Category Archives: book review

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

moon-over-manifestAbilene Tucker’s father, Gideon, sent her to live with an old friend for the summer, while he worked on the railroad.  While she understood that life on the railroad was not suitable for a “young lady,” she knew she would miss her father terribly.  Upon arrival, she was further disappointed to find that the town of Manifest was so dull.  After growing up hearing so many stories about her father’s time in Manifest, she had expected it to be a grander and more exciting place.  When Abilene found a hidden cigar box full of mementos, though, she found some of the adventure she had been hoping for.  After all, there were even a few letters in the box that referenced a spy called “the Rattler.”  When Abilene shared the letters with her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, they decided to work together to figure out who had been the Rattler… and then they received an anonymous note telling them to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”  Yeah.  Whoever wrote that note certainly didn’t understand that the surest way to get tween girls to work hard at solving a mystery was to basically forbid them to do so!

I liked the way Vanderpool wove together the stories of Abilene and her friends with the boys, Ned and Jinx, to whom the mementos in the box had belonged.  It was very clever to reveal the past through both newspaper articles and “readings” of the mementos by the diviner, Miss Sadie.  Not only did Miss Sadie’s storytelling help to provide details about Ned and Jinx that the girls could never have pieced together on their own, but it added a further layer of mystique as Abilene tried to figure out if Miss Sadie was truly “reading” the items or simply making up a story.  I found it a bit painful to watch Abilene struggling to find any hint of Gideon’s existence in both Manifest and the stories Miss Sadie told, I liked the fact that readers are able to look back at the end of the story to see how the various story threads all truly came together.  People who enjoy learning about the early 20th century will love the rich, historically accurate details.  (Abilene came to Manifest in the 1930s and the stories of Ned and Jinx were from 1917-1918.)

Happy Reading!

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti

100-liesHawthorn Creely is a bit of an outsider.  She doesn’t really have a lot of friends, and most people consider her to be a bit strange.  Her older brother, Rush, though, is a part of the popular crowd and even used to date the seemingly-perfect Lizzie Lovett.  When Lizzie disappears, nevertheless, it is Hawthorne who becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened.  How obsessed?  Well… She kinda decides to go and apply for a job at the diner where Lizzie worked — they *obviously* have an opening! — and to try and get close to Lizzie’s boyfriend, whom many people suspect of foul play.  After all, her boyfriend was the last person to see her when they went camping together.  Maybe if she spends enough time around the same people and places as Lizzie, she will be able to uncover some clue everyone else is missing.  The thing is, though, Hawthorn has a completely crazy theory about what happened to Lizzie…  I’m talking, I think she needs some serious mental help.  But she is utterly convinced that she is right and that by spending enough time living like Lizzie, she will be able to prove that she is right.  If you like mysteries and enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should get this book when it comes out.  [It is slated for a January 3, 2017, publication.]

Happy Reading!

Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester

black-white-otherNina Armstrong didn’t think much about being biracial until her parents split up.  She didn’t think much about her creamy mocha skin and curly brown and red hair. Until her parents decided to divorce, she didn’t really feel the need to “pick a side.” Now that her darker-skinned brother, Jimi, has moved out with their [black] dad and she has stayed living with her [white] mom, though, she is starting to question things much more.  Especially with racial tensions in Oakland rising at the same time as her parents’ split, Nina starts to feel like she doesn’t belong anywhere.  She begins to feel too black around the white kids and too white around the black kids.  Some of her best friends suddenly start to treat her differently, and she can’t seem to coexist peacefully with her mom or her dad.  She is also worried about Jimi, who seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd, but she is worried that seeking help for him will make matters worse, or at least drive him away. The only person she seems to feel a connection with is her great-great-grandmother, Sarah Armstrong — about whom she hadn’t even know until her father shared the manuscript for the book he was writing.  As she reads about the lengths to which Sarah went, to learn how to read and to escape slavery, she finds the courage she needs to face her own struggles.

