Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book review: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

It’s never too late to start (or restart) living the rest of your life.


This review also appears on Women24.com, a South African women's lifestyle website where I manage, amongst other things, an online books section.

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Usborne)

I’ve always held the opinion that some of the best books are the novels that seem to have little to offer, but which result in you taking an unexpected journey into a story full of heart, introspection and battle-weary protagonists who discover that no matter how life treats you, glimmers of stars can still be seen in the dark.

For me, Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life ended up being one such book.

I have of course, heard wonderful things about her novels, but having never read any of her work before I was understandably unsure of how I’d react to How to Save a Life. As a result, this book’s been sitting in my one of my shelves for months.

I finally decided to pick the book up, and am very relieved to say that this book touched me in a way that not many contemporary YA novels (with the exception of On the Jellicoe Road and The Sky is Everywhere) have.

There’s so many aspects of this novel to love, but I suppose what I really loved about the book is how honestly it handles the issue of teen pregnancy. How to Save a Life is a book that explores the confused feelings of alienation, loneliness and abandonment that both death and pregnancy bring.

On the one hand we have Jill.  Coming from a family that has it all, Jill was once a happy and well-adjusted young girl.

Then, her father dies and she’s never been the same. Everything that used to matter to her suddenly loses its meaning and as a result, she closes herself off to the world and shuts out everyone who cares about her.

Life’s about to throw her a huge curveball though, because Jill’s mother has decided to adopt a baby, and what follows is a journey filled with heartache, resentment and  an increasing sense of isolation as Jill’s mother starts doting on the girl whose baby she’s about to adopt.

Then there’s Mandy.

17-years old, pregnant and in a desperate situation, she decides to give her baby up for adoption. Coming from an emotionally and sexually abusive home, Mandy is willing to do anything to give her child the life she’s never been able to live.

When her life crosses the paths of Jill and Robin – Jill’s mother – things begin to change in a way that has unforeseen consequences, and suddenly, the solitary paths that each girl has been traversing, merge in a way that leaves everyone in an uncertain place.

And soon, the only thing that becomes clear is that the path to making the decision to live and making the decision to give up something precious, is harder than anyone could have imagined. 

My first thought, when I closed the last page of this book, was that I couldn’t believe that it took me this long to pick up a book written by this author.

My second?

Is that she knows how to create the perfect balance between not sugar coating the issues that come with dealing with death and pregnancy,  and offering readers an open-ended, yet hopeful conclusion that is both realistic and sincere.

Jill and Mandy are two characters who are both broken in different ways. 

We have Jill, whose grief is often displayed through veil of aggressive, unfriendly and abrasive behaviour. She’s a character who many would probably consider to be unlikeable, yet I personally found myself instantly drawn to her and sympathetic to her plight.

Granted, her behaviour throughout the book would probably make most people want to give up on her, but her palpable grief is one of the biggest reasons that made me feel for her.

 It’s hard to crawl out of the hole you’ve been unwittingly pushed in, but the progression that Jill makes from not making an effort, to “trying a little tenderness” (Her father used to tell her that when she was being mean), is incredibly heart-warming.

The glimpses of goodness that come through in the midst of her darkest period, shine through louder than all the times she shows her obvious discontent at the Mandy situation. Watching her come around in the end (subtly done, but it’s there and all the more powerful for it), will have you cheering from the side lines.

Mandy, for her part, is a very sweet character. Despite the abuse that she’s faced, there’s an incredible strength and innocence about her that speaks of having both a selfless and rather na├»ve viewpoint on life.

Her mistreatment at the hands of the ones who are actually supposed to love her most, is heartbreakingly poignant and will fill you with both anger and sadness.
Living with Robin and Jill while she’s waiting for the birth of the baby she’s promised them, is not an easy feat despite Robin’s inherent and overenthusiastic kindness.

She’s a character that is so unused to people treating her with anything other than disdain, that she finds it harder to accept the complete acceptance Robin has for her, while the more self-deprecating side of her finds it easier to deal with Jill’s attitude towards her.

There is a little romance in this novel, but it’s more of a sub-plot than anything else and wouldn’t have actually made a difference to the impact of this novel had it not been included.

