fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Like No Other by Una LaMarche

A book list alerted me to the existence of Like No Other by Una LaMarche (Razorbill, 2014). Seriously, book lists: I love them so much, and they’re so hard on my TBR! But as I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read this one. It’s always such a joy discovering a book that’s right up your literary alley!

Devorah is a Hasidic Jewish teen from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Jaxon is a Black teen who lives just down the block, but their paths have never crossed- not until today, when Devorah’s sister is giving birth (prematurely!) in the hospital in the middle of a Category 3 hurricane. Her parents are upstate and unable to be there; her sister’s husband is unable to be with her due to religious rules, so Devorah’s the support person. When she goes to look for her brother-in-law but instead gets trapped in the powerless elevator, she meets Jaxon. Despite Devorah’s religious community’s strict rules on never being alone with someone of the opposite sex, Jaxon immediately puts her at ease, and after they’re freed, she can’t stop thinking about him, and he can’t stop thinking about her.

They’re not allowed to be together- Devorah’s not even supposed to be speaking to him, and dating is strictly forbidden- but Devorah and Jaxon forge an attempt at a relationship, while Devorah begins questioning why everything is so forbidden to her, why college isn’t allowed, why her parents are planning to arrange her marriage to a complete stranger in two years.  Two kids, both pillars of their community, suddenly realize the need for more, and they’re out to find it despite what the very different worlds around them are saying.

Like No Other has as much tension bursting off of every page as any thriller out there. Devorah and Jaxon have to sneak to be together, and the fear of being caught is real. Devorah could be ostracized from her entire community; even beyond that, her siblings might be denied marriages because of the stain Devorah’s behavior leaves on the whole family if she’s caught. The stakes for Jaxon aren’t quite as high, but he’s still risking all the hard work he’s put into school the past few years; if his grades tank enough, he might be saying farewell to the chance at a scholarship. Ms. LaMarche’s portrayal of two kids willing to risk it all to be together is full of tension and the flutters of first-time love.

At times, I did feel as though Devorah acted out of character; her reversal from being a goody two-shoes into someone willing to risk her family’s standing in the community felt just a tiny bit far-fetched. I would’ve liked to have seen her question a little bit more before suddenly turning into someone ready to throw everything away and assuming her parents would be willing to have a rational discussion when she returned home. But other than that, this felt real and true-to-character. Jaxon’s rash decisions felt a little more understandable, as he’d been living in that world his whole life, whereas Devorah’s life had been smaller, more constrained, and she had never once stepped off the path before. They’re both good kids in every sense of the word, but I would have liked to see Jaxon learn a little more about Devorah’s community on his own, instead of just assuming her parents would eventually come around, something that only Devorah knew was impossible.

Content warning for physical assault and the racism that is unfortunately pervasive in parts of the Hasidic community. There’s some history here that the book glosses over: the Crown Heights riots took place in the early 90’s, though I’m not sure how many teens who live outside of this area are aware of what happened.

Like No Other is a tension-filled story of the highs and lows of first love, with the added fear of losing everything if that love is discovered. It’s a wonderful, edge-of-your-seat story, and I enjoyed every page.

Follow Una LaMarche on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Another reading list treasure! And my library had it. Seriously a great thing, what with interlibrary loan still not being entirely functional. (I’ve gotten one book via interlibrary loan since it kind-of-sort-of went back to normal, but I’ve heard the librarians say that not all libraries are participating in it yet, plus book quarantine recently extended to seven days due to the fact that they’re learning that items like board books and graphic novels carry the virus longer, according to a librarian friend, and if they stack the books, apparently the virus lives on the surface longer, so I’m not going nuts with my requests.) Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon (Simon Pulse, 2019) popped up on a list and sounded amazing to me, and onto the TBR it went. Fortunately, it didn’t have to spend too much time there. 😉

The story begins just before Sophie donates a kidney to her lifelong best friend Peter. Peter’s been sick all his life; Sophie, who’s been in love with him for years, knows that this sacrifice she’s making will mean a more normal life for him, and will bind the two of them together forever. It’s harder than she thought; the pain is intense and lingers long after her incision heals, but Peter’s able to return to public school for the first time in years and Sophie is thrilled that he’s actually able to live.

