“With the fire on high” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Rated 5 stars ***** 2019.HarperTeen. 392 p.

With the fire on highSeventeen-year-old Emoni Santiago has been living with her grandmother since her father abandoned her after her mother died in childbirth. At age fourteen she got pregnant but, with her ‘Buela’s help, has been raising little Emma who she calls Babygirl. She struggles with school, work, and her relationship with Emma’s dad and her father. The fear she feels for the unknown after graduation, and her feelings for handsome Malachi combine to complicate her life.

Ever since she was a little girl Emoni has loved to cook and has gotten so good her grandmother insists she’s magical. All she’s ever wanted is to become a chef so, when a culinary arts class starts up at school, she’s fearful she won’t be able to handle the extra work load. Through sacrifice, hard work and stepping out in strength not fear, Emoni learns that maybe dreams can come true as she works towards keeping an even keel in her life despite her circumstances.

As Emoni walks a fine line between her many responsibilities, the love she has for family and her Afro-Boricua culture shine through in her story. Though written in prose, “With the fire on high” has its own poetry in sentences like “…Babygirl is front and center, the candlelight we read the world by.” (p. 53) and “The world is a turntable that never stops spinning…” (p. 60) Acevedo fans will relate to Emoni’s voice, and the beautifully designed book jacket is an added plus.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“The inexplicable logic of my life” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Rated 5 stars ***** 2017. Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 452 p.

The inexplicable logic of my lifeWho am I? The year he turned 17, Salvador’s mind was full of unanswered questions. He had always been able to tell his best friend Samantha anything, as she was like a sister to him, but he felt he couldn’t tell her he didn’t want his wonderful and supportive gay father, who adopted him and who he dearly loved, to know he was thinking of his real father. He’d been getting into lots of fights; leaving him wondering if the anger he felt came from his real dad. Was he an offshoot of his dad? Did he inherit his dad’s anger issues? Who is he really? Sal doesn’t know.

Sal knows he doesn’t want to go to college, doesn’t want to write his admission essay, and doesn’t want his beloved grandmother Mima to leave him. He loves his family but has lots of questions about his place in the world. While Sal tries to figure out some answers to the craziness going on in his head, stuff keeps happening. Death, sadness, grief, anger and sorrow keep entering his life; along with the love that comes from a close knit family and good friends. Why does his life feel so messed up? Who is he really?

Many of Sal’s questions will ring true with teen readers, along with his emotional ups and downs. I was moved to tears by Mima and Sal’s friend Fito’s problems, and loved the strong friendship between Sal and Sammy. The strong and powerful love given to Sal by his dad is an example for all dads to follow. Once again Sáenz pens a winner.

Highly recommended for readers age 14 and older.

“Dominicana” by Angie Cruz

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. To be published September 3, 2019. Flatiron Books. 324 p.

DominicanaThe Dominican Republic, and life in New York City as an immigrant in 1965, is explored in this memoir-like novel about a young fifteen-year-old girl named Ana Canción. Unrest caused by the United States’ invasion into the Dominican Republic, along with chaos from the New York City race riots, form backgrounds to Ana’s story.

Ana was her mother’s only hope. If she married thirty-two year old Juan Ruiz, then she could send for her family so they could all come to the United States to work and have a new life. There Juan makes good money, and Mamá knows Ana can help them all to live their dreams so, before she knows it, young Ana is married and living in a strange, freezing cold city where she knows no one.

Life in New York is not what Ana expected. Juan works hard, but has a mistress and no time for Ana. He’s abusive, and expects her to stay home, take care of the house, and meet his needs in bed. Ana wants an education, to learn to speak English, to live her dreams, and to make something of herself. She wants to fly.

Ana’s metamorphosis from Juan’s little Dominican bird to a New York City pigeon is detailed in this very realistic novel about the immigrant experience. I hope that readers will realize that, fifty-four years later, the dreams of immigrants remain the same. They hope to escape the poverty and violence of their homeland for a place where they can work hard to gain a better life for themselves and their families. That has always been the American Dream.

Highly recommended for ages 16 and older.

“Zombies don’t eat veggies!”by Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera

Rated 5 stars ***** 2019. Children’s Book Press.

Zombies don't eat veggiesMo is a zombie but, unlike his parents, he doesn’t want to eat people. Though he likes chasing them in marathons, and cheering his father on in brain eating contests, his love is for vegetables.

Since his parents dislike vegetables, they refuse to serve it at meals, so Mo grows his in a secret garden. He also has a secret kitchen where he whips up delicious meals made entirely of vegetables. He tries to get his parents to eat tomato soup, but it’s a failure. However when they insist that zombies don’t eat veggies Mo gathers the courage to tell them that he’s eats vegetables and, though he’s different, he’s still their son. His parents accept him as he is, because they love him, and they grow together as a family.

This delightful picture book, with full page, color illustrations, shows the importance of accepting differences. No matter what those differences may be, love should always be the binding ingredient of families. The play on words with zombie foods such as “dori-toes,” “arm-panadas” and “finger foods, “ among others, is very creative.

Includes three recipes.

Highly recommended for ages 5-8.

I received a copy of this book from Lee & Low in exchange for an honest review.

“The cholo tree” Daniel Chacón

Rated 3 stars *** 2017. Arte Público Press. 248 pp.

TheCholoTreeFourteen-year-old Victor is an aspiring artist and cook in his low income, gang filled neighborhood and, like most kids his age, doesn’t like school. He was very close to his father who was killed when Victor was very young, and holds his mother at an emotional distance. Though not a cholo (gang member) she believes he is one, and doesn’t trust him.

Victor doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life and is reluctant to choose a path, despite direction from a teacher he trusts and a very smart girlfriend who gives him some inspiration. As he aimlessly wanders through the life he’s chosen for himself, Victor has to sort through layers of experiences to decide if he already is a cholo. Does he want to be a cholo, or does he want to break free of the mold he created for himself in order to live the way he was meant to live?

Don Quixote-type fantasies intermingled with Victor’s hazy memories of his father, along with stories of his life, are pieced together to show four years of his struggles to discover who he is and what he wants to be. Though I wasn’t a big fan of the book, I did enjoy the author’s portrayal of Iliana as a strong, independent woman. She knew what she wanted, and went for it full speed ahead, the complete opposite of Victor. She didn’t let feelings get in the way of her future, and I admire her for having a goal and sticking to it.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Flirting with Felicity” Gerri Russell

Rated 3 stars *** Ebook. 2015. Montlake Romance.

FlirtingWithFelicityAfter a car accident when she was 16 years old, which killed her mother and caused her father to become brain damaged, Felicity was left to raise herself. Over the years she worked hard to educate herself as a chef, and became head chef at The Bancroft, a fancy Seattle hotel. There she befriended Vern, a lonely old man, who, a few years later, chose to gift the hotel and restaurant to her in his will.

As the new owner, Felicity thought all her money worries were over. Unfortunately Blake Bancroft, Vern’s billionaire nephew, is upset that his uncle gave away part of his successful hotel chain to a her, and is determined to wrest it from her at all costs. The two soon begin a battle over the hotel, which pits each against the other. Neither is willing to compromise on the hotel’s ownership but, in time, begin to develop feelings for each other which leads to even more confusion as they’ve both been sure that love and business don’t mix. Or do they?

Russell’s extremely steamy love scenes will make a sailor blush as she tells Felicity and Blake’s stories. Though not a sailor, I did a lot of blushing. I liked their battle of wills and the drama between them, but thought Russell rushed too much to tie things up in a neat bow at the end – especially between Destiny and Felicity. However, despite this, I will recommend it to Adult readers.

Recommended for Adults.

“From where I watch you” Shannon Grogan

Rated 2 stars ** 2015. Soho Teen. 291 p.

FromWhereIWatchYouSixteen-year-old Kara is angry with her dead sister and with her mother. When Kellen died, her father left home and her mother retreated into a shell until she found religion. Her newfound faith changed her into a Holy Roller, offering advice and words of hope to strangers in her new cafe, while ignoring her own daughter. Kara doesn’t mourn Kellen because she hated her, hinting at something Kellen did which was unforgivable.

Kara bakes all sorts of baked goods to forget her problems, spending time alternately hurting and loving Charlie, the only boy who’s ever been nice to her, and trying to ignore scary notes randomly left on a daily basis by a stalker. Despite numerous opportunities to take others into her confidence, she continually assures herself she could handle the situation. By the time she realizes she’s in over her head, it’s almost too late.

In alternating chapters readers take a very slow ride through Kara’s memories growing up with Kellen, leading up to the unveiling of her stalker. However, I was not impressed. I found Kara to be annoying because of the countless excuses she gave for not seeking help as the notes got progressively worse. Always second-guessing herself, she also didn’t have any self-confidence. The most interesting character in the book was Charlie.

Thus I will leave it up to you readers ages 14 and older to decide if you want to read it or not. I seem to be on a bad roll, as this is the fourth book in a row that didn’t thrill me.

“You and me and him” Kris Dinnison

Rated 3 stars *** 2015. Houghton Mifflin. 275 p.

YouAndMeAndHimSeventeen year old Maggie and Nash have been friends for almost all their lives. Nash can’t wait to graduate and leave their little town behind, always hoping to meet the boy of his dreams while he waits. Maggie loves the quaintness of their town, and hopes the future love of her life won’t care she’s overweight.

Over the years the two of them have held each other’s secrets, and were always there for each other. Then they met Tom, a new student. Nash was instantly infatuated and called dibs, leaving Maggie to take on the role of matchmaker even though she thought Tom was cute.

When Maggie finds herself developing feelings for him, she buries herself in baking cookies and her job at the record store so as to leave the road clear for Nash. Meanwhile Maggie’s frenemy Kayla also has her eyes set on Tom, setting the stage for a love triangle with a twist.

I liked Maggie’s character, which was not the stereotypical “overweight teen girl is bullied at school so binge eats for happiness and spends her life alone, wishing she was skinny” storyline. Though sometimes she seemed too good to be true, she gave me hope that overweight teens reading the book would gain strength from her maturity and way of thinking. Nash, Tom, and Kayla, on the other hand, have lots of growing up to do and their behavior should never be emulated.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

“Bang” Barry Lyga

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. To be published April 18, 2017. Little Brown. 295 p.

BangFourteen-year-old Sebastian has never forgotten that, when he was four years old, he accidentally shot and killed his four-month-old baby sister. Everyone knows he’s a murderer, and have judged him for it. His best friend’s parents look at him funny, people whisper behind his back, and his father walked out because of what he did. He and his mother can’t seem to talk about it, and part of him is glad they don’t.

Despite what his therapist has said, Sebastian knows it was entirely his fault, but has plans to make it right. When he’s gone his mother can be normal again, and everyone will be happy. He’s been planning this for awhile so, with his best friend away for the summer, the time is ripe – until he meets Aneesa.

Aneesa is a distraction, helping him become a YouTube cook, and allowing him to think of something other than his guilt. However, despite everything, Sebastian knows it’s only a matter of time before he answers the voice that’s always there to remind him he doesn’t deserve to be happy. He knows the voice speaks the truth.

Sebastian’s struggles, along with those of Aneesa, are heart rending and real. Both experience things no one should have to struggle through but which, unfortunately, occur and need to be discussed. This is Lyga at his most brilliant.

At the recent American Library Association (ALA) conference, I refused to pick up any ARC’s (Advance Reading Copies) because I had too many to plow through from past conferences. However the cover and summary caught my eye, and “Bang” became my only ARC from that conference. I’m so glad I picked it up because I could not put this book down. Neither will you.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.