Review: Allegedly

Title: Allegedly
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 387
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Mary B. Addison killed a baby.

Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.

Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.

There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?

In this gritty and haunting debut, Tiffany D. Jackson explores the grey areas in our understanding of justice, family, and truth, and acknowledges the light and darkness alive in all of us.

Review: Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut novel is a hard-hitting examination of what it’s like for a teen girl to spend a significant portion of her life in jail and then move to a group home. Jackson tackles issues like racism, child (sexual) abuse, mental illness, poverty, and a justice system that just doesn’t care about the people trapped inside it. Mary’s struggle to forge a path for herself after getting out of jail is a gripping story, filled with people who want to help her and others who just want to tear her down or are entirely unequipped to be useful.

Mary is a compelling narrator whose reader-friendly goals (survive the group home, go to college, and save her baby) make it easy to root for her. However, she is also an unreliable narrator, and I found it fascinating to compare her thoughts to the (also biased and unreliable) excerpts from court documents, books, etc. about her and her case. Mary’s particularly difficult relationship with her mother was fascinating, since she had many reasons to hate her—but she still wanted affection and love from her mother all the same.

The group home Mary is sent to is a nightmarish place where it’s every girl for herself and the adults do the barest minimum to collect their checks. Contrasting all those awful people and events against the better people and things in Mary’s life made the briefer moments of kindness a welcome relief. Ms. Claire and Ms. Cora are particular standouts; I have mixed feelings about Ted due to the age gap between him and Mary.

I am not enamored with the ending, which is difficult to talk about without massive spoilers. Suffice it to say that I felt that the final twist undermined some of the good work the narrative had done earlier, particularly since it seemed redundant in light of the conclusion to Sarah’s story arc. It was not the ending I wanted, but I’m not sure that what I wanted would have produced a better story.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Allegedly is a compelling story told from the POV of an unreliable narrator who explores the injustices in the justice system and how hard it is to try to get back on your feet. Opinions will be divided on the ending, but overall, Jackson’s debut novel is worth a look if you’re up for a story that tackles difficult–and timely–topics.

Extras

Author Interview: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Darker Side of the Story: Tiffany D. Jackson talks ALLEGEDLY

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Interview with Phillippe Diederich and Giveaway

fireToday we welcome Phillippe Diederich as he shares his newest book Playing for the Devil’s Fire which we reviewed here.

 

Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.


What would you like us to know about Playing for the Devil’s Fire?

I was attempting to write an entertaining story that also showed the problems rural Mexican’s are experiencing with the violence of the narcos and the corruption of officials. The one thing I didn’t want to do was preach to anyone. My hope is that the book is an engrossing read for young and old alike.

Your first novel Sofrito was for adults. What led you to writing for a younger audience? Were there major differences in your writing experience with a younger main character?

Sofrito was my first novel. The first draft was completed many years ago. That story was born of a nostalgia for Cuba where I have been spending a lot of time back inn the 1990s. Playing for the Devil’s Fire was born out of a similar nostalgia, but this time it was for Mexico, where I grew up. I was not really approaching the book as a young adult book. I was just writing a coming of age story in this violent and difficult scenario. One of the issues with a young main character, especially one that is the ‘voice’ of the novel, is that you have to temper your literary impulses. By this I mean that a 12 or 13 year old boy is not going to speak like a 40 something writer. You have to be absolutely faithful to your character and let him narrate the way he would narrate. In other words. I didn’t  write the book Boli, the main character of my story, did. I prepared for this by writing a number of coming of age stories before attempting the novel.

Your main character, Boli, is a reminder that children are resilient. I appreciated his ability to maintain hope in spite of the many horrors happening in his community and family. How did this character come about for you?

Like I said, I had written a number of short stories where I had sensitive and resilient characters in a world that does not appreciate that personality type. I also drew heavily on my own experiences, growing up in the outskirts of Mexico City with a band of boys running wild and without supervision. We were between ages 8 and 15. There are a lot of dynamics in a group like that. But Boli is his own self. As I developed the story he came alive and led the way. I always try and listen to my characters. Boli told me what to do.

Are there reflections of your own childhood hidden within the pages of the book?

