Recompense Trilogy by Michelle Isenhoff

Michelle Isenhoff’s  has managed to captivate me in her fresh and diverse YA fantasy/dystopian series, the Recompense Trilogy, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing.  It is an ambitious undertaking for Isenhoff, with all three novels, Recompense, Betrayal and Retribution, published since January 2018.  Readers can binge read and pick up the next volume when they finish each novel!

Isenhoff ‘s trilogy is a heart-pounding and thrilling read with gorgeous writing, mesmerizing world building and gripping story line that culminates in a series that is absolutely addictive. She masterfully builds a world that is believable, haunting and creates a realistic backdrop for her multi-layered and authentic characters in Jaclyn (Jack), Will, Ethan, Aunt Opal, Willoughby and Jewell. They are flawed, powerful, vulnerable and will draw you deeply into their high-stakes story. The heroine, Jack, is such a likable character, who repeatedly demonstrates strength of body, mind, and spirit throughout the series. You’ll be cheering for her from the very first page. The thing I liked about the large cast of characters is that you never know who you can trust and when you can trust them. They keep you on your toes and utterly glued to the pages. And there is a sweet love story.

Readers will enjoy sinking into the thoughtfully constructed details of Isenhoff’s ravaged future Earth, as well as a number of terrifying action sequences that build to a game-changing twist. The plot is riveting, action-packed and complex. Isenhoff has a sweeping imagination and you never know what to expect next. Each chapter ends with a cliff-hangar which keeps you reading because you want to know the outcome. I lost a couple of nights of sleep because I couldn’t put her engaging novel down.

Instead of reviewing each book separately, I’ve given you a feel for the complete trilogy. I’ve also decided to share the synopsis of each book below, so readers can grasp the depth of this brilliant trilogy.

Synopsis: Born into Capernica’s lowest social tier and not permitted to leave Settlement 56, Jaclyn (Jack) Holloway refuses to pour out her years in the local fish cannery. She gambles on the one chance available to her to advance–the high school Exit Exam. In a country that still keenly remembers the horrors of the Provocation, the period of unexplained disappearances that led to revolution, the smartest and strongest are richly rewarded in exchange for military service. Jack is adamant that her best friend, Will Ransom, join her in striving for induction.

But if Jack fails to pass the stringent physical standards and Will succeeds, she will not be allowed to see him again until his tour of duty is completed–in twenty years.

Meanwhile, the government has been keeping a tight lid on a new string of abductions. Jack’s Exam score places her in a position to aid Axis, an underground organization charged with investigating events that threaten national security. The evidence leads her back forty-seven years, to a series of high-profile cover-ups linked to the Provocation. Blowing the whistle could place her in danger, but holding her silence means history will likely repeat. And Capernica could never survive a second Provocation.

Synopsis: Jack and her teammates at Axis have succeeded in stopping the widespread abduction of Capernica’s teenage girls and neutralized the operatives living among them. Now they turn their attention to uniting the nation against the Bruelim. It’s time to take the fight through the portal and make sure, once and for all, that the Provocation never repeats.

Even as they prepare, disgruntled Lowers hang on the brink of revolution. Their rebellion has the potential to split Capernica along its caste lines just when the nation should be pulling together against a common enemy. But how can Axis convey the importance of cooperation when they’re unable to tell the people exactly what dangers they’re facing? Forty-seven years ago, Governor Macron expressly forbid any investigation into the Bruelim and ordered the evidence from the Provocation destroyed. No one’s certain what she’ll do when she learns the files have been reopened.

Meanwhile, Jack remains crazy hopeful that upcoming Military maneuvers might once again throw her into contact with her best friend Will, while Ethan, her capable Axis partner, strongly hopes they do not. Neither she nor Ethan are prepared for the testing their partnership is about to undergo. Or the revelation of their most immediate threat.

Synopsis: Jack was the revolution’s contingency plan. With the assault on the Macron City Military Base shattered, she was to assassinate Governor Andromeda Macron and revert Capernica back to Capernican control. But she failed, the revolution lies in ashes, and the one person she loves more than anyone in the world has betrayed her.

Alone in Brunay, Jack becomes an anonymous cog in the vast Bruelim slave economy, where callous wardens aren’t the only threat to her safety. The labor compound she’s been assigned to has an inmate hierarchy dominated by descendants of the Provocation’s original victims, and they don’t welcome newcomers. But Jack also finds friendship among the displaced laborers, and like her grandmother, Ruby, she burns with the desire to see them all home.