Having said that, the dynamics in the relationships that are and come to be are incredibly interesting and I especially applaud her for boldly including a romance that crosses the racial divide (as common as that is today, it’s not half as common to see in YA novels quite yet).

How the story comes full circle, is something for you to find out, but know this: Sara Zarr’s writing is beautifully understated; her less is more approach to telling this story is what makes this novel such an incredibly powerful and moving book.

What I love even more is that she doesn’t spoon feed us with information; she leaves gaps for us to fill in and make our own conclusions. 

And at the conclusion of it all, what I’ve come to know is this: I went in with little expectation but came out having gotten to know two wonderful female protagonists who each had their own battles to fight and who both came out on the other side with the knowledge that it's never too late to start (or restart) the rest of your life.

Series Spotlight and excerpt: Declan by Rae Rivers (Book 2 in The Keepers series)

On the blog today, I’m spotlighting South African romance novelist, Rae Rivers.

Rae, who is published by HarperImpulse, has written two books in a paranormal fantasy series called The Keepers so far.

In this series we’re introduced to all manner of witchy, magical things where the book world focuses on powerful women who are witches and keepers, the men who are bound by blood to protect them.

Aside from that, she’s also written a contemporary romance novel,  Cat Got Your Tongue? , which you can read more about over here.

HarperImpulse have also published Sienna,  a prequel to the Keepers series, which you can download free from Amazon.

To add Sienna and the first book, Archer to your TBR list, head on over to Goodreads. In the meantime, you can find information about Declan, book 2 in the series, along with an excerpt from the book. 

About Declan:
“You lied to me, misled me, attacked me,” Declan murmured, dipping his head toward hers, “but what we had three months ago wasn’t fake, was it?” 

 Kate's gaze faltered to his lips, heat pulsing between them. But she didn’t deny it.  

Declan Bennett has zero tolerance for thieves. He and his brothers, the Keepers, are fiercely protective of their witch, Sienna, and their privacy.   

So when Kate Carrigan breaks into their estate, he'll be damned if he lets the little wildcat get away with it – especially after she seduced him three months ago, leaving him buck-naked in a New Orleans hotel.

Declan wants payback – and some answers.  

Before she was murdered, Kate's mother ingrained it in her not to trust anyone.  Kate’s magical powers make her a pawn in the war between good and evil, a war she’s always avoided. 

Declan is everything she’s been taught to fear, even if she can’t forget the memory of his touch that one night… 

Trouble is brewing as the powers of evil regroup - bolder and hungrier than ever - and Kate is forced to choose a side.   Hot romance, epic battles and action abound in Book 2 of The Keepers.

Read an excerpt below:

“You have two options, Catwoman.” Declan turned his eyes back to her. Although it was dark, she knew their colour. She’d never been able to shrug off the memory of those expressive blue eyes that sparked with intensity and mischief.

“And I’m busting at the seams to hear them.”

“Option one is where you surrender and explain why you’re here.”

“Not appealing. And two?”

Declan waved a hand at the door. “Or you can run.”

Kate narrowed her eyes. Not quite what she’d been expecting to hear. Although his tone was easy, he dripped with challenge.

But she couldn’t leave without the daggers.

“And you’ll be after me in a flash,” she said.

“Take it or leave it.”

Apparently, his love of mischief still thrived, the trait that had drawn her to him before – along with the fact that she’d marked him from the start.

They’d met in a New Orleans bar, where they’d shared flirty comments and copious shots of whiskey.

Then, she’d had the upper hand. She’d had a plan – which might have taken a detour thanks to the alcohol and his charm – but she’d retrieved what she’d needed and run. This was entirely different.

“We both know you won’t let me leave, so why the facade?” she asked.

“Call it curiosity. I’m impressed. And tonight I’m in need of a distraction.” A slow smile softened his features. “Besides, I like a good chase like the rest of them.”

“So what is this then, cat and mouse?”

“Call it what you like. It could be fun.”

“Sure, if you’re the cat.”

“Lucky for me that I’m no mouse.”

Check out the covers for the rest of the series:

About Rae
I’m an avid reader and writer with a passion for writing romance novels.

I live in Cape Town, South Africa, with my gorgeous husband, two beautiful children and a zoo of house pets.

