Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Suspense’ Category

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

The Country of Wolves by Neil Christopher is based on an animated film adaptation of a traditional Inuit story. While the film seems to have garnered positive response, including awards, reviews of the graphic novel adaptation have been more mixed. I’m of the same sentiment about the book. I disliked the stereotypical depiction of wolves, but otherwise the story makes for a quick read and could result in a lot of conversation in a classroom.

Let me get my negative reaction out of the way, so that I can focus on the positives of The Country of Wolves. Throughout time, wolves have been portrayed as bloodthirsty, cruel, and evil. And while this conception of them might be how Native myths and legends depicted them, I dislike seeing this cliché perpetuated. In The Country of Wolves, the instant that wolves smell man they’re on the trail and the warning is given that they’ll hunt until they kill. In fact the only way to stop them is to destroy their leader. Yet wolves can form emotional attachments, show aversion to fighting, and possess intelligence. Wolves are also a necessary part of the ecosystem. So, while The Country of Wolves might make for a terrifying horror story, it’ll also sadly encourage young people to view wolves as bad. Any educator who uses this book should also combine it with lessons such as this one: Stereotyping and Bias.

The back pages to The Country of Wolves explain that the stories are sacred to The Inuit, they link them to their ancestors and to the land. And versions of this particular tale have been passed on for generations in communities across the Arctic. I did look at many summaries of Native myths and legends, but couldn’t find this one. However, there were plenty which featured the wolf as evil. Also, the author certainly should know the tales, having moved to the region many years ago as an educator. Near the end of Country of Wolves, I learned that there were several references included in the story itself to the spirit world such as Northern Lights and Watchful Moon. Some reviewers suggested this information would have better placed near the front. I’d encourage educators to supplement this tale with materials about Inuit folklore, such as an intermediate graphic novel study which according to Goodminds is provided online at The Nunavut Arctic College.


You’ll notice that I’ve referred more than once to educators. Despite my concurring with the mixed reviews, I did find the plot to be haunting and action-packed. It also included a morbid twist. The graphics were also visually pleasing and adequately enhanced the text. The Country of Wolves will no doubt appeal to many boys, as well as folklore buffs. Beyond that, I’d  recommend it for use in the classroom to stir discussions about stereotypes and about Native culture.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

A national best seller. Winner of many awards. A major motion picture. Atonement is a literary novel by Ian McEwan, set in the 1930’s in England. It is about a young adolescent girl’s imagination and her older sister’s moment of flirtation with the son of a servant. My husband and I both read this book. The features which stood out the most to us were McEwan’s style and his portrayal of characters.

The style in Atonement at times had me checking my watch and at other times made my heart race. One might blame the plot for my reaction. The first half of Atonement focuses on the preparations of a play by a younger sister for her soon-returning brother, the divorce of parents faced by three visiting cousins, and the changing feelings for a childhood friend. My husband said that for the first 100 pages not much happened. Yet at the least two of those scenarios, that of marital conflict and sexual arousal, has been the entire subject of thoroughly enjoyable novels. So, in my mind, style is at least partly to blame for two reasons. First, if not much happened in those first 100 pages, it’s because McEwan choose to present mostly the internal thoughts of his multiple characters instead of showing them in action. Second, at times, scenes felt overwritten. I could well imagine McEwan being able to write a lengthy chapter about a father breaking a coffee cup. As for the remaining 200 pages, the pace became more pleasurable. My husband and I would both agree that one reason is a lot more happened. The love interest of the older sister went to war, while both the older and younger sister served as nurses. At the same time, I’ve read books about war where I found myself yawning, and so style deserves a lot of credit. Indeed, McEwan’s attention to detail really brought to life the trauma and brutality of war.

