Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in turn for a fair and honest review.

Changing Fate by Michelle Merrill

Changing Fate

Michelle Merrill, Author

CreateSpace, Fiction, May 6, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Chronic Illness, Cystic Fibrosis, Transplants, Secrecy, Friendships, Hope

Opening: “I reach into my backpack and wrap my fingers around my pill-box, but I can’t seem to pull it out. Maybe I’m a little embarrassed about taking meds with every meal…or maybe it’s the girl with the blue-streaked hair who’s staring at me from across the cafeteria. She steps towards me. I grip the container and flip the lid open.”

Book Synopsis: All Kate wants is to live. Battling cystic fibrosis is hard enough, dying from it is even harder. When her mom moves them closer to the hospital in the middle of her senior year, Kate’s determined to isolate herself – saving everyone the trouble of befriending a dying girl. It’s a difficult task when cheerful optimist Giana insists on being Kate’s friend.

Kate’s resolve falters even more when curly-haired Kyler captivates her with his sweet melodies. As her emotional walls collapse, Kate realizes the people she’s been pushing away may be the ones giving her a reason to live. But it might be too late.

Why I like this book:

There are few novels published for teens with cystic fibrosis (CF) and their families and friends. Kate’s story gives readers an authentic  look into what it’s like to live with CF and have a normal life. It’s a daily battle for Kate to breathe, let alone focus on friendships and outside activities.

Michelle Merrill has written a powerful and beautifully crafted story that is filled with vivid imagery, fear, anger, humor and courage. The characters are colorful, realistic and well-developed.

Kate is a determined and gutsy teen who keeps her CF a secret from the very classmates who are eager to befriend her, especially after she uses her black-belt skills on a lunch-room thief.  There is no resisting upbeat Giana who insists on being Kate’s best friend. And there is Kyler, with a freckle on his upper lip, soft curly hair and a song in his heart. They become a close threesome and Kate realizes their friendships give her a reason to live. Even Vivian, the school bully, manages to find a way into your heart.

The first half of the story gives readers a glimpse into Kate’s daily routine that includes taking enzymes before meals to help her digest  food, nebulizer medications that help her breathe more easily, and a compression vest to loosen mucous in her lungs. There are trips to the ER and hospital stays when she develops a lung infection. Her journey is realistic.

The second half of the story is very fast-paced with unraveling secrets and many unexpected surprises that keep you fiercely turning pages. It is an emotional story, so grab a tissue box. I won’t give away any spoilers because this book is one to savor.

Merrill did her homework. The idea for the story is based on a friend of the author’s two daughters. It is well-researched and I am thrilled to share her novel with readers. It is important for teens to see themselves in others. Each case of CF is different. Visit Michelle Merrill at her website.

Resources: I recently learned that cystic fibrosis is called a “rare” disease because there aren’t enough individuals with CF to meet the magic number for major medical research funding. Sad. To learn more about cystic fibrosis visit their website. This book with pair nicely with The Baking Life of Amelie Day, by Vanessa Curtis.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

My Demon’s Name is Ed by Danah Khalil

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My Demon’s Name is Ed

Danah Khalil, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 12-16

Themes: Anorexia Nervosa, Eating Disorders, Peer Pressure, Mental Health, Self-Esteem, Courage, Hope

Synopsis: Danah’s eating disorder has a personality — it’s a demon she calls Ed, the voice in her head that undermines her self-esteem and her perception of the world. How can she explain to her family and friends that even when she tries to develop healthier eating and exercising habits, there is a demon wriggling inside her mind, determining her every step?

ED: “There is nothing wrong while I am in control.”

“You see? It is “normal” to lose weight. I told you. Yes, I am always right. You must keep going. Keep going.

While Danah knows that what she is doing is unhealthy, the validation and sense of control that her “demon” gives her begins to win out over everything and everyone else.

Why I like this book:

Danah Khalil has written compelling novel based on her own struggle with an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. She is 14 years old when her dieting begins. It takes guts to share something so profoundly emotional and deeply personal. I applaud Danah for bravely sharing her realistic story. Her suffering is visceral. Her voice is completely authentic. The solitude and misery she plummets into is dark and seductive. She calls the demon who lives in her head, “Ed.” And, with every journal entry, Ed’s voice  (written in italics,) is there to coax, command and control her every thought and action.

Danah tells her story entirely through diary entries she started at age 14, at the beginning of the anorexia through her recovery at age 18. Although it is an interesting way to watch the progression of her anorexia, the entries become very focused on meal plans, weighing herself, daily workouts, anger towards her parents, and some lovely poetry. This is the isolation she creates for herself. My only sadness is that I never really get to know Danah, her family and friends, even after she enters a treatment facility. I hoped her therapy would reveal more family interaction.

Danah’s story is a hopeful story for families with a child who has an anorexia, or for anyone who is close to someone with an eating disorder. Although Danah recovers, she acknowledges that it will be with her forever and she will need to stay vigilant. Many years ago I worked with teens and young women with eating disorders and it brought back many memories. My Demon’s Name is Ed  is an excellent book that will alert parents, siblings, friends, and teachers to the earliest symptoms of eating disorders and seek help.

Resources: The book includes information on common symptoms and book recommendations. I recommend that readers also check out the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA),  which provides information about the eating disorders, support groups, treatment options and stories of hope.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of America Trilogy is one of my favorite historical fiction trilogies for tweens, teens and adults. Today, I am reviewing the final book in the trilogy, Ashes, but will include brief synopsis of the first two books, Chains and Forge, because it gives the reader a perspective of the revolutionary war that is relatively unknown and not talked about — the important role of black soldiers in the creation of our nation and their hopes and dreams. Although, you could read Ashes and still understand the story, you would miss the rich alternating voices of the characters Isabel and Curzon and their journey that began in 1776 with Chains and ends in 1781 with Ashes. I strongly suggest you read the three books in order.

ashes-51oxtesd6l__sx336_bo1204203200_Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy, Book #3

Laurie Halse Anderson, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Historical Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: American Revolution, Black Soldiers, Slavery, Freedom,

Book Synopsis: “Freedom for one, freedom for all?  That’s the question that burns in Isabel’s mind as she and Curzon forge on through chaos and fear toward the dream that’s kept them alive for so many years: freedom.  But her dream of living not as a “runaway” but as a free person with land and a family of her own seems impossibly far away. That dream hinges on one thing: finding her little sister, Ruth.

It’s been three years since Ruth was stolen from her. Is she even alive? And if Isabel can find her, how will they make it safely through the war between the Patriots and the British that rages on as dangerously as ever in 1781, while bounty hunters try to kidnap them at every turn! In the American Revolution, one must pick a side in order to survive.  But how can you care about a nation’s freedom when the very same nation has kept you in chains?

Why I like this book:

Laurie Halse Anderson is a skillful literary author. Her language and dialogue is exquisite. Her novel is bold and breathtaking. Her settings are unimaginably descriptive and believable. It is easy to get lost in the realistic plot where you can smell the sweat of laboring men digging trenches, hear the nearby exploding cannon balls and feel the bone-chilling cold of nights in the camps. The pacing keeps readers fully engaged.

Thoroughly researched, this engaging novel offers readers a fresh perspective on the role the black community played during the war, including women and children. Each chapter is introduced by a quote from significant historical figures during the war that helps provide insight into the attitudes of the war: Gen. George Washington, James Madison,  King George III,  Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams, Thomas Paine and many other regiment leaders, judges and slaves. It is a very effective tool that gives readers a greater sense of the overall mood of that period of history.

Although the story is about the war effort where Isabel, Curzon and Ruth are firmly planted in the middle, there is a stronger theme running through this final book for the threesome — freedom from slavery and not just from England.  The memorable characters are all dealing with secrets and inner demons that drive their story forward and require sacrifice, courage, trust, resilience and an unwavering commitment to each other.

chains-51yupuz0efl__sx334_bo1204203200_Chains, Book #1, 2008

National Book Award Finalist

Synopsis from the author’s website: If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl? As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight…for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom. Check out Sue Kooky’s review today of CHAINS at her website Kitty cat at the Library.

forge-51eqo8p14ul__sx334_bo1204203200_Forge, Book #2, 2010

Synopsis from the author’s website: Blistering winds. Bitter cold. And the hope of a new future. In this compelling sequel to Chains, a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson shifts perspective from Isabel to Curzon and brings to the page the tale of what it takes for runaway slaves to forge their own paths in a world of obstacles—and in the midst of the American Revolution.

The Patriot Army was shaped and strengthened by the desperate circumstances of the Valley Forge winter. This is where Curzon the boy becomes Curzon the young man. In addition to the hardships of soldiering, he lives with the fear of discovery, for he is an escaped slave passing for free. And then there is Isabel, who is also at Valley Forge—against her will. She and Curzon have to sort out the tangled threads of their friendship while figuring out what stands between the two of them and true freedom.

Laurie Halse Anderson is descended from many soldiers who fought in the American Revolution. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous ALA and state awards. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. You can follow her on Twitter @Halse Anderson, or visit her at her website. Anderson has prepared teacher guides and other activities for teachers.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Blood Moon by Michelle Isenhoff

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Michelle Isenhoff, Author

CreateSpace, Historical Fiction, Jun. 5, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 14 and up

Themes: Love, Family Relationships, Civil War, Slavery, Abolitionists, Pursuing educational dreams, Hope

Opening: “Brilliant orange sparks streaked across the night sky, snatched by the furious wind and flung onto rooftops to spring up as new geysers of flame. Building by building the fire magnified, towering over the cringing city, devouring the waterfront. Emily raced toward the inferno, compelled by visions of those she loved.”

Synopsis: Charleston lies in ruins and war between the North and South is imminent. Yet, Emily Preston refuses to give up her dream of becoming an artist. She defies her overbearing father and secretly enrolls in an art correspondence course under a male pseudo name, a step toward fulfilling her dream of studying at a Maryland university. When her father discovers her disobedience, he demands she leave Ella Wood to find her own living arrangements. Emily is now free to pursue her education, but she has many hurdles to overcome to support herself and earn her tuition for college. A love-triangle forms, betrayals are uncovered, family secrets abound, and Emily faces loss. Uncertainty looms big in her heart, as war threatens her dreams and the people she cares about most.

Why I love about Blood Moon:

Convincingly penned from beginning to end, Blood Moon is inherently absorbing and skillfully presented, establishing Michelle Isenhoff as an exceptionally talented novelist. Readers who have invested themselves in Isenhoff’s Ella Wood series, will be thrilled with the second volume in her latest sequel, Blood Moon, which continues Emily Preston’s transformation from Southern Belle to a determined young women who will stop at nothing to chase her educational dreams.

Blood Moon is richly textured and impeccably researched as it offers a vivid portrayal of the emotional landscape that bring Emily’s tale to life. It also sheds light on the penetrating truths of South Carolina’s role in the civil war, customs and culture, the suppression of women’s rights and the unforgivable treatment of slaves.

Her characters are vividly drawn and the many period details with which she fleshes out her story never feel forced or melodramatic. Emily, Thad, Jovie, Jack and Uncle Timothy are real. Some are gritty and abusive while others are tender and sweet, but most of all they are very much alive. I could feel the pain of loss, betrayal and hopelessness when Emily’s dreams are shattered and, yet through it all there remains a true bond of friendship and selfless acts of love.

Blood Moon is stunning, wrenching, and inspiring. Isenhoff’s sweeping imagination adds to a multi-layered, compelling, harrowing, and realistic plot. Her deliberate pacing and tension keep readers fully engaged and invested in Blood Moon.  There are many surprises for readers. It is truly an exceptional story and the characters will stay with you long after you finish Blood Moon.

The third volume in the series, Ebb Tide, will be available in the Spring of 2017Ella Wood is  available free to readers on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, and Kobo.  Ella Wood is a sequel to Isenhoff’s middle grade novel, The Candle Star.

Michelle Isenhoff is the author of Ella Wood; The Candle Star, Blood of Pioneers and Beneath the Slashings (Divided Decade Collection); Song of the Mountain and Fire on the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy); Taylor Davis and the Flame of Findul, Taylor Davis and the Clash of Kingdoms; The Color of Freedom; and The Quill Pen. Visit Michelle Isenhoff at her website.

One by Sarah Crossan

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Sarah Crossan, Author

Green Willow Books, Fiction, Sep. 15, 2015

Pages: 388

Suitable for Ages: 14 -18

Themes: Conjoined twins, Sisters, High School, Family relationships, Love, Novel in free verse

Opening: “Here we are. And we are living. Isn’t that amazing? How we manage to be at all.”

