Flake, Sharon G. Unstoppable Octobia May
September 30th 2014
by Scholastic Press
E ARC from Netgalley.com
Octobia lives with her Aunt Shuma because her delicate health frightens her parents. Her aunt runs a boarding house, and Octobia is obsessed with one of the residents, Mr. Davenport, a writer whom she believes to be a vampire. Octobia spends a lot of time in the local graveyard and is a fanciful child, but Shuma lets her run wild through the neighborhood, sometimes wearing boys' clothes. Her best friend is Jonah, with whom she gets into all kinds of trouble, and she tries to befriend new neighbor, Bessie, who has been mute ever since her older brother was killed in Korea. Octobia and Jonah think that Mr. Davenport has killed a woman, so they start an investigation and steal money and other things from his room. This gets them into a deeper mystery involving banker Mr. Harrison, who seems to have known Mr. Davenport in the past. What seems like childish fantasies about vampires turn in to real intrigue when secrets about both men come to the surface, and Octobia and Jonah find themselves in real danger.
Strengths: This book covers a lot of historical topics that are very interesting and not much covered in middle grade literature. Bessi is racially mixed, Aunt Shuma tries to get a bank loan to build a hotel but no one will loan money to a black woman, and some of the boarders are Holocaust survivors. Even Officer O'Malley talks about the prejudice that the Irish faced. A fair amount of action and mystery, and the secret involving Mr. Harrison is quite interesting.
Weaknesses: Octobia is an unreliable narrator, so I was very confused at the beginning of the story. The topics covered in the book are so important that having Octobia's vampire fascination made the book seem... odd. Perhaps Ms. Flake wanted us to think that Octobia was making up things about Mr. Davenport so she could surprise us with the seriousness of reality, but this didn't quite work for me in a way that I find I cannot effectively articulate. I will be interested to see what others think of this book.
Preus, Margi. West of the Moon.
April 1st 2014 by Amulet Books
Astri's mother is dead and her father has gone off to America, so she and her younger sister Greta are staying with an aunt who can't afford to keep them. Astri is sold as a servant to Svaalberd, the goat herder, an unpleasant man who is not at all concerned about Astri's well-being. Finally, Astri has had enough and runs back home to get Greta. She steals a book that she thinks is magic from Svaalberd, and cuts off two of his fingers when he comes after her. Also running away is a mute girl whom Svaalberd has locked up in the house. The three girls manage to make their way onto a boat bound for America, even though they needed a lot of money to put together all of the provisions needed for the trip. Notes at the end of the book explain a bit about immigration from Norway in the 1800s.
Strengths: Can't think of many books set at this point of history, and I did learn that people had to take their own provisions on boats to America. Readers who like problem novels might find Astri's plight to be an interesting one.
Weaknesses: Very violent, in a Grimm fairy tale kind of way, and rather odd.