Book Review: Back on Track by Kyle Jackson @JollyFishPress

Back on Track: Mac’s Sports Reports
Kyle Jackson
Jolly Fish Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-223-5

“Mac” McKenzie takes his sports-writing seriously, whether he is reporting for his Middle-School newspaper or posting on his own blog. As with any good reporter, his antenna goes up with the sense of an underlying secret.

Having written about most of the stand-outs on the girls’ track team in previous issues of The Coyote Courier, Mac is paying particular attention to the new 6th grader from El Paso, Texas. There’s no questioning her athletic ability and yet…something about her hurdle jumps seems off. He must interview Aleesha Ramos.

If only he could catch her to make the request. She was always disappearing. Undeterred, Mac finally managed to schedule a time. But she cancelled. Repeatedly. He begins to suspect that Aleesha really does have something to hide. When he discovers the truth, his actions show that, alongside his investigative mind, beats a heart of gold.

I absolutely adore the Mac’s Sports Reports Juvenile Fiction/Middle Grade sports series. Mac doesn’t only write about sports, he dominates in his wheel-chair basketball league, he’s a pretty cool big brother and an outstanding friend. He happily helps his peers to deal with issues that some young readers may face, such as social anxiety. Kyle Jackson’s Back on Track would be a welcome addition to any library.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2020.

Book Review: A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann—and a Giveaway! @libbyhellmann

A Bend in the River
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herring Press, June 2020
ISBN 978-1-938733-67-3
Trade Paperback

From the author—

In 1968 two young Vietnamese sisters flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is attacked by American forces and burned to the ground. The only survivors of the brutal massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tam’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong. For nearly ten years, neither sister knows if the other is alive. Do they both survive the war? And if they do, can they mend their fractured relationship? Or are the wounds from their journeys too deep to heal? In a stunning departure from her crime thrillers, Libby Fischer Hellmann delves into a universal story about survival, family, and the consequences of war.

I’ve been enjoying Libby Fischer Hellmann‘s books for a lot of years now and have never been disappointed but I think she’s gone a step further with A Bend in the River. Her strength has been largely in crime fiction of the suspense and/or thriller sort with series and standalones but, every now and then, Ms. Hellmann vectors off in a different direction to very good effect. This is one of those times.

The US finally left Vietnam in 1975 but the consequences, good and bad, of that war still linger today. This story focuses on a period of time before and after our exit and looks at what happened in one instance to innocent survivors of a deadly attack. These sisters, 17-year-old Tâm and Mai, three years younger, are suddenly ripped from a semi-normal life to one of vast uncertainty and choices that must be made. Those choices take the girls down separate paths, one on each side of the conflict that has affected their lives for far too many years and, now, they’re each estranged from the one remaining family member who knows her best.

To many of the younger generations, the Vietnam War is a distant memory, a section in the history books. To me and others of my generation, those of us who either fought there or waited at home, this story is a stark remembrance of physical and emotional pain, of choices made by individuals and governments—not just the US—and I thank Ms. Hellmann for reminding us that the devastations of war don’t just drift away when the troops move on.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2020.


Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Fifteen novels and twenty-five short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first.

She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. She has been a finalist twice for the Anthony, three times for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne, and has won the IPPY and the Readers Choice Award multiple times.

Her novels include the now five-volume Ellie Foreman series, which she describes as a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “24;” the hard-boiled 4-volume Georgia Davis PI series, and four stand-alone historical thrillers set during Revolutionary Iran, Cuba, the Sixties, and WW2. Her short stories have been published in a dozen anthologies, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ed Gorman’s “25 Criminally Good Short Stories” collection.

In 2005 Libby was the national president of Sisters In Crime, a 3500 member organization dedicated to the advancement of female crime fiction authors. She also hosts both an internet TV and radio interview show and conducts writing workshops at libraries and other venues.

Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese. All her books are available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.


Videos of the author discussing
A Bend in the River



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Book Review: A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann—and a Giveaway! @libbyhellmann

A Bend in the River
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herring Press, June 2020
ISBN 978-1-938733-67-3
Trade Paperback

The author is known for her crime fiction award-winning stories at several levels. This enthralling story contains many mysteries, many still unanswered sixty years on. Why were American soldiers fighting in Viet Nam, being one of them. But this is not an academic examination of the politics of the 1960s, although international politics, brought down to an intensely personal level, is a thread that weaves throughout and informs this excellent novel.

