Tara and the Towering Wave: An Indian Ocean Tsunami Survival Story

When her mother announces a holiday vacation to Thailand, Tara isn’t thrilled. She’d rather stay home with her friends, but Mom is determined they use the girls’ trip to explore their Thai heritage. Tara is reluctant to travel so far from home, especially to a country she doesn’t feel connected to. But then disaster strikes. The day after Christmas, a massive tsunami sweeps through Phuket, Thailand. Tara’s resort vacation suddenly becomes a fight to survive – and find her mother in the wreckage. 

Tara and the Towering Wave explores themes of identity and heritage by focusing on Tara, who is Thai but has never been to Thailand. All of Tara’s information about her heritage comes from her mother, who also grew up in the United States. When people ask Tara about her identity, she is slightly confused about what to tell them because she knows very little about Thailand. The themes are not explored in detail because the focus is on surviving the tsunami. 

When the tsunami hits, Tara and her mother are separated but Tara eventually makes it to safety. Afterward, a man helps Tara out of the raging ocean, but her only focus is to find her mother. Often, she is so caught up in her own fears that she doesn’t take other people’s situations into consideration. While her behavior is understandable, it isn’t until she is safely reunited with her mother that she begins to think about others.  

The story’s events highlight how people helped each other through this difficult time. Fisherman went out to sea looking for survivors, businesses opened their doors as makeshift evacuations centers, and Tara and her mother helped at the hospital by passing out food and water. As Tara begins to realize the devastation that the tsunami caused, she wonders, “Why were we spared when so many others were not?” She never answers the question, however, she realizes that her and her mother were lucky to survive. 

In order to make the story easy to follow, each chapter begins with Tara’s location and the time. Every 10 to 17 pages there is a black-and-white illustration. The illustrations mostly focus on Tara and the events surrounding her. Some of the illustrations show the towering waves but no one’s injuries are included in them. The back of the book contains an author’s note that goes into more detail about the historical facts of the tsunami, a glossary, and three response questions to help readers connect to the reading material. 

The Girls Survive Series is similar to the I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis because both books focus on young protagonists who survive a disaster. Anyone who is interested in survival stories will enjoy Tara and the Towering Wave. After Tara is saved, the action wanes but there is still enough suspense to keep readers engaged. However, the book doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, and readers are left wondering what happened to some of the characters—did they live, or did they die? Despite this, Tara and the Towering Wave will introduce readers to the devastating effects of a tsunami while using kid-friendly details of the destruction. Readers who want to learn about another historic tsunami should also read I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011 by Lauren Tarshis. Readers who want a more in-depth look at historical survival stories should check out the Survival Tails Series by Katrina Charman; this series uses the unique premise of having animals tell the story. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Tara and her mother were strolling through an open-air market when the tsunami hit. “Everyone and everything in the market was washed away. The powerful currents knocked my feet out from under me. . . In seconds, the street I had been standing on was gone, turned into a churning river.” 
  • The water tore Tara and her mother apart. Tara “quickly clamped my eyes closed, but salty water filled my nose and mouth. I was tossed and tumbled around in the water like a pile of clothes in a washing machine.” Tara finds a tree trunk to hold on to. 
  • While holding on to a telephone pole, a wave crashes into Tara. “It felt almost stronger than the first. Like the ocean was angry it hadn’t washed me away on its first attempt. . .The water gushed over and around me. . . This was a thick curtain, determined to suffocate and bury me.” Tara eventually makes it to safety.  
  • Tara’s mom broke her foot when the ocean pulled her under. She says, “I slammed into something—I don’t know what. But it was like running into a brick wall.” 
  • Later, Tara learns that “the death toll was unimaginable. In Thailand alone, the number of dead and missing was in the thousands. . . The waters had receded, revealing more bodies.” The death toll appears at the end of the book. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When Tara is in the ocean, she sees another wave heading in her direction. She grabs onto a telephone pole. She prays that “this pole will stand up against this next wave.” 
  • After Tara and her mother are reunited, they say a prayer. They “prayed for Malee, Yuk, and Noo, for Nolan and his missing family, for everyone else who had been working and staying at the resort.”  

The Buried

As far as the three families in the bunker underneath a manor know, they are the last people on Earth. An event—The Cataclysm—drove them underground. They narrowly escaped death by sunlight that suddenly seared their skin. That was ten years ago. Now, seventeen-year-olds Sash, Yuna, and Gabe struggle to remember life on the surface. Every night they sit with their families and watch as Dr. Moran puts on a hazmat suit and leaves the bunker, and every night she returns with the same news, “It still isn’t safe . . . We’ll have to stay down here just a little bit longer.”

Not going outside is the most important rule the doctor has insisted they live by, but it’s far from the only one. Skin-to-skin contact is forbidden, natural light must be avoided, and the truth must always be told. The three main characters long for “something besides fake sunlight and tasteless gruel and a never-ending parade of tasks designed to keep them alive.”

Gabe, who works with his father to maintain the bunker, uncovers a hidden secondary hatch to the surface. He, Yuna, and Sash venture into the decrepit mansion above. From there, the three slowly begin to unravel the truth, Dr. Moran grows more suspicious, and eventually confirms their violation of her most important rule.

Each chapter alternates between the perspectives of Sash, Yuna, and Gabe. The story might have been stronger had it opted to be told in the first person rather than the third person, as it would have helped the perspectives stand out from one another a bit more. As is, the reader gets a decent feel for the three characters, and their dynamic is enjoyable. Most of the other characters lack dimension. The most egregious case is Sash’s older brother, Misha, who becomes cartoonishly sadistic in the latter part of the book after scarcely being involved in the story beforehand.

Dr. Moran’s leadership has made most of the adults “malleable,” so she is able to “mold them into what she wanted them to be.” Still, what the parents condone—and participate in— in regards to Moran’s punishments of their children stretches the suspension of disbelief. The reader can sense early on that Moran will ultimately be a villain, but readers will find themselves questioning why none of the adults have grown suspicious of her.

Ultimately, The Buried is a quick read. Readers will be drawn into the claustrophobic atmosphere and curious to find out what is really going on, though parts of the story remain fuzzy in the end, such as the exact origin of the creatures Moran has apparently created. The story would have benefited from better pacing, as it feels like too much happens at the end and the reader might get confused if they don’t pay close attention. The rushed conclusion may make The Buried a disappointing read. Readers may want to choose a more interesting read such as They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera or I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal.

Sexual Content

  • Moran has a conversation with Sash in which Dr. Moran senses Sash has feelings for Yuna. Dr. Moran assures her that such thoughts are “completely normal, especially for a girl [her] age.” She says she sympathizes with her desire to be touched but reminds her that skin-to-skin contact is forbidden.
  • When they were younger, Sash, Gabe, and Yuna read a romance novel. Sash recalls “Gabe blushing furiously every time two characters kissed.”
  • Sash and Yuna have developed a crush on each other. During a tense moment in the climax as the two need to split up, Yuna grabs Sash’s arm. As Sash begins to ask what she is doing, “the question [ends] with a collision of lips.”

Violence

  • When visiting the surface, Gabe encounters a man who eats a live rat. “Blood spurted around his jaw as his eyes closed in ecstasy . . . the rat struggled in the man’s bandaged and bloodied hands.”
  • When Sash demands more information from Dr. Moran about what happened to her father, who died shielding her from The Cataclysm, Moran says, “Do you want to know the gory details? Do you want to know how his skin crisped on the outside while his organs liquified . . . that he felt the skin slide off his bones?”
  • Moran killed Sash’s grandmother with a toxin. Yuna finds a journal entry where the doctor recorded: “moment from ingestion to cessation of cardiac activity – 18 minutes. Remains disposed of in incinerator.”
  • Yuna is being chased by several of Moran’s creatures while running through the mansion. She kills a creature that attempts to attack her with a sword she found in a display case, “the blade cleaved through the skull – oddly soft.”
  • After Gabe went to the surface, Dr. Moran punishes him. Dr. Moran has the group take a vote. Gabe’s mother is the tie breaker, who allows Moran to slice off two of Gabe’s fingers. After the vote, Dr. Moran brings “the knife down, hard and swift and merciless.” When we next see Gabe, his fingers are gone and there is a “bandage around his hand.”
  • Sash’s older brother, Misha, attempts to strangle her. “Sash’s fingers clawed at his hands but it wasn’t enough. Her fingers were numb. Weak. Limbs refused to listen to the commands her oxygen starved brain was sending them.”
  • Before Misha can succeed in killing his sister, he is attacked by one of Dr. Moran’s creatures. The lights in the bunker go out, so Sash only hears the exchange. “A gurgle cut short. The snap of a bone.” Moran appears and shoots the creature and kills Misha as well. When the lights come back on, Sash sees her brother and the creature “locked together. Joined by the single bullet that had ripped through one and entered the other.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • Moran’s creatures ambush a group of people in the bunker. While the others manage to escape unscathed, Gabe is attacked by a creature that is described as having “a skull, misshapen. Half smashed. A face so completely covered in scars its features were subsumed.” Gabe fights the creature off while the others run. This takes place over three pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • There is a stash of medications in the bunker that are “used so sparingly [they] might as well not have [been] used at all.” Gabe is implied to be given one of these medications after his fingers are cut off to subdue him.

Language

  • Ass is said once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Yuna’s mother reminds her that they pray before every meal.
  • During a conversation with Dr. Moran, Sash says, “Oh, Jesus.” Moran retorts, “A false prophet, but I digress.”
  • Sash says she isn’t sure “she [believes] in God. She [isn’t sure] what she believed, if she believed in anything at all.”
  • Yuna finds her mother praying. “The crucifix pendant dangling from the thin gold chain around her neck was still clasped firmly in [her] hand.”
  • In a moment of terror, Yuna prays to “every god—dead gods, forgotten gods, vengeful gods, and merciful gods.”

by Erin Cosgrove

Dark Waters

Until next time. That was the chilling promise the smiling man made to Ollie, Coco, and Brian after they last outsmarted him. And as the trio knows, the smiling man always keeps his promises. So when the lights flicker and a knock sounds at the door, there can only be one explanation: he’s back and a frightening new game is afoot.

But before the three friends can unravel the smiling man’s latest nightmarish scheme, they set sail on Lake Champlain, where it’s said Vermont’s very own Loch Ness monster lives. Brian is thrilled. He hasn’t sailed since visiting family in Jamaica, and even the looming threat of the smiling man can’t put a damper on what is guaranteed to finally be a day of fun—even if it is awkward being stuck on a boat with his former best friend, Phil, and his new best friends, Coco and Ollie. But when the crew finds themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island and hunted by a monster on both land and sea, fun becomes the last thing on their minds. The smiling man has at long last set the stage for a perilous rematch. But this time, Brian is ready to play.

Unlike the first two installments of the Small Spaces Quartet, Dark Waters’ worldbuilding isn’t as believable. When the kids go through a rain squall, they are transported behind the veil. However, at first, the kids refuse to believe they are in danger. While the story implies that the smiling man is responsible for the kids’ plight, he never makes an appearance. Instead, the ghost of a man who died hundreds of years before is one of the central figures. While the ghost’s story thread explains the mysterious island, the man’s appearance does little to advance the plot. Likewise, Brian’s friend Phil is added to the cast of characters. However, he does not add any depth to the story.

Readers will also miss Ollie, who quickly fades from the story because she refuses to leave her sick father’s side. This allows Brian to take center stage. Unfortunately, Brian doesn’t use his knowledge to beat the smiling man. Instead, Brian and his friends do little more than run from both the ax man and the snakes. Brian never interacts with the smiling man. Even though Brian keeps his friends safe, but he doesn’t discover a way to get off the island.

Through Phil’s character, the story hints that honesty is important. This is reinforced when “Brian belatedly realized that if you told a lot of lies, even if it was for a good reason, like trying to keep people safe, it started to get hard to trust that other people were telling the truth.” Despite this, Brian and the other kids never tell the adults the true reason they are on the island. Another negative aspect of the story is that Ollie makes a bargain with smiling man in order to save her father’s life. However, she makes this decision without consulting anyone else, she hides her actions until the last moment, and the conversation between Ollie and the smiling man is not described. The conflicting message is confusing and leaves the reader wondering what would have happened if the kids had been honest.

In the end, Dark Waters is disappointing because the kids do little to solve the problems that arise. Plus, the characters’ behaviors are not consistent. Readers who loved the first two books in the story may have a difficult time wading through Dark Waters, especially because the dynamic between Ollie, Coco, and Brian changes which is one of the main appeals of the series.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A giant water snake jumps out of the water. “The silver thing lunged, mouth wide, going for Phil’s hand. Would have gotten it too. If Mr. Adler hadn’t put his whole arm in front of Phil, shoved him unceremoniously to the deck, and gotten bit himself instead. . .”
  • The water snake attacks the boat, causing it to begin to sink. “A groaning of metal as though—as though something big was trying to get into the boat. Or get farther into the boat. Metal shrieked. . . Rising out of the murky, swirling water. A giant pink mouth, wide open packed with teeth as long as his forearm.”
  • When the water snake attacks the boat, it is implied that it killed Phil’s uncle, Mr. Dimmonds. “Their bags, full of all their gear, were floating already in the surge. And . . .and there was Mr. Dimmonds’s blue-striped beanie, floating too. . . the beanie sank. It had tooth marks in it.”
  • The kids put a decoy life raft into the water and “then there was a sudden boiling froth of water under the decoy raft, and the whole thing went flying into the air. A snapping mouth attached to a glittering silver body came flying up after it.”
  • The kids and two adults board a life raft and float toward an island. When they near the island, they see “a dripping silver head, a mouth crowded with teeth, rearing up out of the water. The head was bulging and barnacles, the eyes huge and filmy and blank. The mouth opened wide.” Everyone makes it safely onto the island.
  • Phil realizes that Brian remembered what happened with the scarecrows (in book one). Upset, Phil “punched him. It wasn’t a very good punch, more a shove, but it took Brian by surprise and dropped him.”
  • While exploring the island, the kids find a cabin with a skeleton in it. “The rest of the skeleton was covered by a blanket, except for one arm. The skull lay on a moldy pillow, fallen sideways, turned toward them.”
  • The “ax” man, who turns out to be a ghost, offers to “ax” the kids. He says, “Better the ax than what’s coming for you.”
  • While the kids are in the forest, they hear the chime of metal. Then, Brian sees “ten feet of snake had unwound itself from a branch overhead. Its open cotton-pink mouth was four feet away, jammed with teeth.” The kids run and climb a tree.
  • The snake starts to climb the tree so Brian tried to “break off a pine cone, and hurl it down. . . the pine cone bounced off the snake’s nose.”
  • The kids, who are still stuck in the tree, need to get the snake to leave, so Phil “grabbed the last flaming pine cone, and pitched it down with a lot of force and accuracy right into the thing’s eye. . . Now the snake was really enraged . . . it lunged higher yet, wrapping its body around the trunk of the tree, jaws going wide. . . Phil pitched the log straight into the snake’s open mouth. . . Then the jaws slammed shut and the snake recoiled, all the way back down to the ground.” The kids finally escape.
  • The kids find a captain’s log that talks about a sailor who was “lost while attempting to cast a fishing line just offshore. The monstrous snake reared up out of the water and snatched him.”
  • The captain’s log tells about some of the men who tried to leave the island in a boat. “Grieved to report the destruction of the lifeboat Emily, with all hands. . . then a smashing sound as the boat was flung into the air. The men came down into the water, and they had not chance even to drown, for the serpent plucked them out like so many fish and swallowed them down.”
  • The ghost tells the story of how his men died. “They hadn’t made it to the boat at all, they were just gone—swallowed whole, like rabbits.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • In total oh God, oh my God, and Jesus are used as exclamations six times.
  • Freaking is used twice.
  • Brian calls the snake a jerk.

Supernatural

  • Ollie’s watch helped the kids in the last two books, but this time, “after a second, as though the watch—the ghost of Ollie’s mom—whatever animated the watch—was reluctant, the screen shifted and became a compass.”
  • In each book, the kids go into a different world. “. . . Mist and water and through mirrors, that was how you went from world to world.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Queen Will Betray You

In the second installment of The Kingdoms of Sand & Sky series, Princess Amarande deals with the aftermath of her fateful wedding. Having killed Prince Renard of Pyrenee, Amarande brought war to the Kingdom of Ardenia. She must return to her home to restore order while her true love, Luca, will return to the Torrent to reclaim his title of Otsakumea, the rightful leader of the Otxazulo, the fallen kingdom that was taken over by the Warlord.

Returning to Ardenia, Amarande is shocked to find her mother, Geneva, also known as the Runaway Queen and Warlord of the Torrent, has returned to Ardenia with Ferdinand, the son of the late King Sendoa. Despite having raised him on her own, Ferdinand is not Geneva’s son, but the son of General Koldo, making him Amarande’s half-brother. Far from a cordial family reunion, Amarande is imprisoned by her mother and declared dead. With Amarande’s absence, Ferdinand takes over as King. To make matters worse, Queen Inés of Pyrenee has vowed to marry King Domingu of Myrcell to fortify their kingdoms and attack Ardenia.

