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The Golden Compass: The Graphic Novel, Vol. 1

Philip Pullman, adapted by Stéphane Melchior-Durand, trans. from the French by Annie Eaton, illus. by Clément Oubrerie. Knopf, $18.99 (80p) ISBN 978-0-553-52371-3

Pullman’s His Dark Materials ranks with the work of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, and this graphic adaptation is the first of three books from a French team that will cover the events of The Golden Compass. It introduces the fierce and canny Lyra Belacqua, whose quest is set in a steampunk Europe where the Magesterium, a church government of Orwellian dimensions, plots to deprive its subjects of free will. Oubrerie’s characters are, at first glance, rougher and shaggier than Pullman’s polished work might suggest, but readers are quickly drawn into the dreaming spires of Jordan College, the magnificence of Lyra’s nemesis Mrs. Coulter’s mansion, and the fens of the water-dwelling gyptians, all presented in a fast-paced series of compressed, closely-worked panels. The story’s signature fantasies—the daemons, animal companions possessed by every person in this alternate universe; the armored mercenary polar bears called panserbjorne; and the alethiometer, Lyra’s truth diviner—are realized with compelling force (and, in the case of the daemons, humor). Skillfully translated back into English, Melchior-Durand and Oubrerie’s retelling will bring Pullman’s work new fans and give previous readers new pleasure. Ages 10–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War

Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine, illus. by Claudia Dávila. Kids Can, $17.95 (48p) ISBN 978-1-77138-126-0

Chikwanine, who was abducted by a rebel militia at age five and now works as a public speaker and activist, describes a childhood filled with horrors, heartbreak, and hope growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s. Writing with Humphreys, he begins with a capsule history of the region’s instabilities before moving on to his early life in the city of Beni; his father was a human rights lawyer, while his mother sold fish and fabric at the market. After Chikwanine and some friends are abducted during an after-school soccer game, the direct first-person narration lays bare the boy’s confusion and pain: “Every day was hard and terrible, filled with fear, torture and death.” Dávila’s panel sequences temper the story’s atrocities, but only slightly: readers see the sandal-clad foot of the friend Chikwanine was forced to kill; elsewhere, bodies hang from trees while he is shown holding a rifle as large as he is. Chikwanine escaped the rebels not long after, but his family’s troubles were just beginning. Back matter provides extensive information about the use of child soldiers worldwide. Ages 5–8. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

M.T. Anderson. Candlewick, $24.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6818-1

Anderson’s ambitious nonfiction hybrid strives to meld the history of the bloody events of Russia from the 1917 Revolution through its transformation into the Soviet Union to the atrocities of WWII with a biography of prolific Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who was both a victim and a hero of the times he lived in. Anderson has clearly done his research, much of it original, and some of the strongest chapters—especially one on starvation and cannibalism in Leningrad during the winter of 1942—are filled with gruesome details from primary sources. But his treatment of Shostakovich’s life and character is often speculative, failing to richly evoke the composer’s passion and talent for music. In some heavily historical chapters, Shostakovich is only a minor presence. With numerous anecdotes incorporating language like “apparently,” “supposedly,” and “may have,” Anderson draws attention to the difficulty of verifying source material from this historical period in Russia, even questioning one of the major sources on Shostakovich’s life. A fascinating, if uneven, examination of an important musical figure living in a time of extraordinary political and social turmoil. Ages 14–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Weight of Feathers

Anna-Marie McLemore. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $18.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-05865-2

Like all Paloma girls, Lace was born with small escalas decorating her body, “a sprinkling of scales off a pale fish, a gift from the river goddess Apanchanej.” Life revolves around performing as sirenas in her itinerant family’s popular mermaid show, a tourist attraction rivaled only by that of their nemesis family, the Corbeaus, who have feathers instead of scales, and dance high in the trees. Superstition and a generations-old feud fuel hatred between the talented families, and when Cluck, a Corbeau, saves Lace during a chemical rainstorm caused by a nearby adhesive manufacturing plant, he unwittingly dooms Lace’s future with her family. McLemore’s prose is ethereal and beguiling, the third-person narration inflected with Spanish and French words and phrases that reflect the non-magical aspects of the Paloma and Corbeau heritage. The enchanting setup and the forbidden romance that blooms between these two outcasts will quickly draw readers in, along with the steady unspooling of the families’ history and mutual suspicions in this promising first novel. Ages 14–up. Agent: Taylor Martindale, Full Circle Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Fans of the Impossible Life

Kate Scelsa. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-233175-5

Scelsa debuts with an evocative novel about finding friendship, love, and oneself, as well as the pain that often accompanies the journey. When Jeremy, a shy artist who has kept to himself after a humiliating incident at school left him scarred and vulnerable, meets Mira and Sebby, two sophomores with troubled pasts, the three form a strong bond. Mira, who is struggling to tame debilitating depression, makes Jeremy feel a profound sense of belonging, while his attraction to Sebby, an openly gay foster kid, ignites a passion he’s never known. But Sebby’s demons, Mira’s self-doubts, and Jeremy’s insecurities begin to seem too much for the trio to bear, and their world of shared laughter and easy camaraderie starts to crumble. Scelsa alternates among the perspectives of these three characters seamlessly, allowing readers to feel their raw emotions and deep emotional needs. Themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and resilience resonate strongly, while the characters’ stories are so beautifully told and their struggles so hauntingly familiar that they will stay with readers long after they have finished the book. Ages 14–up. Agent: Brianne Johnson, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Vengeance Road

