September school holidays are kicking off tomorrow here in Queensland and with the hotter weather back (after a shocking two
minute absence), many people might be starting to think about escaping on a relaxing getaway. To ensure that your reading needs are covered, here are three quite excellent titles involving escape, for middle grade and YA readers.
First up, we have Omnia by Laura Gallego Garcia, translated from the original Spanish by Jordi Castells. We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
All you have to do is imagine—the Omnia superstore has anything you could ever dream of.
Where else but Omnia would a boy go looking to replace a one-of-a-kind stuffed bunny that happens to be his baby sister’s favorite toy? Scrolling through the online retailer’s extensive inventory, Nico finds what looks like a perfect match, but the item is lost somewhere in the vast Omnia warehouse. He doesn’t believe it, so he stows away in a shipment being returned to the warehouse to search for the bunny himself.
Nico quickly gets stranded on the island of Omnia, a fantastical place that does much more than sell everyday items. It is a hub for a business with intergalactic reach, and while stray visitors to Omnia are welcomed warmly, they are not permitted to leave, ever.
The adventure of a lifetime awaits Nico as he searches for the beloved toy and tries to find a way to return home.
We absolutely adored this unusual middle grade sci-fi adventure story that was a delightful mix of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and and the inside of a TARDIS. In fact, it felt like such an original story that we have labelled it a Top Book of 2016 pick. Nico is a supremely sympathetic protagonist and an unfailing optimist and his firm commitment to finding a replacement for his sister’s favourite toy (also a family heirloom!) is commendable. I loved the imaginative features of the Omnia warehouse – I won’t spell these out here because it would spoil the fun for first time readers – and the inclusion of some very unexpected individuals that gave the world an expansive feel, despite the fact that most of the story takes place entirely within the warehouse of the Omnia online store.
Omnia as a whole felt like an energizing story, with twists a-plenty, but twists that I didn’t expect and didn’t necessarily predict. The story never becomes too sinister, yet Nico clearly has some troubling problems to overcome before he can achieve his goal It was fantastic to see that instead of taking the easy, well-trodden “evil villain running a secret empire” route, the root causes of Nico’s problems were recognisably more human in origin. The ending comes along quicker than one might expect, but I appreciated the fact that Gallego doesn’t faff about and draw out the final scenes simply to lengthen the wordcount. If you are a jaded reader of middle grade fiction who is sick of the same old fantasy and magic tropes being played out time and again, Omnia will be a refreshing change, without compromising on a sense of adventure and new discoveries.
Next up we have a historical fiction for upper middle grade and YA readers by Wai Chim, Freedom Swimmer. We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields…When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams…But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.
I will admit to knowing very little about the history (either ancient or modern) of China and this book was a perfect introduction to the historical period of the Cultural Revolution under the rule of Mao Tse-tung and the ways in which the Chinese people responded to massive social change. Ming is a shy village boy who lived through years of famine which brought about the death of his family. Alone and in a precarious social position, Ming tries to uphold his part in the work of the village while under the wing of his closest friend, Tiann. Li is a good looking, educated city boy who arrives in Ming’s village as part of an exercise by the Red Guard to learn about the working life of the “peasants”. While Li is familiar with and supportive of Mao’s teachings, he is open-minded and friendly, something some of his comrades in the Guard see as a precursor to possible reactionary thinking.
Freedom Swimmer is pitched at just the right level for young readers to get a glimpse of the oppressive nature of life for Ming and the people of China generally, without having to go into the more confronting details of how “reactionaries” were treated. These details are hinted at, and there are some violent scenes, but rather than focusing on the horror of an oppressive military regime, the author has done a great job at highlighting the personal responses of Ming and Li to changes in their communities and families. Before reading this book, I had no idea that Freedom Swims were a “thing” and this would be a fantastic novel to use in lower secondary classrooms to introduce the idea of asylum seeking, the ways in which people are forced to leave their home countries, and what might happen to them if they successfully manage the escape or if they don’t. Given that this is a topical issue in Australia at the moment, historical instances of asylum seeking are a valuable contribution to the discourse on what exactly a refugee is and how different countries respond to those seeking asylum.
Putting the “issues” of the book aside for a moment however, Freedom Swimmer is a tight, engaging historical novel with relatable characters and writing that makes this recent historical period immediately accessible for young readers.
Finally, we have Labyrinth Lost, the first in the Brooklyn Brujas series, by Zoraida Cordova. We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.
Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.
The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…
Being the jaded, cranky old fusspot that I am, it is always exciting to come across a book that features a whole new experience of magic. Having read more than a few YA books that feature magic in my time, I tend to get that samey feeling quite a bit. I am pleased however, to note that Labyrinth Lost had me sucked right in to Alejandra’s world of witches and sorcery…for the first part, at least. Cordova’s magic system here is a mix of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean myth, folklore and ritual and as such, the imagery fairly leapt off the page. The initial part of the story, in which Alex is trying to figure out how to avoid her Deathday party, is urban fantasy at its best, with the magical, mythical elements expertly blended with the mundane world of school and relatives.
I was more than a little disappointed to see this part of the story end, but end it does when Alex and her reluctant accomplice, Nova, are drawn into the world of Los Lagos, in which magic reigns and the curse of a creature called the Devourer is laying waste to the land. Now don’t get me wrong: this part of the book was still exciting and creative, but I haven’t read a really original-feeling urban fantasy YA novel for such a long time that I wanted that part to continue indefinitely. Once the characters had arrived in Los Lagos, it felt like more familiar tropey territory, even though the world itself was quite original and unexpected.
The greatest thing about this book (apart from the kick-ass urban fantasy beginning) is the focus on identity and family relationships throughout. Alex, despite being set apart as a witch, struggles with the common problem of feeling disconnected from her family; wanting something other than the path that is expected of her. I’ll be interested to see where this series goes – I hope there’ll be more urban settings in the sequel.
So, be it by water, by magic portal or by pneumatic postal tube, I hope you find a way to escape these holidays!
Until next time,