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Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen


So it’s been quite a while since I posted and I’ve been enjoying the break. I re-read the Harry Potter series which was wonderful, read some novels for adults, and even read some YA novels. It was very relaxing to just read a book without having to keep notes or write a thoughtful review. But I’m back now, at least for a while. I’ve got several reviews ready to go, so there will be one a week at least for the next couple of months, and then I’ll see how I feel after that.

Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, October 2019.

As regular readers will know, I’ve been a long-time fan of Jennifer A. Nielsen, but I feel like I might be coming to an end with her. I did not enjoy a previous historical novel, A Night Divided as much as many, and, in terms of her fantasy novels though I thought The Scourge was excellent, I wasn’t a fan of The Traitor’s Game and didn’t bother with the sequel. However, I was given this book to review and though I loved the idea of it, I didn’t love the execution so much.

In late 19th century Russian-occupied Lithuania, the Lithuanian language, both spoken and written, is banned in an attempt to erase the country and assimilate it into the Motherland.

When 12-year old Audra’s parents are arrested for the crime of book smuggling, Audra joins the resistance, bringing Lithuanian books in from Prussia and distributing them to patriots. As Audra begins to understand how Lithuanian words are their freedom, she realizes how vital her network is to keeping that idea alive.

In tense and exciting sequences, she and Lukas, a boy of her own age, take daring risks to keep the supply of books flowing while being pursued by Cossack soldiers. Though Audra is initially scared and clueless, she credibly gains confidence when she realizes that the magic tricks her father taught her can be used to outwit their enemies.

The prose, plot, and characterization never rise above workmanlike in their service to the fascinating central idea of using language to control the narrative: what can’t be said, can’t be thought. Though Nielsen brings this little-known piece of history to life through Audra, the book lacks further information and resources about the Lithuanian freedom fighters and book smugglers.

Refugee by Alan Gratz


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.

Dark Energy by Robison Wells


dark energyDark Energy by Robison Wells
Harper Collins, April 2016.

I’ve read most of Robison Wells’ books and have really enjoyed the combination of interesting set ups and fast-paced action, and have always appreciated that he writes duologies, thus getting rid of the boring middle book in a trilogy at a stroke.

Dark Energy is, for the most part, a terrifically paced, tightly plotted scifi thriller set in the right now. A massive alien spaceship has crashed into the Midwest, killing thousands, and Alice’s NASA bigwig Dad is called in. Rather than leave her behind in Miami, he enrolls her into the tony Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. When the inhabitants of the spaceship finally emerge, they are surprisingly human looking, and two of them are placed at Minnetonka, but it is only when the spaceship is being explored that it emerges that all is not what it seems.

The pacing of the majority of this novel is superlative. As Alice settles into school there is little indication of the drama yet to come: she makes friends, she finds romance, and she learns the ropes. When aliens Coya and Susika are introduced to the school, there is some fun with them not knowing the ways of human world, including not understanding Alice’s teen snark, as well as some mysteries: why won’t they talk about their mother? Why don’t they wear shoes? Then the tone darkens considerably as Alice and her friends are invited by her Dad to come into the spaceship to document it. What they find is sickening and raises some big questions.

The final section, however, lost me a bit. As the true aliens emerge, they feel slightly silly early-Dr Who monsterry, and the pace becomes frantically fast and felt muddled. I felt a lot was not resolved satisfactorily, despite an end-tying up epilogue. It appears that this is a standalone, though frankly, as I was racing towards the end, I didn’t think it was going to be, as there was so much left unexplained.

Dark Energy is a step forward for the author in terms of characterization. Alice is a fully rounded, not always likeable, smart teenage girl and the support characters, including her two science nerd roommates, and her potential love interest are all several cuts above cardboard.

