Book review: Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist, by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

Almond, David. Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist. Il. Dave McKean. Candlewick, 2019. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-5362-0160-4. Ages 12-15. P7Q10

Almond’s 2014 story is creatively illustrated with panels, boxes, and full-page mixed media including drawings, scribbles, watercolors, and collages in this psychological “graphic storybook” set in a small British town. Joe invites friends David, the narrator, and Geordie to his house so they can see how a ghostly being wreaks havoc in his house by smashing dishes, breaking windows, and doing other damage. Although reluctant to go, Davie joins Geordie, Joe, and Mrs. Quinn for a meal where they hear crashing upstairs and food flies through the air over them. Davie is thoroughly convinced and believes in the presence of his dead sister, but Geordie thinks that Joe has set them up. Also convinced that she feels the poltergeist, Mrs. Quinn sends Joe for the Irish priest, Father Kelly, to exorcise the being, and the father helps Davie find peace: “There is not Heaven to go to. And no Hell…. There’s only us.” Almond’s two-page introduction tells about his close connection to the plot from the death of his baby sister when he was seven and his family’s belief in the supernatural.

Verdict: Almond’s two-page introduction tells about his close connection to the plot from the death of his baby sister when he was seven and his family’s belief in the supernatural. The eerie graphic novel resolves with the possibility of hope in spite of the prevailing sense of horror. Davie resolves his feelings by believing “…the poltergeist is all of us, raging and wanting to scream and to fight and to start flinging stuff; to smash and to break. It is all of us wanting to be still, to be quiet, to be in love, to be at peace.”

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Brown Girl Ghosted, by Mintie Das

Das, Mintie. Brown Girl Ghosted. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 289 pages. $17.99. ISBN 9780358128892. Ages 14-up. P8 Q7

Sixteen year old Violet Choudhury is one of the few brown skinned students in her Midwestern high school and she is careful to maintain her place in the school’s hierarchy—a cheerleader, but the one at the base of the pyramid, friendly with the leading clique, but not a leader.  As the descendent of Assamese queens—the Aiedeo—Violet is heir to supernatural powers and was in training with her ancestors until a test of her skills almost led to her death.  Since that time, Vi has avoided anything to do with her heritage.  The Aiedeo decide to send one last test.  When Naomi, head cheerleader and leading mean girl, dies and comes back as a bhoot, a ghost, Violet must find out how and why she died and must finish the job before Naomi is buried.  As an incentive, the Aiedeo turn Violet into a bhoot as well.

Verdict: As the book begins, Violet’s survival strategy is self-protection at all costs.  She is aware of the misogyny directed against female students by the male athletes, students, and male teachers, aware of the racism inherent in the school’s social structure, but she chooses not to interfere.  It is only when Violet herself faces death that she acts to change the school’s paradigm.  Only by taking her own power seriously and honoring Naomi’s experience through empathy can Violet save herself and solve Naomi’s murder.  The first person narration brings us into Violet’s experience, which through the first half of the book shows a pretty selfish person.  Violet does grow through the second half of the book, but the language around sexism and racism was sometimes didactic.  I have enjoyed some of the increasing numbers of young adult fantasies incorporating folklore and tales from the Indian subcontinent.  Descriptions of Violet’s transformation into a bhoot, or dead spirit with smoky gray color and backwards feet, were effective.  This might be a good book for those who have read Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret and Game of Stars, in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Otherwise, I would treat this as an optional purchase for junior high, high school, and public libraries.

June 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Nwaubani, Adaobi Tricia. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree. Afterword by Viviana Mazza. Harper Collins, 2018. $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-269672-4. 291 pages. Ages 14+. P7 Q9

The young Nigerian woman narrating this novel will remain with her readers long after hearing her story.  She has a loving family and academic aspirations. Her father and brothers are killed and she is kidnapped by Boko Haram along with many other girls and women from her village. Her youngest brother is spared because he is young enough to be taught their way of life and he is separated from her as they are abducted. The story starts with a cheerful narration of the promising life in anticipation of the narrator’s secondary education. The story is sympathetically told and the reader will grieve for the loss of not only the narrator’s dreams but for the hundreds of girls who shared this same fate.  Italian journalist Mazza provides an afterword of this dark story based on the horrendous 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 Chibok girls.

