Torn Away

Sometimes books (and movies, TV shows, songs, commercials, etc.) make me emotional. I can usually shed a few tears and move on with my life. There are a few books, however, that turn me into someone even I don’t recognize. I cry so hard that I can’t catch my breath, I get so angry that I want to hit things, and I’m so exhausted by the whole experience that I have to take a very long nap to recuperate. I read one of those books this weekend. It was Torn Away by Jennifer Brown. This book put me through the wringer, and, despite today’s three-hour nap, I’m still emotionally exhausted from the experience.

Torn Away tells the story of Jersey Cameron. Jersey is finishing up her junior year in high school in Elizabeth, Missouri, and, like many teen girls, she’s focused on her own life. She rolls her eyes when her mom tells her to do chores, and she doesn’t want to be bothered by her little sister, Marin. All she wants is to be left alone.

When the tornado sirens sound one evening, Jersey is home alone waiting for her mom and sister to return from dance class. At first, she’s sure that things aren’t that bad outside. They’ve heard the sirens before, and nothing has happened. Unfortunately, that is not the case on this fateful night. A massive tornado is heading right for Jersey’s town, and it won’t just rip buildings to shreds. No, it will destroy Jersey’s entire world. Jersey wanted to be left alone before. Now, she has no choice.

The disaster that leveled Jersey’s home also took her mother and sister, and her stepfather can’t deal with Jersey’s pain on top of his own. He sends Jersey to live with her father and paternal grandparents, people she’s never met, and her already tragic situation is made even worse. Jersey lives in a constant state of fear, she has no one to lean on, and the people who should be there for her want nothing to do with her. In fact, they make it known that she’s not welcome, and they’re only taking her in because they think they have to.

Jersey can’t take living with her father and his loathsome family, so she does the only thing she can think of. She runs away. Jersey hopes that she’ll be able to stay with friends or even her stepfather back in Elizabeth, but, yet again, she’s sent to live with more relatives she’s never met. This time, she’s staying with her maternal grandparents, the same people who disowned her mother so many years ago.

Jersey’s existence with her mom’s parents is much more comfortable than it was with her father’s family, but Jersey is still holding onto so much anger, fear, and sadness that she can’t let anyone in, especially the people her mother taught her to despise. But did Jersey really get the whole story from her mother? What led to the separation between daughter and parents, and did either party ever try to bridge that gap? Should Jersey be the one to make things better? Is that even an option when her grief is eating her alive?

As Jersey spends more time with her grandparents and learns more about her mother’s life (and secrets), she realizes that maybe there are people in the world who still love her. People who, like her mother, will do everything in their power to make her feel happy and safe. People who share in her grief and want to help her heal. People who can return a sense of family to her life. All Jersey has to do is let them in. Will she? Or will she let the tornado that took her mother and sister tear away her future as well?

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This post hasn’t even come close to describing the intense, heart-wrenching journey that is Torn Away. I cried so much that I had to read most of the book with my glasses off. I kept Kleenex beside me the whole time. This wasn’t one of those books that elicits tears just at the end. No, like The Fault in Our Stars, Torn Away had me sobbing from beginning to end…and some of those tears were shed in anger.

I’m pretty sure I did serious damage to my Darth Vader pillow when I got angry at some of the people in Jersey’s life (which is kind of funny when you think about it). I got mad at her stepdad because he either couldn’t or wouldn’t see the damage he was inflicting on Jersey, but most of my anger was reserved for Jersey’s biological father and his family. Her father’s family was seriously horrible. All of them–with the minor exception of her aunt–were rude, insensitive, callous, and malicious people who didn’t try to sympathize with Jersey and even took delight in her pain. (I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them white trash. If anyone is offended by that, I’m sorry. Read the book. I’m sure you’ll agree with me.) I had to put the book down on a couple of occasions because I was so mad. I may have actually applauded Jersey when she finally escaped this situation.

I do think anyone who’s ever experienced loss will identify with the character of Jersey. I know I did. I felt her pain, her anger, her hopelessness. I imagined what I would do in a similar situation, and let me tell you…I wouldn’t have fared nearly as well as Jersey did. Jersey is a strong, sympathetic character who did her best to survive when it would have been all too easy to give up. Did she always to the right thing? Of course not, but she survived and held on to the memories of her family while working to make a life for herself in a world without them.

If you’d like to read Torn Away, pick up a box of Kleenex first and then head to your local library or bookstore. (I read a copy via NetGalley, but the book is already available to the masses.)

To learn more about Jennifer Brown and her other books–like Hate List–visit her website or Twitter.