But life post-transplant is a little different than both of them expected. Life has always been Sophie-and-Peter; now that Peter’s healthier, the two of them have to figure out who they are on their own. Peter’s growing and changing and exploring his options, and Sophie…may have to push herself a little. Or a lot. And her feelings for Peter haven’t changed, but the fact that she gave him an entire organ has complicated things massively. Nothing ever stays the same, and this will be a year of extreme change for Sophie and Peter.

My goodness. This is a lovely, emotional, heartfelt book. Peter’s been suffering from kidney disease since he was young; an earlier transplant failed and dialysis keeps him alive. Sophie knows that donating a kidney to him will help him live a healthier life, but she also knows it’ll tie the two of them together forever, something that appeals to her deeply because of how in love with Peter she is. Peter, who once had a crush on Sophie in middle school, has figured out that he’s bisexual. The new kidney he received from Sophie is giving him a freedom he’s never known before, and he’s feeling a little guilty that he’s exploring so many new things and leaving Sophie behind. The kidney donation, while tying them together, has also complicated their friendship massively.

Ms. Solomon has masterfully woven an emotional account of a friendship that’s entangled by health problems, love, and codependency. Sophie and Peter both nearly leap off the page and you’ll be sighing with sadness and cringing as they make some painful decisions. Peter’s history of kidney disease affects every part of his life and Ms. Solomon affords him dignity while never shying away from the more difficult realities of what his life has been and may be in the future. Even with Sophie’s donor kidney, his future is far from certain, and the reality of this pervades the book (and was like a punch straight to the heart when I read it) and affects everything. Sophie has a little bit of maturing to do, but she’s spent her whole life giving in to what Peter wants, and it’s hard watching her struggle with Peter growing and not needing her as much.

Our Year of Maybe is a bit of a tearjerker for so many reasons. The intricacies of Peter and Sophie’s friendship will yank hard at your heartstrings, but it’s still an easy read that doesn’t necessarily make you work too hard (and I know focusing is an issue for a lot of people right now). It’s a story that will stick with you long after you turn the last page. I haven’t read Ms. Solomon’s other books, but I have You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone on my TBR, and I’m entirely ready to sob buckets over that one.

Visit Rachel Lynn Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Ooh, time travel. And YA. I like both of these, so that’s how Passenger by Alexandra Bracken (Disney-Hyperion, 2016) ended up on my TBR. It’s a series, and while I’m not normally much of a series reader, I figured I’d give it a try.

Passenger tells the dual-narrative story of Etta, an up-and-coming violinist who is thrown back in time to meet Nicholas, a sailor whose skin color has been at the mercy of the cruel, manipulative Ironwood family for far too long. The Ironwoods want nothing more than to control everything, and it’s through Etta that they’ll make this happen- or else her mother will die. Offered a taste of freedom but touched by the desire to keep Etta safe, Nicholas tears off after her through time, and together the two of them seek out the astrolabe hidden by Etta’s traveler mother.

It’s no easy task for a multitude of reasons, including the evil Thorns, the difficulties of time traveling without standing out, and the never-ending prejudice that crops up in every. single. society. Their journey will bring them closer together, but that only makes the danger that much scarier…

I liked but didn’t love this. The characters are fine (Nicholas is particularly enjoyable), the settings are fascinating (various countries at various points throughout history), the villains are utterly dastardly… I think the storyline was just too complicated for me to fully enjoy right now, combined with the fact that I tend to prefer first-person narratives rather than third-person. I realize this may put me in the minority of readers; my library book club has stated that they prefer third-person narration, which surprised me, because I’m so very much a first-person narration fan. (I blame my childhood obsession with The Baby-Sitters Club series. First person narration forever!) Third person keeps everything at such a distance, I feel, whereas first person feels more real and immediate.