Synopsis: Grace and Tippi are 16-year-old conjoined twins, connected at their hip. They have two heads, four arms, two hearts and two pairs of lungs and kidneys, and share two legs. They have been conjoined since birth and have beat the odds for survival. The twins love each other and are happy to be together. They can’t imagine risking a dangerous operation to be separated.

For Grace and Tippi, wearing the same skirt is normal. Linking their arms around each other helps them keep their balance as they each walk with one crutch. Listening to the other breath at night is comforting. Sharing the flu is worrisome.

Their parents shield Grace and Tippi as much as possible from the public and homeschool them. With donations running out and medical bills mounting, there is a strain on the family and the girls will have to attend high school in the fall. The best part of school is Gracie and Tippi’s friendship with Yaseem and Jon. They add some joy, support, adventure, and a lot of comic relief to the story.

Gracie is the first to notice something is happening to them and doesn’t want to admit it to Tippi. As the truth emerges, they are about to face a choice that could change their lives forever.

Why I like this book:

  • Sarah Crossan writes her compelling novel in free verse, which makes her story a more authentic, sensitive and beautiful read. The first-person narration by Gracie, the more introspective twin, is intimate and humorous, painful and breathtaking. The story is realistic and the characters believable.
  • The plot is a raw, gripping and engaging journey for Gracie and Tippi — and for readers. The twins’ health is fragile and doctors don’t know what to expect medically. However they embrace life with enthusiasm. Their friendship with school friends allow them to feel some normalcy and freedom to act like teens. Family life is challenging when both parents lose their jobs and they have to move. Gracie and Tippi know there is one big way to help their family with expenses — selling their story.
  • Crossan has done a remarkable amount of research, both medically and historically. The physiology of Grace and Tippi is “loosely based on the bodies of Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova” from Russia. Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end.
  • Although the target audience for One is teenagers, it is also a powerful novel for adults. It speaks to themes of love, family relationships, inner strength, resilience, tolerance and diversity.

Sarah Crossan is the author of the duology Breathe and Resist, as well as the acclaimed novel-in-verse The Weight of Water, which was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Visit Sarah Crossan at her website.

Written in the Stars

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Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction,  Mar. 24, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: Forced Marriages, Pakistani-American teen, Diversity,

Synopsis: Naila is a responsible and trustworthy daughter to her immigrant Pakistani parents. Steeped in cultural tradition, her parents allow her to attend a Florida high school, study subjects she likes, wear her hair how she wishes, dress like the other students and choose her career path in college. The only thing she is not allowed to do is date boys or choose a husband. Naila falls in love with Sajf, a Pakistani-American boy, during her senior year. She keeps her secret and meets Saif for lunch everyday. When Naila disobeys her parents and sneaks to the senior prom with Saif, her parents are outraged at her betrayal of trust and humiliated by their close-knit community. In attempt to help Naila understand her heritage, they pull her out of school, travel to Pakistan to visit relatives. Naila enjoys meeting so many family members and bonding with her cousin, Selma. Her vacation turns into a nightmare when her parents betray her, force her into an arranged marriage with Amin, and then leave Pakistan. She is alone living with a strange family, who see her as their ticket to America. Is this Naila’s destiny or is there any hope for escape?

What I love about Written in the Stars:

  • Aisha Saeed has masterfully written a bold, heart wrenching and complex cross-cultural novel that will be an eye-opener for many young readers. It is also beautiful love story between two Pakistani-American teens.
  • The setting is culturally rich for teens reading Written in the Stars. It is about Pakistani traditions, extended families living together, food preparations, small villages, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and shopping in local markets.
  • The first-person narrative with Naila offers greater depth into her character. Naila is a strong and determined protagonist. Her anger and pain are palpable, as is her desire to escape. All of the characters are well-developed, memorable and stay with you after you finish. The plot is suspenseful and brutal at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. The reader experiences Naila’s prison. Written in the Stars is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The ending is unexpected.
  • The author shares that although her own marriage was arranged by her parents, she wrote the book to shed light on the many arranged forced marriages.  I have never read anything like this powerful book, and I mean that as a compliment. Saeed sheds so much light on the problem of forced marriages in America and around the world. Although her characters are American-Pakistani, Saeed points out that “the issue is not limited to one particular culture or religion.”

Resources: There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end, along with resources for individuals needing advice, and a glossary. Visit Aisha Saeed at her website.

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani American writer, teacher and attorney. Written in the Stars is her debut novel. She is on of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign.