Tag Archives: tragedy

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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SLAY by Brittney Morris
Simon Pulse, 2019.

So I’m a middle-aged white lady librarian but I was really gripped and enlightened by this book about Black videogaming and would thoroughly recommend it to teens interested in a different slant on gaming.

17 year-old Keira Johnson is one of only eight Black students at Jefferson Academy, along with her sister Steph and her boyfriend Malcolm. She is an Honors student and is excitedly awaiting the admissions decision from Spelman so she and Malcolm can be together in Atlanta while he’s at Morehouse.

But, by night, Keira takes on the role of Queen Emerald in SLAY, a virtual reality MMMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), intended only for Black people. But, more than that, she is the developer of this highly successful game along with Cicada, a young biracial woman who lives in Paris. 

However, when a teen is killed over a dispute in SLAY, the game makes headline news and not in a good way. The author cleverly contrasts the security of the game, where the players can recognize themselves and be authentic, with the way the white media misrepresents them as thugs and gangsters. Then a troll enters SLAY, threatening its very existence as a safe haven for black gamers.

Most of the story is told from Keira’s first person point of view but there are some chapters from the perspective of others who are involved or become involved with the game. The author also uses her characters to show different perspectives of Black people from the pragmatism of Steph to the Black (Male) Power ethos of Malcolm. The two main white characters, ostensibly well-meaning siblings Harper and Wyatt, show the micro (and not so micro) aggressions that the Black students at Jefferson are subject to. 

Ms Morris has created a gorgeous immersive vision with SLAY and the nuts and bolts of the game as players duel each other are enthralling and I learned much from her perspective on race and gender in gaming. And while some of the plotting and characterization is a bit wobbly, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book one bit.

Again Again by E. Lockhart

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Again Again by E. Lockhart
Delacorte, June 2020.

A new book from E Lockhart is always cause for celebration and, while this one didn’t do it for me quite as much as Genuine Fraud or Frankie Landau Banks, it is chock full of great writing and interesting ideas. For me, it had an interesting touch of A. S. King about it, with that mix of poetic reality and juxtaposed fantasy.

This much we know for sure about Adelaide Buchwald. She is in the summer between junior and senior year and is staying at her boarding school, Alabaster, along with her teacher dad for the summer. Her younger brother, Toby, is a recovering opioid addict who has already had one relapse and he is living with their mother in Baltimore as he goes through his recovery program. Just before the end of the school year, Adelaide was dumped by her boyfriend Mikey Lewis Lieu (aka Mikey Double L). She has spent the year failing her classes as Toby’s situation bored into her, but unwilling to show her sadness has developed a bright sparkly persona which seems to fool most people. The only way she can avoid flunking out is to create a model set for Sam Shepherd’s  Fool for Love for her theater design class.

By the end of the summer she will have started coming to terms with all this.

But in the middle, there are many branches of the multiverse in which Adelaide experiences love, loss, grief, and the slow tendrils of recovery. She meets Jack and has a brief fling with him or Mikey Double L comes back or she has a relationship with Oliver. None of these relationships come to fruition because, despite wanting love, she is not ready for it until she can see herself clearly and she needs to repair her relationship with Toby.

Adelaide’s journey from broken to whole encompasses all of these. There is a main thread that runs through to the end and the different possible branches are indicated (at least in the ARC) by different fonts and bolding. Though Adelaide follows four different routes, they all lead to the same ending: A friendship and a restoration.

As an added bonus, there are some fascinating descriptions of art pieces (apparently inspired by real life work) and their inspiration bleeds into Adelaide’s process of designing and creating her model set while reflecting her inner work in progress.

I think E. Lockhart is one of the most interesting authors working in fiction today. Her ambition and experimentation mean her novels really blur the line between YA and adult literary fiction, though their protagonists typically mean they are classified as teen reads. While Again Again was less successful for me than some of her other novels, I think those who loved We Were Liars will particularly enjoy it.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

This Boy by Lauren Myracle

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This Boy by Lauren Myracle
Walker, April 2020

Just before the start of freshman year, Paul and Roby meet up and then become friends once they start school: bonding over a mutual disdain for the girl-hazing bros in their year. Though they fall out over a girl, Latina Natalia, the ties of best friendship hold over the years of high school. Much of the book is a realistic and assured portrait of 21st century high school life for a boy: negotiating friends, girls, hurt feelings, alcohol and drugs, different family structures, different social and economic circumstances, and contemporary gender and sexuality mores. All this is done really well and effortlessly.

