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

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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.

Book Review: The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Traitor’s Game
The Traitor’s Game, Book One
Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic Press, February 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-04537-6
Hardcover

Abruptly abandoning her beloved Lava Fields, based solely on a demand from her paternal parental unit, is aggravating. The fact that it’s been three years and no reason was given for the reunion, is infuriating. When Kestra’s security carriage is attacked on the journey home, she flips from frustrated to fiercely furious, forgetting all about fear.

Certainly, the people of Antora have a healthy respect for that anger. After all, her father is second in command to Lord Endrick. Those who actually know the scrappy, skilled teen are more realistically wary of her wrath. The band of rebels, however, has too much at stake and too pat a plan to be thwarted.

Kestra is kidnapped. Her guard and governess held as collateral.

One captor poses as her lady-in-waiting, the other her driver and Kestra is taken into Highwyn and tasked with finding the Olden Blade to overthrow evil Lord Endrick. No one actually knows that the magic dagger exists. If it does, and she is able to locate it; then she will have to determine how much, if any, of the legend is true. This seemingly insurmountable problem pales when Kestra realizes the reason for her return.

She is to be wed. Groom selected, arrangements made, the ceremony…stupidly soon. She has no say in the matter.

With several sticky situations to solve, and only a small window of time, the story flies faster than Lord Endrick’s condors. Along the way, secrets are revealed. Kestra begins to believe that she fell in love with the idea of her country, without ever knowing the realities of her world. Burdened by new knowledge, the difference between enemies and innocents becomes blurry, but she must choose someone to trust.

Kestra may be one of my favorite characters of all time. She is courageous, bold beyond belief and also positively petulant, with a tendency for tantrums. The perfect protagonist for this adventurous, action-packed fantasy. Mixed with a bit of magic, a completely captivating saga is created; a stellar start to a tempting trilogy (I’m guessing, here).

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2018.

Book Reviews: Ink by Alice Broadway and Back Roads by William Bitner, Daniel Boyd and Jason Pell

Ink
The Skin Books #1
Alice Broadway
Scholastic Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-338-19699-3
Hardcover

In Saintstone, the destiny of the soul is determined not by a deity, but by the government. From birth until demise, the body is marked to illustrate the life being lived. At death, the skin is flayed, then bound into a book. If the soul is worthy, the book goes home with the family. If not, it is obliterated by fire and the person is forgotten forever–as if everyone’s collective memories merge with the smoke, dissipate, then disappear.

Leora easily understands this definitive divide and especially embraces it when she loses a loved one. An absence so overwhelming can bring even the staunchest believers to rock bottom. Surfacing secrets shove the bottom away, resulting in a figurative free-fall of uncertainty and doubt.

Hearing something often, particularly from people most admired, certainly makes that thing seem true. Perhaps Leora has been purely parroting the comfort and confidence contrived by her firm trust in her faith. As Obel’s new intern, she is shaken when she attempts to answer his apparently innocuous questions, but finds herself floundering.

His queries feel bold, almost blasphemous. Leora has never had reason to doubt the separation of the despicable blank people from the marked, but when called to support her stance with facts and logic, she is speechless, then stunned. Seeing every single thing in a new light can be disconcerting. No longer knowing who to trust or what to believe, terrifying.

Looking at life through Leora’s eyes is humbling. As she adamantly, albeit ignorantly, explains why the evil White Witch, the first blank, does not deserve to be remembered; it begins to be easier to see what actually is, as opposed to what Leora has always been told. Accepting that real knowledge is indeed power, Leora learns, then she plans. The young girl’s tremendous growth, against all odds is enlightening and empowering.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2018.

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Back Roads
William Bitner, Daniel Boyd & Jason Pell
CreateSpace, March 2017
ISBN 978-1544194806
Trade Paperback

Definitely distinct, yet stitched with a common dark thread, these short stories flow with an inexplicably familiar feel while featuring fresh frights.  Each author seems to settle back and spin yarns with a natural knack for story-telling that evokes an avalanche of emotions. A strong, soft, somber voice speaks.  Instinctively, I am in.  I felt the crisp cold of the mountain air instantly freeze the inside of my nose, heard the ripples and rush of the rivers and felt my heart in my throat and my body tense as turning the page felt like taking a hairpin curve at high speed on a steep mountain road.

Creatures creep from the dark, formative…to spark a spooky image, while monsters mangle with brilliantly bold detail that may make you squeeze your eyes shut.   Substance makes these shorts stand out, as if the writer has wrung a bit of his soul into the words to sneakily seep into the reader.  In some instances, real-life-right-now social, environmental and health issues blur the line between sci-fi and reality, bringing a chilling sense of foreboding along with the ugly, unfiltered view of cruelty and corruption.

I love that these stories show scenic, wild, West Virginia and portray the people honestly; quietly quashing inaccurate stereotypes; humbly highlighting the genuine good.  To me, this book is a treasure chest filled with rare, remarkable jewels that will bring me pleasure every single time I open it.  I enthusiastically recommend it to voracious readers, as well as reluctant ones.  In merely minutes, engage in a tumultuous, terrifying escape….and I mean that in the best way possible.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2017.

Book Review: Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

Frogkisser!
Garth Nix
Scholastic Press, February 2017
ISBN: 978-1-338-05208-4
Hardcover

Start with a dash of Monty Python’s sly humor, add a double helping of the best of Brian Jaques, sprinkle with a triple pinch of classic fairy tale and stir gently. When done, you have this delight of a book. Princess Anya and her ditsy older sister Morven are worse than orphans. First their mother died, then their father, the king, after marrying their stepmother, who remarried the evil sorcerer, Duke Rikard. Stepmom is more interested in roaming far away to study botany instead of taking any interest in the princesses. Anya’s careful to remind everyone the duke is her stepstepfather.

Duke Rikard delights in growing his power, even though every increase drains his humanity. When he turns Morven’s current suitor into a frog and dumps him in the moat, Anya realizes she has to act. Little does she know that this decision will turn out to be much bigger and have further-reaching consequences than she could possibly imagine. She must go on a quest to gather ingredients needed to create a lip balm which will allow her to kiss an array of creatures so they can return to their original form. The list is daunting, druid blood, witches tears, three day old hail and freshly pulled Cockatrice feathers. Hardly a quick trip to Walmart.

Accompanied by Ardent, one of the Royal dogs, she sets off. Shortly after meeting a reformed witch, whose wannabe robber son Shrub, has been turned into a newt, Anya realizes the evil Duke has turned a pack of weasels into human sized baddies that are pursuing her and her companions.

In order to fulfill her quest, Anya braves a giant, a coven of bickering witches, Ethical robbers, unethical robbers, the Grand wizard (who lives in a hollowed-out dragon skeleton, a flying carpet with an attitude. That would be more than enough to deter most young girls, but Anya’s made of much sterner stuff, allowing her to do a lot of kissing that would turn most princesses into quivering masses of jello. She’s able to wrap her head around the realization that her initial quest was merely the tip of the iceberg, gather an army, and save the day. How she does that makes for a truly dandy read, great for tweens, teens and light fantasy loving adults. It would be a good family read-aloud choice and I’d love to see it as a movie.

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

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.

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.