Book Reviews: A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib and Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson @SaraBLarson @Scholastic @rajiahassib @VikingBooks

A Pure Heart
Rajia Hassib
Viking, August 2019
ISBN 978-0-525-56005-0
Hardcover

The Gubran family led a normal, content life in Cairo. Rose and Gigi were, to Rose’s thinking, the best friends that sisters are meant to be. There would always be quarrels, but nothing to break their bond. Even as they age, pursue further education, broaden their horizons with new people and ways of life; they would surely stick together.

Thinking back, though, maybe Rose hadn’t been so supportive. Or remotely open-minded. As Gigi grew more devout and adopted some Muslim customs that Rose considered outdated; rather than addressing it with Gigi, Rose silently stewed, waiting for her little sis to ‘come to her senses’. Perhaps if she’d attempted to understand—sincerely—they may never have agreed, but neither would they have grown apart. Maybe.

Younger siblings seem to live in someone else’s shadow, making self-discovery slightly more difficult. Delving deeper into her religion may have been the best way for Gigi to create her own light. She can almost understand why her parents essentially ignore the changes they have to see in her, but Gigi is stunned when her family makes no effort to understand her disappointment and dismay with her elder sister.

First, Rose decides to marry an American. To leave Egypt for the United States. She took his last name. Her sister should be “Dr. Gubran”, as she’s always dreamed. Proudly bearing the name of the family that supported her throughout, not the surname of some folks from West Virginia.

Unless…

Did Rose make those allowances for love? That, Gigi can understand. She, too, has chosen the love of a man, but over objections from her parents and friends. Gigi may not have made the best choice, but she doesn’t know that yet. Instead, she simply sees similarities between her love-life and Rose’s. She was pleased to, once again, have something in common.

Happiness for herself is short-lived. She feels sad for Rose, who doesn’t know about this connection. Gigi envisions sharing the secret she’s carried alone for years.  She must mend her relationship with Rose. She knows the perfect place to start. The American brother-in-law will be staying with her family while he is conducting interviews in Egypt for an upcoming article. Gigi vows to go above and beyond to assist him.

That is the decision that will ultimately change all of their lives.

Reading Rajia Hassib‘s A Pure Heart is like watching a moonflower unfurl, as dusk darkens, until the almost-iridescent, snowy-white bloom is wide open against the pitch-black night.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

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Dark Breaks the Dawn
Dark Breaks the Dawn #1
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06869-6
Hardcover

Dark and Light were meant to exist independently, yet harmoniously. This provides and maintains balance for the world. Only, the rulers of Dark want more. They are determined take away the magic of Light and have waged war.

That very war has already taken Princess Evelayn’s father, and is currently keeping Queen Ilaria away from home. But (finally) the day of Evelayn’s 18th birthday arrives. The “18th” being of upmost importance as the ability to access full power has proven dangerous when wielded by immature beings. Evelayn has been impatiently awaiting this day since the moment she found out that the “more” she craved was not just possible, but promised.

So, that’s a pretty big deal, but there is something that pushes its way past the magic thing. The queen has promised to return for Evelayn’s special day. Even though the trip will take her from the frontlines, where she has been battling alongside the kingdom’s best soldiers.

And herein lies my first favorite thing: Royal Court receives pampering and protection during normal, every-day activities only. When it is time to fight, no one is expected to be more ferocious and fearless than the leaders.

Having always taken her physical training seriously, Evelayn can more than hold her own in a fight. And, the princess of Light has mastered the mask—the stoic expression that is to reveal nothing of her thoughts or feelings. Albeit not always employed, she is also able to perform her duties with the courtesy and politeness expected by her parents. Yet, she is nowhere near ready to replace her mother; Evelayn can’t even shift.

As day breaks, Evelayn awaits the arrival of her full power and her mother, while Dark prepares the grand finale. Step one being to kill Queen Ilaria.  Without the conduit, the people of Light will not be able to access individual powers.

The magic may be restored. It’s just a small matter of Evelayn becoming Queen, performing the requisite ceremony with her high priestesses, then accessing and redistributing. In three days. If it doesn’t go down, exactly right, in that tiny time window, there is an opportunity for Dark to steal the magic for themselves.

Ms. Larson is not afraid to hit the ground running (really) in her magic-filled-fantasy, Dark Breaks the Dawn. I may not have fully understood everything at first, but that couldn’t keep me from franticly flipping pages to find out what’s next. Just as the big picture was coming into view, I smugly ‘figured out’ how this tale would end.

I was wrong. Now I’m off to find a copy of Ms. Larson’s Bright Burns the Night because I haven’t had nearly enough of this world.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

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Book Review: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here
Fredrik Backman
Washington Square Press, February 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-4254-3
Trade Paperback

Best-selling author Backman (A Man called Ove) is back with a difficult, intense novel about the life of the woman in the title. Britt-Marie is a familiar figure to many, hence the initial popularity of this deliberately paced novel of life in a small Scandinavian town, populated by a surprising number of odd mis-fits and other people who exhibit familiar and unusual traits.

Her unfaithful husband has left her, or she’s left him; I was never quite sure and she needs a job to sustain herself. We discover very early that Britt-Marie is an unusual person with a highly developed sense of necessary cleanliness, and precision-focused life. Appointments are kept, one is never late and one tries desperately at times to maintain a precise even rigid life style.