As I mentioned above, some of the main character and the dynamics of the young people in the novel are rooted in part in my experiences growing up in Mexico. Just like the scene in the ravine and they find the wreck of an old car, I experienced that with my friends while exploring the ravines around our neighborhood. The fair, the poor neighborhoods, the dynamics of the Devil’s Fire marble, it all comes from something I experienced in my youth.

Are you still a lucha libre fan? Do you have an all-time favorite wrestler?

I am not longer a huge fan. But I like lucha. I don’t follow it. I like the small affairs in Mexico or even here in the states, when the luchadores are not big names and the ring is set up in a street fair or a small auditorium. It’s more intimate. I grew up with the lucha movies. And the scene where Lucio tells Boli that he met Mil Mascaras happened to me when I was on a tour of Churubusco studios with my father. It was pretty cool.

Did your life as a photographer help to prepare you as a writer?

I think it did. First of all I am told I write visually. And no doubt that comes from my experience as a photographer. Also, being a photojournalist allowed me to travel extensively and to meet people I would have otherwise not met. I was a very shy kid and even as a young photographer, I was petrified of approaching people I didn’t know, but I also believed in facing my fears. My work as a photojournalist allowed me to break that. It gave me license to walk up to people on a street corner and start talking to them, ask questions, learn what their situation was.

Which writers have inspired you?

I think John Steinbeck is my biggest inspiration. I find his work very humanistic. His empathy toward his characters is amazing. I think he inspires my stories and my characters. I also admire the work of Earnest Hemingway because of his style and he was probably the writer whose work brought me into reading a lot. I think that without For Whom The Bell Tolls, I would not be a writer because that book started me back on reading obsessively. There are a lot of other writers like Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz. I am very eclectic. I like good stories and writing that allows me to forget that I am reading a book.

Have you read any young adult books lately that you would recommend?

I read Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quinetro at the recommendation of my editor at Cinco Puntos Press. I think it’s a great book. Drown by Junot Diaz is not a young adult book, but it has a young protagonist in most of the stories and I think it is the kind of book young Latinos would enjoy. Anything by Sherman Alexie and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I read those with my son and we were both very entertained.

 


phillippe
Phillippe Diederich was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Mexico City and Miami. His parents were forced out of Haiti by the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier in 1963. As a photojournalist, Diederich has traveled extensively through Mexico and witnessed the terrible tragedies of the Drug Wars.

To learn more, visit other stops on the blog tour:

Sept 1: The Pirate Tree review & interview

Sept 4: Guest Post for Clear Eyes, Full Shelves

Sept 5: Review, The Brain Lair

Sept 6: Rich in Color author interview (http://richincolor.com)

September 7: Edi Campbell CrazyquiltEdi review (https://campbele.wordpress.com)

September 8: Anastasia Suen, #KidLitBookoftheday (asuen.com)

September 9: Reading Through Life author highlight plus links to blog tour  (http://readingtl.blogspot.com)

Sept 9: Guest Post, The Brain Lair (http://www.thebrainlair.com)

Sept. 12: Linda Washington (https://lmarie7b.wordpress.com/)

Sept. 13: Excerpt, review and guest post at Mom Read It (https://momreadit.wordpress.com/)


If you are interested in reading the book, you have an opportunity to win a copy. Only those with a U.S. mailing address are eligible for this drawing.

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Review: Playing for the Devil’s Fire

fireTitle: Playing for the Devil’s Fire
Author: Phillippe Diederich
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Pages: 245
Genre: Mystery
Review copy: Final copy via publisher
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.

Review: A severed head and another dead body with missing fingers are the two most obvious clues that things are changing in the small town of Izayoc. The name Izayoc is Nahuatl and means the place of tears which rapidly becomes a more and more accurate description. There are multiple grisly scenes and many heart-breaking moments throughout the book. Boli’s story is haunting and difficult to read, but is well worth the time and potential tears.

