The Key to Everything

The Key to EverythingAuthor: Valerie Fraser Luesse

Publisher: Revell

Release Date: June 2, 2020

Rating: 4 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

With fun characters and a theme of restoration, this coming of age tale is perfect to kick off the summer.

Fifteen-year-old, Peyton Cabot, isn’t sure what to make of the life before him: stuck in a wealthy family, feeling like he doesn’t belong, and in love with a beautiful red headed girl. After losing his father in a tragic accident, Peyton decides to follow in his father’s footprints and take a life changing bicycle trip down the coast of Florida to Key West. Using his father’s map, he seeks answers to unknown questions and a connection to his father. Along the way, he meets many people who invest in him and change him. Some even become family. Arriving in Key West and reuniting with his love, he finds many answers and finds the peace he’s been seeking.

Set after the end of World War II, you can see a difference in the way people live. I can’t imagine letting my fifteen-year-old son go on an adventure like Peyton did. His character reads much older than fifteen. The relationships portrayed between Peyton and Lisa is often unbelievable when you think about their ages. Realizing that times were different is imperative when reading this book.

I loved many of the characters Peyton met along the way. His adventures were interesting and fun to read.

Peyton’s journey is best summed up in his own words, “You can’t follow anyone else’s path, like I tried to do with Daddy- like Daddy thought he had to do with Grandaddy. Somewhere along the way, you gotta draw your own map.”

I give this book 4 stars. It is well written and creative. The characters are well written and easy to connect to. Overall, an excellent book.

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Brave Girl, Quiet Girl

Brave girlAuthor: Catherine Ryan Hyde

Publisher: Lake Union Press

Release Date: May 19, 2020

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

Friendships can happen in the most least likely of places and with the most unexpected people; but when it is meant to be, it can be a beautiful thing!

The only thing that is keeping Brooke going is her little girl, two-year-old Etta. When her husband wants nothing to do with having a child, Brooke leaves and goes back to live with her mother. While not the most ideal situation, it is the only thing she can do with her little means. One night when she is out with Etta, her life changes forever when she is carjacked and watches her car speed away with Etta inside. Los Angeles is large and getting Etta back won’t be easy. Miles away, Etta is found by Molly, a homeless teenager. She takes Etta with her to the wooden crate she uses as her home and tries to keep her safe and calm. Out of the horror of losing her child and Molly finding her, the two forge a friendship that will help them both learn things about themselves they never knew before.

Each time I pick up a new Catherine Ryan Hyde story, I find myself amazed at how wonderfully she can write a novel. It doesn’t matter what the story is about, I am pulled in and fly through the pages each time. This story was one that tugged at my heart strings for both Brooke and Molly; each character is put through very trying times and fall on hard times. Both have mothers that they wouldn’t wish on their own worst enemies and are able to understand one another because of the hard times they have experienced and the lack of understanding from those who should be there to understand them the most. Building characters that are relatable can be very difficult, but it is one of the qualities that Hyde is best at doing. Each of her novels is so very different from one another and yet she still writes characters we want to see find happiness, success and love. We get to feel what they feel and live through their eyes. The combination of Brooke, Etta and Molly is so beautifully written that no matter the circumstances I wanted to see each of them find a happy ending.

Each new book by Hyde explores themes that are relevant to today’s world and this is no exception, we see the problem of acceptance, love, homelessness and LGBTQ issues. There is nothing that gets graphic or too heavy into these topics, but it does bring to light problems that can be glossed over and easy to ignore. I loved the flow of this book, I read it in just over two days and could have been quicker if I would have cut out sleep. I recommend this book to readers that enjoy a story that tackles tough topics and brings characters together in a perfect and emotional ending.

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

A Long Time Comin’

long time cominAuthor: Robin W. Pearson

Publisher: Tyndale House

Release Date: January 7, 2019

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A breakout debut novel about love, family, heartbreak and healing. Great read to kick off the new year!

Evelyn Lester is trying to figure out if she wants to save her marriage. She discovered that her husband has been having an emotional affair with a subordinate at work. Once discovered, he quickly dissolved the relationship and is trying to show Evelyn that he wants to keep their marriage alive. To complicate matters, she just found out she is pregnant, which is making the decision that much more difficult. She decides to take some time away and goes to stay at her mother’s home. Shortly after arriving, she learns that her grandmother, known as Granny B, has leukemia and has decided not to pursue treatment. Granny B has had a rough life herself raising seven children without having a husband present. She became a hard woman and even harder on her children. Even so, her children have become very successful professionally, but they all harbor secrets from the past and present. Evelyn begins spending more and more time with Granny B and each begins to unburden their secrets to the other. Before long, they devise a plan to help Granny B close out her grievances before she passes on from this life.

