An Uninterrupted View of the Sky

Seventeen-year-old Francisco lives a poor life – he shares a bedroom with his sister Pilar, and his Papá struggles to make ends meet as a taxi driver. Francisco’s Mamá constantly nags him to do better in school, which Francisco could care less about. However, Francisco’s old life suddenly seems like a luxury when his father is arrested under false drug charges. Papá is sent to San Sebastián, a prison unlike anything Francisco could have imagined. When Francisco, Pilar, and Mamá visit Papá in the prison for the first time, Francisco realizes just how harsh life can be. There are no guards in the prison, and nothing comes free. If you want a cell, you have to pay for it. Until then, you sleep on the concrete.  

Then, when things can’t seem to get any worse, Mamá abandons Francisco and Pilar. Forced to leave their home behind, Francisco and Pilar move into prison with their father. While they can still go outside the prison to attend school, Francisco finds it impossible to study when his father is barely scraping by on the inside. As one of four women in the prison, Pilar lives in constant danger, and she’s only eight years old.   

Yet, slowly, the small family begins to adapt. Papá is able to purchase a cell so that he and the kids can be safe at night. Meanwhile, Francisco’s relationship with Soledad, a girl from the prison, develops into a friendship, while tension grows between Francisco and his friend Reynaldo, who starts selling drugs. While joining Reynaldo is compelling, Francisco can’t take that risk, not with his sister needing his protection and his father needing a lawyer. However, the corruption in the judiciary system makes it near impossible for Papá’s case to be examined. It will take years to free him. 

Francisco decides that he must graduate high school and make it into college so that he can help his father and sister. The story ends when Papá raises enough money to send Pilar and Francisco to his parents in the countryside. Though Francisco doesn’t want to break up their family, he knows life is safer for Pilar there. Due to his developing relationship with Soledad, Francisco takes her with them and leaves behind his hometown. The story ends with hope for reunification as Francisco is accepted into law school.  

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky is written in the first-person point of view from Francisco’s perspective. At first, Francisco seems bitter and standoffish since he fights with his parents and doesn’t care to do well in school. But after everything is stripped away from him, Francisco begins to appreciate what he had and starts to focus on what is important to him: family and safety. He stops fighting, works hard at school, and protects his sister and father. One of the most powerful scenes in the story is on the day of Francisco’s final school exams. Due to a murder in the prison, no one is allowed in or out, which means that Francisco will miss the exam. Papá uses his only savings to bribe a guard to let Francisco go to school. Early on, due to pride, Francisco never would’ve allowed it, but Francisco knows that he will never get a chance to escape prison if he’s unable to graduate. This scene shows Francisco’s newfound maturity and selflessness.  

The hardships Francisco, Pilar, Papá, and other characters inside and outside the prison face show the harsh reality of life in Boliva in the 1990s. This story is inspired by true events and exposes the effect of racial injustices supported by the Bolivian government. It touches on sexual assault, poverty, violence, and other dark themes, making the story appropriate for mature readers. While not everyone may be able to read An Uninterrupted View of the Sky due to its content, it is a powerful novel about perseverance despite dehumanizing circumstances. Readers will walk away from this story with sadness due to the family’s experiences, but also with hope like Francisco has—hope for a better future. 

Sexual Content 

  • Soledad is sexually assaulted when leaving school. “Two guys. . . step out in front of her. . . one of them slides beside her and reaches a hand under her skirt.” 
  • Soledad says that “girls my age on the streets – sooner or later, they end up selling their bodies so they can eat.”  
  • When Francisco offers to let Soledad stay the night, she says, “You want me in your bed, Francisco?” He blushes.  
  • Francisco and Soledad kiss. “I take [Soledad’s] face in my hands and kiss her. Those black eyes flutter closed as she moves against me. Her lips are salt and wind and fire on mine. She presses the length of her along the length of me, and the stars start spinning above.”

Violence 

  • Francisco gets in a fight while playing soccer. Francisco is “two steps from the goal when an elbow cracks against my eyebrow. Blood slicks down my cheek and drips onto the dirt in front of me.” He is unable to fight further because a friend holds him back. 
  • Francisco sees someone getting threatened in the prison. “I almost run into two guys pinning another prisoner against the wall. One of them has a knife.” The book doesn’t describe what happens after this.  
  • Papá sees a fight. “[Papá] passed a cell with men crowded around the door. You know what was going on inside? Two boys were fighting each other. For entertainment. Like cocks in a pen, they were being paid to fight.” 
  • Pilar is found in a cell with an older man. Nothing happens to her because Francisco comes to rescue her, but the prisoners take over and punish the older man. “[The prisoners] push into the cell. . . The sound of fists on flesh follows me down the stairs as I hurry to catch up with Papá. They must have stuffed a sock in that guy’s mouth, because I don’t hear anything from him but these choked, drowning sounds.” 
  • When Francisco was young, he beat up two boys after they “cornered me before school and called me indio bruto. I didn’t know what it meant, but I saw the twist of their lips, their mocking eyes. So I rammed the bigger one in the stomach and knocked him to the ground, which gave the other one the chance to kick me over and over again from above.” A friend stopped the fight. 
  • Francisco is beat up. “Behind me, feet scuff against gravel. . . I get two quick jabs in the side. My eyes fly open, and my lungs seize. Whoever it is has a ring on. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. The guys go for my back and my ribs and my gut. They don’t say why. They don’t have to. I’m a prison kid now. I’m just trash to them. My ribs are on fire, and my stomach has caved in on itself. But a fight has been coiling inside me tighter and tighter all week, just waiting for a reason to bust out. . . It’s three on one, so anything goes. I am for the nose and the jaw and the crotch and the knees, and I’m kicking and punching and everything hurts. I’m slamming my fist into the meat of their faces and darting around like a bloodsucking mosquito so they can’t pin my arms behind me. Watching the spit fly and their eyes go wide is like blood and bone and breath and life. They pummel me, and I beat the shit out of them.” 
  • When a boy in the prison insults Papá, Francisco punches him. “The words are barely out of José’s mouth before my fist flies out and glances off his teeth.” José doesn’t fight back.  
  • Soledad attacks the men that sexually assault her. When a man “reaches a hand under her skirt. In that second, her whole being bristles. . . Instead of running down the street, she leaps at them and claws at their faces, aiming for the soft flesh of their eyes.”  
  • Papá gets beat up and Francisco comes to his aid. Francisco “can make out a circle of men in the courtyard. They’re all yelling and in the middle of it, two big guys are pummeling this smaller figure on the ground. . . I run down the stairs and push through the hall, and I hear the sound of their boots in his stomach and their punches landing on his face.” The men scatter before Francisco arrives.  
  • One of the kids in the prison gets hit by a pot of boiling water. “Suddenly there’s this crash outside, and then a loud, long wail. Down in the courtyard, a boy a little younger than Pilar is lying on the ground, screaming. His mother bends over him, her hands fluttering above the boy’s blistering skin.” He is removed from the courtyard and sent to the hospital.  
  • Reynaldo and Francisco fight after Francisco refuses to sell drugs. Francisco describes, “Reynaldo plants both hands on my chest and shoves. . . He comes at me again, and this time, he doesn’t shove, he punches. Three quick fists in the ribs. The breath coughs out of me, and my arms close over my stomach.” Francisco doesn’t hit him back, but instead leaves.  
  • Francisco finds out that Red Tito, a man in the prison that is regarded as dangerous, is dead. “Red Tito is dead. His body was found early that morning, gouges like claw marks carved into his chest, a pain of puncture wounds like bite marks in his neck.” Later, Francisco finds blood under Soledad’s nails, implying that she was the one who killed him. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Papá is arrested. “The police stopped [Papá] and arrested him, said that he was going to make cocaine with that gasoline.” 
  • Reynaldo and Francisco drink alcohol together. “Reynaldo dips into his father’s liquor stash, and for the rest of the afternoon, we take turns drinking straight from a bottle of cheap singani.” 
  • After finding a stash of drugs in his bedroom, Reynaldo’s mother kicks him out. 
  • Soledad admits her father does drugs. “Drugs messed with [my] Papá’s head. I don’t even know if he knows I’m there most of the time.” 

Language   

  • Reynaldo says, “Forget those bastards.” 
  • On multiple occasions, Francisco uses the word “bastards” to refer to people he finds mean or difficult to work with, such as policemen and school bullies. 
  • Francisco says “dammit” and “shit” occasionally.  
  • “Indio” and “Indio bruto” are Spanish slurs that are directed at the mixed and/or indigenous population, including Francisco and Soledad. It is used a few times.  
  • One of the men who assaults Soledad calls her a “filthy bitch!”  
  • Francisco writes a poem where he calls the famous poet, Pablo Neruda, “that horny bastard.” 
  • Francisco refers to himself as a “cojudo.” It’s Bolivian slang for “asshole.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Soledad says that she leaves the prison every weekend to go to the countryside and make an offering to Pachamama. She says, “I thought if the spirits knew how much I wanted a life out of the prison, they would help me find it.” Pachamama is an Andean goddess, similar to Mother Earth.  

Expecting

Kaelynn, Yessenia, and Lyric are three very different teenagers. Kaelynn is a country girl who wants to prove that she isn’t like her mother. Yessenia is a rebel who occasionally commits heists with her friends. Lyric is a popular girl who stays out of trouble. But despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they all attend a program for pregnant teens.  

