Mini-Review: Hold Me Down

holdTitle: Hold Me Down
Author: Calvin Slater
Publisher: K-Teen
Genre: Contemporary
Pages: 240 – according to pub info, but ARC had 294
Review copy: ARC via Publisher
Availability: On shelves now

Review: Hold Me Down is the second book in the Coleman High Series. In the first, Lovers & Haters, Xavier Hunter got mixed up with a rough crowd and his romance had a bumpy road. I didn’t read the first book, but the summary was embedded within the first few pages of this book. This required some information dumps that might not have been fabulous for readers familiar with Lovers & Haters, but would be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the first book.

Xavier Hunter has been through a lot in a brief amount of time. His father was incarcerated when he was six and recently his mother also began serving a prison sentence. Xavier has a younger brother to care for and is also trying to keep up his grades so he can go to college. This is already a lot to deal with, but then his father comes home and has become somewhat consumed with his Christian faith and is extremely concerned about the salvation of his children. This leads to a lot of clashes between father and son.

Added to this is an accusation of being a baby-daddy and a new girlfriend oozing drama. To top it all off, Xavier had snitched on the people he’d been running with the year before once they started bringing drugs into the school. Because of that, he has a price on his head.

Xavier still loves his ex-girlfriend, has family issues, people are trying to kill him and he still wants to stay focused on graduating and getting to college. The stress adds up and it starts to seem like just staying alive might be his biggest task.

This is what some might refer to as street or urban lit because it happens in Detroit and has African American characters. There is violence, but it isn’t graphic. Though there is sex, it isn’t described. The word ‘damn’ shows up a few times, but otherwise, there isn’t any other cursing. I saw a review of Lovers & Haters that described Slater’s writing as gritty, but I’m not sure that I would describe this book that way. Xavier deals with some very difficult and dangerous situations, but Slater keeps things relatively tame and hopeful.

Recommendtion: Borrow it someday. Hold Me Down would be a good fit for those who enjoy contemporary books with a little romance, high school drama, action, and a splash of dangerThe storyline is interesting as are the characters even if they aren’t always likeable.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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Mini-Review: In Real Life

20575446Title:   In Real Life
Author: Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang
Genres: graphic novel, realistic fiction
Pages: 196
Publisher: First Second
Review Copy: the library
Availability: October 14th, 2014

Summary: Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role playing game that she spends most of her free time on. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends. Gaming is, for Anda, entirely a good thing.

But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer – a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake. [image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Not gonna lie… I picked up this book because of the awesome art and it did not disappoint. The colorful art is beautiful and well-drawn and five kinds of amazing. The actual story, on the other hand, did disappoint. The first half of In Real Life sets up an interesting story about Anda, who gets into playing Coarsegold Online and then befriends a Chinese teen who gold farms for a living. Issues such as feminism, poverty, and worker exploitation are brought up… and then later tossed aside.

In the second half of In Real Life, the story pacing goes haywire, speeds up rapidly, and ties up the entire conflict in a way that smelled really, really strongly of the white savior trope. Little time is given to the perspective of the Chinese gamers that are so central to the plot. It was disappointing to see the story take such a problematic turn. The art is stellar, and the graphic novel does present some interesting food for thought on feminism, economy, gaming and exploitation… but the problematic resolution was ultimately off-putting.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday

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Review: Frozen (Heart of Dread #1)

frozenTitle: Frozen (Heart of Dread #1)
Author: Melissa de la Cruz, Michael Johnston
Genres: fantasy, dystopian
Pages: 336
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Review Copy: the library
Availability: September 17th 2013

Summary:
Welcome to New Vegas, a city once covered in bling, now blanketed in ice. Like much of the destroyed planet, the place knows only one temperature—freezing. But some things never change. The diamond in the ice desert is still a 24-hour hedonistic playground and nothing keeps the crowds away from the casino floors, never mind the rumors about sinister sorcery in its shadows.

At the heart of this city is Natasha Kestal, a young blackjack dealer looking for a way out. Like many, she’s heard of a mythical land simply called “the Blue.” They say it’s a paradise, where the sun still shines and the waters are turquoise. More importantly, it’s a place where Nat won’t be persecuted, even if her darkest secret comes to light.

