Book Review: It’s All Your Fault by Paul Rudnick

It’s All Your Fault
Paul Rudnick
Scholastic Press, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-46428-4
Hardcover

You’ve all heard the expression ‘deer in the headlights.” Imagine a homeschooled teen who’s so sheltered and Christian, she comes with her own portable headlights because she’s constantly barraged by what-ifs. Meet Caitlin, one of a gaggle of siblings whose names all begin with C and are part of a gospel pop group known as the Singing Singleberrys. Life at home is so squeaky clean that she even worries about just thinking about impure thoughts. In addition, she’s obsessed with being perfect, a good Christian role model and suffers from serious anxiety attacks. She overcompensates for imagined sins and failures by doing things like applying to a dozen colleges for fear she’ll never get into any of them. In short, she’s a sweet mess, but with good reasons that unfold as the story progresses.

One thing she hasn’t done is have any contact with her cousin Heller since an afternoon when Heller’s impulsive and selfish behavior almost killed Caitlin. Every time she remembers that afternoon, she has to fight off another wave of panic. Before the disaster, the girls were best friends, with Heller usually involved in something outlandish in an effort to help Caitlin break loose from her own head.

When Caitlin is summoned to the breakfast table by her mom, the last person she expects to see sitting there is her aunt Nancy, Heller’s mother. The sisters haven’t talked to each other since the tragedy, so Caitlin immediately suspects something’s up. It is, but in ways far beyond her wildest imagination.

Cousin Heller, fresh out of rehab, is in need of a chaperone for the weekend so she can be kept out of trouble during the events leading up to the premiere of Angel Wars a movie based on a trilogy that has most of the world buzzing. Heller plays the lead female, but unless she’s kept in check for three days, it could well be her last role ever, hence the desperate appeal by her aunt and Caitlin’s mother.

Armed with the imagined righteousness of God, Caitlin agrees, expecting that with the force of goodness behind her, she’ll be able to resist evil and make Heller see the error of her ways. Well, we all know how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This time it’s a brand new superhighway, with Heller driving a Ferrari.

The weekend involves Caitlin discovering hot guys, the impossibility of saying no, jail, body art, invading a cupcake factory, making a thirteen year old cancer survivor’s wishes come wildly true and a new way for both Caitlin and Heller to see each other’s inner workings.

Yes, Caitlin seems over the top goody goody at times and will annoy some readers, but stick around for the full story and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. I liked it a lot.

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

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Book Reviews: The Favourite by S. V. Berlin and Kyle Finds Her Way by Susie Salom

The Favourite
S. V. Berlin
Myriad Editions, July 2018
ISBN 978-0-9935633-8-6
Trade Paperback (UK)

The Favourite is an atypical read for me. Generally speaking, I seek out a sensational catalyst to kick off a story. I delightfully devour those, but the novels that nestle into my mind and reappear arbitrarily and often—even long after I’ve finished the book—are the quiet ones that sneak in.

A sad situation brings Isobel from her beloved New York City, back to her childhood home in England. Although the trip isn’t uncommon, the fact that she will see—and be required to speak with—Edward is unique. The siblings have been estranged for so long that she fears there won’t be the faintest familiarity.

Often, a rift occurs when two people simply cannot agree. Occasionally though, there is a third party involved. Perhaps not the problem, but absolutely invested in ensuring there’s no solution. This conflict comes from within the tiny, tightly-contained family and it is infinitesimally larger.

For Isobel, England had too little to offer and it was all spread too widely. A classic American film introduced New York and she knew that’s where she belonged. With the apparent support of her mum and brother, she set off and absolutely made her way. In that she was happy.

A job she enjoyed covered her rent. Absolutely anything she would ever want was found only a few steps or a subway ride away. And yet, in spite of her satisfaction, friends here furrowed their brows and worried about why she wasn’t climbing a corporate ladder.

Laughable, really. In England she was strange for following a dream; selfish to want more than a steady job and stable life. Isobel meant only to do her own thing and truly not be a bother to anyone. In doing just that, she instead seemed to frustrate and disappoint everyone. She seems sweet and confused.

