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Book Review: Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Publisher’s description

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller This Is Where It Ends comes another unforgettable story of loss, hope, betrayal, and the quest for truth

Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated—and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets—chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

before iYour number one thought while reading this book will be WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA? The one word that will crop up most in your thoughts as you read is OMINOUS. Trust me. 

 

The last Corey knew, her best friend Kyra had been receiving treatment for her bipolar disorder through both medication and therapy. There had been talk of her getting further help at a facility in Fairbanks. But now Kyra is dead, and the entire tiny town of Lost Creek, Alaska (a tight-knit community that doesn’t take kindly to outsiders) seems to view her death as an inevitable act that not only was foretold, but was good and necessary. It was her time. Her time! Yep. The girl was mentally ill and now the town is saying that it’s okay she died (she fell through the ice) because she had found her purpose and served it.

Again, may I point you back to WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN LOST CREEK, ALASKA?

Corey’s family moved from Lost Creek a while back, so the closed community now considers her an outsider. They are NOT HAPPY that she has returned to town and that she is horrified by what she begins to uncover about the way the town was treating Kyra and the things that led up to her death. Kyra’s mother claims that Kyra was happy near the end, that she’d changed, that she’d found her place (in a town that, last Corey has seen, shunned Kyra because of her bipolar disorder). Her mother tells Corey that Kyra was no longer receiving any treatment, but that love and belonging made her better. Thank goodness Corey knows that’s garbage. She digs around to find the truth of what was going on in Lost Creek and is shocked when she learns just how exactly the town was “embracing” Kyra.

Parts of the story are told through letters and flashbacks. Through these, we learn more about what Kyra was actually going through and feeling as well as more about the history of Kyra and Corey’s friendship (like the fact that pansexual Kyra and asexual Corey shared a kiss that briefly seemed to complicate things).

There is a LOT to discuss here regarding mental health. Lost Creek treats her first as an outcast, then as a prophet—both extremely troubling notions. If we didn’t have Corey in the mix, pointing out how ludicrous all of that is, reminding us that therapy and medication treat mental illness, not some completely messed up idea of “belonging” and “love” (that’s not love, Lost Creek), I probably would’ve literally thrown this book across the room. Kyra’s mental illness is romanticized by the people of Lost Creek, and while Nijkamp (and Corey) take her illness seriously and are concerned, no one else in town does. Kyra is exploited and never properly supported. She is abandoned. It is shocking that anyone, much less a whole town, would treat ANYONE, much less someone with mental illness, this way. They are cruel, ill-informed, and, frankly, awful people. Nearly all of them—nearly all of the town. We never really learn how or why an entire town became so terribly cruel. I hope readers will really pay attention to Corey’s point of view, and understand that what the town did was deeply wrong, yes, but what Kyra’s parents did, the people who should have been advocating for her and TREATING her, was much, much worse. Despite the entire town feeling like Kyra was magical and served some grand purpose (and then died), it’s clear that untreated mental illness is a terrible thing, and that Lost Creek is one messed up place. Hand this to readers who like spooky-feeling stories that will leave them rather enraged at the gross injustice of a life lost. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781492642282
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 01/02/2018

Book Review: City of Angels by Kristi Belcamino

Publisher’s description

city of angelsNikki Black has been self-imposed lone wolf since her mother died, fleeing suburban Chicago to escape her painful past. But when her so-called boyfriend reveals why he really lured her to Southern California, she ends up on the streets of Los Angeles with only the clothes on her back and a destitute twelve-year-old named Rain following in her shadows. The girls seek refuge at a residential hotel above a punk rock bar in downtown L.A. a few months before the city erupts into chaos during the 1992 riots that nearly razed the city of angels to the ground.

At The American Hotel, Nikki makes friends and, for the first time in years, feels as if she has a real family again. But everything changes when Rain disappears. Everyone believes Rain succumbed to the seductive allure of addiction and life on the streets, another life lost that seemingly nobody will miss—except for Nikki. Determined to find Rain, Nikki burrows deeper into the underbelly of a city that hides darkness beneath the glamour. And when she unveils a sinister cover-up by a powerful group that secretly controls the city of angels, she could lose everything, including her life.

City of Angels is an edgy, gritty, and riveting Young Adult mystery about a young woman’s struggle to not only belong ― but survive.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Nikki thought escaping to L.A. with Chad, a decade-older guy she barely knew, would get her away from all of her problems. Unsurprisingly, it just lands her in a whole new set of problems.