While my husband and I might have felt that his style didn’t always work, McEwan’s portrayal of character earned a lot of admiration. I’ve read a lot of novels where each alternating chapter flips back and forth between the two main characters. This results in an overly structured feeling, which I mostly dislike. In Atonement, perspectives sometimes switch within chapters. Other times, McEwan focuses on lead character for several chapters. As such, the decision of when to change viewpoints seems solely dependent on it worked for the sake of moving forward the plot. This results in a more organic feeling, and really worked for me. Now I must admit, I have read other novels too wherein viewpoints seemed to change on the flip of a coin. The problem with them, in contrast to Atonement, is that the switches often felt arbitrary. Or maybe the characters simply weren’t developed enough for me to see them as individuals, with the result that I often felt confused by who was speaking and when. That’s not an issue in Atonement, where I felt very early as if I could easily describe each of the characters to my husband.

For the past couple of years, my husband and I have tried to pick a book that we’ll both read and discuss. We use lists of best-sellers and award-winners to make our selection. Atonement’s plot is what initially appealed to us. While that actually turned out to be at times lackluster, there was still much we found to like about Atonement. As such, it gave us a couple of weeks of engaging reading, as well as lively discussion, which is exactly what we want from a book we pick to share.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

MikaAshleyHollingerBorn near a swamp, Mika Ashley-Hollinger wrote Precious Bones as a tribute to a way of life that has all but disappeared. In writing about herself on her website, Hollinger shares of how she grew up respecting and loving all wildlife. She explains to  Random Acts of Reading that, “Swamps are often depicted as useless, but they are actually the womb of the world. Countless life forms; mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, begin their journey in swamps and wetlands.”

After leaving home in her late teens and experiencing a failed marriage, Hollinger spent ten years sailing around the oceans. Once she reached Australia, Hollinger notes on her website, it became obvious that there were Somalia pirates patrolling the Indian Ocean. She turned around and returned to Fiji, where lived for several years with a Fijan family, before returning to Hawai’i, the place that today she calls home.

In 1988, when her first granddaughter was born, she and her husband traveled to Florida in search of her old homestead. Instead there was a trailer park. Hollinger tells Random Acts of Reading that she was “stunned and saddened at the changes” that had taken place. That was the beginning of Precious Bones.

Now Hollinger lives with her husband Mika lives with her husband along with an assortment of endangered birds and wild chickens on a protected wetland in Hawai’i. She encourages everyone to: “Get involved and protect our precious wildlife and environment!” I’ll review Precious Bones tomorrow. Save the date: February 12!

ALLISON: Describe a memorable moment of exploring a swamp during childhood.

MIKA: There are so many, I don’t know where to start. Every time I ventured out into the swamps, something memorable happened. Seeing the animals in their natural habitats, from alligators to the returning whooping cranes. I was blessed to have been part of it all.

ALLISON: Who or What influenced you most during your adolescence?

MIKA: I would have to say my Father….he loved the swamps and all of nature. Although he did kill animals for us to eat, I never took part in that. But that was life then. Nothing was confined or suffered.

ALLISON: What was life like sailing the oceans? Which was you favorite ocean?

MIKA: Life on a sail boat was the absolute best….each moment was an adventure….and our crew truly depended on each other . The Pacific Ocean was endless and there were countless islands and different cultures to explore and learn from.

ALLISON: What did you most like about Fiji culture? Are you still in contact with your Fijan family?

MIKA: I loved the Fijian people and their simple way of life. Both my parents have passed on…they died within 3 days of each other….a true love story. I am still in contact with all my brothers and sisters and I still go and visit them.

ALLISON: If readers were to visit Hawaii to see nature, what sights would you point out to them?

MIKA: Hawaii is the endangered capitol of the world….we have lost so much. But there is still so much wonder to see….in the winter the humpback whales return to give birth….we have albatross nesting, and monk seals visit our beaches. You only have to walk around and pay attention.

ALLISON: How difficult was it to write about the swamp, when it no longer existed?

MIKA: There were many times I literally had to stop writing because I was crying so hard!

ALLISON: You did a lot of research before writing Precious Bones. How were you able to turn that research into a story?

MIKA: My research was amazing….I learned so much, that I never knew before….it was easy to incorporate all my new knowledge into the story.

ALLISON: What steps were involved in re-introducing native habitat for endangered ducks and birds?