My heart ached for Boli as he watched his world crumble. The horrifying deaths are bad enough, but the shattering of trust is also devastating. Law enforcement is no help when his family goes missing and it’s hard to know where the loyalties of neighbors and strangers may lie on any given day. Boli is a pretty trusting kid initially. He is slow to believe the evidence staring at him. He hangs out with some kids who curse and fantasizes about an older girl, but he is a pretty innocent child as the story begins to unfold. He idolized luchadores and wants to be a hero like them – not a superhero, but a real person who is responsible for fighting crime and also happens to get the girl in the end. Unfortunately, Boli and his town become witness to plenty of crime to fight, but it’s not like in the movies or lucha libre. The crime and violence is all too real and can be downright gruesome.

Boli mainly places his trust in his family and his faith. He does have questions though. Father Gregorio teaches that one shouldn’t question God’s motives for what happens to people. Boli ponders the idea that life is a journey of living, suffering and dying. This type of thinking seems to keep people trapped in their situations though. His friend Mosca tells him that Catholicism is “all a fairy tale made up by the priests. All they wanted was to enslave the Indians and steal the gold of the Aztecs.”

Diederich does several things very well. He is able to dig a little into theology and religion without becoming preachy and dry. He also paints the scenes thoroughly. This book has a movie-like quality. This is where Diederich’s experience as a photographer may have been a big benefit. The dead bodies, trash heaps, marble games and lucha libre matches along with so many other situations are vividly described. One could say that sometimes maybe they’re even almost too vivid for comfort. Diederich also created memorable characters who wormed their way into my heart. Boli is facing enormous challenges but meets them with resilience for the most part. His sister Gaby also persists in spite of fear and heartache. Their abuela is experiencing dementia, but is also a strong force in their lives. I love the relationship Boli has with her. He appreciates her ability to laugh and hold onto whatever joke is bringing her joy. And then there is the washed up wrestler who stumbles into their lives and provides hope for Boli.

The story is set in Mexico and there are Spanish words and phrases present, but the author does provide a glossary. Like many of the events in the book, the words can be harsh, but they fit the situations and the characters and enrich the story.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a book that takes a hard look at the devastation that can come along with the drug business and the heavy toll it can take on individuals. This is a book that will stay in my memory for a long time to come.

Blog Tour: To learn more about the book and author, visit The Pirate Tree tomorrow.

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Review: Perfect Liars by Kimberly Reid

Perfect LiarsTitle: Perfect Liars
Author: Kimberly Reid
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary
Pages: 336
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: In this YA heist novel, a society girl with a sketchy past leads a crew of juvie kids in using their criminal skills for good.

Andrea Faraday is junior class valedictorian at the exclusive Woodruff School, where she was voted Most Likely to Do Everything Right. But looks can be deceiving. When her parents disappear, her life—and her Perfect Girl charade—begins to crumble, and her scheme to put things right just takes the situation from bad to so much worse. Pretty soon she’s struck up the world’s least likely friendship with the juvenile delinquents at Justice Academy, the last exit on the road to jail—and the first stop on the way out.

If she were telling it straight, friendship might not be the right word to describe their alliance, since Drea and her new associates could not be more different. She’s rich and privileged; they’re broke and, well, criminal. But Drea’s got a secret: she has more in common with the juvie kids than they’d ever suspect. When it turns out they share a common enemy, Drea suggests they join forces to set things right. Sometimes, to save the day, a good girl’s gotta be bad.

Review: One of the things I appreciated about Perfect Liars was the way details were doled out and how I learned more and more about past events as time went on. While I feel like the pacing was pretty uneven in the first half, things picked up quickly in the second half. I was fully engaged with the mystery, which took me by surprise more than once, and I’m hoping the open(-ish) ending is an opportunity for future books in the series. (I would love to learn more about Drea’s parents, for starters, and more about what the Faradays were like before they settled down in Peachland or assumed a new surname. I also want to see more of the Faraday family dynamics, especially Drea and her brother, who were consistently great together.)

It took me a while to buy into Drea and Xavier’s budding romantic relationship, as I felt like it had very little to go off of early on. The scene at the restaurant was one of the turning points for me as I finally started to feel like there was something of substance between them. (Kimberly Reid touches on race and class issues in the novel, whether that’s anti-black racism or the poor in the criminal justice system.) Once they really start opening up to each other, their relationship was one that I was happy to root for.

