Monthly Archives: August 2019

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Wendy Lamb Books, 2019.

It’s 1986 and 12 year-old autistic and nonverbal Nova Vezina and her older sister, Bridget, have been in 11 foster homes in 7 years. But now Bridget has disappeared and Nova has been placed with kind and thoughtful Francine and Billy. Nova has to start at yet another school and undergo yet another round of testing which will inevitably conclude “Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.” Bridget has always protected Nova from this hateful label, saying she’s smarter than people think and that she’s a “thinker not a talker” and the author does a wonderful job of showing the truth of this. Alternating chapters from a third person POV and letters that Nova writes to Bridget (just “scribbles” to everyone else) take the reader inside Nova’s head, giving an empathetic account of her rich thought processes as well as their external manifestations as she settles into her new home and classroom.

Bridget, and hence Nova, is deeply interested in space exploration, and Nova, clutching her NASA Bear and listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, counts down the days to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the First Teacher in Space. But she’s also waiting for Bridget to keep her promise to be there for the launch though the reader may begin to suspect that there’s more to her absence than Nova understands. It’s only when Challenger explodes that the pieces fall into place for Nova.

A couple of concerns. As middle grade readers may not be aware of the Challenger disaster, it may come as a significant shock to them and tip what is already a very sad story into one that carries too much weight. Setting it in 1986 means that there was less understanding of Nova’s condition and less options to help her communicate; Things have changed (as the author explains in a note) but readers may not be aware of this and though both Bridget and her new foster family resist the term “retard” it is still used by responsible adults, even if they are signaled as lacking understanding.

I feel that there’s really could be two novels here: one about Nova and Bridget and one about the doomed Space Shuttle, and though the author does a decent job of making it one novel it does feel a little overstuffed. Nonetheless, the author’s personal experience and her professional experience working with autistic kids brings authenticity to this poignant slim volume. 

Review based on an ARC.

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

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The Line Tender by Kate Allen
Dutton, 2019.

When red-haired Lucy Everhart was seven, her shark scientist mother died suddenly; now thirteen, Lucy is surrounded by a home-made family including her police diver Dad, fisherman Sookie, next door nonagenarian Mr Patterson, and her best friend/tentative crush naturalist geek Fred (all main characters default white). When a second tragedy hits Lucy, she finds solace in immersing herself in her mother’s final project of tagging great white sharks in Cape Cod. 

This is a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about dealing with grief and finding purpose: Lucy is the “line tender” who “uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line” and so keeps her off-beat family together. The author does a fine job of sympathetically drawing and giving dimension to all the main characters and even the secondary ones feel authentic. She also has a wonderful feel for the community in the small fishing port Rockport, Massachusetts. 

There is plenty of shark information shared by the characters and discovered by Lucy and Fred for their summer project field guide: Fred writes the notes and Lucy provides the drawings. There are pencil drawings of sharks prefacing each chapter, though the species are not identified. As well as Lucy’s mother, there is also a brown-skinned woman biologist who acts as a role model for both Lucy and the reader. 

Through Lucy’s narration, the reader can feel her grief and, though the novel is long and slow-paced, the emotional journeys of all the characters feel authentic and are never dull. May appeal to readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books.

Review based on an ARC.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Aurora Cycle _01
Knopf, 2019.

The authors of The Illuminae Files kick off a new action-packed sci-fi series in which a squad of teen “legionnaires” protect a girl recovered from a spacecraft that went missing back in the early days of Earth’s expansion into space.

Legion Squad 312 consists of straight arrow leader, dishy blond Tyler, his persuasive diplomat sister Scarlett, tattooed ace pilot Cat, genius but socially awkward dark brown-skinned Zila, along with two “aliens” geeky Betraskan Finian and noble Sydralthi warrior Kal. Added to this mix is “half-Chinese” mystery “girl out of time” Aurora who has visions and gradually emerging powers. 

Surprises and twists abound as this group of misfits come together with much snarky banter while learning to rely on each other’s individual strengths as they are pursued across space by the menacing Global Intelligence Agency who are determined to capture Aurora. 

The narration of the seven teens as well as pages from an iPad-like “uniglass” all add to the world-building. Set in 2380, it seems that some things have changed – there are now 475 known civilizations, though most of them seem to be variations of humans but with different numbers of appendages and different color skin – and some things haven’t – humans still want to colonize, refugees are still despised, economic disparity persists, and nerdy boys still think they have a chance with hot girls. 

High energy and tautly plotted all the way through, as the squad eventually uncovers the fearsome threat to all life in the universe and Aurora’s role is revealed, the authors leave us gasping for the sequel.