book cover from goodreads for Cut Me Free by J.R. Johansson

Cut Me Free by J.R. Johansson • Magan Reviews

book cover from goodreads for Cut Me Free by J.R. JohanssonCut Me Free by J.R. Johansson [twitter • website]
Publication Date: January 27, 2015
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Pages: 304
Target Audience: Young Adult Fiction
Keywords: child abuse, changing identities, escaping abuse, thriller
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Though Charlotte is able to escape her abusers (her parents) and relocate to another city, once she begins to settle she begins receiving mysterious boxes with creepy messages inside. Could her parents have possibly tracked her down or has someone else discovered her secrets?

• • •

How does one review a book that was brilliantly written but scared the bejesus out of them? I felt shaky and scared and angry while I was reading Cut Me Free. I tried to skip to the end to give myself some piece of mind; I hovered over the Goodreads app, contemplating whether or not I should look up spoilers because I was soooo anxious.

That’s a lot of emotions, huh?

Well, it’s all true. Charlotte was raised in the attic of her biological parent’s house. She and her brother’s identity was known to no one other than the two people who abused them and held them hostage. They’re sickening and grotesque and some of the worst people I’ve ever met in my reading life. The good news? Charlotte escapes. She weaves a path far, far away from the detestable souls she was unfortunately born to and tries to start over. She hires Cam to change her identity, provide the necessary official paperwork, and erase her past.

But things don’t come easy for Charlotte. She begins to see a young girl out and about with a fatherly figure who is showing obvious signs of abuse. For reasons I won’t go into, Charlotte feels like she has to save this girl. A whole series of events unfolds that really left me feeling unsettled and on guard. This story, Charlotte’s story, is multi-faceted: It’s her journey to begin anew, but interwoven is a thriller story as she begins to receive mysterious boxes.

I admire the way Cut Me Free made me feel, but maybe I walked away a little more paranoid than I began. There were times when, sure, this story really had things that may not have seemed plausible — for instance, how does a girl who has no education and socialization skills logically escape and instinctually know how to flee across the country — but ultimately, knowing whether or not Charlotte was going to be okay far outweighed the practical side of me that questions things. (And I think that’s a pretty big deal.)

As far as thrillers go, I was positively hooked. I really try to focus on my job during the day and taking care of my daughter when she’s awake, but by golly, I wanted to hire a babysitter and play hooky. I feel it’s my responsibility to admit the following to you: If you are really sensitive to abuse and neglect, I caution you to tread lightly with Cut Me Free. My anger was through the roof and Foster Mama Magan wanted to rip someone to shreds for not intervening here. (I actually read a few reviews that said the details weren’t graphic enough and my jaw couldn’t have dropped further because yes, things are told in a careful manner, but you’re quite capable of putting all the details together.)

Cut Me Free was an extremely intense story told quite well; it took me on an emotional, heart-pounding journey. I hope you’ll consider giving it a go, too.

**Sidebar: Have any of you read Room? Those same intense, crazy feelings I had while reading Room are what reappeared while reading Cut Me Free.

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Religion in YA Books • Dive Into Diversity

Dive Into Diversity Reading Challenge

Each Sunday, I found myself driving down the back roads of our small town with my grandparents, headed to our tiny Catholic church. I was baptized there and participated as a reader, attended Sunday school, and in high school was confirmed, too. I didn’t really know anything other than Catholicism until my sophomore year in high school when my best friend began asking me to attend her Wednesday night youth group at her Baptist church. The differences between her church and mine were night and day: there weren’t nearly as many rituals at hers, people talked a lot more openly about things like sin, sexuality, and who God is. It was then that I realized that not all churches are the same. I guess hypothetically I had known that before, but until I saw it in action, I didn’t know there could be something different.

[Full disclosure: I began going with Leslie because there was a cute boy involved.]

The summer after my Sophomore year, I went to a church camp in Glorieta, NM with Leslie’s youth group. I went hoping that I’d sit next to that cute boy on the way there and that sometime over that week he would FINALLY ask me to be his girlfriend. Spoiler alert: his dad was our bus driver to New Mexico and made a bet with him to see how many girls’ phone numbers he could get while he was there. We pulled into the camp and my heart was just crushed. Thank goodness I found out before all the festivities began because I think my sole focus would have remained pursuing him if I hadn’t found out the truth early on. Instead, I tried to ignore him and threw myself into bonding with my group and being active.

And it’s there that my heart really seemed to change and this whole idea of Christianity really became something more. It was more than just a proclamation. It was more than just attending church on Sundays. Sure I had a lot of questions and things I just didn’t know the answer to, but I felt anxious to seek out those answers and to explore religion in a whole new way.

