Book Reviews: Journey to a Promised Land by Allison Lassieur and Three Twigs for the Campfire by Joseph Cognard

Journey to a Promised Land (I Am America)
A Story of the Exodusters
Allison Lassieur
Jolly Fish Press, January 2019
ISBN 978-1631632761
Trade Paperback

Hattie has a dream. A far-reaching fantasy, some would say, but she knows she can find a way. She will become a teacher.

The spring of 1879 tried to bring a fresh start to a new world in Nashville, Tennessee. Although each of Hattie’s parents had been born into slavery, both obtained an education immediately following the Civil War. Her father works just as hard today, but for it is himself and his family and in his very own black-smith shop. Her mother happily runs the household and Hattie contributes, too. Not only a stand-out student, she also earns money for her family by mending for Miss Bradford.

It’s a good enough life for Hattie. She knows, of course, that recently, black folks have been joining together to make the journey to Kansas. Tales of towns with nothing but black faces tempt her parents and Mr. Singleton sure has been working hard to convince her family to make the move to Nicodemus, a small town being established and in need of a blacksmith.

It isn’t until her father leaves the house for a meeting about the potential move that it hits Hattie. She’s heard stories of what happens to black men who dare attend these gatherings. And suddenly, she is scared for her father. After seeing him on the receiving end of retaliation—Nat had the audacity to charge a white man for his work—Hattie understands the very real danger they are in.

Loathe to miss school, Hattie could not have imagined the education she would receive during her journey. Seeing the stark differences between the group of black travelers when compared to almost every clump of white men, was a shock. Whereas individual black people intuitively worked towards the greater good of their party, sharing the last crumbs and caring for those in need; the freakish faction of inexplicably angry, willfully ignorant and hella hateful white men appeared to unite solely to terrorize black citizens.

I wish I could put a copy of this heroic historical fiction in every single classroom. It is that good and unquestionably, that vital. Although Hattie’s family may be a figment of the author’s imagination, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was very real and invaluably instrumental in helping hundreds of African Americans move from Tennessee to Kansas.

Ms. Lassieur shares this story of the Exodusters by popping the reader right into the mule-driven wagon to bear witness to the atrocious, senseless acts against black people. But she also demonstrates the intuitive kindness, generosity and strength of each and every black person, automatically reminding everyone to continue the good fight. Oh, and I can’t wait for you to find out why the emigrants were dubbed “Exodusters”.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2019.

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Three Trees for the Campfire
Joseph Cognard
CreateSpace, January 2013
ISBN 978-1482320985
Trade Paperback

At first, I want to judge this book by its cover. The campfire calls to me, then captivates as I notice it’s not at simple as it seems. But before I know it, I’m completely caught up in the quintessential summer read.

Three siblings surround the glowing embers to swap stories and sleep under the stars. Billy, being the youngest, is participating (fully) for the first time, so being in his head at the beginning perfectly sets the scene.

“Billy began to worry that, like the fire, he might not make it through the night.”

The eldest, Jack, begins with a fantastic tale featuring a dragon. When Chelsea follows with her own natty narrative, she subtly weaves in bits and pieces from her brother’s story in a sweet (but not corny) kind of way. Billy may be bringing up the rear, but he can spin a yarn as well as his siblings. And he’s pretty slick about bringing in a real-life character.

Authentic and relatable, in a dreamy sort of way, I thoroughly enjoyed this tiny tome that probably fits best in the Juvenile Fiction genre, but I can easily imagine anyone enjoying it.

Huge thank-you to the author for sharing this with me!

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2018.

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Book Review: The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet by Natasha Farrant

The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet
Natasha Farrant
Chicken House, October 2016
ISBN: 978-0-545-94031-3
Hardcover

First a confession. I have never read anything by Jane Austen, so I wasn’t encumbered or biased by feeling as though I had to compare the plot and characters to those in her work. Lydia is the youngest of five daughters. While their bloodlines are good and of a quality to allow the girls and their parents a place in English society, the family finances are such that there’s a push for all five sisters to marry well and into wealth. Each sister has a distinct personality. Mary is bookish and could care less about a husband. Kitty qualifies as boy crazy, while Jane is the ‘adult in training’ as the eldest. Kitty is easily led, particularly by Lydia. As for Lydia, I found myself alternating between admiring her free spirit and wanting to shake some sense into her.