Imprisoned and betrayed by her family with her true love, Luca, miles away, Amarande finds help from an unlikely ally, Prince Taillefer of Pyrenee. The same Prince who tortured Luca to near death in the first novel. Knowing this is her only option for escape, Amarande accepts his help and the two of them escape to the Torrent to be reunited with Luca.

Meanwhile, in the Torrent, Luca finds the Otxazulo resistance and convinces them he is the lost leader of the fallen kingdom. The proof rests in the black wolf tattoo upon his skin. While Luca leads the resistance, Amarande and Taillefer are captured by the regent Warlord, who was appointed by Geneva. Now, Luca must save Amarande and prove, once again, that their love will survive any conflict.

At the brink of war, Luca leads the Otxazulo resistance to Amarande where she is rescued, and the regent Warlord is killed. Taillefer also escapes to kill his mother and reclaim Pyrenee as his own. Only Geneva is left for Amarande to defeat. However, facing her mother in an intense duel, Amarande is wounded and Geneva flees, leaving Amarande and Luca with a broken kingdom they must rebuild in the next chapter of their story.

The second book in this series has another fast-paced, action-packed plot, making it very engaging and easy to read. There is, however, a significant amount of graphic violence making it more suitable for older readers. Like the first book, the novel deals with the themes of true love, but there is also an emphasis on the importance of loyalty and trust as Amarande must decide who to put her trust in and who is worthy of forgiveness.

Amarande and Luca are kind, dedicated, and inspiring protagonists, but their characters are still undeveloped. Their love story is clear but lacks depth. This is addressed when Taillefer asks Amarande, “is Luca really your true love or just all you’ve known?” While it is unclear why Amarande and Luca are together, the uncomplicated history of their relationship makes for a sweet and pure romance. Overall, this is a fitting read for fans of The Princess Bride who enjoy wholesome romance with lots of action and adventure.

Sexual Content

  • Safe and far away from Pyrenee, Amarande kisses Luca “softly, mindful of his wounds. But her love was stronger than he seemed and put gentle fingers in her auburn hair, pulling her closer, deeper.” Soon, Amarande pulls away. After discussing their next adventure, Amarande “dropped another kiss on his lips, then up the line of his jaw.”
  • Before saying goodbye, “Amarande kissed Luca one last time—hard. As hard as she wished she had before he was kidnapped. As hard as she did when it was clear they’d escaped Pyrenee alive. As hard as she could—this kiss would have to hold her for days, if not weeks, or months.”
  • Queen Geneva refers to General Koldo as a “whore general.”
  • Amarande recalls the time on the pirate ship “she’d slept next to the bed in the captain’s quarters, holding [Luca’s] hand from her spot on the floorboards. He would’ve lain there, too, if the pain weren’t so great. Her stubbornness won out yet again.”
  • Happy to be reunited with Luca, “Amarande kissed him then. Eyes closed, mouth hungry, her whole mess of a body folded into Luca’s warmth. His arms tightened around her, a hand snaking through her hair and to her neck.”
  • Before returning to the fight, “Luca pressed another fevered kiss to Amarande’s lips, the princess shutting her eyes and drinking it in until, with one last gentle sweep of a thumb against her cheek, he drew away.”
  • Before facing her evil mother, Amarande showers Luca with kisses “to his spine. His shoulder blade—one, and then the other. Up his neck. Again, behind the ear—one, two. She settled the curve of her throat over his shoulder, her chin coming to rest on his collarbone, parched lips at his ear.”
  • After the battle with Geneva, Luca visits Amarande who is recovering in bed. He kisses Amarande and when she decides she is “strong enough to kiss him back, she did so, moving her hands to his hair, keeping Luca where she wanted him until she realized they weren’t alone.”

Violence

  • When Queen Geneva reveals her plans to imprison her daughter, Amarande draws her sword to attack but is thwarted by a hand clenching her neck, “squeezing precisely on the artery that supplies oxygen to the brain. An arm gripped around her middle—an arm clad in garnet-and-gold regalia.” Amarande faints and is brought to her cell.
  • Ula offers to clean Luca’s torture wounds. Luca confesses, “the sting of the process was one of a thousand bees under the skin, but the pain was minor in comparison with what he’d felt in the past week. And the wound looked only a little better, the skin bruised and raw with inflammation that ran down the whole hand-length gash in the middle of his chest, just beside his wolf tattoo. The flat black sutures were tight, straining to keep the swollen edges of flesh together.” His wounds are slowly healing.
  • Trying to look out the window of her prison, Amarande hoists herself up the wall using a bit of cloth. However, the “cloth tore and before she could lunge for another grip or pull her feet from the wall, Amarande fell with a resounding thud, the back of her head bashing into the stone floor.” Amarande feels a bit disoriented from the fall, but she is more frustrated than hurt.
  • Amarande’s brother, Ferdinand visits her in her prison cell to make peace, but Amarande refuses his offer; “the moment he was in range Amarande’s boot struck out and made jarring contact with his kneecap.” Amarande tries to attack again but, “Ferdinand was ready, grabbing her boot and yanking at it, trying to wrest it off with both hands. She pulled back, but he held fast, even managing to keep the dagger in his grip. Amarande’s other foot shot out and clocked his left hand. His grip faltered, he dropped his dagger, and she drove her heel hard into his knee yet again.” Soon, Ferdinand gains the upper hand. As Amarande hesitates, he removes a dagger from his boot, throwing it through the air. “The knife pinning her right between the tendons that sewed her knuckles in place. Impaled, Amarande’s hand flew open, dropping the dagger.” Ferdinand then removes the blade from her hand. “He braced her wrist against the wall with the other hand and, in one smooth motion, removed the blade,” but, “Amarande didn’t cry out, even as stars swirled in her vision and blood began to pour from her hand.”
  • While traveling through the Torrent, some of the Warlord’s men try to capture Luca by attacking his crew with fire. Ula, however, wouldn’t let them and “a fist-sized fireball shot over Luca’s shoulder, plowing straight into the leader’s gut.” The man “fell back, tunic and skin suddenly aflame. His bandana slid down as he hit the dry ground behind him, his face distorted with panic as he screamed horrifically.”
  • Before the other servants of the Warlord could retaliate, Ula’s “blade cut the stout one down with a blow to his wide upper back, and his grip upon Luca immediately died as he fell away.” Urtzi and Osana, friends of Luca’s, come to the rescue as Urtzi hits the other two men “with his own bucket and the glass jug. The instant the caustic antiseptic made contact, the torches shuddered and exploded,” and “all three men suddenly were ablaze.” The Warlord’s men are burnt to death, but Luca and his friends escape.
  • Luca and his group come across the dead body of their friend, Erfu. Urtzi examines the body and describes a “dart in his neck and an assassin’s smile. Slowed him down and then sliced him open. His tunic is torn, too—they checked his tattoo. Carved an X through it.”
  • Escaping from her prison cell, Amarande takes out her guard who “only seemed to register Amarande in the split second before the hilt of her sword crashed down upon the guardswoman’s temple.”
  • While fleeing Ardenia with Amarande, Taillefer kills a guard. “In the twitch of a moment, Taillefer’s free hand seized the guard’s dagger from the sheath at his belt, and sank it into the soft meat of the boy’s side.”
  • Amarande and Taillefer come across several dead bodies that “lined the creek bank—two, three . . . no, five—and two more floated in the shallow waters. No blood stained their sun-bleached clothes, no stab wounds obvious, no wounds at all.” Amarande discovers the water had been poisoned.
  • In the Torrent, Amarande and Taillefer encounter members of the resistance. Not trusting Amarande, “a knife shot out of the man’s hand, and the princess dove to the side. She rolled to her feet, dagger out and ready. His companion immediately rushed at her, sword tip aimed straight at Amarande’s belly. The princess pivoted and flattened, and the woman crashed forward under the weight of her driving weapon. As she fell to the dirt, Amarande immediately smashed the blunt hilt of her dagger down upon the back of her skull, rendering her unconscious.”
  • While Amarande fought with the resistance group, Taillefer battles a wild wolf. The wolf’s “paws connected with Taillefer’s chest and shoved him to the ground. He struggled to push away the animal’s jaws as the whole of the wolf’s weight was on him now, the snarling beast holding all the leverage.”
  • Taillefer and Amarande escape their battle only when the man pushes Amarande into a sand hole. The man’s “boot connected with her twisting back. The blow knocked the princess off-balance and she stumbled forward, her exhausted body lunging for solid ground. Where there wasn’t any.” Amarande tumbles into a hidden cave and Taillefer follows. They are bruised and sore, but alive.
  • After poisoning King Domingu, Queen Inés “did not release Domingu’s chin as he thrashed, words burbling up through the white foam on his lips.” He dies moments later.
  • At one of the Warlord’s camps, Taillefer was lifted into the air by a giant man. Amarande tries to save him, “but the movement she’d anticipated didn’t come—the prince’s body was tossed vertically, not horizontally. And, as he plummeted back toward the cracked earth, the man’s leg shot out and his boot connected with Taillefer’s gut. The crunch of a shattered rib reverberated in the air, a cry escaping into the new dawn with it. Taillefer landed in a heap, blood rolling out of his mouth.” Taillefer’s ribs are broken.
  • Amarande and Taillefer fight with followers of the Warlord until “something thunked hard against Amarande’s temple, tossing her off-balance. Her opponent used that split second to roll onto the princess, driving Amarande’s face into the sandy earth as she sat atop the princess’s back, pinning her in a way that left all of Amarande’s fight useless.” Amarande and Taillefer are captured to be brought to the Warlord.
  • To prove her ruthlessness, the Regent Warlord orders those who do not comply with her to be burned in a fire pit. She will spare only one of them if they “fight to the death—disfigurement, loss of consciousness, and general injury do not count. You have to be the last living, breathing person standing.” From her confinement, Amarande watched the “human kindling. Hopes and dreams consumed nightly, reduced to flesh, fat, skin, and sinew, until there was nothing left to burn.” Then, she heard “the unmistakable sigh of a blade carving the breath from a man’s throat. One. Two. Two bodies draped gently on the ground. One. Two.”
  • When Luca reveals himself to the Warlord, more chaos erupts. There is “blood spray, bodies tumbling into the pit, the fire roaring and coughing smoke with each addition. Daggers and swords met in violent, reverberating clangs. Boots crunched bones, and live bodies, shrieking to the stars.” In the chaos, the Warlord “was sent headfirst into her own flames.” She is burnt to death.
  • Taillefer is fighting for his life against the Warlord’s men with his “hands in a fury, going for all the soft spots on the soldier’s face—ears, eyes, lips. The prince’s forearm caught the boy’s windpipe, and his head flew back with a crack, sucking cry escaping from his lips.” He escapes.
  • While escaping her prison cart, Amarande notices “her arm was bleeding from her shoulder through the length of her forearm, the wood of the fractured cart taking a sliding bite on the way down.” Ula stitches up Amarande’s wounds later.
  • To defeat his mother, Queen Inés, Taillefer stabs her guard and “twisted and removed a dagger from where it had been lodged in the soldier’s liver for hours on end.” The soldier bleeds out and dies. Taillefer then throws poison on his mother, burning her skin and killing her. “The tincture had dissolved the skin at her throat, the meat of her exposed, veins and capillaries burned back like parchment blackening and curling in flame before vanishing altogether.”
  • While Amarande converses with the Royal Council members, Geneva violently enters the room and “one guard and then another fell to the floor, assassin’s smiles carved across their throats, blood gushing onto the collars of their regal Ardenian uniforms.”
  • While fighting, Geneva thrust her blade “straight for the vulnerable flesh of Luca’s unprotected torso.” Luca is wounded but not killed. Next, Geneva turns to fight Amarande. “Geneva smashed her body backward, driving Amarande even harder against the wall, so hard that her skull thudded off the unforgiving stone with a terrific crack.” General Koldo attempts to save Amarande by attacking Geneva from behind, but she is thwarted when Geneva thrusts her into a table. “[Koldo] was bleeding from the head, a huge gash over her eye from where she’d made contact with the massive piece of scrolled furniture.”
  • When the action subsides, Luca notices he had accidently struck Taillefer in the neck with his dagger. Luca watches as “blood framed each of his teeth in stark red, as if he’d sunk them into a still-beating heart.” Luca then saw the “weak slice to the jugular.” Taillefer slowly dies from the loss of blood.
  • Amarande is stabbed in the leg by her mother. She tries to overpower Geneva with her good leg, but Geneva “thrust a thumb straight into Amarande’s leg wound, and the princess’s body seized as she cried out, vision fading to white. Her mother shoved Amarande and her blade aside, and scrambled free.” Amarande begins to lose consciousness with “all her adrenaline tapped, blood pooling under her body from her leg, arm, somewhere else.” Amarande survives, but her mother escapes.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Hell is used once. When Amarande is brought to the Warlord, she curses by saying “stars and hell.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Elena Brown

Iron Widow

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expects—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving, yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynistic way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Iron Widow is not only about Zetian avenging her sister’s death, but about showing girls that they can—and should—grow up to be more than just a sacrifice for the advancement of men, and to aspire to be something more than the perfect subservient. Zetian faces very complex problems, in which she is constantly forced to choose between what is safe for her as a woman and what is fair to her as a human. Zetian is a powerhouse, who is a bit hotheaded, but she is extremely justice oriented. She balances power, strength, and the desire for companionship throughout the duration of the story. Though she is extreme in her actions, she is relatable in her thoughts; she is a strong-willed, independent girl that will stop at nothing to release herself and other women in her world from the shackles of the system that holds them back. She handles things violently and with no regard for consequences, but in her world, it’s her only option. Iron Widow is written from the perspective of such an intense, passionate character that it’s impossible not to root for her from start to finish.

Xiran Jay Zhao successfully writes a strong female lead who doesn’t yield to anyone or anything. Unlike most protagonists, Zetian is not worried about fighting fair, she’s focused on fighting to win. She campaigns ruthlessly for her own freedom, though she is often faced with painful and terrifying consequences for both her and her family. Zetian is merciless to those who have shown her no mercy, whereas traditional female roles may have been forgiving. She is ruthless in her pursuit of liberation for the women of her world and does not draw moral “lines” that she will not cross, which allows her to fight the system that has held her down simply because she was born a girl. Plus, she is not worried about who is caught in the crossfire. Zetian is violent in a way that only traditional male characters have been allowed to be, which may be shocking to some readers.

Iron Widow is a violent science fiction book. It is set during a tumultuous time and features people who are very rough around the edges, so both the fight scenes and the inner dialogue of the protagonist are often brutal and unforgiving. However, because the nature of the fighting style, the scenes are not overly gory or upsetting. Most of the combat takes place using spirit power known as “Qi,” so when an enemy is killed it is often described as a kind of disappearing process which eliminates bloody and grotesque scenes. There are several depictions of murder, torture, and abuse woven in that may upset sensitive readers.

The main theme of Iron Widow is anger against the oppression of women. This creates an emotionally charged story. Zetian is angry from start to finish, and the subject of her hate changes every few chapters. Her anger is justified and makes Iron Widow refreshing to read. Iron Widow will appeal to readers who enjoy futuristic fantasy novels with epic battles and anti-heroes.

Sexual Content

  • Female soldiers are used as “concubines” for the pilots. This is alluded to a few times but not described in detail. Before being matched with a male pilot, the female concubines are given an introductory speech. They are told, “From this day onward, you will exist to please him. . . most importantly, you will not react negatively to his touch.”
  • In order to avoid joining the military, Yitzi, Zetian’s best friend, offers to marry Zetian refuses his offer saying, “Stop pretending like your family would let me be anything but a concubine. . . And that will never work. There’ll be problems when I refuse to kowtow to your disgusting pig of a father. . . when I refuse to bear your son – because I am never letting anyone’s spawn swell up my body and bind me forever, not even yours.”
  • After Zetian enlists in the military, her dad says, “You better be able to pass the maidenhood test. . .” Zetian responds by saying, “For the last time, nothing’s ever been up inside me . . . Stop being so obsessed!” The process of the test is not explained, but it is implied that passing it is a requirement for girls to be accepted into the military.
  • After the “maidenhood test,” Zetian is in a room with other girls. “No one speaks. We haven’t spoken since the maidenhood tests hours earlier by the aunties. One girl didn’t pass… . They took her away. To where, I don’t know. Hopefully not back to her home. Her family would probably drown her in a pig cage.”
  • Zetian and Yitzi are talking in the woods near her house. Zetian is about to enlist in the army and Yitzi’s trying to convince her to stay instead. Then she kisses him. “I grasp his face and close the gap between us. His plea hushes away between our lips. Warmth like I’ve never felt blooms through me. Heat seeps into my blood, and I swear I could’ve turned luminous. Yitzi’s lips are tense with surprise at first, then meld to the shape of mine. His hand lifts up, trembling, grazing my neck like he’s afraid to touch me, like he’s afraid this isn’t real.”
  • Zetian and her first pilot have just met and are in their shared bedroom for the first time. “The heat of his breath on the shell of my ear triggers something visceral in my body. My muscles tighten as if pulled by a string. My breaths shallow and quicken. My blood rushes to startling places, and I have to clench down my surprise.”
  • Zetian and her second pilot, Yang Guang, kiss. “I caress his lips, though what I really want to touch is his crown . . . He takes my hand and kisses the pads of my fingers. . . I draw Yang Guang down into the second kiss of my life. It’s less gentle, less timid. Less chaste. When the hot blade of his tongue parts my lips, I can’t help the gasp that rushes out of me. His mouth moves more aggressively than before, scattering my mind. His armored hand runs down my back. . . He kisses a trail down my neck. I reflexively arch my back. . . I bite back a whimper.”

