Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman

9781911508304_fea99Originally published in School Library Journal, February 2019.

Gr 9 & Up: Readman’s debut novel unfolds in 1950’s Scotland, weaving together mystery and magical realism surrounding two young girls on a remote island. Lorrie’s family moved from England to help her aging grandfather, Grumps, in the family whiskey distillery. At once intrigued by her shy next door neighbor, Sylvie, whose life seems fairly uneventful due to her mother’s extreme rules. Sylvie is fascinated by kisses, keeping a secret scrapbook from her protective, prying mother. An unlikely friendship between the two young girls develops, providing a bit of happiness for each, though their family lives are far from happy. As Lorrie and Sylvie spend more time together, it becomes apparent that Sylvie and her mother are hiding a secret. Strange occurrences like Lorrie’s father’s disappearance and a miraculous healing of a young boy involved in an accident leave Lorrie and the town wondering about the friendly, yet strange Sylvie. VERDICT: Readers will enjoy the unique plot and vividly drawn characters of this atmospheric, coming of age story, though pacing is slow at times.

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The Magnificent Life of Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp

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Review originally appeared in Library Journal, January 2018.

Young Esme Silver was born in pre-WWII Hollywood to Dina Wells, a 16-year old wanna-be actress star with the right looks, but very little talent. Her father, “Magic Ike,” gambler and small-time crook, spends his days at the horse track, dragging “Baby E” along as he makes one poor decision after another. Though she had little formal education and an unconventional childhood, Esme is street smart, tough, and resilient. After battling severe depression, Dina passes away in unfortunate, sudden circumstances. Ike then follows Benny Siegel to Las Vegas to start up the Flamingo hotel and casino. Esme, a knockout like her mother, is soon a showgirl in post-war Vegas. Using her looks and body, Esme, 18, becomes romantically involved with rich, casino boss Nate Stein, a ruthless man in his fifties. Esme secures a position as a burlesque dancer, using Stein and his money to keep her father in a job, but she doesn’t realize how deep Stein and his wealth penetrate every pore of sin city until it’s too late. The ending is unsettling, leaving readers unsure where 21 year old Esme will end up. Esme’s story shows a little known side of Vegas, that of a showgirl trying to earn a living in a city where everyone is out for themselves. VERDICT: Sharp’s coming-of-age tale paints a unique, detailed picture of both the 1940’s Hollywood movie industry and 1950’s Vegas and the difficult, often violent lives of mobsters, casino bosses, and showgirls living in the city of bright lights. (Publication date 4/10/18)

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has done it again! Her newest novel, The Great Alone, which releases in February 2018, is absolutely stunning.

The story begins in 1974 when Lenora Allbright (Leni) is 13 years old and once again the new kid at school, having changed schools multiple times mainly because of her father’s wrath and inability to keep a job. Leni’s father, Ernt, was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and since he has been back, his own family household has become the front line of battle with his white hot anger and temper. Leni’s mother, Cora, tries to tiptoe around Ernt in order to keep their glass house from shattering, but she rarely escapes the wrath of Ernt, which Leni witnesses it all the time. Just when Leni hopes they might finally settle down in one place so her father can be happy, Ernt loses yet another job, and the family is uprooted again. This time, however, her parents pack up the VW van and the family of three heads to a remote island in the Alaskan wilderness. One of Ernt’s war comrades who passed away in Vietnam, Bo Harlan, left Ernt his ramshackle homestead in Kaneq, on the Kenai Peninsula. Ernt feels this is a sign, and a big break for the family that they must not pass up. What they don’t realize then is that Alaska will change the course of Leni’s future forever. All of their futures, actually.

Other than a few neighbors down the road a ways, the Allbright’s rustic cabin is in an untamed area of Alaska, where the winters are unforgiving and severe and the wildlife extremely dangerous. Leni and her mother get to know some strong Alaskan women, learning all they can from them regarding planting, fishing, and preparing food and adequate shelter for winter. Large Marge, a former lawyer who runs the small general store in town, takes them under her wing and provides Leni a security she has never felt before. Ernt gets close to Bo’s father, Mad Earl Harlan and his clan, and together Ernt and Earl, both paranoid quick to rage, arrange all-out crazy plans for surviving when “TSHTF” with the government.

