‘The Unwilling’ by brilliant storyteller John Hart is a searing tale of courage, honor, and war

The Unwilling by John Hart

One of the things that makes John Hart’s novels, including his newest, “The Unwilling,” so compelling is his ability to create complex characters whose actions and courage linger with us long after we’ve finished reading the story. Jason French is one such character, and his inability to reconnect with his family after serving almost three years as a soldier in the Vietnam War is what we first learn about him. We learn much more about not only Jason, but his younger brother Gibby, and their parents. What we learn and how Hart shares the relationships and the emotions is what makes this an unforgettable story.

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‘Marriage Code’ by Brooke Burroughs is a romantic romp about love trumping diverse cultures

In “The Marriage Code” by Brooke Burroughs we meet Emma, a young twentysomething living in Seattle and working for a tech company. At the start of the story, she has just been blindsided by her boyfriend’s surprise proposal, in a crowded restaurant, completely embarrassing both of them when she says no. Things are awkward in their shared apartment after that, to say the least. We also meet Rishi, who is visiting Seattle from his home in India, where he works for the same company as Emma. Rishi is visiting but has been told that he will be given a project that will keep him in America for a while, which is perfect for his needs. Both are in for some surprises.

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‘Poisoned’ by Jennifer Donnelly is a beautiful, complex, fractured fairy tale retelling of Snow White

Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly’s fairy tale retellings are beautiful in their complexity and their reimagining; but make no mistake, the beauty of the writing doesn’t equate with “beauty” being foremost among the traits of the main characters in her newest fantasy “Poisoned,” or her previous fractured fairy tale, “Stepsister.” Both young adult fairy tales are beautiful in the sense that they take fairy tales in which originally the most important trait of the young women — Snow White and Cinderella — is their beauty and change our concept of what beauty is. Donnelly turns that ideal on its head. And while the Disney cartoon version shows that both fairy tale creations love animals, there isn’t much else about them that has any depth or substance.

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‘Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11’ by Alan Gratz is a middle grade novel bringing important historic events into focus for young readers

“Ground Zero” by Alan Gratz

Children’s author Alan Gratz is known and revered for his historical fiction middle grade novels like his newest, “Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11.” As he has done in other novels including the award-winning “Refugee,” Gratz presents readers with two main characters from different backgrounds and different perspectives who share the story in alternating narratives. In “Ground Zero,” we meet Brandon Chavez from New York and Reshmina from Afghanistan.

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‘The Girls I’ve Been’ by Tess Sharpe is a surprisingly touching YA story of friendship, love, a bank robbery and much more

The Girls I’ve Been

In “The Girls I’ve Been,” Tess Sharpe’s brilliant writing draws us into the lives of the three teens at the center of this young adult thriller. We meet them just as they are on the cusp of being held hostage at their local bank in rural California, and from the first chapter (the chapters are labeled with the time, and the amount of time that has elapsed since they were taken captive), we are mesmerized by Nora and her extraordinary narration of the events that are happening both in the present and also as she intersperses the present narration with snippets of her past that serve to explain who Nora is now.

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‘Goodnight Beautiful’ by Aimee Molloy is a stunning thriller that doesn’t fail to surprise

goodnight beatiful

Many psychological thrillers have unreliable narrators and twists galore, but “Goodnight Beautiful” by Aimee Molloy only seems to have an unreliable narrator. In truth, it’s the reader’s assumptions that are unreliable. And in the first twist, we realize how completely we’ve been snookered.

The newlywed couple, Sam Statler and Annie Potter, move to upstate New York so that they can be close to Sam’s aging mother, who is in an assisted care facility. Sam grew up in Chestnut Hill. His mother was the school secretary and his father a teacher until he fell in love with an underwear model who also happened to be the heir to a fortune. Sam’s teenage years at the high school were spent as a player, sleeping his way through many of the teens in town.

Now he’s a respected therapist, and the beautiful town of Chestnut Hill has many clients eager for a psychologist of Sam’s caliber. While Annie is very capable in her own right, she doesn’t have a full schedule. She and Sam take turns visiting his mother each day, and it seems that their life together is idyllic.

However, Sam doesn’t realize that the air duct in his beautiful, newly remodeled office travels to an upstairs room where his conversations with his patients can be heard. The unhappy wives, the artist with the wandering eyes — and hands — all those private conversations are overheard. Also, he has made the egregious error of counting his chickens before they have hatched, and he’s spent a lot of money because he’s been counting on a huge sum of money he believes he will be getting. But hiding the outrageous bills from Annie is getting difficult, and worrying about money is causing Sam stress.

When Sam disappears, Annie is convinced that there’s been foul play. The chief of police is not so sure. And who’s been tipping off the journalists with information no one else should have had? Has Sam run off and left her like his father left his mother? Or is he in desperate need of rescue? Annie is determined to find out.

“Goodnight Beautiful” is a story that’s not just engrossing; we grow to really like Sam and Annie, and we want it to all work out for them. But Molloy masterfully creates cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and we keep reading and reading, intent on discovering how it will all turn out. The homage to another author of thrillers, perhaps the master of thrillers, is superb, but disclosing who would be a huge spoiler. This is one psychological thriller that will bring you an unusual measure of enjoyment. It’s a really lovely and well-put-together story that is qualitatively different from other psychological thrillers. Somehow, its effect may very well leave you feeling darn near joyful.