Violence

  • Zetian plans to avenge her sister’s death. When it comes to her killer, Zetian says, “I’m going to be his beautiful, sultry concubine. And then. . . I’m going to rip his throat open in his sleep.” Yitzi replies, “There has to be a different way to kill Yang Guang. My family has connections in—” Yitzi implys that his family could hire someone to kill Yang Guang or his family.
  • Zetian theatens Yitzi. Zetian says, “If you tip off the army in even the slightest way, I will kill myself when they lock me up, and then I will haunt you.”
  • When Zetian is paired with a pilot, she thinks, “Before I do any throat slitting, I am going to have to be his plaything.”
  • Zetian kills a child in her copilot’s spirit realm. The child represents a younger version of her pilot and once she kills the child, it allows her to exit the pilot’s spirit realm that she is trapped in. “With a howl, I seize the boy’s neck and slam him down over the vines. ‘This is your mind.’ I crush his throat. ‘You’re the one who trapped yourself!’ He gags and shrieks, but I don’t let go. Even when everything screams for me to have mercy and that I can’t kill a child, I tighten my grip… As the light leaves his eyes, the realm destabilizes… I scream as I’m flayed apart as well, bones shattering, muscles snapping, skin peeling. My spirit, set free, rushes up and away.”
  • Zetian kills the male pilot who killed her sister. Zetian “slam[s] him down by his throat, just like I did his child self. I plunge my dagger into his neck, the way I dreamed so long and so often of doing. His screams gurgle, though there’s no blood. Laughing uncontrollably, I keep stabbing. And stabbing. And stabbing.”
  • Li Shimin, the second pilot Zetian is paired with, tells Zetian he murdered his brothers for raping a girl. Then his father came home. Li Shimin says. “One day, I found out some of my Big Brother’s friends were blackmailing her, so I beat them up. Soon after, I came home and heard some weird noises in the room I shared with my brothers. Went in and saw them. With her. And . . . I guess he didn’t realize I had it in me to come for his life. . . [My father] came home before I could get out. Saw what I did. Grabbed a cleaver, too, and came for me. . . I had to defend myself.”
  • When male copilots speak ill of Zetian, Li Shimin fights brutally to defend Zetian’s honor. “Li Shimin grabs his leg, yanks him off balance while completing the turn, then stomps on the highest part of his thigh. There’s an audible crack as his leg juts up to an unnatural angle. Everyone gasps in giddy shock, pierced through by his guttural scream.” The fight scene spans over two pages.
  • A female concubine threatens Zetian Then, the concubine hits Zetian hard enough to knock her to the floor and tells Zetian, “Stay away from my partner you man-killing whore.”
  • Zetian is inside Li Shimin’s mind and see his violent battle memories. “The muffled cries of a young girl, coming from behind a door I approach with equal parts fear and rage. The shrieks of my own brothers as I smash a cleaver through their bodies over and over. The yowls of fellow boys in bright orange jumpsuits as I bash their faces with scabbed fists. The frustrated shouts from my own mouth as electricity shocks through my body while I lay bricks with bloody, trembling fingers. The desperate, slow-building wail of girls in the grip of soldiers as I’m escorted toward them across a docking bridge.”
  • Zetian and Li Shimin torture an army general for information. They waterboard him using alcohol and a towel. “Shimin shoves the tilt table so that An Lushan’s head swings near the ground. I press the towel over his squirming face… Shimin upturns the bottle. Liquor pours out in a rhythmic glug glug glug over Lushan’s smothered nose and mouth. A wet, animalistic shrieking gurgles against the towel. . . Shimin grips the bottle tighter. . . Shimin fetches a fresh bottle of liquor. . . An Lushan opens his mouth to spew something else, but I silence him with the towel, like he tried so hard to silence me. Shimin unleashes a nonstop deluge of the liquor once used to break his mind. An Lushan’s last words drown in wet, choking misery.” An Lushan dies. The scene spans over seven pages.
  • After Yitzi’s father, Gao Qiu, tries to blackmail Zetian, Yitzi uses his power to harness lightning. “Radiance beams under Yitzi’s fluttering robes. A war cry scours out from the bottom of his lungs. Electric-hot Wood qi, boosted by Earth qi, bursts from his fingers, held like a gun. It streaks across the ether and into Gao Qiu. A smell of roasting flesh blows over on the wind. It’s over in less than three seconds, but shocks enough for a lifetime. The shrieking little girls scramble away from the charred, smoking shape that used to be Gao Qiu. His goons freak out as well, kicking it out of the hovercraft. It plunges into the city, splattering over a random rooftop, triggering another tide of screams.”

Language

  • Profanity is used several times. Profanity includes shit, fuck, whore, slut, ass, and asshole.
  • Zetian says, “There is no such thing as karma. . . or, if it does exist, it sure doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”
  • Zetian is mid-battle and is struggling to remember her past, her surroundings, and what is currently happening. She thinks, “What the fuck is a Chrysalis?“
  • Zetian is confused about her surroundings and lashes out at her copilot, Li Shimin, because she thinks he’s attacking her. She thinks, “I am also absolutely fucking bonkers.”
  • Quielo, another female concubine, is talking to Zetian about injustice against women. Quielo says, “The entitled assholes of the world are sustained by girls who forgive too easily. And there’s nothing I’d like to rid the world of more than entitled assholes.”
  • Li Shimin, Zetian’s copilot, talks about his feelings for a man. He says, “The last thing I needed was another reason for the world to hate me. Though, now . . . Now, I see—it’s all fucking bullshit.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Li Shimin drinks heavily after a battle. He is given large amounts of alcohol to keep him dependent on it so that the army can control him. At one point, Li Shimin “unscrews the flask and swigs it like it’s the first freshwater he’s found after months of drought.”
  • The main character is an alcoholic who goes through withdrawal.

Supernatural

  • The entirety of the book is based on spirit realms and use of superhuman powers and abilities. Characters harness spirit/soul power in the form of ‘qi’ to fight battles against alien creatures known as Hunduns, they are faceless and the size of a building and come in many different animalistic forms.
  • A fight is taking place with Hunduns advancing towards human civilization. “The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night. Their rotund, faceless bodies, made of spirit metal, glinted under the silver half-moon and sky full of glittering stars.”
  • A pilot by the name of Yang Guang is preparing to meet the Hunduns in battle and defend his home and people. “Through hair-thin acupuncture needles along his pilot seat that bit into his spine, Yang Guang channeled his qi, his life force, to power the Fox. Qi was the vital essence that sustained everything in the world, from the sprouting of leaves to the blazing of flames to the turning of the planet.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Peyton Watson

The Edge

For an upcoming documentary, billionaire Sebastian Plank recruits a team of young climbers to complete an International Peace Ascent on mountains all around the world. To fulfill part of Plank’s documentary, fifteen-year-old Peak Marcello and his mom are flown to the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan along with a few other young climbers and a documentary crew. But when the camp is attacked and hostages are taken, Peak has to track down the attackers to save his friends and mother.

The Edge is the second book in the Peak Marcello Adventure Series and takes place relatively soon after his adventures in the first book, Peak. Much of the same cast from the first book is back, including the mysterious Sherpa guide/monk Zopa, Peak’s mom, and the documentary crew. Peak himself is still a fun and interesting character, and his love for his family and humanity, in general, makes him a sympathetic protagonist.

Much like in the first book, survival and climbing are strongly intertwined themes. Peak spends much of the book using survival techniques and climbing to find and save his mom and fellow climbers. He, fortunately, has the help of Ethan, a new character who is a fellow climber and former marine. Peak looks up to Ethan, and Ethan serves as a practical guide who keeps Peak and the others from dying out in the elements.

This second book’s plot involves political intrigue and terrorists, so it has more graphic violence than the first book. One of the climbers, Alessia, is the daughter of a French diplomat that Peak befriends and shows romantic interest in. Over half of the climbing group is taken as hostages from camp, and several of the group are killed on camera. The attackers make it clear that they are using the hostages to get money from the French government because they have the daughter of one of their diplomats, and they themselves are former French soldiers. Although Peak is spared from seeing some of the worst parts, some of the more gruesome scenes are described by other characters. The Edge covers sensitive topics like murder and a hostage situation, so younger readers should be prepared for more nitty-gritty details than in the first book.

The Edge furthers Peak’s story while rounding out old characters and introducing new ones. Peak and the others use their climbing skills to survive as well as perform for the camera. Despite the overall serious tone of the book, there are lighthearted moments early on from the documentary guy, Phillip, who clearly doesn’t understand much about climbing and causes some humorous frustration for Peak. This series is for people who like climbing and those who really want an action-packed adventure. Fans of Peak won’t have to look far for his next climbing journey, which is detailed in the next book in the series, Ascent. Although The Edge is a complete story on its own, the next book will surely have a new mountain for Peak to scale.

Sexual Content

  • Phillip’s personal assistant and girlfriend, Cindy, seems very friendly towards Ethan, one of the other climbers. When Peak asks Ethan about it, Ethan laughs and says, “Not my type, and I’m not her type either. She was doing that stuff with me at the river to get under Phillip’s skin and because she didn’t want to go for a hike.”

Violence

  • Tony, the immigration man helping Peak and his mother in Afghanistan, is playing the video game League of Legends on the plane when Peak meets him. Peak goes to speak with him, and Tony says, “I was just bludgeoned to death. Take a seat.”
  • Tony explains that Afghanistan “has been in a state of war for thousands of years. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the British, the Soviet Union, Al-Qaeda, the Americans, the Taliban, and several others have all attempted to take over Afghanistan.”
  • As he’s climbing up the side of a cliff, an eagle attacks Peak. Peak says, “I scrunched up as best as I could on a vertical wall and shoved my face into a narrow crack to stop my eyeballs from getting plucked out. I felt the air from the first bird’s wings a second before it smashed into my helmet. This was followed by another hit on my pack, much hard than the first.”
  • As Peak reaches for the cave, the eagle knocks him in the butt. Peak smashes “[his] face on the back wall, which was only six feet from the opening.” Peak is bleeding considerably from a cut on his chin due to the impact.
  • The camera guy, JR, gets the “butt strike” on video. Peak responds to this with, “If you put it on YouTube, I will kill you.”
  • Peak falls asleep in his cave and when he wakes up hours later, everyone else is gone. Peak goes exploring only to find the guides Ebadullah and Elham “lying next to the cool water…Their throats are slit. The fronts of their kurtas are covered in dried blood. Their beards are caked in gore. Their eyes are open in surprise. Their rifles are gone. Their prayer rugs are unrolled. They were murdered during isha.”
  • Peak finds one of the other climbers, Rafe, laying on the ground. “There was a four-inch gash on [Rafe’s] forehead, his nose was broken, his left ear was torn, his upper lip looked like he had bitten through it, and these were just the injuries [Peak] could see.”
  • Rafe tells Peak that the others were kidnapped by “five or six guys. Afghans. Guns and knives.”
  • A donkey does not want to keep walking. When Ethan pulls on the reins, “it bites Ethan in the butt.”
  • Ethan was in the marines. He tells Peak, “I spent a couple years in Force Reconnaissance or Force Recon . . . It was a lot of fun until some gung-ho captain walked us into quicksand, which killed two men. He blamed us and became a major.”
  • Peak and Ethan come across three mounds that turn out to be graves. Peak has to know, so he digs each one up. Peak says, “The first grave was Phillip’s. Like Elham and Ebadullah, his throat had been slit. I didn’t want to uncover the other two, but I had to know. The second was Aki. The third was Choma. I sat back, covered my face, and began sobbing with horror and relief. It could have been Mom or Zopa or Alessia or the film crew.”
  • After Ethan finds the bodies of Phillip, Aki, and Choma, he says, “These dirtbags made the video crew film our friends’ execution. They’re going to use the tape to get money.”
  • Ethan kills one of the guards keeping the hostages. Peak sees the guard “sitting on his blanket. His headlamp was pointed down at a deck of bloody cards.”
  • Peak and some of the climbers come across a “crudely made rack” with a “snow leopard pelt.” The vultures flying overhead indicate to them that this poaching incident was recent.
  • Alessia explains that her father was a conservation biologist who died “in the Congo when [she] was ten years old. Killed by rebels, they say, but [her] mother believes he was murdered by the gorilla poachers he was trying to stop.”
  • Peak’s mom shoots the captors with a pistol. Peak describes, “She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then squeezed the trigger. One of the men went down.” The description lasts for half a page.
  • Ethan shoots Émile. When Peak sees Émile, he “was on the ground covered in blood.” Émile dies.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Peak’s mom tells Peak’s stepfather, Rolf, that she and Peak are going to Afghanistan to climb, Rolf “pours himself a drink.”
  • Peak mentions that he “read that Afghanistan grows more opium than any other country in the world.” To this, Tony says, “It’s a four-billion-dollars-a-year industry with about twenty-five percent of that money going to the farmer and the rest divided between district officials, insurgents, warlords, and drug traffickers.”
  • Peak finds a cigarette butt while heading back to base camp. As they keep walking, Peak finds “three more Gauloises cigarette butts.”
  • Ethan tells Peak about his time in Iraq. He says, “We broke up a tobacco-smuggling operation . . . Learned more than I ever wanted to know about tobacco. There are a lot of counterfeit cigarette operations. The Taliban actually make money here running cigarettes when they aren’t smuggling dope.”

Language

  • Light language is used infrequently. Some words include nuts, nutcase, oaf, idiots, jerk, moron, dense, and dumb.
  • Cindy says about the Afghan guards, “All they do is stare at me, or leer, and I’m pretty sure they’re making snide remarks, but I don’t know what they’re saying.” Cindy is wearing tight-fitting clothing that is brightly patterned. Peak “looked at her snakeskin pants and had a pretty good idea what they were saying. Women in Muslim countries don’t dress like Cindy.”
  • When the donkey bites Ethan in the butt, Peak laughs and says, “Now you can say you’ve been bitten in the ass by an ass.”

Supernatural

  • Peak suggests that the snow leopard (shen) that he keeps seeing is watching over them. Ethan says, “You’re not going all magical thinking on me, are you?” To which Peak replies, “It works for Zopa. And we could use some magic.” Ethan replies, “Wish I had a magic wand, or an invisibility cloak.”

Spiritual Content

  • Tony mentions that the only hiccup they might have landing the plane in Afghanistan is that they’re landing “just before afternoon prayers.” Peak then describes, “I’d just read about these prayers in one of Mom’s books. Devout Muslims pray five times a day. Fajr, just before dawn. Zuhr, noon. Asr, afternoon. Maghrib, sunset. Isha, evening.”
  • Tony talks about the local Afghan people, saying, “Like most of the one point six billion Muslims in the world, the Afghans are trying to live a good life, raise their families, and get by. Ninety-five percent of them are great people. The other five percent have a strange take on the Koran. I suspect this percentage holds true for Christians and their Bible as well.”
  • The call to prayer sounds as Peak leaves the plane. Peak describes, “A sound came from somewhere outside. A mysterious sound. A beautiful sound . . . It seemed to come from all around on the hot, dry air.” It is coming from the minaret attached to the airport’s mosque.
  • Tony runs to the mosque for the afternoon prayer. He yells to Peak, “I am one of those one point six billion Muslims I was telling you about, as are my sister and two brothers. My parents are Protestants.”
  • Cindy, Phillip’s girlfriend, complains that there’s no running water or electricity at the base camp. She then says, “But we do have a camel and a donkey. All we’re missing is the Virgin Mother and a manger.”
  • Cindy makes a comment about the mountains being a “god-forsaken place,” which upsets Peak. Peak thinks, “I wanted to tell her that mountains are not godforsaken places. They are where humans go to find God, which is kind of the whole point of humans climbing mountains.”
  • Partway through a hike, an Afghan guide named Elham does the evening prayer, “kneeling toward Mecca on a small prayer rug he had pulled out of his little pack.”
  • Peak tells Alessia that he was on Everest, and her eyes “got that look. It was like I had just said I’d met God.”
  • Zopa refers to the snow leopard as a “living Talisman.”
  • Alessia asks Peak about Zopa. She asks, “Do you think that by above, he meant that God would save us?”

by Alli Kestler

 

The Running Dream

Running is the thing that makes Jessica feel most alive. So when she loses a leg in a tragic accident, she is shattered—inside and out.

