Knock Out Games by G. Neri
Carolroda Lab, 2014, 293 pp.,$17.95
Knock Out Games, by award winning author G. Neri, is a realistic story of a group of urban teens who resort to random acts of violence they refer to as playing games. This fast paced gritty tale taken from today’s headlines portrays youth without adult guidance, conscience or fear. Fifteen year old Erica, nicknamed Fish, narrates the story. She and her mother recently moved to a run-down neighborhood of St. Louis following her parents break-up. Attending a predominantly African-American school, Erica, who is white, has difficulty making friends until she meets Destiny, who then introduces her to Kalvin, a charismatic fast talker who lures Erica into doing things she never thought she was capable of doing. A skilled videographer, Erica is encouraged to take videos of middle and high school students sneaking up on their unsuspecting victims while attempting to knock them out with just one punch. It is only after the death of a highly respected teacher does Erica turn against Kalvin and his followers.
This is not a book for the faint of heart, but Knock Out Games is an important book that needs to be read and discussed by urban youth and the adults in their lives. Knock Out Games is plot driven, but the author creates well-developed characters that will draw readers in. Neri is an authentic story teller who gives us a captivating tale that, while at times difficult to read, is impossible to put down. Reluctant as well as enthusiastic readers will be drawn to this story and its characters.
Reviewed by John Jarvey, Cleveland Hts, OH
The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp
Tor Teen, 2014, 295 pp., $17.99
Sixteen-year-old Kit Bristol, raised in Trombino’s Traveling Wonder Show as the Infant Daredevil, has recently settled into a dreary existence as servant to the mysterious Master Rattle. However, when his mortally wounded master is revealed to be notorious highwayman Whistling Jack, Kit must assume his identity to keep a step ahead of cruel Redcoat Captain Sterne. Kit is thrown into one adventure after another, including rescuing a fairy princess from competing magical armies and saving a former sideshow friend and her delirious uncle from the evil One-Eyed Duchess. Kit and the Princess Morgana struggle to profess their growing affections for each other as many enemies close in on their capture.
Ben Tripp spins a wildly adventurous tale filled with all manner of magical beings. This comic take on classical fairy tales is sprinkled with historical details and language of 1740s England. Readers will be swept up in the frantic pace of Kit’s quest to deliver Morgana safely to Ireland and his hope to win the heart of the beautiful fairy. This first book in a trilogy, The Accidental Highwayman will leave you wanting more.
Reviewed by Robert Jordan Tampa, Florida
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2015, 416 pp., $17.95
Family Relationships/Siblings/Grief and Loss/Changelings/Historical Fantasy/Horror
After a fall into the lake while on vacation, eleven-year-old Triss wakes up with no recollection of what happened. Her parents are concerned and her petulant little sister Pen is frightened by Triss’s every move. When they return to their home, Triss develops an insatiable hunger, including a need to eat inedible objects like dolls. Odder still, Triss believes she sees a small being delivering letters from her long-dead brother to his empty room. Nothing makes sense to Triss nor to her parents; she is anyone but herself. Triss believes Pen has an answer for this, but Pen will do anything to avoid seeing or talking to her. But when Triss follows Pen out of the house one afternoon, a whole new world of strange opens up, filled with small creatures, a secret microvillage existing within her own town, and the truth about who, or what, she may be. Why would her parents make a deal with the devil and force her to suffer the consequences? Is she the real Triss or is she a replacement Triss?
Hardinge’s eerie fantasy novel is set in the years following World War I and will easily engage readers who enjoy horror. At its heart, this is a book about grief and the lengths families will go to protect themselves and one another from it. It’s also about war and the consequences of the battles fought on and off the field. Infused with fantastic and mythological creatures, Cuckoo Song turns the changeling story on its head. This is a layered, literary, atmospheric read with solid pacing from start to finish.
Reviewed by Kelly Jensen Delavan, Wisconsin
Winterkill: Follow The Wayward Path by Kate A. Boorman
Amulet Books, 2014, 323 pp., $17.95
Survival/ Mystery/ Social Outcast/ Society Norms/ Romance
An evil monster, le malmaci, lurks about the settlement, killing those that go beyond its boundaries. Everyone knows that in order to survive, the settlement must remain vigilant and honor the three virtues of Honesty, Bravery and Discovery. But Emmeline is Wayward, breaking rules, skipping virtue talks, investigating the edges of the dangerous woods, and searching the river front for signs left behind by the lost people who used to roam the lands before le malmaci brought terror on the original settlers. Despite her Waywardness and the stain brought upon the family by her grandmother, one of the settlement’s leaders seeks to bind Emmeline to him. With one word, she could lift her family’s shame forever and live comfortably, but in her dreams the lost people call to her, beckoning her to find them, to find them in the forbidden woods.
