Book Reviews: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater and Wild Lily by K.M. Peyton

All the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-93080-2
Hardcover

This story of the Soria family comes to you courtesy of quite the natty narrator. Conveyed in a quirky, yet compelling cadence, the tone is objective, but not unaffected. A twist on the third person point-of-view, presents a storyteller that isn’t simply reading the lines, but rather speaking with familiarity and fondness and perhaps, a hint of pride.

The small Colorado settlement of Bicho Raro is presently packed with pilgrims and the three young Soria cousins are puzzling over the predicament. On the surface, it looks like folks are seriously searching for answers; but upon closer inspection, they seem stubborn and somewhat silly not to consider the correctness of their query.

Here in the Colorado desert, radio waves reach for transistors as miracles search for saints and owls migrate towards the miracles. Previously, people would pop in for the magic, then proceed along life’s path. They still come, but now…no one leaves.

The cousins watch their kin drag themselves through the same dull, daily routines; following tired, old procedures while the pilgrims lurk about listlessly. Instead of answers though, each cousin comes up with a distinctly different (and slightly disturbing) question. Separately and secretly, they set out to seek solutions with the single goal of restoring Bicho Raro.

While the situations in All the Crooked Saints stem from fantasy and folklore, they nevertheless relate to real-life ruts. Interspersed with Spanish and Stiefvater-sly humor, the story has a subtle, sneaky effect. A pleasure to read, plenty to ponder, it is perfect for the Young Adult audience; but, I predict this story will resonate with all readers of all ages.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2017.

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Wild Lily
K.M. Peyton
David Fickling Books, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-08160-2
Hardcover

It is not typical, particularly in 1921, for a soon-to-be-seventeen-year-old to causally request an airplane for his birthday.  Antony’s English home, however, is eccentric at its tamest.  His father grants permission.  The mostly absent, mysterious man who makes mountains of money, is an indulgent single parent.  His only sibling is constantly chaperoned by her nurse-maids, so Antony has learned to enthusiastically embrace his freedom and entertain himself.

Care-free, full of fun and wholly inclusive, Antony does have a certain appeal.  On the other hand, his fierce focus on only a couple of arbitrary, short-term goals coupled with his disdain and dismissal of any actual problem, makes it difficult to qualify his redeeming qualities.

Lily is genuinely good.  Wearing responsibility like a second skin, she is raising her baby brother and working on her father’s gardening crew.  She bears her burdens intuitively, refusing to allow them to tame her ferocious appetite for life and furious joy for adventure.  At the tender age of thirteen, Lily has a laundry list of admirable traits.

Inexplicably, Lily is unquestionably in love with Antony.  Although this curious commitment could carry the story (it’s so beautifully written, I bet Ms. Peyton’s grocery lists are poetic), Wild Lily is not a romance.  Ample action and adventure balance brilliantly with tragedy, compassion and caring.  Mayhem, and maybe murder, make for a fast-pace and simple twists invoke suspense.

I found this to be an enjoyable and engrossing book.  When it ended, I was pleased and mostly satisfied.  Writing this review, however, made something click.  My perspective broadened and suddenly I understood Lily better. Now, I love her even more.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

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Book Reviews: The Knowing by Sharon Cameron and Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

The Knowing
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-94524-0
Hardcover

Hundreds of years ago, a select group—the brightest, some would say “the best”—humans exited Earth to populate a new planet in pursuit of a better life, for the people and even their habitat, this time. Regression would be the new progression, technology would be eliminated, to a certain extent, of course and mankind and mother nature would blissfully coexist. The socio-economic experiment was a success, but eventually the folks of the Canaan Project stopped responding to their counterparts on Earth. The fate of the colony became a constant scientific conundrum.

Both of Beckett’s parents worked tirelessly towards answers. For as long as he could remember his dad spoke passionately of the Canaan Project, ruminating possibilities and fantasizing of finding ruins. Being a curious and intelligent young man, Beckett also studied all available information and developed his own theories and hopes for the lost civilization. So, when their ship (finally) landed, actual exploration imminent, Beckett felt that his father was free to search for artifacts, but he believed in bigger discoveries. Beckett expected a close encounter of the evolved-human kind.

His field-trip-partner/friend-for-years, Jillian, accompanies him to map their routes while he gathers information. As data is submitted and instructions are received, Beckett begins to question the goal of this mission. Certain information has been deliberately withheld as a manipulation maneuver. Beckett does not know who to trust, but he’s sure that he’ll need help to get himself and anyone else that comes along, to safety.

