Brand new review: Scars Like Wings by Erin Stewart

October 9, 2019

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: October 1, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

After surviving a terrible accident, a teenager grapples with going back to high school. Her altered appearance provokes deep anxiety about fitting in and makes her an introvert. With the help of new friends, however, she learns about her true self-worth. Author Erin Stewart offers target readers a predictable storyline with a refreshing take in the solid novel Scars Like Wings.

Ava Lee is like most typical sixteen-year-olds. She just wants to be accepted for who she is. Of course, in Ava’s case, that’s a huge ask. She used to be like most other teenagers. Now she just sees herself as the Burned Girl.

A house fire took away her parents and her cousin, Sara, and it left Ava with major burns on more than half her body including her face. She’s endured a year of multiple surgeries and intense, painful rehabilitation. As if life couldn’t get worse, her doctor says it’s time to go back to school.

Ava’s aunt and uncle love the idea, but Ava knows they’re just fulfilling their roles as her dutiful guardians. They’ve been nothing but loving and supportive during the entire ordeal, but Ava isn’t kidding herself. She knows she’s the consolation prize life handed them after they lost their only daughter.

She finally agrees to go back to school on the condition that she go to a new one. She doesn’t need to spend her days with people who knew Before Ava and have to live with the reality of Burned Ava. Before long, she finds herself in the hallways of a new high school with most people pointing, staring, and laughing at her.

Most people; not Piper. Piper’s a burn survivor too and in some ways has it worse. After a horrific car accident, she’s dealing with burns and is also in a wheelchair. That doesn’t stop her from standing up for Ava, even if that means she has to ram a jock in the shins with her chair to do it.

Between Piper’s audacity and the gentle persistence of another new friend, Asad, Ava rediscovers her love of theater. Asad can’t get enough of the stage, and he makes Ava laugh with his nonstop theater references. At first Ava doesn’t believe that Asad’s intentions are genuine, but he convinces her that he doesn’t see her burns. Through it all, Ava will have to decide whether she wants to stop thinking of herself as the Burned Girl and start thinking of herself as just Ava again.

Author Erin Stewart offers a three-dimensional view of the life of a burn survivor. She doesn’t hold back in describing the physical agony and the emotional pain experienced by people who have lived through this awful experience. By adding the extra layer of the anxiety of life as a teenager, she rounds out the complexity of Ava as a main character and gives her well-developed friends in Piper and Asad as well.

The book’s biggest weakness comes in the form of an omitted detail. Ava mourns for her parents and cousin (who was also her best friend,) but the novel lacks specifics on how the fire spread so fast. While the challenges she faces in the present might eclipse the technical aspects of the life-changing event, it would have heightened the dramatic impact even more—a tough task, given how haunting the book already is.

Also, the conflicts in the last scenes get resolved a little too easily. After all Ava fights for and all she suffers in her new school, the about-face of one of the characters is surprising. Target readers might feel some relief and encouragement in the change of events, though, which reinforces the book’s main theme: with or without physical scars, everyone struggles from time to time.

Anyone wanting to read a compelling book about teens surviving a traumatic book will want to check this one out. I recommend readers Bookmark Scars Like Wings.

Newest review: How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

By Ekta R. Garg

April 17, 2019

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: April 9, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

When her only parent dies without warning, a teen finds herself at the mercy of the foster care system. She’ll have to learn how to navigate new relationships and come up with a new definition of normal. Author Kathleen Glasgow brings her own personal experiences to aching reality in the wrenching but somewhat incomplete novel How to Make Friends with the Dark.

Sixteen-year-old Grace “Tiger” Tolliver just wants to hang out with her friends and survive school. The school part’s easy: with her best friend Katerina, or Cake, Tiger has gotten through every single day of academic torture from the third grade to their current status as sophomores. Lately, too, she’s attracted the attention of her crush; Kai, her partner in science class, has just asked her to the upcoming dance.

