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.

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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.

Book Reviews: Wake the Hollow by Gaby Triana and Two to Tango by Kelsey Abrams

Wake the Hollow
Gaby Triana
Entangled Teen, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-63375-351-8
Trade Paperback

A sudden death snatches Micaela out of her senior-year-state-of-mind in sunny Florida, to slap her down in the sleepy little hollow of her past. Never popular with the locals, the eerily empty station is exactly the homecoming she expected. Her mother’s beliefs had always deviated from popular opinion, ostracizing Micaela by association. Perhaps Mami could be a bit peculiar, but for the town’s people to be personally offended by her claim to be a direct descendant of Washington Irving is preposterous.

Counting on compassion from her childhood comrade, Bram, and hoping for help from family friend, Betty Anne; her plan is to quickly take care of business for a rapid return back to her real life. But Micaela was pulled here for a bigger purpose. Legends are coming alive, secrets stuffed into far away corners are seeping out and the myth of a historical treasure may be true.

Resolving to squelch suspicions, to solve the mystery once and for all, Micaela soon sees that someone else has the same goal, but for a greedy reason. After speaking with the few folks unable to maintain the collective stony silence, the only lesson learned was that essentially everyone has lied to her. With only herself to trust, self-doubt surfaces; she’s not sure of her own sanity right now.

One of the first stories that I fell in love with was Mr. Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and it remains a fond favorite. It’s fair to say that I may be a bit biased about any twist of that tale, but I reveled in the reimagination of not just the haunting headless horseman, but also of Washington Irving and another awesome author of the same time. Gripping and keeping me guessing, Wake the Hollow galloped out of the gate, tearing through the narrative to a heart-stopping halt.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2018.

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Two to Tango
Second Chance Ranch
Kelsey Abrams
Jolly Fish Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1631631535
Trade Paperback

Natalie Ramirez loves her life on Second Chance Ranch. She handles the horses, but nothing about their upkeep feels like work to her. Besides, this is the best way to find Rockette’s replacement. Out-growing the pony that she had paired with to win so many junior barrel-racing prizes was inevitable, but still somewhat sad.

When a beautiful bay tobiano trotted onto the scene, Natalie saw the solution to all of her problems. In her enthusiasm, it was easy to over-look the atypical aspects of this rescue. He wore a quality halter with a nameplate. Tango appeared to have been well-cared-for and even trained, at some point. When he followed her commands, it was in a hesitating, confused manner.

For a twelve-and-a-half-year-old, Natalie has a lot on her mind and maybe she misses the obvious at first. But as she begins to see Tango as the horse that he is and not a rodeo-pony-in-the-making, she takes a closer look at herself and finds room to grow.

I cannot imagine a better book for the animal-loving-reader. Quickly captivating, Natalie’s story canters along with humor, action and an impressive equestrian vocabulary (I did not know that a horse has a frog). Two to Tango is one of four in the Second Chance Ranch juvenile-fiction series and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

Book Review: Echoes by Alice Reeds

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Title: Echoes
Author: Alice Reeds
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon
Indiebound // Entangled Publishing

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Echoes
Alice Reed
Entangled Teen, August 2018
ISBN 978-1-64063-247-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

They wake on a deserted island. Fiona and Miles, high school enemies now stranded together. No memory of how they got there. No plan to follow, no hope to hold on to.

Each step forward reveals the mystery behind the forces that brought them here. And soon, the most chilling discovery: something else is on the island with them.

Something that won’t let them leave alive.

Well, my goodness. To say I was surprised by this book would be a mild understatement. I thought it sounded like it could be good—otherwise, I wouldn’t have signed on to review it for this blog tour—but this is better than good. This is the Young Adult thriller that might just convert some of those adult readers out there who think YA isn’t interesting enough or able to grab their attention.

The stakes are high from the very first page when Fiona is relating the abject fear setting in on Miles and herself as their plane begins to go down and the tension never really lets up from then till the end. Sure, there are some quiet moments, but here they are on an island, all alone with no idea where they are or if anyone knows the plane crashed. Survival has to come first but little hints here and there pull them hither and yon as to what’s real and what isn’t, all while these two teens who really don’t like each other have to learn to get along. If they don’t, the consequences could be deadly.

