No Place for Me, by Barthe DeClements

Copper’s mother has checked into an alcohol detox center. Again. And her stepfather is heading out for Portland, Oregon, with no intention of taking Copper with him. and indeed it’s unclear whether he intends to remain with Copper’s mother. Copper still has hopes of staying with her best friend, in Seattle, until her mother’s released from the program, but her stepfather kills that plan immediately; as the book opens, he’s calling her mother’s siblings to try to arrange a place for Copper. Stop one is Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Tom’s house. They have three daughters, thirteen, eleven and eight…and Copper gets stuck with the nasty tattletale bedwetting youngest. Or at least that’s how Copper sees the brat—er, her cousin. She can’t put posters up, because the walls have just been painted. She can’t wash the smelly quilt she gets stuck with because her aunt wants it dry cleaned. She has to start at a new school part way through the school year. And worst of all, she’s stuck in Hicksville1. Nowhere to go after school, except the skating rink. And Dorothy and Tom have so many rules! And they enforce them2! Finally, Copper talks the oldest daughter, Kim, into sneaking off to the roller skating rink; the parents have forbidden it because they think that’s where all the stoners go, but it’s also where the Cool Boy spends his time. The eight-year-old rats them out…

…and Copper’s off to home number two. This one seems at first to be a better home, at least from Copper’s perspective. No other kids, she gets a canopy bed because it’s Aunt Judith’s childhood fantasy3. and the condo has a pool. But Uncle Raymond is running for state senate and one night they have to go off to a fundraising dinner. But the babysitter’s got the flu! Copper says she’s old enough to stay home alone, and ordinarily she would be. But someone breaks into the condo. Copper, terrified, hides under her bed and calls the police from the extension in her room.

Brave of her, no? Certainly faster than I’d have thought, at age twelve, in a similar situation!

But all Uncle Raymond can think of is a) the liability of a child left alone while he’s off politicking4.and b) that this barely pubescent girl is standing in a sleep-t in front of a couple of strange men5. …and we’re off to home #3. The home of last resort. The home with (gasp) the sister of the biological father, whom we haven’t met, The sister who is a witch. And yes, she really is a witch, in the sense that she’s Wiccan, or pagan, and that in a fairly modern sense, given that the book was written almost thirty years ago. Also completely unlike Copper’s previous three families. She cooks for the entire week and freezes the meals for reheating later. She works outside the home. She takes an interest in Copper’s schooling–they go to the school together on Copper’s first day, and the aunt introduces her around, and the aunt agrees to let one teacher bring a field trip to her property to search for mushrooms. And she doesn’t put up with any of Copper’s bullshit. Despite Copper’s self-justifying’ behavior, in the end Maggie offers Copper a home for as long as she needs it, even after her own mother is released from the treatment program. Open with Copper at every turn, in the end Copper feels bad enough about lying to Maggie that she does seriously consider…well, growing up. And also considering the very real possibility that her own mother might not be able to provide her with a home. At least I get the feeling that Copper’s beginning to recognize that these aggravating rule-bearers are people in their own right. Not just her caretakers I’ll admit here that Copper at first comes across as being…what? Spoiled? Entitled? Self-centered? Twelve? Having grown up in a manipulative environment, raised by an alcoholic mother with no money-management skills and a stepfather who doesn’t regard her as his own child, in the sense of someone for whom you’re responsible?

Reading this as an adult, I can see that a lot of Copper’s problems do come back to that last issue. But this is an afterschool special type of book. A good one, perhaps, but I think it’s meant more to be enjoyable, and teach a lesson to kids about what constitutes a family, than provide an in-depth analysis of child rearing to adults. All standard disclaimers apply; I was given this book by someone else who reviewed it on WordPress, though with no obligation to review it at all, much less give it a good review. Just give this beloved book a Forever Home. Review by Nikki B.