The doctors say she’ll walk again with a prosthetic limb, but to Jessica, that is cold comfort. Walking isn’t running, and at this point just standing up causes her to shake. As she struggles to re-enter her life, Jessica gets to know Rosa—a girl with cerebral palsy—and begins to see that her future is full of opportunities. Soon Jessica starts to wonder if it is possible to cross new finish lines.

The Running Dream is told from Jessica’s point of view, which helps the reader understand her myriad emotions. Jessica’s story unfolds in five sections and each section focuses on one aspect of Jessica’s experiences. Understandably, at first, Jessica wonders why the accident happened to her. Why was she the one to lose a leg? However, the story also shows Jessica’s healing process and how she comes to better understand others because of her disability. Rosa, who has cerebral palsy, helps Jessica with her transition back into school. Through Rosa, Jessica learns that Rosa’s “biggest wish wasn’t to cross a finish line or have people cheer for her. It’s to have people see her instead of her condition. That’s all anybody with a disability wants. Don’t sum up the person based on what you see, or what you don’t understand; get to know them.”

Each chapter of The Running Dream is three pages or less, which keeps the action moving. Dividing the book into sections also helps the reader understand the changes that Jessica is going through. Even though the book focuses on Jessica’s recovery, The Running Dream is also a book about friendship, community, and finding hope.

The Running Dream was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award. The engaging story shies away from profanity and other objectionable material. Instead, the story is propelled by Jessica’s conflicts and relationships. Anyone who has ever been injured or who loves to run will connect with The Running Dream. However, Jessica’s story includes enough high school drama, sibling conflict, and parental problems to capture everyone’s attention. The conclusion ends on a hopeful note and shows how Jessica’s injury has made her a better person.

Sexual Content

  • Jessica has had a crush on Galvin. He tells Jessica how he feels about her and then gives her “a long, salty kiss.”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While in the hospital, Jessica is given morphine and other medication for the pain. Jessica says, “The nurses are nice about my pain meds. It’s the only way I get any sleep.”
  • After Jessica gets home, she begins, “pushing the clock on my pain meds. Taking them early. Slipping in an extra one when I really need it.” When Jessica’s parents find out, they take the pain meds away from her.

Language

  • “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Deep Water

Twelve-year-old Julie Sims is still reeling from her parents’ separation and from being moved to a different city. On the other hand, she is looking forward to spending the summer with her father and helping him with his diving business. However, Julie soon finds out that her father hasn’t weathered the divorce well and his business is about to fail. When a rich client agrees to pay an extreme amount to go on a dive, Julie knows her father will have to say yes because he desperately needs the money.

When Julie’s father falls ill miles off the coast of Alabama, Julie knows she must guide the client and his reckless son, Shane, into the depths of the ocean. Both the son and father ignore Julie’s instructions during the dive. Julie realizes she’s in over her head, but it’s too late to avoid danger. When the anchor loses its grip, the boat floats away making it impossible for the scuba divers to locate it. Stranded in the middle of the ocean, Julie just hopes someone will find them before it’s too late. Can Julie keep everyone alive until help comes, or will they all sink to the bottom of the ocean?

Julie’s story focuses on survival and jumps into action right from the start. Deep Water is not a character-driven story but instead centers around Julie’s desire to survive and her conflicting emotions about Shane. Shane’s father is killed by a shark which makes the two teens realize that they must work together. As Julie gets to know Shane, she realizes that Shane’s bratty behavior is caused by the deep hurt he is hiding. Within this survival story, both Julie and Shane’s family dynamics are explored, adding another interesting element to the story.

Key’s love and respect for the ocean shine through the entire story. Even though Julie faces sharks, freezing waters, and other dangers, she doesn’t lose her love of the ocean. Deep Water is a suspenseful survival story that doesn’t rely on typical events. Instead, the story weaves unique elements to create an entertaining tale that readers will have a hard time putting down. The ending is predictable and the characters are not well developed, the story’s action and suspense will still entertain survival story fans. The Raft by S.A. Bodeen and Adrift by Paul Griffin will also be good for any readers who enjoy ocean-themed survival stories.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Shane yells at Julie, she “spun around and punched him in the face with all my fear and anger.”
  • Julie thinks about a shark story her dad told her. The sharks “often tore into each other by mistake. He saw one of the sharks with its stomach completely ripped out, still feeding for another few minutes until the life suddenly left it.” The other sharks “ripped it up even more and ate it.”
  • While stranded in the middle of the ocean, Mr. Jordan begins to thrash about. “He began lifting his arm from the water repeatedly, plunging the knife blade down at his imaginary sharks.” When Julie and Shane realize they can’t help him, they let go of Mr. Jordan. It is implied that the sharks kill Mr. Jordan.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Julie mentions that her mom takes anxiety medication.

Language

  • Someone calls Julie’s dad a jackass.
  • When Shane realizes his dad has the bends, he says, “We’re so screwed.”
  • Someone refers to another person as a jerk four times. For example, Julie tells Shane, “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to be nice to people. Why would you want to be a jerk?”
  • “God” is used as an exclamation twice. “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation once.
  • Julie tells Shane his dad is an idiot.
  • Crap is used eight times. For example, when Shane loses sight of a shark, he yells, “Where’s that one going? Crap! Where’s he going?”
  • “Holy crap” is used three times. For example, Shane sees a waterspout heading for him and Julie and says, “holy crap!”
  • When Shane is snarky, Julie tells him, “don’t be a smart ass.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The River

Two years after Brian Robeson survived fifty-four days alone in the Canadian wilderness, the government wants him to head back so they can learn what he did to stay alive. This time Derek Holtzer, a government psychologist, will accompany him. But a freak accident leaves Derek unconscious. Brian’s only hope is to transport Derek a hundred miles down the river to a trading post. He’s survived with only a hatchet before—now can Brian build a raft and navigate an unknown river? For the first time, it’s not only Brian’s survival that’s at stake.

As Brian embarks on his journey, he realizes that being in the wilderness with another person isn’t the same as crash landing. There is no danger. No tension. And then Derek is injured, and Brian must make a life or death decision. However, the situation still has little suspense or action. Even when Brian is rafting down the river, there is little excitement, and Brian’s hallucinations are confusing. However, when Brian becomes exhausted, he thinks, “It would be better if Derek were gone. What were the differences? He was dumb enough to rise up and get hit by the lightning, and he should be gone.” Brian doesn’t give in to this momentary weakness and ends up saving Derek.

Even though The River follows Brian on another adventure, Brian’s character does not grow. Much of the plot focuses on Brian’s thoughts and emotions, which slows down the pace. The conclusion is abrupt and the secret that plagued him in Hatchet is never resolved; however, it no longer bothers Brian. The River has few intense moments and the plot and characters are underdeveloped, which makes it hard for readers to connect with the characters.

Readers who enjoyed Hatchet will find Brian’s journey interesting. However, if the slow pace of Hatchet made finishing the story difficult, you will want to avoid picking up The River. Brian’s next adventure, Brian’s Winter, takes the reader back in time and shows what would have happened if Brian wasn’t rescued after his plane crash. Readers who enjoy understanding character’s thoughts and emotions will find The River satisfying. However, if you’re looking for a more fast-paced survival story, Adrift by Paul Griffin would be a better choice.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Derek is hit by lightning. “Some thing, some blueness of heat and light and raw power seemed to jump from the tree to the briefcase and radio and enter Derek’s hand. All the same part of a second it hit him and his back arched, snapped him erect, and then it seemed to fill the whole shelter and slammed into Brian as well.” After being hit, Derek is in a coma.
  • Brian falls into the river and is swept along with the current. “. . .he was down again, mashed down and tumbled by the pressure wave, smashed into the rocks on the bottom, and all he could think was that he had to stay alive. . . He fought and clawed against the rock, broke his face free, then was driven down again, hammered into the bottom.” Brian finally finds the raft and is able to get on it.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • God is used as an exclamation four times.
  • When Derek is injured, Brian thinks, “The woods. The damn woods.”
  • When Brian decides to build a raft and travel down the river, he thinks, “Oh, hell, we just have to do this. . .”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Brian was trying to make a difficult decision. “Please, God, he thought—and did not finish it. Just that—please, God.”
  • When the raft is near huge rocks in the river, Brian whispers, “God. . . “

I Am Still Alive

Jess Cooper loses her mother and some of her mobility in a car accident. At fifteen—soon to be sixteen—years old, she is forced to live with her absent father in middle-of-nowhere Alaska. Then just as Jess was getting to know her father, a secret from his past leaves him dead. Jess is determined to survive in the wilderness with nothing except her father’s hunting dog and her wits.

Jess journeys through the wilderness to her father’s second cabin just as winter begins to set in. During her stay at the cabin, she plans her revenge against the men who killed her father. As winter continues, she also learns skills to keep herself alive and just how much the wild does not care about human life.

The first half of the book follows Jess in a “before and after” journal style as she recalls moments before and after her father’s murder.  With the change of point of view (from journal to the first-person present) the reader loses descriptions of Jess’s surroundings as the story becomes more of a stream of consciousness, which focuses on Jess’s inner thoughts. The journal-like style gives readers insight into Jess’s internal thoughts and worries. Understanding Jess’s personality and thought process allow readers to connect and sympathize with her.

Despite the many trials Jess goes through—the car accident, her father’s murder, her physical disability, and a lack of survival skills—she uses her wits and figures out ways to solve problems. Jess’s first obstacle is finding shelter. Jess recalls memories of building stick shelters in a small patch of woods with friends. She realizes that she does not need to chop down trees or find the greatest place to hunker down. She has the remnants of her father’s burned-down cabin, and a belt to help drag planks. Through Jess’s experiences, the reader will learn the importance of perseverance in the face of danger.

The style and wording of the novel welcome young readers, though the topics may be upsetting. While the violent death of a parent is a heavy topic, readers will gain insight into Jess’s emotions and feelings as she struggles with stressful situations. Readers who enjoy survival stories will enjoy the action and tension as Jess fights her father’s murderers. Readers also gain a sense of triumph as Jess completes her goal of survival in the wilderness.

I Am Still Alive is a quick read with an uncomplicated plot, but the act of surviving gives enough of a thrill to make readers want to know the end of Jess’s story. While she does not always learn from her mistakes—she often makes the same mistakes two to three times—she always puts 100% of her energy into planning a way around an obstacle. While the ending is not completely happy, Jess grows as a character from the city girl she once was. At the end of it all, she even feels a slight pull back to the wilderness. Jess thinks the wilderness is, “A place that does not love me and that I do not love. But we don’t expect love from each other, the wild and me.” Readers looking for other snowy survival stories should check out Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson and Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter.

Sexual Content

  • As she hides, Jess overhears the perpetrator of her father’s murder talking. The man “mostly talked about women. Talking about women in ways that sex ed and primetime TV did not prepare me for. I hated him more with every word.”

Violence

  • The book contains general talk about death in the sense of hunting, hunger, and survival. Skills on how to skin animals and degut them are described. For example, Jess’s dad “narrated everything he was doing as he took the fish and slit it along its belly. He told nobody in particular how to scoop out the guts.”
  • Jess reminisces about her mother’s death in the car crash: “. . .the world ended. Only half of it came back. My half. It was feel of wet cold rain and wet hot blood.”
  • Jess goes fishing with her dad. “Then [dad] hit [the fish] three times sharply on the back of the head with a little weighed club.”
  • Jess has a nightmare. The man “raises his hand, and there’s a gun in it. The gun roars with the sound of a fire, crackling and howling. Griff’s head kicks back. The air filled with red blood like mist, and it’s all over my clothes, it’s all over my hands and my face and in my mouth.”
  • People visit the cabin and “Raph kept smiling. And he took out his gun. And he shot my father in the head.”
  • While she hides from the people who killed her father, Jess debates her next actions. “I would have to get out to the plane and I would have to get the door open and then I would have to shoot him or stab him or whatever it was that I could possibly do to a man with a gun, a man whose friends had shot my father as he reached out his hand to shake.”
  • When Jess confronts the villain he “slams the butt of the rifle against my jaw.”
  • Jess defends herself against a man. “I bring the rock up in both hands and swing it as hard as I can at the side of his head.”
  • Daniel, the villain, attacks. “And Daniel, lying on his side with one arm twisted awkwardly under him. I watch for a long time, but he doesn’t move. He doesn’t breathe. Dead. My fault.”
  • When her dad’s hunting dog takes a bullet for her, Jess has to kill the dog as she cannot save him and he is in pain. “I aim the rifle between his eyes. He doesn’t flinch out of the way, only pants.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • After the accident, Jess takes medication for her pain. “Painkillers, the powerful kind, leftover from my prescription. I haven’t taken them in weeks, but I shake one out now and swallow it dry.”
  • Jess describes a boulder in the forest. “I remember a boulder. Dropped here by some long-gone glacier, it leaned a bit, like it was drunk.”
  • Jess, her father, and her father’s friend, Griff, are telling stories. “And Griff snorted beer out his nose and into his beard and then we all laughed about it.”
  • Jess’s dad describes Griff, saying “But eventually he always pours himself out of his bottle and comes back.”
  • Jess finds “a couple of bottles of beer at the back of the cabinet.”

Language

  • Ass is used once and asshole is used twice. For example, Jess reminisces about one of her foster families, and thinks, “George is an asshole.” Later Jess names a fox George, “because George was an asshole, and so was the fox.”
  • Jess describes her injury and how unbalanced she is. “Just snap and shut, and I’m on my face or my ass.”
  • Damn is used once. Jess tries to figure out how to survive, but she doesn’t “know a damn thing about making a fishing rod from scratch.”
  • Raph, the villain, talks about Jess’s dad. He says, “It’s his own goddamn fault.”

Supernatural

  • Jess finds the last bullets for her father’s rifle. “I’ll waste at least one bullet, maybe more. Maybe all of them. They were a talisman. A piece of magic I was searching for, but now I have them and I remember that magic isn’t real.”

Spiritual Content

  • Jess describes Griff saying, “Jesus is [Griff’s] personal savior.”
  • Griff tells Jess, “God loves everybody, and when you die he can finally tell you direct. That’s why heaven is so nice.”
  • Jess’s mother, who was a pilot, says, “Pilots don’t have to depend on memory, which will always fail sooner or later. The checklist is God.”
  • Jess says the Lord’s name in vain. When she swears in front of her dad, he says “Don’t say that. . . There is no Lord. God’s just a lie the powerful people tell the little people to keep them in line.”
  • Jess reminisces about how Griff and her dad interacted. “Dad didn’t seem to mind when Griff talked about God. Maybe because Griff’s idea of God was very odd.”
  • At the end of the novel, there is a memorial service for Jess’ father. Jess “stood in an empty chapel while a preacher said kind words about a man he didn’t know, a man who would have hated every mention of God and heaven in the service.”

Storm Rescue

Sunita and her friends—Zoe, Brenna, David, and Maggie—all volunteer at Dr. Mac’s veterinary clinic. The kids work with all kinds of pets, but each one has a favorite. For Sunita, cats are the best pets, but she is afraid of dogs, especially big dogs.

Sunita is also afraid of the water, which is why she has never learned to swim. As a hurricane approaches, Sunita realizes that Lucy, a diabetic cat with a broken leg, is in danger, along with her owners. But when the evacuation begins, both vets are out on emergencies. Will Sunita be able to save Lucy or will she be a scaredy-cat? And when a Great Dane needs help, will Sunita be able to get past her fear?

Storm Rescue is told from Sunita’s point of view, which allows the reader to understand her fears. However, Sunita’s actions are often irresponsible and dangerous. For example, when Sunita goes to check on an injured cat, she isn’t completely honest about where she is going because she knows her mother would never allow her to go into a flooded neighborhood during a hurricane. When rescue workers leave Lucy in the house, Sunita convinces her two friends, David and Maggie, to canoe to the house and try to rescue the cat on their own. Even though Sunita cannot swim, she jumps into the freezing water and doggie paddles to the attic window. While her intentions were honorable, Sunita’s actions could have easily lead to her and her friends’ deaths.

While the hurricane adds suspense to the story, some events in the story are not realistic, including how Sunita and her friends rescued Lucy. In addition, when the wet kids come in from the storm, Dr. Mac puts the kids to work caring for the animals before they even have a chance to dry off. In this installment of Vet Volunteers, the adults are off helping animals, but this leaves the unsupervised eleven-year-old kids to make unwise decisions. The story never acknowledges Sunita’s impulsive, dangerous actions. Instead, Sunita’s actions are praised.

Readers will relate to Sunita’s desire to help animals in distress and cheer when she is able to overcome her fear. However, the story’s short length does not allow her or the plot to be well developed. While the story teaches about the dangers animals face during a natural disaster, the characters needlessly put themselves in danger. The book ends by giving information on how to keep animals safe during a natural disaster.

