It’s not global warming you need to worry about – it’s dragons

Cover art for The Story of OwenTitle: The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim

Author: E. K. Johnston

Publisher & Release Date: Carolrhoda LAB, March 2014

The Hook: Musician becomes bard to a dragon slayer-in-training.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival.

“There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition.

“But dragons and  humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected.

“Such was Tronheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds – armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard.

“Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!”

Overall Impressions:  Loved it, loved it, loved it. I loved the narrative voice, the family units and friendships, the world Johnston created.

Siobhan (our narrator) spins and weaves the story so well. I was fascinated by the bits of history -the ones that have become part of the cultural narrative- the tragic story of Michigan, the unrelenting persistence of Queen Victoria, the beginning of the Oil Watch, the tragedy of the burning oil wells of Kuwait. The decline of the bardic tradition.

You see, fossil fuels may be a tasty treat, but dragons need protein as well, and people and livestock hanging out near delicious dessert – that’s just handy. Hence, dragon slayers. Who don’t actually seem to have any special slaying powers but come from family lines stretching back as far as human records go. It’s all in the training. (And probably good genetics?)

The title of the book says this is Owen’s story. But Owen does not really change during the book. He is a Dragon Slayer (technically an apprentice to his father and aunt) and believes in his aunt’s vision, and his future is essentially set. The person who changes, well, the people who change are Sadie and the other students, the people around the Thorskards, as dragon incidents grow more and more in number.

Lottie’s vision is for dragon slayers to begin returning to the smaller towns and rural spaces, and to slay dragons to protect their communities rather than for a big contract. And for the people who live in the communities to stand with their dragon slayer rather than considering her or him a celebrity to applaud, constantly critique, and follow like paparazzi.

Dragon slaying is not without cost. So begins and ends the book.

The Highs: The partnership between Lottie and her wife, the smith Hannah, in everything from dragon fighting to helping raise and train Owen to cooking to their dream of what dragon slaying could return to.

Siobhan and Owen’s friendship, the easy rapport they develop, and the friendships they form with other students, including Sadie. And I love how Sadie evolved, how she was never what I expected.

The long history of male and female dragon slayers.

The closeness of the various families – Siobhan and her parents; Owen and his father and aunts; Emily and her father.

For such solemn cover art, this book made me laugh a lot.

In an American book, I expect football references. Since it’s a Canadian book, we get hockey references and soccer and track participation. It’s awesome.

Buzzkills:  None.

Well, I’m not sure if this is a buzzkill or not, but Siobhan hints at a greater story for Sadie, but it isn’t told here. On one hand, I’d like to read it. On the other, this book felt like a complete world, and I don’t know that more needs to be told.

(And I did wonder why this world hadn’t explored renewable energy options more, though some people did drive hybrids. Maybe it just didn’t fit into the story? Or maybe I was so into the story that I read right over it?)

The Source: Library book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a broadsword was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.


Summertime and the living is easy…

This One Summer. Art by Jillian Tamaki.

Art by Jillian Tamaki

Title: This One Summer

Author: Jillian Tamaki (art) and Mariko Tamaki (text)

Publisher & Release Date: First Second, May 2014

The Hook: Gorgeous, gorgeous artwork. Two friends spending summer at the beach.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Rose and her parents have been going to Awago Beach since she was a little girl. It’s her summer getaway, her refuge. Her friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had, completing her summer family.

“But this summer is different.

“Rose’s mom and dad won’t stop fighting, and Rose and Windy have gotten tangled up in a tragedy-in-the-making in the small town of Awago Beach. It’s a summer of secrets and heartache, and it’s a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.”

Overall Impressions:  I already mentioned the amazing artwork, right? Because I had to pause and just stare at some of the pages – walking through woods, racing into the ocean, Windy’s body movements as she’s showing off her new dance skills. It’s beautiful. I want to attach so many scans in this post.

