We Now Return to Regular Life by Martin Wilson

We Now Return to Regular Life

We Now Return to Regular Life by Martin Wilson

Published by: Dial Books on August 1, 2017
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Sam Walsh went missing three years ago, presumed kidnapped and gone without a trace. His older sister, Beth, believed he was dead. His best friend, Josh, was wracked with guilt that maybe he could have done something to stop him from being taken. They both worried that they somehow contributed to Sam’s disappearance. But when Sam is found alive, their worlds change all over again. While Sam is indeed Sam, his experience and his ordeal have changed him. As Beth and Josh deal with relating to the new Sam, Sam also needs to find a way to adapt to his own new reality. And then there’s the age-old question: Do we talk about everything that happened as a means of processing it, or do we keep it all bottled up with the hope that we can just move past it? And the answer may be somewhere in between–a happy medium that is different for all three of them.

Told from the perspectives of Beth and Josh, this is a powerful and poignant story about love, regret, growing up, secrets, trauma, and simply dealing with the realities of life. This is likely to be a challenging read for some, especially considering the truth of what happened to Sam. But the author deals with the subject matter in a real and raw way, while demonstrating a sensitivity to Sam and to the others affected and impacted by the ordeal. There is no quick fix here for anyone. And sometimes we have to open doors when we know we won’t like what’s on the other side because if we leave the door closed, what’s there will simply continue to haunt us. There’s a lot for these teenagers to deal with in this story, but there’s also a strength that each one of them demonstrates that I can only say is inspiring and instructional.

A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

Published by: Redhook on September 5, 2017
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

When Ursule, matriarch of the family, dies, it seems as though her power goes with her. While her daughters keep the old ways and traditions alive, it seems none of them possesses the same skill and strength with magic that she always did. But the power burns anew when Ursule’s unsuspecting granddaughter is brought into the circle. What follows is a story of a family history that spans generations and raises questions about how far one will go to protect their secrets, their power, their family, and their future. Sometimes by doing what we think is necessary to protect that which we hold dear, we may be doing more damage than we realize…

An interesting story, for sure. What I think is most interesting about this book is the way the story threads across the generations, focusing on each new daughter as it works its way forward. The mother-daughter dynamic plays out here in various ways, but it all comes back to some of the same themes of how power and secrets can impact a family dynamic. As much as we may think that life would be so much easier if we just possessed the power to do something just outside the range of what is humanly possible, the reality is that the more ability we have may also mean more complication–especially if we need to keep that ability a secret in order to survive.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Published by: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers on February 21, 2012
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Aristotle (Ari) could be described as a bit of a loner, keeping people at least an arm’s length away. But when he goes to the swimming pool one day in the summer (even though he can’t really swim), he finds a potential new friend in Dante. Although Dante is also a bit of a loner, he’s less jaded and more spirited than Ari, which seems at first like it may not bode well for a budding friendship. As the two get to know each other better, however, they learn that they can find commonality even in their differences. They face a number of challenges, both individually and together, that bring them together in ways neither expected.

This is a beautifully-written and compelling narrative. Written from Ari’s perspective, there is an authenticity to the narration that brings the characters to life on the page. The development of the characters (including those in the background) is defined and believable, presented in ways that make sense in the context of the plot and that keep readers connected to and grounded in this universe. Incredibly enjoyable and moving at the same time.

 

Better by Jaime Samms

Better

Better by Jaime Samms

Published by: Dreamspinner Press on January 26, 2012
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

Jesse Turbul has tried hard to put the traumatic events of his last relationship behind him. The experience left him unable to trust–not just someone else but even himself–and as much as he wants to move on, it seems like the reminders just keep coming back to haunt him. When he meets Aadon in the library, he finds himself wanting to get past his issues more than ever, but he learns that you can’t rush things that shouldn’t be rushed. What Jesse doesn’t know is that Aadon is dealing with some issues of his own. His brother, Ricky, experienced some trauma of his own in his youth, and after turning to drugs to cope, is in a facility–and Aadon is the only member of his family who is willing to support and stand by him. It is a lot for one person to take on, and while it might make him uniquely suited to understand where Jesse is coming from, it might also mean that Aadon is much closer to his own breaking point than anyone realizes. Can the two find the right balance between love, support, and space to deal?