Published in: on July 20, 2014 at 8:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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This Journal Belongs to Ratchet

This morning, I finished reading yet another of the nominated titles for this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award. The book was This Journal Belongs to Ratchet by Nancy J. Cavanaugh. As the title suggests, this book is written in a journal format, and each entry tells readers a little more about our main character, Ratchet. (Her real name is Rachel, but no one calls her that.)

If you’ve worked with elementary or middle grade readers, I likely don’t have to tell you how popular books in diary/journal format are. I can’t keep books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Dear Dumb Diary, or even Dear America books on the shelves. These books are quick, entertaining reads that kids tend to devour. I predict that This Journal Belongs to Ratchet will be no different.

Ratchet is looking for her life to change. This lonely girl–who is homeschooled by her father–wants to make friends, be more like other girls, and finally have something new in her life. Ratchet is sure that having a mother would make everything different, but there’s not much she can do about that. (Her mother died when Ratchet was just a little girl.) Even so, Ratchet works to make things change…hopefully for the better.

Ratchet explores her feelings through a journal. Now, this journal is supposed to be for a homeschool language arts assignment, but Ratchet knows her dad will never read it, so she pours all of her feelings onto the pristine white pages. She uses her writing assignments–poetry, freewriting, descriptive essays, letters, and many others–to describe her frustrations with her father. His obsession with saving the environment and looking insane at every town hall meeting, his insistence on homeschooling Ratchet, never buying anything new, always needing her help in the garage, and his refusal to talk about her mom.

It’s not easy being the daughter of the town joke, and Ratchet hates feeling embarrassed all the time. (Her dad may not care what others think of him, but Ratchet does.) She loves her dad, but she longs for more in her life. Things would be so much better if she just had one real friend, but the kids in the neighborhood always make fun of Ratchet because of her dad…and because both of them are always covered in grease from working on cars.

Things may be on the verge of changing for Ratchet, though. When her dad begins teaching a class at the community center on how to build go-carts, Ratchet begins using the lessons her father taught her to get closer to the boys in the class. They really seem to value her knowledge, and Ratchet feels good about helping them. In the process, she even makes a close friend, Hunter, a boy who used to be part of the crowd that teased her so much.

As Ratchet explores her life, her relationship with her dad, and her feelings about her new friendship, she gradually realizes that maybe it’s not so important to be “normal.” Maybe her dad has been teaching her the important things in life all along. Sure, he’s a little crazy sometimes–and he often makes her mad–but he fights for the things he believes in, he’s true to himself, and, most importantly, he’s always been there for Ratchet. Perhaps her dad isn’t so crazy after all.

Maybe what Ratchet really needs to change in her life is her own perspective. When she realizes just how lucky she actually is, she can do anything she sets her mind to.

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I often tell my students that normal is boring. Well, Ratchet is anything but boring. I don’t know of many kids who can rebuild an engine, change a tire, teach others to build their own go-carts, and be motivated enough to do school work without any help. Ratchet is a fascinating character, and I think many readers will find her journey of self-discovery inspiring and enlightening. I also believe that readers who see themselves as kind of different will see a kindred spirit in Ratchet. And who knows? Her story could even inspire young readers–particularly girls–to learn more about auto mechanics.

I think This Journal Belongs to Ratchet could be a very powerful teaching tool in elementary and middle grade language arts classes. I envision classes reading this book together and then writing in their own journals. Students could take Ratchet’s example, and write their own poems, essays, letters, and even modern-day fairy tales, using their own lives as inspiration.

All in all, I’m very happy that this book was chosen as a 14-15 SCCBA nominee. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking book that could help readers explore their own difficulties, frustrations, and even victories through writing. I hope the students and teachers in my school feel the same.

This Journal Belongs to Ratchet is the first book by author Nancy J. Cavanaugh. To learn more about this author and future books, visit her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Almost Home

Confession time. I’ve only managed to read six of the twenty nominees for the 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award this summer. I have about a month to finish the other fourteen books…along with all of the other books I’d like to read this summer. It’s not looking good. I can do it, but I’m going to have to really push myself. Will power, especially during the summer, is not exactly my strong suit.

All that being said, I did manage to finish one of the SCCBA nominees this morning, and it packed one heck of an emotional punch. The book was Almost Home by Joan Bauer. I was a little nervous when I first picked up this book. Books with dogs on the cover always make me kind of anxious. (I blame Old Yeller.) In this case, however, the dog was sort of the bright spot in the book, and that little bundle of fur helped to bring light into the life of a girl who was dealing with way too much.

It takes a lot to bring Sugar Mae Cole down. This twelve-year-old tries to always look on the bright side of life, even when things are looking rather dim. And things are about to get pretty dark for Sugar and her mom, Reba. Sugar’s absent dad has gambled away all of their money, and Sugar and her mom are being forced out of their home. Sugar doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but she’s determined to keep her spirits up and be strong for both herself and her mother.

