Review: Maggot Moon

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Standish Treadwell, fifteen, is dyslexic. He has different colored eyes, one blue, one brown. He lives with his grandfather; his parents are gone. He had one friend, Hector, and Hector is also gone.

Standish’s world is one of fear and lies, of hiding and barely surviving. The red and black flag of the Motherland hangs on the classroom wall. People who are different, people who question, people who have something wrong with them, disappear, either to be maggot meat or to be reeducated.

The Motherland is about to prove its world superiority by putting a man on the moon.

Hector discovered a secret behind the wall of Zone Seven. A secret that may place Standish in danger. Should he run? Or is it possible to fight back?

The Good: While I had heard of Maggot Moon before it got a Printz Honor, I hadn’t paid much attention to what it was about. Which means that when I began reading, I had no idea. “What the heck is going on?” is pretty close to what I was thinking in the first twenty-odd pages.

What is going on? It’s a bit of a puzzle for the reader to put together. There is the Motherland, it’s red and black flag. A war lost. A wall topped with glass. Mothers for Purity. Rewards for large families. And, finally, a date is given: Thursday, 19th July 1956.

Maggot Moon is set in an alternate universe, in an alternate history, a timeline a wee bit different from our own. Standish’s country lost a war years and years ago; and now Standish lives in dystopian world. Standish is telling the story, in his own way, which means that it’s simply his story. There is little explanation or exposition. Instead, the reader can fill in the pieces, try to connect the dots, attempt to understand. Just from that, from how the story is told, is enough to see why this got a Printz nod.

And the language, Standish’s turn of phrase! “The what ifs are as boundless as the stars,” which describes not just life but also the chain of history that creates Standish’s world. Later, he describes “my heart an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.

The setting and Standish’s world is another element. His school is harsh and demanding, with bullies among both students and teachers. A brutal death half way through illustrates just how precarious and dangerous Standish’s world is. It also shows some surprising sides of people Standish knows. It’s not a simple place or time.

In some ways, Standish seems young. He dreams of escape, of the land of Croca-Cola and Cadillacs. Since the Motherland will soon land on the moon, he dreams of a better planet, Juniper, to escape to, He builds a small spaceship out of odds and ends, half believing it will work. What he describes is far from young: the circumstances surrounding his parents disappearances. People becoming maggot meat. A brutal death. And the end . . . what Standish ends up doing, and the results, are quite serious. This is a perfect example of how a book can be about serious, dark things, yet does so in a way that it takes a while to realize just how dark it is.

I wonder at what age the readers will fully appreciate the clues as to what Standish’s world is, and isn’t. While “Nazis” and “Soviets” are never terms that are used, it seems that his world is one where a country such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia conquered England and controls most of Europe.  (Personally, I only considered a Nazi occupied England; reading other reviews is what made me also think it could be the Soviets, or any dictatorship.) Croca-Cola reminds one of another, very American beverage, as does the references to Cadillacs and a TV show starring a woman having a ball. (If you get that last one, that’s exactly what I mean by what is needed to fully understand the time and place and alternate history of Standish’s world.)

What, you may be asking, did Hector discover? It’s a stunning secret, and it not only brings about Hector and his family disappearing but also forces Standish to take a stand.

Other reviews: Someday My Printz Will Come; CrossReferencing (Mark and Sarah); Pretty Books.




Review: Courage Has No Color

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone. Candlewick Press. 2013. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It’s About: During World War II, the US Armed Forces were segregated. This discrimination also included what roles African American men were, and weren’t, allowed.

Combat? No. Cleaning? Yes.

Courage Has No Color is the story of one group of men who challenged and helped change the status quo: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the “Triple Nickles.”

What is courage? What is strength? Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn’t ready to fight for you.”

The Good: Courage Has No Color is one of my favorite types of nonfiction stories: it tells a particular, specific story (that of the Triple Nickles) against a bigger story: the integration of the US Armed Forces. It’s a story of both how individuals can make a difference, as well as how organizations work to make change. And it’s about just how big a fight it was, quoting white officer in World War I as saying  “The Negro must be rated as second class material, this due primarily to his inferior intelligence and lack of mental and moral qualifications.

