Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Emilia and Teo have always lived unorthodox lives in a free-spirited and unconventional family. Emilia’s Momma is a pilot and a barnstorming performer, as is Teo’s mom, Delia. The two pilots travel the country and perform together as the Black Dove and the White Raven, since Momma Rhoda Menotti is white while Delia is black. Papa Menotti is an Italian aviator, but Emilia and her mom haven’t seen him since Em was a baby. Theo’s father is Ethiopian, and he died in France when the two children were infants. So, Teo and Em have grown up together as brother and sister.

Delia’s dream is for all of them to move to Ethiopia where Teo can grow up without the prejudice and racism that is prevalent in the U.S. in the 1930’s. When tragedy strikes, derailing the dream, the little family is more determined than ever to fly away to Ethiopia, even though things in Africa aren’t all good. Slavery is still legal, although restricted, in Ethiopia, and the European powers of France, Britain, and Italy are squabbling over who will influence and exercise power in the kingdom ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie.

This historical novel, by the author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, was riveting. It’s mostly set in a place I know very little about, Ethiopia, and chronicles events that I knew nothing about. Mussolini’s troops used mustard gas in 1936 on Ethiopian soldiers armed with only spears and on civilians? Emperor Haile Selassie himself fought the Italians, shooting at their planes from the ground? Eight black American aviators tried to go to Ethiopia as military support for the Ethiopians during the Italian invasion, but the U.S. would not approve their passports? There’s lots of other history embedded in the story, but aside from that, it’s just a fine tale of adventure and friendship and war and flying and growing up.

Some of the religious and political ideas of the main characters are debatable, to say the least. But that display of odd and varying opinions and beliefs just made me want to meet the characters in the book and talk to them and really understand their beliefs and attitudes, especially in regard to Christianity, better. Momma Rhoda Menotti grew up in a Quaker family, and her attitude toward marriage and religion is liberal and far from orthodox. Teo finds meaning in the liturgy and practices of the Ethiopian Coptic Church as he watches it in Ethiopia, but he realizes that the Ethiopian church is not his church, since he is really an American despite his having an Ethiopian father. Em is not very religious at all, but she has the best lines in the book in regard to religion, telling Teo when he is having a superstitious moment of blaming himself and God for bad things that happen, “God works through us. Through people doing the right thing. Through you. Through Momma giving you her gas mask and covering you up.” She’s acquired sort of a Quaker/Inner Light attitude toward God and religion.

Anyway, it’s a good book with much fodder for discussion. It’s billed as a YA fiction, but I think it’s essentially an adult book, aside from the fact that the two narrators and protagonists are in their late teens. Certainly, adults, both young and old, can enjoy this between-the-wars story of friendship and resilience.

Beneath by Roland Smith

So, first I thought the premise of this young adult novel was intriguing:

“Exactly one year to the day after my brother, Coop, ditched me, I got a package in the mail.
It came to the school, not our home.
The secretary handed me the package with a warning that I was never to use the school as my personal address.
I was going to tell her that I hadn’t when I saw my name: Pat Meatloaf O’Toole, scrawled in Coop’s familiar handwriting.
Meatloaf is not my middle name.
I told her that I would never do it again, grabbed he package, locked myself in a restroom stall, and tore the box open.
Inside was a handheld digital voice recorder, a supply of memory sticks, and a note written on a greasy hamburger wrapper.”

As the story continued, and Pat began to fill in the background about himself and his runaway older brother, Cooper, I began to think the details were a little corny. Coop is an oddball, to say the least. He sleeps in school and stays awake all night. He spends his nights either digging tunnels or tap dancing on bridges and overpasses. The entire family is odd. Mother, a former astronaut turned astrophysicist, and father, a molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, are somewhat uninvolved parents–but loving, nonetheless. The boys have identical twin nannies who speak only Spanish and can’t be distinguished from one another. It was all just a little too quirky, but still intriguing enough to keep me reading.

