Sunday, July 29, 2012

While he was away

 After years of drifting around the country, seventeen year-old Penelope and her single mother Linda ("'Flotsam and jetsam,' she always said."), have returned to her mother's hometown of Killdeer, Oklahoma. Having inherited a house and bar and grill from her broken, alcoholic father, Linda struggles to deal with the betrayal of a mother who left when she was just a child.
But for Penelope--Penna to her friends--the move to Killdeer brought her to her soul mate, a fellow artist named David. But now, in the summer between her junior and senior year, David is shipping off to Iraq--and Penna is about to become an Army girlfriend.
"While he was away," by Karen Schreck (Sourcebooks Fire, 2012) is Penna's story, but it is much more than a chronicle of young sweethearts separated by war.
Sure that their love will last, Penna is determined to do all the things that Army girlfriends are encouraged to do: write constantly, always have have your phone nearby, send care packages, keep busy, stay positive.
Penna does everything she's supposed to do, but it's not always easy. For one thing, her mother is making her work at the Red Earth, the family bar and grill--and she's a hopeless waitress. Fortunately, she makes friends with Caitlin, another waitress at Red Earth; Jules, another Army girlfriend; and Ravi, David's troubled boyhood friend. ("...when they were young, they were just about the only brown-skinned kids in school. On bad days, David got called 'Spic' and 'Beaner.' Ravi got called 'A-rab' and 'Towelhead. ... They were loyal to each other.")
Penna also vows to find out more about the mysterious grandmother, Justine, who left Linda when she was only a toddler. Justine's first husband--and true love--was a soldier she married at the age of eighteen before he left to fight in World War II. He never returned--a fact that deeply resonates with Penna. Justine remarried and had Linda, but, as Linda bitterly recalls, "she left us for a ghost."
Even as the war changes David in ways that Penna only gradually comes to understand, Penna, her friends and family are transformed by events at home. This story about cross-generational love, loyalty, and forgiveness is a reminder that the fingers of war reach past the battleground and into the hearts and lives of everyone involved. 

This review was originally published in the July 29, 2012 issue of the News-Gazette. To learn more about Karen Halvorsen Schreck and her writing, visit 

Kill Bill Meets Buffy

 “Kill Bill meets Buffy in this supernatural samurai tale.” If the publisher’s blurb grabs your attention like it did mine, then you’ll love “Katana,” by Cole Gibsen (Flux, 2012).
            Rileigh Martin is a skater chick who just wants to go to her junior class’s end-of-the-school-year party, maybe hook up with this cute guy she’s had her eye on for the past year. But when Rileigh and her best friend Quentin witness a mugging in a shopping mall parking lot, something—someone—is awakened inside her.  Rileigh foils the thief and defends herself against the thug and his two buddies with impressive martial arts skills she never knew she possessed.
            Rileigh would like to believe that her fighting skills were powered by pure adrenaline, but that doesn’t explain her the voice inside her head giving her battle tips and warning her of danger, or her incredible fighting skills.  And if definitely doesn’t explain her strange, vivid dreams of fifteenth-century Japan. She thinks she might be going crazy—not the way she was planning on spending her summer.
            As it turns out, she’s not crazy—just the reincarnation of a female samurai warrior named Sensi who died 500 years ago. Or at least that’s what a handsome martial arts instructor named Kim tells her. And now that others know of her powers (her fight was caught on a security camera), she is very much in danger. An enemy from her past would like to see her dead.
            Rileigh wants none of this. She simply wants to be a normal teenage girl who—finally!—seems to have caught the eye of the guy she has a crush on. And, truth be told, it takes her longer than I’d like to embrace her samurai self. But when she finally does, Rileigh becomes the great, kick butt-character you want her to be.
            Rileigh learns to master the katana, a deadly Japanese sword that’s also the key to her past. As the spirit of Sensi grows stronger, she also finds herself falling for Kim.
            “Katana” isn’t perfect. Although Quentin is a terrific character, the stereotype of the gay best friend is getting kind of old. The dialogue is sometimes kind of awkward. Even so, “Katana” is a lot of fun. It’s jam-packed with action, and the fight scenes are incredibly well written. Romance? Check. We’re talking soul-mate love. Add to that a good dash of humor, and you’ve got a great summer read.
            Gibsen is a talented young author from southern Illinois. A second book in the series, “Senshi,” is due out in 2013.
This review was originally published in the News-Gazette on July 8, 2012. To learn more about Cole Gibsen, check her out:

The usual mea culpa

I'm shocked, shocked to see that it's been so long since I've posted something on this blog. Blame it on the book on Invasive Species I just turned in for Capstone (Burmese pythons! Asian carp! Killer kudzu!) and the biography of Percy Spencer, the inventer of the microwave oven, I'm working on for Enslow. (Did you know that 90% of American households have microwave ovens?).

I'm behind on posting book reviews. Coming in the next couple of posts.