Book Reviews: Lifers by M.A. Griffin and When My Heart Was Wicked by Tricia Stirling

 

lifersLifers
M.A. Griffin
Chicken House, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06553-4
Hardcover

Particularly pertinent in current political climate, this fresh Middle-Grade mystery-adventure is a phenomenally fantastic read for all ages.  Mace may be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but when weird news of missing teens and strange sights at night hits close to home, even practical Preston is pulled in.  Also….he is pretty sure he is partly to blame for the most recent disappearances.

Attempting to trace Alice’s steps, Preston walks the night streets of Manchester and senses a spooky truth to the recent rumors.  He enlists Mace to delve deeper and the two stumble onto a pseudo-futuristic-sci-fi scene.  Children are trapped in a prison prototype with dwindling supplies and absolutely no way out.  The only way in, is scheduled to be permanently shut down in less than twenty-four hours.

The juvenile delinquents are not completely alone.  One young lady is the daughter of a recently deceased politician, her “crime”: doubting that her father’s death was an accident.  She is not going down until the guilty party pays.  Two Urban Explorers snuck into the prison to help facilitate an escape and two workers who never wanted their creations to be used in this manner will fight for freedom.

The story plays out in a matter of days; the pace is very quick and quite captivating.  A bit of sharp wit, an unexpected kindness keeps the book from becoming bleak.  Many questions are answered, but nothing is too pat; there’s plenty to think on…..in a sneaky kind of way.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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when-my-heart-was-wickedWhen My Heart Was Wicked
Tricia Stirling
Scholastic Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69573-2
Hardcover

Lacy is clearly conflicted and completely compelling. At the tender age of sixteen, she has become so very good in spite of her tumultuous, tangled life; but, things change. The loss of a parent is heart-breaking and often life-changing.  When that loss is followed by an abrupt and unwelcome custody change, the downward spiral spins out of control.

Flashbacks and memories reveal the characteristics of Lacy’s parents allowing the reader to understand Lacy’s influences.  The vibes emanating from the recollections reach from the pages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.  Parents are palpable presences and when Lacy thinks of her father, sunshine shoots from the pages.  She is light, happy, hopeful……joyous and buoyant when considering her father and his charming hippie-chick wife, Anna.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Lacy’s mother, Cheyenne.  Her unique “teaching techniques” and willingness to spend weeks without electricity did not result in a nurturing home.  Rather, she burned her daughter’s wrist for asking “too many questions”, tied her to a tree to prevent “wandering”, then completely vanished without a word, leaving a broken 13-year old girl all alone.

When My Heart Was Wicked is a captivating and quick read that bravely tackles taboo topics such as “cutting”.  More than merely acknowledging the existence of a disorder that plagues so many teens, by offering an answer to the common question: “why?” On some level, problems that plague Lacy are the same, or at least similar to the challenges every teenager faces.  The importance of identity is not easy to address, but Ms. Stirling demonstrates how strong will, determination and knowledge can carve a unique path, even when it seems all forces are fighting to make you march down a different road.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2016.

Book Review: Hidden Like Anne Frank by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis

hidden-like-anne-frankHidden Like Anne Frank
14 True Stories of Survival
Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis
Arthur A. Levine Books, March 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-54362-0
Hardcover

Anne Frank was the most memorable child of the Holocaust, but there were many, many others. In this extremely vivid and moving collection of fourteen personal narratives by survivors of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, readers will find themselves experiencing a range of emotions.

These survivors were separated from parents, siblings, cousins and other relatives, found themselves moved more times that they could count, experienced despair the day after hope and came out of the experience forever changed. They had to adopt new names, new religions, learn different customs and even undergo eyebrow shaping and a change of hair color. Readers will discover how entire communities were herded like cattle, lost everything they had accumulated, were forced to ignore siblings in public, live under inhumane conditions, endure beatings by people who had supposedly befriended them, go hungry for extended periods of time and often had to remain in unlit cold and cramped places for hours while being terrified that the knock on the door meant exposure and a trip to a concentration camp.