First Sergeant Walter Morris was in charge of the Service Company of The Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Service Company guarded the facility. “He wanted [the soldiers] ‘to act like soldiers,  not servants.'” Morris decided to have his soldiers do what the white soldiers in training did: the physical training. Morale improved. When Morris was ordered to report to the commandant of The Parachute School, he wondered if he would be in trouble. Instead, he found out that an all-black unite of paratroopers was being formed, and that he and the men he had already begun to train would be part of it.

That is the type of history I enjoy: the “bigger picture” of the politicians and groups who were pushing to expand opportunities at the same time that individuals were doing so, also; and how that comes together to create change. That change isn’t quick; and the change isn’t what you’d expect from a fictional story. For example, the Triple Nickles never see active combat during World War II. Instead, they train and train, and then are sent to be smoke-jumpers in the west. Part of the war justification for this was the presence of Japanese balloon bombs. And so the story of the Triple Nickles becomes even more layered.

Courage Has No Color addresses the issues of segregation, and World War II, and the treatment of returning service men; the prejudices of leaders, which meant that people were excluded from medals and honors and parades. And it talks about the changes made, in the military. The Triple Nickles weren’t formed in isolation and there were people and places I wanted to learn more about, like Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the highest ranking black officer in the Army. And the Tuskegee Airman, and the 761st Tank Battalion.

Other reviews: an interview with Tanya Lee Stone; Someday My Printz Will Come; Reading Rumpus Book Reviews; Bookends, a Booklist blog.

Review: Black Helicopters

Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: “I’m Valkyrie White. I’m fifteen. Your government killed my family.”

Valley has been bathed, so that she doesn’t smell of wood smoke and instead smells like other teen girls.

Valley has been dressed, in jeans and a T-shirt and a hoodie, to look like other teen girls.

Under the hoodie is a vest. The vest with a detonator. And because she is locked in a hut, because she hasn’t seen her brother for days, all I can think is, what has happened to this girl, that she is being forced to do this?

No one is forcing Valley to do anything. This is her choice. Black Helicopters is the story of how Valley’s life came to this, this one moment, of Valley and the explosives and her finger on the detonator. Her choice.

The Good: It will be next to impossible to talk about Valley without talking about spoilers. So if spoilers ruin a book for you, stop now.

Black Helicopters is deceptively short. It’s 166 pages, with a small trim size and plenty of white space. I read it in less than two hours. I’ve thought about it for much, much more time than that.

Black Helicopters covers two days: the day when Valley gets dressed up with her vest and the day after, and flashes back to eleven years ago, eight years ago, last year, to understand why this is her choice. But is it her choice? What is a choice, to a fifteen year old girl raised a certain way?

Valley loves her older brother Bo and her father and her mother. At first I think, oh this is a back to nature family, living off the land, not bothering anyone. A wee bit extreme in how far off the grid they are, but that is all. What is clear is the fierce love and loyalty the family shares. A man loves his children and want to teach them the way of the world and how to be safe. Siblings love and protect each other. What is wrong with that?

As Valley talks about them the reader realizes things that Valley does not. She is being raised by a survivalist, somewhere in the rural United States, probably Montana. She is being raised to believe that black helicopters can kill you without leaving any visible signs, because that is just how Those People are, they will come after you and kill you. Like eleven years ago, when her mother was out in the garden, and then she was dead, no blood or anything. Because that is how Those People are. Da knows the truth, and he will teach his children.

Valley tells us that her father likes clocks and takes them apart and teaches his children how, and that he hates the modern all electric clocks, and then it’s a few pages later that the reader realizes that no, her father isn’t just some return-to-old-fashioned ways man living off the land. No.  Her father is making bombs. Those bombs are being used for her father’s customers — people who want to send messages using bombs. They send these messages against judges who legislate from the bench, or the message may be about abortion, or about laws. Valley’s father has his own message to go with the bombs: a message about his own beliefs about what it means to be free and how to make people believe.

And this is the point where I really step back and talk about spoilers. Valley was raised a certain way, indoctrinated a certain way, isolated to such an extreme that all sources of information are controlled by her father so that she never had the chance to question. She and her brother Bo are also taught to be obedient, to obey what their father says, no matter what.

