Tag Archives: survival

Grenade by Alan Gratz

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Grenade by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2018

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

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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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.

Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter

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Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter
Scholastic, 2018.

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.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2018.

This middle grade historical fantasy adventure, the start of a trilogy, has many of Ms Nielsen’s signature charms but is derailed by an over-complicated plot.

16 year-old aristocratic Kestra Dallisor is blackmailed into helping the rebel Coracks find the Olden Blade – the only weapon that can kill the evil, and immortal, ruler Lord Endrick. She is assisted by her former servant turned rebel Simon, with whom she has a love-hate relationship and Trina, who is decidedly not amused to take the role of Kestra’s handmaid.

All three of these central characters have their secrets, and much like other JAN novels, these are gradually revealed. But none of the twists have quite the shock value that they should have because they’re bogged down in a thick stew of explanations.

Dual narrators, Kestra and Simon, are angst-ridden teens fighting their attraction to each other and it isn’t really a spoiler to tell you that it’s a battle they don’t win. Kestra is a modern spec fic young woman – she is feisty and snarky, stubborn, emotional, apt to blame herself for everything, and a whizz with the weapons du jour. She becomes conflicted as her awareness of the real state of Antora outside of the sheltered confines of the capital grows. Simon is standard issue dishy with hair that flops adorably out of place, thoughtful, and righteous.

In this sort of adventure, world building and plotting is crucial and I’m afraid this isn’t up to JAN’s usual standard: the world building, while reminiscent of The False Prince’s Carthya, is overly complicated (there just seems no point in inventing and having to describe new creatures) and characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. There are some rather clunky shifts as minds are rapidly changed and secrets are conveniently revealed, and some sloppiness leads to a couple of gaping plot holes. The end is pretty predictable as we get set up for the sequel.

Overall this was a little disappointing for me, lacking the charm and freshness of the The False Prince (2012) and The Scourge (2016), though fans of this genre will doubtless romp through it.

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

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Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork
Levine/Scholastic, September 2017

I have enjoyed many of Francisco X. Stork’s YA novels, though have only reviewed one of them, The Memory of Light (2016),  for this blog. His nuanced take on modern Latinx teens is refreshing in our current climate.

Set in present day Ciudad Juarez, young adult siblings Sara and Emiliano confront crime and corruption with their consciences. Sara is a reporter for El Sol and has been working on stories about Desaparecidas – young women and girls who have disappeared and may have been murdered – inspired by the disappearance of her best friend Linda. She has received many threats because of this work but the latest one is worryingly specific and also threatens her family. Emiliano had gone off the rails when his father left several years ago, but with the help of Brother Patricio and a hiking/adventure  group called the Jiparis he is making a life for himself. The only problem is that his girlfriend, Perla Rubi comes from a wealthy family and he wants to be accepted by them and the road to acceptance seems to encompass compromising the moral code of the Jiparis.

Sara is a fairly straightforward crusading conscience-driven writer. Though she is faced with tough choices, there is little doubt that she will make the right one. Emiliano is much more complex and conflicted. He wants the material rewards of being part of the criminal world, though more for the security of his family than for the flashy cars but knows that he will be corrupted by this and will corrupt others, and these two sides wrestle within him the whole way through.

When I reviewed The Border a while ago, I complained that it fell into the ‘one story’ problem about Mexico – that it was all about drugs, corruption, and attempting to cross into the US. To an extent, there is a similar concern with this novel. The spiderweb of crime and complicity in Juarez is gradually revealed through Emiliano, with one brutal final twist. But there is another spiderweb of people who want to get by, and even fight back, compelled either by their religion or their personal convictions, and this web is shown to be equally strong, if less newsworthy. As Sara and Emiliano struggle to stay alive, this is the web that supports them and moves them towards safety.

Recommended for teen readers who are interested in getting a much fuller picture of life in contemporary Mexico.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017

Hardinge (The Lie Tree, 2016) creates an extraordinary fantasy which marries a 17th century English Civil War setting with her usual dazzling creativity, deliciously deep and complex characterization, and bright, sophisticated writing.

Some members of the aristocratic Fellmottes are able to be possessed by multiple ghosts, ancestors who continue to live on by passing from body to body though, unfortunately, if too many crowd, in the spirit of the host can be lost. Young Makepeace Lightfoot, an illegitimate and lowly branch of the family, has this ability and after the death of her mother is taken in by the Fellmottes to work in their kitchen.

But she realizes that she is a spare host, being kept on hand in case a vessel for the ancestral spirits is needed and she runs away, using her wits and those of a few friendly ghosts that she has invited in, to journey across war-conflicted England, staying one step ahead of her pursuing family.

Makepeace is a trademark Hardinge protagonist: intelligent, thorny, and gutsy. But the tightrope trick here, which the author brilliantly pulls off, even adding some flourishes, is that Makepeace is host to a bear, a Royalist doctor and a Parliamentarian soldier, all of whom are fully-developed characters and have easy to follow conversations with her and each other. Makepeace has a half-brother, James, who also has the Fellmotte ability, and he is her anchor as well as the catalyst for Makepeace’s bid for freedom. This reminds me, in its profundity and authenticity, of the sibling relationship in Cuckoo Song.

At first, I found the novel to be rather slow-paced and uninvitingly grim. But I was riveted once Makepeace sets off on her own and the novel explores the political and social landscape of her country as she is hunted by her family.

As a teen, I was fascinated with the Civil War and was wholly on the side of the way more romantic Royalists. Indeed, one of my earliest historical crushes was Rupert of the Rhine (who gets a shout out here with his dog, Boy). As an older, and maybe wiser, person, I can feel much greater sympathy with the dour Parliamentarians who, while having justice on their side have a bit of a worrying hardline streak. All this to say that Hardinge does a marvelous job of evoking the divergent camps and Makepeace’s pragmatic approach to them.

Makepeace wants to do more than just get by and survive, she wants to flourish and this is an ideal novel for readers who want to do the same, whether they are middle schoolers, older teens, or adults.

Hardinge, hugely popular and feted in the UK, seems to be finding an audience here in the US following the success of The Lie Tree. Her blend of historical setting, singular fantasy, and courageously unsentimental feminist protagonists can make for a challenging and spiky read, but the balm of the gorgeous writing eases the way.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

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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.