fierceJoan and her four-year-old son Lincoln are enjoying a late afternoon in the zoo when Gin Phillip’s novel Fierce Kingdom begins. It’s almost five o’clock and they are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit playing with Lincoln’s menagerie of action figure heroes and villains.

She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him up from school – they alternate between the zoo and the library and the parks and the science museum – and she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for Lincoln calling out his dialogue.

With only a few moments left before the zoo closes, Joan and Lincoln make their way to the exit. Joan has a moment of prescience when she imagines “camping in the zoo overnight, maybe even intentionally hiding back there, going to visit the animals in the pitch-black of midnight.” They are almost at the exit when Joan notices the bodies (at first she thinks they are toppled over scarecrows, but no…) and the man in dark clothes, carrying a rifle. Joan grabs Lincoln and they run. For the next three hours the pair are trapped in the zoo with armed men intent on killing them – and anyone else they find.

The scariest thing about Fierce Kingdom is probably that in the current climate it’s not such a far-fetched premise that innocent people are gunned down in what is supposed to be a safe place. I live in Canada and we don’t have the same love affair with our firearms as Americans do, but even so, it’s hard not to be paranoid about being  at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joan might have taken Lincoln to any one of their regular spots – but today they are at the zoo.

Joan’s number one priority is to get them to safety and for a big chunk of the novel they hide out in an old porcupine enclosure “deep in the twists and turns of the primate house. It does not look fit for humans, and that is what strikes her as perfect about it.”  Everything Joan does, every decision she makes, is about protecting Lincoln, and her ingenuity and bravery will likely strike a chord with anyone who has kids. Well, with anyone, really, who has a desire to live.

Phillips keeps the focus  – for the most part – on Joan and Lincoln, but she does introduce a handful of other characters (Kailynne, a teenager who works in a concession stand; Margaret Powell, an older school teacher; Robby Montgomery, a young man with a connection to the shooters), which keeps the narrative from being too insular.

As Joan works to keep Lincoln safe, she ponders the peculiarities of motherhood…the myriad of ways that harm might come to our children. As any parent knows, you can’t think about that stuff or you’ll go crazy; you’d never let your children leave the house.

Fierce Kingdom  is a book about what it means to be a parent wrapped up in a page-turning thriller.

strongerIn  Jolene Perry’s novel Stronger Than You Know, fifteen-year-old Joy Neilsons has come to live with her aunt and uncle after having been removed from the trailer home she was living in with her mother. The Child Services Summary Report  indicates that she wasn’t allowed out of the 750 sq. ft. mobile home, did not attend school and was dehydrated and malnourished when authorities removed her.

Turns out, not having enough to eat or drink was the least of Joy’s problems, and although Perry wisely spares us the graphic details of Joy’s abuse, readers will easily be able to fill in the horrific blanks.

Stronger Than You Know is the story of Joy’s recovery which, as you can imagine, is not without its setbacks. For one thing, Joy hasn’t been properly socialized, so dealing with large groups of people is problematic. Imagine going to school – high school, at that –  for the first time. For another thing, Joy distrusts men, making it difficult for her to be around her uncle, Rob, and her cousin, Trent. Trent’s twin sister, Tara,  is a little easier to cope with, but Joy is still distrustful of this new life she’s been given, a life she knows she doesn’t belong in. Aunt Nicole offers safety and comfort, but the PTSD Joy is experiencing is palpable.

She measures her recovery by listing her accomplishments:

  • Went to school.
  • Ate in the cafeteria.
  • Answered a teacher’s question.
  • Ate a few bites of dinner with the family in the dining room.

All the people in Joy’s new life, even Trent, who initially seems like an asshat (and one could make the argument that he turns the corner with a little too much ease), are warm and loving humans. The boy she meets on the walk to school is patient and understanding when Joy acts peculiarly. Her Uncle Rob is super protective because he’s had some personal experience with trauma. If any characters are under-developed it’s because they are the villains of the piece and it’s easy enough for smart readers to fill in those blanks.

Overall, Stronger Than You Know will speak to any young reader who has had to overcome horrific circumstances in the hopes for a better life. As Joy learns, a better life is waiting.



