Book Review: In Case You Missed It by Sarah Darer Littman

in-case-you-missed-itIn Case You Missed It
Sarah Darer Littman
Scholastic Press, October 2016
ISBN: 978-0-545-90437-7
Hardcover

What teen doesn’t privately criticize their friends? After all, they’re going through major changes that are accompanied by mood swings, major insecurity and self-doubt. In other words, mental squirrel-cage territory. What they don’t expect is every single one of their thoughts, crushes, annoyances and feelings to be hijacked and posted online where everyone affected can see and react, not to mention receiving a barrage of Twitter and Facebook snark from people they’ve never met.

Welcome to Sammy Wallach’s new reality. She’s psyched about the end of her junior year, doing things with her besties, getting her driver’s license and hoping to go to prom with Jamie Moss, the boy she’s drooled over for ages. Unfortunately, the bank her father manages has been picketed by some pretty aggressive protesters, who have now started camping next to the building. When Dad and the board call in police to remove them, someone hacks the bank’s computer system. What does this have to do with Sammy? She kept a diary on her laptop that was backed up on the family server. The hackers hit that as well and now everything she wrote about friends, her fantasies and even rules she broke when she and her two friends went to a club to see a band, something her parents had expressly forbidden, is now online for the world to read.

Add to that her realization, courtesy of some of her father’s emails now exposed, that her parents, who have been extremely strict, are far from perfect, and she’s not only humiliated, but very angry.

This is the point where the story could have turned totally cliché. Instead, the author pulls you alongside Sammy as she guts it out. In the process, she finds new and pretty cool friends, a boy much better than her crush, strength to deal with an unexpected family tragedy, a stronger and mutually respectful relationship with her younger brother and a realization that she survived what, at first, seemed unthinkable.

This is a great read for teens who like a quirky, but relatable story of teen disaster and family chaos. I’d suggest it to all libraries as an acquisition.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, October 2016.

Book Review: Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah

Woman with a SecretWoman with a Secret
Sophie Hannah
William Morrow, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-238826-1
Hardcover

Woman with a Secret is a book that could only have been written now, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century. While some of its themes – infidelity, the nature of love, the mysteries within marriages, human perversity – are ageless, the way they are explored in this novel is through the thoroughly modern world of online bloggers, Twitter, and virtual dating websites.

The book begins, traditionally, with a murder. Outrageously opinionated Damon Blundy, a celebrity columnist, is found dead in his house in a suburb outside London. The crime scene is bizarre – a knife is taped to Blundy’s face, but was not used to kill him, there’s a knife sharpener in the room, and the killer even leaves an unrecognizable self-portrait to mock the police. There’s also a cryptic clue painted on the wall: the phrase “He is no less dead”, which baffles  the crime scene officers and detectives.

While the book is partly a police procedural, it is much more of a literary novel, with an intense focus on people’s hidden motivations and secret lives. The story is told from a number of different perspectives. There are sections made up of Damon Blundy’s columns, and some of the Twitter wars resulting from the things he has written. These mostly consist of debates about a disgraced cyclist who strongly resembles Lance Armstrong , about a weed-saturated literary novelist named Reuben Tasker, and about gorgeous former MP Paula Riddough, and her faithlessness. These chapters alternate with descriptions  of the police investigation, mainly featuring arrogant, single-minded Simon Waterhouse, and Simon’s wife Charlie Zailer. The sections that are perhaps the most compelling are the first-person, present-tense chapters narrated by Nicki Clements, a feverish, rattled, possibly pathological housewife tormented by an upsetting childhood and a marriage that bores her.

I couldn’t say that I liked Woman with a Secret, because I’m not fond of unreliable narrators, and I didn’t find any of the characters likeable. However, it was an interesting taste of current literary mystery fiction, and I was fascinated by the author’s focus on social media – both the true revelations and the lies that many of us now seek out daily online. Hannah explores people’s psyches deeply, and in a manner that’s often unpleasant, reminding us how cold and selfish some of our motivations can be. Not surprisingly, given the title, Hannah delves specifically into questions around honesty and dishonesty, and all that surrounds those qualities: righteousness, cheating, mistrust, forgiveness. Despite all of the nasty twists and convoluted psychological turns in this book that left me wondering if anyone in it was capable of experiencing real love or friendship, I think the author has captured something authentic about the difficulties of recognizing the truth in the current smoke-and-mirrors atmosphere of social media.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, May 2016.

Book Reviews: Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon, Need by Joelle Charbonneau, and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Come Rain or Come ShineCome Rain or Come Shine
A Mitford Novel #11
Jan Karon
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-399-16745-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Over the course of ten Mitford novels, fans have kept a special place in their hearts for Dooley Kavanagh, first seen in At Home in Mitford as a barefoot, freckle-faced boy in filthy overalls.

Now, Father Tim Kavanagh’s adopted son has graduated from vet school and opened his own animal clinic. Since money will be tight for a while, maybe he and Lace Harper, his once and future soul mate, should keep their wedding simple.

So the plan is to eliminate the cost of catering and do potluck. Ought to be fun.

An old friend offers to bring his well-known country band. Gratis.

And once mucked out, the barn works as a perfect venue for seating family and friends.

Piece of cake, right?

In Come Rain or Come Shine, Jan Karon delivers the wedding that millions of Mitford fans have waited for. It’s a June day in the mountains, with more than a few creatures great and small, and you’re invited—because you’re family.

By the way, it’s a pretty casual affair, so come as you are and remember to bring a tissue or two. After all, what’s a good wedding without a good cry?

Like so many others, I’m a longtime fan of Mitford and its wonderfully normal citizens, quirks and all, and I’ve laughed and cried my way through every book in the series. Come Rain or Come Shine fits right into the mix and I loved being back in the center of this delightful place. It’s even better that the story centers on one of my favorite characters, Dooley, adopted son of Father Tim and Cynthia, and his upcoming wedding to Lace Harper.

There’s a lot going on in Dooley’s life all at once—graduation from vet school, starting his clinic, getting married—but that really isn’t so unusual and it’s even less unusual that money could be a little tight at such a time. What’s so heartwarming is the way others in the community come together to make this wedding happen, good evidence of the affection the townspeople have for one another.

I do wish there had been more of Father Tim and Cynthia but this is the way life evolves from one generation to the next, isn’t it? Truthfully, there isn’t any real plot here but that’s not what comfort fiction readers look for and the important things, the characters, just sail off the page and into the readers’ hearts.

Technically, this is not part of the original Mitford series but more like an offshoot. When it’s all said and done, I don’t really care because I love this book as much as the earlier ones. I do think there’s a bit too much headhopping and, because of that, I heartily suggest that readers new to the series start at the beginning because, otherwise, you just won’t get the full effect and you won’t understand the characters. Guaranteed, you’re going to love Mitford and it’s citizens 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

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NeedNeed
Joelle Charbonneau
HMH Books for Young Readers, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-544-41669-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

“No one gets something for nothing. We all should know better.”

Teenagers at Wisconsin’s Nottawa High School are drawn deeper into a social networking site that promises to grant their every need . . . regardless of the consequences. Soon the site turns sinister, with simple pranks escalating to malicious crimes. The body count rises. In this chilling YA thriller, the author of the best-selling Testing trilogy examines not only the dark side of social media, but the dark side of human nature.

One of the many things that concerns me about today’s society is that we’ve been teaching our children to expect far more than they’ve ever earned, a sort of privilege in which many of them believe that all good things must come their way. Such is the darkness at the heart of the social networking site, NEED. It’s a hopeful sign that Kaylee recognizes the fallacy behind what NEED offers but she joins anyway. She’s a smart girl, though, and it doesn’t take her long to begin to realize the truly awful things happening and the demands that teens are facing in exchange for having their needs met.

The action takes off exponentially and tension continues to build as teen and adult readers alike go along for the rollercoaster ride until a most satisfying ending. If I have any reservations, it’s that I don’t really think that teens, despite their feelings of privilege, are quite this gullible (although they DO tend to behave like sheep and follow the latest fads just because everybody else does). I also think there are way too many narrators but, on the whole, I do recommend this. It’s not Ms. Charbonneau‘s strongest work—she’s one of my favorite authors—but it kept me up at night and that’s a good thing.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

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The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendThe Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
Katarina Bivald
Sourcebooks Landmark, January 2016
ISBN 978-1-4926-2344-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen…

Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her book-loving pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds Amy’s funeral guests just leaving. The residents of Broken Wheel are happy to look after their bewildered visitor―there’s not much else to do in a dying small town that’s almost beyond repair.

You certainly wouldn’t open a bookstore. And definitely not with the tourist in charge. You’d need a vacant storefront (Main Street is full of them), books (Amy’s house is full of them), and…customers.

The bookstore might be a little quirky. Then again, so is Sara. But Broken Wheel’s own story might be more eccentric and surprising than she thought.

A heartwarming reminder of why we are booklovers, this is a sweet, smart story about how books find us, change us, and connect us.

Being a former bookstore owner and current bookblogger, it’s only natural that I would be drawn to a book about, well, books and the love of books. As it turns out, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was not exactly what I thought it was going to be but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this quiet yet quirky story.

From the beginning, I had to suspend a lot of disbelief. For instance, I found it hard to credit that Sara would leave Sweden and her life behind just because she lost her job even though her life really was all wrapped up in that job and in her correspondence with Amy. I also found the willingness of the townsfolk to have Sara move into Amy’s house more than a little puzzling.

Putting those issues aside, this is an appealing story and, having had a bookstore myself, I totally get Sara’s desire to share her love of books with the town. There’s something truly uplifting about finding the right book for a person or just in helping them experience the joy of escaping into whatever world a particular book offers. I don’t mean to sound silly about it but being a bookseller is a passion that never goes away and I know that librarians and individual readers lending books to their friends feel the same joy. That goes for today’s book bloggers, too, who simply have to tell people about the books they want others to know about. Because of all that, and Sara’s general aimlessness, I did believe in her idea of having the bookstore.

The other aspect of the tale that I found interesting is the juxtaposition of the dying town, Broken Wheel, with the nearby more prosperous town of Hope. Without knocking the reader over the head with the comparison, Ms. Bivald brings the two towns into the full light of day and watching what happens to Broken Wheel and to Sara when she opens her bookstore is endearing to say the least. Bookstores really can be the heart of a community and that’s why I long to be running one again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

Book Review: Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman

BacklashBacklash
Sarah Darer Littman
Scholastic Press, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-65126-4
Hardcover

When a young person tries to commit suicide after being cyberbullied, what are the consequences? What should happen to the bully? How does the victim recover? What are the parents’ roles and responsibilities? How does the victim go back to a normal life and face the bully or bullies? How are siblings affected? These are questions kids often don’t consider until it’s too late.

From the switching points of view of four teenagers, a victim and her younger sister and a bully and her younger brother, Backlash addresses the repercussions to the kids and their families of an instance of cyberbullying. Their descriptions of events and feelings hint at causes such as family dysfunction, peer pressure, and the self-absorption common to youth. Voices of parents, police investigators, and a counselor become clear as the kids relate how they each understand the events and their consequences. The characters are fully developed, as is the role of each in the unfortunate incident and its backlash.

Sarah Darer Littman’s book should be read by teens, discussed in classrooms, and suggested to parents of bullies and victims. The story doesn’t give solutions, only a scenario, and the hopeful outcomes for these characters can’t be anticipated in all cyberbullying cases—the victim here doesn’t die, for instance, and gets counseling. But the horrible consequences portrayed in the story might make a reader recognize his or her own mindset and think before bullying or reacting to a bully. As the author points out in the voice of one of the characters, words can hurt or even cause a death.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, November 2015.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Life Unaware by Cole Gibsen

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Title: Life Unaware
Author: Cole Gibsen
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Genres: General Fiction, Young Adult

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Life UnawareLife Unaware
Cole Gibsen
Entangled Teen, April 2015
ISBN 978-1-62266-396-5
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Regan Flay has been talking about you.

Regan Flay is on the cusp of achieving her control-freak mother’s “plan” for high school success―cheerleading, student council, the Honor Society—until her life gets turned horribly, horribly upside down. Every bitchy text. Every bitchy email. Every lie, manipulation, and insult she’s ever said have been printed out and taped to all the lockers in school.

Now Regan has gone from popular princess to total pariah.

The only person who even speaks to her is her former best friend’s hot but socially miscreant brother, Nolan Letner. Nolan thinks he knows what Regan’s going through, but what nobody knows is that Regan isn’t really Little Miss Perfect. In fact, she’s barely holding it together under her mom’s pressure. But the consequences of Regan’s fall from grace are only just beginning. Once the chain reaction starts, no one will remain untouched…

Especially Regan Flay.

I’ve had the feeling for some time now that bullying is an epidemic in growing mode despite all the efforts that have been made in recent years to draw attention to the problem and effect a change. I suppose all the public notice has made some potential bulliers think twice which is a good thing, of course, but I do wonder if it seems more widespread because it really is or because more people—victims—are willing to come forward. I hope it’s the latter.

To keep any campaign like anti-bullying alive and fresh, we need to look for less obvious hooks and Ms. Gibsen has done just that by focusing on the bully rather than the victim. Understanding even just a little how a person becomes a bully can only help; perhaps such knowledge would help identify a potential bullier before she or he reaches that stage.

It would be easy to demonize Regan for her behavior but that would not make the situation better. Truthfully, you could say she was destined to become this hateful person because she gets so much pressure from her mother to be the top dog in every way. She still has to take responsibility for her own actions, though, and she really doesn’t do that very well, making it hard for me to have a lot of empathy for her at first. She grew on me as the pages turned and I began to see her as a girl who wants to be a better person and who’s willing to finally reach out to the one person who might be able to help her get there (although he does make a monster of a mistake).

There are two essential messages in Life Unaware: (1) bullying in any form is a bad thing that needs to be stopped and (2) redemption is possible. Both are messages we all need to heed, especially middle grade and high school kids who are the most vulnerable to being the bully or the bullied. Cole Gibsen has crafted a story that focuses on both quite nicely.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2015.

About the Author

Cole GibsenCole Gibsen first realized she different when, in high school, she was still reading comic books while the other girls were reading fashion magazines.

It was her love of superheroes that first inspired her to pick up a pen. Her favorite things to write about are ordinary girls who find themselves in extraordinary situations.

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Book Review: Followers by Anna Davies

FollowersFollowers
Anna Davies
Point, June 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-51196-4
Trade Paperback

Desperate to shine, Briana understands that she must first emerge from her mother’s shadow. In an apparently counterintuitive move, she chooses to attend the very same prestigious boarding school where her mother was once the brightest star on stage. Driven by the need to prove to her mother, and more importantly to herself; one can most certainly be a fine, talented actor while deftly avoiding drama in real life, she was able to push reservations aside, as the move is not without apprehension.

McHale remains void of friends, and even acquaintances are hard to come by when tension is palpable between the McHale students and those unfortunate souls that live in the surrounding town, attending the public school. It wasn’t only the imagined class disparity that kept the teens apart; but an unsolved murder of a student that attended McHale along with Briana’s mom many years ago held the wedge firmly in place.

Focusing solely on the goal of being Ophelia, Briana morphs into “Bree”, takes to Twitter, and is quickly accepted into an exclusive McHale theatre clique. But what goes up; must come down. In no time at all, the friendly glances warranted by popularity become accusatory side-long stares. Accidents begin to happen in the theatre, students meet untimely and freaky demises. A new Twitter user, “Hamlet’s Ghost” begins to taunt, and point the finger at Bree. Life has new meaning. More important than a role in a play, far outweighing the ridiculous pipe-dream of popularity, Bree’s focus is abruptly shifted to the critical tasks of staying alive and revealing the truth.

Ms. Davies spins a chilling story with a meaty mystery, spot-on teen-age representation, down to the sparring dialogue; with a few sly mentions of Phish and the Grateful Dead for those of us that are not exactly “Young” Adults. She artfully combines the angst of high-school with real-life, adult issues; thus allowing the characters opportunities for self-reflection and growth. As Bree learns more about her fellow students, faculty, and the townsfolk; she reveals more about herself and what kind of person she really wants to be; while discovering surprising parallels with the mother that once seemed her polar opposite. This is a book that I can happily recommend to any Middle-Grade, YA and Not-So-Young Adult reader; as it is simply a well-written, entertaining story.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2014.