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.

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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.

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: The Tribulations of August Barton by Jennifer LeBlanc

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Book Review: Ray vs The Meaning of Life by Michael F. Stewart

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Title: Ray vs The Meaning of Life
Author: Michael F. Stewart
Publication Date: May 15, 2018
Genre: General Fiction, Young Adult

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

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Ray vs The Meaning of Life
Michael F. Stewart
The Publishing House, May 2018
ISBN
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Grandma’s Last Will and Testament names Ray to inherit the trailer park. It’s a million-dollar estate with one hitch: to prove he’s not as aimless as he seems, Ray must discover the meaning of life by the end of the month. (She left the answer in an envelope.) If he fails, the camp goes to his estranged family.

How does anyone find the meaning of life while running a park full of misfit miners, would-be truck racers, and one demanding little girl? There’s a bear too. A grizzly. Maybe that’ll help?

TIMELY CRYOGENICS—DON’T MISS A BEAT. NOW ON ANDROID!

Barely into the second chapter, I knew I was in for a real treat and that I was going to love spending time with Ray and his trailer camp neighbors…and, well, Grandma, even if she is dead in very unfortunate circumstances. Grandma may have bitten the dust, so to speak, but she ain’t done yet, not by a long shot. Her frozen brain is plugged in and stuffed into a 12-foot fiberglass replica of herself in younger days and she has plans for her future.

Ray knew his mom and his sister, Crystal, could very well do without him but he—and they—certainly didn’t expect what Grandma had done in her will. Mom had been looking forward to a million dollar inheritance but Grandma went and left the camp to Ray IF he can pull off a miracle in one short month. Of course, nobody thinks he can do it.

And the clock starts counting down.

Even the sourtempered and greedy mom is a character to remember and Grandma is a total hoot; thrown into a hilarious and charming tale, every player has an important part to play. I have to say this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while and I adore how Mr. Stewart has “the meaning of life” as the Holy Grail in the story, a focus adult readers will enjoy every bit as much as young adults and might even learn a thing or two. With all the humor, Ray and everyone else have to contemplate all kinds of serious topics, like grief and love and the pitfalls and pleasures of growing up. In the end, Ray vs The Meaning of Life is all about finding ourselves and making the changes in our lives that will bring us to a place of personal peace and it’s going right on my list of best books read in 2018.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

About the Author

Michael F. Stewart embraces all forms of storytelling. In 2009, he created Bully For You for Scholastic Canada, a fully functioning social media platform with an embedded interactive story. He’s written graphic novels for Rubicon Publishing’s Boldprint series, illustrated early readers and novellas for Pearson (coming in 2019!), non fiction texts on Corruption and Children’s Rights; he even tried to convince the world that we needed a location based storytelling app with augmented reality (NARR8R)-we still do! He’s written adult horror, sci-fi, urban fantasy, and adventure. He’s even written books you’ll never find. But nothing is ever wasted. His most recent book, Counting Wolves, a contemporary YA, was named to Kirkus Reviews “Best Books of 2017” list. The Boy Who Swallows Flies (2018) won Killer Nashville’s Claymore Award, and the Assured Destruction Series won The Creation of Stories: Best YA Award at the Toronto International Book Fair. In 2016, Michael was selected to join the CFC/Entertainment One TV Adaptation Lab. Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s Writer in Residence and runs free writing workshops. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.

Author links:

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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Book Review: A Prom to Remember by Sandy Hall

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Title: A Prom to Remember
Author: Sandy Hall
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Publication Date: April 24, 2018
Genre: General Fiction, Young Adult

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

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A Prom to Remember
Sandy Hall
Swoon Reads, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-11914-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Cora: Dating Perfect Boyfriend Jamie. Has NO IDEA how to break up with him…

Paisley: Anti-prom. Somehow nominated her anxiety-ridden best friend for prom king…

Henry: Hates social situations. Invited to prom by the most popular girl in school. SEND HELP!

Otis: Half of one of the cutest couples in his class. Not quite ready for a post-prom hotel room…

Lizzie: Shy. Excited to go to prom. With a boy. Whose name she doesn’t know.

Cameron: Loner. Over high school. Just wants to meet the mysterious girl who’s been leaving him notes…

Jacinta: Unnamed Nerd Girl #3. Determined to become the star of her own life, starting with prom…

Back in the very long ago day, prom wasn’t a big thing in my life. In my junior year, I was dating an R.O.T.C. cadet from another school and we went to his Ring Dance the same night. I don’t remember what I was doing in my senior year but, for whatever reason, I didn’t go to prom. Still, that particular school dance was a big deal and, judging by the kids I see in their fancy dress having dinner, limos waiting, it still reigns supreme in high school today.

What I haven’t forgotten in all these years is all the angst and excitement and hopes and dreams that go along with prom and A Prom to Remember brought it all back with a look at seven kids and all their expectations. I came to love every one of these teens for one reason or another and would not have minded spending more time with them. This was a really fun read and I turned the last page grinning to beat the band…a good way to end a book, I think 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

About the Author

I’m a teen librarian from New Jersey where I was born and raised. I have a BA in Communication and a Master of Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. When I’m not writing, or teen librarian-ing, I enjoy reading, slot machines, marathoning TV shows, and long scrolls through Tumblr. A LITTLE SOMETHING DIFFERENT is my first novel.

Author links:  Website // Twitter // Goodreads

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