Love As a Trick in the Head

Engle tends to make a common literary trope into a page-turner, because she is not afraid of the weird. The fish-out-of water scenario and deft prose in her 2013 debut work, Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Lightbrought to mind Mark Twain’s 1889 classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Part of that is the author’s early exposure to classics such as,
 Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Joanna Spyri’s HeidiLewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and  The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I could go down the line with other examples, but suffice to say she draws readers toward the familiar then takes them to an odd place.

Metal Mouth, the newest novel, extends the trend into a dazzling fresh plot. Just about the time you think, I know what’s going to happen, you’ll be wrong. 

Engle’s main character, Mahlorie, rises out of a cascade of whiny, contemporary teen protagonists as a beacon.  Don’t misunderstand. The girl is confused and furious about her parents, schoolmates, life, love, and loneliness as anyone your are likely to hear in the hall at a local middle or high school. Her voice is as real and at times grating as  Rafe Katchadorian, the main character in James Patterson’s Middle School Series. 

 In fact, some readers might want to turn away by page 20.  Hint – read past page 50. The story twists from tedious to tense, and readers drop into suspense. Mahlorie gets braces, nearly dies in a lightning strike, and meets what might be a boyfriend, if he is real. She can hear him in her head. He hears her. They roll down the road to weird with an end that does not disappoint.

 How? Why? Read the novel. Young readers will want to know about how braces bring boys, or what Mahlorie does with the guy.  Read. The smooth prose, clever plot twists will snag  middle-schoolers.  Adult readers will marvel at how Engle so clearly channels teens. 

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A Story For Our Time

Karen Gorback characterizes Freshman Mom as a “debut novel,” yet she is no rookie author.  The 270-page novel shows readers why it is as complicated to do right by those Frosh_Momyou love as it is to make the most of yourself. That said, the tensions between the main character’s urge for self development and the obstacles posed by real life makes clear that a dream deferred does not have to become lost ambition.

Meredith Lieberman, the main character, a 39-year-old divorcee’, is the template for a contemporary single mom. She is fiercely loyal to responsibilities for her children, loves her mother, and asks questions about what it means to love herself. Those who know little of the realities of single parenthood, or about women in general, will learn from this novel.

This is a story for our time.  The numbers of single mothers in college has doubled since 2000, and continues to creep higher and higher. By 2012, more than 11 percent of undergraduate women were single parents, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The great benefit is the tale’s insight into the mind and spirit of many such women. For them education is aimed at the improvement of career potential, and that can mean a lot. IWPR states that 4 in 10 women in two-year colleges are likely to dropout because of dependent care obligations.

Gorback writes about those realities with a clarity and pace that will rivet readers’ attention. The main weakness is that the plot is too much like what is seen on the Hallmark Channel. The lesser players in this tale are not as developed as they might be. Also, Meredith’s conflict with her friends and family are not as edgy as might appear in nonfiction stories of this type.

Overall, I can’t wait for Gorback’s next novel. Like most authors she will find her stride as she continues to tell stories that speak a truth she knows too well.

Dreams Are Never Too Big for the Brave

coverWelcome to the worldview of Sonia Cunningham Leverette, author of BJ’s Big Dream, a work that more closely captures the way a child’s mind works than any I have read in a long time. That said, no doubt the writer’s insight into the young comes from more than 30 years experience in education. She is an assistant superintendent in Spartansburg, South Carolina, as well a parent. Her earlier children’s books, He Never Slumbers, about a bullied boy who seeks help from God, or What is that Stinky Winky EEEwww Smell? , which counsels against selfishness, add more to prove that Leverette earnestly wants to instill positive values and speak to the real issues that bedevil children in the early years.

Anyway, the author gave me a copy of the book for an honest review. Let’s get to it.

Bj’s Big Dream will be a hit in most story circles for early readers. The bright, colorful illustrations by artist Deanna M, blend beautifully with the narrative that on surface is about a little boy who wants dreadlocks. At first, the narrative seems a little hesitant. The author does not spend a lost of time on details or try to tie story elements together. Leverette provides an acceptable sequence of events, combined with beautiful images. That alone will rivet little eyes and minds.

Beneath the spare, straightforward paragraphs where the author blends BJ’s  actual experience with a daydream of a walk in the woods where he is threatened by three wolves and an angry bear, lies a tale that offers adults a chance to show and talk to young people about their power to make a dream come true. BJ’s Big Dream is a charming blend of fantasy and fact that urges children to strive with courage beyond what they see as their limitations. Yes, and there was that part that made me say, “Whoa! That’s how my grandson’s mind works.”