This was really an incredible debut novel. There is a lot of pain displayed throughout this book caused between family members. But deep down, people begin to realize how alike they are, which can be why the pain is caused. And do we ever really understand each other’s circumstances to judge? As it is said, Remove the log in your own eye so that you can see the speck in your neighbor’s eye more clearly. That is part of the message of this book. Everyone seemed to think they knew what was best, but no one knew the whole story.

The local North Carolina dialect written throughout the book made me feel like I was there. The letters written showed the education that some of the characters received made it very believable. Sometimes it is easy to take for granted how things were in the past because some of the readers never experienced it. Pearson did a great job with this story. Terrific novel to kick off the new year!

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Stay

Hyde-Stay-27325-CV-JK-v3.inddAuthor: Catherine Ryan Hyde

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

Release Date: December 3, 2019

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

In true form, Catherine Ryan Hyde delivers another outstanding story about the power of friendship and how much a simple kindness can do for a person.

Lucas Painter has a bigger load to carry than most fourteen-year old boys he knows. His brother is off fighting in Vietnam and his best friend Connor is spiraling into a deep depression with family issues. All this combines with his own difficulties at home as his parents continue to fight relentlessly. Lucas needs a relief from the pressure of his life, so he takes off running through the woods. One day while running, he comes across two large dogs. At first, he is scared but then the dogs start running with him and it becomes just what he needs. After a while he meets the owner of the dogs, Zoe Dinsmore. She has kept herself isolated from the rest of the town after a tragic event that rocked her life and everyone in the town. Lucas finds the chance in meeting Zoe to do something to help those closest to him and hopefully save a life in the process.

Each time I pick up a Catherine Ryan Hyde book I think to myself it can’t possibly be better than the last, but she proves me wrong every single time. Stay is a perfectly crafted tale of what it means to care for someone and love them enough to want them to stay in this world. Lucas has so much going against him, but he still tries to help those around him. He is such a rich and vulnerable character that the reader can’t help but want to follow along in his journey. He isn’t the only perfect character in the book; his relationship with every other character is perfectly laid out. Zoe is the character that probably has the biggest arc throughout the story and I loved seeing her grow and the advice she gives out was just right. The thing that makes the characters so relatable is the flaws they have, not even one of them are written as perfect and having their life totally together. The flaws bring out the best and worst in them and help move the story along. Each chapter brought a new struggle that Lucas faced that helped him to grow and be able to help those around him. The story moves quickly with tension at the right spots and the characters showing growth with the turning of the pages. I recommend this book to anyone that has enjoyed a Catherine Ryan Hyde book before and is looking for another great read. If you haven’t read anything by Hyde yet this would be a perfect one to get you started with a phenomenal author.

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Castle of Concrete

Castle

Author: Katia Raina

Publisher: Young Europe

Release Date: June 11, 2019

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

Historical novel from the eyes of a teenage girl in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 The school year of 1990-1991 is ushering in a lot of change in Russia, especially in Moscow.  Democracy is starting to take shape with the face of Boris Yeltsin.  Gorbachev is starting to be forced out but isn’t ready to give it up just yet.  Sonya Solovay is experiencing several changes too.  She is finally able to live fully with her mother, who is a dissident of the Russian government.  She leaves her grandmothers in a small remote village and moves with her mother to the outskirts of Moscow.  To complicate things, they are Jewish and many of Russia’s disgruntled residents blame the Jews for their problems.  However, Sonya is determined to make a new life for herself at her new school.  She butts heads with some of the teachers but manages to strike up a relationship with the best-looking boy at school.  She finds it easy to fall in love, but her Jewish ethnicity may cause a problem.  When her mom decides that it may be best to move to America, Sonya is torn between her friends love for Russia and her love for her mother.

 This book is a prime example of why I love historical fiction.  I learned quite a bit about the social climate in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union.  I had no idea that there was such an anti-Semite feeling across the country during this time frame.  I would have figured earlier in the century but was surprised to find this out.  History aside, I had a lot of trouble connecting with Sonya.  I understand that she is a teenage girl out to make a new life, but she seems to just go about it all wrong.  I didn’t really understand the relationship between her and Reslan either.  If the intent was to see this time period though the eyes of a confused teenager, then it was definitely successful.  There is some tension throughout the book between Sonya and two of the boy characters, which plays out great at the end.  Stay through the end of the book and you will enjoy it.

 There is some foul language throughout the book as well as some implied young adult intimate scenes that makes is suitable for a mature audience.

 I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher.  The views and opinions express within are my own.

The Beginner’s Guide to Wining an Election

election

Author: Michael R. French

Publisher: Moot Point Productions

Release Date: November 20, 2018

Rating: 3 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A topic that might not seem interesting shows a different side to the world of high school politics.

