Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

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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.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel; illustrated by Jon Klassen

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the-nestThe Nest by Kenneth Oppel; illustrated by Jon Klassen
Simon & Schuster, 2015.

I think Kenneth Oppel is a terrific, and terrifically versatile, author. He writes across ages and in different genres, and usually with great success. In fact, my first bibliobrit post was for The Boundless, and it was one of my top books of 2014.

The Nest is an eerie, horror fantasy for upper elementary and middle grade readers. In this short and evocative story, with not a word or scene wasted, Steve, an anxious and imaginative boy, starts having dreams about angels which seem to be connected to his baby brother who has been born with congenital disorders. Steve is resentful of the baby who seems to be taking all his parents’ attention and bringing strain to the family: “But when I looked at the baby, mostly what I thought of was all the things I couldn’t see – all the things that were going wrong inside him.”

Gradually Steve realizes his dreams are about a nest of wasps and conversing with the queen, he discovers that they are going to ‘fix’ the baby, but the terrible implication of what this means isn’t clear until he enters into a pact with her. Her cold dismissal of Theo as a “crappy little broken baby”, shocks Steve out of his antipathy and into full big brother mode.nest interior

Oppel draws the fine line between dreams and reality and, as the book progresses ever deeper into fantasy, this line becomes increasingly blurred. Steve is a marvelous creation – a boy who wants to be safe and enveloped, “untouchable in my little nest”, but gradually realizes he has to face the world as there is no-one to rely on except himself.

The first person present tense narration brings a tense immediacy, and Jon Klassen’s illustrations work to great effect to evoke the disjointedness, isolation, and exclusion that Steve feels (and remind me, in some ways, of Jim McKay’s extraordinary illustrations for Patrick Ness’s great A Monster Calls).

As Steve comes to understand that perfection is not always desirable, and that normality is not as easily defined as he imagines, the books reaches a suffocating and intense climax bringing all the strands of the story together, and a resolution is reached that is fulfilling and unforced.

I think the audience for The Nest is probably pretty limited, but it will work really well for readers who like to be unsettled.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

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boundlessI met Kenneth Oppel at the ALA conference a couple of years ago and I must confess that I did develop a bit of a literary crush on him. Putting that aside, though, The Boundless is a really terrific read.

In this riveting middle grade thriller set on The Boundless – a seven-mile-long train crossing late 19th century Canada – Oppel (Airborn, Eos, 2004) mixes railway history, creatures from folklore, and a splash of steampunk into an exciting yarn about a boy seeking his own adventure.

Will Everett has always felt himself to be in the shadow of his father’s adventures, but when he inadvertently gets on the wrong side of a gang of ruthless thieves who are after a diamond encrusted golden railway spike which is hidden on the train, he has to rely on himself, along with two mysterious new friends from the Zirkus Dante: the ringmaster, Mr. Dorian and Maren the Marvelous, a young wirewalker and escape artist.

The characters that Will encounters as the train rattles across plains and through snow-laden mountain passes, are fully developed and the lead ones, even the cold-hearted villain, are especially richly layered and intriguingly complex.

The novel, written in the present tense, swings between cinematic action sequences and detailed and enthralling descriptions of the settings. Along the way it touches lightly, but not superficially, on class distinctions, conflict between Native Americans and settlers, and exploitation of the colonists. Culminating in a thrilling and satisfying resolution that loops back to earlier events, there is a hint that we may see further adventures of Will and Maren in the future.

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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My Favorite Books of the Year

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NightGardenerWith all the publications putting out their best lists, and with the Newbery and Printz awards just around the corner, I thought I’d put together my top reads for 2014 too. A few years back, I had something of an epiphany, when I realized that my favorite books were never going to win the Newbery because I evaluate books on different criteria to the judges – sure, I like good writing, but what really works for me (and many kids) is the voice and the plot of a book. And I think this explains why I find so many Newbery winners to be such snoozers – because kid appeal just isn’t a consideration. Unlike the Cybils – where we look at books for both good writing and kid appeal!

Anyway, of the 77 books that I’ve read this year, here are the nine that I gave 5 stars to:

Middle grade

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

YA

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (I read this before I started blogging, so no review I’m afraid)

What I notice is that these are all, bar one, speculative fiction. It’s not that I don’t read other genres, it just seems to me to be the one that speaks to me more.

Happy Reading in 2015!