Monday, September 17, 2018

The Dollar Kids by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
When a family buys a house in a struggling town for just one dollar, they’re hoping to start over — but have they traded one set of problems for another?

Twelve-year-old Lowen Grover, a budding comic-book artist, is still reeling from the shooting death of his friend Abe when he stumbles across an article about a former mill town giving away homes for just one dollar. It not only seems like the perfect escape from Flintlock and all of the awful memories associated with the city, but an opportunity for his mum to run her very own business. Fortunately, his family is willing to give it a try. But is the Dollar Program too good to be true? The homes are in horrible shape, and the locals are less than welcoming. Will Millville and the dollar house be the answer to the Grovers’ troubles? Or will they find they’ve traded one set of problems for another? From the author of
Small as an Elephant and Paper Things comes a heart-tugging novel about guilt and grief, family and friendship, and, above all, community.
(416 pages)

This is the second book by Jacobson that I've read; the first was Small As An Elephant, which I found to be sad and meaningful but in a way that was pretty generic and forgettable. I saw some promise in it, though, so when I was offered the chance to read The Dollar Kids I decided to give it a go.

And I'm very glad I did, because it hits all the right notes this time. There's sadness as Lowen struggles to cope with Abe's violent death, abandoning his artwork in mourning, but that sorrowful plotline is woven gently into a broader story about moving, small-town life, and struggling to fit in. I thought it was all very well done.

I suppose I'm biased to like this book from the start simply because it provides a relatively realistic depiction of what it's like to be the new kid. The Grovers and the other Dollar families are initially viewed with curiosity, and then suspicion. Some of the kids are incorporated into the town life, if they find an in with the established friend groups; the rest are consigned to outsider status forever. Lowen's mother's Cornish Eatery is a delightful place, which customers quickly grow to love, but the business struggles because the locals feel social pressure to frequent the restaurant run by a woman who has lived in the town for ages.

I've never experienced this same level of outcast status, but I moved across state lines six times before my eighteenth birthday, so I certainly know what it's like to be the new kid–and I can say that the feeling of being a "new" person is awful, and it takes forever to go away (and sometimes never does).

Many other reviewers will probably dedicate more space to the gun violence aspect of the book, so I won't discuss it too much other than to say that I thought some potentially controversial material was handled very smoothly. It's a tragic story, and we see the emotional impact of the loss firsthand through Lowen. I think the family's revulsion toward guns is presented logically and with no real chest-thumping rhetoric so it hopefully shouldn't offend gun rights supporters too much. Also, one of the Dollar families is a lesbian couple with children, but that isn't really a big focus of the story, either.

All in all, The Dollar Kids is a really great book. It's the kind of book you read and get thoroughly absorbed into, without worrying too much about the mechanics of it. Read it and enjoy it. That's really all I can say.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Flood by Melissa Scholes Young, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
A sparkling debut set in Mark Twain's boyhood town, FLOOD is a story of what it means to be lost…and found.

Laura Brooks fled her hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, ten years ago after a historic flood and personal heartbreak. Now she’s returned unannounced, and her family and friends don't know what to make of it. She says she's just home for a brief visit and her high-school reunion, but she's carrying too much luggage for that: literal and metaphorical. Soon Laura is embroiled in small-town affairs—the contentious divorce of her rowdy best friend, Rose; the campaign of her twelve-year-old godson, Bobby, to become the town's official Tom Sawyer; and the renewed interest of the man Laura once thought she'd marry, Sammy McGuire.

Leaving town when she was eighteen had been Laura’s only option. She feared a stifling existence in a town ruled by its past, its mythological devotion to Mark Twain, and the economic and racial divide that runs as deep as the Mississippi River. She can’t forget that fateful Fourth of July when the levees broke or the decisions that still haunt her. Now as the Mississippi rises again, a deep wound threatens to reopen, and Laura must decide if running away once more might be the best way to save herself.

(323 pages)

Yeah, no.

This book is just depressing. Its characters are all, with the sole exception of twelve-year-old Bobby, unpleasant and immoral people who have gotten themselves into crummy situations. Laura's best friend Rose is the most grating, but Rose's ex is pure awful (read: he tries to sleep with Laura!), Laura's mother is unhelpful and emotionally distant, her brother is a druggy, her "dream man" and ex Sammy is divorcing his wife because she doesn't want kids (or, possibly, she's divorcing him because she caught him messing with her birth control!), and the list goes on and on.

Laura herself is just as bad as anyone. She likes to pity herself a lot, but she's made her fair share of bad choices. She's slept around a lot, and she's still coping with a miscarriage she had after a series of flings. She is a big-time enabler, helping Rose even when she is going nuts and assuaging her guilt by taking Bobby away on outings whenever she can. She also lends her brother money to buy land for a house, and we all knew how that was going to turn out.

I liked the idea of a book set on the island where Mark Twain grew up, and the attempts at examining racism were well-meant, but I just found Flood so frustrating and depressing (and expletive-filled) that I couldn't find much more to enjoy. I don't recommend it to anyone.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A Flexible Faith by Bonnie Kristian, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
BONNIE KRISTIAN shows that a vibrant diversity within Christian orthodoxy-which is simply to say a range of different ways to faithfully follow Jesus-is a strength of our faith, not a weakness.

It is all too easy to fail to grasp the diversity of the Christian faith-especially for those who have grown up in one branch of the church and never explored another. We fail to realize how many ways there are to follow Jesus, convinced that our own tradition is the one Christian alternative to nonbelief.

A FLEXIBLE FAITH is written for the convinced and confused believer alike. It is a readable exploration of the lively theological diversity that stretches back through church history and across the spectrum of Christianity today. It is an easy introduction to how Christians have historically answered key questions about what it means to follow Jesus. Chapters will include 17 big theological questions and answers; profiles of relevant figures in church history; discussion questions; single-page Q&As-profiles of more unusual types of Christians (e.g., a Catholic nun or a member of an Amish community); and a guide to major Christian denominations today.

As Bonnie shares her wrestlings with core issues-such as who Jesus is, what place the Church has in our lives, how to disagree yet remain within a community, and how to love the Bible for what it actually is-she teaches us how to walk courageously through our own tough questions.

Following Jesus is big and it is something that individual believers, movements, and denominations have expressed in uncountably different ways over the centuries. In the process of helping us sort things out, Bonnie shows us how to be comfortable with diversity in the Body. And as we learn to hold questions in one hand and answers in the other, we will discover new depths of faith that will remain secure even through the storms of life.

(272 pages)

This book is so awesome.

No, seriously. Just to start with, it's so nice to read a book about Christian theology that's not trying to make every reader believe exactly the same thing as the author.

Kristian starts the book by laying out a few main beliefs all Christians must have to be counted as Christians (basically believe in the Bible, Jesus, and the Holy Trinity), and makes the argument that all other issues are open for interpretation by different denominations. Then, each chapter in the rest of the book describes the logic behind all the main opposing viewpoints on a given topic. Kristian offers her own viewpoint at the end of a handful of chapters, but never implies that her perspective is the only valid one; on the rest of them, she doesn't even offer any hints about what she believes.

I love it. I love that she's fighting the "my way or the highway" attitude in so many churches, that she's showing her readers all the valid options for personalizing their faith. I may not agree with all of the options she lists (in fact, I'm quite strongly opposed to a few of them!), but I love that she lays everything out in a way that lets every reader draw their own conclusions.

She also has an interview with a different "out of the box" Christian in between the chapters. Some people might find those really interesting as well, but I found myself skimming over them a fair bit.

A Flexible Faith is a wonderful resource for nonbelievers as an overview of Christian beliefs, for questioning Christians trying to get away from a denomination that's just not right for them, and for established Christians with a shallow understanding of competing Christian ideals. Basically, for anyone with any questions about any area of Christianity, A Flexible Faith is a wonderful starting point.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Law of Finders Keepers by Sheila Turnage, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Pirates, family, and the truth about Mo's Upstream Mother collide in the conclusion to the Newbery Honor and New York Times bestselling Three Times Lucky

When the Colonel and Miss Lana share the clues about Mo's watery origins that they've been saving, it seems the time is finally right for the Desperado Detectives (aka Mo, Dale, and Harm) to tackle the mystery of Mo's Upstream Mother. It's the scariest case Mo's had by far. But before they can get started, Mayor Little's mean mother hires them to hunt in her attic for clues to Blackbeard's treasure, which could be buried right in Tupelo Landing. Turns out, the Desperados aren't the only ones looking. A professional treasure hunter named Gabe has come to town with Harm's estranged mother--and soon the race is on, even though the treasure's rumored to be cursed. As centuries- and decades-old secrets are dragged into the light, there isn't a single person in Tupelo Landing quite prepared for all that they uncover. Especially Mo.

The fourth and last book in the Mo & Dale Mystery series and the long-awaited conclusion to Three Times Lucky, The Law of Finders Keepers is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, honest, and hilarious adventure that you can read right after you finish Three Times Lucky.

(368 pages)

I have been such a huge fan of the Mo and Dale series for years, ever since I saw Sheila Turnage speak on a book panel while promoting Three Times Lucky and I went home and picked up a copy from the library. She was such a cool person in real life, and I still count myself lucky to have seen her before Three Times Lucky became really famous and won its Newberry Honor. And I'm still kicking myself for not buying a copy and getting her to sign it!

Anyway, all that is to say that I was very excited for the release of this final book in the Mo and Dale series.

Did it live up to my hopes? Yes and no.

In some ways, I was a bit disappointed with The Law of Finders Keepers. The "kids hunting for pirate treasure" storyline has never been my favorite, and I'm a bit sick of it. Plus I felt like things were a bit more rote this time, that some of the new characters weren't nearly as interesting as the older ones. Not to mention the storyline about Mo's search for her Upstream Mother. I liked how Turnage portrayed Mo's feelings, as well as the Colonel and Miss Lana's as the search heated up–but I felt like the big clue that fell into Mo's lap was a bit of a plot convenience, I thought the mechanics of the climax were kind of ridiculous, and I'm still not sure the story of Mo's mother is very satisfying for me. Plus the book gets into some darker stuff–a life-threatening experience with quicksand and Harm's troubled relationship with his mother, in particular–which made things feel a little more grounded than they have in the past.

There. I got the negative out of the way. Now I want to point at everything I said above . . . and say it doesn't matter. Because the truth is that even with all those iffy areas, I still adored the book. It's still a really, really fun and compelling read, full of off-the-wall characters and plot twists. In any other writer's hands, The Law of Finders Keepers would have been the cringey end to a series that went on too long; in Turnage's, it's a funny, grabbing romp. Even the areas that weren't as strong as the previous books really weren't that bad, and perhaps their "grounding" effect on an otherwise pretty flighty series was a good way to bring things to a close.

Honestly, I just love this series so much. Three Times Lucky will always be my favorite out of the four by far, but The Law of Finders Keepers is still a great read. I recommend it to anyone who's gotten this far in the series already (but don't you dare read this series out of order!).

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Home by Adam Leitman Bailey, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Home takes children on a journey using their own eyes to visit many different places to live while providing a touching story about the importance of family over all else. It is the story about a young boy from a small apartment in a big city who dreams about other types of homes. The boy goes out on a colorful adventure to visit many different homes – from a large house in the suburbs to an igloo to a farmhouse – and meets families wherever he goes. The boy enjoys visiting each residence, but at the conclusion of his trip, he comes to a realization...

This is a story about the importance of love and family over all else.

(21 pages)

I don't make a habit of reading or reviewing children's books, but once in a while an invitation to do so comes along and I shrug and agree. It's nice to read something simple once in a while, you know?

This is an extremely simple book. Each two-page spread has just a few pages of text, and the rest of the paper is taken up with illistrations. We see the boy exploring a large variety of different homes, from a big mansion to a farm to a trailer park and a bird's nest. Each home seems like a pretty cool place to live, with nice and friendly people and fun things to do, so the boy's realization that his home is the best (because it has his family) seems a little bit of a leap.

It's perfectly true, though. And I think parents and kids would enjoy reading this simple story around bedtime. The illustrations are peaceful and pretty, in the same style as on the cover, and the book on the whole is a nice, pleasant bedtime story which parents hopefully won't get too sick of even after many repetitions.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.