Saturday, November 12, 2011

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

I wrote this on my other blog, but since it's really YA - thought I'd share here, too.

Sara Zarr is one of my favorite YA authors.  She doesn't implore the use of paranormal or fantasy in her writing - just good ol' fashioned story telling.  Stories that appeal youth and adults alike.  I met her four years ago when she was doing a book tour for Sweethearts, her second novel and it was fascinating to hear her read from the text.  A real live author in the high school where I teach reading aloud to teens hanging on her every word.

I enjoy her writing so much, I've even emailed her since the meeting - something I've never done before with an author - to share with her how her books have touched my life.  She replied!  It felt like a real conversation.  Her books are stories I think of fondly all the time and ones I know I'll read again.  She is the author of four novels:  Story of a Girl, Sweethearts, Once was Lost and now, How to Save a Life.  I loved her first three novels, so I knew I would love the latest publication.

And I did.

Sara Zarr's latest book How to Save a Life does not disappoint. This touching YA novel shows the depth of caring and love through a family experiencing a great loss.  Robin, after losing her husband suddenly has decided a new baby is just what the family needs.  She and "Mac" had always talked about adopting and fostering but just never got around to it.  Jill, her daughter, is completely against the idea.  Since her father's death, Jill has adopted a "rebel without a cause" attitude towards life.  It's mostly just a ploy to cover up the immense hurt she feels from losing a parent at such a young age.  Her high school graduation is fast approaching, and who she was before and after her father's death are complete strangers to one another.  She's managed to isolate herself from her friends and her first love boyfriend is in an on-again-off-again status, it really just depends on the day of the week.  And now - now her mom wants a new baby?  Jill could not be more pleased (a sarcastic line I feel her character would think apropos). 

But her mom is convinced it's what the family needs.

Enter Mandy.  A young girl that's found herself in a family way before her time.  Mandy has only had one love, Christopher.  She's saw him once, at a Fair, and they sneaked off to the corn fields.  It sounds horrible - the idea that she jumped right into the veggie stalks with this guy, but when you read the way Zarr writes this true love moment in time, your heart bleeds for Mandy.  When learning she is pregnant, she panics because she doesn't know who the father is.  Still sounds like you'd think poorly of her - you're wrong again.  Mandy's mother is "that mom".  A mom that has a string of boyfriends and the next one is going to be the one that gets them out of their situation, which of course he never is.  The latest love conquest, Kent, is more interested in Mandy that her mother.  Let your imagination run wild.

But, despite her poor upbringing, Mandy is not a dumb blonde - an idea her mother would prefer her to be.  She decides she wants her baby to have a better life than she does and she knows one thing for certain, she never wants the baby around Kent and her mother.  She goes onto an open adoption website and Robin is there - it's Kismet.  Things aren't perfect and there are some bumps in the road, but in the end How to Save a Life does just that. 

Zarr's use of language and writing style is what makes this story so appealing.  I found myself nodding along with lines of text, quotes like, "It’s the quiet kind of crying that can go for hours, when over and over again you try to stop, try to tell yourself it’s going to be okay, but another part of yourself can’t stop thinking about the thing that’s breaking your heart."  Reader's will find themselves immersed in sympathy and empathy for the characters she creates.  

I don't know what's next on her writing plate, but I hope for something soon.  If you'd like to check out more about Sara Zarr, visit her website at

Ruined by Paula Morris

It is not often that I read a "ghost story" and truly love it.  The only other book that grabbed me this way about an ethereal being was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (and reading this book made me want to re-read Niffenegger's book because it was just so good!).

Ruined, by Paula Morris, is a great read!

I find I'm a a little behind the curve in writing about this book, though.  It was published August 1, 2009.  Whoops!  I bought it at the book fair last year and just got around to turning the pages. It starts slow, but once you're in - you're in!

Book Description via
Rebecca couldn't feel more out of place in New Orleans, where she comes to spend the year while her dad is traveling. She's staying in a creepy old house with her aunt. And at the snooty prep school, the filthy-rich girls treat Rebecca like she's invisible. Only gorgeous, unavailable Anton Grey seems to give Rebecca the time of day, but she wonders if he's got a hidden agenda. Then one night, in Lafayette Cemetery, Rebecca makes a friend. Sweet, mysterious Lisette is eager to talk to Rebecca, and to show her the nooks and crannies of the city. There's just one catch: Lisette is a ghost.

A ghost with a deep, dark secret, and a serious score to settle.

As Rebecca learns more from her ghost friend -- and as she slowly learns to trust Anton Grey -- she also uncovers startling truths about her own history. Will Rebecca be able to right the wrongs of the past, or has everything been ruined beyond repair?
The description gives it more of a teen angst feel than the book truly has.  It is a YA novel, but it is steeped in historical fiction of Mardi Gras in Louisiana.  That is what I loved the most about this book.  Morris, originally from New Zealand, really captured the essence and the pride of this landmark state putting her own dynamic flair to "old money" in the deep deep south. 

Her lead character Rebecca is a strong female protagonist that does NOT give into the social pressures of her high society new school. She maintains a true identity throughout, and an open mind.  Never once do you doubt the realness of her intentions, nor do you doubt the faith she has in her friend that is a ghost.  This makes you attach to her character closely, not wanting to see her hurt, or lost or betrayed.  I found myself becoming defensive and annoyed with the other characters in the book when they weren't as strong as Rebecca.  But, I'm sure Morris intended her readers to get mad at Anton a few times, after all - he is the requisite love interest.

As a true "spooky" book, Morris had me.  At every turn I was never quite sure what was going to happen - was Lisette real?  Was she honest?  Was she lying?  What secrets did she hold?  The drama infused between Lisette, her past, her familial connections kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the reading.  I had no idea what to believe until the very end and even then, it's so well portrayed that you find yourself just staring into the pages of the book.

I would highly recommend this read.  It's fairly short, 309 pages, and would appeal mostly to middle school age and up.  If you like history interwoven with fiction, this is a book for you!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fooling Fools...