BJ, the main character, as the story is told drives a rides through the forest on an all-terrain vehicle. “BJ dreamed he was driving a four-wheeler when a huge snake fell from a tree and wrapped around his shoulders,” the book states. As I said, “Whoa!”

That small scene is the kind of fantastic story element that is likely spark in the mind of a child eight years old or less. My grandson is likely to tell me a story and have some thing like that happen, and I would be drawn aback to say, “What?”

The adult mind might find such “out of nowhere” events jar the way they see reality develop. That is the main reason most authors would have a number of steps that lead to the drop of the snake. The incident has to come together in a sequence that grownups see as “logical.” Sonia Cunningham Leverette taps into the fantastical and recreates that part of the stories and others in a child’s logic.

BJ’s Big Dream will bring great excitement when read to those whose mastery of books is about to blossom. The main character, BJ, is resourceful and quick-witted. The adults in the tale are supportive. Youngsters might gain a number of impressions from the story. Clearly, one is that daydreams happen, yet hard work – at times even a little effort and a plan – can make real desires come true.

A Reader Rescues a Bully’s Love

GibbsAuthor, B. S. Gibbs, summarizes this as a “chapter book for kids … illustrated with a dozen intricate, beautiful drawings.” True. The attorney/storyteller inspired by Jane Austen, light fantasy, “and all things medieval,” goes on to tout Janetta and the Book Thief  as a trove of positive pleas for reading, kindness, inclusiveness, and anti-bullying. Those things are apparent. What is not immediately evident, yet makes the 47-page story stand out, is its elegant plot, straightforward prose, and ability to be a great discussion-starter.

The story is largely uncomplicated. That makes the read ideal for third- to fifth-graders whose energy levels almost forbid them to focus on anything that moves slowly. Gibbs’ mystery tale about someone who takes the last chapters of books is easy to follow and grasp, which is the book’s strength and weakness.

Janetta, the main character, chases down the who and why behind the thefts, which first struck me as a weird story element. What is the value of the last chapter of a book?

I then looked at the work from some other angles. I considered what life might be if the last chapter of every story disappeared. The incompleteness hit me. I was able to connect with Janetta’s motivation. The character says, “I can’t imagine my life without reading!”

To that extent, Gibbs’ heroine might interest a reader, yet comes off as too perfect (apologies, but that is the only word that comes to mind) to square with reality. An average 8- to 12-year-old is not obsessed with reading, despite most parents’ wishes.

The fairies who invite Janetta to Eloria, the book-fairy land, Queen Esmeralda and the villain, Sir Grumpsalot, do not have enough edge to compete with the kinds of characters contemporary grade-schoolers find in other books and on television. Gibbs’ chapter book reminded me of plots and characters I have read in works from some Latin American writers. That is the book’s major shortfall.

A minor one is a slip in the digital layout. In the Kindle version I perused, several of artist Anca Gabriela Marginean’s illustrations slid into the lines above them. Sentences were obscured, which distracts the reader. The saving grace is that the story is pretty easy to grasp, so the gaffs do not cause a person to get lost.

Those elements aside, teachers and parents will find that the message about the effects of bullying in Janetta and the Book Thief  and the power of one kind act to change a person’s life overtakes most of the work’s weakness.

Janetta tells her fairy friend Violetta that Sir Grumpsalot, “rejects all of you so that you cannot reject him.” That defensive stance is at the heart of many rubs and scrapes, even in adult life. The line is a great place to launch a discussion with young people on a bully’s motivation, or offer them insight as to why they indulge in brusque acts.

Fear is powerful, as the story makes clear. “I believe he also tells himself that he doesn’t like any of you. But, I believe he desperately wants to be friends. He just doesn’t know how and he is scared to try.”

I won’t give away the end. Gibbs’ story is a saga about loves. Janetta loves books. Book fairies love to inspire writers. Grumpsalot loves to be mysterious. As those elements collide the reader comes to a happy conclusion. The path is worth a glance. Violetta and the other fairies learn that no one is beyond redemption. For youth today, that is a most important lesson.

A Sip and aTrip Takes You into a Dream

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Travel Memoir

Many Americans have made their peace with the “gotta get ahead” pace of daily life. In fact, often urbanites and sophisticates in the United States wear the burden of their busyness or over commitment as a gold star. Yet, some dream about how life might be in a smaller place with a slower pace. The biggest dreamers imagine themselves abroad – Italy, France, Africa, or China. The speculation touches the part of the soul that whispers, “What is more?”

There is something innately romantic about the idea of going to Provence, a storied region in the southern France that makes most people sigh who yearn for wine, cheese and conviviality, combined with beautiful vistas, and a slower pace of life. Keith Van Sickle’s One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence responds to the hunger like a four course dinner. I had the same positive reaction to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and more ever more to former fashion editor Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet series.