Shortly after the story opens, Redcoats come to encamp in a nearby town. As soon as the sisters learn of this, they finagle a visit to their aunt in town so they can view these new young men. While their parents admonish the girls about soldiers not being suitable husband material, for Lydia, at least, the warning slides off like water on a duck. As a result, she meets and begins a connection to a handsome fellow named Wickham. He’s dashing and suave, but his tendency to lose frequently when gambling, coupled with an instinctive sense of which females to con, make him doubly dangerous.

Fast forward to Lydia getting invited to spend time with her new friend Harriet in Brighton on the seashore. When Harriet takes her to the beach where they are to try the bathing machines (contraptions where ladies change and are hauled into the water where they jump in and freeze), Lydia not only takes to swimming, but she’s entranced by a red haired girl and her brother who strike her as extremely exotic. She soon learns they’re survivors of the war with the French and have spent time in India where their stepfather still lives. Enter Alaric and Theo. Theo is determined to make a name for herself as a dressmaker, while Alaric is rather flighty and somewhat of a romantic.

It isn’t long before Lydia has herself convinced that Alaric is her soul mate, but what ensues makes for a neatly twisted plot that involves her getting ever deeper in a swirl of untruths, acting completely unlike a single lady of her time is expected to, followed by an inevitable return to reality. When that happens, it is of a magnitude that would break many ladies of her time, but Lydia, for all her faults, is a resilient lass. Read the book and find out exactly what did happen. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, January 2019.

Book Reviews: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater and Wild Lily by K.M. Peyton

All the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-93080-2
Hardcover

This story of the Soria family comes to you courtesy of quite the natty narrator. Conveyed in a quirky, yet compelling cadence, the tone is objective, but not unaffected. A twist on the third person point-of-view, presents a storyteller that isn’t simply reading the lines, but rather speaking with familiarity and fondness and perhaps, a hint of pride.

The small Colorado settlement of Bicho Raro is presently packed with pilgrims and the three young Soria cousins are puzzling over the predicament. On the surface, it looks like folks are seriously searching for answers; but upon closer inspection, they seem stubborn and somewhat silly not to consider the correctness of their query.

Here in the Colorado desert, radio waves reach for transistors as miracles search for saints and owls migrate towards the miracles. Previously, people would pop in for the magic, then proceed along life’s path. They still come, but now…no one leaves.

The cousins watch their kin drag themselves through the same dull, daily routines; following tired, old procedures while the pilgrims lurk about listlessly. Instead of answers though, each cousin comes up with a distinctly different (and slightly disturbing) question. Separately and secretly, they set out to seek solutions with the single goal of restoring Bicho Raro.

While the situations in All the Crooked Saints stem from fantasy and folklore, they nevertheless relate to real-life ruts. Interspersed with Spanish and Stiefvater-sly humor, the story has a subtle, sneaky effect. A pleasure to read, plenty to ponder, it is perfect for the Young Adult audience; but, I predict this story will resonate with all readers of all ages.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2017.

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Wild Lily
K.M. Peyton
David Fickling Books, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-08160-2
Hardcover

It is not typical, particularly in 1921, for a soon-to-be-seventeen-year-old to causally request an airplane for his birthday.  Antony’s English home, however, is eccentric at its tamest.  His father grants permission.  The mostly absent, mysterious man who makes mountains of money, is an indulgent single parent.  His only sibling is constantly chaperoned by her nurse-maids, so Antony has learned to enthusiastically embrace his freedom and entertain himself.

Care-free, full of fun and wholly inclusive, Antony does have a certain appeal.  On the other hand, his fierce focus on only a couple of arbitrary, short-term goals coupled with his disdain and dismissal of any actual problem, makes it difficult to qualify his redeeming qualities.

Lily is genuinely good.  Wearing responsibility like a second skin, she is raising her baby brother and working on her father’s gardening crew.  She bears her burdens intuitively, refusing to allow them to tame her ferocious appetite for life and furious joy for adventure.  At the tender age of thirteen, Lily has a laundry list of admirable traits.