But then, because this is a YA book, Something Happens during senior year and the narrative takes a sharp turn from the quotidian to something much higher pitched though well within the bounds of everyday high school life. It is still skillfully written and resolved but I could have done without the extra drama as I was just enjoying living the life.

Paul and Roby are great, well-drawn characters – not in the popular gang but also not in the lower strata. In some ways, they are a step to the side, marching to the beat of their own drums, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. This is a lovely portrait of regular lives which can so easily slip awry, but with heart and support can get back on track.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin with photographs by Susan Kuklin

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In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin with photographs by Susan Kuklin
Candlewick, May 2020

Inspired by her grandparents’ flight from Russia and Ukraine, author Kuklin (We Are Here to Stay, 2019) puts a human face on the plight of refugees through the stories of five migrants who have come to live in the United States after fleeing war, violence, and slavery.

Using their own words, with occasional authorial interjections to give context, the refugees, originally from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi, give their moving and often harrowing descriptions of life in their native countries (Yazidi Shireen’s account of her abduction by ISIS is particularly raw and upsetting) along with the long and frustrating process required to become a refugee in the US. Resettled into Nebraska, the refugees and their families show resilience, optimism, and grit as they face the challenges of a new and unfamiliar country and the book includes many joyful photographs of the refugees in their new homes.

Backmatter is determinedly apolitical with information about the refugee process, extensive notes, timelines, further resources, and information about the Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska resettlement agency (which put the author in touch with her interviewees), but does not mention the Trump administration’s “travel ban” on immigrants from 13 countries, nor the reduction in the US refugee ceiling to a low of 30,000 in 2019.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Wendy Lamb Books, 2019.

It’s 1986 and 12 year-old autistic and nonverbal Nova Vezina and her older sister, Bridget, have been in 11 foster homes in 7 years. But now Bridget has disappeared and Nova has been placed with kind and thoughtful Francine and Billy. Nova has to start at yet another school and undergo yet another round of testing which will inevitably conclude “Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.” Bridget has always protected Nova from this hateful label, saying she’s smarter than people think and that she’s a “thinker not a talker” and the author does a wonderful job of showing the truth of this. Alternating chapters from a third person POV and letters that Nova writes to Bridget (just “scribbles” to everyone else) take the reader inside Nova’s head, giving an empathetic account of her rich thought processes as well as their external manifestations as she settles into her new home and classroom.

Bridget, and hence Nova, is deeply interested in space exploration, and Nova, clutching her NASA Bear and listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, counts down the days to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the First Teacher in Space. But she’s also waiting for Bridget to keep her promise to be there for the launch though the reader may begin to suspect that there’s more to her absence than Nova understands. It’s only when Challenger explodes that the pieces fall into place for Nova.

A couple of concerns. As middle grade readers may not be aware of the Challenger disaster, it may come as a significant shock to them and tip what is already a very sad story into one that carries too much weight. Setting it in 1986 means that there was less understanding of Nova’s condition and less options to help her communicate; Things have changed (as the author explains in a note) but readers may not be aware of this and though both Bridget and her new foster family resist the term “retard” it is still used by responsible adults, even if they are signaled as lacking understanding.

I feel that there’s really could be two novels here: one about Nova and Bridget and one about the doomed Space Shuttle, and though the author does a decent job of making it one novel it does feel a little overstuffed. Nonetheless, the author’s personal experience and her professional experience working with autistic kids brings authenticity to this poignant slim volume. 

Review based on an ARC.

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

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The Line Tender by Kate Allen
Dutton, 2019.

When red-haired Lucy Everhart was seven, her shark scientist mother died suddenly; now thirteen, Lucy is surrounded by a home-made family including her police diver Dad, fisherman Sookie, next door nonagenarian Mr Patterson, and her best friend/tentative crush naturalist geek Fred (all main characters default white). When a second tragedy hits Lucy, she finds solace in immersing herself in her mother’s final project of tagging great white sharks in Cape Cod. 