This story made me remember family trips – weeks at my great-grandparents and family camping – spending time with cousins and the activities that become traditions.

Tamaki and Tamaki (cousins) capture that uneven transition between childhood and teen in Rose – the year and a half she has on Windy really shows in their reactions and interests. They giggle over words for breasts as they discuss their developing figures, watch local teens warily from the sidelines, and Rose develops a crush on one of the older boys who works at the local video/everything store. They spend practically every day together happily, but the two girls also fight and get touchy about various topics. At one point, Windy wants to dig a giant hole in the sand and Rose has to readjust her thinking and remember that can be fun too.

They also capture that painful feeling of knowing something is wrong in your family, something you don’t know, and not knowing how to respond to it. And how easy it is to lash out when you’re hurting

The Highs: Rose and Windy’s expressions as they watch horror films – at one point, they’re both hiding under a blanket and the reader can just make out the screen of the laptop through the fabric. The first one they rent kind of by accident, but after that, it’s deliberate.

The four pages (spreads?) showing the range of activities Rose and Windy have during the day, from the remains of a lazy breakfast to standing up in swings, mini-golf to racing bikes to shucking corn.

I love that Rose’s body is tall and tomboyish and Windy is shorter and rounder; both are very comfortable with their bodies and very active. Nobody is the book is a supermodel, not even the older teen girls or the young man Rose has a crush on.

The adult female friendships.

Buzzkills:  I understand why this happens -it’s effectively done and it makes sense- but it saddens me that watching the horror films and drama of the older teens, Rose decides the bad situations people are in are the fault of the females’ actions.

Also for possible trigger warnings (spoilers!), highlight the next bit: Miscarriage, potential drowning, 

The Source: Copy provided by publisher at library conference.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a summer cabin near the beach was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Dane is not Mr. Miyagi. Or Sherlock Holmes.

Cover art for Dead EndsTitle: Dead Ends

Author: Erin Jade Lange

Publisher & Release Date: Bloomsbury, September 2013

The Hook: Straight from the teaser – a bully and a boy with Down syndrome form a partnership and then a friendship.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Dane is one suspension away from the dead end of expulsion. Billy does not think special ed is a dead end. They both live on the dead-end, have-not side of town.

“A bully and a boy with Down syndrome. It’s the unlikeliest of partnerships, but Billy needs Dane’s help. He is sure the riddles left in an atlas are really clues to finding his dad again, and he convinces Dane to join the search. Together they work through the clues, leading to unmarked towns and secrets of the past. But they’re all dead ends. Until the final clue… and a secret Billy shouldn’t have been keeping.”

Overall Impressions:  I tore through this book, caught up in Dane and Billy D’s stories.

The jacket summary makes it sounds as if Billy D tells the story – making me think just a little of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” – but Dane narrates.

Dane has strict rules – he’ll only hit someone (and never a girl or someone with a disability) if he’s asking for it. Trouble is, it doesn’t take much for him to feel a guy’s doing just that. We meet Dane when he’s beating up a guy who we learn was mocking him for not having a car. He lets a determined Billy D into his life begrudgingly. Their path to friendship is kind of a staggering one step forward, one step sideways, one step in random direction – for Dane, Billy D starts out as a way to get out of trouble at school while Billy D sees him as a possible guide/guard/help. Dane’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of car; Billy D has a fixation on finding his father. Dane verbally blows up at Billy D more than once; Billy D has a tendency to focus on things past the point of reason and well past Dane’s tolerance. Also, Billy D has never met a question he won’t ask.

The quest for Billy D’s father turns into one for Dane’s too. Absent fathers drive both boys, but in different ways.

The characters are great, fully built, and their complexity in how they react to other people believable. Lange crafted a tightly woven story.

I did see Billy D’s secret coming, but Lange handled it really well, and it’s understandable that Dane doesn’t.

