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Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts

You’ll need your tissue box for this one folks…well at least I did. Zac has had a few rounds and relapses ofZacAndMia leukemia and is now in the hospital (Room 1) recovering from a bone marrow transplant. It’s pretty much isolation other than the fact that his mother stays with him, despite his entreaties for her to go home.

A new patient enters Room 2. Typically they’re older people but this one seems young. Since the walls are thin (6 centimeters according to Zac who is a numbers, statistics person) he can hear the arguing in the next room. When Lady Gaga is put on a continuous loop, as loud as it can go, Zac’s sure it’s a young girl. It turns out that the pain in her ankle wasn’t due to a sprain. It was cancerous.

Unlikely as it is, since they are both isolated, Zac and Mia develop some sort of friendship through the walls and notes passed back and forth via Nina, the nurse.

Zac and Mia are a contrast in personalities. Zac is the old pro at this and wishes he could tell Mia what to do–crushed ice helps, grilled cheese with ketchup when your taste buds dull due to chemo. He’d also like to tell her that statistically, her chances are 98% that she’ll be cancer free for 5 years once her treatment is over. Mia on the other hand is  mad, belligerent, despondent. Yet, at 3 AM, the cursed hour, when both are up, they communicate through Facebook.

If John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars set the kids with cancer standard, Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts is not far behind. The locale is Australia and is peppered with alpaca and kangaroos. It’s poignant, funny, sad, teary. Readers will fall in love with Mia and Zac, absolutely. While no one can understand what they go through unless they’ve been there, readers will get a good idea.

I’m going out on a limb and saying this will make my Top 10 list this year, it’s that good. So, on a day when you’re indoors, it’s dreary out, and you need to involve yourself in a book, sad story, get out your tissue box, put up a hot chocolate, put your feet under the blanket and read. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. But you’ll be better for it.

 

Here are a few things I learned from Danger is My Business by Lee Server.DangerIsMyBusiness

1. Joseph Shaw, the man credited for making Black Mask the premier mystery pulp magazine was the only person in New York licensed to carry a sword cane. Yes, he had a sword hidden in his cane.

2. The following characters originated in the pulps: Tarzan, Conan, Hopolong Cassidy, the Shadow and Perry Mason.

3. There as actually a sport called Auto Polo. Per Wikipedia: “Auto Polo was a motorsport invented in the United States with rules and equipment similar to equestrian polo but using automobiles instead of horses. The sport was popular at fairs, exhibitions and sports venues across the United States and several areas in Europe from 1911 until the late 1920s; but it was dangerous and carried the risk of injury and death to the participants and spectators.”

4. The following famous authors got their start in the pulps: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Louis L’Amour and Erle Stanley Gardner.

5. An author who got his start in the pulps wrote the well known book They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

6. An assistant editor for the pulp Adventure was the first person to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Who was it? Sinclair Lewis!

Although the title of the book implies that it is about the mystery pulps, it really covers the gamut from sci-fi to romance to adventure to mystery. Danger provides a short, readable history of the pulps, mentioning titles, authors, companies, etc. It has some anecdotes, some writing samples and a whole bunch of interesting trivia.

This is a must for pulp fiction fans.

 

Sam McCain Mysteries by Ed Gorman

TheDayTheMusicDiedI had to review the latest Sam McCain mystery by Ed Gorman entitled Riders on the Storm. Since I was unfamiliar with the series, it prompted me to at least read the first book entitled The Day the Music Died. It is quite an enjoyable series. There are 10 books including the latest, spanning 1958 – 1971 and the titles are the names of songs popular during the year the action takes place.

The setting is Black River Falls, Iowa, a town of approximately 25,000. Everyone knows everyone else and the books aptly portray small town life.

The Day the Music Died: In 1958 the unfortunate deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J. P. the “Big Bopper” Richardson occurred. Sam McCain, small town lawyer and sometimes private investigator is devastated. He saw them the night before in Cedar Rapids with Pamela Forrest, a girl he’s loved since fourth grade who does not reciprocate the feelings.

In the wee hours of the next morning, he is called by Judge Whitney, for whom he investigates. Her nephew, Kenny called her very distraught, and McCain is needed at Kenny’s house. Upon arriving, he discovers Kenny’s wife shot to death and Kenny is brandishing a gun. McCain seems to calm Kenny somewhat, but soon after Kenny manages to go to an upstairs bedroom and shoot his head off.

Bumbling sheriff Cliff Sykes is happy for two reasons: (1) it seems to be an open and shut case of murder/suicide and (2) the Sykes and Whitneys, the two richest families in town, hate each other and revel in ways to drag the others’ name through the mud. However, McCain doesn’t think Kenny murdered his wife and Judge Whitney hangs on to that thought prodding McCain to prove it.

McCain is a plodder. He has no brainstorms, no ah-ha moments. In many respects things happen to him vs. him making things happen. While dealing with the investigation, McCain also has to deal with some family matters and his unrequited love for Pamela. The book also introduces Mary Hardy who loves McCain but whose feelings for her are uncertain. These quandaries carry through to the latest book as well.

Riders on the Storm: It is 1971, the height of the Vietnam War. RidersOnTheStormThe night after Steve Donovan beat up Willie Cullen at an afternoon party in which Donovan announced his Congressional candidacy, he was murdered. Cullen was charged with the crime. Donovan, a recent Vietnam veteran running on a patriotism platform, disliked Cullen, also a veteran, because of his affiliation with a veterans group denouncing the war.  Few of Cullen’s friends think he is capable of murder despite having been institutionalized twice after returning from the war. However, he does have motive, opportunity and means: the murder weapon was found in the back seat of his car. Attorney and private investigator Sam McCain, Cullen’s friend of twenty five years, ‘knows’ Cullen is innocent and sets out to prove it or at least plant reasonable doubt in the mind of the new sheriff. However, it is proving difficult because Cullen is hospitalized again and will not speak.

While trying to prove his friend’s innocence McCain also struggles with his own recent soldiering injuries and commitment issues with his girlfriend Mary. McCain hides neither his anti-war sentiment nor his disgust with politicians supporting the war but managing to keep their sons at home.

McCain can be forceful, humorous and tender. There is little violence but enough action in these books. I enjoy McCain’s liberal slant on the issues of the day. He deals with racism, Communism, abortion, Vietnam.  These are satisfying stories for mystery fans who also like the human side of their detectives. I happen to like a series where the protagonists age and their lives change accordingly and this surely fits the bill.

I will warn you, though. You will not be able to figure out ‘who done it’. If you somehow manage, you have to let me know how you did. I wasn’t even close.

An easy read (two-three days at most) but quite enjoyable.

 

Kenna is Bakered Acted–after being found deliberately cutting herself in the school bathroom she isKissOfBrokenGlass sent for psychiatric evaluation for 72 hours at Adler Boyce Pediatric Stabilization Facility, aka Attaboy,

In this novel-in-verse, Kenna describes her roommate, Donya, rail thin Skylar and cute Jag, both patients and several doctors and nurses. She describes how she started cutting to fit in, always feeling less loved by her mother than her perfect sister Avery. She describes her love for her little brother, Sean. She details why another student, Tara, turned her in to the principal…not necessarily for altruistic reasons.

Kiss of Broken Glass is a compelling novel, in part because it is well written. While not graphic, it gets its point across, the beginnings of cutting, the need to keep doing it, that fact that three days at Attaboy isn’t going to change much…but then again it might be a small start.

The second reason Kiss of Broken Glass is compelling is that it is written from personal experience. In the Author’s Note, Ms. Kiderick tells readers that her daughter was a cutter, exposed to this as early as sixth grade, a statistic I don’t want to even contemplate. Her daughter was caught and as she says “involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act.”

Cut by Patricia McCormick was the first book I read on cutting and quite the book it was. It may very well set the standard by which other books are judged. However, since then there is Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and now Kiss of Broken Glass, which certainly holds its own on this topic.

VeryNearlyHonorableAhoy mateys!!!! Guess what today is!!! The release date of the Terror of the Soutlands.

If yer not reading the Terror of the Southlands, then yer gonna get thrown out of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. This is yer first warnin’.

Hilary Westfield, the Terror of the Southlands herself, hasn’t raised her sword for months and if she doesn’t do something daring like slay a sea monster or defeat a rebel pirate, she is in danger of being tossed from the VNHLP. But when she hears that Eugenie Pimm, the Enchantress has disappeared, she decides to find her, because a pirate must always help a mate. Along with her first mate, Pirate Charlie Dove and her faithful gargoyle, she makes her way to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, to find Miss Pimm gone. But she meets up with her old friend, Claire, who wants to help find the Enchantress and go on an adventure. So off they go, on a rousing sea-faring adventure, the likes of which should put Captain Blacktooth, the very president of this here VNHLP right about The Terror. But, nay, ’cause he’s against this adventure and skullduggery.

But The Terror won’t be bullied because a pirate must NOT forget to be fearsome. Thar’s cannonball blasts and sword fights and rope tying and rescuing in this yarn. Thar’s pirating and disguising and magic. Thar’s grog drinkin’ and mast climbing and skullduggery galore.

So, if’n yar goin’ to be a right proper pirate, then it’s the Terror of the Southlands that should be on the night stand in yer cabin. Don’t make me give you a second warnin’. Us pirate types are short on patience and my sword hand is itchin’.

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang

FallingIntoPlaceIt is amazing to me that anyone can write a book; that they have ideas that they can verbalize for 200 pages and make people want to read them. The fact that a high school student can write a book, and a good one at that, is even more amazing to me. But Amy Zhang did it with Falling Into Place.

Liz Emerson is a high school junior when she plows her mother’s Mercedes into a tree at high speed—on purpose. Unfortunately the attempted suicide failed, at first. A boy who has loved her from afar since 5th grade, Liam, saw the wreckage on the side of the road and called 911. The paramedics come and transport her to the hospital. There is extensive bodily damage, as you can imagine, and several surgeries are required. It is touch and go.

What Zhang did with this book is delve into why Liz is what she is–a bully, an in-crowd bully. No one is immune to her barbs and her influence, even her best friends Julia and Kennie. The chapters go back and forth in time. There’s a chapter “55 Days Before Liz Emerson Crashed Her Car” and then “5 Days…” and then “45 Days…” There are chapters after the accident. There is an unknown narrator in some chapters marked “Snapshot”. However, it works.

Zhang clearly delineates between the kids who truly care about Liz (Liam, Julia and Kennie) and status seeking friend wannabees who visibly weep, congregate at the hospital and talk about how wonderful Liz is. Liz is a real person who sees what she is, wants to change but can’t. She wants to make amends but doesn’t know how. The parents in Falling Into Place do not come off well in this book. They are absent, unobservant, domineering and the impact on their children is evident.

Readers will like the people they’re supposed to like (Liz being among these) and dislike those they were meant to dislike.

If Zhang can write a book like Falling Into Place as a high schooler, imagine what she’ll write as she matures and hones her craft. Read this so you can say you knew her when (and because it’s worth reading!).

 

MountaintopI don’t know what to make of The Mountaintop School for Dogs by Ellen Cooney. I read a good review somewhere and since I like dogs, I thought what the heck. I might as well try it. Hmmm!

Evie is 24 and has had an unsettling life. She’s just left some kind of “program”. Against everyone’s better judgment, she applies to the Sanctuary to become a dog trainer…and gets accepted…despite leaving half the application questions unanswered. The Sanctuary is on some remote mountain and they rescue dogs. (One might say they rescue people as well.)

Her first stop is the inn at the bottom of the mountain run by Mrs. Auberchon, a 60-70 year old who’s been running the inn for years. She vascillates between relishing her solitude on the premise that recruits always leave a mess (there weren’t any recruits prior to Evie arriving) and relishing company.

It seems like Evie is not really going to receive much in the way of training. She’ll merely have to experiment to learn how to train dogs.

While learning how Evie comes to terms with her life, one also learns of the horrendous cruelty some people perpetrate against dogs: dog fights, choke collars, beatings. Your heart will go out to our four footed friends who typically give unconditional love. Can Evie make them forget about their past. Can they make her forget about her past?

Evie and Mrs. Auberchon are memorable characters. Boomer, an old golden retriever, took my heart. But are they enough to carry the book? I’m just not sure.

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