This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.
Set in a galaxy far far away, this speculative novel, first in a duology, has some familiar and some new elements from brand name author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series. The world building is far more complex than she has attempted before, which makes the initial chapters are rather laborious and confusing as a plethora of characters, cultures, and political and religious systems are thrown at the reader. Once the novel gets into its rhythm, however, this all makes more sense and there’s some intriguing ideas around “the current” – the major force in this universe – and the currentgifts that each individual develops at puberty.
We are also in familiar star-cross’d lovers territory with the two leads coming from different nations living on the same planet. White Akos is the younger son of a high-ranking Thuvhesit family who is kidnapped by the cruel and ruthless Shotet leader, Ryzek, to be an aide to his sister “medium brown, almost golden” Cyra. The novel is a split narrative, and Cyra’s first person account is much more immersive than Akos’s third person point of view. Despite Akos and Cyra coming from the opposite sides of a planetary civil war, what do you think might happen?
As with Divergent, there are themes of identity, destiny, and how an individual can change and determine these. While high-ranking family members each have a foretold fate, these are ambiguous enough that their apparently obvious meaning may be twisted in a way that makes for a satisfying plot. Despite coming in at 468 pages, the pacing and plot will keep the reader engaged, and looking forward to the completing novel. With more sadism and more complex worldbuilding than her previous series, Carve the Mark will work best for older YA readers.
Eulogy Beach, MS still shows signs of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.White high school senior Ramona “Blue” Leroux, her older sister, Hattie, and father are still living in the FEMA issued trailer. Ms Murphy’s novel sympathetically portrays life on the margins: Ramona works two jobs to help her family scrape by and save a little for herself, but now Hattie is pregnant and her feckless boyfriend is moving in, making Ramona feel more trapped than ever.
Ramona Blue, nicknamed for her love of the ocean, is a wonderful character and Ms Murphy makes her thoughtful and credible. Self-described as “the white trash lesbian from the trailer park,” she stands out in all respects – over 6’ tall with blue hair and one of the few out people in town. Her allegiance to her family gives her a sense of responsibility which she shoulders lightly and with goodwill.
At the start of senior year, she’s still entwined in a romance with closeted holiday visitor Grace who now seems to be distancing herself. And then Freddie, a “light-skinned black boy” who used to be a regular summer visitor and close friend returns. Freddie is a lot of things that Ramona isn’t – well-off, secure, and with a sense of his future. When Ramona starts swimming at the Y with him she finds it fills a need she didn’t know she had and her friendship with Freddie starts to develop into something more.
Murphy does a great job of peopling Ramona’s world with believable, appealing characters. Her family, though down on its luck, is tight-knit and supportive, and her friend group, though small, has the sort of charm and wit that is common in YA novels but is not usually portrayed so believably. Her relationship with Freddie also allows Ramona to consider “what being black in the South might mean.”
Over the year, Ramona learns that just because something is not bad, that doesn’t make it good and she finds a direction and purpose in her life that is about just her and her choice.
Ms Murphy has a knack of creating quirky offbeat characters that engage and charm and can expand the reader’s view of ‘normal’. Though I didn’t love this quite as much as Dumplin’ (2015), it was still a very pleasurable read.
Thanks to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.
Set in the early 20th century, this powerful, spare novel, written by Mal Peet and completed by Meg Rosoff after his death, centers on Beck who, with a long gone African father and dead white mother, finds himself at the mercy of a cruel system. Starved and mistreated at a Liverpudlian orphanage and then, at the age of 15, shipped to Canada where he is physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brotherhood before being given as slave labor to a farmer. Finally Beck takes his fate into his own hands and runs off, simply heading west with no purpose.
For much of the novel, Beck drifts and is a passive, somewhat detached presence. He yearns for something but cannot articulate what he wants until he sees it in others: love, family, home. His monochromatic lack of emotion is set against the rich glow of those who come to love him. Bone and Irma, a black couple involved in bootlegging, take him in and show him what love can look like. Then Grace, an older woman with Siksika mother and white father, finds him in a state of almost primal rebirth after a storm and takes him in. Their mutual desire stirs him deeply and confuses him and this relationship is the focal point of the novel.
Beck’s horrifying treatment by the priests, though limited in detail, and the realistically portrayed racism of the era make this book more suitable for older teen and adult readers.
Mal Peet died before he finished this novel and Meg Rosoff completed it. Afterwords from Rosoff and Peet’s wife give few clues as to how the book was written, though Rosoff does tip her hat to Peet’s turn of phrase.
Prolific author Westerfeld opens up a new multi-author seven part upper elementary/middle grade scifi series. On a flight between New York and Tokyo, the plane crashes leaving only eight survivors – all kids. But nothing makes sense: the other passengers have all just disappeared and instead of being in the Arctic, they are in a tropical jungle, inhabited by unfamiliar and malevolent creatures.
This book is in many ways a set-up for the series and linked online game, so the characters are distinguished by the skills that they bring to the group and, for some of them, a little background family information is broadly sketched in. Dark-skinned Molly is a natural leader and the others look to her for direction. Blonde Anna has trouble filtering what she says, but sometimes the others need her honesty. Biracial Yoshi is the most analytical and creative thinker, making intellectual leaps that the others haven’t. Dark-skinned Javi, white Caleb, young Japanese sisters Kira and Akiko, and young white Oliver make up the octet.
The plot moves along quickly, with plenty of action and intrigue. There’s age appropriate thrills and scares as they encounter the strange flora and fauna and there’s some humor to be had in the names the kids give to them including “pukeberries” and the “dreadful duck of doom.”
By the end of the book, the kids have answered the where part of the mystery, and that leaves the why, who, and how for subsequent books. With Jennifer A. Nielsen up for book 2, this is clearly a series that Scholastic are investing in and Westerfeld gives it a solid start.
Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.
On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.
The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.
The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.
Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy
This fantastic sci-fi novel imagines a future without death in which Scythes “glean” people to keep the population at the right level. Multiracial Citra and Rowan are apprentice scythes, studying under Scythe Faraday, but at the Scythe Conclave it is decided that only one of them can eventually graduate to be a Scythe and that one will immediately need to glean the other.
I have only read Shusterman’s really terrific Challenger Deep, so I’m not familiar with his other sci-fi series. In Scythe, I think the world building, and the way it is gradually revealed is exemplary. How humans came to be immortal, and the personal, political, legal, cultural, and religious ramifications of that are explored.
The novel is driven by a schism in Scythedom between those who feel it has moral and ethical dimensions, and those who want to kill people for fun. Citra and Rowan spend their apprenticeship year learning not only “killcraft” but also finding out about the way different Scythes approach their weighty task. As their final test approaches, their feelings about each other are conflicted and complicated by the pact enforced on them.
The plot moves swiftly, switching between their points of view, and interspersed with extracts from various Scythes’ journals. There are some satisfying twists along the way, though none that was a great surprise, and the ending (which I found a little too reminiscent of a popular dystopian novel) was satisfying while at the same time setting up a sequel.
With its name brand author, eye catching cover, and intriguing vision of the future, this novel is perfect for teens who enjoy dystopias.