Tag Archives: survival

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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The Border by Steve Schafer

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The Border by Steve Schafer
Sourcebooks Fire, 2017

After their families are gunned down by a drug gang, four teens attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into the US in this intense but flawed YA novel.

Characterization is thin but serviceable: Pato is the thoughtful narrator, his cousin and best friend Arbo is dependable, Marcos is a tough guy and his independent sister, Gladys, is Pato’s somewhat perfunctory love interest.

The trek, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is grueling as the teens run out of water in the intense heat and have run-ins with both human and animal predators, all the while having little idea what they will face if they make it to the US.

Debut author Schafer’s note details his research and he successfully puts a human face on undocumented immigration, but he has also unfortunately focused on all the negative stereotypes of Mexico: drug cartels, corruption, and “illegal passage”. Spanish is mostly used for cursing.

While it is important for American teen readers to have more context to aid understanding of what drives immigrants, the novel does both readers and immigrants a disservice by focusing on this “single story.” Reviewed from an ARC.

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

10-year old Sandra and her family were in a refugee camp in Burundi when it was attacked and 166 refugees were murdered, including Sandra’s six-year old sister Deborah. Over the next ten years, as Sandra’s family moved to Rwanda and then the USA, they never discussed this loss or shared their feelings on the massacre and it was only when Sandra had a breakdown in her sophomore year at college that they finally open up.

With a brief overview of how colonialism left her tribe, the Banyamulenge, stateless and “always in limbo”, Sandra matter of factly describes her early life in the Democratic Republic of Congo where “war was part of our everyday life.” In a very tense scene, her family escapes from the DRC when ethnic conflict bubbles over, only to end up in an empty field in Gatumba in Burundi where the UNHCR builds a refugee camp. Following the massacre, the family moves to Rwanda where they live in desperate poverty until getting the “golden ticket” to go to America,

But their arrival in the USA is not the happy end of the story that the family (and possibly the reader) assumed. Though the threat of ethnic slaughter is removed, the family faces hostility and indifference to their struggles. Even Sandra’s thirst for education is dampened by the lack of understanding she faces in school. Her frustration at people’s ignorance of Africa and the plight of refugees pushes her to tell her family’s story to increasingly large and high profile meetings and conferences, and her advocacy gives her life a focus.

The workmanlike, though unsophisticated, prose conveys Sandra’s despair, confusion and outrage, and then her later passion for her cause. Sandra’s feeling of being an outsider wherever she is comes across strongly, particularly when she describes being unable to relate to her classmates in her US middle and high schools where “your skin color defines you.”

There is a small collection of photographs of survivors of the massacre and their stories, as well as some joyful family scenes of graduations, weddings, and trips back to Africa. One heartbreaking fuzzy image is the only photo left of Deborah – the family’s album was lost in Gatumba.

Sandra comes to realize that Americans are not uncaring, “they just didn’t know our story.” Her quest to show that refugees, are just like them “with hobbies and dreams and talents” is continued in this memoir, which will give teen readers a timely and accessible insight into the human face of refugees.

Dreamfall by Amy Plum

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Dreamfall by Amy Plum
HarperTeen, May 2017

I was really enjoying this imaginative and gripping scifi horror thriller, but then I started to get this little niggle: there wasn’t much left to read and there seemed a fair bit of plot to squeeze in. And then, oh crap, I realized it’s the first book in a series. Why, why, why? It felt like another 50 pages would have been quite sufficient to tie up all the ends and give us a satisfying resolution. But, oh no, Ms Plum, who has written other series, wants to keep it going. Still, on the basis of reviewing what’s in front of me and not what I wish it was, here goes….

After an experimental treatment for severe insomnia goes wrong, seven teens are stuck together in a place they call Dreamfall, which throws them alternately between one of their nightmares and a white waiting room-like void. The nightmares are various degrees of chilling and originality, including monsters, clowns, and zombie monks, and the author ratchets up the tension as the teens race to get out of each nightmare and back to the Void.

The Dreamfall teens are mixed in age, ethnicity and social class and two of them, 16 year old Catalina and 18 year old Fergus narrate these sections. Initially it’s all a bit of a jumble with seven characters, but they do gradually shake out into at least two-dimensions. A third narrator, Jaime, is a medical student who was observing the treatment in the lab and this allows the reader to see the doctors’ reactions, improbable as they sometimes are, as well as allowing us to peek at the subjects’ files and find out the differing reasons for their insomnia.

The plot rattles along at a breakneck pace, only to come to an abrupt cliff-hangerish sort of ending. No real resolution is reached, just further twists thrown in along with a bunch of other loose ends. It’s not clear where the author is going to take this, or if this is going to be a trilogy or duology. For my money, this should have been a one and done, but teens who like series may disagree.

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.

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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