Sugar has a little help along the way. Even when Sugar has to move to Chicago, she keeps in touch with Mr. Bennett, a teacher who encourages Sugar to express herself through writing and to be her best self. Sugar also has Shush, a rescue dog with trust issues of his own. It’s not easy living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter with a dog in tow, but Sugar is determined to be there for little Shush…the way she wishes someone would be there for her.

When Sugar’s mom shuts down from the stress of everything that has happened, Sugar knows she has to be stronger than ever. Luckily, she’s got Shush…and a chance at a real home when she’s placed with a loving foster family. She’s doing well in her new environment, but the worry about her mother–and her mother’s dependence on Sugar’s no-good father–continues to eat at Sugar’s happiness. Sugar wishes she could do something to open her mother’s eyes, but she knows that Reba must confront the reality of her situation herself.

Through everything that Sugar encounters, she holds onto the dream of home. A home where she, her mother, and Shush can be safe, happy, and together. A home where she doesn’t have to worry that she’ll be kicked out one day. A home where she can shine, thrive, and help others who are going through hard times. A home where she can simply be a kid without so many adult worries. She’s almost there. Sugar Mae Cole is almost home.

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In this post, I’ve tried to capture just how optimistic Almost Home‘s main character really is. I hope I’ve succeeded. Sugar is definitely a character to be admired. I’m confident that I would not fare so well if I were in her shoes. Even when things were at their worst, Sugar maintained hope that things would get better one day. That’s not to say that she was blind to the realities around her. No, she knew that things were bleak, but she didn’t let that get her down for long. She always found a way to be thankful for the little things, and that’s an example all of us could stand to follow.

I also liked how Sugar explored her situation through her writing. She wrote poems and letters that really highlighted what she was going through. Sometimes it’s easier to write the hard stuff down rather than saying the words out loud. (I know that’s true for me. Why do you think I devote so much time to this blog?) Through poetry, Sugar was able to express how she was feeling. She didn’t always share her words with those around her, but, when she did, they had an impact…especially with the teacher who meant so much to her.

(I’m not even going to get started on Sugar’s connection with her former teacher, Mr. Bennett. If I do, I’ll get all emotional about how teachers don’t do their often thankless jobs for the money. We’ll seriously be here all day if I get on that particular soapbox. Just read between the lines a bit.)

I find it rather odd that two of the books on this years SCCBA nominee list deal with characters named Sugar. What’s really striking is that both books show these girls–in different time periods and with different backgrounds–being forced to act beyond their years. In Almost Home, Sugar faces homelessness and all that entails. In Sugar, our main character is a former slave working on a plantation during Reconstruction. Both girls have to take on adult responsibilities, and both girls do so with spirit and a sense of hope for a brighter future. I think it would be interesting to have a book club or small classroom group read both of these books and draw parallels between these two characters. Yes, they have some pretty noticeable differences, but their similarities, in my opinion, are even more apparent. Something to think about there.

Almost Home is an excellent book for elementary and middle school audiences (and older readers, of course). I’m going to recommend this book to my guidance counselor as well. She knows better than I which of our students are dealing with homelessness, and my hope is that this book could offer those kids a bit of hope when things probably seem hopeless.

Published in: on July 15, 2014 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Chaos of Stars

Since I first read Paranormalcy several years ago, I’ve tried to read just about everything that Kiersten White has written. So far, I’ve read the entire Paranormalcy series (Paranormalcy, Supernaturally, and Endlessly), Mind Games and Perfect Lies, In the Shadows (a middle grade novel co-written with Jim Di Bartolo), and even a steampunk short story in Corsets & Clockwork. Well, as of last night, I can add The Chaos of Stars, a dramatic stand-alone novel, to the list of excellent stories by a thoroughly entertaining author.

The Chaos of Stars introduces readers to Isadora. Isadora, like many teen girls, is rebelling against her parents. Things are a little different for her, though. Of course, everything’s kind of different when your parents are Egyptian deities. That’s right. Dear old Mom and Dad are actually Isis and Osiris, and Isadora is their very human daughter.

Isadora is growing tired of existing only to worship her parents, so she takes off to live with her brother in San Diego at the first opportunity. This is her chance to be her own person and escape the pressures of her life in Egypt. Little does she know that she can run from her powerful mother, but Isis will always maintain a little bit of control. Mommy dearest has arranged for Isadora to work in a museum for the summer, managing the new Egyptian collection. (No one—other than Isadora and her brother—realizes that the priceless artifacts were donated by an actual Egyptian goddess. Who would?)

