Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth, Hyperion, 2016. ISBN: 9781484752746. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Sophomore year should be great. At least that’s Emma Allen’s expectation. She’s going to be assistant stage manager for the drama club’s production of Hamlet, she has a new hairdo that makes her feel cool, and her crush, Brandon, is directing. All should be well, but we know how that goes. In short order, her best friend, snubbed for the part she wants, stops talking to her, she’s bumped up to stage manager, and Josh, the soccer player who got the lead, can’t remember his lines.
If all that weren’t enough, the guy in charge of the stage crew defies the club’s adviser and cuts a hole in the stage to serve as a trap door. When Emma falls through it, she finds herself in a very different theater—one in London and in the year 1601. Her new hairdo has the people behind the curtain thinking she’s a boy. That is all but one very sharp and attractive young man.
As Emma tries to navigate between everyone’s egos and feelings as well as through the intricacies of two theaters several hundred years apart, it’s a miracle she doesn’t have the mother of all meltdowns. Instead, she discovers inner strength and wisdom that allows her to do the impossible while meeting the original Bard himself.
This is a finely crafted, often funny story that will grab theater loving teens as well as those who like romance, strong heroines and complex plots. It’s a definite add for school and public libraries.
Poison’s Kiss by Breeana Shields, Random House, 2017. ISBN: 9781101937822. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Imagine being tossed away by your parents, living in an orphanage as a very small child. How would you feel? Wouldn’t you attach yourself to someone, anyone who showed you the slightest bit of attention? This is what happened to Marinda. Her life became immensely complicated not long after. She was subjected to endless snake bites on her wrists and ankles, each one heightening her own poisonous, to a point where she become a Visha Kanya, lethal servant of the Raj, able to kill with a kiss.
By the time she realizes the web of control around her, it’s too late because her controller, Gopal, has brought her baby brother to her and every time she tries to rebel, Gopal threatens little Mani. His control only strengthens the one time she tries to run away and now Mani pays a daily price that forces Marinda to kill even though she’s seen things that start her down the path of doubt.
When she’s ordered to kill Deven, a boy she knows through his friendship with the owner of a bookshop she works in part time, that ramps up her questioning of the whole ‘I’m killing bad guys for good causes’ ethos because she knows he’s a very kind and caring boy.
Her doubt sets in motion a series of events that put her in serious peril, Mani in equal peril, costs the life of a friend and land her in prison. Teen lovers of myth-related fiction will follow Marinda, Mani and Deven as their paths cross on the way to solving the mystery of who she’s really been working for as an assassin and how she can free herself and her brother from such a scary and cruel life. The book ends in a satisfying ambivalence…Readers can imagine what happens next, or wait for what I hope is a sequel. In either case they won’t feel cheated. It’s an excellent choice for school and public library collections. The author’s notes at the end explaining where the idea for this story came from and how she developed it are enlightening.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, Delacorte Books for Young Readers (October 11, 2016). ISBN: 9781101939758. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Anyone unfamiliar with the sub-genre of magical realism will understand what it typifies after reading this book. When readers first meet Emmaline, her history is a bit cloudy, to herself and the reader. In fact, it won’t be until very close to the end before that’s sorted out. No matter, for a lot takes place on the journey. She has what she calls the stillwaters (we know it as tuberculosis). She’s one of numerous children in varying stages of the disease in a former mansion away from populated areas because of the illness, but also because it’s during World War II and the Germans have been bombing England mercilessly.
Emmaline is closest to Anna, the sickest child there. The older girl may be gravely ill, but can still give love and nurture to Em. Even so, when Em begins seeing winged horses in the mirrors, she can’t bring herself to tell Anna, at least at first. When she sneaks into an abandoned garden, a place strictly off limits, she discovers one of the winged horses with a broken wing has entered our world. Em soon learns that the horse, named Foxfire, is being hunted by a black winged horse from beyond the mirrors and she must do everything she can to protect the injured animal.
Doing so involves risking her own fragile health, disobedience and struggling to decide who she can trust. Managing those challenges makes for an absorbing, albeit somewhat dark read. Despite the darkness, many younger teens will find this book almost impossible to put down. The blend of mystery, magic and suspense will draw them in and keep them reading.