The rest of life, though, is a problem. Tiger is an only child to single parent, June, and June keeps Tiger on a tight leash. Tiger loves her mother, but she wishes—often—that June would loosen up a little. It doesn’t help that Tiger has no idea who her father is and that June refuses to talk about him. If Tiger had a dad or siblings, she’d have someone to commiserate with or at least someone who could take June’s attention off her for just a minute. But, nope. It’s just Tiger and June.

Until it’s not. June dies from an unexpected medical incident, and Tiger finds herself spiraling through the various stages of grief. It only gets worse as she learns that because she’s a minor and has no known relatives, she automatically becomes a ward of the state. Despite the fact that Cake’s mother, Rhonda, volunteers to take Tiger in, the social worker holds hard to the line.

Within days of her mother’s death, Tiger moves from one foster home to the next. The children she meets introduce her to the darker sides of life. At least Tiger knew her mother loved her and would do everything to make her happy. She’s at a loss for words when she hears stories about parental abuse, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse; she had no idea there were so many ways to hurt one’s self and others.

Then she gets word of an older half-sister she’s never met. Tiger clings to idea of family, even as she discovers that her half-sister isn’t exactly the epitome of responsibility. Still, Tiger wants to go home, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Going home doesn’t necessarily mean all the demons have left, however, and she discovers that grief is a beast that follows a person anywhere.

Author Kathleen Glasgow shares in her note at the end of the book how much of it was inspired by her personal experiences with grief, and she scores full marks in Tiger’s story for nailing the sound and look and emotion of loss. Tiger doesn’t mince words when it comes to sharing the depth of her broken heart. Readers will want to reach out to her and offer their heartfelt condolences, so real are her emotions.

Separated from the grief angle, however, the book doesn’t work quite as well. Cake is refreshing as Tiger’s best friend, putting her own wants and dreams on hold, yet she disappears two-thirds of the way through the story with a half-hearted narrative explanation and doesn’t reappear. The half-sister who becomes Tiger’s guardian spends a lot of time fretting over her own problems. At one point, Tiger joins a group at school for grieving teens, but that part of the story fizzles out as inconsequential as well.

Readers may wonder why these story elements were introduced if they weren’t going to contribute to the overall plot. Other pieces of the story come across as unrealistic too. Tiger shares early in the book how poor she and her mother are—she mentions with wryness the thrift store clothes she wears—yet early on she and June stay in touch with their cell phones. If they don’t have enough money for food, how are they paying that bill?

For readers wanting a story that shares the reality of grief in all its ugliness, this book fits the bill. Otherwise I recommend readers Borrow How to Make Friends with the Dark.

Newest review: Lies You Never Told Me by Jennifer Donaldson

By Ekta R. Garg

November 28, 2018

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: May 29, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Two teens in different cities battle the perils of first love: unmet expectations, surprise demands, and the reality that relationships are hard once they get past first blush. Neither of them can predict the challenges headed their way; both of them will have to navigate situations much beyond their years. Author Jennifer Donaldson performs a neat literary trick but misses a major plot point in her debut novel Lies You Never Told Me.

In Austin, Texas, high school junior Gabe Jimenez has begun to realize that his girlfriend, Sasha, may not be right for him. A member of the drill team, Sasha monopolizes Gabe’s attention and it’s starting to get old. Even when a mystery driver knocks Gabe down in a hit-and-run, Sasha manages to make every situation about herself.

When Gabe runs into new student Catherine, he realizes she’s the one who called the ambulance for him the night of the accident. Despite her initial reluctance, Gabe pursues a friendship with Catherine and the two get close. He realizes that Catherine is truly the girl for him, but he also knows that she’s hiding something from him. The more time they spend together, the more Gabe begins to understand that Catherine’s secrets come from a dark place.

Across the country in Portland, Oregon, Elyse McCormick can’t believe the new drama teacher, Mr. Hunter, has cast her as the lead in her high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Brynn, her best friend, has always been the star; she’s the born actress. The only reason Elyse even joined the drama club in the first place was because of Brynn’s gentle encouragement.