There is a lot of backstory here that reveals itself as the book goes on and brings out the characters’ pasts (especially Jesse’s) in layers. This works to help readers understand the complexity of the issues at play without throwing everyone our way all at once. There are some details that are never revealed, but this is balanced with enough information to get the picture and a recognition that those details aren’t necessary to engage with the plot and the characters and understand what they are going through. I found this to be an enjoyable and interesting read, and although it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, there is a bit of an uplifting feel to it overall.

The Virgin Manny by Amy Lane

The Virgin Manny

The Virgin Manny by Amy Lane

Series: The Mannies, Book 1
Published by:
 Dreamspinner Press on January 1, 2017
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

Tino Robbins has always worked hard to achieve his goals. He’s taken his education seriously, and he’s managed to balance working and attending college to keep himself on track. And it’s all about to pay off as he approaches graduation with a business degree and a trajectory for a bright future. But when he covers one evening for his sister’s dinner box delivery service, he finds himself bumped off that trajectory and not sure if he can get back on track. To blame? Channing Lowell, a charming and successful businessman who has just gained custody of his young nephew, Sammy, after his sister’s tragic passing. Tino’s quick connection with Sammy and ability to calm the chaos in the Lowell household after just a few minutes of being there leads Channing to make a lucrative proposition: if Tino will be Sammy’s manny for the summer, Channing will pay off Tino’s student loans and provide him with a glowing letter of recommendation, which should be enough for him to get a job anywhere. The offer seems too good to be true. And there’s also the fact that Tino’s not sure he could spend the entire summer living in the same house with Channing and hold not his virginity. But he also can’t help but question if that’s such a bad thing…

What an interesting cast of characters in this one! There is honestly quite a bit packed into these 228 pages, and it is interesting to watch the various characters–Tino, Channing, and Sammy for sure, but also some of the supporting cast–go through some major changes over the course of this book. Nothing seems forced, though, and as a reader, there was just enough reality laced into what many might see as a bit of a fantasy-type situation. How often does one just show up at a fancy house and get an offer like Channing’s? But as readers get to know him a bit better, it’s easy to understand why it doesn’t faze him much at all to make his proposition. Worth a read!

Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Pay It Forward

Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Published by: Simon & Schuster in 1999 (original publication)
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Reuben St. Clair has given an extra credit assignment in his social studies class for years, asking students to come up with something they can do to change the world for the better. But never has he seen a student take the project as seriously as Trevor McKinney whose project, “Pay It Forward,” has wide-reaching and unexpected effects that create a national movement. The simplicity of Trevor’s idea makes it easy to achieve, and his dedication to seeing it through invigorates the project with a real spirit. But his dedication to its success might also blind him to the the actual successes it is achieving overall. In the end, this is a story about how a little extra kindness in our world can go a long way to make a difference for those we help but also stretch to people we have never even met.

I did really enjoy this book, but I must tell you it immediately made me dislike the film (I think I was only a chapter in . Unfortunately, the film is white-washed in a number of ways and important content that apparently wouldn’t play well to mainstream filmgoers at the time of the movie’s release (alcoholism, child abuse, LGBT characters, hate crimes, etc.) was written out of the film adaptation. And what’s sad is that the story is far less powerful for it. I do encourage people to read the book, even if you’ve seen the movie (and liked it or didn’t), as I think the story in its original form is impactful, inspiring, and interesting.

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shawn David Hutchinson

Published by: Simon Pulse on January 20, 2015
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

Andrew Brawley’s life changed forever in one night. His parents and sister dead, he found his only choice to remain in the hospital–but not as a patient. Drew sleeps in an empty supply closet, works in the cafeteria (being paid under the table), and befriends many of the long-term patients. His cover story is that he’s visiting his sick grandmother who is in a coma, and while many of the staff don’t necessarily believe it, they let it slide. And as long as he can steer clear of a too-inquisitive social worker, he knows he could keep this going for a while. But one night when he sees a young man brought in to the emergency room, apparently set on fire by his classmates, Drew is immediately drawn to the new patient. Drew feels for him, and in some ways he sees a kindred spirit. As he learns more about Rusty’s situation, and eventually gets to know him after he wakes him, Drew begins to wonder if there could be a potential future in which they might leave the hospital together. But before that can happen, Drew needs to face the demons that have kept him in the hospital in the first place–and those just might lead to the undoing of the life he has built.