This little piece of my history is something that still impacts my day-to-day life and it’s something I am searching for when I’m reading: What do the characters believe? Are they searching like I was (still am)?

I think at our core we’re curious humans and we like to test the waters. We don’t easily accept things at face value or believe things necessarily because we’re told to. There have been a few standout books for me that really reflected how it felt for me to question and seek those answers:

stealing parker, small town sinners, things i can't forget

Stealing Parker, Small Town Sinners, and Things I Can’t Forget have given me characters that aren’t always right, don’t know all the ins and outs of their beliefs, want to learn more, are flawed and imperfect, and they all struggle. Gosh, even as a nearly 30 year old woman (say WHAT?!) I still feel this way. I don’t always know what’s right or what I’m supposed to do. These books extend this amazing olive branch that say, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT KNOW!”

Perhaps what I’ve felt lately in a lot of my reading has been that there’s either a strong believe or a great nonchalance. In two books I recently read (The Last Time We Say Goodbye and Since You’ve Been Gone), the main characters both admit to having no faith as they’re going through these GIANT life changing events; the conversation stops there and once they’ve said, “I don’t know what to believe” that’s it. But I’ve also noticed that aside from Christianity, I’m not seeing a whole lot of exploration of other religions. Perhaps those with Christianity stand out to me because that’s what I identify with the most, but ideally, I’d really love to be able to update this post with a long list of books that explore other faiths. Religion and beliefs are just one of the multitude of things that make us diverse, and I’d love to see this tackled more in what I’m reading. I want to know my character’s struggles and strongholds.

So here you have it, my great question to you guys: Where is religion in young adult books? What books have you read that have done a really nice job exploring religion? 


Thanks for joining the discussion for this month’s Dive Into Diversity! Don’t forget to link-up with you diverse posts below. Rebecca, Estelle, and I cannot wait to read them and check out your blogs! If you haven’t had a chance to join the DID reading challenge, feel free to visit the intro post and use #DiversityDive on Twitter & Instagram!

book cover Perfect Girl by Michele Gorman

Perfect Girl by Michele Gorman • Magan Reviews

book cover Perfect Girl by Michele Gorman

Perfect Girl by Michele Gorman [twitter • website]
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Publisher: Notting Hill Press
Pages: 326
Target Audience: Adult Fiction
Keywords: people pleasing, crappy boyfriends, controlling parents, shady jobs
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Carol is barely able to tread water or find time for herself because she’s constantly attending to everyone else’s needs before her own. Her mom passive aggressively manipulates her into doing what she wants, her best friend and sister don’t see how they’re abusing her, and her boyfriend is selfishly out to have his needs met before hers. What will it take for Carol to learn to say no and stand up for herself?

• • •

The Story: Carol is everyone’s go-to girl: She helps her sister plan her wedding, goes on blind dates for her best friend as a pre-screener (because her BFF has the absolute worst radar ever), books her parents vacations, finds her “adopted” sister a job, works countless hours at a job she loves with men who overlook her talents and demean her with constant sexual innuendos and inappropriate jokes, and has a boyfriend who is throwing all his efforts into his new job with little quality time to spare.

Phew. That’s a lot, right?

The Build-up: Can Carol possibly say NO to anything? How does she ever sleep? What happens when she breaks? When does she EVER have time for herself?

The Breaking Point: Things get so big and bad and messy and uncontrollable for Carol. She is the epitome of a people pleaser. (Anyone who thinks they are a people pleaser will relate and sympathize with this poor girl.) My heart raced and I legit thought I was going to have a panic attack as things all came to a head at once. (Of course. And really — any idea I had about how things could get worse…I was wrong. They got WAY worse.) There were a lot of moments where I found myself nodding my head as I related to this young woman. I highlighted a TON of passages.

Perfect Girl is my second novel by Gorman to read (The Curvy Girls Club was the first, but I’m reviewing them out of order). TCGC was a lot more sensual and sexy, but I found Perfect Girl to have a much more serious undertone that focused primarily on Carol’s journey to stop allowing other people to manipulate her. It was really nice to see that sex wasn’t a device used to hook Gorman’s readers; this really showed me she has a lot of diversity as an author because these two books were in no way formulaic or similar.

If you’re looking for something that feels genuine and authentic with a mid-twenties character who is trying to find her footing in the world, I definitely recommend Perfect Girl. It was really nice to relate to a character and think, “Huh. So not everyone has this growing up thing figured out.”

