Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Door of No Return by Sarah Mussi

Main character: 16-year-old Zac Baxter
Location: England and Ghana
Time period: Contemporary, with references to events in the 1700's
Genre: YA Fiction, Suspense, Slavery

The Door of No Return is a exciting, suspenseful story that deal with that approaches the familiar topic of African Slavery from a totally different angle--at least it's a different angle for those of us living in the United States. Instead of focusing on slavery in the American South before the Civil War, it looks at the complicity of the British government in the slave trade.

Zac has grown up hearing his grandfather telling stories about how he is the last descendant of an African king who was tricked out of a golden treasure intended to ransom his youngest son who had been captured by slave traders. Though the ransom was paid, the boy was never returned to his father but was instead sent to a plantation in Jamaica. Zac's grandfather was adamant that his family, and all families descended from slaves, deserved compensation from the British government and claimed to have documents that verified his story. Zac didn't really believe in his grandfather's stories--at least not until the night that they were mugged and his grandfather was murdered. Then Zac's house is robbed. And Zac is attacked on the street. Then Zac is removed from the foster house he was sent to when his foster father begins to ask too many questions.

There are a number of things that I like about this book. Zac is a very appealing kid, even in his most angry and sullen moments. After reading a number of suspense books in which the main character is betrayed by someone he trusts too much, I was glad to see that Zac developed a healthy dose of paranoia. Of course, he still winds up trusting the wrong person, but I give him points for the many people he is wary of. I really liked that his foster parents were genuinely concerned about him, even after he was taken from their care and they no longer had an official duty toward him. He makes some friends along the way, patricularly Ashley, Mina, and Badu--young people like himself whose own life experiences and family stories give him the clues he needs to solve the mystery and fulfill his destiny.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Antsy Does Time by Neal Shusterman

Main character: 8th-grader Antsy
Location: Brooklyn
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

This is a sequel, of sorts, to Shusterman's "The Schwa Was Here." And as in that book, the secondary character is named for a Diacritical mark--in this case Gunnar Umlaut (A+220). (What's in store for his next Antsy book? Francois Cedille? Jose Tilde?) But I digress. This is yet another Shusterman book that uses humor to mask a very serious subject.

Antsy is paired up with Gunnar to do a project based on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. When Antsy goes over to Gunnar's house, he discovers that Gunnar is carving his own headstone--he has an extremely rare, incurable disease and only has about six months to live. Stunned, Antsy offers Gunnar a month of his own life. He even writes up a contract to formalize his gift. The next day at school, word begins to creep around and before he knows it, Antsy is speaheading a movement to extend Gunnar's life a day or a month at a time.

In the meantime, Antsy is also dealing with his workaholic father, a rapidly growing crush on Gunnar's sister, and the fact that their attempt to turn Gunnar's back yard into a recreation of the Dust Bowl has worked a little too well and is killing all the neighboring lawns as well. There is also the very strained feeling in the Umlaut household whenever Mr. Umlaut is at home.

Antsy is a great character. He is impulsive but good hearted. Even when things come tumbling down on top of him, you can't help but root for him.

Antsy Does Time is on the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading List.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost

Main Character: 12-year-old Willow
Location: Alaska
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Books in Verse

This was a really lovely book about a young girl struggling to grow up, and making mistakes along the way.

Willow lives in a remote part of Alaska and spends most of her time with her dad's sled dog team. She desperately wants her parents to see that she is grown up and responsible enough to drive a small sled with one dog by herself for an overnight trip to her grandparents' home. She is finally allowed to do so, and arrives safely there. In high spirits on her return trip, she allows the dogs to run fast and doesn't see the fallen tree until it is too late. Her beloved Roxy runs into one of the branches and seriously injures her eye. Willow takes care of her as best she can, but is wracked by guilt and the fear that her parents will have Roxy put to sleep.

The story is told in different voices. When Willow is speaking, the text is written in verse that takes a diamond shape. In the center of the diamond are certain words in bold print--a hidden message revealing Willow's deepest thoughts. Other sections are narrated by the various animals who witness the events, and who are actually the spirits of Willow's Athapascan ancestors watching over her.

This is a slender book that doesn't take long to read, but it touched me deeply and at times brought me to tears.

Diamond Willow is on the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading list.