Book review: The Girl I Used to Be, by April Henry

Henry, April. The Girl I Used to Be. Henry Holt and Company, 2016. $16.99. ISBN 9781627793322. 229 pgs. Ages 12+. P8Q7.

Seventeen year old Ariel Benson, now known as Olivia Reinhart grew up knowing that her father stabbed her mother to death, abandoned her (Olivia/Ariel) in a Walmart in Oregon, and then disappeared. After becoming an emancipated teen, forensic evidence is discovered that means that her father was actually killed too, at the same time as her mother. Now she is secretly back in her hometown trying to find out what happened fourteen years before. Olivia experiences flashbacks as her investigation develops, and she learns uncomfortable information about her parents and their friends. I found the book to be fast paced and engaging, and felt that Olivia was an intelligent and feisty main character. The book was fairly short, which will appeal to teen readers who get bogged down in long novels, but I though the story and language could have been fleshed out a bit more- I was left wanting to know more about Olivia’s personality and character.

VERDICT: Fans of mysteries and thrillers will like this book, and those who struggle to finish books might well make it through this one.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

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Book review: The Black Witch, by Laurie Forest

Forest, Laurie. The Black Witch. Harlequin Teen, 2017. $19.99. ISBN 9780373212316. 601 pgs. Ages 13+. P8Q7.

I bought and read this book because of the extremely negative reviews I read on goodreads.com. Various reviewers trashed the book, noting racist, homophobic, and sexist themes. I found these criticisms to be very off base and simplistic. In fact, by the time I finished the book, I wondered if those reviewers had finished the book.

The novel is set in a conflicted society with a complicated history, mythology, political and social structure. Various races and ethnic groups are discriminated against (even enslaved), and the Gardnerians are the ruling class. Elloren Gardner, the granddaughter of the infamous Black Witch, was raised by her uncle, who sheltered her from the harsh realities of their culture and history. Elloren’s uncle ostensibly sends her to university to study apothecary arts- the reality is that he is trying to save her from being wand-fasted (having a marriage arranged for her). At university, the naïve Elloren is immediately brought face to face with people she always thought were dangerous and inferior. Through much of the book (about the first three quarters), Elloren is a very unpleasant person. Her attitudes are racist, and she behaves like a privileged snob. However, she begins to see that the Gardnerian attitudes towards outsiders are wrong, and that she doesn’t want to be that kind of person. In fact, she becomes outraged and wants to change the situation. As Elloren clumsily navigates these moral issues, tries to understand why people think she will be the next Black Witch, and maneuvers to avoid being married off by her evil aunt, she falls in with a group of progressive, open-minded, diverse people. I think the discussions in this book about racism and homophobia, as well as the frightening political changes happening in the society, are extremely timely and pertinent to American readers. It was good to see Elloren’s attitudes change as she developed as a character, though it seemed like it took a very long time for her to get there. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

VERDICT: I thought this was a reasonably well written first book, a respectable YA fantasy story, an interesting magical world setting, and a strong effort to make readers think about racism and discrimination of all types.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Blood Family, by Anne Fine

Fine, Anne. Blood Family. Simon & Schuster, 2017 (previously published in the UK). $17.99. ISBN 9781481477734. 291 pgs. Ages 13+. P7Q6.

When Edward is four years old, he and his abused mother are locked up in an apartment by the angry alcoholic boyfriend, Harris. Three years later, they are rescued when a neighbor notices something wrong. The story, which is told from the perspectives of various characters, really begins at this point. Smart, sweet Edward is put in foster care, and the book tells the story of his adjustment to “real life,” two sets of foster parents, and the difficulties he has during his teen years. The big crisis of the book comes when Edward, years later, sees himself in a picture of Harris, and he realizes that Harris is his father. He can’t cope with the idea that he might be like Harris in more than appearance. Edward starts to drink and do drugs and his life spirals out of control, but the book ends with some hope that he might get his life together. I began to lose interest in the book about half way through- I couldn’t connect to Edward as a teen, or even like him very much. I wanted him to learn something from his experience and to see his character developed more, but was left feeling disappointed.

VERDICT: Though the book isn’t strongly written, some teens might find the subject matter interesting, though depressing.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics, by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López

Engle, Margarita. Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics. Illustrated by Rafael López. Godwin Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2017. ISBN 9780805098761. Unpaged. $18.99. Ages 8-12. P7Q9.

Engle uses this beautiful book to bring our attention to a number of Hispanic people who lived in geographic regions that are now part of the US. It isn’t about the most famous Hispanics necessarily, but about people who “faced life’s challenges in creative ways.” Some of these figures include the Cuban poet José Martí, the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft, Aída de Acosta, jazz musician Tito Puente, and curandera (folk healer) Juana Briones. The book is organized chronologically by birthdate, with each person described with an illustration and poem in a spread. The poems are in free verse, and tell each inspirational person’s story in simple but evocative language. I really like the illustration style- it reminds me of political posters from an earlier time (in fact, the illustrator created the Nuestra Voz posters that were used in 2008 during the Obama presidential campaign). López is well known for his use of color and texture that reflects his native Mexico. There is an introductory letter, notes about the each of the individuals in the book, and a list of other amazing Latinos.

VERDICT: This book would be an outstanding addition to any public or school library, and could provide excellent material in a middle school or high school Spanish language classroom.

Engle, Margarita. Bravo! Poemas sobre hispanos extraordinarios. Illustrated by Rafael López. Henry Holt and Company/ Godwin Books, 2017. ISBN 9781250113665. Unpaged. $18.99. Ages 8-12. P7Q9.

I read the Spanish version alongside the English version. My Spanish isn’t good enough to comment on the quality of the poetry in Spanish, but it was a fun exercise to work through each poem. I can imagine the two versions being used side by side in Spanish classes or with Spanish speaking ESL students.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: The Crooked Sixpence, by Jennifer Bell

Bell, Jennifer. The Crooked Sixpence. (The Uncommoners, #1) Crown Books, 2017. ISBN 9780553498431. 309 pgs. $16.99. Ages 8-12. P7Q6.

Ivy and Seb Sparrow find themselves caught up in a strange adventure after their grandmother ends up in the hospital, and their parents are away for work. The grandma’s house is broken into and searched, and the two children are threatened by some very strange people. They find themselves in the underground city of Ludinor, associating with unusual people (including some who are dead), using “normal” objects like clocks and feathers in very unusual, magical ways, and running for their lives. The tone is dark and spooky, Ivy is a feisty and intelligent main character, and the storyline is not predictable, though it does wander quite a bit. VERDICT: Young readers who like a touch of horror in their fantasy books might enjoy The Crooked Sixpence.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: The Warden’s Daughter, by Jerry Spinelli

Spinelli, Jerry, The Warden’s Daughter. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. $16.99. ISBN 9780375831997. 343 pgs. Ages 9-12. P8Q8.

I enjoyed this lively book, set in 1959. Cammie is the spunky daughter of a jail warden, and she grows up living in an apartment above the gates of the county jail. Her mother died tragically when Cammie was very young, so most of the adult women she associates with are inmates of the jail. Through the course of the book, we get to know some of them including the shoplifter Boo Boo, a lively woman who dreams of food and romance, and most importantly, Eloda, who was an arsonist and who works as housekeeper for Cammie and her father. Cammie, who is almost thirteen, longs for a mother figure in her life, and she tries to make Eloda fill that role. She is angry and confused, and very real. Despite the unhappy emotions, I enjoyed Cammie’s humor, and the fact that she learns and grows over the summer when the story takes place. Cammie learns that people aren’t always what they seem to be, and understanding the context of a person’s story is important in really knowing them. The book looks at friendship, the father-daughter relationship, and the struggles of growing up.

VERDICT: I think the 19-13 year old crowd will enjoy this book and will identify with Cammie.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Snowize & Snitch, Highly Effective Defective Detectives, by Karen Briner

Briner, Karen. Snowize & Snitch, Highly Effective Defective Detectives. Holiday House, 2016. $16.95. ISBN 9780823435678. 283 pgs. Ages 8-12. P8Q7.

Ever Indigo Nikita Stein is a student at the School for Children of Gifted Parents, where the other students tease her about the gap between her teeth, her name (they call her Einstein), and her poor performance on tests. She has lived with Doc since her parents disappeared nine years before, but now he is missing too! Ever, a strong and intelligent young woman, embarks on a quest to find Doc and figure out what has happened. She joins forces with Harry Snowize, a has-been spy, his partner Snitch, an African giant pouched rat, Melschman, an angry robotic refrigerator to eventually find answers to her many questions, including the whereabouts of her parents. They travel the globe and encounter some wonderfully wicked foes.

VERDICT: I enjoyed this humorous, fast paced book, and would recommend it to middle grade readers who want something entertaining to read.

September 2017 review by Carol Schramm.