Magan: Can’t Look Away by Donna Cooner

book review for Can't Look Away by Donna CoonerCan’t Look Away by Donna Cooner
See Also: Skinny by Donna Cooner
Publication Date: August 26, 2014
Publisher: Point
Pages: 272
Target Audience: Young Adult Fiction
Keywords: beauty and fashion vlogger, loss of a sibling, moving to a new state
Format Read: Arc received from the Publisher. (Thank you!)

Summary: Torrey, popular fashion and beauty vlogger, doesn’t know how to deal with the sudden harassment and criticism she receives from her followers after the death of her younger sister. Her family moves from Colorado to Texas to be closer to family, and Torrey has to figure out how to mourn her sister and move on.

Almost exactly two years ago, I raved about Donna Cooner’s Skinny, a book about a girl who undergoes gastric bypass surgery and deals with insecurities and body image issues, even though her physical appearance is changing. I really connected with Ever and felt super pumped to read Donna’s newest book, Can’t Look Away, about Torrey Grey, who is a popular beauty and fashion vlogger. The scenarios are almost completely reversed — Ever is a girl who had zero self-confidence and had to work really hard to accept and love herself. Torrey is popular and extremely well-known, but when her 12-year old sister is killed by a drunk driver, her character is questioned and she’s criticized for detaching and not addressing what’s happening.

But ultimately, the lesson is still the same for both Ever and Torrey: despite fame, beauty, body size, popularity, vlog views, etc., both girls have to learn to love and accept themselves despite any of those other outside factors.

Torrey was a more difficult character for me to relate to because her every move seemed calculated: How do I promote myself? How will everyone react to xyz? What can I do to gain more views and recognition? Believe me when I say I could relate to those feelings because I’ve dealt with that with my businesses and with Rather Be Reading. You pour so much of yourself into these projects and want people to love and appreciate it as much as you do. I think I’m in a personal place of wanting to be a blogger and a business owner, but also not wanting my entire life to be only those things. And that’s what I wanted for Torrey.

I wanted to see her mourn her sister and stop worrying about how to connect to the internet to see what people were saying about her. I wanted her comments to not be so snippy with her cousin, Raylene, who was trying desperately to forge a friendship with her. I wanted Torrey to not care quite so much about sitting at the popular table at her new school. Oh, and that boy she liked, Luis? I wanted to shout, “JUST GO FOR IT! Who cares if he’s “unpopular”!” Torrey had a lot of growing up to do, but I think one thing stands out. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of something deep, hard, and heavy, we find distractions to focus on. We fill our time with the mundane details so we can cast aside all of the hurt we don’t want to deal with.

In a nutshell, that was Torrey. It was easier for her to focus on being the girl she used to be instead of letting it sink in all the ways her life would now be changed without her sister. The growth does happen, but I wanted to see it happen a little less rapidly. And what about her parents? They were on the periphery of the story and we saw how they dealt (or didn’t deal well with their grief), but I felt there should have been a little more involvement with helping Torrey overcome her obstacles. She deals with Internet bullying and moving to a completely new state, and the death of her sister all by herself.

Can’t Look Away is so pertinent and has some really valid points and lessons. I, always the proponent for loose ends to be tied as much as possible, wish there were a few moments that felt a little more ironed out, but overall, this is another great contemporary by Cooner. Definitely looking forward to more!

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Magan: Tease by Amanda Maciel

books about bullying Tease by Amanda Maciel

Tease by Amanda Maciel (twitter)
Publication Date: April 29, 2014
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Pages: 336
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: bullying, suicide, lawsuits, book told from bully’s perspective
Format Read: ARC received from the publisher.

Summary: Sara is being tried for the death of former classmate, Emma, whom she and her friends Brielle, Tyler, and Dylan bullied. The story is told from Sara’s perspective as her trial nears and she reflects back on the past leading up to Emma’s death and present day.

Hello again, friends! I’m back with another vlog review, and –wow!– what a book Tease was. I’ve seen a bit of differing opinions about this one because author Amanda Maciel takes you (uncomfortably) inside the bully’s mind. As a reader, you’re going to want to wring Sara’s neck in hopes that she could see that she’s done wrong and made some major mistakes. Does that happen? You’ll just have to find out for yourself. But do know that you’ll feel frustrated with Sara. She thinks her actions are justified; she felt threatened by Emma and had a hard time standing up to her best friend, Brielle, when she suggested something particularly nasty to do/say to Emma because Sara felt like her friendship with Brielle was slipping away.