  • 1having spent some time in Seattle, yeah: Copper’s right on the mark here, at least from a twelve-year-old’s perspective. Marysville is hicksville, if you’ve grown up in Seattle.
  • 2As an adult, reading between the lines, I can guess that Copper’s mother was simply drunk enough of the time that she couldn’t be bothered with Copper
  • 3see where this is leading?
  • 4never mind the liability of discarding said child simply because she might become a liability!
  • 5never mind that she’s just had the wits scared out of her and the two strange men are the police officers she’s had the presence of mind to call
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Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Alex is preparing to enjoy a weekend alone. All by himself. Without his pesky little sister. His parents have decided he’s old enough to stay by himself while they drive off a few towns over in Iowa to visit relatives.

Unfortunately this is the weekend that the volcano underlying the caldera that we know as Yellowstone Park decides to release some pent-up tension, thus distributing several inches to several feet of ash across the majority of the United States.

Alex sets out to find his family, gone to a neighboring town that’s close enough if you’re able to drive, and a long hike in ideal circumstances. But cars can’t function with all the ash in the air, and the mix of ash and snow on the ground makes walking unfeasible. He slogs along on foot for a few miles, before he rigs himself a pair of skis, and traverses this newly transformed alien society, meeting a range of people. Some organized. Some scrabbling helplessly on their own. Some cruel. Some humane.

…and I’ll stop there, except to say that while the ending is not wholly bleak and inconclusive—he doesn’t find his parents and sister, but he does find a safe refuge, which welcomes the capable Darla on the pair’s own terms—it’s clearly a setup for a sequel or two.

I have to admit this was one of my favorite post-apocalypse books yet.

Mullin picked a more-or-less plausible trigger for the apocalypse. Yellowstone is a long-dormant but still-active volcano; hence all the pretty geysers splurting about. Its caldera is so huge that for decades and centuries, we’ve thought it was just a really wide indentation. He also thought through the physical effects of that much ash being dumped, with cataclysmic rapidity, into the upper atmosphere.

Anything with an internal combustion engine will cease functioning with appalling rapidity. Anyone who remembers driving through the ash cloud after Mount St. Helens erupted can attest to the effect that even a comparatively small amount of volcanic ash has on automobile engines, though in fairness to the likely readers, this is something that even their parents might be too young to remember.

The ash cloud’s effect on food crops and animals is also plausible. Plants can’t grow since the clouds block the sun permanently—no photosynthesis, not to mention the precipitous drop in temperature plays merry bleep with their ability to grow at all. Animals start getting silicosis as the ash erodes their lungs. Kale is the only plant that survives, and that only if the people are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse. (But I’ll stop there to avoid including spoilers in the review.) The absence of plants means the onset of something we haven’t seen since the advent of reliable canning: scurvy. I’m not entirely convinced that it’d get to the stage Mullin describes as rapidly as he describes it; he is, however, correct that it’s swifter than we might think, especially if the person’s diet hasn’t been great pre-apocalypse. Though I’ll draw a veil over the survivors’ solution again to avoid spoilers, I have to admit I think it’s an ingenious one.

I really liked how Mullin handled the relationship between Alex and Darla. (sorry. yes: that is slightly spoilerish) Darla’s not a screamer: she’s a tough survivor who has considerable mechanical ability.

I wasn’t too crazy about the FEMA camp; its corruption and pettiness is in disconcertingly stark contrast to the more plausible range of human reactions. It’s only a couple of months since the volcano erupted. I know we’re on more of a knife-edge, in terms of actual food supplies, at any given moment than most people realize. Also, there’s an issue of transportation: cars only go a few miles before the engines choke with ash. Rather, the rest of the book seems so well thought out, and so well realized, that stumbling into that morass struck me as a more than slightly unsubtle social commentary on the Woez and Ebils of Big Gummint. Especially since the local and municipal governments seem to manage to arrange things more peaceably and equably.

Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough

Hello, children. All tucked in for the night? I’ve a lovely bedtime story for you. Too bad the storms have taken out the power lines and brought down the phone lines, but then I find that the flicker of a single candle’s light is so much more conducive to letting one’s imagination roam free.

What’s that you say? Someone’s coming up the stairs? Nonsense. It’s just the wind blowing across the marshes. This house always creaks, in calm and in storm…let me lock the door, just to make you more comfortable. Here, let me tuck up your comforter a bit higher, for protection against the phantoms of the night…er, drafts.

All set? Then let me begin. Barraclough’s novel Long Lankin is based on a ballad by the same name, in which a departing husband warns his wife to beware Long Lankin, who lives in the (depending on which version you’re singing) hay, moss, moors or marsh, and to fasten the doors and windows firmly against Lankin while the husband’s away…of course Lankin gets in anyway, or we wouldn’t have much of a ballad or story. He kills the baby, with the assistance of the erstwhile nurse. Lankin is hung, the nurse burned. There’s some question in regards the original ballad as to whether Lankin’s a living human being, or something more supernatural. Barraclough chooses option B.

Barraclough follows this basic trope and elaborates on it, in the process channeling every single nocturnal phantasm of my childhood; I challenge anyone to read this book on a dark and stormy night while alone in a house apart from any other human dwelling. Heck, I had trouble reading it myself in broad daylight—but then it’s hard to see the text when you’re hiding behind the sofa from the book.

The year is 1958, and Cora and her younger sister Mimi have been sent to live with their (great)Aunt Ida, in a small village caught between the tidal marshes and the deserted moors. (Yep. Exactly what you’re thinking.) Ida clearly does not want them, though she doesn’t specify why; the children simply assume it’s because she’s a crotchety, eccentric old lady who prefers to live alone. Ida insists on a number of peculiar restrictions: keep all the doors locked and the windows nailed shut, don’t go down to the near-derelict old church, don’t go near the creek or the tidal flats and so on. The children do their best, but soon rebel against remaining in the musty stuffy overheated house.

Needless to say, the kids disobey her the first chance they get, as who wouldn’t given the lack of explanations. Needless to say, the kids trigger the supernatural events of the book thereby. We progress from Mimi restarting wetting the bed because she’s too afraid to pass the creepy portrait hanging over the bathroom door to sightings of figures from nightmare associated with the derelict church and barred lychgate…to Lankin himself pursuing the four children and Aunt Ida through a long-forgotten crypt. We do find out more about who Lankin and the other ghosts are and their connection to the children narrating the story through the children’s research…but I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. Just remember to read this during the bright daylight.

The story is told in first person narrative, shifting primarily between Cora and Roger, with occasional forays into Ida’s perspective, and those of the historical figures. It might help if readers are familiar with the Long Lankin ballad, and American readers with English1 history of the past four hundred years, but not obligatory.

Steeleye Span’s version of the ballad, reasonably accurate.
Things I’ve learned from British folksongs, for those of us who can stand a joke.

1Hush now. That’s where the story takes place.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

What’s it like to be raised by a serial killer…and how much do you really trust the nature versus nurture debate?

Jasper ‘Jazz’ Lyga is struggling with issues that put most teens’ trials into a league with skipping through a daisy field. First, he’s covering up the fact that his grandmother was already slipping into dementia when she was assigned to be his caregiver four years ago, and she’s been deteriorating ever since. Second, his mother is dead and his father imprisoned…and third, his father raised him for almost ten years.

His father, the serial killer. Which brings us to the last worry: will Jazz be able to break that early molding, or will he merely crack and become just like his father? To compound all those worries, concerns, problems and issues, there’s a copycat serial killer, working in his father’s style, in the small town of Lobo’s Nod in which he’s now living. Not surprisingly, the police consider Jazz to be Suspect #1. Well, wouldn’t you?

He and his hemophiliac friend, Howie, work together to research the identity of the serial killer, in parallel with the police; the boys in blue, while individually grateful for the insight Jazz can give as the child of a(nother) serial killer, are as an institution resistant to accepting help from someone who himself is automatically a suspect…even by Jazz himself.

