Book Reviews: The Knowing by Sharon Cameron and Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

The Knowing
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-94524-0
Hardcover

Hundreds of years ago, a select group—the brightest, some would say “the best”—humans exited Earth to populate a new planet in pursuit of a better life, for the people and even their habitat, this time. Regression would be the new progression, technology would be eliminated, to a certain extent, of course and mankind and mother nature would blissfully coexist. The socio-economic experiment was a success, but eventually the folks of the Canaan Project stopped responding to their counterparts on Earth. The fate of the colony became a constant scientific conundrum.

Both of Beckett’s parents worked tirelessly towards answers. For as long as he could remember his dad spoke passionately of the Canaan Project, ruminating possibilities and fantasizing of finding ruins. Being a curious and intelligent young man, Beckett also studied all available information and developed his own theories and hopes for the lost civilization. So, when their ship (finally) landed, actual exploration imminent, Beckett felt that his father was free to search for artifacts, but he believed in bigger discoveries. Beckett expected a close encounter of the evolved-human kind.

His field-trip-partner/friend-for-years, Jillian, accompanies him to map their routes while he gathers information. As data is submitted and instructions are received, Beckett begins to question the goal of this mission. Certain information has been deliberately withheld as a manipulation maneuver. Beckett does not know who to trust, but he’s sure that he’ll need help to get himself and anyone else that comes along, to safety.

Sometimes, even in fiction, there are lessons to be learned. When an absolutely fantastical tale illuminates misunderstandings and malintent while highlighting characters filled with only good intentions, that is the true magic of phenomenal sci-fi and Ms. Cameron is quite the conjurer. The Knowing is a companion to Ms. Cameron’s The Forgetting; you can pick it up today and dive right in without feeling lost…but you really should check out The Forgetting, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

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Honestly Ben
Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, April 2017
ISBN 978-0545858267
Hardcover

Ben is considerate, thoughtful and enviably introspective beyond his years.  He is also an adorably awkward, adolescent farm-boy attending an all-boys boarding school, on scholarship.  As the first Junior to be captain of the baseball team, the recipient of a prestigious award (the acceptance of which requires a speech) and a student struggling with calculus and sexual identity, Ben’s mind is full.  No time to contemplate how a straight guy could have crushed so hard on a gay dude.

The charismatic, somewhat quirky, and undeniably adorable, Hannah, is the perfect girlfriend, after all.  Confident in his heterosexuality, Ben is ready to spend time with his best friend, Rafe, again.  Once every single thing is in its respective, proper place, nothing is quite right.  As Ben realizes that there can be more than one right answer and certainly more than two options, he begins to speak out instead of turning away.  His confidence is inspiring and contagious with unexpected results.

Mr. Konigsberg deftly demonstrates the challenges and misconceptions that so many homosexual, bisexual, and gender-fluid teenagers are forced to face.  Honestly Ben is a spot-on, spectacular Young Adult read.  I will be donating my copy to my favorite HS classroom, of course.  This is too important for a limited audience; I’m hopeful that there will be many adult readers.  I can’t be the only one capable of being captivated and compelled by Ben Carver.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

Book Reviews: Drag Teen by Jeffrey Self and The Arrow Shooter by James Mather

Drag Teen
Jeffery Self
Push, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-82993-9
Hardcover

Remember the first time you released your inner-most self?  Knowing you, to your very core; adoring and admiring that person so much it had to be celebrated—the joyful, buoyant feeling had to be released, good vibes to everyone.  Imagine being in that moment when a hate-filled, bitter person brings contempt so tangible that the light is smothered; the joy stolen.  Because most of us have experienced that, it is almost intuitive to empathize with JT’s predicament.

His parents do not support his desire to attend college after high school.  They appear offended by his plan, as if his ambition is as an affront to the lives they lead.  Rather than seeing and hearing their son, they seem to have created a persona of an ungrateful, arrogant brat that is easy to dismiss.  But JT has Seth, and Seth has a plan.

A Drag Teen pageant is being held for high school seniors needing financial aid for college; the prize—a full scholarship.  The idea of being a Drag Teen doesn’t bother JT; the terror of doing it again, with the same results is paralyzing.  With the support of his boyfriend, their best friend Heather and an assortment of souls along the way, JT tackles the terror.

I was amused, delighted and entirely invested in this story.  The combination of blue-collar parents, an over-the-top, former country music sensation, teen-agers and Drag Queens is quirky in the best possible ways and works wonderfully for JT’s journey to New York City and self discovery.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2016.

