Category Archives: Uncategorized

More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood


More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood
Little, Brown, 2020

Pakistani American Danyal Jilani is in his senior year at high school and is coasting through life on charm and good looks. He has little interest in school and wants to become a chef, much to the displeasure of his parents and his crush, Kaval, who want him to go to college and pursue an appropriate career. But then Danyal’s life is upturned: he meets Bishma as a potential match for an arranged marriage and he is surprisingly selected by his cranky History teacher to be a candidate in his school’s annual Renaissance Man competition giving him a chance to shine academically in front of his parents and Kaval.

But when Danyal, with Bishma’s guidance, starts to research his History teacher’s beloved Winston Churchill, he discovers that there are many skeletons in Churchill’s colonial closet, including his role in the Bengal Famine in which 3 million people starved to death. Should he tell this story or should he follow his parents’ and Kaval’s instructions to toe the line?

Though this is a breezy romantic novel, it does tackle some serious topics, including colonialism, slut shaming and gender equity. All of the major characters are Muslim South Asian Americans and the cultural and religious customs as well as the demands and rewards of that community are central to the novel. As Danyal, guided by Bishma, prepares his essay and presentation for the tournament, he begins to see that only by making himself proud can he hope to inspire that in others.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

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.

Ten books that influenced me


There’s this thing going round on Facebook where you’re challenged to list the ten books that have influenced you, and someone did, indeed, challenge me. Normally I ignore this sort of thing as too much effort to do, but as I was showering this morning my list just popped into my mind. After getting dry, I jotted it down and here it is with explanations. It turns out to be a bit of a Desert Island Books list – broadly chronological in terms of my reading, not publication. You’ll probably notice that it’s more than ten books but I don’t want to edit any of these babies out. Plus I’ve cheated by including series and not just single books – my blog, my rules.

lone pineThe Lone Pine series by Malcolm Saville – a great adventure series set in the Stipperstones in Shropshire and Rye on the South Coast (I’ve never been to either place but they loomed very large in my childhood). My first literary crush was David, though I did thrill when he and Peter had their first kiss in a cave. (Peter is a girl – we weren’t that progressive in 60s England).

The Billy Bunter series by Frank Richards – I learned a lot of classical allusions from these deeply unsound books, as well as laughing like a drain. Plus I developed a taste for bad boys, with an affection for Herbert Vernon Smith, aka The Bounder.

Dr. No by Ian Fleming – when I was a teen there was no such thing as YA literature, so I slipped seamlessly from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to James Bond. There is very much more sex and sadism in the latter.

Whom the Gods Would Destroy by Richard Powellwhom the gods would destroy – after working my way through Lillington Library’s mystery and thriller shelves, I moved up to randomly picking novels off the fiction shelves. I have an abiding affection for historical fiction and the first ‘real’ novel I recall reading is this story of the Trojan War. (I had to look this up to see who wrote it and discovered that you can get it for $2.99 for Kindle and that many people really enjoyed it).

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence – DHL is pretty unfashionable these days but this was the first book I really studied in depth, for English A’ Level. It is terribly overwrought, but I can still picture the characters in my mind and can remember the last line.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – after finishing high school, I started to read this, found it terrifically boring and gave up. Thus I learned that not only are many classics very dull, I also don’t have to read them.

blandingsBlandings Castle series by P. G. Wodehouse – the ultimate comfort reading when I was swotting for my finals at university. Also I scored a couple of points on a TV quiz show called Matchpoint by knowing what P. G. stands for.

Success by Martin Amis – this is the first novel I read after reading a review. We used to get the Sunday Times and I recall it getting a very positive review, so I went out and bought it. I have read most of Martin Amis’s oeuvre and use with some regularity the epigraph to Dead Babies (often called something deeply bland like Deep Secrets) “I don’t know much about science, but I know what I like.”

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson – when we first moved to San Francisco I couldn’t work and had a lot of time on my hands. So I joined the local library and ploughed my way through the complete works of Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Sarah Paretsky and Charles Dickens. But the books that cheered me up when I was feeling lonely and rather useless were the Mapp and Lucia books – very English and very funny.

His Dark Materials by Philip PullmanGoldenCompass – I read this trilogy when my daughter was a baby and then again when I had my son. I can remember willing them to stay napping so I could read another chapter.

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling – my daughter is of the fortunate generation who grew up as the HP books were being published. I set the rather selfish rule that she couldn’t read the books by herself until I’d read them to her. And the same for my son.

Tess’s Tree by Jess M. Brallier – the first book I wrote a review for. I spent hours laboring over my deathless prose for what is a rather mediocre book that is now out of print.

Double Fudge by Judy Blume – the magical first audiobook that captured my kids’ attention and meant that we could be in the car for more than 15 minutes without tears and tantrums.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – it makes me very happy.