Through her work at the museum, Isadora makes some friends. One of those friends introduces her to an enigmatic young man named Ry. Isadora is oddly drawn to this boy, but she fights the attraction with every fiber of her being. She doesn’t want to get involved in something that is destined to end. (It seems that being the human daughter of eternal beings has done quite a number on Isadora’s feelings about love.) Every minute she spends with Ry, though, cracks the armor she’s built around her heart. What is it about this boy? Why is she so drawn to him? Could he be the one person to really understand her and her complicated family?

While Isadora is examining her feelings for both her family and Ry, she is also confronting a mysterious danger that has followed her from Egypt. She’s having disturbing dreams about her mother, and an oddly familiar menace is lurking in the shadows. Someone who thinks Isadora possesses the key to controlling all of the gods of Egypt. Someone who wants to put an end to the reign of Isis…forever.

Can Isadora figure out what’s going on in time to save her mother, a woman she’s resented for years? Will Isadora finally realize how much her messed up family truly means to her—and how much she means to them–before it’s too late? Unwrap* the mystery when you read The Chaos of Stars, a thrilling (and charming) book by the always delightful Kiersten White.

*Unwrap. Get it? A little mummy humor. I thought it was funny.

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If you’re looking for a YA book to give to fans of Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, I highly recommend The Chaos of Stars. It’s a quick, quirky read that will appeal to those who know a bit about Egyptian mythology. (That knowledge isn’t totally necessary going in, but it could lead readers to seek out more information!) Also, it’s a stand-alone novel, so many readers won’t feel the pressure to keep up with yet another series.

The Chaos of Stars is a great book for middle grade and teen readers (and adults, of course). Despite the main character having supernatural parents, I think the issues she faces will resonate with a variety of audiences. She’s looking to break free of expectations, she’s examining her relationship with her parents, and she’s dealing with the often scary feelings of first love. (I’m 35, and I’m still working on a couple of those things.) Kiersten White addresses all of those issues with her characteristic humor and candor, and, through Isadora, I think we can all learn a little more about ourselves and our relationships with others.

If you’d like more information on this book and others by the fabulous Kiersten White, check out her website and Twitter feed. You won’t be disappointed. The woman is hilarious!

Happy reading!

Landline

There are a few authors I count on to give me a great story. This past year, Rainbow Rowell earned a spot on that list. In Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl, she introduced me to stories I was invested in and relatable, flawed characters that I cared about. I had a feeling her latest book, Landline, would be no different. Once again, I was right.

Georgie McCool is a comedy writer on the verge of getting what she’s always wanted–a chance to write a show of her own creation. There’s a problem, though. She’s got to work through Christmas to make it happen. That means staying home while her husband Neal takes the kids and visits his family in Omaha. Neal is frustrated by Georgie’s insistence on placing her work above her family, but Georgie just can’t pass up this opportunity. Part of her thinks Neal will change his plans and stay home in LA, but he doesn’t. He leaves, and Georgie wonders if she’s finally ruined her already struggling marriage.

Throughout the next several days, Georgie reflects on her past with Neal–how they met, how they fell in love, and how they got to this point. She knows both of them are at fault, but it doesn’t seem like either of them are really willing to change. But they do love each other, and that’s got to mean something.

Georgie tries to get in touch with Neal to apologize, explain, beg, whatever, but she can never quite reach him…until she uses an old yellow phone at her mom’s house. She finally reaches Neal on this landline connection, but something is a bit off. Georgie soon realizes she’s not talking to her husband; she’s talking to the young man he was in 1998…just days before he proposed to her.

As one would expect, Georgie freaks out. (Of course she does. I’d freak out too if I were talking to someone back in 1998!) Will talking with Past Neal have some kind of Back to the Future effect? Will she erase her current life, her marriage, her kids? Or is this the chance she needs to get her marriage back on track? Does she even want that any more?

Georgie has some big choices ahead of her. Will she continue to put her needs, her career, and her friends first, or will she use the unbelievable chance she’s been given to repair the damage in her relationship with the love of her life? Read Landline, another fantastic book by Rainbow Rowell, to find out!

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First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Like Rowell’s other books, I grew to care about the characters, flaws and all. And I honestly think the flaws are what make these characters believable…even in an unbelievable story like this one. Both Georgie and Neal were, at times, completely unlikable. Georgie put her career above everything; Neal was aloof and condescending. These were people with issues, and that’s real. Landline isn’t some cheesy romance about two perfect specimens who have to overcome outside circumstances to be together. No, this book deals with two real people who have real problems, and they have to work on what’s inside to stay together. Yes, the way this happens is rather unrealistic (unless you believe that time is all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey), but the work, the self-realization is real.

