Mini Review: The Game of Love & Death

Love & DeathTitle: The Game of Love & Death
Author: Martha Brockenbrough
Genres:  Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: My local library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now… Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured—a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. – image & summary from Goodreads

Review: This lovely book fell into my hands at just the right time. I was wanting something with a sweet, romantic storyline, and also a bit of fantasy. I do enjoy historical fiction, but to find this beautiful novel with everything I was craving for was heaven. And I feel in love with Flora, Henry, Death and Love. In fact, it’s been a few days since I finished the book and all four characters are still with me. I hadn’t intended to write a review about this novel, but halfway through I thought, “I must tell everyone about this novel!”

Set in Seattle in 1937, just as the United States is beginning to recover from the Great Depression, the novel follows Flora and Henry as they begin, unwittingly, to play Love & Death’s game. The game that Love & Death have created, so to speak, is more of a bet of trying to put two people from different worlds together. If the lovers chose to be together, Love wins; if not, Death takes them. Unfortunately, Death is on a serious winning streak and Love is hoping that Henry will be the player to finally give him the win. And here’s the thing that Brockenbrough does so well. Readers of romance expect the “happy ever after”, but the way Brockenbrough crafts the obstacles Henry and Flora face, I wasn’t really sure the “HEA” was going to happen. I wanted to be comfortable in my assurance of the HEA, and that all would work out well for Henry and Flora, but Death is a mean, err a very strategic, player and I was kept guessing the entire way. I like an unpredictable novel and “Game of Love and Death” is definitely not predictable. Brockenbrough really puts Henry and Flora through the wringer, that tests their resolve to even attempt to form a relationship. While their attraction to each other is definitely swoon worthy, their budding friendship brings a much richer, much warmer feeling to the story.

It is the development of the 4 characters that is really the strength of the novel. Love is a charming old soul, while Death is a woman who finds no more pleasure in her job, but does it anyways. Henry is the boy who is willing to sacrifice his own personal freedom in order to please his adoptive parents, and Flora is a young woman who intends to defy the odds. Combined, the relationships the characters create among each other (yes Love & Death interact with Henry & Flora in unique ways) allows each of the characters to learn and grow from each other. While Love & Death are the ones who set the game in motion, both are changed by their players as their players are changed by the game. All four are truly relatable, and you root for all four to win, which in a game where two could potentially die, is a testament to the strength of Brockenbrough’s writing.

Speaking of Brockenbrough’s writing, it is just gorgeous. It is clear that she did her homework with researching the novel and what 1937 Seattle would feel like. Having been to Seattle a number of times, I could picture many of the places in my head, but imagine them as they were 80 years ago. She used slang of the time and even included real world events (such as the growing tension in Europe) to fully ground the novel. She also didn’t hesitate to include the racial tension that existed in Seattle back then, even though Seattle was a multi-cultural city during the Depression. Brockenbrough’s world felt real, felt right, and I loved it.

Recommendation: I got the book from the library, but I loved it so much that I intend on buying it and you should too.

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Book Review: Tiny Pretty Things

tinyTitle: Tiny Pretty Things
Author: Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 448
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: On shelves May 26th

Summary: Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.

Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

Review:  I haven’t seen or read Pretty Little Liars, but have seen Black Swan so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Tiny Pretty Things. I remembered the intensity of the ballet company in Black Swan, so I imagined that the competition between the three lead characters in Tiny Pretty Things would be intense. What I didn’t expect, because I was Pretty Little Liars ignorant, would be the level of “mean girlness” that existed by a few members of the ballet academy. Either way, I was so involved with the story that I sacrificed sleep to finish it. And then…that ending! Thank goodness there is a sequel because that ending was just cruel to readers with such a cliffhanger.  But I digress…

Tiny Pretty Things just killed me – in a good way. Seriously. It’s been a bit since I read it and  Gigi, Bette and June are still with me. I was so into the world that Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton created that during some true OMG moments, I had to remind myself that it was a novel. That some of the characters really wouldn’t behave that way in real life. That ballet academies are not as cut-throat as what is depicted in movies such as Black Swan and in the novel (at least I hope). But, at no time did I ever want to put the book down and take a break from all of the backstabbing and manipulation that was going on. No, I was intrigued to find out what would happen next and try to figure out which character really did what. I do love that I could never figure it out, and as one who loves to solve a mystery but is disappointed once I figure out before the characters do, I was glad that I was continually kept guessing. In fact, in reference to the cliffhanger, I still have no idea what happened. When I read the last page, I was irritated because I wanted the second book already. I needed to know what happened next. I wasn’t actually ready to leave Gigi, Bette and June behind. And that is the hallmark of a great, fun novel.

Within the YA sphere there has been discussion about creating unlikable characters, especially female unlikeable characters, and whether or not the readers will connect with said character. In Tiny Pretty Things, there are a number of female characters that the reader just loves to hate! These characters are not one dimensional, mustache twirly villains, they are complex characters whose reasons for doing the bad things they do make sense to them. Even though the characters are unlikeable, and people I really would not want to be around in person, I was still able to feel for them, connect with them because Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton, made me understand them and even empathize them. I am of the camp that YA writers should write unlikeable female characters because unlikeable girls/women do exist, but also for readers to allow themselves to stretch their compassion muscles and understand people for both the good and the bad decision they make. I salute Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton for not holding back in their creations of Gigi, Bette and June because if all three girls were sweet, model perfect ballerinas the story would have been very boring. Instead Gigi, Bette and June are interesting characters that made me feel for them all sorts of feelings – compassion, joy, anger, hate. But most of all I saw them as distinct young women each trying their hardest to achieve their dream of becoming a prima ballerina. Those three characters make Tiny Pretty Things the amazing, intense novel that it is and why I’m anxiously waiting for the sequel.

Recommendation: You best buy it on May 26th. Make Tiny Pretty Things a best seller please!

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Book Review: Stella by Starlight

stellaTitle: Stella by Starlight
Author: Sharon Draper
Genres: Historical
Pages: 320
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.

Stella lives in the segregated South; in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community – her world – is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end. (Image & summary via Goodreads)

Review: As a huge fan of Sharon Draper’s young adult novels, I was excited to read her newest Stella by Starlight. I didn’t realize at the time it was a middle grade novel, until I started reading it, but because the story draws you in and Stella is such a wonderful character, I enjoyed the novel immensely. In fact, my 12 year old self emerged and was giddy at a book that spoke to her – especially a story about a young girl finding her voice through writing.

The novel takes place in the South in 1932, so you know it’s not going to be an easy read. Stella is a 12 year old girl who is loved by both of her parents, has a good relationship with her little brother, wonderful friends, and lives in a tight knit African American community. What could go wrong? Well, the Klan shows up one night and sets the entire community on edge. The issue is that there is a presidential election coming and, of course, the Klan does not want the African American members of their community to vote, so they use the usual scare tactics, which thankfully, do not work. I loved the way Draper showed how small African-American communities came together during crisis, helping each other out when they often didn’t have very much to give. She also balanced this out by showing that not all of the members of the White community agreed with the Klan’s tactics, and were willing to make a stand. While the heart of the novel is very much on Stella and her perspective on life, the scenes that focused on social justice, way back in 1932, clearly showing the seeds for the Civil Rights movement and our current #Black Lives Matter movement, were moving.

Stella is the star of the novel and her voice is truly one of a young girl on the edge of womanhood who is actively thinking about the world around here. One aspect of Stella’s character that I really related to was her emerging status as a writer. At the beginning of the book, she struggled with writing (even though she liked to) because she often couldn’t find the words to say. She would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and write underneath the stars. I so related to her as I would write underneath the covers with a flashlight. Her writing eventually becomes stronger as she practices and then when she receives a typewriter as a gift, she starts her own newspaper, readership of one (that was also me at age 10!). The little girl K. Imani instantly fell in love with Stella as I remembered some of the struggles I had finding my voice, but with the encouragement of teachers, like Stella, I grew into the writer I am today. I also appreciated that Draper doesn’t make Stella a super duper writer right away and actually has her experience rejection in the form of not being picked for a writing contest. The disappointment Stella felt allowed for a true growth moment where she recognized her writing was not as strong as it could be and that the only way for her to get better was to practice. A message writers of all ages need to be reminded of.

One of my favorite childhood books of all time is Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and I feel that Draper’s novel is written in the spirit of that novel. All these years later I still love that novel, and Stella by Starlight brought those same emotions forth. Stella’s story is a fitting compliment to Taylor’s classic novel, but yet is perfect for our current children who need to understand how the Americans fought for equality in the past, just as they fight for it now.