Drea is an engaging narrator, and I particularly enjoyed her casual (and often humorous or snarky) observations. I wasn’t as fond of the other scattered and weaker viewpoints we got in the book, though I understand why some of them were absolutely necessary. Drea’s attempts to balance her current image against her family’s past were an interesting push-and-pull act that definitely upped the pressure in her life. This was very apparent in her initial attitude toward the Justice Academy students, particularly since her own family made its wealth off of crime and were simply good (or lucky) enough not to be caught by authorities before they fled town. Drea slowly confronting her own privilege and bias was a great part of the story.

My one major nitpick is that I wish Gigi had been a more plentiful presence in the book, though I can understand why she wasn’t. As it is, she was absent for long stretches of it and got even less screen time than Jason, who was one of the least interesting good guys for me. However, Gigi was always unforgettable when she was on screen. Tiana was another memorable character who I wished had taken up more space in the novel.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Perfect Liars is a solid entry into the YA mystery genre. While I have a few gripes about the pacing and the initial romance, once the mystery kicks into high gear and the characters really start to open up to each other, the book becomes great. I’m looking forward to future books from this author.

Extras
Interview with Kimberly Reid at Rich in Color

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Book Review: The Smaller Evil

evilTitle: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 256
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Stephanie herself. Thank You!
Availability: Available Aug. 2nd

Summary: Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.

17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: One of the reasons I love Stephanie Keuhn’s books is because they not only are they thrilling mysteries, but they also explore the very mystery of how our mind works in all it’s complicated beauty. The characters in her books are all struggling with living with mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, in their daily lives and struggling with all the usual angst that being a teenager brings. And, in Keuhn’s books, things are always never what they seem. And in her 4th novel, the reader is taken on an journey that has them just as confused as the main character Arman, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means the mystery was so well plotted that there is no way the reader can figure it out until the reveal. And I love that in a book.

As I mentioned, all of the protagonists in Keuhn’s books struggle with mental illness, Arman is her most touching yet. Arman suffers from severe anxiety, almost crippling at times, and feels that the Evolve retreat is what will heal him. He is on medication to help him with his anxiety, but it doesn’t really help him at all. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the depression that he feels is so strong that he truly believes he does not have any worth to society, and this completely broke my heart for him. Having the novel be so close inside Arman’s head truly give a glimpse of what someone with severe anxiety and depression goes through, how their own thoughts hamper them from truly functioning sometimes. Arman would often try to pump himself up, but then his self-doubt, which was much stronger than his self-love, would take over and he would not trust any progress he made while at the retreat center. Compounding his low self-worth is that when Beau disappears, no one initially believes him which doesn’t help Arman’s state of mind in the slightest. However, this is also where Arman shows great strength and grows as a character. It is for his admiration of Beau that Arman doesn’t allow himself to let his self-doubt and anxiety take control. Arman knows, desires, to figure out what happened to Beau so he constantly fights with his own brain, his low self-esteem, and really fights to have his voice heard. His purpose drives him, and while it cannot cure him from his mental illness, it does allow to find a way to work with his illness.

As for the mystery surrounding Beau’s disappearance, as well as what is exactly going on at the retreat center, I can’t exactly say without giving spoilers, but I can say that at no point did I even come close to figuring it out. There were moments where I felt Arman’s frustration with being so left in the dark without any clues as to what was really going on in the story. Well, I take that back. There was tension between Beau and other leaders of the retreat center and I saw what that place was in danger of becoming, which added an extra level of concern for Arman because his spirit is in such a vulnerable position, that certain member of the retreat center could exploit if they wanted. Luckily, Beau and Arman’s mutual appreciation of each other was well known, so Arman was never in real danger.