Second, I feel I must say that Landline is not a YA book. It is, in my opinion, written for adults. Will some teens enjoy it? Probably, but this book deals with a married couple’s relationship, and that’s not something that (most) teens have experienced. (Of course, I haven’t experienced it either, but I still loved the book. I guess I’m saying that a certain amount of life experience is a plus when reading this book. I doubt a lot of teen readers have had to choose between work and family. Even as a singleton, I have had to make that call before.) As a former high school librarian, I doubt I would purchase this book for my school library, but I might encourage Rainbow Rowell fans to seek it out on their own.

Landline is most definitely a must-read for adult fans of Rainbow Rowell. And this particular adult fan is excited about seeing Rowell again at YALLFest in November! If you’re in or around Charleston, South Carolina, in November, I highly recommend attending this awesome event. You will not be disappointed!

For more information about Landline and the fabulous Rainbow Rowell, check out her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Published in: on July 13, 2014 at 12:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Charm & Strange

Occasionally, I encounter books that make me extremely uncomfortable. A couple of those books are Identical by Ellen Hopkins and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. Well, I can now add another book to the list of uncomfortable, disturbing, and powerful reads. The book is Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn.

Charm & Strange, winner of the 2014 ALA William C. Morris YA Debut Award, came to me via Goodreads First Reads, and I’m so glad that it did. I may not have otherwise picked up this book, and, though it weirded me out a bit, I think the book is very well-written, and it keeps readers engrossed and eager to know more about the main character and his twisted past.

Charm & Strange tells the convoluted story of Andrew Winston Winters. Known as Win to his fellow students, he keeps to himself at his boarding school. He tries to keep everyone out…for their own safety. He knows he’s dangerous, and he’s always on the verge of letting his emotions get the best of him. If he ever truly lets go, he’s sure the consequences will be disastrous. After all, it’s happened before…

Years ago, Win was known as Drew, a young tennis star with serious anger issues. After letting his anger loose on another boy, his parents decided to send him to stay with his grandparents one fateful summer…and that’s when everything changed. That summer, Drew was forced to confront what really lead to his violent outbursts, and he and his siblings made a terrible decision that would end the cycle of destruction that had ruled their young lives.

In the end, though, Drew couldn’t take that final step, and that decision would haunt him and make him into Win, the lone wolf with no real connections to anyone or anything. He retreats into something of a fantasy world, a world that helps him to make sense of the horrors he faced as a child.

Win’s fantasy world is unraveling fast, and it soon becomes clear that something happened to him so awful that it colored every aspect of his existence. He’ll have to rely on two friends–friends he didn’t even know he had–to get him the help he so desperately needs. In the process, Win will come face-to-face with his childhood self, the memories that plague him, and the abuse that led him to this point.

Read Charm & Strange for a dark, unsettling, and intense look into the mind of a boy who is looking for answers–answers about his own nature and the haunting past that made him into the emotional powder keg he has become.

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When I first started reading this book, I thought I was dealing with a story about a young sociopath. Drew–and Win, his older self–seemed to have no real emotions, he acted impulsively, he didn’t connect with most people, and he had no remorse for this sometimes destructive actions. The more I read, though, the more I learned about this character. Yes, he still had some disturbing tendencies and thoughts, but I suspected that there was more going on below the surface. How right I was. Drew/Win was holding onto a secret so terrible that even he couldn’t face it, and that secret ultimately led to the worst events in this boy’s life and to his own view of himself as a monster.

I think Charm & Strange is an important YA novel because it takes a hard look at how abuse impacts boys. I’ve read loads of books that deal with abuse from the female perspective, but I can’t remember offhand any of them that look at abuse, especially sexual abuse, from a boy’s point of view. (If you know of any books with this perspective, let me know in the comments.) This book addresses the cyclical, catastrophic consequences of abuse and what some kids do to escape what happened to them.

If you’re thinking about picking up this book and/or adding it to your school/classroom/public library, I warn you that it is an intense book suitable for mature readers. There is frank talk of sexual situations, alcohol and drug use, and violence. There’s also a fair amount of adult language. Charm & Strange deals with mature themes, and that should be taken into consideration when recommending this book to readers.

For more about Charm & Strange and author Stephanie Kuehn, visit the author’s website, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Published in: on July 8, 2014 at 2:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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Get Happy

If you enjoyed Mary Amato’s Guitar Notes or are an aspiring singer/songwriter, there’s a great book heading your way. Get Happy, also by Mary Amato, will be released by Egmont USA in October, and, once again, this author explores how music allows one girl to express herself and work through everything that is happening in her life.

