Middle Grade Fiction…telling me about another disease I really don’t want to get

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, by Deborah Hopkinson (2013)

Opening line: “What we now call the Great Trouble began one thick, hot, foul-smelling morning in August.”

As a recent transplant to a new state, I’ve got a new list of reader’s choice award nominees to read. I’d already read about 4 of them, but have a whole slew of others to get through as quickly as possible so that I can start promoting them to students! The Great Trouble was one of the ones available for immediate check out at the public library as soon as I heard I was being considered for a new middle school job, so it was up first!

Orphan Eel is doing his best to take care of himself and his little brother Henry, by doing just about any job he can get, including running errands for the local tailor. But when the tailor gets suddenly and incredibly sick one day, dying the next, Eel senses that finding his next paycheck is the least of his troubles. Soon the entire neighborhood appears to be just pulsing with the illness known to everyone as “The Blue Death”, but known to us today as cholera. In Eel’s desperation, he goes to another one of his employers, Dr. John Snow, to ask for help. Dr. Snow is instantly anxious to help, but not in the way Eel imagines. Instead of providing Eel’s friends with any kind of comfort or medicine, Dr. Snow immediately takes samples from the community well, in his opinion the culprit of the epidemic. Dr. Snow’s opinion is not a popular one — the well has the cleanest and best tasting water in the area, and everyone knows cholera is spread through the air! If Dr. Snow is going to prove otherwise, he’s going to have to act fast, and he’s going to need Eel’s help.

This book is going to be a big hit with kids who like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 (which was a big seller in my school in Illinois…we’ll see if that holds any weight in my new school). Like Anderson does in Fever, Hopkinson expertly blends real historical drama and characters with her created story, making it hard to tell where fiction and fact meet. (I was super impressed by Anderson’s ability to do this, if you remember.) This book also does a great job of exploring the scientific process (answering the “5 W’s” described by Dr. Snow) in a fictional context, reminiscent of Calpurnia Tate. It’s not going to win the South Carolina Junior Book Award, I’m pretty confident, but a good addition to the shelves.

1.5 stars

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My kind of ghost story

The Shades of London series by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star (2011)

The Madness Underneath (2013)

The Shadow Cabinet (2015)

The first book in this series, The Name of the Star, was a selection last year for our wonderful YA Bibiliobitches Book Club with my grad school besties, and after the first one, I was hooked. I just finished the third book in the series, and it was every bit as exciting as the first. In The Name of the Star, Rory Deveaux is a New Orleans-born fish out of water, brand new girl at Wexford Academy in London, after her parents move them across the pond for work. The day she arrives in the U.K. happens to coincide with a bunch of mysterious murders breaking out across the city, and they are suspiciously similar to those of the terrible Jack the Ripper of London’s past, making the media delve deep into Rippermania. Turns out though, that the main suspect is a guy that no video camera’s can pick up. A guy that only Rory can see.

There are a ton of twists and turns in this series that make it a thrilling page-turner. Add to that a likeable main character in Rory, sassy and clever, flawed and goofy. I was happily surprised to realize this wasn’t a trilogy, but an ongoing series. I will be anxiously anticipating the next installment.

2 stars

“Sad words are just another beauty…”

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (2008)

It took me like a gazillion days to read this novel, because I kept being interrupted by children’s books like Nate the Great and The Golden Compass and (UGH) Nancy Drew, although under normal circumstances, I would have blown right threw it. Because it’s easy to get lost in Cleave’s exquisite prose.

Through the voices of two women, one Nigerian and one English, Cleave tells a story of inexplicable connections and tragic circumstances. A story, that despite its horror, somehow makes you feel a little hopeful.

Sarah is a successful editor of a women’s magazine, mother to a four year old who refuses to take off his Batman costume, and wife to a man she has given up on long ago. Little Bee is a young woman growing up in a violent, warring country, fleeing to a land as foreign to her as sand is to a polar bear. And the only thing she has brought with her is the driver’s license of Sarah’s husband, Andrew.

Little by little, through alternating chapters, we learn how Little Bee came into possession of the license, why Sarah’s missing a finger on her left hand, and what happened to make Charlie insist he is a superhero. We also learn how single days can turn the world upside down, and what it means to save someone. Cleave’s artful way of building sentences, paragraphs, pages made me forget where I was and quite nearly took my breath away.

However. I know I was only there for four months, and I know that I am a very white American, but whenever I read a book set in Africa by a non-African, my hackles get raised. Because it seems that, more often than not, these portrayals end up being ones of horror or pity, and Cleave didn’t disappoint. And when authors (film-makers, journalists) do this, it feeds the world’s misconceptions. Instead of picturing the powerful waterfalls, the colorful fabrics, the beautiful smiles, we see AIDS, civil wars, refugees.

So even though I was blown away by Cleave’s writing and taken in by every character, I couldn’t quite love Little Bee.

Gentle and heart-stopping, 2 stars.

Dear Carolyn Keene

The Ruby in the Smoke, by Philip Pullman (1985)

I’m feeling really sleepy after a long weekend and don’t have much to say about this selection for Mystery Week this Wednesday in Children’s Lit, but I can’t help but say this one thing:

THIS IS WHAT I THOUGHT NANCY DREW WAS GONNA BE LIKE.

Scary. Mysterious. Complicated. Bloody. Dynamic characters. Clever dialogue.

Sometimes I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and it didn’t thrill me. But so much better than N.D. Get a clue, Carolyn Keene stock-writers.

1.5 stars

Big Wheels Keep on Turnin

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001)

I just finished this book for my Literature for Children class, which is supposed to cover kid’s books from infancy through 6th grade. Mortal Engines is NOT for kids that age. I’m not sure what my professor was thinking.

I’m not even sure where to begin to explain this book. It is all over the place. But here goes.

The first of a four-book series, Mortal Engines sets the stage–a stage that is a barren, post-apocalyptic world that was destroyed by the Ancients’ nuclear Sixty Minute War, and in which most of the cities are Traction Cities, which roll around on huge tank-like tracks and devour smaller cities to accumulate resources.

Orphan Tom Natsworthy works in London (where all power is controlled by Lord Mayor Magnus Chrome) as an Apprentice Historian , whose job is to find and preserve artifacts from the Ancients, such as “seedies” and computer scraps. Tom meets his idol and Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine, and in a sudden bustle, saves him from a disfigured knife-thrusting girl, who jumps off the moving city. To Tom’s surprise, Valentine pushes him off after the girl, causing Tom and the reader to question his heroic and handsome appearance. Amazingly, both Tom and the girl, whose name is Hester Shaw, survive the fall but are now stranded in the desolate “Hunting Grounds.” Hester is on a mission though–a mission to kill Valentine, whom she says murdered her parents and left her with her scarred face–and Tom is left with no other options but to go with her.

Meanwhile, Magnus Chrome sends his man Valentine off on a secret operation and Valentine’s daughter Katherine (whom Tom has the hots for) sets out to solve the mystery of this scar-faced girl who tried to kill her dad. Katherine, who has always been on the upper crust of London society, soon learns some of the shady ways the city operates, and the golden image of her father, her best friend, comes into question.

The chapters bounce back and forth mainly between Tom’s storyline and Katherine’s storyline, with a few side jumps to Valentine, Chrome, and Shrike (a.k.a. Grike in the North American version–what’s that about?), the post-death-robot-killing-machine-but-maybe-still-has-a-heart-of-some-sort fella. Although it took me a while to follow what was happening, Reeve definitely keeps your interest by all the jumping. It was a page turner, for sure.

But a children’s book? I don’t think so. Not only did it deal with really intense apocalyptic, environmental, and imperialistic issues, but the violence is CRAZY. I think I can tell you, without ruining any plot lines, that SO MANY PEOPLE DIE IN THIS BOOK. In HORRIBLY awful ways–sword through the throat, sword through the chest, explosions, nuclear meltdown, the list goes on and on… At the end, I said out loud,  in my quiet, sunny apartment, WHAT THE…..? Like many books in series, the ending isn’t really an ending, but I’m not sure that I’ll pick up the next one. There are only so many more characters left, and I don’t really feel like watching them kick the bucket too.

1.5 stars