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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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!

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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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…

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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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I Am the Weapon

A few minutes ago, I finally finished reading I Am the Weapon, the first book in Allen Zadoff’s Unknown Assassin series. This book (which I got to read thanks to NetGalley) was originally published last year with the title Boy Nobody. Let me just say that I whole-heartedly approve of the title change. I doubt I would have chosen to read the book with the original title. Boring. I Am the Weapon, though? Yeah, that one grabs my attention.

In this series opener, readers are introduced to a young man with a somewhat fluid identity. He’s the new kid in class, the one who makes friends easily, the one who disappears like smoke. He is an assassin, and, as soon as his job is done, he moves on to the next assignment. The next target sent to him by The Program. He doesn’t ask questions. He follows orders…for now.

The boy’s new assignment takes him to New York City. Unlike his other jobs, this one won’t force him to slowly and carefully make connections with those around him. No, there is a speedy timeline here. He has five days to kill the mayor of New York City.

While he questions his unusual timetable and his high-profile, heavily protected target, he proceeds with the job at hand. He becomes Ben, a new kid in a private Manhattan school, and he does what he must to get close to Samara, the mayor’s daughter.

Sam is smart, though. She knows something is different about Ben. He doesn’t quite fit in at school, and she seems to be intrigued by this. Ben can only use this to his advantage. He quickly involves himself in nearly every aspect of Sam’s life, and, as he learns more about this girl and her father, the more he wonders why this seemingly good man must be eliminated.

Pretty soon, Ben is getting much closer than he intended, and that’s having an impact on his assignment. He can’t quite force himself to follow through and actually kill a man he’s growing to like, especially if that means that Sam will be hurt.

Ben is also reflecting on the circumstances that led him to be an assassin for The Program. Why was he chosen? Why was his father killed? And does he have any control over his own life? Can he make his own choices without higher-ups deciding that he needs to be eliminated as well?

As Ben is struggling with his assignment and his place within The Program, he receives a new set of orders. He’s now got four days to complete his job, but his target has changed. He’s no longer expected to kill the mayor. No. Now his target is Sam. Why? What has she done to warrant being silenced? And can this teen assassin figure things out before he is put in the cross-hairs?

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If you’re looking for a quick, action-packed YA book in the vein of The Bourne Identity and other psychological thrillers with political implications, I think I Am the Weapon may be the book you seek. The main character is not exactly a hero, but readers will be intrigued by his thought processes and what leads him to the actions he takes. He is a killer, one who sometimes blindly follows orders, but he wasn’t always so cold. Once upon a time, he had a family, and his memories of those times–and his growing dissatisfaction with The Program–show readers his humanity and give a hint that he could be redeemed in the future.

Those looking for a happy ending with a sense of closure will not find it in I Am the Weapon. If anything, the conclusion raises even more questions…which I guess is good since there are other books in the series waiting in the wings. The next book, I Am the Mission (which has gone through a couple of title changes as well), should already be out. I’m hoping it’s just as action-packed as the first book. I’ll find out soon enough. Thanks to NetGalley, I’ve also got a copy of this one waiting on my ereader.

For more information on I Am the Weapon and other books by Allen Zadoff, check out the author’s website. As for me, I think I’ll move on to my next book! Peace!

Just One Year

A word to the wise: Read Gayle Forman’s Just One Day before continuing with Just One Year. In my opinion, you MUST know what leads up to Willem’s story prior to opening this companion novel/sequel!

So, I finally finished reading Just One Year late last night. I would have finished it sooner, but I was away at a conference. (To those who think a school librarian’s work ends at the start of summer, I say only “I wish!”) I got back yesterday afternoon and proceeded to devour the rest of this book. I absolutely adored the first book, told from the perspective of Allyson/Lulu, so I really wanted to see what became of Willem after their one day in Paris.