More importantly, Jack discovers the key to freeing Capernica from Bruel aggression forever. But even if she managed an escape, how could she leave Will in Brunay, trapped in the body of a Berkam?

Isenhoff has made Recompense available free for download on Amazon kindle. I ordered the paperbacks. This new original series will please fans of Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner. Isenhoff has completed a prequel to the trilogy, Provocation, which will be released soon. Visit Michelle Isenhoff at her website to view all her published work.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Caterpillars Can’t Swim by Liane Shaw

Caterpillars Can’t Swim

Liane Shaw, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 6, 2018

Pages: 256

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Cerebral Palsy, LGBT, Depression, Family Relationships, Bullying, Homophobia, Prejudices, Friendship

Publisher’s Synopsis: For sixteen-year-old Ryan, the water is where he finds his freedom. Ever since childhood, when he realized that he would never walk like other people, has loved the water where gravity is no longer his enemy. But he never imagined he would become his small town’s hero by saving a schoolmate from drowning.

Jack is also attracted to the water, but for him it’s the promise of permanent escape. Disappearing altogether seems better than living through one more day of high-school where he is dogged by rumors about his sexuality. He’s terrified that coming out will alienate him from everyone in town — and crush his adoring mother.

Ryan saves Jack’s life, but he also keeps his secret. Their bond leads to a grudging friendship, and an unexpected road-trip to Cosmic Con with Ryan’s best friend Cody, the captain of the swim team. They make an unlikely trio but each of them will have the chance to show where he is brave enough to go against the stereotypes the world wants to define him by.

Why I like this story:

Liane’ Shaw’s examines the paralyzing impact of bullying on teens in this raw, honest and emotional novel. What stands out for me is the prejudice against two teens — one who has a physical disability and the other teen who is struggling with his sexual identity.  This is the first time I’ve seen the differences appear together in a compelling story, especially when the teen who is disabled is the hero.

The characters drive the action in this story. The main character Ryan, was born with cerebral palsy and has spent his life in a wheelchair. However the story really doesn’t focus on his disability, but his funny, upbeat personality and his role on the school swim team. Jack is sad and depressed. He has no friends, and keeps to himself. Ryan befriends Jack, listens to his pain as he deals with his identity, and keeps his secrets. Kids suspect that Jack’s gay and bully him. Ryan’s friend, Cody, steps in when he sees the school bullies harassing both Ryan and Jack after school.  Cody is hyper, wacky, funny, obnoxious, and someone you can dislike one moment and love the next. He provides for a lot of comic relief in the story.

I really liked the metaphor of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, a mirror of what happens when three unlikely teens come together to support each other. Especially Cody, who is homophobic. His growth as a character meant the most to me.

The plot is multi-layered, brave and complicated. Jack’s drowning happens early in the story with a lot of drama and action. Readers may wonder where the story is headed. But the pacing is fast, engaging and lighthearted at times. There is  more to this deeply moving novel that readers will find appealing.  It is an inspiring story about family, friends and hope.

Liane Shaw is the author of several books for teens, including thinandbeautiful.com, Fostergirls, The Color of Silence, and Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell. Liane was an educator for more than 20 years and lives with her family in Ontario.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

To Look a Nazi in the Eye

To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial

Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz, Authors

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Sep. 12, 2017

Pages: 240

Suitable for ages: 13-19

Themes: Oskar Groening, WWII War Crimes, Trial, Holocaust, Justice

Book Jacket Synopsis: True story of nineteen-year-old Jordana Lebowitz’s experience attending the war criminal trial of Oskar Groening. Groening worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp and became known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” In April 2015 he stood trial in Germany for being complicit in the deaths of more than 300,000 Jews.

A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Jordana knew a great deal about the Holocaust and had traveled to Europe with her Jewish Day School classmates to visit Auschwitz and participate in the March of the Living. There she met and became friends with Hedy Bohm, a holocaust survivor. A few years later she invited Hedy to speak with students and faculty at the university she attended. When Hedy told her that she had been asked to share her personal story of survival at Groening’s trial, Jordana wanted to go to Germany. But she was not prepared for what she would see and hear at Oskar Groening’s trial, including how much an ordinary seeming man — who at first glance reminded her of grandfather — could be part of such despicable cruelty. She had expected to hate him, and she did. But hate, just like forgiveness, can be complicated.

