The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (9780062990297)
This award-winning teen verse novel deals with gender, identity and fabulous drag performances. Michael’s father is entirely absent in his life, leaving the room when they are in the same house together. Michael does have a connection with his father’s Jamaican family, receiving gifts from them and time spent together. He lives with his Greek-Cypriot mother in London; she accepts Michael entirely, from the time he was a small boy wanting to play with Barbies to college as a gay man. Along the way, Michael must deal with racism, of not being black enough and assumptions being made about him by society. He doesn’t know any other gay black people, forging a path on his own that leads him to university and a club that does drag where he finds his voice and a stage persona too.
Atta is a poet and this is his debut YA novel which has already won the Stonewall Book Award. Just starting reading, it is clear that the poems are done by a master storyteller. They allow readers to deeply understand the struggles of Michael from his family life to friendships that come and go to coming out and then performing. There is a valuable evolution on the page where Michael comes out and yet doesn’t quite become himself fully for several years, until he finds a place to belong.
Atta’s writing is beautiful. He mixes his own poetry with that of Michael the character, moving gracefully between the two. Somehow they are distinct from one another, the voices similar and still separate. The use of poetry to tell such a personal and deeply-felt story makes this really work, as poetry and verse are a fast way to allow readers to see the heart and soul of a character.
Brave, beautiful and deep, this teen novel is masterful. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange (9781338353853)
Released April 30, 2019.
Pet lives with her family in a lighthouse on the southeast coast of England just as World War II is coming to England’s shores. The daughter of a German immigrant and a lighthouse keeper, Pet loves the wildness of the coast, the way they can see long distances from the pinnacle of the lighthouse, and the warmth of their family. But as the war progresses, things change. Mutti is taken to an internment camp for being German and in the process is accused of espionage and sending messages to the Germans. Pet knows that her kind and gentle mother hasn’t done it, and sets off to find out what actually happens. There is the strange man who lives in a shack nearby or it could even be Pet’s older sister, who is always disappearing and doesn’t seem to be actually working on her boat the way she claims. As the war gets closer, Pet must work to untangle who is an enemy in their small town and who she can trust as her family crumbles around her.
I was entranced with the writing of Strange’s first novel, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, and this one has the same strong and stirring writing laced with touches of magic and wonder. In both of her books, Strange makes young women the heroines of their own stories even as they struggle to figure out what is going on around them. The setting here is almost another character in the book, depicted with glowing terms and a love of the sea. The perspective of the lighthouse is used throughout the novel and aspects of the structure help our young heroine discover the truth, even when it is hard to hear.
Pet is a unique heroine. She is not particularly brave since she tends to freeze at signs of trouble and be unable to move even when in physical danger. That continues to be true throughout the book. Yet at the same time, Pet also shows what bravery truly is and works with desperation and determination to discover the truth.
Another brilliant read from a gifted author, this one offers an extraordinary perspective on World War II. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Mark of the Plague by Kevin Sands (InfoSoup)
This is the second book in the Blackthorn Key Adventure series. Christopher Rowe survived his first adventure but now London has been hit by the Black Death, with thousands dying every week. As a young apothecary apprentice with no master, he is barely making ends meet since he is not allowed to sell any cures. Christopher discovers that his master left him some treasure, but first he must follow the clues to it and unravel the codes that it is in. Meanwhile, Christopher’s workshop is broken into yet nothing is taken. As the plague worsens, news of a prophet who can predict who will die from the plague arrives as well as an apothecary who claims to have a cure that truly works. As Christopher tries to puzzle through his master’s clues, he is also drawn into a dangerous situation of plague, death and lies.
I enjoyed the first book in this series with its 17th century London setting, the details of the apothecary trade and the focus on codes and secrecy. This second book in the series continues what I enjoyed so much about the first as well as continuing the broad humor that Sands use to offset the darkness of the subject matter. Still, this second book does have a one sophomore issue where the plot drags in the middle as the codes are working on being solved and the true nature of some of the characters are about to be revealed.
Some of the best characters from the first book reappear while new characters emerge as well. One of the most enjoyable new characters is Sally, an orphan who has escaped the orphanage due to the plague. Once again, people in poverty and orphans are shown as those with strong characters. Sally herself proves herself to be brave and strong immediately when we meet her, then she also shows how very useful she can be. It is her resilience that is remarkable, mirroring what readers will have seen in both Christopher and his best friend Tom.
A worthy second title in this winning series, take a journey into plague-ridden London for an adventure filled with humor and heroism. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Aladdin Books.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (InfoSoup)
Faith appears to be a very somber and dutiful daughter to her father who is a clergyman and a natural history scholar. When their family is forced to leave Kent for a small island, Faith discovers that her father’s entire body of work has been discovered to be based on lies and that their family is disgraced. Faith desperately wants to be seen as more than a burden to her father, so she helps him move a valuable specimen to a secret sea cave reached by boat. Soon afterwards, her father dies and people suspect it was suicide. Only Faith thinks that it could have been murder and may have something to do with the tree they moved to the cave. It’s a tree that only bears fruit when a lie is whispered to it and grows in strength as the lie grows too. Now Faith is the only one who knows where the tree is and that may be enough to have her become a target too.
Hardinge’s writing is breathtaking. She uses unique and unusual metaphors that are compelling and vivid, further building her world of lies, distrust and isolation. At times the writing is so beautiful that it stops the reader so that it can be reread again. At other times, the pace rockets forward, the reader clinging on and whooping along. Hardinge has created in the tree itself a beautiful metaphor for lies, the fruit they create and the power they can bring.
Throughout the strictness of Victorian society is at play, creating a world of rules that must not be altered or broken. In that world is Faith who must figure out how to solve a murder that only she believes has happened in a society where she is to be quiet and docile lest her reputation be forever ruined. As the book continues, readers will be carefully shown their own sexism about female characters to great effect. This is feminist writing at its finest.
Stunning writing, a compelling young heroine and a world filled with rules and lies, this is one amazing read that mixes fantasy, historical fiction and a big dash of horror. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff (InfoSoup)
Released March 8, 2016.
This second book in the Delilah Dirk graphic novel series will have fans cheering once again for this Victorian sword-wielding heroine. When an English army officer threatens Delilah’s good name, her thirst for revenge takes over. But Selim sees it in a calmer way, trying to divert her attention back to their travels. He wishes to travel to England, though Delilah has no interest in going there. That is until she discovers that it may be the way to take down the office who wronged her. Soon the two travelers are in England where Delilah reveals her own background and Selim attempts to enjoy his first trip there even as he is pressed into service for Delilah’s family.
This second book is just as delightful and refreshing as the first. Delilah stays entirely herself, taking on those doing wrong, defending her personal honor, and managing to have many amazing battles along the way with her sword whirling. Selim too remains the calm epicenter of Delilah’s world as the two of them travel together. He can’t get her to listen any better in this book, though in the end he seems to have known best all along. Their dynamic with one another is a major part of these books, the two of them both appreciating one another at times and then almost breaking into fist fights others. It was a particularly good choice to put their dynamic at risk in this book, making it all the more readable.
Cliff’s art is gorgeous. He has action galore here whether it is horses galloping or near escapes. Of course his battles in particular are incredibly done, frame after frame offering detail but also keeping the pacing brisk and the story line firmly in hand. The swirling skirts of Delilah match her swords and she fights in a most decidedly feminine and brutal way. It’s a delight to see.
Another winning Delilah Dirk book that anyone who loves a great sword fight will enjoy. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman (InfoSoup)
The author of Eon and Eona returns with an amazing book of fantasy set in Regency London. Lady Helen Wrexhall is getting ready for her presentation to the Queen, something that her aunt and uncle are depending on to offset the claim that Helen’s mother was a traitor to the crown. Helen has also noticed that her senses are growing more acute. Soon she is told by the intriguing Lord Carlston that she has a destiny inherited from her mother that makes her one of only a few people alive who can hunt demons. As part of the upper class, Helen must figure out how to navigate the dangers and darkness she is discovering without losing sight of her place in society.
Goodman makes a great choice here, creating a Regency England setting filled with a secret layer of darkness and intrigue. She keeps the society of the time intact throughout, allowing everything else to seethe under those strict and proper restrictions. This creates a feeling of dread, harrowing danger at every turn, and the reader has no idea who to trust. Goodman keeps revealing new details and truths throughout the novel, even towards the end, creating a book that is rich and detailed.
Helen is a fabulous protagonist. She is a woman who is fighting against the strictures of her place in society already and then given a way to move forward that is exciting and tantalizing but also scandalous. It is to Goodman’s credit that Helen does not leap into action without hesitation, making her someone who really fits into her time period and setting in a natural way.
