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Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

 The Fire Horse Girl
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jade Moon dreams of leaving home, of escaping the tiny Chinese village where she lives alone with her father, her grandfather, and their faithful servant, surrounded by gossiping “Aunties” who are all too familiar with her many faults: clumsiness, stubbornness, and – perhaps worst of all – a longing for independence. All she can see is a future married off to a local brickmaker, but that changes with the arrival of a stranger. Sterling Promise arrives from Hong Kong with news that an uncle Jade Moon never knew she had passed away recently, leaving behind papers that could allow Sterling Promise and Jade Moon’s father into the wide open promised land of America. If she could just get to that new country, Jade Moon thinks, what possibilities could await her?

The United States of 1923, though, is wary of admitting more Chinese immigrants, and Jade Moon’s long sea journey is followed by detainment on Angel Island. Getting to San Francisco will take cunning and bravery, and surviving there will be even harder.

Fire Horse Girl is a complicated piece of historical fiction. Honeyman explores the life of a girl in early 20th-century China, the San Francisco of the 1920s, and the Chinese immigrant experience on Angel Island, a bit of American history little known outside the West coast. The stories aren’t so much woven together as tacked onto one another, which may be why the pace drags in places. Jade Moon is a likeable character because of – rather than despite – her prickliness, as the independent nature that seems to offend her contemporaries has strong appeal for twenty-first century readers. Story-telling is a theme that recurs throughout her narration, and she is determined to tell her own story.

A lengthy author’s note tells how Honeyman came to the tale and provides further information on the historical events, people, and places that inspired her, as well as a paragraph on Chinese astrology. “The next Fire Horse girls,” she notes, “will be born in 2026.”

Recommend to: teens who like strong heroines and a mixture of action and history with a dash of romance.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

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Book Review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy

In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages.” But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path. considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic but as a harbinger.

God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
by Cullen Murphy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
From medieval France to sixteenth-century Spain and Portugal and their colonies half a world away to 1940s Germany to modern-day Guantanamo Bay, Murphy follows the “inquisitorial impulse” around the world and through the centuries. His research takes him to the Vatican archives, rural France, Berlin, and the National Archives, among other places, as he outlines the events and procedures of the Medieval Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, and the Spanish Inquisition, as well as what he terms the current “Secular Inquisition”. His circuitous route through history sharply illustrates how the spirit of the Inquisition remains alive and well.

 

Review:
Murphy covers a lot of ground (metaphorically and literally), giving a tantalizing overview of the topic. This is not a deep scholarly work, which is a point in its favor. Murphy has an eye for descriptive details, and he distills what is clearly an enormous amount of research into a work that appeals to the non-expert in the topic. He moves around in time and place, introducing important people and events early on and reminding the reader about them later, drawing connections across centuries. The Inquisition, by its very nature, is not a pleasant topic, but Murphy creates a narrative that is enjoyable to read even as it leaves the reader with some disturbing ideas to ponder after closing the book.

 

Final Word:
A compelling look at a part of history that remains all too much with us in the present.

 

Source:
E-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

 

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Book Review: Starters by Lissa Price

Hearing his words made it all too real. Creepy old Enders with arthritic limbs taking over this teen’s body for week, living inside his skin.

Starters (Starters, #1)
Starters by Lissa Price
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
A year ago, Callie lived the life of an average teenager in Southern California. She lived in a house with her mom and her dad and her little brother, Tyler. Then the war that had been raging so far away hit home with the detonation of a Spore missile and the subsequent disease that killed almost everyone between the ages of 20 and 60. Without older living relatives to claim them, Callie and Tyler have been on the run from the authorities, squatting in abandoned buildings and fighting off dangerous Renegades. They are running out of resources, and Tyler is ill. But in Beverly Hills, there is a place called Prime Destinations, a company that will pay handsomely if she will do the nearly unthinkable: allow them to use her body as a rental for elderly “Enders” to experience being young again. Desperate, Callie signs on, only to learn that both Prime Destinations and her final renter have plans worse than she could have imagined.

 

Review:
A post-apocalyptic Los Angeles is the setting for this entry in the popular Dystopian YA genre. In Price’s version of the near future, the “sandwich generation” is gone, leaving a world populated by elderly “Enders” who now live well in their second century and under-20 “Starters”, who have no rights at all until they come of age at 19. The lucky ones are those with grandparents, great-grandparents, and other senior relatives to “claim” them. The unlucky ones are on the run, scrounging for food, hiding out in filthy squats, hoping to run out the clock to age 19 before getting picked up by the authorities and locked up in an Institution. Prime Destinations is strongly reminiscent of the eponymous location in Joss Whedon’s short-lived series Dollhouse, with the twist that the clients are actually inhabiting the “dolls”.

The interesting premise is undermined by some shaky world-building. With people living to 200, it seems like there would be more living grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, and other relatives available to claim kids like Callie and her brother. What happened to their own grandparents (and great-grandparents) is never explained. The only Enders and Claimed Minors Callie encounters are wealthy; what happened to the middle- and working-class kids who had living relatives to claim them? Finally, while it is clear that the post-war world is a huge change for Callie (and everyone else), life before the war was clearly different from what we know, but it is unclear how things got from here to there.

The characters populating this world are also problematic. Callie’s fierce determination makes her an appealing heroine. Unfortunately, she is the only character who really gets any development. After Tyler and Callie’s friend Michael are introduced early on, they spend most of the novel “off-screen”, as Callie is separated from them. Even secondary characters who are more involved in the plot are left static. Complicating this, of course, is the whole body-switching issue; after first meeting someone, he may be quite literally a different person the next time he appears! There are several supplementary stories slated to appear in addition to the sequel that look like they might explore the characters a bit more.

Despite the flaws, this is a promising debut novel. The plot is compelling enough to distract from the sorts of questions that make it impossible to suspend disbelief (at least, until putting it down), and a final twist keeps the reader on the hook for the forthcoming sequel. This is an enjoyable, entertaining read. Just try not to pick at the details.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

 

Final Word:
An intriguing premise and compelling plot compensate for some shaky world-building in this promising Dystopian YA debut.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

 

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Book Review: Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone

The whole city had come out to watch Titanic and the strong, heavy smell of coal filled the air. After a few breaths, gritty black dust coated his tongue. The taste of progress, as Mr. Joyce called it.

 

Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic by Gregory Mone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
April, 1912: The RMS Titanic sets sail for her maiden voyage with more than 2000 people aboard. Among the passengers on the “Queen of the Sea”: a wealthy book collector with a rare and valuable volume, a cunning thief desperate for money, and a young steward looking for a chance to be a part of something great.

After his father died, Patrick Waters left school and went to work in a Belfast pub. His widowed mother is determined to make him a practical working man like his older brother, not a dreamer like his late father. At age twelve, Patrick hopes to associate himself with greatness. His brother is about to embark on his ninth trip across the Atlantic, this time shoveling coal into the boilers of Titanic. When an unexpected opportunity on the ship arises, he wastes no time getting himself aboard. To his surprise, instead of shoveling coal, he is assigned to wait on Harry Elkins Widener, a book-lover whose latest acquisition might be worth much more than either of them can imagine. There is someone on board who thinks he does know, though, and he will stop at nothing to get the book for himself. There is danger at every turn as the ship itself heads for disaster.

 

Review:
With the centennial of the shipwreck approaching in April of 2012, new Titanic books are hitting the shelves. It is one of those topics (like Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or dinosaurs) that kids ask about again and again, endlessly fascinated. In this fictional take for middle grade readers, Mone skillfully blends real-life historical figures with his own characters. An Author’s Note at the end explains that Harry Widener really was a book collector who perished on board the ship, while young Patrick and the other main characters are the inventions of the author.

From the taste of coal dust to the color of a partially-cleaned spittoon, the narrative is packed with rich sensory details, bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the scenes to life. Mone uses playful language in his descriptions; in the first chapter, he says of the thief Berryman that “the local baker refused to loan him so much as a roll.” Quick-paced action keeps the pages turning as events come to their inevitable conclusion.

In addition to the drama of the collision, Mone intrigues readers with a mystery that is just a little bit reminiscent of Dan Brown. The perspective shifts between sweet Patrick, who can’t help but follow his own sharp eyes and ears, and the thieves after something they think will bring them untold riches, if only they can decipher a coded message within. The reader, of course, knows more than any single character, and hints are offered about the secret message before its meaning is finally revealed.

On shelves March 13, 2012 (just in time for the anniversary).

 

Final Word:
An original mystery offers a fresh take on a popular historical event for middle grade readers.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley provided by the publisher by request

 

 

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Book Review: Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard

I’m wearing quick-dry khaki capris, a crispy Windbreaker, and hiking shoes that make my feet feel like Clydesdale hooves. They’re brand-new. Like my too-short haircut and my purple suitcase, along with everything in it.

 

Wanderlove
Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
After graduation, Bria Sandoval was supposed to go to Europe with her boyfriend before they started Art School together. Instead, they broke up shortly after admissions notices came out. Her two best friends were going to fill in as travel companions, but then they backed out. Getting handed a simple pamphlet seems like a sign, and its question, “Are you a Global Vagabond?” inspires her. She longs to be like the beautiful people posing gracefully atop a Mayan ruin in the pamphlet photograph, but when she arrives in Guatemala, she immediately feels out of place in her tour group full of middle-aged vacationers. An unexpected invitation to join experienced backpacker Rowan and his sister Starling offers Bria the chance to finally break the rules. Getting even more lost might be just what Bria needs to find herself again.

 

Review:
After reading Hubbard’s debut, Like Mandarin, as part of the Debut Author Challenge last year, I said, “I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her next book,” and I am so glad I did. Wanderlove is a gorgeous read, lush with detail and Hubbard’s graceful style.

With the first-person narration, Hubbard walks a delicate line. Bria has to reveal things about herself before truly recognizing them. The magic lies in the way her introspection feels natural; she is a lonely young woman in a place where she literally doesn’t speak the language. She has to talk things out with herself, and by extension, the reader. Bria’s metaphorical distance from her friends and parents and her figurative abandoned map of her future are made manifest as she travels thousands of miles away from home with barely a glance at the itinerary.

When the reader meets Bria, she is lost and confused. Art – drawing, in particular – was her constant, her comfort. “I used to be an artist,” she thinks on the plane from L.A.X., where she can’t even bring herself to draw in the sketchbook she opens. Her self-image has crumbled. When the girl in the seat next to her asks about her travel plans, Bria lies, wanting to sound cooler and worldlier than she is. She is trying so hard to become a new person, and it all comes crashing down by the last line of the first chapter: “So much for reinvention.”

Hubbard has a gift for representing sensory details, especially the visual element, in her prose. Bria’s artist view of the world leads her to pick out telling details. Her first glance at her Global Vagabonds tour group consists of “mustaches, baseball caps, doughy calves marbled with varicose veins.” It is not a flattering depiction, by any means, but it reveals more about Bria than it does about the tourists. Later, Bria describes an incident with Marcy, the tour director: “While the rest of my tour group browsed market stalls, I bought a chicken tamale from a street vendor. Before I could unwrap it from its banana leaf, Marcy velociraptored up behind me and snatched it from my hand.” The use of “velociraptor” as a verb is just perfect, a striking image that captures the feeling of that moment. When asked if she has ever been in love, Bria’s memory of her now-ex-boyfriend “bubble up, like acid reflux.” That phrase captures the pain she feels, the feelings she insists on hiding: “I force them down with a shrug.”

Bria grows and changes at a reasonable pace over the course of the novel, while secondary characters are simultaneously developed. Rowan, the handsome backpacker boy with the shadowy past and seemingly too-good-to-be-true Starling are no mere foils for the narrator. They are complicated individuals in their own right, and closing the novel feels all too much like losing what might have been good friends.

Just as the pull of “wanderlove” is more than the “itchy feet” of wanderlust, Wanderlove is more than just a road trip story. It is a richly detailed journey both within and without, ultimately bursting with an inspiring love for life well-lived. Whether tucked into a backpack to read on bumpy backroads buses or kept and enjoyed on a comfortable couch, this is a companion to be cherished.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

 

Final Word:
A richly detailed and beautifully rendered journey across Central America and within the heart of a girl who needs to get lost before she can find herself. Caution: may inspire re-examination of your own map of the future.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart

The only kind of music I remember Mom and Dad making together was loud fighting.

Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen
Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
Until her dad moved to California two years ago, Olivia Bean watched Jeopardy! with him every night. Now she watches it on her own, unless Mom’s annoying boyfriend insists on watching, too. Olivia dreams of competing on Kids’ Week; besides the money she could win, the trip to the taping would give her a chance to visit her dad. But even if she makes it, will her dad manage to make time to spend with her?

Review:
This sweet middle-grade contemporary takes on Parents Behaving Badly. Olivia adores her father, but it’s clear from the first chapter that he is not quite the man she wants him to be. She remembers how, when she was learning violin in the fourth grade, he would ask her to play “Over the Mountains and Far Away”, then says, “It took a bit of research to learn that Dad was teasing about my screechy playing. There is no song called ‘Over the Mountains and Far Away'; it was Dad’s fun way of asking me to practice somewhere else.” And when her father tells her that she “wouldn’t do well” on Jeopardy! because it would have “a ton of geography questions, and geography just isn’t your thing”, her reaction, even years later, is, “Dad was right, of course.” She follows her statement, “I am lousy at geography”, with her hope that she can overcome her weakness with lots of studying, but it remains painfully clear that she has taken her father’s careless comment to heart. Gephart slyly reveals the real character of Olivia’s father through these small observations over the course of the novel, and Olivia takes a long time getting to the realization that readers will have probably already reached.