Stealing Kevin’s Heart by M. Scott Carter, Roadrunner Press, (November 13, 2012). ISBN: 9781937054069. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Alex and Kevin were the unlikeliest of best friends, one nerdy, artistic and Jewish, the other burly and a jock. They bonded when Kevin’s family moved into the house next to where Alex lived, sharing chicken pox, teen insecurity and jokes as they grew older. A year ago, they got motorcycles. One fateful day, Kevin talked Alex into skipping and going biking. Alex watched as a drunk driver hit Kevin’s bike and he died.
The guilt and grief of losing his best friend overwhelmed Alex, so much so that he cut himself off from the world, gave up on school and scared his family. Scared them so much, they forced him to go from his home in Stillwater to a wilderness camp for troubled teens in southwestern Oklahoma.
The last thing Alex expects to meet is someone like Rachel. She’s sweet and insightful, doesn’t seem depressed and won’t let him blow her off. The more he’s around her, the harder it is for him to stay angry and sad. When her evil ex-boyfriend, Danny, attacks her, Alex discovers them and fights Danny off. It’s a turning point in his painful journey back to life.
Readers will figure out early on what the unspoken connection between Kevin, Alex and Rachel is, but that hardly matters. Watching the two teens connect and figure out what they mean to each other is the important part. Teens who have suffered a devastating loss, like a really nice romance or who like stories with strong emotional components are going to like this one a lot.
Dahlov Ipcar, Artist by Pat Davidson Reef, Thomaston, ME : Custom Museum Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 9781633810877. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Beautifully done update that blends art and the story of how Dahlov and her family settled in Maine. Younger readers, teachers and parents will all enjoy the art, bits of personal history and how the artist’s career was worked around the demands of a relatively primitive life on a coastal Maine farm. Pat Davidson Reef has done the people of Maine (and the world) a great service in detailing the story of an amazing Maine artist. This is a book well worth having in both school and public libraries and is very timely given the artist’s passing so recently.
In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Simon Pulse (May 23, 2017). ISBN: 9781481479882. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Caroline Kelly is pumped for the summer between her junior and senior years of high school. She’ll be working at Cedar Point Amusement Park with her best friend Hannah and should have plenty of time to spend with her boyfriend of three years, Oliver.
Everything changes in a heartbeat when her mother gets a long desired opportunity to open an eye clinic in Cairo, Egypt. Since Dad works a two week on, two week off schedule on an east coast barge, there’s no way Caroline can stay put, so it’s off to Cairo, not only for the summer, but for her senior year. Doing so means breaking up with Oliver as well as losing her best friend, at least temporarily.
Despite understanding her Mom’s need to do this and having a solid family behind her, the change is really hard at first. Caroline’s upset and often angry at the way men look at her on the street and the language difference, not to mention the extreme heat and poverty, are unsettling. She’s also required to be driven most places by Mr. Elhadad, the man hired by her parents. When he becomes ill and is temporarily replaced by his teen son Adam, Caroline not only has an intriguing new opportunity to explore Egyptian culture and history, but realizes that despite language and religious barriers, there’s something real developing between them.
Reading how that plays out, especially against the political and family backgrounds makes this not only a mesmerizing experience, but one that does an impressive job of portraying how teen attraction can work in a sea of opposing forces. Trish Doller does a great job of exposing readers to a different culture and the challenges spending time in it poses, not only for Caroline, but for her family. It’s darn good romance that also allows readers to absorb cultural differences and challenges without preaching or overselling. It’s an excellent choice for school and public libraries.
Defy The Stars by Claudia Gray, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (April 4, 2017). ISBN: 9780316394031. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Imagine you’re a seventeen year old orphan, living with a foster family who send you thinly veiled messages to the effect that you’re an imposition on them. The only saving grace is the fact that their daughter is your best and maybe only friend. This would be a difficult enough situation on its own, but Noemi Vidal’s life is anything but normal.
She lives on one of three worlds colonized after Earth flirted with near destruction and hers, Genesis, is at war with the others because it shut off immigration. In twenty days, she’ll be among 150 young soldiers making a suicide run to disrupt the wormhole gate connecting Genesis and Earth.
During the practice run, they’re ambushed by superior vessels from Earth. Her best friend is seriously injured and Noemi takes her to what she believes is an abandoned vessel. When she arrives, however, she discovers an advanced robot named Abel who has been in limbo inside for years. He was abandoned by his creator, the man responsible for inventing the many types of robotic entities that do everything from medicine and gardening to fighting.