The Highs: The slow growth of Dane and Billy D’s friendship, how they come to matter to one another and for Dane, Billy D becomes someone he wants to protect. Which doesn’t always work out that well, and that feels true to life.

Seely, who skateboards and works on cars, and calls both Dane and Billy on their bad behavior. She’s all-around awesome.

The relationship between Dane and his mother, who had him when she was still in high school. They may fight sometimes, but they’re a mother-son unit and they love each other. Lange chooses really interesting pieces of backstory to show their history. There’s a really awkward and painful but lovely scene where Dane is asking her about his father (not a flashback).

I love the cover.

Buzzkills:  Dane grows a lot in this story. Some of his attitudes about women still have room for improvement. There’s a kind of funny but mostly horrible scene involving Dane, Billy D and Marjorie.

The Source: Public library.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a road trip was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

A gold star for Tin Star

Cover art for Tin StarTitle: Tin Star

Author: Cecil Castellucci

Publisher & Release Date: Roaring Book Press, Feb. 25, 2014

The Hook: 1) Cecil Castellucci. 2) A minority human having to survive on a backwater space station – beaten and abandoned by a cult leader when she asks too many questions. How will she survive?

The Lowdown (from Amazon): “On their way to start a new life, Tula and her family travel on the Prairie Rose, a colony ship headed to a planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy. All is going well until the ship makes a stop at a remote space station, the Yertina Feray, and the colonist’s leader, Brother Blue, beats Tula within an inch of her life. An alien, Heckleck, saves her and teaches her the ways of life on the space station.

When three humans crash land onto the station, Tula’s desire for escape becomes irresistible, and her desire for companionship becomes unavoidable. But just as Tula begins to concoct a plan to get off the space station and kill Brother Blue, everything goes awry, and suddenly romance is the farthest thing from her mind.”

Overall Impressions:  I loved it. I was entirely immersed in Tin Star, following Tula’s story from abandoned human afraid of aliens to someone who gains confidence in herself and eventually moves herself into something of a non-traditional role of power on the station.

In Castellucci’s universe, humans are considered rather backwater and isolationists, mostly ignored by galactic society. The power balance – major powers are early developers of space exploration, minor powers followed, and isolationists are irrelevant unless their planets have desired resources – is fascinating, and a coup in the center ripples out to their space station.The galaxy goes from a League of Worlds to an Imperium. For Tula, very little of this touches on her daily life; we see more of the effects through her interactions with mentors and friends Heckleck and Tournour, who are much more aware of the bigger picture and what it means when Imperium representatives arrive on Yertina Feray.

The story jumps forward three years and those ripples make more of an impression when three humans in green Earth Imperium Alliance uniforms show up and can’t leave. They want Tula’s help, since she’s like them; but she takes a long while to trust them – in three years she’s forgotten a lot about being human and feels (accurately) rejected and abandoned by humanity.

Now she must deal with a murder mystery, the killing of her best friend, hiding some major contraband, and her own desire for revenge.

The Highs: Tula is an awesome character, determined to survive and eventually thrive, becoming an expert in trading favors, learning to read the subtle body language of all the aliens on the station. Likewise, the fascinating Heckleck (black marketer and arranger) and Tournour (station security), who befriend Tula and help her in different ways. I wouldn’t mind reading a mini-prequel for each of them – how did they get to Yertina Feray?

How Tula views the three humans – Els, Caleb and Reza – first as inept and troublemakers, but gradually sees them as individuals, each with very different goals. She has to decide how she will help with those goals, because they need her, but she needs them too, to help widen her eyes. Castellucci make some really interesting choices with the trio.

Romance seems to play such a frequent role in YA that I feels as if my antenna are always alert for it (and whether it will be too treacly or overblown for me to want to continue reading). Tula does experience a strong attraction to one of the humans and enter into a relationship, but Castellucci rarely makes romance the focus, and the story went directions I didn’t expect but really liked.