Then, Pat goes to New York City to look for Coop, gets involved with a homeless community of underground dwellers, and goes from danger into disaster. Maybe I’m easily amused and easily befuddled, but I didn’t see the twists and turns coming. I enjoyed the “thriller” aspects of the novel, and I was able to suspend disbelief, even though the whole story is pretty unbelievable.

Throw in murder, terrorism,, a love interest for Coop (nothing explicit), sophisticated criminal activity underneath the sidewalks, homes and buildings of NYC, and a couple of brothers who are the only ones between those master criminals and the destruction of great swaths of the United States. It was a fun ride, and there’s a set-up for a sequel. However, the ending was satisfying, not frustrating.

Recommended for those who like this sort of story (maybe fans of Kiki Strike or of Carolyn Cooney and Margaret Peterson Haddix) –ages twelve and up.


Soulprint by Megan Miranda

The premise of this YA novel is that souls enter new bodies when people die, i.e. human reincarnation. And someone has a computer database record of whose soul has gone where and what that soul did in a past life. This database is controversial, secret, and important because of the other premise in the novel: souls of evil people (in new bodies with new identities) tend to repeat their past crimes. In other words, if I was thief in this life, my thieving soul gets passed on to the next person who inherits my soul.

So, in spite of the philosophically flawed idea of reincarnation, I found the book’s questions intriguing. Nature vs. nurture. Can we overcome or transcend our own past mistakes and sins, even those in this life? How? Why do we often repeat those bad decisions and sinful patterns? How do we become something better than what people expect us to be?

The book begins with seventeen year old Alina Chase, in seclusion on an island by order of the government to keep her from repeating the crimes of her past life. Alina doesn’t know much about who she was in her past life or what she did, but she’s tired of being blamed for something she didn’t really do and can’t even remember. When three other young people help Alina to escape the island, the four go on the run together, but Alina finds that the others have their own agendas and want to use her to gain their own ends. There’s romance, a bit of a triangle, but it’s fairly chaste as YA novels go these days: lots of heavy breathing and some intense kissing.

I liked the book, but the reincarnation thing bothered me because I just don’t believe in it. I found it hard to suspend disbelief and take the “database of past lives” seriously. However, that’s a flaw in my imagination. Otherwise, I thought it was deftly plotted and intriguing enough. It’s for teens looking for a psychological romance thriller in a sci-fi world.

12 Favorite Young Adult Ficton Books I Read in 2014

Not all of these YA fiction books were published in 2014, but several of them were.

The Winter Horses by Phillip Kerr. Historical fiction/magical realism set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. If you like horses or World War II stories, check it out.

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs. If this one were published now, it would be YA since it features teenaged protagonists. It’s not at all like contemporary YA, though.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. 1950’s New Orleans, on the seamy side of town.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This novel hit way too close to home for me to be able to write an objective, or even subjective, review. However, I found it quite haunting and memorable.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Good Arthurian fiction series, The Merlin Spiral also includes Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare.

Always Emily by Michaela McColl. An atmospheric mystery featuring Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky. A fictionalization of the true story of how Hitler’s pet film director, Leni Riefenstahl, enslaved Sinti and Roma gypsies to have them work as extras in her movies.

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora. Borderline between middle grade and YA and lots of fun for bookish types.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. Maybe middle grade, maybe YA, but good anyway.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. Book #2 in the Lockwood & Co. series about ghost-busting adolescents in an alternate history Victorian world.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. I just read this one yesterday, but I liked it a lot despite some flaws. My review will be posted in 2015.

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The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry

Good old-fashioned Robert Heinlein-style juvenile science fiction. The story takes place in our own solar system. The characters are all human (well, except for Grandpa who’s mostly cyborg by now). The unfamiliar words are mostly space travel jargon (fireship, grav-sled, transponder) and pirate talk (belay, burgoo, avast, barky). There’s politics and adventure and espionage, and girls and guys take part equally in the adventure and in the drudge work.