Each story is different, each survivor knew great loss and deprivation, but all endured. What comes across clearly in each story is how the experience forever changed not only the narrator, but their relationships with surviving family members. Each reader will have unique reactions to every story. There are some that inspire admiration, some that evoke pity, sympathy or empathy and even one that might strike one as annoying, but none of us were there to live the terror and fear, so who’s to say how our story might come across under similar circumstances.

This is a book that should be read by as many people as possible, particularly in a time (like now) where ethnocentricity and racial intolerance are once more on the rise. It’s well worth having in any school or public library.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, February 2017.

Book Reviews: Rescued by Eliot Schrefer and The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

rescuedRescued
Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-65503-3
Hardcover

Every child wants a pet at some time or another.  A dog, kitten, pony or orangutan.  Maybe orangutan isn’t typical, but if you grew up watching BJ and the Bear or Every Which Way But Loose, you may see the simian sway.  Whatever the animal, it is almost always up to parents to make the decision.  Children don’t always know what is best.

When John casually notes the potential appeal of ape ownership while watching an old movie, he was not actually asking for a pet.  His dad could dig the draw when he recognized the leading “man” as an orangutan because sometimes the adorable orange creatures would wander around his company’s plant in Indonesia.

In fact, he returned from a business trip bearing a baby-orangutan-in-a-barrel.  John was beside himself with wonder and joy.  His mother was also struck with wonder; but hers was the “in doubt” version, much different than the “filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel” version that burst from her son. John’s wonder won and Raja became the newest member of the family for four rambunctious years.  Until divorce divided them.

The two year separation of John and Raja was torture; for both boy and beast; but paled in comparison to their last days together leading up to their final farewell.   This relationship is written so well, it is as if I actually witnessed it.  The fondness, understanding, patience, support and tolerance between the “brothers” is palpable.  The range of emotions that rocket through John as he blindly battles the hardest decision of his entire life build the ultimate reader’s rollercoaster and recalling that this is a sixteen-year-old-boy, ties a knot and truly tugs the heart-strings.

I thoroughly enjoyed each and every bit of this tiny tome and would be remiss if I did not highly recommend Rescued to those searching for reads.  While the book may  technically tip into the Middle-Grade category (for the 12-year-old and older readers), I have no doubt that there are many Teen-Aged, Young-Adult and Not-So-Young-Adult readers that will love Raja’s story as intensely as I do, and I’m confident that I’m not the only reader to learn a lot from it.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.

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The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death
Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-66834-7
Hardcover

The Game of Love and Death is positively packed with particulars to ponder.  Love is a man, Death a woman. Each chooses a competitor, a term I use loosely; the chosen do not actually compete.  Most people are unaware of the Game, even while participating.  Virtually no rules, a victor is declared; but the win seems superfluous.

Flora, an amazing aviation mechanic, is also a phenomenal pilot, possibly rivaling Amelia Earhart.  It is 1937 and she “has the brown skin, and here in America, (you) pay so very much heed to that.” Besides, she can trick herself into believing that she was meant for something else.  The death of her parents created a void she valiantly tried to fill with the jazz nightclub she inherited.  Flora chose work over a high school diploma, believing “…the club was her future and most white folk were hell-bent on keeping colored folk in their place, even if they were polite about it.”

Henry hasn’t had it easy, but he is a white male.  His dream is simple: eke out a living with his beloved bass.  Instead, he works for the newspaper of his almost-adopted family, often accompanying Ethan on interviews.  When Henry sees Flora working on a plane, it is as if he had been sleep-walking through life and is just now completely awake.

The harrowing story of Flora and Henry in the The Game of Love and Death is enriched by the secondary characters.  Ethan isn’t the golden boy he seems, and his secret struggles would tarnish his image if revealed; although there is nothing to be ashamed of.  Simple spoken statements throughout, “there hasn’t been a white newspaper that’s written about the likes of us unless some sort of arrest was involved,” reiterate bigoted opinions; making the book more than just entertaining to thought-provoking, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2016.

