Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019
This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.
The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.
Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.
Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.
After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.
Gamer Army by Trent Reedy
Reedy (The Last Full Measure series) mixes up a rather bland middle grade scifi stew of Ready Player One and Enders Game when five 12-year old gamers are invited to take part in a virtual reality Laser Viper tournament.
In an unspecified future, much of life, including gaming, is conducted in Virtual City, created by William J. Culum, the CEO of Atomic Frontiers. So when white Rogan, Shay, and Brett, along with brown-skinned Jackie, and Asian American Takehashi arrive at the Atomic Frontiers specially constructed game arena they are initially beguiled by William J. Culum. But as the gamers play competitive missions and contestants are eliminated, the remaining ones start to have some disquiet about how the game is really working.
Despite this potentially exciting set up, the game sequences lack the expected fizz and despite the cinematic style of the writing, they drag, not helped by the clunking acronyms and ‘gamer-speak.’ The characters are two-dimensional, even the main protagonist Rogan who at least has been given some family background, and their relationships lack chemistry and are workmanlike at best.
Trent Reedy has written some really good novels – the first two novels in The Last Full Measure series, Words in the Dust – so he clearly has talent. But this novel feels like the start of a series that has been commissioned to appeal to kids who are more interested in video games than books and just falls flat.
Grenade by Alan Gratz
Set in the final days of World War II, this intense middle grade/YA historical fiction takes place during the long and bloody battle of Okinawa. 14-year-old native Okinawan Hideki Kaneshiro is forcibly drafted into Japan’s Blood and Iron Student Corps. He is told that the American soldiers are monsters and given two grenades – one to kill the enemy with and one to kill himself. But when his destiny collides with that of young white Ray Majors, part of the invading American force, he chooses to abandon the fight and find his older sister, the only remaining member of his family.
Gratz (Refugee, 2017) graphically shows the terrors of war through the fears and reactions of his two protagonists. However, the implicit message that soldiers on both sides are ordinary men – husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers – put under such unbearable pressure that they become monsters seems a little disingenuous given Japan’s record of war atrocities.
There is a preliminary note explaining the use of the era’s now offensive terminology and, at the back, an author’s note helpfully elucidates why this island was so important to the US and Japan, what the outcome of this battle meant to both sides, and also provides context about Okinawa’s subjugation to Japan. There will also be a glossary, though this reader didn’t feel the need for one as the Okinawan words and beliefs are fully explained in the text.
Gratz clearly has a feel for this era and showing it through the eyes of teens on both sides makes it accessible history for teen readers.
Reviewed from an ARC
Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager
11 year-old Fidelia Quail, bereft from the death of her parents for which she blames herself, is captured by a pirate, Merrick the Monstrous, in order to help him reclaim his treasure which is buried in a cave at the bottom of the sea.
Eager does a great job with the main characters. Fidelia is a curious, inventive, persistent, and confident girl. She takes some major emotional knocks but keeps going. Her parents’ passion was marine biology and Fidelia shares that with them but adds her prowess at invention to aid the study of the underwater world. Her “water-eaters” should give her the ability to stay under water long enough to get Merrick’s treasure, if only they’d work. Merrick is more than just a arrrr-spouting pirate: he has an interestingly complicated backstory and fatalistic view on his future. There’s more even to Fidelia’s guardian, Aunt Julia, than the stereotypical librarian she presents to the world.
I found the setting a little confusing. It seems to be in the Caribbean in a vaguely Victorian steampunky era, but all main characters are white and some of the technology that Fidelia is working with seems supermodern.
What I really liked about this book is that it defies expectations. I spent a good chunk of the novel assuming that Fidelia parents weren’t really dead but guess what (sorry, spoiler) they are! There is a genuine sense of loss in this story that is rare for middle grade novels as everything is not alright in the end, just like life.</span
Middle graders looking for a pirate adventure might be surprised by some of the twists, but will be rewarded by the story of a feisty girl who overcomes many obstacles.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray, 2018
The author creates an extraordinary world in this genre-mixing alternate history set after the Civil War.
