Book Reviews: A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib and Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson @SaraBLarson @Scholastic @rajiahassib @VikingBooks

A Pure Heart
Rajia Hassib
Viking, August 2019
ISBN 978-0-525-56005-0
Hardcover

The Gubran family led a normal, content life in Cairo. Rose and Gigi were, to Rose’s thinking, the best friends that sisters are meant to be. There would always be quarrels, but nothing to break their bond. Even as they age, pursue further education, broaden their horizons with new people and ways of life; they would surely stick together.

Thinking back, though, maybe Rose hadn’t been so supportive. Or remotely open-minded. As Gigi grew more devout and adopted some Muslim customs that Rose considered outdated; rather than addressing it with Gigi, Rose silently stewed, waiting for her little sis to ‘come to her senses’. Perhaps if she’d attempted to understand—sincerely—they may never have agreed, but neither would they have grown apart. Maybe.

Younger siblings seem to live in someone else’s shadow, making self-discovery slightly more difficult. Delving deeper into her religion may have been the best way for Gigi to create her own light. She can almost understand why her parents essentially ignore the changes they have to see in her, but Gigi is stunned when her family makes no effort to understand her disappointment and dismay with her elder sister.

First, Rose decides to marry an American. To leave Egypt for the United States. She took his last name. Her sister should be “Dr. Gubran”, as she’s always dreamed. Proudly bearing the name of the family that supported her throughout, not the surname of some folks from West Virginia.

Unless…

Did Rose make those allowances for love? That, Gigi can understand. She, too, has chosen the love of a man, but over objections from her parents and friends. Gigi may not have made the best choice, but she doesn’t know that yet. Instead, she simply sees similarities between her love-life and Rose’s. She was pleased to, once again, have something in common.

Happiness for herself is short-lived. She feels sad for Rose, who doesn’t know about this connection. Gigi envisions sharing the secret she’s carried alone for years.  She must mend her relationship with Rose. She knows the perfect place to start. The American brother-in-law will be staying with her family while he is conducting interviews in Egypt for an upcoming article. Gigi vows to go above and beyond to assist him.

That is the decision that will ultimately change all of their lives.

Reading Rajia Hassib‘s A Pure Heart is like watching a moonflower unfurl, as dusk darkens, until the almost-iridescent, snowy-white bloom is wide open against the pitch-black night.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

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Dark Breaks the Dawn
Dark Breaks the Dawn #1
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06869-6
Hardcover

Dark and Light were meant to exist independently, yet harmoniously. This provides and maintains balance for the world. Only, the rulers of Dark want more. They are determined take away the magic of Light and have waged war.

That very war has already taken Princess Evelayn’s father, and is currently keeping Queen Ilaria away from home. But (finally) the day of Evelayn’s 18th birthday arrives. The “18th” being of upmost importance as the ability to access full power has proven dangerous when wielded by immature beings. Evelayn has been impatiently awaiting this day since the moment she found out that the “more” she craved was not just possible, but promised.

So, that’s a pretty big deal, but there is something that pushes its way past the magic thing. The queen has promised to return for Evelayn’s special day. Even though the trip will take her from the frontlines, where she has been battling alongside the kingdom’s best soldiers.

And herein lies my first favorite thing: Royal Court receives pampering and protection during normal, every-day activities only. When it is time to fight, no one is expected to be more ferocious and fearless than the leaders.

Having always taken her physical training seriously, Evelayn can more than hold her own in a fight. And, the princess of Light has mastered the mask—the stoic expression that is to reveal nothing of her thoughts or feelings. Albeit not always employed, she is also able to perform her duties with the courtesy and politeness expected by her parents. Yet, she is nowhere near ready to replace her mother; Evelayn can’t even shift.

As day breaks, Evelayn awaits the arrival of her full power and her mother, while Dark prepares the grand finale. Step one being to kill Queen Ilaria.  Without the conduit, the people of Light will not be able to access individual powers.

The magic may be restored. It’s just a small matter of Evelayn becoming Queen, performing the requisite ceremony with her high priestesses, then accessing and redistributing. In three days. If it doesn’t go down, exactly right, in that tiny time window, there is an opportunity for Dark to steal the magic for themselves.

Ms. Larson is not afraid to hit the ground running (really) in her magic-filled-fantasy, Dark Breaks the Dawn. I may not have fully understood everything at first, but that couldn’t keep me from franticly flipping pages to find out what’s next. Just as the big picture was coming into view, I smugly ‘figured out’ how this tale would end.

I was wrong. Now I’m off to find a copy of Ms. Larson’s Bright Burns the Night because I haven’t had nearly enough of this world.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

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Book Reviews: Overturned by Lamar Giles and The Histronauts: An Egyptian Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke @LRGiles @Scholastic @HistoriaFrankie @JollyFishPress

Overturned
Lamar Giles
Scholastic Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-81250-4
Hardcover

I am always seeking books that will immediately intrigue ‘my’ students. Many times, I’ve been sucked into a suspense-filled, action-packed, heart-pumping mystery…surrounding a subject they could not care less about. Aptly, of course, young adults are not the intended audience—I am.

But.

Young adult readers deserve thrilling books.

Mr. Giles seems pleased to provide. And now, I may be the only person looking forward to school starting. I cannot wait to share Overturned.

The setting: the very casino where 16-year-old Nikki Tate works…as well as resides, stimulates the reader’s senses. At a blush, that life-style—for a high-school student—sounds kinda fabulous. And it was. Once.

Without her dad around to run things, the responsibility falls straight through her mother’s trembling fingers into Nikki’s own hands. She can handle it. Has to. Knowing, with her whole heart, that her father is not capable of murder doesn’t keep him off death row. Someone has to support the family—not just the three of them; the trusted and treasured employees of Cosmos matter, too.

Otherwise, she would never consider running her own after-hours, under-the-table card games. Which were not really a big deal. There’s only one human better at poker than Nikki and he’s not here right now. Gavin may still be in his teens, but his bulk makes him the perfect bouncer. Maybe he has a few butterflies when her invitations are extended to some shady characters, but Nikki knows she’s got this.

Until something even odder than the initial arrest and murder charge. New evidence, and an attorney more than pleased to represent Mr. Tate, appears. Conviction overturned and Mr. Tate is head of his casino once again.

Nikki’s delight with his return was fleeting. She once believed he was always there when she needed him. Now, his presence is so far past smothering, she seethes when they share the same space. Determined to make up for the lost time, and hoping to find the sweet, happy Babygirl he remembers; her dad dives deeper into her life.

Although Nikki doesn’t see it at first, Mr. Tate is not as angry as he is horrified and frightened by what he finds. As dad works diligently to get his daughter out of the quick-sand she doesn’t know she’s standing in, Nikki consistently (albeit unintentionally) blocks his way with a combination of teen-age infatuation and obligatory rebellion.

Overturned by Mr. Giles is absolutely every single thing I wish for when I want to wow ‘my’ students with a Book Talk.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2019.

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The Histronauts: An Egyptian Adventure
Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke
Jolly Fish Press, January 2019
ISBN 978-1-63163-239-6
Hardcover

I don’t know if Ms. Durkin and Ms. Cooke colluded to create a tiny tome that would call to all; from the self-dubbed non-reader to the basic bookworm, but that’s exactly what this groovy graphic-novel does.

Filled with fascinating facts, in the same way a teeny car contains a multitude of clowns, this was a particularly pleasing read for me. An at-a-glance timeline from 5,000 BC through 30 BC took up only a tiny portion of a page, but was packed with information. I had no idea that Egypt was divided and reunited so many times! Nor could I have fathomed the complicated process of turning papyrus into paper.

The “novel” is in the narration. The Histronauts, a quirky crew, complete with a cat, needed an indoor activity on a rainy day. Their museum visit morphs into an adventurous Egyptian exploration. As the kids take in the sights and ask amazing questions, I am completely captivated, learning about ancient Egyptians and their way of life. And if all of that isn’t enough, there are even activities through-out. From making jewelry to flatbread or simply solving puzzles, these were engaging additions.

I believe that reluctant readers will enjoy this because of the tantalizing trivia and the graphic-novel-format seems to be more appealing for shorter attention spans. I think avid readers will be reeling from the intriguing information. I was totally into it. And truly, who knew there more than 2,000 ancient Egyptian gods? Or that music was such an imperative part of their lives?