When Willem wakes up, he’s not sure where he is. All he really knows is pain and the need to find something he’s lost. When he finally recovers enough to think, he remembers the girl, Lulu, who’s waiting for him. They shared a magical day in Paris, a day that seemed to change both of them. Willem tries to get back to her, but it’s too late. She’s gone, and she probably thinks he left and didn’t give her another thought. And he can’t exactly do anything about that. He doesn’t even know her real name…and she doesn’t know very much about him either. As much as they discovered about each other during their day together, they don’t know how to reach each other again.

Willem tries to find Lulu in Paris, but he’s floundering. He retraces their steps through the city, but that leads nowhere quickly, so Willem decides to return home to take care of the business he’s been avoiding for so long–settling his father’s estate.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Amsterdam, Willem feels the need to escape. The memories are too much, and Willem is feeling the itch to travel…and continue his search for Lulu. When his travels are delayed, he takes solace in his friends and in the arms of a former flame. She’s not Lulu, but she keeps him from feeling so lonely all the time. Eventually, though, Willem simply can’t fake his feelings anymore, and he must move on.

Willem’s journey takes him all through Holland, Mexico, India, and then back to Holland. Through it all, he thinks of Lulu, their one day together, and how that day changed him. He’s feeling restless, but his nomadic existence doesn’t feel like enough anymore.  He wants a sense of family, he wants real, lasting connections with people, and he wants purpose. Even if he never finds his Lulu, she’s at least given him that. She opened his eyes to the world around him and his place in it. (He doesn’t know it, but he did the same for her.)

While Willem is on his journey of self-discovery, he never truly abandons his search for Lulu. He explores every connection he can think of, but she seems to constantly be just out of reach. He finds himself wondering if he should leave Lulu and their day in Paris in the past and move on.

But Willem has no way of knowing that fate has different plans. Lulu–or Allyson–has been doing some searching of her own, and she and Willem are about to come face to face once again. Will their connection be as strong now that a year has passed and so much has changed? There’s only one way to find out…

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Now that I’ve read Just One Day and Just One Year, I find myself reflecting on my own reactions to each story. While I sympathized with Allyson, I was a little more judgmental of Willem. I know this says more about my own ideas and responses to emotional upheaval than anything, but I think that’s true of any book. We bring our own experiences to the stories we read, and we view the characters through those lenses. What I found really interesting, though, was how my views of Willem’s actions changed the more I read this book. Yes, he dealt with things a bit differently than Allyson did, but he had valid, and highly personal, reasons for doing so. And I think that’s the mark of a really great book. It makes you examine your own ideas through the experiences of another.

After finishing Just One Year last night, I immediately downloaded and read Just One Night, the last chapter of this love story. (Best $0.99 I’ve spent in a while.)

This ebook novella gives readers a look at what happened when Willem and Allyson/Lulu were finally reunited and had the opportunity to share their new selves and how they found their way back to each other. There’s also a fair amount of kissing (and other displays of affection), a bit of Shakespeare (like the preceding novels), and talk of the future. Will Willem and Allyson have a happy ending to their story? I’ll leave that for you do discover!

I failed to mention this in my Just One Day post, but I do believe that this series is suited to young adult (and adult) audiences. There are some mature themes, and I just don’t think most middle grade readers have the maturity or life experience to understand some of the content. As always, though, use your best judgment when recommending any book to young readers.

If you’re in or around South Carolina in November and want to learn more about Gayle Forman and her fantastic books, I urge you to attend YALLFest, a two-day celebration of young adult literature in Charleston. Gayle is scheduled to attend, and I know she’ll have lots of interesting things to say! (I had the privilege of hearing her speak last year, and I loved hearing her talk about her craft.)

For those that can’t attend YALLFest but still want more information about this series and others by Gayle Forman, check out her website at http://www.gayleforman.com/. Happy reading!

Published in: on June 20, 2014 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Just One Day

Last night, when I should have been packing for a conference, I was instead devouring Just One Day by the fabulous Gayle Forman. This book had been on my to-read list for quite a while, but I didn’t make time for it until this weekend. Oh, how I wish I had read it sooner!

