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.

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Book Reviews: Stolen Memories by Mary Miley and Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Stolen Memories
Mary Miley
CreateSpace, November 2015
ISBN 978-151-8883705
Trade Paperback

If you asked me for a book that you could really sink your teeth into—a murder-mystery with just a hint of romance—one that is a delight to read, but not “light reading”…..you know, something that keeps your eyes glued to the pages you are frantically turning and sneaks into your thoughts at random times; but doesn’t necessarily rip out your heart & run away with it–I’d happily hand you Stolen Memories.

1928 was a fabulous time to be a young woman in Europe.  It was particularly exciting and opportunistic for the intelligent, courageous woman carving a path for her own independence and paving the way for others to follow. Eva Johnson, however, is not that woman.   Rather, she is a self-serving, manipulative, nasty thief who has no problem spilling a bit of blood along her way.

When she awoke under the concerned eyes of a doctor in France, Eva had no idea what landed her in a hospital bed.  She has no memory, at all.  She surely does not remember marrying that angry giant hulking around her bedside.  More importantly, she can’t fathom being married at all.  Even in the absence of her memories, she’s sure there’s been a huge mistake.  This initial unease and uncertainty perfectly set the tone for her tale.

Eva desperately wants to regain her memory to reclaim her true self, nothing about being a part of this eccentric family feels relatable.  Those around her share her goal, but for very different reasons.  Deciding who to trust is a daily challenge.  Information is fed to her intermittently and often, inaccurately.  Her every move is watched and scrutinized.

Under such close inspection, we begin to see some interesting things.  While some may simply want to recover their stolen property, someone wants her dead.  Further muddying the waters, Eva is just not herself.  With seemingly natural inclinations towards kindness, she stuns her family.  It is particularly entertaining to watch a mystery unravel while the participants continue to be puzzled.  The many moving parts make for a quick, compelling read.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2016.

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Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Puffin Books, September 2014
ISBN 978-0-14-242286-1
Trade Paperback

This is one of those treasures recommended for ages 10 and up that I believe everyone can thoroughly enjoy, not just older elementary and middle-grade people.

I can’t imagine the person who would not be charmed, then completely smitten with young Willow, who at the tender age of 12 has her world shattered.  An admirable and awe-inspiring person Before, her strength, courage and resolve After show the reader what a real-life super-heroine is all about.

Even cooler, we see her spirit, determination and natural kindness pour out and touch so many.  Those touched by Willow intuitively and impulsively stand a little straighter, try a little harder and become more generous.

Few books have the ability to render sobs, then a smile, but this one does.  I would chastise myself for letting this sit on my shelf for so long instead I’m going to consider the timing serendipitous, because now I can pass this jewel on to my son’s middle-grade classroom library.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2016.

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.