Part of what leads Valley to put that vest on is her total belief in her father’s beliefs. Part of what leads Valley to put it on is how she has been taught to obey. Now, this doesn’t mean she is obeying someone else as she takes off on a suicide mission. Rather, after her father dies (“your government killed my family“) she and Bo follow their father’s instructions to go to one of his work colleagues and trust that man to help them. What happens to Valley shows why raising children to be totally obedient can be a problem and dangerous. It is not just the sexual abuse that Valley is secretly subjected to, it is also her belief in the power of that man and her belief that there aren’t any options. It turns out that Bo also blindly trusted, but his trust just leads to loss of money and the loss of faith in himself for his failure to protect his sister.

Valley and Bo manage to escape the man who uses them. “Escape” for them is different than for other people because of what they’ve been led to believe about the outside world. They go to yet another group they know from the fringe groups their father interacted with. They get a slightly happy ending by moving in with a family that probably are some type of white supremacists (Valley doesn’t say for sure, probably because she doesn’t know, but that’s my guess). These folks show the most kindness, acceptance and welcoming that Valley and Bo have seen in a long time. It’s only “slightly” happy because it is here, among Dolph and Wolf and Eva (you see why I make my guess about the group these people are associated with) that Valley decides what her next step needs to be, and why, and that step is the vest.

I have not mentioned Eric or Corbin. When Valley goes into the world to do what needs to be done, she encounters two brothers, ages about seven and seventeen. She tries to manipulate and control them both, in part to achieve her goal of finding just the right targets (Eric has a car) but also because, as an abused child, once she has the chance to hurt others like others have hurt her she takes it so that she can be the one with the power. Without saying exactly what happens, when someone like Valley defines power in a certain way, they don’t truly understand other people and can underestimate them.

This is not a happy story. I have to confess, while at one or two points I felt sorry for Valley or pity for Valley, I never quite liked her. Thoughts like “I could twist his fingers until they broke, but I didn’t think I would need to do that” froze my heart. But, I don’t have to like her. I just have to see who she is, and why she is that way, and what shapes a person to get to that point.

This is a dark story, because it’s about a young woman so twisted by her upbringing that her path can only end one way. Thinking back, part of what is terrifying about Valley’s story is that her parents loved her. Her father loved her. It’s so much easier to think of “crazy bomb-makers” as being full crazy and full mean and evil in every part of their lives.

What reader is this for? Well, readers of Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott to begin with. The combination of much to talk about and short book also means this will be great for book discussions. I can easily see Black Helicopters being discussed as a Printz potential, as well as being nominated for both YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.

Because of how Valley is still sitting by my, making me think of her, her choices, her illusion of choice; because it’s making me think of parents and children and how children are raised; because it’s making me think of so many things, Black Helicopters is clearly a Favorite Book Read in 2013, even though I wanted to scrub my brain clean afterwards.

Other reviews: Stacked.

Teaser: Quintana of Charyn

Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta (Candlewick Press, 2013) will be published April 2013. My full review will appear then; in the meanwhile, my tease — and tease it is — is I loved Quintana and loved this conclusion to the Lumatere series. You’ll be seeing this as a Favorite Books Read in 2013. Reviewed from the Australia Edition (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (Australia), 2012); gift from a friend.

The Lumatere Chronicles began with Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick Press, 2010); the second book was Froi of the Exiles (Candlewick Press, 2012). Finnikin is a standalone and creates the world and characters of Lumatere; Froi and Quintana combine to make one story told in two volumes. (A short story, Ferragost, takes place during the same time as the events in the beginning of Quintana). If you haven’t read these yet, you have plenty of time before the final volume is published!

About ten years before the events in Finnikin, the country of Lumatere was invaded, the royal family murdered, and the country cursed; half the population are trapped outside in exile, half trapped inside with an impostor king. Finnikin is the teenage son of the head of the royal guard, one of the many exiles. There is a rumor that the royal prince survived the massacre, so Finnikin goes in search of him.

Froi takes place a handful of years later; Lumatere has been freed of its curse and Finnikin, with others, has been working to restore the country and bring it back to a place of prosperity as well as heal the deep wounds from the turmoil years before. Froi was an orphan, a child raised on the streets, found and taken in by Finnikin and the other Lumatereans. Intensely loyal to those in Lumatere, Froi is sent on a mission of revenge to secretly kill the King of Charyn, the man the Lumatereans believe orchestrated the invasion and murders of the royal family. Froi finds the King to be just as bad as everyone believes, but also finds that the Charynites are not all evil. He meets the king’s daughter, Quintana, a cursed young woman.

