Tag Archives: survival

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 an 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.

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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.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2017

Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.

In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”

The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.

When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.

Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.

The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.

The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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