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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Magan: Falling For You by Lisa Schroeder

Falling For You by Lisa Schroeder
Publication Date: January 1, 2013
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 355
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: abuse, stalker ex-boyfriends, hospitalization, bad home life
Format read: ARC from Simon & Schuester at ALA (Thank you!)

Summary: Over a six month period, we see Rae’s life unravel as her step-father loses his job and becomes more abusive and her relationship with Nathan ends and he becomes more possessive.

If you think back to your high school days, was there ever a time when it seemed everyone around you had a boyfriend but you? That’s kind of how Rae feels. She’s not sure she’s relationship material because she’s super picky. Then one magical day, a new boy (Nathan) appears at her school and he’s immediately interested — blatantly staring at her, making sure she knows he’s interested.

While Rae would like to take things a bit slower, her best friends encourage her to take the risk and go for it with Nathan. What her friends don’t know is how badly Rae wants to be loved, how dire her home life is, and how easy it is for her to fall under Nathan’s spell. Her mom is married to a scumbag of a guy because he promised her a better life (that, unfortunately, will likely never come to fruition). He gets fired from his low-paying job and forces Rae to relinquish nearly all of her wages from her job at the floral shop to “help the family stay afloat” (aka: hand over money for his alcoholic ways).

Nathan quickly begins pressuring Rae for more than just make-out sessions. She would rather build a relationship on something more than the physical. When their relationship falls apart, she feels free of Nathan’s constant watchful eye. She finds solace in her job and her newfound friendship with Leo, the boy who works at the coffee bistro next door (…and is easygoing and happy, makes silly movies, and takes Rae on unexpected adventures). Nathan begins showing up in random places, stalking her, and becomes more possessive and threatening.

Falling For You begins in present day where we see that Rae is in the hospital, not doing very well. The exact details of what happened to her are unknown, but we rewind six months to the beginning of Rae’s relationship with Nathan and her step-dad’s downward spiral. The big question is What happened to Rae? There’s lots of speculation on behalf of the reader, but the real heart of the story is seeing Rae’s life, both the highs and the lows, unfold.

For those of you that loved The Day Before (written entirely in verse), don’t fret. Schroeder incorporates poetry through Rae’s personal diary entries and her anonymous submissions to the school’s newspaper. Through the poetry, we’re opened up to a side of Rae that she shares with no one — she is raw and honest, holding nothing back. This was a lovely incorporation that opened my eyes to how necessary writing is for some people as an outlet when they feel they’re all alone in the world.

Full of charming imagery with awesome I-want-to-know-you-in-real-life-characters (I dare you not to love her boss and co-workers!), Schroeder’s Falling For You will make you want to open up your guest bedroom for Rae to give her a safe, loving place to live. You’ll be eager to get to the end of the story to find out what happened to her, but hesitant to finish the story because you won’t want to leave Leo behind.

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Estelle: Live Through This by Mindi Scott

Live Through This by Mindi ScottLive Through This by Mindi Scott ( website | twitter )
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 304
Target audience: Mature young adult
Keywords: blended families, abuse, secrets, high school
Format read: Paperback borrowed from Ginger at GReadsBooks!

Summary:  Coley is on the dance team in school, has a crush on a sweet guy, and is part of a (mostly) functional blended family. From the looks of her, no one would know she carries a secret, one she has kept for many years and has the power to crush just about everything she holds dear.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Here, folks, is the kind of writing I yearn for. Mindi Scott injects a very serious situation into the life of a typical teenager. Family and friends exist. School and boys and ex-best friends. There are parties and alcohol, and family vacations. All of this makes up so much of the novel — all the normal stuff — that as a reader, it’s like the serious situation is not happening. It’s mere fantasy. It is buried beneath that whole waking up every day and living until… it takes over like some monster that has been hidden under the bed. And it’s real. It is so real.

If you visit the author’s website or you check out other reviews of this title, you’re going to find out the situation I speak of is sexual abuse. And unlike movies I’ve seen or other books I’ve read, this type of abuse is different. It’s not violent. It’s not angry. And as if this “relationship” Coley is involved in is not complicated enough, this behavior and her own reactions to it make her feel low and angry and confused. She also doesn’t want to imagine the fate of the person who is abusing her. That’s right… for half the book (at least) this person is a total mystery.

The author’s choice to do this quadrupled the impact when we finally do find out.

Despite the seriousness and the shock, the momentum in Live Through This pushes you forward with every page. I could not put it down, and wouldn’t until I finished. (It took me one day to read it.) I wondered what Coley would do, how far things would get, and if the other conflicts in her life were in direct relation to what was going on at home. Even though all the good in her life was good, REALLY good, it was not enough to overshadow the pain or make her forget.

This is a breaking point we see and Mindi pulls off well.

She’s a brave writer with a stark style that blends emotion and action and environment in just the right manner. And the details are not forgotten: Coley’s cute song game with Reese, her half-sister’s quirks, traditions with old friends. She really paints a whole picture and all the shades of gray that make up Coley’s life and help us to better understand her plight and the choices she must make.

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book review for How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Magan: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

book review for How to Save a Life by Sara ZarrHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Publication Date: October 18, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 341
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: death, loss of a parent, pregnancy, adoption, abuse, new beginnings
Format read: ARC from ALA.

Summary: After her father’s passing, Jill’s mom decides to adopt a baby and allows the pregnant teenage girl, Mandy, to move in with them during the last few weeks of her pregnancy.