Meanwhile, Leni starts school with the very few other school-age inhabitants of Kaneq, including the only other student her age, Matthew Walker. Matthew’s family has been very successful in Alaska for many generations, starting with his grandparents who started the town of Kaneq. Matthew’s father, Tom, plans to use some of his wealth to modernize and improve Kaneq, opening up the island for tourism. This, and the fact that Tom seems to have a keen eye for his wife, Cora, only enrages Ernt Allbright more. Ernt directs his hatred and anger toward the Walkers and anything to do with their family, including Matthew, of course. Though her father forbids Leni from seeing Matthew, Leni grows closer and closer with him, finding in him a first best friend and first love all at the same time.

For Leni, the dangers outside of the cabin and in the wilderness are much less than those she faces in her own home. As the years pass and Leni grows up, she and her mother are both terrified to stay, and terrified to leave, knowing that Ernt will track them down no matter what. Now, at the age of 18 and graduating from high school, Leni dreams of going to college with Matthew and studying photography. However, her father forbids her from leaving Kaneq, in his mad fury to control each and every move she and her mother make. He even goes as far as to build a wall, locking the family on their property and locking everyone else out. A horrific tragedy strikes as Leni is finally able to make an escape, and what happens after will keep readers on the edge of their seats through a roller-coaster of fear, guilt, regret, love, and longing.

Hannah’s description of the land and stark beauty of Alaska are breathtaking. The author’s notes explain that Hannah’s own father ended up in Alaska in search of great adventure, and they have all “fallen in love with the Last Frontier.” Her experience with Alaska is evident in the atmospheric scenes throughout the novel. The writing is raw and real. Readers will feel the naked fear and loneliness of Leni and Cora as they struggle to survive in the great alone of Alaska, trapped in a family crisis with no easy way out. I couldn’t put this book down, much like my experience with all of Hannah’s novels. The fact that the setting for this novel was very personal for Hannah made it even more enjoyable for me as the reader. I would highly recommend The Great Alone to anyone who enjoys adventure, suspense, romance, and coming-of-age novels, because this one has it all.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy of this title.

 

Welcome to the Slipstream by Natalka Burian

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Originally published in School Library Journal, May 2017.

Grade 9 & up: Van, 17, was forced to grow up quickly in the slipstream of her mentally ill, brilliant mother. Her father died of a drug overdose when she was an infant. Van, her mother Sophie, and Ida, a surrogate grandmother, have lived as vagrants, following Sophie’s work. Leaving their home in Uzbekistan, the women land in Vegas, the city that never sleeps, for Sophie’s job at the Silver Saddle Casino. Van is tutored and left to spend her free time inside the lavish place with, Alex, a handsome college student, as her guide. Alex becomes her first true friend and love interest. Playing the guitar has always been Van’s true joy and form of escape, and she is now given the opportunity to join a band. Then, tragedy strikes and her family unit is falling apart before her very eyes. With Ida ill and Sophie caught in a scam, taken to the Sedona desert for “healing” by a cult, Van follows, determined to save her mother. The pacing is quick, parallel to the constant movement of Van and her mother Sophie. Van has an out of body experience and ends up fighting to survive in the desert. The end is filled with heavy-hearted goodbyes, but also hope and promise for Van’s future. It’s more of a beginning as Van makes a tough decision to set out on her own. The mood throughout is laced with worry and uncertainty, and readers will empathize with Van. Burian’s debut realistic fiction novel is based upon real-life events she witnessed. VERDICT: Recommended for general purchase, teen readers will enjoy the story line and well developed characters, while rooting for the strong female lead to survive what life has dealt her.

The Heartbeats of Wing Jones by Katherine Weber

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Review first appeared in School Library Journal, January 2017.

WEBBER, Katherine. The Heartbeats of Wing Jones. 336p. Delacorte Press. Mar. 2017. $17.99. ISBN 9780399555022.

Gr 8 Up – Set in 1990’s Atlanta, this coming-of-age story is realistic fiction with a touch of magical realism, is full of diverse and strong female characters. Bullied for her looks, Wing Jones, half Chinese and half black, doesn’t stand out like her football star, golden boy brother, Marcus. After a night of drinking, Marcus causes an accident, killing two people and ending up in a coma.  Unable to sleep at night, worrying for Marcus and living on the brink of poverty, Wing starts running. Though Marcus is one of the reasons Wing is running, she is able to step out of his shadow, finally feeling acceptance and accomplishment. Aaron, Marcus’s best friend and Wing’s long-time crush, is also a runner, providing a romantic element and additional distraction for Wing. Running gives her the courage to embrace her differences and stand out. Wing’s family back-story regarding her father is heartbreaking, revealed early on, explaining why her father is not in the picture. Wing lives with her mother and both grandmothers, and as such, is surrounded by female role models with take-charge attitudes. The plot moves along quickly, written in first person through Wing’s perspective of the changing world around her. Fans of Jandy Nelson and Stephanie Perkins will enjoy Webber’s debut novel. VERDICT A uniquely original novel about family, love, and the courage to stand up to life’s challenges and triumph which will delight teen readers. Recommended as a general purchase for all libraries.

Wait for Me by Caroline Leech

9780062459886_b8b2dReview first appeared in School Library Journal, November 2016.

LEECH, Caroline. Wait for Me. 384p. Harper Teen. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062459886.

Gr 8 Up- In 1945 Scotland during WWII, Lorna Anderson is tending to the family farm alongside her father while her older brothers are fighting at war. Her mother passed away when she was young, leaving Lorna to grow up quickly, assuming some motherly responsibilities in the household. Lorna’s initial uneasiness upon meeting Paul, a German solder with a badly burned face assigned to work at Craigielaw Farm, turns into a mutual respect and friendship. Then, a forbidden romance begins: the daughter of a Scottish farmer and a German prisoner of war. Tension between Lorna and her best friend Iris increases as each grow into young women and fall in love for the first time. Lorna longs for an end to the war, but the end is bittersweet, as her future with Paul is uncertain. Though missing his mother and younger sister, Paul is unsure whether he will have a home to return to after Dresdyn was left in ruins. Even though the war moves slowly, the narrative flows quickly as readers are immersed in the innocent love of Lorna and Paul. Leech includes historically accurate details, and a helpful notes section as well. Fans of Ruta Sepetys and Laurie Halse Anderson will enjoy Leech’s debut novel. VERDICT Historical fiction, forbidden romance, and a coming-of-age tale combine into a memorable story perfect for young adults. Recommended as a first purchase for all libraries.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun is Also a Star is set for release on November 1, 2016. Having absolutely adored Yoon’s first novel, Everything, Everything, I have been very eager to read her newest work.

The story provides a behind-the-scenes peek at how an undocumented immigrant has to live with the daily uncertainty of being sent away from her home – the place she considers home in her heart.

In the span of one single day, Daniel and Natasha’s story unfolds. They get to know one another bit-by-bit each time they cross paths. Fate, as far as they can tell, keeps bringing them together again. The characters are quite different in their outlook on the future, but still are immediately attracted to each other, creating an innocent, sweet romance with amazing possibilities. Both have futures planned out for them, which are not their choice. Daniel feels enormous pressure to become a doctor like his brother, in order to have a better life than his father had. Because of the mistake of her father, Natasha is being forced back to Jamaica where she doesn’t have any real connections or interests. When they meet and share their stories, the urge to try to save themselves becomes even more urgent – before it’s too late and they lose each other forever. They day they spend together allows them freedom from the extreme pressure & stress they are facing. Together, they are able to be themselves, with no one to impress and only each other to please.

The ending of the story is hopeful, allowing the reader to imagine a future for both Natasha and Daniel, rather than detailing what is going to happen to them and tying everything up with a little bow.

A really neat thing about this story is that the author, Nicola Yoon, is Jamaican American like Natasha and her husband is Korean American like Daniel. She wrote what she knew from her own personal life, and it’s evident by the true-to-life feel of the story. Great job, Nicola. This is a beautifully written, moving story which will stay with readers long after the last pages are read.

Thank you to Random House for sending an early review copy of this book.