Review: The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

The Scar BoysTitle: The Scar Boys

Author: Len Vlahos

Publisher: Egmont USA

Release Date: January 21st, 2014

Interest: Realistic fiction / Music

Source: Purchased

Summary (From Goodreads):

A severely burned teenager. A guitar. Punk rock. The chords of a rock ‘n’ roll road trip in a coming-of-age novel that is a must-read story about finding your place in the world…even if you carry scars inside and out. 

In attempting to describe himself in his college application essay–help us to become acquainted with you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores–Harbinger (Harry) Jones goes way beyond the 250-word limit and gives a full account of his life. 

The first defining moment: the day the neighborhood goons tied him to a tree during a lightning storm when he was 8 years old, and the tree was struck and caught fire. Harry was badly burned and has had to live with the physical and emotional scars, reactions from strangers, bullying, and loneliness that instantly became his everyday reality. 

The second defining moment: the day in 8th grade when the handsome, charismatic Johnny rescued him from the bullies and then made the startling suggestion that they start a band together. Harry discovered that playing music transported him out of his nightmare of a world, and he finally had something that compelled people to look beyond his physical appearance. Harry’s description of his life in his essay is both humorous and heart-wrenching. He had a steeper road to climb than the average kid, but he ends up learning something about personal power, friendship, first love, and how to fit in the world. While he’s looking back at the moments that have shaped his life, most of this story takes place while Harry is in high school and the summer after he graduates.

I can’t remember how The Scar Boys was brought to my attention as a book to read, but I’m happy that it was. It’s a book that my musicians and music fans will adore, but it’s also a book for my students who are looking for a solid story. I’m surprised more of my Goodreads friends don’t have this on their to-read shelf.

Something I liked most about Len Vlahos‘ debut is Harry’s voice. It’s distinct and one that caught my attention right away. He’s writing a college essay and decides to go way beyond the 250-word limit. I’ve read books like this before, but Harry’s story is quite different. As I read farther into The Scar Boys I realized that I was spending more time in Harry’s head than I typically do in a novel. I noticed that I wasn’t reading a lot of action scenes and a lot of dialogue; I was perfectly okay with that. It was refreshing.

Readers will really get to know Harry. They’ll get to know his fears, his desires, his taste in music, and more. His scars have left him severely deformed and insecure, but music becomes an outlet for him. Like music does for many people, it helps Harry escape and connect. The coming of age story arc ties in perfectly with Harry and his growth as he participates in the band. Being in the band puts Harry in scenarios he may not normally confront like learning to stand up for himself, putting himself in front of a crowd, and taking a risk on love. Without the band, I think Harry would have stayed hidden within himself.

The Scar Boys reminded me of what a Chris Crutcher book would be like if he wrote more about musicians than athletes. So if you enjoy Crutcher, books full of music references, road trips and more, then I recommend reading this.

Review: The Break-Up Artist by Philip Siegel

The Break-Up ArtistTitle: The Break-Up Artist

Author: Philip Siegel

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

Release Date: April 29th, 2014

Interest: Contemp / Debut author

Source: ARC received from the author

Summary (From Goodreads):

Some sixteen-year-olds babysit for extra cash.

Some work at the mall.

Becca Williamson breaks up couples.

Becca knows from experience the damage that love can do. After all, it was so-called love that turned Huxley from her childhood best friend into a social-world dictator, and love that left Becca’s older sister devastated at the altar. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Becca strikes back—for just one hundred dollars via PayPal, she will trick and manipulate any couple’s relationship into smithereens. And with relationship zombies overrunning her school and treating single girls as if they’re second-class citizens, business is unfortunately booming. Even Becca’s best friend, Val, has resorted to outright lies to snag a boyfriend.

One night, Becca receives a mysterious offer to break up the most popular couple in school: Huxley and raw football team’s star player, Steve. To succeed, she’ll have to plan her most elaborate scheme to date—starting rumors, sabotaging cell phones, breaking into cars…not to mention sneaking back into Huxley’s good graces. All while fending off the inappropriate feelings she may or may not be having for Val’s new boyfriend.

No one said being the Break-Up Artist would be easy.

The Break-Up Artist by Philip Siegel is light-hearted and full of snark and wit. There were plenty of parts in the book that made me laugh out loud. Here are a couple examples that made me laugh while reading the ARC:

From page 104 of the ARC: “Everything Ezra says needs cheesy background music and sparkles. I wonder if his mom read him greeting cards as a baby

From page 216 of the ARC: “Am I missing the girl gene that forces me to aww whenever I see something corny? Or was there a mass lobotomy I wasn’t invited to?” 