Boorman has created a gripping first-person narrative of a girl who is haunted by her family’s past and her own personal shame. Ever so slowly, the mystery of the settlement unwinds, giving hints of past treachery and glimpses of a larger threat beyond. This page-turning novel wraps the reader up in a web of mystery and romance.
Reviewed by Robin Jolley Davie, Florida
Stitching Snow by R.C. Lewis
Disney-Hyperion, 2014, 336 pp., $14.99
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Fairytale Retelling/Family Relationships
The classic fairy tale Snow White gets a science fiction retelling is this first-person narrative by R.C. Lewis. King Matthias and his queen rule a planet filled with violence, corruption, and vengeance. They are desperate for the return of their missing daughter, Princess Snow. The princess, or Essie as she is called, has grown up on Thanda, a frozen planet, where she takes care of seven loyal drones. She tries very hard to stay off the radar of both her home planet and the other planets who are at war. She doesn’t mind the cold or the work.
A ship crashes near her home on Thanda and she agrees to help the pilot, Dane, repair his ship. Dane then pulls Essie into the conflicts and war she had hoped to avoid. Essie must decide whether to reclaim her role as Princess Snow in order to save her home world and Thanda from the ravages of war. Essie is a strong princess who values friendships and people more than crowns and jewels. Readers looking for strong, take-action female characters will find themselves rooting for her and for the delightful seven drones.
Reviewed by Melanie Hundley Nashville, Tennessee
Knightley & Son by Rohan Gavin
Bloomsbury, 2014, 313 pp., $16.99
Mysteries/Detective Stories/Fathers and Sons
Can a self-help book be dangerous? Thirteen-year-old Darkus Knightley has to figure out why some people, after reading The Code, commit crimes. He also has to determine if the book has something to do with the fact that his father has been in a coma for two years. And are the strange events that have been occurring around him due to supernatural phenomena, an evil organization known as the Combination, or both? In addition, he is attempting to negotiate his new family situation that now includes a stepfather and stepsister. Each chapter provides new clues for Darkus to unravel; new mysterious people who may or may not be trustworthy; and tight situations that require his (and stepsister Tilly’s) detective work. He studies his father’s notes on old cases, and proceeds in a manner he hopes would meet with his dad’s approval. By the end, a new partnership, “Knightley & Son,” has been formed, and two Combination leaders are unaccounted for, so readers can anticipate a sequel.
Knightley & Son requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Darkus has a personal trait he calls his “catastrophizer,” which warns him when danger is near. His father is sometimes actively involved in the mystery, but then lapses into his comatose state. Help arrives when needed, and problems get cleared up a bit neatly at times. However, most middle school readers will be too absorbed in the fast-paced action and too busy helping Darkus Knightley solve the Code to be concerned about these conveniently placed plot tropes.
Reviewed by Sharon Kane Warners, New York
Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2015, 272 pp., $17.99
Evangelical Religious Beliefs/Missing Parents/Road Trip/Coming of Age
Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple’s parents are devout evangelical members of the all too powerful Church of America. Vivian, though, is not a believer- until she returns home one night and discovers that her parents are missing and to her astonishment, finds that there are two gaping holes in the roof of her home. Has the supposed “Rapture”–the reward awaiting true believers–actually happened? And taken her parents? Stunned, Vivian takes off with her best friend, Harp, and a mysterious companion, Peter, who they meet along the way, to find her missing parents. Together, these three teenagers embark on a cross-country road trip across America to find Vivian’s folks and hopefully, the answer to their question– is the end of the world really near?
Katie Coyle has constructed a darkly-comic, fast-paced mystery with a surprising twist that illustrates the obvious tension between reality and religion, and in particular, believing in religious beliefs that border on disbelief. More important, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, is a strong read for young people who have deep and abiding questions about the nature of truth in a world that is always changing and ever uncertain. Vivian is an engaging adolescent who will be most appealing for those who are wrestling with questions about loyalty, religious beliefs, and matters of the heart.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kaplan Orlando, Florida
Paper Airplanes by Dawn O’Porter
Amulet Books, 2014, 254 pp., $16.99
Friendship/Dysfunctional Families/Female Relationships
Fifteen-year-old schoolgirls Flo and Renèe have spent their years together at school in Guernsey in separate spheres. Flo, compliant and studious, has a tumultuous home life and an unusually cruel best friend in Sally Du Putron, while Renèe prefers to skip class and vandalize school property instead of face her own personal circumstances and grief of losing her mother to cancer. During an evening of drunken “snogging,” Flo finds herself in a tenuous and embarrassing position when Renèe comes to her aid. As a result, a new, secret friendship emerges in spite of Sally’s dictate forbidding it. After the sudden death of Flo’s father, her newly budding friendship with Renèe is thrust to the forefront as it is Renèe who is able to best relate to Flo’s pain. The new and often heart-rending events of adolescence, from disingenuous friendships to dysfunctional families, help them form a friendship unlike either has ever experienced. And when Sally tries one final time to tear them apart, their friendship seems to be fractured beyond repair.