The Histronauts also embark on a Roman adventure and I am already looking forward to joining them.

Reviewed by jv poore, December 2018.

Book Reviews: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski and Fiction Can Be Murder by Becky Clark

Fairest of All
Whatever After #1
Sarah Mlynowski
Scholastic Press, April 2013
978-0-545-48571-5
Trade Paperback

I am a fan of the fairy-tale re-tell.

It is always delightful when a familiar story gets a fresh twist. But, to take an already awesome creation to a totally new height—in the same way that Jimi Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”—well, that really rocks my socks. So, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I absolutely adored Ms. Mlynowski’s Whatever After: Fairest of All.

And, you can well imagine my enthusiasm upon discovering that the author has already written an entire series of these treasures. I’m going to have to buy the whole set for some classroom library, but I should probably read them quickly, before turning them over.

In the meantime, I happen to have Special Edition: Whatever After: Abby in Wonderland in my hot little hands right now…

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

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Fiction Can Be Murder
A Mystery Writer’s Mystery #1
Becky Clark
Midnight Ink, April 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5332-4
Trade Paperback

Semi-successful mystery writer, Charlee, has penned the perfect murder. At least according to her critique group, beta readers, boyfriend and agent. And yes, even if she does say so herself. But before it goes to print, her diabolical plan is implemented in the real-life murder of her agent.

Melinda Walters wasn’t well-liked. Maybe not even respected. Actually, not even an awesome agent. Few will weep when hearing of her untimely demise. The apparent automobile accident is instead, the result of a properly executed plan. Although there may be many with apparent motive, the suspect pool shrinks to only those who could have set the scene exactly as it was written.

Charlee has no reason to doubt the local law enforcement. Her father died in the line of duty. There was some speculation, but she assumed it must be normal and willfully blocked it out. Besides, her brother is a policeman and he is successful, trusted and well-liked. Probably.

Regardless, it’s clearly best if she conducts her own investigation. Charlee kicks relationships to the curb and treats everyone in her inner circle as a suspect. Turns out, even when not involved in criminal activity, there are a plethora of reasons to maintain privacy.

I found Ms. Clark’s Fiction Can Be Murder to be a very quick and (this must sound strange) but…light read. I quite enjoyed the moment that Charlee spent writing anything-but-murder-mysteries. Although this novel falls into the Fiction: Mystery genre, as opposed to my usual Young Adult, I’ll be passing it on to my favorite classroom library where I’m sure it will be well-received.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2018.

Book Review: Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

Anything Could Happen
Will Walton
Scholastic Press, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-70954-5
Hardcover

It’s not every book that can convincingly cast a character with such seemingly unrelated skills. A closet dance fiend who can also (albeit a bit dubiously) aid in delivering a calf. Tretch keeps these truths hidden, right along with another fact he hasn’t figured out how to share.

He appreciates the perks of life in a tiny town while acknowledging the total lack of privacy. Also absent, is the population to properly support a funky, refurbished theatre. So, no matter how cool the 1976 King Kong movie is, Matt and his dads will probably be moving to a city soon. The time to come clean is now. Or never.

And it’s here that I could tell you Anything Could Happen is about absolutely true friendship, the strength and support of family and crushing on the wrong kid. Accurate, yet incomplete. To me, it simply shows how sensitivity is a strength, not a weakness.

Tretch is wise beyond his years, in a unique—not unrealistic—way. His uncanny ability to set his own feelings aside to focus on a friend isn’t instinctive, making it all the more admirable. He is incredibly aware of others’ feelings and hasn’t shared particular pieces of himself solely for the purpose of protecting his friends and family.

“…the insults that somehow fly right past me, but I fear would peg each of them smack in the gut.”

Secrets don’t stay hidden forever and often, they are spilled at once. How they come out matters as much as addressing the information, once it’s laid bare. A lot of pressure for an adolescent and while Tretch may not initially handle it smoothly, once he allows himself to be honest, his sincerity is unquestionable.

This was fun, without being frivolous and is appropriate for the Middle-Grade reader, but (I think) appealing to all.

Oh, and now I know who Ellie Goulding is.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2018.

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.

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.