Monthly Archives: June 2017

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017.

Set in a galaxy far far away, this speculative novel, first in a duology, has some familiar and some new elements from brand name author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series. The world building is far more complex than she has attempted before, which makes the initial chapters rather laborious and confusing as a plethora of characters, cultures, and political and religious systems are thrown at the reader. Once the novel gets into its rhythm, however, this all makes more sense and there’s some intriguing ideas around “the current” – the major force in this universe – and the currentgifts that each individual develops at puberty.

We are also in familiar star-cross’d lovers territory with the two leads coming from different nations living on the same planet. White Akos is the younger son of a high-ranking Thuvhesit family who is kidnapped by the cruel and ruthless Shotet leader, Ryzek, to be an aide to his sister “medium brown, almost golden” Cyra. The novel is a split narrative, and Cyra’s first person account is much more immersive than Akos’s third person point of view. Despite Akos and Cyra coming from the opposite sides of a planetary civil war, what do you think might happen?

As with Divergent, there are themes of identity, destiny, and how an individual can change and determine these. While high-ranking family members each have a foretold fate, these are ambiguous enough that their apparently obvious meaning may be twisted in a way that makes for a satisfying plot. Despite coming in at 468 pages, the pacing and plot will keep the reader engaged, and looking forward to the completing novel. With more sadism and more complex worldbuilding than her previous series, Carve the Mark will work best for older YA readers.

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

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Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Eulogy Beach, MS still shows signs of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.White high school senior Ramona “Blue” Leroux, her older sister, Hattie, and father are still living in the FEMA issued trailer. Ms Murphy’s novel sympathetically portrays life on the margins: Ramona works two jobs to help her family scrape by and save a little for herself, but now Hattie is pregnant and her feckless boyfriend is moving in, making Ramona feel more trapped than ever.

Ramona Blue, nicknamed for her love of the ocean, is a wonderful character and Ms Murphy makes her thoughtful and credible. Self-described as “the white trash lesbian from the trailer park,” she stands out in all respects – over 6’ tall with blue hair and one of the few out people in town. Her allegiance to her family gives her a sense of responsibility which she shoulders lightly and with goodwill.

At the start of senior year, she’s still entwined in a romance with closeted holiday visitor Grace who now seems to be distancing herself. And then Freddie, a “light-skinned black boy” who used to be a regular summer visitor and close friend returns. Freddie is a lot of things that Ramona isn’t – well-off, secure, and with a sense of his future. When Ramona starts swimming at the Y with him she finds it fills a need she didn’t know she had and her friendship with Freddie starts to develop into something more.

Murphy does a great job of peopling Ramona’s world with believable, appealing characters. Her family, though down on its luck, is tight-knit and supportive, and her friend group, though small, has the sort of charm and wit that is common in YA novels but is not usually portrayed so believably. Her relationship with Freddie also allows Ramona to consider “what being black in the South might mean.”

Over the year, Ramona learns that just because something is not bad, that doesn’t make it good and she finds a direction and purpose in her life that is about just her and her choice.

Ms Murphy has a knack of creating quirky offbeat characters that engage and charm and can expand the reader’s view of ‘normal’. Though I didn’t love this quite as much as Dumplin’ (2015), it was still a very pleasurable read.

Thanks to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

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Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

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Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Candlewick, 2017.

Set in the early 20th century, this powerful, spare novel, written by Mal Peet and completed by Meg Rosoff after his death, centers on Beck who, with a long gone African father and dead white mother, finds himself at the mercy of a cruel system. Starved and mistreated at a Liverpudlian orphanage and then, at the age of 15, shipped to Canada where he is physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brotherhood before being given as slave labor to a farmer. Finally Beck takes his fate into his own hands and runs off, simply heading west with no purpose.

For much of the novel, Beck drifts and is a passive, somewhat detached presence. He yearns for something but cannot articulate what he wants until he sees it in others: love, family, home. His monochromatic lack of emotion is set against the rich glow of those who come to love him. Bone and Irma, a black couple involved in bootlegging, take him in and show him what love can look like. Then Grace, an older woman with Siksika mother and white father, finds him in a state of almost primal rebirth after a storm and takes him in. Their mutual desire stirs him deeply and confuses him and this relationship is the focal point of the novel.

Beck’s horrifying treatment by the priests, though limited in detail, and the realistically portrayed racism of the era make this book more suitable for older teen and adult readers.

Mal Peet died before he finished this novel and Meg Rosoff completed it. Afterwords from  Rosoff and Peet’s wife give few clues as to how the book was written, though Rosoff does tip her hat to Peet’s turn of phrase.

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2017

Prolific author Westerfeld opens up a new multi-author seven part upper elementary/middle grade scifi series. On a flight between New York and Tokyo, the plane crashes leaving only eight survivors – all kids. But nothing makes sense: the other passengers have all just disappeared and instead of being in the Arctic, they are in a tropical jungle, inhabited by unfamiliar and malevolent creatures.

This book is in many ways a set-up for the series and linked online game, so the characters are distinguished by the skills that they bring to the group and, for some of them, a little background family information is broadly sketched in. Dark-skinned Molly is a natural leader and the others look to her for direction. Blonde Anna has trouble filtering what she says, but sometimes the others need her honesty. Biracial Yoshi is the most analytical and creative thinker, making intellectual leaps that the others haven’t. Dark-skinned Javi, white Caleb, young Japanese sisters Kira and Akiko, and young white Oliver make up the octet.

The plot moves along quickly, with plenty of action and intrigue. There’s age appropriate thrills and scares as they encounter the strange flora and fauna and there’s some humor to be had in the names the kids give to them including “pukeberries” and the “dreadful duck of doom.”

By the end of the book, the kids have answered the where part of the mystery, and that leaves the why, who, and how for subsequent books. With Jennifer A. Nielsen up for book 2, this is clearly a series that Scholastic are investing in and Westerfeld gives it a solid start.