I think the one word that stands out to me most after finishing this book would be “refreshing.” Drew is far from perfect. And the author does not try to hide or mask that in any way during this book. There is a realness to it that I don’t think I always get from young adult titles, and I found myself really connecting to the material and the characters as a result. An interesting and insightful read.

Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins

Fool's Gold

Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins

Series: The Dragon Lords, Book 1
Published by:
 Orbit on July 19, 2016
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

The Dragon Consortium does not represent what anyone might call benevolent rulers. Much the opposite, they demand outrageous taxes, oppress the people, and seem like they will only get worse as time goes on. But as long as one finds a way to pay the taxes and stay out of their way, they don’t have too much to worry about, right? That’s what Will Fallows thought until the dragon lord Mattrax’s soldiers appear on his doorstep demanding taxes he has already paid (and certainly cannot pay a second time). Threatened with the loss of his farm, a time in debtors’ prison, and the complete destruction of his future, Will manages to escape with his life, knowing he probably will not be able to outrun them for long. But Will happens upon two strapping adventurers in search of a fortune (Lette and Balur), a scholar with an interest in dragons (Quirk), and the old village drunk (Firkin), a plan unfolds to rob Mattrax and use the gold for everyone to find themselves a new life away from the Dragon Consortium. But plans do not always go to, well, plan, and the group quickly finds that they have taken on something that is more than any of them bargained for…

I will start off by saying that this is an entertaining and engaging read. It has all the elements of an epic fantasy, and I do know the story continues with another installment currently available. It’s definitely more of a party-as-protagonist type of story, though, as I would not identify any of the group as the main hero–they are all very much in it together for different reasons and with different challenges in front of them. There are little twists where things go wrong, and there are little twists where things go right in unexpected ways. And I found myself wondering as the book reached the end if everyone would actually make it out alive. You will just have to read to find out…

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Published by: Thomas Crowell on October 21, 1977
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

Jess Aarons lives a simple life for a teenager, helping his parents with the chores, doing his schoolwork, and trying his best to become the fastest runner in school. When a new girl, Leslie Burke, moves in as his new neighbor, all of that changes. For one, Leslie turns out to be a rather fast runner herself. And together they invent Terabithia, an enchanted land that only they can get to or see in the woods near their homes. But fantasies can only last for so long, and a tragic accident shatters their world in a way that leaves Jess wondering if he can ever truly pick up the pieces.

I saw this movie a few years back, and it was one that I certainly enjoyed right away. The book provided an interesting comparison. The movie follows the book pretty well, though I think the book provides a little bit better sense of how Jess feels about his life and the people around him. It’s subtle, which I think is a testament to the way the author has developed the world and the characters, but it’s there. And, overall, I think it adds both to understanding Jess’s motivation and his reactions as we move through the book.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Published by: Viking on October 20, 2016
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

Thomas McNulty is a seventeen-year-old Irish immigrant in the 1850s who decides to enlist in the U.S. Army. It’s not a first-choice sort of decision, but it’s also not like he has a lot of options. His best friend, John Cole, joins up with him, and the two serve as a rock for each other as they are faced with the trials of army life and the viciousness and hardships they must endure. Their lives before the army and after the army are what some might see as unusual, but for Thomas and John, it is what it is. And neither of them would have it any other way.

This is a challenging one to get into as it is written in Thomas’s voice, which is rather affected. But once I found myself getting into the groove of the narration and the story, I found that I really enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s method of storytelling. The adventures of John and Thomas are interesting (though there are some bleak and some violent moments), and they help illustrate the ideas of love and family–the importance of those concepts and the ways in which they can triumph over even some of the most dire circumstances.