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.

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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.

Book Review: The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
St. Martin’s Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-13092-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous ex-wife.
You will assume she is obsessed with her replacement – a beautiful, younger woman who is about to marry the man they both love.
You will assume you know the anatomy of this tangled love triangle.
Assume nothing.

Twisted and deliciously chilling, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Wife Between Us exposes the secret complexities of an enviable marriage – and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.

Read between the lies.

Take a good look at that cover. Don’t those two women look an awful lot alike? When I first saw it and read the description, I couldn’t help wondering if this was going to be like one of those serial killer things where the guy has an obsession for women who resemble each other and someone who was once very important to him (yes, I’m being sexist; it’s simpler and it’s almost always men killing women). So, was I right? I’m not telling because that would ruin the enormous surprise at the end 😉

Without a doubt, The Wife Between Us is one of the most intense and page-turning books I’ve read and it turned my expectations completely on end. Most of all, I was impressed by how often I was surprised, perhaps because I trusted too much, like at least one of the three people in this tale of treachery and love. Then again, are any of them really on the up-and-up? Vanessa, Richard, Nellie—are any of them real?

I’m in awe of any author who can create a story and characters as compelling as in this book but I’m purely amazed that two authors could collaborate so extremely well. I suspect their ability to do this has at least something to do with one being an already accomplished author and the other being her editor; they had a certain connection, if you will, and it really shows in the quality of their writing. I really hope this is the beginning of a long-running partnership that will bring us many more books to keep me up at night.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

Book Review: Turn It Up! by Jen Calonita

Turn It Up!
Jen Calonita
Point, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-16115-1
Hardcover

Meeting your mother’s expectations when you’re a high school sophomore is often tough, but when your mom is the headmaster of your school and was one of the founders of a once elite a cappella group, the ante is really upped.

That’s what Lidia Sato is looking at when the school year begins. The situation is immediately complicated by her seeing her co-captain and long time best friend Sydney, kissing Griffin Mancini, the boy she’s been crushing on forever. Lidia had bought into all the encouragement her bestie had given her, but every time she was in a position to talk to Griffin, her mind went blank and words failed her.

Despite Sydney’s best efforts to explain that Griffin initiated the kiss and she was as shocked as Lidia when it happened, what her friend saw (or so she believed), was painfully different. Lidia has a very public and messy meltdown during the recruiting party for the Nightingales, the group she and Sydney are trying to bring back to glory. What she says in front of the prospects would be bad enough, but she does it again not long after and then quits the group. Granted she’s also committed to dance and a shot at some really good performance options, but the way she reacts, coupled with some rather evil pranks by the boys a cappella group, the Kingfishers, puts Sydney and the other group members behind the eight ball in terms of coming together and restoring the Nightingales to prominence.

While interactions between the girls themselves and with the guys in their rival group are decently portrayed, the immaturity and repeatedly annoying behavior by both Lidia and Sydney gets pretty old as the story goes on. I can live with unpleasant, flawed or annoying characters if the author reveals a justification for their behavior, but that doesn’t happen here and the two come across as whiny.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, December 2017.