Olivia gets a little help along the way to that conclusion from Neil, her mom’s live-in boyfriend, who provides an excellent foil for the absentee father. Gephart does an admirable job creating a realistic blended family dealing with familiar problems. The story is peppered with trivia factoids (including tidbits about Jeopardy! itself), a treat for readers who share Olivia’s passion. A light romantic subplot also helps leaven the mood. The only real weaknesses lie in some clunky narration and in the pacing, which occasionally drags before picking up again. Olivia repeatedly refers to an “unfortunate hula hoop incident”; by the time the details are revealed near the end of the novel, it seems like a let-down.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

Final Word:
Despite some clunky narrative and pacing, the realistic characters and situations make this sweet contemporary novel a good choice for grades 4-7.

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

 

Wonder
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
August Pullman has had 27 surgeries in his 10 years of life. Because of the hospitalizations and other health problems, his mother has homeschooled him. But now his parents have enrolled him in the fifth grade at Beecher Prep. He knows he is just an ordinary kid, but he also knows that his face is different, and it is the first thing anyone will notice. Will he be able to get his new classmates to look beyond his appearance and get to know the ordinary kid inside? Or is he, just maybe, more extraordinary than he thinks?

 

Review:
Auggie’s first year of mainstream school is described in short chapters from several perspectives. Besides Auggie himself, his sister and four other characters get a chance to tell their sides of the story. Palacio does a fantastic job giving each character his (or her) own distinctive voice. The multiple perspectives also allow the reader to know more than any one character does, even (especially) Auggie. As Mr. Tushman points out, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story.” The characters are complicated. No one, not even Auggie, is all good or all bad. The situations are realistic, from the bullying in the halls of Beecher Prep to the small family dramas in the Pullman home. This is an amazing story told with empathy and humor. Kids and adults alike will love this stellar debut. Highly recommended.

On shelves February 14, 2012.

 

Final Word:
A beautifully written, heart-breaking but uplifting tale of one (extra-)ordinary kid.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

 

 

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Book Review: Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

He steered toward the local park, down the storm drain shortcut he’d discovered yesterday, dodging broken glass and a man with a rabbit head, up the embankment toward the gap in the fence, and — was that a man with a rabbit head?

Cold Cereal
Cold Cereal by Adam Rex
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
Life for Scott Doe has always been a little odd, from his full name (Scottish Play Doe) to his mom’s new job with Goodco (what does a cereal company need with a physicist?) and the family’s recent move to the company town of Goodborough. So, maybe he just should have expected to start seeing weird things, like a man with a rabbit head in the park.

Erno and Emily Utz have always lived in Goodborough, in the same house but with a series of foster parents. Their current foster father regularly gives them tests in the form of brain-teasing puzzles. (Emily always solves them first.) Erno has never really thought about the reason behind the tests, but he is just about to find out.

In the town of Goodborough, very little is really as it seems, and there are goings-on that (literally) the people don’t see. Erno, Emily, and Scott are more important than they know, and there are forces at work that would love to keep them from discovering the truth about themselves, the town, and Goodco.

 

Review:
Rex brings his trademark satiric sensibility to this fantasy mystery for the middle grades. From Scott’s dad – John Doe – to the Goode and Harmliss Toasted Cereal Company to Merle Lynn (C.P.A.), the puns come fast and furious, along with delightfully twisted takes on cereal commercials, conspiracy theories, and Arthurian mythology.  The shifting third-person perspective includes Scott, Erno, and an unnamed narrator who provides some background information and sometimes cracks just a bit too wise. When focused on the kid’s-eye view, Rex excels; when he zooms out, the lighthearted wit gets bogged down. (In The True Meaning of Smekday, Tip’s first-person “essay” narration keeps the story a bit more grounded, if I can use the word “grounded” in relation to a story of aliens coming to Earth and relocating the human population of North America to Florida.)

I thoroughly enjoyed trying to solve the riddles alongside Erno and Scott, although I wasn’t quite clever enough. My e-ARC includes incomplete artwork (as did the paper ARC I thumbed through at ALA Midwinter), so I am looking forward to seeing the final product. The illustrations I could see were just the right complement to the text; I expect good things to come. There are even a few sneak peeks available at the author’s blog (KoKoLumps, anyone?)! By the book’s end, the immediate crisis has been solved, but there is a wide opening for the next volume in the planned trilogy.