Add in a little heat with male protagonists and you have a fantasy-laced romantic novel that is luminous and riveting. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond
In a series of short stories, master author Almond takes readers back to the magical times of his childhood as well as our own. The stories are all set in the places that Almond grew up in. The stories range in topic, but each one offers glimpses of wonder and deep understanding. They also all speak to the power of stories in our lives, whether they are to reveal or to hide the truth. The eight stories in the book give us characters living normal yet extraordinary lives. There is the girl rejected by school and society who finds it easy to believe she comes from somewhere far away. There is the home with a monster hidden inside it where you can hear its noises if you put your ear on the wall outside. There are the boys who run miles and miles to swim in the sea on one perfect summer day. There are poltergeists mixed with soccer games, bullies mixed with heroes. It is a beautiful collection of stories which put together make up a glimpse of a world past that still is relevant in our modern one.
Almond’s writing is exceptional. This shorter form allows him to create little worlds of magic, astonishing moments of clarity, decisions that reverberate in the community. He invites us into his home, revealing in paragraphs before each story the way that the story ties to his childhood or to a place that is dear to him. It gives us a look at his process, a way to understand the fictionalizing of memories and the beauty of turning everyday into amazement. The fantasy elements are there, dancing under the cloak of faith but there still, explained but also not completely fictional. There is a delicacy to this writing and yet a robustness to the setting that work particularly well together.
One of the best short story collections I have read in a very long time, this collection is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands (InfoSoup)
Christopher was taken from the orphanage where he grew up to become an apprentice to Master Benedict, an apothecary in 17th century London. Christopher loved working in the workshop and learning about the different capabilities of the various ingredients stored there. He created medicines that helped heal various afflictions, but he also got himself into trouble too. All it took was one homemade cannon, a best friend, and a stuffed bear. But all is not entirely good in Christopher’s world. There is someone murdering apothecaries but torturing them first. Christopher soon finds himself in the middle of the worst possible danger and left with only a trail of cyphers and clues to help him figure out who to trust.
Sands manages to create a rip-roaring adventure story and yet keep it true to a historical mystery set in the 17th century. Readers are immersed in the hierarchies of the apothecary guild, the complex political world, and the desperation of being an orphan and having no place to live in London. There are unlikely heroes, crafty booksellers, kind madmen, and plenty of villains. The book catapults readers into the story, leaving them breathless with the vaudeville humor of the story, gasping as the pace gets even faster, and holding on by their fingernails as the story twists and turns.
Christopher is a great character. He is smart as can be, solving cyphers and puzzles as well as figuring his way out of impossible situations. He is also brave, enduring real danger for the sake of what he believes in and what his master taught him. Add to that a humble nature that makes him a good friend and a tendency to find trouble. Other characters are compelling too, from his best friend who has real depth to his character to the villains who have complicated reasons for what they do. It’s a book that reads as a puzzle that readers must decipher.
It’s a wild delight of a novel that will have young readers captivated thanks to its chemical mix of science and historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Aladdin Books.
Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan (InfoSoup)
Apple has lived with her Nana for eleven years, ever since her mother abandoned her at age 3. Nana is strict and won’t let Apple even walk back home from school. When Apple’s mother returns, she is sophisticated and charming and not strict at all. She wants Apple to live with her and it seems like a great idea, after all she will let Apple wear makeup, walk home from school, and even shares some sips of wine. Apple agrees to move in, leaving Nana living alone, and then she discovers that she has a younger sister, Rain. Rain carries a doll around with her and pretends that it is a real baby. As the sisters grow closer together, Apple’s mother starts to spend more time away, leaving Apple caring for Rain and missing school. When tragedy almost strikes, it will take a serious choice by Apple to figure out what sort of family she really wants to be a part of.
Nominated for the British Carnegie Medal, this novel’s writing is clear and lovely. Throughout this novel, Crossan deals with serious situations and large emotions. She uses metaphors to show the depth of emotion and also ties Apple’s emotions into the poems she writes. The images she uses are strong and compelling, allowing the reader to truly understand what Apple is feeling even when her emotions are at their most turbulent.
Crossan also excels at creating relationships between characters and this book is all about relationships on a variety of levels. We have friendships both budding and decaying, maternal relationships that are troubled, and sibling relationships that are problematic yet positive. In each of these, the people are human and real. They are invested in the relationship in their own unique way, often either unable to speak to its importance in their life or unable to see beyond themselves to its importance. Apple is a strong protagonist, longing for a relationship with a mother who even after she returns cannot be the mother than Apple needs. Apple is capable, caring and wonderfully like her Nana in many ways, a touch that I particularly appreciated.
This novel about families, abandonment, and freedom will resonate with middle school readers who may be feeling their own need to be a little less monitored too. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.