 

Nikki’s family has fallen apart–her addict mother is dead and her father, unable to cope, blames Nikki and cuts all ties with her. Once in L.A., she meets Chad’s director friend, the one who will (of course) make her a star–except that’s not true at all. The sketchy (but powerful) director and Chad would like to put her in some films, yes, but they’re child porn flicks. She manages to get out of the director’s house with Rain, a 12-year-old she meets there, in tow. Now not only is she homeless in L.A., where she knows no one, but she’s got this young girl with her. Nikki finds a cheap room in the American Hotel, above a punk rock bar, where she hopes Rain will stay, too. But Rain’s hooked on heroin and Nikki, not only scarred by her mom’s drug use and death but totally out of her element here, has to help her detox. It’s just another thing that Nikki unexpectedly finds herself dealing with. Thankfully, the other residents of the hotel are friendly and help her with Rain. But when Rain takes off–and appears to be kidnapped–things become really interesting.

 

In addition to waitressing and trying to survive on her own in L.A., Nikki now is wrapped up in figuring out who took Rain and still worrying about being found by Chad and the director she escaped from. Before long, people she interacted with are ending up dead. Nikki and her hotelmates work to put all the pieces of this mystery together, finally focusing their investigation on people associated with The Church of the Evermore Enlightened and the Star Center, a Scientology-like group full of celebrities and secrets. They begin to amass evidence that points to who took Rain, but have learned that the LAPD has many members in cahoots with the Star Center people, so they’re unsure what to do with their information when it seems like they can’t trust anyone. Things come to a head as the city explodes in the aftermath of the verdict in the Rodney King case. Nikki and friends make their way through the more-dangerous-than-usual city in hopes of saving Rain, but learn that nothing is as it has seemed.

 

Belcamino usually writes for adults, and her foray here into YA is good for older readers looking for a little more edge and slightly older characters in their YA books (Rain–who is absent most of the book– and Nikki are younger than the rest of the residents of the hotel). Though at times the plot requires a suspension of disbelief, and Nikki makes some choices that will leave readers shaking their heads, this is a well-paced story full of plenty of action and distinct, diverse characters. Nikki is tough, resourceful, determined, and just the right amounts of naive, sheltered, and foolish. This gritty look at the life of a runaway girl trying to keep off the streets in early 90s L.A. will easily appeal to fans of mysteries and thrillers. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781943818433

Publisher: Polis Books

Publication date: 05/09/2017

Book Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Publisher’s description

dreamlandSome bodies won’t stay buried.
Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past… and the present.

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

That description up there does not at all capture how completely absorbing this book is. Which is good, because it also doesn’t give too much away and you’ll get to discover on your own just how compelling and unpredictable this story is.

 

Narrative duties are split between contemporary teenager Rowan, a biracial girl (her dad is white, her mom is black) in Tulsa and William, a 17-year-old in Tulsa in 1921. William is also biracial–his dad his white and his mother is Osage Indian. The bulk of the story is really William’s, though Rowan and her friend James (who is also biracial–black and Native American–and asexual) do the investigating that starting putting pieces of the mystery together. Rowan has her own story line, too—it’s just not as big as William’s. James calls Rowan out for living in a bubble. James is into social justice and immigration reform and doesn’t let Rowan get away with statements like “things are better now.” He schools her about racism, power, and privilege, leading her to taking a summer job at a clinic in an impoverished area (that’s less dangerous than just forgotten, she notes) when her other internship falls through. Here, she befriends people she otherwise wouldn’t have known. And though they are set nearly 100 years apart, it’s no surprise that the racism that drives William’s story is also a strong force in Rowan’s story. An unexpected incident propels Rowan to action—and, surprisingly, begins to weave her story more tightly with William’s.

 

William, who we follow in 1921, is sort of thoughtlessly racist, as you might expect a young boy in Tulsa, Oklahoma at this time to be. Language of the era permeates his story, with terms like “mongrel,” “half-breed,” “Negro,” and the n-word frequently used. William instigates a scene at a local speakeasy when he sees the white girl he likes hanging around with a black boy. He doesn’t think what consequences his actions may have when he and his friend lie and say he was attacked by the boy. But soon, he does start to think more about racism, and begins to look beyond the expectations of how a white boy in this era should act and think, when he meets siblings Joseph and Ruby Goodhope. William meets them at his father’s Victrola shop, where, despite Jim Crow laws, they sometimes sell to black people on the sly. And while William’s dad agrees to sell Joseph a Victrola, and even allows him to finance it, he won’t write him a receipt—he can’t risk the proof of the sale falling into the wrong hands. It’s through this sale, and the issue of the receipt, that William and the Goodhope siblings begin to interact. Young Ruby, who is irritating in that special way that pesky little sisters can be, starts to grow on William. So when things come to a head in his town and the KKK and other white citizens begin rounding up black people, killing them, and burning their neighborhoods, William’s first concern is making sure Joseph and Ruby are safe. And while we know the skeleton under Rowan’s family’s guest cottage floor belongs to someone from William’s story, we’re not sure who. Nothing is revealed quickly, and just when you think you’re sure you’ve figured it out, Latham reveals unexpected details that make you throw that theory out.