I think those are both solid examples of Becca’s snark. There were times when I felt she was a little too cynical, but overall I had fun reading this.

Every year I have a sizable amount of students, both male and female, who don’t want to read love stories. This is a book I’d hand them. Sure, there’s some love in the story of course. It’s about Becca breaking couples up! But it’s more about Becca figuring out what love means while not being in a relationship. It’s about the relationships she has with her friends and family.

I think one of the reasons I liked The Break-Up Artist and why I think my students will is because it felt true to high school. I don’t remember there being as many couples in my high school as Becca’s, but I remember feeling like everyone was finding a boyfriend and going out on dates besides me. High school is such a restricted bubble that it’s not wonder I felt that way. I can’t imagine it’s that much different now for my students. I don’t know of a break-up artist in the school where I teach, but I hear about the relationship drama on an almost regular basis. I think Siegel did a nice job capturing that same drama in Becca’s story.

Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeTitle: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Author: Jenny Han

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Release Date: April 15th, 2014

Interest: Contemp

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads):

Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control in this heartfelt novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Summer I Turned Pretty series.

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

I love it when I find the right book for the right moment. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han was that book. I’m not sure what it is right now, but lately I’ve only been interested in reading contemps that are on the lighter side. Lara Jean’s story couldn’t have fit any better.

I’ve never read any of Jenny Han’s books, but after reading this I’ll be sure to get my hands on the rest of her books. I really enjoyed Lara Jean’s story because her voice is very much that of a junior in high school. She’s a little on the innocent side of the spectrum, which I found to be a breath of a fresh air. That innocence fits her character perfectly because she’s basically been raised by her older sister since her mother died. Lara Jean is very much a middle child who works hard to be responsible like her father and older sister want her to be and her younger sister needs her to be. She also spends a great deal of time thinking about Margot (her older sister), focusing on two of the guys in her life Josh and Peter, and taking care of her little sister Kitty and her dad.

Lara Jean’s focus on everyone else added well to the conflicts of the story, but it also drew away from her character. By the end of the story I knew I really liked the book and want to read the second one, but I don’t feel like I know Lara Jean as well as I think I should. I know that she is devoted to her family. I know that she’s a romantic at heart. I also know that she wants to take risks. But I don’t know as much about her personal interests and passions besides her family and close friends. I really hope to learn more about her in the second book which is currently titled P.S. I Still Love You.

While I wanted to know Lara Jean a little better, I did love the cast of characters in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Kitty is absolutely adorable and a great addition to the story. She’s one of the reasons why Lara Jean’s family works so hard to keep their Korean traditions alive despite the fact that their father isn’t Korean and that their mother has passed away. I liked both Peter and Josh, but I think I enjoyed Peter’s character just a little bit more. He along with Kitty added a nice amount of humor to the story.

I do have to admit that I’m not wholly satisfied with the ending, and I know I’m supposed to feel that way. Sure, it fits with the story, but it left so much unanswered! Some pieces of the conflict are resolved at least. I’m really happy there’s a sequel, but I really wish I didn’t have to wait until 2015 for it!

I’m not sure how many of my students will be able to read my copy of Jenny Han’s latest before the school year ends, but I know it will be a big hit next school year.

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were LiarsTitle: We Were Liars

Author: E. Lockhart

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Release Date: May 13th, 2014

Interest: Contemp / Author

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads):

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple months now trying to decide the best way to write it. I’ve decided that I’m going to keep this incredibly simple and quite vague. After book talking this to a couple different classes, I’m confident that the less you know, the better off you are.

First of all, telling my students what I just wrote above about it being best to not know much about this book has sold many of them. I’ll read them the summary, tell them that, and read the first chapter so they can get a feel for E. Lockhart’s writing and the story itself. We Were Liars sells itself.

Speaking of Lockhart’s writing, it’s gorgeous and lyrical. I’ve always appreciated her writing, especially the way she wrote The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but her writing in We Were Liars has been taken to the next level. Maybe even to the next two or three levels. It’s writing that I wanted to savor while also making me want to read faster. E. Lockhart has crafted an intriguing novel so full of suspense and wonder that I had to keep reading even late into the night on a school night. (Full disclosure: I really love my sleep, so staying up late to read on a school night doesn’t happen all that often.) The level of mystery and suspense brings me to my next point.