Fooling Fools

            The alarm clock was always annoying.  It didn’t matter how many different sounds Verizon put in the options, any noise that caused Athan to wake for school seemed strident.  He hit the snooze button and drifted back to sleep.  And there it was again. Did five minutes already pass?  Really?  And who decided five minutes was enough time to drift back into dreamland and recover from being awoken in the first place?  That was all it took.  One drifting thought and he couldn’t go back to sleep.  His mind had always run this way.  He’d think of something and be unable to let it go.  At night when he tried to sleep, the day’s events would whirl in his head over and over again…What was it I was supposed to do for homework in English?  Are ‘queen’ jokes really still funny? Did I hear dad come in this morning? Is he home? Is he awake?  Questions filled his mind until it felt like his head would explode.  Every. Day.  Morning and night his thoughts turned his world inside out.  Today was no different.  Why is five minutes the allotted time for snooze?
            The alarm sounded again, but this time hitting snooze did not turn it off.  He reached for the phone to be sure he was pushing the right button and saw that it wasn’t the alarm.  Elise was texting him.  It was 5:30a and she was already up texting him. 
            “u rdy 4 this?” was all it said.
            No. He wasn’t.  He wanted to tell her that, to be honest, but he knew the decision they’d made together was the right one.  He’d have to be ready, whether he really was or not.  He text her back, “yeah.  Meet 4 bfast?”
            “Yep. c u soon :-).”
            Athan drug out of bed and tiptoed out his bedroom door.  He was careful to open and close it without making a sound.  Once inside the bathroom, he locked the knob and prayed in a whisper, “Please just let him sleep.”  Reaching slowly to turn on the shower knob, he cringed at every squeak looking back at the door.  Nothing.  His knotted stomach released and he stepped into the welcoming warm water, fears assuaged for now.
            Just as he was reaching for the knob to sneak back into his bedroom a mighty fist pound on the door making him knock everything off the bathroom counter in a jangled mess. 
            “How long have you been in there?” his dad roared.  “You don’t pay the damn bills around here and the water’s been runnin’ to damn long.  Get out here.”
            There was nowhere to go.  No window to jump through, no door but the one in front of him.  He slowly clicked the lock on the door and the world rushed in.
            “Rough morning?” Elise asked when he stepped through the cafeteria doors.  Athan had done his best to keep his bangs low over his left eye, but the evidence of the morning’s hot shower burned red on his face. 
            “Yeah.  Trapped like a rat in a cage – the bathroom.  You?
            “Not today,” she lifted her long blonde hair, “but last night was no picnic.”  A thumbprint bruise was working its way to the surface of her neck, just below the ear lobe.  He didn’t want to know anymore and he knew she didn’t really want to tell him.
            Athan and Elise went through the line and headed to a corner table to eat.  Silence between them was a welcome comfort.  They spoke not a word and while noise raged on in the dining hall around them, they continued to sit still and quiet in a world for just the two of them.  It was Elise that finally broke the peace.
            “Did you see him yesterday after school?  I know you walked home the long way.”  She was the only person he’d ever known that could ask a question like that without making a funny face.  His choice never bothered her and he appreciated her ease with it all.  Not many people in this one-light town were ready to accept anything outside of “one man, one woman, til’ death do us part.”  It infuriated Athan if he thought about it too much.  People riding their high horses of what’s right and what’s wrong.  The prom queen and the football star, shacked up drunk all the time, a muffled prayer away from an abortion, and he was the one with a problem.  The boy who’d never been in love, never been in a relationship, and certainly had never had sex.  He wasn’t even sure he wanted to, even with the guy who caught his eye these days.  They are all so stupid.  Of course, most people didn’t know.  They suspected, called him a queen, even nominated him to reign at the prom, but Elise kept their suspicions at bay.  She was his proclaimed girlfriend.  
            He scanned the cafeteria, glancing over his shoulder before he answered her. 
            “I did, but he didn’t see me.  It’s just as well right now, because after school today we’ll be the only thing this town is talking about.”
            “I know!” She jumped up and hugged him tight, kissing his cheek.  She picked up her books and headed off to class, waving to him one last time before she disappeared through the double doors.
            Athan’s chair skipped forward a step and Aaron, asshole extraordinaire, stepped on his foot.  “Oh, sorry Ashley – didn’t mean to ruin your nail polish,” and he laughed at his own clever use of names.  His minions trailed behind him, giggling all the way.  It amused Athan to watch this spectacle.  He was used to the taunts and the comments, they really didn’t bother him from people like Aaron who will turn out to be nothing one day, who already were nothing.  The funniest part of it all was, as much as they made fun of him, as much as they wanted to ruin him, he never walked with a group of guys giggling like a bunch of girls.  He sighed and reminded himself you can’t fix stupid, grabbed his bag and headed to class.  He heard Aaron’s last comment as he walked around the hallway corner, “I have no idea how he got a girl like Elise.”
            “Because she could trust me not to touch her,” he said to no one but himself.
            The day dripped along like cold honey.  Senior English had to be the most boring class he’d ever taken and as the quiz over The Wife of Bath hit his desk, the question of what he was supposed to read last night was answered loud and clear.  Shit.  Elise sat across the room already working away.  She never forgot to read an assignment.  It amazed Athan how she kept her grades so high with what she had going on at home.  She claimed it was her ticket out of this hellhole – that and him.  She looked up at him and he rolled his eyes at her.  She flipped him off casually, a scratch of the eye, but he could see her smile beneath the shadow of her hair, her smile and the fingertip bruises appearing on the other side of her neck.  She was usually more careful about it, but today she didn’t seemed bothered by the imprints of home.
            The neck bruises were minor in the grand scheme of things.  Athan sat and recalled the bloody lip, the black eyes, the broken wrist, and once, a bulging bruise on the back of her right thigh.  That one she would never talk about, but it made her limp for more than a week.  He couldn’t believe someone in this world understood what he dealt with everyday, but when they met in Algebra I freshman year and he watched her tug the sleeve of her shirt down over her forearm when it was still 90 degrees outside, he knew their bond would be forever. 
            It seemed unfair that another man like his father existed in the world.  And even more unfair that Elise’s dad seemed to actually be the evil twin.  His dad had been rough on him since he was born.  Called him names when he was a kid, told him to, “Stop acting like a little faggot,” when he caught him dancing in the mirror in middle school.  His mother just looked the other way.  She’d always known Athan was different, but she never protected him from his father, never stood in the way of all the anger that rained down on him.  But Elise’s dad, he’d done more than just wail on her.  He used her, abused her, and as a result she didn’t trust men.  Her mother was long gone and Athan was really the only person she felt safe with.  She knew he’d never harm her.
            Two weeks ago, they’d both turned eighteen.  Two weeks ago, the plan they’d talked about for three years came to life.  Today after school, Athan and Elise would get married at the courthouse and there wasn’t a damn thing their parents could do about it.  Today after school, they’d say, “I do” and run away together to start a life somewhere else.  Somewhere they didn’t know anyone, somewhere people didn’t mind a little difference, and didn’t demand submission. Somewhere other than here.
            The plan was complicated because it had to be done in front of their parents.  Without witnesses, the entire thing would seem like a sham.  They’d both saved their money over the last two years to buy Elise a simple engagement ring and to be able to afford rent on an apartment in the city for six-months until they both found jobs.   Right now, that ring sat deep inside Athan’s backpack along with the lease papers they printed from the computer in the library.  The deposit for their place had been paid online and because they’d had enough money for first and last month’s rent, a co-signer wasn’t even asked for.  They had thought of everything. 
The goal was to walk home to Elise’s house after school and propose to her right on the front steps in front of her dad.  Athan was scared, but as long as Elise was there and they were outside, her dad would hold his temper.  It’s not like the town didn’t know about what he did, who he was, but he liked to pretend he was a good father when the public was looking.  Once he’d come to the school to sign some papers and made a huge spectacle of himself and Elise in the front office, hugging her and talking about her being “daddy’s little girl.”  Athan thought Elise was going to puke, but she didn’t.  He did.
            After dealing with Elise’s dad, they would return to Athan’s house and announce the news to his parents.  Bags already packed, they’d catch the bus to the city hall, make their peace with the judge, and head straight out of town.  The only flaw in their plan was its destruction to their grades.  They would be skipping out on the last two weeks of school and while it wouldn’t really mess up Elise’s chances of graduation, Athan’s success hung precariously in the balance.  She had a 4.0 and with or without exams, would graduate with a passing average.  He, on the other hand, barely pulled a “B” average.  They’d done the math on it, well Elise did, and it seemed like he would survive, but just barely.  All year they hadn’t been absent or failed a class.  They watched their grades with intensity and Elise tutored Athan relentlessly in subjects he struggled with.  Nothing would get in the way of their plan for escape.
            The bell rang and they met at the schoolhouse doors.  Words were not needed.  Athan pulled her into a close embrace. Her hand slipped into his and they started the longest walk of their lives.
            Standing in the courthouse with their parents watching their every move, Athan slipped a ring onto Elise’s delicate finger.  She returned one to him and they said vows that while not traditional, held more meaning to one another than most couples truly in love.  Athan’s mother cried, his father seethed.  Elise’s dad slumped with his arms crossed tight around his chest, constantly checking behind him, looking out the window, or studying the judge.  Courthouses made him nervous. 
            When the judge said, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” a smiled spread the width of both their faces.  Hooking their arms together, everything they’d fought for and fought against in the last four years brought them to this moment.  And it was everything they’d hoped it would be.
            Leaving the room, Elise glanced back one last time at the man who ruined her life and then turned her gaze to Athan, the man that just saved her.
            “Do you think we fooled them?” she asked, a Cheshire grin lurking behind her eyes.
            “Yeah, them and everyone else.  It isn’t hard to fool a fool.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Eve" - Chapter Eight