Edward appears angry. Frustrated by an accident, furious with himself for not being where he truly should have been and freaked-out by the very fact that this whole mess means he’s forced to face his sister. It’s difficult to see why Isobel ever admired her brother and it is almost impossible to understand why Jules is his girlfriend. A bit mousy and oddly eager to please Edward, she could just about blend into the background, except that she’s clearly keeping a secret from both Isobel and Edward.

While not fast-paced in a frenzied way, finite time together and a fast-approaching departure date moves the narrative quicker than I’d expect. Even without being categorized as Young Adult, it is nevertheless perfect for me to share with ‘my’ students. The stark and the subtle differences between American English and English—both in speaking and in spelling will be something that will amuse and delight them. Most importantly, I want them to understand early in life that sometimes, when someone seems disappointed in you, they may actually be disappointed in themselves for not being more like you.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2018.

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Kyle Finds Her Way
Susie Salom
Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-85266-1
Hardcover

Kyle had no doubt that her first day of middle school would be somewhat daunting, especially without her twin brother by her side. Principal-issued-discipline or deliberately boarding the wrong bus at the end of the day had not made her worse-case-scenario list though, so there were some surprises. Initially charming, Kyle’s child-like creative imagination becomes just short of concerning quickly. For her sake, I want to watch her grow and mature; but for the good vibes, I hoped she wouldn’t change at all. Ms. Salom deftly dealt with my dilemma.

Georgia O’Keefe Middle is a bit more progressive than my middle school was. Instead of dodge-ball in a stinky gym, these students study t’ai chi. When Kyle’s punishment is issued, it isn’t so surprising to hear the head of the school tell her that he hopes it “…sparks your imagination…actually I hope it engages your crusading spirit.”

Obligatory grumbling about the forced placement on the school’s NAVS team is slowly replaced by a growing fascination with the competition’s challenge. Kyle finds herself fitting in with the team and feeling a desire to contribute. Of course, maturity isn’t an overnight accomplishment. Kyle allows herself accolades for making strides in one area as she attempts to convince herself that she isn’t actually lying to her parents or being dishonest with her best friend in other ‘opportunities for improvement’ parts of her life.

It seems to me that today, students are bombarded with ‘right or wrong’, ‘black or white’ when real life is generally just groovy shades of grey. Peppering “typical” teen dialect with profound statements such as “…some people bring out different sides of you that don’t exist when they’re not around,” Kyle Finds Her Way proves that all things are not crystal clear. This is an honest and hopeful story that I’m so excited to be sharing my favorite middle-grade readers.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2017

Book Review: A Very, Very Bad Thing by Jeffery Self

A Very, Very Bad Thing  
Jeffery Self
Push, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-11840-7
Hardcover

Marley is one of a handful of gay teens in his North Carolina town. Things at home are mixed…Good in that his parents, aging semi-hippies, are okay with his gayness, not so good in that Dad blew money he couldn’t afford to and they’re being threatened with losing their house. And Mom and Dad are dealing with it by burning herbs and spouting New Age mumbo jumbo. Even so, Marley’s life is fairly even keel, due in large part to his best friend Audrey.

One look is all it takes when Marley first sees new student Christopher and he’s beyond smitten. It’s not long before he realizes the feeling is mutual, but there’s a huge problem. Christopher’s parents are big time TV evangelists and make their living on contributions to and merchandise sales through the ministry which thrives on anti-homosexual preaching. In fact, they moved from Missouri to North Carolina for a fresh start and new church, in large part due to their son’s coming out.

It takes Marley a while to wrap his head around what’s happened to Christopher…Parental denial about his sexuality, being sent to several ‘pray the gay away’ camps and implied blame for the necessity to move. However, the more time they spend together (and Christopher’s parents make it pretty near impossible for them to have a relationship), the more upset Marley becomes over his boyfriend’s treatment.

When they use Audrey as a beard to get Christopher ungrounded long enough for he and Marley to attend the Harvest Prom, it’s what both boys dream about, until a freshman boy won’t stop with homophobic slurs while everyone’s on the dance floor. Christopher loses his temper, decking the kid and the whole fake date deal blows up. Christopher’s not only super grounded, he’s going to be sent to yet another gay conversion camp. It’s the last straw. He smuggles a letter to Marley through his sympathetic aunt, asking him to meet him at the camp after dark. He’s leaving a suicide note, but his intention is to spend one last night with Marley before taking a bus as far away as possible.

However, an impulsive stop at the town water tower for some last moment romance goes horribly awry. What happens after that night needs to be discovered by you, the reader, but I can attest to its surprising twists, both immediately and over the next several months. Told in alternating parts from before and after the water tower incident, Marley must struggle not only with loss, but guilt. How he and other players deal with it makes for a stellar story, one LBGTQ and straight teens can both relate to equally well. A definite add for school and public libraries where issue rich fiction is in demand by teens.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, May 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.

Book Review: The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

About The Keeper of Lost Things

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (November 28, 2017)

A charming, clever, and quietly moving debut novel of of endless possibilities and joyful discoveries that explores the promises we make and break, losing and finding ourselves, the objects that hold magic and meaning for our lives, and the surprising connections that bind us.

Lime green plastic flower-shaped hair bobbles—Found, on the playing field, Derrywood Park, 2nd September.

Bone china cup and saucer—

Found, on a bench in Riveria Public Gardens, 31st October.

Anthony Peardew is the keeper of lost things. Forty years ago, he carelessly lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancée, Therese. That very same day, she died unexpectedly. Brokenhearted, Anthony sought consolation in rescuing lost objects—the things others have dropped, misplaced, or accidently left behind—and writing stories about them. Now, in the twilight of his life, Anthony worries that he has not fully discharged his duty to reconcile all the lost things with their owners. As the end nears, he bequeaths his secret life’s mission to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura, leaving her his house and and all its lost treasures, including an irritable ghost.

Recovering from a bad divorce, Laura, in some ways, is one of Anthony’s lost things. But when the lonely woman moves into his mansion, her life begins to change. She finds a new friend in the neighbor’s quirky daughter, Sunshine, and a welcome distraction in Freddy, the rugged gardener. As the dark cloud engulfing her lifts, Laura, accompanied by her new companions, sets out to realize Anthony’s last wish: reuniting his cherished lost objects with their owners.

Long ago, Eunice found a trinket on the London pavement and kept it through the years. Now, with her own end drawing near, she has lost something precious—a tragic twist of fate that forces her to break a promise she once made.

As the Keeper of Lost Objects, Laura holds the key to Anthony and Eunice’s redemption. But can she unlock the past and make the connections that will lay their spirits to rest?

Full of character, wit, and wisdom, The Keeper of Lost Things is heartwarming tale that will enchant fans of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Garden Spells, Mrs Queen Takes the Train, and The Silver Linings Playbook.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Ruth Hogan

Ruth Hogan describes herself as a “rapacious reader, writer, and incorrigible magpie” whose own love of small treasures and curiosities and the people around her inspired her first novel. She lives north of London.

Find out more about Ruth at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

My Review

Because of a handful of life events, I’ve spent the last few years slowly divesting myself of stuff and, in all this time, it hasn’t gotten any easier. Sure, some of it hits the trashcan and some goes to Goodwill but there are all those other things that may not look all that important but they mean something to me and it’s always an emotional connection to my past, my family, my friends, my long-gone pets…

The idea that someone would make it his life’s purpose to rescue such things that have been lost struck me as just wonderful and I was not disappointed in reading The Keeper of Lost Things. Isn’t it comforting to think the treasure you lost might one day find its way into the hands of someone who cares? Then, take it a step further. When Laura inherits Anthony’s home, she discovers that his last wish was that she try to get these precious belongings back to their owners. Thus begins Laura’s quest.

This is not an exciting story—it doesn’t leave you breathless with suspense or unable to sleep without reading the next page and the next—but it tugs at those old heartstrings in a way that might bring an occasional tear and also makes you feel hopeful about the characters’ futures as well as life itself.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2018.

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Book Review: Just Another Girl by Elizabeth Eulberg

Just Another Girl
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-95628-4
Hardcover

A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption that is deliberately over-engineered so that it performs a basic function in a completely unnecessarily convoluted, chain-reaction, kind of way.  Not unlike typical teenage girls making relationships exponentially more difficult by playing games and employing tricks instead of just kicking off a clever conversation.  Differing from teenage dating, however; there are actual Rube Goldberg competitions.  In Just Another Girl, Hope and Brady are part of their high school team that will be designing and building an entry for an upcoming contest.

Hope’s crush on Brady and her subsequent disdain of his girlfriend, Parker, form a familiar pseudo-love-triangle when viewed from Hope’s vantage.  I admit—for a moment this gave me pause.  I do love settling down with a classic chronicle; but, having read and revered Ms. Eulberg’s writing, it was unexpected.  I do love surprises, so I was quite pleased to sit back and see where it would lead.

Turns out, with her fabulously foreboding foreshadowing, the reader doesn’t need to be familiar with Ms. Eulberg’s work to feel something sinister and substantial slithering underneath.  Perspectives change when Parker picks up the narration.  In spite of her valiant effort to maintain a typical teen image, a closer look reveals her ruse.

Facets of Parker’s life unfold with all the feels.  Soul-shredding snippets, such as Parker’s money-saving system, serve as subtle reminders of the ripple effect.  One horrific act has many consequences.  The broadening view casts Parker in a new light and tosses some shade Hope’s way.  For me, it was impossible to feel sympathy, support and admiration for Parker without feeling a bit of frustration with Hope.

Ms. Eulberg highlights a significant subject in an affable, empathetic way.  Relatable characters have flaws, make mistakes and even behave quite selfishly at times—just like in real life.  Mirroring so many of the teens I’m fortunate enough to know; these adolescents have huge hearts, big ideas and the desire and determination to better themselves and help others along the way—-once they are able to focus on other people over themselves.   I adore this delightful book about an unimaginably dismal situation.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2017.

Book Review: Frosted Kisses by Heather Hepler

Frosted Kisses
Cupcake Queen Series #2

Heather Hepler
Point, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-79055-0
Hardcover

Penny and her mom moved from Manhattan to a small town following her parents’ divorce. Hog’s Hollow is quite different than the big city, but some things don’t change. School bullies and cliques are everywhere, teens have secrets everywhere, and crushes happen everywhere.

Fortunately, Penny made friends with Tally who is a big time animal lover. She talked her new friend into helping raise money to restore/repair the animal shelter where she volunteers. On the opposite side of school society is Charity, daughter of the town banker and as mean as they come. For reasons unfathomable to Penny, Charity has it in for her at every opportunity. It’s gotten so bad Penny cringes in fearful anticipation every time Charity is in her vicinity.

When Esmeralda comes to stay with Charity, Tally’s immediately put off by her, but Penny’s conflicted. Remembering her own experience coming to a new school makes her want to give the extremely attractive Parisian girl the benefit of doubt, but when Esmeralda starts tutoring Marcus, who Penny likes big time, trusting either of them gets pretty difficult.

The plot gets much thicker, both literally and figuratively after aging surfer Dutch moves back to town, agitating Penny’s grandmother. Tally and Penny start to realize Gram’s upset has something to do with what happened between them years ago, just about the time they come up with a dazzling way to raise lots of money for the animal shelter during the winter festival. Add in the challenge of Penny trying to figure out whether Marcus reciprocates her feelings, helping Gram put up the county-wide famous Christmas light display at their house, having to accept that her father isn’t able to be reliable, Tally’s own secret anguish over her family mess, who really is the evil girl at school and how that person is outed in a very public way, and you have a very entertaining story.

I’ve read the author’s other books and enjoyed them a lot. This is both entertaining and meaty in terms of how the two best friends deal with bullying, trust and family dysfunction.

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