Minerva is a young songwriter who is desperate to have her very own ukulele. She’s sure that her mom will finally pick up on her oh-so-subtle hints, but it is not to be. On the morning of her birthday, she is met with a sweater instead of the instrument that she desires. Min does, however, receive something on her birthday that will change everything she’s ever believed about her own life. She gets a letter and a necklace from her father, a man she always thought abandoned Min and her mom. As it turns out, that may not have been the case…

While Min is both curious about her father and determined to avoid him, she’s also focused on her new job. She and a few other teens are performers for Get Happy, a company that provides characters for children’s birthday parties. Min is Get Happy’s resident mermaid, her best friend Finn is a pirate, a dimpled cutie from school is a cowboy, and Cassie, a too-perfect prima donna, is the princess. Min’s primary reason for getting this job is to earn enough money for a ukulele, but encountering so many happy (and unhappy) families is forcing her to examine her own childhood, the few memories of her father, and what she may have missed because of his absence.

Min is not ready to confront her mom yet–or, heaven forbid, her dad–about what really happened with them, so she expresses her conflicted feelings about the situation through song. When Min finally gets her prized ukulele, the songs seem to flow out of her, but the tension between Min and her mom is growing each day, and it will soon become too much for Min to bear.

When Min learns the truth about what her mom has been hiding all these years, she’ll be forced to face the father she’s never really known. Why did he really leave? Did he even care about her? And will she make a place for him in her life now? Can Min forgive her mother, know her father, and get happy with her life now that everything is out in the open? We’ll just have to see…

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Other than the whole music connection, one thing that Get Happy has in common with Guitar Notes is parents that are totally out of touch with their kids. Min’s mom seemed to be totally focused on what she wanted. She missed completely that her daughter didn’t care about the best clothes and was perfectly happy with quirky thrift store finds. Min wanted a ukulele; mom got her an ugly sweater. And most importantly, Min’s mother didn’t see how much damage she did to her daughter by keeping her from her father. Yes, I know she had her reasons, but it felt like she was acting in her own interests, not her daughter’s.

While I liked Get Happy, I do wish there had been a bit more resolution. Things felt very unfinished at the end, and I would have liked to see Min’s interactions with her father and how that impacted her life. I also wanted to see more of Min’s relationship with Hayes (the dimpled cutie mentioned above) and how her best friend reacted to it. It is my sincere hope that these issues will be addressed before the book hits stores in October.

If I had to recommend a book to young musicians, I would definitely pick Guitar Notes over Get Happy at this point. I felt like Guitar Notes had much more of a resolution, and the story itself just felt more fleshed out. I would, though, recommend both books for readers who express themselves through music. Even though the characters are teenagers, I think these books are more than suitable for readers from fifth grade on up.

For more information on Get Happy, Guitar Notes, and other books by Mary Amato, visit her website or Goodreads. And remember to pick up Get Happy at your local library or bookstore on October 28th!

Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 7:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Guitar Notes

I am a firm believer in the power of music. And when I encounter a book that shines a light on that, I tend to devour it. That was definitely the case with Guitar Notes by Mary Amato.

This nominee for the 14-15 South Carolina Junior Book Award focuses on Tripp, a young guitar player, and Lyla, a talented young cello player.

These two young people use the same school practice room on opposite days. Tripp is playing a borrowed guitar (his mom took his away) and is only concerned with playing for his own enjoyment. Lyla, on the other hand, is feeling some intense pressure to further her career as a world-class cello player. She’s got some big auditions coming up, and she’s supposed to be using the practice room to get her pieces absolutely perfect. Things change, though, when Tripp and Lyla begin leaving notes for each other in their little room…

At first, the notes are kind of snarky. Tripp thinks of Lyla as Little Miss Perfect, and Lyla sees Tripp as something of an oddity. The two trade barbs and, in the process, learn a little more about each other. Pretty soon, they are exploring a tentative friendship and challenging each other to really explore their musical connection. Lyla puts her cello aside for a bit and focuses on learning to play the guitar and writing songs with Tripp. These two young people bond through music, and they find a friendship that might just turn out to change their entire lives.

As so often happens, though, circumstances arise that try to drive these two friends apart. Other friends don’t understand their connection, their parents are rather clueless (and are often doing more damage than they probably realize), and both Tripp and Lyla are facing pressures that feel insurmountable at times. Music, though, continues to bring them together…even when things seem impossibly bleak.

Join Tripp and Lyla on this musical journey that will take them through friendships old and new, family drama, and even a bit of adventure. They will learn so much about each other, themselves, and the music that ties them together, and this bond will see them through good times and bad. Tripp and Lyla will see the true power of music, and they may just share that with everyone around them…

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Guitar Notes really spoke to me as a musician. No, I’m not a guitar or cello player. (I had a brief interlude with the violin, but that resulted in people thinking I was torturing a cat.) I have, however, been a brass player since I was twelve, so I know a little something about how music can fill a person up, bring emotions to the surface, and make everything a bit clearer. That’s what I saw in Tripp and Lyla in this book. I think any musician, young or old, who reads this book will see what I did–two young people finally discovering their voices and realizing how much music really means to them.