There is SO MUCH HYPE about We Were Liars and all the mystery and suspense (and deservedly so!). This is where I’m going to start being extra vague. You want to go into this book blind and not know why there’s mystery and suspense. It will ruin it because it ruined it for me. I focused too much on things I read in reviews and didn’t let the story happen. Take me on my word that this book has beautiful writing and it will make you want to keep reading, so make sure you start reading this when you have time to spare. You may find yourself confused at times and that’s okay. Just keep reading. And let’s chat when you finish because I’m sure you’ll want to talk to someone about this book. I sure did.

And there you have it. Probably the vaguest review I’ve ever written, but I’m sure this is the best way to go about it. I thoroughly enjoyed We Were Liars and love discussing it with my students. I can’t wait to chat with some of you once you read it, too. It’s a book that will probably stick with many of you for a while after finishing it.

Review: The Taking by Kimberly Derting

The TakingTitle: The Taking

Author: Kimberly Derting

Publisher: HarperTeen

Release Date: April 29th, 2014

Interest: Author / Science Fiction

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads):

A flash of white light . . . and then . . . nothing.

When sixteen-year-old Kyra Agnew wakes up behind a Dumpster at the Gas ’n’ Sip, she has no memory of how she got there. With a terrible headache and a major case of déjà vu, she heads home only to discover that five years have passed . . . yet she hasn’t aged a day. 

Everything else about Kyra’s old life is different. Her parents are divorced, her boyfriend, Austin, is in college and dating her best friend, and her dad has changed from an uptight neat-freak to a drunken conspiracy theorist who blames her five-year disappearance on little green men. 

Confused and lost, Kyra isn’t sure how to move forward unless she uncovers the truth. With Austin gone, she turns to Tyler, Austin’s annoying kid brother, who is now seventeen and who she has a sudden undeniable attraction to. As Tyler and Kyra retrace her steps from the fateful night of her disappearance, they discover strange phenomena that no one can explain, and they begin to wonder if Kyra’s father is not as crazy as he seems. There are others like her who have been taken . . . and returned. Kyra races to find an explanation and reclaim the life she once had, but what if the life she wants back is not her own?

The Taking by Kimberly Derting hooked me right away, just like her The Body Finder series did. It’s full of action, suspense, romance, and features a strong female protagonist.

If you’ve read The Body Finder series then you might agree that it’s a supernatural story. The Taking, however, I consider to be more science fiction. Just yesterday I was at lunch with a group of girlfriends and we were discussing what we like about fantasy and science fiction, so I brought up this book (besides the fact that I had just finished it and wanted to discuss it). My friend Beth said that she likes her fantasy to be grounded in reality since she’s a realistic fiction reader. That aspect is something that I love about Kimberly Derting’s writing; it feels like realistic fiction even though there’s a supernatural/sci-fi element involved. The Taking is sci-fi light and would be great for readers who are new to science fiction or unsure about it. There’s talk of alien abduction and other elements that reminded me of the X-Files, but it’s balanced with romance and regular teen issues.

Something I’ve brought up in past reviews is insta-love. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes I can’t stand it. Kyra’s instant and unexplainable attraction to Tyler worked for me. When Kyra is returned, she’s understandably confused and overwhelmed. When she meets Tyler again, only five years older now, she’s shocked. He looks quite a bit like Austin, but he’s different and he accepts her. Tyler grounds Kyra and I think it’s what really connects them. Considering Kyra’s circumstances, this insta-love made sense in the story and was fun to read.

Reading The Taking was fun because there’s so much action and suspense. There are some really surprising “I can’t believe that just happened” moments. Those moments kept me reading so I could piece everything together. I didn’t encounter any lulls in the story, so I’m planning on handing this to my readers who need a lot of action to keep their interest piqued. It’s hard to go into too much detail about some of the more suspenseful and surprising moments without spoiling the story.

Overall The Taking is an exciting first installment in a new series by Kimberly Derting. Just as I expected, I finished this book and wanted the sequel right away. I hope you’ll add it to your TBR list this spring/summer!

Audiobook Review: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Audio Review

Ketchup CloudsTitle: Ketchup Clouds

Author: Annabel Pitcher

Narrator: Julie Maisey

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Release Date: November 12th, 2013

Source: ARC received from the publisher, audio purchased via Audible

Summary (From Goodreads):

Dear Mr. S. Harris, 

Ignore the blob of red in the top left corner. It’s jam, not blood, though I don’t think I need to tell you the difference. It wasn’t your wife’s jam the police found on your shoe. . . .