For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

I did feel like Ms. Bracken handles the never-ending racism Nicholas experiences very well, and in a delicate way. She never shies away from it and she makes it a point to drive home how exhausting it is to live with this every day of one’s life. Etta, who is white and has been fairly sheltered throughout her life, occasionally forgets this is an issue and is brought back to the harsh realization in real-time. It’s a little annoying but unfortunately realistic, I think.

If you enjoy time travel and can handle more complicated plot lines right now, this might be the book for you. For me, it was a good story, but the intricacies were a little too much right now.

Visit Alexandra Bracken’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin

Don’t we all go through book lists to make ourselves feel better? 30 New Books You Can’t Miss This Year! 10 YAs That Will Make You Cry! 23 Books That Will Murder You In Your Sleep If You Don’t Read Them Immediately!!!!! (Okay, maybe not that last one.) And I think a lot of us have been doing more adding to our TBRs than reading, whether that’s because we can’t focus as well right now (yes) or we just don’t have as much time to read at the moment (also yes). Browsing through one of those book lists was how I learned about Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019). The brief description said that the book was set during the Second World War and told a fictionalized tale of the Shanghai Jews, and my brain went, “…the what now???” This was something entirely new to me, and I had to know more.

Lilia and her family, circus performers, are set to flee the persecution of 1940 Warsaw when their plans go awry and Lilia’s mother gets separated from the rest of the family. Knowing that their lives are on the line, Lilia and her father and sister must continue their journey to China, hoping Mama will continue on behind them as they sail to Shanghai in search of a place they can live in safety. Shanghai is under Japanese occupation, but the Jewish community that has fled there is grateful for any place that will take them in. Existence there is bleak and difficult: jobs are almost non-existent, food is scarcer than that, hunger is a constant companion, and fears about the future and worry over whatever happened to Mama never end.

But there are small joys to be found amidst the heartbreak and fear. Lilia’s friendship with Wei, the Chinese boy employed to clean her school, is a bright spot in the darkness, and the connection she makes in a desperate search to make money for her family ends up resulting in an unexpected miracle. Lilia’s broken-up family is far from home, struggling to survive with every breath, but their story isn’t to be missed.

Y’all. This story is bleak. The poverty Lilia’s family suffers is enormous, to the point where you’ll feel something like survivor’s guilt if you eat while reading this. The conditions they live in are foul and oppressive, and they’re uncomfortable to read. It’s important to bear witness to this kind of historical pain, though, so don’t skip this one. Put it off for later if you need to, when reading may be easier, but put it on your TBR, because Lilia’s story is based on real Jews who fled to China during the brutality of Hitler’s regime. It’s a remarkable history I’d never known anything about, and I’m glad I know more now. It’s just not an easy read.

Lilia’s relationship with her little sister Naomi is sweet. Naomi is young but already highly delayed at the start of the story; the trauma the family endures doesn’t help, but Lilia’s care of her never wavers. And Lilia’s friendship and slight crush on Wei are adorable. There are plenty of tense moments in the story, however, including multiple deaths for a variety of reasons, and allusions to sexual assault. There’s also a deeply heavy scene near the end of the book that broke my heart as a mother, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. It’s a painful, complex story, but one that deserves to be heard.

I’m learning better to balance out my reading this year, so I had to follow this one up with a lighter romance novel, but it’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re into historical fiction. It’s YA but don’t let that stop you if that’s a genre you don’t normally read- Lilia’s problems are very much adult in nature, and Ms. DeWoskin’s masterful writing makes this a powerful, emotional story for readers of any age.

Visit Rachel DeWoskin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

Another prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge directed me to choose a book with more than 20 letters in its title. No problem! I went straight to my Goodreads TBR for this one, poked around, counted letters in a few different titles, and came up with The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt (Wendy Lamb Books, 2010), which clocks in at 22 letters. Success, and one more book down from both this challenge and my TBR. I love when that happens.

