Thursday, September 22, 2016

Blog Tour + Review: AFTERWARD by Jennifer Mathieu

Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu
Published: September 20, 2016 by Roaring Book Press
Source: ARC from the publisher
When Caroline's little brother is kidnapped, his subsequent rescue leads to the discovery of Ethan, a teenager who has been living with the kidnapper since he was a young child himself. In the aftermath, Caroline can't help but wonder what Ethan knows about everything that happened to her brother, who is not readjusting well to life at home. And although Ethan is desperate for a friend, he can't see Caroline without experiencing a resurgence of traumatic memories. But after the media circus surrounding the kidnappings departs from their small Texas town, both Caroline and Ethan find that they need a friend--and their best option just might be each other. [goodreads]

Going into this novel I knew it would be heavy, but I was not prepared for the personal connection I would feel towards the characters and their stories they had to tell.  Caroline's little brother Dylan has just been abducted.  But before she, or her parents, can fully grasp the nightmare they are now living, he is returned home in a matter of days.  But since Dylan is autistic he struggles with expressing his fears, leaving Caroline hopeless in trying to help him past these demons.  She seeks answers in the most unlikely place: with Ethan, the other boy who had been found along with Dylan, after being kidnapped for four years.

The story is told in the after, alternating between Ethan and Caroline's voices, allowing the reader a perspective on two very different stories and how they merge into one.  Ethan is slowly easing his way back into a life he knows nothing about, only faded memories of two loving parents in what was once a safe home.  He struggles through therapy as he tries to piece together the traumatic events that led to his discovery and return home.  He finds solace in his new friendship with Caroline, as they avoid the elephant in the room and the reason why they know each other now, and find their own source of therapy through playing music together.

I hurt for Ethan as he struggled to understand what happened to him and how to even begin to move forward.  I also hurt for Caroline who feels responsible for her baby brother's abduction and the fall out between her parents.  They both really spoke to me, in their own individual voices.  How they chose to deal with those demons felt authentic and real.  No matter how messy it got, I had faith they'd find each other on the other side.  There's a darkness to this story that was difficult to swallow at times, knowing the reality that there are awful people out there that do awful things to children like this.  But there's also a beauty in the healing, and how they're able to find peace in the most unlikely places.  This was my first Jennifer Mathieu novel to read, and certainly won't be my last.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Before & The After: In Memory of Mom

Dear Readers,

Today I am taking a break from the usual book reviews, Top Ten Tuesday lists, giveaways, and other bookish ramblings to honor and remember my mom.  I've used this platform in the past to express my thoughts, my memories, and my feelings.  It's sort of become a therapeutic place in some sense. Books have always touched me on a personal level, and sharing my thoughts on what I read has always been personal as well.  This blog, you as readers, has become a safe haven when I need to let those feelings out.

Thirteen years ago I lost my mother to cancer.  It's not a battle we were fighting over a long period of time, only to see her fade out when it reached its point.  It was a full fledged war that raged out of nowhere, only leaving devastation in its wake. During the summer of 2003, she was not quite herself.  I was just turning 22 years old.  I had no idea what the signs were for someone who was going through stage four cancer.  None of us did.  Not even her most personal doctors.  Her diagnosis came way too late, just as summer was ending, and after numerous doctor visits.  The first week in September, we learned from the oncologists at MD Anderson that Mom had stage four cancer, the untreatable, and very un-curable kind.  I will never forget looking at my mother, holding her hand, as she laid in her hospital bed, learning the news that this was it.  The doctor went on to tell us how best they'd make her comfortable.

I will always hold with me my mother's words, "Why me? I did everything right. I took care of myself."  As a child, you should never be the one comforting your mother when fear is staring down on her.  I never knew my heart's capacity until that very moment.  Never in my life had I ever wanted to give my every breath to someone more.  Later we learned that the cancer in the lining of her vaginal walls had metastasized to her lungs, and ultimately that is what wrote her death sentence.  In the days that followed, I never left her hospital room, only to recharge myself when a close family member or friend forced me to.  Looking back it was such a surreal, blur of confusion.  There is just no way to prepare yourself.  I had twenty days, just twenty days, to watch my mother slip away into a comatose state as the cancer consumed her.

I sit here, with tears in my eyes, typing this now.  Recounting these memories, such solid images that will never leave my brain, no matter how difficult they truly are.  It's weird how your brain chooses to remember things.  Thirteen years later, I can still remember the silence on her hospital floor the night she died.  I can still remember that gut-wrenching ache that clawed its way outside my stomach and up my throat, releasing in such a turmoil of tears.  On this day thirteen years ago, a huge part of my soul died alongside my mother.  There will never, ever, be a replacement for that type of loss.  It's something I have tried my best to live with every day since.

