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Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The Sound of Letting Go by Stasia Ward Kehoe

Title: The Sound of Letting Go
Author: Stasia Ward Kehoe
Publisher: Viking/Penguin
Pub. Date: February 6, 2014
Genre: Young Adult
Rec. Age Level: 14+
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From the outside, Daisy’s life looks normal. A talented musician and good student, her future is bright and promising, but, at home, things are tense and complicated. Daisy’s younger brother, Steven, is autistic and, despite their constant efforts, living with an autistic family member is proving much harder now that he’s reaching maturity. Steven can now easily overpower Daisy and her parents and helping a teenage boy who doesn’t know his own strength and often reacts physically and violently when stressed and overwhelmed is putting a strain on the entire family. When Daisy’s parents decide to place Steven in a specialized institution where they feel his needs and happiness will be better met, Daisy is shocked. Part of her is relieved, but she mostly feels guilt, sadness, and anger. How can her parents just send her brother away? How can he possibly be better off without the people that love him most? As Daisy struggles with her parents’ choice and tries to come to terms with her feelings, her confusion and conflicted emotions about her home life seep into her school and social life. The darkness inside her manifests itself in her wardrobe, makeup, and even her love life, as she falls Dave, an old friend turned bad boy. She begins neglecting her responsibilities and the things she loves, including her music and friends. It’s Cal, a new Irish exchange student, that won’t give up on the old Daisy and reminds her of the powerful magic of music, finally bringing her back to herself and acceptance.

I don’t read nearly enough verse novels, but every time I read a novel by Stasia Ward Kehoe, I’m kick myself for neglecting the format. I loved Kehoe’s first novel, Audition, but I think I might appreciate The Sound of Letting Go more. Kehoe did an incredible job giving a voice to those families who include a individual with autism. My cousin is autistic and I remember how difficult it was when my cousin reached Steven’s age; Kehoe’s portrayal is painfully honest.

I can’t imagine having to make the decision to send my child to an institution, as Daisy’s parents do, even if I knew that he would be more comfortable in that setting than at home. If I were in Daisy’s shoes, dealing with the guilt and sadness of sending my brother away, I think I would have reacted much the same way. Daisy’s entire life has been devoted to order and consistency, carefully regulated so not to cause Steven stress, so it makes sense that everything she knows would be thrown into chaos. I can’t help but see Steven was as a powerful magnet that keeps everything centered… without him everything in Daisy’s life is spinning out of control.

I highly recommend both of Stasia Ward Kehoe’s verse novels. If you’ve never read a verse novel before, Kehoe’s offer a great introduction, showing just how versatile and beautiful the format can be!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher [Throwback Thursday]

Throwback Thursday is a upcycled weekly meme hosted by Sabrina at I Heart YA Fiction. To participate, read an older release or a book that has been on your shelf for awhile. Post your review, then link back to I Heart YA Fiction using the Mr. Linky! (Or repost an old review - there's no reason those books from a couple years ago shouldn't get some love!)

Title: Ketchup Clouds
Author: Annabel Pitcher
Publisher: Little, Brown BFYR
Pub. Date: 11.12.2013
Genre: Young Adult
Rec. Age Level: 14+
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Zoe has a dark secret... a secret that she's been carrying with her since a tragic day in May. Though no one would ever suspect it, Zoe is a murderer. She killed a boy she was supposed to love and got away with it. But the guilt of her actions keep her awake at night and drive her to seek out an unconventional pen pal, a Mr. Stuart Harris. Mr. Harris might be the only person who can understand how Zoe feels... he may be the only person she can confess to. After all, Mr. Harris also killed someone he was supposed to love, his wife, and he now sits on death row in Texas. So begins Zoe's story, told entirely in letters written from a cold, damp shed to a death row inmate an ocean away. Slowly, the events that led to a deadly May day unfold, culminating in a thrilling, heartwrenching conclusion. An off-beat story fill with wry, dark humor and a bittersweet romance, KETCHUP CLOUDS is a story of love, loss, and, ultimately, redemption.

KETCHUP CLOUDS is one of the best books I've read in years. I've only read two other books that I've loved like this: JELLICOE ROAD and THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. These are the books - the stories - that I wish I could experience again for the very first time.

Annabel Pitcher's sophomore novel is character driven and, except for the final few pages, is told entirely in letters from Zoe to Mr. Harris, convicted murderer and death row inmate. No responses from Mr. Harris are included in the text; this is very much Zoe's story... Zoe's confession. But it's important that these letters are to someone, not, for example, diary entries, because Zoe needs to be writing to someone who she feels can understand her guilt. At the same time, the epistolary format allows for a relationship to develop between Zoe and her pen pal, a relationship filled with awkward truths, dark humor, and painful memories. And it's fitting, and perhaps necessary, that Zoe never receives a letter back from Mr. Harris, this way, she can tell her story and come to terms with what happened while feeling protected by anonymity. For Zoe, confessing her secrets is cathartic.

Because Zoe starts at the beginning, long before she was a self-proclaimed murderer, much of the book focuses on the events leading up to the murder. Through Zoe's careful telling, the events come together slowly, fitting together like a puzzle. Zoe tells Mr. Harris about her life at home: her parents' marital issues, her sister being bullied, her littlest sister, deaf, struggling to learn to read lips. With all the drama happening at home, no one notices Zoe... or the start of her relationship with two brothers, a relationship that ends with one dead. But, in the midst of all this darkness, there is so much love. The love between Zoe and her family, even when things seem to be spinning out of control at home. The slow, sweet love that builds between Zoe and a boy that she can't forget, even when their love could hurt those closest to them. Zoe never imagined that her actions could end in death and, as I read, I kept hoping that they wouldn't. Hoping that, somehow, there could be a happy ending for Zoe.

I want to take this book and press it in to the hands of every reader I know. I hope that everyone that reads it falls as madly in love with it as I did. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: The Secret Box by Whitaker Ringwald

Title: The Secret Box
Author: Whitaker Ringwald
Publisher: HarperCollins BFYR
Pub. Date: February 25, 2014
Genre: Middle Grade
Rec. Age Level: 8-12
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Jax and Ethan are more than just cousins, they're best friends and partners-in-crime. Well, to be honest, it's more like Ethan is a partner to Jax's crimes. Jax is impulsive and always ready for an adventure, while Ethan is cautious and always armed with plenty of facts and interesting trivia. When Jax receives a mysterious package on her twelfth birthday from a great-aunt she never knew existed, a gift quickly and mysteriously confiscated by her mother, Jax is even more determined than ever to figure out why no one has ever mentioned Great-Aunt Juniper and what is inside the curious box she's given Jax for her birthday. Jax and Ethan team up with Tyler, Ethan's older computer-genius older brother, who happens to possess something the duo desperately needs: a driver's license. As the trio embarks on a road trip to figure out what secrets the box contains, they find themselves tangled in potentially dangerous adventure where their courage, wits, and teamwork might be the only things that can save them from the dark powers at play.

THE SECRET BOX is the first installment in a new middle grade adventure trilogy by author Whitaker Ringwald. Readers will surely fall for the heroes of this story - Jax and Ethan - who, though very different, compliment one another perfectly. Jax's impulsiveness and irrepressible excitement moves the story along at a quick pace, while Ethan's attention to detail and penchant for reciting facts and figures grounds the story and gives readers time to process important details.

I'm very curious about the Greek mythology elements of THE SECRET BOX and the secrets regarding Jax's father. In this first book, readers are only given small amounts of information about who Jax's father is and how he ties into the big mystery surrounding Juniper and the curious artifact gifted to Jax. I'm anxiously awaiting the answers I hope to find in the second book! THE SECRET BOX is a great beginning to what promises to be a fantastic new trilogy.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Q&A Session with Eileen Cook, author of Year of Mistaken Discoveries

I've been a fan of Eileen Cook's books for years, so being able to interview her after loving her books for so long was a fantastic opportunity! Eileen's newest book, Year of Mistaken Discoveries, is one of my favorites; I highly recommend it! Read on for my interview with Eileen... and don't forget to check out my review here.

Eileen Cook spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer.

You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.

A major topic within Year of Mistaken Discoveries is family, with an exploration of many different aspects of adoption. Is there a specific reason you chose to write about adoption; did something specific interest or inspire you?

I have always been interested in families of choice- people that we bring into our life who are as close (or sometimes closer) than “blood relatives.   I wanted to explore the friendship between Nora and Avery and how they had been extremely close and had grown apart.  I decided to make them both adopted because I wanted it to be something they had in common, but show how they had dealt with it very differently.  I spent time talking to several teens who had been adopted as research.

The odd thing was that after I’d written a draft of the book, one of my cousin’s and her husband adopted their baby girl.  I had a chance to see them go through the process and the joy that it brought to their lives and how they created their own family.  It made writing about the topic more special.

I’ve always found your characters to be very relatable. You’re able to present very rounded characters, with both good and bad qualities, who are dealing with very real situations. How do you find the voices for these characters? Do you ever struggle to find a voice that readers will find accessible or is it something you easily tap into?
Thank you!  Coming up with characters is one of my favorite parts of the process. I went to college for counseling/psychology because people fascinate me.  The truth is that no one is all good or all bad; we’re  a mix. Even when we make bad decisions, in the moment that we’re making them, they seem like good ideas. I think it is easier to write well rounded characters when you don’t judge them.  I like my characters- all parts of them.
Has the title changed or stayed relatively the same as your novel journeyed towards publication?

Ha!  I think we had about a million different titles.  The truth is I am terrible at coming up with them.  When I am writing I tend to give the book a really simple title, like Avery’s Book.  Clearly, while this makes it easy to remember, it’s not exactly catchy.  Once the manuscript is complete I tend to brainstorm a list with my editor and we trade ideas back and forth until we both have the “a-ha!” moment and know we landed on just the right title.
What book or author has most influenced you as a writer or in general?

How is it possible to pick just one!  I grew up a total library junkie. I would go every week and check out stacks and stacks of books.  I loved Judy Blume and the book The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  When I was about eleven I convinced my parents to let me check out a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot.  I told them I wouldn’t be that scared because I knew it was just made up. Then I ended up sleeping with the lights on for three months after I finished it.  I remember being so amazed that someone could make something up so well that even though I knew it was “fake,”  I would feel real emotion.  It seemed like magic.  I wanted to do that.
Many people dream of their ideal jobs while working somewhere less desirable to make ends meet, never realizing what great experience those jobs of necessity are for their future. What jobs did you have on your way to becoming a published author? Is there a certain work experience that has shaped your writing? 

I had all sorts of jobs in school from retail, to the Dairy Queen, to waiting tables.  After college I worked for years as a counselor. I’m a huge believer that all experiences are helpful to a writer, from travel to having your heart broken. There’s no doubt that working as a counselor has been a huge help to me as a writer.  I spent years studying how and why people do the things that they do.  It helps with creating characters and helping them behave in realistic ways.
If you had to pick a favorite word, what would it be and why?

This was hard. There are so many great words.  If I have to pick one, I’d pick dog.  I’m a huge dog fan. If there is ever a bad day I know I can count on my dog, Cairo, to make it better.  It’s hard to be unhappy when rubbing a fuzzy belly.
My blog is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. Who, what, or where can be credited as your personal escape from reality?

Like you, books have always been a favorite escape.  I am one of those people with books stacked in every corner of my house and always have one that I’m in the middle of reading. In terms of a place, whenever I find myself stressed or need to get away I take a walk on the beach. That’s my favorite escape and if I can do it while walking my dog it’s even better.

Learn more about Eileen and her books here.
Check out my review of Year of Mistaken Discoveries here!