Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee
by
Alan Gratz

Rating:

I don’t know where to begin in gushing about this Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life.

Josef is twelve years old in 1938, living in Berlin, Germany. Hitler is driving Jewish families like his out of the country. To escape, he and his family leave their home and board the St. Louis for Cuba, where they hope to find safety.

Isabel is eleven in Havana, Cuba when her family climbs into a makeshift boat and heads for Miami, Florida. Extreme poverty and dangerous riots have left them no choice. The year is 1994 and Fidel Castro has just announced that anyone who wants to leave is free to go. But will they be welcomed in Miami?

Mahmoud is twelve, living in Aleppo, Syria. It is 2015 and his home has just been destroyed, the result of an ongoing vicious civil war. He and his family take what they can and depart for Turkey, the first of many stops, hoping to make their way to safety in Germany.

In alternating stories, Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud face unpredictable danger and catastrophe as they desperately try to keep their families together. They learn hard lessons on how to choose between being visible and invisible. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Not knowing when to hide and when to speak out, Mahmoud realizes, “good and bad things happened either way.”

All three children are forced to act as leaders, when family members are hurt or weakened. Gratz describes these heartbreaking transformations in which each understands that they must choose, often quickly, and act on their new-adult instincts in order to save their loved ones.

Although the children are from different times, Gratz has connected their stories through the shared experiences and emotions of leaving their homelands and traveling by boat and foot. Surprise connections make this story even more meaningful.

Refugee was published in 2017 and has gained momentum to be included in many middle and high school curriculums. It is a New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year. Although it is a Young Adult book, I highly recommend it for all readers because it shows, for all of us, the importance of understanding the desperate plights that refugees have suffered.

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Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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From the archives: The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien

the silver crown picThe Silver Crown
by
Robert C. O’Brien

Rating:

I really enjoyed this children’s book. My sixth-grader was reading it in school and I decided to read it too.

It’s a story of 10-year-old Ellen who, on her birthday, wakes up to find a jeweled crown on her pillow. Before her family wakes up, Ellen puts the crown in her purse and sneaks out of her house to walk to a nearby park. Soon after, she hears sirens and discovers that her house has burned to the ground and her family is nowhere to be found. And thus begins her journey to find her Aunt Sarah and escape the mysterious people who are chasing her.

Ellen meets many during her time on the run. Some are good and some are evil. Ellen develops a strong bond with 8-year-old Otto, a young boy living in a house in the woods with an old woman he calls his mother. This book has an edge to it that younger kids’ books don’t. There are frightening characters and scary situations and difficult good-byes between Ellen and the people she meets. Despite these losses, many are turned around at the end. I think this book is perfect for a middle school student. The fantasy element allows the reader to experience danger, fright, bravery and loss, with a comfortable ending.

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Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down
by
Jason Reynolds

Rating:

Will knows what he has to do when his older brother is shot dead because, in his neighborhood, the only rules are don’t cry, don’t snitch and get revenge. Less than twenty-four hours after Shawn is killed, Will sets out to take care of the guy he’s sure pulled the trigger.

But at fifteen, Will has never had to step up like this. He’s never even touched a gun. Can he do what the rules say? In a one-minute ride down the elevator of his building, Will is visited by the ghosts of friends and family who have died by gun violence, all part of a senseless cycle of lost futures. He must decide what to do when he reaches the lobby, follow the only rules he knows or break the pattern.

Reynolds tells this excellent story in verse. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by the author, and followed along with the print copy. Seeing the specially formatted words on the page and hearing the author’s narration was a great combination. Reynolds explains in an interview at the end of the audiobook how he wanted to narrate his story to make sure his words were emphasized in way he intended.

Long Way Down has received much deserved praise. It’s a Newberry Medal Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Printz Honor Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner for Young Adult Literature. It was also longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in addition to receiving numerous other awards.