Jill’s dad is her best friend – they’re two of a kind, they understand each other. He’s the parent she’s closer to. That is, until he passes away. Jill and her mom, Robin, have never been incredibly close. After his passing, they find it even more difficult to communicate and grieve together. One of my favorite quotes (of the many I wrote down) from How to Save a Life best summarizes their relationship:

“Mom and I, different as we are, are twin planets orbiting the same
universe of grief but never quite making contact.” 
(page 41)

Robin chooses to act on something she and her late husband had always considered – adopting a baby. Jill doesn’t understand. She assumes her mom is trying to replace the loss of one person with the life of another. She’s angry and unsupportive – feeling like her mom is distancing herself from raising her since she’ll soon be off to college. She’s not sure her mom has thought through everything and questions how she chooses to go about adopting the baby.

Mandy, the 18-year-old pregnant girl, arrives on a train to Denver. Robin opens their home to Mandy during the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Things are quite amiss with raging emotions, unspoken grief, and hidden lies Mandy refuses to bring to light. Jill is skeptical of Mandy and takes every opportunity to tell her mom that she doesn’t believe her dad would agree with her decisions.

Each chapter alternates back and forth between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. We see how cynical and hard Jill has become since her father’s death. We get a sense that she’s searching and cannot figure out how to be the happy, easy-going girl she once was. She’s pushed away all her friends and her boyfriend. Mandy is running from demons – a mom who jumps from boyfriend to boyfriend hoping to find a money-bag to take care of her. Mandy comes across much younger than she is, so innocent, but in fact, her history is much darker than anyone could predict.

This being my first Zarr book, I was completely mesmerized by her writing. I’m not one who usually writes down tons of quotes or re-reads sentences to reflect on the magic author’s create with words. I did with this book. I treaded slowly and cautiously because every word was so carefully weighed. I had a very real sense of Robin’s home, Jill’s place of work (a bookstore!), and the coffee shop Jill visited to meet up with her new friend Ravi. But, I also clearly saw distinguishable characters that were extremely authentic and original.

I admire how Zarr balanced grief with the prospect of hope. Each character had to strip away heavy burdens and went through an internal metamorphosis. While her subject matter was deep, Zarr didn’t weigh me down with agonizing details that took away from her main goal — to show us that we need people to lean on during the hard times in our lives, no matter what the trials or struggles may be.

How to Save a Life is a notable story about how our lives can be shaken up and we have to slowly put the pieces back together — even if those pieces don’t fit back together exactly how they used to.

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Estelle: Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf (website | twitter)
UPCOMING Publication Date: April 24, 2012
Publisher: Walker Children’s
Pages: 354
Target audience: Mature young adult
Format read: Netgalley eBook

Summary:  Tripp and Allie seemed like the perfect couple to the whole world but there was another layer to their relationship that no one knew about. When Tripp dies in a car accident (one that Allie is also injured in), she hopes to keep all her bad memories with Tripp buried. But his presence just seems to get stronger and stronger, especially after she starts getting notes in her locker in his handwriting. Will she ever be able to let go?

I don’t remember the last time I stayed up past my bedtime to finish a book. It was probably five years ago when I was still in college. At least. So the fact that I stayed up way past midnight on a weeknight to finish Breaking Beautiful (on the same day I started it) should mean something. It should mean a lot. (Because as if that wasn’t enough, it kept me up for another half hour thinking about it.)

A book with this kind of premise could easily turn into a Lifetime movie, soaking in cliché. In fact, after reading other reviews, this was my fear. Getting hooked on a book was one thing but I wanted it to be because the story was actually good, not because it was like a train wreck I couldn’t peel my eyes away from.

I’m happy to say it did not cross into the realm of Lifetime television but did a solid job of exploring some tough themes without much sugar coating or fairy tale endings.

Who knows? Maybe I’ve had the pleasure of knowing people who are repeatedly dealt blows by life but I had no problem believing Allie could have experienced all of these hardships in real life: an abusive relationship, bullying, a car accident that killed her boyfriend (a night she has totally blocked out of her memory), and a disabled twin brother – sure, it’s a lot. But Allie’s reactions to all of these situations were reasonable and realistic. She had good things in her life too – an old friend named Blake and a super close relationship with her brother, Andrew. It’s no surprise that her “hidden life” has clouded those good things. She is constantly questioning her own worth and who wouldn’t after the boyfriend you loved (and you believed loved you back) treated you with such cruelty?

As a reader, it is so frustrating to watch as Allie lies, covers up, avoids, and hides when she could be telling the truth. That frustration we feel means that the author is doing a killer job at making us feeling exactly what Allie is going through, and most importantly, those around her who care just want her to get better and be happy again.

One of the book’s main themes is control. Tripp’s parents are rich and have a lot of clout (too much) on the small town. So there’s that and Allie’s desperation to take control of her life, the lack of physical control her brother may have, and the power Tripp’s ghost and their memories have on Allie as she attempts to move on. Control is a funny thing. Everyone wants it and when they get it, there is no telling what might happen. Some may even surprise you.

In a way, this book is part mystery. We discover the events of the accident along with Allie as she is able to remember and confront more of her demons. Until the end, I did not find the revealed events to be predictable at all. The author did a commendable job of weaving memories with the present day and also keeping the suspense and tension high. (And this is why I needed a caffeine drip the morning after I finished it.)

I’m not going to lie. Many of the events in this book are terrifying. The helplessness that Allie feels, her mom’s allegiance to Tripp’s family and her legacy to the town, the utter desperation so many of these characters feel. Even once I hit the last page, that desperation and fear felt like it was haunting me. Breaking Beautiful reveals the bleakest depths of the human spirit and the not so pretty process it takes to get back to feeling like you. And we can’t go around ignoring that the bad exists.

I hope Shaw is busy at work on her next book, because after reading Breaking Beautiful, it will certainly make its way on my list.

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