Without Merit by Colleen Hoover

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Without Merit is due for publication on October 3, 2017.

Merit, a 17 year old senior in high school, has quite the interesting life. Merit’s family of seven is quite possibly the most oddly dysfunctional family I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about in a book. Merit and her twin sister, Honor, do not share any special twin connections or abilities to read each other closely. In fact, they barely have anything to do with one another and are like polar opposites. Their brother, Utah, only a year older than the twins, appears as perfect and wholesome as they come, which drives Merit crazy. Their rarely-present, laid back father lives with his second wife, Victoria, who was his younger mistress and the reason his first marriage failed. Their son, Moby, provides some rare moments of happiness to those around him, despite his mother monitoring his every move rather than allowing him to just be a curious four year old. The only family member that Merit feels a connection with and wants to spend any time with is Moby, who is easy to love. Here’s the real kicker: Merit’s mother, who is also a Victoria, lives in the basement and refuses to leave due to her social anxiety and general sickness following a struggle with cancer a few years prior. Merit, Honor, and Utah take turns bringing her meals and checking on her. Talk about a strange living arrangement!

Perhaps the oddest thing about the Voss family is that they all live together in an old converted church, which they have named Dollar Voss, because it is split into four living quarters. And the reason they are living in an old church all boils down to the fact that their atheist father, Barnaby, didn’t like the old Pastor’s Labrador retriever, Wolfgang, barking at all hours of the night. Therefore, he bought the church out from under Pastor Brian, forcing he and his dog to move out and leave Barnaby with peace and quiet – or so he thought. The Voss household, readers will find out, is anything but quiet.

Merit is out finding used trophies for her collection one day, when she meets Sagan. The initial meeting leaves her feeling something she hasn’t ever felt before – happiness and excitement. Any hope she has fizzles, however, when she finds out that Sagan is Honor’s boyfriend. Of all the luck! Merit, who has never been in love before, has to fall hard for her twin sister’s boyfriend. What’s worse is when she realizes that Sagan is living in the room right across the hall. Though she tries to avoid him and ignore her feelings of attraction, its impossible.

Meanwhile, Merit stops attending high school unbeknownst to her own father. She goes for days without speaking to anyone in her household, and they hardly notice. She doesn’t think there is anything out of the ordinary about her behavior; she’s just doing what feels right for her situation. After a serious suicide attempt, Merit’s family and Sagan encourage her to seek help. Near the end of the story, Merit realizes that she has depression, which makes sense to readers who have been seeing the signs in Merit’s behavior since the beginning. This story is a unique look at how the affects depression can change an entire family. Hoover does a wonderful job of bringing light to mental illness without focusing completely on the issue. She brings it into the story to add another layer to an already heartbreaking, yet moving story of a family sticking together no matter the obstacles.

Despite all of their faults and mistakes, Merit’s family members are lovable in their own way, as readers learn more about why they are what they have become. When Merit takes the time to look at them with a new perspective, thanks to some help from heartthrob, Sagan, who lives across the hall, and energetic, Luck, her stepmother’s younger brother, she realizes that maybe she is part of the problem. And things she thought were true about Utah, her father, her mother, her stepmother, Honor, and even Sagan weren’t exactly the way she pictured. Sagan and Luck help her to have the courage to seek help, and her relationships with them are stronger for it.

 

 

Hoover’s young adult, stand-alone novel is best for a mature audience due to language and references to drug usage. Though it alludes to sexual scenes, the romance is not explicit in any way. Fans of Liane Moriarty and JoJo Moyes will enjoy Colleen Hoover’s novels. Without Merit, in particular, would be enjoyed by teens and adults alike. This was my first experience with a Colleen Hoover novel, and I look forward to reading many of her other books.

Thank you to Atria Books for the advanced review copy.

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Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs

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Map of the Heart will be published August 22, 2017. I was in the mood for a love story, and this one was a perfect fit. This is a modern-day romance mixed in with a healthy dose of historical fiction, historical mystery, and a forbidden historical romance.

