Book Review: Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

drums-girls-dangerous-pieDrums, Girls + Dangerous Pie
Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic, Inc., May 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-72286-5
Trade Paperback

Inexplicably unique, Steven’s story sucked me in, seeped into my soul and stole my heart.  Mr. Sonnenblick aptly captures and conveys the perplexities of a 13-year-old boy—the obvious, an abundant use of “like” in his dialogue, but also the subtle, self-sacrificing inner voice rarely credited to teens.  This outwardly awkward adolescent is more than a pounding prodigy on a drum kit and all-around funny guy; he’s an older brother.

Even at a blush, he is kind, tolerant and indulgent with the feisty five-year-old boy who gleefully dismisses his elder sibling’s ‘rules’.  When said spunky boy slips from the kitchen stool and is rushed to the emergency room, Steven simply sighs, “So Jeffrey was getting me in trouble again, as usual.”  How could he know then, that the tumble terminated ‘as usual’?   Steven’s little brother has cancer.

A terrifyingly tough topic, tackled brilliantly.  Financial strain, even with good insurance and steady income; parents putting life on hold, sick siblings sent away for safety….but also….life goes on.  That struggle seems insurmountable yet it’s unavoidable.  A viscous diagnosis, grim parade of prodding and poking, a family flung in different directions would wreak havoc on anyone; the impact it has on a teen is unimaginable.

Was.

Was unimaginable. Not now.  Mr. Sonnenblick wrote this book in 12 short weeks.  It wasn’t planned, hadn’t stewed somewhere in his head for years.  It was impulsive and imperative.  While teaching 8th grade, he discovered that one of his students was going through something even more challenging than middle school.  Her younger sibling had cancer.  Needing to help and knowing that a good book could; he searched for just the right one to share; did not find it.  There was no choice.  He wrote it.  And it is everything. All of the best things, defiantly in spite of almost-the-worst-thing, Steven and Jeffrey’s should be shared.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2016.

Book Review: The House on Stone’s Throw Island by Dan Poblocki

The House on Stone's Throw IslandThe House on Stone’s Throw Island
Dan Poblocki
Scholastic Press, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-64556-0
Hardcover

Dealing with an older sibling’s wedding, especially when the participants seem to have outgrown you, is no picnic. Add in the fact that it’s a big production on a remote island where you’re expected to be dressed up, play nice and let adults embarrass you, and you know how Eli Barker feels. Things get more uncomfortable when the adults try to jokingly pair him off with Josie Sandoval whose brother Bruno is marrying Eli’s sister Aimee.

Fair weather is predicted for the wedding weekend, but inside Eli’s head, the weather is gloomy and stormy, made worse when he thinks Josie is trying to embarrass him in front of the adults. As a threatening storm front moves in from the open ocean, Eli decides to become scarce and heads for the decrepit brick building on a small peninsula he spotted from his bedroom. The closer he gets, the more uneasy he feels, but he’s unable to stop. Josie, feeling bad about how she treated Eli, sees him sneaking off from her upstairs window and decides to follow.

They hear a disembodied voice asking for help in German and after gathering their courage, the two explore what appears to be a dungeon below the old building where they find and soon lose an old button with a swastika on it.

No one believes them about the voices, but Josie’s become a true believer in the possibility that there are ghosts on the island because she saw a disheveled girl a couple years older than she is, dash into her room and then hide in her closet, but when she looked, the girl was gone. Eli witnesses a repeat performance while in her room. Convinced that there’s something very strange and scary going on as the freak storm intensifies, they become partners as they try to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile communication with the outside world has stopped, the ocean is so rough the ferry that brought them to the island is unable to bring the wedding feast or more guests and the strange happenings become more frequent. Solving the island’s mystery involves ghosts, a secret from World War Two, a diary written by a girl in 1942 and a connection between her and one of the people involved in the wedding.

I was initially put off by foreshadowing at the beginning of the book, but once the story took off, I was hooked. Be warned that there’s violence in the book, but that’s no deal breaker. Younger teens who crave mystery and supernatural twists will like this one a lot.

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

Book Review: A Fatal Family Secret by Samantha Marks

A Fatal Family SecretA Fatal Family Secret
The Morphosis.me Files Book One
Samantha Marks
Samantha Marks, May 2015
ISBN 978-1943406012
Trade Paperback

From the author—

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be? On the first day of high school, Kayleigh wishes she could be taller, curvier, and cooler. But when she discovers she’s a shape-shifter, she bites off more than she can chew. Overnight, she becomes a target, and surviving the school-year means defending herself against cyber-bullies, learning to control her new-found powers, and hiding from the ancient secret society that kidnapped her mother. Morphing has consequences, and Kayleigh begins to realize that being able to change into anything can mean losing herself in the process.

High school bullying is a fairly common topic these days, rightfully so, but we don’t often see it woven into a dark fantasy tale. At first, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work but it didn’t take long for me to get invested.