The following story was an entry on  It was the first writing for young adults I completed on the weekly writing challenge and I WON! 

Just a side-note:  Caleb is name chosen by the author, not me.  I'm not a fan and would like to change the name to Christopher because for some reason that is better for me, but - this was an entry in progress.

Cresta McGowan, Eve


            The horse walked with an uneasy gait carrying all three of us.  Arden hugged close behind Caleb leaving me to undulate on the horses’ ass; a sobering thought seeing how that is the very impression I had of Caleb upon meeting him.  He was so smug and confident the way he just assumed we were helpless without him.  It pained me to realize he was right.  He sat strong and tall in the saddle, as if he’d won some sort of battle.  The rabbits swung from the neck of his horse and storm clouds loomed overhead threatening our every step.
            I hated my lack of survival savvy. There was nothing in the pages of Fitzgerald that had prepared me for this except knowing when to duck if my “Gatsby” had one too many.  I shuddered at the thought of feeling like Daisy, dimwitted and dependent on a man, taking help from the proverbial knight on a horse.  Mine just didn’t carry a sword, nor was he as debonair as I’d read him to be.
            The wind died down and the sunflowers returned to their upright bloom, but that did not stop the rain from falling out of the sky.  Caleb picked up the pace to a canter and shouted a half-hearted, “Hang on back there!”  When we arrived on the edge of his settlement, my fears of his earlier prowess were somewhat assuaged.  He had not lied.  A deer hung stretched from a tree, and a boar was posted on a makeshift roasting spit.  Caleb swung down from the horse in one graceful motion and extended his hand to Arden.  Arden grabbed for him quickly and he lifted her gently to the ground.
            “Thank you,” she said and her face filled with a rosy flirtation.
            “Oh, please,” I muttered and Caleb and Arden looked at me.  He extended his hand in my direction, but I brushed it away.  I could get off a horse by myself, that much I knew.  Yet, as soon as I slid off the back of the beast, it lunged forward leaving me sitting in a fresh puddle of mud from the rain shower.
            “You really do have trouble with a helping hand, don’t you?” his hand extended once again.  Begrudgingly I took it this time, but not without damage to my pride.
            His camp was small but clean and it was obvious he’d hidden here successfully for a while now.  In one pull of his palm on a lingering rope, pulley’s and twine began to jut from the braches revealing a crude house.  The surface was rough but sturdy and he clamped each corner down to the ground giving it shape and life.  Windows were cut high to let in bits of the morning sunlight and traps extended from the bend to catch small prey.  I had to admit, his habit of impressing was hard to ignore, but he didn’t need to know that, not yet.
            Arden gushed over his ingenuity like she’d never heard of such great accomplishments.  We both had read how Huck Finn and Jim survived the trek down the Mississippi, and even if only in books and stories, men were told as skillful creatures.  I never quite understood in the pages of books why men were painted as such necessary beings when we were supposed to loathe them, fear them in real life.  I wanted to ask my teachers, but I knew this type of question would result in a thrashing.  Caleb continued setting up the home he’d made for himself, now shared with us.  I supposed the confirmation of a man’s capability was somewhat fascinating, but I found myself still leery of him; trusting too easily could be one’s demise.  Skill of survival is certainly a worthy attribute, but man’s cruelty and manipulation often lay deep beneath the surface, like an itch you can’t scratch, but will go mad trying. 
            “Where did you learn to do all of this?” I asked interrupting Arden’s locked gaze.
            “You’d be surprised what you can get done, what you can learn, when your life’s on the line.”
            “I supposed that’s true.”
            “It is.”  I wanted to learn more about him, try to have faith in the goodness he showed.
            “Have you always been alone out here?”
            “No.”  His reply intimated that no more would be said about the subject.  I wanted to press him, ask questions about his former campmates, but his green eyes shifted from glistening grapes to a deep jilted jade.  The look made me wary, made me remember all we’d been taught about men and their malicious ways.
            Caleb moved back to his horse, clucking softly in his ear as he removed the rabbits from the neck.  He nuzzled the horses’ muzzle with great affection and love; two qualities I was quickly learning he was capable of.  The tree he tied him to held a worn path past its trunk.  I wondered where this path led and who traveled it, Caleb to leave or others to enter?  He gave the horse an apple and stroked his long mane with a loving hand.  I’d always found in life those that love animals, love others.  He may prove this to be true, too.
            Arden was sitting on a tree stump watching him work with his horse and appreciating his nimble fingers as he pulled the rabbits from the line, her eyes were lost in his muscular frame, jaw agape.  I was embarrassed for her.
            “Close your mouth,” I snapped and sat down next to her, but she stayed lost in her daydream.
            “Do you really think all those things they told us about men are true?  I mean, so far, he’s been nothing like what we learned in school.”  Caleb lifted the horses’ saddle and blanket now and I found myself sucked into Arden’s stupor.  His tattoo of the New American Crest glistened against his shoulder in a mix of water and sweat.
            “Close your mouth,” Arden said and rolled her eyes at me.  My jaw now snapped shut and I tried to get my wits about me.
            “So, what would you ladies like for dinner tonight?” he asked, “Rabbit, deer, boar?”  He pointed at each choice like we’d been invited to the King’s buffet.  My mouth watered at the thought of real meat.  It’d been days since Arden and I had a real meal. The world does provide, but berries do not last long.  My mind drifted back to the days of school where a real feast was laid out on tables before us, three times a day.  Roasted meats and steamed vegetables, fruits, salads, and sides all for our taking.  Life outside the compound had been harder than I anticipated and the wait for real nourishment had only fed the idea of starvation.  Arden was eyeing the deer, her mouth practically watering over its form.  She looked at me and started to speak.  I knew what she wanted, she was so transparent.  And I knew we could never, ever kill a deer.
            “Rabbit’s fine,” I said and stared Arden down until she created a full pout on her face.  “It’s the only animal we have a chance of returning to you someday.”  I didn’t want to be in his debt, I barely wanted to be in his camp.

So...Writing for a YA audience...

I've added this blog to my repertoire so I can post stories that I believe appeal to YA audience.  I hope you enjoy.