The pen is mightier than the sword…

Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t isn’t easy, but telling something as it is, telling the truth, always seems more beautiful and more poetic than anything else,” says Mr. Graydon — the English teacher in Sarah Crossan’s simultaneously sweet and heartbreaking Apple and Rain. At first, he’s the teacher no one wanted, a replacement, and suddenly he spends the year treating his students with the kind of respect that has them interpreting poems and writing their own pieces in response. As the main character in the story, Apple is a young teenager dealing with the return of her mother who abandoned her years ago on Christmas Eve. She wants so badly to make her a permanent part of her life that she decides to leave the person who has always taken care of her — her grandmother — to live with her mom as she settles in. It’s as surprising for her as it is for the reader when Mr. Graydon’s assignments start to pry so many unspoken feelings out of her. Suddenly this homework doesn’t seem so innocent as she pens her truest feelings and hands in the paper with the easier, more superficial answer. She may be in her early teens, but she already has a grasp at how powerful the truth can be.

Similarly, in the fast-paced and oh-so-good Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, Sam is discovering being vulnerable in her writing and having the courage to share it with others is more of a safe place than a scary one. She’s older than Apple and has a bit more life experience so I like to think of her as the next level Apple, in a way. Sam is struggling under the shadow of her judgmental, popular friends who have no idea who she really is or what she’s all about — a girl dealing with OCD. When the Poet’s Corner pops into her life, she’s forced to look deeply at herself and how she identifies with the world. She learns even more hard lessons, and uses all the energy she channels into poetry to find her happy place — a place she hasn’t seen in a really long time.

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland StoneFor both Apple and Sam, writing and words become a lifeline. Sure, Apple’s relationship with poetry and her English class are kept a secret, but it is the one thing that’s keeping her sane when her life is being turned upside down by selfish people and their secrets. It helps her work through that and realize that her feelings are not invalid. Sam may be opening herself up to a small group of people, but at some point she has to take the courage she finds in that small room and apply it to the rest of her life. She has to find a way to make these two parts of her life click in a way that feels true.

The Mr. Graydons and Poet’s Corners may not be easy to come by in every day life, but they do exist. The gift of expression, of unlocking a whole new piece of yourself and a new strength you had no idea you possessed, is huge. You always remember that first confidence boost, the gift of a blank notebook, that place that becomes the safe haven for all of your ideas and messy feelings. Writing as a hobby in books (especially young adult) might not be anything groundbreaking, but I loved how both of these novels made writing so imperative to a character’s emotional growth — how it was a comfort and an ally when both girls were feeling so alone.

⇔

EVERY LAST WORD by Tamara Ireland Stone: A favorite read of 2015; a touching, addicting, & well-paced tale of old friendship, honesty, and digging deep to find what makes you bravest. – Disney Hyperion; June 16, 2015. (Goodreads | Amazon | B&N)

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APPLE & RAIN by Sarah Crossan: A heartbreaking story about kids forced to act like adults, the messy complications of family, and finding the unexpected that makes us safe and happy. – Bloomsbury Children’s; May 12, 2015. (Goodreads | Amazon | B&N)

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Estelle: Signed Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams

Signed Skye Harper by Carol Lynch WilliamsSigned, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Publisher: Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster
Pages: 304
Target audience: Middle grade
Keywords: 1970s, moms/daughters, road trip, young love, Southern setting
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)

Summary: Winston and her grandmother head out on a secret road trip to pick up Skye Harper (Winston’s mother) from Vegas and find themselves with a very interesting stowaway.

Fourteen and fifteen are some of the most awkward ages I remember from being a teenager. (Does that read as ancient as it sounds?) So it’s not surprise I totally related to Winston’s insecurities about her body, her dreams about succeeding, and secretly being in love with a boy she has always known but has suddenly been discovered by everyone else.

In the beginning of the book, Winston mentions how she comes from a family of “sighers” and I laughed at this because (as I’m sure my mom can attest to) I was pretty moody as a kid too. (Truth: I never thought I was quite as moody as my mom thought I was.) But when it’s summer, it’s super hot out, your boobs are noticeably big and in your way, and the boy you like doesn’t really talk to you? I get it. Add in a mother who left you for grander things on the West Coast and is suddenly sending letters that she needs to be picked up. She wants to be welcomed back home. That’s a lot for one summer!

One of the best parts of reading Signed, Skye Harper was this timeless feeling it evoked, so similar to all the Judy Blume books I loved when I was a kid and still love today. Even though the story is set in the 1970s, anyone could relate to a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, her close relationship with her grandma, and her observations about her family and people in her life. (Bonus: a cute, loyal dog and a one-legged rooster!)

And the boy.  Oh boy. Steve surprised me. I wanted him to be a sincere kid for Winston’s sake, of course, but he really surprised me. I was so upset when I realized Nanny and Winston would be leaving town for awhile and there would be no Steve, but he was a cunning one and ended up on the road, in the thick of things, with the two of them. There was definitely a nice chemistry between the two, and I got out of kick of watching them get closer through this experience.

I honestly can’t say enough great things about Signed, Skye Harper. Would Winston forgive her mother? Could Skye be able to ever be a mother to Winston? And what about Nanny’s feelings? The importance of these situations were balanced so nicely with delightful details (even a Nanny love story) and happy endings you wouldn’t have completely expected. Plus, I loved how Winston was so focused on being a competitive swimmer and how her love of Mark Spitz and his time at the Olympics was folded in.

Be ready to smile, swoon, and sympathize with Winston during this summer of discovery. I’m so glad I tagged along for the ride.

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Estelle: Recipe for a Happy Life by Brenda Janowitz

Recipe for a Happy Life by Brenda JanowitzRecipe for a Happy Life by Brenda Janowitz ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: July 2, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 336
Target audience: adult
Keywords: summer in the Hamptons, mothers/daughters, moving forward
Format read: ARC eBook provided by author. (Thank you!)

Summary: After a mini-disaster, Hannah, a lawyer in NYC, escapes to the Hamptons for the summer to spend time with her grandmother and figure things out.

When it’s starting to get super frigid outside, there’s nothing like reading a book about the summertime.

Recipe for a Happy Life contains so many of the details I love to read about: the Hamptons, complicated grandmother/mother/ daughter relationships, and a perfect pinch of romance to spice things up.

Hannah is at her wit’s end when her boyfriend’s mother accuses her of trying to kill her boyfriend (it was a mistake! he’s alive!) and runs off to the comfort of her grandmother. Never being close with her always on the go, legendary photographer mother, Hannah finds comfort in her glamorous and generous grandmother (who has been married multiple times) and though she never feels like she can live up to her grandmother’s expectations, she is happy to be in her presence. (Even if this means attending parties she doesn’t want to go to and being dressed up in expensive clothes.)

As you can probably guess, Hannah’s hope for a “no drama” few months in the Hamptons is anything but. When she bumps into Nate, a guy she went to law school with and pretty much loathes, she can’t seem to get rid of him and soon realizes, maybe she doesn’t really want to. Then there’s her mother’s visit, countless frosty interactions and a hidden family secret that comes to the surface and threatens to break bonds just as more bad news comes crashing down.

It may seem like a lot (and it is, for one summer) but Janowitz balances all of the unfortunate news with some vibrant supporting characters like the charming Nate, rock star Jaime, and teenaged Hunter who injects a certain amount of innocence and comedy into these pages. I swear, his character is so memorable and I loved how Hunter and Hannah formed an unlikely (but much needed for both) bond during this summer. Janowitz’s attention to her secondary characters truly made Recipe for a Happy Life stand out amongst other beachy dramas.

This book was practically burning a hole in my bag. Every time I had to put it down, I couldn’t wait for the next free moment when I could pick it up again. All of the life-altering events that occur during Hannah’s summer seem so necessary to her growth as a person and also assisted her in letting go of old prejudices she had held onto for years. By the end of the book, she is more independent, more understanding of her family, and also has a clearer focus on what she wants for the future.

I am officially a Brenda Janowitz fan!

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Estelle: All Summer Long by Susan Mallery

All Summer Long by Susan Mallery -- RatherBeReadingBlog.comAll Summer Long by Susan Mallery ( website | tweet )
Part of the Fool’s Gold series.
Publication Date: 7/31/2012
Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 384
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: mother/daughter relationships, second chances,  stereotypes
Format read: ARC from NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: Charlie is used to people misjudging her, but who would believe she would have this in common with Clay, an ex-butt model who has been living it up in the big city? Convinced she can help others see him for more than his good looks, she propositions him with hopes of getting over her own painful past.