MIKA: I went to Nature Centers and did lots of research and asked lots of questions.

ALLISON: Why should young people become advocates for animal welfare/ How can they start?

MIKA: If our next generation doesn’t get involved with our animals and environment….there will be very little left to enjoy. Start by just walking around outside…go to a part, a Nature Reserve, pay attention…it’s an amazing world out there….please protect it!

ALLISON: What’s next?

MIKA: I’m working on my second novel…again YA Historical Fiction…I love writing that. It takes place in 1969 in the deep South. It was a pivotal time for our nation.

Secrets of the Porch by Sue Ann Sellon caused a lot of discussion this week between my husband and me. The plot and characters of this Christian romance are unevenly developed but otherwise the writing is acceptable. Until about two-thirds through, the novel did its job of entertaining me. In the last third, however, came a revelation that changed my feelings towards this particular young adult novel.

Sixteen-year-old Sophie is caught robbing a gas station with her boyfriend Gabe, but avoids juvenile detention when a judge sentences her instead to spend a year on a farm with her grandmother whom she has never met. This synopsis caught my attention, as I have a soft spot for troubled youth, and even tried my own hand at writing stories about them. The first chapter started out well enough too, showing Sophie as this tough teen who threw around words like freak, pig, and ass. Hardened by the death of her mother, life on the streets, and an abusive boyfriend, Sophie even shows contempt to the judge and puts up a fight against the guards who escort her in and out of the courtroom. Unfortunately, despite her background of mentoring pregnant teens, Sellon is unable to maintain a consistent depiction of Sophie as a troubled teen. At times, such as when Sophie throws eggs at a rooster for mischief, she seems too innocent and too young. Speaking of which, I realize that sixteen-year-olds are almost adults, and therefore will talk more like them than children. At the same time, the narrator too often sounds less like a teen who is trying to figure out her chaotic life, and more often like a mature author who is imparting wisdom she has gained with age.

Still, in the first two-thirds, there’s a certain beauty about Secrets of the Porch. Unrealistic as her Sophie’s rapid transformation might be, I enjoyed reading about her falling for nature, the farm, and her grandmother. Oh, and for the family dog. Sellon successfully convinces me of how unloved and abandoned Sophie has felt since the loss of her mom, and so I’m rooting for her to find happiness and family again. Despite its uneven quality, Secrets of the Porch has all the makings of a feel-good story, and that initially made for an entertaining read.

Then came the revelation by Sophie’s grandmother of her past life. You’ll notice that I’ve referred to Secrets of the Porch as a Christian romance. More than a small portion of the book refers to God, his grace, his forgiveness, his love, and to church. Thus, it surprised—no, shocked me—to read a certain revelation. Earlier in the story, Sophie had shared her own troubled past, which involved theft and other delinquent acts. However, Sophie also comes to feel remorse for those, and so they didn’t bother me. In contrast, her grandmother behaves in a way that goes against Biblical beliefs, and yet never once does any of the “good” characters condemn her actions. In fact, she seems to have remained respected and revered in the community, and that did bother me.

When I shared my aghast feelings with my husband, we ended up having a long talk about what readers will and will not accept from authors. Consider, would you feel okay with a novel in which the main character vandalized for fun, and never suffered any consequences? Would you feel okay with a novel in which the main character tortured others, and no one ever acted as if this were wrong? In other words, is it acceptable for authors to portray a main character as going against our belief systems, because after all they’re just telling a story? Or do authors have an obligation to ultimately have the lead character change or suffer because of immoral actions?

I wish I could recommend Secrets of the Porch. The author touches on a topic for which I have a soft spot. She also beautifully portrays the Midwest, the region where I now live. The writing isn’t bad. Sadly though, the novel fails for me on two levels. First, it is marketed as a young adult novel, but contains sexually mature content. Second, and this is what disturbs me most, Secrets of the Porch condones a lifestyle that goes against Christian values while in every other way portraying itself as a Christian novel. For these reasons, I can’t in good conscience recommend Secrets of the Porch.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 125 other followers