Book Reviews: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh and Endure by Sara B. Larson

i-let-you-goI Let You Go
Clare Mackintosh
Berkley, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-425-98749-0
Trade Paperback

I Let You Go grabbed me by the lapels and pulled me into a suspenseful, fast-paced mystery with tight twists that had me paging backwards a couple of times to truly keep up.  The gripping, heart-stopping story unfolds from different perspectives, revealing varying pieces of the puzzle until suddenly I saw the big picture and it was nothing I envisioned.

Two victims of a random tragedy try to piece their lives together—independently, and wholly alone.  As a year stretched out, the crime remained unsolved and it seemed as if each of them may be successful.  After an arrest, a trial, new information revealed and slowly, the big picture shimmers and changes.

So happy to have a new author to add to my list of favorites; I cannot wait to read more by Ms. Mackintosh.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2017

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endureEndure
A Defy Novel #3
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-64490-7
Hardcover

Endure is the final book in the Defy trilogy by Sara B. Larson.  I didn’t realize that, going into it.  Earnestly entering Antion, enchanted by Alexa and King Damien, it was evident the story did not begin here.  (Yes, thus the title.  I get it, now.)  While I did immediately add Defy and Ignite to my To-Be- Read stack, I never truly felt late to the party.

The bond between Alexa and Rylan blatantly had background, but was too authentic to warrant doubt.  Maybe that hot fudge sundae wows with whipped cream, but it’s also delectable despite the absence.  Similarly, Damien’s trust in Alexa—both in her abilities as well as her commitment to him, is astounding…and unquestionable.

But this isn’t just a story of passionate people, complex choices and difficult, dangerous decisions….it’s about community, doing for the greater good, even if incurring loss.  Listening and learning, evolving, even—or especially—when plowing forward.

And there’s magic!  Good and bad; healing and harmful.  Also, a battle! One that’s been brewing, boils over, beating down kingdoms. It is a fantastically furious, frantic, ferocious fight to a final victory.  Grief and hope, strength and support, friendships and fondness bring balance to angst and action.

If you happen to know of a Middle Grader searching for good reads, the Defy trilogy may do the trick.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.

Book Review: The Transatlantic Conspiracy by G. D. Falksen

the-transatlantic-conspiracyThe Transatlantic Conspiracy
G. D. Falksen
Soho Teen, June 2016
ISBN 978-1-61695-417-8
Hardcover

Oh, I do love a story about bad girls and The Transatlantic Conspiracy is quintessential.  Rosalind’s own words best define her when she explains to Alix, “I drive motorcars and I’m a suffragist, so my reputation is already a bit uncertain.”  Their mutual friend Cecily not only tinkers with clocks, but has been known to write “strongly worded letters” to express her displeasure or disappointment.  Embarking on the maiden voyage of the underwater railway, Alix is quick to confirm that her traveling companions both know “how to give a swift quick and a good stab” (with a hatpin).

Perhaps I should mention that this steampunk story begins on May 25, 1908.  My first book from this fantastical, science-fiction subgenre complete with advanced machines and modern technology.  It did not disappoint.

Rosalind is quite accustomed to traveling alone, despite being female and seventeen years old.  She has every confidence in her father’s perpetually advancing railways, whether it be traveling above water on an impossibly long bridge or seven days underneath, riding a train through the ocean from Germany to New York.   She may not cherish her reluctant role as a “pawn in her father’s advertising campaign”, but she has never felt afraid.  Until now.

From the beginning, with Cecily and sibling Charles unexpectedly announcing plans to accompany Rosalind to America, to feeling inexplicably unnerved at the station, Rosalind is overcome with unease as she boards.  A strange skepticism settles; people seem to smile around secrets tucked safely away.  Charles disappears.  Two passengers are murdered.  It is only the second day.

Fully engaging with twists and turns, sneaky surprises, loyal friendships and levity, The Transatlantic Conspiracy was a fascinating foray into steampunk.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2016.

