Tag Archives: survival

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.

Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

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bandits-taleA Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2016.

Taking stylistic and plot arc cues from the picaresque novels of the 18th and 19th century (what? You don’t know what those are? Neither did I until I read the author’s note), this charming tale manages to squeeze in social commentary as well as a heartwarming tale of an early American immigrant.

11 year-old Rocco Zaccaro is brought to America in 1887 by a padrone who has promised to send money back to Rocco’s impoverished family in Southern Italy. But the padrone makes money by sending boys out to be street musicians – then takes the money they earn while keeping them on the border of starvation.

Rocco has got a bit more gumption than many of the boys and, while getting himself into scrapes, many illicit, along the way, ultimately ends up as a boy his father would be proud of.

Though Hopkinson has a great time with Rocco’s romp through the seedy side of late 19th century Manhattan, she also has a serious purpose as well. Through weaving in real life people, she looks at the press exposure of child exploitation by Max Fischel and photographer Jacob Riis, as well as the first inkling of animal rights through “meddlers” Mike and Mary Hallahan. These characters are completely embedded in the story and the author does a great job of not making their roles and issues stand out.

Ideal for any middle schooler who has enjoyed Oliver!

Factory Girl by Josanne La Valley

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factory-girlFactory Girl by Josanne La Valley
Clarion, 2017.

Inspired by the author’s experiences while traveling in northern China, the author uses the fictional story of Roshen to shed light on the young Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) women who are transported thousands of miles to work in Chinese factories. As the Chinese suppress Uyghur culture and traditions, the oppressed families are coerced into signing over their teenage daughters under the Transferring Surplus Labor Force to Inner China policy with threats of losing their land and livelihoods by the Chinese cadres who rule the provinces.

Roshen, along with several other Uyghurs, is assigned to the Hubei Work Wear Company as, effectively, indentured labor. They are forced to work long hours in harsh conditions, poorly fed, tricked out of their pay, and kept isolated from their families and the outside world. Despised and discriminated against by the Chinese, both for their ethnicity and for being Muslim, the young women have different coping mechanisms: Roshen is outwardly “sweet” but inwardly recalls traditional poetry; Mikray rebels and tries to escape; and Hawa cozies up to the factory owner. Though the young women are preyed upon and exploited by the bosses, there are a few kind locals who try and alleviate their situation as best they can.

Roshen holds close the poetic command to “wake up!” but she lacks agency, and it’s there that the novel falls down a bit. Of course, in real life, simply surviving this ordeal would be an achievement, but in a novel like this, the protagonist really needs to be less passive.

Other than Roshen, the other Uyghurs are a little thinly developed. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of them and only a handful emerge with any clarity. However, the strength of the protective kinship between the young women is beautifully drawn and contrasts sharply with the utter hopelessness of their situation. The author does not pull her punches about the casual and relentless cruelty and indifference of their bosses.

There are some context notes at the end, and a few sources for further reading, but it does appear that the deliberate persecution of the Uyghurs and the elimination of their culture is mostly undocumented.

Ideal for teens interested in novels about social justice.

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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.