Book Review: Damselfly by Chandra Prasad

Damselfly
Chandra Prasad
Scholastic Press, April 2018
ISBN 978-0-545-90792-7
Hardcover

This book wastes no time pulling readers into the plot. Samantha, a scholarship student at a fancy private school comes to in pain and disoriented. The last thing she remembers is an unexpected landing of the private jet she and the other members of the school fencing team made on their way to Japan for a tournament. More details come to her as she begins searching for her best friend, Mel and finding the body of another male team member begins what becomes a twisting tale of survival and suspense on what they eventually realize is an isolated tropical island and that there’s nothing usable remaining from the jet after it crashed. As the two best friends encounter other team members, Mel, with Samantha’s help, tries to bring order to the group by assigning chores, educating the others about the importance of maintaining their water supply without contaminating it, what plants are edible and the need to keep a signal fire lit at all times.

It’s not long before ugliness sets in, some due to teen hormones and the social structure back at the school, but more from racial issues, in this instance, reverse racism. Add in issues of ecology, a strange creature stalking the teens, selfishness plus mental illness and you have a virtual stew pot of impending disaster. The story will remind many readers of a modern day version of Lord of the Flies. As things go further and further south, the division among the teens widens, then fractures. After a couple tragedies, Sam and Mel finally realize that saving the group is beyond their power and they must come up with an alternative that will save themselves. Read the book to see how they accomplish it.

It’s an overall good story. I have a couple very minor quibbles. I would have liked more exploration of the relationship between siblings Rittika and Rish, as well as whether Sam and Mel’s friendship had hidden layers.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, October 2018.

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Book Reviews: Untwine by Edwidge Danticat and Courage and Defiance by Deborah Hopkinson

Untwine
Edwidge Danticat
Scholastic Press, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-42303-8
Hardcover

Preamble be damned, Untwine begins in the present and with purpose. Mum and Dad aren’t getting along. Identical teen-aged twin girls are tight, but right now, each is feeling a bit out of sorts. Everyone in the family car, each in a funk. And they are running late. Suddenly–another vehicle slams into them. The tightly knit family is shattered; metaphorically and then, quite literally.

Realistic fiction with a fresh focus features a situation that anyone can relate to. Rather than opening with an obligatory, typical-teen-turning-point type of event, it’s a regular day and a random accident. With all the ripple effects. Giselle relays events to the reader, moving both backward and forward, but in a fluid kind of way—painting the picture piece by piece.

Ms. Danticat’s story struck me as unique in a couple of ways. First, I felt a solid sense of loss for someone I’ve never known. Not sadness, sympathy or empathy; but an actual aching emptiness, and all for a character the author doesn’t even introduce. Second, subtle nuances–almost behind-the-scenes actions, that demonstrate strength and support of extended family I found to be both impressive and inspiring.

Mum and Dad, each with a sibling, immigrated from Haiti to the U.S. and they made their home in Miami. The accident brings the twins’ maternal aunt, as well as their father’s brother, to the hospital and straight to Giselle’s bedside. When Giselle is released from the hospital, she has rigid, ridiculous rules to follow, but they are for real. If she wants her brain to heal, that means no screens whatsoever, no reading, and no writing. Everyone else has their own injuries, so grand-parents come from Haiti to help out.

A sad story, with subtle silver linings, is simply the best.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2018.

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Courage & Defiance:
Stories of Spies, Saboteurs and Survivors in World War II Denmark
Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-59220-8
Hardcover

In April of 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and the quiet, common thread running through the Danish people was plucked. If ever there was a more resilient, resolved and remarkably sympathetic collection of human beings, they are unknown to me. Ms. Hopkinson honestly portrays the dangers of dismal, every-day-life under occupation as well as the cruelty and despair of concentration camps, simultaneously displaying the intuitive empathy and bravery of the Danes.