Or might the truth be something else entirely? An alternate timeline weaves in and out and we don’t know any more than Fiona and Miles do. That, my friends, is a perfect setup to mess with your minds as well as theirs and I promise you’ll be scratching your head the whole time.

Fiona and Miles are not my favorite characters ever and, truthfully, there are flaws in this story plus I could do without some of the teen angst, but I truly do think this is a tale worth a few hours of a reader’s time. Fair warning, though—you won’t get all the answers you want and I, for one, am certainly hoping a sequel is in the works 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2018.

About the Author

Alice Reeds was born in a small town in Germany but spent her first eight years in Florida, USA. Later on, she moved back to Europe, where her family moved around a lot. She was raised trilingual and has a basic understanding of Russian, read and spoken. After getting her International Baccalaureate Diploma, Alice is studying English Language and Literature at University. In her free time Alice mostly writes, reads, figure and/or roller skates, or watches countless let’s plays and figure skating videos.

Author Links:

Website // Goodreads // Twitter

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Follow the tour here.

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Giveaway
3 print copies of Echoes (US only)
Enter here.

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Book Review: And She Was by Jessica Verdi

And She Was
Jessica Verdi
Point, April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-338-15053-7
Hardcover

All teens experience tension between themselves and their parents. Many feel frustrated at times by parental evasiveness or refusal to answer questions about family secrets. For Dara, the tension revolves primarily around her mother’s refusal/reluctance to support her blossoming tennis career. Sure, money is an issue in a single parent home, but Dara’s looked at college and that route doesn’t look promising. Tennis does. When an opportunity to play and earn ranking points in a Canadian tournament comes up, she doubles down on her request for her birth certificate, a document Mellie, her mom, has been continually evasive about.

Dara’s growing frustration peaks while Mom is at work and she enters her mother’s bedroom to seek out the document. Under her mother’s bed she discovers a box. There are two prescription bottles as well as photos of people she doesn’t know. After looking up the two medications, she’s even more puzzled because one is a testosterone blocker, the other an estrogen supplement. She’s stunned by the names listed as parents on her birth certificate stashed under the photos. Neither is familiar and her last name on the certificate is not the one she’s grown up with.

Shock becomes extreme anger and when Mom returns, Dara explodes. What her mother tells her is pretty hard for her to wrap her head around. Mom is her biological father who transitioned after Dara’s mother was killed by a drunk driver. When Dara starts pushing for answers about who her grandparents are and why she’s never met them, Mom’s answers don’t really satisfy her. Still enraged and wounded by what she perceives as Mellie’s selfishness for not being honest, as well as hurting because she suspects her deceased real mom’s parents might have subsidized her hoped for tennis career, Dara packs up her stuff and strong arms her best friend Sam into going on a search for the elusive grandparents.

What ensues is an excellent look at not only how hope can blind us when we’re desperate, but an enlightening and very carefully drawn look at the struggles and processes a transgender person goes through. Jessica Verdi chose to reveal Mellie’s story through emails to Dara while she and Sam are on the road. It’s extremely effective. In addition, the search, and the realizations Dara and Sam come to as they follow lead after lead, help readers to see the other side of the story.

What Dara discovers, how she comes to understand not only Mellie, but her own part in the family drama and her wake up call regarding how she’s treated Sam and what her feelings for him really are, make this a dandy story. I highly suggest it for anyone who wants to understand what challenges someone who is transgender must face as well as anyone who simply wants to read an excellent story.

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

Book Review: Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne

Brightly Burning
Alexa Donne
HMH Teen, May 2018
ISBN 978-1328948939
Hardcover

Abruptly orphaned at only seven years old, Stella Ainsley slid down the human hierarchy and was relocated from the elitist Empire to a humbler space-craft, the Stalwart. Inhabited mostly by hard-working farmers that had won a lottery, Stella would never fit in. Instead, she clung to fond memories of her father, following in his footsteps to become a skilled and trusted engineer.

