Monday, February 24, 2014

TWIGS by Alison Ashley Formento

TwigsMadeline Henry has been known as Twigs since her older brother gave her the name shortly after her premature birth.  When her tiny little arms and legs were described as twigs, he latched onto the name and it stuck.

Twigs is now eighteen and in a few short weeks she'll be starting college at the local community college.  She succeeded in making it through high school and worked hard at the Uptown Pharmacy to earn the tuition to attend Hinkney Community College all on her own.  Her drunken father left the family some time ago.  Her mother has gone through a string of one night stands and is now involved with a deaf guy she met at the school for the deaf where she works.  Twigs' little sister is a cheerleader more interested in having the right color of nail polish for her toenails than she is in what's going on in the family.  Their older brother Matt is in Iraq and usually manages to send an email home once a week, but Twigs begins to worry when she realizes they haven't heard from him in two weeks.

As the story opens, everything seems to be a crazy mess for Twigs.  She is faced with an insane customer at Uptown Pharmacy.  The woman is crying hysterically in the hair dye aisle, and when Twigs attempts to offer her help, the woman hurls an open bottle of hair dye in Twigs' direction.  The dye splatters everywhere including all over Twigs' own hair.  Even more strange, the woman heads to the register where she makes a small purchase and uses a credit card she says is her husband's to pay and insists that Twigs credit the purchase for $1000.  What Twigs doesn't know is that she will soon meet up with the woman again only to become mixed up in the nasty end of the woman's marriage.

When it comes to life at home, Twigs feels totally ignored.  Her mother is focused on the new man in her life, and her sister is involved with a giant black, football player with a strong belief in the power of God.  Twigs tries to stay out of their way and focus on work and getting ready for college, but when a late night knock at the door promises to bring bad news about her brother Matt, Twigs can't handle the possibility that he might be dead and she takes off. 

Between the crazy lady from the pharmacy, her fears for her brother, her boyfriend already off at college, her absent father, and her neglectful mother, Twigs is pretty sure the world is out to make life as difficult as possible.  Can she survive despite the odds set against her?  Or should she just give up now?

In her debut novel author Alison Ashley Formento creates a character that will capture the hearts of her readers.  I immediately fell in love with Twigs and cheered for her until the very last page.  Her resilience and determination were so positive and refreshing that I'm sure she will stay with me long after I completed the final chapter.  I look forward to what Formento offers her readers next.

Friday, February 21, 2014

THE SCAR BOYS by Len Vlahos

The Scar BoysIt starts with Harry's attempt to write his 250 word college essay, but he quickly realizes he has too much to tell in a mere 250 words.  Even though he knows the Faceless Admissions Professional (FAP) will probably not read it, he begins to tell his story and readers of THE SCAR BOYS get to follow along.

At the age of eight, Harry becomes the victim of bullies who tie him to a tree during a thunderstorm.  The boys run when the storm begins leaving Harry alone.  The tree is struck by lightning and a flaming branch crashes down.  Harry suffers severe burns on his head, face, and neck and spends the next several years having multiple reconstructive surgeries while in therapy to help him deal with the trauma.

As Harry tells his story, readers will learn about his painful recovery and the constant torment he suffers at the hands of classmates.  It isn't until he meets a boy named Johnny that he feels he has some value as human being.  When Johnny suggests they start a band, Harry finds that music allows him to express himself and find needed confidence.  The band becomes known as The Scar Boys and soon becomes a group of four.  Unfortunately, like most of Harry's life, the band and his new-found friendships suffer one crisis after another.

Author Len Vlahos has created a character who will capture the hearts of readers.  Harry will have readers cheering him on when things are going well and gasping as he is faced with each new hurdle.  As a male protagonist, Harry should connect with most guys, but girls should appreciate his story as well.  Music fans are also in for a treat as Vlahos names each chapter with an appropriate song title including each song's author and performer.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

OUT OF REACH by Carrie Arcos

Out of ReachRachel's older brother Micah used to be her best friend.  She has fond memories of their younger years playing games together, going on family vacations, and working as a team to irritate their parents.  Unfortunately, she has watched his slow destruction, and now he is missing.

Much to their parents' regret, Micah was never a motivated student like Rachel.  He had his head in the music game.  He learned guitar and formed a band.  They were pretty good, too, booking gigs and making a name for themselves.  Maybe it was the music that led him to drugs or maybe the crowd he was running with.  What ever the reason, Rachel knew he was getting in deeper and deeper, but she didn't know how to let anyone know how bad it really was.

When his addiction became undeniable, Rachel watched as her parents tried to get him help.  There was family counseling that didn't work and then they tried rehab.  Micah told everyone that the short stint in rehab had convinced him that he needed to change his ways, but Rachel knew that it was only a matter of time until he would break their parents' hearts again.  Using meth had taken over and was the driving force in Micah's life.

Now Rachel is determined to find Micah and bring him home.  If she succeeds, she will be the hero and reunite her crumbling family.  She calls Tyler, a member of the band, and begs him to take her to Ocean Beach.  An anonymous email she received hinted that that is where she would find Micah.  Together, Rachel and Tyler comb the beach, the boardwalk shops and restaurants, and the questionable neighbor resort area.  They show everyone Micah's picture, but only receive negative responses until one person reveals that Micah has become not only a meth user but also a dealer.  Tyler knows this is extremely bad news and tells Rachel it is going to make finding him even more difficult and dangerous.

OUT OF REACH takes readers into the belly of the drug world.  Taking place over a twenty-four hour period with Rachel's flashbacks to the past, author Carrie Arcos puts her characters in dangerous and compromising positions and reveals secrets that will take readers deep into the emotions that drive each one.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

STAR IN THE MIDDLE by Carol Larese Millward

Star in the MiddleStar is a teen mom.  Her baby is several months old, and they live with her grandmother.  Wilson is the baby's father, but he hasn't officially acknowledged it as a fact. 

Star receives some support as she deals with raising her son alone.  She hasn't gone back to school since his pre-mature birth, but she goes to a parenting class every day where they offer counseling, daycare, and instruction on taking care of her baby.  She knows she is not alone in her plight, but the stress is taking its toll.

Wilson is just plain confused.  According to his calculations, little Wil can't possibly be his kid.  What he doesn't know is that Wil was pre-mature and Star hasn't been with anyone but him.  Wilson is also troubled by the fact that he knows he is in love with Star.  He thinks about her constantly, but the responsibility of having a child is something he just isn't ready for. 

Complicating matters is the secret that haunts Star's every waking moment.  A trusted friend of her grandmother's sexually abused Star when she was eleven.  He threatened her life and that of her grandmother if she revealed the truth.  Now it's possible that he is watching her and his threats may become a reality.

Author Carol Larese Millward captures the difficulties of teen parenthood, and at the same time she incorporates a mystery into the storyline.  Although Millward's story includes some bright spots and hope for Star's future, she doesn't glamorize teen pregnancy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

THE PREGNANCY PROJECT by Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer

The Pregnancy Project: A MemoirGaby never dreamed that her senior project would become such a big deal.  She wanted to make an impact, and she certainly did!

Raised by a single mother who had seven other children, Gaby's life was not an easy one.  Living in a small Washington state community with a large Hispanic population, teen pregnancies and single parents were the norm.  As the youngest of her siblings, Gaby recognized a vicious cycle as her older brothers and sisters became young parents whose relationships usually fell apart.  Left to raise their children alone and with little financial resources, it seemed obvious that their lives would be just like that of their mother.

When it came time to plan for her senior project, Gaby had an idea.  What if she faked being pregnant and researched society's reactions.  How would her fellow classmates respond?  What about her teachers?  And what would be the reaction of her family and that of her boyfriend's family?

What followed was careful planning and then getting permission from a select few.  Gaby realized that only certain key players could know the truth or her project would be viewed as a joke and any work she did would be wasted.  With the help of her mother, one sister, a close friend, and her boyfriend she embarked on a project that would change her life.

Gaby originally set out to illustrate how difficult teen pregnancy could be not only physically, but also emotionally due to the fact that most people looked down on girls who became pregnant as teens.  She hoped to help at least one person stop and think before making the mistake of getting pregnant at an early age. 

Not only was Gaby's experiment a success as a senior project, but it also gained recognition across the country and the world.  She appeared on major news shows, was offered a book deal, and her story became a motion picture.  Her work helped encourage teens to prevent unwanted pregnancies and also helped change the perception many have of teens who are already mothers.  THE PREGNANCY PROJECT is the perfect book for teens everywhere.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

THIS STAR WON'T GO OUT by Esther Earl with Lori and Wayne Earl

This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace EarlAuthor John Green mentioned this book on his Facebook page and being a huge fan of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, as well as his other books, I knew I had to read it.  John Green provided the introduction in the book, and it absolutely touched my heart.

Esther Earl was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of twelve.  This is a rare type of cancer for a child.  With the help of her parents and her four siblings, she fought a hard fight, but she eventually lost that battle at age sixteen.

Esther was a dedicated nerdfighter which explains her connection to John Green.  They met at a conference for Harry Potter fans and immediately hit it off.  Esther was an aspiring writer and had a huge online presence through online journals, chat rooms, and websites.  Her courageous battle was witnessed by her online friends some of whom she eventual met IRL (in real life).

THIS STAR WON'T GO OUT is a collection of Esther's journal, letters, conversations, and sketches, as well as diary entries from her parents.  Friends, doctors, and others also contributed pieces that reflect on their relationships with this dynamic, brave young girl.  It is a touching and inspiring reading experience.

So sad...

No PlaceI was soooo excited when I found out Todd Strasser had a new book coming out.  I pre-ordered NO PLACE and announced to my students who are huge Strasser fans that I would read it to them as soon as it arrived.

Since I got the book on a snow day, I started reading it so I would have a heads up before sharing it with my students.  I arrived at page 120 and discovered my copy skipped the next 33 pages.  Grrrr.....I was really hooked by the story at that point.

I called Barnes & Noble and they kindly told them they would send a replacement immediately.  I got my hands on that copy today and quickly flipped to page 120.  DAMN!  It has the same missing 33 pages!!!!  It must be a publishing error.

BEWARE if you have purchased a copy or if you have checked it out from a library, alert your librarian.  Barnes & Noble was again very kind and is issuing me a refund, but now I will have to wait and somehow figure out when and if the problem is corrected by the publisher. 

I also feel terrible for Todd Strasser.  The excitement of having published another great book may be spoiled because of a careless error. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

THE KILLING WOODS by Lucy Christopher

The Killing WoodsEmily Shepherd's life is difficult.  Living with a father suffering from PTSD as a result of his wartime experiences and a mother who copes by turning to alcohol, doesn't make things easy.  She spends most of her free time wandering in the woods that surround their small home.  Time in the woods always provided a calming influence until the day her father stumbled home carrying the body of one of Emily's classmates.

At first glance Emily thought her father was bringing home an injured animal, perhaps a young deer.  A closer look revealed the body was a teenage girl, and suddenly Emily recognized the body was Ashlee Parker, and she was dead.

After being questioned by police, Emily's father is arrested and arraigned for the death of the popular local girl.  His defense of PSTD might allow him to be sentenced on a manslaughter charge rather than murder, but Emily doesn't believe he is guilty at all.  She is determined to prove his innocence, but that may be harder than she thinks since he doesn't remember anything that happened.

Damon, Ashlee's boyfriend, wants to see justice done as he heads back to the woods to find evidence to put Emily's father away forever.  Damon has his own concerns about Ashlee's death.  The night she was killed, she was with Damon and some other guys playing a warlike game they had created.  Because Damon was drunk and high, his memories of that night are sketchy at best. 

Emily and Damon run into each other in the woods as they each search for clues, and the stress of the situation results in an odd attraction between the two teens.  Who killed Ashlee?  Was it Emily's father or was Damon or someone responsible? 

Finding well-written mystery/thrillers for teens is often a challenge so THE KILLING WOODS by Lucy Christopher is a welcome addition to my classroom library.  Told in alternating voices (Emily and Damon) it will draw in readers as they try to stay one step ahead and figure out who is guilty in the death of Ashlee Parker and exactly what their punishment should be.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

NOTHING by Robin Friedman

NothingLife should be perfect for Parker, but sometimes he thinks that might be the problem.  He tries to be perfect - the perfect student, the perfect son, the perfect athlete.  If he is perfect, he will get into HYP, that is Harvard or Yale or Princeton.  That's what everyone expects.

To feel he is in control, Parker has developed bulimia.  There is a certain sense of power when he binges and purges.  It started by accident after one incredible Thanksgiving dinner, but when he realized it would allow him to indulge and avoid the guilt, it became a once a week habit.  When the rest of his life began to spin out of control, it increased to multiple times a day.

Danielle is Parker's kid sister.  She knows something is seriously wrong, but love for her brother keeps her from confronting him.  She pours out her feelings in her private poems.  When her father announces he has a rare form of male breast cancer, the fear that her family is collapsing increases.

Parker's life becomes a ticking time bomb, and readers will watch as things finally explode.  Author Robin Friedman brings attention to the increase in eating disorders in males.  Through alternating voices, Friedman tells a powerful story of how the pressure of perfection threatens to destroy families and lives.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

KETCHUP CLOUDS by Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup CloudsWritten as a series of letters to an inmate on death row, KETCHUP CLOUDS will draw in readers with the unique voice of the narrator and the secret she promises to reveal to her reader.  Author Annabel Pitcher presents the quirky Zoe in a way that makes her endearing to readers so they will want to keep turning pages to follow her story to its bittersweet conclusion.

Zoe lives in England, and after recently hearing a nun speak at her school about ending capital punishment, Zoe decides to write to an inmate in a Texas prison awaiting death by lethal injection.  She learns from a helpful website that the man killed his wife but has since confessed and shown remorse for his crime.  Zoe's letters state that she is experiencing guilt for what she believes is her role in the death of a teenage boy. 

When overwhelmed by guilt, Zoe sneaks out at night to a small shed in the backyard where she composes lengthy letters to the Texas inmate.  She shares her daily experiences and gradually retells the events that led up to the tragic death of her friend.  Her parents are unaware of the role she played in his death, and as far as almost all of her other friends and acquaintances are concerned, life should be going on normally.  When the dead boy's mother begins to seek out Zoe to share her grief, Zoe's letters become more intense and spiral toward her final confession about the night of the tragedy.

Annabel Pitcher, also author of MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTELPIECE, is one to watch in the future.

HOPE IN PATIENCE by Beth Fehlbaum

Hope in Patience

The message in HOPE IN PATIENCE is extremely powerful.  I experienced almost overwhelming anger at times while reading this intense book.  It frequently reminded me of another disturbing book about abuse, A CHILD CALLED IT by Dave Pelzer.

Ashley is a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.  She is now living with her father and stepmother and through therapy, trying to move on and make a new life for herself.  The abuse was terrible, but even worse is the fact that her mother stands behind her husband and insists that Ashley has lied about everything.  During a trial to determine if Ashley's stepfather should be punished for breaking her arm, the judge determines it was an unfortunate accident, and there will be no consequences for the man that has made Ashley's life a living hell.

As Ashley tries to adjust to life with her biological father and his wife, she begins to make new friends and become involved in school activities.  However, no matter how much new friends try to engage her in the innocent fun of being a teenager, Ashley's emotions remain extremely fragile and flashbacks and other reminders constantly threaten to derail any promising recovery.

Author Beth Fehlbaum captures the intense emotions connected to sexual abuse and the cruelty some parents inflict on their children.  Readers will experience a roller coaster of emotions as they follow Ashley's rough road to reclaiming her life.  Although, HOPE IN PATIENCE is a sequel to COURAGE IN PATIENCE which is out of print, it can be read and appreciated on its own.