Castellucci hints at more story to come – on one hand, I want to read it now; on the other, it’s very open to readers’ imaginations. And that’s a wonderful gift.

Buzzkills:  None!

The Source: eARC provided by publisher through NetGalley

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a trip into outer space was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly…

Title:  If I Ever Get Out of HereCover photo

Author: Eric Gansworth

Publisher & Release Date: Arthur A. Levine, June 2013

The Hook: Beatles references combined with a historical story (at least to people my age and younger: the 70s!), with a teen Tuscarora Indian as the main character, which I haven’t read before. I was happy to see that it was also just named the AIYLA Honor Book.

The Lowdown (from Amazon): “Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?”

Overall Impressions:  This book has pretty broad appeal, and I would also happily push this onto fellow fans of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” though there are some significant differences. Sherman Alexie is irreverent, foul-mouthed, and hilarious, which is the essential voice in “Part-Time Indian.” Gansworth takes a more serious tone with many of the same issues – poverty, bullying, the meaning of friendship and family relationships, and navigating between the very different worlds of the reservation, high school, and military families. However, similarities included: a strong-willed and lovably awkward hero; a infuriating system that you want the hero to take down; showing the significance of little things; making me cry.

The Highs: I love it when characters connect with a friend over music, and Gansworth deftly brought in many satellite issues, like girlfriends, parents, bullies, and lies, while still holding on to that central theme. Lewis, George, their families and friends were all great characters, each with their own quirks that led to moments that rang very true.  I loved Lewis himself, his persistence and pride, even his fish-out-of-water awkwardness – I think most teens will be able to empathize with that feeling. The ending made total sense to me, even though it was bittersweet.

Buzzkills: This is more of a lack of amazingness than an actual buzzkill: I really wanted there to be a playlist of samples that I could download to my phone. A lot of the music references will probably sail over the heads of most teens, unless they have a rare penchant for classic rock, and it would be so cool to get teens get hooked on the music that Lewis fell in love with.

The Source:

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or any Queen LPs were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

I’m a stranger here myself.

Cover art for Ungifted

Title: Ungifted

Author: Gordon Korman

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer + Bray, 2012

The Hook: Honesty, for me the hook was Gordon Korman. Also robots. (Just look at him – isn’t he adorable?)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “When Donovan Curtis pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he’s finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a special program for gifted and talented students.

“Although it wasn’t exactly what Donovan had intended, the ASD couldn’t be a more perfectly unexpected hideout for someone like him. But as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything), he shows that his gifts may be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.”

Overall Impressions: Confession: I’ve been reading Gordon Korman’s books for about 25 years now. He is, in fact, one of the authors I imprinted on – reading “I Want to Go Home!”wen I was in third or fourth grade and laughing until my stomach ached. I haven’t gotten into his sports or action-adventure series but I think I’ve read pretty much all his other books. And read a bunch of them aloud to my younger sisters. So, I am pre-disposed to enjoy his work.

Ungifted follows a common Gordon Korman theme: Ordinary person(s) and oddball(s) meet and after some initial conflict and/or bewilderment they become friends and/or a team. Often they get up to wacky hijinks while helping each other with various personal issues. The thing is, though, that they’re just so likable! Even the characters set up as bad guys usually turn out okay.

In this case, regular joe Donovan “Donnie” Curtis, in one of his regular moments of poor impulse control, accidentally breaks a statue of Atlas and the giant world rolls right into the school gym, disrupting the big basketball game with their arch rivals, sending kids and adults fleeing, and ultimately causing a great deal of expensive damage. Donnie ends up in the superintendent’s office but through a series of accidents gets sent to the gifted school.

Just by being himself, Donnie helps the robotics class become a team. He gives their robot personality. And when the school realizes the class somehow missed taking Human Growth and Development and will have to make it up in summer school (horrors!), Donnie comes up with a “hands-on” alternative: blackmailing his sister Katie into sharing the last several weeks of her pregnancy with the class! He becomes friends with most of the robotics students and does some re-evaluating, though not abandoning, of his old friendships. Chloe and Noah at the ASD are fantastic, and Daniel and Daniel, Donnie’s doofy friends, grow on you by the end of the book.

