“Letters from Cuba” Ruth Behar

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). To be published August 25, 2020.

Letters from CubaEsther’s father left his family behind in Poland and headed to Cuba, intent on earning enough money to give them a better life. Though he had been working for 3 years, he only had enough money for one of them to make the trip. Esther begged to be allowed to make the trip and, when she arrived, she was entranced. Cuba’s friendly neighbors made her feel welcome, everyone called her a little Polish girl instead of Jew, the weather was balmy, and the sea was breathtaking. It was wonderful!

Esther decided to tell her story in daily letters to her sister that she saved for when they’d be reunited. Though her father had been a peddler before she arrived, Esther was able to earn more money designing and selling her own dresses. As they worked to earn money to reunite the family, she learned about the heritages of the people in their small village. As Nazi beliefs began to invade their village, former slaves, Chinese Cubans, rich sugar mill owners and poor sugar cane workers were united in their belief that Esther and her father should be protected. Through faith and hope, they all learned that love could overcome evil.

This beautiful story told in letter form recounts many parts of Ruth Behar’s own family history, told from her grandmother Esther’s memories of leaving Poland and arriving in Cuba. Though Ruth and her mother were both born in Cuba, and they immigrated to the United States when it became Communist, Cuba is always in her heart. After reading Esther’s story, her memories will stay in her reader’s hearts too.

Highly recommended for ages 11 and older.

PS – I believe “Letters from Cuba” should be a contender for the treasured Pura Belpré Award, to be announced at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January 2021. Remember when Ruth Behar wins an award there that you read it here first!

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

 

“Darius the great deserves better” Adib Khorram

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Dial Books (Penguin Random House); Darius the Great #1. To be published August 25, 2020.

Darius the great deserves betterSince returning from Iran, Darius has felt a bit more confident. He joined the soccer team and came out to his teammates. He knows they have his back, and enjoys the feeling of being part of a team and having friends. He has his first real boyfriend, Landon, and even got his first job in a teashop where he gets to try different flavors. Soccer is going great, they’re having a winning season and Chip is turning out to be a good friend. Everything seemed to be looking up, until things began to go slowly downhill.

His parents started to work more hours, so his grandmothers came to live with them for a while even though they hadn’t spent much time with them in the past. His dad was away for longer periods of time, while Landon kept pressuring him about their relationship. Chip turned out to be a good guy, but his best friend Trent keeps bullying Darius. While his grandfather’s health gets worse, Sohrab is facing trouble in Iran. With all of these issues Darius feels more conflicted than ever, but he finds strength in his friendships, his family and himself.

Readers will definitely relate to Darius and all of his issues, and will feel as if he’s one of their own classmates. I loved reading about Darius again, and can’t wait to see what happens in the next book of the series.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

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

“Darius the great is not okay” Adib Khorram

Rated 5 stars ***** Dial Books (Penguin Random House); Darius the Great #1. 2018.

DariustheGreatisnotokayDarius has “father issues,” because his dad hates his weight and long hair, telling him the bullying he endures is his own fault. Though both suffer from depression, Darius feels as if his dad succeeded in the world and he hasn’t. In addition he feels “fractional,” not “full” Persian like his mom, believing his little sister Laleh is loved more because she’s smarter and cuter.

When the family travels to Iran to visit his grandparents because his grandfather is dying, Darius struggles to understand the language and customs. He immediately feels loved by his grandmother, but feels held at arm’s length by his tough grandfather. Things improve when Sohrab, a neighbor who believes in him and encourages him, becomes his best friend. Together they conquer Iran as he helps Darius develop a love for soccer and for himself. Eventually Darius’ father helps him realize how much he is loved.

This story of the often-difficult dynamics found in family relationships, friendships and heritage stays with readers long after they turn the final page. I look forward to reading more about Darius as he learns more about himself.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

“I killed Zoe Spanos” Kit Frick

I killed Zoe SpanosRated 4 stars **** ARC. ebook. Margaret K. McElderry books (Simon & Schuster). To be published June 30, 2020.

Seventeen-year-old Anna is thrilled when she’s offered a job as a nanny in the Hamptons on Long Island. She’d wasted the last few months of her senior year drinking and partying in Brooklyn. She’s ready to save money for college, turn over a new leaf, and spend time hanging out on the beach.