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The Arrow Shooter
Jim Mather
CreateSpace, September 2015
ISBN: 978-0-692-46617-9
Trade Paperback

The novel has enormous unrealized potential to provide a long look into what is sometimes referred to as the inscrutable East. Yakuza target Jonathan Lusk leaves Japan and his professional activities as a special undercover operative and enrolls at Stanford University. He is following his father’s trail and seeking the murderer of his father.

Of course his life is complicated by his growing infatuation, a forbidden love for Princess Nanami Yoritomo. A non-Japanese and a commoner, the love between the couple is overladen with difficulties. The campus atmosphere in the 1960s, the threat of a killer stalking Lusk, the efforts of the romantic couple to develop their relationship, all offer great opportunity for emotional soaring narrative.

Alas, the writing is competent, straight forward, efficient and flat. Although we are surely meant to identify with the young couple, the lack of emotion tends to set barriers so we never fully empathize with Jonathan or his princess. On the other hand, the narrative passages that reveal much about Japanese culture are quite interesting. In sum, an interesting read for those who wish to look more closely at a specific cultural element of the East.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2017.
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: Regeneration by Stacey Berg

Regeneration
An Echo Hunter 367 Novel #2
Stacey Berg
Harper Voyager Impulse, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-246614-3
Ebook
Mass Market Paperback coming in April 2017

From the publisher—

The Church has stood for hundreds of years, preserving the sole surviving city in a desert wasteland. When Echo Hunter 367 is sent out past the Church’s farthest outposts, she’s sure it’s a suicide mission. But just when she’s about to give up hope, she finds the impossible – another thriving community, lush and green, with a counsel of leaders who take her in.

Wary of this new society, with ways so different from the only life she’s ever known, Echo is determined to complete her mission and bring hope back to the Church. She’s unsure who she can trust, and must be strong and not be seduced by their clean, fresh water, and plentiful energy sources. If she plays her cards right, she may even still have a chance to save the woman she loves.

Regeneration is one of those books that leave me in the dust a bit because there is so much going on and so many characters to keep straight. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean I struggled some but, all in all, I liked it for the most part. I will say I think I should have read the first book, Dissension, before tackling this one.

When we first see Echo, she is on the point of death but rescue comes just in time and she wakes in a strange place surrounded by people she doesn’t know. This is initially the most important facet of the story, the need to try to adapt to and work with strangers, people whose lives have been so different.

The other core aspect of Echo’s tale is the need to make choices or, indeed, to NOT make choices. At nearly every turn, Echo is faced with options and they are rarely simple; some, in fact, can lead to major upheavals in her life and in the world she lives in. She’s not the only one facing these dilemmas, though. As two societies learn they are not alone, they must either agree to disagree, if you will, or find ways to coexist and Echo is right at the center of what will be a turning point for these people who have survived the end of civilization as we know it.

Including a love story that nearly consumes Echo, Regeneration is an intense look at human nature when faced with the unknown and I felt compelled to turn the pages to find out what would happen next. I was certainly not prepared for the ending but I think it was almost pre-ordained and was, indeed, fitting.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

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An Excerpt from Regeneration

Echo Hunter 367 studied the dying woman in the desert with grudging admiration. The woman had walked long past what might reasonably be expected, if that lurching stagger could be called a walk. When she couldn’t walk any more she had crawled, and after that she had dragged herself along, fingers clawing through sand until they clutched some purchase, body scraping over rocks and debris, heedless of the damage. Now and then she made a noise, a purely animal grunt of effort or pain, but she forced herself onward, all the way until the end.

I smell the water.

Desperate as the woman was, she had still been cautious. Though an incalculable distance from any familiar place, she still recognized danger: the wind-borne sand that scoured exposed skin clean to the bone, the predators that stalked patiently in the shadows for prey too weak to flee. The cliff edge that a careless girl could slip over, body suspended in space for the briefest moment before her hands tore through the thornbush, then the long hard fall.

Echo jerked back from that imagined edge. It was her last purposeful movement.  From some great height, she watched herself collapse in the sand. One grasping hand, nails torn, knuckles bloody, landed only a few meters from the spring’s cool water, but she never knew it. For a little while her body twitched in irregular spasms, then those too stilled. Only her lips moved, cracking into a bloody smile. “Lia,” she whispered. “Lia.” Then she fell into the dark.

For a long time there was no sound except water trickling in a death rattle over stones.