The story is educational and will keep the reader’s interest. The happy ending is slightly unrealistic; however, the conclusion shows that one person can make a difference. The short chapters, interesting plot, and relatable characters make Storm Rescue a book that will appeal to animal lovers of different ages.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • The vet gives a scared dog a tranquilizer to calm him down.

Language

  • When a worried pet owner calls the clinic, one of the kids says, “Mrs. Creighton is a nut. Precious is probably on a hunger strike to try to get herself a new owner.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Canyon’s Edge

Nora’s birthday marks the one-year anniversary of the worst day of her life. To distract them both from the memories of a horrible mass shooting that killed Nora’s mom, her dad surprises her with a trip to explore a slot canyon deep in the Arizona desert. Nora hopes they’ll find some remnants of the happiness they felt when her mother was alive.

But in the twisting, winding depths, the unthinkable happens. Suddenly Nora finds herself lost and alone, at the bottom of a canyon, in the middle of a desert. Separated from her supplies, she faces dehydration, venomous scorpions, deadly snakes, and worst of all, the Beast who has terrorized her dreams for the last year. To save herself and her father, Nora must conquer her fears—and outsmart the canyon’s dangers.

The middle part of Nora’s story is told through poetry that uses repetition, alliteration, and other types of figurative langue to convey Nora’s emotions. Nora’s fear of “the Beast” becomes apparent as she imagines the man who killed her mother. “Now I feel the Beast below me, / sneering, sniping, snapping/ his snarling mouth / his claws outstretched, / waiting, patiently waiting, / for me to fall.” The poetry has an emotional impact and also creates a sense of panic, suspense, and fear.

The poetry creates wonderfully descriptive passages and the text often is placed to create a visual element that enhances the story’s emotion. For example, when a flash flood takes Nora’s father, the descriptive words are placed in the form of a whirlpool. The visual effect of the words helps the reader imagine the story’s events and the emotion behind them.

Nora’s story begins with Nora and her father building protective walls around themselves in order to shut out all other people. Nora suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, and loneliness. Even though Nora struggles with understanding why her mother died, the story never explains why a man killed strangers. Yet the terrifying events in the canyon allow Nora to deal with her past and her story ends on a hopeful note as she begins to heal.

Even though the story uses Nora’s stream-of-consciousness narration, The Canyon’s Edge is not a character-driven story. Instead, the story focuses on 48 hours of heart-stopping tension as Nora fights to survive scorpions, dehydration, and other dangers. Nora’s emotional trauma, the death of her mother, and the life-and-death struggle she faces may upset younger readers, but will be enjoyed by older readers. The Canyon’s Edge will take readers on a twisting emotional ride that will stay with them for a long time after they put the book down.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • One year ago, Nora’s mother was killed in a mass shooting. Nora thinks back to the event. “First come the tremendous booms. My mother, singing to me seconds ago is shoving me under the table so frantically, so desperately, that I bash my head on the edge and her fingers leave bruises on my body.”
  • Sofia Moreno, a woman in the restaurant, tackles the shooter. “Sofia Moreno, / who died / while giving her two boys, / while giving everyone, / while giving me, a chance / a bigger chance. . . to flee, / to hide, / to act, / to survive.” Sofia is able to stop the shooter before she dies.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Damn is used once.

 

Supernatural

  • None

 

Spiritual Content

  • Nora’s psychologist tells her about Gerald Manley Hopkins, a poet. “He was searching for a pattern. He believed if he sketched the same wave twice, it would be proof. . . That there was a god.”
  • When Nora sleeps in a cave, she prays “for help, though I don’t know who or what could possibly help me here inside a hole in the wall on the side of a canyon.”
  • As Nora walks through the desert, she prays “for help.”

Dirt Road Home

Two years ago, Hal was sent to a state residence to keep him away from his alcoholic father. Hal escapes the boys’ home but is eventually captured. Now, he’s being sent to serve hard time at Hellenweiler Boy’s Home.

With his dad back on the wagon, Hal can walk out sooner than he thinks if he keeps his cool. But at Hellenweiler, trouble finds those who try to avoid it. In order to stay out of trouble, Hal tries to avoid the other residents, but two rival gangs each want Hal to pick a side. To make matters worse, Hal realizes the head of Hellenweiler, Mr. Pratt, is determined to keep Hal locked up. Is there any way Hal can stay out of the gangs’ fights? Will everyone believe Mr. Pratt’s lies?

Hal is determined to stay out of trouble, but other inmates notice his confidence and compassion. For example, Hal encourages the new arrival of Leroy to quickly choose a gang as Leroy will need protection. But after seeing Leroy and Hal interact, the gang leader chooses a cruel initiation task—beat up Hal. Hal quickly realizes Leroy’s struggle and promises not to fight back. Hal takes the beating because he knows it is the only way Leroy will be safe. Throughout the story, many boys fight each other. Some of the fights are barbaric and bloody, which may upset more sensitive readers.

Readers will admire Hal for his determination and grit. Hal’s experiences highlight the violent nature of boys’ homes and the corrupt system that is designed to keep the boys behind bars. The boys often fight each other and the guards gladly ignore much of the fighting. However, the guards seem to relish in being able to use violence to stop the fighting. While the story ends on a positive note, readers will be left wondering if all of the boys can be reformed or if are some of them already destined to live in a prison for the rest of their adult lives.

Full of violence, questionable characters, and suspense, Dirt Road Home will keep the reader interested until the very end. The story has a darker tone and explores difficult topics such as alcoholism, justice, and prison life. Hal and several other characters made an appearance in Alabama Moon. Even though readers do not have to read Alabama Moon to understand the story, understanding Hal’s background will help readers have empathy for him. Dirt Road Home is an easy-to-read story that illustrates how one person can make a positive difference in others’ lives.

Sexual Content

  • Hal dreams about his girlfriend and “the time I couldn’t help myself and leaned over and kissed her on the tailgate of my truck. And the way I’d felt when she’d kissed me back and then later when she’d stood behind me and put her hands in the front pockets of my jeans and pulled close against me.”
  • Hal kisses his girlfriend. “I leaned into her and kissed her on the mouth. Her lips were soft and tasted like cherry ChapStick. I’d been thinking about that kiss ever since.”

Violence

  • Two rival gangs try to recruit new boys. A boy chases after a basketball and gets too close to a rival gang member. “The Hound slapped the ball out of the Minister’s hand and bent down to get it. The Minister kneed the boy in the stomach and the Hound collapsed, holding himself.” An adult breaks up the fight.
  • As part of a gang initiation, Hal’s friend Leroy is told to beat up Hal. Hal tells him, “I won’t fight back, Leroy.” Leroy “drew back and hit me in the ribs. I grunted and leaned over and grabbed my side. . . He punched me hard in the stomach. I doubled over and went to my knees. . . He hit me across the face and I fell sideways. I rolled over and looked at him. Tears were coming down his face. ‘Kick me,’ I said.” Hal is taken to the infirmary.
  • When Hal refuses to join a gang, Tattoo “slammed his hand into my throat and pressed me against the wall. I gasped for breath as he held me there. . . He hit me again. I felt the coppery taste of blood in my mouth. Then I saw it running down his hand.” Hal is knocked unconscious. The scene is described over a page.
  • A gang member tries to make Hal throw a punch. “Jack’s hand shot out and grabbed me by the throat and pinned me to the wire. He was breathing heavy through his nose, and his eyes danced with craziness.” An adult intervenes.
  • When one of the boys refuses to fight, he disappears. Someone tells Hal, “Chase accepted a service he could not pay for. He is gone. . . He was taken away in an ambulance last night.”
  • Hal sneaks down to the basement intending to fight Jack. “I tightened my grip on the shiv and started to stand. Before I could rise, another figure slipped out of the darkness behind Jack and pulled him to the floor. The room was suddenly filled with screaming.” Someone beat up Jack. The next morning, one of the boys is found in bed with “blood staining his bedsheet and the entire side of his shirt.” Both boys heal from their wounds.
  • The two gangs fight. “It was a blur of chaos and confusion as the Hounds descended on their cowering prey . . .” Guards watch the fight and then one “stepped down onto the yard. Behind him came three more guards, each of them with his own club. . . Then I saw sticks rising and falling and caught glimpses of their faces, jaws clenched and eyes narrowed at the pleasure of what they dealt. I heard grunts of pain and more yelling. . . in the end, the guards stood in the settling dust. A few boys lay around them, moaning and curled into fetal positions.”
  • Paco explains how he became a gang leader. “I put a rock in my fist and walked up to their leader and hit him in the face with it until he fell to the ground and spit his teeth into the dirt.”
  • During a fight between the two gangs, “the boys are so worked up that they continue to fight and do not notice the guards. Perhaps even if they did notice they do not believe what is about to happen. . .” The guards attack the boys. After the fight, “there are several boys lying on the ground. One of them is not moving. . . Caboose’s younger brother.” When Caboose refuses to leave his brother’s side, “the guards close in and I hear the clubs hitting his back like punches to a side of beef. Slowly, after many blows, Caboose becomes silent. . . Then, after many more blows, he rolls over and falls across his brother.”
  • A guard finds a shiv in Hal’s locker. The guard grabs Hal and, “I felt the hand on my shoulder. I tried to twist away and the fingers dug clawlike into my collarbone and pain shot up my neck. Then I was hit hard from behind and I went to my knees with the room spinning.” Hal is put in solitary confinement.
  • Paco tells the story of how he ended up in the boys’ home. He was bullied. He became tired of the jeers and ridicule. “I snapped. I began picking up desks and throwing them at students from the back of the room. They screamed and ran for the door. . . All I had to do was throw the desk at the cluster of them.” Paco blames the boys’ home for turning him into a “violent youth.”
  • The gangs fight. Jack, one of the gang leaders, “charged and rammed Paco against the fence. . . Jack began driving his fists into Paco’s kidneys over and over while Paco did nothing to defend himself. . . Jack came at Paco again and began hammering his face with the fury of an insane person. . .” Paco’s friend Caboose “picked him up and put him over his shoulder like he weighed nothing. Blood drooled out of his mouth and down Caboose’s back.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hal’s father is a recorded alcoholic. In a brief conversation Hal asks, “He goin’ to AA meetin’s?” Occasionally, Hal thinks about the past, when his father would drink whiskey.
  • When Hal’s father comes to visit him, Hal is worried because his father has lost weight. His dad says, “I guess I’ve been wired to the stuff [alcohol] for too long. Gotta get reprogrammed.”
  • One of the boys tells Hal, “My parents are in jail for sellin’ drugs.”
  • Before Hal had to go to the boy’s home, he spent time with his girlfriend. They were “drinking a couple of hot Budweisers I’d found in the toolbox.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, hell and pissed.
  • Someone is called a wuss several times.
  • Christ is used as an exclamation twice.
  • Hal’s father writes Hal a letter. In it, he writes, “I figured you wanted her [Hal’s girlfriend’s] address, numbskull.”
  • While talking to his father, Hal calls his mom a “fat old nag.”
  • One of the boys calls someone a “dumb spic.” The boy replies, “Bring it on, cracker!”
  • Someone tells Hal that he will have to join a gang for protection. When Hal refuses, someone gives him a shiv. Hal says, “Then I’m screwed!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Hideout

Twelve-year-old Sam has been given a fishing boat by his father, but he hates fishing. Instead, he uses the boat to disappear for hours at a time, exploring the forbidden swampy surroundings of his bayou home. Then he discovers a strange kid named Davey, mysteriously alone, repairing an abandoned cabin deep in the woods. Not fooled by the boy’s evasive explanation as to why he’s on his own, Sam becomes entangled in his own efforts to help Davey. But this leads him to tell small lies that only get bigger as the danger increases for both boys and hidden truths become harder to conceal.

Hideout is a suspenseful survival story that delves into the complicated nature of friendship, self-esteem, and evil. Sam and his best friend, Grover, are savagely beaten. Sam is unable to forget about “the fight” and blames himself for the event. Told from Sam’s perspective, the reader gets an inside view of how Sam feels ashamed. He thinks that if he wasn’t a loser, “the fight” would have never happened. While Sam struggles with his own personal demons, he meets Davey who is living alone in the middle of a swamp.

Davey’s story is one full of hardship and mystery. Even though Davey is secretive, Sam is determined to help him. In doing so, Sam begins to tell lies that get him into a dangerous situation. Readers will be drawn into the two boys’ lives and wonder if their secrets will lead to their downfall.

Hideout expertly weaves the boys’ stories into an interesting, suspenseful story that is difficult to put down. The story ends on a happy note and shows Sam’s character growth. In the end, Sam learns several important lessons. He finally realizes that “there’s just bad people in the world. Sometimes they do bad things to people like us. But it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us.” In addition, Sam learns that “being a man isn’t about winning fights and carrying guns. It’s about helping people however you can, no matter what.”

Fans of survival stories will enjoy Hideout’s fast pace, the surprises, and the life lessons. In addition, readers will empathize with Sam and Davey, who both struggle with hardships. Readers who enjoy Hideout should check out Key’s other survival stories which include Terror at Bottle Creek and the Alabama Moon Series. Readers looking for another intense survival story should check out ADRIFT by Paul Griffin and Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrop.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Leroy and Gooch beat up Sam and his best friend, Grover. Leroy “tripped Grover. . . he smacked hard onto the concrete.” Then, Gooch “shot out and his fist punched Grover in the chest so hard it sounded like a hammer thumping a wood barrel. Grover flew backwards into the lockers and collapsed . . .” Sam tried to help him and “Gooch’s arm slid around my throat and constricted me in the crook of his elbow. . .”
  • While Grover was still on the ground, Leroy “kicked him in the stomach and bounced him off the lockers like a soccer ball.”
  • During the fight, Sam “began to struggle against Gooch, trying to break free. Then I felt a sharp blow to my ribs, and what breath I had left me and everything went blurry. . . Gooch kicked me in the stomach . . . [Sam felt] blows to [his] face and stomach and arms until it didn’t hurt anymore.” Both Sam and Grover have to be hospitalized. The fight is described over three pages.
  • Sam’s father chases a thief. “I saw the big man sitting up and punching down. . . I saw Dad start to stand. Suddenly he was falling, and then he was gone and the big man was punching again.” Sam’s father is able to restrain the man.
  • Sam meets a boy who tells him, “My stepmom got a boyfriend, and Dad stabbed him in the stomach with the knife.” No other details are mentioned.
  • Davey was in a foster home. “My foster dad used to tell me I was like a stray dog that nobody wanted. He hurt me sometimes, but he didn’t do it so you could tell. He’d do things like press his thumbs up real hard under my armpits. . . If I yelled, he’d press harder until I got quiet.”
  • Davey’s foster dad sprayed him “in the face with some air freshener . . . Everything’s been blurry ever since.”
  • Davey’s step-brother, Slade, tells Sam, “And if you screw up, I’m gonna come to your house on Acorn Drive and kill you in your sleep.”
  • Slade got upset at one of his friends and “grabbed him by the throat with one hand. Jesse swung and hit him in the stomach. . . [Slade] punched him in the face. . . Slade kicked him hard in the ribs and he went down again, clutching his side.”
  • Slade kicks Davey “in the shoulder and knocked him over into the leaves.”
  • While trying to flee the swamp, Slade crashes into a patrol boat. Davey gets thrown and stops breathing. After receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Davey is revived.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Slade and his friends show up with beer. The step-brother’s friends “were each drinking a beer.”
  • Slade and his friends are growing marijuana out in the swamp.
  • Sam’s father grabbed a beer.

 

Language

  • Profanity is used rarely. Profanity includes ass, crap, hell, and pissed.
  • A classmate trips Grover, Grover calls the boy a “dumbass” and a “stupid redneck.”
  • Someone calls Grover a “wuss.”
  • “Christ,” “Lord” and “my god” are used as exclamations seven times altogether.
  • Grover calls Sam’s dad a “redneck cop.”
  • Dumbass is used three times. For example, Davey’s step-brother calls him a dumbass.
  • Someone asks Sam, “Are you a complete idiot?”
  • While trying to resuscitate Davey, the officer says, “Breathe, damnit!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Sam’s family attends First Methodist Church.
  • When Sam’s boat is almost out of gas, he prays, “Please God, let me get home. Just this one time. . . Okay, God, I won’t go out there again [into the swamp]. Just let me get home and I won’t go out there again.”
  • When Sam goes to church, he “remembered my plea to God and tried my best to pay attention to the sermon as repayment for any help.” The preacher’s sermon, which was about the good Samaritan, is paraphrased in a paragraph.
  • Sam goes missing. When his father finds him, he says, “Thank God.”

Beautiful Wild

Vida Hazzard can see her future. Aboard the heralded “Millionaire’s Ship of the West,” she’ll charm the young scion Fitzhugh Farrar, resulting in a proposal of marriage.