My world has become a before, and an after.  You all know me in the after.  This blog is part of my life, after.  My love for reading only just began in the after.  Becoming a teacher, and realizing this is where I was always meant to be, is also part of my after.  I don't remember much of the girl before.  She was so young, so naive, and so so impressionable.  I do remember how much I loved my mother, how close we were.  How as a little girl I constantly had to be near her, always crawling in her lap, hugging, holding on.  It's as if I already knew those hugs, that physical love, would end one day.  This loss will always be immeasurable.  This whole in my heart will forever be hallow.  

I'm 35 years old now, and I haven't had my mom for the last thirteen years.  But today, September 20th, I am remembering her extra hard, and trying my very best to continue in the after.  Because what else choice is there?  This is my pain, and it's something I will carry with me every day.  It's who I am now.

This summer, I took my mother's ashes with me to California and spread them in the Pacific Ocean alongside this beach.  It was a beautiful place to rest her soul.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review + Celebration: The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs

The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs
Published: September 13, 2016 by Candlewick Press
Source: ARC from the author (& finished copy)
Seven tightly interwoven narratives. Three harrowing hours. One fateful day that changes everything.

Delaware, the morning of April 19. Senior Skip Day, and April Donovan’s eighteenth birthday. Four days after the Boston Marathon bombing, the country is still reeling, and April’s rare memory condition has her recounting all the tragedies that have cursed her birth month. And just what was that mysterious gathering under the bleachers about?

Meanwhile, in Nebraska, Lincoln Evans struggles to pay attention in Honors English, distracted by the enigmatic presence of Laura Echols, capturer of his heart. His teacher tries to hold her class’s interest, but she can’t keep her mind off what Adrian George told her earlier.

Over in Idaho, Phoebe is having second thoughts about the Plan mere hours before the start of a cross-country ploy led by an Internet savant known as the Mastermind. Is all her heartache worth the cost of the Assassins’ machinations?

The Light Fantastic is a tense, shocking, and beautifully wrought exploration of the pain and pathos of a generation of teenagers on the brink—and the hope of moving from shame and isolation into the light of redemption. [goodreads]
As someone who has identified her formative years with school shootings, and other tragedies, this novel spoke volumes to me.  I can still remember the day I found out about the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado.  The memory of watching a blurry surveillance video capturing the shooters on a rampage in the cafeteria, brought vivid nightmares to my own school and the safe haven I thought it was.  As a young adult, the world I was beginning to step outside in started to take on a scary reality.

Sarah Combs has masterfully intertwined separate, yet very uniquely similar stories, all surrounding the chaos of what teenagers encounter as they live out their days in a world filled with hate, uncertainty, and the need to belong.  As one battles their own demons by finding solace in complete strangers online, others must come to terms with reality and how brutal it's become.  My heart reached out in different directions, wanting to understand their thoughts, their actions, and even their silence.

This story is every bit powerful and purposeful.  It's important to listen to those who feel neglected or outcasted, even if they struggle to find their own voice.  We must be present and proactive, but also understanding and accepting.  Sarah Combs has written another quietly impactful novel, one that holds significant value that is difficult to put a price on.  In a world where actions are constantly questioned, sometimes it's easier to point fingers and place blame on the expected.  This novel will make you stop, think, and see a new light, from a new perspective.

I am honored to have the talented Sarah Combs on the blog today, to celebrate her book's release. The lovely people from Candlewick Press have put together outstanding discussion questions about the book to further the reader's experience.  I found this particular question to shine the brightest:

Hunkered down in the lockdown closet, Gavin makes a list of the real things, big and small, that
matter to him. What would be on yours?

Please continue reading below for Sarah's list, as well as mine.  Then, enter my giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the book by sharing YOUR list!


"We are born at a given moment, in a given place, and, like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year and of the season of which we are born." -- Carl Jung

Which is to say: Fall is my TIME, man. I'm so happy it's well nigh upon us, and that I can get excited about:

1. Clear crisp mysterious fall air. I agree with Jordan Baker's assessment in The Great Gatsby: It really does feel like "life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall." BRING IT.

2. Pumpkin spice lattes are good, but Shlafly Pumpkin Ale is better.

3. Celestial events. I'm obsessed with them. Penumbral lunar eclipse happening September 16, yall.

4. Two words: Sweater weather. There's a perfect song for that.

5. Fall means curling up with books. I'm overwhelmed by this year's fall bounty, but high on my list are: Stephanie Kuehn's The Smaller Evil; The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; and the latest from the always-dazzling Tana French, The Trespasser.


I've always been someone to look at life as half full, instead of half empty. We all get dealt a pretty crummy hand at life sometimes, and it's so easy to wallow in that sadness.  But I try my best to focus on the good, even when there can be so much bad.  Today I am sharing 5 things that make me happy.

1. Waking up on a Saturday morning with no plans and the whole day stretched out in front of me. As a teacher, Monday through Friday I am constantly go! go! go! So when that Saturday morning rolls around and I have the option to lie in bed until my tummy growls, it's such a sweet moment.

