“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.

 

“The ballad of songbirds and snakes” Suzanne Collins

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Scholastic. (The Hunger Games #0). Published May 19, 2020.

The ballad of songbirds and snakesCoriolanus Snow endured hunger, deprivation, and the loss of both parents during the Rebel siege on the Capitol. His cousin’s bargaining abilities at the Black Market enabled them to survive, but the Snow family fortune was destroyed. Coriolanus is determined to keep it secret that the Snows, one of the Capitol’s Old Guard families, is poor.

His favorite professor at the Academy was able to get him assigned to one of the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games as a student mentor, so he has a chance to vie for a University scholarship. Coriolanus knows winning the Games is his only hope to having a future, and is desperate to win. When he’s assigned Lucy Gray Baird from District 12 he’s disappointed because he’d hoped for a strong boy, however, her musical abilities and joie de vivre help to change his mind.

As he spends time with Lucy Gray, he begins to think of her as a person instead of as a tribute. His determination to protect her from the other tributes, and to win, begins to override rational thoughts until the lines between right and wrong get blurred. As time goes on Coriolanus’ determination to always win, and to always come out on top, will forever change their lives.

When I was given the opportunity to read this ARC, I wondered if it would be as interesting as the other books in The Hunger Games series because, after all, it IS about the very evil President Snow. However, not only is it exciting, but I found myself feeling sorry for Coriolanus. SORRY for HIM?! I can hear gasps echoing around the world, but let me preface that comment. I felt sorry for him in the BEGINNING and MIDDLE of the book, but definitely not by the end. Make sure to read the book to find out why.

I’m now off to reread The Hunger Games series and decipher clues revealed in “The ballad of songbirds and snakes.” I won’t be surprised if Collins writes another follow up to the Coriolanus Snow saga.

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.

 

“Only love can break your heart” by Ed Tarkington

Rated 3 stars *** Algonquin Books. 2016. 307 p.

Only love can break your heartSet in a small Virginia town in 1977 Richard, called Rocky by his beloved sixteen-year-old big brother Paul, was almost eight years old. Paul was everything Rocky wished he could be – though he was always in trouble, and not a favorite of his mom. He was a girl charmer, and owned a great collection of records he often invited Rocky to hear in his room. Paul was always there until, one day, he wasn’t. He disappeared with Leigh, his long-time girlfriend.

Rocky missed his brother, but was distracted by his neighbor’s daughter Patricia who he met when he was almost 15 years old. Though she was almost 10 years older, for several months she schooled him in the art of sex in the hayloft of her family’s stable. Rocky was content to spend time with her, and was bereft when she broke up with him after Leigh returned and figured out their relationship.

Many years later Paul returned. Leigh’s time away had badly scarred her, leaving her mentally unstable, for which Paul blamed himself. Though Rocky and the Old Man were thrilled to have him back, Richard’s mom felt he was still the bane of her existence. When their next-door neighbor and wife were found murdered, Paul and Leigh quickly became the main suspects. Were the police overlooking the real killers in their eagerness to solve the crime, or was it true that Rocky’s idol and his girlfriend were murderers?

Rocky, as narrator, told his story as an adult sharing his memories. Though there was lots of rambling as he described his feelings and thoughts during the various events that transpired over the years, what I got out of it was that small town life in the late 70’s meant no one suspected what Patricia was doing to him, that an older father loved both his sons equally, that Rocky’s mom needed to get over herself for disliking her stepson so much, and that Rocky and Paul loved each other very much. That’s what I got out of it, and I’m sticking to it.

Though I wasn’t a huge fan, I’ll leave it up to you Adults to decide if you want to read it or not.

 

 

“The glittering hour” by Iona Grey

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. St. Martin’s Press. To be published December 10, 2019.