I know what it’s like. 

Mine wasn’t a woman. Mine was a boy. And I killed him exactly three months ago

Zoe has an unconventional pen pal–Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other. 

Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe’s letters, but at least somebody will know her story–somebody who knows what it’s like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

Rising literary star Annabel Pitcher pens a captivating second novel, rich with her distinctive balance between humor and heart. Annabel explores the themes of first love, guilt, and grief, introducing a character with a witty voice and true emotional resonance. 

Audio Review: I decided to listen to Ketchup Clouds because I really liked Julie Maisey’s narration when I listened to the sample on Audible. I enjoyed her accent and how easily she changed her voice for each character. I especially liked the voice she used for Zoe’s little sister Dot. Her voice for Dot really fits Dot’s character and charm. Julie Maisey paced the story well with her narration. I didn’t, however, like the really long pauses between parts in the book. The first time it switched parts I had to check my phone to make sure the app didn’t fail.

Book Review: While I enjoyed the audio, I ended up being disappointed in the actual story. When I first started listening to Ketchup Clouds and Zoe was writing her first letter to Mr. Harris on death row, I was hooked. I thought, “Wow, I really hope I get to hear his response.” And I wondered why Zoe felt so connected to an inmate on death row. Unfortunately as the story continued I lost that wonder. I quickly realized that the correspondence was one-sided and I was questioning how seriously I should take Zoe.

Annabel Pitcher’s story would have been much stronger if we were able to see Mr. Harris’s responses, if he ever responded at all. Or if the book had been set up as Zoe’s personal journal entries then I probably wouldn’t have been as disappointed. I was expecting something dark and suspenseful like I Hunt Killers and that’s not what I ended up with. It really did feel more like a series of journal entries considering how personal and candid Zoe was. She wrote about things I would never tell a perfect stranger.

Along with the idea of the letters feeling more like journal entries is the content of the letters. Zoe details so many aspects of her life in these letters. She writes about her dramatic love triangle, her parents non-stop arguing, her relationship with her sisters, etc. At times it felt like Pitcher was writing two different books in one–one about problems at home and one about angsty high school love. It was a lot for such a short book.

I will say, however, that the ending of Ketchup Clouds saved the book for me. I of course won’t give it away, but it tied things together nicely for me.

Review: The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

The Sea of TranquilityTitle: The Sea of Tranquility

Author: Katja Millay

Publisher: Atria Books

Release Date: June 4th, 2013 (paperback)

Interest: ALA Alex Award Winner / Contemp

Source: Publisher

Summary (From Goodreads):

I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Full of rage and without a purpose, former pianist Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone discovering her past and to make the boy who took everything from her pay.

All 17 year-old Josh Bennett wants is to build furniture and be left alone, and everyone allows it because it’s easier to pretend he doesn’t exist. When your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, a hot mess of a girl who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. The more he gets to know her, the more of a mystery she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he may ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding or if he even wants to.

The Sea of Tranquility is a slow-building, character-driven romance about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.

OhMyGosh. I’m sorry (well, not sorry) that I’m going to gush all over this review because this book is absolutely fantastic. The publisher approved The Sea of Tranquility for me over the summer via NetGalley and for some reason I started it but didn’t finish it. I’m so glad the librarian in my building asked me to read some of the Alex Award winners to help her decide which ones to add to the library. I was in one of my moody reader moods on Friday and decided to pick up Katja Millay’s debut again to see if it would perk me up and also to help out our librarian. It did that and more.

Since I found out I was pregnant in January, I haven’t been able to read a book in one sitting without falling asleep. The Sea of Tranquility is 448 pages long and I read the entire book in almost one sitting without falling asleep. It’s incredibly engaging and engrossing. I can hardly explain how attached I am to the characters in this book. I woke up in the morning thinking about Josh and Nastya wondering how their story would end. Some reviewers say that the story starts out slow, but I disagree. I really can’t remember why I set it down over the summer, but I know it wasn’t because it’s slow.

But speaking of slow, Josh and Nastya’s relationship grows slowly–there’s no insta-love. Instead we really get to know Josh and Nastya as they get to know each other. I loved watching them navigate their feelings for each other since they’re both very guarded and hesitant to let anyone into their lives. I don’t know if this is weird to say, but I felt myself falling in love with them as I read their story. We get to read from both of their point of views, but I still wanted to know more about Nastya just like Josh did. Katja Millay wrote such real characters that I felt their emotions with them. She gave them depth and emotion and so much heart that I teared up multiple times while reading.

