Virginia Reader’s Choice: Girl in the Blue Coat

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This is a mystery wrapped up in war and hidden by the lies we tell ourselves to survive.

It’s late in World War II and Amsterdam has been overtaken by the Nazis. Henneke is a resourceful young woman who helps her family survive. Food and everyday items are in short supply but she has a reputation for being able to find anything. Officially, she does paperwork for the local undertaker but her unofficial job is to fill black market orders for her clients around the city. On her usual delivery route, Mrs. Jensen makes an unusual and dangerous request. She wants Henneke to find a young Jewish girl whose family was wiped out in a raid in which Mr. Jensen was also killed weeks before. There are a million reasons not to take on this task but there’s something deep inside that makes her need to find this girl. Accepting this assignment takes Henneke on a journey to places she never imagined she’d go and the danger she puts herself into borders on reckless but the horror of watching what is happening to her country, her neighbors and friends are too much. She must do something but there are twists and turns in this hunt and, in the end, someone is found but another is lost. Such is life in war.

 

Virginia Reader’s choice: The Serpent King

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Have you ever read a book that touched your soul making you laugh out loud and cry your eyes out? The last one I read like that was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I love books like that; so real and raw.

Dill lives in the deep rural South where there are snakes both inside and outside. Dill’s father is a Pentecostal, snake-handling, poison-drinking preacher whose fall from grace hangs around Dill’s neck like a noose. The only things that keep him sane are his friends Travis and Lydia who hang out at the bottom of the social ladder like him and his music. Things are different this year, though. This is the year for doing things they are afraid of. Travis, a 6′ 6″ gentle giant, loves his fantasy stories and the chat rooms he hangs out in. It’s in one of these rooms he meets Amelia, and he’s smitten. Lydia convinces Dill to perform in the talent contest which has a $50 prize. Lydia is applying to colleges and working on her very popular (everywhere but home) blog. It’s their senior year, and everything is about to change in ways they do not expect.

Your heart will break and mend a dozen times in this book. If you are, like me, phobic about snakes, it will add another level of discomfort to your reading. Still, the story is apropos for these times we are living in, sadly. As a Southern woman, I had to cringe sometimes at the spot-on portrayal of the culture in certain areas of my home. It’s an important book, though, because it highlights the resilience of youth, the power of friendship and the influence (both positive and negative) of family.

Virginia Choice: No Good Deed

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“No good deed goes unpunished” is how the saying goes. I never really understood what it meant. I thought doing good deeds was, well, good. The kids in the book No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky takes good-deed doing to a whole new and often painful level.

Gregor is a typical teen, but only if the typical teen wants to save the world. Specifically, he wants to feed all of the starving children and has been working to do just that for two years. Now, though, he has the chance to kick his campaign skills into high gear. He’s been selected to attend the elite Camp Save the World along with dozens of other do-gooders from around the globe. Things start off fairly normal but quickly derail when “The Prize” is announced. Suddenly the mood turns ugly. A mural is destroyed, rumors run rampant and every night another camper is unceremoniously dumped into the lake. Regardless of how zany some of the camper’s campaigns are, they all fight like mad to get points but Gregor finds out something about the camp and its founder, Robert Drill, that changes everything for him and turns his dreams into something else.

This has to be the wackiest story I’ve read in a while. It had me laughing out loud at some of the antics of the campers and scratching my head at some of the actions of the “adults”. This is a great book if you like lots of twists and turns that don’t make sense sometimes (kind of like walking through a maze and running into a dead end over and over again but the scenery is so vivid and weird that you don’t really mind).

Virginia Reader’s Choice: Piecing Me Together

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If the first two books I’ve read from this list are any indication, judging the best one will be difficult. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson is a powerful and apropos story for today’s climate. I kept thinking that I’d love to see some of Jade’s art. I love collage. It’s a uniquely beautiful art form and the descriptions of it made me curious. Oh well, I’ll just have to imagine it.

Jade is an artist, a scholar and an all-around bright girl who knows full well that the only way she becomes successful is if she gets out of her neighborhood, maybe even out of Portland. She’s a scholarship kid at a swanky private school, where she’s one of the very few black students. She’s determined to take every opportunity that the school provides; Saturday morning SAT test prep and tutoring are in her regular rotation. One opportunity, though, she’s not sure she wants. She’s been invited to take part in Woman to Woman, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Her mentor, Maxine, is a graduate of the same private school and is black but that doesn’t mean she understands what Jade is dealing with. Still, completion of the program means a scholarship to a good university so Jade decides to hunker down and get what she can out of it. Soon, though, she’s frustrated with everything and decides to teach these women a thing or two about what girls like her really want, really need to be successful. Jade finds her voice and her light which she uses to guide those around her and herself to a whole new level of respect and understanding.