Levi Katznelson’s brother is coming back from the Marines. It was a shock to his entire family when Boaz signed up; everyone had been expecting him to choose one of the many colleges that had been after him, but Boaz has always had a mind of his own. His three years of service have changed him, however, and it’s evident upon his return that something is deeply wrong. Boaz retreats to his room, sleeps, uses the computer, and does little else. Levi’s bewildered; what happened to Boaz over there? Why is he like this now?

When Boaz disappears after claiming to leave to hike the Appalachian Trail, Levi knows something is up, and with the aid of his best friends, he joins Boaz on his mystery trip. He’s bound and determined to understand this stranger who has replaced his brother, but how will he manage this when Boaz can barely even look at him, much less speak?

Oof. What a heavy, important book. Dana Reinhardt has captured the hurt and confusion of a younger brother who doesn’t quite understand what his older brother is going through, and whose parents feel powerless to intervene. What do you do when the brother you always admired comes back a different person, one who is clearly suffering, but whom you can’t even get a single word out of? Boaz has been deeply affected by the things he’s done and seen during his time in the Middle East, but since the military deemed him healthy enough to successfully re-enter civilian life, his parents feel as though he just needs time. Levi, less optimistic than his parents, isn’t so sure.

My favorite character out of the whole book had to be Dov, Levi and Boaz’s cantankerous yet loving Israeli grandfather. He pulls no punches but cares deeply for his grandsons, and he adds a bit of levity and gruff, warm fuzziness to the story. Levi’s a bit of an EveryTeen, conflicted about the war, not quite sure he understands the purpose of it, unable to decide if he’s pro- or anti-war, but concerned for how much it has obviously affected his brother. He’s always been a little bit in Boaz’s shadow, and having Boaz retreat from life, leaving Levi alone, is new territory for him. In The Things a Brother Knows, Levi’s forced to grow up quickly and learn a few things about the realities of war and its affects that he never thought he’d need to know.

Sad book with a hopeful ending, but it’d be excellent reading for teens with a sibling or a parent in the military, or for teens considering the military as a career or life path. I’m in favor of people understanding all the potential outcomes of what they’re getting into (and I say this as someone who was a military wife for six years). Boaz came back physically unharmed, but emotionally, that was a different story, and Ms. Reinhardt adroitly illustrates that war isn’t just about the injuries you can see, and that it doesn’t just affect those who serve.

Visit Dana Reinhardt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fantasy · fiction · YA

#TheWriteReads Presents: Promises Forged (Venators #2) by Devri Walls Blog Tour!

Aloha and welcome to the latest stop on #TheWriteReads’ superawesome blog tour for Promises Forged (Venators #2) by Devri Walls (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2019). If you remember, I was also a stop on the tour for Magic Unleashed (Venators #1) back in March, which at this point is the equivalent of seventy billion years ago, so feel free to click on my first review to give your brain a refresher. I’m here today with a first chapter review, and Devri Walls still has it going on in the sequel to her story of college students whisked away to a land where everything supernatural is real and they have powers they never expected.

When we rejoin our friends, we meet up with Zio, who is connected with her dragon Maegon via her magical amulet. Much to Zio’s delight, Maegon is about to wipe out the Venators. The addition of Beltran, a skilled shifter whom Zio has wanted to control for ages, turned her hunt for them into more of a battle, but now they’re almost in her pocket. Unexpectedly, Maegon is wounded, allowing the Venators to escape. Zio’s rage flares before she manages to control herself and then reshape her plans.

In the dungeon, tied to a chair and unsure of what happened (and exactly how much he had to drink last night) is Ryker, Rune’s ne’er-do-well frat-boy brother. The glowing tattoos on his arms begin to clue him in that this might be more than a frathouse prank or a lesson his sister’s trying to teach him about the evils of partying too much. The entrance of three short, squatty, very non-human creatures brings him back to some bad experiences of his childhood, and he vomits before his anger overtakes him. Escape isn’t difficult, and even when his only weapons against goblins armed with swords and axes are pieces of his broken chair, he’s still aware that those goblins…are scared of him. Hmm. As Zio marches in and explains that he’s awoken in a new dimension where everything supernatural is real, Ryker learns that his sister is there too, along with Grey, his archenemy, but as Zio tells it, they’re working for the evil side. And no, Ryker cannot be taken to them.