While as a mystery this isn’t brilliant—I’m terrible at guessing whodunit in such books and even here I’d narrowed it down to a smaller number of suspects than those listed by Jazz and/or the police—as a YA novel describing the thought process of a serial killer, and of the angst of a teenaged child of same, wonderful.

How do serial killers do it, again and again and again and again, without drawing suspicion on themselves? Intelligence, quite possibly off the charts, check. Charm to put a politician or a televangelist to shame, check. The ability to understand others’ psychology and therefore manipulate them, check….and Jazz has all three in equal amounts to his father’s abilities. As the first of a trilogy, this book doesn’t end with a neatly tied-up ending—the serial killer caught, Jazz vindicated, his father back in jail—but rather with a huge hook for the subsequent books. Under the circumstances, I’ll forgive Lyga, however. The first book is worth the cliffhanger. I’ll definitely be looking up the sequels.

This is a police procedural-style mystery, and one of the few books to which I’ll add something of a parental advisory: given the nature of the crime being investigated, not to mention the upbringing of the protagonist, there is necessarily a considerable amount of detail in regards the nature of what constitutes a serial killer. This might therefore be better for more mature teens. On the plus side, this is the reason I’d suggest the book to those not put off by such things: I think Lyga pegs the mental workings of someone raised in this manner just right. On the minus, well, gee: serial killers’ methodology and psychology can be icky! (no surprises there!)

As a librarian, I’m often torn in regards warning parents about books. On the one hand, I think that parents do have the right to determine what their children read and therefore the concomitant responsibility to not only be aware of what their children are reading but more specifically the responsibility to read what their children are reading before the kids do. On the other hand…kids are tougher than parents might realize, and often may find a traumatic issue easier to deal with when they see it in a work of fiction rather than meeting it in real life.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

Sometimes the worst thing to have happen to you isn’t your mother coercing you into attending your father’s wedding to a woman you (and she) have never met.

As the book begins, Our Protagonist Hadley is rushing through JFK to catch a plane to London to be a bridesmaid in her father’s1 wedding to a woman2 Hadley’s never met, for whom her father left her mother after a semester’s sabbatical in Oxford. She misses the plane’s boarding window by four minutes; while the airline can at least get her on the next flight out to London, at ten o’clock that night, the delay means she’ll arrive in London a mere two hours before the wedding is to take place.

She ends up meeting The Love Interest3 in the gate area’s waiting zone, when she decides to go for something to eat but the woman sitting next to her refuses to look after Hadley’s carryon luggage while she’s in the food court. Oliver, being a reasonably gentlemanly sort, comes with her to assist with her baggage, and divert himself. As luck, or rather an author with an eye to foreshadowing, would have it, the two sit next to one another on the flight, and alternate between falling asleep on one another’s shoulders and sharing secrets and pretzels.

Well, she does. He’s a bit cagy, and clearly there’s something about his father that’s not quite right; he looks at her oddly and changes the subject whenever she presses him for details. It isn’t until the marriage ceremony is over—Hadley makes it in the squeak of time and even serves as bridesmaid with a bid of emergency touching up from the bride’s family—and someone mentions needing to leave to attend a funeral for a friend, another Oxford don, in Paddington at two pm that Hadley realizes that it is Oliver’s father4.

She rushes away from her father, attempting to assemble everyone for the post-ceremony photo shoot, and rushes off through a strange city to seek Oliver. Ordinarily, she’d have no chance…but hey, this is a ‘love at first sight’ book. She finds him, and in enough time to have a word of apology before he has to go into his church session. She thinks that’s the end of it; they’ve known each other for less than twenty-four hours, right? No, he gate-crashes her father’s reception, having had little more idea of where she’ll be than she did him.

