“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.

“Deep in the shadows: Undercover in the ruthless world of human smuggling” Hipólito Acosta

Rated 3 stars *** 2017. Arte Público Press. 319 p. (Includes photographs and an Appendix).

DeepInTheShadowsHipólito Acosta grew up in a tiny Texas town and, in 1975, was hired by the U.S. Border Patrol. After working locally for a little while he was assigned to Chicago, becoming one of the first Hispanic agents to work undercover for the agency. There, either single handedly or with fellow agents, he infiltrated gangs and cartels to root out drug dealers, human smugglers, and sellers of false identity papers. Later in his career, assigned to work in higher leadership roles in the Philippines and Mexico, he continued to set the bar high in his single-minded pursuit of justice.

In simple, understated narrative Acosta details his innovative, yet very dangerous experiences working to uphold his oath to protect our country’s borders. His memoir is loaded with names, dates, and facts, which can be overwhelming at times. It would have been nice if an alphabetical glossary or timeline, with associated page numbers, was included to help readers better associate the details of his career.

Recommended for Adults.

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

“The Warrior” Joyce Swann

Rated 3 stars *** Ebook. 2013. Frontier 2000 Media Group.

TheWarriorElizabeth is a prayer warrior, praying for anyone for whom God has called her to pray, though no one in her family or church feels the same way. After dreaming of a young stranger’s terrible motorcycle accident, she feels as if she must pray. Over the next 10 years she prays for him, recording each prayer encounter in notebooks.

Her daughter Molly, though lovingly raised in a Christian home and given everything money can buy, feels as if all Christians are hypocrites. Choosing to rebel against her upbringing, she leaves home to pursue her own life, which involves breaking all her parent’s rules. Over the years she will have to learn if the happiness she seeks can be found in her newfound freedom.

James grew up in a family who went to church because it was expected, not because they believed. As he grew older, the lure of drugs drew him further away from his parent’s ordinary life. When a judge shows him mercy and he winds up in a Christian support group, James decides to fool them into thinking he’s changed.

As Molly and James struggle through temptations brought on by their own actions, the power of prayer and God’s love are shown as constants. In this overtly Christian novel, Bible verses and sermons give food for thought to those walking the same paths as James and Molly while giving hope to readers who are also prayer warriors.

Recommended for Adults.

“Burn baby burn” Meg Medina

Rated 2 stars ** 2016. Candlewick Press. 300 p. Includes “Author’s note.”

BurnBabyBurnDuring the summer of 1977 New York City experienced worsening poverty and crime, a massive blackout in all 5 boroughs, a stifling heat wave, and unrelenting fear brought on by the Son of Sam murders. Against this tumultuous background, Medina places the story of seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez.

Her father lives comfortably with his new wife and son in a well-furnished apartment in the City, forgetting about Nora, her mother, and younger brother Hector in their rundown Queens neighborhood where Hector has become a thief and drug addict. Often violent towards his sister and mother, neither wants to admit he’s out of control. On top of everything else her mother lost her job, putting them in danger of eviction. Nora suffers through the lack of food and money, as well as Hector’s abuse and crimes, in silence. Desperate to turn eighteen so she could leave it all behind, she turns a blind eye to everything. However will running away solve her problems or make them worse?

I had a hard time getting through this book, as the plot seemed to drag. I also kept getting annoyed at the poor decisions Nora and her mom continued to make regarding Hector. The book had many historical references to the period. Though some were interesting, it seemed to have too many. In general, “Burn baby burn” failed to ignite a bigger spark of interest in me.

I will leave it up to you to decide if you want to read it or not.

“The movie version” Emma Wunsch

Rated 2 stars ** ARC. Published October 11, 2016. Amulet Books. 354 p.

themovieversionSeventeen-year-old Amelia and her older brother Toby have always been more like best friends than brother and sister. They love watching all kinds of movies, and their movie quotes drive everyone crazy. Toby comes up with fun, silly ideas of things to do, is the life of the party, and always has an entourage of friends.

She and Toby have always been there for each other so, when he starts cutting school, smoking pot, staying in his room, and acting strangely, Amelia covers for him. She starts to put her own life on hold for him, getting mad at her boyfriend and best friend for suggesting something might be wrong with him. When Toby is diagnosed with schizophrenia, Amelia has to learn how to deal with his diagnosis and to live her life without her brother by her side.

It took some time before I could really get into this book. I started it, put it down for a few months, and then decided to try again one more time. The constant movie quotes, titles of movies I’d never heard of, and constant references to movies at inopportune times were very off putting. It wasn’t until Toby was diagnosed and Amelia decided to stop living her life like a movie that the book became bearable. Only then was I finally able to read without the constant distraction of movie titles and quotes. I also didn’t think the author needed to be so explicit when describing Amelia and her boyfriend’s sexual antics. I thought it was an unnecessary distraction, and the book could have stood alone without their relationship.

I wasn’t a fan of this book, and the only reason I gave it two stars instead of one was because I thought it important for readers to learn about how mental illness affects teenagers.

“The weight of Zero” Karen Fortunati

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. Published October 11, 2016. Delacorte Press. 375 p. (Includes “Author’s Note,” and a list of Sources.)

theweightofzeroCatherine, a seventeen-year-old high school junior used to be a dancer, used to have two best friends, and used to have a normal life. Everything changed her freshman year when her grandmother died and she was diagnosed as bipolar. Now life revolves around therapy, counseling, medication and loneliness.

After unsuccessfully trying to commit suicide during an especially bad case of depression, Catherine is sure she can never live a normal life. Depression, which she calls “zero,” will always suck her dry so she has decided it would be best to have an escape plan. Her plan consists of stockpiling pills to use when Zero rears its ugly head.

Catherine thinks being bipolar means she can never drive, go to college, have a boyfriend or live the life she was meant to live. As she prepares for Zero and her pills, she begins to live in ways she’d never thought possible. Should she dare to dream of life beyond Zero, or will Zero continue to erase every one of her hopes and dreams?

Fortunati offers hope to teens suffering from bipolar depression. I hope Catherine’s story  will be a beacon to lead them to safer waters.

Recommended for 14 and older.

“Every falling star: The true story of how I survived and escaped North Korea” Sungju Lee & Susan McClelland

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. Published September 13, 2016. Abrams. 316 p. (Includes Glossary as well as a list of Places and proper names.)

everyfallingstarSungju lived with his father and mother in a fine apartment in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. His father held a high office in the army and, as devout followers of esteemed leader Kim Il-sung, Sungju and his parents had a happy, easy life. Expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, Sungju went to a very good school and studied tae kwon do with other future leaders of the military.

In 1997, his father was kicked out of the army for unknown reasons. Forced to move to the slums of the town of Gyeong-Seong, life rapidly deteriorated. With hunger as their constant enemy, his father, soon followed by his mother, left in search of food. At the age of twelve, Sungju was left to fend for himself.

In his own words, Sungju tells how he learned to survive on the streets of various cities for four years with his gang of street “brothers,” despite starvation, beatings, and imprisonment. The story of their friendship and love, along with Sungju’s musings on governmental policy, hope, and Korean legends are woven together to create a powerful story of survival that will tug at reader’s heartstrings.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.