Book Review: All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

All About Mia
Lisa Williamson
David Fickling Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-16397-1
Hardcover

Mia-in-the-middle is not doing well. Something like loneliness lingers, an itch that can’t be scratched. It doesn’t make sense to her that someone who adores alone time (but is never actually alone) could feel lonely. Anyway, the small window of time that gave her a bit of breathing space has slammed shut.

It felt decadent, using Grace’s room while her elder sibling spent her gap-year in Greece (no doubt doing something amazing). But now, out of the blue, Grace is coming home early. And she’s bringing her “spoddy” boyfriend. An aggravating situation exacerbated by the overwhelming excitement of their parents. Already annoying, on their love-crazed-wedding-planning-cloud, they are absolutely insufferable with enthusiastic joy.

Her younger sister, Audrey, will never be an ally. Aside from training for swim meets, she only has time for Beyoncé, her beloved guinea pig. Mia’s three best friends, generally good-to-go with whatever floats her boat, seem a bit strange and stand-offish. Not so supportive, terribly frustrating.

Initially, I didn’t like Mia. But then it hit me. I was seeing Mia through her eyes. Neither one of us had figured out that she wasn’t feeling very fond of herself. Or that she felt invisible. Slowly, I began to understand her outrageous behavior and blatant disregard for everyone close to her. Unable to articulate the aching emptiness; Mia could only act out.

I’m excited to share All About Mia with students here in the U. S. because I think that, like me, they will delight in the English dialect and phrasing and they will definitely appreciate the cultural differences. Which reminds me—in the U.S., the legal drinking age is 21. The Campbell-Richardson family resides in Rushton, a small English hamlet. Although Mia does over-indulge, and it is under-age drinking; it is in a world where wine (albeit watered-down) is welcome with evening meals and the legal drinking age is 18.

Mostly, I’ll be recommending this because I believe that everyone who meets Mia will feel a little less lonely.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2018.

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Book Review: High Crimes by Libby Fischer Hellmann

High Crimes
The Georgia Davis PI Series #5
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herrings Press, November 2018
ISBN 978-1-938733-95-6
Trade Paperback

High Crimes by Libby Fischer Hellmann is the fifth book in her Georgia Davis private investigator series. It closely reflects the unsettled U.S. political climate of the past two years. Dena Baldwin is the leader of a resistance movement that begin after the U.S. presidential election of 2016. At the beginning of a major protest demonstration in Chicago, a sniper shoots her and several of her colleagues from a nearby hotel roof and is presumed to have killed himself with a bomb. Baldwin’s mother hires Georgia to learn more about the killer and what prompted him to kill her daughter, since the local police and the FBI have drawn a blank. Sifting through the backgrounds of more than 40,000 members of the organization to identify potentially problematic members is the only lead she has, and she enlists tech support to help her. She learns the victim’s estranged father is a political lobbyist in Washington, DC, with questionable associates, giving her another avenue for her research. And the shooter’s sister has vanished, leaving Georgia to wonder why.

In the meantime Georgia’s lover is pressing her to move in with him. Georgia is seriously considering it, as her younger sister and baby have taken over her small apartment. But when she mentions it to her sister Savannah, Savannah takes the idea as a sign of abandonment, creating family complications that Georgia is at a loss to deal with.

Georgia balances family needs against a progressively more complex investigation, creating an involved mystery with multiple threads that come together in a credible but not-too-neat conclusion. Well-written, smoothly paced. For fans of books with strong women leads, private investigator mysteries, and contemporary political thrillers.

Libby Fischer Hellmann is a versatile award-winning writer with two crime series, stand-alone thrillers, and many short stories in her bibliography.

Reviewed by Aubrey Hamilton, November 2018.

Book Review: My Whole Truth by Mischa Thrace

My Whole Truth
Mischa Thrace
Flux, October 2018
ISBN 978-1-63583-024-8
Trade Paperback

I’ve struggled with this review for a few weeks, because I was stunned. Speechless. Now, I accept the fact that I will never find and assemble accurate words to aptly address my deep desire for everyone to read this book. But, I can’t keep not telling you about My Whole Truth by Mischa Thrace. So…

Starting this story is a bit like having a bucket of ice-cold water dumped over your head. From out of nowhere. That steal-your-breath, shocking feeling, fused with white-hot anger, stayed with me. Quite frankly, still simmers. Perhaps, because this Realistic Fiction plot is so current, it is almost creepy.