But Vida didn’t plan on Fitz’s best friend Sal, a rough-around-the-edges boy with a talent for getting under her skin. Nor did she anticipate a hurricane dashing their ship and her dreams to pieces. Now stranded on an island with both Fitz and Sal, Vida is torn between the life she’s always planned for, and a future she’s never dared to want. As they desperately plot a course for home, Vida will discover which boy will capture her wild heart—and where her future truly lies.

Beautiful Wild has an interesting premise, but the predictable plot and spoiled protagonist make the story drag. First of all, Vida is a self-centered girl whose only goal is to snag Fitz as a husband, even though she has no genuine feelings for him. Vida longs for adventure but realizes “that the adventures of young women are adventures of the heart—or of husband-hunting. And that it was enough for you to see the heights of the world through the eyes of the man you would marry.” When Vida finally wins Fitz’s heart, she realizes her longing for clothes, parties, and acceptance in society means nothing to her. Unrealistically, she sails off into the sunset, alone and in search of her true love, Sal.

Even though the story is written in third person, Vida’s thoughts take center stage. Unfortunately, Vida’s conflicts are revealed through long-winded passages. In addition, readers may have a hard time relating to Vida because the girl is selfish and vain. Even after Vida learns that Fitz has been in a long-standing sexual relationship with his brother’s wife, Vida still wants to marry him so her own materialistic wants will be fulfilled. When Vida begins to have doubts, Vida’s mother reminds her of the importance of getting married, because if she doesn’t “your life will be aimless, and you won’t be anybody at all.”

Beautiful Wild has elements of a survival story as well as a romance but lacks action and character development. Vida’s two love interests are so undeveloped that the love triangle lacks suspense. However, readers will come away from reading Beautiful Wild with a new understanding of the restrictive lives women had in the past. The ending is predictable and lacks an emotional impact. Readers who like to understand a character’s inner musings may like Beautiful Wild. However, if you’re looking for a heartfelt romance or an action-packed survival story, Beautiful Wild will leave you disappointed.

Sexual Content

  • It’s revealed that Fitz had a sexual relationship with his brother’s wife.
  • Vida goes to find Fitz in the hopes that “Fitz would kiss her.”
  • Fitz kisses Vida. “His face moved toward hers, his chin tilted—in a moment she would close her eyes to accept his kiss. His hands spread over her waist, and she felt the press of his mouth against hers, and the warmth of his breath, and the pump of his heart.”
  • Vida asks Sal why he didn’t try to kiss her. She thinks, “It had been so easy to get Whiting, and Bill, and Theodore to kiss her—why should Sal be so difficult?”
  • After Fitz returns with help, he tells Vida, “When I was on that raft, in the storm, when the sea was all around me and we seemed certain to drown, I kept thinking of your lips, and I thought that if I could only steer her true, I’d survive and I’d be able to kiss you again.” Fitz then gives Vida a “chaste kiss just slightly off the mark of her mouth.”
  • Before her upcoming marriage, Vida seeks out Sal. “And then quite unexpectedly her fingers fluttered up, brushed his lips, his jaw, gently pinched his earlobe. . . Her mouth found his mouth. . . Then he returned the pressure of her kiss, and she knew what it was to want and be wanted in equal measure.”
  • Later, Vida thinks about kissing Sal and wonders “what the next kiss would have been like, and the one after that.”

Violence

  • Their ship sinks and Camilla’s husband dies. Vida sees Camilla “as she tried to protect the body splayed on the beach. A dead body.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • A gossip columnist writes that “the heir to the shipping fortune drank more than his older brother thought proper.”
  • Vida has a hangover after drinking a “hideous quantity of champagne.”
  • When the ship is ready to depart, “champagne bottles popped. . . cheers erupted.”
  • While at parties and on the ship, Vida drinks champagne.
  • Vida thinks about all of the gentlemen in a room. One man was “liable to drink too much and become boorish.”
  • Fitz tells Vida that when they are saved, the two of them will “play bridge, and we’ll have cocoa and whiskey and we’ll dance.”
  • When Fitz scolds Vida, no one notices because “everyone was a little drunk.”
  • When Vida’s father talks about her upcoming marriage, Vida stops him. “Her Father—Vida supposed—made a gesture that implied she’d been too free with the passing trays of champagne last night.”
  • At her engagement party, someone finds Vida upset. The person tells her to “have some sherry to fortify you for the rest of the night.” Vida drinks brandy, which “stung her mouth and snapped her back to this place.” As the night progresses, Vida drinks enough to have a hangover the next day.

Language

  • Damn is used five times. Vida is afraid that she will never get the tangles out of her hair. She says, “Tomorrow I will cut the damn braid off.”
  • My God and oh God are both used as an exclamation once.
  • Vida calls someone a bastard.

Supernatural

  • When someone gives Vida a knife, her mother tells her, “If you accept a blade as a wedding gift, it means the marriage will fail.”

Spiritual Content

  • Vida’s lady’s maid tries to hide the champagne glasses from Vida’s father. When he leaves the room, she says, “Oh thank God.”
  • The ship passengers hold a funeral service for a man who died. The man’s brother says, “He is with God now. May his soul be at rest.”
  • After the ship sinks, Vida is worried about a friend. She prays, “God, please, let her still be [alive].”
  • The surviving passengers are forced to hide in a cave. Vida “had prayed for the night to end.”

Alabama Moon #1

For as long as ten-year-old Moon can remember, he has lived out in the wilderness in a shelter with his father. They keep to themselves, and their only contact with other human beings is an occasional trip to the nearest general store. When Moon’s father dies, Moon follows his father’s last instructions: to travel to Alaska to find others like themselves. But Moon is soon caught and entangled in a world he doesn’t know or understand. Soon, he’s become the property of the government he has been avoiding all his life. As the spirited and resourceful Moon encounters constables, jails, institutions, lawyers, true friends, and true enemies, he adapts his wilderness survival skills and learns to survive in the world of people, and even, perhaps, make his home there.

While Moon’s life is not something most readers can imagine, they will soon be entangled in his story. When Moon’s Pap dies, Moon doesn’t understand why he can’t continue to live in his dirt hovel. Moon wrestles with his father’s ways as well as the world’s ways. Despite his loneliness, Moon fights everyone who tries to drag him away from his hovel to a boys’ home. Moon’s fight is both fast-paced, engaging, and full of surprises.

Alabama Moon takes the reader into the backwoods of Alabama and shows the beauty of living off the land. While the story is full of action, readers will also form an emotional connection to Moon’s story. In the end, many readers will be left in tears as they wonder why our world is so harsh. While Moon’s story ends on a hopeful note, Alabama Moon doesn’t shy away from the tough topics of death and the effects of war. But the main theme that shines is the importance of friendship.

The author’s love of the outdoors and his knowledge of nature allows him to paint a realistic picture of surviving in the wild. Alabama Moon combines intense senses with moments of tenderness and humor. The story highlights the father-son relationship and shows the deep love a son feels for his father—even when his father isn’t perfect.

Anyone who loves an action-packed survival story will love Alabama Moon. The characters are realistic and imperfect. The story doesn’t portray adults as always having the right answers, and some of the adults admit to having made a wrong choice. In the end, Moon realizes the importance of having friends and supportive adults in his life. Moon’s story will leave a lasting impact on readers and will help them appreciate the people in their lives.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When a store owner named Mr. Abroscotto says Moon’s father’s plan was crazy, Moon jumped on him. “I started hitting him with my one hand that wasn’t holding on to him. I pounded him on the cheek over and over as fast as I could. . .I kicked him in the knee.”
  • When a social worker shows up to take Moon to a boys’ home, Moon “balled my fist, and socked him in the crotch.” The social worker “pulled his knees in tight as a baby and moaned curses at me.”
  • When a constable tries to detain Moon, Moon tries to run away. Moon “punched him in the face as hard as I could. . . He stood up with me and crushed me against his chest. For a moment I couldn’t breathe, and I felt that my shoulders were about to snap. . . I spun around and bit him on the tit. . .” The constable is able to get Moon into the back of his car.
  • After the constable talks badly about Moon’s father, Moon, “Jumped at him. . . I bit into his shoulder and chewed at it like it was tough gristle. . . He grabbed me around the waist with both hands and squeezed so hard that my body shot with pain and I had to throw my head back and cough at the sky.” Moon pees on the constable. The constable squeezes Moon until Moon is sick.
  • The constable goes to see one of his renters, who is behind on the rent. He “suddenly let go of the steering wheel and backhanded the man across the jaw.”
  • When Moon gets to the boys’ house, he meets Hal, who trash talks him. “I swung my arm from under the blanket and hit him open-handed across the face. . . the big kid recovered and grabbed for my feet. . .” Mr. Carter breaks up the fight. When Hal is disobedient, “Mr. Carter took two steps and grabbed him by the shirt collar. He lifted Hal like a scarecrow and dragged him across the room. He hung there, red-faced and coughing against the shirt that pressed into his throat.” Mr. Carter throws Hal outside and makes him sleep in the cold.
  • Hal approaches Moon. “Hal was walking faster, and he seemed to have something in mind for me. . . While I was crouched down, I hit him as hard as I could in the crouch. Then I covered my face with my hands and started rolling across the ground.”
  • The constable, Sanders, puts Moon on a leash and drags him around. “After we had traveled about a mile, Sanders yanked the leash so hard that I coughed against it. A sharp pain shot up into my head, and I gritted my teeth again. . . I rushed against the leash and felt it jerk me backwards until I lay flat in the leaves. Sanders laughed over me.” When another adult sees Sanders and questions him, Moon is able to run away.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Moon is put in jail. “The only other person in a cage, across the hall from me . . . said they locked him up for being too drunk and wrecking his car.”
  • The constable uses Copenhagen chewin’ tabacco.
  • Hal’s father is a drunk. Hal says, “My daddy never did learn to read good. He was so drunk most of the time, he could barely see.” When Hal’s father is driving home, he “pulled a bottle of whiskey from under the truck seat and took a swallow.”
  • When Moon walks up to Hal, Hal “held out a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco” and asked, “you want some?”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, hell, and piss.
  • God and Jesus are both used as an exclamation several times. For example, after Moon hit Mr. Abroscotto, he said, “God, that hurt!”
  • Several times someone called Moon a “little bastard” and a “militia bastard.”
  • The constable asks a jailer, “Where’s that little pissant?”
  • The constable tells Moon, “You ain’t nothin’ but white trash. Worse than white trash. . . You’re stinkin’ militia trash, is what you are.” The constable tells Moon that his dad was “some dirty low-life.”
  • Four times, the constable uses the word “sum-bitch.”
  • Someone tells Moon that Sanders “is a bully and a bigot. . . He’s unintelligent, and he’s mean and he’s in a position of power. That’s a bad combination to be facing.”
  • A police officer tells Moon, “You’re a real pain in the ass, you know.”
  • Moon’s aunt says, “My Lord” twice. For example, when Moon tells his aunt that he’d like to eat four times a day, she says, “My Lord!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Moon’s father “said you passed and came back as something else. It could be a squirrel or a coon. It could be a fish or an Eskimo. There was no way to tell.”
  • At the boys’ home, a prayer is said before dinner.
  • Moon’s father “told me I could talk to him be writin’ letters and burnin’ ‘em. He said you can talk to dead people that way.” Moon does this several times.

 

 

Terror at Bottle Creek

Cort’s father is a local expert on hunting and swamp lore in lower Alabama and has been teaching his son everything he knows. But when a deadly Category 3 storm makes landfall and his father disappears, thirteen-year-old Cort must unexpectedly put all his skills—and bravery—to the test.

One catastrophe leads to another, leaving Cort and two neighbor girls to face the Gulf Coast hurricane the best they can. Lost in the middle of storm-thrashed wetlands, the three face dangerous, desperate wild animals, it’s up to Cort to win—or lose—the fight of their lives.

Terror at Bottle Creek sweeps readers into the Alabama swamps and shows the dangers that lurk beneath the water and on land. With the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds as a backdrop, the story creates an eerie and terrifying tone that will have readers biting their nails. Vicious hogs, deadly alligators, and other swamp creatures all head to higher ground during the storm. In order to survive, Cort and his two neighbors must face a hurricane, wild animals, hypothermia, a venomous snake bite, and their own fears.

Readers will relate to Cort, who is embarrassed to live in a houseboat and wishes his life was different. Cort also struggles to understand his changing feelings for his childhood friend, Liza. As Cort tries to save Liza and her sister, he faces difficult choices, but he tackles them with bravery and compassion. As he fights to survive in the swamp, he thinks of the lesson his father taught him. However, his memories also reveal angry feelings towards his father. Cort’s emotional struggles are interwoven with intense survival scenes, allowing the reader to empathize with Cort. By the end of the story, Cort realizes his value does not come from where he lives, but from his character.

While Terror at Battle Creek has some typical elements, the story’s suspense and unexpected events will have readers jumping with fright. Terror at Battle Creek is an excellent survival story that will leave readers with an appreciation of the beauty and dangers of the Alabama swamps. Readers who enjoyed Terror at Battle Creek will also like

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Cort thinks about hunting swamp animals. Some people use dogs to track and corner hogs. “The dogs are often gored or killed in the fight. I’ve seen them back away with their cheeks hanging open or their intestines hanging from their belly, blue and bloody and leaf-pasted.”
  • When Cort was ten, he got out of the boat to pick grapes and a hog charged at him. The hog “bowled me over, bit onto my thigh, and shook me like a doll. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to react. Dad was quick to fire a shot into the air with his rifle. That startled the sow. . . I learned that wild pigs won’t hesitate to attack. And kill you. And eat you.”
  • Cort helps get Francis and Liza into a tree. “A sharp pain sliced across my leg and something bulky and hairy knocked me against the tree. . . The hogs closed in beneath us, blocking our escape. . . I came up the opposite side from them, my leg throbbing with pain. I put the light on it and saw a three-inch tear in my thigh. Blood ran down my leg, thick and pink and watered down like cherry Kool-Aid.”
  • A wild hog named Rusty attacks the tree that Cort, Liza, and Francis are hiding in. “The other pigs were picking through the leaves, finding dead and live snakes and eating them. Rusty suddenly charged one of them and toppled it into the underbrush. What followed was a deafening blend of squeals over a blur of brown and black hair. . .” Rusty reappears with bloody tusks.
  • Rusty attacks the boat that Cort and his dad are in. Cort’s dad is able to get a rope loop around Rusty’s head, and Cort “slammed the boat into reverse as Rusty squealed and swung his head and battered the side of the boat like someone beating a metal barrel with butcher knives.” Cort’s dad is able to tie the hog to a tree.
  • Rusty and a bear get into a fight. “Bear and hog rolled in a tangled blur of snarling and squealing frenzy. Teeth and claws and tusks and hooves gleamed and slashed beside us like a whirlwind of knives. . . The hog managed to get on top again and I thought I detected the bear weakening. The wounds in his chest were deep, and his fur was wet and matted and gleaming a purplish color from all the blood. While the hog had gaping wounds about his body from the tearing claws, he didn’t seem slowed. . .The bear kept his lock on the hog, his snarls sounding more like weak sighs. Rusty gurgled and kicked occasionally, the life slowly leaving him.” The fight is described over three pages. The bear kills Rusty and the story implies that the bear will die as well from his wounds.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Cort’s father takes two men on a hunting trip, the clients “both cracked a beer and toasted each other.” After the men get a gator, they “popped more beer and celebrated.”

Language

  • Hell is used three times. When an alligator almost bites Cort, his dad says, “What the hell you doing? . . . Lord, you know better than to dive in there like that.”
  • Lord is used as an exclamation twice.
  • Crap is used four times. When Cort’s dad calls for an ambulance, he is told it can’t get to them. Cort’s dad yells, “Don’t give me that crap, Curly! Make it happen.”
  • When a snake bites Liza, Cort says, “Dammit. Dammit. Hold on.”
  • Damn is used twice. When Cort’s dad sees snakes all over, he says, “Damn snakes.”
  • When Cort asks Liza about the shape of the snake’s head, she says, “I didn’t study its head, you idiot!”
  • When Cort falls into the swamp, his father says, “God almighty!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Cort’s dad says, “Snakes are just cold and evil. You can’t breed it out of them. It’s like reptiles got a different God.”

Storm Blown

A little rain and wind doesn’t worry Alejo—they’re just part of life at the beach. As his padrino says, as long as there are birds in the waves, it’s safe. When people start evacuating though, Alejo realizes things might be worse than he thought. And they are. A hurricane is headed straight for Puerto Rico. Worried that his padrino needs help, Alejo braves the storm in order to search for him.

Emily’s brother, Elliot, has been really sick. He can’t go outside their New Orleans home, so Emily decides to have an adventure for him. Emily wades out to a tiny island. For once, Emily wants her mother to worry about her. While hiding from her home, she befriends an injured goose and a shy turtle. Emily doesn’t know that a storm is racing her way.

As the hurricane rages across Puerto Rico and heads towards the United States, both kids will face life-threatening danger. Soon Alejo and Emily will be in the storm’s deadly path, but nothing has prepared the kids for Megastorm Valerie. Who will survive nature’s fury?