I thought this title was perfect to share right during #BannedBooksWeek, considering Sarah Armstrong’s epiphany that she had become a “feared posession: property that could read.”  Modern day activists like Malala Yousafzai are quick to remind us ignorance makes people unable to make educated decisions about their own lives and the world around them.  If the masses are kept ignorant, it is easier for the people in power to control them.  This book is also a good conversation starter for people who are interested in delving more deeply into the history of race relations in the US and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is still/currently making headlines.

Happy Reading!

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

most-dangerousGrowing up in my family provided me with some very interesting insight into the Vietnam War. I was born in 1979 and completely missed “experiencing” the Vietnam War for myself, but my grandfather, Jim Cain, has been telling me stories about the Vietnam War for as long as I can remember. Although I didn’t realize it was a big deal until I reached my late-teens/early-twenties, I always knew Grampa had been a “Raven.” He would tell me stories about secret missions and being shot down in Vietnam, but I always kinda assumed he was playing it up and putting on a show for his grandkids. Yeah… I was wrong! As it turns out, the Ravens “were fighter pilots used for forward air control in a covert operation in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States in Laos during America’s Vietnam War [who] provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets and People’s Army of Vietnam’s infiltrators in support of the Laotian Hmong guerrilla army.” (Check out for more information about the Ravens – and a picture of my grampa!)

Despite the fact that her father was fighting in the Vietnam War, my mother was a tried and true “hippie” who protested the war. (Her parents actually found out, long after the fact, that she had attended an anti-war rally while they were stationed in England because of an old photo that was published in their local paper when Bill Clinton was running for president!) Some people would argue that she was less than patriotic for not supporting that war, but I don’t think opposing war makes anyone a bad American. Especially after listening to this story of how politicians sabotaged one another and actively prolonged this particular war to “save face” and further their own political agendas, I find it extremely difficult to even consider accepting war without considering all other possible avenues toward diplomacy. I am grateful to live in a country where citizens have the right to free speech and where freedom of the press works to keep citizens informed of what is going on behind the scenes.  I never learned much about the “Pentagon Papers” in school, but this book had me riveted.  I especially liked the fact that the afterword of this story referenced a more current “information leak” involving Edward Snowden and provided Daniel Ellsberg’s opinion on the matter.  After what Ellsberg has been though, he is certainly someone whose opinion on the Snowden case is relevant.

Happy Reading!

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

bone-gapThe O’Sullivan brothers lived alone and did their best to get by, but it was tough having a dead father and an absentee mom (she took off with an orthodontist who didn’t seem to keen on having teen-aged step-sons).  Sean had to put his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold to take care of his younger brother Finn; he worked as an EMT instead.  Finn was an awkward boy whom the townspeople all seemed to talk/worry about, and Sean’s resentment was fairly evident.  Then, one day, Finn found a girl in their barn.  Roza was badly hurt, but she refused to go to the hospital, so Sean took her inside their house and did his best to mend her injuries.  They decided to give Roza the keys to the unused apartment in the back of their house, and her presence seemed to help all three of them thrive… until the day Roza disappeared from Bone Gap.

Sean was heart-broken and Finn was devastated because he largely blamed himself.  He swore that there was a man who took Roza away, but he couldn’t really describe the man other than the strange way he moved through the cornfields.  He felt that if he could just do a better job at describing the man, he could save her.  People in town had always called Finn names like “space man” because of he always seemed to lack focus and didn’t really look people in the eye.  He also seemed to have a hard time recognizing people, though his vision was technically fine.  The only person Finn seemed to get along with was a girl named Petey, whom most of the townspeople teased for being “ugly.”  Petey believed Finn when he said that a man took Roza away, and she was determined to help him solve the mystery, but she was so self-conscious she couldn’t help but wonder if Finn was just pretending to like her.

I’m gonna be perfectly honest and admit that I actually had to start listening to this audiobook over again because I was about half way through and all sorts of confused. The book changes perspectives between Finn and Roza — as he looks for her and she deals with having been taken — and also goes back in time a bit, at times, to explain how everything came to be.  I mean, I was doing chores like mowing the lawn and folding laundry, so it’s not like I was focused on something terribly exciting that took my attention away…  But it was confusing enough that I really couldn’t go on without starting over.  I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but I just figured it was worth mentioning in case any of y’all start to read/listen to this book and end up feeling confused, too.  It was totally worth starting over again, in my opinion, so I would recommend doing the same if you also feel lost.  Now that I “got” it, it was pretty awesome.  If you like books with a touch of magical realism, like Belzhar, you should check this one out.

Happy Reading!

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom


Hamster is ACTIVE
Hummingbird is HOVERING
Hammerhead is CRUISING
Hanniganimal is UP!

This is the way the story opens, and the method Mel Hannigan uses to track her bipolar disorder.  The hamster represents her mind/thinking, the hummingbird represents her energy level, the hammerhead represents her physical health, and the Hanniganimal is how they all come together to form “The Hannigan Animal” (aka Mel).  As someone who is only mildly familiar with bipolar disorder and who hasn’t experienced it herself, I thought I would find it difficult to insinuate myself into the mind of a character who was experiencing constant and vast swings between mania and depression.  Though Mel’s experiences with Bipolar Disorder were different than my own mental health issues with “Pure O” OCD, though, these analogies helped me to relate better than I expected.

I truly appreciate that more authors are writing books like this to provide  readers with a healthy dose of information that contributes to compassion and empathy toward people suffering from mental health disorders.  We can’t #EndTheStigma if no one will talk about it!  Even better, I like the fact that this book did so without feeling clunky or didactic.  One of my favorite characters in this story is Dr. Jordan — a resident at the nursing home at which Mel works (who was a therapist, but is not *her* therapist).  He tells it like it is, but he is gentle and diplomatic enough that Mel doesn’t completely shut him out when she is vacillating between moods.  This isn’t just a book about Bipolar Disorder, though.  It’s also a book about navigating life, love, and friendship through the tumult that is adolescence.  After reading and loving both this book and Not If I See You First, I can’t wait to see what will be next from Eric Lindstrom.  (I may have to wait a while, though, since this book is not even due for publication until February 2017…)

Happy Reading!

The Memory Book by Lara Avery

memory-bookThis book hit a little too close to home…  Kinda.  It’s not that I know any young people who have dealt with a “Niemann-Pick Type C” diagnosis, but I have had all too much personal experience in knowing and loving people with varying forms of dementia.  Both of my father’s parents suffered from Alzheimer’s before they died.  My mother’s dad is currently living with Alzheimer’s.  And my own father had a ruptured brain aneurysm [nearly] two years ago that has left him with an “unspecified” dementia related to the TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) he sustained from the rupture, several open-brain surgeries, etc.  As far as I am concerned, it might as well be Alzheimer’s, but it seems that his doctors don’t want to pigeon-hole him into a specific diagnosis after a TBI.  What’s the point of me bringing my personal life into this?  Well, I think it speaks to my ability to say whether this book portrays dementia accurately.  And, sadly, I think Lara Avery must have some firsthand experience(s) of her own — because she was spot on.

It is, quite frankly, gut-wrenchingly awful to watch a parent or grandparent fall victim to dementia.  There are some “good” days, when the person will recognize people, be steady on his/her feet, and generally seem OK.  But, then there are the days when your own father doesn’t know who you are, remember where he is, or even recall that he already ate lunch today.  It is frustrating and heartbreaking to watch my father [who used to do construction for a living] struggle to stand up from a chair or take a short walk from the living room to the kitchen.  The only way I could imagine a worse scenario is if it would happen to one of my children, as it does to Sammie McCoy in this story.  Sammie has always been a good kid, gotten good grades, excelled in debate club, and had a plan to go off to NYU after graduation.  But, when she starts to suffer from both failing memory and failing health, her entire life plan starts to crumble.  This “memory book” is Sammie’s way to record her journey through the end of high school so that “future Sammie” will know the stories even if she can’t remember them.  FYI — don’t read this book in public if you’re worried about strangers seeing you cry…

Happy Reading!