Tag Archives: abuse

“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult


So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.


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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“How to Save a Life” by Sara Zarr


Author Sara Zarr, a National Book Award finalist in 2007 for "Story of a Girl," is back in October with her third novel, “How to Save a Life.” The nice people at LB Teens gave out advanced copies of "How to Save a Life" last May at Book Expo. At LONG last, I finally got a chance to read this beautifully written, at times heartbreakingly lovely book.

Less than a year after her father’s accidental death, Jill MacSweeney has completely shut herself down from the world — from her still grieving but positive mother, from her patient boyfriend Dylan, from her old best friends at school. With her dyed black hair, gobs of dark eyeliner, and bulletproof attitude, Jill has effectively armored herself against the pain of living. Or so she thinks. The one place where Jill still can muster up some of her old kindness and warmth? At Margins, the local chain bookstore where she works part-time.

Jill’s life is about to change radically. Her mom, Robin, has decided to adopt the unborn baby of an Omaha teenager who contacted her on the Internet. Mandy, with her fluffy blonde hair, polyester dresses, and naïve ways, seems horribly out of place in hip Denver. Yet here she is, spending the last months of her pregnancy living with Jill and Robin. Jill, who is vehemently opposed to the open adoption Robin has arranged, either ignores Mandy or scolds her for the slightest perceived violation. Mandy, meanwhile, is a socially awkward, terribly lonely girl starving for some compassion and love. She is utterly lost. (Mandy’s letters to her former seatmate on the train west from Omaha — a man who clearly wants nothing to do with her — perfectly show her vulnerability and awkwardness; they are a wonderful device.)

We soon discover that Mandy is a whole lot tougher than she first appears, as we learn more about her shrill, uncaring mother and her mom’s abusive boyfriend, Kent. Kent had been raping Mandy for months before she left and is likely the baby’s father, yet Mandy still had the courage to steal his gold watch, arrange the open adoption, and leave for Denver. Once she has the baby, Mandy hopes to start a new life by pawning the watch and somehow locating Christopher, the Native American boy she met on one glorious day at the state fair.

As Mandy’s due date draws near, she increasingly doubts her decision to give her baby up. Can Robin be trusted when all other adults have failed her in the past? Would Mandy make a terrible mother, like her own mom? At the same time, Jill begins to thaw slightly from a tentative friendship with Ravi, the gentle loss inspector for Margins. But is life even worth living again when the old Jill is gone forever? I’d rather not give anything away about the conclusion, which is unexpected (and, to be honest, a bit pat). Part of the joy of this novel is discovering what path Jill, Mandy, and Robin ultimately end up walking upon together.

Mandy and Jill each narrate their stories in alternating chapters, so we get tremendous insight into their motivations, fears, and hopes. Jill knows she should follow her father’s old advice to “try a little tenderness” sometimes, but she’s too wounded and frightened to fully believe in anyone — or herself — again. Mandy, raised by a mom who constantly reminded her she was an unwanted burden, hopes for something better for own daughter, yet fears that surrendering her might not be the best choice. Both of these characters are so resilient and brave in their own ways that their small triumphs — Mandy trusting Robin enough to reveal Kent’s abuse, Jill exposing her pain to Ravi and daring to live again — are a joy to read. We want to root for these complex, flawed, yet hopeful girls. By novel's end, we feel like we've come to know them so well. How could we wish anything for them but happiness and peace?

Zarr is a wonderful, lyrical writer. She is a master at depicting small moments of raw emotion and painful revelation. Some of these scenes delight the reader, some make us squirm away, yet they are laid bare here, in all their stark authenticity: the perplexed discomfort of Mandy’s train companion; the excessive politeness of Dylan toward a fragile Jill; Jill’s reflexive anger (and profound regret) toward Mandy and Robin; Mandy’s tentative efforts to console a sobbing Jill, second guessing herself all the way; Robin’s heartfelt embrace of Mandy after learning of the abuse; Jill’s moments of unbridled hope with Ravi. These scenes are imbued with such incredible depth and feeling that they are — sometimes in equal measure — beautiful and wrenching to read.

“How to Save a Life” is, in the end, a joyful, expertly crafted novel exploring the concepts of family, friendship, hope, trust, grief, and love. Calling this an “issues” book about teen pregnancy or parental loss does a huge disservice to this thoughtful, touching story. It is so much more. FYI, regarding content, there is nothing graphic or gratuitous here — no drinking or “onscreen” sex — so I’d say students in 7th grade and higher should be fine. "How to Save a Life" will be published in October. Be sure to look for it then.

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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Shine” by Lauren Myracle


Thank you Net Galley and the good people at Abrams / Amulet Books for the electronic galley of Lauren Myracle's forthcoming teen novel "Shine." Author Myracle is probably most well known for her bestselling IM-speak "Internet Girls" series. In "Shine," she gives us a powerful, evocative novel of a small southern town's secrets.

