Category Archives: fiction

The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones

Standard

The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick, September 2019

On a solo trip to the wintry and isolated Ghost Lake, 16 year-old straight arrow Nate discovers that his family’s cabin has been taken over by escaped convicts. Resourceful and competent Nate initially tries to hide out but is later forced to confront these dangerous men. Eight months earlier, Nate’s best friend Dodge, a prankster and rule-breaker, drowned in Ghost Lake, and now his spirit both haunts Nate and pushes him to face the natural and man-made threats.

The desolation of the snowbound wilderness and the storm that comes in which prevents Nate leaving are never truly as atmospheric as I feel they should be. The description of Nate’s survival skills, taught to him by his father, are not particularly compelling either.

In his bones, Nate is a straightforward rule-following teen, the product of his loving, kind but safety-conscious and wilderness savvy parents: he knows what is the right thing to do and is intrinsically impelled to do it. On the other hand, he is ambiguous about Dodge, who in life was always pushing him to try new and dangerous things, ones not necessarily approved by his parents. Dodge’s death, while on a foolhardy family boat delivery trip which also killed his dad and younger brother, obsesses Nate as he fears he could have prevented it.

The two escaped convicts are broadly sketched psychopathic bad guys and the identity of their guide is a minor though not wholly unexpected twist. All characters appear to be white but I’m not sure if there’s a hint or two that Nate’s Dad is indigenous – Kirkus doesn’t mention it so maybe not. 

I have been a fan of Mr Wynne-Jones’s earlier sophisticated, elegantly written, texturally complex books, The Emperor of Any Place and The Ruinous Sweep, so I was somewhat taken aback by the prosaic and straightforward nature of this book. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a reasonably decent adventure novel, but it just seems so much less than his previous novels. 

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

Advertisements

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Standard

Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

 

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

Standard

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox
Dial, 2019.

Drawing on her personal experience of mental illness, the author creates an absorbing and authentic portrait of a teen girl under extreme stress.

At the beginning of the book, set in Australian oceanside town of Wollongong, 17 year-old Elizabeth “Biz” Grey feels disengaged and removed, and her brain gets stuck in loops.  Unsure of her sexuality, she tried to kiss her best friend Grace but is also attracted to new boy Jasper (all main characters appear to be white with the possible exception of Grace whose last name is Yu-Harrison).

Following an incident at the beach after which she is ostracized by her friend posse, she begins to lose her already tenuous grip on reality. She still sees and converses with her father, but he died when she was seven, and when she takes up photography, the images she creates literally speak to her. Her desperate and loving mother and endearing young siblings provide a solid home life but though Biz appears to be coping, inside she feels she is a “non-functioning sad person.”

The intense first person narrative puts the reader right in Biz’s head as her thoughts shake and circle around, showing her fuzzy line between reality and hallucination and her perception of the fragile line between life and death. It is a particularly tough read when she contemplates suicide but she ultimately decides that she needs to follow her father’s life in order to “get better.”

The author delicately and evocatively shows the complexities of mental illness as well as the challenges and grief it puts on friends and family. Will appeal to readers who appreciated Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep.

Resources are provided in the acknowledgements.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

Standard

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari
Walden Pond, 2019.

There’s been something missing in 12 year-old Charlie O’Reilly’s life for the last year: his younger brother, Liam. But, bizarrely, no-one else remembers Liam – not his parents, no-one at school, and not even his best friend, Ana, though she, alone, believes Charlie. But since Liam disappeared, his mother has sunk into a deep depression and his father never seems to be at home. It’s only when Charlie and Ana talk to the new assistant baseball coach that they start to find out what might have happened to Liam.

This intriguing debut middle grade novel weaves in elements of fantasy and the supernatural into an ingenious plot, full of surprises and discoveries. Even Charlie’s vivid nightmares, about an Irish family migrating to America because of the potato famine, eventually slot into place.

Themes of loss, regret, and forgiveness are handled sensitively if sometimes a little didactically, as thoughtful, persistent Charlie balanced by brave action-focused Ana – like all major characters they appear to be white – pursues the mystery of what has happened to Liam.

As Charlie learns that life is often painful and messy, he appreciates that without that, there can also be no joy. Ideal for readers who are ready to take on that understanding.

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

Standard

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
Katherine Tegen, 2019.

An intriguing YA fantasy romance, which goes on for just a bit too long.

On a college visit, African American Jack King meets “beautiful brown super-tight-curls” Kate at a party and falls for her. Over the next four months they meet up, flirt, and get close. Kate fails to turn up to Jack’s prom because she’s “genetically unwell” and has been hospitalized and within a few short pages, Kate dies and then Jack falls downstairs and also dies. But then everything resets and he’s back at the college party and has the chance to save her again (and again).

The author skillfully plays out this looping, if a little too lengthily, as Jack tries different paths to perfect his plan to save Kate, though these come with the usual unintended consequences of time travel, both trivial and catastrophic. Part of Jack’s challenge is to also keep the delicate balance with his two best friends, biracial Jillian and Latinx Francisco “Franny” Hogan, complicated by them being a couple without ever realizing Jillian had been Jack’s crush.

