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.
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.
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
This fantastic sci-fi novel imagines a future without death in which Scythes “glean” people to keep the population at the right level. Multiracial Citra and Rowan are apprentice scythes, studying under Scythe Faraday, but at the Scythe Conclave it is decided that only one of them can eventually graduate to be a Scythe and that one will immediately need to glean the other.
I have only read Shusterman’s really terrific Challenger Deep, so I’m not familiar with his other sci-fi series. In Scythe, I think the world building, and the way it is gradually revealed is exemplary. How humans came to be immortal, and the personal, political, legal, cultural, and religious ramifications of that are explored.
The novel is driven by a schism in Scythedom between those who feel it has moral and ethical dimensions, and those who want to kill people for fun. Citra and Rowan spend their apprenticeship year learning not only “killcraft” but also finding out about the way different Scythes approach their weighty task. As their final test approaches, their feelings about each other are conflicted and complicated by the pact enforced on them.
The plot moves swiftly, switching between their points of view, and interspersed with extracts from various Scythes’ journals. There are some satisfying twists along the way, though none that was a great surprise, and the ending (which I found a little too reminiscent of a popular dystopian novel) was satisfying while at the same time setting up a sequel.
With its name brand author, eye catching cover, and intriguing vision of the future, this novel is perfect for teens who enjoy dystopias.
Kara Thomas’s second psychological mystery builds on all the good things from her debut, The Darkest Corners (2016), and resolves all the issues I had with that book. In short, it’s a thrillingly menacing and atmospheric chiller in which none of the characters are quite who they seem to be.
High school senior Kacey has only recently arrived in Broken Falls, Wisconsin, moving in with her dad and his blended family after one too many blow-ups with her single mom’s endless stream of boyfriends. She makes friends and becomes the third leg of “BaileyandJade and Kacey.” All in all, she can’t quite believe how easygoing her new life is.
But then one night Bailey goes missing and at first the local police show little interest – just another teenage runaway. But Kacey and Jade start digging up evidence that points to a local boy with a grudge against Bailey.
Once again Ms Thomas brilliantly evokes the milieu of a white working class town: Most of the highschoolers have no escape and are trapped there for the rest of their lives, the lucky few can’t wait to get out. The heavy snows adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the local tall tale about a murdered family piles on the eeriness.
The plot is perfectly paced; layers are gradually peeled off the emotional lives of the characters exposing the depths of their pain and desperation, gradually leading to a wildly twisty (and for me, unpredictable) denouement.
Ideal for teens who like a side of creepy with their mysteries.
Thanks to Delacorte/Random House for the review copy.
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)..
Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.
The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.
The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.
Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.
The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.
Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.
(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).