Inexplicably, Lily is unquestionably in love with Antony.  Although this curious commitment could carry the story (it’s so beautifully written, I bet Ms. Peyton’s grocery lists are poetic), Wild Lily is not a romance.  Ample action and adventure balance brilliantly with tragedy, compassion and caring.  Mayhem, and maybe murder, make for a fast-pace and simple twists invoke suspense.

I found this to be an enjoyable and engrossing book.  When it ended, I was pleased and mostly satisfied.  Writing this review, however, made something click.  My perspective broadened and suddenly I understood Lily better. Now, I love her even more.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

Book Review: Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

Almost Autumn
Marianne Kaurin
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-88965-0
Hardcover

The world we live in today is so ‘moment-to-moment’ in terms of information, we feel saturated and overwhelmed when evil things happen. It was markedly different for fifteen year old Ilse Stern, a Norwegian Jew. When the Nazis occupied her country in 1942, one of the first things they did was force everyone to turn in their wireless receivers (radios), effectively shutting off the most available information flow.

Ilse lives in a cramped fourth floor apartment with her parents and two sisters. Sonja is older and over-responsible, trying to keep the household running as well as do what she can to help her father keep his tailor shop afloat. Miriam, age five, is quiet and loves to draw pictures with her trademark sun featured in each. Mother is somewhat dour and constantly finds fault with Ilse, who’s a dreamer and avid reader with a big crush on teen neighbor Hermann Rod.

The Nazi occupiers’ squeeze on Jewish citizens begins gradually with a requirement that they have new registration papers stamped with a red J. Overly frequent requirements that Jewish men report to authorities coincides with a spike in verbal attacks and defacing of property. It becomes so bad, Mr. Stern leaves an hour early to remove the words written on his shop windows so Ilse and Sonja won’t see them when they arrive to help out.

Meanwhile, Hermann has gotten involved in the resistance, but must cover this activity by pretending he’s apprenticing to a painter across town. His involvement causes him to stand Ilse up for their first date, a night at the local cinema. For the next month, neither quite knows how to break the chill that follows this.

At the same time as the two teens are dancing around their feelings for each other, the campaign of terror has been ramped up by the occupation forces and in short order, the tailor shop is forced to close, all savings accounts and safe deposit boxes owned by Jewish citizens are ordered closed and all adult Jewish males are arrested and taken to a secret location.

Ilse and Hermann run off for a day of skiing and reconciliation. While gone, her family is taken into custody as are most other Jewish citizens. After a horrific sea voyage and a frigid train ride, with all packed tighter than cattle, they end up at Aushwitz. The description of what happened during these trips, as well as their reception at the prison camp, are low key, but still leave the reader feeling chilled.

If you want to learn what happened to Ilse, read the book. It’s an excellently understated story of how a large number of innocent human beings were terrified before being carted off to be executed simply because of their ethnicity. We need books like this to remind those who have forgotten and make aware those who never knew. Highly suggested for any school or public library collection.

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

Book Reviews: Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older, The Call by Peadar O. Guilin and Better to Wish by Ann M. Martin

Shadowhouse Fall
The Shadowshaper Cypher Book 2
Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-95282-8
Hardcover

Sierra and her wildly creative companions were captivating in Shadowshaper.   Clever consolidation of mad musical, verbal and graffiti-art skills created a dazzling cultural kaleidoscope that pulsated from the pages, and showed more than the shadowshaping-side of life in Brooklyn.  The sequel, Shadowhouse Fall, is every bit as delightful and dazzling, even as it tackles topics that parallel today’s headlines in an eerily accurate and chilling way.

Sierra has just learned of her role as the archetypal spirit, Lucera, “…the beating heart of the shadowshaping world.”  Never one to shirk responsibility, always a fierce protector; she’s doggedly immersed herself in learning, teaching and practicing shadowshaping.  Before she even begins to realize her potential, Sierra is forced to shift her focus.

The Sisterhood of the Sorrows had vowed revenge when Sierra “jacked up their shrine last summer,” precisely what Sierra and ‘her’ shadowshapers are preparing for; but no one could have predicted an attack so soon. It should have ben impossible.  Unless…the Sorrows are not alone.

To even stand a chance against an unknown in the urban spirituality system, each shadowshaper will need to be strong and smart independently; swift to support and assist when needed.  Basically, battling as they live, to save the community they dearly love.  Accustomed to every day prejudices and profiling, Sierra and her friends knew to expect hassle, rather than help, from the largely racist civil servants.

