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.

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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.

Book Review: Bionic by Suzanne Weyn

Bionic
Suzanne Weyn
Scholastic Press, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-90677-7
Hardcover

Mira thinks her biggest decision is whether to give up playing in Electric Storm, the rock band she loves in order to focus more on lacrosse where she has a shot at a scholarship. She’s on her way to their last gig when Matt, the driver, panics and makes a too sharp turn into a gas station. Mira hears screaming and senses horrific pain, then nothing.

When she returns to consciousness some days later, her mind is fuzzy and the pain level beyond anything she could imagine. It’s the beginning of a long and painful (both physically and emotionally) journey. She’s lost an arm, a leg, a cheekbone and suffered a broken nose and brain damage.

At that point, giving up looks like her only viable option because all her dreams have evaporated. When she and her mom are approached with the possibility that she can be a test person for new and experimental prostheses as well as a brain implant that might help her become better than new, it’s an offer too good to refuse.

It comes, however with many unexpected gotchas. Other teens see her as a cyborg, she faces accusations of unfairness when she competes as a swimmer, her boyfriend isn’t what she remembers him to be, and she starts having emotional disconnects. How she navigates this giant minefield makes for a fast, but intriguing read that involves a new look at her autistic brother, learning to connect with a group she’d never have believed she had anything in common with, as well as regaining the really important pieces of her life while gaining a new appreciation for them.

It’s a good read for teens liking realistic science fiction as well as heroines who really have to struggle.

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

Book Review: Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick

Falling Over Sideways
Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-86324-7
Hardcover

Claire’s life is uncomfortable. Older brother Michael can do no wrong. In fact there are times when she expects to hear a chorus of angels and see the halo when he enters the room. Mom tends to alternate between annoyingly perky and unsympathetic, while her author dad jokes when she wants understanding.

At school, she’s harassed by the mean girls, taunted by Ryder about her being an inferior saxophone player and then comes the worst. Her one emotional haven-the dance classes she loves, turn ugly as well. After spending her summer taking extra classes with her best friends, they get moved up while she  has to stay behind and dance with younger kids. Could life get any suckier? Yup.

She’s sitting at the breakfast table with her dad when he starts talking gibberish and falls over. Claire’s terrified, but manages to get it together and after getting Mom’s voicemail, she calls 911. The section describing her panicked, but proper responses makes for emotional reading.

Dad has suffered a stroke and anything resembling normal life comes to a screeching halt. What follows is an empathetic, sometimes funny, often angsty look at life when there’s a major tragedy as seen through the eyes of an eighth grader.

Claire already had a full plate of issues and Dad’s condition, coupled with her anger which turns to depression, pile on a heaping second helping. Told from her perspective, this is a really good look at how a girl navigates the issues surrounding creation of her own identity when rocked by something completely unexpected. Young teens who are struggling with these issues, as well as those where a family emergency upends everything, will really relate to Claire as she sorts out who to tell about Dad, how to be around him when his new reality scares her silly, what to do about mean teachers and kids, as well as sorting out what’s truly important to her. This is a very good book for both school and public libraries to add.

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

Book Reviews: Hearts & Other Body Parts by Ira Bloom and P. S. I Like You by Kasie West

Hearts & Other Body Parts
Ira Bloom
Scholastic Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-03073-0
Hardcover

Fast-paced and fabulously fun, Hearts & Other Body Parts is a freaky fusion of folklore that completely rocks my socks.  Fantasy, science-fiction and a bit of magic combine to capture, then carry you along the remarkable ride.  With the emphasis on “science”, some of this fiction feels frighteningly plausible.

The three sisters that center the story are quintessential siblings in the best ways possible.  Unique enough for interesting exchanges, their common ground allows them to create a formidable front when needed.  Norman, the new kid (whose full name is spectacularly perfect) is a gentle giant—in the most literal sense—but, his size is the least shocking attribute of his appearance.

Generally, students in small town schools divide into two groups when a new kid arrives: instant fans seeking something different or rowdy ruffians refusing change.  Not so when Norman enters the picture.  All eyes focus on him, the same expression on every face.  Mouths hang open in wonder, revulsion and fear.  When Esme joins Norman at the lunch table on his first day, he knew things would be different here; but even his peculiar past could not have prepared him for what was coming.

