Book Reviews: Tinfoil Crowns by Erin Jones and Taking Chances by Kelsey Abrams

Tinfoil Crowns
Erin Jones
Flux, May 2019
ISBN 978-1-63583-032-3
Trade Paperback

Fit is tearing me in two. Wounds from warring emotions: fury, disbelief and a deeply-buried desire to forgive, are palpable and painful. Part of me needs to give her a hug.

Vehement denial that horrific symptoms may manifest from a mental illness is easy to understand. Unless you’ve been through it or witnessed it, first-hand. With knowledge gleaned, I also easily imagine shaking this young lady by her shoulders.

All moms make mistakes. And, at first, it seems as if Fit and Frankie’s mother messed up big-time. Even if she was suffering from postpartum problems, solo.

Frankie’s willingness to forgive should surprise no one. Fit’s younger brother is clearly a sweet kid, and the talented artist has never been one to hold a grudge.

Dubs, the dad that witnessed his daughter’s downfall, then took in her two tiny children, well, he’s somewhere in the middle. He may not want to wholly wrap his mind around the intricacies of psychosis, but he may have to, if he wants to hold onto his belief that his beloved off-spring was honestly unable to control her actions, or even ask for assistance.

When the day arrives for mom to move into the already crowded apartment, Frankie and Dubs are annoyingly overjoyed. Grim determination keeps Fit from feeling anything, aside from a simmering anger and overall sense of betrayal. Besides, she’s got no time for this, she is about to be big.

An agent in New York City saw his niece sporting jewelry she’d crafted from tinfoil, entranced by one of Fit’s You-Tube videos. He decided then and there that Fitted Sheet would be his next client. And it is here that our Fit manages to take self-absorption to a whole new level.

Even for a seventeen-year-old with sparkly stars in her eyes, who has happily left logic at the door. And, ok, it is not her role to be skeptical of the money man from the City, particularly since she’s seen him catapult a few of her favorite You-Tubers to fame; but, right now, this chick isn’t hearing anyone. And we don’t always know what is best at such a tender, impressionable, stubborn stage in life.

On the one hand, it may seem as if there’s nothing funny about psychiatric disorders. But, if we need to laugh at ourselves, then it would stand to reason that mental illness and humor are not mutually exclusive. Not an easy thought to convey. Ms. Jones broaches this brilliantly, in a Broad-City style that I found awesomely authentic. So happy that I’ll be able to share this with ‘my’ students before graduation!

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2019.

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Taking Chances: A Grace Story
Second Chance Ranch
Kelsey Abrams
Jolly Fish Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-149-8
Trade Paperback

This review demands to be written a bit differently. Perhaps by listing the things I love, from the very beginning. No. Before that, even. Let’s talk about the cover and title of the third book I’ve read from the Second Chance Ranch series. An atypical Juvenile Fiction front shows a disheveled and obviously distressed young girl clinging to a cat. The police car parked behind, perfectly pulls it together to pique my interest.

The title means two things, absolutely delightful! Chances, in this case, is an award-winning, purebred Persian. Grace Ramirez is the risk-taker. Sibling support from her twin and their two older sisters, sees that she stays somewhat unscathed. But, when Grace agrees to take over Miz Ida’s chores for two weeks…well, even the Ramirez girls may not be a match for all of that gardening, plus guarding the fancy feline.

Taking Chances: A Grace Story moves as quickly as the main character without feeling rushed or jumbled. It’s impossible not to love the impulsive little girl with the world’s biggest heart and it is quite a treat to watch her work so hard to be a better person.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

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Book Review: It’s Not Destiny by Kelsey Abrams

It’s Not Destiny: An Abby Story
Second Chance Ranch
Kelsey Abrams
Jolly Fish Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-145-0
Trade Paperback

Abby Ramirez does not like change, she craves consistency. So, she’s been struggling in her fifth-grade class. For the first time since first grade, she is not accompanied by her service dog. Amigo is transitioning from a working canine to a playful pet as Abby searches for his replacement.

She is the little girl that knows a whole lot about dogs. Being in charge of them at Second Chance Ranch comes naturally. Not just raising and training, but she is also the best match-maker any canine and human could hope to encounter.

When a disappointed owner brings in a gorgeous German shepherd that proved to be a poor guard-dog, it does not take Abby long to understand the importance of placing Destiny with the proper human. This pup has been through tough times, she will need an owner who understands that.

It isn’t often that a story centers around an autistic character, especially when autism spectrum disorder does not particularly pertain to the plot. And Abby absolutely does not allow it to define her. Rather, it is a part of who she is and we see that, not just while she is with Amigo, but even more clearly when she reaches for him, even in his absence.

I am amazed by how many layers this tiny tome contained, while managing to be a quick, compelling read. I even learned the history of the Iditarod.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

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.

Book Reviews: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski and Fiction Can Be Murder by Becky Clark

Fairest of All
Whatever After #1
Sarah Mlynowski
Scholastic Press, April 2013
978-0-545-48571-5
Trade Paperback

I am a fan of the fairy-tale re-tell.

It is always delightful when a familiar story gets a fresh twist. But, to take an already awesome creation to a totally new height—in the same way that Jimi Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”—well, that really rocks my socks. So, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I absolutely adored Ms. Mlynowski’s Whatever After: Fairest of All.

And, you can well imagine my enthusiasm upon discovering that the author has already written an entire series of these treasures. I’m going to have to buy the whole set for some classroom library, but I should probably read them quickly, before turning them over.

In the meantime, I happen to have Special Edition: Whatever After: Abby in Wonderland in my hot little hands right now…

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

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Fiction Can Be Murder
A Mystery Writer’s Mystery #1
Becky Clark
Midnight Ink, April 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5332-4
Trade Paperback

Semi-successful mystery writer, Charlee, has penned the perfect murder. At least according to her critique group, beta readers, boyfriend and agent. And yes, even if she does say so herself. But before it goes to print, her diabolical plan is implemented in the real-life murder of her agent.