Simply stated: Tease is complicated. It’s a difficult read, but it’s very relative and important. Read it.

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Estelle: This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila SalesThis Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: 9/17/2013
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Pages: 288
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: bullying, music, high school, suicide, being a loner, self-discovery
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley! (Thanks!)

Summary:  Elise can’t win. After years and years of trying to fit in at school, her final attempt to make it happen totally fails. A need for attention, a scary decision, and seven months later, Elise has her parents watching her every move and school isn’t any better. In fact, it’s kind of getting worse. When a late night walk leads her to an underground dance club, Elise feels like she might be on the cusp of a whole new her.

Honestly, I have no idea why Elise was ostracized by the kids in her school, year after year. It makes me alternately angry and sympathetic that this girl could not do a thing to get accepted. That could tear anyone down. The pressure to excel in school and THEN the added responsibility to crack the code on fitting in? It’s emotionally exhausting to think about, and only someone like Elise, so smart and focused, would keep trying.

Her final attempt to win people’s attention is surprising. Why? The tone is utterly nonchalant and Elise shows such ownership over her decision. These are her feelings and no one can tell her she is wrong. And also because this event (which we learn more about as the book goes on) leads her to the something that changes the course of her life. In absolutely great and painful ways. That something is START, an underground dance club that Elise stumbles upon during one of her late night walks.

I think my experience with This Song Will Save Your Life is a lot like Elise’s nights at START. The more she went, the more excited and enthralled she became and the more I read, the more I did not want to let this book out of my sight. Vicky and Pippa were her first true friend prospects; Char was hot and knew so much about music as the DJ. The dancing! The electricity! And how Elise felt when she took a turn in the DJ booth? I was there with her. Totally exhilarated and powerful. Ready for anything.

Like Elise, I’m totally a project person. I love to keep busy and learn new things. I don’t think I’ve ever reached the kind of success Elise has in so many things so it’s not surprising when she convinces her dad to get her some DJ equipment and this becomes her thing. She’s always been a music fanatic but this brings her passion to a whole new level. It also means more time with Vicky, more private time with Char, and crazy opportunities she never thought she would have. Is it possible for the girl who sits basically alone at a lunch table to command a dance floor at a club?

Hell yes.

While I loved all the musical aspects of This Song, I related so much more to the search for identity and feeling of contentment when it comes to accepting ourselves. Or the fact that people aren’t always who you think they are, or want them to be. See. I suffer from high expectations from the human race, and this has gotten me in trouble many many times. But I still hope for the best. Sales presents all sides here so effectively: the side where people believe they know you and trample all over you, the part where you think you know someone and they totally disappoint you, and best of all, surprising everyone and blasting their preconceived notions.

Elise does a lot of growing up in this book. Even when she moves forward, she still messes up. Learning to like yourself and accept your lot in life is a task we have to commit to every day. There is always someone who isn’t going to like our decisions, or agree with us, or like us for whatever reason. It’s so difficult to look past all of that and just do your thing. But I loved tagging along on Elise’s journey.

Leila Sales has delivered a book I would declare “pretty much perfect.” It’s absolutely complex and there’s a lot happening but she balances the plotlines so well, and also gives us shining supporting characters and amazing family dynamics too. She managed to bring such an upbeat and refreshing tone to a book that contains such hardship. I am in total awe.

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Estelle: Where You Are by J.H. Trumble

Where You Are By J.H. TrumbleWhere You Are by J.H. Trumble ( website | twitter )
Publication Date: December 24, 2012
Publisher: Kensington Books
Pages: 316
Target audience: Adult/mature young adult
Keywords:  bullying, social media, LGBT, student/teacher relationships
Format read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Robert may be a star student, a popular addition to the marching band, and absolutely comfortable with his sexuality. But his dad is also deteriorating from cancer, his aunts are taking over his home, and his boyfriend never wants to touch him. At 24, Andrew is Robert’s calculus teacher. He’s a father to a young daughter, and does his best to keep his private life private. But for some reason, he can’t help but reach out to Robert, especially as he sees this bright student fading into the background. Will they both be able to maintain their respected boundaries?