2. Biting into a warm, fresh, gooey chocolate chip cookie. I have such a sweet tooth and so it's rare I'll turn down a dessert. There is something so satisfying about homemade chocolate chip cookies, though.

3. Opening up a book and reading page one after you've been craving this particular novel for quite some time. It's an even happier moment when you flip to page two, then page three, and suddenly you're a hundred or so pages deep because it is just that good!

4. When a friend sends you a random text that makes you laugh. I'm a firm believer that laughter is one of the very best medicines. I am also that crazy person who is out in public, perhaps at the grocery store, staring at her phone laughing hysterically because of that amazing friend.

5. Listening to your favorite song, at 5a.m. in the bathroom as you get ready for work, dancing and singing to get your blood flowing and your mood just right.  There's no better way to start a day of teaching than that right there. I call it my happy place.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Must-See TV That Should Have Never Been Cancelled

When someone asks me what my favorite TV shows are, I find myself mentioning shows that have long ago been cancelled, or ended.  Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of great TV on now, but I don't watch it like I used to.  The following shows still make an appearance on my TV from time-to-time, thanks to DVDs, Netflix, and Hulu.  Even though I know the outcome, I still love watching them episode after episode.  What about you? Were you once a fan of any of these?  Got something new that you think I might like? Please share in the comments!

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: What Happens Now by Jennifer Castle

What Happens Now by Jennifer Castle
Published: June 7, 2016 by Harper Teen
Source: ARC from publisher
"I know what it is to want something so badly, you feel like your cells aren’t properly bonded together without it.
I also know what it’s like to get that something.
And honestly, I’m still not sure which is worse..."

Ari Logan is battling to win her war against depression and the dark night she hurt herself on purpose. It’s not easy: her best friend is drifting away, her mom’s emotionally checked out, and she spends her days playing caregiver to her handful of a half-sister, Danielle. But it’s summer, and anything is possible...

That’s when Camden Armstrong steps onto the beach of Ari’s local swimming lake.

At first, Ari quietly longs for Camden from afar, seeing in him everything she wants to be. When the two discover a true connection the following summer, Ari lets herself fall not just for the quirky and self-assured Camden but also his friends, tumbling into their world of independence, adventure, and shared sci-fi fandom. As Ari’s romantic dreams come true, she must unlock the mysteries of the very real and troubled boy behind her infatuation, while also struggling with her own demons, obligations, and loyalties.

From the award-winning author of "The Beginning of After" and "You Look Different in Real Life," "What Happens Now" is a touching, insightful novel about learning to heal, learning to love, and what happens when fantasy becomes reality. [goodreads]

I'm a firm believer that Jennifer Castle is such an underrated YA contemporary writer.  I first met her beautiful storytelling with her debut The Beginning of After, which left such a personal impression on me as a reader.  I also recognized there was something unique in Castle's ability to use her words to tell a story that leaves impacts.  They aren't always the soul crushing kind, but definitely more of the slow ripples that comes in waves, building to a crescendo that leaves the literary heart feeling full. I hope my review today puts her on your radar and you, too, will discover her writing.

This story begins with Ari's summer just after her sophomore year of high school. She's had a very rough road the last few months, dealing with her depression and the night she attempted to take her life just to feel something.  But it's summertime and Ari is planning to spend her days at the lake.  She notices a new face, and soon he is all she can see and think about.  For the entire summer, she watches this boy named Camden, who has given her hope that she didn't realize she needed.  Though she doesn't conjure up the courage to go and talk to him, he's still someone who consumes her world, from afar.

Fast forward to the following summer, just before her senior year of high school, and Ari has a new outlook.  Instead of sitting by and being a bystander in her own life, she's decided to be bold, be brave, and embrace the possible.  When she sees Camden from the summer before, she decides to take her infatuation one step further, and soon they're meeting, hanging out, getting to know one another.  This just might be the summer that Ari will never forget.  But the memories she holds aren't necessarily the dreamy summer kind.  They'll become the catalyst for what lies ahead.

I really identified with Ari and how she lives inside her head a lot, living in a world that's safe and predictable because she's the one controlling it.  However, it was such a breath of fresh air, even as scary as it may be, to see Ari living out her dreams, even when reality may be a bit different.  Her relationship with her mom is one that was definitely front and center through out the story.  The two of them have been through some rough waters, and it was interesting to see a story develop where the parent makes mistakes too.  It gave authenticity to an already interesting dynamic.

This story is rich with well-developed relationships, an always moving conflict that isn't resolved in just a few short pages, and character growth that really propels it all forward.  I could have stayed in this story, seeing life through Ari's eyes for much longer than the story allowed.  I sometimes wonder what she's up to, how her life has continued to progress, and where she finds herself now at the end of this very summer.  I can not recommend this story enough.  Definitely add it to your list of summer reads, or really any time reads.  It's a contemporary novel to be read, for sure.

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