While at the program, the girls deal with the struggles of pregnancy, as well as their own personal hardships. Kaelynn’s mother is addicted to drugs like “coke, meth, and crack,” and Kaelynn lives with her grandmother, who she fights with. Eventually, Kaelynn leaves home and moves in with the father of her child – an older man she met at a party.   

Meanwhile, Yessenia does not feel safe being in the same house as her lecherous stepfather, so she lives with her boyfriend’s family instead. But when she catches her boyfriend kissing another girl, she is left homeless. Kaelynn helps her find another home as the story progresses.  

Unlike the other girls, Lyric has a seemingly idyllic life. She lives with her mother and has a doting boyfriend who her family adores. But after she gets pregnant, her “doting” boyfriend disappears entirely, leaving her scared and alone. Together, the girls learn to navigate their hurdles and find solace in an unlikely friendship. 

A major theme in Expecting is dealing with hardship. Each of the girls is dealing with stressful pregnancies as well as issues unique to them. Although initially skeptical of each other, the three girls grow close and help each other get through their respective issues. Their comradery is especially important in light of their peers’ reactions to their pregnancy. At one point, Lyric remarks on how isolating being a pregnant teen is: “Yeah, you know being pregnant is kind of lonely. My friends call to check on me. They don’t ask me to hang out with them or call to talk about what happened at school.” The novel’s answer to these struggles is friendship, and the three friends learn to lean on each other in order to get through difficult times. 

Freemen attempts to reach teens who may be going through some of the same struggles portrayed in Expecting. Readers who are experiencing teen pregnancy, drug addiction, homelessness, or even just a cheating boyfriend may find aspects of the story relatable. However, the girls’ stories feel rushed. At only 99 pages, Expecting is an easy sell for reluctant readers, but it often sacrifices believable character development. That said, the simple writing style and easy vocabulary make Expecting accessible to all readers. Ultimately, Expecting is a simple but highly readable story about issues that many teens find relatable. Occasionally punctuated by informative facts about pregnancy, teens in a similar situation may find the story helpful. 

Sexual Content 

  • While at a friend’s house, Kaelynn flirts with a man. Later that night, she kisses him at a baseball field and it is implied that they have sex. Kaelynn continues a relationship with the man. At several points in the story, she kisses him. 
  • While staring down at a positive pregnancy test, Yessenia recalls that she was reluctant to have sex with her boyfriend, but that she gave in anyway because he said he had “needs.” 
  • Lyric expresses concern about looking “slutty.” 
  • Despite being hesitant to lose her virginity, Lyric agrees to have sex with her boyfriend because he “told her that he loved her.” 
  • Yessenia’s stepfather tells Yessenia that pregnancy “looks good on” her and that she’s “growing in all the right places.” Both Yessenia and Kaelynn are disgusted by this comment. 

Violence 

  • Yessenia acts as a getaway driver while her friends rob a store. Once everyone has reentered the car, a man from the store “point[s] a gun directly at the car’s tires” and attempts to shoot them out. Yessenia swerves to avoid the gunshots. 
  • When Yessenia sees her boyfriend kissing another girl, she “punche[s] him in the mouth.” The other girl pulls a gun on Yessenia, but Yessenia “slap[s] her as hard as she [can] across the face.” 
  • When Lyric’s boyfriend found out she was pregnant, he abandons her.  Later, she “slap[s]” her ex-boyfriend “across the face.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • At a party, a group of mostly adults drink beers and pass a blunt around. 
  • Kaelynn asks a man if he wants to smoke a cigarette with her. 
  • Kaelynn insists that she is not like her mother, who does hard drugs such as coke, meth, and crack. 
  • Yessenia joins her friends in a car they are “hotboxing,” a term for smoking weed in a vehicle. 
  • Yessenia drinks a mixture of tequila and Sprite. 
  • When Kaelynn asks Yessenia what drugs she’s done, Yessenia says that she has “tried just about everything.” 
  • Yessenia buys weed while pregnant.  
  • Kaelynn’s grandmother takes Xanax “to calm her nerves.” 
  • Doctors find marijuana in Yessenia’s urine samples, and she is forced to enter a rehab facility in order to keep her baby. 

Language  

  • Kaelynn’s grandmother tells her to “get [her] ass in here.” 
  • Kaelynn calls her grandmother an “old bat.” 
  • A girl calls Yessenia a “homeless skank.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Lyric is described as the type of girl whose “family went to church on Sunday.” 
  • Kaelynn jokes that Lyric had “an immaculate conception.” Yessenia replies, “Yeah, right. She’s not the Virgin Mary.” 

The Cipher

Robert “Smiles” Smylie is not a genius. He feels like he’s surrounded by them, though, from his software mogul dad to his brainy girlfriend to his oddball neighbor Ben, a math prodigy. When Ben cracks an ancient riddle central to modern data encryption systems, Ben suddenly holds the power to unlock every electronic secret in the world—and Smiles finally has a chance to prove his own worth.

Smiles hatches a plan to protect Ben from the government agents who will stop at nothing to get their hands on his discovery. But as Smiles races from a Connecticut casino to the streets of Boston, enlisting the help of an alluring girl, he comes to realize the most explosive secrets don’t lie between the covers of Ben’s notebook—they’re buried in his own past. 

With topics such as public-key cryptography, the Riemann Hypothesis, and prime numbers, readers may be reluctant to pick up The Cipher. However, the mystery and thriller aspects of the story will quickly draw readers into the story and keep them entertained until the last page. The story explains many mathematical principles in a way that makes the math accessible to all readers. Even though the story focuses on math concepts, Smiles’ family life, his love life, and the mystery behind his birth mother combine to make a truly entertaining read.  

Even though Smiles doesn’t have to worry about money, his life is a mess. His adoptive mother died in a tragic car accident. He feels like he is a disappointment to his father. His birth mother rejected his attempt to reach out to her. Plus, he was kicked out of his prestigious high school for having weed in his dorm room. To make matters worse, his longtime girlfriend, Melanie, broke up with him. Smiles is a complete and total mess, and many teens will relate to Smiles’ wide range of emotions and the feeling that he isn’t sure what he should do with his life. Despite Smiles’ messy life, readers will find themselves rooting for him.  

Ford writes his story in the third person point of view, which allows readers to see the same events from different people’s perspectives. This adds a layer of depth and intrigue. In the end, each character reveals a different piece of the mystery. The thought-provoking conclusion will leave readers questioning morality, forgiveness, and the nature of love. Readers looking for a fast-paced mystery full of surprises will find all that and more in The Cipher.  

Sexual Content 

  • After his girlfriend gives him a birthday gift, Smiles kisses her. Without thinking he “was dipping his head and drawing toward her. Kissing her. Tender but intense, soft but electric.”  
  • While in high school, Smiles tried to seduce his high school math teacher. 
  • A girl says she wouldn’t want to be a cheerleader and have “Greg Simmons palm my ass ten feet in the air for a whole football game.”  
  • At a math conference, Smiles meets Erin. They promise to “stick together” and then “their lips met with a wild energy.” 
  • After kissing Erin, Smiles thinks, “Melanie didn’t kiss him like this. Not at all. There was something hungry about it, something that made Smiles feel more desired than he’d ever been in his life. . . [Erin’s] lips were soft and yielding, her murmurs a hum of delight.” Someone walks into the room and interrupts them. 
  • Smiles kisses Erin several more times, but the kisses are not described. 
  • Smiles takes Erin to his family’s cabin. After they go into the hot tub, Erin goes upstairs. Smiles thinks, “And right now there was a hot girl lying on a bed upstairs, waiting for him.” It is implied that Erin and Smiles have sex.  

Violence 

  • A man goes to an affluent neighborhood, puts a package in the mailbox, and then shoots himself.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Smiles’ father is in the hospital dying of cancer. He’s given morphine for the pain. 
  • When he was little, Smiles’ mom taught him to “make daiquiris (virgin for him, double rum for her).” 
  • Smiles considers making “a beer pong app for smartphones for when you were drinking but didn’t have a Ping-Pong table around.” 
  • While in a conference room, Smiles sees his birth mother who is “flush with wine.” 
  • When stressed, Smiles thinks “he really could have used a Xanax or something.” 
  • For vacation, Smiles’ family and their friends would go to a cabin. “The moms would pair off and have drinks on the deck.” 
  • When Melanie’s father was overly tired, he would have “a glass or two of Cabernet.” 
  • Smiles was kicked out of his private prep school because he had weed in his closet. Later, he thinks about the first time he got stoned. 
  • An adult in the story drinks whiskey.

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes ass, bastard, bitchy, crap, piss, hell, and shit. 
  • Infrequently, the phrases oh God and God are used as an exclamation.

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Several times Smiles prays for something. For example, when Smiles sees a hot girl, he “prayed to a merciful God she would stop at the check-in. She did.”  
  • When the NSA kidnaps Smiles’ friend, Ben, Smiles “prayed someone would intervene, but there were no witnesses in the lot.” 
  • When Melanie sneaks a file out of an office, she put it in her purse and “could only pray that Jenna wouldn’t open it and see.” 

Bones of the Sun God

After his adventures in Egypt, Sam Force is finding it nearly impossible to return to everyday life at boarding school—especially now that he knows his parents are still alive. However, his Uncle Jasper has banned him from setting off in search of them until he can go with Sam, but Sam’s not sure he can wait that long. When a man turns up at his school—a man he last saw in the Egyptian desert—he knows he can wait no longer.