Besides writing, I love family time, the outdoors, travelling, watching TV series, reading and chocolate.

For more information about my books, or me, please visit:

Twitter: @raerivers1

To purchase copies of her books, you can visit her books section on her website.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Movie review: The Fault in Our Stars

You’ll fall in love with this movie the same way Hazel fell in love with Gus: slowly, and then all at once. 

Disclaimer: This review first appeared on Channel24, one of Women24’s sister sites.

Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff

Josh Boone

What it’s about:
Hazel and Gus are two extraordinary teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on an unforgettable journey.

Their relationship is all the more miraculous, given that they met and fell in love at a cancer support group.

The movie explores the funny, thrilling and tragic business of being alive and in love.

What I thought:

Let me start off with a quote in a feature article I recently wrote about why you should read The Fault in Our Stars before you see the movie:

“...there are books...which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.” 

There’s been a lot of hype about the movie. And judging by its box office performance so far (it’s been outperforming most of the movies showing in the US alone right now), it seems as if the mania around the movie has been quite justified.

For the most part, I made a point of avoiding any articles, features and reviews about it (with the exception of watching the trailer) as I wanted to go in with only my experience of the book.

For me, the craze surrounding this movie felt exactly like people were whoring out their affection for the movie (hence the above-mentioned quote).

Having said that, I can now tell you that the movie is more than worth watching.

Not only that, but if you’ve read the book, you’ll be thrilled to know that the film adaptation remains pretty true to the book and is just as gut-wrenching and heart-breaking as the novel. 

Admittedly, I found it rather bizarre to see Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley - who played the role of brother and sister in another recent blockbuster hit Divergent - cast in the lead roles, but quickly got over my misgivings once the movie progressed.

The Fault in Our Stars is at once charming, quirky and devastating.

It’s the kind of movie that will have you believing in the ridiculousness and romanticism of love, while also being brutally blunt in its reminder that life is filled with heartache and tragedy.

Ansel Elgort shines in his role as the adorable, albeit smart and cocky wiseass, Augustus Waters, while Shailene Woodley’s portrayal as Hazel Lancaster is tinged with a poignancy that really shines through during the most harrowing moments of the movie.

What took a while getting used to was the dialogue.

While the characters in the book speak with voices that are much older than their actual age, something which worked incredibly well in the book, I’m not quite sure that it worked as well for the movie.

For me, it felt almost as if the characters were performing a recitation, which resulted in moments of stilted awkwardness. It’s not all bad though; the times when the interactions between Hazel and Gus impress most are when their exchanges are sweet, sappy, playful and heartbreaking.

I adored the clever little speech bubbles that pop up on the screen when the two of them text each other; a device which gives the movie a rather manic pixie-ish vibe, which is rather appropriate considering that I view Hazel as being someone that falls into that category.

The settings of the movie (a good portion of the movie is set in Amsterdam as Hazel, Gus and her mother make the trip to meet Hazel’s all time favourite author), along with the musical backdrop (the music is absolutely exquisite by the way), also gives the movie that bohemian vibe that reminds me of the movie, Amelie.    

It’s here that love collides and bursts into full bloom until the impending doom of tragedy sets in. You’ll be on a rollercoaster ride of laughter, tears and more tears. The supporting characters (Isaac, Gus’s friend for example), shine just as brightly, but it’s really Hazel and Gus’s story that will stay with you the longest.

The Fault in Our Stars, while not perfect, is a beautiful rendition, one that’s worth seeing and one that will satisfy most lovers of the book.

Do yourselves a favour and go watch it. But don’t forget to take tissues with. You’re going to need them.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Author guest post: Why I adore the YA genre by Jodi Lamm

Today I’d like to welcome Jodi Lamm, author of YA novels, Titan Magic series to my blog today. In her guest post today, Jodi tells us about her love of YA – a subject that all lovers of this genre can so very well relate to.

There never seems to be a week that goes by without a negative article about young adult fiction appearing in every corner of the web, which is why I always love writing and featuring guest posts about how awesome the YA genre is and just how much there is to love about it.

And really, we all know that most people who have something bad to say about Teen fiction have limited to absolutely no experience with the genre.  In today’s post, Jodi not only responds to the question about why she writes YA, but also what she loves most about the genre.

