Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff; Candlewick Press, 272 pages ($17.99). Ages 16 and up.
This extraordinary coming-of-age tale - a harrowing but ultimately hopeful westward odyssey that takes our suffering hero from his native Liverpool to Montreal to a desolate farm in Ontario and then to the vast Canadian prairie - was begun by critically acclaimed author Mal Peet (“Tamar”) and finished by his friend, critically acclaimed writer Meg Rosoff (“How I Live Now”), after Peet died in 2015.
Beck, offspring of a tryst between a penniless Liverpool lass and an African sailor, is orphaned at 11 by the flu epidemic of 1918 and forced to endure a miserable adolescence, first at an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy in England, then at a home for boys run by the Christian Brothers in Quebec. (The age 16 and up age recommendation is for a graphic scene of sexual abuse.)
Beck is then shipped off to work as a slave for a down-on-their luck, racist farm couple in Ontario, who starve him and force him to sleep in the barn. He runs off and finds himself freezing to death in Windsor, Ont., when he hitches a ride in a truck crossing the frozen Detroit River and and ends up working for Bone the Bootlegger, whose girlfriend shows him the first kindness he has known since childhood.
Before long, Bone is traveling west again, in a harrowing journey that lands him in Alberta, amid a mystical experience of lightning strike, burning tree and a half-Scottish, half-Siksika woman named Grace. The writing is to be savored in this riveting, life-affirming novel about the resilience of the human spirit. The gritty realism of the writing vividly evokes Beck’s saga, the miserable Atlantic voyage, the boys’ home, the miserable farm: “The press of his stethoscope was like the kiss of a cold-water fish.” “Eleven heads pale as suet puddings, one brown as a potato.”
Jack and the Geniuses at the Bottom of the World by Bill Nye and Gregory Mone; Abrams, 242 pages ($13.95) Ages 8 to 12.
Bill Nye the Science Guy teams up with novelist and science journalist Gregory Mone for this entertaining first installment of a mystery science series for middle-grade readers. Jack is a regular kid but foster siblings Ava and Matt are geniuses. (Ava speaks several languages and builds robots while Matt is a math whiz.)
An attempt to retrieve Ava's robot drone named Fred during a spy mission at a bizarre new building in the neighborhood brings the siblings to the attention of leading scientist Hank Witherspoon, and they all travel to Antarctica for a prestigious science competition. One of the scientists has disappeared, and the three have to work together to find her before she freezes to death.
Antarctica makes an unusual and interesting backdrop for the mystery, and details of the missing scientist's research are fascinating. The high-tech gadgets and gear add to the fun, and the identity of the villain will likely come as a surprise. Notes at the end include an explanation of the science behind the weird inventions and devices (including robolegs and a snowblowng vehicle), 10 essential facts about Antarctica (yes, they do have pizza 24/7) and an explanation of the density difference between saltwater and freshwater.