The alternating points of view work well to show all the different story threads, from Donnie’s growing enjoyment of and struggle to stay in the gifted academy, to the teachers’ bafflement, to the robotics’ students’ acceptance of Donnie, to the district superintendent’s ongoing search for the hooligan whose name he can’t remember.

The one major qualm I have about “Ungifted” is the same I’ve seen in other reviews. Namely, gifted kids being portrayed as uniformly socially awkward and innocent, though each in different ways. Think “The Big Bang Theory” with middle schoolers, but less science fiction and comics geeky. They don’t think of naming their robot, they don’t cohere as a team, they don’t know about YouTube, and they don’t know how to behave around students from the non-gifted middle school. Chloe forms hypotheses and longs to experience normalcy; Abigail is focused on academic success to the extent that she could give herself an ulcer; Noah becomes obsessed with YouTube and professional wrestling. Another girl blurts out random facts when asked to speak. The gifted kids I remember from school were no more socially awkward than the other students.

In some ways, this book is the flip version of Mr. Korman’s earlier fish-out-water novel “Schooled,” wherein a home-schooled boy who lives with his hippie grandmother on an isolated commune has to temporarily move in with a social worker and her family and attend public school when his grandmother is badly injured in a fall. Of these two, I think I prefer “Schooled.”

That said, Ungifted is a solid, enjoyable middle-grade novel. People who normally wouldn’t interact with one another -mostly different social groups- learn they can get along and in so doing, make each other better. And make awesome robots.

The Highs: The interrogation transcript chapters.

Noah’s WWE obsession and ongoing attempts to fail at school.

The relationship Katie and the robotics class form during the Human Growth and Development project.

Donnie’s dad. ❤

Buzzkills: See above re: portrayal of gifted kids.

The Source: ebook purchase.

You can’t outrun death. But you can face life.


Title: Chasing Shadows

Author: Swati Avasthi, Craig Phillips (illustrator)

Publisher & Release Date: Random House, September 2013

The Hook: Sophomore novel from the author who wrote the incredible Split.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Chasing Shadows is a searing look at the impact of one random act of violence.

“Before: Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

“But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof…

“After: Holly and Savitri are coming unglued. Holly says she’s chasing Corey’s killer, chasing revenge. Savitri fears Holly’s just running wild—and leaving her behind. Friends should stand by each other in times of crisis. But can you hold on too tight? Too long?”

Overall Impressions:  Ms. Avasthi’s new novel is just as intense as her first and just as complicated in the personal relationships, how they empower us and how they tear us apart. Mr. Phillips’ graphic novel pages equal her intensity, driving the story forward.

Corey, Holly and Savitri have been best friends for years. The story opens with them racing across rooftops and a moment when one of them could have fallen. But she doesn’t fall – they all safety return to their cars. And as Holly and Corey sit in their Mini for a moment, it happens. A gunman approaches, fires, fires again. Corey and Holly are both hit. When Savitri unfreezes, she manages to call 911, tries frantically to stop Corey’s bleeding, to get them to respond. Holly requires surgery and lies in a medically induced coma for days while she travels with her brother, led by a creature called Kortha, into the Shadowlands, until Savitri’s voice calls her back.

Everyone’s dealing with grief in their own ways – Corey and Holly’s mother and father, Savitri’s mother, classmates and former friends. Some get caught up in trying to find the killer, some in trying to hold onto Corey.

Holly and Savitri are twisted up in loss and guilt – Holly as a survivor and Savitri as a witness. Savitri’s also tied herself in knots because just before Corey was killed, she told him she’d gotten early acceptance at Princeton and she’d always told herself that if she left for collage, she would end the relationship. And now Savitri can’t bring herself to leave Holly behind, and Holly can’t let go of Corey, falling into the stories of superheroes created through pain and her visions of Corey and Kortha. How long do you hold on?

Ms. Avasthi does an amazing job of balancing all the characters, of weaving past and present, of taking the reader through grief, fear, anger and mental illness, bringing all the pieces together. I am struck by the story’s imagery, the police as the city’s biggest gang, the freerunners on roofs, the nooses Holly sees on “deliveries” to Kortha. She and Mr. Phillips have created an amazing, powerful story.

The Highs: The power of Phillips’ illustrations for the Shadowlands. Wow.

The balance of Savitri, Holly and Corey’s relationships with each other Before. They were a trio of friends first. Holly encouraged Savitri and Corey’s romantic relationship but Corey also recognized when he needed to step back to Holly and Savitri’s friendship.

The full, complicated portrayal of the parents and their struggles to help their children.

That Corey’s flaws are addressed as well as his good qualities – he’s not canonized in his death.

The jacket – Holly on the cover, Savitri on the back.

The discussions of loyalty and what it means.

Buzzkills: More of a format issues, but some of the text in the illustrated sections was a little hard to read on my non-color e-reader screen.

And a minor detail gripe – when Holly’s thinking through various comic book heroes and heroines and the role pain has played in their journeys, she references “Jane Grey and the Phoenix,” rather than Jean, which threw me out of the story for a moment. I’m guessing someone’s more of a DC fan than Marvel?

The Source: Bought the e-book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a trip to Chicago was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

I read a sad book and I loved it.

Cover art for Second Chance SummerTitle: Second Chance Summer

Author: Morgan Matson

Publisher & Release Date: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, May 2012

The Hook: From the author who wrote Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour!

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Sandwiched between two exceptional siblings, Taylor Edwards never felt like she stood out—except for her history of running away when things get too complicated. Then her dad receives unexpected, terrible news, and the family makes the last-minute decision to spend the summer together in the cramped quarters at their old lake house.

“Taylor hasn’t been to the summer house since she was twelve, and she definitely never planned on going back. Up at the lake she is confronted with people she thought she left behind, like her former best friend, Lucy, and Henry Crosby, her first crush, who’s all grown up…and a lot cuter. Suddenly Taylor is surrounded by memories she’d rather leave in the past—but she can’t run away this time.

“As the days lying on the beach pass into nights gazing at the stars, Taylor realizes she has a second chance—with friends, with family, maybe even with love. But she knows that once the summer ends, there is no way to recapture what she stands to lose.”

Overall Impressions:  This was, at minimum, a four-Kleenex book for me.  The nature of the terrible news is revealed fairly early on – Taylor’s father has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and given just months to live. Her family loves each other, but they’ve all been so busy with their own things that they’re not really close. Dad’s busy at work; older brother Warren’s focused on preparing for college; Mom, a retired dancer, helps younger daughter Gelsey with her dancing dreams. And Taylor can’t run away, from her father’s diagnosis or, when she gets back to the lake, from Henry or Lucy.

Matson wrote a quiet story. One that mostly takes place in a sleepy older summer community where all the houses have names. The setting and the story have a bit of a timeless quality – technology plays a limited role and community activities harken back to more innocent times.  But in that quiet story Taylor slowly grows into someone who can hold herself back from running away when things go bad and builds stronger relationships with people she cares about.

Of her family, Taylor has the most distant connection with her mother, I think this is because 1) her mother is far more focused on her father at this time and 2) Taylor has always been closer to her father. The three children develop stories outside the house – Gelsey learns to have a friend, Warren falls in love, Taylor gets a job and reconnects with Lucy and Henry. (When they first arrive at the lake, they shadow their father until he tells them to stop, to go outside, to do things.) We see less of the mother’s story because her story is inside the house. We read the story Taylor experiences.