When I wrote my review of J.H. Trumble’s Don’t Let Me Go in March, I wrote about how I kept thinking of the main characters of that story like they were people I had actually known in real life.

Fast forward almost nine months later, and I’m standing in a store parking lot in the freezing cold, on the brink of what is going to be a difficult two days for my family, and I am thinking about Robert and Andrew in the same way. What are they up to? What are they thinking? If they lived in my hometown, would I be calling them to hang out right now?

I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure out how Trumble makes her characters so human — flaws and all — and I come up short every single time. Because it just happens. It is so natural how these characters live and breathe on the page, even when I disagree with their actions and especially when everything becomes right in their worlds.

For many of you, a little red flag is going to pop up when you see “student/teacher” relationship. I’m not here to talk about a moral code or the importance of maintaining boundaries. Because as soon as I started reading about Andrew and Robert, all of their labels seemed to dissipate and I was left with two young men who really cared for each other. Two men who needed each other in different ways, and two people who actively tried to keep themselves at a distance (time and time again).

One of the most fascinating details about these characters is just how differently they deal with their sexuality. Robert was very open, and frustrated with a boyfriend who would rather hang out with “his girls” and not bother to kiss him, while Andrew was very focused on keeping his private life private (those nosey teachers!), even if it meant allowing people to think he was attracted to women. As the novel goes on, this difference created many scenes of role reversal where Robert actually seems to be the older one and Andrew, the more giddy.

On the surface, Where You Are was this kind of epic love story but the author also developed complex and intertwining back stories that allow the reader  to dig deeper into these characters and help us to understand who they really are. I really loved Robert’s relationship with his mother (even the messy parts) and Andrew’s ex-wife, Maya, who always kept me guessing. (This is a good thing.) Trumble also skillfully integrated the influence of social media in our lives — from the accounts Andrew chooses to follow, secret fan pages, and a partner in bullying.

I read this book twice before I wrote the review (and I’ve only done that one other time this year with Marisa Calin’s Between You and Me) because I had to relive it again. I had to make sure I didn’t miss out on any one detail. Trumble has officially spoiled me with rich characters, feelings that make me feel everything, intricate details, the cool balance of family and school life, and a controversial topic that is dealt with so delicately and so passionately.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Trumble is an author to look out for.

(And I apologize in advance because if you react to this book like I did, you will not be able to get much done before you finish it.)

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Estelle: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills
Publication Date: October 8, 2012
Publisher: Flux
Pages: 288
Target audience: Mature Young Adult
Keywords: music, LGBT, bullying, life after high school, acceptance, radio, Elvis
Format read: eBook from NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Gabe is so looking forward to the end of high school and starting fresh. He recently came out to his parents as transgendered and is slowly trying to make his way in the world, one song on the radio at a time.

“Maybe there will be a day when this shit will be over and I can just be a dude with normal regular stuff in his life.” – Gabe

Many of us can agree that music can be a haven, a safe place.

For Gabe, who was born Liz, working the late shift at a public access radio station is a place where he can be himself — sharing the music with a small group of people who are just about as passionate about music and its history as he is. John, Gabe’s next door “grandfather-figure” neighbor, has hooked him up with this gig and also serves as his music guru; the two staying up all hours of the night sifting through his extensive vinyl collection like little kids. Gabe’s on-air discussion of our “A-side/B-sides” becomes a theme woven through the entire story; a theme that is not only true to his whole being, but one that also manages to connect us all.

I applaud Cronn-Mills for welcoming us into Gabe’s story, post-coming out. I thought that was a fresh and bold choice. It’s not surprising that his parents cannot bring themselves to fully accept who their daughter really is. Gabe just wants them to be able to look him in the eye but it is understandably tough and the depiction of their behavior and distance was never over the top, did not monopolize the plot of the book… it was just naturally there. (In many situations, Gabe proves to be impressingly patient, knowing that what he is going through can be difficult and confusing to those around him.)

While Gabe is supported by both his best friend, Paige, and mentor John, he knows that not everyone is going to accept him. He can’t wait to escape his town, move to the city, and work for a radio station. When a contest opportunity pops up (or, rather, John enrolls him), Gabe sees his ticket to the future and even participates under the name Gabe. At the same time, his following is growing on the radio (there’s even a Facebook group!) and a girl he knows from school begins calling in and suggests meeting.