Book Review: Rook by Sharon Cameron

RookRook
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-67599-4
Hardcover

This review has proven to be as stubborn as Sophie Bellamy.  Therein lies the ultimate compliment.  To me, it is only when I’m consumed by furious joy and almost dumb with delight that writing a review becomes a seemingly insurmountable challenge.  I’m torn between simply carrying this tome everywhere I go so that I can thrust it into someone’s hand and simply say, “This.” and gushing like a new grandparent.

Rook is a remarkably enjoyable, engaging read.  Each of the colorful, captivating characters has his or her own agenda.  Engulfed in a time when a coin stamped with the year 2024 is considered ancient and satellites are machines from the Time Before, enamored with and eagerly enthusiastic for Sophia, I could not keep myself from guessing who was true to Sophie and her most honorable cause, and who was true only to himself…..or herself, for that matter.

Instead of moving forward, it seems that we’ve only gone backward…all progress has been undone.  Rather than gender equality, women are reduced.  Instead of a democracy, a dictatorship, topped by the illogical, egotistical insanity of narcissistic men that are only up when holding others down.

Against unimaginable odds, The Red Rook devises a daring plan including a mass release of those wrongfully imprisoned to be followed by the triumphant toppling of the terrifying regime.  Action is aplenty, alongside conflicting emotions, witty banter and immediately intriguing ideas.  It isn’t possible to read this story without taking pauses to consider and ponder points.  Not in a “what the ……?” way but in an “hmmmm…..interesting, I couldn’t have conjured….” way.

While appropriate and appealing to Middle Grade readers, I would be remiss if I limited my recommendation to that group.  Like a giant bag of Hershey’s miniatures, there is something for everyone.  Enjoy.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2016.

Book Review: Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

ThreatenedThreatened
Eliot Schrefer
Scholastic Press, February 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-55143-4
Hardcover

I want to crawl into this book and live forever with Luc and “his” chimpanzees. Mr. Schrefer’s adoration and admiration of these astounding creatures is obvious and contagious. His complete understanding of the logistics as to why the chimpanzees must be wild animals is as evident as the tug of emotion that wishes it wasn’t so.

Threatened isn’t a glossy, glowing fantasy of strolling under canopies of trees, munching fresh fruit, arms happily swinging without a care in the world. Luc’s story is tragic and not unique. This is real. It is raw. And brutal. Harsh and stunning. This tiny tome is heart-breaking, soul wringing and world-shattering. But, most importantly, it is hopeful.

Our street-boy-turned-scientist-narrator, Luc is tough, courageous, bold and tenacious. He is sneaky, suspicious, starving, alone and abused. But kind. And emphatic. And hopeful, loving, open and intelligent. Uncannily, it seems the Professor gleans this as he sips mint tea and watches the scrawny boy wipe down tables in the seedy dive on Gabon’s main street in Africa.

The Prof is delightful, compassionate, sly, clever, brilliant and also…..sad at his core. The Egyptian Arab proudly proclaims to be embarking on an adventure to become Africa’s very own Jane Goodall. Of course, an assistant is required for his stay in the jungle. With slightly less than half of the population being under 15 years of age due to the AIDS epidemic (The Worm), the Professor hopes to employ a local boy.

Mr. Schrefer’s tale of two lost souls together in the jungle observing chimp behavior is breathtakingly beautiful. He perfectly captures Luc’s gradual, 180-degree change of heart and mind towards the chimpanzees in general, and one very captivating chimpanzee: Drummer, specifically. This author’s prose is thoughtful and thought-provoking. As if by magic, he combines infuriating, depressing facts with optimism, ambition and sweetly simple dreams.

While Threatened is indeed appropriate for Middle-Grade readers; this narrative, in Mr. Scherer’s words, transcends age. It should not be overlooked or dismissed by the Young Adult, New Adult, or even the Older-Than-Dirt Readers, like me. This is not the time for self-limiting. Missing out would be catastrophic.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2015.