The foreshadowing was a bit obvious in a few places, but it didn’t feel heavy-handed. More like, ah, I anticipate we will see this Dickens quote again. Ah, I see this where detail A and part B of job description will come together.

The Highs: You may mock, but I loved that the older brother was terrified of dogs but tried to be casual about it even though the whole family knows because I also have an irrational fear of dogs.

The bad puns that Taylor and her dad enjoy.

How the silly five questions to start a conversation lists at the diner prompt wonderful discussions for Taylor and her dad.

Taylor, Warren and Gelsey seeing a new side of their grandfather.

Taylor and Lucy making sure Gelsey and Nora have a proper best friends sleepover. “They’re doing it wrong,” Taylor says when she calls Lucy.

Henry, who is lovely, and Leland, who is amusing.

Buzzkills:  Well, it’s a cancer book, so you pretty much know what’s going to happen at the end.

The Source: Bought the e-book. Must say that e-books are hard to hug.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a trip to a mountain lake was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Round Table Discussion: Rose Under Fire

rose under fire

All three of us are extremely excited about Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, companion novel to the amazing Code Name Verity, so we opted for something a little different: dinner and discussion. We have no crepes to offer (we ate every delicious bite), but here are the notes from our discussion – some spoilers and multiple characters without full explanations included!

Book summary (from jacket): “While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?”

Short version: Read Code Name Verity. Read Rose Under Fire. They are incredible.

(Just for background, Julie read Code Name Verity last year and recommends every chance she gets; Katy read Code Name Verity just before Rose Under Fire; and Emily has Code Name Verity high in her TBR pile.)

After we all agreed we loved the book, Katy broke the ice, noting Rose Under Fire is not nearly as much of a nail-biter as Code Name Verity.

J: The structure is quite different, but the author couldn’t have done the same thing. it would have lost the power of surprise.

E: It’s refreshing to read something where a romance doesn’t overshadow everything. Granted, true romance is almost impossible under wartime, but true friendship is not only possible, it’s vital.

K: Like even though Maddie was married, her husband was a minor note in the book – the defining relationship was actually that Rose was her bridesmaid. Much more so than the reality of Rose’s relationship with Nick.

J: I was fascinated to see Anna Engel again and the increased complexity of her character.

E: Even in wartime, you have a range of goodness in people – the ideology behind the war is remote, and the fellow human in front of you, suffering, is pretty immediate. I guess that how you found out who’s “good” or “evil” in that situation: look at what they do with the power that they’re given over other people. Do they acknowledge their humanity, or not?

K: There were conflicting characters on both sides, showing good and evil both – resistance fighter Peter in Verity, for example.

J:  Irina’s situation after the war was another facet of those complicated relationships. She couldn’t return to her own country because they would automatically suspect her as a former prisoner. She had such limited opportunities after the war, too, and that must have been so hard for women who won respect during the war. They lost it again so quickly afterward.

E: The entire culture of the ’50s plastered that false façade over everything – June Cleavers and Stepford Wives, everything deliberately and horribly normalized in the media and popular culture.

K: That had to be supremely frustrating for these women who had spent their youth as heroes, makers and doers. They would have been in their thirties and forties by that time, mostly finished with kids and bored out of their skulls at home.

E: One of the most horrible realities that I found in this book wasn’t even the camp – it was the denial of the horrors that went on there. Everyone believed that it was anti-German propaganda or a Jewish lie. There was still a huge amount of anti-Semitism in America and Britain. Rose was descended from German immigrants, and many other Americans were as well – the Germans were a lot more “like us” than Jewish people in people’s heads.

K: I think part of it was also a disbelief of scale – like people thought that it was simply exaggerated, there was no way there could be that many or be that horrible. It was unprecedented.

J: Actually, there was the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s.

K: Good point – I wonder how much people in the U.S. were aware of that? [Note: pretty well, actually, thought it wasn’t as large.] But look at what’s happening in Syria today – even with multiple video sources on the ground, we can’t make a case in the world court of who it actually was, and for a while if it was even happening. They were still trying to argue that they were faking.

