Book Review: Not on Fifth Street

not on fifth street cover

Wiechman, Kathy Cannon. Not on Fifth Street. Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, 2017.

There’s something about natural disasters that have always terrified and intrigued me. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable fury of Mother Nature or the reminder of how small and vulnerable we truly are. Whatever the cause, my heart is always uplifted and warmed by stories of human beings persevering despite their extreme and dire circumstances.

That’s what drew me to Kathy Cannon Wiechman’s book Not on Fifth Street. Wiechman’s novel covers the flood of 1937, an event that devastated many areas of Ohio and Kentucky. As I’d never heard of the flood, I was intrigued.

Gus and Pete Brinkmeyer are brothers living in Ironton, Ohio. Despite their relation, the boys are extremely different. Older brother Gus is a romantic and a bookworm. He excels in school, reads Shakespeare, writes poems and short stories, and moons over his newest love interest, a girl named Venus. Pete, on the other hand, is practical and handy and enjoys repairing items around the house. After a squabble, a rift forms between the two brothers. Gus gives Pete the cold shoulder despite his many attempts to apologize.

The Brinkmeyer family is no stranger to flooding. Living near the Ohio River, they experience some degree of standing water every year. Houses closer to the river—such as their friend Richie’s on Second Street—usually incur damage, but Gus and Pete live on Fifth Street, where they believe the flooding will not touch them. But the year 1937 begins with torrential, unrelenting rain, then a melting, slushy snowfall. The boys watch in horror as the Ohio River creeps closer and closer. Gus goes to help his father fill sandbags in an attempt to slow the water’s approach. Will they be successful? Will he be able to help Venus and her family across the river in Kentucky? Pete is left in charge of the rest of the Brinkmeyers—his mother and two younger siblings. How will he keep them safe as the water rises? Will his knack with repairs matter without the aid of electricity or running water?

This novel is obviously well-researched. Small details, like the newly invented rotary phone, make the setting feel authentic. And Weichman makes the flood water predatory and ever-present. Readers will feel as though their own clothing is soaked, their hands and feet numb with cold.

The dialogue can feel stilted and unrealistic, though I have little knowledge of slang or speech patterns from the 1930’s. Because of the language, simplicity of writing, and short chapters, Not on Fifth Street would likely be of little interest to high school or teenage readers. It is more suited for late elementary or middle school students.

Excerpts from this novel would be a smart inclusion in a history class, especially within classrooms near the Ohio River area. Young Pete’s task of caring for his family make this a perfect example of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Excerpts from Wiechman’s book would be a great way to drive this concept home.

Book Review: Panic

panic cover

Oliver, Lauren. Panic. Harper, 2015.

There’s a truth universally accepted by gray-haired parents and teachers everywhere: teenagers can be fearless. This attribute is blamed on everything from still developing brains to a lack of understanding about the finality of rash decisions. No matter the cause, the thought of my students endangering themselves by engaging in risky behavior puts me immediately on edge. Perhaps that was why I found Lauren Oliver’s Panic such a suspenseful, engaging read.

In the small, downtrodden town of Carp, there are few opportunities for young people to thrive. Drug addiction runs rampant and leaving for college is a rarity. The town’s desolation led to the creation of Panic, a game reserved for recent high school graduates. The game features a series of increasingly dangerous dares until one lone victor remains. The winner is awarded a handsome cash prize—a little over sixty thousand dollars gathered from mandatory weekly dues. There’s a shroud of secrecy around the organizers and judges of the event, and the stakes are high. A past participant has even been paralyzed.

Dodge and Heather are two participants in Panic. Heather doesn’t know why she joined in—emotional after a split from her boyfriend, she impulsively leaped into the festivities. Dodge, on the other hand, has a clear motive for participating: thoughts of his sister, Dayna, at home in a wheelchair motivated him to seek revenge. As the challenges grow in difficulty and danger, Dodge and Heather bandy together. Will either of them win Panic? Will Dodge secure justice for Dayna? And when Panic causes a death in Carp, will the game shut down for good?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book kept me on the edge of my seat. Oliver continually increases suspense and anticipation throughout the narrative. In fact, during a silent reading period at school, a student walked by me as I read Panic and remarked, “Wow. You look intense.” Oliver’s language and description are also masterful. There are so few novel ways to describe fear or anguish, but Oliver’s descriptions are visceral and gritty, contributing to the overall mood of the book.

If there are any flaws in Panic, they perhaps lie in its believability—the idea that a large group of teens could get away with such a dangerous activity year after year with minimal attention from the police. I was bothered, too, by the pot of money in the game, and the fact that high school students are required to contribute to it. This detail felt far-fetched.

Still, Panic is quite possibly one of the most thrilling novels I have read in some time. Excerpts from this novel could teach students a great deal about literary suspense. Panic would also be helpful in showing students how an author can create a certain mood through sensory details and diction. If you’re looking for a book that would appeal to your students’ adventurous natures, Oliver’s novel is perhaps the perfect fit.

Book Review: The Love that Split the World

love that split the world cover

Henry, Emily. The Love That Split the World. Razorbill, 2016.

Kentucky isn’t a glamorous state. The weather changes frequently–you can go to work sporting a cardigan on a frigid morning and find yourself sweating as the temperature rises at day’s end. While there are certainly beautiful natural landmarks and caves and hiking trails, there are none of the big tourist attractions you might find in other states.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. While I love to travel and experience the bustle and chaos of larger, notable locations, I have a profound love for and loyalty to the Bluegrass State. That’s why I felt both proud and giddy as I began Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World. Set in Union, Kentucky, the novel highlights many Kentucky and Appalachian attributes–rich cultural history, oral storytelling, and strong familial ties–without falling into overused tropes and stereotypes. And the Kentucky native in me squealed at the sprinkling of Kentucky-specific details: mentions of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and Ale-8 One (a soft drink sold only in Kentucky and a small number of surrounding areas).

Natalie Cleary is closing the book on her high school career. While she participates in the traditional parades and Senior Nights that the end of the school year entails, she is also looking to what lies ahead. She has been admitted to Brown University where she hopes to study history and learn more about her heritage. Adopted at birth by doting parents, Natalie is Native American and feels out of place beside her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She is also feeling a lack of connection toward the activities and people she once loved–her ex-boyfriend, Matt, friend Rachel, and her high school dance team.

Natalie’s race isn’t the only thing that makes her feel different. Since childhood, she’s had nightly visits from a phantom–an elderly woman she has come to call Grandmother. Grandmother imparts wisdom in the form of fables and tall tales, and Natalie is comforted by her presence. After a visit with a psychologist, Natalie fears Grandmother has finally disappeared; however, as high school ends, Grandmother reappears with a chilling message: Natalie has just three months to save him. She doesn’t specify who him is, and Natalie is on-edge. Shortly after the visit, Natalie’s world begins to change. Sporadic flashes reveal a second, strikingly different Union than the one that Natalie has known her entire life. While her friends and family exist in the new Union, she does not. While in this new world, Natalie encounters Beau, a boy who does not exist in her world. As she and Beau try to sort out their unique predicament, Natalie is frantic to decipher Grandmother’s cryptic warning. Will she be able to save the mysterious him?

The transition from high school to adulthood is a complex time, and Henry does a fantastic job capturing all of Natalie’s angst and confusion. Natalie wants to maintain relationships with the people and traditions she has come to love while, at the same time, she knows she must assert her own independence and find her place in the world. All the characters are round and multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed NKU professor Alice Chan, Natalie’s twin siblings Jack and Coco, even Natalie’s Saint Bernard, Gus.

While the characterization, imagery, and plot in The Love that Split the World were all fantastic, I often found the rules and nuances of Natalie’s time-bending abilities confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps this will be clearer for readers who are more familiar with time travel fiction or media. In my case, I simply had to accept Natalie’s abilities as the story unfolded.

I would love to introduce this book to my students–positive portrayals of Kentucky are increasingly difficult to find. That aside, this book would be relatable to graduating seniors, adopted students, or anyone who is facing a big transition. The Love that Split the World discusses what it means to love deeply and unconditionally, a topic worth thinking about and discussing.


Book Review: Girl Online

girl online cover

Sugg, Zoe. Girl Online. Keywords Press, Atria. 2014.

As an adult, I like to pretend that I was never an awkward pre-teen or teenager. The proof is inescapable, however. My mother recently found an old photo from a glamour shot session–sequined blazer, big hair, and too much rouge.

So, in short, I know a little something about being awkward.

That’s why I found the synopsis of Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online appealing. The protagonist is clumsy, unsure, and very relatable.

Fifteen-year-old Penny Porter seems to continually find new ways to embarrass herself, whether it’s falling in a pothole, knocking over a display, or inadvertently telling the boy she likes that she has fleas. And there’s an alarming new development in Penny’s life–following a serious car accident, Penny has panic attacks. Her only moments of true peace and security come from being with her family, best friend Elliot, and sharing her thoughts in a blog entitled Girl Online. Despite her lackluster popularity in the “real world”, Penny has a slew of readers who encourage and uplift her.

After a particularly painful incident at Penny’s school, her parents make an announcement–they will be traveling abroad to New York City to help coordinate a wedding at the Waldorf Astoria and they want Penny and Elliot to come along. The distance and glamour of New York are just what Penny needs to heal from her embarrassment. While helping her mother with wedding preparations, Penny meets Noah, the grandson of the wedding’s caterer. With his dimples, Brooklyn accent, and ability to calm her when she is anxious, Penny begins falling for Noah almost immediately. But she knows that soon she will have to return home to the UK. Will she and Noah be able to maintain a long-distance relationship? Why does Noah rarely go out in public? And as the popularity of Girl Online grows, will Penny be able to keep her identity a secret?

There were great little details and moments of humor that endeared this book to me–Sugg’s descriptions of New York at Christmastime, the contrast between UK and America, and Penny’s tendency to say the wrong thing in times of duress. Although relationships in YA romances sometimes feel forced, Noah and Penny’s chemistry was palpable and believable. Blog posts and text messages are interspersed throughout the chapters, and they provide a nice break from the narration. Overall, Girl Online is a quick, enjoyable read.

I felt the immense popularity of Penny’s blog was somewhat far-fetched; the insertion of more blog posts would have possibly helped the reader see what made it attractive to so many readers. And Megan, Penny’s “frienemy”, was so thoroughly evil that she felt flat.

This will be a beloved addition to a classroom library–not only is it a high interest text, but the author, Zoella, is a popular vlogger on YouTube. More importantly, this book could possibly provide comfort to students struggling with their own anxiety. Girl Online is a nice reminder that the teenage years can be awkward, but they can be amazing, too.