Listening to Groening’s testimony and to the Holocaust survivors who came to testify against him, Jordana felt the weight of bearing witness to history — a history that we need to remember now more than ever.

Why I like this book:

Kathy Kacer sensitively weaves a format for this compelling and dramatic nonfiction narrative that reads like a story. The chapters alternate between Oskar Groening’s life story and testimony, Jordana’s experiences of the trial, and her relationships with the courageous survivors she has come to love and respect. Kacer shares the survivor’s gut-wrenching stories with compassion, dignity and grace. Her pacing will keep readers glued to the story.

There are interesting dynamics at play throughout the story. Seeing the trial through Jordana’s eyes  (two generations removed) offers readers an open-minded and contemporary perspective. Jordana is loyal to the survivors she has journeyed with to Germany. Their painful stories are etched in her heart and mind. But she has trouble seeing Groening as a monster. She wants to hate him, but she sees a frail and sad man who admits he’s morally guilty for his role in the process. Yet she is disturbed by the details of his actions.

Jordana meets the deniers who say the Holocaust is a conspiracy. She converses with Reiner Hoess, the grandson at the Rudolf Hoess, the mastermind behind the design and construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. She is moved that Hoess has spent his life talking about the Holocaust with young people and has come to see justice served in the Groening trial. She is shocked after a female survivor finishes her testimony, steps up to Groening, shakes his hand and says “I forgive you.” The other survivors are upset by the woman’s gesture. Jordana even boldly walks up to the judge and asks him “what is it like to be a judge at this trial…and does it affect you?”

Jordana doesn’t carry the baggage of a survivor. She has a youthful desire to be a witness to history and relates her experiences of the trial through a daily blog she writes for the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center — the center that paid for her plane ticket to Germany. In the end, Jordana realizes that the trial represents something greater than achieving justice for the survivors. It sends a message to the world that there will be consequences for anyone who is commits or assists in hate crimes, murders and genocide against human beings, no matter how long after a crime.  Jordana also sees an important role for “the youth of today to create a better tomorrow.”

Resources: There is an Epilogue at the end about other SS Nazi guards being brought to trial. Since most are in their 90s, time is running out. Kacer shares what Jordana has  done since the trial and her dream to become a human rights attorney. To Look a Nazi in the Eye is an important book for school libraries. It fits nicely with Holocaust education and will challenge students to have many lively discussions. Although this book is designated for those 13 and up, I would share this book with a mature middle grade student. Adults will benefit from reading this tactfully written book.

Kathy Kacer has won many awards for her books about the holocaust for young readers, including Hiding Edith, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War and The Underground Reporters. A former psychologist, Kathy tours North America speaking to young people about the importance of remembering the Holocaust. For more information, visit Kacer’s website.

Oskar Groening died Mar. 13, 2018

Greg Pattridge is the permanent host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

On the Spectrum by Jennifer Gold

On the Spectrum

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Sep. 12, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Unhealthy Eating, Autism Spectrum, Family Relationships, Siblings, Paris

Synopsis: Growing up in the shadow of a famous ballerina mother, Clara has never felt good about her body.  She remembers her mother taking her trick-or-treating and letting her pick out one piece of candy before pitching the rest into the trash. Now, at sixteen, she has an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. A school counselor intervenes, tells Clara she has an eating disorder and consults with her mother, who feels like a monster mom. With her diagnosis and a bullying incident on social media, Clara decides to  escape for the summer to Paris to stay with her estranged dad, step-mother and six-year-old brother, Alastair, who is on the autism spectrum. Charged with his care, Clara and Alastair set out to explore the city. Paris, and a handsome young French baker, teaches Clara about first love and a new appreciation of food. And Alastair teaches Clara about patience, trust, and the beauty of loving without judgment.

Why I like this book:

Occasionally you discover a book that captures your heart and you know you are reading something special. Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum is like that. It is a story about love, family relationships, differences, friendships, patience and acceptance. She introduces readers to Clara, who is fixated with healthy eating, exercise and clean living, but isn’t necessarily anorexic or bulimic. She exists on a spectrum, just like her half-brother, Alastair, who has autism.  Their journeys are cleverly intertwined and create a fun-loving adventure for readers.