The glittering hourIn early 1936, nine-year-old Alice was confined to her grandparent’s estate while her beloved Mama goes on a business trip with Papa. Polly, her Mama’s former servant, is the only one to show her kindness as most of her time is spent with her Governess or in the nursery. Grandmama doesn’t want her around, while the only bright moments in her dreary life is receiving letters from Mama where she recalls her time as a young flapper in 1925. Her letters contain clues to a treasure she has to find – just like her Mama used to do when she was younger.

In 1925 Selina spent her days and nights drinking and partying with her rich friends. They traipse from one wild party to another, as she tried to forget the pain of losing her brother in the War and to break away from her parent’s tight grip. They want her to stop scandalizing the family name and settle down, but Selina wants to live her life as outrageously as possible. It was during one of her boisterous nighttime hijinks that Selina met Lawrence, a poor painter and photographer, earning his way through portrait commissions. Though they came from two vastly different places in society, they were instantly smitten with each other and fell madly in love.

Told in alternating viewpoints between the past and present, Selina and Lawrence’s love story draws you deep into the emotional whirlwind of their lives. Theirs is a love story that will leave you longing for a Lawrence of your own, someone who will love you forever and whose love is deeper than the deepest sea. I laughed. I cried. I couldn’t put it down. You will feel the same way. My only criticism is the cover. It, as well as the flowery UK cover, are too bland as neither captures the emotions this book generates.

This cover (see below) was the best of the three. download

Highly recommended for Adults.

I received an advance copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“The ocean liner” by Marius Gabriel

Rated 3 stars *** ebook. 2018. Lake Union Publishing.

The ocean linerOver 1500 people, rich and poor, desperate and hopeful, were on board the SS Manhattan on its voyage from Europe to New York City in 1939. Two young Jewish cousins (the only ones of their family to escape from the Nazis), a young Jewish boy posing as a member of the Nazi Youth, and well known names such as Stravinsky, Toscanini, and the Kennedys are just a few of the many to call the SS Manhattan their home for its long trip. Though all plan to begin life anew in America, each carry burdens that threaten their happiness, with their broken hearts and forsaken first loves laid bare.

In a way I enjoyed reading the stories of those who sailed on board the SS Manhattan so many years ago, however, I thought the author covered TOO many stories. I feel it would have been beneficial to focus on just a few individuals instead of so many because, after awhile, it got confusing.

However, because it was a good bit of historical fiction, my favorite genre, I will recommend it for Adults.

“Like Vanessa” by Tami Charles

Rated 4 stars **** ARC. ebook. 2018. Charlesbridge.

Like VanessaIt’s 1983 and, ever since Vanessa was a little girl, she and her grandfather have watched the Miss America Pageant, though she knows no one who looks like her has ever won. Her amazement knew no bounds when Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to win the title. Despite her dark skin, wild looking hair and heavy body Vanessa has a secret hope that she could also, one day, walk that famous runway and win if only her skin was lighter.

Meanwhile real life intrudes on her dreams. Her father has ignored her for years, her mother disappeared when she was a little girl, her grandfather is a drunk during the week, and her best friend is drifting away. Vanessa finds ways to cope by journaling, reading, getting good grades in school, and singing at church with her cousin.

When Mrs. Walton, her chorus teacher, organizes a pageant at her middle school and invites her to become a contestant Vanessa is fearful, and unsure. Mrs. Walton takes her under her wing and helps her realize she has many talents. On the eve of participating in her very first pageant, disaster strikes Vanessa’s world in multiple ways, leaving her to figure out the true meaning of family and her role in it.

Recommended for readers ages 13-16.

 

“Jazz owls: A novel of the Zoot Suit Riots” by Margarita Engle

Rated 5 stars ***** 2018. Simon & Schuster. 192 p. (Includes Author’s Note and References).

Jazz OwlsAfter working all day at their cannery jobs in Los Angeles, 16-year old Marisella and her 14-year old sister Lorena dance with sailors at their local USO because they love the way jitterbugging makes them feel. Against the background of their love for dance is a tide of hatred against Mexicans fueled by negative newspaper reports of interracial marriage. The papers call them gangsters and “a Mexican Problem” because of the death of a young boy named Jose Diaz.