I had heard the rumor that All Summer Long sizzled even more than the previous book in the Fool’s Gold series, Summer Nights.

And golly, that rumor was true.

From the start, Charlie and Clay have this easy chemistry, and despite the lack of trust she has had in men all of these years (and rightfully so) she has a hunch about Clay. Can he possibly get her to the place where she can date men again and not shrink away from their touch?

I’ll give you one guess.

For all the touchy feely goodness and the slow, sensual scenes (that are so ridiculously hot) Mallery manages to weave in a sub-storyline about stereotypes and the roles and expectations of sexes in society. Charlie is a firefighter and Clay is an ex-model. Charlie gets treated like she’s one of the boys and Clay’s career seems to make it okay for every single woman to hit on him and think he’s all about having a good time and doesn’t have a brain in his head.

It was nice to see that from both sides.

In addition, Charlie’s mom, a famous dancer, makes an unexpected (and unwanted) appearance in Fool’s Gold and Clay is trying to get a business off the ground. Despite these interlaced storylines, the book remains light and fast-paced but still suffers from Mallery’s tendency to overcompensate and repeat certain key phrases and emotions.

All of that is forgotten, though, when Clay and Charlie’s relationship overwhelms their agreement and the two start to open up to one another. While their steamy scenes are more than comparable to Shane and Annabelle’s in Summer Nights, there’s this urgent intimacy that resonates with them and makes their relationship even sexier and more meaningful. (Although at one point Annabelle confides in Charlie about her relationship with Shane: “We each want to be the person who gives more.” I just loved that.)

While Mallery’s work is a bit formulaic it’s all in good fun and, like the best romance novels, so incredibly addicting. Fool’s Gold feels like a little piece of paradise, and it’s lovely that you can just jump in and out of the series as you please, as well as reunite with old characters and try to decipher who will take center stage in the next volume.

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Estelle: Return to Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs

Return to Willow Make by Susan Wiggs: Review at RatherBeReadingBlog.comReturn to Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs (Part of Lakeshore Chronicles series)
Publication Date: August 28, 2012
Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 320
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: romance, single parents, fathers/daughters, mothers/daughters
Format read: ARC from NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: On the cusp of an exciting opportunity at her job and growing closer to her successful boyfriend, Sonnet finds herself leaving New York City and returning to her small town of Avalon to care for her mom, who is facing a difficult pregnancy. After an unexpected encounter the last time she was home with her best friend, Zach, and the pressure of her father’s political campaign, Sonnet finds herself under a lot of pressure and struggling to come to terms with how she really wants her life to be.

After a childhood of wishing her parents would get together and form the perfect family, Sonnet has the next best thing — an awesome mother, Nina, who is married to a man who loves her unconditionally, and after many years, a stable relationship with her uber-successful father, General Lawrence Jeffries, who is heavy-duty campaigning to be senator.

In Return to Willow Lake, Sonnet is pulled in separate directions due to her relationships with both parents. She puts great pressure on herself to be the ideal daughter for her father when it comes to dating and her job, yet when she finds out her mom is pregnant and facing high risk complications, her initial reaction is to drop the job and move back home to care for her.

Now embracing a very different job and the simple joys of her hometown, Sonnet faces a new conflict – what if the person she has been building herself up to be is not really her at all?

Enter Zach, her attractive best male best friend and budding filmmaker. After an interesting shared moment or two or three a few months ago, their dynamic has changed. For so long Zach has been the person she has leaned on and called for good news, but all of a sudden – she’s not so sure what to make of their complicated friendship.

Sonnet’s not the only one figuring things out… from Zach’s chapters we see that he has focused on leaving Avalon and pursuing film in New York or California but can’t seem to escape the place he grew up. For years Zach has been paying for the mistakes of his dad and he’s set to finally do something for himself… but with Sonnet back in town, a request from Nina, and a great job that forces him to stay in Avalon… he’s not sure what to make of his future.

Unfortunately, Zach and Sonnet’s chemistry is mostly buried in the storyline focusing on Nina’s medical challenges (with a few unnecessary chapters from Nina’s POV as well) and the reader doesn’t get pent up, fiery passion from the pair. (A shame!) Though there are some entertaining moments between the two and a celebrity reality star (who I pictured as Macy Gray) who bestows some worthwhile wisdom and stars in some unexpected sweet moments throughout the book.