Then the high whine of engines scattered the circling predators. Pain returned first, of course. Every inch of skin burned, blistered by sun or rubbed raw by the sand that had worked its way inside the desert-proof clothing. Her muscles ached from too long an effort with no fuel and insufficient water, and her head pounded without mercy. Even the movement of air in and out of her lungs hurt, as if she had inhaled fire. But that pain meant she was breathing, and if she was breathing she still had to fight. With enormous effort she dragged open her eyes, only to meet a blinding brightness. She made a sound, and tasted hot salt as her lips cracked open again. “Shhh,” a soft voice said. “Shhh.” Something cool, smelling of resin and water, settled over her eyes, shielding them from the glare. A cloth dabbed at her mouth, then a finger smoothed ointment over her lips, softening them so they wouldn’t split further when she was finally able to speak. Lia, she thought, letting herself rest in that gentle strength until the pain subsided into manageable inputs. Then she began to take stock.

She lay on something soft, not the rock that had made her bed for so many weeks, although her abused flesh still ached at every pressure point. The air felt cool but still, unlike the probing desert wind, and it carried, beyond the herbal tang, a scent rich and round, unlike the silica sharpness of sand she’d grown so accustomed to. Filtered through the cloth over her eyes, the light seemed diffuse, too dim for the sun. Indoors, then, and not a temporary shelter, but a place with thick walls, and a bed, and someone with sufficient resources to retrieve a dying woman from the desert, and a reason to do so. But what that reason might be eluded her. The Church would never rescue a failure.

Unless the Saint commanded it.

She mustered all her strength and dragged the cloth from her eyes. She blinked away grit until the blurred oval hovering above her took on distinct features, the soft line of the cheek, the gently curving lips. Lia, she thought again, and in her weakness tears washed the vision away. She wiped her eyes with a trembling hand.

And stared into the face of an utter stranger.

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About the Author

Stacey Berg is a medical researcher who writes speculative fiction. Her work as a physician-scientist provides the inspiration for many of her stories. She lives with her wife in Houston and is a member of the Writers’ League of Texas. When she’s not writing, she practices kung fu and runs half marathons.

Visit Stacey Berg on her Website, Goodreads Page, and on Twitter!

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Follow the tour:

3/13 Guest post @ Writers and Authors
3/13 Showcase @ Sapphyrias Book Reviews
3/14 Interview/Showcase @ CMash Reads
3/15 Showcase @ The Ordinary Housewife Book Blog
3/16 Showcase @ The Book Divas Reads
3/17 Showcase @ Bound 2 Escape
3/17 Showcase @ Tome Tender
3/18 Interview @ BooksChatter
3/18 Review @ Rockin Book Reviews
3/19 Review @ Book Reviews From an Avid Reader
3/20 Showcase @ Deal Sharing Aunt
3/20 Showcase @ The Bookworm Lodge
3/21 Showcase @ The Pen and Muse Book Reviews
3/22 Review @ Buried Under Books
3/23 Showcase @ Celticladys Reviews
3/25 Review @ Collected Works
3/26 Showcase @ Writers and Authors
3/28 Showcase @ A Bookaholic Swede
3/29 Guest post @ Books Direct
3/29 Review @ Wall-to-wall books
3/30 Review @ JBronder Book Reviews
3/31 Showcase @ Books, Dreams, Life
4/01 Review/showcase @ Kara the Redhead

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Book Review: Without Annette by Jane B. Mason

without-annetteWithout Annette
Jane B. Mason
Scholastic Press, June 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-81995-4
Hardcover

In an attempt to help her girlfriend, Annette, escape from a drunken, abusive mother, Josie Little decides they should both apply to Brookwood Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut. Besides getting Annette away from her mother, Josie believes she and Annette can live as roommates and as a couple there without the constant scrutiny of the folks in their small hometown in northern Minnesota.

However, nothing goes as Josie plans. They are assigned rooms on separate floors with different roommates. Annette falls in with the elite, snobby group of girls who run with her roommate, Becca. Josie becomes more and more morose and feels she’s losing a part of herself as the school year goes on and Annette drifts further away from their lesbian relationship.

Growing up in a house full of brothers, Josie easily befriends a group of boys who are searching the tunnels under the school for a shrunken head of legendary importance to the school’s history. One of the boys falls for Josie and further complicates her adjustment and her relationship with Annette.

The story is told in first person by Josie and is full of inner-speak and teenage angst. The romance here is between two girls, which puts a new twist on the jealousy and growing apart that accompanies romance novels, but the processes of breaking up, coming of age, and understanding oneself are universal. All the characters are believable and as fully developed as they can be from a story told entirely from one, first-person point of view.

I found it hard to read the graphic descriptions of sexuality between the young (starting at age twelve) girls, and I grew tired of the constant second-guessing and profound inner-thought written in language beyond most fifteen-year-olds. The author wanted to be sure her readers understood the message. However, the lessons Josie internalized apply to all kids, no matter what their sexual preferences.