With its honest portrayals of seemingly typical experiences of today’s teens, including some graphic sexual content, teenage drinking, and abusive relationships, Paper Airplanes is tragically true-to-life. O’Porter skillfully showcases both the power and inevitability of true friendship with her thought-provoking and powerful snapshot into female adolescent relationships.
Reviewed by Charity Truelove-Karcz Indianapolis, Indiana
One Past Midnight by Jessica Shirvington
Bloomsbury, 2014, 343 pp., $17.99
Paranormal/ Parallel Universe/ Romance/ Identity/
In this paranormal novel, Sabine, nearly eighteen and staring down two graduations, relates her predicament. She leads two separate and distinct lives. Each night at midnight, she shifts from one identity to the other. In one, she lives the life of pampered luxury in Wellesley and is headed to Harvard. In the other, her Roxbury life is more hardscrabble; she has adopted an Emo persona and doesn’t get along with her parents. The stress of it all is getting to her, so after sustaining a broken bone in Roxbury and waking up to discover herself healthy in Wellesley, she decides to experiment with some self-destructive behavior to discover whether these acts “carry over” to her other life. Her plan is to end one life in order to live in only one. Her choice is a no-brainer, until she meets her perfect love who unfortunately, is not part of her perfect life.
Sabine’s voice is engaging and the story moves apace. The present tense narration is effective and will keep teen readers turning pages. Older teens looking for some angst, drama, and romance will tear through One Past Midnight despite a few plot inconsistencies and unanswered questions. Still, a unique read sporting a great cover.
Reviewed by Brenda Kahn Closter, New Jersey
One Death Nine Stories by Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith Jr., Editors
Candlewick Press, 2014, 160 pp., $12.99
Upon reading the title, one can not help but recall J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, a collection which begins with its own story of suicide: the last few hours in the life of war-veteran Seymore Glass. Kevin Nicholas has not survived a war, but his adolescence is marked with its own level of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder because, at thirteen, he discovered his father’s suicide. Nine stories told in nine voices etch a kind of larger narrative around the ultimate question we ask after a suicide–Why?
The stories do not offer a clear-cut answer to Kevin’s suicide, nor do they offer a secure sense of closure for any one of the nine voices affected by Kevin’s death. Rather, the chorus of narrators, including a sister, junior high school friends, a community college classmate and even that of the morgue cosmologist, create one larger story that collectively encourage, push, and even brand a bigger message of survival for its readers. In this super story, Kevin’s suicide almost takes a back-seat to the complexity of each narrator, each one a survivor of her or his own post-traumatic stress. Readers will no doubt be haunted by unanswered questions and by the brief windows into Kevin’s life. However, it is the presence of real survival and how one actually goes on after such endurance that will remain etched in readers’ minds.
Reviewed by Patricia Kelly Hatillo, Puerto Rico
Hellhole by Gina Damico
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 368 pp., $17.99
Devil/Conduct of Life/Interpersonal Relations/Single-Parent Families/Humorous
“MAX’S LIFE OF CRIME STARTED OUT POORLY, with the theft of a glittery bobblehead in the shape of a cat” (p. 3). In fact, up until that moment, Max never even thought of doing anything wrong. All he wanted was to take care of his bed-ridden mom, work to pay the bills, go to school and dig for “The Next Big Fossil” at the top of Ugly Hill. On the night of Max’s crime, his digging opens a hole to hell and releases a big red demon, Burgundy Cluttermuck.
“Burg” takes over Max’s life and house, creating all kinds of complications and mischief. Burg forces Max to continue his life of crime, insisting that Max provide him with everything he desires—from junk food to a house with a whirl pool tub—and, everything MUST be stolen. If Max doesn’t comply, Burg threatens to hurt Max’s mother and all the other people Max cares about. Gina Damico, author of the CROAK trilogy, has spun a fanciful tale full of horror, fantasy, teen angst, love, and humor that readers will enjoy.
Reviewed by Kathryn Kelly Christiansburg, Virginia