Kayleigh is just starting high school, at a time in her life when she’s suffered more tragedy than most since her mother was abducted a couple of years earlier. All young teens go through major life changes during puberty and this girl is no different; she makes the perfect victim for bullies. Sometimes, she’s a little too much of a victim but I never felt her reactions were abnormal especially given her circumstances. If anything, she’s searching for comfort and security and it was a pleasure going on this journey with her.

A Fatal Family Secret is an entertaining jaunt through the fantasy world with a dose of mystery thrown in and those aspects of the story shine a much-needed light on how kids have to cope with the loss of a parent. In this case, there are causes and effects we’ll never have to confront but the whole shapeshifting thing really sort of emphasizes the normal challenges that life brings us. Ms. Marks has done a really nice job of presenting teen issues in a very readable way and I’m looking forward to the second book, A Treacherous Social Game, already available.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

Book Review: Dead Upon a Time by Elizabeth Paulson

Dead Upon a TimeDead Upon a Time
Elizabeth Paulson
Scholastic Press, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-64046-6
Hardcover

A brand new fairy tale that feels familiar and comforting, complete with an evil witch (most probably), a damsel in distress, err….. make that a “resident tragic orphan”, and an ostracized giant killer with an opportunity for redemption. Ms. Paulson unravels the bewitching narrative with relish and wit.

As young Kate trudges through the woods to her grandmother’s cottage, clever clues reveal this will be no ordinary story. “It wouldn’t do for someone with her bloodline to be spooked by a common forest.” Nostalgia nudges oh so briefly and is quickly brushed aside. Creepy quickly turns to true danger.

Having essentially grown up on her own; being actually attacked by wild wolves, then stumbling into the frigid cold of the abandoned home atop the mountain, Kate realizes she is absolutely alone. Her grandmother would never have left willingly. Intricate, eerie, woven tapestries taunt, seeming to tell a story of several sufferers imprisoned in separate, yet strikingly similar cells.

The folks in the village below, for reasons unbeknownst to her, have tolerated Kate, at best; allowing her to sleep in a hayloft in exchange for mountains of mending until her presence could not be tolerated and she was forced to move to the next neighbor. These were not people that would help her find and rescue her grandmother. The boy who dared to taunt a giant however, was the exception to just about every rule. He was also wanted, would be almost impossible to find.

The tendrils of mystery have slipped from the pages and ensnared this reader. As Kate plummets down the mountain, her all encompassing love for the only family she knows creates empathy and her fierce determination in the face of utter despair drums up hope. Her resolve strengthens, her courage becomes clear; the pace quickens and the mystery becomes an adventure.

Forming the most unlikely of alliances lends humor to harrowing situations while bonds are built based on trust. Answers earned along the way applaud the intelligence and observation skills of young adults while pointing to the pitfalls of jealousy. With what can only be called a witchy way, Ms. Paulson wraps the winding story satisfactorily…and yet, I can’t help but think (make that “hope”) that this is not The End.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2016.

Book Review: The House on Stone’s Throw Island by Dan Poblocki

The House on Stone's Throw IslandThe House on Stone’s Throw Island
A Ghost Story

Dan Poblocki
Scholastic Press, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-64556-0
Hardcover

A quintessential ghost story, The House on Stone’s Throw Island immediately elicits chills and thrills with introductory glimpses of uniformed men, seemingly from another place, a different time. Plainly panicked, a muddy girl appears and disappears, as if stuck in a loop.

With a permanent population totaling two solemn care-takers, Stone’s Throw Island was crowded when two families preparing to unite via a fairy tale wedding, pour from a ferry, followed by the wedding director and her trusty assistant. In an almost unreliable-narrator style, the curiously detailed background of the aforementioned, anxiety-riddled wedding director unravels. Obviously imperative, this character nonetheless seems better fitted for the supporting cast. Of course there is a method to his madness, but Mr. Poblocki is fantastically sly and sneaky about the reveal.

Intrigue and mystery beckon as myths and legends swirling the surrounding isles off the coast of Maine are shared. Soon, wickedly weird phenomena plague the guests. There’s barely time to ponder the peculiarities before a storm overtakes the tiny land mass, scattering the inhabitants.

An oddly appealing teen-aged duo, recently forced into friendship, grab the reins and drive the adventure down two totally different paths. Separately, they discover the true tragedy of Stone’s Throw Island. The theory that Germans actually invaded the United States during World War II seems unfathomable; but an old diary lends credence. With one junior sleuth trapped in a secret passage, the other packed like a sardine in the rapidly flooding, ancient jail cell; it seems their acquired knowledge will become futile.

Mr. Poblocki boldly brakes the breath-taking race against time and elements, evoking unexpected emotions and hope. The bond built between the compelling, quiet comic-book writer and polar-opposite, outspoken skeptic, along with the friendships formed when pseudo strangers are tossed together, smooth and sweeten the story. The storm passes, some lives go on.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2015.