Written in the first person present tense, the novel is at times slow-moving, hard to penetrate and ultimately satisfying in resolution. However, it is not the sort of book that will appeal to a wide reading audience, unlike the author’s A Man Called Ove, which is charming and enormously popular, or boring and a struggle to complete, depending on whose reviews you read. I watched the movie which was charming.

This novel maintains an even pace and readers, if they complete the story, will be well-informed of the life and times in this small community and they will understand that Britt-Marie was indeed, here.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Brave Enough by Kati Gardner

Brave Enough
Kati Gardner
Flux, August 2018
ISBN 978-1-63583-020-0
Trade Paperback

Cason Martin is not a typical high-school student. She attends—half-days and classes only. Isolating, yet unavoidable. As prima ballerina in the Atlanta Ballet Conservatory properly preparing to audition for the American Ballet Theatre, she only has time to dance. This plan has been in place for as long as Cason can remember. No distractions allowed—certainly not this nagging pain in her knee.

Everything changes in an instant when Cason learns that she won’t be pampering a pulled muscle. The injury, in fact, is a much bigger deal.

Natalie Martin probably wouldn’t be a warm-and-fuzzy maternal figure even if she wasn’t Cason’s artistic director first, single-parent second. Nonetheless, her assessment of her daughter’s diagnosis as an inconvenient time-burglar is almost stunning. Cason isn’t necessarily surprised by her mom’s reaction, but she can’t help being disappointed and frustrated.

Maybe she can’t count on her mother, but no one should suffer sickness alone. It is often other adolescents that have dealt with disease who come together to create the strongest support system.

Davis Channing conquered cancer, but now he has a different fight on his hands—with the demon of addiction. Recovering while repaying his debt to society has Davis volunteering in the very hospital that treated him. He may not be just what Cason needs, but the dude knows everyone and is effortlessly the epitome of a kind soul. His sincere desire to be beneficial is evident. The fact that he could use a friend right now, is not.

I read a lot as a teen, but I can only recall one instance when a serious illness affected anyone my age. Now, we have non-fiction and realistic-fiction options for high-school and middle-grade readers that talk about kids being seriously sick. Ms. Gardner joins awe-inspiring authors such as Josh Sundquist, Sophia Bennett, Jordan Sonnenblick, and John Green to fill this void.

Compassionately composed, Brave Enough is an honest journey from heart-ache to hope that deftly demonstrates the strength, resilience and adaptability of our youth.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2018.

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.

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 Reviews: Untwine by Edwidge Danticat and Courage and Defiance by Deborah Hopkinson

Untwine
Edwidge Danticat
Scholastic Press, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-42303-8
Hardcover

Preamble be damned, Untwine begins in the present and with purpose. Mum and Dad aren’t getting along. Identical teen-aged twin girls are tight, but right now, each is feeling a bit out of sorts. Everyone in the family car, each in a funk. And they are running late. Suddenly–another vehicle slams into them. The tightly knit family is shattered; metaphorically and then, quite literally.

Realistic fiction with a fresh focus features a situation that anyone can relate to. Rather than opening with an obligatory, typical-teen-turning-point type of event, it’s a regular day and a random accident. With all the ripple effects. Giselle relays events to the reader, moving both backward and forward, but in a fluid kind of way—painting the picture piece by piece.

Ms. Danticat’s story struck me as unique in a couple of ways. First, I felt a solid sense of loss for someone I’ve never known. Not sadness, sympathy or empathy; but an actual aching emptiness, and all for a character the author doesn’t even introduce. Second, subtle nuances–almost behind-the-scenes actions, that demonstrate strength and support of extended family I found to be both impressive and inspiring.

Mum and Dad, each with a sibling, immigrated from Haiti to the U.S. and they made their home in Miami. The accident brings the twins’ maternal aunt, as well as their father’s brother, to the hospital and straight to Giselle’s bedside. When Giselle is released from the hospital, she has rigid, ridiculous rules to follow, but they are for real. If she wants her brain to heal, that means no screens whatsoever, no reading, and no writing. Everyone else has their own injuries, so grand-parents come from Haiti to help out.

A sad story, with subtle silver linings, is simply the best.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2018.

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Courage & Defiance:
Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark
Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-59220-8
Hardcover

In April of 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and the quiet, common thread running through the Danish people was plucked. If ever there was a more resilient, resolved and remarkably sympathetic collection of human beings, they are unknown to me. Ms. Hopkinson honestly portrays the dangers of dismal, every-day-life under occupation as well as the cruelty and despair of concentration camps, simultaneously displaying the intuitive empathy and bravery of the Danes.

What strikes me the most is that each person has an individual ‘line he will cross’ while still doing his level best to resist, if not fight, against the gruesome German goals. That is, until learning of Hitler’s plan to round up and relocate Danish Jews to concentration camps. The unspoken, unanimous decision to prevent this was almost palpable as plans for moving Jewish Danes to Sweden were formed.

I do not have the ability to aptly convey the reasons that I will be highly recommending this non-fiction nugget, so I’ll just leave you with this: reading Courage and Defiance reminds me of the quote that Mr. Rogers would share from his childhood. When he would see scary things in the news, his mother advised, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.