Sam needs to continue the hunt for his parents. Luckily, his friend Mary Verulam has a plan, and before he knows it, he’s on his way to Belize. However, from the moment he lands, Sam finds himself being followed and threatened. When his research leads him to a local crocodile park and the leader of a mysterious crocodile cult, things become really dangerous. Sam is left to wonder if he’ll ever be able to locate his parents—and if there is anyone he can trust. 

Right from the start, Sam knows he’s going to sneak out of the country to continue the dangerous search for his parents—he just didn’t expect the search for clues to turn deadly. Multiple people warn Sam about the dangers that lay ahead and strongly encourage him to return home. However, the stubborn boy refuses to listen. While Sam’s determination and resourcefulness are admirable, he’s also impulsive and reckless. To make matters worse, Sam isn’t afraid to sneak into places he shouldn’t be, which causes many problems. Despite his dangerous actions, Sam is a likable protagonist that readers will root for.  

Similar to the first book in the series—The Iron Tomb—Bones of the Sun God doesn’t shy away from violence. In book two, a new villain appears—Felix, the crocodile cult leader – who will do anything to keep his secrets safe. This includes plotting Sam’s death, killing his henchmen, and feeding people to his trained crocodiles. The constant threat of being eaten by crocodiles keeps the action high. Plus, readers will be shocked when the crocodile park’s secrets are revealed. 

Bones of the Sun God continues the mystery of the pyramids and of how the Arc of the Covenant is related to them. However, Sam spends much of his time being chased by others and the story lacks the clues that made book one so much fun. Despite this, Bones of the Sun God will entertain readers. Readers will also enjoy the black and white pictures that are scattered throughout the book. The illustrations will help readers imagine some of the complicated plot points.  

Readers who aren’t put off by violence will find Bones of the Sun God highly entertaining because the action-packed story follows a likable protagonist who is willing to jump into danger to discover where his missing parents are. However, the strange crocodile cult and the bloody violence may make the book inappropriate for some readers. For a high-interest, fast-paced adventure with less violence, there are many good options including The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia. And if you want to discover some Egyptian history in a non-fiction format, check out The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld.   

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While in a pool of water, a beast attacks a knight. The beast’s “white teeth enveloped his legs. A loud crack echoed across the chamber as powerful jaws slammed together around his waist. With one last effort, he brought his dagger arm down onto his attacker’s skull. . . And then there was only darkness.” The knight dies. 
  • While at a river, a young boy named Elio sees a “crocodile’s jaw open. . . A cloud of white mist bursts from the beast. With the pain came sudden understanding. The boy stared down at the silver dart sticking from his thigh. His eyes felt heavy . . . the last thing he heard as his world went black was the sound of the beast laughing at him.” Elio is kidnapped and taken to the crocodile park. 
  • Sam was cleaning the rowing shed when bullies from his school show up. Sam “aimed the bottle of detergent at Andrew Fletcher and squeezed. The soapy liquid hit him in the eyes, and Andrew howled in pain. Before his two friends could react, Sam swung the foamy jet at them.” Sam is able to get away.  
  • Sam hides with a group of tourists who go to a crocodile park. During a show, a man appears and says, “The guardians of the underworld demand sacrifices.” Then, crocodiles appear and begin attacking people. “Two more [people] went down, the first rammed from the side, the second pushed from behind. Arms flailed, water churned, and then there was only one person left. . . Down at the pool, the woman scrambled back toward the edge, but before she could climb out, her legs were pulled out from under her and she disappeared beneath the surface.” 
  • As the audience watches in horror, another man steps into the pool of water. “Lights in the bottom of the pool switched on, illuminating the crocodiles, who were still holding their human sacrifices.” The man calls on Kinich Ahau and then, “the crocodiles, unburdened by their prey, swam to the far side of the pool and disappeared into the tunnel.” The people who the crocodile attacked walk out of the pool unharmed. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Two policemen were taking Sam to the airport when they come upon a broken-down car in the middle of the street. “Two men spun toward the police car. They had guns. There were two flashes of light and everything went black. . . A man pulled Sam’s door open and wrenched him out. As Sam was dragged to the old car, the struggling policemen fell silent.” Sam is taken to Felix, the founder of the crocodile park, who locks Sam in a cage. 
  • Sam escapes from the crocodile park and runs towards the forest. Sam falls and “lay there, defenseless. . . he saw the silhouette of the man looming over him. Suddenly, the red [laser] beam hit the man’s face. . . then the man threw his hands to his eyes and howled in pain.” 
  • One of Felix’s henchmen, Azeem, ambushes Sam in the wilderness. Sam throws juice at Azeem’s face and bats attack him. Sam “heard the fluttering of hundreds of pairs of wings as they swept through the forest . . .Sam heard a cry as the first one of the tiny juice-hungry mouths fell on their new meal.” Azeem is not seriously injured.  
  • Sam returns to the crocodile park to save Elio, another boy who is held prisoner. As they try to escape, they see “the body of a large bald man in a white suit.” The man’s skin was a “sickly gray color” and he “had been dead for some time.” Later, Sam discovers that the dead man’s body was stolen from the morgue. 
  • As Sam and Elio run from the crocodile park, a bomb goes off. “The concussion from the blast hit them. Sam saw Elio lifted off the ground and pushed through the air.” Sam has a “nasty cut on his forehead,” but is otherwise uninjured. 
  • Sam finds a hidden entrance into a pyramid. When Sam goes in, he finds Azeem and Felix digging a hole. Felix holds a gun on Azeem, who is at the edge of a pool. Azeem’s “confused look transformed to panic as he heard the noise behind him. . .” Azeem sees a crocodile, but is unable to get out of the pool because “Felix kept the gun aimed down at the Scar-Faced Man.” 
  • As the crocodile gets closer, Azeem panics. “He tried to climb out [of the pool] again, but Felix lashed out with his foot. The kick sent the Scar-Faced Man stumbling backward. . . Azeem went rigid. The water around him became red and his screaming reached new levels of loudness. . . the man was pulled under, his scream cut off. . .” Azeem dies. 
  • After leaving the pyramid, Felix sets off a bomb. Sam and his friend, Mary, run. The explosion “grew to a deafening roar and a howling wind, so powerful Sam and Mary were pushed along the floor of the tunnel. . . Sam felt his exposed skin being stung by the tiny fragments of stone carried along by the explosion. . . He heard Mary screaming.” Afterwards Sam’s “head was throbbing, his ears were ringing from the blast,” but he was otherwise unharmed. 
  • In the pyramid, Sam finds a parchment belonging to a Templar Knight that tells why they built a structure inside the pyramid. While building the structure in a pool, crocodiles appeared. “I shall never forget the look of horror, the pain, as unseen monsters took hold of their legs. Screams were stifled as the men were pulled under…the ugly red stain that spread through the pool left us in no doubt as to the fate of our other two companions.” Later, the knight meets a similar fate. 
  • Sam goes into the pool to retrieve an item. A crocodile “comes out of the tunnel . . . and smashed into [Sam], knocking him back off his feet. . . he went under with his mouth open. The choking sensation triggered a burst of panic that wiped the crocodile from his mind.” Sam survives without injury. 
  • Sam and his friends follow Felix, who is trying to escape in a submarine. “Sam pushed the hatch down, hitting Felix in the head. Stunned, the man let go to the side of the ladder and fell back inside. . . Five feet below, Felix was sprawled in a heap unconscious.” 
  • Sam is trying to get out of the submarine when Felix “grabbed Sam’s pants . . . [Sam] swung his free foot backward, catching Felix in his stomach, then released one hand from the ladder and swung his elbow back, smashing into Felix’s forehead.” The two wrestle with each other for six pages and Sam eventually escapes. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Some believe that the pyramids were “built on key energy points around the world. Powered by Arks, they create an energy field that holds the earth’s crust in place.” The Ark can produce a magical substance known as the philosopher’s stone, “but the Ark will only produce this magical substance if it is taken out of the pyramid.” Some men would like to remove the Arc and become immortal despite the danger to the earth.  

Spiritual Content 

  • The story revolves around Kinich Ahau, the Egyptian sun god and the god of the underworld. 
  • Sam visits Mayan pyramids where the Maya “performed ceremonies and made sacrifices to their gods.”  

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene takes great comfort in his routines. Afterschool Monday to Thursday is bowling. Friday, the best of days, is laser tag! But Chester has one very special secret—he gets spy messages from his dad. Chester thinks his father must be on covert government assignments, which is why Chester has never been able to meet him.

Then one day, Chester’s classmate Skye approaches him with a clue. They’ve been tasked with a complex puzzle-solving mission! Skye proves to be a useful partner and good company, even if her free-wheeling ways are disruptive to Chester’s carefully built schedule. As Chester and Skye get closer to their final clue, they discover the key to their spy assignment: they have to stop a heist! But cracking this code may mean finding out that things are not always what they seem. 

Chester is used to being alone. Nobody sits by him at lunch. Nobody sits by him on the school bus. And nobody helps him when Marc bullies him. His dad is the only person that Chester can talk to, but he’s never actually met his dad and they only communicate through emails. But in Chester’s greatest time of need, his dad goes silent. So, when a strange clue is left on his door, Chester is convinced that his dad is a spy in danger—and only Chester can help. When Skye approaches Chester with the other piece of the clue, the two are forced to work together even though Chester would prefer to solve the mystery on his own. 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code has a slow start, but once Skye jumps into the story, the story takes off on a fun hunt for clues. Even though Chester is a bit “difficult,” Skye doesn’t let his quirks chase her off. And soon, Chester discovers that he likes having Skye as a friend, even though she is impulsive. While the clues add mystery to the book, Chester and Skye’s developing relationship adds heart and teaches readers the value of friendship. Even though the story is written from Chester’s point of view, readers will be able to relate to Skye’s annoyance when Chester gets difficult. 