Book Review: Sequins, Secrets, and Silver Linings by Sophia Bennett

Sequins, Secrets , and Silver LiningsSequins, Secrets, and Silver Linings
Sophia Bennett
Chicken House, January 2011
ISBN 978-0-545-24241-7
Hardcover

Sometimes I just need some Sophia Bennett. She’s the quintessential favorite aunt or cherished friend that can be counted on to alleviate a funk. Sneaky, clever and witty, she is the ultimate introspective author for me.

At a blush Sequins, Secrets, and Silver Linings looks to be a light, quick read packed with friends, fashion and fun. Ms. Bennett cheerfully gives us that. The charismatic cast engages in witty and quite funny conversations, particularly over Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream. Nonie is bold in her improvised, innovative couture, while sweet Jenny tries to walk the red carpet walk as an emerging, yet sadly suited starlet. Edie grounds the trio, focusing on Harvard entrance and her exponentially growing blog.

With three teen girls centered in the story, of course we can expect boy crushes, hopes (realized and dashed) and heart-break. Admittedly consuming in real life, Ms. Bennett politely puts this in perspective reminding the readers that “looking for love” is truly only a very small part of life for these brilliant, talented young ladies.

The aforementioned alone, told in Ms. Bennett’s compelling, captivating tone, would make for a fantastic read, but that’s not how Ms. Bennett rolls. Rather, she shows the side of teens that is often overlooked. Crow, the ridiculously talented, young African girl designer is understandably complex and quiet. Her father forced her to flee the war zone to live with an aunt she barely knows.

Attention naturally shifts from somewhat trivial items to actual issues. The brutal rebel group, The Lord’s Resistance Army is still active and believed responsible for the kidnapping of Crow’s older brother Henry. As the friendship develops between Crow and three gal pals, horrors that were studied in History class become someone’s every-day life. Passionately livid and personally offended, as only a teen can be, Edie rallies her friends to help Crow compete in a coveted fashion-designing contest, simultaneously taking to her blog to raise funds for the Invisible Children and try to find out what became of Crow’s older brother.

Sequins, Secrets ,and Silver Linings was exactly what I needed. The fascinating fun and ever changing dynamics among teen girl friends was delightfully distracting. The sheer determination, righteous indignation and swift action taken by these young folks against the LRA helped center me with hope and inspiration, because Ms. Bennett never lets me down.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2015.

Book Review: The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Shadow ThroneThe Shadow Throne
The Ascendance Trilogy #3
Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic Press, February 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-28417-2
Hardcover

Oh how I’ve missed these colorful characters! Jaron’s wit sharpens with anger and whenever he and Roden are in the same country, Jaron fairly idles at anger. Admittedly though, his previous journeys seem to have smoothed out some of his rough edges and forced a bit of maturity. From the first leg of adventure when Jaron, Tobias and Roden were yanked from the orphanage in The False Prince (The Ascendance Trilogy, Book I) , to Jaron’s capture by pirates in The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy, Book II), this young man has had no choice but to learn quickly, fight hard and follow his heart in order to survive.

The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy, Book III) is quite simply, the quintessential conclusion. Still nursing a broken leg, courtesy of Roden, the young king has no time to focus on healing as his arrival home brings the news that his land of Carthya is targeted for immediate attack from three countries, each coming from a different direction. Compounding the horror, the very girl who captured Jaron’s heart has been taken hostage and is being held by one of the threatening countries. Clearly none of this is a coincidence, but with no time to consider the bigger plan, Jaron rapidly begins barking out orders, only to be reminded that he is no longer alone. Jaron had only recently learned the value of trusted friends. Always open-minded, but now quicker to be flexible, Jaron acknowledges that to conquer, they must divide.

True to nature, first implementations of his new kingly power were unprecedented and shocking. Releasing his betrothed Amarinda from their arranged vows to then declare her a princess of Carthya was unheard of. Knighting the charming chatterbox Fink was ridiculous. The boy couldn’t lift a sword with both hands.

When Jaron’s tiny group scattered, his enemy makes the ultimate move. With diabolical focus on the strength of friendship, love and loyalty; Jaron’s nemesis gleefully informs separated individuals immediately whenever a companion has been captured or killed. Details are not spared. Will the youngsters, so strong and cohesive together, find the strength and will to survive solely, in spite of the aching emptiness?

Ms. Nielsen impressively combines ferocious battles, brilliantly clever tricks and traps, quick thinking and scintillating dialogue with kindness, empathy and loyalty to end the attack on Carthya. In doing so, many mysteries meandering through the trilogy are resolved without a perceived need to answer each and every question ever raised along the way.

To me, Ms. Nielsen has a unique, uncanny ability to reveal more than generally meets the eye, without deliberately and emphatically lecturing. Immersed in her words, I’m wide open. I feel eager to take everything in, mull it over; carefully consider all facets and options. I’m far enough removed to view an entire picture, yet close enough to be totally vested. I’m highly entertained, amused and delighted. Simultaneously, impulsively…I’m reflective. Always, I’m hopeful and happy when visiting the world created by Ms. Nielsen.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2015.