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 Reviews: Phantoms in the Snow by Kathleen Benner Duble and Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

Phantoms in the SnowPhantoms in the Snow
Kathleen Benner Duble
Scholastic Press, February 2011
ISBN 978-0-545-19770-0
Hardcover

Being relatively well-educated, I have carried around the belief that I knew (basically) all about World War II.  We start learning about it in 6th grade and we continue to study it well into our senior year.   Why is it, then, that I had never heard of the Phantoms (Tenth Mountain Division)?  I feel cheated.

Ms. Duble’s Phantoms in the Snow tells the courageous and heart-wrenching story of a very young Texas farmer, contentedly plodding along until his world is shattered.  The untimely death of his parents land 15-year old Noah with an uncle he had never heard of.  As if the circumstances wouldn’t be challenging enough, Uncle Shelley happens to be a high-ranking soldier at Camp Hale, Colorado.  He is training an elite team of soldiers to send to the snowy mountains in Europe.  These men are the only hope of capturing Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in Italy.  In doing so, the Germans secured there will be flushed out, giving the Americans and Freedom Fighters a chance to turn the tide of the war.

This is much more than a war story.  It is about loyalty, compassion, understanding and support.  It is about working hard to save the lives of people you will never know.  This book demonstrates the strength in a team.  The story shows that no matter how crummy one life seems, there is always another worse off.  It is about believing in something bigger than yourself and doing what is right—even if it seems small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Phantoms gives the reader a glimpse of a unique group of soldiers.  Not only were these men instrumental in gaining ground during World War II, they came home to give something surprising back to their own country.  Phantoms, with their crazy passion, helped to make skiing a remarkably popular recreational activity.  They are responsible the for well-known ski resorts in Vail and Aspen.  A backcountry trail system between the two was created to honor the Tenth Mountain Division.

These men are unsung heroes.  This makes me sad.  Everyone should know about the men that trained in frigid, inhospitable conditions to quietly slip under the radar and do what no others soldiers have done.  Ms. Duble’s book is the perfect place to start.  While her characters are not necessarily based on specific Phantoms, the events are factual, the tale gripping.

Please, let’s finally give these men the recognition they deserve.  Give this book to students studying World War II, they will thank you, I promise.  Find your ski-fanatic buds and give them a copy of this book.  Who knows what these ski-bums would be into if not for the Phantoms?

To the men of the Tenth Mountain Division: thank you, I am forever grateful to you.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2013.

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Why We Took the CarWhy We Took The Car
Wolfgang Herrndorf
Translated by Tim Mohr
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-48180-9
Hardcover

Outwardly, I tout “girl power”.  I tell my nieces, and other young ladies, that girls can do anything that boys can do.  There is equality.  In truth though, I’ve always been a bit jealous of boys.  Growing up, it seemed that boys just had it easier, specifically in their friendships.  Guys appear to be so comfortable with one another, in a very real way.  Buddies may disagree, argue, and even throw down; but, at the end of the day, the rapport is still strong.  I don’t know how realistic my vision of “boys being boys” really is, but Why We Took the Car gives me hope that I was spot-on.

An unlikely friendship, a stolen jalopy and an impromptu road trip made for an exciting tale.  At a blush, Mike & Tschick could not be more different.  Tschick, poor, with no discernible adult supervision, whose young life has been filled with alcohol and petty crime, appears to enjoy being alone.  Mike, on the opposite end of the spectrum, outwardly has it all.  An outsider peering in would see a rich kid, with both parents tucked cozily beneath one very fancy roof.  Looks are often deceiving.

Mike was more than surprised when bad boy Tschick tries to befriend him, largely because Mike sports a really cool thrift-store jacket, styling a white dragon across the chest.  Feigning disinterest does not deter Tschick; he is relentless.  Without understanding exactly why, Mike stops ignoring him and a tentative foundation for solidarity begins to take shape.

Before he can fully comprehend and digest the potential repercussions; Mike amazes himself by agreeing to a “vacation” with his new pal.  Prepared with only a vague plan, a stolen car and a few bucks; the young criminals begin their adventure.

Their road trip is packed with colourful characters, mini adventures, and a gradual growth of genuine fondness between the boys.  While the encounters are exciting, intriguing and fun; they weren’t my absolute favourite part of the story.  Rather, the subtle message that sometimes, the people you choose to love are more important than the ones you are expected to love; resonated with me.  Almost as importantly, my ideal “boy friendship” was cemented as the implausible companions slowly reveal secrets truths of challenging lives.  Their new bond never breaks, it only grows stronger.

This distinctive book was an enjoyable read on a couple of levels.  The writing is powerful; when I first started this book, I found myself reading very quickly, because I felt like Mike was talking very fast.  It is always delightfully surprising when a book sets my reading pace.   A fabulous plot complete with unique characters and raw emotion make this a book that I will highly recommend, and in fact, I’m sure it will be one that I read again.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2013.

Book Review: Eat, Brains, Love by Jeff Hart

Eat, Brains, LoveEat, Brains, Love
Jeff Hart
HarperTeen, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-220034-1
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher—

The good news: Jake’s dream girl, Amanda Blake, finally knows his name.

The bad news: it’s because they both contracted a mysterious zombie virus and devoured the brains of half their senior class. Now Jake and Amanda are on the run from Cass, a teen psychic sent by the government’s top-secret Necrotic Control Division to track them down. As Jake and Amanda deal with the existential guilt of eating their best friends and set off in search of a cure for the zombie virus, Cass struggles with a growing psychic dilemma of her own—one that will lead all three of them on an epic journey across the country and make them question what it means to truly be alive. Or undead.

Not sure if you’d like a zombie novel? Afraid it’ll just be gruesome with none of the touches you love, like romance, mystery, government conspiracies, maybe even a little humor? Fear not, dear reader, here’s a zombie novel anyone can love.

Jake is a stoner and a bit of a geek but he also has a mouth on him so when Chazz, resident tough guy jock, picks on him, he has a comeback. That’s not necessarily a good idea since Chazz is about twice his size, or so it seems, but the hottest girl in school, Amanda, saves his bacon with a few words to her belligerent boyfriend. So begins what is destined to become a beautiful relationship…right after Jake and Amanda suddenly turn into eating machines with their fellow classmates as the main entree.

In the meantime, Cass, a teenaged psychic, has been drafted into the Necrotic Control Division and is tasked with helping track down zombies before the general public can learn that they exist but it turns out this particular case is going to cause problems for Cass and her colleagues in ways you might not expect. As soon as the NCD gets called into the school massacre, they start with damage control, making witnesses forget what they’ve seen and creating a story about a mass shooting, but Amanda and Jake are now on the run and Cass has to lead the NCD in finding them.

What follows is a glorious road trip replete with a deepening conspiracy, a clash of musical tastes, development of a new kind of weapon, budding romance, a power-hungry megalomaniac,  sartorial splendor, jealousy, a rush to get to Iowa where there might be a cure for this highly disgusting disease (which just may be the STD that would make folks think twice about unprotected sex), a sort of reversal of roles—imagine zombies afraid of the living for a change—and, yes, a whole lot of gruesome. I mean, come on, how can you have a zombie novel without gruesome?

Jeff Hart has come up with a fabulous expose of THE REAL TRUTH about zombies and everybody should put Eat, Brains, Love on their required reading lists. After all, you never know whether your next-door neighbor or the cashier at the local convenience store might be a little bit , er, different and you’ll want to be prepared. Meanwhile, I can hardly stand the wait for the next book in this “tasty” series 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2013.

Book Reviews: Cheeseland by Randy Richardson, Bone Shadows by Christopher Valen, and Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

CheeselandCheeseland
Randy Richardson
Eckhartz Press, May 2012
ISBN No. 97-0-9848049-2-4
Trade Paperback

It is graduation time and Daniel McAllister’s parents have a big party planned but the guest of honor will not be attending.  Daniel’s friend Lance Parker talks him into a road trip to Wisconsin to celebrate the end of high school.  It was supposed to be three friends celebrating but Marty Torlikson, the third member of the group, had committed suicide.  Daniel and Lance were still reeling from their friend’s funeral.

Against his better judgment, Daniel agrees to gas up his car known as “The Bomb” and the two head out of town with the music blasting.  Somehow, the subject of Marty comes up and Lance reveals that he knows the reason behind Marty’s death and that he is responsible.  Lance told Marty a secret about Marty’s father and Marty could not cope with the knowledge.  The two continue on their trip and get in one scrape after another but manage to keep going and even have a little fun as well as a whole lot of trouble.   Eventually they meet Clinton G. Buckner, known as Buck.  Buck turns out to be a real friend to the two although the true extent of his friendship isn’t revealed until later in the novel.

Daniel and Lance manage to finally make it back home and go on with their lives.  The two connect again some years later after they both are married.  Daniel is a successful attorney while Lance hasn’t met with much success.  The secret revealed by Lance on their road trip has bothered both men over the years but more so with Lance than with Daniel.  Lance’s marriage is on the rocks and his life is not going smooth.  The story of the friends reconnecting and yet another road trip is told in the second part of the book.

Cheeseland is a great story of true friendship and a look inside the minds of two young men ready to step out into the world.  The author, Randy Richardson, is donating $1.00 from each sale of this book to Elyssa’s Mission, a local suicide prevention program.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2012.

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Bone ShadowsBone Shadows
A John Santana Novel
Christopher Valen
Conquill Press, October 2012
ISBN No. 978-0-9800017-5-4
Trade Paperback

John Santana is a homicide detective in St. Paul, Minnesota and is very good at his job.  However, there is a lot more to Santana than just his job.  Born in Columbia, Santana lives under a cloud knowing that at any time his deeds in Colombia prior to fleeing the country can come back to haunt him and seek revenge.

When the body of Scott Rafferty, age 23, is recovered from the Mississippi river, the initial reaction is death by suicide.   Santana is not immediately buying into the fact that Rafferty’s death is a suicide.  Santana’s past experience with suicide by drowning has been that of an orderly scene with the victims clothes removed and neatly folded. This is not the case with Rafferty’s body.

Rafferty’s father, Hank Rafferty, is a police officer and his wife, Rachel Hardin, is a Ramsey County Judge.  Hank informs Santana that a drowning simply does not make sense.  Hank states that Scott saw his mother drown and Scott has never liked water.  Rachel Hardin, Scott’s stepmother, explained that Scott was seeing a psychiatrist.  Hank explained that the doctor was treating Scott for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).  Hank said that Kimberly Dalton, Scott’s girlfriend, had contacted him a few nights ago concerned that she had not heard from Scott.  Hank suggested that she file a missing persons report.

As Santana is attempting to determine how to proceed with the investigation, he is approached by Jack Brody.  Brody is a freelance journalist.  Brody was once an award-winning reporter but he hasn’t had a good story for awhile.  He offers Santana a theory that there is a serial killer operating along the I-94 corridor.  Jordan Parrish, a private investigator, hired by the parents of another victim tells Santana that she is in agreement with Brody.

The case becomes even more confusing when Santana is approached by Ed Kincaid of the FBI.

Kincaid tells Santana it would be best if he closed the Rafferty case as a suicide by drowning.  In order to back up his suggestion he begins questioning Santana regarding Santana’s last trip to Colombia.  Santana is having none of Kincaid’s veiled threats and makes no bones about telling Kincaid.

As Santana digs deeper into not only the death of Rafferty but also other deaths by drowning, he discovers the story gets more exciting and complicated.  Bone Shadows is an exceptionally good read and a great addition to the John Santana series.  The series can be read out of order without a problem but to really get to know Santana it is best to start at the beginning.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, October 2012.

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Say You're SorrySay You’re Sorry
Michael Robotham
Mulholland Books, October 2012
ISBN No. 978-0-316-22124-5
Hardcover

Say You’re Sorry is a gripping story of two young girls who became known to the public as the “Bingham Girls”.  Bingham is a small English village and the girls had attended a local funfair the night of their disappearance.  There are rumors that Piper Hadley and Tash McBain ran away.  Although hundreds of people were searching for Piper and Tash it seemed as though the girls just vanished into thin air.  Eventually the public eye moved on to other news.

Piper Hadley tells the girls’ side of the story.  Piper reveals to the reader the horrors faced by the two girls, as they are held captive in an unknown location.  The horrors suffered by the girls are so bad it is a wonder that they were able to hold onto their sanity.  They are convinced that working together at least one of the girls can escape and bring help back for the one left behind.

Three years later, after a blizzard hits the town, a husband and wife are found murdered in a farmhouse.  The farmhouse is where Tash McBain had lived at the time of her disappearance.  Her family had moved away and the murder victims had no connection to Tash other than the fact that they lived in Tash’s former home.

When Joe O’Loughlin, clinical psychologist, is asked by the police to help in solving this double murder he gets the feeling that the murders are connected in some way to the missing girls.  Joe and ex-cop Vincent Ruiz persuade the police to reopen the investigation into the disappearance of the two girls.

The book skips back and forth between the current investigation and the thoughts of Piper Hadley still being held captive.  The characters are strong, the story moves swiftly, and keeps the reader’s interest every step of the way.  I can’t wait to read more books by Michael Robotham.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, November 2012.