Sometimes, even in fiction, there are lessons to be learned. When an absolutely fantastical tale illuminates misunderstandings and malintent while highlighting characters filled with only good intentions, that is the true magic of phenomenal sci-fi and Ms. Cameron is quite the conjurer. The Knowing is a companion to Ms. Cameron’s The Forgetting; you can pick it up today and dive right in without feeling lost…but you really should check out The Forgetting, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

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Honestly Ben
Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, April 2017
ISBN 978-0545858267
Hardcover

Ben is considerate, thoughtful and enviably introspective beyond his years.  He is also an adorably awkward, adolescent farm-boy attending an all-boys boarding school, on scholarship.  As the first Junior to be captain of the baseball team, the recipient of a prestigious award (the acceptance of which requires a speech) and a student struggling with calculus and sexual identity, Ben’s mind is full.  No time to contemplate how a straight guy could have crushed so hard on a gay dude.

The charismatic, somewhat quirky, and undeniably adorable, Hannah, is the perfect girlfriend, after all.  Confident in his heterosexuality, Ben is ready to spend time with his best friend, Rafe, again.  Once every single thing is in its respective, proper place, nothing is quite right.  As Ben realizes that there can be more than one right answer and certainly more than two options, he begins to speak out instead of turning away.  His confidence is inspiring and contagious with unexpected results.

Mr. Konigsberg deftly demonstrates the challenges and misconceptions that so many homosexual, bisexual, and gender-fluid teenagers are forced to face.  Honestly Ben is a spot-on, spectacular Young Adult read.  I will be donating my copy to my favorite HS classroom, of course.  This is too important for a limited audience; I’m hopeful that there will be many adult readers.  I can’t be the only one capable of being captivated and compelled by Ben Carver.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

Book Review: Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Lucky in Love
Kasie West
Scholastic Press, July 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-05801-7
Hardcover

No matter how hard Maddie works, no matter how much she worries about her family and academic situations, things don’t get any better. Her dad’s been out of work for several years, her mom works double shifts, her older brother dropped out of college and hides in his room. There are times when she feels like a hamster on a giant warped wheel and no matter how fast she runs or how much she studies, it’s as though the river of life is pulling her backward.

When a convenience store clerk convinces her to buy a Powerball ticket on her 18th birthday, she has zero expectation of winning, but she does. Thirty million is her lump sum payout. After giving her parents and brother a million each and paying off the mortgage on the family home, she thinks things will be okay. Hardly. There’s an increase of parental fighting, her brother’s dishonesty overwhelms her and she’s confused about who’s really a friend as opposed to who just wants her to throw cash at them,

The more Maddie tries to figure out who she can trust, the greater her paranoia becomes and her behavior and ability to think rationally get more messed up. The line between friendship and opportunistic greediness in those around her becomes completely blurred. Maddie loses her ability to recognize what’s real, leading her to lash out at Seth Nguyen, the one person not affected by her new wealth and her co-worker at the nearby zoo. It takes a very upsetting incident involving a newspaper article and a near meltdown confrontation with friends and family before the ship called Maddie can start sailing properly again. In the process, Maddie learns some valuable lessons, mainly that family might be messy, but is very important and that some people are worth risking yourself for. Watching how all this unfolds and what she learns is an interesting journey.

I’ve read all of Kasie West‘s books and this was as satisfying as the rest of them.

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

Book Reviews: Exo by Fonda Lee, R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel and The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

Exo
Fonda Lee
Scholastic Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-93343-8
Hardcover

Peace Day may be quickly approaching, but a battle is about to go down while something more sinister, bigger, bubbles beneath. Tension between the Global Security & Pacification Forces (SecPac) and humans is palpable; the humans’ hatred, disgust and raw fury with the zhree is tangible, yet they plan to celebrate a century of coexistence.  Coexistence applies to the fifteen percent of mankind approved to exist among the zhree.  The remaining eighty-five percent faded into shadows of themselves or morphed into fierce, determined resistance fighters.

Having survived the Hardening process that transforms a zhree-approved human child into an exo, the only son of the Prime Liaison appears as a firmly committed SecPac soldier.  Donovan is confident and unquestioning in his fight against human rebels; until a raid goes wrong.  Held hostage where humans are the apex species, his perspective shifts.  It becomes impossible to see the individuals around him as the cohesive, carbon-copy-collection he has been fighting against.  What he fought for blurs out of focus.  Who he really is becomes crystal clear: not human enough for mankind, “nothing but human” to the zhree. Although it feels as if everything is different now, one thing is very much the same: the entire planet is in danger and Donovan is helpless as a hostage.

Exo is a brilliant example of Science-Fiction feeling oh-so-real.  Ms. Lee packs powerful punches in action scenes, soothes with sympathy in some situations, but bites with wit and humor in others.  Entertaining, empathy evoking, surprisingly relatable and utterly thought provoking, this is a book for everyone; not just Science-Fiction fans.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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R.I.P Eliza Hart
Alyssa Sheinmel
Scholastic Press, December 2017
ISBN 978-0-338-08762-8
Hardcover

The appeal of the convenient, all-access “…narrow streets on the narrow island of Manhattan” is almost irrelevant for someone uncomfortable (at best) in enclosed spaces. Hopeful that her home state would help her open doors that claustrophobia kept firmly closed, Ellie accepts a scholarship to attend a tiny boarding school buffered by redwoods, opening wide above the Pacific Ocean.

Alone, Ellie explores the other dorms. A parental accompaniment would have been cool, but her issues have taken up too much of their time anyway. She will make friends here, none of these students know of her problems. Actually, she even sees a name she knows and suddenly, Ellie has something to look forward to: reconnecting with Eliza Hart.

Awkwardness should be the worse-case-scenario. Eliza may not have fond memories of her former childhood friend, she may not even remember Ellie at all. Appearing angry and almost personally offended that Ellie dare approach her, Eliza obviously loathes Ellie. In fact, she’s already told everyone on campus that Ellie is a vicious, pathological liar and students should simply steer clear.

Stunned, shattered, struggling with her sanity, Ellie has to know why. Even as Eliza’s body is recovered from the cliffside and speculations swirl around campus, Ellie cannot stop searching for answers. As she uncovers Eliza’s best kept secret, Ellie’s own repression is revealed, changing her perspective on absolutely everything.

R.I.P. Eliza Hart is an outstanding YA novel because, as narrators of their own stories, Eliza and Ellie explain actualities of mental illness in a way that everyone can understand and empathize with. Misconceptions, such as medicine plus therapy equal a cure, are corrected…without sounding like a somber after-school-special. And the awesome element of something decidedly different, redwood burl poachers.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

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The Forgetting
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94521-9
Hardcover

Imagine awaking with no knowledge of who you are. You don’t know your name, or age.  None of your surroundings are familiar. The distraught children barricaded inside with you are strangers, but the look of terror covering each little face reflects how you feel. They, too, have Forgotten.

In the white-walled world of Canaan, you carry your life story with you in the most literal way: hand-written in a journal kept close (if not tethered) at all times.  Every moment lived will be written down accurately and truthfully.  When one journal is filled, it is maintained in the Archives. Histories—both individual and collective—are compiled and preserved here; a necessity based on an inexplicable, yet infallible, occurrence that robs the residents of their memories every twelve years.

Every rule has an exception and here, it is Nadia.  Having been a child during her first Forgetting, she still realized how different she was.  She did not Forget.  Admirably altruistic, cunning and courageous, this character could carry the story.  A grudging acceptance to partner with Gray, the Glassblower’s Son, subtly shows her softer side and adds a bit more urgency and suspense to an already captivating caper.

The real scoop is revealed like ripples in a pond. The grab-your-attention-splash of the impending Forgetting expands into a more complex mystery.  Perhaps it is the limited memory, or maybe life without modern conveniences keeps people too busy to ponder, but; no one seems to question the wall around the city.  Again, except for Nadia.  She’s been over the wall and noted differences.  In her city, stone is jagged—as if freshly broken or cut.  The other side of wall has stone that has been worn smooth.  She wonders, “…does the wall protect us, or keep us in?”

Already intrigued by the idea of a periodic, mass-memory-erase, I became completely captivated considering circumstances that could have resulted in the walled city.  My wildest imagination is not even comparable to Ms. Cameron’s creative genius; I was astounded.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2017.

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.

Book Reviews: Run by Kody Keplinger and Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

Run
Kody Keplinger
Scholastic Press, July 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-83113-0
Hardcover

To say that Agnes and Bo are polar opposites would be grossly overstating their similarities….at least at first glance.  It is difficult to imagine what the serene, docile blind girl would discuss with the most promiscuous wild-child in the small southern town.  It is initially inconceivable that the two would form a bond built on trust and whole-hearted acceptance.  Run isn’t a SnapChat view of two teenagers’ lives.  Ms. Keplinger uses a wide lens to clearly capture the vast and complicated contributing factors that affect not only how other people see the girls; but also their own perceptions of themselves.