I do want to mention a warning that’s placed at the end of the Goodreads summary that I chose to eliminate from my review. It warns the reader about the mature content in the story. I know that’s one of the reasons why my librarian asked me to read The Sea of Tranquility before she added it to the circulation. I really don’t think the warning is necessary. Yes, there’s profanity, but I don’t think there’s an excess of it. There’s a lot of sexual innuendo and joking, but there isn’t anything graphic included in terms of sex. There’s a scene which includes drugs, but again, it’s nothing that really shocked or alarmed me. All of it fit the characters and the situations in the novel. I always recommend reading a novel before handing it to students and this is no different. I did, however, order myself a copy for my students when I was only 40% through because I felt that confident about it.

I really hope Katja Millay writes another book soon. I’d even be happy if she chose to write a sequel. ;) I’m so impressed with her debut that I’ll automatically add her next book to my TBR list. The Sea of Tranquility is a new favorite and has been added to my limited list of books that I would happily read more than once.

The Sea of Tranquility read alikes (titles & authors): Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Fall for Anything & Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Review: Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

RoomiesTitle: Roomies

Authors: Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Release Date: December 24th, 2013

Interest: Author / Contemp

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads):

It’s time to meet your new roomie.

When East Coast native Elizabeth receives her freshman-year roommate assignment, she shoots off an e-mail to coordinate the basics: television, microwave, mini-fridge. That first note to San Franciscan Lauren sparks a series of e-mails that alters the landscape of each girl’s summer — and raises questions about how two girls who are so different will ever share a dorm room.

As the countdown to college begins, life at home becomes increasingly complex. With family relationships and childhood friendships strained by change, it suddenly seems that the only people Elizabeth and Lauren can rely on are the complicated new boys in their lives . . . and each other. Even though they’ve never met.

National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr and acclaimed author Tara Altebrando join forces for a novel about growing up, leaving home, and getting that one fateful e-mail that assigns your college roommate.

If new adult is going to become a category that sticks around like young adult has, then it needs to have more books like Roomies published if it does. Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando truly understand what it means to be a teen who is about to leave for college. They understand what it means to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood. I can’t wait to share Roomies with my seniors this year and every year that I teach seniors.

I really appreciate the characters’ emotions in this book. Elizabeth and Lauren appear to be very different people, but they’re actually quite similar, especially when comparing how they feel about leaving for college. Both of the girls are questioning their decisions about moving away from home, how to deal with their friends, and how this move will affect their families. I appreciate their feelings about all of these things because I remember feeling exactly the same way before I moved to college. Quite a few of my former seniors confided in me and expressed similar worries. Roomies is a book that will let seniors know that it’s okay to have doubts, but that it’s also okay to ultimately be confident about a decision.

Another reason this book won me over is because it’s written so seamlessly. Sometimes I wonder if a dual-authored book will flow well. I can honestly say that I’m not sure if Sara Zarr and Tara Alterbrando each took on a different character and wrote this story or if they worked on it as a whole together. The characters’ voices are distinct and the story flows perfectly as the points of view change. I love that it felt like I was reading one author’s work.

A layer of the story that made Roomies extra fun are the relationships Elizabeth and Lauren begin. Neither of the girls are really looking to be in a relationship before they leave for school, but the guys they each meet end up being supportive and positive additions to their lives. I love how Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando handled these relationships because while new adult has become associated with romance novels, these relationships are very fitting for the average senior girl who’s about to start life outside of high school. Sex is discussed and a topic of conversation in Roomies, but it’s done without venturing into romance novel territory. It’s new adult that I feel comfortable adding to my classroom library.

Overall, I can’t recommend Roomies enough. The characters are vibrant, their stories and conflicts will resonate with readers, and the feelings and worries portrayed about venturing into the real world are authentic.

Review: Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

CriminalTitle: Criminal

Author: Terra Elan McVoy

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Release Date: May 7th, 2013

Interest: Author / Contemp

Source: Purchased

Summary (From Goodreads):

A searing and gripping read that explores the depths of desperation true love can inspire, from the author of Being Friends with Boys.

Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.

So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime—a crime that ends in murder—Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.

But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about? Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy is a book that surprised me and kept me turning the pages. It’s a book that I’m very excited to share with my students, especially those who love mysteries and edgy books.

