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 Review: Faceless by Alyssa Sheinmel

Faceless SheinmelFaceless
Alyssa Sheinmel
Scholastic Press, October 2015
ISBN: 978-0-545-67601-4
Hardcover

For a teenager, physical appearance is a huge part of the whole identity and self-esteem thing. Maisie Winters has both good and not so good in her life. Good is her running and Chirag, her boyfriend. Not so good is the way her parents fighting is becoming more frequent. One morning she is out running, trying to push herself to remember the prom invitation from the previous evening while hoping doing so will blot out the fight between mom and dad that forced her to stay on the porch instead of inviting Chirag inside so she could share that very special moment with her parents.

Even when she realizes a thunderstorm is approaching, she doesn’t turn back until it’s too late. Just before reaching home, lightning hits a big oak tree, burning a branch so quickly it falls across power lines that hit her before she can react.

A month later, Maisie comes back to reality partially immobilized in a hospital bed and most of her face is covered with sterile bandages. She’s been in a medically induced coma because her burns were so severe doctors didn’t think she’d survive the pain. As things stand, she has horrible burns and part of her face is gone. While she’s trying to understand just how bad her injuries are, and to what extent her life has changed, she’s offered a chance. She’s a candidate for a face transplant, but the decision has to be made quickly if she’s to get on the list.

A short time later, Maisie has new pain to go with a new face. While the transplant gives her back a nose, cheeks and a chin, there are more pills to be taken, she has to accept that the new face won’t feel real or normal for a while, she’s probably never going to be a mother because of all the drugs she’ll have to take and she’s still going to have visible scars on her face and lots of painful physical therapy ahead of her.

All that would be enough to drive a teen insane, but on top of this her parents begin fighting again, she feels depressed and can’t stand being seen. Her self-hatred causes her to isolate and eventually break up with Chirag because she knows he’s uncomfortable with her new face.

What saves her is a group she joins where other young people who have suffered severe injuries meet weekly to share their pain and what they’ve been able to do about it. She connects with Adam who is also a burn victim. His injuries happened while serving in the Marines. He suffered burns, but several of his buddies were killed or gravely wounded. It was very difficult for him to stop feeling anger and survivor’s guilt. Maisie is able to take his experience and new way of looking at life to heart and start her own return from the abyss.

That return isn’t easy, but reading about it restores your faith. This is a gripping book about how one girl deals with an unimaginable and horrific event. It would have been so easy for her to give up numerous times, but she perseveres and in the end, has not only hope, but gratitude. It’s an amazing read.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, March 2016.

Book Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly StraightOpenly Straight
Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, June 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-50989-3
Hardcover

I have been thinking about labels…..a lot.  Sometimes, a label seems superfluous (the White girl), while other times it seems to be used as an “explanation” (the Blonde girl).  On the other hand, the lack of a label could be seen as misleading (oh, you didn’t say he was a Jock).  When, if ever, are labels genuinely applicable?

Openly Straight allows the main character, teen-aged Rafe, to search for an answer to this question.  See, Rafe has an opportunity for a do-over.  Because he is openly Gay, he believes that he knows the perception and stigma that can accompany that label.  He desperately wishes to know if he would be viewed differently without it.  Will he find an answer, or will he find himself with even more complicated questions and fewer answers than he started with?  Either way, it is a fabulously interesting journey on which we embark, as we accompany Rafe through his year of going from openly gay to slipping back into the closet….well, sort-of.

Even in a relatively controlled experiment, all things won’t be equal.  Rafe was The Gay Boy with no adverse affects in his charmingly indulgent Colorado town.  He begins to question the wisdom of coming out.  His acceptance into an East Coast boarding school seems to be the perfect opportunity for a fresh start.  There is simply no way he could have anticipated the devastation that can accompany a perceived secret.

Mr. Konigsberg tackles this somewhat sensitive topic head-on, honestly, and well…..openly.   The characters are realistically flawed.  They make mistakes, and don’t necessarily learn from them.  The dialogues, relationships and rivalries are quintessential teen behaviors; while Rafe’s parents are affably atypical.  Rafe’s story is certainly plausible; making his experiences feel very real to this reader.  I had a vested interest in the outcome of his “experiment”.

This book is amazingly written.  Mr. Konigsberg brings up points that, despite my mulling, I had never considered.  The most important thing that I learned from reading this book is that my issue isn’t with labels, it is with the stereo-typing that often accompanies the labels.  I believe that this story translates well for any label, but I am afraid that the audience may be limited simply because the label in Rafe’s life is Gay, rather than Jock, or Geek.  This is one time that I certainly hope I am mistaken, because this is a book that I believe any reader would enjoy.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013.