E: It’s really hard to imagine the level of suffering that a person can go through when we’re surrounded by security and safety – both for people at the time and as readers looking back on it.

J: Wein was great at showing that disconnect between what different people were doing at 18. Rose had spent her entire life thus far canoeing and going to dances and Girl Scout meetings, and it was literally unbelievable meeting Roza, who was biking bombs around in Poland at 14 and motherless at 16. Her whole persona was wrapped up in being a prisoner and a Rabbit, because she had no other life, no other identity that solidified before the camp.

E: Part of what made Ravensbruck so awful is that it was completely arbitrary and random, and dehumanizing. The awareness of your inevitable death, but not knowing when, combined with illogical orders and nearly random coincidences, like all of the tall girls getting the bunk-clearing detail – that would drive anyone insane.

K: They mentioned that, at the end – you could tell who was at the camps because of the look in their eyes. It wasn’t just the normal horror of war – it was actual madness.

E: Soldiers on the front knew that war had risks, but you could minimize them, or they were expected and understandable. That horrible randomness of the camps – they might decide that they didn’t like your curly hair, or your height, or you got shuffled into the wrong bunk.

K: The surprising thing to me was that it was clear that Ravensbruck was initially meant to be a somewhat humane facility. Everyone with their own bunk and blanket, adequate toilet and hospital facilities. But the longer the war went on, the worse the conditions got –huge amounts of people, little  food, no medicine, no clothes. Even for the people in charge, fewer things were available.

E: And they continued to dehumanize them. By the end, there were so many atrocities to cover up that even with the new gas chamber, they couldn’t do it all.

J: One question I had when reading Rose was whether Wein intended to write two of these books, or if she just sunk so much time into the research that another story needed to be written.

K: I’m also very curious to see what she writes next – there are so many other stories she could tell about World War 2. Another facet of the Nazi regime, or maybe the Russian Front?

J: If you’re looking for a story set in the Soviet Union during WWII, Between Shades of Grey is excellent.

[Brainstorming other reads about World War II: The Devil’s Arithmetic; The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom; Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; The Book Thief; Sarah’s Key; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; Schindler’s List; The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood…]

J: If Rose had known what was to come, do you think she still would have been unable to make fuses? Or was it like Roza said when Nazis were beating her mother to make Roza talk – “I was lucky, I didn’t know anything.”

K:  She did have a glimpse of some of the horror first, and knew that she was giving up a pretty comfortable position. Based on her strength of will in later situations, I imagine she might still have refused, even if she had known. Or maybe tried harder to work in some sabotage.

US, Canadian and UK covers of Rose Under Fire

Cover rainbow of Rose Under Fire from Elizabeth Wein’s homepage

On Covers

J: The new cover of Code Name Verity is a lot closer to Rose Under Fire. Maybe the publishers didn’t think [Verity] got the audience that it deserved?

E: I really liked the other cover. (J+K agree.) It was very dynamic and of course enlarged body parts are always more of draw for older teens, which this is geared towards. I would really hesitate giving this to a 13 year old, and the new cover doesn’t seem to say that.

K: There’s another cover out there that has almost identical design to the first Verity, which raised my eyebrows. The plot is completely unrelated, though.

Code Name Verity cover rainbow from Elizabeth Wein's homepage

On Poetry

E: I found the poetry surprisingly good, although I usually cringe at any teen poetry.

K: I thought it was very well done. Admittedly, I scanned over the repeated sections pretty quickly.

J: I gave it a very light reading; it didn’t appeal to me. I did like the Briar poem.

Cool Bonus Link

Girls Like Giants’ interview with Elizabeth Wein

Disclaimer: Advance reading copies were provided by publishers at book conferences and through Netgalley. No money or chocolate was exchanged for this post.