36 year old widow and single mother, Camille, has shut off her own heart from feeling happiness or true love, since her husband died in a tragic accident five years prior. At that time, she also gave up her favorite past-time which brought her the most joy – photography.

Camille spends her days trying to figure out the best way to deal with her moody teenage daughter and aging father, whose cancer is fortunately in remission. Part owner of Oh-La-La, a home-goods shop in downtown Bethany Bay, the New England touristy beach town she calls home, Camille also has a film developing business. She specializes in developing and restoring very old film.

Enter Finn, Malcolm Finnemore, but known only as Finn. He’s a handsome historian and professor who specializes in war and military history and volunteers his time recovering lost soldiers remains to give families closure. His own father, a soldier, disappeared during the Vietnam War before Finn was born, and Finn has been unable to find any clues to locate him, until a lost roll of film from his father’s camera was uncovered. The film could be images of the last place his father was alive, and it could even lead to his whereabouts. Giddy with excitement at the prospect of getting closer to finding his father, he contacts an expert, Camille, to restore and develop the very old, important film for him.

What follows is a series of sparks, then fires, then uncertainty, and passion in a romance made for the movies. Oh la la, indeed!

Camille’s father, Henri, who grew up in Bellerive, France, receives a box found in the attic at Sauveterre, and estate in southern France where he grew up and that he owns. Inside are some puzzling items that belonged to Henri’s mother, Lisette, who died during childbirth. There is little to no resemblance between Henri and his presumed father, Didier. Camille and Henri begin to question whether Didier Palomar, mayor of Bellerive and a Nazi supporter who was killed shortly after WWII ended, is actually Henri’s birth father.

Henri and Julie, Camille’s daughter, decide to spend the summer in southern France at Sauveterre, despite Camille’s resistance. She finally gives in after Julie is involved in an accident at school and Camille is unsure whether Julie is the bully or the bullied. Julie is miserable, and a summer away with a mystery to solve may be just what she needs to snap back into a happier childhood. And, of course, Camille realizes that Aix-en-Provence where Finn lives is very close to Bellerive. A summer in beautiful southern France AND a handsome, charming, single man dying to meet up with her as soon as possible – any woman in her right mind would be crazy to turn that down! Thank goodness, for the sake of the story, Camille lets go and heads to France.

The story switches back and forth to the 1940’s as readers get to know young Lisette and her remarkable story. Once the truth about Henri’s real father and Lisette’s past are revealed, readers will not be able to put the book down. I know I certainly couldn’t!

Map of the Heart is well-written with equal parts heartbreak and romance. The romance isn’t too steamy, but subtle and implied. I felt transported back and forth between the beach town of Bethany Bay and the picturesque estate of Sauveterre in the Var – both places that I would love to be. I loved the story and even the ending, which I sometimes do not like in romantic fiction. Fans of Elin Hilderbrand and Kristin Hannah will love this story.

Subject to Change by Karen Nesbitt

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Review first appeared in School Library Journal, February, 2017.

NESBITT, Karen. Subject to Change. 276p. Orca Book Publishers. Feb. 2017. $14.95. ISBN 9781459811461.

Gr 9 & Up -In Nesbitt’s debut realistic fiction novel, readers come face-to-face with Declan, a teen living in Quebec and dealing with major family issues. Told through Declan’s (at times) vulgar point of view, the pace is somewhat slow until the reasoning behind Declan’s parents break-up is revealed: his father cheated with another man and is gay. Coupled with Declan’s older brother Seamus’ illegal behavior and bullying attitude toward him, Declan is at a breaking point, receiving so many detentions at school that he is forced to undergo tutoring. His tutor, Leah, turns out not to be the “Little Miss Perfect,” he assumed she was all along. The language and content of the novel is very mature in nature. The subject matter would appeal most to teenage males, and even reluctant readers. The story is a great example of a teen’s uncertain relationship with a gay parent, as well as a family dealing with the aftermath of an affair. As Declan spends time with Leah and her grandmother, Bubby, a Holocaust survivor, his perspective changes a bit, allowing him to give his father another chance, and just in time as tragedy strikes Seamus. VERDICT Fans of John Corey Whaley and John Green will enjoy this brazen, realistic young adult “guy’s story.” Recommended for strictly additional purchase.

