Category Archives: fiction

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

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Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Dutton, 2018

Set in 17th century Rome, this harrowing and deeply emotional novel in verse is a fictionalized account of the early life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Her art is sold under her father’s name as no-one accepts that a woman can paint, but since her mother died, her father, resentful of her superior talent, is distant and harsh. So Artemisia is thrilled when Agostino Tassi is hired to tutor her, and it seems there might be a romantic attraction between them. But Tino is really a predator and rapes her.

Artemisia’s narrative verse is tight and focused when she is describing her painting, shatters during her ordeal, and is jagged with her suppressed fury at the inequity of her position.

Woven throughout are her mother’s stories of Susanna and Judith, biblical women who stood up to the oppression of men, and these women become figures of strength for Artemisia during the trial after her assault. She is able to find an outlet for her rage at the patriarchy and through painting them with her unique perspective.

The novel is adapted from the author’s play and an afterword gives some biographical information about Artemisia. Inexplicably it excludes the full story of her later professional and personal success, which I think does a disservice to readers who are likely not aware of the full story. Or maybe Ms McCullough is saving it for a sequel.

Includes resources for victims of sexual assault.

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Gamer Army by Trent Reedy

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Gamer Army by Trent Reedy
Scholastic, 2018.

Reedy (The Last Full Measure series) mixes up a rather bland middle grade scifi stew of Ready Player One and Enders Game when five 12-year old gamers are invited to take part in a virtual reality Laser Viper tournament.

In an unspecified future, much of life, including gaming, is conducted in Virtual City, created by William J. Culum, the CEO of Atomic Frontiers. So when white Rogan, Shay, and Brett, along with brown-skinned Jackie, and Asian American Takehashi arrive at the Atomic Frontiers specially constructed game arena they are initially beguiled by William J. Culum. But as the gamers play competitive missions and contestants are eliminated, the remaining ones start to have some disquiet about how the game is really working.

Despite this potentially exciting set up, the game sequences lack the expected fizz and despite the cinematic style of the writing, they drag, not helped by the clunking acronyms and ‘gamer-speak.’ The characters are two-dimensional, even the main protagonist Rogan who at least has been given some family background, and their relationships lack chemistry and are workmanlike at best.

Trent Reedy has written some really good novels – the first two novels in The Last Full Measure series, Words in the Dust – so he clearly has talent. But this novel feels like the start of a series that has been commissioned to appeal to kids who are more interested in video games than books and just falls flat.

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2017 (audiobook)

The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie in this riveting teen mystery novel, which made for a great listen.

Five senior high schoolers get detention but within minutes of them arriving in the room, one of them is dead. Though it appears initially to be an accident it soon emerges that it’s murder and that only one of the four – brainy Bronwyn, sporty Cooper, pretty and popular Addy, or bad boy Nate – can have done it. They all claim to be innocent but then it emerges that the dead boy, Simon, who was behind their high school’s savage (but always true) gossip app, had dirt on all of them which he was about to go public with.

The novel is told through the perspective of the four teens, as they go from being witnesses to being suspects, and then, finally, investigators themselves. The twists pile up and the resolution is satisfying and unexpected.

What makes this more than just a smart mystery is the unravelling of the foursome’s lives when their secrets become public and how they deal with it. It shows the horrible pressures that many high school students are under, often driven by their family circumstances but also self-imposed. They rise above their John Hughesian cliche roles, becoming rich and nuanced characters and the audiobook readers do a terrific job of bringing them to life.

Highly recommended.

Otherwood by Pete Hautman

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Otherwood by Pete Hautman
Candlewick, 2018.

This strange and eerie middle grade is a sophisticated and cerebral fantasy about alternate realities.

8 year-olds Stuey and Elly share a love of playing in the woods between their houses, particularly in the shelter created by a deadfall of trees, which they name Castle Rose. The woods used to be a golf course owned by Stuey’s ex- bootlegger great-grandfather and back in the 1940’s he vanished from there along with his arch-enemy, the district attorney Robert Rosen.

Shortly after their 9th birthdays, Stuey shares this family secret with Elly when they are in Castle Rose and she just disappears in front of Stuey’s eyes. Of course nobody believes him, but when Stuey goes back to Castle Rose he occasionally sees Elly there and it turns out she thinks he disappeared and, in her reality, nobody believes that either.