Long Way Down is a short read and listen. The audio is a little more than ninety minutes, including the interview at the end in which Reynolds tells of his own loss, his experiences in detention centers and his conversations with others caught in the trap of gun violence. It’s a short and powerful story, one that the author hopes will make readers empathize with other people’s situations. I recommend it for both Young Adult and adult readers.

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Audiobook: Dear Martin by Nic Stone, narrated by Dion Graham

Audiobook: Dear Martin
by Nic Stone, narrated by Dion Graham

Rating:

Here’s a really great Young Adult audiobook about the complicated dynamic of American race relations and its impact on high school senior, Justyce McAllister, an African Amercian student on scholarship at an elite school in Atlanta.

Justyce has thrived in the protected environment of his private prep school and is looking forward to a successful Ivy League future. But everything turns inside out when he’s wrongfully arrested for trying to help his drunk, ex-girlfriend get home. Until his arrest, Justyce didn’t think racial profiling was something that could happen to him. But the sting of this treatment begins to open his eyes to the more subtle prejudices expressed by some of his classmates. Even his best friend, Manny, who is black, but has grown up in privilege, disappoints Justyce.

To make sense of these feelings, Justyce begins a Dear Martin project, writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Be like Martin,” he tells himself. The letters help at first, but events soon go out of control. Justyce faces racial tension on many sides: from his classmates, from his mother, and from the kids in his Atlanta neighborhood who live to survive.

In addition to the injustice of racial profiling, Nic Stone does a terrific job showing the many sides of this sensitive issue, including questions of privilege, affirmative action, the use of violence as well as acceptance and forgiveness. She also ties Justyce’s experiences to recent racial profiling cases, showing how even a young black man in a prep school is not protected from this dangerous thinking.

Conflict builds to frightening levels and violence results in a heartbreaking loss for the students at his school. As Justyce prepares for college, he will need to take these events with him and decide how to carry himself in a world that may never be completely free of prejudice.

I particularly enjoyed the audiobook presentation. Dion Graham is an excellent narrator, taking on a wide range of characters and telling an important story that is also entertaining and has feel-good charm. Stone tackles a complicated subject and helps explain the many sides in a way that I think teenagers can understand.

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Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry
by
Neal Shusterman
Jarrod Shusterman

Rating:

For sixteen-year-old Alyssa and her family, the drought in southern California was nothing new. It meant conserving water, as in shorter showers and no watering the lawns. Life went on otherwise and no one was thinking disaster. No one except the McCrackens. But they were the strange, reclusive neighbors across the street who had taken their survivalist hobby to the extreme. No one to take seriously.

Now what the news channels had been calling a flow crisis is a sudden Tap-Out. No water. And in a matter of days, throughout the region, civilized communities become desperate rioting mobs, with no way to get out. When Alyssa and her younger brother, Garrett are separated from their parents, it’s up to the kids to survive on their own. But how and for how long? With a hurricane occupying the rest of the nation’s attention, does anyone outside of southern California know how bad it is?

It’s anything goes as friends and neighbors face the grim truth and Alyssa and Garrett must ask themselves how far they will go to survive, whom they will trust and just how much they will help others.

In Neal Shusterman’s brand new book (published 10/2/18), he teams with his son, Jarrod to write a fantastic Young Adult study of climate change and human behavior under extreme stress. They offer a mix of realistic characters with emerging traits of leadership and changing degrees of moral standards, selfishness and violence. Told in the present tense, in varying points of view, Dry is an intense, consuming story that will make readers ask themselves, “What would I do?”

I recommend Dry to readers who enjoy fast-paced action stories that look into how people react to threats and danger.

For another story about the effects of a drought on a town, check out:

The Dry by Jane Harper

And if you like apocalyptic/dystopian survival stories, you may also like:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Book Talk – The Impact of Female Authors on Young Adult Literature

Welcome to Book Talk, an occasional feature on Book Club Mom, home to quick previews of new and not-so-new books that catch my eye and other bookish discussions.

Today I’m going to highlight five female Young Adult authors and talk about an upcoming discussion on their role in literature, but before I do that, a little history on the genre.

Young Adult literature first came to the reading world in the 1960s and has been evolving ever since. What these books have in common is that they are much more realistic than what adolescents traditionally read before. The genre came to be as authors began to write about modern and grittier problems and themes, unique to teenagers.

But did you know that the term “teenagers” didn’t emerge until the 1940s? It first appeared in a 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly. Before that, the American population was divided into two groups: adults and children. You were an adult if you were in the workforce and a child if you were in school. Things began to change during the Great Depression because there were fewer jobs for Americans of all ages. So many more adolescents were enrolled in high school, not working a job.

Librarians were the first to call teenagers “young adults,” in the 1940s, a term that was made official in 1957 by the American Library Association.

I found this information in a great May 2018 article from Smithsonian.com, entitled “How ‘Young Adult’ Fiction Blossomed With Teenage Culture in America.” You can read it here.


The following female authors write about modern teenagers and offer a nice variety of Young Adult literature.

Odd One Out by Nic Stone


The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk


Far from the Tree by Robin Benway


Before the Devil Breaks You (The Diviners) by Libba Bray


I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman

(All author and book cover images are from Amazon.com.)

On Saturday, October 13, this group will convene at the Westport Library in Westport, Connecticut, to discuss their audiences, intentions, and themes in the YA genre. These women will specifically focus on their beliefs about the role of a female author writing about young adults in the current climate of teens today. This discussion is part of the library’s Saugatuck StoryFest Events and, if you live in the area, you can check out the details here.

I enjoy reading YA books, even though I’m long past the target reading age, because I like to understand what themes are interesting and important to teenage readers. Are you a YA fan? What are your favorite YA books?

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Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

Seven Ways We Lie
by
Riley Redgate

Rating:

High school is no walk in the park for seven angst-ridden teenagers and friendships are stretched to their limits when Paloma High School officials receive an anonymous tip about an inappropriate student-teacher relationship. In this debut novel, written by then-college student Riley Redgate, lies routinely mask the deep secrets and insecurities of students at a Kansas high school and, as the investigation continues, their secrets come out in painful revelations.

The story is written from seven different points of view which the author has matched to the seven deadly sins:  lust, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, wrath and pride, giving the reader the task of figuring out which character fits which sin. While some of them are friends, others are on the fringe, but the scandal brings them together and forces them to face the moral question of what to tell.

I enjoyed reading this YA novel. It has a clever structure and is very readable, but also addresses many important themes:  pressure to succeed, fitting in, bullying, friendship, love, teenage sexuality, loneliness and troubled family relationships. Despite the book’s heavy drama, the story has a prevailing optimistic message: that it’s okay to be different. In addition, I particularly like how the characters grow and develop strong relationships that would have been unlikely if there had been no scandal.

A couple things bothered me about the story, however. A student has overheard a conversation from behind a closed door, so no names come with the anonymous tip yet the school immediately runs with it. The principal calls an assembly and asks students for help in finding out who is involved. Then the school administration interviews each student and broadcasts updates and pleas for more information during the morning announcements. This approach seems highly unrealistic to me. No preliminary investigation before going public, full credence to the person who sent the tip. A later tip also leads to swift school action, with no checks to whether it’s valid.

My other issue is that each student seems to have a serious secret, brought on by intense personal and family relationship issues in which the parents play very passive parenting roles. Of course these problems are what drive the story, but the author’s many themes are compressed into the seven students, making me wonder if any of them know what a normal day is like.

To write a book like this while still in college, however, is a remarkable accomplishment and I think the author shows a lot of talent, particularly when she develops certain characters. I also love the cover, which is what attracted me to the book and convinced me to read it. I look forward to more books by Redgate and recommend Seven Ways We Lie to readers who like books with modern teen drama.

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars
by
E. Lockhart

Rating:

Something bad happens during Cadence Eastman’s fifteenth summer on the family’s private island off Martha’s Vineyard. Cady, her cousins Johnny and Mirren and their friend Gat were inseparable and fearless that summer and they would risk everything to break free from the oppressive, greedy and narrow minded Sinclair family pressures.

After an unexplained accident, Cady struggles to remember the events that sent her to the hospital and left her with debilitating migraines. Cady tells us what she can: “I used to be strong, but now I am weak. I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.” She wants to know, especially about Gat, but her family stays quiet and keeps her away from Beechwood Island. Everything is different when she returns for her seventeenth summer, but who will help her remember why?

Who can resist a book about three generations of a wealthy New England family, inseparable friends (nicknamed the Liars), rivalries and teenage love? E. Lockhart does a great job setting the scene: money, interesting family drama and good looking people with strong chins spending their summers on an idyllic private island. Keeping appearances and hiding weakness are Sinclair rules and the reader soon sees that this kind of lying runs in the family. That’s enough for me, but The Liars is much bigger and is full of mystery and suspense. Lockhart leads the reader through a series of jumps between present and past, filling in details, but leaving a shocking discovery to the final pages.

This is a terrific Young Adult story about how the mysterious events of one summer force an entire family through painful changes that just may bring them closer. I recommend The Liars to readers who like suspenseful family dramas.

I read We Were Liars as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book suggested by a friend.

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Calmer Secrets by Jennifer Kelland Perry


Calmer Secrets
by
Jennifer Kelland Perry

Rating:

Samantha and Veronica Cross had to start fresh when they moved with their mother Darlene from Newfoundland’s Calmer Cove to St. John’s.  Attending a new high school and making friends were their first challenges and soon they discovered the charms of Ben Swift, a handsome local boy with his own troubles.  As the sisters rivaled for his attention, jealousy and misunderstandings threw the Cross family off balance into a spiral of disaster.

Calmer Girls is Perry’s first coming-of-age novel about the Cross sisters.  Calmer Secrets picks up in 1998, four years later.  If they thought the teenage years were turbulent, they are now learning that relationships in their twenties can be just as complicated.

Veronica is a single mom to three-year-old Henry and Samantha is an art student at Grenfell, seven hours away.  Their old friend Ben may be far away at the moment, but he’s on the minds of both girls, for different reasons, and it will be a long time before the sisters forget what happened.  Veronica copes by finding, then quickly discarding boyfriends.  And while on break, Samantha takes up with her old friend, Kalen O’Dea.  He’s charming and gorgeous, and fronts a popular cover band in town, but there’s something puzzling about his behavior.  Veronica warns her, but who is she to give advice?

The real elephant in the room, however, is Darlene’s drinking.  She’s met a new man, Cash, who owns the Bambury Tavern and the two work side-by-side.  He’s a great guy, but can he see the problem?  How long can the family look the other way? In addition, painful secrets about the Calmer sisters’ past are coming to the surface. Are these secrets best confronted or pushed back down?

Calmer Secrets is an excellent story about the difficult and unsettled years that are the twenties.  As with all quality writing, Perry’s storytelling flair is enhanced by her descriptive talent.  Reading about St. John’s makes me want to move there and, thanks to Perry’s introductions, I feel like I already have some friends in town.  As with Calmer Girls, Calmer Secrets includes many enjoyable and relatable details about the 1990s, as well as local customs, foods and phrases, giving the Calmer series a unique brand.  In addition, Perry integrates themes of family, friendship, love and second chances, giving the reader a great deal to think about afterwards.  I especially enjoyed seeing her characters transform and step up when they are needed most. And an extra treat are the quotes from classic literature at the beginning of each chapter, a smart detail that ties her story to larger ideas.  I’m looking forward to reading more about the Calmer sisters!

I recommend Calmer Secrets to all readers who like realistic stories about family and community in a friendly and colorful setting.

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Click here for a review of Calmer Girls.