The author, a tech consultant who made his bones in Silicon Valley, gets a taste of life outside the “run, run” daily pace in the United States during a work assignment in Europe. Van Sickle and wife Val went to Neuchatel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. “We lived in a village so small that the streets did not have names and the cows outnumbered the people,” he offers. That is a sample of the wit, clarity, insight and personality in the prose that makes the work an even more attractive read.

One of the interesting dimensions of the work is the author’s spirit. He does not glamourize life in Provence, but rather lays out the ups and downs of the adventure in breezy snippets. Most of the chapters are short yet filled with insight. Readers will enjoy the challenge as he and  Val struggle to learn a new language, and find ways to let go of common U.S. practices. For example:

We were in St.-Remy and stopped at one of our favorite restaurants for lunch. I went to the restroom, a one-room affair used by both men and women, and had to wait in line behind four ladies.

When I finally made it to the restroom I was surprised to find the toilet seat up. Even after four ladies! I told Val about this and she said it was common, that even when there was a separate ladies room, women would often leave the seat up after they were done. Apparently it’s a French custom.

Readers will be quickly impressed by the way Van Sickle gives wings to words. His sentences tend to be tight, which allows him to pack a lot of detail, meaning and humor into a small space. Rather than a “and the next day” narrative, the 192-page book is more about “and then there was the time,” which helps to quickly carry the reader through the story. For example, I loved a tale he told from his first days in France in a three-paragraph chapter:

Soon after we arrived, we went for a hike around the Etang de Berre, a bay so large that it’s almost an inland sea. We sat on a bench to eat our lunch and a poodle came up to me, looking for a handout.

I had finished my sandwich and was eating an apple. I figured that since Lucca liked apples this poodle would too, so I tossed him a piece.

Obviously, I had not counted on the refined palates of French dogs. He sniffed the apple and gave me a withering look. Then he turned his back, heisted his leg over the apple, and trotted away.

Van Sickle rolls out the adventure of his adjustment to Provence with a similar candor, which in the end develops a voice that bids the reader to relate to the author more as a friend than an adventurer. Most readers will read the last word in the book and wish they could hear one more tale. One Sip at a Time ends, yet the author offers Francophones, dreamers, travel-lovers, as well as those who might want to try a similar adventure, a chance to continue the relationship through a blog where he share insights into France and the adventure that is life.

One Sip at a Time reminds readers of when travel memoirs were a major entertainment source, and the urge to travel was more tightly tied to discovery. The reader gains insight into how one struggles to fit into another culture. At the same time, Keith and Val show readers that an effort can capture a dream. Readers who might want to move to the French countryside can make it, One Sip at a Time.

Find More than You Think in Fink

A one-eyed, brown cat. and rhyme so tight a reader is roped into fanciful beliefs, or memories of a past when life and fear seemed huge, simple and quick. I  am sorry regret it took me so long to discover Rick Felty’s writing. The three-book, early reader series about TabCat_Ninjaitha Fink yielded a book each year since 2015. I am overjoyed, now to be caught up. The stories filled me with admiration as a children’s author, and as a reader let me see the world again like a wide-eyed kid. The most recent work, Tabitha Fink: Ninja at Night, proves that a story told well in rhyme can bring a smile and even anticipation to adults. Readers will see the author’s progress through the narratives.

His first book, Tabitha Fink The Cat With One Eye, is less clever in its prose and scenario. In the dedication of his third book, Felty talks about his stories as a “journey of discovery.” That is the most apt description of the way the word play appears in the 45-page work.  

“I am Tabitha Fink, somewhat hard to ignore,” he writes. “with only one eye where some others have more. I’ve still got one tail and four paws on the floor. I am still Tabitha Fink as I have mentioned before.”

The 39-page second book, Tabitha Fink on a Mission to Mars, spins a taleCat_Mars that is more playful. “I am Tabitha Fink on a mission to Mars,” the book says, “where they don’t fly blue planes, and they don’t drive red cars. But I know they do something to travel about so I’m going to Mars , to figure it out.” The adventurous makes the trip in a “cat rocket ship.” She discovers a Martian family and says, “And it turns out they do things like all of us do, with a few minor changes. I
will show them to you.”

I imagined youngsters’ fascinations with those simple unadorned sentences. The words have a blunt feel that hit the mind with a clarity that offers a moment-to-moment I get it! There is a completeness in the main character’s description that ushers listeners and readers into familiarity with the feelings and a desire to almost reach out and pet the furry hero.