Like a wind-blown leaf in a hurricane, Storm Blown jumps from many different settings and points of view, which quickly becomes confusing. Although Alejo and Emily are the two main characters, the story also gives a glimpse of Emily’s father, the national climatic research center workers, as well as the animals trapped in the hurricane. Since the story includes so many points of view, Alejo and Emily are underdeveloped, which makes it hard for the reader to connect to them.

Storm Blown shows the devastation a hurricane can cause which leads to many daring episodes. However, some of the events are hard to believe. For example, Alejo, who does not know how to drive, is able to steal a van, drive through torrential rains, and arrive safely home. Alejo is so worried about his padrino that he braves the weather only to find an empty house. Although Alejo’s actions are brave, the reader will wonder why he and his padrino did not discuss a disaster plan. Instead, Alejo’s grandfather tapes a note to the kitchen table. In a world where natural disasters happen often, readers will question some of the kids’ daring deeds and actions.

Readers interested in extreme weather or survival stories will find Storm Blown difficult to read because of the many points of view and the challenging vocabulary. The story also ends abruptly and leaves the reader with too many unanswered questions. Instead of choosing Strom Blown, readers should try the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis, The Raft by S.A. Bodeen, or Trapped by Michael Northrop.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Nature’s violence is shown throughout the book. A tree falls, hitting Joy. Emily goes to help her. “Swallowing a sudden nausea, Emily propped herself against the closest limb and pulled Joy to her feet. Joy swayed in the wind, blinking as the rain mixed with the blood in her matted hair. It ran down her arms in rivulets, and Emily tried not to gag as Joy hooked her elbow around her narrow shoulders for support.”
  • The helicopter pilot is injured when he was “pinned to the ground beneath a heavy limb. His face was contorted into a grimace, but he wasn’t moving. Not even as the dark water lapped against the side of his head, threatening to suck him deeper into the mud beneath their feet.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Several of the characters are given pain medication after an injury. Elliot is given pain pills, but he doesn’t like how “the pain pills made it so he couldn’t stay up for more than a few hours.”
  • When Elliot’s mother brings him pain pills, he saves them for later. After he got dressed, Elliot slipped “his pain pills into his pocket.”
  • While waiting for a hurricane, the hotel gives the guest drinks. “The hotel bar made so many Dark ‘n’ Stormies that they ran out of rum halfway through Alejo’s rounds, switching to something they were calling a Frozen Valerie.

Language

  • “Oh my god” is used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Several times in the story, the characters pray for something. For example, Emily’s father “prayed that Sarah had fixed things up with their daughter.” When Emily’s father finally made it home, “Silas prayed for a miracle.”

 

 

Snowhook

Fourteen-year-old Hannah isn’t thrilled about spending time in her family’s remote Alaskan cabin. She’d rather hang out with her friends or spend time at the mall. Instead, she’s learning survival skills that she doesn’t think she’ll ever need. Then, a massive ice storm traps her family, and Hannah’s mom is desperately low on insulin. With no power and no way to contact the outside world, Hannah decides to take matters into her own hands. Hannah sneaks away with the family’s four dogs and an old dogsled.

Hannah only plans to go as far as the nearest neighbor, who should have a working phone. But unexpected events lead her into the wilderness with a boy who disagrees with her at every turn. As the two teens fight worsening weather, Hannah must use all her skills to get help for her family before they all freeze to death in the wilderness.

Surviving the wilderness in the middle of a blizzard should lead to exciting events; however, Snowhook will only leave the reader frustrated. Hannah wants to be a hero, but instead, she comes off as an ungrateful, whiny brat who spends most of her time complaining. When her neighbor Peter joins her, the two spend almost all of their time yelling at each other. Even though the two are able to survive some dangerous situations, luck plays a bigger role in their survival than skill.

In addition to the two unlikable characters, there are many unanswered questions. For instance, Hannah and Peter must run from Peter’s aunt who has PTSD from being in the army; however, after they escape the aunt’s story is never told. In addition, Peter and Hannah have a strange argument about immigrants, Peter hints that he hates his father, and he is also clearly afraid of dogs. But in the end, none of these issues are discussed or resolved. Instead, once the two get to town, the story abruptly ends with no real closure.

Snowhook’s slow pace, difficult vocabulary, and argumentative characters make the story as difficult as walking through a snowdrift. Readers interested in cold weather survival stories should leave Snowhook on the shelf, and choose instead Not if I Save You First by Ally Carter or Trapped by Michael Northrop.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Hannah pounds on a neighbor’s door, the neighbor hits her in the chest with the butt of a rifle. “Hannah turned to see who had finally opened the door and immediately felt a hot, stinging sensation in her chest. Then she was lying on her back in the snow, unable to breathe.” Later Hannah learns that the woman was suffering from PTSD and often believed she was back in Afghanistan. The woman’s nephew, Peter, helps Hannah escape.
  • When Hannah and Peter leave the house, the woman shoots at them.
  • When Peter calls Hannah’s sister weird, “Hannah launched herself at him. His bent-over head and rounded shoulders received the brunt of her shove, and he landed with a whomp in the soft snow on the trailside.”
  • Hannah’s sled dogs fight. “Rudy was on top of Bogey for a long time, growling and screaming, tearing at Bogey’s face and ears, trying to roll over him. Bogey crouched, digging his paws into the ground and using his powerful legs to keep him upright, protecting his throat and trying to bite at whatever part of Rudy came near him. . . In a split second, Bogey was up. His whole mouth dripped blood and phlegm and spit, and his ears were flat against his head, with the crest of his skull puffed up twice its normal size.” The fight was described over three pages and the dogs are not seriously injured.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hannah’s mom has diabetes and has to give herself an insulin injection.
  • When Peter is injured, Hannah gives him Tylenol for the pain.

Language

  • Profanity is used occasionally and includes asshole, bullshit, holy crap, crap, goddamn, damn, hell, jackass, shit.
  • Throughout the story, Hannah and Peter argue and call each other names including idiot, jerk, asshole, pansy-ass, shithead, chicken, and jackass.
  • One of the characters uses “Jesus” as an exclamation. For example, “By the Jesus, it’s cold.”
  • Peters says his dad is “chickenshit.”
  • Peter and Hannah argue and Peter calls Hannah an “idiot.” In return, Hannah calls Peter a “jackass.” In one fight Peter tells Hannah, “You’re just a snotty little city girl. Go to hell.”
  • When Hannah and Peter try to find safety, Peter yells, “If you hadn’t brought those goddamn dogs, if you hadn’t yelled and banged on the door, then everything would have been okay!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

The Raft

Robie feels lucky living on the small island of Midway which sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But sometimes being the only kid on the island makes her feel like she’s going crazy. To keep Robie sane, she goes to visit her aunt in Hawaii. After her aunt suddenly has to leave the island for work, Robie decides to catch a cargo flight home. When the plane hits a nasty storm, Robie thinks everything will be alright. Robie is wrong.

Suddenly, Robie is submerged in water. She’s fighting for her life. Then Max, the only other survivor, pulls her onto a raft, and that’s when the real terror begins. They have no water. Their only food is a bag of skittles. There are sharks. They have no idea if help is on the way. How long can they survive in the middle of the ocean?

The Raft is a sensational survival story that has several twists that will surprise readers. The story is told from Robie’s point of view, which allows her fears to jump to the surface. When Robie is on the raft, she finds a “Survival at Sea” card that adds irony to the story, as well as helps Robie stay alive. Robie clearly loves nature but also fears nature’s violence. Through Robie’s experiences, the story highlights the dangers humans pose to wildlife by throwing trash into the sea; this aspect of the story will encourage readers to make small changes that can dramatically help ocean creatures survive.

The story doesn’t only focus on survival at sea. Max is dealing with overcoming a tragedy. As his story unfolds, Max retells his story of love and loss. Readers will be pulled into his story and will cry at his loss. Max’s story adds suspense and a unique aspect to the story.

The story has short chapters, and some of the paragraphs are only one sentence; this makes the story easy to read as well as increases the story’s suspense. Robie makes several references to The Hunger Games which adds an interesting element to the story. The Raft is a fast-paced story that pulls the reader in from the very first chapter. Fans of survival stories will absolutely enjoy The Raft. For those who want to dip their toes into other ocean survival stories, add Adrift by Paul Griffin and Surrounded by Sharks by Michael Northrop to your reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While walking home, a man thinks Robie is someone he knows. The man attacks Robie. Unexpectedly, “a hand grabbed a chunk of my cornrows and yanked. My food went flying as I whipped around. . . He grabbed my cornrows tighter, forcing my head down so I could only look at the ground . . .” Some men begin yelling at the man, and he lets Robie go.
  • A shark attacks a seal, which is able to escape to the beach. To stop the seal’s suffering, Robie grabbed a board, and “just as I was ready to bring the board down, her head fell my way, both of her eyes looking up at mine. There was no surprised in her gaze. Like she expected me to be there. To help her. . . Then I cried out as I brought the board down as hard as I could.”
  • Max’s journal details how his girlfriend, Brandy, died in a car crash. His truck rolled over, and Max found her body. “Brandy lay where she’d been thrown through the windshield as soon as we’d rolled, just off the road. . . Oh God. Her neck was at an impossible angle, and I held her hand to my chest.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Crap and holy crap are used occasionally.
  • Frickin’ is used five times. For example, when Robie was on an airplane, she “tried not to think about the dark and the water underneath us. Nothing by dark and all that frickin’ water.”
  • Hell is used several times. When a man sees Robie on a deserted island, he asks, “What the hell is she doing out here?”
  • Oh my God and Oh God are used as exclamations six times.
  • Pissed is used four times. Robie is upset when she drops a partial bag of Skittles, she “blubbered, as part of me cursed the carelessness that had just lost us all the food we had, and another part was just pissed that I hadn’t eaten them all when I had the chance.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Robie is on a plane, an engine stops. She prayed, “God, please please let everything be okay. Please don’t let us crash and please just let me get to Midway. And please let them (the pilots) be calm when I look up there.”
  • The plane crashes, and Robie is pushed out into the ocean. When she is underwater, she prays, “God, please kill me already. This is more than I can take.” As she is still submerged, she prays, “God, please, let me reach the light. I want to live.”
  • Robie found a “Survival at Sea” card in the raft. As she was reading it, the card explained how to escape a fire caused by a plane’s oil slick. Robie thought, “Thank God for small favors. My plane crashed, but at least there wasn’t a fiery oil slick to deal with.”
  • When Robie hears a plane’s engine, Robie “said a silent prayer” hoping that it would find her.
  • When Robie finds a tube of Carmex, she “cradled it to my chest for a moment, thanking Max, thanking God, thanking whoever put that ditty bag on the beach.”
  • When Robie is worried that she is going to die, she says a prayer. Then she thinks, “When I was little, I did say my prayers every night. But when it was just me, and I was older, without Mom and Dad putting me to bed, I stopped. Midway didn’t even have a church. We did have a white cross though, on an edge of the island, overlooking the lagoon. . . Every Easter, the residents of Midway did gather at the cross at sunrise. Sometimes someone read from the Bible or said a few words. Usually we sang a hymn. This year I had slept in.. . I could bargain with God. Isn’t that what people did in these situations?” Robie decides she is too tired to plead her case, and God could make his own decision on what happens to her.
  • When Robie is rescued and calls her mom, her mom says, “thank God.”

Trapped

When the snow started falling, students were excited to be released from school early. Scotty and his friends Pete and Jason are among the last seven kids at their high school waiting to get picked up. But as the snow continues to fall, they realize that no one is coming for them. The boys aren’t too upset about staying the night at the school, especially because there are two pretty girls who are stuck with them.

At first, being trapped in the school doesn’t seem so terrible. After all, they are safe from the snow, and there’s enough food to feed 400 students for a week. But then the power goes out, then the heat, and then the pipes freeze. The students watch as the snow continues to fall. As the days pass, the snow inches higher and higher. Suddenly, the roof shudders and begins to cave in. How will they survive in a freezing school that is in danger of crushing them? Should someone set out for help?

Told from Scotty’s point of view, the story uses a matter-of-fact tone to discuss the disastrous blizzard. Although Scotty is clearly worried about the snow, he also worries about typical teen issues—missing basketball, talking to a pretty girl, getting rid of a big zit, and keeping the peace. Readers will be drawn into the suspenseful story not only because of the impending disaster, but also because Scotty is a relatable teen.

Scotty is trapped in the school with several people that he considers stereotypical teens. He thinks that one boy is a trouble maker and the other is an emotionally disturbed goth. However, when Scotty is forced to spend time with the two boys, he realizes that his perception of them was incorrect.

The ending is abrupt, and although the reader learns what happens to many of the characters, the conclusion does not answer all of the questions about who lives or dies. The story will make readers question why the characters withheld information that may have led to the death of another. The quick read will leave readers wondering what they would do in a similar situation. Trapped is an engaging story that both reluctant and strong readers will enjoy.

Sexual Content

  • A boy said that he was going to go to the dance “‘cause I’m going to get me some.” The boy was planning on going to the dance with a girl with whom he had, “gotten his hands up her shirt just last week.”
  • Scotty thinks that his friend snuck off to make out with a girl. “It just kind of bothered me that he didn’t feel like he couldn’t tell his friends about it.”
  • When Scotty is alone with a girl, he thinks about “making a move, try to kiss her.”

Violence

  • After a misunderstanding with a girl, Pete hits Les. Pete “took the first swing, which I guess is how he landed it. Then Les had just dismantled him. He hurt practically every part of him. . . Pete was lying on his side on the floor, holding his hand up to his nose or high right eye or maybe both.” Pete is not seriously hurt.
  • A boy flips a snow-kart and the cart lands on him, killing him. Scotty finds his body. “I saw it all: the soft horrible blue that had crept into his face, the way his hands were frozen stiff, like the curled talons of a bird.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • A boy talks about a blizzard that happened in the ’60s. Scotty said the blizzard probably lasted a day. “Those people were stoned.”

Language

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes crap, piss, frickin’.
  • When the electricity went out, kids were upset, and there were “F-bombs going off like fireworks.”
  • A group of boys plans on working on a “crappy go-kart.”
  • Someone calls a boy a jerk. Later someone calls a boy a moron.
  • “Screw you” is used several times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When a girl stops two boys from fighting, someone thinks, “Thank God there are girls around.”
  • After being stuck in the school for several days, Scotty prays. “I prayed for myself. I prayed for my mom. I prayed for all of us. . . I just curled up tight in the scratchy wool and whispered.” Soon, his friend Jason joins in the prayer. Scotty thinks, “It was probably the ten-thousandth time I’d heard Jason say ‘Jesus,’ but it was the first time I’d heard him mean it.”
  • Scotty and several others pray. Someone calls them “Bible thumpers.” When Scotty prays, he decided to pray to “the archangel Gabriel. He’s the one with the trumpet, the one that made the announcement.”
  • Scotty “prayed to Gabriel again. I figured God and Jesus were hearing from a lot of people at this time of night. But who else was praying to the less glamorous of the two archangels. . . I prayed for him to keep my mom safe instead, though if I’m being honest, I was sort of hoping he’d be impressed by my selflessness. . . I’m pretty sure they (angels) don’t fall for dumb tricks like that.”

Refugee

Three kids. Three different time periods. Three refugee families flee their countries. Each family faces unimaginable dangers. But they have no choice but to press on and hope for a better tomorrow. Although decades separate them, they discover that they are all connected in the end.

Joseph is a Jewish boy living in 1930’s Nazi Germany. His family boards a ship set for Cuba. They hope to avoid the concentration camps and certain death. But will a country on the other side of the world take them in, or will they be sent away?

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. Her family faces hunger, violence, and an uncertain future. But when her father is threatened with jail, the family sets out on a homemade raft. They hope to make it to Miami. Can they make it to America and keep their family together?

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. His country is being torn apart by war. Violence, death, and destruction are everyday occurrences. When his family’s neighborhood is destroyed by bombs, they head towards Europe. Can they safely make it to a country that welcomes refugees?

Refugee sheds light on the historical and political aspects of each time period. Readers will learn about Kristallnacht, The Night of the Broken Glass, as well as the history of how the war in Syria began with Assad bombing his own people. Isabel’s story also explains the U.S. policy of “Wet Foot, Dry Foot.” The end of the book has historical information as well as a section on what readers can do to help.

Each section of the story is told from a young person’s point of view. This gives the book a tragic feeling because none of the young people have any control over the events that lead to their need to flee. The harrowing story of each family does not shy away from the harsh realities of the time period. Each family has stories of cruelty, violence, and death, which are often described in graphic and frightening detail.

The goodness of random strangers is seldom. However, in Josef’s story, a Hitler Youth protects Joseph, and the captain and most of the crew of the ship treat the Jews with respect. The story shows how small deeds can make a huge impact. Even though the story shows the kindness of a few, cruelty and violence overshadow the kindness in the book.