As the book begins, we're in a rural North Carolina town shortly after the brutal beating of Cat's former best friend, Patrick. Patrick, a charming, easy going teen, was closing up the local gas station / quickie mart when he was pummeled with a baseball bat and left unconscious with a gas nozzle taped inside his mouth. While Patrick lies in a coma, Cat begins searching to discover what really happened. As the town's only known gay resident, Cat believes that Patrick was the victim of a hate crime; the local sheriff, however, wants to blame the attack on outsiders and make the whole mess disappear. During her investigation, Cat confronts older brother Christian's friends — obnoxious Tommy, goodhearted Beef, and drug addled Dupree — as well as Wally, the local meth dealer, and some of his clientele. She also befriends Jason, a local college student who knew and respected Patrick, and learns that Patrick had a secret boyfriend, who may have played a vital role in his attack.

I loved the sense of danger surrounding Cat's investigation. Myracle does a superb job of depicting a secretive, oppressive town with unspoken rules, enforced silence — she finds a severed cow's tongue in her bed — and a toxic subculture of drug and alcohol abuse. This strong undercurrent of violence and drugs, of a sweltering town in a hot summer just waiting to explode, informs everything Cat does. Add to this the fact that Cat has been harboring a secret pain of her own, and you get this constant, creepy tingle of foreboding … which is exactly what you're looking for in a mystery. When a brave Cat rides her bike out to a forest-shrouded meth lab, I truly felt afraid for her. Ok, I will fess up fully: I actually had to stop reading! The town itself, with its bigots, dropouts, and lost, broken people, is so clearly presented that it almost serves as an additional character in the book.

I also really liked the layered portrayal of religion here. Cat's Aunt Tildy drags her to church, where the local ladies are mostly self-righteous and gossipy, and where Patrick's "lifestyle" is condemned. But religion is also shown as a source of comfort and strength, as when Cat recalls the Bible blessing about the Lord's face shining upon you. Indeed, this story is as much about Cat's journey toward finding her own voice and spirit again — her personal shine, if you will — as it is about solving the mystery surrounding Patrick. [Side note: at an Abrams' presentation I attended last November, this book was still entitled, "Speechless." "Shine" is, in my humble opinion, a much better choice.]

Similarly, the characters are developed in nuanced, believable ways. When we first meet Jason, he comes off like a rich, hateful brat, which couldn't be further from the truth. Stoic brother Christian, whom Cat has resented for his aloofness for years, becomes a friend and protector. Even the vile Tommy, who hurt Cat years before, may not be as awful as he first appears. I could give five more examples of this sort of slow unfolding of a character's true nature, which is a testament to Myracle's writing skills. Because so much of this story involves finding the truth beneath people's exteriors, this careful method of presenting folks "from the outside in" works beautifully.

I do have a complaint, though, and it's a fairly big one. I had and have the nagging sense that there is just far too much going on in this story. It's part mystery, part social commentary on abuse and addiction, part love story, part coming of age tale, part discussion of hatred toward gays and the self-loathing that may come with being different … is that one too many parts? The story feels crammed full of varying threads and issues, not all of which fit neatly together or within the flow of the story itself. I found myself wishing for just a little less. If this book was more streamlined, the issues presented here, and the dramatic turns surrounding them, would have even more of an impact.

"Shine" comes out in May 2011, and it's clearly geared toward the high school crowd. (Abrams is recommending 14 and up, which, based on the content and language, seems appropriate to me.) This is definitely one of those books that will stick with you for awhile, and I think it's well well worth reading. Please keep a look out for "Shine" in the spring.

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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Blank Confession” by Pete Hautman


Pete Hautman is the author of the National Book Award winner "Godless," as well as last year's super popular (well, at least at Kinnelon Library!) "How To Steal a Car." In his latest teen novel, "Blank Confession," Hautman relates the story of high school student Shayne Black, who walks into a police station one night and confesses to murder. The story is part mystery, part character study, as we slowly discover more about secretive newcomer Shayne and his escalating tensions with drug dealing bully Jon Brande. While there's a real level of implausibility here — which, incidentally, I came to accept! — this is a powerful book about abuse, power, and responsibility.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with a third person narrator giving us insight into Shayne's long confession to Detective Rawls, while Shayne's lone friend, the part Haitian, suit-wearing Mikey Martin, fills us in on the back story. Seems that Jon has been dating Mikey's flighty older sister, Marie. Jon forces Mikey to hide a bag of drugs in his locker, which Mikey has to ditch in the boys' room when police sweep the school. After Jon beats up Mikey and demands a $500 replacement fee, Shayne intervenes. Mikey is his friend, and he wants to stand up for him. As importantly, Shayne has drifted through a lot of schools (he tells varying stories of who his parents are and where he came from). Bullies like Jon violate Shayne's code of ethics, and he simply cannot let them act without challenge. So, despite being outnumbered — and facing a psychopath! — Shayne intervenes, with disastrous personal consequences. For although Shayne has a steely toughness and some wicked martial arts moves, he's no match for Jon and his testosterone-laden buddies. Shayne's sense of responsibility for Mikey and his meth-using sister ultimately leads him to a violent encounter at Jon's party.