The central trio of Jack, Jillian and Franny is richly and convincingly drawn, though Jack feels a little like a male version of a typical YA young woman: insecure, self-deprecating, but beloved by his friends. Kate, conversely takes the usual male role of being somewhat unbelievably both one-dimesionally perfect and also interested in Jack. Though it’s nice to see this gender role reversal, it doesn’t make it any more credible.

The author tries to keep the various iterations different enough to stay interesting for the reader, but I felt that there was maybe one too many, or maybe the later ones could have been trimmed. I appreciate that this is a fantasy and isn’t going to pass a logic test, but it’s never explained why Jack doesn’t confide in anyone, even Kate, nor is any reason given for his resets, and some of his choices defy credibility.

I did love both the wide diversity of the characters and that them being of color is never the point of the story though is integral to it.

Perfect for readers who enjoyed David Levithan’s Every Day (Knopf, 2012).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

Standard

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Balzer + Bray, 2019.

This has been seen as a middle grade novel for those too young to read Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is sort of fair though rather sweeping but also downplays the merits it has in its own right.

7th grade Shayla forms the “United Nations” with her two best friends: Isabella is Puerto Rican, Julia is Japanese-American, and Shayla is black. Shayla has never had a black friend – not because she doesn’t want to but because they weren’t many other black kids in her elementary school and now she has her friend group, but some of the black kids think she’s deliberately avoiding them.

And she has never been particularly conscious of being black, but as this is set against the backdrop of trial of police officer who shot a black man walking to his car, things have started to change. Shayla develops a growing consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement which her older sister Hana is a part of and her parents discuss it with her in a matter of fact, balanced, and informative way, gently sharing the injustice of all the trials apparently ending in the same way.

Shayla finds herself becoming more engaged and involved, particularly after her parents take her on a peaceful candlelit protest and decides to stop avoiding standing out and being risk averse. She starts wearing a black armband to show her support for BLM and though there is some antipathy towards this from white students, mostly there is support and it becomes a movement at school. This is a low key introduction to middle grade readers about social injustice and civil rights. The violence and civic unrest takes place offstage, but Shayla’s championing of the BLM movement through her black armband is a terrific way in and metaphor for the wider world.

But as well as being a portrait of the awakening consciousness to social and racial injustice of a young black girl there are also all the usual things that happen in junior high like boys, friends, and branching out to new things, which the author seamlessly integrates. Shayla’s friend group seems to be falling apart: Julia wants to spend time with the Asian American basketball team she plays in, and suddenly Isabella has blossomed into a beauty who is catching the eye of the boy Shayla has a crush on whereas another boy seems to be crushing on Shayla despite her often outright rudeness to him. Shayla gets to know other black kids through joining the track team and being one of only two girls doing shop.

I found the author’s sharp portrayal of one of the teachers to be particularly on point. Though some of the teachers are cool, Ms Jacobs the white English teacher addresses Shayla as though she is the spokesperson for all black people in the school: “I hate when a teacher assumes that just because I’m black , I’ll know all about slavery and civil rights and stuff like that.”

There is a lot going on in this novel and it can be read at different levels. I think many middle grade readers will be engaged by Shay’s voice and her thoughtful progress through 7th grade and at the same time will be excited to accompany her on her journey of self-discovery.

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

Standard

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow
Delacorte, 2019.

When Grace “Tiger” Tolliver’s mother dies, she is catapulted into a grief-filled and uncharted future in this devastating YA novel.

16 year-old white Tiger and her mother are a tight-knit and insular unit, but when Tiger tentatively tries some baby steps at independence, it turns sour and she ends up lashing out at her mother’s claustrophobic protectiveness: “Why can’t you ever just fucking leave me alone.” That turns out to be the last thing she says to her mother who dies of a brain aneurysm later that day.

As there are no other relatives, Tiger is dropped into the state system while still in a tumult of grief. Refusing to eat or take off the hideous dress her mother bought her for a school dance, Tiger retreats into herself. However, her mother has left behind information about her father, and social services manages to dig up a 20-year-old half sister who agrees to be Tiger’s guardian, who has her own problems. Quite how this is considered acceptable when the parents of her best friend are turned down despite being comfortably off and having known Tiger for many years (there is no specific author’s note on the authenticity of this, but the author is familiar with the system so I take it that she knows what she’s writing about).

As she counts the minutes since her mother’s death, Tiger feels like an object being shuttled around the system. In her brief time in the emergency foster care system and later in a group home, Tiger meets caring adults who are genuinely trying to help her and others, as well as coming across stories of sickening abuse by both biological and foster parents.

Her narrative is interspersed with notes from a primer Tiger writes in her grief counseling group about dealing with the death of her mother and the ensuing emotional fallout, because there wasn’t one for her to follow and she wants other people to know what it feels like.

Though she still feels like she’s “walking around with a Grand Canyon of grief in [her] heart,” Tiger and  and the other “lost kids” she meets are slowly making families “out of scraps.” Kids she would have ignored or been intimidated by when she coasting through life not knowing what was about to hit her become close allies because of what they share.

This is a tough book to read. Early on, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel because it was so hard to read the raw feelings and comprehend the seriously messed up situation. But the author has a steady hand with light and shade, making it just about bearable, and readers who look for sad stories will find a gem here.