Felty, who is an Emmy-winning television producer, writes prose so lyrical that the smooth word play pulls a reader into the tale. At some points wildly alliterative in the Cat_Eyeways of a Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, Tabitha Fink The Ninja at Night has a conflict that appears so trivial. Tabitha’s mouse playmate Bartholomew Blink is stalked by a slew of night terrors – a big furry monster, an evil witch, a dragon, some blue bears, and a smelly troll.  Yes, the problem is simple, but Tabitha’s struggle tugs at the memory. The unique character modeled after his family pet is pushed into the eerie situations that seemed a big deal when I was a kid. I began to recall what it felt like to face fear of the dark. – in the lack of light, and Felty’s cyclops hero confronts her friend’s fright as a ninja with a flashlight.

Tabitha Fink books are the kind of imaginative and fanciful explorations that children scream for at bedtime or story time in school. Felty’s clever use of language and plot sets a pleasant diversion for adults, too. Before I was aware, page after page flipped as I rushed to see the ninja’s deeds. At the last of 68 pages, like Bartholomew the mouse, I was satisfied by the charming conclusion of the darkness dilemma. As many readers, I was only disappointed that I might have to wait another year for more.

 

A Hunger for Innocence

Some scenarios are always creepy, and Appetite for Innocence:  A Dark Psychological CoverThriller by Lucinda Berry holds the secret. The plot is resonates with the intensity of James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, from the Alex Cross series. As the prolific Patterson, Berry, a real-life clinical psychologist, tells a story that highlights the vulnerability of young women and girls, and determination of sick male minds to brutally despoil their sexuality and sense of trust.

The narrative shows the author knows her way around the human psyche. The character’s descriptions and reflections add another level of intensity to a tale that is already a page-turner. Set in the contemporary “live out loud”  social media-culture, the villain trolls status updates and other trash and tribulations that real-life millennials, especially girls share so willingly to find victims who are virgins.  “They’re locked away in his sound-proof basement until they’re groomed and ready,” as the publicist Heather Harrison described. “He throws them away like pieces of trash after he’s stolen their innocence. Nobody escapes alive.”

 

Then there is a clever twist. Ella, the main character is a resilient and resourceful girl who the police and FBI believe foiled the aims of a serial rapist. She escapes and frees a slew of intended victims, once of which is Sarah. Readers will think they know this tale of cat and mouse, yet they do not. Berry’s “twist” takes Ella beyond the initial challenge into a plot that is as dark as promised. Ultimately, readers will wonder whether the title applies to more to the criminal or his victims.

Berry dramatizes the innocence of the characters through many statements and gestures. Those moments add a sense of truth to the fickleness in young thoughts. After the rescue, Ella states:

I don’t have the heart to tell her [mother] my faith in God was the first thing I abandoned in the basement. In the beginning, I prayed so much I even did it in my sleep, begging for protection, guidance for the people trying to find me, and to watch over Mom. God had always been as real to me as the bed I slept in at night and the walls of my house. I’d carried my Bible in my backpack since kindergarten. He was my compass, always my due north. His job was to love and protect me from harm. As time went on and things grew worse, it seeped in what a fool I’d been to believe. At first, I saw it as a test of faith. I’d always been taught God tested your faith, but it wasn’t a test—it was torture. It boiled down to two options: God was real, present, and directly involved in our lives like I’d been taught or nothing I’d been taught was true and God wasn’t real. He was either there and did nothing to help me or he didn’t exist. I quickly decided there couldn’t be a God because no God who was supposed to love me and had the power to intervene in my life would do nothing to save me. I didn’t have to be scared of going to hell because of my unbelief. I was already there.

There are deeper moments when the yearn for salvation seems lost that will tug at the heart. At the same time, the experiences are so natural that the actions become chilling in their reality that many readers will shudder. For example, when Ella confides:

I get up slowly. It still hurts to stand. I shuffle into the bathroom to change my pad first. I don’t want to bleed on any of his things. I don’t think the bleeding is ever going to stop.

To believe her resolve is exhausted would be to miss the strength that lies beneath the discourse that sounds so naive.  With its references to artifacts of teen life such as Gilmore Girls the author demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge that might scare young readers with its truth. The use of Ella’s and Sarah’s voices breeds a fascination with the similarity of the main characters, despite their avowed differences. Eventually, the plot makes a final turn in the revelation of Sarah’s real role in the drama. Most of what happens in the end will come as a surprise even to those who have read Berry’s earlier novels Phantom Limb and Missing Parts. Spoilers avoided,  those who read Appetite for Innocence are in for a wild ride. If you love crime, suspense and thrillers give the work a chance.