Last Couple Standing by Matthew Norman

4.5 stars Fiction

This was not the story that I had expected to read when I picked up this book.  I was expecting the story to be more humorous and reckless but it wasn’t.  The story didn’t make light of the situations that these individuals were in, these characters were realistic and natural. I found myself enjoying this book more than I thought I would.

They call themselves the Core Four. From college graduation, to attending each other weddings, to moving out to the suburbs together, these four individuals have been together through it all. It’s like one big extended family, as all the spouses and kids all get along.  It seems like a perfect world for these individuals until one of the couples decides that their marriage is over.  The “d” word has shattered this image. 

This news shakes the group and I immediately start thinking, “the grass always looks greener on the other side.”  I know that others in their group will start to follow them soon but many questions run through my head.  Will they all divorce?  Will they turn on one another? They’ve been together a long time as a group, will they stay together?  What if “the grass is not greener?”  What is dating like now? They won’t start dating each other, will they?

It wasn’t long before, three out of the four couples divorced or had started the process of divorcing and only one couple remained with their wedding rings still on. Whew! One couple made it!! But wait, it’s not over yet.  The couple has started contemplating their position now.  Do they really want to be married?  Do they really love each other?  Divorce is such an extreme option but what other choice do they have?  

This book was a reality check. I liked how the group stayed together and how they tried to help each other when events in their life changed.  Being unmarried and single seemed like a great idea, yet they didn’t really see the whole picture. As they projected their positive image to others, what was really going on inside? The options available to them as an uncommitted adult looked wonderful and exciting, until they lived it. The married couple and the choice that they made; I kept wondering how long it was going to last.  I could feel this couple’s emotions as they tried to carry through with their plans but there were other things they were contending with. 

I really enjoyed how realistic this book felt. Nothing was over-the-top and the characters each had their own identity.  I laughed and smiled as the characters moved through their life, trying to make the best of their choices and their situations. A great story with interesting characters.  

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

4 stars Mystery

It was their annual trip, situated on a secluded campground, for which the everyone was planning on attending.  She had ordered enough food for weeks, which was good as an unprecedent amount of snowfall fell while they were there. Then, they found the body.  It was finally discovered after hours of searching but the question on everyone’s mind was why and who?  Why would someone do this and who amongst them is the guilty party?  They are in a secluded area yet its size is massive enough to hide the likes of other unwanted guests. 

This year’s New Year’s mini-vacation was going to be a snapshot of all their previous years. They had been coming together since their days at Oxford but now their group was getting bigger. These few days gave the group, a chance to catch-up, a year of activity and to reminisce about their college years. I enjoyed the diversity amongst the group and how some of them had changed over the years.  It was entertaining how some individuals continued in the path they set in college and how some had matured and started to become adults.

As they arrived, the Gamekeeper (yes, that is what he was called) arrived to take them to the lodge and their cabins.  Doug was shifty guy, I thought, from the moment the author introduced him and I kept waiting for more information on him as I read.  The image I had of him was disturbing (and hysterical, if I thought about it) and I know he couldn’t have looked that way or no one would have gone near him.  The place was perfect, and secluded. Have I mentioned that? There is also a woman Heather, who runs the place who seems nice but as you read, you learn she has some secrets.  Oh, let’s not forget Iain.  Iain is the hired hand at the lodge and does odd jobs.  Yep, you don’t hear much about him but what I read, I definitely want to know more about him.

They discover that there’s another couple staying at a section of the lodge, who are more prepared for the elements of this secluded site than our large party but let’s not concern ourselves with these Icelandic individuals.

Oh, it’s a grand time at the lodge, partying and living the good life, well at least for some of the group.  There are those who are in the spotlight and those who are hugging the wall, just watching the scenes unfold. This was interesting how these individuals took to the group and how their lives had evolved over time.  Was there anyone who was watching the whole group?  There had to be a “fly on the wall,” taking in the group’s interactions and conversations, privately and openly. 

I’m not so sure I enjoyed all the flashing back that occurred in the book.  The chapters were set up in 3 Days Earlier, 2 Days Earlier and Now fashion and then, we would read about different characters views on that day.  I had to stop for a minute and tell myself where I was in the story as time shifted, for events that occurred really made a different in what day you were in.  I liked the mystery surrounding the death and how the author laid that out.  I was right about one part of it but I had many individuals who I thought could be the second half of it.  It was a fun book and I was glad that I read it. 4 stars.

Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth by Sheila O’Connor

5 stars Middle School

Covers can be deceiving and this one truly was.  I thought the cover of this book looked dull yet the inside of the book was just the opposite.  Written in letter correspondence, I found myself on an incredible journey with Reen, as she tries to save her family.  What started out as a business correspondence between Reen and Mr. Marsworth turned into something more impressive than they both expected. 

Reen and her older two brothers have been living with their grandma, since their mother’s death. Since Reen has no other friends, she hangs out with her youngest brother Dare.

Mr. Marsworth was a customer on Reen’s paper route and she needed important information to do her job.  Known as a loner/recluse, Reen (11), takes to paper and pencil to get the answers she needs.  In his responsive letter, he’s right to the point but that’s not the end of this. Reen keeps the letters flying a few times back and forth. Reen is a talker but in this case, a writer, and so she does, to Mr. Marsworth.  Soon, it’s just Reen writing and waiting, waiting for a reply from her new friend.  I really got impatient and angry too, why wasn’t he responding to her and when she pleaded to him to respond, what was he doing?

Reen begins to pour out her heart to Mr. Marsworth in her letters. It’s not just the newspaper information she needs now but she needs a friend, someone she can talk to. I could feel the love, the anxiety and the desperation in her words as she wrote.  She wrote him about her day, her issues and she’d ask him some questions.  She found that there are some questions that Mr. Marsworth just couldn’t answer.  Those questions were too difficult and/or he just wasn’t ready to answer them for her.   How Reen handled this really said a lot about Reen, I thought.  What she had with Mr. Marsworth meant more to her than the answers.  Now, that is good stuff!

The story occurs in 1968 when the Vietnam War was on everyone’s mind including Reen’s. Her old brother, Billy’s future is on the line: college, sign up for the military, or be drafted?  For Reen, there is only one answer and she’s determined to make that happen.

Reen also has been corresponding with a soldier in the war.  She received his name from her teacher as part of a project. Reen now knows first-hand what war is all about.  I loved how she takes this project seriously and how much time she devotes to it.  

That ending was fabulous!  I had suspected something an ending like that but nothing as involved as that.  I had to get out the tissues as the tears were flowing and I couldn’t stop them.  What an awesome book!!  Good heavens!! Can someone erase my brain so I can read it over again??  I loved it!

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Rauf

5 stars Middle School

Loved, loved, loved this book!  Why?  It’s about three boys who have “adopted” a new student in their classroom.  I loved how they just took him under their wings and how they all matured and grew throughout the book.  The book addresses bullying, friendship, family issues, and cultural differences.

I’ve been singing high praises for his book since I finished it. I didn’t think I would love this book so much but after every page, I loved London so much!

London has three best friends.  When the school year starts, there is one empty chair in the classroom.  That chair is right next to Clarissa, the girl who hates boys, for boys are stupid and smelly. They’ve been in a school almost a month, when Ahmet joins their classroom.  Looking sad and scared, Ahmet sits in that empty chair while London watches.  Later, London talks to his friends and he asks them to take on the promise that he has made: to be Ahmet friend.

I found myself smiling and enjoying this read as the boys get to know one another.  It’s a difficult task with a language barrier (Ahmet speaks Kurdish)and with time constraints at school but they try different tactics including fuzzy-coated lemon drops, fruit, and listening to other people’s conversations.  

I especially loved chapter five.  The emotions just poured out of this chapter. London talks about his mother and his love and respect for her.  He speaks about his father and his feeling about him.  London discusses his admiration for his Uncle Lenny. London has a heart-to-heart conversation with his mother, he then asks, “What is a refugee kid?” and she explains this to him.  London makes a list of questions that he wants to ask Ahmet, this list is so cute. 

“I always sit in the chair next to the fridge because I like being able to open the fridge door without getting up.  It’s like looking into an extra room in the house – but one that’s filled with food.”

I enjoyed listening to Ahmet tell his own story to the class, about his life in Syria and his journey. The book included a variety of reactions that show the positive and the negative views that individuals (children and adults) have about refugees in our society today.  I think it’s good that children see this difference in opinion, so they can understand and learn how to handle the diverse opinions.   

I had many goosebump moments, many yes! moments and I did shed some tears while reading this book.  I can’t believe that this is the author’s debut novel.  I’ve got you on my radar now, Orjali Rauf.  You are a rock star!  I absolutely adored this book from start to finish. This book was an absolute joy to read.