While the novel features some unbalanced plotlines and a few inconsistencies, it was Sonnet’s search for happiness that hit home the most — what’s right for someone else might not necessarily be the right thing for you. It took Sonnet a lot of pain and discovery to reach that understanding and make the right moves in her life. While I wish the romance had a bit more sizzle and the story jam-packed a lot of drama, Wiggs has succeeded in writing a fast-paced novel (that does not feel formulaic in the least) with many relatable emotional ups and downs at its core.

Oh, for those of you worried about jumping into the Lakeshore Chronicles with book 9, don’t! Return to Willow Lake is perfect as a standalone, or your introduction to the series in general.

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Estelle: Daughters for a Time by Jennifer Handford

Daughters for a Time by Jennifer Handford
Publication Date: April 24, 2012
Publisher: Amazon
Pages: 302
Target audience: Adult fiction
Keywords: infertility, adoption, cancer, loss of parent, estranged parent, marriage
Format read: ARC from Little Bird Publicity (Thanks!)

Summary: This book details the emotional journey of Helen, a woman who after years of trying to have a child with her husband, decides to adopt a baby from China. Just as she feels her life has taken a happier and more fulfilling turn, she finds out her sister, the person who brought her up, has cancer.

“Maybe heartache was more normal than the absence of it.”

We are all too familiar with the feeling of experiencing the highest of highs when, out of nowhere, the lowest of lows comes sweeping in and knocks you completely off-balance.

In Daughters for a Time, Jennifer Handford handles that crushing heartbreak with sensitivity and raw emotion. Though I know the book is a work of fiction, Handford’s own experience with adoption elevated the book to a whole new level of realism. There were moments I was so lost in the story I forgot I wasn’t reading a memoir.

Helen had a tumultuous childhood. Her mother dies of ovarian cancer when she is a freshman in high school, and around the same time, her father picks up and leaves. Her sister, Claire, is her support system, her mother, her everything for many years. But Helen remains curious about her father (who, as an adult, she “stalks”) and wants to be able to bring up stories about her mother without Claire brushing them off. At 35, as a successful baker and restaurant owner, even after experiencing her own love story with her husband (Tim), Helen still carries this baggage. Or the complete opposite of baggage, as she puts it. A hole in her heart. Throw in her and her husband’s repeated attempts conceive a child and it’s understandable why Helen is feeling withdrawn and lost.

The true rays of light in her life are Tim (he’s a ROCK), Claire, her niece, and when she can find quiet time in the kitchen. And after much soul-searching, the decision to go forth with an adoption of a baby girl from China. Helen is just counting the many days until their new daughter will be curling up in bed between her and her husband.

You see, this novel ranges from the happy sad to the sad sad. Helen is forced to come to terms with her past, even making moves to fix things with her dad, as well as accept her sister’s cancer diagnosis. Helen questions many times why things in life can’t go right all at the time same. Why can’t she have both her child and her sister? Why does it always have to be something? Handford writes with such honesty and has crafted an engrossing tale from every angle — the adoption, the insecurities she faces as both a mother and a mother of a child who was abandoned, the sisterly bond, even Helen reliving her angsty 14-year old self when her mother was very sick. While the book covers a good span of time, I wondered if there could have been more moments of showing and less telling. In 300 pages, I was connected enough to these characters  that I probably could have read a hundred pages more if it meant some of the key moments were given more meat.

Though Daughters for a Time focuses on the bond between women as sisters, as mothers and daughters, and as friends, it lacked a bit of male perspective in some areas. For a long time, I wondered if Claire was even married. And Helen’s husband was such a great character too but he felt absent from scenes when I knew he was standing there, sharing the moment… except he was silenced. A little more testosterone would have balanced out many emotions in the story and made it even more relatable. I wanted Handford to dig deeper.

Despite minor qualms, this novel genuinely tugged at my heart strings. There’s never a perfect time to pick up a book that screams “disease” and “infertility” but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experience them. Handford takes every day, powerful issues and skillfully, weaves in bits and pieces of hope even at the darkest moments. It’s surprisingly fast paced for such heavy content too; I found myself thinking about it a lot during my reading breaks. At the core,Daughters of a Timeis about the families we have and the families we create, the ebb and flow of the healing process, and the challenges life throws us and how we react to them.

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