Look-for-Her-cover-200x300I have a feeling that I am going to be in the minority here, but I didn’t really groove to Emily Winslow’s Look For Her. This is the fourth book in a series featuring British detectives Morris Keene and Chloe Frohmann, but I didn’t know that going in and I don’t think it really matters in terms of your enjoyment (or in my case lack of) when reading the novel.

Back in 1976, Annalise Wood disappeared. Years later, another Annalise brings her up in a therapy session with Dr. Laurie Ambrose.

…she went missing when she was sixteen. My mother was the same age when it happened. Annalise was lovely, much prettier than my sister and I ever became. She was the kind of girl you look at and think, Of course someone would want to take her.

The body wasn’t found until 1992 and DNA didn’t yield any results at the time, but now there’s been a break in the case.  Keene (who is no longer an active detective) and Frohmann (who has recently had a baby) reunite to follow the trail of new evidence. The pair are prickly with one another; they have clearly had a falling out in a previous installment of the series.

You’d think that all the elements for a compelling mystery would be there, right? Decades old mystery. New evidence. Unreliable narration. So what didn’t work?

Look For Me lacked momentum. Told through transcribed therapy sessions and multiple points of view (the detectives, the therapist, e-mails), I just couldn’t settle into the narrative. (Trust me, multiple narratives aren’t usually a problem for me.)  There are a lot of characters to keep track of (also generally not a problem), and complicated family relationships. Perhaps I would have been more inclined to try to untangle the threads if I had cared one iota for any of the characters, but I didn’t.

So it’s weird that I didn’t like this book because it had all the right ingredients and it should have added up to a big win for me. To be fair, because I didn’t read it in one breathless gulp (as is often the case with books like this) I found the story way too convoluted. Part of what was unsatisfying to me was how neatly all these disparate threads were woven together at the end: perhaps just a little too neatly.

My dissatisfaction aside, Winslow can certainly write and I suspect that fans of the series and the majority of the readers who enjoy twisty mysteries will like this book.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for the opportunity to review this book.




vanishingJocelyn’s twin brother Jack is dead. At least that’s what she thinks until she receives a letter from him that sends her on a wild chase. First stop: Noah Collier.

Noah becomes a reluctant participant in Jocelyn’s search after her car and belongings are stolen. She’s come to Noah looking for help because Noah had been Jack’s best friend. They’d both worked for the same computer programming company, ISI.

Kate Kae Myers’ YA novel The Vanishing Game is a twisty turny mystery novel that follows Jocelyn and Noah as they race around following Jack’s complicated clues. (Complicated enough that I stopped trying to figure them out, but I was wayyy distracted when I was reading this book.)

Jocelyn, Jack and Noah spent their adolescence at Seale House, a foster home run by Hazel Frey, a drug addict who locked kids in the basement as punishment. Jocelyn is convinced that there are clues in the ruined remains of the place she once called home. (Half the building had burned down.) It’s the first stop on her journey to finding out exactly what happened to her brother and if he is actually really dead.

Jack leaves a series of puzzles for Jocelyn and Noah to solve, puzzles reminiscent of the games they used to play as kids at Seale House. But the clues aren’t they only mystery: Seale House has some ghosts to give up and someone is following the pair as they try to get to the bottom of Jack’s death.

The Vanishing Game will intrigue careful readers



american girlMeet Quinn Perkins, a seventeen-year-old American exchange student spending a semester in the small French town of St. Roch.

Meet the Blavettes, Quinn’s host family. Sixteen-year-old Noemie, her nineteen-year-old brother, Raphael, and their mom, Emilie.

Meet Molly Swift, an American reporter for American Confessional, an podcast series that takes on “stories of police incompetence or just general incompetence, and find[s] the real story.”

When Quinn wanders out of the woods “barefoot and bloodied” only to be hit by a car (the driver of which doesn’t stop) and left in a coma, Molly and her journalistic muse, Bill, think Quinn would make a perfect story, something about “a young American girl coming of age, going into the world on her own only to encounter the unkindness of a stranger.”

Quinn’s story is slightly more complicated than that, though. Through a series of flashbacks, readers are introduced to the toxic Blavette household: father Marc  has left the family after an incident at the local school (which is attached to the house the family lives in and has subsequently been closed). Madame Blavette now takes exchange students as a way of making ends meet.

First thought to be away on a holiday, it is soon revealed that the Blavette family has disappeared without a trace. When Quinn wakes up in the hospital after her accident, she has no memory. Good thing, too, since Molly feels like the best way to get close to Quinn is to pretend to be her aunt. (Quinn’s father back home in America, is too busy with his much-younger pregnant wife to make the trip to France after Quinn’s accident.)

Kate Horsley’s The American Girl would make a terrific Netflix mini series. It’s populated with a cast of characters who all seem to have ulterior motives making it impossible to decide who is telling the truth. There are subplots galore including threatening Snapchat messages, sinister caves, locked doors and menacing strangers.

If this seems like a lot – it’s really not. The book was a lot of fun to read.


pretty babyHeidi Wood seems to have it all going on. She’s happily married to Chris, successful dude (mergers and acquisitions), and mother to twelve-year-old, Zoe. They live in a spectacular condo in Chicago. But Mary Kubica’s novel Pretty Baby wants you to believe that Heidi’s life is precariously perched on a knife’s edge and all that it takes to set it off is Willow and her infant daughter, Ruby.

The first time I see her, she is standing at Fullerton Station on the train platform, clutching an infant in her arms….The girl is dressed in a pair of jeans, torn at the knee. Her coat is thin and nylon, an army green. She has no hood, no umbrella….The baby is quiet, stuffed inside the mother’s coat like a joey in a kangaroo pouch.

Heidi can’t get the girl and her baby off her mind. Partly it’s because she “work[s] with people who are often poverty stricken.” But there’s another, deeper reason. In any case, Heidi can’t stop thinking about the girl and when fate brings them into each other’s path again, Heidi acts. Before you can say, wtf, Heidi has moved Willow and Ruby into the condo with her family.

If I can say one thing about Pretty Baby, it’s that it’s overstuffed. So, first there’s Heidi and her fascination with this young girl and her baby, despite the fact that she has a (largely ignored) daughter at home. Then there’s Chris, who despite loving the woman he’s spent almost half his life with, finds himself wondering what the comely Cassidy Knudsen (new to his team) might wear to bed. Then there’s Willow, who tells her tale to the decidedly unpleasant Louise Flores, and it’s quite a story. Pull any one of these threads and you’d have enough for a novel, but Kubica tries very hard to weave them together and I can’t say that it was altogether successful.

Just a ‘meh’ for me.



salt-to-the-sea-bigcoverA couple years ago I read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine students and we all really loved it. Salt to the Sea treads familiar ground, telling the story of four very different young adults fleeing their homes to escape advancing Russian troops during World War Two.

There’s Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, who had fled her homeland four years earlier for the relative safety of East Prussia and who is now on the run again.

There’s Florian, a talented Prussian artist who had been working for the Nazi cause  as an art restorer.

There’s Emilia, a pregnant fifteen-year-old from Poland.

And there’s Alfred, a self-aggrandizing sailor for Hitler’s navy.

Joana, along with an old shoe-maker, a little boy and a tall woman named Eva,  is already making her way towards Gutenhafen where she hopes to board a ship that will take her to safety.

Germany had invaded Russia in 1941. For the past four years, the two countries had committed unspeakable atrocities, not only against each other, but against innocent civilians in their path. Stories had been whispered by those we passed on the road. Hitler was exterminating millions of Jews and had an expanding list of undesirables who were being killed or imprisoned. Stalin was destroying the people of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics.

Emilia and Florian meet by accident in the woods. They don’t speak the same language, but Emilia sees Florian as a white knight, a title Florian does not want or even believe he deserves. They soon meet up with Joana and her group. They are all heading in the same direction and it is at the port where they meet Alfred.

The novel’s short chapters and alternating points of view make it a perfect novel for younger readers, although the subject matter is quite often upsetting. As happened with Between Shades of Gray, I fell in love with these characters (well, not Alfred) and I so wanted to see them find their way to safety.

Salt to the Sea, while a work of fiction, is based on the real life sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff,  “the deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships Titanic and Lusitania.” In her author’s notes, Sepetys tells us that in 1945, it is estimated that 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

I think one of Sepetys’ gifts is her ability to create flesh and blood characters, giving voice to the thousands of innocent children and men and women whose lives were irrevocably changed by the horrors of war.

I loved the time I spent with these brave young people, and only wish that the ending hadn’t felt so rushed. This was the one little niggle I had with Between Shades of Gray, too. I would have happily read another fifty pages just to have a little more time with these characters.