In Review: Above

An enjoyable novel with a sensational sense of tension that's unrelenting.

Above by Roland Smith

Published by Scholastic, September 27, 2016. Hardcover of 336 pages at $16.99. Intended for ages 8 – 12, grades 3 – 7. Also available as an eBook.

NOTE: I read an advanced copy so anything may have changed by publication.

The cover: The top of the cover features text that states “The adventure that started BENEATH continues…”, while a helicopter shines a light down at the reader, revealing the title of the novel. Below the title in a bright powder blue is author Roland Smith’s name. A simple enough cover from Phil Falco that becomes very ominous as one dives into the novel. Overall grade: B

The premise: From the inside cover, “Pat O’Toole and his brother, Coop, are on the run from an enemy that specializes in hiding in plain sight. Along with their new companion, Kate, they’ve narrowly escaped a cultlike community situated beneath the streets of New York City. Kate has lived underground since birth, and the world above thrills her, but it’s treacherous as well. With the cult’s leader — Kate’s grandfather — on their trail, will they spend the rest of their days as fugitives? Who can they trust but each other?” This is a snappy summary of what occurred in the first book, Beneath, and telling readers where the characters are as the book begins. It’s nice to have a premise that doesn’t spoil any of the plot points, so I was grateful that this is all that’s told to a reader before he or she can crack the book. Overall grade: A

The characters: Patrick, Pat, O’Toole is the protagonist of this book and his voice is very strong. He’s matured in the months that have passed from the previous book, becoming much more paranoid of being caught by members of the Pod, the domestic terrorist group that he and his brother escaped. He’s constantly second guessing his every choice, which is something that he should be doing since he’s fearful of being recaptured. He continues to marvel at the ease his brother has with strangers, but it’s coming off as genuine brotherly love and not jealousy. He continues to pine for Kate, though he knows that Coop’s natural likability is working it’s mojo on her. Cooper continues to be a fun character, with his incessant love of tuna sandwiches and a charm that can’t be turned off if he tried. It’s good to see that Pat has become necessary for his survival, given that the older brother has been so long off the grid he’s practically a Luddite in a electronic world. Though he is lost when it comes to technology, he always has his brother’s back when it comes to choosing a safe path. On the run with boys is Alex, one of the Originals (the first Pod members), who helped the brothers immensely in the first novel and now wants to help stop Lawrence and the Pod. His age holds him back from doing many physical things, but his knowledge of the group is invaluable to the O’Tooles. Kate is the last member of the heroes, though she doesn’t stay with them very long: she’s captured by two members of the Pod. This allows writer Smith to tell several chapters from her point of view and they are necessary to advance the plot and to increase the almost claustrophobic tension of the story. Kate is incredibly smart and any reader will be swept up into her perilous situation. The villains of the novel are the Pod, with Lawrence their leader. Larry, Alex’s name for his older brother, doesn’t appear until about a third of the way into the book, but his presence — or the threat of his presence — is strongly felt. When he does appear he immediately puts the characters and reader in check, with precise words and actions that leave all second guessing him. He’s a terrific villain. There are several other antagonists, but I won’t go into detail about them so that the reader has several surprising moments from them. Suffice to say, they, too, are outstanding. All of the characters in this book are excellent. Overall grade: A

The settings: The book moves through Oregon to a surprise location in California. Along the way there are several stops in many small towns, which capture the calm and the beauty of the Beaver State, as well as its people; I also made the mistake of trying to pump my own gas once and received a similar response that a character receives. After finishing the novel and reading Smith’s bio, it’s no surprise that Oregon is described so well — he lives there! When the book moves to California, a famous natural location is described equally as well. The climax occurs in an original setting and Smith brings it to life so well it’s very easy to picture. Overall grade: A

The action: There’s very little physical action in the book. Instead, the action comes from the unending tension of the heroes being caught or discovered, with all characters constantly involved in cat-and-mouse situations. This was an extremely impressive element of the book. Though this is intended for younger readers, I felt constantly on edge in fear of Pat or the others getting caught and became increasingly paranoid as the book progressed. Keeping the book at a constantly intense level made the book extremely fun to read. When Kate was caught by the Pod I felt as if any page would be her last, just as she did. This is strongest part of the novel and Smith excelled exceedingly well. Overall grade: A+

The conclusion: It’s a really quick ending; perhaps too quick. Where the book is going to end is telegraphed early on, as is how the heroes will defeat the villains, but their escape and exit was completeed in only six pages. It is a logical ending and is realistic, but I was so enjoying the characters and the final location that I wanted to spend more time there. There’s a four page epilogue to give further depth to the finale, but I would have liked to have seen these events played out, rather than summarized. Overall grade: B

The final line: An enjoyable novel with a sensational sense of tension that’s unrelenting. This will have younger readers’ hearts a flutter wondering how Pat and his allies can foil the plans of the Pod. Overall grade: A-

This book can be ordered from Scholastic at https://store.scholastic.com/Books/Hardcovers/Above-9780545564892

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!” and he’s reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.

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