Hautman does a terrific job of setting up the fairly complex idea of alternate realities and the mindboggling twists that go with that. As their worlds and the people in them take different paths, Stuey and Elly comes to realize that somehow the secret has broken reality into two and it is up to them to try to glue it back together.

Despite their differences – Stuey thinks he comes from a planet “where everybody is blond and chunky and we don’t talk much” and Elly is from “Planet Opposite” as she is skinny with curly hair and talks a lot – the kids are both thoughtful and realistic about their situations. They know that nobody will believe what actually happened and so they lie to conform, in turn making themselves question what really happened.

Weaving in themes of loss, redemption, and the power of friendship, this is a charming novel that will appeal to readers looking for an elegant but satisfyingly smart fantasy.

Born Scared by Kevin Brooks

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Born Scared by Kevin Brooks
Candlewick, 2018.

13 year-old Elliot is scared of “everything” and hardly ever leaves the sanctuary of his room, or his home in rural England. The only people who don’t fill him with horror are his Mum, Aunt Shirley, and Dr Gibson, and he has internal conversations with his twin sister who died an hour after she was born. In the middle of a blizzard, Elliot realizes there’s been a mixup with his anti-anxiety meds, so his mother goes out, just for 10 minutes, to get them, but then she doesn’t come back. After several hours, Elliott screws up his courage and goes to look for her.

As Elliott narrates his slow, laborious, and terror-stricken way along a road, through a field, and into a wood, there is a second storyline about a pair of bank robbers disguised in Santa outfits. This has an odd mix of tones: blackly comic as one of them is the archetypal dumb criminal who has to be told everything numerous times but there is also deeply unpleasant violence, made all the more shocking by its matter of factness.

Elliott is an engaging narrator, unflinchingly straightforward about his debilitating anxiety and the beast within him that’s only kept at bay by his pills, and has created Ella as an alter ego and friend who can coax him out of retreating into himself. His fear never leaves him as he struggles through the snow, but he and Ella find ways to cope and keep him going forward. Though it never feels like Elliot will have a fairytale ending in which his fear disappears, there is hope that he is at least a small step forward.

This is not an easy read, as it swings between Elliot’s terror-stricken narrative and the black comedy of the robbers, but most middle graders will recognize his anxiety, albeit likely much more extreme than they have felt, and empathize with his heroic quest.

The Button War by Avi

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The Button War by Avi
Candlewick, 2018

At the start of World War I, in a Russian-occupied remote Polish village, a gang of 11 and 12 year-old boys start a game that quickly spins into something much more serious and dangerous.

The boys set out to “get” buttons from the succession of soldiers of different nationalities that come into their village. Whoever secures the best one (though that is never defined) will become the Button King and all the others will have to bow down to him. The dare is initiated by Jurek, a masterful portrait of a controlling and manipulative bully who knows all the right buttons to push to get the others to follow him. Jurek is powerless in the world, a poor orphan who lives with his uninterested sister, but has great power in the microcosm of the gang. Jurek controls the game, even as the others try to claim victory or walk away: “Jurek invented rules faster than any human being in the world. And they were always about what he wanted.” Like Lord of the Flies, it is easy to forget that these are just young boys.

The others, including the narrator Patryk, all persuade themselves that they’re playing so that they can beat Jurek, but none of them have the agency to turn away from Jurek as he goads them into compliance. Even though Patryk is physically bigger than Jurek, he doesn’t have the single-minded ambition and rage that the other boy is driven by.

The adults that are present are either parents or soldiers. Parents are mostly ineffectual and out of their depth; they know little or nothing of the “far world” (everything outside their village), and have no clue about the tides of history that have washed up in their lives. The soldiers are cruel, thoughtless, and entirely, and deliberately, interchangeable.

This short and stylized novel is a clear allegory for the futility of war, often exemplified by the battlefields of WWI in which hundreds of thousands of men died fighting over a few muddy yards of a field. As one nationality after another comes into the village – Germans, Austrians, French, English, Cossacks – the fallout from the game becomes increasingly serious and becomes one of life and death. This is a pitch-black and thought-provoking novel that doesn’t have an uplifting ending or resolution, so it doesn’t feel particularly suitable or appealing for kids but is an extraordinary work nonetheless.