In Quintana, Froi and Quintana have been separated and Froi’s loyalties are torn between Lumatere and Charyn. Charyn is in turmoil.

Quintana, like Finnikin and Froi, is full of adventure and politics, intrigue and romance. It also addresses bigger questions of survival; of forgiveness; of reconciliation; of hope. It’s about the hard choices one has to make. I got to the end of Quintana and began reading it again, because I was not ready to leave this place and these people.

Review: The Infects

The Infects by Sean Beaudoin. Candlewick Press. 2012. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: So, Nick Sole is working at plant that produces fast food chicken. It’s a dead end job, but he’s not really a slacker — he has to help support his family, since his mom left, his dad doesn’t do much of anything (not since he lost his job at the same factory) and he has a younger sister that doesn’t quite have Aspergers. Bad luck and a problem at work leads to him being arrested and sentenced and before you know it, he’s in a van with a lot of other juvenile delinquents, headed to some nature hike to make him a better person, with the nickname Nero.

Then, the zombies attack. Does a van full of teenage criminals, without any weapons, stand a chance?

The Good: The Infects begins with a “gotcha” moment. Nick and his younger sister are fighting zombies, and just as you’re impressed with the nine year old’s fighting skills, gotcha! They’ve been playing a video game. Instead, Nick is just living his normal, boring, trying to make ends meet life. His biggest worry is trying to get up the nerve to do something about his crush, Petal Gazes, who he sees at both work and at school.

The Infects is funny and knowing; it expects the reader to be up on their zombie culture. Chapter headings include Don’t Fear the Reaper and All  Along the Watchtower. Pages are blood-spattered. Even before a full-fledged, people-eating zombie appears before Nero, things are happening in the background that a reader will pick up on. A news report in the background talking about cows that have been torn to pieces. A woman with unfocused eyes walks by, growling and snapping like a dog.

A bite of a zombie infects a person; hence the nickname and title, The Infects. But what is the source of the prime infection? What starts it? And what does it mean? Of course, none of that matters, not at first, as this bunch of teenage boys on a mountain try to figure out just what to do in the face of a zombie attack. Along the way, they meet up with the van of female teenage delinquents, and guess who is in that van? Guess? If you said Petal, you’d be right!

The zombies are frightening and scary, the boys are both resourceful, brave, and foolish, and I wondered just where The Infects was taking me. Forget about twists and turns; it takes expectations and turns them upside down and sideways and I loved every moment of the weird, scary, funny, terrifying trip. When I got to the end, I thought — well, why not?

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; Smash Attack Reads.

Review: Ghetto Cowboy

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. Candlewick. 2011. Audio: Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by JD Jackson. Odyssey Honor Book.

The Plot:  Twelve year old Cole’s mother doesn’t know what to do with Cole. He’s cut so much school that he may be left back, he’s getting into trouble, there’s nothing else for her to try  — so she drives from Detroit to Philadelphia, to leave him with the father he hasn’t seen since he was an infant.

Northwest Philly is just like Detroit… Except for the horses. Horses? In the city? And his father is one of the people who rides and takes care of horses? Impossible, thinks Cole: cowboys don’t live in cities. Cowboys aren’t black. His father can’t be a cowboy!

Except his father is a cowboy. Cole is about to learn some lessons: about life, about family, about horses. And about cowboys.

The Good: JD Jackson’s narration was excellent! I felt like Cole was right there in the car with me, telling me his story.

Cole, his mother, and his father are all stubborn. Cole is skipping school and getting into trouble, even though he’s smart enough to know better. His mother was stubborn enough to exclude Cole’s father from their lives and, now that she fears that her son is on a path that she is powerless to stop, is stubborn enough to drive him from Detroit to Philadelphia to a man he doesn’t know, in a last ditch effort to put Cole on a better path. Cole’s father is stubborn enough that when Cole’s mother took her infant son and left, he let them go. Cole is stubborn in his reluctance to see anything positive about the stranger that is his father.

Cole may be stubborn, but he’s not so stubborn to let pride or anger get in his way. Despite himself, he is curious about these “ghetto cowboys,” and learns a bit about their history and culture. Cole connects to one of the horses, and that connection, becoming responsible for another’s well being and safety, gives him a positive place to put his stubbornness, his independence, his strength and intelligence. It’s not just caring for a horse: it’s fighting for them. Cole’s visit to his father coincides with a city crack down on such urban stables, which threatens both the stables, their horses, and their riders, but also the positive contributions those cowboys and stables make to their local communities.

I love learning about subcultures; here, learning about cowboys in cities. Who knew? I didn’t! As G. Neri explains in a guest post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations, the ghetto cowboy plot is based on real life. There really are such stables! Before this book, when I heard “horse” I thought of two types of people. Wealthy people, who can afford to buy and care for a horse. Or people in the country, who work with horses. This opened up my eyes to a bigger world.

Because I loved Cole. Because JD Jackson’s narration made me feel like this was happening around me. Because I am fascinated by these cowboys. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; Finding Wonderland; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Girls in the Stacks (with author interview).

Review: Long Lankin

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough. Candlewick Press. 2012. Reviewed from eArc from NetGalley.

The Plot: August, 1958. England. Sisters Cora and Mimi are sent to live with a relative they have never met. To make matters worse, their great aunt, Ida Eastfield, wasn’t expecting them and doesn’t want them. She’s rude and unwelcoming, full of odd rules and warnings about what the girls can and can’t do. Don’t open doors, don’t open windows, don’t go into locked rooms, don’t go to the church.

Meeting Roger and Pete, two boys from the neighborhood, makes things better. And worse. It’s Roger who suggest they go to the old church, forbidden by Auntie Ida. It’s there that Mimi sees something, something that scares her.

It also scares Auntie Ida.

Cora is determined to find the truth behind Ida’s warnings, her anger and fear, the whispers in the town about her family. She discovers a family curse going back hundreds of years, a history of lost children —  and that Mimi may be the next victim, unless Cora can figure out a way to save her little sister from the mysterious “Long Lankin.”

The Good: Said my lord to my lady, as he mounted his horse: Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss. “Long Lankin” is an old English ballad. I adore books based on and inspired by ballads and love what Barraclough does here with Long Lankin. I don’t want to give too much away, about what is real or what is myth from the original ballad, but I simply loved it. The tension, the suspense, the horror that all come from discovering the truth behind Long Lankin kept me up all night, as did Cora’s desperate struggle to save her younger sister.

Long Lankin is set in the village of Byers Guerdon, England in August of 1958. Cora and Mimi are from the East End of London, complete with accents and hand me downs of hand me downs. Mum is missing; Dad isn’t able to take care of his girls; so off they go to their grandmother’s sister. Long Lankin wonderfully creates the world of mid-twentieth century England, and it’s a time period that adds the the atmosphere that veers from suspenseful to warm. The girls are coming from a London with homes that don’t yet have indoor plumbing. Cora regards her aunt’s inside bathroom with a bit of disdain: “At home the privy is outside in the yard. I think it’s cleaner than having one in the house like this.” Ida Eastfield was born a Guerdon, the last of the Guerdons of Guerdon Hall and the village of Byers Guerdon. It’s a large house, but full of dust and decay, a place that has been neglected.

The girls are outsiders, but also insiders. Their grandmother Agnes, who died during the war, was Ida’s sister. It turns out their mother, Susan, who is “away” also has a tie to Guerdon Hall. Ida tells them nothing, preferring blunt words and smacks to explanations.

Long Lankin is told from the points of view of Cora and Roger — and Ida. Ida’s view of events shows the reader that Ida is more than what she appears to be now. “My worn-out tweed skirt lies over the back of the chair. The hem’s been hanging down for weeks. Will’s old shirt is in a heap on the floor and I’ll just pick it up and put it on again tomorrow, along with the brown cardigan I knitted before the war, the one I wore today, and yesterday, and the day before that. I know what I have become. I find in some small hidden room of myself a little corner of shame, but I quickly shut the door on it.” Ida is slow to reveal to the reader her secrets and the secrets of Guerdon Hall, but “the war” is her war, the Great War, and “the war” is also the losses she has suffered because of Long Lankin. It is a wonder of Long Lankin that Ida is not just as important a character as Cora or Roger, but also as sympathetic a character despite of how she treats Cora and Mimi.

Roger is a local boy, and, like Cora is about twelve. Unlike Cora, his childhood is almost ideal and worry free. Yes, his mother has her hands full with a houseful of children (Roger, Pete, Terry, Dennis, and the longed for girl, Baby Pamela), so Roger is asked to do errands and watch a younger sibling or make the tea, but his worries and fears are nothing compared to Cora’s, even before she realizes the threat to Mimi. His is a household with parents who love their children; his is a household with enough money. Roger doesn’t realize how lucky he has it.

1958 allows for both children to be independent: they can explore the countryside and village alone, visit people alone, with no adult tagging along or checking in nonstop via text or telephone. Neither Cora nor Roger realize it, but their childhood is touched by the two wars that took place before their births. It’s a time where certain things haven’t yet changed or been modernized, such as what a person can make of their lives. As Roger says of his father, “he read a lot of books, and if he’d been born into a richer family, he’d probably have gone to university.”

Into this child’s paradise of camps and swings and hikes comes the whispers and dangers of Long Lankin. What should have been a refuge for Cora and Mimi is actually the start of nightmares. Long Lankin, as Cora and Mimi discover, has a taste for children, has had for years and years and years, and once he’s noticed a child he is relentless. He has noticed Mimi. This is the second genius of Long Lankin: how Cora tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s an age without Internet; Auntie Ida doesn’t even have a telephone. It’s a mystery that goes back hundreds of years.

When reading this, I was reminded of three authors: Diana Wynne Jones, because Barraclough’s capturing of childhood reminded me of Jones. When Cora discovers a piano in her aunt’s house and wants to play, she sits down. But what child just sits down on a piano stool? “I sat down on the stool, one of those that whirled around and went up and down, and I must have whizzed round on it for five minutes at least before I cam to a stop, all giddy.” Stephen King and Peter Straub, because Long Lankin is a horror story about cursed generations, missing children, murders, witchcraft, and the supernatural.

Cora and Roger are about twelve, no older than thirteen; Mimi is four. Long Lankin only likes taking younger children. Cora and Roger are just old enough to be able to think they can do something, figure something out, but also young enough to not deny the ghosts or specters they see. Both are young enough to have freedom during summer holidays and not have to think about jobs or school or their own futures.

Ida’s story offers balance and deeper knowledg of what is happening. She also shows what happens when fear and heartbreak are too much for one person. One thing I really appreciated: despite the three voices, or maybe because of it, there were many loose ends to this story. Oh, the main story is told and resolved; but these are three real people, with bigger lives, and even Lankin’s life is more than what is in this book. I adored how some things remained fuzzy, to be guessed by the reader.

Because I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Because my heart broke for Ida. Because I cheered for Cora. Because I wondered if Roger realized just how lucky he had it. Because of the scares and the suspense. Because it’s a story well told, but not tidily told. Long Lankin is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Review: Froi of the Exiles

Froi of the Exiles (The Lumatere Chronicles) by Melina Marchetta (Candlewick Press, 2012). Companion to Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick Press, 2010) (my review). Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Froi has spent the last three years making Lumatere his home. He is loyal to those who have befriended him: the royal family, the guards, the returned exiles. Froi may have been raised by thieves and street scum, but his recent years and friends have shown him there is a better way. All Froi has to do is keep his darkness in check, count to ten instead of lashing out with his fists, remember his loyalties.

Froi trains with the royal guards, learns farming, studies. He does what is asked, grateful for what they have given him: a life. A chance. A future. He’ll do anything for them, for Lumatere.

Anything includes helping to track down the Charynites responsible for the invasion of Lumatere and the murder of the royal family years ago. Anything includes accepting the most dangerous assignment of all: sneaking into Charyn, pretending to be a Charynite, and assassinating the King of Charyn. Lumatere will have justice for their murdered ones; better this one death, of the man who engineered it all, then a war that will kill thousands.

Froi goes, with one job to do. Kill a king.

Simple, right? Except it turns out, nothing is simple. Froi finds himself drawn to Charyn and their people. Secrets lurk in shadows and dungeons, and he will be faced with choices that will make him question his loyalties and his actions.

The Good: Let me get this out of my system. Oh, my, God, Froi. Fro, Froi, Froi. New book boyfriend Froi. Love him. And Quintana! Mad, smart, crazy, vulnerable, strong Quintana. The twists! The shades of gray! I WANTS THE NEXT BOOK AND I WANTS IT NOW.

OK, now that I got that out of my system.

This is a companion book, so it’s best to first read Finnikin of the Rock. However, it’s not a straight sequel, in that Finnikin’s journey was told in his book. This is all about Froi. And, needless to say, spoilers for Finnikin of the Rock.

You know Lord of the Rings? Well, imagine if for the companion books, Tolkien set it in Mordor with a Mordor princess and suddenly the reader realized . . . hey, things aren’t quite so simple as good guys / bad guys / let’s kill all the baddies.

As you may recall from Finnikin, the Lumatere royal family was murdered and an impostor king set on the throne with the backing of Charyn; accusations, infighting, and other violent acts resulted in a curse being placed on Lumatere, with half the inhabitants (including Finnikin) trapped outside living in exile and half the inhabitants trapped inside with the impostor king and his Charyn soldiers. It wasn’t pretty for anyone, and Finnikin of the Rock is about how Finnikin ended the curse and freed the country.

Froi was a young teen, a thief, “street scum,” who joined Finnikin’s travels during the course of Finnikin of the Rock. Many believe Froi is from Lumatere, a child orphaned and abandoned when the curse was placed on the country. All Froi knows is he was nothing, and now he is something. Someone. Without Finnikin and the others caring, without Finnikin and the others as role models, Froi would be, at best, a street thug and, at worst, a slave.

Froi of the Exiles is set three years after Finnikin; just long enough for some things to have settled down in Lumatere. Just long enough for Froi’s bonds with those who have taken him in to strengthen. Even with these friends, Froi has to fight the darkness in himself, the darkness that is the result of being raised on the streets by brutal people. Froi is not a story of happy, witty thieves with a code of conduct. His is a story where if a child is weak and without power, as any child is, he will be used. This, then, is the young man who is sent to Charyn to kill a king. A young man who has the skills and brutality to carry out such an order; a young man who yearns for a place and acceptance so will do this, will kill, because it’s asked of him by those who love him and whom he loves.

Froi enters Charyn expecting monsters, as does the reader. Instead, he finds a fractured country with plenty of its own problems, with infighting, with its own history of abuses and massacres, of loss and desperate acts. He finds the mad princess Quintana, who — because of a curse eighteen years old — is whored out to young men who hope to break it. In a dark twist on fairy tales, kissing a princess doesn’t free her; sleeping with her, though, willing or not, could break a curse that threatens to destroy the kingdom and its people. A young woman, as used and broken as Froi? Of course these two people are going to find each other.

If Finnikin was about two good, decent people who remain that way no matter what, Froi is about two people who refuse to be broken by what has been done to them. It is about people who pick up the pieces and refuse to give in to the darkness that pain, hurt, loss and abandonment cause.

I’m hesitant to say much more, because there are twists and turns. Some, I guessed; some, I did not. The strength of Froi is not any “gotcha” moment, but, rather, the detailed and complex and sympathetic world of Charyn, a world that in Finnikin the reader was told was dark and now turns out to be — not light, but, rather, one with shades of gray. This is an ugly story, beautifully written; a story of both the harm that people can inflict, and the healing. It is about need and forgiveness. It is about hope, but the hope that is earned by blood and tears, the hope that is willed into being because of a desire that life should be better than what it is.

Lest this sound too emotional, too romantic, rest assured it is also action packed. It is, after all, about war; about killing a king; about rebellion. Froi is someone who prefers to uses his fists.

Froi is also funny, in the type of real-world way that people are, a bit sarcastic and flip. Sometimes the humor is dark, the type of humor used in tough situations.

This is, no doubt about i, one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012. Because I fell in love with Froi, and Quintana, and the Charynites Froi meets on the way. Because like Froi, I began to forget the task he had to do and what his new friendships would mean to those left back in Lumatere.

One other thing — there will be a sequel, Quintana of Charyn. I just want to get into my TARDIS, go forward a year, and read it now. Instead, I’ll reread, for the third time, Froi.

Review: Chanukah Lights

Chanukah Lights by Michael J. Rosen (author) and Robert Sabuda (artist). Candlewick Press. 2011.Personal copy. 2012 Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, Younger Readers. Tomorrow Michael J. Rosen will be here as part of the 2012 Blog Tour for the Sydney Taylor Book Awards. Information on the Book Awards and the Blog Tour may be found at The People of the Books blog (the Association of Jewish Libraries blog); more information on the award is at the Association of Jewish Libraries, at the Sydney Taylor Book Awards site.

It’s About: Chanukah! Yes, typically I’d review a book about a holiday closer to the holiday. Read it now, save it for later. But, in this case, Chanukah Lights is the 2012 Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book and it’s the blog tour, so depending on how you want to look at it, it’s either a little late or very early. Another way to look at it: that its a disservice to books that are about a holiday to view them as only to be read or enjoyed during that holiday.

The Good: It’s a pop up book! By Robert Sabuda! In tomorrow’s post, I’ll include the video from Candlewick that shows the lovely, intricate work.

This book is just pop ups; it’s also the text.

Chanukah Lights is not the typical holiday book. Usually, such a book is a historical account of the holiday, or a religious account, or a family celebrating the holiday. That’s pretty typical of any holiday book for children. Rosen’s approach is to show how Chanukah has been celebrated throughout time, starting with the first Chanukah and the single lamp that burned for eight days and including immigrant ships, shtetls, and kibbutzim as places where Chanukah has been celebrated.

My favorite is the tenement; Rosen does not name it as New York City, so the reader can see it as any city, just as he does not name any individual ship or town or country so it can be the place and time the reader imagines. For me, thought, it is New York City because the scene and the words reminded me of Sydney Taylor’s All Of A Kind Family (fans of that series will enjoy the materials in The All of a Kind Family Companion by the Association of Jewish Libraries, 2004, a PDF).

Tonight, the sixth

night of Chanukah,

our seven candles

call out like vendors’ chants,

like parents’ voices,

echoing among the tenements

where faith burns bright

amid a new generation.”

The pop ups are stark white, against a colored background with Rosen’s text in white. For this particular page, there is the tenement, the stoop,a  peddler’s cart, barrels, and clothesline with clothes. The menorah is not shown; rather(as with each page except the last) there is a part of the building that has a black background with gold flames. The last page — well, I’m going to leave that for you to discover!

Come back tomorrow, to find out about Rosen’s approach to the text and the process of creating this work of art.

Review: A Monster Calls

 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. Candlewick Press. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot:The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” One night, a monster visits thirteen year old Conor O’Malley. He will make three more visits to Conor, then demand something in return. The next morning, Conor is not sure whether the visit of the monster yew tree was real or a dream. Real life is nightmare enough. His mother is ill. His father is in America with his new family and rarely visits. His grandmother is formal and distant. At school, he’s the boy whose mother is ill. At best, he’s whispered about. At worst, he’s the target of bullies.

And now the monster visits nightly at 12:07. Demanding what Conor cannot give.

The Good: This is a heartbreaking look at how one teenager copies with the terminal illness of his mother.

The monster yew tree who visits Conor nightly tells him stories. Stories without happy endings, stories with uncomfortable truths. “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad guy. Most people are somewhere in between.” Stories pushing Conor to admit to the truth he hides even from himself. It’s not the truth you’d think.

Conor’s alienation, his anger, his hurt, crushed me. I’d be just another adult in his life saying, “poor Conor.”

A Monster Calls doesn’t hide the anger and ugliness of a parent dying. From past entries, readers know I’m not a fan of stories where tragic backstory creates friendships, but that’s because it’s the story in A Monster Calls that rings more true to me than those “feel sorry for me and like me” tales. Conor’s sick mother results in varying reactions from Conor’s peers, friends, and family: ostracism, bullying, and being ignored among them. It does not result in friendship and love.

The adult reader cannot read this without thinking of Siobhan Dowd. Dowd, whose original story idea this was. Dowd, who died from cancer. While Ness had her “characters, a premise, and a beginning,” one wonders just how much of this story (about a woman dying from cancer and how her family reacts) was inspired by Dowd. How much was Dowd trying to give meaning and narrative structure to her own struggle? And while some may say it’s the story that matters, not Dowd’s illness and Ness taking on a story idea first dreamt up by someone he never met, the information is on the ARC and in an author’s note. As people discuss this book and bibliotherapy and audience are brought up (see, for example, the Heavy Medal discussions), I wonder — if a person was reading A Monster Calls with no knowledge of its origins, would it change how they read it?

I don’t think most children or teen readers will care about Dowd. To them, it’s a story about family and friends, with all their flaws. It’s a story about one’s worst nightmare come true. It’s a story about a monster, a story that confirms what the reader may have begun to suspect on their own: life isn’t fair, life is complex, sometimes you cannot trust the sun to rise in the east and gravity to work and the earth to be below your feet.