Throughout the hunt for clues, Chester thinks his father is leaving the clues. While Chester thinks about the need to solve the clues and help his father, there is no clear reason that explains why Chester believes his father is in danger. Because of this, Chester’s constant thoughts about his father’s danger become a bit tedious. However, many readers will relate to Chester’s feelings of abandonment and his deep desire to meet his father. Chester eventually learns that with or without his father, he is surrounded by people who love him, and that is enough.   

Even though Chester and Skye must solve the clues left for them, the clues are so specific to the characters that the readers don’t have a chance to solve the clues themselves. Despite this, the story contains enough mystery and adventure to keep readers interested. Plus, the story teaches the importance of friendship, family, and speaking up when being bullied. Chester realizes “people make mistakes. . . Perfect—it doesn’t exist.” Overall, Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a fun read that shows the importance of embracing the people in your life and accepting them for who they are. 

Sexual Content 

  • Chester’s mother is dating a man who stays the night at her house. Chester knows that “Mom and Christopher won’t come out of the bedroom until later.” 
  • Skye tells Chester that her dad might marry his girlfriend because he’s “over the moon. They’re all smoochy smoochy all the time.” 
  • After Christopher proposes to Chester’s mom, they kiss. Skye tells them, “Get a room.” 

Violence 

  • After winning a round of laser tag, Marc (the school bully) corners Chester. Marc punches Chester. “A flash of color bursts behind my eyelids. My ears ring with a tinkling sound, or maybe the force of my body being slammed into the change machine. . .” Chester gets a huge black eye. 
  • Marc is standing by Chester’s locker. When Chester approaches, Marc “tosses a casual punch at my shoulder. . . Only, his hand lands hard enough that it throws me off-balance, and my other shoulder collides with the bank of lockers.” Then, Marc grabs Chester. Marc “grips some combination of my shirt, my armpit skin, and my backpack strap, and with tremendous force, whips my entire body around him. . .” Chester ends up on his back “limbs sprawling, neck kinked.” Chester’s shoulders and neck hurt, and his shirt is ripped. The scene is described over two pages.   
  • Chester tells a story about a man who came into the bowling alley and “tried to rob Amanda [the owner] at knifepoint once. She hit him in the head with a bowling ball.” 
  • Four people rob an armored car. Two of the men have “guns raised, they charge on the truck. Boom. The guard flinches like he hit a wall. He grabs his neck, then slumps down.” 
  • When a guard falls, Chester thinks, “Is he dead? But there’s no blood. No terrible explosion. A tiny arrow sticks out of his neck.” 
  • When the robber sees Chester, he grabs him. “My shoulder pops as [he] binds my hands together behind my back. He uses something thin and smooth. It cuts into my skin.” 
  • Skye jumps in to help Chester. A female robber grabs Skye and “she goes down.” The robber says, “Pop ‘em and let’s get out of here.” One of the men refuses to kill them because “they’re just kids.” The robbery is described over five pages. 
  • The school bully, Marc, calls Chester “Salisbury-face” because they were serving it at lunch. Angry, Chester’s “lunch tray geos vertical, smashes straight into Marc’s face. Peas go rolling over his shoulder, down his arms, and onto the floor.” 
  • Marc corners Chester in the bathroom and gives Chester a bruise “exactly the size and shape of a urinal head.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Twice after being punched, Chester goes home and takes Tylenol for the pain. 
  • While having dinner, Chester’s mother and her boyfriend have a beer. 
  • At the bowling alley, a group of adults is drinking beer.  
  • Chester’s mom’s boyfriend serves pizza and beer to other adults. 

Language   

  • Marc calls Chester a loser several times. 
  • When Marc slams into Chester, Chester thinks Marc is a “jerk-face.” 
  • After hitting Marc with his lunch, Chester thinks, “Oh, no. Oh, crud.” 
  • Skye says Marc is a jerk. 
  • Dang it is used three times. 
  • Heck is used four times. 
  • OMG, my God, and oh my God are used as an exclamation a few times. 
  • Skye calls Chester a doofus and a goof.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Kelsey the Spy

Kelsey can’t resist collecting secrets in her spy notebook just like her hero, Harriet the Spy. When she learns Leo has been hiding something from the group, she writes his secret in her notebook as well. But when the notebook goes missing, everything she’s collected about classmates, friends, and family could be revealed to the world! After receiving a ransom note, Kelsey tries to solve the mystery on her own. But soon she realizes she needs help from everyone in the Curious Cat Spy Club in order to rescue her notebook, help a homesick 130-year-old Aldabra tortoise, and unmask a thief. 

When Kelsey’s notebook of secrets disappears, she is consumed with fear that the secrets will be revealed and someone will be hurt. When one of her secrets goes public, Kelsey is convinced that the thief must be stopped. Kelsey’s fear and worry drive much of her actions, but the constant reminders of the dangers of keeping secrets becomes annoying. While Kelsey’s concerns are justified, Kelsey’s inner monologue may frustrate readers. 

The story’s focus is on Kelsey’s stolen notebook, which doesn’t allow room for the other subplots to be adequately explored. For example, a lost dog that Kelsey is hoping to find only appears twice and the encounter is so short that it does nothing to add to the story. Part of the story includes interesting facts about an Aldabra tortoise, but animal-loving readers will wish that more time was devoted to the tortoise. Even though the animal aspect of Kelsey the Spy reinforces the theme of not keeping secrets, the subplot lacks depth.  

Readers will relate to Kelsey’s friendship problems. As Kelsey struggles with finding the notebook thief, she also has a difficult time with the changing nature of her friendships. When Kelsey’s friends are too busy to spend time with her, Kelsey gets frustrated. Kelsey finally talks to her friends about how she feels, which allows them to work through their problems. In the end, she realizes that friendships change, “rising and falling, then coming back together stronger than ever.” 

Kelsey the Spy has an inquisitive protagonist who helps put on a fundraiser for a local shelter. Kelsey is a typical preteen that many readers will relate to. However, the plot tackles too much—Kelsey’s brother who is sneaking around, a lost dog, the missing notebook, and the tortoise who needs a new home. Because of the many subplots, the story jumps around a lot. Kelsey the Spy does have some fun elements to keep readers engaged. Plus, it teaches important lessons about teamwork, friendship, and the dangers of keeping secrets. Even though Kelsey the Spy is the third book in the series, it can also be read as a standalone. Middle-grade mystery-loving readers should also read the Friday Barns Series by R.A. Spratt. 

Sexual Content 

  • While spying on her brother, Kelsey sees her friend’s mom. “The sheriff and Mrs. Morales are both divorced and went to high school together so they’re good friends. . . the sheriff kisses her—a big, fat kiss on the lips that lasts a very long time.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • OMG is used often. Oh my god is used once. 
  • Kelsey says drat three times. 
  • Kelsey’s friend calls a classmate a “slimy snake.” Later she calls someone else a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Aftermath

Three years ago, Skye’s older brother Luka was implicated as one of three perpetrators in a school shooting that claimed the lives of four victims. Though Luka never fired a weapon, the police saw him walk out of the bathroom holding a gun, and when he didn’t drop it, they shot him dead. The evidence that he was a willing participant could not be more damning than that, though Skye cannot fathom how her “kind and thoughtful brother . . . joined his friends in a school shooting.” In the wake of endless harassment and her father walking out on the family, Skye and her mother moved away to live with her grandmother.  

However, a turn of events forces Skye to move in with her aunt back in the town she grew up in. She knows that while much of the country has forgotten the shooting, “the people here will have not forgotten. They will not have forgiven.” She finds herself going to school surrounded by peers who were personally impacted by the shooting. One of these peers is her former best friend, Jesse, who lost his older brother that fateful day. Skye had anticipated the isolation, dirty looks, and cruel comments. However, strange events start occurring and it seems Skye is being given cryptic clues that there is more to the story of the tragedy. Skye and Jesse end up reconnecting and teaming up to uncover the truth. Could Luka have been innocent? More urgently, could the true third perpetrator still be out there, planning another attack?  

Aftermath is largely told from Skye’s perspective. She is a well fleshed out narrator and the reader is able to sympathize with the shame and defeat she feels as the sister of a school shooter. She struggles with misplaced guilt over the lives lost due to her brother. It’s heartbreaking to see her suppressed grief over losing Luka. As she puts it, “You aren’t allowed to grieve for someone like Luka. It doesn’t matter if he was an amazing brother.” However, the book falters in the chapters that are told from Jesse’s perspective, which are in third person. The perspectives do not alternate evenly and Jesse’s point of view is shared less frequently. Moreover, the reader might feel a disconnect with his character due to the different perspectives. Unfortunately, Jesse’s narrations end up feeling unnecessary and they disrupt the narrative’s flow. 

Though Skye is a well-rounded protagonist, there are areas of her character that will leave the reader wanting. For instance, her relationship with her deceased brother is not adequately explored. The novel states that they were close, and offers a couple memories, but not enough depth for readers to understand their strong bond. In addition, Skye’s romance with Jesse falls quite flat. Since the two friends were developing an attraction to each other before the shooting, it’s rather predictable that the flame will be rekindled once they cross paths again, but their romance ends up feeling like an unnecessary addition to the story.  