Like If I Stay and Where She Went, Just One Day shows that Gayle Forman is a master at writing love stories that pack an emotional punch. Even more important, in my opinion, she’s excellent at giving readers examples of young women who, while navigating the perilous waters of relationships, also work to discover their own inner strength.

Allyson is nearing the end of a whirlwind tour of Europe, and, to be honest, the trip has been something of a disappointment. Yes, she’s oohed and aahed at all the appropriate moments, she’s seen some impressive sights with her best friend Melanie, and she’s even gotten a haircut to mark what should have been the start of the greatest vacation ever. But Allyson feels like she’s just going through the motions. She should be excited about this extravagant graduation gift, but something just doesn’t feel quite right.

Everything changes, though, when Allyson and Melanie deviate from their rigid plans and are persuaded to take in a performance of Twelfth Night in a Stratford-upon-Avon park. It is here that Allyson’s life changes forever. She meets Willem, a Dutch actor in the play, and she’s immediately drawn to him. There’s something about him that makes Allyson want to break free of limits and responsibilities. Maybe it’s because Willem doesn’t really know her. He doesn’t even know her name. He calls her Lulu because she reminds him of Louise Brooks, the silent film star. Maybe it’s that little bit of anonymity that gives Allyson the freedom to do something that’s so out of character. The freedom to eschew her plans to spend just one day with Willem in Paris.

One day in Paris. One day to see the sights and experience all that the City of Light has to offer. One day to fall in love with Willem, a young man who is so different from the Allyson she’s always been. Here she’s Lulu, a girl who takes things in stride, who has the attention of someone who could be–and probably has been–with dozens of other girls. It’s not easy to leave her good girl image behind, but Allyson wants to be someone different with Willem, and she’s coming to think she can be different when she returns to her real life.

All of that changes, though, when Allyson’s one day in Paris comes to a shattering end. After waking to find Willem gone, Allyson’s entire world seems to explode, and she doesn’t really know how to put the pieces back together. Nothing seems to fit anymore, and Allyson is struggling. It’s hard to admit that one day, one boy could have such a huge impact on her life, but Allyson will have to face what happened and the still unanswered questions if she has any hope of moving on with her life.

In the year after her day in Paris, Allyson must come to grips with how all of this has changed her. She has to deal with going back to being the “good girl” everyone expects and all of the pressure that entails. She faces the undeniable truth that she’s not the person she once was, and she’s no longer content living out someone else’s dreams. She must do what feels right to her…even if that means standing up to her parents, becoming more independent…and returning to the “scene of the crime” and discovering just what happened to make Willem walk away from her.

As Allyson attempts to make sense of everything that has happened in the past year, she’ll also discover that she’s stronger and more capable than she thought. Even if she never discovers why Willem left her, her quest for answers may just leave her with the peace and determination to become exactly who she was meant to be.

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I think you can safely assume that I adored this book. If I weren’t so held back by my own fears–much like the Allyson we see early in this book–I would take off right now on a Parisian vacation, hoping to find my own sense of peace. Unfortunately, I am a big chicken, and that just won’t happen. (Not to mention the matter of not having the money and having to attend a conference for most of this week.)

I’d love to have a journey of self-discovery like Allyson experienced. I imagine that many readers will feel a similar longing. Even with the lows that Allyson dealt with after her day in Paris, she learned so much about herself. She learned that she had to let go of some things, even friendships, her parents’ expectations, and her own need to please those around her. I’m thirty-five years old, and I wish I could do that. Maybe one day.