Mr. Older’s scintillating style swiftly hooks even the reluctant reader.  The scramble to fight the good fight is gripping and the escalation towards the end, engrossing.  When Sierra is left with only two choices, neither of which would result in a happy ending for her; Mr. Older presents a decision that, while not actually surprising, is absolutely unexpected.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2017.

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The Call
The Call, Book 1

Peadar O’Guilin
David Fickling Books, August 2016
ISBN 978-1338045611
Hardcover

Nessa was celebrating her 10th birthday when her childhood abruptly ended.  Instead of giving gifts and baking a cake, her parents explain The Call.

The little girl that built an emotional armor against people’s perceptions; both the pitying looks as well as the ones filled with contempt and disbelief, is intelligent enough to understand the uselessness of her efforts.  Her legs, twisted by polio into more of a hindrance than a help, have gone from a focal point to a genuine liability.

Held hostage and wholly isolated these Irish folks have but one focus: teaching the children to survive The Call.  From the age of ten through the teenage years, training is vigorous and relentless.  Just shy of cruel, the grueling paces are unquestionably a necessary evil.  Almost one in ten survive today, an exponential improvement over the one in one hundred from decades ago.  An amazing accomplishment, as fairies have an undeniable advantage when they pull a human child into their world.

Irish fairies may be my very favorite folklore creatures, and Mr. O’Guilin portrays them perfectly in The Call.  The one universal fact seems to be that fairies cannot lie and they possess a perverse pride in always keeping their word.  Bad to the core, but bound by these rules, Sidhe are as clever and cunning as they are cruel.

The hideous game of fairy versus human, produces a plot that is exciting, fast-paced and adventurous, accented with awesome action scenes.  Of course, nothing is so simple and definite in reality and Mr. O’Guilin does not settle for solely myth against man.   Most humans are considerate, committed to the greater good; but a few are slimy and self-serving.  Mystique makes the tale even more compelling and builds suspense creating compulsory page-turning.  Coupled with colorful, captivating characters and sharp and witty dialogue, The Call is a brilliant book that I enjoyed immensely.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2017.

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Better to Wish
Family Tree Series, Book 1
Ann M. Martin
Scholastic Press, May 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-35942-9
Hardcover

Initial intrigue blossomed into complete captivation as Abby’s narration revealed an inexplicably sweet, strong and resilient girl—a compassionate, sympathetic soul–in spite of circumstances.  The centenarian’s story begins on a summer evening in 1930.  As one memory leads to another, her life unfolds like a map.

Abby’s father feels that Maine should be “white”.  Specifically, Protestant and Republican.  His daughters aren’t allowed to befriend a girl because her parents emigrated from Quebec—she’s “French”, not “white”.  Also below his determined Nichols’ Family Standards; “lazy bums…Irish-Catholics.”  Certainly vocal with his opinion, he nevertheless does not seem to stand out to the family, or the community, as a particularly obnoxious, racist fool.

Although Abby’s mother has many bad days with “her mind stuck thinking” of two tremendous losses that left permanent holes in her heart; Dad wants a son.  Baby Fred arrives.  At home, Dad can pretend that Fred is developing, learning and growing at an average rate. Abby, Rose and their mother know differently, but it has no impact on their love and devotion to the charming child.

At the age of 5, Fred behaves like any toddler—including the time he is forced to sit through a high school awards ceremony.  Due to the perceived public embarrassment, the head of the household deems his son less than perfect.  Imperfection is unacceptable, leaving Mr. Nichols with no choice.  He informs the family after exercising his “only” option.

Throughout the tumultuous times,  Abby intuitively empathizes and instinctively protects those she loves and holds dear first, all other human beings second, thinking of her own wants and needs last, if at all.   Abby is the epitome of “good people” and her story instills hope.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

Book Review: The Great and the Good by Michél Deon

The Great and the Good
Michel Déon
Gallic Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-910477-28-1
Trade Paperback

Originally published in 1996 as La Cour Des Grands, this translation of Déon’s Gatsby-like tale by Julian Evans tells the story of Arthur Morgan, the son of a poor French widow. He has a scholarship to an Ivy League university to study business law, and his mother spends money she can ill afford to purchase a first class cabin for him on the Queen Mary. Aboard the ship he meets Professor Concannon, who is on the faculty of university and is drinking himself into a stupor, and Allan Parker, an advisor to President Eisenhower, who becomes a valuable contact for Arthur. But of more importance to Arthur are the three beautiful young people he meets and becomes infatuated with.  There is Elizabeth Murphy, a carefree  wealthy bohemian with aspirations to become an actress, and the sultry and mysterious Brazilian Augusta, who immediately captivates Arthur. Complicating matters is Augusta’s brother Getulio, a fellow student at the university who is involved in gambling and a host of illegal schemes. Arthur becomes entangled in the lives of these people, and is slowly drawn into their circle. This coming of age story, set in the 1950s, reflects on Arthur’s choices and regrets, and the paths that his friends take lead to surprising consequences.

Déon is the author of over fifty books, including The Foundling Boy and The Foundling’s War.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, March 2017.

Book Reviews: Rescued by Eliot Schrefer and The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

rescuedRescued
Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-65503-3
Hardcover

Every child wants a pet at some time or another.  A dog, kitten, pony or orangutan.  Maybe orangutan isn’t typical, but if you grew up watching BJ and the Bear or Every Which Way But Loose, you may see the simian sway.  Whatever the animal, it is almost always up to parents to make the decision.  Children don’t always know what is best.

When John casually notes the potential appeal of ape ownership while watching an old movie, he was not actually asking for a pet.  His dad could dig the draw when he recognized the leading “man” as an orangutan because sometimes the adorable orange creatures would wander around his company’s plant in Indonesia.

In fact, he returned from a business trip bearing a baby-orangutan-in-a-barrel.  John was beside himself with wonder and joy.  His mother was also struck with wonder; but hers was the “in doubt” version, much different than the “filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel” version that burst from her son. John’s wonder won and Raja became the newest member of the family for four rambunctious years.  Until divorce divided them.

The two year separation of John and Raja was torture; for both boy and beast; but paled in comparison to their last days together leading up to their final farewell.   This relationship is written so well, it is as if I actually witnessed it.  The fondness, understanding, patience, support and tolerance between the “brothers” is palpable.  The range of emotions that rocket through John as he blindly battles the hardest decision of his entire life build the ultimate reader’s rollercoaster and recalling that this is a sixteen-year-old-boy, ties a knot and truly tugs the heart-strings.

I thoroughly enjoyed each and every bit of this tiny tome and would be remiss if I did not highly recommend Rescued to those searching for reads.  While the book may  technically tip into the Middle-Grade category (for the 12-year-old and older readers), I have no doubt that there are many Teen-Aged, Young-Adult and Not-So-Young-Adult readers that will love Raja’s story as intensely as I do, and I’m confident that I’m not the only reader to learn a lot from it.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.

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The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death
Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-66834-7
Hardcover

The Game of Love and Death is positively packed with particulars to ponder.  Love is a man, Death a woman. Each chooses a competitor, a term I use loosely; the chosen do not actually compete.  Most people are unaware of the Game, even while participating.  Virtually no rules, a victor is declared; but the win seems superfluous.

Flora, an amazing aviation mechanic, is also a phenomenal pilot, possibly rivaling Amelia Earhart.  It is 1937 and she “has the brown skin, and here in America, (you) pay so very much heed to that.” Besides, she can trick herself into believing that she was meant for something else.  The death of her parents created a void she valiantly tried to fill with the jazz nightclub she inherited.  Flora chose work over a high school diploma, believing “…the club was her future and most white folk were hell-bent on keeping colored folk in their place, even if they were polite about it.”

Henry hasn’t had it easy, but he is a white male.  His dream is simple: eke out a living with his beloved bass.  Instead, he works for the newspaper of his almost-adopted family, often accompanying Ethan on interviews.  When Henry sees Flora working on a plane, it is as if he had been sleep-walking through life and is just now completely awake.

The harrowing story of Flora and Henry in the The Game of Love and Death is enriched by the secondary characters.  Ethan isn’t the golden boy he seems, and his secret struggles would tarnish his image if revealed; although there is nothing to be ashamed of.  Simple spoken statements throughout, “there hasn’t been a white newspaper that’s written about the likes of us unless some sort of arrest was involved,” reiterate bigoted opinions; making the book more than just entertaining to thought-provoking, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2016.