What strikes me the most is that each person has an individual ‘line he will cross’ while still doing his level best to resist, if not fight, against the gruesome German goals. That is, until learning of Hitler’s plan to round up and relocate Danish Jews to concentration camps. The unspoken, unanimous decision to prevent this was almost palpable as plans for moving Jewish Danes to Sweden were formed.

I do not have the ability to aptly convey the reasons that I will be highly recommending this non-fiction nugget, so I’ll just leave you with this: reading Courage and Defiance reminds me of the quote that Mr. Rogers would share from his childhood. When he would see scary things in the news, his mother advised, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

Book Review: The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Scourge
Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-68245-9
Hardcover

River people are derogatorily referred to as “grubs” and in retaliation, they only address townspeople as “pinchworms”. It is true that the folks outside of town prefer their own company and way of life. It is also accurate to say they’ve been ostracized, blamed for being the source and spreaders of the Scourge, stealing so many lives hundreds of years ago.

Ani Mells is a proud river person known to create a touch of trouble wherever she goes. Perhaps a bit stubborn and quite possibly prejudiced against pinchworms; she is also intuitively kind, driven to do the right thing and ferociously loyal. When she and her best bud, Weevil, are essentially abducted and hauled into town, she is too furious to question the reasoning.

Told that they needed to be tested for the recently resurrected Scourge, Ani was initially wary and so she asked questions. Answers, if provided at all, were vague and almost illogical. Not only does Ani doubt the townspeople’s truth about the plague, but she suspects something sinister afoot. She is determined to get the bottom of it, but Governor Felling and her guards have to stop her. Weevil wants what Ani wants and the two together may just have a chance to end the heinous political plan that is so horrific I won’t even hint about it here.

This fantastical, action-packed adventure also shows personal growth and change, along with some quick wit and humorous banter. I’m completely charmed and in awe of characters that possess admirable and attainable attributes while still being wholly human and making silly mistakes and an occasional dumb decision along the way. Ms. Nielsen must keep in the company of wizards because there’s way too much magic in her writing for it to made of only hard work and mad skills.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

Book Review: It’s All Your Fault by Paul Rudnick

It’s All Your Fault
Paul Rudnick
Scholastic Press, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-46428-4
Hardcover

You’ve all heard the expression ‘deer in the headlights.” Imagine a homeschooled teen who’s so sheltered and Christian, she comes with her own portable headlights because she’s constantly barraged by what-ifs. Meet Caitlin, one of a gaggle of siblings whose names all begin with C and are part of a gospel pop group known as the Singing Singleberrys. Life at home is so squeaky clean that she even worries about just thinking about impure thoughts. In addition, she’s obsessed with being perfect, a good Christian role model and suffers from serious anxiety attacks. She overcompensates for imagined sins and failures by doing things like applying to a dozen colleges for fear she’ll never get into any of them. In short, she’s a sweet mess, but with good reasons that unfold as the story progresses.

One thing she hasn’t done is have any contact with her cousin Heller since an afternoon when Heller’s impulsive and selfish behavior almost killed Caitlin. Every time she remembers that afternoon, she has to fight off another wave of panic. Before the disaster, the girls were best friends, with Heller usually involved in something outlandish in an effort to help Caitlin break loose from her own head.

When Caitlin is summoned to the breakfast table by her mom, the last person she expects to see sitting there is her aunt Nancy, Heller’s mother. The sisters haven’t talked to each other since the tragedy, so Caitlin immediately suspects something’s up. It is, but in ways far beyond her wildest imagination.

Cousin Heller, fresh out of rehab, is in need of a chaperone for the weekend so she can be kept out of trouble during the events leading up to the premiere of Angel Wars a movie based on a trilogy that has most of the world buzzing. Heller plays the lead female, but unless she’s kept in check for three days, it could well be her last role ever, hence the desperate appeal by her aunt and Caitlin’s mother.

