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Books in Brief: Patron Saints of Nothing, Dactyl Hill Squad Book 2 Freedom Fire

YOUNG ADULT

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay; Kokila (imprint of Penguin Random), 318 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up. Publication June 18.

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This moving novel, of a 17-year-old boy's search to find out the truth behind his cousin's murder, is set against the backdrop of Philippine president Roderigo Duterte's extra-judicial war on drugs in which Human Rights Watch estimates more than 12,000 people have been killed without arrest or trial.

Like his main character, Randy Ribay was born in the Philippines but raised in the U.S. He expertly navigates the tricky issues of the cultural identity and complicated family relationships this heritage poses: 17-year-old Jay Reguero does not entirely understand his stern, hard-working father and feels guilty about not keeping up the correspondence with the cousin he had felt a real kinship with on family visits to the Philippines. When word comes that Jun has been killed as part of Duterte's war on drugs, and nobody will tell Jay what happened, he travels to the Philippines to investigate. Jun's father, a senior police officer, will not speak about Jun and neither will Jun's sisters - at first. Since Jay can't speak Tagalog, he needs the help of Jun's sisters and a friend as he explores what Jun was doing in the few years since he was kicked out of his father's house. Could Jun have been killed for his political activism - or is something else going on? Jun, a tragic figure, comes to life through his letters, and this novel is as much Jun's story as it is Jay's, putting a human face on the statistics behind this deadly vigilante war on drugs.

Ribay offers an eye-opening look at the current political situation in the Philippines, a memorable cast of characters in Jay's extended family and a poignant coming-of-age story as a grieving boy begins to understand that he may find out some uncomfortable truths in investigating what happened to his cousin, even as he comes to deeper understandings of family and the fight for justice around the globe.

Ribay is also the author of acclaimed YA novel "After the Shot Drops."

CHILDREN'S

Dactyl Hill Squad Book Two: Freedom Fire by Daniel José Older; Arthur A. Levine Books ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.

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Daniel José Older follows up his first excellent "Dactyl Hill Squad" book with a thrilling sequel, full of action-packed battle scenes, inspired by actual Civil War battles, and inventive new ways to use dinosaurs as weapons in 1863 warfare.

In this smart, wildly inventive series, Older offers a complex and nuanced look at Civil War history, choosing to tell the story through the eyes of black, Cuban-born orphan Magdalys Roca, offering the perspective of a girl weighing demands for loyalty and sacrifice against her own experience of racism and second-class status growing up in the North.

The first book was set entirely in New York City, where the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned to the ground during the Draft Riots of 1863. As the second book begins,  Magdalys - an accomplished dino rider – is flying South astride a massive pteranodon with her friends to rescue her brother Montez, a Union soldier taken prisoner by the Confederates.

Magdalys has the rare ability to communicate telepathically with dinosaurs, a talent that stands her in good stead until she discovers the Confederates seem to be way ahead of her and can block her from communicating with dinos under their control. Magdalys doesn't entirely trust the white Union soldiers; her friend Amaya, offers a Native American perspective. Among the historical characters appearing in the book are black Union soldier "Big Jack" Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and General Sheridan described as a "wisp of a man" who at one point complains about "those old fusspots in the War Department" refusing to take full advantage of dinosaur strategy. In Older's Civil War story, black surgeons are allowed only to operate on black soldiers - and dinosaurs.

Older is a wonderfully expressive writer: "an off-key symphony of crickets took over the night."  In this book he finds ever more thrilling ways to involve dinosaurs in the action: a dimetrodon carrying munitions cases, Union soldiers riding the "parasaurolophus," a "whimsical, intelligent companion"; Sinornithosaurs, their razor-sharp teeth full of deadly venom; a swarm of attacking archaeops.

Vividly realized settings include the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee and a parade through New Orleans featuring the Mardi Gras Indians.

Notes at the end clarify that dinosaurs and humans never walked the Earth at the same time and offer interesting background about the Civil War figures, guns and battles described.

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