Drums, Girls + Dangerous Pie
Scholastic, Inc., May 2014
Inexplicably unique, Steven’s story sucked me in, seeped into my soul and stole my heart. Mr. Sonnenblick aptly captures and conveys the perplexities of a 13-year-old boy—the obvious, an abundant use of “like” in his dialogue, but also the subtle, self-sacrificing inner voice rarely credited to teens. This outwardly awkward adolescent is more than a pounding prodigy on a drum kit and all-around funny guy; he’s an older brother.
Even at a blush, he is kind, tolerant and indulgent with the feisty five-year-old boy who gleefully dismisses his elder sibling’s ‘rules’. When said spunky boy slips from the kitchen stool and is rushed to the emergency room, Steven simply sighs, “So Jeffrey was getting me in trouble again, as usual.” How could he know then, that the tumble terminated ‘as usual’? Steven’s little brother has cancer.
A terrifyingly tough topic, tackled brilliantly. Financial strain, even with good insurance and steady income; parents putting life on hold, sick siblings sent away for safety….but also….life goes on. That struggle seems insurmountable yet it’s unavoidable. A viscous diagnosis, grim parade of prodding and poking, a family flung in different directions would wreak havoc on anyone; the impact it has on a teen is unimaginable.
Was unimaginable. Not now. Mr. Sonnenblick wrote this book in 12 short weeks. It wasn’t planned, hadn’t stewed somewhere in his head for years. It was impulsive and imperative. While teaching 8th grade, he discovered that one of his students was going through something even more challenging than middle school. Her younger sibling had cancer. Needing to help and knowing that a good book could; he searched for just the right one to share; did not find it. There was no choice. He wrote it. And it is everything. All of the best things, defiantly in spite of almost-the-worst-thing, Steven and Jeffrey’s should be shared.
Reviewed by jv poore, June 2016.
James Ryan Daley
The Poisoned Pencil, October 2014
On page one, Jonathan Stiles, the youthful narrator of this fine novel, meets the nicely dressed title character on the football field of fervently Catholic Saint Sorens Academy. He’s holding a football. On page two Jonathan explains that he does not and has never believed in God or in Jesus Christ. He has, he believes, absolutely no faith. And there readers have the core of the dilemma this novel presents.
This is a novel about the ultimate mystery of the human condition. If God exists in any form, why? And why do certain things happen, or not, when and the way they do? Yet this is not a religious text per se, any more than it is a YA or an adult novel. It is all of those things. Ryan, a professed sceptic, had had numerous discussions with his younger brother about God and Faith. Jonathan, just about to enter ninth grade at Saint Sorens Academy, a conservative Catholic school, is devastated by his brother’s death, as is the entire school. Circumstances lead Jonathan to wonder about his brother’s death, further complicating his mental state.
Jesus Jackson explains to Jonathan that he, JJ, is present to help Jonathan sort out his faith. But it costs something. This is a contract, not a casual operation, and Jonathan pays twelve dollars to Jesus Jackson for the service. Thereafter we follow Jonathan through various adventures and interactions with fellow students, teachers, the school administrators and his sorrowing family.
Occasionally, Jesus Jackson shows up, sometimes in confrontation, sometimes to give direction, but always to encourage and energize Jonathan to persevere in his quest.
This is a fine novel that is a lot of fun to read. It is punchy, emotional, turbulent and insightful. To discover how and whether Jonathan solves the mystery of his brother’s death, read the novel, and watch for your own Jesus Jackson.
Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.
The Thrill of the Haunt
A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery #5
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2013
Mass Market Paperback
If you haven’t yet read the earlier entries in this terrific series, of which this is number 5, I urge you to correct that as soon as possible! And to catch you up, I take the perhaps dubious liberty of repeating from my review of the last one, Chance of a Ghost, as follows: Allison Kerby is a single mother in her late thirties who runs a guesthouse in her childhood hometown of Harbor Haven, on the Jersey Shore, inhabited by her and her precocious eleven-year-old daughter, Melissa, as well as Maxie Malone, Alison’s resident Internet expert and former interior designer (during the time she was alive), and Paul, an English/Canadian professor turned detective, both of whom have lived there since before their deaths, and, more recently, Allison’s father. It would seem that Alison and her daughter, as well as her mother, are the only ones who can see, and hear, the ghosts.
At Paul’s urging, about two and a half years ago Allison got a private investigator’s license, and as this new book opens, she reluctantly finds herself hired by not one but two people, the first being a woman who wants Allison to follow her husband to obtain proof that he is cheating on her, and the second, with even more reluctance, by a local woman who relationship with Allison is less than friendly, who demands that Allison find out who killed a local homeless man found murdered inside a locked room (shades of Agatha Christie!). In keeping with that theme, Allison ultimately gathers together all the suspects who have been unearthed in one room in hopes of uncovering identity of the killer(s).
What makes this book as outstanding as it is (and it is that!),besides the very real mysteries underlying the plot, is the humor and dry wit of the author, which makes the novel a distinct pleasure to read. Added to the mysteries is the book’s more personal aspect, with Allison filled with ambivalence at her budding romance with a man who she has been seeing for a record-setting four months, added to her ambivalence about her detective business, or should I say sideline, with her main source of income coming from the paying clientele at her guesthouse (most definitely NOT a bed-and-breakfast, btw, as Allison makes clear).
(I must add that I loved the ‘tip of the hat’ which the author gives to Sea Haven Officer Daniel Boyle, the protagonist of his fellow Jersey Shore mystery author, Chris Grabenstein.)
In sum, The Thrill of the Haunt is an absolutely perfect beach read, and it is recommended.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2014.