Gold offers readers an important glimpse into the dynamics that play a role in Clara’s eating disorder. Clara has a strained but loving relationship with her mother, who has a life-long obsession with food. It’s honest but fragile. There is a touching moment when her mother shares the damage that her poor nutritional habits have caused her body. Her mother realizes she’s been a poor role model and wants to see her daughter healthy. Clara’s issues with food are realistically portrayed. She is slim, but doesn’t look anorexic. When Clara looks at bread, she thinks about the bleach in white flour that has been linked to colon cancer. But she can’t make herself take a bite of poison.

The real strength in the book is the development of Clara and Alastair’s relationship. Clara is caring and kind and isn’t quite sure what to make of her sweet, smart and brutally honest young charge. Alastair is adorable. He has sensory issues, allergies to nuts and difficulty with social cues. His over protective mother, Mag, makes him wear orthopedic shoes and carry an adult backpack. Mag wants him to learn to embrace his differences. Clara realizes that kids from school bully Alastair and make fun of his attire. She takes him on a shopping spree and lets Alastair pick out a new back pack and a cool pair of shoes. Clara doesn’t want to change him, just help him fit in. The trust and bond between the two grow as they encourage each other to overcome their fears and differences, and try new things. I admit, Alastair is my favorite character.

Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum will captivate readers and transport them to Paris with its Old World charm,  beautiful architecture, café, museums, quaint markets. I loved learning about French cooking, strolls in the parks and Paris at night. The setting and vivid imagery, the characters, and the well-paced plot make for an unforgettable and entertaining experience for readers.

Resources: For more information on orthorexia visit the National Eating Disorder’s Association (NEDA). Orthorexia means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being. NEDA says that it is on the rise, but it isn’t actually in the diagnostics.

Jennifer Gold is the author of Soldier Doll, a Bank Street Best Book (2015) and White Pine Award finalist (2016), and Undiscovered Country for teens.  She is a lawyer and lives with her family in Toronto.

Greg Pattridge is the permanent host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas, Author

Balzer + Bray, Fiction, Feb. 28, 2017

Awards: National Book Award Longlist

Suitable for Ages: 14 and up

Themes: Racism, Police Violence, Prejudice, Family Relationships, Community

Book Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives between two different worlds: Garden Heights, the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and Williamson Prep, the fancy suburban school she attends.  It’s tough to make friends in her own community where she is judged. It’s hard being an acceptable black student in a white school. The uneasy balance between her worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a police officer when he’s driving Starr home. Khalil was unarmed.

Khalil’s death quickly becomes a national news story. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. One of Starr’s best friends at school even suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. Everyone wants to know what really happened that night. Starr is the only witness and because she is a minor, her identity is protected.  The police take her testimony with little interest, even though her Uncle Carlos is a detective. When tensions reach a boiling point, she knows that she has to tell the truth.

What Starr does — or does not — say could destroy her community. It could endanger her life. It could help her find her voice.

Why I like this book:

Angie Thomas’ powerful in-your-face novel is timely, brave, and gripping.  It is a story about violence in America that’s not sugar-coated but effective with a trustworthy narrator, Starr Carter, who opens her heart and readers’ eyes to the truth. Readers will walk in her shoes, feel her anguish and cheer as she becomes an instrument for hope.

Thomas’ action-packed and multifaceted plot begins with Khalil’s shooting in the first chapter. The story follows with the fall-out that occurs in Garden Heights as the community responds at first with peaceful protests. Gangs move in, stir up crowds and the scene quickly turns to violence. Businesses are burned and the neighborhood becomes a war zone. It is a grim and suffocating look at the inner-city where abuse, addiction and gangs are a way of life and children are its victims.

Starr’s tight and loving family adds stability to the novel. She lives with her father “Big Mav,” a former gang-member who wants to make their crime-ridden neighborhood a better place to live. He owns a local market and employs teens to keep them away from gangs and drugs. Her mother Lisa is a registered nurse who wants to move away in order to keep her family safe. Starr has an older, protective brother, Seven, and a younger brother, Sekani. Together the family faces adversity head-on with perseverance, resourcefulness, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Thomas presents the growing trend of racial profiling and police brutality in an unbiased way. She shows the prejudice on both sides. Starr’s uncle is a detective on the force, so we see things from his point of view.  It helps readers understand the different sides of the situation without confusion. As a reader I gained a greater understanding of drugs and gang life in the inner city and its appeal to teen boys who are supporting single mothers and younger siblings.

Through the perspective of Starr, readers glimpse the anguish that envelops her community, illuminating the feelings associated with suppression. We need more novels that focus on the social commentary of racism and police brutality. The Hate U Give is an excellent work of fiction and an important discussion book for classrooms.

Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was having an article about her in Right On! magazine. She holds a BFA in creative writing. The Hate U Give is her first novel. You can visit her at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the permanent host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors today.

Saying Good-bye to London by Julie Burtinshaw

Saying Good-bye to London

Julie Burtinshaw, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 13 and up

Themes: Teen pregnancy, Family relationships, Friendships, Adoption

Synopsis: One night of unprotected sex can change your life forever. Francis Sloan is a shy 15-year-old when he meets edgy, confident 16-year-old Sawyer at a party he didn’t want to attend. Sparks fly…and Sawyer becomes pregnant. They barely know each other, but now must deal with both their relationship and the reality of a baby.

Francis has a lot of growing up to do, and now it seems like he is being forced to do it all at once. When his life collides with Sawyer’s, Francis is forced to confront his own stereotypes about loss, sexuality, and family.

Sawyer decides to give the baby up for adoption, but that’s just the start. Over the months they wait for the baby to be born, Francis and Sawyer try to deal with the choices they will have to make. Will Francis follow Sawyer’s brave example? Or will he turn his back and pretend his life has not changed? Where will they be when it’s time to say good-bye to baby London?

Why I like this book:

Julie Burtinshaw’s Saying Good-bye to London is a heart-wrenching  and emotional story about teen pregnancy with a contemporary appeal. It is a hopeful and optimistic story that challenges teens with the same tough questions that Sawyer and Francis face.

This story is character-driven. Francis is a shy, lanky, and likable character who plays basketball with his best friend, Kevin. At  fifteen, girls scare him. He’s naïve and never been on a date. He lives on the West side of Vancouver, comes from a stable and loving family, and attends a private boy’s school. Sawyer Martin is a year older than Francis. She is self-confident, independent, and has her own unique flare.  She is brave, resilient and vulnerable. Sawyer lives on the other side of Vancouver with her mother. They live in a small apartment and she attends public school. When Sawyer becomes pregnant, Francis is angry, scared, blames her and disappears from her life. Sawyer deals with her tears and growing baby bump alone.

There are many interesting themes in this novel, beyond teen pregnancy. Kevin’s father is dying from cancer. Francis’s family has twin adopted brothers from Africa. Sawyer’s best friend, Jack, is gay, has an abusive and homophobic father who kicks him out of the house. Sawyer’s father left and she’s being raised by her single mother. The author has woven these subtle themes into the story and they contribute to the important decisions that Sawyer and Francis make for baby London.

The plot is unique and very different from other novels I’ve read about teen pregnancy. The author does give a realistic account of Sawyer’s pregnancy from morning sickness to delivery.  But the main focus of the story is on how Sawyer, Francis, Jack, Kevin and Sawyer’s mother, work together with an adoption agency to select, interview and choose the right family for baby London. It honors the brave and mature decisions that Sawyer, Francis and their friends make together.

I recommend this book because it challenges teens and is an excellent discussion book. It is also a page-turner.

Julie Burtinshaw is an ward-winning author of novels for young adults, including The Darkness Between the Stars, The Perfect Cut, The Freedom of Jenny, Adrift, and Dead Reckoning. You can find Julie on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @WriterJulie.

*The publisher provided me with an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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

A Time to Dance and a Book Giveaway

I reviewed A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, when it was first released in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books.  It is a beautiful story written in free verse.  The author has sent me an autographed paperback copy (2015) to give away to one lucky reader. All you need to do is leave a comment below indicate your interest, follow my website, and be a resident of the US or Canada. I will announce the winner on September 13.  I have included part of my earlier review of this remarkable gem. The hardback copy is a permanent resident on my bookshelf.

Suitable for ages: 12 and up

Awards: ALA Notable Book, Booklist Editor’s Choice, Kirkus, other national and international awards

Themes: Dance, India, Amputee, Disabilities, Abilities, Loss, Courage, Recovery

Book Jacket SynopsisVeda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance–so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown up used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling.

But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Why I like this book: This inspirational and courageous novel is lyrical with each word carefully chosen.  Verse is the perfect medium. Padma Venkatraman weaves together a story about loss and resilience of a girl determined to dance once again her beloved Indian Bharatanatyam. This is not a story about disability, but one of ability. It is about finding the deeper spiritual meaning of the dance over the applause. “For my invisible audience of the One I begin to dance./ Colors blur into whiteness and a lilting tune that is and is not of the world resonates within and without me./ My body feels whole./In the beat of my heart I hear again the eternal rhythm of Shiva’s feet.”