Erin Bowman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-544-46638-8

In a tale set in 1877 and inspired by the legend of the Lost Dutchman, Kate Thompson sets out on a quest for revenge after her father is strung up by outlaws; disguised as a man, she gets caught up in two brothers’ hunt for gold in the Superstition Mountains of the Arizona Territory. Bowman (the Taken series) crafts an unflinchingly bloody tale of the Wild West, with flesh-and-bone characters she doesn’t hesitate to obliterate with a bullet. Each plot twist—and there are many—is purposeful, driving Kate toward her goal while allowing her to grow, alternately showing a steely nerve and a compassionate side. In Jesse, Kate finds a perfect foil, and their friendship, marred by lies and betrayal, is the stuff of reality rather than folk legend. Kate’s narration, peppered with phrases like “I says” and “it weren’t,” is initially jarring, but the driving force of her story quickly vanquishes any stumbling over her diction. Kate’s pursuit of the murderous Rose Riders, intertwined with gold-rush greed driving men to madness, makes for a thoroughly engrossing read. Ages 14–up. Agent: Sara Crowe, Harvey Klinger. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Simon

Michael Mullin. Gemiknight Press (gemiknight.com), $12.99 paper (254p) ISBN 978-0-9851884-7-4

Set in an affluent Massachusetts community, Mullin’s contemporary update of Hamlet opens with news reports of a multiple homicide, dubbed the “Mansion Murders.” The narrative, tinged with cynicism over country club culture and media sensationalism, shifts between the present day and the events leading up to the murders. Nineteen-year-old Simon is a film student in New York City who, saddened by the death of his father and chagrined by his mother’s remarriage to her uncle, distances himself from them both. When viewing a video of the wedding, he spots the ghost of his father in the film. The key pieces of Shakespeare’s play are all present—an increasingly aberrant Hamlet in cinema-obsessed Simon; Ophelia in the form of Simon’s smart, yet quick to unravel ex, Juliana; and the off-putting relationship between Simon’s mother and his uncle—and those fascinated by the machinations of the original play will be intrigued to learn how Mullin manipulates the plot. His positioning of the play’s tragic conclusion as a headline-grabbing mass murder should hook readers from the start. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Half a Creature From the Sea: A Life in Stories

David Almond, illus. by Eleanor Taylor. Candlewick, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7636-7877-7

Beyond offering eight alluring epiphany stories (most previously published elsewhere), Almond (The Tightrope Walkers) provides a rare glimpse into the writer’s imagination and the process of creation. “I try to do what many writers have done before me: show that ordinary places can be extraordinary,” he notes in the introduction. The selections are prefaced with childhood memories that serve as inspiration for strange, mysterious narratives illuminated by Taylor’s haunting b&w drawings. Almond invites readers to journey through streets lined with small stores, to savor a saveloy sandwich from the local pork shop, and to ponder the possibility of fathers, dead and gone, returning to Earth. They will visit strange houses reputedly occupied by monsters or poltergeists, and move on toward the coast where a home-schooled girl is drawn to the sea. They will meet bullies, a priest who does not believe in God, boys who love soccer, and girls who decide to run a half marathon. The sights, sounds, smells, and emotions evoked in these stories will long resonate with readers and act as reminders of the joys, tragedies, and magic of childhood. Ages 12–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Don’t Fail Me Now

Una LaMarche. Razorbill, $17.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-59514-817-9

After Michelle’s drug-addicted mother is arrested, 17-year-old Michelle is left to fend for her two younger siblings. Again. With virtually no one to help them, Michelle (who is half-black) feels lost until her previously unknown (and “the-color-of-tracing-paper white”) half-sister, Leah, shows up with her stepbrother, Tim. Buck Devereaux—the long-absent father that Michelle, her siblings, and Leah all share—is dying, and he wants to see them. After some persuasion, all five step-siblings pile into Michelle’s broken-down station wagon to travel from Baltimore to California. Buck’s abandonment permeates the complicated getting-to-know-you conversations that happen along the way, helping everyone bond them as they face major obstacles on the road. LaMarche (Like No Other) spends substantial time setting up Michelle’s family’s difficulties, so the story initially stalls before the road trip gets underway. Michelle’s narration can be surprisingly formal (“I’d like to think that I’m owed this one transgression after so many years of playing by my mom’s hypocritical rules, especially since my motives are mostly pure”), but her budding relationship with Tim adds a sweet-natured romantic dimension to this sibling-centered story. Ages 12–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Blackthorn Key

Kevin Sands. S&S/Aladdin, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4814-4651-8

First-time novelist Sands has written an exciting and self-assured tale of alchemy and dark secrets set during the late-17th-century reign of King Charles II. Fourteen-year-old orphan Christopher Rowe is lucky to be apprenticed to a kindly apothecary, Master Benedict Blackthorn. But someone—the Cult of the Archangel, it is rumored—is murdering London’s apothecaries, believing that members of the Apothecary’s Guild are concealing a dangerous secret. Christopher is an easygoing boy, fond of pranks and experiments (the book opens with his ill-advised and ill-fated attempt at mixing up some gunpowder), but after Master Benedict is assaulted, he finds himself on the run, pursued by the murderous henchmen of a rival apothecary and the dangerous Lord Richard Ashcombe, His Majesty’s Warden. Sands adeptly balances the novel’s darker turns with moments of levity and humor, and fills the book with nicely detailed characters and historical background—plus lots of explosions. It’s a story that should have broad appeal, while especially intriguing readers with an existing interest in chemistry, history, and decoding puzzles. Ages 10–14. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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