Sadly, she hates every moment of it. Teaching Ancient Earth Science brings her joy. Preparing students for “…when it comes time to go back down to the surface,” gives her purpose. But at almost-eighteen-years-old and without even a hint of a husband, choosing a career is not an option. Soon, Stella will be locked into her loathsome full-time position.

Unless…in the unlikeliest of events, another ship accepts one of her applications.

It is Year 210, Day 65.

A super-volcano has erupted, creating an ice-age that few humans will survive. When the explosion was only an impending threat, the wealthy (and thus assumed wise) decided not to depend on a precarious planet, but to create new habitats aboard a fleet of spaceships that would orbit the Earth until a thaw renders it once again welcoming to the lifestyle they deem acceptable.

For the majority–those with more money than empathy–this has worked quite well. The manual laborers and citizens of lesser means seemed to bear the brunt of any widespread illness. The vehicles housing commoners are always the first to de-orbit to explore and provide the status of Earth’s atmosphere.

Secretly, yet obviously, the Stalwart is being phased out. Stella doesn’t give a second thought to accepting an offer onboard the “…funny little private ship I’ve never heard of.” She’s already en route to the Rochester before she realizes that, thumbing his nose at the norm, Hugo has his ship orbiting not the Earth, but her moon. Just about right for this quirky crew.

At nineteen, Hugo is easily the youngest captain around.  Appearing to be a supremely spoiled brat with something sinister to hide, Stella decides to dismiss him and focus only on her new student, Hugo’s younger sister, Jessa. Although her intentions were solid, her instincts and curiosity were stronger. Ultimately altruistic, Stella sets aside her plan for personal happiness and embarks on a mission to save humanity.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2018.

Book Review: It’s All Your Fault by Paul Rudnick

It’s All Your Fault
Paul Rudnick
Scholastic Press, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-46428-4
Hardcover

You’ve all heard the expression ‘deer in the headlights.” Imagine a homeschooled teen who’s so sheltered and Christian, she comes with her own portable headlights because she’s constantly barraged by what-ifs. Meet Caitlin, one of a gaggle of siblings whose names all begin with C and are part of a gospel pop group known as the Singing Singleberrys. Life at home is so squeaky clean that she even worries about just thinking about impure thoughts. In addition, she’s obsessed with being perfect, a good Christian role model and suffers from serious anxiety attacks. She overcompensates for imagined sins and failures by doing things like applying to a dozen colleges for fear she’ll never get into any of them. In short, she’s a sweet mess, but with good reasons that unfold as the story progresses.

One thing she hasn’t done is have any contact with her cousin Heller since an afternoon when Heller’s impulsive and selfish behavior almost killed Caitlin. Every time she remembers that afternoon, she has to fight off another wave of panic. Before the disaster, the girls were best friends, with Heller usually involved in something outlandish in an effort to help Caitlin break loose from her own head.

When Caitlin is summoned to the breakfast table by her mom, the last person she expects to see sitting there is her aunt Nancy, Heller’s mother. The sisters haven’t talked to each other since the tragedy, so Caitlin immediately suspects something’s up. It is, but in ways far beyond her wildest imagination.

Cousin Heller, fresh out of rehab, is in need of a chaperone for the weekend so she can be kept out of trouble during the events leading up to the premiere of Angel Wars a movie based on a trilogy that has most of the world buzzing. Heller plays the lead female, but unless she’s kept in check for three days, it could well be her last role ever, hence the desperate appeal by her aunt and Caitlin’s mother.

Armed with the imagined righteousness of God, Caitlin agrees, expecting that with the force of goodness behind her, she’ll be able to resist evil and make Heller see the error of her ways. Well, we all know how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This time it’s a brand new superhighway, with Heller driving a Ferrari.

The weekend involves Caitlin discovering hot guys, the impossibility of saying no, jail, body art, invading a cupcake factory, making a thirteen year old cancer survivor’s wishes come wildly true and a new way for both Caitlin and Heller to see each other’s inner workings.

Yes, Caitlin seems over the top goody goody at times and will annoy some readers, but stick around for the full story and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. I liked it a lot.

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