This is a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about dealing with grief and finding purpose: Lucy is the “line tender” who “uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line” and so keeps her off-beat family together. The author does a fine job of sympathetically drawing and giving dimension to all the main characters and even the secondary ones feel authentic. She also has a wonderful feel for the community in the small fishing port Rockport, Massachusetts. 

There is plenty of shark information shared by the characters and discovered by Lucy and Fred for their summer project field guide: Fred writes the notes and Lucy provides the drawings. There are pencil drawings of sharks prefacing each chapter, though the species are not identified. As well as Lucy’s mother, there is also a brown-skinned woman biologist who acts as a role model for both Lucy and the reader. 

Through Lucy’s narration, the reader can feel her grief and, though the novel is long and slow-paced, the emotional journeys of all the characters feel authentic and are never dull. May appeal to readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books.

Review based on an ARC.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Aurora Cycle _01
Knopf, 2019.

The authors of The Illuminae Files kick off a new action-packed sci-fi series in which a squad of teen “legionnaires” protect a girl recovered from a spacecraft that went missing back in the early days of Earth’s expansion into space.

Legion Squad 312 consists of straight arrow leader, dishy blond Tyler, his persuasive diplomat sister Scarlett, tattooed ace pilot Cat, genius but socially awkward dark brown-skinned Zila, along with two “aliens” geeky Betraskan Finian and noble Sydralthi warrior Kal. Added to this mix is “half-Chinese” mystery “girl out of time” Aurora who has visions and gradually emerging powers. 

Surprises and twists abound as this group of misfits come together with much snarky banter while learning to rely on each other’s individual strengths as they are pursued across space by the menacing Global Intelligence Agency who are determined to capture Aurora. 

The narration of the seven teens as well as pages from an iPad-like “uniglass” all add to the world-building. Set in 2380, it seems that some things have changed – there are now 475 known civilizations, though most of them seem to be variations of humans but with different numbers of appendages and different color skin – and some things haven’t – humans still want to colonize, refugees are still despised, economic disparity persists, and nerdy boys still think they have a chance with hot girls. 

High energy and tautly plotted all the way through, as the squad eventually uncovers the fearsome threat to all life in the universe and Aurora’s role is revealed, the authors leave us gasping for the sequel. 

The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick, September 2019

On a solo trip to the wintry and isolated Ghost Lake, 16 year-old straight arrow Nate discovers that his family’s cabin has been taken over by escaped convicts. Resourceful and competent Nate initially tries to hide out but is later forced to confront these dangerous men. Eight months earlier, Nate’s best friend Dodge, a prankster and rule-breaker, drowned in Ghost Lake, and now his spirit both haunts Nate and pushes him to face the natural and man-made threats.

The desolation of the snowbound wilderness and the storm that comes in which prevents Nate leaving are never truly as atmospheric as I feel they should be. The description of Nate’s survival skills, taught to him by his father, are not particularly compelling either.

In his bones, Nate is a straightforward rule-following teen, the product of his loving, kind but safety-conscious and wilderness savvy parents: he knows what is the right thing to do and is intrinsically impelled to do it. On the other hand, he is ambiguous about Dodge, who in life was always pushing him to try new and dangerous things, ones not necessarily approved by his parents. Dodge’s death, while on a foolhardy family boat delivery trip which also killed his dad and younger brother, obsesses Nate as he fears he could have prevented it.

The two escaped convicts are broadly sketched psychopathic bad guys and the identity of their guide is a minor though not wholly unexpected twist. All characters appear to be white but I’m not sure if there’s a hint or two that Nate’s Dad is indigenous – Kirkus doesn’t mention it so maybe not. 

I have been a fan of Mr Wynne-Jones’s earlier sophisticated, elegantly written, texturally complex books, The Emperor of Any Place and The Ruinous Sweep, so I was somewhat taken aback by the prosaic and straightforward nature of this book. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a reasonably decent adventure novel, but it just seems so much less than his previous novels. 

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.