But passage to the Blue is treacherous, if not impossible, and her only shot is to bet on a ragtag crew of mercenaries led by a cocky runner named Ryan Wesson to take her there. Danger and deceit await on every corner, even as Nat and Wes find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. But can true love survive the lies? Fiery hearts collide in this fantastic tale of the evil men do and the awesome power within us all. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Frozen felt like a story of adventure — you know, a ragtag band of youths go travelling. That sort of adventure. Natasha, a blackjack dealer with a past that is a mystery even to herself, wants out of New Vegas. Everywhere is covered in ice and is, essentially, a frozen wasteland — save for the legendary place called “the Blue,” where the tropical waters are (surprise) blue and not frozen.

Natasha has a magical secret and dark voices in her head — a few of the many things about herself that she doesn’t understand. What she does know is that her secrets — betrayed by her colorful eyes — are dangerous to her. To avoid persecution and gain her freedom, she must flee New Vegas and search out the mythical Blue with the help of a band of boys lead by the oh-so-mysterious-and-hot Ryan Wesson, he of the tragic backstory.

While the worldbuilding and characters had a lot of potential, there was little to no follow through. The imagery of the frozen world was vivid and fascinating, but there was barely any explanation as to how the world had ended up frozen. There was only a cursory explanation about why magical beings were hated and hunted. Aside from the prologue, there is very little set-up or foundation for a lot of the elements in the story — magical marks, colorful eyes, frozen lands, and so on.

The romantic subplot was, unfortunately, the usual fare… dangerous, heterosexual longing, overlaid with a heavy sense of doom. Similarly, the ‘colorful eyes equals special and different’ device was also one that was all too familiar. Though Frozen is set in a frozen world vastly different from the settings of most YA lit, I still felt like this book was treading very, very familiar ground.

While the book was a fun read, it was hard to get away from the feeling that I had dropped into the middle of a book series by accident… even though I was reading the first book in a series. While the world and characters of Frozen are intriguing, the lack of explanation or follow-through made it difficult to fully enjoy the book.

Frozen is a great book for anyone who is looking for an adventure story with an interesting post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland setting.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday

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Review: Extraction

Extraction

 

Title:   Extraction (Extraction #1)
Author: Stephanie Diaz
Genres: Dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 416
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: the library
Availability: July 22nd, 2014

 

 

Summary: Clementine has spent her whole life preparing for her sixteenth birthday, when she’ll be tested for Extraction in the hopes of being sent from the planet Kiel’s toxic Surface to the much safer Core, where people live without fear or starvation. When she proves promising enough to be “Extracted,” she must leave without Logan, the boy she loves. Torn apart from her only sense of family, Clem promises to come back and save him from brutal Surface life… (Summary cut to avoid massive spoilers!) [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: There’s a certain formula that is expected from most dystopian YA. You know, one girl who happens to be a unique, special snowflake fights the dystopian government, powered by her heterosexual love. Extraction is no exception to this proud tradition, but does it slightly better.

Extraction‘s feisty protagonist Clementine is one of the chosen few who is extracted from the desperation of life on the Surface and brought to the earth’s Core. The world is divided up into layers, literally, and the most oppressed are on the surface. The rich, safe and privileged live in the Core, far away from the moon’s toxic acid. When Clementine goes to the core, she excels in almost everything she does — powered by her wish to save her love Logan, who is still on the Surface.

This is definitely a plot-driven book. The characters have little depth, but serve their purpose in propelling the plot forward. Many plot elements ring familiar: evil government! simulation tests! training montages! injections! I was reminded of both Divergent and Ender’s Game, but the writing in Extraction is much stronger. And unlike in Divergent (SPOILER ALERT? Sort of?)… the stock character of the cruel hot guy does NOT become the love interest, which was awesome.

What sets Extraction apart from other dystopian YA is the twist ending. The end of Extraction lands the book firmly in science-fiction territory, and makes the entire book far more interesting. This, in addition to the better-than-average dystopian worldbuilding, is the strength of the book.

Extraction is a solid book as far as dystopian YA goes. While I wish the plot and characters were a bit stronger, the worldbuilding and plot twist at the end make it all worth it. I look forward to picking up the sequel, just to see how the new direction Extraction takes at the end will pan out.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, particularly if you’re a fan of dystopian YA!

Further reading: Stephanie Diaz, YA Author of EXTRACTION talks about diversity and her debut novel at Latin@s in Kid Lit

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