female character and having been brought up by her father alone, has been rather more involved with his work than would be typical (Sam is also motherless). Her rationality battles with her attraction to Sam, who is all quick flaring hot emotions and impulsiveness. In the ARC I read, the switch between narrators is not indicated, and though at first I found this challenging, the clear differentiation of the two, along with well-placed clues made it quite easy to spot the change.

Because of its setting, the novel includes many references to Native Americans. The tooth of the giant dinosaur was originally discovered by a Sioux boy, and his son is essential to the discovery of the rest of the bones. Along the way, Rachel and Sam discuss the position of the Native people as white people move into the West and uncover its riches. Both fathers are portrayed as having attitudes of their time and Cartland, in particular, is horrific; their offspring, however, have a much more modern sensibility, though sometimes only in thought not action. Debbie Reese has not yet pronounced on this book, however, so though it seems to me to offer reasonable portraits of Native Americans and includes sharp criticism of contemporary attitudes, I’ll let you know.

This is a sound and exciting tale about a time of great social and scientific upheaval, and Mr Oppel does a terrific job of showing that without being didactic. In some ways, this reminds me of both The Boundless and Matthew J. Kirby’s Lost Kingdom, and though it doesn’t have the fantasy element of either of those books, I think it will appeal to readers who have enjoyed them as well as other more straightforward historical novels.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the ARC.