Monthly Archives: February 2017

It Looks LIke This by Raffi Mittlefehldt

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it-looks-like-thisIt Looks LIke This by Raffi Mittlefehldt
Candlewick, 2016.

This is a moving, if somewhat melodramatic, coming out story that has power in its quiet understatement. 14-year old Mike’s family moves to a small town in Virginia and Mike settles in at school: he makes a few friends but also attracts the attention of bully Vincent. Then, thrillingly, he meets Sean and as they work on a French project together, their friendship moves into something else.

Both Mike and Sean come from socially conservative and deeply religious families, and neither Mike nor Sean know what to do with their attraction except keep it secret. Mike’s Dad is always on at him about playing sports (a bit of a cliche), whereas Mike is interested in art, and uses his acute observational skills to write some lovely descriptions (ok, time to confess – this is where I should put in a quote, but I had to give the book back and didn’t take any notes, so this is all done on memory. I also forgot to note down if there were any descriptions that would indicate racial diversity. Sorry).

Mike appears to brush off the abuse from his father, Victor, and even his teachers, but it gradually emerges that he has absorbed it. Though the word “gay” is never used, it is clear that his parents, church, and much of the school is homophobic, and take offence at Mike’s demeanor. But his two friends, and his younger sister, Toby (sigh – why do strong girls always have to have boys’ names?) are supportive and protective, vehemently so in Toby’s case.

The book has a melancholy, foreboding air, right from the start and, inevitably, tragedy ensues, though here the novel crosses the line into melodrama, But on the horizon, there is hope, more tolerance, and, at least, an effort to be more accepting.

I found this book most absorbing, and I think it will appeal to teens who enjoy well-written, character-driven realistic novels.

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Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

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projekt-1065Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2016.

Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.

Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.

The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.

Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012)  and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..

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Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

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blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Week 2 of new books by authors that I never pass up – last week was A. S. King, this week is a new to the US book by Marcus Sedgwick.

Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.

The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.

The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.

Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.

The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.

Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.

(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).

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Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

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still-life-with-tornadoStill Life with Tornado by A. S. King
Dutton, 2016.

As I’m reading a bit less at the moment due to work commitments, I’m having a real struggle choosing between reading new authors, and ones I already know and love. Much as I want to expand my repertoire, there are certain authors that I just can’t pass up. Next week’s review is by one, the always edgy Marcus Sedgwick, and today’s is about a book by another author who just keeps coming up with extraordinary novels, A. S. King.

White 16 year-old Sarah is having an “existential crisis” after an incident in art class and stops going to school. But it is only when she meets up with her 10 year-old and 23 year-old selves that she can begin to understand that there is a much deeper root to her troubles.

The author has a great knack of taking what is a fairly prosaic and unoriginal story – in this case, a highly creative and smart teen girl dealing with the fallout of her dysfunctional family – and adding in a wildly original fantasy element that spectacularly illuminates the main plot.

Sarah has all the self-absorption of her age, and the main thread of the story follows her on her wanderings around Philadelphia. Woven into that is the detailed recollection of a family holiday in Mexico when she was 10, which was a pivotal point for them all,  particularly for her older brother Bruce. The third element is the backstory to the family’s dysfunction, told from her mother’s perspective.

Sarah frequently and thought-provokingly threshes through the question of what art is, and what originality is. Whether she’s following a local homeless man, going to school in her head, or eating out of trash cans, Sarah is an engaging and intelligent narrator. The tornado of the title is a metaphor for all that is contained inside the emotions whirling around inside of Sarah (and the cover rather clunkily explicates that).

Though smaller and more intimate than Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014), King beautifully blends Sarah’s rooted-in-reality breakdown with the freshness and creativity of the doppelgangers.

A. S. King is something of an acquired taste, and her straight-faced mix of reality and fantasy is certainly not for everyone; I’ve heard her books described as “weird” in not always a complimentary way. However, sophisticated teens with an eye out for a new angle on an old story may well enjoy this.

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