Verdict: The author’s words portray hope and traditions with the same incredible skill as depicting the agony, grief, and loss that ultimately tells a heartbreaking story.

April 2020 review by Penny McDermott.

Book review: Sword in the Stars, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Capetta, Amy Rose, and Cori McCarthy. Sword in the Stars. “Advance Reading Copy.” JIMMY Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Company, on-sale date 4/7/20. 320 pages. $18.99. ISBN 9780316449298. Ages 14-up. P7Q8

The events in Once and Future, the first book in this series, center on Ari, a teenage girl who is the 42nd incarnation of King Arthur and her efforts to battle evil in the form of the intergalactic Mercer Corporation; the sequel, Sword in the Stars, is the story of Merlin.  To save Gwen’s unborn child from becoming a cog in the Mercer Corporation, Merlin has sent the entire non-binary, multi-gendered rainbow crew back to the original Camelot—a place with strict gender roles and harsh responses to anyone who steps outside the bounds.  His use of magic, though, has aged Merlin backwards through several years.  He arrives in Camelot several months after the companions, just in time to witness the original King Arthur’s marriage to Gwen.  Merlin and the crew face the task of stealing the Grail without disturbing the original timeline, and it must be accomplished before Gwen gives birth.

Verdict: Once and Future introduced the characters and built King Arthur’s world across interplanetary corporate space with ties back to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future KingSword in the Stars continues the story without the need for such world building. This leaves the authors free to focus on Merlin’s origin story and finding a solution to his curse.  One of the strengths with both books is the inclusion of multi-gendered characters from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds within the King Arthur stories.  

I enjoyed the first book in the series precisely because I found the world building fascinating.  Sword in the Stars is a lovely sequel, but I missed the joy of seeing the authors fit the King Arthur legend into a space opera.  I think the story will work best if readers begin with Once and Future. Though Sword in the Stars could be read without the foundation of the earlier story, readers will have a fuller appreciation of the characters and their history together if they begin reading with the first book.  I recommend purchasing both books for libraries serving high school, young adult, and adult readers.

March 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: The Oracle Code: A Graphic Novel, by Marieke Nijkamp, illustrated by Manuel Preitano

Nijkamp, Marieke. The Oracle Code: A Graphic Novel.  Illustrated by Manuel Preitano. “Advance Uncorrected Proof.” DC Graphic Novels for Young Adults, publication date 3/10/2020. [208] pages. $16.99. ISBN 9781401290665. “Ages 13 – up.”   P7Q7

Barbara Gordon, hacker and teenage daughter of Gotham’s Police Commissioner Gordon, is shot when she tries to stop a robbery. Suddenly she is paralysed from the waist down and her best friend refuses to answer her texts.  Her father enrolls her in the Arkham Center for Independence for mental and physical rehabilitation.  Barbara, understandably angry, has trouble with the mandatory counseling and with her physical limitations. She avoids dealing with her changed mobility by avoiding connections with others. Only as she forms friendships with other girls in the Center does she begin to come to terms with her new reality.  Only then does she begin to ferret out the secrets hidden in the Arkham Center.

Verdict: Placing Barbara Gordon’s rehabilitation in the Batman/Gotham City comic book universe plants disability rights in an established superhero story cycle and gives a memorable origin story to both Batgirl and her alter ego, the wheelchair-bound Oracle.  Preitano’s illustrations show Barbara’s anger, grief, and intensity, while Nijkamp’s running theme that disabled persons do not need to be fixed is centered within the story.  The two work well together.  Recommended for middle through high school and public libraries.

March 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: Secret Soldiers, by Keely Hutton

Hutton, Keely. Secret Soldiers. Farrah Straus Giroux, 2019. $16.99. ISBN 9780374309039. 309 pages. Ages 10-14. P8Q8

A true adventure awaits those who read Secret Soldiers. This historical fiction story follows the trials and tribulations of four brave boys who fought the Great War as sappers under the battlefields of Flanders. More than a quarter million underage British boys served in the four year conflict. The boys who served lied about their ages and volunteered to fight. This story follows the clay kickers, a specialized crew of soldiers digging secret tunnels under the battlefields of the Western Front. The narrative follows four boys, all white, as they struggle to work as a team and complete their secret mission beneath a raging war. The battles they face are both internal and external as they transform from boys to men in the choices they must make.

Verdict: This middle-grade historical adventure is a must for both the library and the classroom. The engaging story will appeal to both boys and girls alike, and has a message of strength and perseverance that young people can connect with.

March 2020 review by Denyse Marsh.

Book review: Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall, by Derek Hughes, illustrated by Nathan Christopher

Hughes, Derek. Humpty Dumpty Lived Near a Wall. Illustrated by Nathan Christopher. Penguin Workshop, 2020. $14.99. ISBN 9781524793029. Unpaged. Ages 8+. P7Q9

Humpty Dumpty’s life is all work and no play. The king forbids dreaming of a different life, and requires his subjects to toil to serve him. Humpty, though, has a secret dream and builds a ladder so he can look over the tall wall that surrounds the kingdom. As in the traditional “Humpty Dumpty” story, the egg falls and is smashed. The king distributes images of the broken egg to prove that his subjects shouldn’t dream, but he misses Humpty’s smile on the top of the pile of broken shell. So, in the end, Humpty fulfills his dream, and we see other citizens building ladders to look over the wall. The simple text and traditional rhyme will make this a good book to read aloud, and the wonderfully intricate black and white illustrations will bring readers back again and again to look at the details.

VERDICT: I think this book will appeal to older children because the illustration style is very sophisticated. While the illustration style is stark and very dark, the message is hopeful as the story develops- having secret ambitions to realize one’s dreams, pushing fear to the side, having faith in our dreams, and making real effort can take us where we want to go.

February 2020 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Missing, Presumed Dead, by Emma Berquist

Berquist, Emma. Missing, Presumed Dead. Greenwillow, 2019. 373 pages. $17.99. ISBN 9780062642813. Ages 14-up. P7Q8

Russian American Lexi inherited her family’s curse—or gift—of knowing the time and manner of death of those whom she touches.  She deals with ghosts–the dead who have reason to stay among the living. For Lexi, ghosts are solid, warm—though ocassionally murderous—individuals. Knowledge of death does not mean that she can change the futures she sees; when Lexi tried to save a favorite teacher, death claimed her mother long before her allotted time.

When Lexi’s chronic depression and understandable fear of touching others overwhelms her, she checks herself into the local psychiatric ward for a 72-hour vacation from life.  Her only close friend is her elderly grandfather Dede, who shares her gift and is confined to a nursing home.  When her need for human physical contact becomes overwhelming, Lexi has sex with the son of the mob boss, though touching him causes her nausea and pain. And, as a high school dropout in Los Angeles, the only job she can get is with Elysium, a Russian mob-run establishment, ostensibly as a bartender, but actually a cover employing her paranormal talents.  Uncle Urie, the head of the Elysium mob family, takes a personal interest in the paranormal members of his organization and taps Lexi  to find answers when a string of disappearnces takes one of his people.

For Lexi, things come to a boil when she touches one of the bar customers while investigating the disappearances and she has to deal with the the foreknowledge of the girl’s horrible, impending—nearly immediate—death. Jane, an arrogant high school student while alive, now a ghost seeking information and vengeance against the man who slashed her throat, follows Lexi home and the two form a bond that ripens into caring.

Verdict: This is the first young adult paranormal book I’ve read that actually focuses on the chronic stresses that come from bullying and having a “gift” that hurts the user.  Coping with clinical depression, PTSD, and the human need for physical contact are themes running throughout the book.  Lexi shows a great deal of growth over the course of the book—it makes sense that her new therapist is one of the resident ghosts haunting the mental health clinic where she goes for 72-hour respites.   The twined paranormal mystery and lesbian (female/female) romance makes this an appealing story that I would not have expected from the rather generic title.  Though the characters are diverse—gay ghost, elderly grandfather, members of an ethnic minority—most seem to be white.  Fortunately for me, I happened across the book at the library and then bought a copy for myself.  Highly recommended for high school and public library collections.

February 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book reviews by Newport High School Students

Nonfiction:

Bertie, Alex. Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019. $17.99. ISBN 978-0316529037. 304p. Contains: glossary of terms, list of resources. Grades 8+.

This book is really good and would be helpful to middle and high school kids who would want to know more about transsexuality.  While I don’t think it will be popular outside of the LGBTQ crowd, it’s got a lot of hints on how to deal with everything from bullies to hormone treatments and surgery.  It helped me realize, as a trans, that we can make it out alive and healthy, even though the going is rough sometimes.   Every high school library should have this book!

 

 

Price, Planaria and Helen Reichmann West. Claiming my Place: Coming of Age in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018. $17.99. ISBN 9780374305291. 250p. Gr. 8-12.

We are all familiar with biographies of Jews who went into hiding during the Holocaust, but this book is a bit different: it tells the story of a young Polish Jew who “became” Catholic to escape persecution.  It also brings to light the difficulties she faced as a displaced Polish Jew after the war.  It’s interesting, and the photos in the middle of the book help make it more real.

 

 

Pham, Tiffany. Girl Mogul: Dream it. Do It. Change the World. Macmillan Publishing Group, 2019. $19.99. ISBN 9781250298966.  219p. Gr 9-12.

I am interested in starting my own business, so snapped this book up to read, right away.  While I found it to be a fun read, I didn’t find it all that relatable or useful.  It’s about a girl who works hard and becomes a media mogul, but it’s hardly a rags-to-riches story, as she has a supportive family, goes to Yale and Harvard, and is gorgeous.  She gives some useful tips on how to present confidently and enlist support for goals, but it seems like she’s writing for Glamour, not for real girls.  She also plugs her onmogul.com website where others can view her (expensive) online courses.  I wish she would’ve talked more about her career in coding and how she navigated a largely male-dominated field, and less about skin care and beauty.

 

 

Fiction:

Lee, Fonda. Cross Fire. (Exo series, book 2). Scholastic Press, 2018. $17.99. ISBN 9781338139099. 376p.  Gr. 9+. 

I am glad I read the first one in this series (Exo) because I would’ve been lost if I hadn’t, there are just too many terms and settings that wouldn’t have made sense to me. It’s just complicated enough to be interesting, but it doesn’t get bogged down in detail and moves fast.  The book centers on Earth soldier Donovan, who has an exocell implant that makes him smarter and stronger than other humans.  There are a lot of ethical conundrums here, mostly centered on genetic manipulation, propaganda, immigration and enslavement.  There’s also a little love story going, just enough to spice things up and make the characters more “human.”

 

 

 

Mafi, Tahereh.  Defy Me. (Shatter Me series, book 5). HarperCollins, 2019.  ISBN 978-0062676399. 368p. Gr. 9-12. 

I didn’t understand this book at all, I think you have to read all the other ones in the series, it’s too confusing.  I tried to check out the first one but it’s really popular and there’s a waiting line for it, so I guess it’s good.  I just wish authors would do a little to explain things, but this one was just too complicated and told from too many different viewpoints and flashbacks.

 

 

 

 

 

Grainger, A.J. The Sisterhood. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. $18.99. ISBN 978-1481429061. 304p. Gr. 9-10. 

I liked this book. Even though it focuses on the supernatural, the characters deal with topics teens deal with often: abuse, abandonment, loss, and dysfunction.  The ironic twists in the story make it more interesting and almost funny, though at times the plot moves too slowly and the writing is awkward.

 

 

 

 

Wilson, Kip. White Rose. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. $17.99. ISBN 9781328594433. 368p. Gr. 9+.  

This historic novel, written entirely in free verse, tells a story of a young girl who actively protests the rise of Nazism, through the activities of the White Rose, a group she and her brother founded.  The book is easy and fast to read and it really gives you a sense of how brave these students were.  It’s important that other students understand this period of time and how we need to be aware of the rise of fascism; I think this is a book that should be in every library.

 

 

 

 

Bardugo, Leigh.  King of Scars. (Nikolai Duology, book 1). Imprint, 2019. $19.99.  ISBN 9781250142283. 527p. Gr. 9-12. 

I hadn’t read any of Bardugo’s earlier books, so I didn’t know what the Grishaverse was all about and it’s pretty complicated.  Despite that, I muddled through reading this and enjoyed it. I think it has a solid story line and is fast paced enough that the length of the book wouldn’t put kids off.  It reminded me a lot of Game of Thrones.  I do plan on going back and reading the rest of her books now!

 

 

 

 

 

Lochner, Caitlin. A Soldier and a Liar. Swoon Reads, 2019. $17.99. ISBN 9781250168252. 352p.  Gr. 9+.

This book has got everything: superheroes, science fiction, complicated characters, a little romance, and great dialog.  Even though the superheroes are amazing, they are so human and their character traits make them very relatable.  There is a lot of violence in the book, but not too much for high school students to handle.  There are also themes in the book (equality, freedom) that make this story more than just another dystopian fantasy.

 

 

 

 

 

Carter, T.E. All We Could Have Been. Feiwel and Friends, 2019. ISBN 9781250172969. 291p.  Gr. 9 – 12.  

Carter’s book talks about how we all judge each other, sometimes without knowing anything about what others may be going through.  The main character in this book is suffering from a very traumatic event and dealing with PTSD and severe depression.  She is judged unfairly by her shallow-minded classmates and has a hard time making any real friends.  No one is perfect in this book, and there’s no happy ending, though the main character does overcome a lot and finds someone who truly cares.  I think this book might be really helpful to students who are going through trauma.

 

 

November 2019 reviews by Newport High students and Liz Fox, Newport High School Library staff.

Book review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, by Tanya Boteju

Boteju, Tanya. Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens. Simon Pulse, 2019. $18.99. ISBN 9781534430655. 369 pages. Ages 13+.  P7 Q8

Nima has a crush on Ginny, but unfortunately, Ginny is straight and likes boys. Nima wants to declare her love to Ginny, but Ginny stops her and tells her she does not want anything to change the friendship they have. But what if that friendship is not enough for Nima? Nima attends a local festival and finds herself a “special guest” of a Drag queen, Deidre. Deidre takes her under her wing for a “night of gender-bending bliss” and opens her eyes to a whole new and exciting life. She has an instant connection with one of the Drag kings, Winnow. This starts an adventure, full of new experiences, self-discovery and fully realizing what she wants in life. The story is told in first person and includes Nima’s inner dialogue as she has self-doubt over her value, her actions and her desires. I learned a lot about the drag scene, including Drag kings. The text is cleverly written.

Verdict: Celebrating gender bending expression and teens as they explore their relationships, this LGBTQ+ novel will captivate and draw readers in. Readers will relate to Nima’s inner dialogue and realize that they are not the only ones who have insecurity. I highly recommend this book for high school and public libraries.

November 2019 review by Tami Harris.