Aftermath is well written and easy to follow; plus, it has interesting twists and turns. Though some of the events that take place admittedly stretch the suspension of disbelief, young readers will likely be too wrapped up in the story to care. As the sister of an apparent school shooter, Skye’s perspective is intriguing and not one commonly found in stories that handle this type of subject matter. Unfortunately, the book loses some of this uniqueness when Luka is revealed as having been innocent, even heroic. As such, Skye is given an easy out from her shame and her struggle to balance mourning her brother while also accepting that he took part in the tragedy. 

Even though Aftermath is a well-told story that manages to stand out among other YA novels that handle shootings, it is undeniably flawed. Despite this, Aftermath is definitely worth reading for those interested in crime fiction, especially if they are interested in viewing crime from a unique perspective. However, readers might end up being let down by the conclusion’s reveal, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. Readers who want to explore the grief associated with school shootings may also want to read Every Moment After by Joseph Moldover and Shooter by Caroline Pignat. 

Sexual Content 

  • After the shooting, Skye read message boards where someone suggested that Skye should be sexually assaulted. The post reads, “‘I hear one of those bastards has a sister. . . Maybe someone should take her and –’ I won’t finish that sentence. . .”  At the time, Skye was thirteen and she was “reading what some troll thinks should be done to me and wondering how that would help anything.” 
  • Skye recalls being thirteen and playing basketball with Jesse. She says that Jesse’s older brother, Jamil, looked her “up and down in a way that [made] me want to hug the ball to my chest.” 
  • Jesse recalls the same incident mentioned above, adding that his brother watched Skye leave with “his gaze glued to her ass . . . [saying,] ‘She’s gonna be hot someday, little brother. I’m gonna be thanking you then, for keeping her around.’” 
  • Skye is harassed by a group of older boys, and one of them tells her, “You’ve got a smart mouth. How about I show you a better way to use it?” Nothing ends up coming from this threat. 
  • Skye remembers her father being away on business trips, speculating that he was “screwing his business partner.” 
  • When Skye and Jesse kiss for the first time, Skye describes “[pressing her] lips to his,” but the two of them are interrupted before things escalate further. 
  • Skye and Jesse begin kissing passionately. She says, “I’m finally kissing Jesse . . . his arms tighten around me, the kiss deepening, igniting a spark that is definitely not for middle grade Skye.” 

Violence 

  • The shooting that took place three years prior to the events of the book is referenced several times. Skye recounts that the police saw her brother with a gun and that “they told him to drop it. He didn’t. They shot him. . . [Luka’s friends] Isaac and Harley opened fire elsewhere. When it was over, four kids were dead, ten injured. Harley was arrested. Isaac had fled. He was found two days later – dead, having saved the last bullet for himself.” 
  • An anonymous number sends Skye illegally obtained footage taken by students during the shooting. The first video she receives is of a victim “under her desk, sprawled and there’s blood . . . her dead eyes staring.” She receives videos of the other victims’ bloodied bodies as well. 
  • Skye joins the newspaper at school and finds several notes about her, one of them saying, “I hope someone puts a bullet through Skye Gilcrist’s head.” 
  • Skye finds herself locked in the newspaper room and someone shoves paper and lit matches under the door causing a fire. Skye says, “I feel heat on my leg and look down to see sparks scorching through my jeans. I smack them out and stay down . . .[I] grab the metal [door] handle and fall back, hissing in pain.” She finally manages to break out and pull the fire alarm, having escaped any real damage from the flames. 
  • Jesse, troubled since his brother’s death, apparently got in trouble for a series of fistfights, “culminating in an attack on a younger boy.” 
  • A group of football players—Grant, Duke and Marco—harass Skye on the street. Jesse sees and runs over to defend her, causing a fight to break out. Skye narrates that Jesse “grabs Duke by the jacket and throws him down . . . Grant aims a kick straight at Jesse’s head . . .  [his] boot hits him in the face.” A bystander intervenes and the fight is stopped. Jesse is left with a bloody nose. The scene is described over five pages. 
  • At school, a boy starts intimidating Skye and Jesse, and the situation escalates into this boy attacking Skye. Skye describes, “his hand slams into my shoulder, and I fly into the lockers. Jesse grabs the guy by the back of the shirt and yanks him away . . . I grab the guy’s arm. As he yanks away, my nails rake down his arm.” Someone intervenes shortly afterward. 
  • While Skye and Jesse are investigating clues at a park, someone attempts to abduct Skye at knifepoint. Skye describes him locking his arm “over [her] throat… [she] can’t breathe.” She fights him off. He lets go and takes a knife from his belt. The blade “slashes through [her] jacket. Slashes through skin and into flesh.” He shoves her into a pit but flees when Jesse finds the two of them. Skye’s cut is quite severe, and she is later treated by a doctor. 
  • In the book’s final chapters, Tiffany, the girlfriend of one of the perpetrators of the shooting, is revealed to have been the true mastermind behind the massacre. She breaks into Skye’s apartment with a gun and sedatives. She has a confrontation with Skye where it is revealed that Tiffany sedated her aunt and is planning to kill her and frame Skye. Skye manages to drive a knife “into her, just enough to make her drop the weapon and try to grab me, but I have her by the wrist. . . and two seconds later, I have her on her knees, arm pinned behind her head.” This all takes place over the course of eight pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A group of high school football players that are harassing Skye is implied to be drunk. Skye tells them, “It seems like you’ve already had a few [drinks].” 
  • Jesse has been taking steroids at the recommendation of his track trainer, unbeknownst to his parents and the school. He eventually confesses and is kicked off the team. 
  • During the kidnapping attempt, Skye’s would-be abductor attempts to put her to sleep by putting a chloroform cloth over her mouth. 
  • Skye’s friend Chris is a weed smoker. 

Language 

  • After the shooting, Skye says someone wrote: “DIE, BITCH” in her locker. Bitch is used on multiple other occasions. 
  • Some refer to Skye’s lesbian aunt as a dyke. 
  • Shit is used twice. 
  • Profanity such as damn, hell, and ass is used often. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Skye says that people have told her that they hope her brother is “rotting in hell.” 
  • As she arrives at the airport near her hometown, Skye describes “praying that [she isn’t] recognized.”  

Saving Montgomery Sole

Montgomery Sole is used to being the odd one out, the “mystery” kid, at school and in her small town. Montgomery is used to being judged and misunderstood by those around her, mainly because she has two moms. But Montgomery finds solace in her friends, Thomas and Naoki, who, like her, enjoy a good mystery. Together the group forms a school club dedicated to all things mysterious, strange, and unexplained. 

One day, after falling down a deep rabbit hole on the internet, Montgomery finds the “Eye of Know,” a possibly all-powerful and all-seeing crystal amulet, that is only $5.99. Intrigued by the mystery and ambiguity surrounding this necklace, Montgomery buys it. But once she begins to wear the Eye of Know, strange things begin to happen. People Montgomery despises, like her school bully, have unexplained terrible things happen to them. 

Montgomery, not knowing what is happening, begins to confront the bullies and ignorance in her life, fueled by her anger toward them. Montgomery is forced to learn how to deal with these mean people, without losing herself and the people she loves most in the process. Montgomery is a caring, headstrong, passionate sixteen-year-old. As she is dealing with the bullies and ignorance in her life, she is also trying to grow up and explore her interests. While Montgomery becomes slightly obsessed with figuring out all the mysteries of the world, she is reminded that when “exploring… [in] the end of it, what you know is you.” Montgomery reminds readers that you don’t need to try to fit in with society’s standards and that it is okay to simply be a mystery. 

Saving Montgomery Sole discusses religion and its weaponization. Growing up, Montgomery has felt at odds with religion since it has often been forced upon her. Plus, it is the religious people in her life who have told her that she and her family need to change. For example, when Montgomery was younger, her religious, Evangelical grandparents often told her that she needed a real father and she needed to be a “good Christian” girl. Then, when a religious preacher moves into town and begins plastering posters around the community that say the American family needs to be “saved,” Montgomery again feels targeted. Montgomery feels as if her family and their way of life are being attacked by this preacher, who is claiming to know what is right and wrong, and his religion. In the end, Montgomery realizes that while there will always be some people who use religion negatively to force their beliefs on others, it does not mean she needs to feel attacked. Montgomery realizes she can rise above the hate. 

Saving Montgomery Sole also highlights the importance of friendship and family. Throughout the novel, Montgomery keeps her worries and fears to herself. While Montgomery is feeling attacked by the new preacher and the school bullies, she keeps this to herself, insisting to those around her that she is fine. This only increases Montgomery’s feelings of isolation. It is only when she talks to her moms and her friends about what is bothering her that she begins to feel better. Montgomery reminds readers that they are not alone, and of the importance of relying on one’s support system in times of need. 

Overall Saving Montgomery Sole is a great book, with a diverse and hilarious cast of characters. Its magical undertones and fun storyline balance out its serious messages about hate and bigotry. While Montgomery Sole is coming to terms with the difficult world around her, she reminds the audience that it is okay to be unique. Montgomery’s actions show that people do not need to fit into society’s mold.  