 

Maintaining two timelines with two narrators and keeping both equally interesting is not an easy task. Latham ties the stories together enough that we see parallels without being hit over the head with them. Both narrators are complicated, interesting figures, but seeing William’s emotional and intellectual journey is the far more satisfying story. Equally as satisfying is how Latham brings us to the end of the mystery. The tight pacing and action-packed, unpredictable plot make this book fly by. An author’s note at the end tells more about the race riots in Tulsa in 1921 and examines the controversial term. The note also points out a few resources for further reading. This book—a contemporary story, historical fiction, and a mystery, all at once—will have wide appeal. A gripping look at a shameful time in America’s history and (not that we need it) a reminder of how slow progress really is. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780316384933

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 02/21/2017

Book review: Vanished by E.E. Cooper

In E.E. Cooper’s Vanished, Kalah is left to put together the pieces of a mystery after one of her best friends disappears and another commits suicide.

 

Kalah, a junior, is newly best friends with seniors Beth and Britney, who have a long history of fighting and making up. Kalah and Beth have been hooking up, unbeknownst to Britney (and to Kalah’s boyfriend or anyone else, for that matter). Kalah feels closer to Beth, but Beth has a history of not getting involved or attached, so it’s hard to know how she really feels about Kalah. Britney is moody, jealous, and controlling. She’s extremely concerned with her image, going so far as to lie about getting into every Ivy League school she applied to. Kalah knows this new friendship is fragile, but she’s desperate to reconcile her public and private self and show who she really is. She intends to tell Beth how she really feels and what she wants (to be with her) on the night of Beth’s 18th birthday. But that plan goes away when Beth disappears to get some “space.”

 

Kalah is devastated that Beth left without even so much as a goodbye. She’s also, rightfully so, extremely worried, but Britney gives the impression that she knows more about Beth’s disappearance and that it’s fine. In fact, nobody seems super alarmed that she’s gone. She’s 18, she wanted some space, she’s clearly fine, let it go. Things become murkier when Jason, Britney’s boyfriend, is taken in for questioning after eyewitnesses report seeing him arguing with and then making out with Beth. Kalah isn’t sure who or what to believe, a feeling that intensifies when Britney leaves a suicide note and disappears. No body is found, but she’s presumed dead. Kalah tries desperately to get in touch with Beth, but when she finally hears back from her, she starts to wonder if maybe the truth of all of this is far more complicated and insidious than anyone could imagine.

 

There is a lot going on in this book beyond the main plot. Kalah repeatedly references her anxiety and OCD, and talks about having spent some time in therapy and the various ways her therapist helped her learn how to cope with these things. Her mother suggests she go back to therapy after all of this happens, an idea Kalah is resistant to. Kalah also has never been attracted to a girl before and doesn’t know how to tell anyone about it, or if she wants to. When she does tell her brother and her mother that she loved Beth, they are kind, loving, and sympathetic. This book also features lots of odious adults—nosy reporters, and oversharing and pushy officer, and absent or terrible parents (particularly Britney’s racist mother).

 

The ending of the book leaves a lot of room for interpretation—do we believe the story Kalah has put together or the one presented to her—and ends on a total cliffhanger. The pace of the book really ramps up about halfway through and manages to sustain the suspense and mystery all the way to the last word. My only real quibbles with the book are the slow start, the too similarly named main characters (Beth and Britney—took me a while to keep them straight), and the less well-developed secondary characters. It’s also hard to feel like we really know Beth or Britney because they both spend much of the story gone—they’re really gone before we get to see much of them. Over all, though, this a was a compelling read, one that will be a hit with fans of suspense stories and plot twists. An easy recommendation for a wide audience of readers. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS

ISBN-13: 978006229390

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 5/12/2015

Series: Vanished Series #1

Book Review: Finding Paris by Joy Preble

Finding Paris by Joy Preble

Spoiler-free part of the review:

Sisters Paris and Leo (Leonora) always look out for one another. Throughout their mother’s many boyfriends and their many moves, they’ve found comfort in sticking together. Paris has recently graduated from Las Vegas High. Leo is focused on her future, busy studying for the SATs and dreaming of going to Stanford and then becoming a doctor. She can’t wait to leave Las Vegas, and her gambling stepfather (Tommy) and blackjack dealing mother, behind. She gets to do just this, even if just for a handful of hours, much sooner than she expected when her sister disappears and send her on a wild chase across Las Vegas and LA.