Despite a challenging home life with a single mother struggling with drug addiction, Elyse stays up to date with her schoolwork and the demands of the play. Mr. Hunter begins taking time out of his schedule to help her run lines and prepare for her role. In time, Elyse and Mr. Hunter—Aiden, he urges her to call him—get closer. Both of them know the relationship is inappropriate, but neither of them has the willpower to fight it. Then Elyse makes a choice that changes her entire life and the lives of those close to her.

Author Jennifer Donaldson writes with her target audience in mind but in many places misses the mark. Gabe complains about Sasha’s stalker-like tendencies but exhibits similar behavior in his pursuit of Catherine. He says he does it out of genuine concern; Sasha says many times that the stunts she pulls are all because she loves Gabe. Some readers may interpret this as Donaldson’s justification of behavior that encroaches on personal boundaries as long as it’s done “for the right reasons.”

Because Donaldson chooses to tell both Gabe and Elye’s stories in first person, in alternating chapters, readers don’t get to interact with other characters much. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Gabe and Elyse will have to connect somewhere. The question is how and when.

Although she chooses a clever literary device to make that connection happen, Donaldson requires her readers to suspend their disbelief after that to the extreme. Characters get away with criminal offenses, but the police don’t investigate. Also, when it comes to the choice Elyse and Aiden make, one question that keeps cropping up is “why”. Why does Aiden continue on the path he’s chosen when it’s clearly jeopardizing his entire life? And if secrecy is their only weapon, why does he relinquish it with such abandon later in the story?

Unfortunately Donaldson sacrifices logic for an “aha” moment, the charm of which only lasts a couple of pages. Once it does, more astute readers will scratch their heads at the way the story unfolds in the last few chapters. It seems as if the story tries to mask sloppy plotting with grand gestures of drama and romance. In the end, when it comes to Lies You Never Told Me, readers are better off Bypassing it.

Newest review: This Is Not A Love Letter by Kim Purcell

By Ekta R. Garg

February 15, 2018

Release date: January 30, 2018

Genre: YA mystery

Rated: Bypass it

When a teen goes missing, his girlfriend refuses to believe he’s run away. Instead she focuses on the positive and begins documenting the search for him, hoping to share it with him when he returns. Author Kim Purcell recounts this tale for teens by using the unusual choice of second person point of view that ultimately weakens her novel This Is Not A Love Letter.

Jessie Doone loves her boyfriend, baseball star Chris Kirk, but lately Chris has gotten clingy. He wants to get married before they both graduate from high school, and while Jessie can’t imagine her life without Chris she also wants a chance at pursuing her own dreams outside their small town. She wants to leave it all behind: her mother who struggles with hoarding and the prejudiced residents of Pendling, Washington, who look at her and Chris and see only a biracial couple.

Chris supports her goals of studying the environment in college, but he’s begun pressuring Jessie for a decision on getting married. Jessie finally hits her limit and asks Chris for a break. Just a week, she says, of no contact, to give them both time to think about their futures. Surely, she reasons, a week apart can only yield good results.

Then Jessie gets the news: Chris has gone missing. Unlike other times when Chris would take some time for himself, he has left no note. No one knows where he’s gone.

The police think Chris has run away. Jessie thinks something more sinister is possible. Just weeks earlier, several other baseball players beat up Chris because he’s black. Chris believes deeply in nonviolent forms of protest and didn’t fight back. Now Jessie wishes he had.

Jessie decides to keep a record of the search for him. In her journal entries, she talks directly to Chris in the hopes that sending out her love in strong waves will bring him home. The longer he’s gone, however, the less positive the people around Jessie remain that Chris will come back safe and sound.

Author Kim Purcell presents her story with an unusual choice of point of view: she tells the story in second person, which means the main character addresses the reader as “you” in telling the story. In the case of This Is Not A Love Letter, Jessie tells the story to Chris as she waits for some news of him. She tells him several times throughout the book how much she loves and misses him and wonders why he left. In some ways, the second person point of view might make sense. Unfortunately it doesn’t work.