She and her charge hit it off quite well, and she’s prepared to relax and enjoy her summer. However it doesn’t take long before Anna finds out she looks exactly like Zoe Spanos, a girl who went missing months earlier, and hasn’t been heard from since January. As days pass Anna keeps getting feelings of déjà vu, believing she’d spent time in the town and had met Zoe in the past. Things begin to get jumbled in her mind and the more they do, the more she’s convinced she killed Zoe. She confesses to the police, and is sentenced to a juvenile center.

Though Anna believes she’s guilty, one person feels there’s more to her story that needs to be explored. Martina, best friends with Zoe’s little sister, runs a podcast about Zoe that tries to figure out what happened to her. Martina is determined to ferret out the truth but, when it’s finally revealed, it will shock everyone.

Told in flashbacks from when Anna first arrived and her time in juvie, the story seemed a bit disjointed. Anna’s memories seemed out of place, and I couldn’t figure out why she was having them. However as more was disclosed, the more her memories made sense. When all was revealed in this whodunit I was completely shocked. I definitely did NOT see that coming!

I recommend this book for ages 16 and older.

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

“Throwaway girls” Andrea Contos

Throwaway girlsRated 4 stars **** ARC. ebook. KCP Loft (Kids Can Press). To be published September 1, 2020.

Caroline was crushed when her girlfriend moved to California and left her behind. Her life was already on the skids because her judgmental mother refused to accept her as she was, and sent her to conversion camp to make her into a more acceptable daughter. Caroline was teetering on the edge, and just needed to hang on to her phony life for three months. Then she’d be 18 years old, and could set out to live her own life.

Her private school, rich girl life was set even more upside down when her best friend Madison disappeared. Caroline was determined to find her, and wound up at a nearby rundown town where she’d set up a secret life for herself with her girlfriend. There Caroline uncovered the names of other girls who had disappeared and had never been found. She wondered why so many girls were disappearing, and why the police weren’t concerned. The closer she got to answers, the harder it became to accept what was staring back at her.

Despite Caroline’s constant bemoaning of her lost love, the plot of lost, unwanted girls kept me hooked. I found the constant back and forth from unnamed characters to be distracting, and thought it would have been better to have had those various conversations in italics. Despite those reservations, I thought it was a good read.

Recommended for ages 16 and older.

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

“The snow fell three graves deep: Voices from the Donner Party” Allan Wolf

The snow fellRated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Candlewick Press. To be published September 8, 2020. (Includes Maps and extensive back matter: “Author’s note: Narrative Pointillism,” “Select character biographies,” “Native Americans and the Donner Party,” “The Donner Party by the numbers: A miscellany,” “Time line 1846 and 1847,” “Donner Party members by family,” “The rescuers and the rescued,” “Donner Party deaths,” “Reality checks,” “Murder and the mysterious Mr. Wolfinger,” “About the documents,” “Special terms from this story,” “German words from this story,” and “Read more about the Donner Party.”)

In Markus Zusak’s award-winning book “The book thief,” Death narrates as other characters live the story. Wolf uses a similar approach in “The snow fell.” Here Hunger narrates, while members of the 1846 ill-fated Donner Party tell their poetic verse stories of survival, starvation, and cannibalism during months spent trapped in horrific snowstorms on the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Wolf’s detailed research shows in his descriptions of what led up to their entrapment, who survived (and who didn’t), and how they endured. His extensive back matter gives many opportunities for readers to learn more about the Donner Party before, during and after their horrific ordeal.

The only thing bad I can say about this book is that Candlewick declined to release the ARC in a digital format readable by Kindles. I had to download Adobe Editions to read it on my tablet, which made turning pages and enlarging the print very difficult. It took me twice as long to read this on my tablet with Adobe Editions than it would have taken on my Kindle. As a result, I will never download a non-digital ARC ever again.

Highly recommended for ages 16 and older.

I received a non-digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

 

 

“Ghost boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rated 5 stars ***** 2018. Little, Brown & Company (Hachette Book Group). 214 p. (Includes Afterword,” “Discussion questions,” and Further resources for parents and educators”

Ghost boysTwelve-year-old Jerome is bullied daily at school because he’s smart. He eats lunch in the bathroom, trying to avoid getting beat up. Carlos, a new kid, comes to school and, though he’s never had a friend, Jerome befriends him. The bullies find them in a bathroom and start beating them but Carlos scares them away with a toy gun, which he gives to Jerome to play with because he’s his new friend.

