Original ideas bog down in prosy, purpose-driven writing.

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DEATH WATCH

From the Undertaken Trilogy series , Vol. 1

Folklorist Berk enters the world of teen lit with mixed results.

In a town where ancient customs hold sway and the dead often linger, a young man named Silas searches for his father and learns that he may be destined to help move souls on. Berk knows a great deal about death and its attendant rituals and stories, but he doesn’t have the same facility with dialogue or characterization. Occasional incandescent moments—Silas’ journey to the dead’s gathering places, his efforts to reunite the souls of lost children with those of bereft mothers—fail to shine when crammed into a tale torn in too many directions. Plot necessities drive behavior: Mrs. Bowe, who plays the archetypal role of wise guide to Silas as he learns how to be an undertaker, is often and inexplicably reticent; Silas suddenly grows a backbone when needed but is otherwise intensely passive. Tighter editing could have streamlined the thematic clutter (search for a father, murder mystery, examination of family and responsibility, coming into power and, odd in a YA title, the pain of losing a child) and the tendency toward repetitive writing, but not the almost didactic underlying message (helpfully reiterated in the backmatter) about the importance of remembering the past and the dead.

Original ideas bog down in prosy, purpose-driven writing. (reading group guide, author Q&A) (Fantasy. 12 & up)

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4169-9115-1

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2011

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A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience.

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THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH

In middle school, where “Worst Thing” can mean anything from a pimple to public humiliation, Suzy “Zu” Swanson really has a reason to be in crisis: her former best friend has died unexpectedly, and the seventh-grader is literally silenced by grief and confusion.

A chance encounter with a jellyfish display on a school trip gives her focus—for Zu, the venomous Irukandji jellyfish, while rare, provides a possible explanation for the “how” of Franny’s death. And Zu is desperate for answers and relief from her haunting grief and guilt. In seven parts neatly organized around the scientific method as presented by Mrs. Turton, a middle school teacher who really gets the fragility of her students, Zu examines and analyzes past and present. A painful story of friendship made and lost emerges: the inseparable early years, Franny’s pulling away, Zu’s increasing social isolation, and a final attempt by Zu to honor a childhood pact. The author gently paints Zu as a bit of an oddball; not knowing what hair product to use leaves her feeling “like a separate species altogether,” and knowing too many species of jellyfish earns her the nickname Medusa. Surrounded by the cruelty of adolescence, Zu is awkward, smart, methodical, and driven by sadness. She eventually follows her research far beyond the middle school norm, because “ ‘Sometimes things just happen’ is not an explanation. It is not remotely scientific.”

A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience. (Fiction. 12 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-38086-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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A killer thriller.

THREE HOURS IN PARIS

Black takes time out from chronicling the neighborhood-themed exploits of half-French detective Aimée Leduc to introduce a heroine as American as apple pie.

Kate Rees never expected to see Paris again, especially not under these circumstances. Born and bred in rural Oregon, she earned a scholarship to the Sorbonne, where she met Dafydd, a handsome Welshman who stole her heart. The start of World War II finds the couple stationed in the Orkney Islands, where Kate impresses Alfred Stepney of the War Department with the rifle skills she developed helping her dad and five brothers protect the family’s cattle. After unimaginable tragedy strikes, Stepney recruits Kate for a mission that will allow her to channel her newly ignited rage against the Germans who’ve just invaded France. She’s parachuted into the countryside, where her fluent French should help her blend in. Landing in a field, she hops a milk train to Paris, where she plans to shoot Adolf Hitler as he stands on the steps of Sacre-Coeur. Instead, she kills his admiral and has to flee through the streets of Paris, struggling to hook up with the rescuers who are supposed to extract her. Meanwhile, Gunter Hoffman, a career policeman in a wartime assignment with the Reichssicherheitsdienst security forces, is charged with finding the assassin who dared attempt to kill the Führer. It’s hard to see how it can end well for both the cop and the cowgirl. The heroine’s flight is too episodic to capitalize on Black’s skill at character development, but she’s great at raising readers’ blood pressure.

A killer thriller.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Soho Crime

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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Those preparing to “slay the sucktastic beast known as high school” will particularly appreciate this spirited read.

MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS

From the Life of a Cactus series

In the sequel to Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (2017), Aven Green confronts her biggest challenge yet: surviving high school without arms.

Fourteen-year-old Aven has just settled into life at Stagecoach Pass with her adoptive parents when everything changes again. She’s entering high school, which means that 2,300 new kids will stare at her missing arms—and her feet, which do almost everything hands can (except, alas, air quotes). Aven resolves to be “blasé” and field her classmates’ pranks with aplomb, but a humiliating betrayal shakes her self-confidence. Even her friendships feel unsteady. Her friend Connor’s moved away and made a new friend who, like him, has Tourette’s syndrome: a girl. And is Lando, her friend Zion’s popular older brother, being sweet to Aven out of pity—or something more? Bowling keenly depicts the universal awkwardness of adolescence and the particular self-consciousness of navigating a disability. Aven’s “armless-girl problems” realistically grow thornier in this outing, touching on such tough topics as death and aging, but warm, quirky secondary characters lend support. A few preachy epiphanies notwithstanding, Aven’s honest, witty voice shines—whether out-of-reach vending-machine snacks are “taunting” her or she’s nursing heartaches. A subplot exploring Aven’s curiosity about her biological father resolves with a touching twist. Most characters, including Aven, appear white; Zion and Lando are black.

Those preparing to “slay the sucktastic beast known as high school” will particularly appreciate this spirited read. (Fiction. 12-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4549-3329-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Sterling

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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