Alice’s mother was Navajo and, confounding my initial dark thoughts of token diversity, Navajo rituals and traditions are integral to the plot. According to the author’s note at the end, he has some personal experience of these and has run his writing past experts. I’m no Debbie Reese, and I’m sure she will thoroughly analyze Dark Energy, but it does appear to me that Mr Wells has done his due diligence and used his knowledge respectfully. Update: Debbie Reese has reviewed Dark Energy and does not recommend it.

I hope between ARC and publication, the ending will get sorted out because I feel this could be Mr Wells’ best novel to date. However, even as it stands, it will have plenty of appeal to teen readers who enjoy scifi in a current day setting, and those who look out for strong female leads.

Thanks to Harper Collins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Just a couple of postscript gripes. The title seems a bit lame and generic – there’s a prologue that sort of justifies it, but that feels bolted on and even says “This story isn’t about dark energy.” And the cover (at least on the digital arc) appears to show a truck, whereas Alice’s car is, crucially, a BMW 550i GT.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley


lies we tell ourselvesLies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Harlequin Teen , 2014

It’s 1959 in fictitious Davisburg, Virginia, and it’s the first day at previously all-white Jefferson High School for ten Negro students, including senior Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister, Ruth.

For the first 50 pages of this brutally powerful novel, we live through that day with Sarah – from walking through hundreds of viciously angry white people in the parking lot, to the hell of the school corridors where constant abuse, and more, is thrown at her, to the passively hostile indifference of most of the teachers. All day, she is assaulted from all sides, and it is almost unbearably painful to read.

It doesn’t get any better in the ensuing days. But then Sarah is put on a French project with a white girl, Linda Hairston, and there is a spark of attraction between them. But how can that be? Linda is the daughter of one of the most vehement supporters of segregation in the town, and Linda, herself, believes that integration is “unnatural.” Both girls are deeply disturbed by their mutual attraction.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Linda, each chapter headed up with a lie such as “I don’t care what they think of me” and “None of this has anything to do with me”, Lies traces how both girls not only challenge their own perceptions, but also those of their parents. Talley does load the dice a bit – not only is Linda’s father a vicious racist, he also physically and verbally abuses his daughter. But Sarah is honest too, about the pressure from her parents and the NAACP for her and Ruth to be among the pioneer Negro students at this school, even at the risk of physical and psychological damage.

Is it too much to overlay a story of lesbian awakening onto the already inflammatory events of school desegregation? It does feel a little contrived, a little ‘of all the gin joints,’ that it should happen to these two girls, when there is already so much drama. But Lies is a long leisurely book and there is time for both the development of their relationship, and for Linda to realize the worthlessness of intellectual ideas if you are not applying them to actual people.

The language and intense situations give a reality to this book, but also make it best suited for mature readers.

The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter


swallowThe Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Tundra Books, 2014
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

Rose and Polly live next door to each other and opposite a cemetery in Toronto, 1963. Polly feels invisible as her parents take in more foster children and ignore her needs; Rose feels invisible as her parents are always away working and she only has the company of a crotchety old housekeeper. Polly is fascinated with the idea of ghosts; Rose is tortured by seeing ghosts everywhere. And then they meet up and for the first time, each of them has a friend, but their friendship is threatened by a mystery rooted in Rose’s house.

This is a truly atmospheric book – the author has created an eerie, uneasy mood as the two isolated girls take alternating (very short) chapters to tell their version of their friendship. I found it uncomfortable rather than scary, but to a younger reader it might actually be quite chilling.

Cooper has done a solid job with Polly and Rose – the girls are opposites in some ways: Polly is ebullient and full of derring do; Rose is reflective and cautious, but they share their loneliness and their longing for a  connection with their families. The support characters are few: Polly’s twin brothers, the Horrors, are the best developed – fierce and loyal; Winnie, a ghost, is rather a cliche of a haunted girl who wants to be released. The parents are mostly offstage and don’t really feel like more than stock characters.

The pacing is very slow to begin with as the author builds up the mystery and mood, but takes off once the girls start investigating the mystery and the final section is dramatic and moving.

However, (spoiler alert) there is a huge twist at the end which just doesn’t make sense and feels like a cheat. There are some clues, but we are misled, and some significant information is withheld from the reader, making it impossible to work out for yourself what’s going on.

This is an unusual book, with a terrific atmosphere and will appeal to middle graders who like off the beaten track ghost stories.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming


family romanovThe Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade, 2014.

In this much buzzed about nonfiction account of the final days of Russia’s autocracy, Candace Fleming brilliantly uses primary sources to give the reader many different facets of the story: a personal portrait of the lives and death of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children; firsthand accounts from the bottom of the social structure, both rural and industrial; and an overview of the events that led up to the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath.

The main focus is an inside account of the Imperial family – they were prodigious letter writers and diary keepers. Fleming makes clear how Nicholas-and-Alexandra-the-romanovs-12206239-478-600inadequate Nicholas was for the role of autocratic ruler of Russia: there is the illuminating Nero-esque image of Nicholas ignoring a desperate telegram sent to him describing the riots and slaughter in Petrograd, and spending the evening playing dominoes. But more than not being especially bright or talented, Nicholas believed he had the God-given right to rule his vast Empire and did so with a passivity and willful obliviousness that squandered the goodwill the population felt towards the Tsar, leading not just to his and his family’s executions but to the disaster of Communist Russia.

Rasputin-007Fleming weaves in the contrast between the opulence of the aristocracy and the utter misery of the peasants and the factory workers, and then leads the reader through the confluence of events, both major and minor, that led to demonstrations, riots and rebellion. For example, Alexandra’s, and to a lesser extent Nicholas’s infatuation with the ‘holy man’ Rasputin is given a lot of play, and the author clearly believes he was a corrupt charlatan, whose advice and manipulation led to a weakened government at a time when men of talent might have averted catastrophe.

The final section of the book movingly focuses on the last days of the Romanovs as they’re shuffled around from one location to the next, until finally, in the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, one Bolshevik, apparently without Lenin’s approval, planned and carried out their executions.romanov children

There are two sections of nicely reproduced photographs, and back matter includes notes for the many quotations woven into the text, extensive print and online sources and an author’s note on her research process.

leninThough I was pretty familiar with the history covered here, I’m assuming it would be new to most teen and middle grade readers. I think the decision to focus on the family drives the narrative along and narrows this vast slab of history into a riveting story. At the same time, Fleming is scrupulous in her accuracy and in modeling historical writing, while constructing a compelling argument that, sadly, the Romanovs had a major hand in their own downfall and that of their country.

The Cybils are coming, hurrah! hurrah!


Cybils-Logo-2014-Rnd2I am thrilled to be a second round judge for the Cybils – in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. This will be my third year judging this category and I can’t wait to see what the first round judges come up with as a shortlist!

In case you’re not familiar with the Cybils, it is a set of literary awards made by children and teen lit book bloggers. Unlike the more famous Newbery medal, the Cybils looks at both literary merit and reader appeal which, in my judgely opinion, makes it far more useful for librarians and parents looking for books for kids.

As well as my category, there are awards for fiction, nonfiction and speculative fiction for YA books, as well as middle grade books, and ones for poetry, graphic novels, easy reader/early chapter books and book apps. The awards have two rounds – in the first one, a panel of judges sifts through the numerous books nominated by book bloggers all over the country. They end up with a shortlist of seven books that go to the round two judges for more intense appraisal. The winners are announced around the middle of February.

I’ve found the past winners and shortlists really helpful when I’ve been looking for books to recommend as there are always titles I’ve never even heard of. And in my two previous stints as a second round judge, the shortlists were a terrifically well-balanced list of different types of fantasy and science fiction, with a good age spread.

So, hurrah for the Cybils and I’ll be getting ready to nominate my favorite books, starting on October 1.