Twelve year old twins Tycho and Yana, and older brother Carlo Hashoone are the three probable heirs to the Hashoone family business: a privateering starship called the Shadow Comet. Their mom, Diocletia, is the captain, and dad, Mavry, is the first mate. However, since only one of the three siblings can become captain when mom retires, there’s a lot of rivalry mixed in with the teamwork as the entire family, including Grandpa, work together to find and take prizes, namely Earth cargo ships. Because the Jovian Union, where the Hashoons are from, and Earth are technically at war, the Shadow Comet operates under letters of marquee to capture and hold for ransom any starships from Earth that might cross their path.

Besides just being a lot of fun, the book might bring up some interesting class or family discussions:

What is the difference between a pirate and a privateer? (Reference and compare Sir Francis Drake and also U.S. privateers of the American revolution.) How are the crew of the Shadow Comet different from historical pirates like Jean Lafitte? How are they similar? Are privateers really just “pirates with papers”? Is it justifiable to be a pirate (or privateer) if you’re fighting for your country while you you take a little profit for yourself?

Can family members work as a team and also be rivals for the same position? How would that work in real life? Have you seen families pull together in a crisis? Do they always?

Did you think it was unusual to have the mom be the captain of the Shadow Comet, with the dad serving under her authority as first mate? What did you think of Captain Diocletia giving orders to her father, her husband, and her children? Why do you think the author wrote the characters’ roles this way?

Yana is impulsive and decisive, whereas Tycho is more thoughtful and indecisive. Which twin are you more like? Which one do you think would make a better captain someday? Or would you choose Carlo, since he’s older and a better pilot?

What do you think about Grandpa’s decision at the end of the book? Was he right? If not, do you understand why he did what he did?

You can probably think of other avenues for discussion as you read the book. Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is the first book in a series about the Hashoone family and their piratical (privateering!) adventures. The second book is Curse of the Iris, due out December 16, 2014.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Shipwreck Island by S.A. Bodeen


A book like this one should come with a warning label. It’s not a whole book. It’s short, 184 pages, and it just ends . . . in the middle of the story. It ends like an episode of LOST. In fact, it reads a lot like an episode of LOST. Anyway, I felt cheated. The book should have something on the cover that says it’s the first installment in a series. And I find that there are to be four books in all, and the next book in the series won’t be out until July, 2015. Not. nice.

Publisher? Editor? Author? Whoever is in charge? If you have a story that is this unfinished, just wait and publish all four volumes at the same time. Or publish the whole thing in one book. Something. At least with LOST, we only had to wait a week to see what happened next. A year is too long for me, and it’s certainly too long for the ten and eleven year olds that this series is written for. Do you know how long a year is in a pre-teen’s life? It’s forever. (Yes, the kids waited for the next installment of Harry Potter—because each of those books told a complete story. And the HP kids grew as the series went along.) Shipwreck Island is not Harry Potter, although HP is a book that one of the characters takes along to the desert island, and no one is going to remember—or care—what happened in this book by next July.

In Shipwreck Island, we have three kids and a mom and a dad who are shipwrecked on a mysterious island. I don’t see how the kids can grow much older or have the books’ themes and plots become more mature as they progress unless the author plans to have them stay on this island for a very long time. The first book only covers about two days on the island. So in next year’s exciting episode, are we going to have a time marker that says, “One year later . . .”?

Shipwreck Island could have been a good solid read for middle grade students who like adventure and a bit of mystery and horror. Those ten and eleven year olds don’t even remember LOST, anyway. However, somebody blew it as far as pre-publication planning goes. If you really, really love desert island stories with weird and scary creatures, wait three more years and buy the complete book in four volumes.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Blue Sea Burning by Geoff Rodkey

This final book in the Chronicles of Egg trilogy begins as Egg has just been saved from death by hanging by his uncle, the pirate Burn Healy. The first chapter begins with three problems: the ship is sinking, other pirates are out to kill them, and the ship’s crew is giving Egg and his friends murderous looks and muttered threats as they look for a way to get rid of him.

