A Dream Within a Dream by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of A Dream within a Dream, by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5

I enjoyed the first two Coffey & Hill books (Annabel Lee and The Raven) by Mike Nappa, and the same holds true for A Dream within a Dream. There’s suspense, mystery, action, and even a fun puzzle to locate some stolen art. Though I couldn’t really remember much of what happened in the first two books, it’s not really necessary—enough is explained so that you can get the jist of previous events in order to understand why things are happening.

My same criticisms of the first two books stand, which is the overuse of specific car and gun brands. However, I didn’t really notice it much in this book, so I’ve either gotten used to it or it fit more naturally in the story this time around. I did notice, however, that Nappa (and Kosci—it’s interesting that this book has a co-author while the others don’t) really overused a certain kind of writing style, where something happened at the end of one chapter and the next starts after that event, with the character having a flashback to the resolution. That happened one too many times and it got annoying after a while.

Trudi and Samuel got some interesting character development in this book. I like them both when they’re doing things together, but separate, I found myself liking Trudi more than Samuel. Samuel was just a little too smooth and even cocky in areas. Trudi seemed much more realistic and relatable. Plus, Trudi had the bonus of having Eula and Dream with her, who were great side characters, Dream especially. Overall the characterization was really good and the ending made complete sense in the narrative, closing the book with a sense of finality, but also a sense of a thread that could potentially result in another sequel. 

I really struggled to connect all the plot threads together, but the characters (minus Samuel) were interesting enough that even though I finished the book a little bit confused as to the sequence of events and other plot-related things, I still enjoyed it. Like I said, Trudi, Eula, and Dream really made this book shine. Overall, A Dream Within a Dream was an enjoyable, suspenseful mystery/spy novel with some great characters, and though the plot was dense and some of the stylistic choices I didn’t particularly like, I still ended up barely able to put it down.

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Realistic, Mystery, Christian

Rush by Eve Silver

Rush, by Eve Silver, was published in 2013 by Katherine Tegen.

Rating: 1/5

This book was…bad. I’m not even going to try to sugarcoat it. I actually almost stopped reading it two chapters in (and then continuously thought about stopping), but I decided to keep going so I could write a full review.

So, the premise of this book is that there’s an alien race bent on ruling the world, and in order to defeat them, there’s this Committee (which is like some sort of computer…?) who are pulling people into this “lobby” and making them play a “game” to kill the aliens; any injury they get in the game is magically healed upon their return, unless they die.

If they die in the game, they die for real.

And then there’s time travel or something.

Oh, and there’s a mysterious bad boy who the main character falls in love with who also seems to be slightly manipulative in places? So, that’s a healthy relationship. And let’s not forget the really weird descriptions, like “My disappointment was chalky and bitter, like I had just chewed an aspirin.” And the flagrant misuse of the word “ambivalent.”

The plot is incoherent and makes little sense. There’s a lot of “magic hand-wavey” explanation for the lobby, the game, and the mysterious people running the game. Basically, it’s the way it is and there’s no explanation. There’s very little given about the aliens except for “they want to take over the world.” Jackson, the mysterious boy love interest, smirks and sulks and muscled physique’s his way into Miki’s heart, despite how much she hates him at the beginning. Miki herself turns from “I have no idea what’s going on and I’ll survive by sheer luck” in the first battle to “I can command my team no problem despite having no experience” in the third.

And then there are some side characters, and I don’t remember anything about them.

So, that’s Rush. A mess of bad writing, clunky plot, forgettable characters, and a questionable romance.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Realistic

2020 Newbery Medal: New Kid by Jerry Craft

New Kid, by Jerry Craft, was published in 2019 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 4/5                                          

I’m not really a huge fan of graphic novels. The art is beautiful, sure, but it doesn’t feel quite the same as reading just text. I feel similarly about ebooks—it’s not the same as reading a hardcopy, and I enjoy it much less. To me, something seems missing when I read something like a graphic novel.

That being said, New Kid is a good graphic novel (though admittedly I’ve read approximately three others before this one, so I’m not really that great of a judge) with many important messages in it (perhaps too many). Jordan starts at a new school in an upscale area of town, worlds away from his neighborhood, and has to overcome racial and social boundaries as he navigates this new world. I think younger audiences will love the many, many pop culture references of each chapter, and Craft’s drawings are really good at conveying Jordan’s thoughts and feelings (such as when pre-teen Jordan is replaced with baby Jordan when he feels like his parents are just talking over him), as well as other characters (I particularly enjoyed Alexandra’s “flying” when she got super excited that Jordan talked to her).

There’s a lot of stuff packed into this novel: friendship, racism, bullying, misunderstandings, social classes…there’s almost too much, honestly; by the time the fifth or sixth theme pops in, things start getting a little tired. However, Craft does his best to give some nuance to what could have been an incredibly heavy-handed book, and it helps that all of the characters in the book are incredibly realistic. I loved the part at the end where Jordan does his best to extend an olive branch to the irritating classmate he spent the entire novel clashing with.

I can definitely see why New Kid won the Newbery Medal; especially considering the more recent wins, this book practically screams “Pick me! Pick me!” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have enjoyed a novel, but I have a hard time sinking into different media for stories.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee, by Alan Gratz, was published in 2017 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Refugee tells the story of three children in three different time periods who are forced to leave their home and become, as the title states, refugees. Each chapter switches between the three and often situations and words are linked together to help with the flow. There’s also several surprising connections between the three despite there being a 70-year time range covered.

The children are Josef, a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 on the ship St. Louis; Isabel, a Cuban fleeing Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Syrian fleeing the civil war in 2015. Each are based on true stories, and Gratz has an extensive historical note in the back detailing what was real and what was fictional in each child’s story.

Though I’m not a fan of switching viewpoints every chapter, once I got used to it in this book, I thought it was a good way to tell the story. It helped that Gratz linked the viewpoints together by having the characters think similar things, or have similar situations appear to link the end of one section to the beginning of the next. Though I got a bit aggravated by the cliffhanger endings eventually, Gratz does a great job of keeping the book suspenseful. Though Isabel’s and Mahmoud’s stories were fairly predictable, Josef’s, at least, had a surprising twist at the end that makes his story, at least, far more stark and grim than the other two. And for the most part, Gratz limits preachiness, though at times he delivers his point a little too forcefully.

I’m not sure if younger children will truly understand what Gratz is trying to do with this book (especially since they’re less likely to read all the notes at the end that also detail how to help refugees today), but older children certainly will, and the multiple viewpoints, male and female protagonists, and suspense will appeal to every reader.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Realistic

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart, was published in 2019.

Rating: 3/5                                          

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise has beautiful cover art and an interesting premise: a girl and her dad, after the deaths of her mother and her two sisters, drive around the US in a school bus attempting to escape the memories of the past until the destruction of a hometown park makes the girl determined to remember, rather than forget.

The novel is an interesting look at grief and the way it manifests itself after tragedy, and how people struggle to deal with it even years afterwards. Coyote has learned to keep smiling, even when she doesn’t feel like it, because she knows her dad can’t handle anything else. Yet that means she has been incapable of expressing her own grief the way that’s best for her, and it means that her dad has merely bottled his in and hid it under name changes and avoiding the subject. And, because it’s a story about a family’s grief, it’s also a story about family and friendship, as the companions that Coyote and Rodeo pick up help teach them what it means to love and to remember. There’s maybe one too many modern messages thrown in, like Gemeinhart couldn’t resist a “Take that!” which makes some moments seem really out of place in terms of narrative, and read more like glaring authorial insertions.

It’s a powerful, deep book for a middle grade audience. Honestly, the only thing that really jarred me time and time again was the writing style. Gemeinhart has Coyote wax philosophical many times, as well as tell pretty much everything she learns. By the end of the book, I had to skim over a lot of stuff because I was so sick of Coyote preaching about everything she had learned. For the audience of the book, maybe that was needed so that the heaviness of the book didn’t overtake the author’s message. Yet the lack of subtlety meant that I started gritting my teeth halfway through.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, by Karina Yan Glaser, was published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is the sequel to The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

Rating: 3/5                                          

There are very few book series that I love more and more with each book. Usually it goes the opposite way: I love the first book, and then each successive book pales just a little bit more in comparison to the first. Some series with sequel books that I enjoyed more than the first are The Penderwicks, The Queen’s Thief, and The Squire’s Tales.

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue falls into the former rather than the latter, unfortunately. I loved the first book and thought the second one was good, but not great. This one, I feel, is maybe on par with the second, but I suppose I came into this one expecting just a little bit more than what I got.

I think part of the reason I wasn’t very satisfied with this book was that there was very little character development. The characters act exactly the same as they have done in the previous books. There are small, small moments, but none of those moments seem momentous enough to carry over into any of the next books. Each character is stuck in their established personality. This is much more of a “stuck forever in time” series than a “slowly grows with each book” series. And it was great to have these characters in the first book, but when they’re acting the same way in the third book, it starts wearing a bit thin.

Part of the reason I didn’t quite like the second book was because there were too many neatly-wrapped-up-in-a-bow moments. The same goes for this book, too, with a remarkably cheesy ending and a bit too many perfectly convenient things happening. I like lovable, fun, chaotic books, but I also like books with realism in them, and this book completely started throwing realism out the window in favor for a feel-good atmosphere.

I’ve got nothing against feel-good atmospheres, and honestly, it’s sorely needed in children’s literature. But as an adult reader, I like nuance and complexity thrown in as well, which is what’s lacking in this book. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to throw in the Vanderbeeker towel, but the next book will have to do a lot to keep me interested.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, was published in 2013 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 5/5                                          

The Year of Billy Miller is a charming book about 2nd grader Billy Miller, who starts off the school year with a lump on his head and worries on his mind, but develops better relationships with four people (his teacher, his father, his sister, and his mother) along the way. The book is split up into four sections, each focusing on a particular relationship.

Kevin Henkes has written one of the most realistic second-grader voices I’ve read in recent memory, capturing the perfect mix of courage, trepidation, and growing up and delivering it authentically. Billy is strong in all the right ways, yet has perfectly normal fears and needs, as well. He’s flustered when a classmate mocks his use of “Mama” and “Papa,” he gets annoyed at his little sister (yet will do anything to make her happy), he works to make things right when he gets things wrong. It’s hard to describe how well Henkes writes a seven-year-old; it’s something that needs to be experienced itself.

The book is a fast read, but it doesn’t seem too short. I found it delightful, funny, and charming. I loved the way Henkes navigated through a second-grader’s school year and I loved the focus on relationships. And, since Billy is so young, the book exudes the same air of innocence and lightheartedness that he does. It was a refreshing read after some heavier books, and it put a smile on my face.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish by Bethany Turner

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish, by Bethany Turner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I was not a fan of the other Bethany Turner book I read (The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck), but this one turned out to be a much more pleasant and interesting read, though not without its bobbles along the way.

The premise is that Hadley Beckett, a TV personality chef, after being insulted and belittled by another celebrity chef, Max, then has to deal with his return to her life when they’re both stars of a TV show. Now, I’ve watched a ton of food shows, so I could see how Turner was using the general public’s love of both celebrity chefs and cooking shows (both casual and competitive) and building off of that. And she leaves just enough out so that there’s never anything blatantly untrue or unrealistic in there, though I did notice that she seems to have no knowledge of pre-prepared food dishes that are used frequently in cooking shows (they’re called something specific, but I can’t remember). But everything is described just vaguely enough that she manages to get away without an intimate knowledge of TV.

Bethany Turner writes very much for a younger audience, or perhaps one that’s familiar with pop culture, because she has tons of references and jokes that, while making things genuinely funny, can get a little bit too much after a while. That being said, the book is quite charming and the characterization is good. Max’s change from jerk (for reasons explained, but not given as an excuse) to nice guy is realistic and well-developed. Hadley more or less is there to roll her eyes, shout, smile…whatever the plot calls for, but she also undergoes some changes.

The one big issue I had with this book is one that I also think might be a bit unfair. Basically, though this book is published by a Christian publisher, there is only one religious reference in the whole book. And, while it makes this book much more marketable to other audiences, and the story itself has a good message regardless, I couldn’t help but think about all the things Turner could have done. Rather than having Max overcome his problems strictly through Love and his own power, there was so much opportunity to include the heart of repentance and forgiveness. However, I also know that I’ve been critical of Christian books being too preachy, hence why I said my criticism may be a bit unfair.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic

P. S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

P. S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2013 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to One Crazy Summer.

Rating: 4/5

Williams-Garcia states in the afterword to P. S. Be Eleven that she really wanted the 70s vibe to shine through in this book, and boy, does it. I haven’t read many books set in that decade, but this one seems much more devoted to getting the feel of it down than many others do. It tackles popular slang and vocabulary, Jackson 5 and other music, Vietnam, drugs, and lots of other things, including a discussion about women’s roles in society (back in the time when they couldn’t even have their own credit cards).

I don’t think I still really understand Cecile’s characterization, though at least here I think her personality and thoughts are portrayed better than in the first book (or perhaps I understand them more). Her letters, at first, seemed a little too mysterious, but then once I got what her voice was supposed to be, I was able to enjoy them as a glimpse into Cecile’s character. I also thought her advice for Delphine to be a kid and not worry too much about things she couldn’t control was really good, and I loved the way Delphine reacted to them. Williams-Garcia is great at character development and in making the main character likeable and relatable, but still have struggles that the reader might be able to see beyond (like, rather than get irritated that Delphine is doing X, the reader instead thinks, “Oh, Delphine is having this struggle and she needs to do this thing.”).

I’m enjoying these books and their glimpse into 70s life. I like how Williams-Garcia shows all sorts of different mindsets with her characters: Cecile, very much a “power to the people” person; Big Ma, with her fear of standing out from the crowd and making scenes (probably heavily influenced by growing up in Alabama pre-Civil Rights); and Pa, who’s not like Cecile and not like Big Ma, but in the middle somewhere. It’s incredibly balanced and I appreciate that, plus it gives lots of insights and a more collective view of what people thought and experienced.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Realistic

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, was published in 2018 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

In 1947, India, free from British control, divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Hindus and Sikhs fled the new Pakistan to India, while Muslims went from India to Pakistan. Violence followed. This was the era of Mahatma Gandhi, who later inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The Night Diary is the story of a Hindu family who must leave their home in the newly formed Pakistan and travel across the border to India.

Nisha is the narrator of the story, and it’s told in a very similar fashion to a Dear America novel: journal entries. Nisha writes to her deceased mother the events leading up to the family leaving, the Hindu/Muslim religious tension, and their journey as refugees. Along the way, Nisha questions people’s beliefs and wonders how people who had always been friendly could turn against their neighbors because of this event (the division of the old India into Pakistan and India).

The story is very clearly detailed and told well. It was interesting to me that we get a lot of information of Muslim living (told through Nisha’s eyes), but we actually get very little of the religion Nisha and her family practice, Hinduism, beyond mentions of various Hindu gods. Lots of emphasis is placed on “looks”—Nisha mentions quite a few times how people either “look” or “don’t look” Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim based on what they wear. I don’t think that’s the best marker for identifying religion (in fact, I think it’s really problematic), but I suppose it gets some of the point across to the child readers.

I probably would have rated this book a little higher if it wasn’t for the clunky characterization of Nisha at the end of the novel. At one point towards the end, Nisha gets in trouble for talking to someone, and suddenly she turns into an angsty, self-deprecating girl who vows to never speak again. To me, this did not match her characterization up until that point, and it seemed completely out of the blue and over-the-top. I mean, maybe it was supposed to be a reflection of how traumatizing the journey was for her and this was how it was being displayed, but still, it seemed like Hiranandani pushed a little too far and it didn’t end up quite lining up with the characterization established in the first half of the book.

The Night Diary does a good job of explaining the historical events and atmosphere of 1947 India, and while Nisha seems a little too much like an authorial mouthpiece and not a fully-realized character at times, the story itself is interesting, tense, and heartwarming at the right times. The characterization was clunky and some of the ways Nisha discussed religion was eyebrow-raising, but other than that, this was a delightful novel.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Realistic