Overall, I’m kind of in the middle with my thoughts on “The Smaller Evil”. It is a slow paced, quiet book that feels different from Keuhn’s previous books that had a lot of movement to it. This novel takes place primarily at the retreat center, and Keuhn does a great job of giving the reader a sense of place with her descriptions, but I feel that because the setting is in one place, the story just moves a bit too slowly. Also, my heart totally broke for Arman so I struggled with reading because I just wanted Arman to get the true help he needed and the retreat center was so not the place. It changes him, as all experiences do, but I wonder how much damage it did as well. This novel grabs your heart for Arman and doesn’t let go. It is a hard read at times because Keuhn does a great job with Arman’s neurosis and you truly, truly feel his pain. Because after all, that is what Keuhn excels at.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

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Book Review: Endangered

newbirdTitle: Endangered
Author: Lamar Giles
Genres:  Contemporary, Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 280
Publisher: Harper Teen
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: The one secret she cares about keeping—her identity—is about to be exposed. Unless Lauren “Panda” Daniels—an anonymous photoblogger who specializes in busting classmates and teachers in compromising positions—plays along with her blackmailer’s little game of Dare or . . . Dare.

But when the game turns deadly, Panda doesn’t know what to do. And she may need to step out of the shadows to save herself . . . and everyone else on the Admirer’s hit list.

Review: I had heard only great things about Lamar Gile’s latest book so I had high expectations and they were surely met. Endangered is a fun summer read that I picked up at just the right time. The novel moved at a quick pace as Panda tried to discover who the Admirer is, while her life spins out of control due to her own actions. I am often a bit wary of mysteries because I try, like most readers, to figure out “who done it” before the main character, and with Endangered, I didn’t figure it out who the Admirer was until Panda uncovered the clues. I love mysteries such as Endangered where the reader is consistently second guessing everything and being wrong. Once the Admirer was revealed, I thought back to the little clues that Giles left and marveled how the answers were there all along, but he masterly misdirected the clues keeping Panda, and the reader, guessing.

One of the many aspects of Endangered that I loved was the YA tropes that Giles subverts throughout the story. The first is Panda’s relationship with her parents. Both of her parents are involved, to a certain extent, in her life. Like any modern teen, Panda does have her secrets but when she realizes she needs their help, she doesn’t hesitate to share her knowledge with them. She confesses her double identity and her “game” with the Admirer and how it relates to the murder to a student. This creates tension between her and her parents throughout the rest of the book, but I greatly enjoyed that the parent/child relationship was realistic and present in the novel. Another trope that was inverted was the “romance” angle, if you could even call it that. Panda’s ex-boyfriend Taylor Durham, whom she clearly hates, re-enters the picture and ends up helping her sort out the mystery. While her feelings towards him change through the story, from animosity to friendship, he clearly still has feelings for her. She does recognize her old feelings for him, but the hurt he caused her keeps her guarded around him, initially. Through the events of the story, they slowly rebuild their friendship by forgiving each other and becoming honest with each other. It’s a very mature relationship and also very realistic. I guess, based on these two aspects alone, that I loved that fact people actually communicated with each other in the novel. One of the YA tropes, or rather literary tropes, that bug me is that in order for much of a novel to make sense, people don’t communicate their knowledge with each other creating misunderstandings to drive the story forward. Giles throws that trope out the window effectively showing us that a story can be exciting and entertaining even when folks are honest and communicate.

I loved the characters, Panda, especially. She is fiercely smart girl who believes she is handing out justice, while not realizing she’s doing the very same thing she accuses the bullies of. The reader completely understands Panda’s position and emotionally connects with why Panda exposes the dirt on her classmates, as some of them are truly despicable people. When her life starts to fall apart because her identity is exposed, Panda’s heartbreak and her desire to repair the hurt of others, specifically her friends, is really what makes Panda real. This line “We’re all something we don’t know we are” is repeated throughout the novel as Panda begins to recognize who she was and comes to learn who she really is. She learns to forgive those who hurt her, hurt others, and also learns to forgive herself.

Like I’ve stated many times before, Endangered is a very realistic novel in terms of how the characters relate to each other and the relationships, along with the mystery, is what makes this story so wonderful. I was drawn to not just Panda, but Taylor, and even the Admirer. In fact, once the Admirer is revealed, I actually felt sorrow for the character (and actually that reveal is a wonderful plot twist that I absolutely loved!). Giles wrote a novel that is thrilling and exciting on the surface, but so much deeper when you get to it’s heart.

Recommendation: If you love compelling mysteries with lots of twists and turns, get this soon!

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