Recommendation: Get It Now!

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Mini Review: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas

PoliTitle: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas
Author: Jay Neugeboren
Genres:  Historical
Pages: 123
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In 1839, José Policarpo Rodriguez came north with his father from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas. Poli was ten years old when he arrived in Texas, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas. He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—he struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days. . .and is still rare today.

Review: In celebration of it’s 25 anniversary, Texas Tech University Press has decided to re-release Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, and I happen to agree that this was a good move for the publisher. This historical novel is a quick and entertaining read that touches on a brief period of history that shows the tensions between the Comanche Nation, Mexicans, and the early Texans. The story follows young Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, and is based on the real Poli’s memoirs. The novel begins when Poli is 10 years old and just arriving in Texas from Zaragosa. Poli and his father have left Mexico for a better life after the death of his mother and other family members. Poli’s father then sends him to spend a week with the Comanche nation and there Poli forms a friendship with the Chief’s son, Eagle Blood. It is through his relationship with Eagle Blood that Poli is able to see and understand all three sides of the land use issue that is the cause of the tension between the Native Americans, Mexicans, and the Texans. Because of his relationship, Poli is also able to work as a surveyor and as a translator during negotiations that ultimately fail. The fact that Poli is so trusted by adults shows how during this period of time, adolescents were treated as adults and give adult responsibilities. Poli had to mature fast because of the harshness of life on the plain.

Not knowing much about Texas history, except what is briefly given in school textbooks, I found the focus on the lives of those effected in San Antonio fascinating as it took a larger conflict and allowed the reader to see how it effect the daily lives of the people who lived during that time period. I found it very easy to relate to Poli as through his travels he missed his father, and his friendship with Eagle Blood felt true and real. I feel that Neugeboren did his research in getting the historical details correct, especially when sharing the lifestyles and beliefs of the Comanche people. Neugeboren was able to handle the tension between the Comanche, the Mexicans, and the Texans in such a manner that the reader fully understood and empathized with the different factions (okay, maybe not so much with the early Texans as a whole, but the individuals whose lives were thrown in to chaos because of the fighting, yes).  While the novel is written for middle grade, Neugeboren writes in such a way that Poli would be enjoyable for readers of all ages. I feel this would be an excellent supplemental novel in a social studies class, as well as a good read of the youngster who enjoys historical fiction.

Recommendation: Get It Soon

To celebrate the release of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, we have two copies to give away! Raffle ends March 17th. Enter Now!

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Book Review: My Heart & Other Black Holes

22328549Title: My Heart & Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 302
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution–Roman, a teenage boy who’s haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner. Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: It is interesting that two of last week’s new releases dealt with the subject of suicide, as it is a subject that is sensitive to many and one that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, which is a shame because many folks experience depression and/or have thoughts of suicide. Teens especially need to be able to have someone to reach out for help, and sometimes, handing a young adult book that speaks to the heart of what they are going through can save a life. I honestly feel that My Heart & Other Black Holes could be a potential life saver for many young adults.

While Aysel’s depression is triggered over her father’s crime, Warga makes note to show how Aysel showed signs when she was growing up, so the novel doesn’t feel like one of those, “she’s depressed over something and now she’s all better, happy every after” novels. No, when we meet Aysel she is in the thick of her depression, has made the decision to commit suicide and is actively seeking help by having a suicide partner. And this is where I think Warga’s novel really shines. Reading the thought process of someone committed to taking their own life is very tough, but it is a thought process that is very real, hence making Aysel a fully-fleshed out character. It makes the reader empathize with Aysel, as we understand that when someone is at the point Aysel is, when they are in their darkest moments, it can be extremely hard to change their thinking. A person who is depressed to the point of committing suicide will not “just get over it”.  Aysel is actively looking forward to her death. As a teacher of teenagers, this was hard to read because I kept thinking about a student who came close to this point a few years ago, but reached out and got the help she needed. As the novel is told in first person, Aysel, unfortunately does not believe that she can find help or even capable of help. It was also those moments that the heart of Warga’s story really impacted me.