“Sometimes words hung around longer than people, even when you don’t want them to.”

“words can hurt more than punches, because when you get a bruise or a bump after being punched, it disappears after a while and you can forget all about it. But words can stick around for a long time, and the meanest words stick around the longest. “

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson

5 stars Graphic Novel

I loved this graphic novel.  I could feel the dedication and love throughout this book.  I still get teary-eyed thinking about this graphic novel and the situations that these young boys went through.  It is such a fantastic book; I cannot say enough about it but I highly recommend that you read it.  Read it yourself, read it to your children, buy a copy for your classroom and even buy a copy and donate it to someone as this story needs to be told.

They used to live in Somalia.  Now, they live in Kenya, in a refugee camp called Dadaab.  Individuals who want to live come here from Sudan, Ethiopia, and other African area, this is home.  Dadaab is a huge camp, so large that they divided it into 3 separate camps.  Omar came here with his little brother, Hassan.  They’ve been there for seven years.  Yes, I said seven years!

Where’s their parents? Good question and one the boys want to know.  Who is taking care of them? Omar is taking care of Hassan as best as he can for a young brother.  He’s been missing out on school to take care of his brother. They’ve also been assigned a woman (like a foster mother) Fatuma, to help them. This woman was amazing too, she truly cared for these boys like they were her own.  Inside the camp, the boys have their own tent across the way from Fatuma.  Many days, the boys were hungry.  Hassan only says one word yet the brothers communicate. 

When Omar finally gets the chance to go to school, he is torn.  Leaving his brother behind, Omar worries for his brother yet he knows this opportunity for him will open doors for their future.  The boys still question their parent’s whereabouts and their village.  They wonder about returning home yet Omar knows the danger that lies outside the camp.

With bright, colorful illustrations and easy-to-read font, I was emerged into the brother’s story.  It was captivating, interesting, and powerful.  Omar fought for a better life, there were wonderful successes and moments of frustration and struggles yet he continued on. 

Fantastic graphic novel.  Definitely read the afterword that is located at the back of the book. I went through many emotions reading this book and I highly recommend it.    

Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding

4.5 stars Mystery

This, this was like, amazingly good.  I loved how the two stories connected and then wow!  To me, the story led me down some dark streets as the characters were dealing with some pretty heavy issues.  Disturbing issues.  These are the books that have my eyes glued to the pages, every word is engrained in my head, and I can’t stop thinking about these individuals, that have consumed me, no matter how loud my life has become.

When her son Marcus gets accepted into the Academy, Frances thought her life was now headed into the right direction. Boy, she was wrong.  Not fitting the Academy image, Frances finds that she’s not even close to the holding the ticket. After an incident, she slides further down the ladder until she meets Kate.

Hello Kate! Kate was also a new mother at the Academy.  Kate, was one individual that you loved and you also hated. You hated her because she’s so perfect and you loved her because she’s so perfect.  Kate has a son named Charles and teenage daughter, Daisy.  Charles becomes friends with Marcus and is a huge help to him. As I was reading, I kept wondering when would Charles’ moment be? When would he turn on Marcus?  Was he really as nice as he seemed to be?  Daisy was a teenager with loose strings, she seemed to be running wild yet looking at Kate, you would think she would have this child under her wings.  

As the families come together, their friendships build, the trust between them becomes dependable.  With talk of their past and the secrets that they have kept hidden, it’s no wonder their current lives are in the shape that they are in.  I enjoyed the book’s twists and I highly recommend this book.  4.5 stars

All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban

5 stars YA

The teens each arrived to their destination, following the details of the invitation that they each received.  They were looking forward to a fun-filled evening.  After all the years of studying, staying up late, and doing countless problems, they were finally getting their reward. Yet, as the teens looked around the room and did the math, they realized the numbers weren’t adding up. Then, someone noticed the something strange in the room and the note.  What kind of a reward were they getting tonight?  And who, just shut the door?

As they read the note, a more serious mood replaces the relaxed atmosphere that once inhabited the room. They had just one hour, one hour to pick someone to die.  Was this a joke?  Who would do something like this? Now what?

I liked the premise of this book as it sounded like something that I could really get into. In a book like this, I always wonder what I would do as I read what the characters were actually doing. It was interesting how the author chose such a variety of individuals to lock inside this room together but in the end, it all made sense.

The novel continues to switch from present to past tense throughout the book, to tell the whole story.  I wondered sometimes if it would have been a better story if just one of the characters told us the story from the past instead of having us readers switch back and forth.  I know some readers hate (I know hate is a powerful word) books that have the back-and-forth reading.  I felt in this book, that I was doing A LOT of switching back and forth, almost too much for me.  Did I like any of the characters?  Not really. There were quite a few of them to keep track of and I thought a few of them were self-centered.

I enjoyed the book and the twists that came with it.  After I finished reading it, I got to thinking, wow, this all happened in one hour!  They only had a one-hour time limit.  That sure was a ton of stuff to happen and think about in one hour.  The book addresses depression, suicide, and bullying.

We Dream of Space by Erin Kelly

5 stars Middle School

They lived under the same roof but they’re all living separate lives. Three siblings and their parents, coexisting at the same address.  Cash walked with a dark cloud over his head, as he was failing 7th grade for the second time.  He also worrying about his bench seat on the basketball team.  His brother, Fitch is an arcade wizard, who begins to get a temper when he’s harassed by his peers. Oh, why did you have to get involved with the girls, Fitch?

Then, there is Bird.  She writes instructional manuals, a job that she takes very seriously.  She’s a wonderful student, has great self-esteem: Bird’s life is good. One visit to a friend’s house changes all of this for Bird. 

The parents should be the connecting element with these siblings but they don’t connect.  The parents sit in their own corners; one reading and one watching the television.  We’re told there is a lot of verbal fighting between the two of them, with some of it escalating to items being thrown.  It’s sad that their children don’t get much support from them but I had to smile while reading, as the sibling created ways to work around this.

What I enjoyed about this book was the moments that were eye-opening experiences or experiences that made the siblings grow.  At the beginning of the book, the siblings were acting alone, they were their own island. As the book progressed, they began to see each other.  There were actual other individuals in their own home.  Worthy individuals!   

Linking the dramatics in the family and the excitement of the Challenger launch that occurred on January 28, 1986, you’ve got an excellent book.  Hopes, dreams, struggles, successes, and trying to find your way, it’s all inside here.  

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

4.5 stars Middle School

What a great book about what is not “normal” can be perfectly normal, if you allow it to be.  Armed with the notebook that her parents gave her, Bea finds that since her parents have divorced, life has become complicated.  Why can’t things be simple like they used to be, why must everything be so confusing now? Bea’s finding out that adjusting to change is hard.  Bea needs to discover, how to accept the changes in her life.    

When Bea’s parents announced that they were divorcing, they handed her a notebook.  Inside that notebook, contained a written, short list of items which they wrote to Bea, of Things That Will Not Change in her life, once they split up. Since then, Bea has added many things to that list.  It was nice to see the character of Bea reflect upon this list and to add her ideas to it.

Seeing a counselor, Bea also talks about her feelings and gets help managing her anxiety. Life is not the same since her parent’s divorce nor will it be the same ever again.  This will take some time to get used to for everyone involved.  What she has now, is a new family and that’s what she needs to understand.  I enjoyed the character of Bea as she was an honest, sincere, ten-year old girl just trying to adjust to the changes in her life.  4.5 stars

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

5 stars Middle School

 I inhaled this book today.  For five years, Coyote and Rodeo had been putting the miles on Yager, traveling wherever their hearts led them. Every day was an adventure with very few rules for the two of them.  I loved how the author revealed the character’s story to the reader slowly throughout the book.  The past and present are important to this story and the author combines the two of them to present a sweet, emotional story about family, friendship and love.

I really enjoyed Coyote’s mannerism and attitude in this story.  In her early teens, she’s still a child but trying to act older.  She wants to please her father but she also has her own needs and she’s trying to find a balance.   I had quite a few “ahh” moments while reading this book, as they struck a sweet spot inside me. 

This journey was remarkable.  The individuals that they met were fantastic as each of them played an important part in their trip.   When Coyote showed Salvador her favorite place, oh my gosh!  What a scene!!  Then, there was the violin scene!  The campsite scene! Come on……..I loved every one of them.  Be ready when you read this book for all the great scenes, they’re to be savored.  The last 20+ pages in the book, the words were all flowing together as the tears were falling down my face. 

Coyote and Rodeo have different ways of looking at the past and the future.  Living in the present is a good concept but the present is also made up of your past, if you allow it.   I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it.