Sexual Content 

  • When Montgomery and her friends are discussing lucid dreams, Thomas “says most of his dreams are sexy dreams.” 
  • When Matt transfers schools, Montgomery befriends him and they go on a lunch date. After flirting, Montgomery “leaned forward and . . . kissed him.” She explains “I wanted to because at the time I thought he was cute. . . I was enchanted. We had three soft kisses. They were these amazing little melty kisses. Then his hand grabbed my thigh. Clamped down. And all of the sudden it was just like tongue. And I pulled back . . . We kissed again. I learned to manage the overwhelmingness of tongue. And the meltiness came back. But that feeling was quickly replaced by something else, specifically his hand pushing under the front of my sweater. I could feel him searching from my boobs, like clawing past my T-shirt in this weird, frustrating way.” Montgomery pulls away from Matt not wanting to continue further. Matt responds negatively, saying “Oh my God, I knew it . . . you’re a dyke, right?” 

Violence 

  • Montgomery reads a blog about a woman who thinks she is in the “process of becoming a human cyborg.” An article Montgomery reads later explains the woman “had to give it up because she was hallucinating, possibly due to lead poisoning from all the bolts and screws she was inserting under her skin. 
  • There are many instances of bullying throughout the book, specifically towards Montgomery and her friend Thomas, who is gay. For example, the school bully, Matt, purposely bumps into Thomas. Matt spins around and says, “I thought you gays, I mean, guys were supposed to be light on your feet.” 
  • One day Montgomery finds a white cross on her locker, as well as “kick me stickers, MONTYZ MOMZ HAVE AIDS signs, [and] MONTY IS A LESBIAN Post-it notes.” 
  • When she is walking down the hall, Montgomery is “nearly slammed into a wall” by Matt, who says, “Watch your face, Sole!”  
  • At Montgomery’s younger sister’s soccer game, a group of girls make incredibly bigoted comments at the other team. These comments include: “I think a couple of these kids are, like, Mexican. They’re probably not even legal,” “That girl needs an eating disorder,” and, “Does this girl with the pink bow in her hair look retarded to you?” When the girls see Montgomery’s mothers hugging, one of the girls exclaims “let’s get out of here before they, like, rape us.”  
  • While she is standing by her locker, Montgomery “was hit with a heavy thud against [her] back.” It was Matt who hit her. 
  • One day after class, Montgomery and Thomas find that his locker was vandalized. The writing says, “Thomas blow jobs for $5.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes idiot, dickhead, dick, bitch, assholes, jerkoff, and shitty.  
  • Derogatory language is also used a few times. This includes retard, dyke, and fag. 
  • Some of the profanity in the book is only implied. For instance, at a soccer game, a woman yells obscenity “like the C word” at the ref.  

Supernatural 

  • Montgomery and her friends have a school club where they talk about the mysteries of the world, often these topics are of the supernatural nature. The topics include remote viewing, ESP, mind control, and more.  
  • The Eye of Know is described as a rock “excavated from an asteroid landing in the magical mountain ranges of Peru. When wielded by a skilled visionary, the eye is a portal to vision untold. Journey forward into insight. Explore the power of know.” 
  • When Montgomery was younger, she and her mothers went to a haunted antique store. Montgomery asks the shop owner about the ghost. The shop owner explains it is a “feminine spirit.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Montgomery ponders on spiritual messages. She wonders if “maybe there was some connection between bread and Christianity that merited further investigation.” 
  • Montgomery explains that the new reverend in town thinks her and her friends are “going to hell.” 
  • Montgomery’s younger sister, Tesla, is interested in praying with some of her friends before their soccer game. Momma Jo explains “look. It’s not bad, Tesla. I just, I think what I’m saying is . . . I’m saying praying doesn’t win games. Praying is something people do as part of something much bigger, like a religion.” Mama Kate puts her hand on Tesla’s hand. “What we’re trying to say is, sweetie, praying is not something you do just so you can win a game.” When Tesla asks, “Why don’t we have a religious practice?” Montgomery snaps at her saying, “we don’t need one.” 
  • Montgomery explains, “Mama Kate’s parents are really religious. Evangelicals. Believers in the Second Coming. When we were little, they would give Tesla and me religious-type stuff all the time. Like for our birthdays they would send us books like Good Christian Girls tucked into the covers of regular books. They slipped little golf crosses into birthday cards signed, Jesus loves you.”  
  • Furthermore, Montgomery explains that when she was younger, she thought “Jesus was, like, this person my grandparents knew. Like a great-uncle. Great-uncle Jesus from Kansas.” 
  • Montgomery ponders about mystics. “A couple of mystics talk about Jesus a lot. About how Jesus was at work in the world of the living and the dead, shepherding people into heaven. Like Jesus was some kind of maître d’ for heaven. If he’s so important, I wondered, why is he working the door?” Montgomery says, “These people have no logic.” 
  • When Montgomery confronts the new priest, whose posters say he is trying to “Save the American Family,” he tells Montgomery she has a “depraved soul” and “will burn in hell with the rest of those who cannot and will not accept the love of Jesus Christ.” 
  • Montgomery confronts Kenneth, the son of the new radical preacher. The two begin to talk about religion. Kenneth explains “a person can believe in God and Jesus Christ, can be a Christian, and not be like my father.” They talk about what it means to be a “good Christian.” 
  • Kenneth comments on what his father preaches, saying “how about I don’t like calling stuff sin and saying people will go to hell? I don’t think it’s right. And I’ve studied my Bible my whole life just like he has. I don’t see that the Bible says you have to do all this and break in on other peoples’ lives and . . . don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I don’t think that’s being a good Christian, to answer your question.” 

The Place Between Breaths

It’s been years since Grace’s schizophrenic mother fled from her and her father, Dr. King. Deep down, Grace knows that her mother’s disappearance was purposeful – that she left out of fear that staying would only cause the family more pain. Now in her teens, Grace’s relationship with her father is strained. Dr. King is still working tirelessly as a recruiter at a lab that studies schizophrenia in order to find a cure. “He waits for [his wife] to return, to be found, and finally, finally, their love, [their] family [to be] whole again.” 

Grace, who is interning at the same lab, knows better than her father. She knows “what is and is not within the realm of possibility . . . [that] hope is just a four letter word.” The only thing she believes in is science. And one day, science comes through for Grace. She discovers a DNA code that could be the breakthrough her father has hoped for. Or at least, that’s what she thinks. The discovery could be a delusion, as Grace’s mind has already begun to slip. Grace is experiencing symptoms that are all too familiar to the ones she witnessed as a child. Soon, she cannot be certain of what is real—and neither can the reader. 

The Place Between Breaths is rather unique in the way it is presented. Grace narrates much of the novel; however, several chapters take on different points of view. Sometimes the reader is given flashbacks from Grace’s childhood that are told in the third person. Other times, the narrative takes on a second-person point of view with an ambiguous speaker who is speaking to an unknown person. This creates a somewhat disjointed and intentionally confusing reading experience, like puzzle pieces that are meant to be put together as the story goes on. 

Grace’s emotions are very raw making her easy to sympathize with. The reader feels her growing hopelessness as her schizophrenia consumes her. During a schizophrenic episode, Grace thinks to herself, “Please let me die. I refuse to live like this.” Readers will want Grace to find peace in her rapidly deteriorating state. Other characters are difficult to get a good sense of, which is clearly intentional. Since Grace cannot be certain of what is going on around her, the reader cannot be certain if the people around her are who she perceives them to be. 

The Place Between Breaths requires readers to pay careful attention to the text, particularly in the concluding chapters. It may even be necessary to read the novel over again to grasp what exactly happens. This is doable, as it is a brief 181 pages. However, certain readers might be irritated by how confusing the narrative is and frustrated by the lack of closure. The confusion is purposeful because the audience is meant to experience the story through the lens of having schizophrenia.  

The Place Between Breaths is an important novel that spurs an honest understanding and empathy for those suffering from schizophrenia. It is a uniquely told story that manages to be moving despite its confusing nature. It has a bittersweet message that, while many people continue to fall victim to this disease, medical advancements are slowly but surely being made. Teenagers who are interested in exploring mental illness in literature will likely enjoy the read. However, The Place Between Breaths is definitely not something everyone will enjoy. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim also explores how mental illness can affect a family. 

Sexual Content 

  • Grace’s friend Hannah is pregnant. When talking about the pregnancy, Grace says, “I didn’t think things were that serious with you two. I thought it was strictly messing around.” 
  • Grace is cynical about Hannah’s relationship with her boyfriend and suspects that “he probably just [uses] her for sex.” 

Violence 

  • During a schizophrenic episode, Grace notes, “my teeth sink into the soft flesh of my tongue. Blood pools in my mouth.” 
  • Grace hallucinates a train coming toward her house and panics. She says, “I will myself to die before the train explodes into the house. I smash my face against the floor. My nose fills with blood.” 
  • During a heated argument, Grace attacks Hannah’s boyfriend, Dave. She describes, “I reach up and grab him by the hair. Bite his shoulder.” During the fight, Dave shoves Grace to the ground. “The back of [her] head slams against the pavement” and she is knocked unconscious. 
  • Grace’s fellow intern, Will, reveals that his schizophrenic twin sister killed herself years ago. He recalls stopping her during her first attempt. Will says, “‘My dad had this sword collection . . . she got into the room . . . I tried to take it away from her . . . that’s how I got these scars [on my palms].”  
  • Will says his intervention in his sister’s suicide attempt “didn’t do any good. Because in the end, she still found a way to end her life a few days later.” 
  • One of the book’s second-person perspective chapters describes the feeling of a schizophrenic breakdown, how “you will feel as though your ears are bleeding from the cries . . . your skin ripped open from the clawing.” 
  • At one point in Grace’s childhood, her mother harmed her during a schizophrenic episode. Her mother “pulled her close and then placed the blade [of a knife] against the pillowed fat of her cheekbone. The ridge and edge forming an indented line.” It is unclear if she actually cut her. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • As a young child, Grace witnesses her father injecting her mother with something to help combat a schizophrenic episode. 
  • Several characters note that the drugs for treating schizophrenia have improved vastly. 
  • Grace attempts to kill herself by poisoning her coffee with cyanide stolen from the lab, but she is stopped by a hallucination. 
  • While in treatment, Grace “takes the pills when [she is] told to.”