Policemen stop them for no reason other than the color of their skin, and because they’re wearing zoot suits. Though they’re Americans with relatives fighting in the war, that doesn’t stop a large group of drunken sailors, soldiers and civilians from invading their neighborhoods, beating young boys, and burning their zoot suits. The police are reluctant to arrest the rioters and enter the fray, arresting and beating Mexicans and blacks instead of those who caused the riots.

The newspapers call the night of terror “The zoot suit riots,” instead of “Sailor riots,” blaming it all on Mexican teens. The anger they feel at such unwarranted treatment bleeds into their terrible working conditions, causing them to join in on the unionization movement.

Margarita’s intensive research gives readers detailed explanations of a previously unknown, dark chapter in our history. The story is told in verse, through several voices, giving varying points of view on the situation. “Jazz Owls” is a good choice for reluctant readers, and anyone interested in learning more about this time period in American history.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and older.

“Deliver her” Patricia Perry Donovan

Rated 2 stars ** Ebook. 2016. Lake Union Publishing.

DeliverHerMeg is worried because Alex, her 16-year-old daughter, has been acting strangely since her best friend died in a car accident. Alex lost interest in the things she used to do, has a new set of friends, is extremely moody, sullen and uncommunicative, and seems to be taking a ride on the wild side.

After an unsupervised party that wrecks their home, Meg finds drugs in the house. Believing Alex desperately needs help she decides to hire a stranger (who specializes in transporting troubled teens) to take Alex (against her will) hundreds of miles away to a school that will help her get a fresh start. This decision forever changes the dynamics of the Carmody family because, after a car accident, Alex disappears en route to the school.

Through multiple viewpoints, taking place over the course of several days both in the past and present, Donovan takes readers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and events guaranteed to leave readers heads spinning. There were too many back and forth discussions and storylines, as well as many unanswered questions at the end. I will have to include a spoiler alert below so you can see what I mean.

I wasn’t a fan of this book so, in light of all of my questions, I will have to leave it up to you to Decide if You want to Read it or Not.

***********SPOILER ALERT ***************

Why didn’t Jacob get his act together? Why is Meg still allowing their strange living arrangement? Why does Carl seem to ogle Iris, a married woman, a little too much on their brief NY visit? When Iris goes on and on about how much she likes NY is she hinting that she and her husband will soon be on the outs?

There were WAY too many unanswered questions for my taste. I hope the author isn’t planning book #2, because I definitely won’t be reading it.

 

“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.

“Belle epoque” Elizabeth Ross

Rated 4 stars **** 2013. Delacorte. 327 p. (Includes “Author’s Note.”)

BelleEpoqueUnwilling to submit to an arranged marriage to a 40-year-old man, sixteen-year-old Maude Pichon runs away from her small, seaside village. Adrift in the large city of Paris and with her limited money running out, she seeks work at the Durandeau Agency where she reluctantly becomes a repoussoir – a person who is so ugly she repels others to makes her client look beautiful.

The Agency is filled with poor women and girls who have no money, but who Durandeau deems ugly enough to earn him a few francs. Maude becomes the repoussoir for Isabelle, a Countess’ rich daughter she plans to marry off during her upcoming debutante season. The only catch to her job is Maude must gain Isabelle’s confidence and report back to the Countess, but not let Isabelle know her true role. As months go by and the Countess transforms Maude’s life, she finds herself drifting into fantasies where she has become the debutante and finds herself a rich husband.

As she begins to befriend Isabelle, she looks down on her former life and friends at the Agency in favor of a new, imagined life with the Countess. However, the more time she spends with them, the more she will have to come to terms with her true self and decide if the rich life is really where she’s meant to be.

I enjoyed reading “Belle Epoque,” and learning about life in 1800’s France. Though based on a fictional story about repoussoirs written in 1866, it’s a shame that we still judge others by appearances rather than by what they offer society.

Recommended for ages 16 and older, including Adults.