Tag Archives: action

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

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.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017.

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.

Horizon by Scott Westerfeld

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2017

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.

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

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projekt-1065Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2016.

Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.

Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.

The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.

Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012)  and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..

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The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

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lost-compassThe Lost Compass by Joel Ross
Fog Diver; Bk. 2
HarperCollins, 2016.

This satisfying sequel to the Cybil-winning middle grade adventure The Fog Diver (2015), picks up immediately where the previous book left off. Following a brief introduction to get the reader up to speed the reader is plunged straight back into the post-apocalyptic world in which the Earth is covered by a sentient Fog made of nanites that are toxic to humans, and people can only survive on mountain tops and in the air above the Fog.

Chess, the fog diver, and his crew have escaped the economically stratified Rooftop and arrived at idyllic and more equitable Port Oro, where they discover that the only way to save the world from villainous Kodoc is for Chess to dive down again to find the mysterious Compass which controls the Fog. Naturally, Kodoc also wants to get his hands on the Compass and is prepared to do anything to achieve that.

It becomes apparent that the crew are more than just a serendipitously well-matched group. Hazel, the quick thinking leader, Swedish, the ingenious pilot, Bea, the preternaturally gifted mechanic, are there to support Chess as his affinity with the Fog means he could be the one to save the Earth. These four characters, plus brawling Loretta, continue to be the warm heart of the story. Though a few new characters are introduced, they pale in comparison and are more plot device than flesh and blood.

The plot is a judicious mix of action sequences and exploration of the world. Port Oro has plenty for the kids to discover and because it is a more fair and just society than that of the Rooftop, it gives Chess a reason to put himself in peril.

Once again there is some entertaining and clever word play on phrases from the old days. Norse is a tapping code used by the Vikings. The Amazons are fierce women warriors who fought battle and sold books. There is a long-running gag with Hazel keeping a Captain’s Log that begins each entry with Start-8. This is smart stuff that is perfectly pitched to be both witty and comprehensible.

The author has made the bold and cheer-inducing move of completing the series in only two books. This keeps the pace fast and the explanations brief, but at the same time doesn’t shortchange the reader. An excellent duology that I would recommend to any scifi or dystopian loving upper elementary or middle schooler.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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the-scourgeThe Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed The Mark of the Thief series, and quite liked, though not as much as many did, the historical fiction A Night Divided. But my favorite JAN by far is The False Prince, and I’m excited to say that The Scourge is almost as good in some ways and even better in that it’s a one-off!!!

Like The False Prince, the setting is an imaginary country in a sort of 16th/17th century. This time, the country is Keldan, with the population acrimoniously divided into town dwellers and the River People. The country is being ravaged by the Scourge, an incurable plague, which has so far only hit the towns. But when River People Ani and Weevil are picked up to be tested, it’s discovered that they are both infected and they are sent to Attic Island – a colony for Scourge sufferers that nobody ever leaves.

Ani is our narrator and is a typically feisty Nielsen protagonist – one who just can’t keep her mouth closed or her head down. Though not quite a female version of my beloved False Prince Sage/Jarod with his delicious snark and unreliability, it’s good to have a female action hero and one who can lead, as well as just get herself in and out of scrapes. Weevil (terrible name – sounds like a Disney sidekick) is the cooler headed of the two, and is also a love interest.

The plot rips along, and though I could see the big twist coming, it was a good one and well-executed. There is a balanced mix of tension and action, and the backdrop of the tension between the two Keldan cultures gives an interesting overlay of social injustice.

And did I say it all wraps up in one book? Hooray. The downside is that the support characters don’t really have room to develop, and it would be nice to have seen more of Della, the initially snooty townie sent to the colony with Ani.

This is JAN at her peak and I would happily press this into the hands of any middle school reader.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Replica by Lauren Oliver

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bookcover_replicaReplica by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2016.

With this very enjoyable first book in her new duology, which takes on the big theme of what it means to be human, Lauren Oliver returns to the sci fi/dystopia genre of her splendid Delirium trilogy.

Lyra and Gemma are both connected with the mysterious Haven Institute which is situated on a remote Florida island. Lyra, or 24, is one of the many replicas (or clones) that live there. Gemma’s father was one of the founders of Haven. When a bomb goes off on the island, Lyra escapes and Gemma makes her way down to Florida – from their different perspectives, they both want to find out who they are and what Haven’s purpose really is.

Told from the perspectives of Lyra and Gemma, the author has taken the interesting if not entirely successful decision to write this as two novellas rather than the usual interleaved chapters. I applaud trying new things, but I feel maybe it would have worked better in the traditional way. In the intro, Ms Oliver talks about the Rashomon effect, but it is much harder to detect this when you are not reading the two accounts side by side, particularly in an eBook.

The created world is thought-provoking and cohesive, and, as she did with Delirium, the author gradually drops in new information to build a fuller picture, but does this without ever leaving the reader frustrated or confused. The science of what is going on at Haven comes in a couple of big information dumps and I found it a bit confusing, though I suspect it’s not essential to follow precisely. Suffice to say that the scientists at Haven are Up To No Good.

I really like the two narrators and the voices that Ms Oliver has created for them. Lyra is precise and a little cold. Ms Oliver is largely successful in creating a character that knows nothing about the outside world, except what she has occasionally seen on TV or overheard from the Haven staff, and then to convey her wonder and confusion as she encounters it. Gemma becomes more intriguing as we get to know her and her family background.

Both girls have love interests (and all main characters appear to be white). Lyra flees from Haven with hunky 72, who is of the silent brooding but “beautiful” type, and Gemma’s ride to Florida is Pete, who is of the fresh-faced, handsome, nice, and inexplicably drawn to the outcast girl type. Neither really develops much beyond that. As the young women dig deeper into who they are, their beaux’ responses add new dimensions when the idea of love as a marker of humanity is explored.

The plot rattles along, with twist following twist, and the two accounts add developments without being repetitious. Unfortunately, the novel just sort of ends on an incomplete note, so we’ll have to wait for the concluding sequel, though yay for dropping the treading water middle book of a trilogy!

Ms Oliver’s books are always worth reading, whether realistic or speculative. Fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed, and Replica could well attract some new readers.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.