Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

A severely burned teenager. A guitar. Punk rock. The chords of a rock ‘n’ roll road trip in a coming-of-age novel that is a must-read story about finding your place in the world…even if you carry scars inside and out. 

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In addition to praise for debut author Len Vlahos and his characters, the back cover hails The Scar Boys as “THE MOST ANTICIPATED YOUNG ADULT NOVEL OF 2014” . That’s quite a big statement!  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel as moved or impressed as these booksellers.

Readers are introduced to Harry through his personal essay to The University of Scranton in 1987.  Rather than sticking to the 250 word limit, he writes his life story using appropriately titled rock and roll chapter headings.  The story opens with Harry becoming severely scarred (both physically and emotionally) after almost being struck by lightning. After Harry is rejected by a girl, his best friend suggests they start a band, and so, The Scar Boys is born.  With a passion for music, they take their three dude, one woman band on the road.  No surprise to anyone that the girl and the van become an added complication for the band.

I understand that like Harry, not everyone has the goal to attend college. Many people are just as well off following their dreams.  Obviously there is a transformative power in playing music, but I didn’t like the ending. He admits to being a coward and that playing guitar, loving music, and having friends is ‘good enough’ for him. How depressing.

The Scar Boys tour your way January 2014.

The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

Emily’s dad is accused of murdering a teenage girl. Emily is sure he is innocent, but what happened that night in the woods behind their house where she used to play as a child? Determined to find out, she seeks out Damon Hillary the enigmatic boyfriend of the murdered girl. He also knows these woods. Maybe they could help each other. But he’s got secrets of his own about games that are played in the dark.

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The Killing Woods was my second Lucy Christopher read.  Honestly, I struggled to finish Stolen because of the long detailed passages of the Australian Outback and the unsatisfying ending.  In The Killing Woods, the majority of the story takes place in the woods. Obviously, the setting plays a big role in Christopher’s work and completely adds to the overall feel of the book.  While I skimmed over the outback descriptions, I enjoyed reading about the mysterious woods.

It is within these woods that the murder of Ashlee Parker occurred.  The novel opens dramatically with Emily’s dad, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, carrying in her body. Despite fingers being pointed at her father, Emily believes he is innocent.  However, no one is certain who was responsible for Ashlee’s death.  Throughout the book, alternating perspectives of Emily and Damon (Ashlee’s boyfriend) lead us to believe different theories.  I liked that it was unpredictable, and I was constantly changing my mind on who could be trusted.  Yet, I did find it awfully convenient for the answer to be found on Ashlee’s cell phone. I wish my cell phone had that kind of battery power!  And if it was left on, police definitely would have traced it.

In middle school, I observed some classmates ‘playing’ the choking game. It terrified me, and I’m glad this serious topic is being brought to light.  In addition to this dangerous game, the book also explores topics like sex, drug abuse, under-age drinking, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you enjoy dark mystery stories, paired with danger and a twist, then perhaps The Killing Woods is for you.   Published January 1, 2014.

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are. They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Macallan’s friends. They are platonic and happy that way.

Eventually they realize they’re best friends — which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep getting in each other’s way. Guys won’t ask Macallan out because they think she’s with Levi, and Levi spends too much time joking around with Macallan, and maybe not enough time with his date. They can’t help but wonder . . . are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?

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My Scholastic Rep knows my reading preferences, and swore I’d LOVE this book. She sent me an advanced reading copy, and I immediately dove in to this sweet, contemporary story.  Throughout high school, I too had a very close male friend and I’m sure our families wondered if, at some point, it would turn romantic. For us, we truly were and ARE better off friends! However, it was still fun reading this fairly predictable (but cute) story about two best friends falling in love.

Every chapter switches between Levi and Macallan’s perspective.  Although they have distinct voices, readers are clued into the change with two visuals.  The first is a greyed out male/female image mirroring the front cover, and the other is a different font.  The start of each chapter begins with Levi and Macallan’s flirty banter as they look back at the progression of their relationship.  Even in the earlier chapters, it’s obvious that crush signs were there.  “If I had only one goal in life, it would be to make her laugh loudly everyday (pg.82)”.  Pretty sure that’s not a typical ‘friend’ statement.

Besides the romance, I loved the emphasis on the family. Both Levi’s and Macallan’s family are consistently involved throughout the book. As Levi and Macallan become inseperable, their welcoming, supportive, and protective families also grow tight. It was refreshing to read about teens that understand and embrace the importance of family.

Overall, I enjoyed this wholesome (no booze, sex, or swearing!), high school romance. Although it was my first Elizabeth Eulberg read, I’m sure it won’t be my last.  Look for Better Off Friends in February 2014.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret—a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.

Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can—in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

 

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A guilty conscience pushes fifteen year old Zoe to seek a pen pal that understands her situation.  In her mind, Stuart Harris (an inmate on death row), is the perfect choice because they are both responsible for the death of a loved one.  The entire story is told in letter form, but since ‘Zoe’ uses a fake name and address, we never see Stuart’s replies.  One has to wonder if he even received the letters, and if so, what his response would be.  We watch as Zoe starts off formally, addressing him with ‘Dear Mr. S. Harris’, and as the letter progresses, ‘Hey there, Stu’.  She writes these letters from a shed where her only company is a lone spider.

The author did a brilliant job at keeping the reader guessing Zoe’s terrible secret.  There are clues throughout; hinting at the tragic death of one of the two brothers Zoe has feelings for.  It’s a sad ending for all involved.

My biggest critique is the title. Although Ketchup Clouds is a catchy title, I’m not sure what it has to do with the story (besides Zoe’s sister drawing clouds in ketchup).  Maybe there was some deeper meaning that I missed?  Thoughts?

Overall, Ketchup Clouds is a sad story about love, family, murder and secrets.  Due to some explicit sexual content, I would recommend this book to older YA readers.

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