On shelves February 7, 2012.

 

Final Word:
Fantasy, mystery, and satirical humor all swirled together in a tasty treat for middle grade readers (and maybe some grown-ups, too).

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

 

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Book Review: The Edumacation of Jay Baker by Jay Clark

Mom and Dad were in their room with the door shut. Again. Cautiously, I pressed my ear against the wooden frame. Hakuna Matata, no Discovery Channel-like sounds could be heard. Only two mammals speaking so quickly and intensely that their voices were nearly inaudible.

 

The Edumacation of Jay Baker

The Edumacation of Jay Baker by Jay Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
Jay Baker’s world is starting to crumble on all fronts. He has to face his mortal-enemy-since-the-seventh-grade in a Freshman Class Presidential debate. He only decided to run for class office to impress cheerleader Cameo Appearance Parnell, his best friend and unrequited crush, but she’s still dating the jocks who’ve been bullying Jay for years. His parents’ 19-year marriage is clearly not doing well; he just found out his mom has been sleeping with Some Dude Named Keith. It’s all enough to push a smart-mouthed, IBS-prone kid to the breaking point. Jay can try to cover up his worries with a fast-paced monologue of quips, puns, and pop-culture references, but, at some point, he’s going to have to figure out how to just be himself.

 

Review:
With a quick-paced narrative filled with snarky, coarse humor, this should be a hit with middle-school boys. Jay’s problems are instantly recognizable: he wants to impress a girl or two, he wants football-player Mike Hibbard to quit bullying him, and he wants his parents to get their act together. Jay and his older sister, Abby, make quite the sarcastic comedy team, leavening the mood whenever it seems in danger of turning serious.

Overall, this is a decent contemporary realistic novel with plenty of boy-appeal, appropriate for the younger range of YA. Jay’s heavy reliance on pop culture references will probably endear him to some teen readers, although they may date the book as pop culture moves ever onward. The narrative veers perilously close to “too clever” from time to time; maybe Jay is trying to impress the reader just as he tries to impress Cameo and Caroline. Clark’s debut novel won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but readers looking for light realism (no big issues here, just the everyday problems just about every teenager faces) served up with a heavy dose of snark will find it hits the spot.

On shelves January 31, 2012.

 

Final Word:
Middle school boys seem to be the ideal audience for this light contemporary realism that’s heavy on the snark.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

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Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

“Once upon a time…”

If I could get away with it, that’s how I’d begin every essay I write.

Those are the four best words to use when you start telling about yourself because anything that begins that way always, always finishes with another four words, “… they lived happily everafter.”

 

The Mighty Miss Malone

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Synopsis:
Deza’s family firmly believes that they “are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful”, but times are hard. The year is 1936, and in Gary, Indiana, there are few jobs to be had, and even fewer for black men. After her father sets out for his mother’s home in Michigan to look for work, things go from bad to worse. Deza, her brother, Jimmie, and their mother head toward Flint after him, but they end up in a Hooverville outside the city. Jimmie’s talent for singing offers him a way out, while Mother and Deza find a new home and keep hoping to bring the family back together.

 

Review:
I came to this book without having read Bud, Not Buddy (I know, I know. Bad Librarian!), where Deza Malone first appears. In a note to the reader at the beginning of the book, Curtis explains that one of his prompts to write the story was the question he was asked at a visit to a Detroit mother daughter book club: “… what we’d really like to know is what business that little girl in the Hooverville had kissing a stranger like Bud Caldwell the way she did.” In The Mighty Miss Malone, Deza tells her version of that night, along with events before and after. Despite the reservations about writing from a girl’s perspective that he mentions, Curtis does an admirable job bringing Deza to life. Deza is, of course, a born storyteller, and her personality shines through in her strong voice. Her story takes sharp twists and turns; just as I would settle in comfortably, a chapter would end with a sentence like, “I walked upstairs and got in bed to finish my last good night of sleep for a long, long time.” Still, her irrepressible spirit kept me going, believing, just as she does, that things will work out all right.

Deza refuses to give in to self-pity. Her life is what it is, and Curtis uses this to masterfully set the scene. Important details about the hardships faced by the Malones and the families around them are given freely and naturally, without the sort of extra explanation for modern readers that sometimes crops up to thoroughly destroy the mood in historical fiction. This title is getting some Newbery buzz already, and for good reason.

On shelves January 10, 2012.

 

Final Word:
Spirited storyteller Deza tells her own tale of hope and hardship in this companion to Newbery winner, Bud, Not Buddy.

 

Source:
e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

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