After the battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising and attacking the living, so the war between the states turned into the war against the restless dead. The country has turned into autonomous walled city states on the East coast and defended homes and towns elsewhere. The ruling Survivalist party believes that the reason for the dead rising is that the Civil War changed the “natural order” and that only by having White Christian men at the top and everyone else knowing their place would America be made “safe again”.
This means that the “Negroes” (the official term, less official words used are “darkies” and “coons”) though enfranchised have been forcibly put through combat training school and made to work protecting individuals and cities. Seen as disposable, like animals, and often poorly equipped, they are slaves in another guise, while being told they should be grateful for being taught.
Our protagonist, 17-year-old Jane McKeene is about to graduate from the presitigious Miss Preston’s combat academy. She is dark-skinned and a typical feisty YA heroine who acts before she thinks and is thoughtful, smart, resourceful, and curious. She has her own code of loyalty and self-protection, and while it leads her into some difficult scrapes, the reader is always on her side. Of course she gets into trouble and she, her classmate and nemesis Katherine, a light-skinned beauty, and multiracial Jackson are forcibly sent to Summerland, a new model town which is being built as a model for shambler-free (ie undead-free) settlements everywhere. There are some dark secrets in Summerland and Jane is just the person to uncover them, all the while battling the ever-evolving restless dead.
The characters are all vividly and generously dimensional and there is plenty of thought-provoking parallels to contemporary American society wrapped up in an exciting adventure punctuated with some horrific zombie (though that word is never used) slaying. As the book ends, Jane and her companions are headed off on a new quest and, presumably, for a sequel.
Autonomous by Andy Marino
In this thought-provoking present day YA scific thriller, high school graduating senior William Mackler wins a top of the line Autonomous self-driving car prototype and also the chance to take his three best friends on the road trip to end all road trips before they go their separate ways.
The four kids in the car are the archetypal team from any number of action and heist movies: Melissa is the fixer, Daniel is the muscle, Christina the tech genius, and William is the wildcard (all the teens appear to be white with the exception of Guatemalan American Christina). They jokingly assign the role of brains to Otto little realizing how sophisticated its AI really is.
Each teen cultivates an image on social media and for each other, but they all have secrets and never show their real selves and the reader only sees this through their individual chapters, written from a third person POV.
The tech behind Otto and Christina’s hacking is fictional but credible, and as Otto mines his passengers every online communication he takes them at face value without understanding the nuances of their behaviors and interactions. This leads to revelations and potentially catastrophic events as they wind their way cross country from the top of New York State to the Moonshadow festival in Arizona.
Will appeal to readers looking for character-driven (no pun intended!) speculative fiction.
Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter
In this rousing fast-paced middle grade thriller, two teens battle the elements, terrorists and each other.
Six years ago, some Russian terrorists failed in their attempt to kidnap the First Lady – an attempt that was seen by her ten year old son Logan and his best friend Maddie, daughter of the head of the secret service. Now Maddie and her Dad live alone in the wilds of Alaska and Maddie has learnt survival skills while Logan has spent the ensuing years ignoring her and overenthusiastically enjoying the social perks of his position. When the President sends Logan to stay with Maddie to cool off, a Russian swoops in again and Logan is abducted – luckily Maddie is on their trail!
Maddie is a somewhat endearingly odd mix of wilderness “badassery”, including skills with knives and hatchets, and simpering girliness as she worries about her complexion and whether she finds Logan attractive (what do you think?). Logan is the sort of dreamy bad boy who comes with convenient skills such as understanding Russian and having a photographic memory. The Russian kidnapper who starts out as an unfeeling monster is turned into a more sympathetic character further in as it suits the plot.
Author Carter (the Gallagher Girls series) keeps the book short and breezy with characterization, dialogue, and setting all in efficient service of the plot and, though there is some wild implausibility – Logan manages to unlock his own handcuffs while walking over a broken rope bridge in a raging storm for example – it’s mostly a thrilling romp as the two teens face and overcome one obstacle after another to outwit their captor.