This is where we have a problem. Because 1) Gabe is in love with Paige. This was heartbreakingly sweet for me. They two had such amazing chemistry and I just never knew if it would work. The second problem was that everyone in school thought Gabe was Liz, including his date and he wasn’t sure if agreeing to meet her would blow up in his face. (Whew!) Teenagers worry about dates all the time but it seemed like Gabe always had to triple worry because of other people’s judgements and unwillingness to accept him for who he was. I could tell it was exhausting but it never brought Gabe down.

I’ve read many LBGT books this year, and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a moving story full of the ups and downs of life, totally magnified. Each chapter begins with clever quips pertaining to Elvis (i.e. “Harry Potter is the new Elvis because they’re both magic”) and the music knowledge seeping from the book was so impressive (the research must have been extensive!). The music genres featured were so vast that I really wish I had a playlist handy to listen to while Gabe worked his own magic.

I really liked how the author was not focusing on some horrific event and how it affected this character and focused more of an every day account and how certain circumstances affected his thought process, decision making, and also the leaps Gabe had to take to be the person who always knew he was. I really felt for him in his struggles. (And really wanted the boys who were threatening him to be exiled to another planet for their smallmindness and insecurities.) I came to care for him so much, enjoy his humor, and just wish the best for him.

BMFUG is one of those books I wish could’ve gone on forever. It has engaging characters, sheds lights on a subject that is not brought to the forefront enough, and also illustrates the varying degrees of acceptance in this world — our own and the people around us.

Here’s hoping you take a chance on Gabe too. 

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Estelle: Like Moonlight at Low Tide… by Nicole Quigley

Like Moonlight at Low Tide… by Nicole Quigley
Publication Date: September 25, 2012 (Kindle version comes out 10/2012)
Publisher: Zondervan
Pages: 256
Target: Young adult
Keywords: bullying, absent parents, high school, popularity, siblings
Format read: ARC from DJC Communications. (Thanks!)

Summary: After 3 years away, Melissa returns to her old town where the whispers and bullying never ceased when she was a kid. Embarking on her junior year of high school, she wonders if she has changed from that tormented young girl and if a new life with the same crowd is really possible.

It’s no surprise Melissa isn’t totally thrilled with her move back to Florida.

After 3 years away, she has no faith that the bullies who made her life miserable have grown up in the slightest or that she is confident enough to ignore their comments.

Despite having the support of her old best friend and her boyfriend, Melissa’s life starts to change when Sam King — the literal king of high school — starts to show interest in her and the murmurings from the peanut gallery start to die down. All of a sudden she’s sitting at the cool kids table, has exclusive invites to the best parties, and best of all, is kissing Sam, the boy she has always had a crush on.

But I wouldn’t call her happy. Sure, she’s coasting through high school now but she can’t ignore her mom’s revolving bedroom partners or the fact that she never knows what kind of mood her brother Robby will be in. She hates her clothes, doesn’t love how she looks, worries about her family’s reputation in town, and still feels happiest and most at home when she is swimming.

Or hanging out with Josh, the mysterious surfer boy from next door. Cue the love triangle! Josh is thoughtful and sweet, and seems to always be watching out for Melissa but she’s never sure if he actually likes her more than a friend. He doesn’t belong to any one exclusive group in school; he’s the kind of guy who is just friends with everybody. I loved how Quigley made Josh an active member in his church youth group as well. His religion never dominated who he was, and only supplemented his character. (This made me think about the role of religion in books and how I prefer to learn about a character’s beliefs without feeling like I’m being preached to.)

A really serious event halfway through the book made me question the paths Quigley chose for her characters. I would rather trade such significant and painful developments for more attention being paid to small details, character voice, and the story’s structure. Because even the aftermath felt a bit incomplete. While the novel reeled me in and I cared for Melissa, I couldn’t help but think how much stronger her story could have been and how much better I could have gotten to know her. Much of the time she felt like a shadow of herself, relying on situations to steer her in certain directions and not her own gut.

Would she ever confront her past? When would she learn to trust herself?

Once I reached the ending, I was still questioning if she had learned much at all.

While the overabundance of storylines gets weighty, Quigley does manage to raise many important questions through Like Moonlight at Low Tide… about bullying, selfish parents, our personal beliefs, and the quest to find our own peace.

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