Tag Archives: tragedy

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.

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The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz

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The Key to Everything by Pat Schmatz
Candlewick, May 2018.

This slight middle grade story packs a big emotional punch as it looks at how a young girl learns to cope with loss by leaning in to other people.

11-year old Tash has had a challenging early life which has left her with a deep fear of being alone and abandoned. With her father in jail, she now lives with her warm, kind Uncle Kevin, and the love and security he offers along with that of her elderly neighbor, Cap’n Jackie, means she always has someone to be with and can feel safe.

When her grandfather sends her off to a summer camp, Tash is fearfully reluctant to leave those two behind and be with people she doesn’t know, but to her surprise she loves it and feels transformed by the experience. On her return however, she discovers that Cap’n Jackie is in hospital and has withdrawn into herself. Can Cap’n Jackie’s magic key bring her home?

The author does a terrific job of creating empathy for the prickly Tash, a complex and challenging character who is still tussling with her early demons while stretching into her new post-camp persona. Schmatz is skilled in showing her evolution from fearful to confident and the emotional stops and starts along the way, while using believable middle grade language.

While not all readers will have suffered such major traumas in their lives, they will be able to relate to Tash’s grit in finding a way to deal with life when it doesn’t go to plan.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

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.

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.

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

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Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
DC Icons series
Random House, January 2018.

This solid second entry in the DC Icons series which looks at the teenage years of superheroes is set in a bleak crime-ridden Gotham City in which the megarich are being murdered and their funds taken to finance an anti-capitalist operation called the Nightwalkers. The police manage to capture one, Asian American teen Madeline Wallace and she is kept in top security Arkham Asylum where 18 year-old Bruce Wayne is doing community service after a run in with the law.

Ms Lu has definitely opted for the bleaker Christopher Nolan Dark Knight vibe rather than the more campy alternative, and while atmospheric, it did make the book a bit of a trudge for me. However, Ms Lu does action well, and the writing really lifts off in those scenes, particularly in the climax when Bruce takes on the Nightwalkers, clad in a prototype batsuit.

Bruce is a smart and earnest protagonist, still haunted by the murder of his parents when he was younger, and he falls hard for the far more complicated and gorgeous Madeline. Though the Nightwalkers are new villains, there are several characters that will be familiar to those who know the Batman comic books and movies.

As with Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman, the superhero name is only in the title, and in this younger Bruce we can clearly see the upstanding and thoughtful citizen and skillful fighter that he will later become in his role of guardian of Gotham City.

The novel works equally well for those who are familiar with Gotham City and those who are new to it, and, with its high interest main character and top notch YA author, it is a must have for all libraries serving teens.

Thanks to Random House for the review copy.

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
HarperTeen, 2017.

This magnificent and haunting YA novel is set in an alternate present day New York in which Death-Cast alerts you on the day you are to die.

Two teen Latinx boys who have received this call spend their last day together ensuring that they live before they die. Puerto Rican Mateo has been living his life vicariously through video games and online updates of other Deckers, as those who are on their End Day are called, and Cuban American Rufus has felt lost and out of control since he saw the rest of his family die.

They meet through the Last Friend app and movingly support each other as they tie up ends and make peace with themselves. Silvera (More Happy than Not, 2015) has created two wonderful and wonderfully distinct characters and their dual narration is punctuated with short accounts of other people whose lives are, however briefly, touched by these young men.

As the plot drives towards the inevitable end, signaled by the book’s title, this reader for one was hoping for a miracle, and  the potent theme of living without fear and regrets shines through. Tears were shed.

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

A creepily atmospheric YA paranormal chiller which draws much of its menace from its setting in a tiny tight-knit community in the wilds of Alaska during the long winter when there are few hours of daylight. Corey returns to Lost Creek, “an almost all-white conservative town with little room for wayward girls,” for the funeral of Kyra, her troubled best friend and almost immediately realizes it was a suicide not an accident. Corey becomes increasingly troubled by the town inhabitants’ attitude towards Kyra in both life and death and, even though she herself left only a few months ago, their closing against her as an “outsider.” This is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous two years during which Kyra’s alternate manic episodes and depressions had become increasingly severe. Niekamp (This Is Where It Ends, 2016) draws nuanced portraits of both bipolar Kyra, looking only for acceptance of herself as she is, and Corey, convincingly conflicted between being there for her friend and craving normality. Some interesting sub-plots around sexuality are undeveloped and the novel occasionally breaks into a screenplay format for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, this will appeal to teens who enjoy magical realism with a side of eerie. Reviewed from an ARC.