Language 

  • Minor words of vulgarity, including damn, ass, and hell are said on a few occasions.  
  • Fuck and shit are used occasionally.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Grace confronts Hannah’s boyfriend, Dave, about him wanting Hannah to carry their child to term. He says, “I wasn’t raised to just cut and leave. My faith means a lot to me. I actually prayed on this, Grace.” 
  • Grace tells Dave that “‘there is a reason your GOD gave scientists the brains to create birth control and abortion.” 
  • A doctor at the lab Grace interns at compares the work of a scientist to religion, saying, “our place of worship is here [at the lab]. Our scriptures and prophets are the texts and scientists who have come before us. We are just as adamant and at times fantastical as any zealot.” 
  • Grace’s mother is described as praying at one point during her childhood 
  • Grace is highly skeptical of religious faith. The topics of faith and worship are motifs throughout the book. 

The Words We Keep

It’s been three months since Lily found her older sister, Alice, bleeding from her wrists on the bathroom floor. Now, with her father having drained his bank account for Alice’s mental treatment program, Lily knows she is not allowed to be a burden to her family. She’s told no one about her panic attacks, or how she impulsively picks the skin on her stomach until it bleeds, sometimes even in her sleep. She constantly wonders to herself, “What if you’re going crazy? Just like [Alice]. What if . . .you’re already gone?” Still, Lily knows she cannot let any of this out. She needs to keep her eyes on the prize – that being a full track scholarship to Berkeley. 

Her sister’s return home from Fairview is coupled with a boy named Micah transferring to Lily’s high school. As it turns out, Micah was in treatment with Alice, and he’s also Lily’s new partner for a school art project. The two embark on a project that involves leaving poetry in unexpected places throughout the school. The two maintain their anonymity, gaining the title “the guerilla poets of Ridgeline High.” Lily knows Micah can assist her in finding a way to help her sister. However, Lily also finds that she needs Micah to help her, because the words she’s kept inside for too long are beginning to break through. 

Told from Lily’s perspective The Words We Keep is a vivid and gripping story about the effect depression and anxiety can have. The reader feels the push and pull of Lily knowing she needs help but wanting to be strong for her family. The poetry she writes communicates this struggle very well. The highlight on mental illness and self-harm is unflinching, and while at times difficult to read, the narrative handles the difficult subject matter beautifully. Occasionally the chapters end by showing the reader Lily’s Google searches and her word-a-day calendar entries, which allow for deeper glimpses into her psyche. Other chapters end with comments on the high school’s student message board, offering insights into how other students perceive Lily and Micah’s poetry project.  

Lily and Micah’s tentative bond and eventual romance is developed well. Micah’s mysterious nature and affinity for the characters of Winnie the Pooh intrigue Lily, and she muses that he might be able “to understand [her struggles]. Maybe he’s the only one who could.” The strained relationship between Lily and Alice is also very important to the narrative. The sisters are both suffering, but unable to console each other because they are holding their struggles back for the sake of the other. Through their relationship, the importance of openness with those close to us during trying times is emphasized. 

The major characters in The Words We Keep are largely well-developed and likable, but those outside of the main cast are too numerous and one-dimensional. For example, a bully named Damon is at points unrealistically cruel to Micah. Damon goes as far as giving Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note suggesting that he kill himself, which Micah just shrugs off. Other characters, like Lily’s best friend and her stepmother, provide little substance to the narrative and seem to leave and reenter the story at random periods with little impact, leaving the reader to wonder why they were included at all. 

The flaws of The Words We Keep ultimately do little to detract from the impact of the story. Readers will be able to connect with Lily and will want to see her story to its finish. While not for the faint of heart, this is an important novel that explores the pain of suffering in silence, and how to overcome the fear of letting it out and asking for help. Readers will learn that many people around them may be fighting inner demons, and that compassion and openness about one’s own struggles is imperative. Readers who want to explore mental health through fiction should add Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson and Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Lily texts Micah saying that a talk with her sister went over “like a fart in an elevator.” Afterward, Micah jokingly texts Lily that she needs to “work on [her] sexting skills.” 
  • When students begin leaving poems throughout the school, Lily notes “the occasional blow me” written along with them. 
  • Lily says that her father and stepmother are newlyweds, “which means sex. And lots of it.” 
  • Lily and Micah almost kiss in a janitor’s closet and rumors spread. One student speculates on the student message boards that Micah was “banging [Lily] in the janitor’s closet.” 
  • When Lily and Micah kiss for the first time, Lily describes, “his lips [moving] slowly, as gentle as a breeze, but the taste of him makes my whole body hum . . .our bodies, our lips, melt farther into each other.”  
  • Lily and Micah go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lily says, “I taste the ocean on his skin as I press my mouth to his shoulder, his neck, his jaw. He groans, low and guttural, when his lips find mine.” 
  • Lily sees her sister going skinny dipping with a guy at a beach party. He later says that the two of them were “messing around.” 
  • Micah was with Lily and her family at the hospital after Lily attempts suicide. He later confesses, “‘I have to tell you something . . . they put you in a hospital gown and I totally saw your butt.” She jokingly asks if it was “good for [him],” to which he responds it was. 

Violence 

  • As a child, Lily nearly drowned while swimming in the ocean. Her sister guided her back to shore. Lily remembers, “salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything . . . and then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.” 
  • Lily discovers Alice on the bathroom floor, “blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile . . . Dad scoops her up, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairytale crumb down the stairs.” Alice is taken to the hospital and then to a mental facility. Lily recalls finding her in the bathroom several times throughout the book. 
  • Kids at school discuss rumors surrounding Micah. One boy says, “‘I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know. . . ’ [he] makes a throat slitting motion with his thumb.” 
  • One student says they heard that Micah “went full psycho on a kid at his last school. Like stomping him to the ground.” 
  • On a message board for students at Lily’s high school, someone suggests they make bets on “how long until [Micah] offs himself.” 
  • Lily self-harms. The earliest incident the reader is privy to is when she vigorously plucks hairs around her eyebrows, “[digging] the tweezers in until blood beads on my skin. But I keep going . . . got it . . . I wipe the pinpoints of blood from my eyelids.” 
  • When Lily was seven, a man, who is later revealed to be Micah’s father, leapt from Deadman’s Cliff. She remembers “watching the body covered in a white sheet like a bloated whale on the sand” on the news. 
  • Lily picks at the skin on her stomach, constantly picking off scabs and opening new wounds. She says, “it helps calm me, keeps me from having a full on meltdown . . . before long, blood coats my fingertips.” This process is described vividly throughout the book. 
  • Lily picks at her wounds in her sleep as well, waking up to find “bright red, angry splotches where I’ve ripped open my skin.” 
  • Micah lashes out at one of his bullies. In a fit of rage, Micah pushes him “up against a locker, and he’s hitting him, hitting him, hitting him.” A school security guard apprehends Micah and he is suspended from school and sentenced to do community service work. 
  • Alice has a breakdown at a beach party and tries to jump from Deadman’s Cliff, apparently convinced that she might fly. Lily tries to climb up to convince her to get down. She reaches for Alice’s ankle and “as she yanks her leg away, her other foot slips . . . and she’s falling. And screaming . . . and there’s blood in her hair. So much blood.” Alice survives the incident, ending up with a concussion. 
  • After her sister’s fall. Lily picks the skin on the entirety of her body in the bath, saying, “I continue even though the pain fills me. Because the pain fills me . . . I scrape myself away.” This happens over three pages. 
  • Lily has a nightmare about finding her sister in bed with “a waterfall of blood [pouring from her covers]. Soaking her nightgown. Splattering onto the carpet.” 
  • While in her room, Lily opens a box of razors and runs her finger “across all the razors and pencil sharpeners and scissors . . . If pain is all we’re going to feel anyway, why not bring it on?” She snaps herself out of it before she can act on the urge. 
  • Lily runs away from home in the middle of the night and attempts suicide by jumping off of Deadman’s Cliff. She thinks, “I just want it to stop. All of it—the monsters, the guilt, the never enough. It’s the only way.” Alice, Micah, and her father arrive and stop her. This scene lasts six pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Lily finds her father cleaning out a medicine cabinet in preparation for Alice’s homecoming. She suspects this is so he can “make sure Alice doesn’t down a fistful of Aspirin when she gets home.” 
  • Lily’s father takes sleeping pills. 
  • Lily begins secretly taking her father’s sleeping pills to combat her intrusive thoughts. 
  • A bully leaves Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note reading, “Do us all a favor.” 
  • After picking at her entire body, Lily takes one of her father’s sleeping pills and one of Alice’s prescribed pills. She sleeps for days while her father and stepmother are constantly with Alice at the hospital. When she awakes, she takes a double dose of sleeping pills and several of Alice’s before returning to sleep.