YIKES!

Devri Walls’ storytelling style is consistent here, and as much as fantasy isn’t usually my genre of choice, it felt almost like greeting an old friend- albeit one covered in glowing tattoos and cackling evilly alongside a pet dragon- to come back to this series again. The almost immediate mention of Beltran, the trickster-like shapeshifter, piqued my curiosity, as he was my favorite character from Magic Unleashed. Leading with the villainous Zio? NICE. And following that with a scene from Ryker’s point of view? SO well done, as we learned so very little about Ryker in the first story. The info we were privy to came from Rune and Grey, so his point of view here will fill in some gaps for the reader. Is he really as big of a jerk as he seemed? Will he ever learn to appreciate Grey? Are his powers as a Venator as strong as his sister’s? Will accepting that everything supernatural is indeed real finally force him to stop partying so much to cope with his creepy childhood memories?

For fans of the first Venators book, Promises Forged seems to carry on in the same vein, with all the strength of Magic Unleashed‘s worldbuilding. Fantasy isn’t my usual literary home, but Devri Walls definitely has a gift for creating a fascinatingly scary yet intriguing world (that I never want to visit thankyouverymuch!) full of magical and monstrous creatures (none of which I really want to meet!), and her first chapter had me right back in that spooky, drippy dungeon with Ryker annihilating that wooden chair. If you need an escape to a world that maybe makes a little more sense than ours right now, Devri Wall’s Eon in Magic Unleashed and Promises Forged are pretty good choices.

Thanks to TheWriteReads and Devri Walls for including me on this fabulous blog tour!!!

Visit Devri Walls’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow The_WriteReads on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · science fiction · YA

#TheWriteReads Blog Tour Presents Catalyst by Tracy Richardson

Hey guys! Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ Blog Tour for Catalyst (The Catalysts #2) by Tracy Richardson (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2020). I’m your friendly first chapter review guide, so buckle up and I’ll introduce you to our narrator, but you’re going to want to don your tinfoil hat before we take off.

Meet Marcie. Upon first glance, she may seem like your average young woman, set to spend the summer helping her mother on her archaeological dig at Angel Mounds with her brother Eric and his girlfriend Renee. Not a bad way to spend a summer, right? But Marcie’s…different. She’s had some experiences with things not of this world, including a one-time connection with the spirit of a Native American girl that she was never able to recreate, but that always left her open to more, and wondering.

Almost the second Marcie steps foot onto the dig site, she recognizes that something’s up, something that not everyone is aware of. Zeke and Lorraine, two of the grad students, seem to be able to communicate with her just by thought, something that jars her and sets her on edge, especially because Zeke leaves her feeling uneasy. There’s something about them that’s maybe not quite right. It might be a long summer at this dig site…

Okay, I’m definitely intrigued. While I’ve never been a huge reader of paranormal books, when I was young, one of my favorite reads was The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, about a young girl who can move objects with her eyes and who eventually comes across other kids like her. That’s the kind of paranormal stuff I enjoy reading about, and with Marcie being able to both communicate with spirits and hear other people’s thought communication toward her, I want to know more.

This first chapter invites a whoooooooooole lotta questions: What exactly is being dug at this dig site? What’s the deal with Zeke and Lorraine? Where did they come from and what’s their story? Are they dangerous? How can they communicate via thoughts, and why Marcie and no one else? What makes that possible? What’s the extent of their powers, and of Marcie’s? Are there more than just these varying ways of paranormal communication? Is there a how-to at the end of this book? (Yes? Please say yes.)

My reading time right now is so much more limited than usual, but this is definitely one I’ll be coming back to when I’m not trying to get through other stacks of books. From the blurb, this novel also pulls in environmental themes, which is *so* important, and I’m glad to see this cropping up in various genres of fiction. I’m curious as to how it plays out and if it manages to inspire the reader to be more proactive about caring for the environment without verging too far into the dystopian. Guess I’ll find out when I’m able to dive in further, but if you’re intrigued by characters with special powers (and seriously, aren’t we all, at least a little? Who doesn’t want to read minds and move things with their eyes and maybe fly?), Catalyst may be the escapist fiction you need right now.

Thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Tracy Richardson for including me on this tour!

Visit Tracy Richardson’s website here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Follow The_WriteReads on Twitter here.

fiction · horror · YA

#TheWriteReads Blogtour Presents: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis

Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ blog tour for Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis (Penguin, 2020). Harrow Lake is a young adult thriller, and you’re going to want to turn on every light in the house before you crack the spine on this one- or start reading long before it gets dark.

The book begins with an interview with Nolan Nox, famed horror movie director, whose daughter had gone missing a year before. Fall back in time and the story is now narrated by Lola Nox. After finding her father having been stabbed, Lola is unceremoniously shipped off to Harrow Lake, Indiana, to the home of a strange, distant grandmother she’s never met before, the mother of Lola’s own mother, who left, then disappeared, when Lola was five. Harrow Lake, the filming site of Nightjar, Nolan’s most famous film, is a spooky town. Collapsed mines that led to hundreds of deaths have provided the town myriad legends, including one resident-turned-mine-dwelling-cannibal, Mr. Jitters. Refusing to believe in stories, Lola begins to comb Harrow Lake for information, hoping to get to know the mother she barely remembers, but her search is impeded at every step.

Creepy townfolk. Eerie abandoned, caved-in mines with a collapsed church inside. A grandmother that seems half-mad on her best days. A mysterious figure who always seems to be watching Lola. Tiny hand-carved wooden insects that skitter and chatter on their own. Ominous shapes that move behind the wallpaper. NO INTERNET OR PHONE SERVICE. It’s every horror movie you’ve ever watched packed into one spine-chilling book, and Lola will need to gather all her wits about her if she wants to really learn the truth about Harrow Lake and what happened to her mother.

EEK. This was SUPER creepy. I haven’t read horror in years, but I loved it as a kid, and I deeply loved horror movies when I was young, so this was a flashback to my younger days. The hand carved wooden ‘jitterbugs’ in Lola’s mother’s room creeped me the HECK out, as did the constant references to Mr. Jitters. Harrow Lake seems about the worst vacation destination ever, and the weirdo townspeople add the perfect touch. Kat Ellis has really created a terrifying place- not quite Children of the Corn weird, but Gatlin and Harrow Lake could be sister cities.

Ms. Ellis really knows how to keep the reader guessing. It’s cliched to say that there are twists and turns on every page, but it’s the absolute truth here. Weirdness abounds in Harrow Lake and Lola, who is trapped there, is constantly thrown off by someone’s odd behavior, a strange noise, the phone lines not working, something else terrifying happening in the woods. It’s a mark of good horror writing for the reader to have their guard up THIS often because the terror never stops, and I don’t know how many times I said some version of, “OMG, just get on the road and WALK back home!”

The ending is as twisty as it gets, with a majorly satisfying conclusion that I found to be absolutely brilliant (and will remember Lola’s friend’s tactic should I ever need to use it!). Harrow Lake is a wild ride through a town I never, EVER want to visit. I’ll stay at home, where there are no collapsed-mine-mass-graves-with-creepy-cannibal-monster-people. But if you enjoy edge-of-your-seat horror that will keep you guessing until- I’m not at all exaggerating here- the very last pages, you’re going to want a copy of Harrow Lake.

Harrow Lake is set for release on July 9th, 2020.

Thanks to Dave at #TheWriteReads, NetGalley, and Kat Ellis for including me on this tour!