Wait for Me by Caroline Leech

9780062459886_b8b2dReview first appeared in School Library Journal, November 2016.

LEECH, Caroline. Wait for Me. 384p. Harper Teen. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062459886.

Gr 8 Up- In 1945 Scotland during WWII, Lorna Anderson is tending to the family farm alongside her father while her older brothers are fighting at war. Her mother passed away when she was young, leaving Lorna to grow up quickly, assuming some motherly responsibilities in the household. Lorna’s initial uneasiness upon meeting Paul, a German solder with a badly burned face assigned to work at Craigielaw Farm, turns into a mutual respect and friendship. Then, a forbidden romance begins: the daughter of a Scottish farmer and a German prisoner of war. Tension between Lorna and her best friend Iris increases as each grow into young women and fall in love for the first time. Lorna longs for an end to the war, but the end is bittersweet, as her future with Paul is uncertain. Though missing his mother and younger sister, Paul is unsure whether he will have a home to return to after Dresdyn was left in ruins. Even though the war moves slowly, the narrative flows quickly as readers are immersed in the innocent love of Lorna and Paul. Leech includes historically accurate details, and a helpful notes section as well. Fans of Ruta Sepetys and Laurie Halse Anderson will enjoy Leech’s debut novel. VERDICT Historical fiction, forbidden romance, and a coming-of-age tale combine into a memorable story perfect for young adults. Recommended as a first purchase for all libraries.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

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I’m not one to re-read books. One of the reasons for this is that I always have so many books in my TBR pile, that I must keep moving forward. However, there is one particular book, which is more of a short story really, that I re-read every year around Christmas. What is even more special, perhaps, is that every year I have the pleasure of reading it aloud to my grandmother, Mary. Each year we enjoy it more so, even though we could recite many of the passages by heart. For over 15 years, we have been reading A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. It is our own Christmas tradition, a Christmas memory I hope to pass down to my children and to their children as well someday.

When people think of Capote’s work, most likely they think of In Cold Blood, a famous story with a very graphic murder scene. However, A Christmas Memory, is a personal memoir based upon Truman Capote’s young life. A Christmas Memory is about as different as can be genre-wise from In Cold Blood. The story tells of a young boy named Buddy and the time he spent with a beloved, much older relative before he was sent away to boy’s school as a teenager. (The far left book cover photo above shows a young Truman Capote and his older relative and friend.)

The story is set in Alabama during the Great Depression. Buddy, age 7, and the older Miss Sook, who was in her 60’s but had a child-like mind, lived in a house with other distant relatives who didn’t approve of them or pay much attention to them. Though they had the essentials (food, water, shelter, and clothing), Buddy and Miss Sook lived a no-frills, but enjoyable lifestyle, delighting in simple pleasures such as collecting ingredients and then making fruitcakes in the winter, playing with their old dog, Queenie, and even killing flies in return for pennies from the other relatives in the house. Perhaps their favorite time of the year and fondest memories are during “fruitcake weather” when they focus all their time, energy, and scant funds to making fruitcakes to send to friends, acquaintances, and even some people they have never met. My personal favorite is Mr. Ha-Ha Jones, who donates some liquor in exchange for “one of them fruitcakes.” Another poignant memory is making gifts for one another every Christmas, where they always realize that their friendship with one another is better than any gift money could buy. The story is pretty short, but it is filled with descriptive details which allow readers to close their eyes and easily imagine the scenes throughout. This is one of the reasons it is such a great read-aloud book. The writing is beautiful, raw, and it flows seamlessly from one scene to the next. If you haven’t ever read this story, I would highly recommend it. There is actually a movie out now, but the book is so much better! Read it before you watch the film.

