Okay for Now. Do you know how that feels?

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt; published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2011; 360 pages.

Doug Swieteck’s family has just moved to Marysville, New York because his dad has found a job to replace the one he lost.  With his older brother serving in Viet Nam, Doug’s mom is the only buffer he has between his abusive father and another brother who picks on him.  So what kind of life will eighth grader Doug have in this new community?  Chance encounters bring him a new best friend who also helps him get a Saturday job; a librarian who mentors his artistic talents through a collection of Audubon images; a couple of inspirational teachers who encourage his curiosity and discover that he can’t read; a community leader who shares his love of baseball and subtly becomes a father figure for him; and an eccentric grocery store customer who unknowingly helps Doug meet his idol, Joe Pepitone.  Do you know how that feels?  It feels like everything’s okay for now.

The abusive father, the bully brother, and the silently suffering mom were awfully hard to read about.  At times I had to put the book down because I didn’t want to know what would set Dad off this time.  However, the juxtaposition of caring adults surrounding him in the community made it easy to pick up the book again.  I quickly realized that this was not so much a book about a boy surviving abuse, this was a book about hope and small kindnesses that make a difference.  This is one of those very rare books that will stay with me for a long, long time.

Doug’s narrative voice is compelling.  Schmidt has captured an eighth grader’s perspective and conversational tone remarkably well.  The author also created a character so fully fleshed that I expect him to come in to my library.  Including Audubon prints with their descriptions and plate numbers as chapter titles is ingenious.  Each bird invokes a different reaction from Doug; the birds are then presented in an order that reflects or foreshadows events in the story.  All of the subplots are not resolved in the end; but isn’t that how life is?  Isn’t it enough to know that Doug is obviously okay for now?

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 5-8

Cover Art: An unraveled baseball lies at the feet of a middle schooler with a bag over his head.  The bag has a big smiley face drawn on it and the boy is giving the thumbs up.  The traditional yellow of a smiley face logo is used in the title balloon over his head.  Everything’s on sky blue background.  Yes, this is a tough book to read at first because of the abuse alluded to, but the happy face and sunny-day-blue background are a big hint that everything will work out in the end.  It is an attention getter, and feels appropriate to the middle-school audience.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)


The Disenchantments strike a common chord

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour; published by Dutton Books, New York, 2012; 320 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.   Expected publication date is February 16, 2012.  Part of this review originally posted on LibraryThing.com and follows.  

How do you transition from high school to life-after?  For these four friends, they hit the road with the all-girl band, The Disenchantments, on their way to drop one off at college.  Colby, the only guy on the road trip and our narrator, has borrowed his uncle’s vintage VW Van (named Melinda) and will be the girls’ roadie.  His best friend since, like, forever, is Bev, lead singer of the band.  Sisters Meg and Alexa round out the power trio and it is Meg who will be staying in Portland to attend college.  Alexa will return to San Francisco to finish her senior year of high school.  Colby and Bev will be heading to Europe to backpack for a year, realizing their four-year-old dream of seeing amazing island chains, art, and Colby’s mom.  But, life has a way of mixing things up and the four teenagers discover this in the cramped interior of Melinda and in cheap motel rooms.  Disappointments, secrets and the unexpected threaten all of their plans.  Can their friendship, and even romance, survive?  I was smitten by all of the characters and grew to care about each of them, even the quirky tattoo artist, Jasper.  As realistic fiction goes, this is an easy read full of heart, heartbreak and the chance to follow where the heart leads.  As coming of age fiction, it hits all the points of self-discovery, growth (and outgrowing), and saying goodbye.

I’d like to add that I was very happy to read about Alexa and Meg’s “two dads” in a very matter-of-fact way.  Also, the marriage troubles that plagued other adults were handled in a way that reflected real life.  It was refreshing to read about problems that were subtext to the main plot.  Every teen or young adult will relate to at least one of the characters.  Everyone struggles with family, friends, and future issues just like the protagonists in The Disenchantments.  One line in the book summed up the whole “coming of age” struggle faced by high school (and even college) seniors: “In just a little while we will forget all the things we used to want and adjust to the lives that we’re given.” (page 146 in the ARC edition)

4P     3.5 Q     Grade Level: 10-12+

Cover art: I guess this is supposed to be Bev, wearing Colby’s sunglasses.  I assume it’s meant to attract its target audience with the real person look.  However, after reading so much about Colby’s logo for The Disenchantments, I believe a black cover with the silver logo would be far more interesting than this one.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)


Winter Town by Stephen Emond; published by Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2011; 336 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected publication date is December 5, 2011.