Abel is different, but just how different isn’t immediately apparent to either of them. What follows in a long and extremely satisfying read, is a mix of space adventure and self-discovery. Abel struggles with very human feelings and Noemi with feelings of guilt, doubt and growing awareness that the way she saw the universe might not be so cut and dried as they search the other inhabited worlds, make unexpected friends and realize the wariness between them has become something far scarier and unexpected.
This is a terrific book for teens who love science fiction and strong female protagonists. There’s a sequel happening and when it does, it will be very welcome. This is a great choice for all libraries to own.
Riding Chance by Christine Kendall, Scholastic Press (October 11, 2016). ISBN: 9780545924047. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Troy is adrift and in danger of falling into that trap created when grief is compounded by lack of a caring parent to turn things around. His mom died not long ago and his father is still too wrapped up in his own loss and sorrow to intervene. When Troy gets the blame for a cellphone theft that should have been dropped on Lay-Lay, the crime-spree-in-the-making on his Philadelphia street, he’s less than thrilled at the community service assigned to him and his best friend Foster.
As often happens, what initially seems like a punishment and a total downer, becomes a whole new way of looking at life with some amazing skills attached. The boys are assigned to an equestrian program in the large city park not far from their homes. Troy’s initial impression is that horses are uncomfortable and smelly. However, he’s interested right off by Alicia a very pretty girl who is his age and is already quite comfortable with the horses.
It turns out they have something in common-grief and loss. Winston, a former professional polo player who runs the program, is Alicia’s uncle and took her in after her parents died. Despite his initial unease around horses, Troy soon realizes that when he’s with them, especially Chance, the horse he’s assigned to ride and care for, he feels more alive and at peace. In fact, there are times when he’s grooming her or riding when he feels almost like he did before his mother died.
Despite his growing comfort with Chance and a realization by almost everyone involved that he’s a natural around horses and has great potential as a budding polo player. Troy can’t lose his hard edge. That’s sharpened by an encounter outside his house with police that goes badly, as well as his inability to be open with anyone about how he really feels. This increased mistrust and alienation threaten his newfound love of horses and excitement about becoming a member of the polo team. It takes the adults around him and Alicia, as well as his best friend confronting him, coupled with a very frightening incident at a polo exhibition for Troy to realize that he’s not much different than those around him.
The dialect takes a chapter or so to get comfortable with, but after that, the story becomes a seamless and engrossing read. I finished it in less than two hours. Both adults and teens/tweens will really identify with the way Troy feels, how he’s his own worst enemy and the way he comes through a better person. A great book for inner city schools and libraries, but a really good one for any library where diversity in the collection is important.
Whisper If You Need Me by Dina Silver, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (October 12, 2015), ISBN: 9781517189082. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.
Julia Pearl has major trust issues. She’s never gotten over the awful night when her fashion model mother came home disheveled and she witnessed the shouting match resulting in her father telling her mom to leave and never return. That was five years ago and she still has no satisfactory explanation. In addition, her mother messed with her head with a constant litany of warnings about what disasters might befall Julia on a daily basis.
Her father remarried a woman who had two children younger than Julia. While she likes them, she feels distanced from them and is unable or unwilling to trust her stepmother’s attempts to connect. It didn’t help her feelings of disconnection when she had a breakdown following Mom’s exile. Julia refused to go to school, certain some dire accident would befall her on the school bus. She’s been home schooled ever since, further fueling her isolation.
This summer, however, Dad and Stepmom put their foot down and she’s going to a summer camp for several weeks. No cell phone, no calling home, nobody to run in and bail her out. She falls asleep on the bus and has to be woken by Jack, nephew of the somewhat incompetent and mean (to Jack), owner of the camp. Julia might not sense them, but sparks fly between the two immediately. Since Jack is 19 and a counselor, any fraternization between them is forbidden.
You know right from the minute Jack sees her that they’re destined to be a couple. Getting there, however involves restraint on his part, Julia deciding to explode her comfort zone and make a new friend in zany free-spirited Emma, while accepting the challenge to sleep alone in the woods as part of a special wilderness program.
Watching her grow and learn to trust people, surviving a nasty prank by a jealous rival and finally learning what happened to her mother, make this a stellar blend of romance and coming of age. It’s definitely a worthwhile addition for school and public libraries.