Guitar Notes was, at times, an emotional ride. I laughed, I cried, I commiserated, and I even got angry. I couldn’t stand Annie, Lyla’s so-called best friend. I wanted to slap her every time she made an appearance. She was just so bossy. Kind of reminded me of one of my best friends in school. Ugh.

I also wasn’t a fan of Tripp’s mom through most of the book. I get that she wanted him to improve his grades, but taking music away from him to make that happen? No, no, no. If anything, that did more damage, and it’s been proven that music actually improves brain function. (Look it up.) Eventually, Tripp’s mom “woke up” and saw just how much the guitar and Lyla’s friendship meant to her son, but it took way to much for her to finally see the light. Just my two cents.

I highly recommend Guitar Notes to any reader–probably fifth grade and up–who has a passion for music. This book definitely has a place in upper elementary, middle, and even high school classrooms and libraries. I would also urge music teachers to read this book and recommend it to their chorus, band, and orchestra students.

I am thrilled that this book earned a spot on this year’s South Carolina Junior Book Award nominee list. It’s a wonderful book that shines a light on just what music can do in a young person’s life.

Mary Amato’s next book, Get Happy, also has a musical theme, and it will be out in October. Thanks to NetGalley, I’ll be diving into that one soon, so stay tuned!

For more information on Guitar Notes and other works by Mary Amato, check out her website.

I Am the Mission

Caution! It is imperative that you read I Am the Weapon, book one in Allen Zadoff’s Unknown Assassin series, before continuing with book two, I Am the Mission. This message will self-destruct in 3…2…1…

Just kidding. This message won’t do anything. But seriously, read the first book.

As you’ve probably gathered, I recently read I Am the Mission, the nerve-wracking sequel to I am the Weapon. This second installment picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one, and it is quite the page-turner.

I Am the Mission came out on June 17th, and some of you may have seen it under a couple of different titles: The Lost Mission or Fearless. (Thanks to NetGalley, I read a digital proof of the book with The Lost Mission as its title.) No matter what the title, though, the book is gripping and continues to follow the life of young man who works as an assassin for a group known only as The Program. This teenager moves from one identity, one assignment, to the next, and his only concerns are to eliminate his targets and protect The Program at all costs. During his last mission, however, he began to question his orders, and that tiny seed of doubt is creeping in once again…

After going off the grid for a bit–to come to grips with his last mission and to get his head on straight–this boy, who we’ve previously known as Ben, is pulled back into The Program. His loyalty is being questioned, and he knows he’ll have to suppress his doubts to keep his handlers from deciding he’s too much of a threat to their organization. One way to do that is to complete the next mission he’s given.

When another operative for The Program is seemingly terminated, our boy–who now goes by Daniel–is tasked with completing this lost mission. His job is to kill Eugene Moore, a man who runs Camp Liberty and appears to be amassing an army of young people for the express purpose of overthrowing the government and/or committing acts of domestic terrorism.

The job should have been an easy in-and-out, but things quickly grow complicated, and Daniel finds himself being led to Moore’s training camp with no way of getting word to The Program. His only option now is to become a part of Camp Liberty, get close to Moore’s kids, and look for another opportunity to eliminate this new threat to national security. It isn’t easy, though. This camp takes its own protection very seriously, and not everyone trusts the new guy sniffing around.

As Daniel learns more about the camp and its leader, he tries to get word to The Program about what is going on…but his efforts amount to nothing. He cannot reach anyone, and, after a harrowing episode at what should have been a safe house, Daniel seriously questions what has happened to The Program. Has their security been breached? Has this secret organization been disabled? Or is there something much more sinister at work? Something, perhaps, targeted at Daniel himself?

Questions abound for Daniel on this chaotic mission, but he remains determined to carry out his orders…even when he learns that The Program has not exactly been truthful with him. Daniel must act without mercy against those who would seek to do harm to the country. To do that, he will have to put aside fear, potential friendships, and his own safety to see this mission to its explosive end. Will Daniel’s efforts be enough? Will he uncover The Program’s secrets in the process? Only time will tell, and that may be running out for young Daniel…

_______________

I think I mentioned in my post on I Am the Weapon that our protagonist in this series can’t really be called a hero. If anything, I’d label his as an anti-hero. In the end, yes, he does demonstrate some heroic tendencies, but Daniel–or whatever you want to call him–has questionable loyalties sometimes, he’s been known to blindly follow orders, and he is, let’s face it, an assassin. Even when he has doubts about how someone fits into what’s going on, he kills them if they get in his way. (If you couldn’t tell, one of the deaths in this book kind of bothered me. I didn’t think this person needed to die. Daniel felt differently.) With all of that, though, I still found myself rooting for him. I wanted him to question his orders. I hoped he would put an end to the brainwashing going on at Camp Liberty. I wished for him to come out of everything unharmed. Unharmed, but determined to finally uncover the truth about The Program. For the most part, I think I got what I wanted.