Zack erases Norman’s new-kid status and creates a fandom in the student body.  Girls surround Zack like fog, floating on his every word. Intelligent as well as wise, Norman is not captivated by Zack’s charms; instead he is suspicious.  Reports of missing girls convince Norman that Esme and her sisters, who have absolutely abandoned him to hover around Zack, are in imminent danger.  Norman can’t face Zack alone, but the bullies that once taunted him may not be much back-up…..even with the reluctant aid of a demon cat.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

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P.S. I Like You
Kasie West
Point, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-85097-1
Hardcover

This is such a sweet story—not so your teeth hurt–it’s perfectly sweet.  First and foremost:  I love the Abbott family.  I want to dive into their home and be submersed in the fresh, awesome, oddness.  Each quirky, yet quintessential, sibling provides poignant texture, interacting individually and collectively with Lily.  Her competition-loving, compassionate parents are perfectly embarrassing and absolutely adorable.  Also, there is a rescued “pet” rabbit.

I adore Lily.  She’s who I wanted to be as a teenager.  Her most awkward teen-aged moment is exponentially cooler than any of mine.  It is effortless to relate to, empathize with and understand her.  She is “learning lessons” that I learned, but sometimes forget.  The reminders are welcome and appreciated.

There is also the something-different-that-I-totally-dig-aspect:  putting a pencil to your desktop, jotting a note or song lyric to maintain sanity and/or a state of semi-awareness during class, only to be stunned when another student responds in kind.  I remember trading notes via the top of my desk with an anonymous person in my 8th grade Literature class (sorry, Mr. Leach).  So, no surprise, I’m stupidly delighted and charmed to find a book basing a pretty groovy relationship on such a simple start.  Particularly impressive, Ms. West presents a spot-on, classic-yet-credible, way of communicating without feeling the need to mute or explain away today’s textmania.

This was a one-sitting-read that I really enjoyed.  The mini-mystery to determine who Lily’s pen pal is warranted a close look and careful consideration of the characters.  Although cute and quick, this isn’t the cotton candy of reading—there is a Mean Girl and her role is not gratuitous and the importance of being a good friend cannot be overstated.  My copy is going to my 13-year-old niece and I’m sure I’ll donate another copy to my Middle Grader’s classroom library.  I really like this book for the Middle-Grade reader looking for a love story.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2016.

Book Review: Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Frozen Charlotte
Alex Bell
Scholastic Press, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94108-2
Hardcover

Everything began innocently enough. Sophie and her best friend Jay sitting in a cafe. He’d downloaded an ouija board app on his smartphone and was insistent they try it. Despite a sense of dread, she goes along reluctantly, but something seems to hijack the app, sending them really scary messages. Then the lights go out and all hell breaks loose. Someone in the cafe kitchen is badly burned and Sophie swears she saw a tall, ghostly figure atop one of the tables. Spooked by the experience, she pleads with Jay to take the towpath home when riding his rickety bike instead of going by way of the heavily traveled streets. The next day, she learns to her horror that he lost the brakes on his bike, slid into a canal and drowned.

Thus begins a series of scary and inexplicable events for Sophie. Her parents have a long anticipated anniversary trip to San Francisco, but are willing to cancel it because of what happened to Jay. Knowing that they’ll lose a bunch of money if this happens, stiffens her resolve to go stay with her strange relatives in an old girl’s school on the Isle of Skye they converted into a super menacing mansion.

Once there, things alternate between creepy and creepier. (Imagine highlights from “The Shining” if the cast were ripped from “The Munsters” minus any comedy and you’d be off to a good beginning.) Her uncle is an artist and essentially clueless about what’s happening, one of her cousins, Rebecca, died years ago under mysterious circumstances, but her ghost keeps reappearing (is she coming back to warn Sophie, or scare the heck out of her?) Then there’s her slightly older cousin Cameron, a brilliant pianist who suffered a terrible injury to one hand, severely hampering his dreams of becoming a world famous musician. Sophie can’t decide if he hates her or everyone in general. Next comes Piper, who is insanely beautiful and the same age as Sophie. At first, she seems like a breath of fresh air, but the longer Sophie’s around her, the more confused she is about who the real Piper is. Then there’s Lilias, the youngest girl who once tried to remove her own collarbone with a butcher knife. She’s hostile toward Sophie in the beginning, but the longer they’re around each other, the more they need to trust and rely on each other.

Add in that her aunt is locked up in a mental hospital, that there is an army of super creepy dolls remaining from when the school was in operation, coupled with a trash-talking parrot and generally gloomy weather and you have a grand recipe for a top notch YA horror story. Even if you start figuring out who was responsible for what nastiness before the end, it won’t matter because reading this makes for a grand and scary ride. Let’s hope the power doesn’t go out while you’re doing so.

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