Tag Archives: survival

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 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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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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