"Blank Confession" is written in short sentences and has a rapid pace. I can easily see it holding the attention of even the most reluctant reader. And Mikey is a great character. While Shayne can seem a bit removed with his stoicism and quiet courage, Mikey is a witty fireplug; he's fun to be around, even as his situation becomes ever more precarious and his actions more dangerous. Other characters have unexpected depth as well. We clearly see how Jon became so violent and ugly, while also discovering, in a surprising fashion, that one of his thuggish pals has more heart than expected.

My only gripe with this novel lies in the fact that it may be hard to buy Shayne as a roving crusader, a kind of lone wolf traveling from town to town, saving people. He's a teenager, for cripe's sake! Where is he staying? Who is paying for his clothes and food? How is even registering for school with no documents? As I mentioned above, I was able to put these issues aside and just enjoy this short, compelling story of honor and sacrifice. "Blank Confession" is a great book for boys, in particular, as it is chuck full of believable male characters and engrossing action sequences. I'd recommend this one for older middle school readers; there is some level of violence and drug use here, although none of it felt gratuitous to me. Give "Blank Confession" a try. I think you'll be riveted by it!

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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Uncategorized


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“Lock and Key” by Sarah Dessen


Sarah Dessen has acquired such a loyal group of readers that any review of her latest novel, "Lock and Key," will likely have zero effect on her circulation stats or sales figures. But since I really loved the story, maybe it'll attract some new readers to her!

Ok, so I'm about to heap praise on the book. First, though, one small negative point. I had a minor issue with the fact that several plot elements seem to have been recycled from "Keeping the Moon" (as in, emotionally detached girl gets shipped off to formerly unknown relative's house where she meets kind-hearted, attractive neighbor with angry, abusive father). Just saying.

With that criticism aside, "Lock and Key" is lovely, heartwarming, touching, and wholly believable. In other words, it's a Sarah Dessen novel, and her audience of high school girls will adore it. The basic plot outline here has high school senior Ruby being placed by child services in her estranged older sister's care after mom up and leaves one day. To survive life with a chaotic, unstable, alcoholic mom, Ruby has put up tons of walls around herself, none of which she'll let down easily. She blames her long missing sister, Cora, for abandoning her as a young girl, and she views all her new classmates at private school as one-dimensional, boring rich kids.

Over the course of the year, we see Ruby grow and begin to accept her new family, new friends, and herself. It's all so gradual, with many missteps and bruised feelings along the way, that you will absolutely accept Ruby's personal transformation. As I mentioned above, there's also a super-cute neighbor, Nate, whom Ruby immediately dismisses as a rich brat. Not true! Nate, like Ruby, is a believably complex, hurting, but still hopeful character. In other words, you'll love him, and you'll root for Ruby letting him into her life … and vice versa. The direction of Ruby and Nate's relationship actually surprised me a bit, although I guess I should've seen that Nate might need some saving as well.

With winning characters, gentle symbolism, an inspiring story arc, and beautiful writing, I have no hesitation recommending "Lock and Key" to girls in grades 8 and up. Younger girls will also likely enjoy the story, but they should be warned that, although handled with subtlety, there are several adult scenes in the novel.


Posted by on April 22, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Burned” by Ellen Hopkins


Ellen Hopkins is the bestselling author of such novels in verse as "Crank" and "Glass." If you're confused by the term "novel in verse," think of it as a story written as a series of poems. Probably my favorite teen verse novel is Virginia Euwer Wolff's brilliant "Make Lemonade," but there are literally tons of other choices, including "Hard Hit" (baseball and grief), "Shark Girl" (a surfer girl's survival after amputation), and "Sold" (a Nepalese girl sold into sexual slavery in India, reviewed here).

"Burned" is the first Ellen Hopkins novel I've read, and I have to admit to being pretty disappointed. While her talent in constructing and crafting the individual poems is breathtaking — truly, some of these poems are works of art — the overall story is unconvincing and, I hate to say it, melodramatic.

As the story begins, high school junior Pattyn is living in a fundamentalist Mormon household with her abusive, alcoholic father, a lazy, beaten-down mom, and six younger sisters. Pattyn is burdened with the responsibilities of her church and family, so she's as startled as anyone when she starts dreaming and fantasizing about a hot classmate, Justin. Quicker than you can blink, our girl — originally portrayed as a free thinker, but one who is shy and bookish — is swilling tequila in the desert, fooling around with Justin's friend Derek, and getting violent at school. After her half-crazed father learns of Pattyn's antics, he ships her off to rural eastern Nevada to spend a summer with his estranged sister Jeanette.

Now, if you're like me, you might wonder why Pattyn's dad would set her loose with his unconventional, independent sister — a sister he disowned years before — just as Pattyn is questioning church doctrine and acting out in increasingly destructive ways. Yeah, doesn't make much sense, right? Hrm. Next thing you know, Pattyn meets another hottie — college sophomore and cowboy Ethan — and they soon fall crazy in love, complete with naked swims and passion and the whole deal. Because this story is exactly as cheesy as you might suspect, Pattyn gets pregnant (because a college veterinary student has never heard of the morning-after pill? shame!), returns home to Carson City, and then desperately tries to run off with Ethan, all with disastrous consequences. Be thankful I haven't mentioned Aunt Jeanette's background or the wholly improbable turn her life takes.

I won't give much else away, but if you've seen even one single episode of "General Hospital" or "Days of Our Lives," you'll be able to predict every single plot turn in this ill-conceived story. Too many of the characters are cardboard cutouts, including Pattyn's horrifically evil dad and the super-sweet and caring Ethan, that you may want to cringe. I hate to give a book a bad review, particularly when, as I mentioned, the craft of the poems is extraordinary. Plus, the book reads quickly and Pattyn, at least, is a compelling, complex character. But I think "Burned" is just so messy, ridiculous, and ultimately irresponsible that I cannot recommend it. If you feel otherwise, please let us know.

PS – If you decide to read "Burned," please know that it is most definitely a high school book, with lots of drinking and sexual situations.


Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Sweethearts” by Sara Zarr


Before I say anything else, let me wholeheartedly recommend author Sara Zarr's first book, "Story of a Girl." There's a review in this very blog, so please click here and check it out for yourself. Believe me, "Story of a Girl" deserved all the praise it received, including being selected as a finalist for the National Book Award.

"Sweethearts," Zarr's latest novel, is much different in tone and subject matter, although Zarr's quiet, poetic writing remains constant. This is basically a small story about claiming the person you are and want to be. I know, I thought it would be a love story, based on (duh!) the title, as well as the cover image of a heart-shaped cookie with one bite removed. I guess in a sense it is a love story, but not a typical kiss-kiss, hug-hug one, if that makes sense.

Jenna Vaughn is a senior at a small arts high school in Utah. She has reinvented herself over the years, morphing from fat, unkempt, picked-upon Jennifer Harrison to thin, popular, and beloved Jenna Vaughn. Jenna's lone friend from childhood, Cameron Quick, literally disappeared from her life one day after a troubling incident involving his abusive father. In surviving Cameron's loss — Jenna was told he died — she destroys the person she once was. Growth and change are all well and good, but Jenna genuinely has little sense of herself anymore. Almost all Jenna's actions and words, including her decision to become Ethan's girlfriend, reflect how she thinks she is "supposed to" behave in order to be normal and liked. Her own wants and needs, even her true personality, have been buried.

You see where this is going, right? Cameron mysteriously reappears in Jenna's life, with little explanation as to where he's been all these years, and helps her remember who she is. That seems terrific, I agree. Unfortunately, all we know about Cameron is that he's tall, good looking, aloof, unfailingly loyal to Jenna, and possibly damaged in some way. Sadly, this remains basically all we know about Cameron even as the book ends. He plainly loves Jenna, and she him, but not in a traditional way. They don't date or even kiss, but it's as if they've shown each other their souls and now connect on a level that moves beyond high school love. While that's lovely, the relationship is so distant, so elusive, that I found it difficult to become fully invested, emotionally, in their story.

Have any of you folks read Gabrielle Zevin's "Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac"? Do you remember Naomi's damaged, lost boyfriend, James, who always seemed two steps removed from the reader? That is exactly what Cameron is like. Eh.

As I said, the writing here is just beautiful, with lyrical passages and beautiful, quiet moments that never go over the top. It's also a fairly short book with mostly believable teenagers acting in mostly believable ways, which should be good news for our teen readers. I'd say this is a book aimed squarely at the high school audience, although there's nothing offensive or graphically portrayed here, meaning younger readers might enjoy it as well. I do recommend this book. I only wish Cameron's character evolved into something more than a distant, almost mythic hero making essentially a cameo appearance in Jenna's life.

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Posted by on February 28, 2008 in Uncategorized


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