Armed with the imagined righteousness of God, Caitlin agrees, expecting that with the force of goodness behind her, she’ll be able to resist evil and make Heller see the error of her ways. Well, we all know how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This time it’s a brand new superhighway, with Heller driving a Ferrari.

The weekend involves Caitlin discovering hot guys, the impossibility of saying no, jail, body art, invading a cupcake factory, making a thirteen year old cancer survivor’s wishes come wildly true and a new way for both Caitlin and Heller to see each other’s inner workings.

Yes, Caitlin seems over the top goody goody at times and will annoy some readers, but stick around for the full story and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. I liked it a lot.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, June 2018.

Book Review: Velocity by Chris Wooding

Velocity
Chris Wooding
Scholastic Press, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-94494-6
Hardcover

With an almost-manic-joy bubbling beneath the determined calm needed for navigation, Velocity takes off; tearing through teeth-rattling turns and bone-jarring twists. The tale of the unprecedented quick-track that takes Cassica and Shiara from racing the “unofficial boondocks circuit” to a qualifier for the Widowmaker, “the most hotly contested rally in the world”, flies faster than Maisie. Try not to take it too quickly though, lest you miss the interspersed clever, cutting humor and gradual growth of the girls, both as individuals and as a team.

Admittedly, I was seriously psyched to be reading about a female rally-car team. Being familiar with rally racing because it was something that another author I admire, Maggie Stiefvater, participated in; I believe her words describe it best, “…when the co-driver and driver are working perfectly together, you can hurtle along blindly, much faster than a) someone without notes or b) someone with common sense.” Certainly, Cassica and Shiara are tighter than twin sisters.

Shiara’s family had taken in Cassica when the girls were very young and while Cassica didn’t share Shiara’s fondness for tinkering and building cars, such as their beloved mongrel of so many different parts, Maisie, she happily hopped behind the wheel. While they shared so much, each had her own dream. One would be more than content to continue racing the tracks here in Coppermouth while the other yearns for…so much more.

Sometimes, helping your best friend achieve her dream means more than anything, even if the effort is not wholly altruistic. So, in spite of her skepticism, Shiara agrees to accept an unsolicited offer for sponsorship and management for a chance to qualify for the pinnacle of Maximum Racing season. Cassica is quickly dazzled and swept up in the glamour while Shiara is surlier than usual and even more suspicious than her teammate can stomach. It’s soon apparent that the terrifying tracks are only a small part of the danger that the duo will face. Suddenly, the girls are in so deep that no one can help them. They truly only have each other—or maybe not even that, anymore.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2017.

Book Review: The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah

The Lines We Cross
Randa Abdel-Fattah
Scholastic Press, May 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-11866-7
Hardcover

My tongue is tripping over the terrifically timely topics touched in The Lines We Cross.  Universally relevant, remarkably well written; my personal recommendation for required reading resonates with me in an invigorating, inspirational way.

Generally, offspring look up to their parents, seeing them as large-and-in-charge with all the answers.  Beyond that, there is an inherent knowledge: parents are good people.  (My reminder to myself when first meeting Michael) an amiable, ill-informed adolescent supporting his parents’ new political party, Aussie Values.  And, it’s not as if his parents oppose Australia accepting refugees, after all.  Provided the emigrants are truly fleeing persecution (as opposed to those pesky “economic refugees”’) and they arrive via the magical queue, of course.

Then, Michael meets Mina.

Yes, it is a boy-meets-girl story; but in a boy-meets-radioactive-spider kind of way.

Mina and her mother had come to Auburn, Australia from Afghanistan ten years ago.  Forced to flee Taliban occupation among horrific loss, the two persist and painstakingly, rebuild their life.  A scholarship allowing Mina to attend eleventh grade at one of Australia’s top schools, affects the entire small family.  They choose to move their residence, along with the family restaurant to Melbourne.

Starting a new school is rarely easy.  Going from “…a kaleidoscope of cultures and ethnicities,” to being a “…cultural diversity mascot,” could be unbearable. For someone who has been smuggled out of a war zone, lived in a refugee camp, traveled on a leaky boat and spent months locked in detention, it was merely infuriating.

Not wanting the role of ‘refugee myth-buster’, but being too smart and courageous to keep quiet, Mina may seem too mature, thoughtful, compassionate and well-spoken to be a typical teen, but because I have the privilege of actually spending time with high school seniors, I can say that this is a spot-on representation. Ms. Abdel-Fattah has brilliantly broken-down misconceptions without beating down people to present one of the most important books I have ever read.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2017

Book Reviews: Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed and One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman

Love, Hate and Other Filters
Samira Ahmed
Soho Teen, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-847-3
Hardcover

First and foremost, this book is exquisitely authored. Beautiful, not in a flowery, colorful sort of way; but rather in a raw, natural, simple-yet-stunning kind of way. And so, a snap-shot of Maya’s senior year: dating, spring break, planning for college…as an Indian Muslim American…would be wholly satisfying, entirely engaging and enlightening. But it would only scratch the surface. With a wide lens, Ms. Ahmed provides perspective; contrived categories soften into truer compilations.

To most of Maya’s peers, her parents are almost unreasonably strict. Maya may secretly agree, but at least they “aren’t exactly the fire-and-brimstone types”.  Aware of her family’s (limited) leniencies, Maya is surprised when Kareem, a desi Muslim, has a glass of wine. But, as he points out, “…it’s not like I eat pork.” More importantly, he is not a white American boy. Like Philip.

And so, the scene is set.

But, a somber tone seeps through. Snippets of seething anger and frustration simmer to a frenzied, desperate desire for revenge. Building tension becomes tangible. An explosion is imminent.

The inundation of information immediately following a blow-up is, unfortunately, often inaccurate and incomplete. Even more egregious, these initial errors are what people tend to remember. By the time facts have been collected and the whole, true story can be told; no one is there to listen. Life goes on, public perception remains unchanged.

Except for the person presumed guilty. And his family. Or everyone with his last name.

Love, Hate and Other Filters is the rest of the story and it is relatable and relevant.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2018.

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One Silver Summer
Rachel Hickman
Scholastic Press, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-80892-7
Hardcover

Despite knowing full well that I was reading-for-review, I became so caught up in the very love story that little-girl-me always dreamed of, that I devoured this book like a starved Cookie Monster demolishes cookies.  Even at this frantic pace, I was aware of the ‘something more’ to the story—hints were subtle, yet almost undeniable—perhaps somewhat subliminal.

One Silver Summer is more than the whole-hearted-head-over-heels love story of a shattered girl and a stunning, spirited mare.  There are mysteries to be solved: what horrific happening has sent Sass across the pond to live with the uncle she only just learned of?  Maybe that’s moot.  Perhaps this was her path all along—the past has a tendency to come back, after all.

The guarded groomsman, Alexander, is a bit of a mystery himself.  To Sass, his mannerisms don’t seem to fit his position, although understanding hierarchy is not her forte—no need for that in New York City.  His moods shifts are also perplexing.  Sometimes he seems relaxed and happy with company, while other times he’s oddly secretive and suspicious.

Sass and the silver horse are certainly central, but Alexander, his quite proper British grandmother, and affable artist, Uncle David, take the tome to another level.  A love story in the broadest sense: fondness developing among family members just getting familiar; the unconditional, admiring adoration between grandparent and grandchild; forbidden love, lost in a flash (but with a lingering fondness); and love formed from empathy and nostalgia.

Also, this is a story of learning to separate who you are from a persona based solely on other people’s perceptions.  A reminder of the need to be flexible, reflective and always open-minded.  An understanding that even adults must continue to grow, to adapt—not to survive, but to thrive.  A narrative of hope and heartbreak that is fantastically fabulous.  Immediately after reading the very last words, Acknowledgements and About the Author; I turned to the first page and read the entire book again.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2017.