The first time I had ever heard of A Christmas Memory was back in high school. Our English teacher read it aloud to our class, and I am so thankful that she did. Something about the story really resonated with me. I was at a used bookstore a few months later and happened to find a copy of it. My grandma and I have always talked about books and both love literature, so I shared it with her one year and we have read it every Christmas season since then! Reading this with my grandma every year is something we look forward to and enjoy so, so much. In recent years, other family members have listened in a few times, including my oldest son who is now 7 years old, Buddy’s age during the time of the story.

My grandma has always encouraged me to write, even from when I was little writing her poems and notes (which she has no doubt kept safely preserved in a box all these years). I’ve always had a special, close friendship with my grandma and she is so dear to me. And literature and the written word have always been a big part of our bond. For both of these, I am truly thankful. Below is a picture of my grandma with each of my sons when they were very young.

Is there a book or story that holds a special place in your heart? One that you have read multiple times? Please let me know in the comments!

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems

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Am I all set to tell you why I love Nanette’s Baguette? You Bet!

Mo Willems has done it again – created a hilarious tale with lasting characters and unique illustrations. Willems, rock-star author and illustrator of many favorites including the Elephant & Piggie series, Knuffle Bunny, and the Pigeon picture books,  never fails to delight young readers and adults alike. Nanette’s Baguette is written completely in rhyme, sparking silliness and creating a build-up in tempo with every new page. The story follows young frog, Nanette, on her very first trip to the bakery to get the baguette. Sure, Nanette is able to get the baguette with no problem (you bet!), but it’s what happens after she gets the baguette that will have readers in stitches. Perhaps my favorite scene from the story reads like this, “This is as bad as it can get. Maybe Nanette will move to Tibet. Tibet is as far away as you can get. Nanette would need a jet.”

The illustrations of the French village are completed by paper-model, allowing Nanette and the other characters to really jump off of the pages in a lifelike manner. Nanette’s Baguette is a joy to read aloud, even though it’s easy to get tongue-tied if you read it too quickly. This adds to the humor of the situation, of course, making it one of the best read-alouds to come across my desk in a long time. Also, I have to mention that I am hungry for a warm baguette each time I read Nanette’s Baguette. The story would pair nicely with a bread tasting time! Fabulous work, Mr. Willems!

The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

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Emma, a young Jewish woman living in Poland during WWII, is forced to assume a new identity as a Polish girl named Anna. A newlywed, Emma’s husband Jacob is in the Jewish resistance group and he is forced to go into hiding just a short time after they are married.  Emma and her parents are taken into the Jewish ghetto to live in cramped quarters with no comforts of home. Luckily, Emma is secretly taken out of the ghetto in the middle of the night by one of the resistance group members. She assumes the role of a Polish gentile named Anna, a niece to a wealthy Catholic woman named Krysia, who is Jacob’s aunt. Krysia is also involved with the resistance but Emma is much safer in her care than in the Jewish ghetto. Fearing for Jacob’s safety, the uncertain future of her aging parents in the ghetto, as well as her own future, Emma must press on, living a life of lies and secrets in order to remain safe from the Nazis.

To complicate matters further, Emma is introduced at Krysia’s dinner party to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking, powerful, and extremely handsome Nazi official. Emma knows she should loathe the Kommandant, but he is sweet, caring, and very much interested in her. “Anna” goes to work for the Kommandant, which allows her to secretly assist the resistance group in gathering information from the Nazis. She never dreamed she would be so comfortable in the presence of a Nazi official, much less spend all her time with him and become his “girl.” As the war intensifies in and around Krakow, Anna gets even closer to the Kommandant in order to carry out a most dangerous mission for the resistance group. Torn between her vows to Jacob and her feelings for Richwalder, Emma must decide which path to take.

When the secrets of her true identity threaten to come out, Emma’s life will never be the same again. The ending will have readers reeling. I cried for Emma, who lost so  very much, but still had the courage to carry on despite the circumstances.  This is a beautifully written story with a fast-paced story-line which readers will enjoy from beginning to end.

Thank you to Harper Collins MIRA for an advanced digital review copy.