[scroll down for all six reviews]
by Franny Billingsley
Middle School, High School Dial 358 pp.
3/11 978-0-8037-3552-1 $17.99
“Ooze and muck and the clean muddy smell of life” suffuse Billingsley’s long-awaited third work of fiction, which mingles “Tam Lin,” “Lord Randall,” and its own swampy folklore into an entirely original concoction — and which confirms, yet again, how aptly fairy tale expresses the emotional landscape of adolescence. And more: how exceptionally well Billingsley uses it to do so. Narrator Briony Larkin is a self-proclaimed witch. She believes that out of childish jealousy of the attention Stepmother lavished on her twin sister, Rose, she called up the Old Ones, and Rose was brain-damaged in a violent windstorm. She avers that she is also responsible for Stepmother’s injuries in a tidal wave. “We mustn’t ever tell your father,” Stepmother said. Now Stepmother’s dead, and Briony hates herself, has sacrificed her future to care for Rose, forbids herself the joys of her beloved swamp, and fears her outing (and subsequent hanging) as a witch. But when Eldric comes to board at the family parsonage, bringing a young man’s energy and his “busy London blood pumping just inches away,” she begins to dig up suppressed memories. Tart, sad, funny, passionate, sensuous — Briony is all of these. As complex and tightly woven as her protagonist, Billingsley’s plot involves mystery, murder, romance, ancient lore, family drama, and sisterly love. Her Swampsea setting is earthy, visceral, and alive, and for all the adolescent self-hatred depicted here, there’s also a welcome hyperawareness of the physical world that Billingsley articulates with impressive poetic vigor. DEIRDRE F. BAKER
Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
Intermediate, Middle School Harper/HarperCollins 260 pp.
3/11 978-0-06-196278-3 $15.99
Recounting events that resemble her own family’s 1975 flight from Saigon and first months in the United States, Lai pens a novel in vividly imagined verse. Each brief poem encapsulates a mood and experience of that year. As the Vietnam War nears its end in April, ten-year-old Ha’s “Birthday Wishes” include “Wish Mother would stop / chiding me to stay calm / which makes it worse” and that “Father [who’s missing in action] would come home.” Registering for school in Alabama in August, Ha encounters “a woman who / pats my head / while shaking her own. / I step back, / hating pity, /…the pity giver / feels better, / never the pity receiver.” Such condescension is new to Ha and her brothers, all excellent students, as is being daunted by challenges like the urgent need to master idiosyncratic English. Meanwhile, Brother Vu takes odd jobs; Quang (who once said, “One cannot justify war / unless each side / fl aunts its own / blind conviction”) repairs cars. Many neighbors and classmates, with their own blind convictions, are cruelly antagonistic, but Ha soon finds allies at school and in English-tutor Ms. Washington. Lai’s spare language captures the sensory disorientation of changing cultures as well as a refugee’s complex emotions and kaleidoscopic loyalties. Th at Ms. Washington’s son died in Vietnam underlines the disparity between nations’ quarrels and their citizens’ humanity, suggesting this as a provocative companion to Katherine Paterson’s Park’s Quest (rev. 7/88). JOANNA RUDGE LONG
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
by Albert Marrin
High School Knopf 192 pp.
2/11 978-0-375-86889-4 $19.99
reviewed in the fall 2011 Horn Book Guide
Marrin details the social, political, and economic forces surrounding the catastrophic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. The book isn’t just about the disaster; copious historical context is presented with a high level of detail about various aspects of life for poor working immigrants. Archival photographs also help provide a sense of the times while putting faces to the tragedy. Websites. Bib., ind. BETTY CARTER
Okay for Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
Middle School Clarion 360 pp.
4/11 978-0-547-15260-8 $16.99
Bad-boy Doug Swieteck from The Wednesday Wars (rev. 7/07) — grudgingly respected for his bravado (he knew 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you) but feared because of his bullying older brother—is back in a stand-alone story. Readers meet Doug’s mean-spirited father, a man Doug dislikes but unconsciously emulates. When the family moves upstate after Mr. Swieteck’s temper gets him fi red, Doug’s discontent mirrors his father’s. They live in a “stupid” town, in a house Doug christens “The Dump,” and people sit on stoops because there isn’t “any boring thing else to do in boring Marysville.” But what “boring” Marysville, New York, offers Doug is something unexpected: kindness and a future. He gets a part-time job; meets Lil, a sweet love interest; has teachers willing to teach him (as Schmidt gradually reveals, his need is dire); and, above all, is captivated by a book of Audubon bird prints when a caring librarian helps Doug discover a talent for composition and art appreciation. Schmidt incorporates a myriad of historical events from the 1968 setting (the moon landing, a broken brother returning from Vietnam, the My Lai massacre) that make some of the improbable plot turns (the father’s sudden redemption, for example) all the more unconvincing. Still, Doug’s story emerges through a distinctive voice that reflects how one beat-up kid can become a young man who knows that the future holds “so much for him to find.” BETTY CARTER
by Lauren Myracle
High School Abrams/Amulet 361 pp.
4/11 978-0-8109-8417-2 $16.95
reviewed in the fall 2011 Horn Book Guide
Sixteen-year-old Cat’s gay friend is in a coma, the victim of a hate crime. Her search for the perpetrator leads to disturbing revelations about her friends in their rural impoverished North Carolina town. Cat’s authentically Southern, lyrical narration captures tough realities like prejudice, drug use, and abuse (emotional, sexual, and physical) but ends on an optimistic note. RACHEL L. SMITH