Review: Mr. Samuel’s Penny

Mr. Samuel's PennyTitle: Mr. Samuel’s Penny
Author: Treva Hall Melvin
Genres: Mystery, Historical
Pages: 264
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Review Copy: Received ARC from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: It’s 1972 and fourteen-year-old New Yorker Elizabeth Landers is sent to the sleepy town of Ahoskie, North Carolina to spend the summer with relatives. Her expectation of boredom is quickly dispelled when police sirens and flashing lights draw her to a horrible scene at the Danbury Bridge. Mr. Samuel, owner of Samuel’s Lumber Yard, has driven his car off the bridge and into the river, drowning himself and his daughter. The medical examiner thinks it’s an accident, but the Sheriff finds fresh bullet holes on the bridge right where the skid marks are. Curiously, Mr. Samuel died clutching a unique 1909 wheat penny—a penny that is then stolen from the Sheriff’s office. Lizbeth witnesses Miss Violet’s grief upon learning that her husband and child are dead, and decides she will help by finding the penny.

Her search involves Lizbeth in the lives of many Ahoskie residents. Like the owner of the grocery store, mean old Mr. Jake, who—as all the kids in Ahoskie know—hates black folks. Plenty of pennies in his till. Then there is Ms. Melanie Neely, otherwise known as “Ms. McMeanie,” who thinks the lumber yard should belong to her. And Mr. Samuel’s handsome brother Ben, who struggles to keep the business afloat after his more clever brother’s death. Lizbeth searches through the collection plates at church and in the coin jars of crazy old Aunt Ode, a strange old woman missing one eye and most of her teeth, who keeps a flask in her apron pocket and a secret in her soul.

Review: Whether or not you’re going to enjoy Mr. Samuel’s Penny is largely dependent upon on your preferred ratio of mystery to character development and exploration. I’m happy to say that Treva Hall Melvin does an excellent job of centering the reader in Ahoskie and the summer of 1972. Lizbeth’s adventures and the people she meets while living with her aunt and uncle are definitely some of the book’s greatest strengths.

Lizbeth is a solid protagonist, and her narration is charming. Hall Melvin has a way of describing people, places, and events in such a way that grabbed my attention and stuck in my memory, like the first glimpse of Aunt Ode, Mr. Jake’s grocery store, or the scene where Miss Violet breaks down over her husband’s and daughter’s deaths. These descriptions are vivid and work together to bring the characters in this book to life. Lizbeth’s Ahoskie feels lived in and like its residents existed long before Lizbeth’s visit and will continue on with their lives after she heads back home.

Of the many standout characters in the book, I was particularly fond of Aunt Alice, Mr. Jake, and Miss Violet. After Lizbeth, Aunt Alice was probably my favorite character, especially as she helped Lizbeth understand that everyone had a story behind the who they appeared to be. She is a solid, safe presence in Lizbeth’s life, and her compassion as she deals with Miss Violet is particularly touching. Mr. Jake was a character I didn’t expect to like, but the more Lizbeth found out about him, the more I (and she) liked him. I wish Miss Violet had been featured more in the story, if only because I truly loved the few interactions she had with Lizbeth.

While the characters are an asset to this book, the mystery was a bit of a letdown for me. Lizbeth’s investigations throughout the story essentially boiled down to two tactics: run across some motivation for X person to have wanted to kill Mr. Samuel and then search around them for the distinctive penny. I was hoping for a more convoluted investigation, but the moment Lizbeth found the penny, she found the murderer. The murder often took secondary importance in my mind

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are looking for an easy, comfortable read with a charming and observant protagonist who makes the most out of a 1972 small-town summer. The murder mystery takes a back seat to character exploration, so if you prefer a more thriller-esque or complicated flavor to your mysteries, Mr. Samuel’s Penny is a book you’ll probably be happier borrowing from the library.


Review: Hunt for the Bamboo Rat

bambooTitle: Hunt for the Bamboo Rat
Author: Graham Salisbury
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Pages: 323
Genre: Historical, Action/Adventure
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves Now

Summary: Based on a true story, this World War II novel by Scott O’Dell Award winner Graham Salisbury tells how Zenji, 17, is sent from Hawaii to the Philippines to spy on the Japanese.