Review originally posted on Bookreporter.com.

‘I Hope You’re Listening’ by Tom Ryan is a thrilling YA story of abduction, guilt, and making amends

In “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan, main character Dee Skinner has never been able to shake her guilt over being the kid who wasn’t abducted. When she was seven, she and her best friend Sibby were playing near their tree fort when Sibby was abducted. And although Dee was right there, she was left behind, helpless, watching as her best friend was carried away by two men, never to be seen again. Continue reading

‘The Dog Who Saved the World’ by Ross Welford is amazingly funny and simultaneously exciting

I must admit, this is the first novel by Ross Welford that I’ve read. It won’t be the last. Actually, the reason this book caught my eye was the “dog” in the title. And this dog, Mr. Mash, is the epitome of dogly dogs. He smells awful from nose (his rank breath) to tail (the gas he emits is constant and horrifying in its ability to spew outward). But he is also the epitome of dogs because he loves everyone, especially main character Georgie. Continue reading

‘They Called Us Enemy’ by George Takei is a graphic memoir that brings home the horror of racism and judging people by their race and is a must-read for teenager readers

I’ve read about the internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII, and there are many historical fiction books for children that are set in those camps (see some listed at the end of this review), but George Takei’s powerful memoir instilled in me a broader sense of what this country was like when this atrocity was implemented — taking away the property and rights of American citizens because of their ancestry and separating them from their homes. Continue reading

‘A Wolf for a Spell’ by Karah Sutton is an engaging fairytale for middle grade readers

“A Wolf for a Spell” by Karah Sutton is a clever story of magic, determination, unlikely alliances, and folktale figures. We first meet Zima, a wolf with a mind of her own. Instead of hating humans and killing an unprotected girl from the nearby village, she shows mercy. But the presence of magic, and the witch Baba Yaga, the wielder of the magic, have thrown the wolves into a state of discomfort. They are determined to protect themselves from the humans who seem out to destroy the forest and its inhabitants. Continue reading

Winter picture books that celebrate freedom and tradition for all kinds of young readers

There’s no better gift for a child than the gift of a good book. And nothing gets young children more excited about reading than good picture books. Reading good picture books with toddlers can instill in them a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

What better gift could you give?

“Lilah Tov Good Night” by Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) and illustrated by Noar Lee Naggan is not a typical holiday book. There’s no Christmas tree, but there is a menorah. And even though we don’t see the family celebrating Hannukah, it’s clear that they’ve left their homeland for a new beginning, a beginning which includes a better future for their children, and a future where life will be better. The text is simple as the small family packs up a few belongings and leaves their tiny house, where there’s only a small wood stove for warmth and bread and turnips to eat for dinner. They travel far, and cross the water (reminiscent of the ocean that the author’s family, and many of our families, crossed to get to America) before arriving at a small house tucked in the shadow of a mountain. A new home and a new tomorrow. We see the small daughter tucked warmly in her bed, sleeping soundly, with the menorah on her windowsill. It’s a perfect story to share history and tradition with children. Except for the indigenous people, we are all immigrants here, and our ancestors (or we) came here for a better life. A simple, lovely story with beautiful illustrations. The illustrations cleverly use cool blues for the backgrounds while keeping the warm colors, tans and browns, as the focus for the family and the sleeping animals tucked in tight in their winter quarters. Mister G is also the author of the lovely “Señorita Mariposa.” (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!” by Alexandra Alessandri and illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda is a picture book about New Year’s Eve celebrations that takes us on a journey to Columbia in South America, where we see Ava celebrate the holiday with her extended family. This book is not just about the holidays, though. It’s also about being shy — Ava is so shy with her extended family that she can’t bring herself to talk to them. Her cousins and aunts and uncles and even her grandmother seem like strangers. But as we learn about the Año Nuevo celebrations, we also learn about the Año Viejo, and we see Ava gradually become more comfortable with her relatives through her persistence and determination to enjoy the visit. It’s not only a story of the celebration of a different culture during a familiar holiday, it’s a touching story of overcoming painful shyness. (Albert Whitman & Co.)

“Raccoon’s Perfect Snowman” by Katia Wish is about four animal friends who are playing in the snow and building snowmen. One of the three, Raccoon, is a perfectionist. We all know someone like that — someone whose creations must be perfect, flawless. Well, Raccoon shares his rules with Rabbit, Fox and Mouse so that they, too, can build the perfect snowmen. But Raccoon has taken all the clean snow, and he’s used all the tools and the decorations, leaving his friends with less than optimal paths to build their own perfect snowman. Luckily, before it’s too late, Raccoon realizes his mistake and is able to bring the friends together on another project. This book is really about realizing what is important. A perfect snowman is not nearly as important as making friends happy, and that’s a perfectly important discussion that the reader can have with the children who need to hear this lesson. What is the author’s message? Children as young as three and four can start talking about that question and sharing their ideas. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.