Now before anyone starts getting dizzy from rolling their eyes, it’s not quite as ghastly as I’ve made it out to be; certainly, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is no less implausible than a lot of the YA, new adult and full-on adult chicklit I’ve read. It’s decently written. It’s decently edited. The characterization’s reasonable for such a short book. Smith didn’t attempt to squeeze more of a plot into the book than would fit; we’re talking a timespan of twenty-four hours with just enough backstory to fill in the details.

There are a few hiccups, other than the basic one of whether you really can fall in love at first sight. Airlines are pissy enough when you miss a connection for reasons that aren’t their fault—blizzards in Denver, say—but missing a flight for any personal reason whatsoever means you’re out of luck. There are a couple of hackneyed plot devices, for which see the footnote. However, and this is a huge caveat, I appreciate the fact that Andrew and Hadley begin to make up, after two years of minimal interaction after he left her mother. Also, that Charlotte is being friendly without any intimation of “becoming Hadley’s mother”, or even suggesting that Hadley will have a life with them rather than with her biological mother. Hadley’s there for the wedding and she’s going back to the States afterward; if they’re on speaking terms, that’s as good as could be hoped right then.

Oh, and Hadley has a nice time dancing with Oliver.

1Andrew
2Charlotte
3Oliver.
4yes, I know, I know: London’s a huge city and there will inevitably be a number of funerals going on at any given time, just as there are at least several weddings. This, however, isn’t quite as implausible a plot device as it sounds, though, if you think about it. Trust me; there won’t be many Oxford professors getting buried in a specific neighborhood at the time when Our Boi had to attend a mandatory family gathering

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson

Taylor Edwards is a fairly typical high-ambition seventeen-year-old, despite being the ‘talentless’ middle child; her older brother is determined to be a lawyer like their father while her younger sister is similarly determined to be a ballet dancer, while she spends her summers in language immersion courses and oceanography internships.

Or at least she has for the past five years, since she did A Terrible Thing to her BFF, Lucy, and the boy they both had a crush on, the summer that they were all twelve. Tragically, her father has been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer on the day of Taylor’s birthday in May; the family decides that they will spend one last summer together in their summer home in the Poconos.

…which means that Taylor must confront both Lucy and Henry, in addition to being tossed into the deep end of her first summer job, all in addition to spending as much time with her father as she can in his last few weeks of life. (This is the ‘second chance’ of the title: making up with her friends, whom she dissed five years previously when they were all twelve: she fell in crush with the cute boy with whom her BFF had already decided she was going to fall in love that summer…but didn’t tell either of them about BFF’s feelings for Cute Boy.) Oh, and take in the dog left behind by the long-term renters who’d departed only a week or so before the family arrives.

The novel ends, as it inevitably must, with the death of the father, but the children have grown and developed personally; Taylor has made up with Lucy and Henry, Warren has branched out from his studies to court a girl who is herself studying to be a veterinarian and Gelsey learns how to make friends and have sleepovers.

Overall, it’s a good straightforward ‘teen angst’ book for kids who’ve outgrown Judy Blume; it has no fantasy elements, no supernatural characters, no magic. Just a family facing the death of the father/husband, told from the perspective of the middle girl. It does have a certain degree of “rich white girl” problems, set as it is in a town of largely summer residents escaping the heat of The Big City, but dealing with the death of a parent is fairly universal. In that regard, it’s appropriate for a range of readers. In some ways, I wish Matson had chosen to concentrate on either the father’s illness or the children’s maturation during the summer, as she has to split the book between the two processes, and I’m left feeling a bit like she gave them both short shrift. That said, they would not have had the opportunity had their father NOT had pancreatic cancer, as that’s why they’ve all come together back to the Poconos. Otherwise, they would have just continued on their paths of separation.

What to read next? If it’s the “death of a parent” aspect, I’d suggest Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, for kids who liked the straightforwardness of this book plus elements of friendship/boys, or Patrick Ness/Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, for kids who prefer books with a supernatural element.