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book cover for geek girl by holly smale

Geek Girl (#1) by Holly Smale • Magan Reviews

Holly Smale's Geek GirlGeek Girl (#1) by Holly Smale [twitter • website]
Publication Date: January 27, 2015
Publisher: Harper Teen
Pages: 384
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: teenage modeling career, best friend drama, strong family ties
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Harriet Manners doesn’t fit in. She’s a geek. She can spout of random knowledge, but when it comes to standing up for herself and knowing how to talk to her peers, she’s lost. On a class trip, she’s discovered by a modeling agency, and she hopes it will change her life for the better. (But imagine the hurt since this has been her best friend’s dream since she was a small child.)

• • •

If there’s one thing Harriet knows for sure, it’s that she’s different from her classmates and she doesn’t really fit in. This becomes blatantly obvious when someone sharpies “GEEK” on her backpack. For a 15 year old girl, it sucks to stand out and be different. Harriet’s proud of her knowledge, but she just wants to know when all of bullying will end and she’ll find her place in the world.

She’s got an oddball dad, an obsessive stepmom, and an extremely loyal best friend. Well, loyal until Harriet is offered the chance of a lifetime and steals her best friend’s dreams right out from under her feet. Harriet is “discovered” in a shopping mall to become the hottest new teen couture model. Though she knows this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and her friend has every right to be mad, she’s also desperate to stop being such a dork and to have this great defining moment in her life.

Harriet is silly and smart and will make you laugh out loud. Her dad is obnoxious, bordering on goofball (as I think most 15 year olds feel their fathers are). And while stepmoms seem to not always have the best reputations, I saw this one as a shining example (though I wasn’t at first convinced of it because she can be pretty demanding). There’s friendship and loyalty, strong family ties, and incredible relatable moments that bring back memories of when there was nothing you wanted more than to fit in.

Geek Girl is definitely on the younger side of my young adult reading, but it was also kind of nice to mix it up. (I do wish some of the silly language from her modeling agent would have toned down throughout the book; his constant pet names felt excessive.) At its heart, this was a simple story about a smart teenage girl just trying to make it through, and I am really looking forward to seeing Harriet grow up a bit as the series continues on.

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When You Relate to a Character You Don’t Like

Things I Can't Forget by Miranda KenneallyWe all occasionally read books with main characters that we just don’t connect with. Right? Maybe it’s that they’re really judgmental or they’ve done incomprehensible things that we would never do. But…what about those times we don’t particularly like the main character, but meanwhile we’re internally cringing because that person is just like me?

I vowed to get caught up on Miranda Kinneally’s work in my 2014 End of Year Book Survey. It’s something Estelle’s been asking me to do (and that I also really want to do). I picked up Things I Can’t Forget, the third book in the Hundred Oaks series, to begin where I left off after reading Catching Jordan and Stealing Parker. Kate is a good girl; she’s obedient, respectful, goes to church regularly (and enjoys it), and the majority of things are very black and white for her. They’re either right or they’re wrong.

When a situation arises with her best friend, Emily, Kate’s world is turned upside down. She believes she’s committed a great sin and doesn’t know how to reconcile what she’s done. Emily has made a 180 degree turn and doesn’t share the same beliefs as Kate anymore, causing them to drift miles apart because they can’t agree.

But then Kate meets Matt, a co-counselor at the summer camp where she’s working. And Matt is wonderful — he’s a Christian and very kind, nice, respectable. As they begin dating, all of these barriers and walls Kate had up about what was right and wrong and her shoulds and should-nots for dating fly out the window. There’s so much she wants to do and experience with Matt, but the guilt is such a burden. Where does she draw the line with her relationship? Where do they stop? Should she just back away entirely?

And is she a hypocrite because of the things she’s told Emily not to do? Suddenly her black and white is overtaken by a lot of gray area.

Phew. Writing that all out kind of feels like I’ve shared a little piece of senior year in high school me. I began dating Dustyn during my Sophomore year. I’d kissed guys and had major crushes, but I didn’t have a relationship that escalated quite as quickly as mine did with him. I was just beginning to grasp Christianity and trying to balance this new relationship. I won’t get into the explicit details of our relationship, but I went through a huge ordeal with my best friend about boundaries. She warned me that things were moving too fast. I felt judged and criticized.

I felt the need to step back from her, from Dustyn, from everything. I didn’t know how to figure out what was acceptable. Like Matt, Dustyn shared my same beliefs, but we were so caught up in each other that it became really hard to know where to draw the line.