Visit Kat Ellis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

(If you dare! *spooky laughter*)

fiction · YA

Book review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

And back to work on my reading challenges from the comfort of my kindle! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge list is in the front of my reading binder, so I’m going down that list first. A lot of their prompts have to do with the 2020 Olympics, which have been postponed until at least next year (and rightfully so; I can’t even imagine having that many people crammed into an Olympic village, along with all the spectators gathering together. FAR too dangerous right now), and next on the list was to read a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics. What I’m able to easily get my hands on factors as heavily into my choices as much as what interests me, and since my library had a ebook of Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006, originally published in 1992), which was set in Sydney, Australia, that went on my list (this also meant I was able to add a pin to my map of the world, which I update every time I read a book set in a different country. I have fourteen pins so far this year!). I started reading the book, a large portion which deals with the main character’s illegitimacy, and I was confused. Do people still care about that? Is that an Australian thing? After a few chapters, it dawned on me after reading a line about the ongoing AIDS epidemic and realizing there hadn’t been any references to things like the Internet or cell phones, and off I went to check the Goodreads page. Sure enough, the book was originally published in 1992, when being a single mother was still very much looked down on, especially in certain communities. That made more sense. I adjusted the setting of the story a bit in my mind and carried on.

Josephine Alibrandi has lived her entire seventeen years with her illegitimacy hanging over her head everywhere she goes- at her fancy private Catholic school, where she’s a scholarship student and the other students constantly remind her she’s a bastard and not *really* Australian; among her large extended Italian family, especially her grandmother, who never let her mother forget her sins; among the wider Australian community, who looks down on her for both not having a father and for her ethnic background. But things are changing in her final year of high school. Josie’s met her father for the first time in her life. She’s dating a boy who challenges her as well as infuriates her. And her strained relationship with her judgmental grandmother is about to be pushed to its breaking point.

Josie’s quick to fly off the handle, but she has a lot to learn about life, about her family, about the secrets of the past and how we all carry them, and about how to handle life’s major ups and downs. Her grandmother isn’t quite who Josie always thought she was, her father might not be the demon she expected, and Josie…well, she’s still figuring out who she really is, and that’s exactly as it should be.

So. I didn’t quite love this, and part of it may be that it’s so…I don’t want to say old or dated, neither seem right, but it very much fits in with the style of how I remember YA being when I grew up (and I’m, uh…not quite old, but I’m getting there!). The story skips over major events, main characters tend to do a lot of shouting and throw tantrums (I get that teenagers do that, I have one myself, but older YA books lean towards their characters lacking a certain maturity, whereas YA today is far, far better about that and is way more teen-centric). Josie tends to go from zero to freak out at the drop of a hat in a way that didn’t feel natural to me. Though her relationship with her father vastly improves over time, something about it seemed off to me as well. I understood that she would harbor a lot of resentment toward his missing out on all the rest of her life, but she was forward with him in a way that didn’t feel authentic either. I also didn’t care for her relationship with Jacob. He pressured her far too much for sex, they fought more than they got along, and he occasionally dropped ethnic slurs at her, which should have been an immediate dealbreaker. I don’t know. A lot of this missed the mark for me personally.

There were parts that I enjoyed, however. I had no idea that Australians interned Italian-born citizens, especially men (and citizens of other nationalities, including Japanese, Italian, and even British), during the second World War. Josie’s family still harbors a lot of trauma due to this, and she discovers a major family secret that stems from this time period, which helps her to eventually better understand why her grandmother is the way she is. I know that Australia has problems with racism toward the Aboriginal communities, but I hadn’t realized that this extended to other ethnic groups as well. Apparently in the 1990’s, Italians weren’t well-liked in at least certain parts of Australia, and Josie suffered through fairly constant slurs toward her and her community. I’ve never understood that. Dislike someone for how they act or how they treat other people, but for where they’re born or their ethnic background? Something over which they have no control? That’s senseless. (And I’m not singling Australia out here; the United States has no room to talk on this matter.)

Content warnings: there are a few mentions of rape and one near-assault, and there’s a suicide near the end of the book, by a character who displays obvious (to the reader, especially to the modern-day reader) red flags through the entire story, so if these are sensitive topics for you, this may be one to avoid.

Looking for Alibrandi was an interesting story that didn’t fully capture me, although I’m always happy to learn new things and get a new perspective on the world. I’ve heard excellent things about Ms. Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, however, so that’s still in my plans to read in the future.

Visit Melina Marchetta’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.