Reading Venkatraman’s novel is an experience of India in all its beauty, cultural traditions, senses and sounds. If you listen closely you can hear the faint echo of a dancing rhythm. Thaiya thai. Thaiya thai.  I highly recommend this beautiful novel for tweens and teens who have faced challenges in their lives.  This book is a treasure!

Padma Venkatraman is a chief scientist and oceanographer by training and a writer by choice. She is the author of Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End, both multi-award winners.  Padma was born in India, but is now an American citizen. Visit Padma at her website. It has discussion questions and teaching resources.

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

Ebb Tide by Michelle Isenhoff

Ebb Tide (Volume 3 – Ella Wood Series)

Michelle Isenhoff, Author

CreateSpace Independent Publishing, Historical Fiction, Apr. 24, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 14 – adult

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

Opening: Emily felt the explosion before she heard it. Her ribcage thrummed like the plucked strings of a guitar, then the sky split open, pouring sound and fury down upon the world below. Her bones bucked against the sudden pulse of energy. Glass fractured. Horses plunged and screamed, slamming vehicles together with a crunch of wood on wood. Escape mocked them. Everyone in Charleston had joined the mad rush to safety.

Book Synopsis: When the Union navy fires on Charleston, Emily must flee to Ella Wood — and to a father who has never forgiven her for attending the Maryland Institute against his will. There, she grapples with Jack’s secret plans for the plantation and his final admonition that she carry them to fruition. But as a woman back under the authority of her father, evoking even the slightest change might prove too much to hope for. In the meantime, old jealousies place Emily’s life in danger, and her desperate hopes for Jovie’s safe return begin to fade. As the war rumbles to its conclusion, she must draw upon every ounce of courage in a final bid for love and freedom.

Why this book is on my shelf:

Ebb Tide brings Michelle Isenhoff’s Ella Wood trilogy to a heart-pounding conclusion. It is powerful, emotion-laden novel with secrets and many unexpected outcomes. Ebb Tide brightly shines as her finest literary accomplishment to date. The prose is beautiful, the language is rich and the dialogue lively. The trilogy has been an ambitious undertaking for the author and fans will be deeply satisfied with her third novel. It is my favorite!

Character development is Isenhoff’s strength. As Emily faces the destruction of Charleston, the uncertainty for Ella Wood, the loss of loved ones and shattered dreams, her ferocious spirit and determination will leave readers breathless. The rich cast of characters are tender and lovable, while others are abusive and gritty. And Isenhoff doesn’t let you rest until all of their fates are known — a monumental effort considering the large cast of characters central to Emily’s journey from debutante to accomplished artist. Readers will be satisfied.

The high-stakes plot is riveting, dangerous and deliberately paced with nonstop adventures. There are tragic incidents at Ella Wood. Emily’s responsibilities increase as the Union Army presence threatens livelihood at Ella Wood. There is a shortage of food, clothing and shoes. Finishing her studies in Baltimore seems out of reach. And Jovie is missing in action. Ebb Tide also has more tender moments with romance, weddings, births, and the reappearance of important characters from earlier books.

Ebb Tide is impeccably researched and offers readers a penetrating look into the emotional landscape of the south, its role in the civil war, customs, culture, the suppression of women’s rights, the searing treatment of slaves and freedom for other slaves. Michelle Isenhoff’s website has links to a pictorial representation of many of the people, places, and events that are featured in Ebb Tide and to her behind-the-scenes research.

** Readers can download a free Kindle copy of Ella Wood until June 15 on Amazon.  

Ella Wood Novellas: In July readers can get to know three prominent characters better: Lizzie, Jack and Jovie. This upcoming series of novellas, available exclusively for Kindle, will fill in additional details in the Ella Wood trilogy’s main story line. Experience Lizzie and Ketch’s escape north. Follow Jack into the Confederate army. And find out exactly what happened to Jovie after Gettysburg. Visit Isenhoff’s website for details.

Michelle Isenhoff is the author of Ella Wood and Blood MoonThe 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 FindulTaylor Davis and the Clash of KingdomsThe Color of Freedom; and The Quill Pen.

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

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.