Melinda Walters wasn’t well-liked. Maybe not even respected. Actually, not even an awesome agent. Few will weep when hearing of her untimely demise. The apparent automobile accident is instead, the result of a properly executed plan. Although there may be many with apparent motive, the suspect pool shrinks to only those who could have set the scene exactly as it was written.

Charlee has no reason to doubt the local law enforcement. Her father died in the line of duty. There was some speculation, but she assumed it must be normal and willfully blocked it out. Besides, her brother is a policeman and he is successful, trusted and well-liked. Probably.

Regardless, it’s clearly best if she conducts her own investigation. Charlee kicks relationships to the curb and treats everyone in her inner circle as a suspect. Turns out, even when not involved in criminal activity, there are a plethora of reasons to maintain privacy.

I found Ms. Clark’s Fiction Can Be Murder to be a very quick and (this must sound strange) but…light read. I quite enjoyed the moment that Charlee spent writing anything-but-murder-mysteries. Although this novel falls into the Fiction: Mystery genre, as opposed to my usual Young Adult, I’ll be passing it on to my favorite classroom library where I’m sure it will be well-received.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2018.

Book Review: Unwritten by Tara Gilboy

Unwritten
Tara Gilboy
Jolly Fish Press, October 2018
ISBN 978-1631631771
Trade Paperback

Gracie is basically a good girl. Inquisitive and tenacious, maybe she sometimes skirts the rules. Not so unique for a twelve-year-old, and really, it is only one of Mom’s orders that Gracie disagrees with. She believes that information is knowledge, knowledge is power and she has a burning need to know her own story, in its entirety.

Because, Gracie’s tale has already been told. Well, written.

Of course, neither Gracie, nor her maternal parental unit, had ever actually read the book by Gertrude Winters. At best, they know a fraction of the tale. Gracie was told only that they escaped the fictional Bondoff, ruled by cruel Queen Cassandra, so that Gracie could live a safe life. Here, in the real world.

Not good enough for this curious lass. When Gracie sees that Ms. Winters will be visiting a book-store nearby, she realizes her opportunity to obtain answers, but can’t show up empty-handed. The single parchment page torn from her story will be perfect. Despite specific instructions to the contrary, she unlocks the box.

Ms. Gilboy’s fresh, magical fantasy somehow feels like a cozy classic…but with a kick. Determinedly focused, Gracie can be a bit gruff. But Walter, her fictitious friend who is wholly unaware of their parallel lives, is more patient and pragmatic. His approach is practical, in a methodical, kind of way. Whereas Gracie knows just enough to be dangerous and in pursuing answers, she plunges back into the unraveling role written so long ago.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 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: Wake the Hollow by Gaby Triana and Two to Tango by Kelsey Abrams

Wake the Hollow
Gaby Triana
Entangled Teen, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-63375-351-8
Trade Paperback

A sudden death snatches Micaela out of her senior-year-state-of-mind in sunny Florida, to slap her down in the sleepy little hollow of her past. Never popular with the locals, the eerily empty station is exactly the homecoming she expected. Her mother’s beliefs had always deviated from popular opinion, ostracizing Micaela by association. Perhaps Mami could be a bit peculiar, but for the town’s people to be personally offended by her claim to be a direct descendant of Washington Irving is preposterous.

Counting on compassion from her childhood comrade, Bram, and hoping for help from family friend, Betty Anne; her plan is to quickly take care of business for a rapid return back to her real life. But Micaela was pulled here for a bigger purpose. Legends are coming alive, secrets stuffed into far away corners are seeping out and the myth of a historical treasure may be true.

Resolving to squelch suspicions, to solve the mystery once and for all, Micaela soon sees that someone else has the same goal, but for a greedy reason. After speaking with the few folks unable to maintain the collective stony silence, the only lesson learned was that essentially everyone has lied to her. With only herself to trust, self-doubt surfaces; she’s not sure of her own sanity right now.

One of the first stories that I fell in love with was Mr. Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and it remains a fond favorite. It’s fair to say that I may be a bit biased about any twist of that tale, but I reveled in the reimagination of not just the haunting headless horseman, but also of Washington Irving and another awesome author of the same time. Gripping and keeping me guessing, Wake the Hollow galloped out of the gate, tearing through the narrative to a heart-stopping halt.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2018.

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Two to Tango
Second Chance Ranch
Kelsey Abrams
Jolly Fish Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1631631535
Trade Paperback

Natalie Ramirez loves her life on Second Chance Ranch. She handles the horses, but nothing about their upkeep feels like work to her. Besides, this is the best way to find Rockette’s replacement. Out-growing the pony that she had paired with to win so many junior barrel-racing prizes was inevitable, but still somewhat sad.

When a beautiful bay tobiano trotted onto the scene, Natalie saw the solution to all of her problems. In her enthusiasm, it was easy to over-look the atypical aspects of this rescue. He wore a quality halter with a nameplate. Tango appeared to have been well-cared-for and even trained, at some point. When he followed her commands, it was in a hesitating, confused manner.

For a twelve-and-a-half-year-old, Natalie has a lot on her mind and maybe she misses the obvious at first. But as she begins to see Tango as the horse that he is and not a rodeo-pony-in-the-making, she takes a closer look at herself and finds room to grow.

I cannot imagine a better book for the animal-loving-reader. Quickly captivating, Natalie’s story canters along with humor, action and an impressive equestrian vocabulary (I did not know that a horse has a frog). Two to Tango is one of four in the Second Chance Ranch juvenile-fiction series and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.