The book just gets better and better from that fine start. There’s a sea battle, so well described that I read every word, instead of skimming the fighting part, as I usually do, to get to the end and find out who won and who lost. Mr. Rodkey writes his characters, especially Egg, and his action scenes with a deft hand, including humor, emotion, and vivid description incorporated into the fast-moving story.

You certainly can’t fault the book for a lack of action or for starting out slowly. The action is relentless and absorbing, and it doesn’t come at the expense of character development. Egg began the series in the book Deadweather and Sunrise as a naive and victimized boy, and in this third book his philosophy of life and his rationale for decision-making are both much more sophisticated. And yet he still has a lot to learn.

The setting is South Pacific islands-ish, perhaps Caribbean, but with mythical islands in an imaginary world. The volcano, the pirates roaming the seas, tropical fruits, religious details, and some of the names (Mata Kalun, Moku, Okalu, etc.) made me think more of the South Pacific. The religion that’s incorporated into the story is particularly interesting to me. Egg’s native friend, Kira, prays to and worships the sun god, Ka. The “settlers” with more British names use the word “Savior” as a sort of swear word or curse (“Oh, Savior’s sake!” and “the Savior as my witness . . .”), but it’s never clear in this book what “savior” they’re talking about. Burn Healy lives by the Pirate Code, a set of rules for an honor culture, that Burn made up himself and had all of his crew sign. He does, that is, until he doesn’t, more on that later.

Egg doesn’t pray to Ka, although he’s glad that Kira does. He hasn’t signed the Code. And he doesn’t seem to have any other religious background or belief. So, Egg is the proverbial seeker, open to truth wherever he can find it, somewhat disillusioned by his recent experiences, but wanting to do what is right and good. So, the search starts with Egg’s Uncle Burn, who has already violated his own Pirate Code by saving Egg’s life, telling him that the world can’t be divided into good and evil, that everyone and everything is “grey”, mostly evil. Egg later decides that the only men on the Blue Sea are “bad and worse.”

But Egg keeps trying to figure out and do what’s right. The Pirate’s Code is not sufficient to inform his actions, but he still wants to be “honorable”. He becomes involved in a project to free the slaves in the silver mines, because slavery is wrong. His uncle tells him, “So are a million other things in this world. You can’t right them all.” Egg persists because he wants to prove himself worthy of the sacrifices others have made in his behalf.

Then, about halfway through the book, Egg and his friends are translating a treasure map with an inscription that comes to the crux of the matter. In part it says: “This we swear as truth: the man who seeks rescue from the gods will die in bitterness. Neither Ka, nor Ma, will save him. The only savior of man is man.”

So, Egg knows he’s on his own, with only his friends to help him, maybe, and yet he carries on. Egg becomes his own savior. He and his friends save the slaves from the silver mine, and they save the people that the the pirates have captured and planned to kill, and he destroys the evil, nefarious villain of the story with a lot of fortitude and a handy trick. Seemingly, the only savior of Egg is Egg himself.

And yet . . . on page 332 Egg is “praying” for his brother Adonis. A figure of speech? Perhaps. But then, as the action winds down, and Egg is almost safe and victorious, but not quite, this interesting thought comes to him:

“I’d seen more than my share of trouble, and when the eruption blotted out the sun, my body finally decided enough was enough, and that it was time to check out for a while and not come back until somebody else had fixed things, or at least swept up some of that ash.”

Finally, at the end of the book, Egg says, “The future felt like a math problem I couldn’t solve.” Maybe, even though this series is over, Egg has even more to learn about Somebody Else who saves and who solves when human efforts are not sufficient.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

For the second book in a trilogy, Through the Ever Night is not bad. It has a beginning that brings readers up to speed fairly quickly (although it would be better to have read the first book in the series, first and recently), and it has an ending, sort of.

As the novel opens Perry and Aria are reunited, but there are obstacles to their romance and threats to their survival. Aria is being blackmailed by Hess, the ruler of Reverie, which is the virtual reality home of her childhood. In the Real world, Perry is now Blood Lord of the Tides, but along with great power comes great responsibility (where have I heard that one before?). The Tides don’t like Dwellers from Reverie, like Aria. And Aria must find the Still Blue, a storied land of calm and safety, in order to free Perry’s nephew, Talon, from the clutches of the evil Hess. Perry also needs to find the possibly mythical Still Blue as a last refuge for his people from the Aether storms and the marauding bands of displaced people who will eventually destroy them.

By the end, they still haven’t found exactly what they’re looking for, some people have died, others have betrayed or been betrayed, and all is still not well under the never sky. But Perry and Aria are together, which is what most readers will have been rooting for all along. This fantasy adventure romance is mostly romance, with a touch of female empowerment and a brooding, wild man hero. Teens will love it, and I found it definitely readable and good enough to keep me on the hook for the third book in the series.

Semicolon review of Under the Never Sky, the first book in this series.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Geometry and drawing and chalk duels and strategy games and kidnapping (or murder?) and boarding school and alternative fantastical history with a touch of steampunk. The Rithamtist, by the same author who finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time adult fantasy series, is an excellent conglomeration of all of the above plus a lovely set of characters who made the reading both interesting and fun.

Joel is a poor scholarship student, son of the cleaning woman, at a rich people’s school. And what’s more, he longs to be a Rithmatist, but knows he’s missed his opportunity. Rithmatists are an elite bunch, even within an already elite school. They are the specially chosen fighting force that holds off the chalklings on the frontier in Nebrask and keeps them from overrunning the island states of the United Isles. Rithmatists are chosen in a special ceremony when children are only eight years old, and only one in a thousand is picked to join the Rithmatists. Unfortunately Joel missed his “inception” ceremony, so he’s doomed to hangout on the periphery of The Rithmatists who study at Armedius Academy and pick up what he can about Rithmatics as he makes unauthorized visits to Rithmatic classes.

However, now Rithmatist students are disappearing in very suspicious circumstances, and only Joel and the brilliant but aging Rithmatics Professor Fitch can possibly figure out who is behind the disappearances and how to stop them. But Joel suspects that Professor Fitch’s rival, the brash young Professor Nalizar, might be involved in the kidnappings, and a Rithmatist student who’s taking remedial classes, Melody, is definitely involved in Joel’s life whether he wants her to be or not.

You can’t go wrong with this Cybils-nominated fantasy adventure—unless you’re allergic to geometry or chalk dust. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced on Friday, February 14th. The Rithmatist is definitely a contender.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

A homeschooling mom friend recommended Under the Never Sky, the first in a futuristic, dystopian trilogy of YA novels about a place I wouldn’t want to visit In Real Life. Aria lives in Reverie, an enclosed pod-like city where everyone spends their time experiencing life in virtual reality “Realms”. When she visits the outside, the “Real”, Aria is in for a dangerous surprise and a journey that will both change her and show her true self.

Perry is a hunter and a fighter; for him, violence is a way of life, a tool for survival. When he meets the Dweller-girl Aria, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance so that both of them can maybe get what they want. Aria wants to find her mother who has been lost in a research accident (or attack), and Perry wants to find his nephew who was kidnapped by the Dwellers.

Plot and characters were at the forefront of this YA novel, and the story itself was a page-turner. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, in terms of themes, except maybe that surviving together in a harsh and dangerous world can breed inter-dependence, or even what Perry calls “being rendered” with another person.

“Aria smiled, turning toward him, her eyes dropping to his mouth. The room sweetened with her violet scent, drawing him in, becoming everything, and he felt it. A shift deep within him. The seal of a bond he’d known once before. And suddenly he understood . . .
It happened.
He had rendered to her.”

This one is a good, romantic yet wild and ferocious, adventure story for alternate universe geeks who love a good rendering on or around Valentine’s Day (or anytime really). The second and third books in this trilogy are titled Through the Ever Night and Into the Still Blue.