As Mahmoud and his family try to escape the violence, he realizes that it was easy for people to forget about the refugees until “refugees did something they didn’t want them to do—when they tried to cross the border into their country, or slept on the front stoops of their shops, or jumped in front of their cars, or prayed on the decks of their ferries—that’s when people couldn’t ignore them any longer.” Mahmoud struggles with wanting to stay invisible but wondering if he needs to be visible. “If you were invisible, the bad people couldn’t hurt you, either. If you stayed invisible here, did everything you were supposed to, and never made waves, you would disappear from the eyes and minds of all the good people out there who could help you get your life back.”

The publisher recommends Refugee for readers as young as nine, but younger readers may be upset by the horrors of war and the tragic decisions the families must make in order to survive. Younger readers who are interested in World War II may want to begin with the books Lifeboat 12 or Resistance, which also tell compelling stories without the graphic violence.

Refugee is an engaging story that brings the suffering of refugees to light. The situations that the characters face are emotional, but the characters could be better developed. Since each chapter focuses on a different family, the story was often disjointed. Some readers may have a difficult time following a story that changes characters every chapter. The book shows the reasons the family left but doesn’t mention the difficulties that countries face when dealing with thousands of refugees coming into their country.

Although the story is easy to read, the book’s emotional impact is hard-hitting. Refugee takes the reader on a harrowing journey where each family must deal with a tragic loss of life and cruelty from others. Refugee shows how families have been impacted in past and current times. The story gives voice to the current refugee crises and shows the desperation of people who want to live without fear of death.

Sexual Content

  • While in Havana, Isabel sees “couples kissing under palm trees.”
  • Isabel’s grandfather flirts with a young girl. He tells her, “Your face must be Summer, because you’re making me sweat!” Isabel knew that “Lito was giving her piropos, the flirtatious compliments Cuban men said to women on the street.”

Violence

  • During WWII, Nazis break into Josef’s home and “threw him to the floor. Another shadow picked up Ruth by the hair and slapped her. ‘Be quiet!” the shadow yelled, and it tossed Ruth down on the floor beside Joseph.” The strangers trash the house, gather his family into the living room, and arrest his father.
  • A group of Hitler Youth attack Josef after school. The group “fell on him, hitting and kicking him for being a Jew, and calling him all kinds of names.”
  • During a medical check, Josef’s father becomes agitated and starts mumbling. Josef “slapped his father across the face. Hard.” Josef tells his father that the medical examiner is “a Nazi in disguise. He decides who goes back to Dachau. He decides who lives or dies. . . .” Josef’s father is scared into silence.
  • Crew members ransack the room of Josef’s family. “They swept Mama’s makeup and perfume off the vanity and smashed the mirror . . . they tore the head off Ruthie’s stuffed bunny.”
  • While in a concentration camp, Josef’s father says how the Nazis choose one man to drown every night. “They would tie his ankles together and his hands behind his back and tie a gag around his mouth, and then they would hang him upside down, with his head in a barrel. Like a fight. . . They would fill the barrel with water. Slowly. So they could enjoy the panic. So they could laugh. . . He would thrash around and breathe water until he drowned. Drowned upside down.
  • Josef’s father jumps into the ocean and when a policeman tries to help him, Josef’s father yells, “Let me die! Let me die!” Josef’s father survives.
  • A group of men tries to take over the ship. One of the passengers slam “the helmsman and sends him tumbling to the floor. The mutineers quickly surrounded the other sailors, threatening them with their makeshift clubs.”
  • When Cuba sends the ship away, a policeman “swept the gun back and forth, and the other policemen drew their pistols and did the same.” The captain is able to convince the passengers not to attack the police.
  • While he is running from Nazis, soldiers shoot at Josef. “A pistol cracked, and a bullet blew the bark off a tree less than a meter away. Josef stumbled again in panic, righted himself, and kept running.” Josef and his mother are caught and taken to a concentration camp.
  • Boys attack Mahmoud’s friend because he is a Shia Muslim. “. . . Khalid had been curled into a ball on the ground, his hands around his head while the other boys kicked him. . . With a battle cry that would have made Wolverine proud, Mahmoud had launched himself at Khalid’s attacker. And he had been beaten up as badly as Khalid.”
  • Mahmoud’s mother was a nurse who came home “every day with horror stories about people she’d helped put back together. Not soldiers—regular people. . . Children with missing limbs.”
  • Mahmoud’s entire neighborhood is bombed. “The walls of his apartment exploded, blasting broken bits of concrete and glass through the room. . . His breath left him all at once and he fell to the floor with a heavy thud in a heap of metal and mortar.” No one in his family is seriously injured.
  • While trying to escape, Syrian armed soldiers stop the car at gunpoint and then pile in the backseat. As they are traveling, “gunfire erupted. .. and bullets pinged into the car.” One of the soldiers is killed. “Mahmoud screamed again and pushed the man away . . .” The scene is described over four pages. The family hides in a ditch until they can escape.
  • The rubber dinghy that Mahmoud and other refugees are in pops. “The cold water was like a slap in Mahmoud’s face. . . He tumbled backward, head down in the murky water, his arms and feet thrashing, trying to right himself. Something else—someone else—fell on top of him, pushing him deeper down into the water.” Later Mahmoud takes a life jacket off of a dead man so that he and his mother do not die.
  • As Mahmoud and his mother tread water, they grab onto a dinghy. A man “reached down and tried to pry Mahmoud’s hand from the dinghy. . . He sobbed with the effort of fighting off the man’s fingers and hanging onto the dinghy.” A woman takes Mahmoud’s baby sister but leaves Mahmoud and his mother behind. They survive.
  • A taxi driver pulls a gun on Mahmoud’s family and demands money.
  • When a group of refugees swarm the Hungarian border, soldiers “hurried to stop them, firing tear gas canisters into the crowd. . . Mahmoud’s eyes burned like someone had sprayed hot pepper juice in them, and mucus poured from his nose. He choked on the gas, his lungs seized up. He couldn’t breathe. . .”  Many of the refugees are arrested and taken to a detention center.
  • While being taken to a detention center, Mahmoud’s dad yells at a soldier, who then “whacked him in the back with his nightstick, and Mahmoud’s father collapsed to the ground. . . He kicked Mahmoud’s father in the back, and another soldier hit Mahmoud’s father again and again with his stick.”
  • While in town in Cuba, people riot in the streets. People “yelled and chanted. They threw rocks and bottles.” Isabel sees her father “just as he reared back and threw a bottle that smashed into the line of police along the seawall.” When the police catch her father, a policeman beats him. The scene plays out over four pages.
  • As a group tries to flee Cuba, “a pistol rang out again over the waves. . . The police were shooting at them.” The boat is hit, but no one is injured.
  • While Iván is cooling off in the ocean, a shark bites him. “The water around Ivan became a dark red cloud, and Isabel screamed. . . Iván’s right leg was a bloody mess. There were small bites all over it, as though a gang of sharks had attacked all at once. Raw, red, gaping wounds exposed the muscle underneath his skin.” Iván dies.
  • Before Iván’s body is pushed into the ocean, someone shoots a shark. “The shark died in a bloody, thrashing spasm, and the other sharks that had been following the boat fell on it in a frenzy.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Joseph sees a man, who “staggered a little, bumping into things as he tried to move through the tight little room. Joseph had seen drunk people leaving pubs in Berlin the same way.”
  • When Josef’s mother goes to the doctor to get a sleeping draught for her husband, she “told the doctor the sleeping draught was for me. . . and he made me—made me take it right there.”

Language

  • When the Nazis break into Josef’s house, one of the men laughs because “the boy’s pissed himself.”
  • A group of kids are called “Jewish rats.”
  • At a funeral, Josef’s father says, “At least he didn’t have to be burning in the hell of the Third Reich.”
  • “Oh, God” is used an exclamation once. “Oh, my God” is also used as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Mahmoud and his family practice the Muslim faith. The prayer ritual is described through Mahmoud’s actions.
  • Mahmoud’s father says, “God will guide us.”
  • After taking a lifejacket off a dead man, Mahmoud says a prayer. “Oh God, forgive this man, and have mercy on him and give him strength and pardon him. Be generous to him and cause his entrance to be wide and wash him with water and snow and hail. Cleanse him of his transgressions. . .Take him into Paradise, and protect him from the punishment of the grave and from the punishment of hellfire.”
  • Mahmoud’s family and other refugees pray. Mahmoud “recited the first chapter of the Qur’an, Mahmoud thought about the words. Thee alone we worship, and thee alone we ask for help. Show us the straight path.”
  • After Joseph’s apartment is bombed, his mother cries, “Thank God you’re alive!”
  • During a funeral, a rabbi says a prayer, and “the mourners said together, ‘Remember, God, that we are of dust.’”
  • When Iván dies, his mother wants “to say something. A prayer. Something. I want God to know Iván is coming.”

Lifeboat 12

Life for thirteen-year-old Ken is difficult. His father is out of work. He thinks his step-mum dislikes him. He often gets into trouble, and the Nazis are bombing his city. But when he is given the chance to be evacuated with ninety other boys and girls, Ken isn’t excited. He wants to stay home. However, Ken’s father says he’s lucky to be chosen to go to Canada aboard the SS City of Benares.

When the children board the luxury ship, Ken can’t believe his good luck. He’s making new friends, eating delicious food, and doesn’t have to endure his stepmom’s glares. When the ship is 600 miles from shore, everyone thinks they’re safe. They’re wrong.

Five days after they leave port, an explosion rocks the ship. They’ve been torpedoed. With the

Baranes sinking quickly, Ken rushes to Lifeboat 12. Ken, five other boys, one woman, and 39 men are all crammed onto one lifeboat. Will Lifeboat 12 be rescued? If not, how will they survive lost in the ocean?

Lifeboat 12 is a gripping story that will keep readers turning pages until the very end. Beautifully written in free verse, every word develops the characters and advances the plot. The author uses alliteration, onomatopoeia, and sense words to give a clear, sharp picture of World War II. Hood describes the events of World War II without showing the gory details of death while keeping the intensity of danger at the forefront.

The story is told from Ken’s point of view and is divided into three sections—Escape, Afloat, and Rescue. Each section describes Ken’s day-by-day experiences. Since the story is told from a thirteen-year-old’s perspective, the descriptions remain appropriate for even younger readers. Ken’s thoughts and emotions add to the intensity of the story and allow the reader to understand his conflicting emotions. The conflict will keep readers engaged; they will want to know if Ken survives his harrowing experience.

Although Ken’s story is fictionalized, the events and many of the character’s words are based on Hood’s research. Even though the story is filled with historical information, the book never sounds like a history book. Instead, Ken’s experiences and observations bring history to life in an engaging story that is difficult to put down.

Hood’s research, which appears at the end of the story, includes more information about Lifeboat 12, photos of the children, and a list of survivors. The research also includes information about the Lascars. Seeing the pictures and reading Hood’s interview notes has an emotional impact on the reader as it is impossible to deny the horrors and the kindness of people. For readers who would like more information about the topic, the book contains a list of interesting websites and videos.

Even though the devastation of World War II is clear, Lifeboat 12 shows the courage and kindness of others. Ken said, “I survived thanks to the kindness of people I didn’t know, people who were all different, people who wanted to help.” Lifeboat 12 is a suspenseful, gripping story that everyone should read, not only for the historical value but because it is a captivating story that will leave you gripping the edge of your seat. Ken’s story will remain with readers for a long time to come.

Sexual Content

  • While hiding, Ken hears a woman say, “Sweetheart, of course I love you! But don’t kiss me here! It’s not proper.”

Violence

  • The Nazis bomb England several times; however, the bombing is not described in detail. The first time the bombs drop, Ken hears “Boom!” He knows the bombs are close because “blasts shatter the air. The earth shudders. Margaret wails.” The families “huddle under the table. Blasts flash in the dark, momentarily exposing the fear on our faces as the table jumps and the cutlery rattles.”
  • During one air-raid Ken’s family goes to a shelter. The shelter is “damp and dark inside, lit only by a candle stuck in a flowerpot, casting eerie shadows on the wall. . . My family and I hunker down, listen to the drone of the planes, the ack ack ack of the antiaircraft guns, then the high-pitched whistle and BAM! Of the bombs.”
  • The ship that Ken is on is torpedoed. “BAM! I jolt awake, jumping up in the dark. The floor shudders, the night split with sounds of splintering wood, creaking metal, clattering glass. Then nothing.” As the boat is being evacuated, “two more explosions flash in the night, the light exposing a horror show—people clinging to overturned lifeboats, swimming to overloaded rafts, grabbing at floating deck chairs with flailing arms beseeching hands.” The boat eventually sinks.
  • One of the chaperones tells a story about a fictional character, the hero sees a prisoner who “was bent over in pain, a torture device called a thumbscrew beside the coded papers on the table.” The hero “crashes through the window and knocked over the candle. Bulldog landed a punch; Peterson went down. . . Bulldog slung the prisoner over his shoulder. . . and ran through the door. . .”
  • One of the men jumps into the ocean even though he can’t swim. Some men try to reach him, “but the waves whisk him away. He surfaces again, coughing and calling, but he’s too far gone. . . with a one-two punch from the sea, he goes down, for the last time.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • One of the chaperones tells a story about a fictional character whose drink had been drugged, causing him to pass out.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • When someone tries to catch a seagull to eat, a man says, “harming a seabird is bad luck, is what it is. . . They carry the souls of dead sailors. Kill one and it’ll be an albatross around all of our necks.”

Spiritual Content

  • “As the ship is being evacuated, people pray. Some pray to God. Others pray to Allah.”
  • One of the children’s chaperones is Father O’Sullivan. He tells someone “God be with you.”
  • Father O’Sullivan and the children, “say grace before and after our meal.”
  • One of the men says, “Allah the Compassionate will save us if He so wishes. Or He will send storms if He thinks it best. God is wise.”
  • While on the lifeboat, “my friend prays to Allah, and like many of his fellow crewmen, bows to the east five times a day.” Ken sees “other crewmen crossing themselves as Father does.”
  • When a ship is near, Father O’Sullivan tells the boys to pray. He says, “Come now, we must help the Lord lead that ship this way.”
  • When Ken sees an airplane, he “prayed like I’ve never prayed before.” Others pray as well.

Surrounded by Sharks

Early in the morning, Davey wakes up in a small hotel room surrounded by his family. He sneaks out of the room because he doesn’t want to waste any of the vacation sleeping. Davey, with a book in hand, heads to the beach. The beautiful ocean is too much of a temptation for Davey to resist. When he sees the No Swimming sign, he decides to just dip his toes in the water. But the waves tear Davey away from the island and soon he’s miles offshore. He’s surrounded by water—and something else. Sharks are circling below the surface, watching, and waiting. Davey’s terrified he will become the sharks’ next meal. Then no one will find out what happened to him.

Northrop writes with the perfect balance of suspense and action. The short chapters allow the reader to see Davey’s struggle, the sharks’ thoughts, and the action that is taking place back on the island. As the people on the island search for answers about where Davey could have disappeared to, the reader knows that Davey is about to become shark food. Switching between perspectives keeps the reader in suspense to the very end.

Every character in Surrounded by Sharks comes alive and their unique personalities add to the story’s atmosphere. Although the story revolves around Davey’s predicament, there are also several other teens that make the story relatable. While Davey’s two-parent family is not shown to be perfect, they clearly love each other. Surrounded by Sharks is an easy-to-read, suspenseful story that will keep even the most reluctant reader turning the pages until the very end.

Sexual Content

  • Davey is distracted by a girl because “her T-shirt was so light that he could see her bathing suit right through it. Or, wait . . . was that her bra?”

Violence

  • A shark tries to bite Davey. When it attacks, “the black eyes rolled back in its head, and its permanent frown widened for the bite, revealing two rows of sharp, serrated teeth. BONK! It hit the water cooler bottle.” Davey has the air knocked out of his lungs but is otherwise uninjured.
  • A shark attacks Davey. As Davey is being pulled into a boat, “the smaller shark surged forward below the surface and clamped onto Davey’s leg, harder this time. It swung its head to the side with surprising power and pulled Davey out of Drew’s grasp and clean off the side of the boat. Davey’s head dipped under the water, and a mouthful of seawater slipped into his lungs.” Davey is saved.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Davey sits by a bar stand on the beach and worries about getting drunk off the fumes because then he’d get in trouble if he was “stumbling back into the hotel room completely blitzed on alcohol vapors.”
  • One of the characters, Zeke, had “been out at the local bars the night before. It was what they called ‘a late night’ in most places. . .” Later Zeke is described as having a “faint smell of booze.”
  • A man at the bar stand tells someone, “Come back at eleven. Mimosas and Bloody Marys. Full bar at noon.”
  • A character goes into a liquor store, but his wife doesn’t approve.

Language

  • “Frickin’” is used several times.
  • “Oh my god” and “god” are used as exclamations several times. For example, after being pulled into the ocean by a riptide, Davey thinks, “Oh my god, I’m an idiot!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • While out in the ocean, Davey believes thata he sees land and thinks “Thank God.”

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