While I’m envious of Allyson breaking free of her own boundaries, I’m also insanely jealous of her travels through Europe. The only time I’ve been out of the U.S. was when I went on a cruise to the Bahamas. I’ve wanted to travel to Europe, particularly Great Britain, for as long as I can remember, but finances, health issues, and a hefty dose of fear have always held me back. Allyson has inspired me, though. I’m somehow finding a renewed determination to make my dreams a reality. I’ve now got the beginnings of a plan in my head–a plan to save some money, lose some weight, and finally turn my desire for travel into a reality. How long with it take to put this plan into motion? I have no clue, but at least I’m getting started. Thank you for that, Allyson and Gayle Forman!

So, I finished Just One Day late last night, and I fully intend to start reading Just One Year, the companion novel from Willem’s perspective, within the next hour or so. (I have a two-hour ride to Atlanta ahead of me, so I should be able to make quite a dent in the book.) After that, I will read Just One Night, an ebook novella and the final chapter in the captivating story of Allyson and Willem. I can hardly wait to get started!

If you’d like more information on Just One Day or the other amazing books by the brilliant Gayle Forman, check out her website (which has quite a bit of info on the upcoming movie adaptation of If I Stay), Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. You may also want to take a quick look at the Just One Day book trailer below. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I have!

Published in: on June 16, 2014 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Followers

I try to find something positive to say about every book you see here on Knight Reader. That’s not always an easy feat, and it’s especially difficult with my latest read, Followers by Anna Davies. I guess the best things I can say about it are that it was a quick read (and didn’t take up too much of my valuable time), and it involved social media, something that is vitally important to the book’s target audience. I also sort of liked that the book revolved around a school working on a production of Hamlet. Any excuse for a Shakespeare reference, right?

Those few positives aside, Followers didn’t really do it for me. Even the cover, in my opinion, failed to capture the book. I was expecting a much scarier story based on the cover…maybe one with evil little girls with yellow eyes. That was not the case. The girls on the cover are very misleading. They appear to be younger than any of the characters in the book, and they fail to tell readers anything about the book.  Even the tagline at the top has nothing to do with the actual story. Cover=fail.

This book, as I said, centers around a school’s production of Hamlet. Our protagonist, Briana, or @alleyesonbree as she’s known in the Twitterverse, is desperate to play Ophelia. She knows she’s good, but she still worries that she’s not good enough. She’s also anxious about her place at MacHale, the private school where her mother was an acting star. Bree is just now starting to become part of things at MacHale, and she’s hoping that nabbing the role of Ophelia will make her feel as if she truly belongs. Alas, it is not meant to be…

Bree doesn’t get the coveted role, but the director, an altogether strange man who takes over when the previous director dies, wants Bree to be the play’s social media director. He’s seen her Twitter feed, and he thinks she can make Hamlet an interactive experience. Bree reluctantly agrees, but it seems there’s someone else on Twitter, @hamletsghost, who knows more about this production than anyone. This person even knows when “accidents,” incidents that are taking lives, are about to occur.

Bree is getting really freaked out, but the drama is just beginning. Soon, everyone thinks that Bree is behind the deaths. After all, the killer is using Twitter to brag about what’s happening, Bree is the school’s Twitter queen, and she’s the only person who’s really gained anything from this chaos. But how can Bree prove that she’s not behind these murders? Can she prove her innocence and reveal the true identity of @hamletsghost before she or someone else is the next victim?

_______________

I feel like Followers could have been a really good book, but, truthfully, it just didn’t have enough meat. There was too much build-up, but the climax was kind of a let-down. It happened too suddenly, and I think the entire book could have been scarier. I expect something marketed as horror to keep me up at night. This book didn’t. I’m a wuss from way back, and this book didn’t give me the first nightmare. I can’t even call it horror, to be honest. Suspense? Maybe, but I thought it was pretty obvious what was going on. A few red herrings would have been nice.

I did like the Twitter angle in the book, but I thought even that could have been fleshed out more. It seemed to be an afterthought at times. I would have liked to see more Twitter conversations between @alleyesonbree and @hamletsghost, as well as the other characters in the book. With a title like Followers, one kind of expects entire chapters to be written in tweets, but there were only a few in each chapter. The concept of a killer using Twitter to draw attention to his/her exploits is a clever one. It just needed a little more oomph in this book.