 

What seemed like a routine night out—stopping at the diner Paris works at for some pie—takes a giant turn when they meet Max, a boy sitting in another booth, reading a physics book. Paris encourages Leo to talk to him, then ditches out, taking the car and leaving Leo without her wallet, her phone, or a way to get home. It seems like Paris is maybe playing some dumb joke—leave Leo with the cute new boy—but when they find a note she left behind, it becomes more confusing. “Stay calm, Leo. This is the only way. He’s making me. You have to find me.” Understandably, Paris’s message worries Leo. Why is this the only way? Who is “he”? Where is Paris? To find out these answers, Max and Leo set off on a scavenger hunt, finding note after note urging Leo along, eventually sending them to Los Angeles. Along the way, Max and Leo, who just met hours earlier, slowly reveal bits of their personal stories. It seems odd that Max would be game for trying to find the sister of a girl he barely knows, but it all makes sense once the entire story comes to light.

 

The whole story has a constant undertone of desperation and sadness. Things seem seedy, possibly ominous, and revelations about big pieces of the plot and major aspects of the characters are slow to come. Careful readers will quickly understand that this is not just some mystery or caper story. There is something else going on. And even if you think you know what that something else is, you are probably wrong. The dramatic culmination of the chase makes everything (heartbreakingly, horrifyingly) clear, with a major plot twist that won’t necessarily be seen coming at all. The tension will make readers race to the end of the story, and the conclusion will make them want to start the book over again to see what they may have missed. While this is a mystery and (less so) a romance, it is the much darker and more serious elements of the story that make this a hard book to put down and an even harder book to forget.

 

The spoilers:

Don’t read this if you want to go into this story not knowing what the major reveal is. I hadn’t read anything about this book, so while I could see some things going on under the surface, I wasn’t prepared at all for where the book took me. This is a good thing. It was unexpected and truly caught me off guard. So really, go away right now if you want to read this book and discover on your own what happens. GO NOW!

 

 

Still here? Okay. You sure? Okay. Hi, here are spoilers:

 

Something is up with Tommy, the stepdad. He seems creepy. Preble has done an outstanding job of having this character that we don’t see a whole lot of come across as completely icky. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Paris is trying to protect Leo from someone. It starts to seem likely that the story we are not seeing is that Tommy has sexually assaulted Paris in some way. Leo starts to put this story together as she and Max drive all over. Near the end, Leo finds out Paris has taken a gun from a friend’s house and Leo is sure that this whole scavenger hunt was just designed to keep Leo out of the way while Paris hunts down and kills Tommy for whatever he has been doing to her.

 

When Leo and Max find Paris, Leo repeatedly tells her it will be okay, that Tommy won’t hurt her anymore, that he won’t touch her again. But it’s not Paris that Tommy has been raping—it’s Leo. It’s Leo. In the chapters that follow, we learn that Tommy has been repeatedly sexually assaulting her. Paris has kept waiting for Leo to say something to her about it, but Leo never has. Now the truth is out and it remains just Paris and Leo together, watching out for each other. Their mother, who always sides with Tommy, keeps asking Leo, “You’re telling the truth?” It is heartbreaking to watch her mother doubt her, to watch the girls move out, to hear from Leo what has been going on. Leo feels that Max’s protection during this horrible scene that reveals the truth is “a gift I do not deserve.” She can’t imagine Max will want anything to do with her now that he knows the truth about her. She thinks about how she trusted Max “because if a random stranger was good, then so was I.” Watching her process (slowly) what has happened and think about what this means for her life and her relationships is so painful.

 

There is so much to discuss here—the family dynamics, the silence, the secrets, the distrust, the suspicion, the denial, the shame and more. Because of the late reveal about the sexual violence, it forces readers to rethink what they think they know about the story and the characters. It also makes readers think about what the future will hold for Leo. This is a great addition to the list of titles that discuss sexual violence. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062321305
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4/21/2015