Jerome doesn’t usually play outside because his neighborhood is dangerous, but is excited to do so with the gun. While playing with it, he’s shot in the back by a White policeman and dies on the street. Now a ghost, Jerome sees his families’ grief and watches the preliminary hearing where a judge decides the officer who shot him shouldn’t be charged with wrongdoing – even though he shot him in the back from inside a moving patrol car without warning, and neither he nor his partner offered any aid while he was lying on the ground still alive.

Sarah, the police officer’s daughter, can see and communicate with him and Emmett Till, another ghost boy. Jerome realizes there are thousands of ghost boys who were also killed early in life, and struggles to understand why they’re still wandering the earth. Emmett tells him the story of how he died; helping Jerome realize they’re still on Earth because they’re all bearing witness to the injustices they suffered due to racism. Though upset at her father, Sarah channels her anger into telling the stories of the ghost boys and also bearing witness for them.

Told through flashbacks and the present time, Jerome’s sad and painful story is very timely for the days in which we currently live. It is excellent for a book club or for a whole class, as it has much material that needs to be discussed.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and older.

“I hope you’re listening” Tom Ryan

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Albert Whitman & Company. To be published October 6, 2020.

I hope you're listeningDee was 7-years-old when her best friend was kidnapped and she was left tied to a tree where they had been playing. Ten years have passed, but Dee has never forgotten Sibby. As a result of the kidnapping she became introverted, and started a podcast to help find missing people to erase the helplessness she felt about not being able to do anything to help Sibby. With the aid of “laptop detectives” around the country who listened to her show, she was able to get clues to solve these mysteries.

When a young girl goes missing from the house where Dee had lived as a child, similarities are drawn to Sibby’s case. Dee pushes back against reporters who want to put her in the spotlight, and her best friends insistence that she use her podcast to solve the case. Her growing relationship and friendship with Sarah, her next door neighbor, helps calm the confusion she’s feeling about whether or not to get involved and gives her courage to do what needs to be done. What she doesn’t know is that the nightmare in which Sibby had found herself was lying in wait for her too.

I loved, loved, LOVED this book! As Sibby and Dee’s stories were slowly revealed, the suspense kept me turning pages. My list of suspects grew higher in this whodunit, and then plummeted with each reveal. Ryan did a great job tying a knot at the end of the book. I love his last sentence. Touché!

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

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

 

 

 

“Mockingjay” Suzanne Collins

Rated 5 stars ***** ebook. 2010. Scholastic Press. The Hunger Games #3.

MockingjayAfter being rescued from the arena by rebels from District 13 Katniss feels unmoored because they were unable to rescue Peeta. She is sure President Snow is torturing him for information. With fighting going on in every district, the rebels need to unite if they want to attack the Capitol, so they need Katniss to be the voice of the rebellion – their Mockingjay. Reluctantly Katniss accepts the role, but her mind and heart are constantly on Peeta. Though she’s not sure about her feelings for him, she does know that she wants him back. She also wants revenge against Snow, and is determined to do whatever it takes to make him pay.

This third book of the Hunger Games series was filled with action and adventure before it reached its satisfying conclusion.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“Catching fire” Suzanne Collins

Rated 5 stars ***** ebook. Scholastic Press. 2009. The Hunger Games #2. 

Catching fireIn this second book of the Hunger Games series, Katniss endures the wrath of President Snow because she dared defy him and the Capitol when she prepared to eat poisonous berries at the end of their Games. Though she later claimed she did it out of love for Peeta because she didn’t want to kill him, he knows Rebels in other districts took her actions as encouragement.

President Snow threatens Katniss that she needs to make the Rebels truly believe she’s in love with Peeta and that she didn’t mean to start a rebellion. However, when he feels she hasn’t been convincing enough, he enacts his own revenge. She, Peeta and all winning Tributes from every Hunger Games in the past are forced to return to the ring for the Quarter Quell – a celebration of the Games that occurs every 25 years. As she endures another nightmare Games Katniss plans to keep Peeta alive, knowing only one of them can make it out alive this time.

The second book in this series was as amazing as I remembered it to be! It was so exciting that I couldn’t wait to pick up book 3 “Mockingjay” to find out what happens next to Peeta and Katniss – the star crossed lovers of Panem. BTW

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.