The scenario certainly sets me off, but there’s a brilliant balance with the sincere and effortless strength and support that Seelie receives from her friends. And because they are adolescents, situations can only stay serious for so long. Even from her hospital bed, merely moments after being attacked, Seelie stays true to teens everywhere by easily ignoring simple ‘stay still and quiet’ instructions. And she calls her friends, not a parent. Although, she is not wrong there.

If everyone had a best bud like Lyssa, there would be no more bullying. The ultimate antihero, I couldn’t help but cheer a little bit whenever she stepped out of line. From the minute she arrived in the emergency room, all the way to the end of the tortuous trial, Lyssa stuck by Seelie’s side.

Whereas, Seelie’s mother stayed busy with her restaurant, as usual. Since she wasn’t in the hayloft at the time, Mom couldn’t be expected to actually know what happened anyway. She does recall that Seelie has always been rude to Shane, while seemingly everyone else in the entire town adores the judge’s son. And maternal ambivalence is only the tip of the iceberg.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2018.

Book Review: Things I’d Rather Do Than Die by Christine Hurley Deriso

Things I’d Rather Do Than Die
Christine Hurley Deriso
Flux, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-63583-022-4
Trade Paperback

The senior year of high school often starts with an almost-desperate desire to get through, get out and get on with life. Students have been sorted into pseudo-boxes; cliques are closed and relationships seem cemented. Passing classes, prom dates and plans for after high-school are the parts everyone knows about, but there are some adolescents who long for such simple problems to solve.

Perhaps the parental situation is such that a teen is pulled from practices to pick up his intoxicated dad. Or maybe evenings are spent sobering up a mom that is mostly numb. A fantastic father may fall ill, leaving his daughter to worry that she and her step-mother will be even less related, in his absence. Serious and secret situations can be a very real part of growing up and that is perfectly portrayed in Ms. Deriso’s Things I’d Rather Do Than Die.

Jade isn’t easily defined. She “…is “other” on every checklist,” and exists around the edges, with only her best bud by her side. Intelligent, with an obvious need for knowledge and openly agnostic, students see her as icy and unapproachable.

Everyone adores Ethan, though. The star quarterback that’s “…always organizing Jesus-y things at school” with his gorgeous girlfriend by his side seems to have a smile for everyone.

Immune to the A-lister’s charms, Jade seethes when Ethan dashes into the gym at closing time. Now, she has to work late so that he can work-out. But that will be the least of her worries.

Although an event may be life-changing, the differences are not instantaneous. One very long night of honest, albeit awkward, conversation nags Jade consistently, causing her to question her stringent beliefs and reexamine decisions. Even Ethan begins to question his faith—or at least the reasons it is so important to him.

I love tough topics being addressed with spot-on, diabolical dialogue that is simultaneously biting, humorous and thought-provoking. Although I have read about teens tangled in religion, it was always a battle between two different beliefs. I really enjoyed the unique, introspective spiritual consideration and the personal growth in this heart-wrenching, yet hopeful novel.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2018.

Book Review: Witch Wish by Jacqueline Seewald

Witch Wish
Jacqueline Seewald
Black Opal Books, July 2018
ISBN 978-1-626949-45-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Val Williams believes she will never be as pretty or popular as her older sister Ailene. When Ailene dumps her on an unfamiliar road after an argument, Val decides to ask directions of the only person she sees—an old woman engaged in a garage sale. Val purchases a music box that the old woman claims has magical qualities and will grant Val one wish. In a fit of pique, Val wishes that that her sister would stop being so perfect. When Ailene starts acting oddly, breaks up with her boyfriend, stops talking to her friends, starts dating a “bad” boy, and cuts classes, Val is troubled. She begins to fear she caused all this to happen by making her wish and suffers a guilty conscience. How she goes about setting matters right makes for some unusual complications and surprises.

“Be careful what you wish for” should have been Val’s mantra but, of course, she didn’t really mean for anything to go wrong for Ailene when she picks up that old woman’s music box and inadvertently wishes Ailene wasn’t so perfect. On the other hand, it’s not easy to live with a sister who is truly the golden child and is obnoxious on top of everything else. Could this music box really be magical?

At its core, though, this is a story about a family in a world of hurt and each member of the family contributes to that condition, the inability to get along with each other or be the kind of peaceful, loving family we all want. On the surface, Ailene is the one who is most disruptive and certainly she is incredibly self-absorbed and can be downright cruel to her younger sister but, in reality, she’s not the real issue.

As Ailene seems to be falling apart, Val takes the first wobbly steps towards seeing her own self-worth and her sister’s true vulnerability, the cracks in her facade. Tangentially, Val’s friend has her own family dysfunction to deal with that eventually involves everyone in the Williams family as they work to protect Toni and her sister, Kathy.

While Val finds her inner strength, the rest of her family each have their own “awakening” and, as a reader, I took comfort in going along with them on their journey. Val, in particular, became a young woman I’d like to spend more time with.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2018.

Book Review: And She Was by Jessica Verdi

And She Was
Jessica Verdi
Point, April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-338-15053-7
Hardcover

All teens experience tension between themselves and their parents. Many feel frustrated at times by parental evasiveness or refusal to answer questions about family secrets. For Dara, the tension revolves primarily around her mother’s refusal/reluctance to support her blossoming tennis career. Sure, money is an issue in a single parent home, but Dara’s looked at college and that route doesn’t look promising. Tennis does. When an opportunity to play and earn ranking points in a Canadian tournament comes up, she doubles down on her request for her birth certificate, a document Mellie, her mom, has been continually evasive about.

Dara’s growing frustration peaks while Mom is at work and she enters her mother’s bedroom to seek out the document. Under her mother’s bed she discovers a box. There are two prescription bottles as well as photos of people she doesn’t know. After looking up the two medications, she’s even more puzzled because one is a testosterone blocker, the other an estrogen supplement. She’s stunned by the names listed as parents on her birth certificate stashed under the photos. Neither is familiar and her last name on the certificate is not the one she’s grown up with.

Shock becomes extreme anger and when Mom returns, Dara explodes. What her mother tells her is pretty hard for her to wrap her head around. Mom is her biological father who transitioned after Dara’s mother was killed by a drunk driver. When Dara starts pushing for answers about who her grandparents are and why she’s never met them, Mom’s answers don’t really satisfy her. Still enraged and wounded by what she perceives as Mellie’s selfishness for not being honest, as well as hurting because she suspects her deceased real mom’s parents might have subsidized her hoped for tennis career, Dara packs up her stuff and strong arms her best friend Sam into going on a search for the elusive grandparents.

What ensues is an excellent look at not only how hope can blind us when we’re desperate, but an enlightening and very carefully drawn look at the struggles and processes a transgender person goes through. Jessica Verdi chose to reveal Mellie’s story through emails to Dara while she and Sam are on the road. It’s extremely effective. In addition, the search, and the realizations Dara and Sam come to as they follow lead after lead, help readers to see the other side of the story.

What Dara discovers, how she comes to understand not only Mellie, but her own part in the family drama and her wake up call regarding how she’s treated Sam and what her feelings for him really are, make this a dandy story. I highly suggest it for anyone who wants to understand what challenges someone who is transgender must face as well as anyone who simply wants to read an excellent story.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, July 2018.

Book Review: The Baby by Lisa Drakeford

The Baby
Lisa Drakeford
Chicken House, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94027-6
Hardcover

When I opened The Baby, I anticipated a quirky, mystery-comedic-misadventure of baby-sitting gone hilariously wrong.  With a dash of adolescence adoration.  I was grossly mistaken.  Instead, I plunged into a pertinent plot involving important issues.  The depth of this quickly captivating story, seemingly centered on Olivia’s seventeenth birthday celebration, surprised and delighted me.

The look into Olivia and Jonty’s relationship reveals a rarely addressed, but true tribulation.  A hard, honest survey of such a sensitive subject, seen from multiple points of view and various perspectives, proves that even with all of the pieces; a puzzle may not be easily solved. As Olivia better understands Jonty’s world and how it has affected his actions, he learns to analyze and address his issues.

Nicola is sweet and funny.  Also, she is insecure and almost desperately eager to please.  She makes a mistake. In a real-life kind of way, she makes the same mistake more than once.  She was not alone in an ethical error, but solely shouldered the consequences.  Initially.  I would be remiss if I did not mention Nicola’s mother here, as I definitely dig a reminder that “mature” adults still have room to grow.

Ben is the bond that brings it all together.  Being a bit accustomed to the prejudiced cold shoulder, he is a pillar for Nicola as she adjusts to her new life in the public eye.  Just as tight with Olivia, he’s even at ease with Alice, her eccentric younger sibling.  Maybe he and Jonty are not mates, but neither are they mortal enemies.  Besides, they are teenagers; generally open-minded and adaptable creatures.

Ms. Drakeford magically meshes tough topics, tenacious teenagers with the pleasantly peculiar to display a beautiful, big picture that is neither black nor white, but grey in The Baby.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2017.