Dustyn + Me, circa 2012

Confession: as we packed up our house and moved this past summer, I ran across a handwritten letter I wrote to Dustyn during calculus class one day my senior year. (Oh, the days of physical love notes.) I wrote about my fears and how quickly we were becoming attached to each other. How I didn’t want to have any regrets. How I thought we were moving too fast. It was so incredibly embarrassing to read all these years later and I so, so much wanted to toss it into the trash. But I kept it. And I’m well aware that one day, Everett, my daughter, might stumble across it.

But you see — Kate was a character who had a lot of life lessons to learn. She needed to see that sometimes things aren’t as black and white as we want them to be. She had to learn about physical relationships, her friendships, accepting gay people, and understanding her faith better. Kate started in a place where there were a bunch of rules and yeses and nos. She grew to understand that sometimes things don’t fit inside the boxes we create for them, and at the root of it, everything comes back to love. Maybe, just maybe, someone is doing something we’re not okay with and wouldn’t personally do (until we are exactly there in that same position ourselves), but each person is responsible for his or her own actions and it’s not up to us to change them. It’s not up to us to make them see things our way.

It’s up to us to be their friend, their listening ear.

So even if my daughter finds my embarrassing, cheesy love note, my hope is that she’ll see that I struggled. My sincere hope is that she’ll have someone to talk to about all of these things, and that maybe she’ll find comfort in discussing them with me. At the root of it all, I want to continue to grow and mold and shape my beliefs. I think that’s a big part of what life’s about: challenging what we know, fleshing it all out, and not remaining stagnant.

While it was really difficult to come face-to-face with teenage Magan while reading Things I Can’t Forget, it made me realize just how far I’ve come. And maybe I sucked a little bit back then — was too quick to judge, blurred the lines when it came to me overstepping boundaries, and had difficulty accepting things I really didn’t know much about — but hopefully I’ll continue to mature and be proud of where I’m headed.


Which books have you read that felt like they were telling your story?

Love, Lucy by April Lindner • Magan Reviews

book cover for Love, Lucy by April Lindner

Love, Lucy by April Lindner [google+ • website]
Publication Date: January 27, 2015
Publisher: Poppy
Pages: 304
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: European travel, college, becoming your own person
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Lucy is on the vacation of her dreams, traveling around Europe. But it comes with a steep price. In exchange for her trip, her father demands that she forget about becoming an actress, attend college and study to become a business major. (Blah.) While in Europe, Lucy meets a boy her heart can’t forget even when she’s back home in the thick of her semester.


I’m not one for making grand book comparisons, but I really want to capture your attention so I’m tossing that aside to tell you that if you enjoyed Just One Day and Just One Year, I think you’re in for another special treat if you decide to check out Love, Lucy.

Do I have your attention now? Okay, good.

Lucy is an actress. She comes alive on stage. But her father thinks she needs something solid to fall back on because there are tons of mediocre actresses who don’t make it in the real world. He stubbornly believes she should forget about acting, go to college, and major in business. After a failed audition, Lucy bargains away her future by accepting a trip to Europe for agreeing to her father’s plans.

Lucy marvels over the sights and history of each location with an acquaintance, Charlene, whom her parents have paid to travel along with Lucy. (This part was a little bit odd to me. Charlene is older, but not by much, and as nice and wholesome as Lucy is — why didn’t she go with any of her actual BFFs?) Love, Lucy begins at nearly the end of Charlene and Lucy’s travels, just as they’re arriving in Florence, Lucy’s most anticipated location. The girls are nearly at their wit’s end with one another though — Charlene’s abrasive attitude has put a damper on Lucy’s bright, peppy outlook. As they need some space from one another, Lucy bumps into a guy who works at their hostel, Jesse, who doubles as a street performer.

They bumble and meander their way through a few sites and make plans to meet up the next day (much to Charlene’s great displeasure.) Thus begins their great European love story…

Until Lucy’s plane departs and they’re thousands of miles from one another with nothing but email addresses to keep them connected. Lucy’s flung back into the reality of college and doing something she doesn’t want to. Though she dislikes her studies, she develops strong friendships with her roommates and tries to move on from Jesse when she meets Shane, a nice, intelligent, kind guy. She and Jesse try to remain in contact, but it’s difficult for Lucy to imagine him moving on and it becomes difficult to be honest with him about Shane. Their emails lessen and Lucy is in this self-realization state of trying to go after what she really wants (being in the Rent production her college is holding auditions for) and not moving too fast with Shane (when her heart still yearns for the boy she met in Florence).

Love, Lucy is filled with friendships (great ones!), cute boys, descriptive travel scenes, and the good ol’ message of going after what you want, standing up for yourself, and not letting other people write your life’s story. (Note: while I may have used JOD and JOY to get your attention, Love, Lucy stands on its own and takes you on a unique, lovely journey.)

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