Evan and Lucy have been best friends since childhood.  The past few years have meant that they only see each other over winter break because Lucy’s parents have divorced.  Now they’re on the brink of graduating high school.  Maybe they’re the proof that opposites attract; everything about them, from family to future plans, diverge.  Evan’s bound for an Ivy League school while Lucy has become “New Lucy” who scowls and cuts school.  Evan misses “Old Lucy” but will he be able to find her under the choppy black hair and nose stud?  Lucy wants Evan to pursue his artistic side rather than follow the path his father has cut for him.  After this final high school Christmas break, they may not see each other again.  In their own ways, they work hard to make the most of the time they have.

Emond has created a dual-diary style story using comic strips, sketches and narration from both main characters.  It works so well because we first feel Evan’s frustration then ache with Lucy’s losses.  This realistic, coming-of-age story will find it’s audience relating to one or both of the characters as they find themselves on the brink of making decisions that will affect their adult lives.

The use of comic strips adds a unique insight into the characters.  When Evan and Lucy alternate drawing panels in their comic strip game, we get glimpses into Lucy’s internal struggles as Evan narrates.  Through the Aelysthia comic strip, we see Evan’s struggles and vision (or lack of one) of the future.  Even the chapter titles, often quoting Beatles lyrics (Evan’s favorite band) let’s us in on what’s to come.  Everything in the books is well thought out and works together to tell the whole story of Evan and Lucy.

By the way, Emond includes a bonus section at the back of the book.  Sketches of the characters as he tried different looks for them is included, as is his thoughts on the creative processes for writing and art.  It was an interesting look at the author, the characters and how the story developed.

4P     4Q     Grade Level: 9-12

Cover Art: The ARC I received has a great, artistic cover featuring a dark blue wintery sky with snow falling; the snow lands in drifts of paper-punch rounds as a white silhouette plows through the storm, head down and a little battle-worn.  I read this book in a variety of locations, including a waiting room and high school student center.  Well, I shouldn’t say “read” because I was interrupted so often I finally put it away to read in private.  Almost every teen that passed (and some young adults) asked me what the book was.  Catchy cover, to be sure.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

Sara Zarr knows How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr; published by Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2011; 341 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  The book was released in October, 2011.

Jill’s dad died in a tragic car accident.  She’s not over her grief even a year later.  Her mom, Robin, has found a crazy way to get past her grief: adopt a baby.  On a website dedicated to open adoption, matching babies with families without legal intervention, Robin has chosen Mandy’s child to become part of the family.  Mandy comes into the MacSweeney home with a whole lot of baggage; lies, manipulation and a couple of big secrets.  Whose life will be saved by the end of the book is anyone’s guess.

Wow.  I’m impressed.  It didn’t take me long to get to suspension of disbelief (online message board? picking a birth mom and bringing her into your home sight unseen? really?).  Zarr’s ability to tell the story from both Mandy and Jill’s perspectives is remarkable.  Mandy’s paradox of innocence and manipulation actually endears her.  I liked that her narration is printed in a sans-serif, non-traditional font; it suits her.  Jill, too, is a believable character, hiding in silent grief then slowly melting into a concerned friend and loving daughter.  Her narration is told with a more traditional, Times New Roman looking font.

Teen girls will love this book.  Teen pregnancy is not glorified.  The tortures of deciding whether or not to keep a baby are also realistically covered.  Other issues, which I will not divulge, are also handled in a realistic yet sensitive manner.  Character development is believable; no uninspired moments of unexpected growth here.  Zarr has captured and delivered a realistic story with believably likable characters.  She also captures the blurred definitions of family, friends and parenthood, revealing the most altruistic definitions of them all.

I expect big things for this book, which has already received a number of starred reviews.

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 10-12+

Cover Art: The ARC cover and the final cover don’t appear significantly different, but I think they are.  Both are cold, lonely snow scenes, with empty benches and lots of blankness.  Two sets of footprints appear in the snow on both covers.  However, the addition of a seated blond (obviously Mandy) on the final cover detracts from the fact that multiple lives are saved in this story; that Mandy’s is not the only story revealed.  However, I do think the blurred edges of the title are appropriate to the fuzzy lines between what friends, family and parenthood really mean.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

Advanced Reader Copy cover

How to Save a Life final cover


I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan; published by Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2011; 393 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: May 17, 2011.

Synchronicity: noun /ˌsiNGkrəˈnisitē/  1. The simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. (Google dictionary definition)

Emily Bell has a terrible singing voice; why does her father insist she sing the Jackson 5’s hit single “I’ll Be There” as a solo at church?  Sam Border has spent his life as a vagrant at the mercy of his father’s mental illness, so why does he go to church on Sundays?  As she sings her terrifying solo, Emily finds an emotional connection to the strange young man in the last row.  Their paths are destined to cross again, and in a big way.  As Sam and Emily grow close, his secret life is harder to hide.  First, he introduces his little brother, Riddle, to the Bell family.  Then Bobby Ellis, a rival for Emily’s affections, discovers where the Borders live.  Sam’s father’s voice-inside-his-head warns him to pack up and leave with the boys.  With the help of a cast of strangers who embody synchronicity, Sam and Riddle’s lives are about to change forever.

I’m afraid my description of the story does not do it justice.  Some books stay with me long after I’ve closed the back cover; this is one of them.  Sloan’s sense of humor and light touch belie a very stirring story of loss and belonging.  With a gentle touch, she introduces secondary characters who change the course of Sam and Riddle’s lives by choosing to do the right thing.  Even Sam’s extraordinary musical gift is tied to his survival.  The author’s screen-writing background is evident in her character and plot development, but it’s her skill at using a light touch to portray heavy themes that wins my admiration.

Think you know what “family” is?  I’ll Be There may just challenge your preconceptions.  Fans of realistic fiction, and anyone that enjoys a well-crafted story, will devour this book.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12

Cover Art: I reviewed a special advance reading copy that arrived in a plain brown wrapper.  The art from the publisher’s website is unimpressive.  The colors are attractive but the image does nothing to pique interest or depict the story.  Maybe I’m thinking in terms of movie posters (given the author’s credentials) because I expected so much more from the cover art.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction), ARC (advance reading copy)


The Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger; published by Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2010; 277 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on an ARC (advance reading copy) provided for free by the publisher.  The cover art, below, and the publication information is subject to change.  Expected release date: September 7, 2010.

Seniors in high school should be preparing to go out into the world.  But 17 year old Bianca’s world is falling down around her.  Her mother hasn’t been home in months, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when divorce papers arrive.  Even so, the news devastates Bianca’s father.  And he begins drinking again.  But Bianca is ashamed to tell her friends about the drama at home.  Maybe she doesn’t want them to know she’s even more not like them (B knows they’re prettier and she’s lucky to have them as friends).  Instead, she turns to “man-whore” Wesley for distraction.  Hmm, maybe Wesley’s not so bad after all…or is he?

Oh, I dread writing this review.  I know some teen girls will read this because it was written by now-18-year-old Kody Keplinger.  Cool, a realistic story written by a teen for teens.  But wait.  It’s not so great.  I found Keplinger trying very hard to sound more worldly and wise than she is.  Like, Bianca’s mother saying it wasn’t fair to make B take the role of parent. *sigh*  Trite.  Her ability to create full-bodied characters is lacking as well.  We never really get a clear picture of Bianca (intentional? Is she every insecure teen girl, like Bella in Twilight?).  In fact, I never felt anything stronger than apathy for her.  Being snarky all the time is not believable; the scenes in which Bianca is supposed to be vulnerable didn’t strike a harmonic with me. But we sure know what Wesley is like, at least his physical appearance which the author spends a lot of time describing (another reference to his arms & abs and I would’ve quit on the book) and the pretty friends include a Taylor Swift look-alike.  And the last complaint about the immaturity of the author: The use of pop culture references was greatly overdone and felt like a replacement for finding universal descriptors to further develop the plot.

It also seems that Keplinger peppered the book with unnecessarily distracting profanity in a misguided attempt to appear more adult or something.  It is a gifted wordsmith who knows when to use profanity to make a point.  Overuse it and you sound like you’re trying to write a story only for shock value. In this case, I was so numbed by the gratuitous f-bomb that, when it would’ve impacted the progression of the character’s development, there was no “a-ha!” moment.  Do teens swear?  Duh.  Does that mean it should comprise the bulk of the adjectives in a book?  Not in my opinion.

Beyond profanity, there is the underlying idea that sex as a distraction will end with a knight in shining armor saving the girl with low esteem.  Yikes.  Of course, that is an important topic to explore with teens.  Because the characters are one dimensional and the plot seems to revolve around describing Bianca’s “relationship” with Wesley, this book reads as pulp fiction.  There is an audience for pulp fiction and there’s an audience for this book; it’s just not for me.  I think this plotline is better told in Unraveling by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman or Willow by Julia Hoban.

4P     1Q     Grade Level: 11-adults (I mean 11th grade, not 11 years old!!!)

Cover Art: The yellow DUFF and the words defining the acronym will get teen’s attention.  But I’m looking at the ARC cover; that may change in final publication.

From Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

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