Category Archives: fiction

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

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Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork
Levine/Scholastic, September 2017

I have enjoyed many of Francisco X. Stork’s YA novels, though have only reviewed one of them, The Memory of Light (2016),  for this blog. His nuanced take on modern Latinx teens is refreshing in our current climate.

Set in present day Ciudad Juarez, young adult siblings Sara and Emiliano confront crime and corruption with their consciences. Sara is a reporter for El Sol and has been working on stories about Desaparecidas – young women and girls who have disappeared and may have been murdered – inspired by the disappearance of her best friend Linda. She has received many threats because of this work but the latest one is worryingly specific and also threatens her family. Emiliano had gone off the rails when his father left several years ago, but with the help of Brother Patricio and a hiking/adventure  group called the Jiparis he is making a life for himself. The only problem is that his girlfriend, Perla Rubi comes from a wealthy family and he wants to be accepted by them and the road to acceptance seems to encompass compromising the moral code of the Jiparis.

Sara is a fairly straightforward crusading conscience-driven writer. Though she is faced with tough choices, there is little doubt that she will make the right one. Emiliano is much more complex and conflicted. He wants the material rewards of being part of the criminal world, though more for the security of his family than for the flashy cars but knows that he will be corrupted by this and will corrupt others, and these two sides wrestle within him the whole way through.

When I reviewed The Border a while ago, I complained that it fell into the ‘one story’ problem about Mexico – that it was all about drugs, corruption, and attempting to cross into the US. To an extent, there is a similar concern with this novel. The spiderweb of crime and complicity in Juarez is gradually revealed through Emiliano, with one brutal final twist. But there is another spiderweb of people who want to get by, and even fight back, compelled either by their religion or their personal convictions, and this web is shown to be equally strong, if less newsworthy. As Sara and Emiliano struggle to stay alive, this is the web that supports them and moves them towards safety.

Recommended for teen readers who are interested in getting a much fuller picture of life in contemporary Mexico.

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My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

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My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick, July 2018.

Drawing from her own experience as an Argentinian in Alabama during the watershed years when schools were integrated, the author  has created a wonderful, lively, and warm-hearted story about 6th grader Lu Olivera, set in fictitious Red Grove, Alabama in 1970. In the first year that her school has included black students, Lu sits in the middle row of her classroom between the black kids and the white kids. Middle rowers don’t exactly belong to either group: “our moms and dads believe in equal rights and all that good stuff” which makes them “ weirdos” to some people.

Lu is torn between her previous unknowing comfortable old life when she was friends with white Abigail and Phyllis, and the scary new ground of being friends with black Belinda. She’s becoming politically aware as the election for the governor plays out between moderate Albert Brewer and racist George Wallace. Lu’s older sister, Marina, works for the Brewer campaign as well as being involved with the anti-Vietnam war campaign. On the personal front, Lu finds out that she is a really good runner which upsets the status quo at school and causes some conflict with her conservative parents. She is also attracted to white Sam, whose parents have been big supporters of integration and civil rights.

As more of the white kids move over to private white-only East Lake Academy, Lu finds she is no longer content with sitting in the middle – she has to take a stand. And she has to persuade her parents to let her go to track camp in the summer so she can join the track team with Belinda in 7th grade.

The author does a terrific job of showing Lu’s personal and political growth over the course of a few months, while keeping her voice entirely appropriate for a smart, curious, and slightly naive 12-year-old.

There is a lot going on in the novel, but the author skillfully weaves all the storylines together to give a whole picture of a young girl growing up at a challenging time in a challenging place and finding her own conscience. A great read for middle graders interested in social justice.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz

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The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz
Candlewick, May 2018.

This slight middle grade story packs a big emotional punch as it looks at how a young girl learns to cope with loss by leaning in to other people.

11-year old Tash has had a challenging early life which has left her with a deep fear of being alone and abandoned. With her father in jail, she now lives with her warm, kind Uncle Kevin, and the love and security he offers along with that of her elderly neighbor, Cap’n Jackie, means she always has someone to be with and can feel safe.

When her grandfather sends her off to a summer camp, Tash is fearfully reluctant to leave those two behind and be with people she doesn’t know, but to her surprise she loves it and feels transformed by the experience. On her return however, she discovers that Cap’n Jackie is in hospital and has withdrawn into herself. Can Cap’n Jackie’s magic key bring her home?

The author does a terrific job of creating empathy for the prickly Tash, a complex and challenging character who is still tussling with her early demons while stretching into her new post-camp persona. Schmatz is skilled in showing her evolution from fearful to confident and the emotional stops and starts along the way, while using believable middle grade language.

While not all readers will have suffered such major traumas in their lives, they will be able to relate to Tash’s grit in finding a way to deal with life when it doesn’t go to plan.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne Jones
Candlewick, June 2018.

I really enjoyed Canadian Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (2015) with its mix of beautifully written realistic prose and a magical element that just blended in. The Ruinous Sweep, an ambitious literary YA murder mystery has a similar blend of dream-like fantasy and intricately dense characterization.

In the first half of the novel, which flows from the present back to the recent and further past, 17 year-old Donovan Turner has been hit by a truck and is lying critically injured and semi-comatose in an ICU. His girlfriend Beatrice, Bee, sits with him and he starts talking but what is he trying to communicate? Woven through this is a hallucinatory account of Donovan’s evening which becomes an allegorical journey. With a too abrupt shift, in the second section of the novel, Bee starts making connections from Donovan’s hospital ramblings to his past (and the reader can make connections to his interior trek), and she launches her own investigation, though this is not a murder-mystery in a straightforward sense.

The writing is elegant and precise, sharply crafted and still staying true to the characters. Both Donovan and Bee are attractive, complex, flawed people, well-matched in their grope towards defining themselves: by nature she is “be” and he is “do” but in the novel’s present, they switch roles. Bee does, however, makes a crucial to the plot decision that just seems out of character. The adults seems a little too split into saintliness and evil, but given the guiding text maybe that’s deliberate.

Wynne-Jones has been inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of Donovan’s quest reflects Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell and Purgatory. However, there are few clues beyond the title and the epigraph that this is what the author’s doing. While I knew of the Divine Comedy, I wasn’t that familiar with it so I did a quick Wikipedia check and some of the parallels in the novel then made a bit more sense (eg Virgil, Dante’s guide, becomes Jilly, Donovan’s guide). Without this knowledge, and I suspect most teen readers will not be aware of Dante’s work beyond the title, the narrative moves into strange and weird territory without at least initial apparent reason. Maybe an Author’s Note would help? Also some of the events in Donovan’s hallucination don’t seem to make sense either as a link to his past or a clue to his present, though maybe they are an echo of Dante.

This is a challenging read to get into, but the reward is immensely fulfilling as Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s work, leads Donovan through purgatory and towards heaven. Ideal for teens and adults who seek out demanding reads.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen

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Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen
Candlewick, July 2018.

A YA romance set in medieval France that is a twist on Beauty and the Beast. As in the fairytale, a cruel and heartless French aristocrat is transformed into a hideous beast, and can only be changed back when he loves and is loved in return.

Jensen adds a new character, Lucie, a maid at the Chateau Beaumont who is initially attracted to the gorgeous chevalier, Jean-Loup, but he is quickly shown to be rotten to the core when he rapes her. Thinking she is pregnant, Lucie runs off to the woods where she is rescued by Mere Sophie, a wise woman. Sophie transforms Jean-Loup into a hideous beast and allows Lucie to watch his suffering by transforming her into a candlestick (though not one that sings and dances!)

But here the story swerves from the original – Beast has no recollection of his time as the chevalier and proves to be a gentle and charming companion and Lucie finds herself falling in love with him.

Enter Rose (the Belle of this story), who is held at the chateau after her father steals a rose and is initially terrified of the Beast, falling in love with the idea of handsome Jean Loup instead. Rose is also something of a Cinderella character as she has two mean and grasping sisters.

As Lucie and Beast, and even Rose, begin to understand that love is about more than skin deep appearances, they work through their love-quadrangle (Jean-Loup being the fourth side) towards a satisfying ending beyond the traditional happy ever after wedding, aided by some magic.

The prose, characterization and plot development serve this interpretation well and will provide enjoyably lush escapism for a teen reader.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017

Hardinge (The Lie Tree, 2016) creates an extraordinary fantasy which marries a 17th century English Civil War setting with her usual dazzling creativity, deliciously deep and complex characterization, and bright, sophisticated writing.

Some members of the aristocratic Fellmottes are able to be possessed by multiple ghosts, ancestors who continue to live on by passing from body to body though, unfortunately, if too many crowd, in the spirit of the host can be lost. Young Makepeace Lightfoot, an illegitimate and lowly branch of the family, has this ability and after the death of her mother is taken in by the Fellmottes to work in their kitchen.

But she realizes that she is a spare host, being kept on hand in case a vessel for the ancestral spirits is needed and she runs away, using her wits and those of a few friendly ghosts that she has invited in, to journey across war-conflicted England, staying one step ahead of her pursuing family.

Makepeace is a trademark Hardinge protagonist: intelligent, thorny, and gutsy. But the tightrope trick here, which the author brilliantly pulls off, even adding some flourishes, is that Makepeace is host to a bear, a Royalist doctor and a Parliamentarian soldier, all of whom are fully-developed characters and have easy to follow conversations with her and each other. Makepeace has a half-brother, James, who also has the Fellmotte ability, and he is her anchor as well as the catalyst for Makepeace’s bid for freedom. This reminds me, in its profundity and authenticity, of the sibling relationship in Cuckoo Song.

At first, I found the novel to be rather slow-paced and uninvitingly grim. But I was riveted once Makepeace sets off on her own and the novel explores the political and social landscape of her country as she is hunted by her family.

As a teen, I was fascinated with the Civil War and was wholly on the side of the way more romantic Royalists. Indeed, one of my earliest historical crushes was Rupert of the Rhine (who gets a shout out here with his dog, Boy). As an older, and maybe wiser, person, I can feel much greater sympathy with the dour Parliamentarians who, while having justice on their side have a bit of a worrying hardline streak. All this to say that Hardinge does a marvelous job of evoking the divergent camps and Makepeace’s pragmatic approach to them.

Makepeace wants to do more than just get by and survive, she wants to flourish and this is an ideal novel for readers who want to do the same, whether they are middle schoolers, older teens, or adults.

Hardinge, hugely popular and feted in the UK, seems to be finding an audience here in the US following the success of The Lie Tree. Her blend of historical setting, singular fantasy, and courageously unsentimental feminist protagonists can make for a challenging and spiky read, but the balm of the gorgeous writing eases the way.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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Refugee by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2017

I’ve only known Gratz as the author of the enjoyable Boys Own-style WWII thriller, Projekt 1065, and Refugee is a complete departure from that style to a much more serious and realistic one, which, nonetheless, makes a gripping novel.

Three stories of refugee children from different countries and different eras are woven together to show the essential truth of what it means to be forced out of your home and have to seek a new life in a foreign country. Josef is a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany who flees from there with his family onboard the MS St Louis to Cuba. Isabel and her family flee from Cuba in 1994  to the United States on a makeshift boat after her father gets in trouble with the Castro regime. In contemporary times, Mahmoud and his family flee from the Syrian civil war, heading across land and sea to get to Germany.

Gratz cleverly links the stories thematically through the dilemmas and challenges that the families face, and through the linking device of the escape across water. He even, in a final twist, brings all the stories together.

This is a middle grade novel and the author doesn’t pull his punches on the dangers that these families face and the outcomes are realistically not happy for everyone. The prose is workmanlike but still manages to communicate the emotions of the highs and lows of these children’s experiences. He also captures the warmth of the families and the drive they have to better their lives of their children.

The author includes some notes on the real life stories behind his fictional ones and includes maps (hurrah!) of the three families’ journeys.

Clearly this is an important of-the-moment topic, and Gratz makes it accessible for a middle grade reader by putting it through the eyes of kids their age and includes sufficient context to make the situations understandable without getting too bogged down in the weeds.  At the same time, by including these three diverse stories, he illuminates the universality and historical relevance of the refugee experience.