This is an intimate look at the lives of two young Vietnamese sisters who see their family and their village near the shore of the Mekong River obliterated by American army action. But the novel is not an excoriation of the American expedition to Southeast Asia, nor is it an apologia for the actions of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. The novel is, instead, a close examination of the diverging lives of two children who are both determined to persist and to attempt to live normal positive lives in the midst of war and constant turmoil. Throughout their personal and professional development along widely divergent paths, Mai and Tam must respond, however unwillingly at times, to the implacable forces that alter their circumstances, bringing love and despair and validation.

Carefully researched, thoughtfully organized and appealingly written by a master storyteller, A BEND IN THE RIVER will teach readers about the Viet Nam era in the world while illuminating and venerating the stubborn persistence and humanity of two sisters caught in the vicious tentacles of a wartime society. I fully endorse and recommend the novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2020.
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.


An Excerpt from
A Bend in the River

Is there a warning the moment before life shatters into pieces? A minute shift in the light? The chirr of a monkey? A heaviness in the air that tastes like disaster? For Tâm Trang and her sister, Mai Linh, washing their family’s clothes in the river, the warning might have been a barely perceptible scent wafting toward them. Perfumed soap mixed with sweat. Unfamiliar. Foreign.

Or perhaps there was no warning at all. Absorbed in their task, the sisters squatted on a narrow strip of shore, scrubbing shirts with their brushes. They slapped heavier items against the rocks, then rinsed everything in the waters of the Mekong. The clothes would dry quickly. The hottest part of the year was approaching, and the combination of summer heat and the monsoons would produce an indolent lethargy that made even washing clothes a burden. Though it was only March, the sisters lifted their hair off their necks to catch the breeze.

Tâm, at seventeen, used her nón lá as a hamper for the clean clothes. At the moment it held only two pairs of tiny pants belonging to her little brother. Hung Sang, an unplanned surprise five years earlier, was now the prince of the family. According to their parents, no boy was as handsome, as talented, as lucky. With his arrival the girls’ status declined. They had become afterthoughts, to be married off quickly. Sang should not be burdened with his sisters’ care. When he grew up, he would have enough to do for his own family and his parents.

Tâm wiped sweat from her brow. Mai, three years younger, nattered on, but Tâm only half listened. She was about to graduate from the Catholic school two villages away, and she was wondering how she would continue her studies. Where would she find the money to pay for university? What would her parents say when she confessed that was her goal?

“I’m sure you know him. Lanh Phuc. He’s handsome. His is the wealthiest family in their village,” Mai said. “Their home has a real roof. And windows. His father makes sampans…” Mai giggled. “I think he likes me, Chị Tâm. I hope Mama and Papa will agree to a match. I can already picture our wedding. Of course, we will honor the Rose Silk Thread God, but it will be modern too. We will have music to dance, and—”

Tâm cut in. “Mai, you can be a silly girl. Dreaming about weddings and dancing? This is a man you may live with the rest of your life. Have you ever shared a conversation? Talked to him about his future, his dreams?” She twisted water out her father’s shirt and dropped it into the conical hat. “All I hear is that he is the son of a wealthy man, and he is handsome.”

Mai was the beauty of the family, delicate and tiny, with large black eyes, silky black hair, and soft skin that glowed white, even in shadow. Tâm had seen the longing on village boys’ faces when she passed. Her parents would have no problem arranging a match for her. Tâm was taller, leaner, and while her face had the same classic features as Mai’s, they were arranged differently. Her eyes did not appear to be as large; her nose more pronounced, her skin darker. She was attractive in her own way, but she wasn’t a beauty. Although older, she wasn’t waiting for an arranged marriage. She wasn’t interested. She wanted to study plants: their growth, foliage, colors, blossoms, how they added to their environment or not. Her Catholic science teacher explained to her that what she wanted to study was “botany.”