 Being involved in high school politics is the last thing Brit Kitridge had on her mind. She wanted to finish high school, go to college and then onto med school. She has always loved history, especially her history teacher and looks to him for guidance. After he fuels her passion for politics, she joins the team of Matthew Boltanski, the school’s shoo-in for winning the election. He has a team of fourteen that has helped him win everything he has gone out for and now he wants to be Student Body President. Before she can do much for the team, she is accused of being a spy and trying to sabotage the team. It doesn’t take long for Brit to realize she wants to be the change in her school and sets out to beat Matthew at his own game and win the election herself. Winning is going to be harder than she imagined and the secrets she uncovers go deeper than anyone in school could have predicted.

 I would like to say I enjoyed this book, but I can’t. It started out far too slow, especially for a YA novel that should take off from page one. Not only did it start slow, but for me it was very unbelievable. Set a few years in the future isn’t enough to make the scenarios feel real for me. High school students being paid by a corporation to win elections in high school?  And the amounts paid? It was just too farfetched for me to buy. The rest of the storyline itself is good, a high school election with the underdog going out to try and make a difference for the school. I liked that along with the values that Brit stood for and tried to be a moral compass, even when she made mistakes she owned up to those mistakes. The author did a good job of portraying young adolescents in a difficult time, one of the best aspects of the novel. Several points in the book had language that I am not comfortable recommending to young readers. I don’t recommend this to YA readers with the language and slow start, but older readers might enjoy the story.

 I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher.  The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

The Silence Between Us

Silence between usAuthor: Alison Gervais

Publisher: Blink YA Books

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

At its core, The Silence Between Us is about learning to listen with more than just our ears.  Once we learn that, the space between us can close beautifully.

After losing her hearing in her early teens due to meningitis, Maya has had learned to adapt to the deaf world. Things get complicated though when her mom moves her and her brother to Colorado and Maya’s senior year is spent being the only deaf girl at a hearing school. Even though she is deaf, Maya has hopes of getting into the right college to help her get into the medical field. It doesn’t matter to her if she is the only one that feels she can accomplish this, she is determined to prove that the only thing she can’t do is hear. After arriving at Englemann High School Maya meets Beau Watson, student body president and one of the only students who attempts to learn sign language to communicate with Maya. With each passing day, Beau and Maya’s feelings for each other grow but staring them in the face are their differences. Even though Maya knows what it is like to hear, she has no desire to get a cochlear implant.  She is proud of being deaf and doesn’t want to change. Beau doesn’t understand why Maya wouldn’t want to hear again and Maya doesn’t know if she can be with someone that doesn’t accept her for who she is and always will be.

The Silence Between Us is a perfect young adult novel that teaches acceptance in a way that may not always appear to most of us. Hearing loss is not something that is easily noticeable, especially if the person doesn’t have a hearing aid or cochlear implant that is visible. I loved the way Alison Gervais made it relatable to anyone of us that could find ourselves in the situation Maya and Beau did. The writing is easy to follow with all the signing in all caps so the reader can differentiate between signs and other communications. Maya has had some hardships in her life, she has lost her hearing, her brother has cystic fibrosis, and now they have moved to a new town and she must attend a hearing school after years being at a deaf school. Maya is uneasy to trust any of the new friends she makes at her new school.  She appreciates the effort Beau makes to communicate in her language, but she can’t see them as ever being anything more than friends with her being deaf. She takes her only limitation and sets it up to be her failure until she is presented with the option of seeing it in a new light. I loved how every obstacle was a chance to look at things in a new way. Every reader will come away from reading this with a new-found respect for the deaf community. I highly recommend this book to young adults and even adults that want to learn a little bit about a different culture and how they can hear us, but we need to see them.

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher.  The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

Where I Was Planted

Where I was plantedAuthor: Heather Norman Smith

Publisher: Ambassador International

Release Date: July 16, 2019

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A very poignant and delightful read with characters readers will love to cheer for through the toughest of situations.

In 1961, ten-year-old Nate Dooley comes home one day to find his kitchen stocked with food and his Dad nowhere to be found.  He figures now is as good a time as any to be on his own. With a stray dog as his companion, Nate tries to hide the fact that his father is gone from everyone around him for as long as possible. He likes being in his home by himself and doesn’t want the county to take him away. Even though his father has left, Nate starts to realize he isn’t alone.  His heavenly father will never leave him and will always provide for him. Nate finds these provisions in the form of newfound friends, neighbors and family he never knew he had.

Where I Was Planted is a beautifully written novel with the most wonderful protagonist around in Nate Dooley. Set in the 1960s, things are different than they are today.  If a ten-year-old were left alone for any period of time today, it wouldn’t take long for authorities to be notified and things to change. I loved how independent Nate was but also the way he realized he needed a little help. No matter how grown up he felt or wanted to be, the fact remains he is still a little boy. Even characters that had a small role made a big impact and a lasting impression. I would have liked a little more insight into Nate’s dad and why he left without talking to Nate or anyone about his plans, I know it explains a little, but I felt that part of the storyline could have developed a little further to bring the story up a notch. Nate was wonderfully developed, and I found myself wanting to hug that little boy and tell him how strong he was. The story pace was perfect and not once did I find myself wanting to put it down and move on to something else. The ending tied up just right and left me satisfied with the whole story. This is the first book I’ve read by Heather Norman Smith, but I am sure it will not be the last. I recommend this book to those that enjoy historical fiction with heart and a good message. The religious message comes across evenly, not to strong but also not too weak.

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher.  The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

All Manner of Things

all manner of thingsAuthor: Susie Finkbeiner

Publisher: Revell

Release Date: June 4, 2019

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

A beautifully written masterpiece about a broken family learning to heal.

When Annie Jacobson’s father returned from the Korean War, he was the shell of the man that he was before he left.  His depression finally got to the point that he decided that his family would be better off if he left them.  So, he did.  Twelve years later, Annie is now out of high school working at the town diner.  Her younger brother, Joel, is fourteen and moving into 8th grade.  Her older brother Mike also works at the diner and has just told her he plans to enlist in the army.  His draft number will be coming up anyway, so may as well have some say in where he gets placed.  Her mother has been working ever since her father left to provide some semblance of home for them.   They’ve had their share of trials but have always managed together.

After Mike leaves for basic training, a family tragedy occurs, and Annie’s dad returns home after twelve years.  There is plenty of tension among the family members, but they will have to find away to work together.  As Mike corresponds through letters with each member of the family, the need for them to stay together becomes more apparent and they must work through twelve years of hurt, despair, and love.

I absolutely love this book!  I love that it is a snapshot into a family during this time and what each family member was going through.  I can only imagine that even though they didn’t feel like a normal family, several families were facing the same situations that were presented throughout this book.  I love that the family had to work out their issues with one another and learn to lean on each other.  Told from Annie’s point of view, she is a very strong character that can be overcome at times.  Several people lean on her for support and she finally meets someone that she can lean on when she needs it most.

Throughout this book, I become nostalgic for simpler times when there were no electronic gadgets that took time away from families.  This family really connected.  There were times that they were sitting on the front porch talking about the issues going on in the world that day.  Finkbeiner did a great job of making me feel like I was in the time period by dropping in major events that happened and referencing different television shows of the time.  I didn’t live during the Vietnam war, but I remember growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and having those type of moments with my family.

One of my favorite aspects of the book may have been all the literary Easter egg references.  From Travels with Charley by Steinbeck to A Wrinkle in Time, there were several of my favorite books mentioned.  I love it when an author throws in little tidbits like that to make me enjoy the book even more.

Fair warning, this book may make you emotional.  There are some very sad moments that occur that may leave some readers feeling depressed.  Even so, it is well worth picking up a copy of this book.  It is a clean read that will be sure to remain on reader’s personal bookshelves for years to come!

I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher.  The views and opinions expressed within are my own.

No Place Like Here

No Place like Here

Author: Christina June

Publisher: Blink YA Books

Release Date: May 21, 2019

Rating: 5 Stars

Reviewer: Jessica Higgins

An absolutely beautifully written coming of age story that will leave readers smiling long after turning the last page.

 After a year away at boarding school, Ashlyn Zanotti feels she has deserved a second chance to come home for her senior year of high school. As she prepares to head home and ask her parents for her second chance, she gets the news that her father is being sent to prison for tax evasion and her mother is going to rehab for exhaustion. With no one at home, Ashlyn is sent away to work with her cousin at a team building retreat center. Dreading the summer but knowing she has no other choice, Ashlyn decides to make the best of the situation which turns out to be more than she ever imagined. The center’s new manager is disorganized and makes more than her fair share of mistakes leaving Ashlyn with the difficult decision of staying quiet or standing up for what she knows is right.

 This book is the very thing that should be in all school libraries and recommended to young readers. I loved the way the story played out and the characters evolved. Ashlyn shows so much growth as a person having to deal with incredibly tough issues not only at her new job but with her family as well. Spending time with a cousin she barely knows is awkward enough but having others at camp find out about her father makes things even more difficult. Being a teenager at camp there brings about opportunities for a summer romance.  These moments played out both realistically and sweet. All of the relationships made sense, not once was I questioning why a character was acting a certain way, they all played their parts exactly as I felt they should. I disliked Deb, as was intended, she didn’t technically have a lot of page time but what she did have was memorable. June has a way of writing these characters that have no other choice but to get the readers hooked and become deeply emotionally involved with the outcome of each of the characters. I recommend this book to young readers looking for a good story to relate to and feel like they might be at summer camp with learning the life lessons along beside them. I also recommend this to adults that might need an insight into the emotions of the younger kids in their lives.

 I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher.  The views and opinions expressed within are my own.