With more skillful writing and editing, this could have been an engrossing tale.

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RIVER

Fourteen-year-old Emily, a Jewish American girl, is pushed through time to meet her ancestors in their youth.

In the prologue, the married adult Emily travels to Australia to visit her sickly grandmother, who mentions the summer years ago “when we were both fourteen.” From Chapter 1, Emily narrates the strange events of that summer: how a family trip got cut short by her mother’s cancer diagnosis and treatment and she and her 5-year-old brother, Billy, were sent to Australia to stay with their grandmother. During a midnight storm, Emily was transported back in time: first to her mother’s childhood in Australia, where she met the grandfather she never knew, then to her grandmother’s childhood in South Africa, the Lithuania of her great-grandmother, and, finally, ancient Babylon. In each region and era, Emily finds herself able to speak the language and pretend to be a local despite her need to ask questions whose answers she should know. She traces a history of anti-Semitism and varying injustices against Indigenous peoples while also reciting cultural and historical facts for readers’ edification. While the story’s concept is intriguing, its execution is lacking. The characters feel like place holders serving the plot, which itself lacks direction and momentum. Indigenous and black characters appear to explain or demonstrate their peoples’ plights to white main characters in strange, inauthentic ways.

With more skillful writing and editing, this could have been an engrossing tale. (notes) (Fantasy. 12-16)

Pub Date: April 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77183-457-5

Page Count: 285

Publisher: Guernica Editions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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Heartbreaking, historical, and a little bit hopeful.

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SALT TO THE SEA

January 1945: as Russians advance through East Prussia, four teens’ lives converge in hopes of escape.

Returning to the successful formula of her highly lauded debut, Between Shades of Gray (2011), Sepetys combines research (described in extensive backmatter) with well-crafted fiction to bring to life another little-known story: the sinking (from Soviet torpedoes) of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff. Told in four alternating voices—Lithuanian nurse Joana, Polish Emilia, Prussian forger Florian, and German soldier Alfred—with often contemporary cadences, this stints on neither history nor fiction. The three sympathetic refugees and their motley companions (especially an orphaned boy and an elderly shoemaker) make it clear that while the Gustloff was a German ship full of German civilians and soldiers during World War II, its sinking was still a tragedy. Only Alfred, stationed on the Gustloff, lacks sympathy; almost a caricature, he is self-delusional, unlikable, a Hitler worshiper. As a vehicle for exposition, however, and a reminder of Germany’s role in the war, he serves an invaluable purpose that almost makes up for the mustache-twirling quality of his petty villainy. The inevitability of the ending (including the loss of several characters) doesn’t change its poignancy, and the short chapters and slowly revealed back stories for each character guarantee the pages keep turning.

Heartbreaking, historical, and a little bit hopeful. (author’s note, research and sources, maps) (Historical fiction. 12-16)

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-16030-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Philomel

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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A trilogy opener both rich and strange, if heavy at the front end.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

From the Peculiar Children series , Vol. 1

Riggs spins a gothic tale of strangely gifted children and the monsters that pursue them from a set of eerie, old trick photographs.

The brutal murder of his grandfather and a glimpse of a man with a mouth full of tentacles prompts months of nightmares and psychotherapy for 15-year-old Jacob, followed by a visit to a remote Welsh island where, his grandfather had always claimed, there lived children who could fly, lift boulders and display like weird abilities. The stories turn out to be true—but Jacob discovers that he has unwittingly exposed the sheltered “peculiar spirits” (of which he turns out to be one) and their werefalcon protector to a murderous hollowgast and its shape-changing servant wight. The interspersed photographs—gathered at flea markets and from collectors—nearly all seem to have been created in the late 19th or early 20th centuries and generally feature stone-faced figures, mostly children, in inscrutable costumes and situations. They are seen floating in the air, posing with a disreputable-looking Santa, covered in bees, dressed in rags and kneeling on a bomb, among other surreal images. Though Jacob’s overdeveloped back story gives the tale a slow start, the pictures add an eldritch element from the early going, and along with creepy bad guys, the author tucks in suspenseful chases and splashes of gore as he goes. He also whirls a major storm, flying bullets and a time loop into a wild climax that leaves Jacob poised for the sequel.

A trilogy opener both rich and strange, if heavy at the front end. (Horror/fantasy. 12-14)

Pub Date: June 7, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59474-476-1

Page Count: 234

Publisher: Quirk Books

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2014

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