Bang

Every once in a while, I come across a book that I know is going to wreck me. Sometimes, all it takes is a look at the cover or a glance at the description to realize that I better get the Kleenex ready. That’s what happened with Bang by Barry Lyga.

When Sebastian Cody was four years old, he did the unthinkable. He shot and killed his baby sister. It was an accident, but that event changed everything. It broke up his family, and it made Sebastian into a pariah. Everyone knows him as the kid who shot his sister.

It’s now ten years later, and Sebastian has nearly reached his breaking point. He’s certain it’s almost time for him to end his pain. He can’t escape what he did to his sister, but he can escape this life. He’s almost ready. Almost.

When his best friend, Evan, goes away for the summer, Sebastian is sure that he won’t see his friend again. He’s going to end his life, and nothing is going to stop him. His plans begin to change, however, when he meets Aneesa.

Aneesa is unlike anyone Sebastian has ever met. For one thing, she’s Muslim, which already makes her unique in his extremely white bread town. For another, she doesn’t know anything about Sebastian’s past. To her, he’s just Sebastian, awkwardly funny guy who charms her parents and makes delicious pizza.

Sebastian and Aneesa become fast friends–and partners in a pizza-making YouTube venture–and it’s almost enough to make Sebastian forget his plans. Could he possibly move past what happened to him all those years ago? Does he deserve friends and a future after what he did? He’s starting to think it’s possible.

But maybe all of the positive stuff in Sebastian’s life is too good to be true. After all, no one will ever let him forget his past. Even Aneesa’s friendship isn’t enough to blot out the pain. Can anything help him to move on, or is Sebastian fated to end his life the same way he ended his sister’s?


Like I said, this book wrecked me…so much so that I’m finding it difficult to write as much as I typically do. It is an outstanding piece of realistic fiction, and it’s sure to keep readers eager to turn the page. Yes, some of that enthusiasm could be morbid curiosity–will Sebastian end his life or not? But I’m hopeful that most people will want to keep reading to see if Sebastian finds his way through the darkness. Maybe they need to see him find a glimmer of hope so that they can seek their own measure of peace.

Aside from the deep stuff in Bang–and it does get pretty intense–I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it made me hungry. Not something you expected in a book like this one, right? Well, when you read about Sebastian’s epic pizza creations, you’ll probably feel the same way. After reading the descriptions of his pizzas, Papa John’s just won’t cut it anymore. I’m not inspired to make my own pizzas or anything–I hate to cook–but I may have to venture beyond the traditional after this book. When I wasn’t using tissues to dry my tears, I’m pretty sure I was using them to wipe away drool. (Can you tell I’m on a diet? Is it too obvious?)

I’m not sure if Bang is a good fit for a middle school audience, but I definitely recommend it to YA readers. It’s a powerful book, a quick read, and it makes readers think about differences, friendship, forgiveness, and redemption.

To learn more about Bang, visit author Barry Lyga’s website or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr.

The Possibility of Now

Every once in a while, I thank the Maker that I did not grow up in the age of social media. Adolescence was hard enough without worrying about my most embarrassing moments–and there were a lot of them–ending up on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. As the fat nerd who played the tuba, I was already a target for bullies. I shudder to think what I would have had to deal with had social media been a factor in my life…the way it was for the protagonist of my latest read, The Possibility of Now by Kim Culbertson.

In this book, our main character, Mara, feels the need to disappear after she has a major meltdown and someone posts her shame on YouTube. Over half a million hits later, Mara escapes her elite private school in San Diego and journeys to Lake Tahoe to spend several weeks with the father she’s never really known.

Mara is hoping that this drastic change in scenery will help to clear her head…and perhaps allow everyone to forget about her public breakdown in the middle of her calculus exam. If only she could forget.

Mara makes a detailed plan to get her life back on track, but, as so often happens, plans have a way of changing. She still does a ton of work to stay on top of things at school, but she gradually begins to let go a bit and actually enjoy life in Tahoe. She makes friends who encourage her to live a little and take things less seriously. She sort of begins to know her father. More importantly, Mara begins to realize just who she is and what’s really important to her. Maybe it’s not being perfect or worrying about everyone thinks of her. Maybe is exploring the possibilities around her and learning to truly live in the now.

While Mara misses parts of her life in San Diego, she’s coming to love the slower pace and relaxed atmosphere of Lake Tahoe (not to mention the guy who’s captured her interest). As the time nears for her return to San Diego, she wonders if she really wants to go back at all. Maybe she can make a home here with her father and new friends. Maybe she doesn’t have to go back home and face what made her leave in the first place.

Can Mara reconcile the person she’s become in Tahoe with who she was in San Diego? Will she be able to face her past while embracing her future? Explore the possibilities when you read The Possibility of Now by Kim Culbertson.


In addition to dealing with how social media now plays into adolescence, I think this book also addresses the pressures that young adults face, particularly as it concerns academic performance. I related strongly to this aspect of Mara’s character.

Like Mara, I was an overachiever, and I freaked out if I made less than an A on an assignment. This was true all through middle and high school, even into college. I even had a bit of a meltdown when I realized I was doing too much. For me, this didn’t happen until college, and it led me to change my major and eventually find the path that steered me to librarianship. So, I get what Mara went through, and I think a lot of young adults will feel the same.

If you’re interested in sharing The Possibility of Now with others, I would recommend it for middle grades and up. Mara is a high school student, so those readers will probably relate more to what she’s dealing with, but it’s accessible to anyone who’s ever wanted to escape an embarrassing situation and try to reinvent themselves somewhere else. Can we all do that in picturesque Lake Tahoe while learning to ski? No, but we can dream.

For more information on The Possibility of Now and other books by Kim Culbertson, visit the author’s website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Vigilante

For those of you who’ve read and binge-watched Thirteen Reasons Why and are looking for something similar, I suggest you give Vigilante by Kady Cross a try. This book, which was released a couple of weeks ago, made me so mad that I could scream, but it also made me want to fight back against a society that shames victims while excusing their attackers. I’m not advocating taking things to the extremes that the main character in this book did, but I can certainly understand the appeal. When you feel like nothing is being done, sometimes the only thing to do is to take the situation into your own hands.

Everything changed after the party. The party where Hadley and her best friend, Magda, went their separate ways. The party where Magda was drugged and raped by four “good boys,” and the shameful act was posted to social media. Months after that party, despite all of the physical and video evidence, those “good boys” remained free, and Magda had to live with what had been done to her.

Hadley tried to be there for her friend, but Magda was slipping farther and farther away.  Soon, she would be completely out of Hadley’s reach. The pain and humiliation became too much for Magda, and she ended her life. Now, Hadley is starting her senior year of high school without her best friend, and she has to sit in the same classes with the boys who destroyed her world.

Numb since her friend’s death, Hadley finally begins to feel something again when she gets the chance for a little revenge. At a party, one of Magda’s attackers is left passed out and alone. Hadley takes that as her cue. She writes “rapist” on him in Magda’s lipstick and posts a photo of the guy–using his own phone–to every site she can. Her classmates take care of the rest.

After the photo goes viral, Hadley decides to take things a step farther. Donning a pink ski mask and using her martial arts training, Hadley begins to go after the other guys who raped her friend. Along the way, she encounters (and stops) more attempted sexual assaults. Finally, after so long feeling like she failed her friend, Hadley is doing something that makes a difference…something even the cops can’t seem to manage.

But things are getting far more complicated than Hadley ever envisioned. Taking punches is becoming all too commonplace for her. People are starting to suspect that she is the person the media has dubbed “Pink Vigilante.” And the very guys she’s targeting are putting their own target on Hadley. She knows what they did to Magda. What more would they try to do to her?

Even as her quest for revenge threatens to overtake her world, Hadley simply can’t stop. No, she won’t stop…not until every one of Magda’s attackers has paid for what they’ve done. She’ll deal with the consequences of her actions when she’s finished, but she has to see this through.

Will Hadley find justice? Or will her desire for vengeance lead to her own destruction? Find out when you read Vigilante.


As I sort of mentioned at the beginning of this post, I do not advocate violence or taking the law into your own hands. That being said, I couldn’t help but cheer for Hadley as she put a hurt on the horrible guys she encountered. She refused to accept that she and the other women around her simply had to be victims, so she did something about it. Yes, many of her actions were questionable (and illegal), but others were inspirational, like getting involved in self-defense classes, finding a group of girls to watch each others’ backs at parties, and calling people out–even her own mother–for victim-blaming.

Aside from Hadley, one of the characters in Vigilante that I particularly liked was Detective Davies. This woman was involved in Magda’s case and was disgusted by how it turned out. She taught Hadley’s self-defense class and encouraged all who attended to band together. She told them how to fight, and, at a school assembly, she gave the single most important way to stop sexual assault and rape. Don’t sexually assault or rape anybody. Full stop. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if a girl (or guy) is drunk, wearing revealing clothing, or strutting around naked. She’s not asking for it. No excuses, fame, or family money should be enough to erase sexual assault. (I’m thinking of quite a few public figures as I type this.)

I do think Vigilante is suited to a mature teen audience, but many of its themes need to be discussed with girls–and boys–as early as middle school. While this book may not be the best fit for middle grades, I urge you to seek out others that may be more age-appropriate.

If Vigilante sounds like the book for you, I also urge you to read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (obviously), Some Boys by Patty Blount, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, and The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney.

For more information on author Kady Cross, visit her website.

Finally, if you or anyone you know has experienced sexual assault and you need help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. You can also go to RAINN.org for more information.

Royce Rolls

I’m typically not one to watch “reality” television (with the exception of Survivor). I don’t care about keeping up with anyone, any sort of dynasties, or housewives from major cities. I see enough on social media to know that there’s not much that’s real about these shows, and I prefer my celebrities to have actual talent.

I tell you all of this to introduce my latest read, Royce Rolls by Margaret Stohl. This book is, of course, fiction, but it takes readers behind the scenes of what life on a “reality” show may be like. The action revolves around Bentley Royce, middle child in the family featured on Rolling with the Royces. It’s almost immediately clear that the Bentley shown to the public is nothing like the real girl, and she’s growing tired of the charade. If only her family felt the same way.

Bentley Royce has spent much of her life in front of cameras. It kind of goes with the territory when your family is the subject of the number two reality show in the nation. But Rolling with the Royces is in trouble. Cancellation looms, and Bentley is hopeful that this could be her chance to live life on her own terms instead of following the network’s idea of who she should be.

But the Royces have never been a family to go down without a fight. Bentley’s momager, Mercedes, is ruthless and will stop at nothing to get her family back on top. Her older sister, Porsche, isn’t much better. Bentley’s only possibly ally is her younger brother, Bach, but he’s dealing with his own problems with gambling.

While Bentley longs for freedom from the insanity around her, she quickly realizes that it’s not that simple. Without the show, who are the Royces? The family could very well crumble without the show keeping them afloat, and that’s simply not acceptable to Bentley. So she’ll do what she must–including embracing the Bad Bentley character the public seems to love–to ensure that her family stays on the air.

As Bentley is giving the paparazzi a show, her sister has her own idea for avoiding the show’s demise. What else but a celebrity wedding? Porsche announces that she’s getting married (to a guy that no one knows anything about), and the family drama gets even more insane. Now, Porsche is planning the wedding of the century, Mercedes is shooting daggers at her future son-in-law, and Bach’s gambling addiction is worse than ever.

It seems, as always, it’s up to Bentley to get things back on track. But how can she keep her family in the spotlight while stepping out of it herself? Is there any way out of this mess? Who can she turn to for help? In a world that never looks below the surface, can she find anyone that sees and supports the real Bentley Royce?

Discover just how far one resourceful, desparate girl will go to save herself and her family when you read Royce Rolls, the latest book by best-selling author Margaret Stohl.


Whether you love or hate reality television, Royce Rolls definitely makes you think a bit more about what you’re watching. In turns both hilarious and serious, this book makes it abundantly clear that what we often see on screen is not even remotely real. That doesn’t mean, however, that the people on these shows aren’t dealing with very real problems. I couldn’t handle cameras in my face 24/7, and I now have a little more empathy for those who do. (That doesn’t mean I like–or even respect–any of them, but I get that their seemingly charmed lives may not be as easy as they appear.)

Royce Rolls is a great book for people who both love and loathe reality TV, particularly Keeping Up with the Kardashians…which had to be the inspiration for most of the book’s characters. I would recommend this book to a high school audience, but it should be fine for mature middle school students as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it would be the footnotes. From what I gather, they are production notes, but that isn’t clear at the beginning of the book, so I find them distracting and not altogether necessary.

For more information on Royce Rolls and others by the fabulous Margaret Stohl, check out the author’s website. You also definitely need to take a look at this totally awesome book trailer for Royce Rolls.

See You in the Cosmos

It’s not very often that I read a book and think, “Man, I wish I’d listened to this as an audiobook.” But that’s just what happened with my latest read, See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng. The very nature of this book makes it a perfect story to listen to…providing you’ve got the right narrator(s). I haven’t experienced the audiobook, so I can’t speak to how well it’s done, but, like Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, this is a book that you probably need to hear to truly appreciate.

See You in the Cosmos is essentially a transcript of eleven-year-old Alex Petroski’s life. He’s recording the world around him on his Golden iPod–a tribute to the Golden Record launched by his hero, Carl Sagan–and everything that pops into his head goes into this record. But who is Alex making this recording for? Aliens, of course. Alex wants to show them what life on Earth is/was like and to provide them with the sounds of his home.

Alex talks about Carl Sagan and his canine namesake, his mom and her quiet days, his absent brother, and the rocket he’s built to launch his Golden iPod into space. He talks about his solo trip to SHARF (the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival) and the people he meets there. He also talks about what he’s discovered about his dad through Ancestry.com, and that’s what leads him on a journey that he never could have anticipated.

From his home in Colorado to New Mexico to Nevada to California and back again, Alex meets new people, makes friends, and finds a sense of family that will help him through some tough times ahead. And even when things get difficult, Alex keeps his sense of wonder about the world around him and his hope that things will work out. His attitude is contagious and may just help to change the lives and hearts of those around him.


Even without listening to this book, Alex’s voice shines through each page. He actually reminds me of one of my all-time favorite students. (Yes, all educators have favorites. Anyone who says different is lying.) My favorite student–or “My Boy,” as I like to call him–is inquisitive, funny, innocent, generous, very literal, and always wants to see the best in people…even when some of them don’t deserve it. That’s what I see in the character of Alex. He is all of those things I just mentioned, and he never holds a grudge against those who wrong him. It would have been all too easy, but, at least in my mind, Alex’s focus on the larger universe allows him to truly see the bigger picture.

So what age-range would I recommend See You in the Cosmos to? Well, I think some upper elementary readers may like it, but I think this book is ideally suited for a middle grade audience, particularly readers who appreciate science. It’s a fun, sometimes light-hearted, read, but it also deals with serious stuff like abandonment, mental health, family secrets, and holding onto true friends.

See You in the Cosmos isn’t like any book I’ve read in recent memory, and I’m betting anyone else who gives it a try will feel the same way. Read it, and let me know what you think. If you’ve read it as an audiobook, I’d also love to get your take on how that experience may differ from the print version.

For more information on this book and others by Jack Cheng, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Goodbye Days

There are some books that should really be packaged with a box of Kleenex. Goodbye Days is one of those books. From Jeff Zentner, author of the William C. Morris Award-winning The Serpent King, comes another novel that absolutely rips your heart out. Goodbye Days isn’t one of those books that makes you cry only at the end. No, this one elicits full-on sobbing most of the way through. This novel is at once tragic, poignant, and cathartic, and I adored every last bit of it…even though I was often reading through a veil of tears.

Thanks to NetGalley, I was able to read Goodbye Days a little early, but it’s available for the masses on March 7th. If you’re wondering if you should buy this book, you absolutely should.

Carver Briggs should be getting ready to enjoy his last year of high school with his three best friends, Mars, Blake, and Eli. Instead, he’s attending their funerals and dealing with the knowledge that he played a role in the deaths of those closest to him. How was he supposed to know that sending them a text message–like so many they’ve sent in the past–would somehow lead to the accident that destroyed everything?

Now, Carver’s life without his friends is almost more than he can bear. He’s a mess of grief, guilt, and fear. Grief over the loss of his friends; guilt over his role in this tragedy; and fear of what may happen to him if the authorities decide to bring criminal charges against him. Carver doesn’t know how to cope with everything, and he’s experiencing panic attacks for the first time in his life. Something’s got to give.

Thankfully, Carver isn’t completely alone. He’s supported by his parents (even though he doesn’t really confide in them), his wonderful sister, Georgia, and Jesmyn, Eli’s girlfriend, who shares her grief with Carver. He’s also started seeing a therapist–at his sister’s urging–and that’s helping him to explore his feelings about everything that’s happening.

Then there’s Blake’s grandmother. She, unlike some of his other friends’ family members, doesn’t blame Blake for what happened. She comes up with the idea of having a “goodbye day” for Blake, and she wants Carver to share one final day saying goodbye to her grandson. They’ll tell stories about Blake, visit his favorite spots, eat his favorite foods…basically, spend one day devoted to Blake’s memory.

At first, Carver is apprehensive about this, but he finds the experience somehow cleansing, and he wonders if it’s a good idea to have “goodbye days” with the families of his other friends. Some are willing; others are not. Not everyone forgives as readily as Blake’s grandmother. Even Carver feels that he’s somehow deserving of everything being heaped on him: the criminal investigation, the panic attacks, being a pariah at school, and the thoughts that plague him on a daily basis.

Will Carver ever be able to forgive himself for his role in this horrible tragedy? Will others be able to forgive him? Can a series of “goodbye days” help Carver and his friends’ families make some sort of peace with their loss? Will a cloud of grief hover over Carver forever, or will he be able to find a “new normal” with a little help?


I don’t know what more I can say about this book without telling everything that happens. It wrecked me, maybe more than The Serpent King did…and that’s saying a lot.

I think Goodbye Days is a great read for fans of John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Gayle Forman. Basically, if you like books that tear your heart out, this is the book for you.

In my opinion, Goodbye Days is more suited to a YA audience than a tween crowd. If you plan to market this book to a middle grade audience, read it first. The book is written from a teen guy’s perspective, so there is some language and frank talk of “personal growth.” (I don’t think I need to explain that, do I?) Know your readers, and plan accordingly.

For more information on Goodbye Days and Jeff Zentner (who is now one of my go-to authors for contemporary YA), visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Jeff Zentner on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Holding Up the Universe

Almost a year ago, I read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places and instantly became a fan of this wonderful author. This morning, I finished reading her latest book, Holding Up the Universe, and I must say that I have a lot of feelings about this book.

Like its predecessor, Holding Up the Universe was at once heart-warming and heart-breaking, and it was difficult for me to read at times, but for very different reasons than All the Bright Places. You see, one of the main characters in this book is a big girl, and, while I often appreciate seeing my own experiences reflected in the books I read, it can also be extremely painful. Does that mean I don’t like the book? Absolutely not. In fact, I find it incredibly moving and uplifting. I wish I were more like Libby Strout–even as an adult–and I can only hope to apply her attitude about life to my own.

Okay…before I get too bogged down in my own issues, let’s move on to this touching novel and the story of Libby Strout and Jack Masselin.

Libby Strout knows what it is to be the center of attention. It’s not necessarily a good thing. Several years ago, she was a media sensation because she had to be cut out of her house. She was known as “America’s Fattest Teen.” She received hate mail from people who thought they had the right to scorn her. None of these people knew what led her to this point, and none of them seemed to care. They judged her solely because of her weight.

Now, three years later, Libby is getting ready to rejoin the world. She’s lost over 300 pounds, and she can finally do a lot of the things that she couldn’t three years ago. Libby’s about to go back to school for the first time since the fifth grade. She’s still a big girl, but she’s comfortable with herself. She knows how far she’s come, and she wants to make the most of her time in high school. If only it were as easy as simply wanting something to happen…

Jack Masselin is one of the popular guys at school. He has a lot of friends, he’s good at sports, and he has a pretty (if sometimes mean) girlfriend. At first glance, he’s got it all. What no one realizes, though, is that Jack is dealing with prosopagnosia, also known as face-blindness. No matter who the person is, how long he’s known them, or even how much he loves them, everyone around him is a stranger. He’s done a decent job of compensating for his condition–generally by being a world-class jerk–but it’s getting harder and harder to cope with his messed up brain.

Libby and Jack probably could have avoided each other forever, but a horribly sadistic “game” brings them together. (FYI, Jack was being his jerky self to fit in with his friends, and Libby stood up for herself.) Now, they’re getting to know each other better in mandatory counseling and community service. Against all odds, the two are growing closer and trusting each other with their deepest secrets and most ardent dreams.

As Libby and Jack become friends (and maybe more), they encounter backlash at school. Mean guys and girls continue to focus on Libby’s weight, and they want her to feel as low as possible. No one gets why popular Jack Masselin would choose to hang out with Libby. After all, all they can see is that she’s fat. They don’t see what Jack sees. They don’t see that Libby is funny, confident, smart, beautiful, and she makes him feel less alone in the world.

As for Libby, she doesn’t understand why Jack sells himself so short. There’s more to him than popularity, or swagger, or even face-blindness. If only she could get him to see that.

With friends, societal expectations, and even their own issues working against them, is there any way that Libby and Jack can make a real relationship work? Has too much happened to make this possible? Or will each of them finally see that the love and acceptance they’re looking for is right in front of them?


I really didn’t want to get overly sappy in this post, but I think we can all agree that didn’t quite work out. Even though my own experiences in high school tell me that there is no possible way the popular guy ends up with the big girl, I really wanted it to work out for Libby and Jack in this book. In many ways, I got exactly what I wanted…and what my adolescent self needed.

I’m trying to mentally go back through this book to determine if there’s anything that makes it a no-no for middle grade collections. There’s some language, defiance, and alcohol/drug use, so keep that in mind before passing this book along to tween readers. Holding Up the Universe is a must-add to YA collections in school and public libraries. I’d have no problem recommending it to anyone in ninth grade and up. (Yes, I’m including adult readers in that “up.”)

To learn more about Holding Up the Universe and the fabulous Jennifer Niven, I encourage you to visit the author’s website. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. You may also want to take a look at the unspoilery book trailer below.

Ms. Niven is also the founder of Germ Magazine, an online literary/lifestyle magazine for teens and beyond. I’ve only glanced at it so far, but it looks pretty cool.

Happy reading to you all. Be safe out there.