That is not to say, however, that this is a dark and heavy tome.  Contrarily, I found this to be immediately irresistible and I ended up reading the book in one day.   It is so easy to become immersed, then invested in a story that is told from two points of view.  Ms. Keplinger spins the tale in that fashion, with a fantastic little tense twist.  True to her very core, Bo’s side of the story is happening right now, present tense, in your face—exactly the way she lives her life.  Agnes takes us back—remembering, yes….but also, considering and contemplating.

While I hesitate to use comparisons in reviews, I genuinely feel that I would be remiss if I did not say: this story, to me, feels important in an Eleanor and Park kind of way.  Although it is undeniably Bo and Agnes’ story; their parents do play a key role.  Just like the teens; adults can be guilty of making and sticking to snap judgments.  Also alongside adolescents; adults have plenty of room to grow.  I’ve no doubt Run will have mass appeal in the YA world and I’m pretty confident that there are plenty of Not-So-Young Adults that will dig it, too.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2016.

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Death in the Tunnel
A British Library Crime Classic
Miles Burton
Poisoned Pen Press, May 2016
ISBN 978-1-4642-0581-1
Trade Paperback

First of all, a short synopsis: Sir Wilfred Saxonby dies as he takes the five o’clock train home. He’s in a locked compartment, shot through the heart by one bullet, the pistol that fired it under his own seat. His death seems straightforward enough, the only odd thing being the fact the train was traveling through a long tunnel at the time. A very noisy, very dark tunnel. And there were the mysterious lights the engineer and fireman saw on the tracks, changing from red, which slowed the train, to green again, when the train sped up.

Was Sir Wilfred’s death suicide, or was it murder?

That is the question posed to Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard. Terribly puzzled himself, Arnold calls in Desmond Merrion, an amateur expert on criminology. Together they set out to discover the truth in this convoluted plot.

See. No spoilers.

Death in the Tunnel was first published in 1936, the author contemporaneous with Agatha Christie. The plot plods, in my most humble opinion, although the premise is classically intriguing. The characters never really come alive, composed, for the most part, of talking heads. I never really see them. The action, what there is of it, seems constrained. Nobody, even the dead man’s children, seems to care all that much.

Writing styles come and go. Perhaps the British version of that day was more stilted, although Christie, Sayers, Creasey, among others, always struck me a writers of good stories. American author Mabel Seeley, from the same era, brought the reader into her characters’ world, always with a sense of danger involved.

As a puzzle concept, Death in the Tunnel, delivers. As a rousing good story, I can only say, “Not for me.”

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: Frost by M.P. Kozlowsky

Frost
M.P. Kozlowsky
Scholastic Press, October 2016
ISBN: 978-0-545-83191-8
Hardcover

She lives on the 23rd floor of a decaying building, dependent upon Romes, her broot, for companionship while Bunt, the robot who sometimes cedes control to the memory chip containing her father’s memories and identity, scavenges in an ever wider circle for food, fuel and other necessities.

This is Frost’s reality. She’s lived in the same room for as long as she can remember, with only vague memories of what life was like before disaster hit her world. When it did, utilities failed, buildings were destroyed, robots began going rogue and most human survivors turned into Eaters, flesh-devouring creatures who were so desperate for meat, they even devoured parts of themselves. Her own mother became one and was banished from the apartment after eating one of her husband’s fingers.

What little Frost knows about her current world comes from looking longingly toward Brooklyn where a mysterious blue light shines at night. At those times when her father takes over Bunt’s functions, she learns dribs and drabs, like the possibility that there’s a safe haven under the blue light. When Romes gets so weak he can no longer eat or stand, Frost is determined to get him to the mysterious blue haven in order to get him get well. Despite her father’s pleas to stay put, she gathers her courage and orders Bunt to help her get Romes down 23 flights of stairs and head off to find the help.

It’s an arduous journey, one that comes with multiple threats, attacks and an encounter with a father and son surviving in a jury-rigged play area in what’s called the Zone, an area where nature has reclaimed the terrain faster than others. Further along, she must deal with capture by John Lord’s men, a mix of humans and robots who are controlled by a mysterious individual who is rarely seen.

Frost is faced with her first contact with someone human who also happens to be her age, the deteriorating condition of her beloved pet and her growing horror as she learns just how bad conditions are for those under John Lord’s control and the gradual realization of her father’s role in the disaster that destroyed her world. These should be more than enough emotional bombshells for a teenager raised in isolation. However, there are more in store for Frost near the end of the book, the biggest dealing with who she is.

I enjoyed reading the book, but felt that it started to unravel in the last few chapters. This was in part due to the author trying to pack so much into the story line and because some things weren’t wrapped up well. For instance, it felt like things were left unfinished between Frost and Flynn, the boy she met in the Zone. Still a fast-paced and, for the most part, enjoyable read.

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