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Book Review: Heart Sister by Michael F. Stewart @MichaelFStewart @orcabook @XpressoTours


Title: Heart Sister
Author: Michael F. Stewart
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publication Date: September 22, 2020
Genres: Contemporary/General Fiction, Young Adult


Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon // Indiebound


Heart Sister
Michael F. Stewart
Orca Book Publishers, September 2020
ISBN 978-1-4598-2487-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

After his twin sister, Minnie, dies in an accident, Emmitt’s world goes sideways. He’s lost his best friend and it feels like the family is falling apart without her. But Minnie was an organ donor and Emmitt soon receives an anonymous thank you letter from one of the transplant recipients. Inspiration strikes, and he decides to try and put his sister back together, in spirit. He’s going to track down each organ recipient and film them to show his parents the results of Minnie’s selfless act and help them move on. But when each recipient falls short of his expectations and the star of his film, the girl who received his sister’s heart, refuses to meet him, Emmitt has to turn to extreme measures to find her. What he doesn’t know is that his “heart sister” is hiding an agonizing secret, one that could push Emmitt to the breaking point.

There’s very little one can do to ease the pain when a person you love passes away but how much harder must it be for a teen when that person is his twin. Emmitt is having a hard time dealing with this but he really worries that his mom can’t seem to recover even a bit. Perhaps finding and filming each person who received an organ from Minnie will help, maybe even make his dad speak Minnie’s name again.

Emmitt’s quest starts out well when he tracks down the man who got Minnie’s corneas and, as he continues on, I became more and more invested in what he was trying to do and the reactions of these lucky people, some not so positive as others. Can this bring Minnie back? No, of course not, but each “piece” he finds takes him closer to healing, to feeling as though it’s okay for him to still be living. That might be hard to do with a mother who wishes she’d  never had Minnie…and, by extension, him.

This story is full to the brim with seemingly endless pain and, yet, Emmitt shows us that there is always reason for hope that all is not lost when death crushes those left behind. This is a boy with strength and a dream that he might be able to help his parents through their grief while coping with his own and the people he meets are just what he needs to understand how his sister’s generosity keeps her alive. Despite the sorrow that is at the crux of the story, Emmitt finds healing for himself and a lasting memorial for Minnie, the girl who created her own notion of life from her love of taxidermy.

As for the ethics of finding organ recipients and the methods Emmitt uses to do so, that’s a question that won’t ever be completely reconciled and each reader will reach their own conclusion. Emmitt is not always the nicest guy and neither are some of the recipients but, in the end, we’re all just people with hopes and dreams.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2020.

About the Author

Michael F. Stewart is an award-winning author of many books for young people in various genres, including Ray Vs. the Meaning of Life, which earned a Kirkus Star and won the Publishers Weekly’s Booklife Grand Prize. and Heart Sister (Summer/Fall 2020, Orca Books). Michael lives in Ottawa.
Author links: 


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Book Review: Jackpot by Nic Stone @getnicced @penguinrandom

Nic Stone
Crown Books for Young Readers, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-9848-2962-7

Jackpot by Nic Stone is the YA jewel I didn’t know I needed. Rico is tough and serious, in her determinedly matter-of-fact way. She knows all she will ever need to know about each of her classmates. Without having an actual conversation, Rico knows what their home lives must be. She can tell what type of people they are. Rico is so grown, she even knows exactly how each of her peers sees her.

So, it’s not such a big deal for Rico to stay out of that basic, high-school drama; she’s truly got no time for it, anyway. Mama is hounding her to pick up extra shifts at the gas station. The purest person on the planet, her little brother, Jax, seems to stay sick. And she does still need to graduate.

Zan, rich-boy-because-of-daddy’s-toilet-paper, is not someone Rico ever envisioned approaching. Truth be told, she hid when he popped into her Gas ’n’ Go on Christmas Eve, just so she wouldn’t have to be polite to him. But now, his mad-hacker-skills may be exactly what Rico needs.

Something else happened that night-before-Christmas. Rico sold a winning lotto ticket, but the prize has not been claimed. Rico vividly recalls chatting with the sweet little lady who mentioned being forgetful. She will do everything possible to track this woman down in time to claim the jackpot.

While the sullen Rico is stuck with the inexplicably cheerful Zan, she grows annoyed by his habit of asking the questions that most folks would just mull over, silently. Replying to his sneaky, probing, seemingly-innocent queries got Rico thinking.

More time together meant more self-realization and Rico began to wonder if her earlier assumptions were not entirely accurate. Maybe, being part of a family that is financially well-off does not necessarily mean having whatever you want. Perhaps someone can be decked out in all-Nike-attire and still legitimately need food stamps. Maybe money is a blessing. Or, it could be a curse.

Ms. Stone’s characters are authentic enough to feel familiar, but fresh enough to be invigorating. Day-to-day life, even when infused with Something Different, is realistic and relatable. The occasional appearance of unexpected and unlikely narrators elevates the entire book in a way that I find intensely delightful.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2020.

Book Review: Disengagement by Daniella Levy @DaniellaNLevy

Daniella Levy
Kasva Press, March 2020
ISBN 978-1-948403-13-9
Trade Paperback

In 2005 Israel withdrew 8,000 residents from the Gaza strip and five settlements in northern Samaria. Neve Adra is a fictional settlement but this novel is based on the event called “the disengagement.” The settlement has twenty or so stone houses, some caravans, and a synagogue, surrounded by sand. Greenhouses are built, and crops are raised. After the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli government made an effort to establish a Jewish presence throughout Gaza. One of the masterminds was General Ariel Sharon.

Elected prime minister in 2001, Sharon promised a tough approach to protect the settlements.  He visited the local rabbi’s family and promised to defend their home. In 2003 he announced a plan for withdrawal from Palestinian territories, which caused uproar on the political right.

The chapters focus on different characters at different times. Narrators include a left-wing newspaper columnist; a Russian-born protest organizer; Rabbi Schlomo, who lost his leg in the Six Day War, and his family. His wife was reluctant to move to the settlement—in the early days there was no electricity, running water, schools, or transportation. There is tension between the Arab workers and the Jewish settlers. One of the young settlers, Aharon, is killed by a mortar shell to the greenhouse.

This is more than the story of a settlement in the Gaza. It’s about what it means to be disengaged from love, friends, neighbors, family and from deeply held beliefs.  It shows how listening to one another and learning from unexpected encounters can help to become connected.

The author lives in Israel and blogs about life as a religious Jew in Israel. Her family immigrated to Israel when she was a child.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, July 2020.

Book Reviews: Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff and Runway ZomBee by J.A. Watson @JasonGraff1 @WaldorfReaders @JollyFishPress

Stray Our Pieces
Jason Graff
Waldorf Publishing, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-64370-012-0
Trade Paperback

Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff is Realistic Fiction, but it feels more like a Memoir of a stay-at-home-mom/wife. Gloria has absolutely no ambitions right now. No desire to be Super Mom. She doesn’t keep their home spic-and-span or super organized. Neither is the kitchen her place to shine.

Gloria isn’t so much bad at household chores and duties as she is so completely uninspired, in general, that her days are spent physically doing nothing. Well, maybe rushing through the bare minimum, on a great day. Mentally, she seems to be almost consumed by her own inadequacies. Not to the point of addressing them, more along the lines of looking for someone, or something, to blame.

Her story is not shared straight through. Rather, the time-line fluctuates, allowing the reader to see the younger, happier, energetic and inspired Gloria compared to the adult she allowed herself to become. In a roundabout (but definitely right) way, we learn about Gloria’s past and begin to understand her newfound place in the present.

I’ve not read many books that weave a world without a life-changing event. A plot around people who, from the outside looking in, seem to be the perfect picture of normal cannot be easy to create. But, regular, every-day living where there may be pain and aching emptiness, alongside joy and contentment, is certainly easy to understand and relate to.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2020.


Runway ZomBee
A Zombie Bee Hunter’s Journal
J.A. Watson
Jolly Fish Press, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-165-8
Trade Paperback

Raksha’s parents, although proud of their daughter’s ambition, were adamant: two separate, summer-long activities are out of the question. The Science Squad project is essentially a grand-finale. Earning their final badge is important, but the possibility of advancing to the final competition in Hawaii is especially enticing. And Raksha is definitely down with learning more about the Zombie fly/bee infestation…however gruesome the observations may be.

Entirely on the other hand, this admittedly out-of-the-blue fashion camp seems simply serendipitous. True, she could attend another time. After all, she meant to sign up for the fall in the first place. But, if she sticks with the summer session, she will also have a chance to finesse a new friendship with Shonda.

She will do both. Secretly.

Having a best friend like Hannah certainly helps Raksha juggle her double duties; but things quickly become complicated. Raksha is fully aware of the fact that Mari Gonzalez, fellow Science Squad Member and Archnemesis, loves to see her fail. She has no idea that the petty teen would stoop to sabotage.

There is so much to love in this Science-y, Middle-Grade marvel. Written in field-journal format, complete with self-corrections, this catchy little caper makes a quick read. Raksha may have gotten herself into a tight spot, but she is resilient, cunning and all kinds of creative getting out.

And, now I know about zombie-fly infection of honeybees and why that matters.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.