Check out her post below, followed by info about her books.

3 Reasons I love YA fiction

The question people usually ask after they find out I write is, "What do you write?" And my answer is something like, "Well, my last book was a YA, Victorian fantasy about a girl who finds out she's a golem."

Then responses start to vary. Most people are interested and encouraging.

But sometimes, and more often than I would have predicted, people respond directly to the genre. More specifically, the YA part of the genre.

"Why would you write YA, when you could write adult books: thrillers, comedies, mysteries? Why not picture books?"
I don't know why, but for some reason YA is a no-fly zone for people who don't typically read it.

Honestly, I don't get it. I love YA, not exclusively, but it's a great treasure trove of literature, and I think people are missing out on some gorgeous stories by dismissing it.

With that in mind, I thought I'd list the top three reasons I personally enjoy reading and writing YA.

1. It's paced for my attention span
I love a good, long read every now and then. I love to baste my brain in a story for months on end, and I have. But I also like to read slowly.

I like to savor every word, and that becomes a problem when the book is a monstrous volume in the vein of Susana Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell (which was brilliant, but a tome nonetheless).

A faster-paced novel that isn't cutting on quality makes slow reading more feasible. I call these novels dark chocolate because they're so rich in language and feeling, you don't have to spend a year reading them to feel they truly made an impact on your life.

And to be honest, I've found as many YA books that fall into this category as books written exclusively for older adults.

2. I appreciate its love of storytelling.
While not universally true, in my personal experience, pure love of storytelling is easier to find in books for younger people.

I have my theories about why.

Mostly, they deal with the way academia has turned its nose up at genre fiction in the past, and how adults in general are better at being ashamed of "guilty pleasures."

Bells and whistles are lovely, and I'd be the last person to complain about hidden symbolism and meaning in a story (I'm sure I gleefully see it where it isn't), but when those bells and whistles are louder than the actual story, I get antsy.

Some of my fondest memories are of sitting around a campfire and telling ghost stories just for the joy of it.

YA (and MG even more so) is like this to me. The story is almost always bigger than its classroom discussion could ever be.

I love that, and I missed it enormously in college, where we would sometimes break from a lengthy, serious seminar on James Joyce to bond over our simple love for Harry Potter.

3. Why not?
I've never understood this new attitude we seem to have, culturally, that we mustn't take stories about younger people seriously. It really is the strangest thing. Since when is the age of a story's protagonist any indication of its quality or merit?

Was Lord of the Flies all fluff because its characters were adolescents? What about The Catcher in the Rye, which would probably be considered NA these days? And Frankenstein was written by a teenager, for crying out loud.

 These have all shaped our culture. They're both important and fun, which is totally possible, I swear. Now some might say, "It isn't the protagonist that makes it YA or MG; it's the intended audience."

To that I say, "So what? I was a child and a teenager, too.

I haven't forgotten what that was like. And most of my childhood and high school favorites still hold up today."

So those are my top three reasons for reading and writing YA. I'm not saying I'll never write a book for adults (or that I haven't already done so and trunked the thing), or an MG book, or even a picture book.

But right now, YA is a rich and varied super-genre I haven't begun to grow tired of.

About Titan Magic
Mute, heartless, and tormented by auditory hallucinations, Madeleine Lavoie never questions why her family has hidden her from the world.

But the night her brother casts her out, she learns the mysterious voice she thought existed only in her mind is no delusion, and no matter how hard she tries, she can never disobey it.

Now Madeleine must find her own voice in a cacophony of powerful tyrants, monsters, and gods.

If she fails, she will forfeit her life and the lives of everyone who loves her.

But if she succeeds, she may finally gain the ability to love someone in return.

Add it to your Goodreads TBR pile

Ebook: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Paperback: Amazon, Createspace

About Jodi
Jodi Lamm is the author of the Titan Magic Trilogy and a little novel called Chemistry. She was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, where she currently lives with The Other Lamm, three furry creatures, a parrot/evil overlord, and a variety of musical instruments. She writes for the love of storytelling.

She’s addicted to fantasy, ghost stories, and anything with just the right amount of eerie romance.

Check out her website here.
Follow her on Twitter.
Check out her Goodreads profile.