For those considering purchasing this book–and its predecessor–for personal or school/classroom libraries, I feel I must give a word of caution. This series is, in my humble opinion, written for a young adult audience. It is violent at times (which fits with a protagonist who is an assassin), and there are a couple of sexual situations. Language was true to the setting, but some younger readers (and their parents) may have problems with it. Also, there are some political issues in this book that require some serious, intense thought and knowledge of the current political climate in the United States. For all of those reasons, I would recommend this series to readers in tenth grade and up. These books are written for an audience with some maturity. (No offense intended to anyone reading this who is a ninth grader or younger.)

If you’re interested in The Unknown Assassin series or other books by Allen Zadoff, check out his website.

There’s no word yet on when we can expect the next book in this series, but, given how things ended in I Am the Mission, I hope it’s soon!

Published in: on July 1, 2014 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Keeping Safe the Stars

It’s time, once again, to bring you one of the 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor.

While reading this book, I wished that I could turn off my adult brain for just a bit and approach the book from a child’s perspective. I think the entire experience would have been a bit different. As it was, this book left me anxious nearly the whole way through. I think any adult reading Keeping Safe the Stars will feel the same way. I look forward, though, to getting my students’ take on this book. I imagine they’ll see something in it that I didn’t.

Pride, Nightingale, and Baby Star are three kids who live in virtual seclusion with their grandfather, Old Finn. When Old Finn gets sick, however, these three kids will have to rely on their own wits to stay together…and keep everyone from knowing that they’re on their own. None of them wants to return to a shelter or group home like the one that they were in when their mother died. Keeping safe the Stars is the most important thing in the world.

Thirteen-year-old Pride (also known as Kathleen) is determined to take over until Old Finn returns. She goes to town for groceries, she cares for their elderly neighbor and her siblings, and, when she discovers that Old Finn has been moved to a hospital in the city, she devises a plan to earn money and get to her beloved grandfather.

It doesn’t take long for everything to start weighing on young Pride’s shoulders. She’s told her share of lies to make sure no one discovers she and her siblings are alone, but those lies are catching up with her. Pride knows that if she can just get to Old Finn, he’ll tell her what she needs to do. He’ll show her how to keep her family safe.

When Pride, Nightingale, and Baby finally make it to Old Finn, though, they discover that their situation is more complicated than ever. This family–a group that is independent and self-reliant to a fault–is going to need help to make it through the days ahead. But who can they rely on to give them the help they need while keeping them together?

Pretty soon, Pride and her siblings will discover that the help they need is all around. All they have to do is accept it.

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Set against the backdrop of the last days of Nixon’s presidency, Keeping Safe the Stars is, in my opinion, a book about keeping a family together at all costs, being honest with oneself and others, and asking for help when it’s truly needed.

As an adult reading this book, I have to say that I was filled with anxiety with the turn of every page. The mere thought that three kids would have to take care of themselves–and worry about how to buy groceries or pay bills–left me feeling uneasy. (And no, I’m not naive enough to think that this doesn’t happen around the world every day.) I wanted to leap into the pages and smack the adults around the kids. Tell them to wake up! At the end of the book, I realized that at least a couple of people saw more than Pride wanted them to see, but I was still rather frustrated. Kids need to be free to be kids, not forced to take on the worries and responsibilities of adults.

I found it very interesting that Pride, who lied quite a bit to keep others from discovering the truth, compared herself to Nixon. She sympathized with him a bit, and wondered if he may have told so many lies to protect those around him. It was an interesting parallel, and it could lead some young readers to seek more information on the Watergate scandal and what ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

I’m hoping, at the very least, that Keeping Safe the Stars will encourage young readers to ask for help when they feel that their worries are too much for them to handle alone. Sometimes, we all need a bit of help to make it through.

Keeping Safe the Stars is a good addition to upper elementary and middle school library and classroom collections. I look forward to talking about the book with my own students. Like I said before, I’m betting that their view of this book will be a little different than my own!

For more information on Keeping Safe the Stars and author Sheila O’Connor, take a quick peek at the author’s website. Enjoy!

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