Followers won’t officially be released until June 24th, and I really hope that the final version is a bit better than the NetGalley proof I read. If it is, I think the book will be a good addition to middle and high school libraries, particularly those that serve schools with strong drama programs. If not…well, this may not be a necessary purchase.

Published in: on June 10, 2014 at 6:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Love Letters to the Dead

I began reading my latest book, Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira, about two weeks ago. Unlike Oblivion, which was an easy book to put aside, this one kept calling to me, but I wanted to wait until I could give it my undivided attention before I really became absorbed in the story. I read bits and pieces here and there, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I finally sat down and got to know Laurel, the haunting voice that drives this wonderful book.

Love Letters to the Dead is just what the title suggests. It begins as a simple English assignment, but this is one that takes on a life of its own. Laurel was supposed to write a letter to a dead person, but she didn’t really stop there. She wrote letters to several famous people, most of whom died too young…just like Laurel’s big sister, May.

In Laurel’s letters to such notable figures as Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, River Phoenix, Amy Winehouse, and others, readers learn not only about the lives–and deaths–of these people, but we also see how Laurel is dealing with her sister’s passing. (In short, she’s not.) Laurel’s entire life seemed to stop when May died, and moving on is excruciating at times. She doesn’t really know how to be herself because she’s always lived in May’s shadow. With May gone, who is Laurel…and why would anyone really care?

As Laurel enters a new school, forms a few unlikely friendships. and experiences love for the first time, she relates her experiences to those of the “stars” to whom she is writing. She writes about her fractured family and her guilt over May’s death. She writes of her sister’s magnetism and how everything May touched seemed to be absolutely perfect. She writes about her friends, Natalie and Hannah, and Hannah’s self-destructive behavior–which seems all-too-familiar at times–that is tearing the girls apart. And finally, Laurel writes about what happened before May’s death, the horror she suffered when May should have been watching out for her.

Through these “love letters,” Laurel deals with her grief and guilt, and she comes face to face with the sister she idolized. The sister who maybe wasn’t so perfect. The sister who let her down, first by leaving her vulnerable and then just by leaving.

Laurel realizes that there’s more to her than being May’s little sister, and it’s okay to want a life that isn’t ravaged by grief. Will she always love her sister? Absolutely. Nothing can ever change that. But will she finally understand that her sister was human and responsible for her own choices? Well, that’s a different question altogether and one that Laurel will have to answer for herself. These letters, though, might actually help her come to grips with the truth, and what started out as a simple English assignment could finally set Laurel free.

_______________

So, yeah…I liked this book. Anyone who has every experienced loss will relate to Laurel in some way. We experience Laurel’s crippling grief, we cry along with her, and we wonder if the pain will ever go away. Just like reality, the pain never really leaves Laurel, but she finds a way to deal with it so that she can get on with the business of living. And the process itself is not without its ups and downs, but Laurel powers on, facing herself and the truth about who her sister really was. Through it all, Laurel learns more about herself and who she wants to be.

In addition to empathizing with Laurel in Love Letters to the Dead, readers may also find themselves learning a little along the way. This book taught me more than I ever knew about the lives and deaths of Judy Garland, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, and several others. Their stories, like May’s, were tragic, and their deaths came too soon. Their legacies, though, live on.

I don’t feel I’ve done a very good job of capturing this book, but I hope you’ll give it a try anyway. If you enjoy coming-of-age stories like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, If I Stay, The Fault in Our Stars, We Were Liars, The Opposite of Hallelujah, and many others, I suggest you read Love Letters to the Dead. The format alone makes it a fairly quick read, but the story will stay with you long after you close the book.

For more information on Love Letters to the Dead and author Ava Dellaira, visit the author’s website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Published in: on June 9, 2014 at 1:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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