Because Jessie spends the entire book “talking” to Chris, the majority of the conversation turns into how she feels about him and their relationship. Jessie also spends plenty of time detailing life in Pendling with a mother who can barely leave the house because of her issues with hoarding. What readers won’t get is much time with Chris or anyone else in the book, and because the story contains a mystery at its heart the essential elements for that mystery never get shared.

Chris and Jessie’s friends hint at issues Chris may have, but readers get only those hints. More astute members of the target readership will probably figure out early on what happened to Chris, but receiving confirmation of a correct guess comes with little satisfaction. At a key point in the story, one of the secondary characters reprimands Jessie. Not everything about Chris missing, the character says, is about Jessie. Yet the choice of point of view and the heavy doses of teenage melodrama give readers the distinct feeling that Chris going missing is about Jessie’s feelings.

The book tries to raise some serious issues teens face today, including racism and what it’s like to live with a hoarding family member, but it doesn’t do much justice to any of them. I recommend readers Bypass This Is Not A Love Letter.

Brand new review: As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

By Ekta R. Garg

February 1, 2018

Genre: YA magical realism

Date released: January 1, 2018

Rated: Binge it!

Just before his eighteenth birthday, a teen must make a difficult choice: what to wish for. In a forgotten town in the Mojave Desert, everyone gets one wish and that wish always comes true. Given the unanticipated results of decades of wishes, however, the teen faces his birthday with dread instead of excitement. Author Chelsea Sedoti delights and surprises readers with this interesting premise in her newest novel As You Wish.

Eldon Wilkes is gearing up for his birthday; his eighteenth birthday, in fact. For most teens across the country, turning 18 means becoming an adult. In Madison, Nevada, turning 18 means getting to make a wish and knowing it will come true. In theory that idea would thrill any person. The residents of Madison, though, live with the reality of the fact that while their wishes may have come true, that certainly doesn’t mean the end to their problems.

It doesn’t help that Eldon’s mother expects him to wish for money. Months earlier Eldon’s little sister, Ebba, got into a terrible accident and is in hospice care in Las Vegas. Eldon’s mother is convinced that with enough money the family can hire the world’s best physicians to treat Ebba and make her better, even though the doctors say Ebba’s brain no longer functions. Everyone, it seems, has accepted the truth, except for Eldon’s mother.

His father doesn’t put that kind of pressure on him, but he doesn’t openly support Eldon. As the target of a different wish long ago, Eldon’s father is fated to support his mother for the rest of his life. Again, in theory, it seems like a great concept—never-ending validation from a spouse. In real life, Eldon finds his father’s inability to counter his mother exasperating.

What makes matters worse is that Eldon has recently suffered from a more common problem: his first breakup. His ex-girlfriend starts dating one of his football teammates who had the opportunity on his own eighteenth birthday to wish to be the best player on the team. Eldon’s always been the best—the best player with the most beautiful girl in school on his arm. Now he’s struggling at practice and trying to figure out what to wish for. When a teacher suggests a research project that entails asking people in Madison what they wished for, Eldon hopes hearing other people’s stories will give him some inspiration. With less than a month left before his own wish day, he’s going to need all the help he can get.

Author Chelsea Sedoti uses her own experience of living in the Mojave Desert to her full advantage. As she describes the blowing of the sand and the searing heat, readers will feel the grit in their own eyes and search for a cool glass of water. The setting of the town, in fact, offers the perfect juxtaposition between its day-to-day sameness of physical landscape and the life-changing wishes of the town’s residents.

In addition to the harsh beauty of the landscape, Sedoti gives readers well-rounded characters that fit right in the target audience of the book. Young adult readers will identify with the evergreen concept of wanting a wish to come true. It also fits into the classic teenage idea that one is invincible. When one’s invincibility is challenged over decades by wishes that tend to disappoint, however, it gets replaced by a melancholic optimism; the teens of Madison know the likely outcome of their lives—staying there forever—yet they keep wishing, and hoping, anyway.

More astute readers may guess what Eldon wishes for, but the ride to that day is so fun that even those who anticipate the drops and twists will enjoy it. While Sedoti could have scaled back on the profanity just a touch, no doubt she’s using it to speak to today’s teens. Her biggest strength in the book comes in the fact that Eldon doesn’t find redemption from any of his problems right away. He struggles with everything, and his struggles knock him down over and over. Sedoti’s approach will refresh readers and, hopefully, remind them that life really isn’t as simple as wishing for something to happen.

I recommend readers Binge As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti.

Newest review: Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

December 13, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: November 14, 2017

Rated: Bordering on Borrow it

A teen finds herself boxing up her ex-boyfriend’s belongings after he dies in a tragic accident. As she goes through his things, she also finds herself also sorting through the memories of their relationship and how it ended. The longer she spends in his room, though, the more the teen gets the feeling that her ex-boyfriend’s death has some greater significance. Author Megan Miranda returns to YA fiction with a story that struggles to gain traction in her latest novel Fragments of the Lost.

Jessa Whitworth can’t quite believe the news, despite the weeks that have passed since the accident. Her ex-boyfriend, Caleb Evers, got caught in a flash flood and drove over the guard rail into a river in their New Jersey town. Since finding out about Caleb, Jessa quit the track team, more or less, and she doesn’t answer any texts or calls from her best friend, Hailey. Her parents try to support her through her grief, but their attention gets diverted on numerous occasions by Jessa’s older brother and baseball superstar, Julian.

So Jessa does what she can to cope on her own, until the day Caleb’s mother, Eve, approaches her. Eve blames Jessa for Caleb’s death. She’s never said so in those exact words, but Jessa knows that’s how Eve feels. After all, on the day he died Caleb came to one of her races, and just before the race started she spoke to him. Witnesses later said Caleb left the race before it ended and looked upset.

It makes sense to Jessa, then, that Eve would want to punish her. Eve practically demands that Jessa come over and clean out Caleb’s room, and Jessa complies. She doesn’t want to, but then again she does. The details of Caleb’s death eat at her, and Jessa hopes that spending time in his room will provide her with some answers. Despite their breakup, Jessa still cares deeply for him.

Everywhere she looks she sees evidence of their relationship, and every photo and object triggers a memory. Along with the memories, though, Jessa finds other items that don’t make sense. When Max, Caleb’s best friend, tries to join Jessa in cleaning Caleb’s room, Jessa rebuffs him. Max keeps insisting, however, and Jessa starts to give in. The more she investigates—because suddenly that’s what it feels like instead of just packing—the more she realizes Caleb’s death isn’t just a tragedy. It’s a mystery and maybe more.

Author Megan Miranda begins her book with a sluggish pace after offering a somewhat clumsy inciting incident: Eve’s forceful request that Jessa clean out Caleb’s room. Apparently Eve wants nothing to do with the task, creating a peculiar vibe for the book. Adding to that Jessa’s insistence on reliving, in first-person narrative, every detail of her time with Caleb as she packs up his room, and the book’s pace proceeds so slowly it’s almost going backwards.

More problematic is the fact that Jessa offers a reason for the breakup, but it doesn’t come across as compelling enough to create a rift in what she deems true love. The way Eve lurks around corners borders on creepiness; her behavior, and not Jessa’s, fits the role of ex-girlfriend. Also, Jessa may not question Eve’s initial demands, but even the most casual reader probably will. In fact, readers will figure out long before Jessa does that something bigger is happening in the story.

Miranda does offer some saving graces in the story. Jessa’s parents don’t neglect her the way many parents neglect their teens in YA novels. It’s true that their preoccupation with big brother Julian may approach the realm of the stereotypical, but the genre requires that much and Miranda fulfills the requirement without overdoing it. Also, once Jessa finally finishes cleaning out Caleb’s room, the story really does get moving and turn into an interesting read. It’s just a shame that readers will have to sit on their hands for about three-fourths of the book to get to the turning point. Until then it’s mostly Jessa reminiscing over Caleb and wishing, as all teens would, for a second chance.

For a vacation book, this one fits the bill but readers shouldn’t get their hopes up unless they’ve committed to slogging through the first couple of sections. I rate Fragments of the Lost as Bordering on Borrowing it.

Second review: Love and Other Alien Experiences by Kerry Winfrey

By Ekta R. Garg

July 12, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: July 11, 2017

Rated: Bookmark it!

A teen suffering from mild anxiety finds her condition kicked into overdrive when her father abandons her family. She holes up at home, but when someone nominates her for homecoming queen she realizes this may be the only chance she’ll have to force herself out of her comfort zone and back into her life. Author Kerry Winfrey charms readers in her lovely debut novel about facing life’s challenges in Love and Other Alien Experiences.

Mallory Sullivan doesn’t leave the house. Ever. Some kids at her high school assume she got pregnant and stayed at home. Some think she’s doing meth. A few have wondered whether she got arrested and is currently in juvenile detention.

One girl swears Mallory died, although how Mallory could be dead and attend school via webcam is beyond anyone’s guess.

Because that’s the only option left to her. Every morning Mallory checks into first period physics along with other juniors, except she does it through a computer screen. Ever since her major breakdown in the Cheesecake Factory one night when she was at dinner with her brother, Lincoln, and her best friend, Jenni, Mallory doesn’t leave the house.

Of course, Lincoln, Jenni, and Mallory’s mother have all done their best to coax her outside. Mallory even has phone sessions with a therapist who talks often about working up her courage to step onto the front porch for more than a few milliseconds. But the mild anxiety Mallory used to experience before her father left consumes her now, and every time she tries to go get the mail her heart pounds and she feels severely short of breath.

So she spends her days searching online for any clues to her father’s whereabouts and watching the world through her computer. Her chief source of entertainment is the web forum called “We Are Not Alone,” a place where conspiracy theorists swap stories about alien abductions and all things unexplained. With an ardent interest in The X-Files, Mallory has spent quite a bit of time talking through favorite episodes with other members. She enjoys her exchanges with one in particular who goes by the handle BeamMeUp.

A deadline of sorts hangs over Mallory’s head. The teachers at school insist she show up in person to take the upcoming midterms. Then one day while video chatting with Lincoln and Jenni at lunch, Mallory logs in just in time to hear that she’s been nominated for homecoming queen. Now she’s going to have to find a way to make her presence known at the homecoming dance.

She’s never played the popularity game, but the nomination spurs Mallory on to start caring. The winner gets $500, which could kick her search for her dad into high gear. All of a sudden Mallory is scheming with Jenni and Lincoln on how to win the most votes.

It doesn’t hurt that she gets paired with hunky football player Brad, a shoo-in for homecoming king, for a major physics project. She finds out that Brad isn’t a stuck-up jerk, and that gets Mallory thinking. If Brad isn’t what he seems, what does that mean about the other kids at school? And what does that mean about how they see her?

Author Kerry Winfrey offers positive messages and a less sullied side of high school life in her debut novel. Readers will identify with her anxiety. Mallory’s worries may be elevated, but everyone knows what it feels like to be an outsider. Everyone, at one time or the other, has wanted to stay at home when life throws them a bevy of challenges.

Winfrey could have done a better job of balancing the reality of Mallory’s anxiety with what she’s built up in her head. She gets coaxed outside a few times but doesn’t ever really stop to analyze how this means that much of what she feels is manufactured by her sadness at being abandoned by her father. This small lapse notwithstanding, Winfrey doesn’t apologize in any way for the fact that she’s writing a fairly clean book. No salacious high school affair; no extreme cattiness. By giving Mallory a manageable, relatable problem, Winfrey reminds readers that sometimes a challenge really is surmountable.

I recommend readers Bookmark Love and Other Alien Experiences.