Nikki is a character that I felt for, but I also found myself shaking my head at her often. Terra Elan McVoy wrote her in such a way that while I knew I shouldn’t feel sorry for Nikki, I couldn’t help it. She makes horrible choices. She blindly follows her boyfriend’s directions. But she’s also coming from an unstable home and is uneducated. She’s very naive. But she’s also real. She makes choices like many girls in bad relationships do. They may not be as extreme (thankfully), but readers will relate with Nikki.

Like I said before, Criminal kept me turning the pages. The chapters are fairly short and the plot moves quickly. I hope this book will end up YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list because it’s one that I know will win over my reluctant readers. One day during SSR in my sophomore class I had to stop our reading to talk to them about a part that made me angry. Nikki did something that I couldn’t believe she did; I thought it was stupid of her. I had a quick conversation with my kids and asked them if they’d ever confronted a part like that in a book. Taking that moment piqued quite a bit of interest which I’m happy about because my sophomores aren’t as excited about reading as my seniors are this year. Criminal is full of “we need to discuss this” moments.

I do want to add that Criminal is a mature read. There are sexual scenes and mature themes involved. I’m not worried about placing this in my classroom, but I know quite a few of my readers work in middle school libraries/classrooms. Nikki is an eighteen year old character and lives a rough life. There are certainly lessons to be learned from Nikki’s story.

More reviews:
Chick Loves Lit

Wrapped Up in Books

Mrs. Crawford’s Thoughts

Review: The Promise of Amazing by Robin Constantine

The Promise of AmazingTitle: The Promise of Amazing

Author: Robin Constantine

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Release Date: December 31st, 2013

Interest: Contemp / Debut Author

Source: ARC received from the publisher

Summary (From Goodreads):

Wren Caswell is average. Ranked in the middle of her class at Sacred Heart, she’s not popular, but not a social misfit. Wren is the quiet, “good” girl who’s always done what she’s supposed to—only now in her junior year, this passive strategy is backfiring. She wants to change, but doesn’t know how.

Grayson Barrett was the king of St. Gabe’s. Star of the lacrosse team, top of his class, on a fast track to a brilliant future—until he was expelled for being a “term paper pimp.” Now Gray is in a downward spiral and needs to change, but doesn’t know how.

One fateful night their paths cross when Wren, working at her family’s Arthurian-themed catering hall, performs the Heimlich on Gray as he chokes on a cocktail weenie, saving his life literally and figuratively. What follows is the complicated, awkward, hilarious, and tender tale of two teens shedding their pasts, figuring out who they are—and falling in love.

I loved The Promise of Amazing and want to read Robin Constantine’s next book right now. Unfortunately, I’ll be waiting for at least a year to read that next book since The Promise of Amazing is her debut novel. And what a fun debut it is!

Sometimes I need something sweet and romantic to read. The story of Wren and Grayson is exactly what I needed this week. I loved reading from both of their perspectives and getting a well-rounded view of who they are as characters and what they were each going through during the story. Just like Wren and Grayson were instantly attracted to each other, I was instantly hooked to their story.

I’ll admit, insta-love usually doesn’t work for me, but it works in this book. I bought into their attraction to each other. It’s honest and very much what I remember feeling like when I fell hard for guys in high school. I’ve read some criticism about this part of the story, but I think many of the adult reviewers forget what it’s like in high school. I don’t remember everything from high school (thank goodness!), but since I’m a high school teacher I see this happening ALL THE TIME. It’s one of the reasons I loved reading this book so much. It took me back to high school/early college. It made me think of the students that I should hand this to next. It’s become one of my favorite contemporary realistic fiction romances and I know many of my students will consider this a favorite as well.

Since I’m bringing up the topic of romance, I know some of you will want to know just how romantic this is. There’s plenty of kissing and some references to sex. Wren and Grayson are older high school students so this makes sense, however there’s really never anything explicit described. Grayson is/was a player so that’s when most of the references to sex come into play. I appreciate that Robin Constantine wrote such a stellar teenage romance without getting too detailed. I don’t have freshmen this year, but I’d feel more than comfortable handing this to a freshman reader.

I really like that while this is very much a romance, it’s also about Wren and Grayson wanting to change. Wren doesn’t like being described as “quiet” because she associates that with boring. Grayson has gotten into trouble at school and is ready to change his ways. These two characters crossing paths makes sense because they help each other change. More importantly, neither characters forces the other to change. Simply meeting is what really drives each of them to put their desire to be different into action.

If you’re looking for book pairings, I think readers who enjoy Simone Elkeles, Kody Keplinger, and Stephanie Perkins will enjoy The Promise of Amazing.

%d bloggers like this: