Tag Archives: animals

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

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The Line Tender by Kate Allen
Dutton, 2019.

When red-haired Lucy Everhart was seven, her shark scientist mother died suddenly; now thirteen, Lucy is surrounded by a home-made family including her police diver Dad, fisherman Sookie, next door nonagenarian Mr Patterson, and her best friend/tentative crush naturalist geek Fred (all main characters default white). When a second tragedy hits Lucy, she finds solace in immersing herself in her mother’s final project of tagging great white sharks in Cape Cod. 

This is a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about dealing with grief and finding purpose: Lucy is the “line tender” who “uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line” and so keeps her off-beat family together. The author does a fine job of sympathetically drawing and giving dimension to all the main characters and even the secondary ones feel authentic. She also has a wonderful feel for the community in the small fishing port Rockport, Massachusetts. 

There is plenty of shark information shared by the characters and discovered by Lucy and Fred for their summer project field guide: Fred writes the notes and Lucy provides the drawings. There are pencil drawings of sharks prefacing each chapter, though the species are not identified. As well as Lucy’s mother, there is also a brown-skinned woman biologist who acts as a role model for both Lucy and the reader. 

Through Lucy’s narration, the reader can feel her grief and, though the novel is long and slow-paced, the emotional journeys of all the characters feel authentic and are never dull. May appeal to readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books.

Review based on an ARC.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

 

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Random House, 2018

Week two of the Middle Grade Fiction shortlist reviews is a novel which was the runner-up in our judging panel (just behind the stupendous The Parker Inheritance). Though it was not my personal runner-up, I enjoyed it very much and I believe it has a great deal to offer to middle graders who feel that their differences isolate them.

12yo Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago and since then has been a math genius as she has acquired savant syndrome (apparently a real, though very rare, thing). She also has OCD and her brain is often taken over by numbers. She has been homeschooled by her Nana (her mother and father are both dead) and has graduated from high school online and is ready for college classes, but now Nana thinks she should develop some other skills and has decided she should go to a real middle school in a grade appropriate to her age.

Reluctantly Lucy goes along with this and decides she wants to be “normal” and ordinary so she hides her math skills, but she can’t hide her compulsive behaviors and quickly becomes the target for the mean kids’ laughter. But Lucy does make friends, with Windy and Levi, and they form a group for their class community project, which benefits from Lucy’s gift.

Perceiving yourself to be “different” is a common enough theme is middle grade and YA fiction, and, indeed, is common in real life, which Ms McAnulty acknowledges when Windy pushes back at Lucy – asking her if she thinks she’s the only person who’s ever felt different at their school. Of course, in one respect, Lucy is very different, but in many others she’s just a regular kid and the author does a great job of showing these different facets through Lucy’s narration. She wants to have friends and she wants to be treated the same as the other kids, with respect and dignity. She does not try to make anyone feel bad about their math skills, in fact she offers to help Levi as well as suggesting some forums he could try if he would find it weird to be tutored by her. Her friend Windy acknowledges that Lucy is an accepting person, she doesn’t try to change anyone but tries to understand them.

The secondary characters are well developed. Windy, in particular, is a lively girl, enthused about doing good in the macro sense, but a little bit oblivious when it comes to actually making a real difference. Levi is a bit more of a sketch: he’s a brown skinned boy with two moms who likes photography, but he’s more grounded than Windy. The community project ingeniously meshes together the skills of all three kids and could inspire readers to see a way to making a difference themselves.

I did, however, find the lead mean girl, Maddie, a bit of an obvious caricature. She had been friends with Windy up to 5th grade but had then moved on to become more of an alpha. She makes fun of Lucy but I felt the author was a little too obvious in showing that this was only because she feels bad about herself as her mother is overly critical (but, hey, it’s always the mother’s fault, right?)

As Lucy’s year at middle school passes, she understands and appreciates why her Nana sent her there, so when she has an opportunity to move to a high performing school which would allow her to develop her math skills more, she is torn and the reader will be too.

Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
Candlewick, 2018

In this idiosyncratic graphic sequel to Honor Girl (2015), Thrash (also author of the deeply fabulous We Know It Was You) mixes memoir with fiction to convey vividly the intensity of growing up.

A year and a half on from Honor Girl, Maggie is now a junior at an elite Atlanta school and feeling isolated and depressed: her grades are plummeting and her classmates are completely indifferent when she outs herself. Things are no better at home where her mother seems to want a different daughter (“You’d be very pretty if you weren’t so determined to be weird”) and her father is wrapped up in his work as a federal judge.

Maggie’s closest connection is with her beloved cat Thomasina who disappears inside their house, and when Maggie goes looking for her she finds instead a ghost called Tommy. As she and Tommy explore his background and connection to her family, Maggie becomes more aware of her privilege as well as understanding the threshold she is reluctantly crossing into adulthood. It becomes clear that she is the lost soul and that “there’s a part of you that dies when you grow up.”

Through her recognizable slightly childlike pen and water color pencil illustrations Thrash explores the overpowering feelings of being a teenager: the absolute ennui of an afternoon at home, the thrill of flirting, the horror she feels when she sits in on one of her father’s court cases. The characters’ faces and bodies, often just a few lines, wonderfully convey this wealth and depth of emotions.

Ideal for readers going through, or reflecting back on, the turmoil of adolescence.

Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

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Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
First Second, 2018.

Poor Vera just doesn’t fit in anywhere. In this memoir, the 9-year-old Russian immigrant tries to be like her affluent American friends but her mother ruins her perfect sleepover birthday party by getting the wrong sort of cake (with Russian writing on it!) and a non-Pizza Hut, non-stuffed crust pizza. And then her friends actually all get picked up in the middle of the night because they’re scared. Vera decides she wants to go to summer camp, just like her friends, and finds a Russian one, ORRA, where she believes she won’t feel “weird and different,” so she persuades her mother to find the money for both her and her reluctant younger brother Phil to go.

Sadly, and heart-squeezingly, camp is nothing like Vera was expecting. She gets put with much older and more sophisticated girls who are not at all interested in bra-less bespectacled Vera. And the bathrooms! Meanwhile, Phil seems to be having a ball. The author does not shy away from the absolute misery of most of her time at ORRA, while still making it funny for the reader. Though things improve after Vera goes on a hiking trip and makes friend with a younger girl, her wretchedness when her mother asks her to stay another two weeks is palpable. The only pleasure Vera finds is in sketching and she uses this talent to “buy” friendship by drawing the other campers, though this backfires on her.

The illustrations, in black and shades of olive green manage to evoke all the misery and occasional bright spot of camp, as well as the explosion of happiness at leaving and never having to go back. The illustrations of the glum owl-bespectacled Vera trudging through her days at camp and comparing her suffering to that of the Russian peasants, are touching and humorous, and sharply contrast with her exuberant joy when she finds a pal.

Included at the back of the book is a genuIne letter that Vera sent her mother from camp. I cannot imagine being on the receiving end of such a misery-filled missive. My kids have had their ups and downs at camp but have at least managed a somewhat cheerful postcard.

We leave Vera about to move to London – dare we hope for further installments?