The book is appropriate for young girls coping with their own homosexual preferences and for older teenagers to understand that lesbian girls have the same feelings, intellectual abilities, and choices in life management as everyone else.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, November 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Idyll Threats by Stephanie Gayle

Idyll ThreatsIdyll Threats
A Thomas Lynch Novel
Stephanie Gayle
Seventh Street Books, September 2015
ISBN 978-1-63388-078-8
Trade Paperback

When I first heard about this mystery novel, I was immediately intrigued, for a number of reasons. First, it takes place in 1997, and I was fascinated by the idea of exploring this time. Historical novels aren’t unusual, but setting a book in the recent past isn’t something you find that often. 1997 is not quite twenty years ago, so we’re just beginning to be able to get some perspective on it, and I was interested to read Gayle’s take on that. Second, the book features a middle-aged homicide cop with more than fifteen years experience, who has left gritty New York City to become the police chief for a very small town named Idyll, Connecticut. There’s a mystery already – why would someone do that? And third, the protagonist, Thomas Lynch, happens to be gay.

Idyll Threats was no disappointment. I was hooked from the very beginning, when Thomas leaves the station on a Saturday night, feeling very alone. Although he has been living in Idyll for a number of months, he has not managed to settle in it all. He has not formed friendships, doesn’t feel at home in the house he bought, can’t seem to build good relationships with his staff, and, very importantly, Thomas is not comfortable letting anyone in town know that he’s gay.

As he sits alone in his vehicle, mulling all of this over, a car passes by him going well over the speed limit. When Thomas pulls the driver over, the encounter is not what he expected, and this sets in motion events that will influence the rest of the story. When a murder occurs, Thomas is not able to investigate it the way he wants to.

In many ways, this is a conventionally hard-boiled mystery. The language is tough but at times poetic, and Thomas is terse and often uncommunicative. He is a loner, isolated and tormented by events in his New York City past. There is a lot of swearing, there are explicit sexual scenes, and there is also a description of the violent death of an animal that I had to skip over. However, with the setting – both the time period and the little town – and with Thomas’s struggles with his sexual orientation, Gayle manages to inject some very refreshing twists into this genre.

Thomas is not without a sense of humour, and his view of Idyll, with its small-town characters, manners, traditions, and festivals, was very funny. Coming from such a big city, Thomas is extremely ill at ease with the silence and slower pace of his new home, and the sections where he is forced to participate in the town’s biggest festival, Idyll Days, were highly entertaining.

I can’t remember when political correctness really took hold, but Thomas Lynch in 1997 is not politically correct. He insists on being gay the way he is gay, and not in ways that people think gay men should necessarily act. Thomas is a very complicated man, and this was one of the aspects of the book that I most appreciated. His background and family turned out to be not what I expected. He has made many mistakes, perhaps especially with his former partner in New York.

The book revolves not only around the solving of the murder, but also around Thomas coming to terms with the various decisions he’s made in his life that have led him to Idyll. I found the way Gayle handled all of these complex aspects of development to be believable, and I liked the immediacy of her writing. I am not sure if this is meant to be the beginning of a series or a standalone, but I would welcome more stories about Thomas Lynch. Gayle has succeeded in creating a character that’s easy to sympathize with when even when he’s unlikeable, and there is much more to explore here if she chooses to do so.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, October 2015.

Book Review: The Letter Q edited by Sarah Moon

The Letter QThe Letter Q:
Queer Writers’ Notes To Their Younger Selves
Sarah Moon, editor
James Lecesne, contributing editor
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-39932-6
Hardcover (ARC)

The title of this remarkable anthology says it all—a multitude of LGBT authors, more than sixty of them, have come together to tell themselves as young adults what they wish they had known back then. In doing so, they also are reaching out to today’s youth who are struggling with their sexual identities, letting them know they are not alone and others have felt the way they feel. Written for age 14 and up, the letters are honest, emotional and forthright, no holds barred. There are even practical suggestions for making one’s own life just a little bit easier.

Some of the writers involved will be a surprise to readers and some will not but that really doesn’t matter because the point of it all is to make the road just a little easier for the younger generation.  The target audience is obvious but this is a book that can be appreciated just as much by those of us who are not LGBT because it gives us a small glimpse of what life is like for young adults who are unsure of themselves and those who ARE sure but are having difficulty finding a comfortable place in our world. One really important note is that this book will strike a chord with all teenagers who are struggling with issues of any kind, not just sexual identity.

Has this been done before? Perhaps it has but, if so, I haven’t seen it.  The authors and editors and publisher involved all are to be commended for a fine idea executed brilliantly and with great compassion, so much that I was frequently brought to tears. I strongly recommend it for young adults and adults alike and especially would like to see it shelved in every school library. Lives can literally be saved.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2012.