There’s a lot to unpack in this book. Issues of race, police brutality and gender inequality are woven into the narrative of a strong, self-aware young woman determined to be more than just a statistic. Renee Watson is a consummate storyteller, deftly dealing with these charged issues with compassion but with a little bit of a bite. I look forward to reading more from her.

Virginia Reader’s Choice: Imagery

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Have you ever read a book so beautifully written that, upon closing your eyes, you can see everything? I am always awed by an author’s ability to use the same words that the rest of us use but in a way that evokes an image that the reader feels a part of it. Inkheart is one such book and that Cornelia Funke’s first language isn’t even English makes it even more astounding. Another book to add to the list is The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. This is one of the VA Reader’s Choice (high school) titles for the 2018-2019 school year.

“I could see where the winds yawned with silver lips and curled themselves to sleep. I could glimpse the moon folding herself into crescents and half-smiles.” Maya is a princess who has been left to her own devices for most of her life. She has free reign of the castle and grounds and takes advantage of it. This day, however, she cannot spend daydreaming. Her father has an announcement about the impending war. From her perch in the rafters, she is shocked when his solution involves marrying her off to appease the rebels. Her days of freedom are over, or so she thinks. As it turns out, being the queen of Akaran gives her the voice she’s never had and a power she never expected. Not all is as it seems in her new kingdom, however. There are doors that are locked to her and secrets hiding behind Amar’s eyes. Soon, she will make a decision that will shake herself and everything around her to the core and she must find her way through the secrets in order to save herself, Amar and the very world she loves.

This story is fantasy, mysticism, and magic; a tapestry woven with human strands that fray and end. It is a story of betrayal and rebuilt trust but most of all, it is a story about the power of love.

Issues, With a Twist

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If you’ve read YA books at all, you know that they all deal with some sort of teenage issue because teenagers are some of the most interesting people on the planet. I am, of course, biased as I have worked with them for most of my adult career. I started You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner because I like the idea of graffiti. It’s beautiful, complicated, defiant, unruly, emotional…just like most teens. There are a plethora of issues in this book and I was a bit worried that they would steal the focus but in the hands of a good writer, it was just a really good story!

The slur was nasty and Julia could not let that stand. Jordyn is her best (and only) friend so Julia paints over the ugliness with a beautiful mural on the school wall, late at night, without permission. Days later, she is kicked out of her nice, safe school for the deaf. Why? Because Jordyn snitched on her to the principal. Now, Julia is stuck in a regular public school with a t00-perky interpreter and the weight of her two mother’s disappointment. The only thing left to her is her art and she’s not about to give that up. In an effort to carve out her own space, she tags several locations only to find them changed the next day. Not just change but improved. She’s been called out and must answer but at what cost? With some unexpected allies, Julia finds herself in the middle of a graffiti war that touches more than just overpasses and water towers.

Deaf culture, prejudice, lesbian parents (one of whom is Indian-American), graffiti…seems like a lot to tackle in one book but Whitney Gardner expertly weaves them through the tale making it as vibrant and wild as the street art that may just be Julia’s true best friend.

Story Time

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I love to read. The thicker the book the better. A few summers ago, I indulged in the re-reading of the Outlander series…all 8 books. That’s close to 7,000 pages! I absolutely loved every second. Each turn of the page made me feel like I was meeting an old friend. Tears and terror, anger and pain, love and healing kept me up late or early, again. I did this because the television series was beginning the following fall and a new book was coming out. The television series was everything I hoped it would be. The T.V. Jamie was the same man I fell in love with in 1991 when I first read Outlander. The book, however, was a different story…literally.

I don’t like to read short stories. They are, well, short; TOO short. When I get to the end, I’m usually frustrated because I want more. I bought Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, though, because it’s by Diana Gabaldon and I love her books. Still, I wasn’t sure I could trust her to write the kind of stories that wouldn’t leave me hanging on the edge of a cliff by my fingernails during a rainstorm with lightning flashing all around me and nothing but jagged rocks to dash my body to bits waiting below. I shouldn’t have worried, though. She’s Diana Gabaldon, master storyteller and keeper of dreams (I’m still waiting to find my very own Jamie…).

Reading the stories was like savoring my favorite meal. The starter is just enough to whet the whistle for more goodness to come. The main course was full of flavor, complicated and spicy storylines and interesting twists to familiar favorites. Dessert was the perfect blend of sweet and savory with a dash of heat to finish things up. Has this book changed my mind about short stories? Probably not but at least they kept me entertained as I wait for the next REAL Outlander book, Go Tell the Bees I’m Gone. Hurry Up, Diana…we’re all waiting on the edge of that cliff I  mentioned earlier!

Ch-ch-changes

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I have been reviewing books for about 15 years. For the last 10 or so, I’ve used a combination of WordPress for the discussion and Wikipages for my archives. Well, I went to add some reviews the other day but low and behold…Wikipages is going away! Like, poof, leaving the Internet! So, I had to embark on a quest to find a new location for all those reviews. I was forced to use Google sites because it’s a very stripped-down site manager. I can’t even install a search box for people to use to find a specific book! I have to use that because my school system has BLOCKED EVERYTHING ELSE! I’m all for protecting our children from bad stuff on the internet but this county does not allow teachers to have Youtube channels. You can’t download ANYTHING onto your school computer. We, teachers, aren’t even allowed to know the wifi password for our other devices! Boy, I sure miss my days at Lovett or even Montross!

Venting done. I’m sorry that finding books on my site just got harder and I’m still going to search for a better solution for archiving my reviews but, until then, we are all stuck!

Grief

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No matter how you deal with it, losing someone hurts. It leaves a them-shaped hole in your soul. In the book Words in Deep Blue, Rachel has pushed her grief deep inside. So deep, in fact, that she feels almost nothing at all. She has finished school, for now, and has moved back to where she grew up; back to where the boy who was her best friend and secret crush (who broke her heart) lives. No one there, save her aunt, knows about her brother’s death. They do know that something has changed the once-carefree girl into a quiet, sometimes cruel person. Her one refuge is the bookshop where she works but it is also a curse because “The Boy”, also known as Henry, works there, as well. As they work together, they find a comfortable rhythm. Her job is to catalog the stories in the Letter Library. It is the heart and soul of the bookstore where people have left notes to others, known and unknown, inside of books. His job is to help his slowly disintegrating family decide whether to sell their beloved bookshop or not. Together, they reveal themselves to each other and help heal the hurt that each one caused.

Cath Crowley’s poignant love story is powerful and sweet, painful and healing. The characters move through their own lives like feathers on the wind, coming to rest at odd places but always picking up bits and pieces along the way. Her “Letter Library” is a brilliant creation; one that every bookstore and library needs.

Turtling

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John Green has long been one of my favorite authors. His books are fabulous and he and his brother Hank, the Vlogbrothers, have the best videos around. They tackle all kinds of topics and issues with humor and insight. They also educate.  Their history/civics videos, in particular, would spice up any high school classroom and help students understand our past.

John’s new book, Turtles All the Way Down, takes on an issue that is closer to him than most; mental illness, specifically, OCD. He speaks about it on his Youtube channel.  With tenderness and humor, he gives us a glimpse into his world and what it feels like to be stuck in a spiral. In particular, the scene when Aza and Daisy are in the tunnel and Aza uses the situation to help Daisy understand a little of what she goes through each day is poignant and heartbreaking.

Spirals are cool looking figures. They seem to continue in an ever-tightening, infinite circle. Aza is not particularly fond of spirals, though. Her thoughts can sometimes corkscrew out of control and take her with them. It might start as a simple question, “Did you change your band-aid this morning?” Then, as fast as a machine gun, more questions, doubts, terror crowds out her world and all she knows is the spiral. Her best friend Daisy has stuck by her for most of their lives, no matter what. When the two girls decide to play detective and find the town’s missing millionaire who disappeared under suspicious circumstances, their road diverges into uncharted territory for Aza; boys, a particular boy named Davis Pickett who also happens to be the missing millionaire’s son. It’s a roller coaster ride for Aza as she figures out a way to navigate the budding relationship with Davis, maintain her friendship with Daisy, and also deal with her worsening OCD symptoms. It all comes to a head with a crash and Aza must learn to move forward even if it hurts.