Zenji Watanabe graduates from high school in Hawaii and is recruited into the army as a translator because he speaks perfect Japanese. He is sent to Manila undercover as a civilian to gather information on the Japanese in the Philippines. If they discover his identity, he’ll be executed as a traitor. When captured, he maintains that he is an American civilian despite unthinkable torture. He also survives being lost in the jungle for months. Zenji’s time behind enemy lines is grueling, and his survival is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

This is the fourth book in Graham Salisbury’s highly acclaimed Prisoners of the Empire series, which began with the award-winning Under the Blood-Red Sun.

My Review: Hunt for the Bamboo Rat begins with conflict, action, and suspense. From the start, Zenji Watanabe lands in dangerous situations and uses his intelligence and sheer determination to work his way through. He faces adversity using what he has learned from his teacher priests. He thought of becoming a priest himself. He has compassion on others and many times he stands firm and peacefully faces his problems as he imagines the priests would – and there are many problems to address.

Zenji runs into street thugs on more than one occasion, he spies on Japanese people, and is trapped behind enemy lines among other dangers. Salisbury keeps the action rolling in this suspenseful survival story. It is a page turner.

The overall tone of the book is fairly serious, but there are a few moments of humor. Zenji’s mother writes Japanese poetry that her children translate into English. Zenji appreciates his mother’s creativity. This is a poem that was posted on the wall of the messy room that Zenji shared with his brother Henry.

Room like
This must mean
Mongoose came in house
Thinking this place
Is garbage

As for the serious side of things, the “enemy,” members of the Japanese military, are generally seen in a negative light. Throughout the book though, readers can clearly see the complexity of humanity and the problem with judging someone by racial stereotypes. There are Japanese who behave honorably and those who behave otherwise. Zenji, being compassionate, tends to believe the best of others unless they give him good reason to change that opinion.

One issue I had with the book was the form of English that was used on occasion. One example is a Taiwanese worker in the Philippines. “You no clean good, I whip you,” is one of the phrases he used. What surprised me though was when Zenji then thought or replied in the same manner. He said, “Spotless, I clean um good.” He is a Japanese American who speaks with standard English grammar at most other times. It didn’t really make sense for him to speak like that in those situations, but it happened multiple times. This isn’t a major problem, but it is something that can shake the reader out of the story.

I had difficulty finding anything negative about Zenji. He is quite the hero. He has intelligence, courage, compassion, and strength.

Recommendation: For those who enjoy war stories and adventure, this book would be a great choice and I would say get it soon. Otherwise, borrow it someday.


New Releases

What a great mix of new releases this week!

Falling Into PlaceFalling Into Place by Amy Zhang
Greenwillow Books

On the day Liz Emerson tries to die, they had reviewed Newton’s laws of motion in physics class. Then, after school, she put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road.

Why? Why did Liz Emerson decide that the world would be better off without her? Why did she give up? Vividly told by an unexpected and surprising narrator, this heartbreaking and nonlinear novel pieces together the short and devastating life of Meridian High’s most popular junior girl. Mass, acceleration, momentum, force–Liz didn’t understand it in physics, and even as her Mercedes hurtles toward the tree, she doesn’t understand it now. How do we impact one another? How do our actions reverberate? What does it mean to be a friend? To love someone? To be a daughter? Or a mother? Is life truly more than cause and effect? Amy Zhang’s haunting and universal story will appeal to fans of Lauren Oliver, Gayle Forman, and Jay Asher.

Gabi a Girl in PIecesGabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Cinco Puntos Press

July 24

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

Hunt for the Bamboo RatHunt for the Bamboo Rat by Graham Salisbury
Wendy Lamb Books

Based on a true story, this World War II novel by Scott O’Dell Award winner Graham Salisbury tells how Zenji, 17, is sent from Hawaii to the Philippines to spy on the Japanese.

Zenji Watanabe graduates from high school in Hawaii and is recruited into the army as a translator because he speaks perfect Japanese. He is sent to Manila undercover as a civilian to gather information on the Japanese in the Philippines. If they discover his identity, he’ll be executed as a traitor. When captured, he maintains that he is an American civilian despite unthinkable torture. He also survives being lost in the jungle for months. Zenji’s time behind enemy lines is grueling, and his survival is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

This is the fourth book in Graham Salisbury’s highly acclaimed Prisoners of the Empire series, which began with the award-winning Under the Blood-Red Sun.


Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 336
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Review: Brown Girl Dreaming gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Jacqueline Woodson and shows us her writing journey. She begins with family stories of her birth. The mix of stories is part of the magic of this book. She acknowledges that people’s memories and stories aren’t necessarily fact, but they are still their stories. There’s a complexity to the many stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves. There’s what happened, what we remember, what we wish happened, and what we reframe with or without our knowledge. Woodson’s first poem ends with a focus on story:

I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers through my veins.

Story is a ribbon running through the book as she tells the stories from family members and of how she herself breathes stories. In her author’s note she explains that this book is “my past, my people, my memories, my story.” Most readers will be tumbled into their own memories along the way.

Somewhere in my brain
each laugh, tear and lullaby
becomes memory.

I really appreciated her poem “grown folks’ stories” because it tells of something that I did as a child. When the grown folks were talking, she and her siblings would sit quietly on the stairs to listen knowing that they could hear all of the good gossip. She seemed to drink up the stories, then retell them to her siblings adding her own twists.

Later, when her brother is on stage singing and they realize that he has real talent, she thinks that maybe there is something inside all of us, “A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered.” Throughout the book, Woodson lets us see the young girl searching to find her special something. We can see her grow as a person and as writer from that very first letter J she puts on the page for her name to that moment when she finds her voice.

Along with her journey as a writer, she also shares stories that reflect the culture around her as she experiences life in the north and the south. She framed her birth with the people and events of those times including Martin Luther King Jr. planning his march on Washington, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin and Ruby Bridges. She also includes more personal stories like their shopping trips in downtown Greenville. Segregation is over there, but that doesn’t mean things are equal. In some stores or restaurants they may be followed around because they might steal or be treated poorly because of their color. However, the fabric store is an exception because the white woman there knows her grandmother.

At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.

Recommendation: Buy it now especially if you love verse novels, memoirs, or history. If you read and enjoyed How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (reviewed earlier this year), you will definitely want to get this one soon. This is a book that has sometimes been labeled young adult, but more often middle grade. I think that’s because the writing is accessible for younger readers. The ideas and content are truly ageless and will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

— Cover image and summary via Goodreads


Review: Katrin’s Chronicles: The Canon of Jacqueléne Dyanne, vol. 1

Katrin's ChorniclesTitle: Katrin’s Chronicles: The Canon of Jacqueléne Dyanne, vol. 1
Author: Valerie C. Woods
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Fantasy
Pages: 205
Publisher: BooksEndependent
Review Copy: Received review copy from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: 13-year-old Katrin DuBois decides it’s never too soon to start an autobiography. She needs to set the record straight about the outrageous rumors concerning certain adventures that began when she was in 6th grade. That’s when her elder sister, 8th grader J. Dyanne, began exhibiting extraordinary detecting powers.

Volume 1 begins in the late summer of 1968 on the south side of Chicago, a turbulent time before cell phones, laptops and text messages became essential elements of pre-teen life. The girls manage to thrive in a world of social change with multi-generational family support, creative quick-thinking and fearless inquisitiveness. The dog days of August find them prohibited by their parents from visiting the Central Library downtown because of the riots during the Democratic Convention. However, there’s plenty of adventure in their own neighborhood as they become swept up in family mysteries, neighborhood political schemes and discovery of a surprising legacy of psychic, even supernatural, talent.

Review: Katrin’s Chronicles is an odd—but fun—little book that blends mystery and fantasy with the backdrop of 1968 Chicago and more than a dash of Sherlock Holmes. Katrin functions much as Watson did in the Sherlock Holmes stories: she is the narrator for her sister’s adventures (to set the record straight, as it were) while still being an important agent in the story.

And while Katrin is a great narrator, my major complaint with any story told in this style is that I often feel more removed from the story than I want to be. Katrin only explains what J. Dyanne picked up on and the deductions she made after events have concluded instead of in the moment, even though Katrin is telling the story three years after the fact. Katrin also has a few narrative affectations that take some getting used to and that occasionally pulled me out of the story. The book is also at an awkward crossroads between middle grade and young adult. Thirteen-year-old Katrin—with an impressive vocabulary—is telling the story of what happened when she was ten, but her teenage sister is the one spearheading the adventures. It left me more than a little confused about where I would shelve it, though I ultimately settled on the lower end of the YA spectrum.

That said, I really enjoyed the world Valerie C. Woods created. The world was all the better for the historical grounding, especially since the story needed a solid anchor once all of the psychic/supernatural elements started popping up. I do wish that the story had explained more about what rules/limitations the supernatural had, but I suppose that’s something that will be explored in more depth in later volumes. As it is, the hunches/dreams both J. Dyanne and Katrin get serve to point them in the correct direction as they go about solving various mysteries, but the girls generally still have to find the actual evidence they need. On occasion, the supernatural help sometimes makes the mystery seem too easy.

I enjoyed Katrin’s sprawling family, particularly in how so much has been hinted at but not explained, like how Katrin’s mother chose not to pursue her own supernatural talents. There are stories—many of them—skulking about in the background that make the world richer and, I anticipate, are seeds for the future installments of the series.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, especially if you like Sherlock Holmes-esque mysteries. The historical setting and supernatural elements are integral and appealing parts of the story. Katrin is a fun narrator, but the emotional distance with the three-year gap between recording the adventures and actually experiencing them may leave some readers cold.


New Releases

This is a great week with four new releases.

Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Amulet Books

Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Summer of Yesterday by Gaby Triana
Simon Pulse

Summer officially sucks. Thanks to a stupid seizure she had a few months earlier, Haley’s stuck going on vacation with her dad and his new family to Disney’s Fort Wilderness instead of enjoying the last session of summer camp back home with her friends. Fort Wilderness holds lots of childhood memories for her father, but surely nothing for Haley. But then a new seizure triggers something she’s never before experienced—time travel—and she ends up in River Country, the campground’s long-abandoned water park, during its heyday.

The year? 1982.

And there—with its amusing fashion, “oldies” music, and primitive technology—she runs into familiar faces: teenage Dad and Mom before they’d even met. Somehow, Haley must find her way back to the twenty-first century before her present-day parents anguish over her disappearance, a difficult feat now that she’s met Jason, one of the park’s summer residents and employees, who takes the strangely dressed stowaway under his wing.

Seizures aside, Haley’s used to controlling her life, and she has no idea how to deal with this dilemma. How can she be falling for a boy whose future she can’t share?

Drift FC

Drift by M.K. Hutchins
Tu Books

Tenjat lives on the shores of Hell, an ocean filled with ravenous naga monsters. His island, a massive Turtle, is slowed by the people living on its back. Only those poor enough to need children to support themselves in old age condescend to the shame of marriage. Tenjat is poor as poor gets, but he has a plan.

In the center of the island rises a giant Tree, where the Handlers—those who defend and rule the island—live. Against his sister’s wishes, Tenjat joins the Handlers. He couldn’t have picked a more dangerous time. The Turtle is nearing a coral reef where it desperately needs to feed, but the naga will swarm just before they reach it. Even novices like Tenjat are needed for the battle.

Can Tenjat discover his sister’s secrets in time? Will the possibility of love derail all his plans for a richer, marriage-free life? Long-held secrets will at last be revealed in this breathtaking debut from M. K. Hutchins.

Rebellion FC Rebellion (Tankborn #3) by Karen Sandler
Tu Books

In the wake of a devastating bomb blast, severely injured Kayla has been brought to the headquarters of the organization that planted the bomb-and many others like it in GEN food warehouses and homes. Her biological mother tells her that Devak is dead and that Kayla must join her in the terrorist group, which is ramping up for something big. Now Kayla must pretend that she embraces this new role in an underground compound full of paranoia as she plots a way to escape and save her friends. Meanwhile, Devak has emerged from his healing in a gen-tank, only to be told that Kayla is dead and his family has fallen from grace. Can he overcome his grief at the loss of his power to see the clues that point to Kayla being alive? As Kayla and Devak overcome the multiple obstacles put between them while trying to free GENs without further bloodshed, the Tankborn trilogy rushes to a thrilling conclusion!  — cover images and summaries via Goodreads


As always, if you know of any titles we’ve missed or that are coming soon, please let us know.