It was also Aysel’s thoughts, her self-awareness about her depression that really made her a character to root for. She even personifies her depression, calling it a black slug, and it became a “villain” in a way. She has to actively fight against the black slug and sometimes she wins, sometimes she looses. I feel that having Aysel name her depression was a stroke of genius by Warga. It turned an illness that can be very abstract into something concrete. It allowed for readers who might not fully grasp how depression works into seeing the disease as a real obstacle in a person’s path. If people get anything out of this book, it will be that depression it is not just an imaginary illness in a person’s head, but a real tangible presence that they fight daily against.

And, I think, that is the beauty of Warga’s novel. The reader really connects with Aysel, with her wry humor, her love for her little brother, and how much she struggles with the slug that she fights daily. The reader knows that Aysel is a beautiful soul and really wants her to recognize her worth so she won’t continue to think about suicide, but is still willing to go on the journey that Warga lays out as Aysel begins to question her decision with Roman. The novel takes place over a span of 26 days, with each chapter counting down, and we are not privy to Aysel’s decision to live or die until almost the very end. And when she does, well…you just have to read the novel to find out.

Jasmine Warga’s debut novel is a beautiful and touching story about depression, family, friendship and love. It’s about answering the tough questions we have about ourselves, our place in our family and our world, but mostly it is about discovering and owning our own self worth. The messages and themes that My Heart & Other Black Holes explores is one that people of all ages can learn from and relate to.

Recommendation: If you are in the mood for a story with heart, run to the store and buy My Heart & Other Black Holes now!

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Book Review: The Boy in the Black Suit

suitTitle: The Boy in the Black Suit
Author: Jason Reynolds
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 255
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more—and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down—in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.

Review: Ever love a book so much that you are momentarily struck dumb and all you can do is squee? Well, that’s how I feel about Jason Reynold’s “The Boy in the Black Suit”.  I have been trying to write this review for days but I couldn’t get much farther than, “I love this book so much and you should read it!” Obviously, I have to find the words to describe why I liked Reynold’s novel, but what my review will most likely come down to is, “I loved this book so much and you should read it!”

First off, Matt Miller’s voice. I absolutely loved it! Matt is a character whom everyone can relate to because he is a thoughtful young man dealing with a life changing experience and is trying to make sense of his world. The novel begins just weeks after his mother’s death and he is still reeling from the grief, as any son who has had a close relationship with his mother would. He finds high school to be trivial, which makes sense because he’s lost his mother and his father is not handling his own grief in a productive way. In fact, his dad is loosing himself in alcohol and eventually winds up in the hospital leaving Matt on his own.  Matt takes it upon himself to find a job and through a twist of fate, ends up working for Mr. Ray, the neighborhood mortician. And through this relationship the beauty of the novel comes through. Having survived cancer twice, Mr. Ray befriends Matt and basically becomes the father that Matt needs. Their relationship is touching and one of the strongest parts of the novel. The two are able to joke around with each other, but also share the secrets of their hearts. Matt is able to talk to Mr. Ray in a way that he doesn’t with his best friend or even his father. It’s clear that Matt respects Mr. Ray immensely and looks to him for advice and guidance. Their Thanksgiving, where they’re just watching football and talking about Matt’s date, is one of the best scenes in the novel.

Being that Matt works in a mortuary, one of the main themes in this novel is death and grief. In the hands of a lesser author, “Boy in the Black Suit” could have failed miserably, but Reynold’s novel is a touching, quiet story that handles the concept grief with deftness that pulls the reader into Matt’s story and his journey through the grieving process. To understand his grief, and make sense of his mother’s death, Matt tends to watch the funerals, watching the family members, finding solace in the grief that they share. Again, in the hands of a lesser author, the modes of Matt’s grieving process could come across as odd, but instead, the reader feels for Matt, even empathizes with him. It was in those moments, when Matt was looking for answers to his grief in the tears of the other mourners that I really felt/connected with him. At no point, however, did I ever feel sorry for Matt and that is what makes “Boy in the Black Suit” such a powerful novel.

Lastly, I enjoyed Reynold’s first novel, “When I was the Greatest”, but I loved this novel even more. The writing is much stronger and much more touching. It is a quiet novel with moments that pull at your heart strings and moments that make you laugh out loud. Matt’s story is one that is universal as we’ve all lost someone close to us and we must make sense of our grief and the loss of a loved one. It’s a novel of learning how to move forward after that person is gone and learning how to find one’s place in a family again.

Recommendation: Get it now!

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