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

Luther T. Farrell, fifteen years old and in ninth grade, wants to be a Famous American Philosopher by the time he’s twenty-one. He studies hard, and is aiming to win the middle school1 science fair for the third year in a row.

The catch? His mother, whom he calls “the Sarge” for very good reason. The Sarge is, to put it bluntly, a slum landlord, a loan shark, and the operator of several group homes of the sort that get written up for criminal violations…or they would if she didn’t get advance warning from her friends who owe her significant debts about when the state inspectors are coming around. Luther’s been working for his mother since he was old enough to manage a mop. He began simply enough, helping her clean the rentals she owns after the tenants leave2. When he was thirteen, his mother set him up as the live-in staff member for one of her group homes, complete with a driver’s license created by the manager of a DMV branch who owed her a lot of money, so that he could drive the residents to their appointments. For the past two and a half years, he’s been working full-time and then some for his mother, between the group home and helping Darnell, the Sarge’s chief go-to employee, “renovate” his mother’s properties between tenants; he believes that his mother’s been setting his pay aside for him in a savings account so that he can attend college when the time comes.

No. She hasn’t…but that’s the main plot point of the book.

His best friend, Sparky, spends most of the book trying to come up with get-rich quick schemes, usually involving faking a lawsuit up. His chief rival for the science fair prizes, Shayla Patrick, disses him at every turn; she is not only brighter than he, and a better scientist, but is the girl on whom he’s had a crush since the first day of kindergarten3. Good role models, at least from the non-Flint perspective4, are a bit thin on the ground for Luther when the book begins; he is clearly expecting to follow into his mother’s business when he gets older, though at fifteen he is beginning to realize just what his mother is, and that he does not have to be she, though he is her son.

It is not until Luther is deep in the middle of the hoopla surrounding his tie for first prize with Shayla for the science fair that he realizes just what he’s uncovered: his own mother has been using lead-based paints between tenants in her properties…paint that the state presumed safely disposed of, but which The Sarge regarded as a free source of supplies for her own personal gain. And unfortunately, it’s at the medal ceremony that The Sarge herself also realized what her son’s uncovered. She gives him four days to clear out, while she is in Washington D.C. on business, but in the course of making deposits at the bank in her absence, Luther finds out the extent of her business dealings. He does his best to set things right before taking off for Florida with the elderly roommate she’s lumbered him with at the beginning of the book.

As with several of Curtis’s previous books, this one’s set in Flint, Michigan; Bucking the Sarge is, however, more or less contemporaneous with the time of its writing. For those who don’t particularly care for Curtis’s books (and I know you’re out there), don’t worry. I think I’ve read all of his books that are currently available to me in libraries, and so won’t be blogging about (many) more of them. For those who have read and enjoyed his children’s books, keep in mind that this is different from the others, to say the least. It’s written for an older audience, and is often categorized as a YA/teen book for reasons starting with “the protagonist’s a teenager himself”. It’s darker than many of his other books, not least because it is set now–no glossing over the darker aspects of the book by saying “Well, it’s set in the past; things are better now!” Curtis does keep a lighthearted tone through this book as well, but as with The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963, that brightness just highlighted the social aspects for me.

Overall, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly, though, for African-American kids who can’t see the point of facing a society dominated by people unlike them5, but more importantly for that larger society! I appreciate authors who are willing to stand up and say “Hey guys, look! There’s an elephant in the room!” and I appreciate authors who can create kids who are clearly bright but who are also kids; none of the pollyannaish

1school districts’ divisions between elementary, middle, and high schools vary a bit. Don’t let that throw you.
2get evicted
3Shayla’s mother tells Luther, as he stops by to say goodbye on his way out of town at the end, that Shayla’s had a major crush on him since that very same first day of kindergarten
4yes, that’s a euphemism in the extreme, but I’ll let readers figure that out for themselves, if they’re not familiar with southeast Michigan.
5sorry, yes: that’s another euphemism