Language 

  • After Alice falls from the cliff, a student on the message board says that she and Lily are “total attention whores. The world would be better without them.” 
  • Shit, bitch, and damn are said on a few occasions. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lily says that she and her family talk with her therapist while holding each other’s hands “like we’re saying a prayer. And maybe we are, supplicating a higher power to help us.” 

Handbook for Boys: A Novel

After a fight with another student, sixteen-year-old Jimmy is charged with assault, a crime that would normally get him six months in juvenile detention. But the judge offers him an alternative: a six-month community mentoring program run by a man named Duke Wilson. On the judge’s request, Jimmy begins working at Duke’s barbershop. There, he and another student named Kevin meet Duke’s “old guy” friends, who have a lot to say about life.   

At first, Jimmy finds his time at the barbershop unbearable. Duke and his friends frequently tease Jimmy, and each new customer prompts them to launch into a philosophical conversation relating to Duke’s “rules of life.” Gradually, Jimmy begins to warm up to Duke and his friends. Despite his skepticism about their rules, Jimmy continually sees Duke’s wisdom about making choices reflected in other parts of his life. Eventually, Jimmy must grapple with his friend Kevin’s choices that lead to Kevin’s arrest for drug possession.  

 A major theme in Handbook for Boys is intergenerational differences. Jimmy and Kevin are teenagers, while the men at the barbershop are repeatedly described as “old guys.” The novel is told from Jimmy’s perspective and, as a result, readers may be sympathetic to Jimmy’s concern that Duke can’t “understand what it is to be young now.” The rift that this creates is frequently commented on. Jimmy initially finds Duke’s advice to be judgmental, but he comes to accept much of it in the latter half of the book. 

Another prominent theme is the role of agency in everyday life. Duke and his friends firmly believe that people decide their own fate and are therefore always responsible for what happens to them. In fact, this belief is central to Duke’s philosophy. Jimmy initially disagrees. When Duke first posits his “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality to him, Jimmy says, “Anybody can make a mistake, but you figure everybody should be perfect. You’re not even perfect.” Jimmy pushes back in similar ways at various points in the story, but he also seems to internalize Duke’s worldview.  

Jimmy’s empathy makes him a likable character, and readers who often butt heads with respected elders may find him relatable. But even though the story is written through Jimmy’s eyes, he mostly serves as a vehicle for the lessons taught by Duke and his friends. Told as a series of conversations about life, Handbook for Boys frequently prioritizes life lessons over plot. Young readers looking for a clear storyline may find the novel’s philosophical tone preachy or see the issues explored in the story to be dated. 

Ultimately, Handbook for Boys is an insightful look into mentorship and second chances that presents some potentially helpful advice for young people, including the importance of making choices that better their lives. However, it occasionally leans too heavily into its advice-giving side at the expense of staying engaging. Readers who want an entertaining story about overcoming obstacles may want to skip Handbook for Boys and instead read the Hazelwood High Trilogy by Sharon M. Drape or the Alabama Moon Series by Watt Key. 

Sexual Content 

  • Duke and the guys discuss the dangers of pregnancy and venereal diseases like AIDS. Duke says that he’s not willing “to risk [his] health for a few minutes of pleasure,” but tells Jimmy and Kevin “[w]hat you want to do with your life is your business.” 

Violence 

  • Jimmy is on probation for assaulting another student. He describes the incident by saying, “We got into it and I wasted him. But then I was so mad that when it should have been over, I kept punching him. I knew it was wrong because he was hurt bad. His nose was broken and his lip was cut.” 
  • When Kevin makes a crack at him, Jimmy threatens to punch him in the face. The barbershop guys chastise Jimmy for the comment. 
  • One of Duke’s friends speculates about the life of a man in prison, saying that the man must be worried “somebody is going to stick a shank in” him. 
  • After another argument with Kevin, Jimmy thinks about “smashing his face.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Kevin’s mom catches him smoking weed and turns him into the police. 
  • A customer at the barbershop tells a story about getting arrested for accidentally purchasing a stolen watch. The previous owner sold it to the customer in order to buy drugs.  
  • Duke refers to a woman outside the barbershop as a “junkie,” which leads to a conversation about why people do drugs and the importance of avoiding them. 
  • One of Duke’s friends brings up the dangers of contracting AIDS from a drug needle. 
  • Kevin fails a drug test and is later arrested for possession. 

Language  

  • Jimmy calls a philosopher lame. 
  • The word crap is used several times. 
  • Words like stupid and dumb are occasionally used. For example, Jimmy refers to his uncle’s dog as stupid. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Duke asks Jimmy if he went to church Sunday morning. 
  • A woman comes to the barbershop and asks one of Duke’s friends to pray for her. 
  • Jimmy’s great-aunt Sister Smith visits and asks whether Duke is talking to Jimmy about “choosing the ways of the Lord over the ways of the world,” among other spiritual concerns. Jimmy is uncomfortable with the conversation. 
  • A customer says he needs a “good Christian man” to cosign a loan for him. 

Jumper

Blair Scott has been “hell-bent on a career in wildland firefighting” since she was in high school. Being only nineteen, she and her longtime best friend, Jason, don’t expect to be recruited when the Forest Service calls for an additional class of smokejumpers. It’s a particularly rough fire season, though, and they are both accepted. The only thing holding Blair back is type 1 diabetes, and with Jason’s help, she is determined to hide her condition from their instructors.  

Training is strenuous, and both Jason’s and Blair’s families become more insistent that Blair tell the truth. They point out that the medical forms for the job say “‘diabetes may be disqualifying. It’s not an absolute.’” Blair doesn’t want to take any chances. Things are going too well to risk stalling the momentum. Eventually, however, things do begin to spiral out of control. When tragedy strikes, Blair is forced to pick up the pieces and decide where she goes from this point. 

Blair narrates the story, allowing for meaningful insights into her life and why she is so passionate about smokejumping. Also apparent is underlying guilt about Jason having to look after her. He is fiercely protective of her, to the point where Blair wonders if he would even be pursuing a job as a smokejumper if “he weren’t so committed to keeping [her] out of the ER.” This sentiment is most poignantly felt after a tragic accident that leaves Blair struggling to cope.  

The friendship between Blair and Jason is the highlight of the novel. It is refreshing to see Blair, who is a lesbian, enjoy a strong but purely platonic relationship with a man. Their dynamic is very enjoyable. At one point, Blair playfully muses that “Jason and I always fall for the same girls, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s him they want . . . If I were interested in guys, even a little, I’d probably join them.” The reader feels the connection between these two characters very deeply, and, as a result, the experiences Jason and Blair have together are impactful.  

Jumper is not a novel for everyone. The narrative is a slow burn that might be less than engaging for certain readers. A large portion of the story focuses on Blair and Jason’s training, and while it is undeniably an intense process and the risk of Blair having a health emergency looms, this part of the book is largely uneventful. In addition, Blair’s stubborn hotheadedness occasionally makes her difficult to like. Her ambitions are easy to empathize with, but her reckless nature can be frustrating as suspense is built around the danger she is putting herself in. 

Despite the aforementioned flaws, Jumper is a solid story about two friends fighting against the world. Readers who are interested in platonic male-female friendships will get a lot of enjoyment out of Blair’s bond with Jason. Additionally, those who are diabetic will relate to the protagonist’s struggles. The book also contains plenty of interesting information about smokejumping and just how difficult and dangerous the occupation is. The reader will be left with an appreciation for people in this line of work. Readers who enjoy Jumper should also check out the Peak Marcello Adventure Series by Roland Smith which takes readers into the suspenseful world of rock climbing. 

Sexual Content 

  • Blair is attracted to one of the female instructors, and Jason jokes that seeing the two of them run together is “orgasmic or something.” 

Violence 

  • In her childhood, Blair was bullied by a boy, so she retaliated by punching his nose “so hard, he squealed like a pig. Bled like one, too.” 
  • Early on, Blair and the other trainees are informed that a hand crew in Idaho “got caught between two walls of fire . . . there [were] no survivors.” 
  • In the Idaho fire, “members of the shot crew deployed to help clear an exit path sustained serious injuries that [grounded] some of them for the rest of the season.” 
  • Blair’s training is quite strenuous and results in minor injuries along the way, particularly when jumping. Blair describes: “[slamming] down on my already bruised hip . . . everything hurts, but I breathe into the pain. I can handle the pain.” 
  • One of Blair’s trainers stresses the importance of bending one’s knees when landing from a jump. He says, “you may have braces on your ankles. But there’s nothing to keep you from jamming your hip into the socket. I’ve only seen that happen once . . . I’d never heard a human being scream like that.” 
  • During a forest fire, Jason is killed in an avalanche when a boulder hits him in the chest. Blair hears “that meaty thwack of hard meeting soft, of expelled breath and crushed bones . . .  Jason is on the ground . . . There is a peculiar dent in his chest.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • One of the trainers frequently chews Nicorette gum. 
  • After dinner, most of the recruits “head for the bar, while the four of us still underage park it outside the A & W next door.” Fellow underaged recruit Luís suggested joining the guys at the bar, saying “come on, goody-goodies, it’s only beer.” He convinces everyone but Blair to go with him. 
  • Blair uses insulin shots due to her diabetes. 
  • After a particularly rough landing, Blair says that she’ll have Advil with her dinner. 
  • Blair buys a “big bottle of ibuprofen” to lessen the pain caused by injuries sustained during training. 

Language 

  • Damn is said frequently.  
  • Occasionally shit, hell, and variations of ass are used. 
  • Blair says that Jason has a “natural resting-bitch face.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • A head trainer tells the newly minted smokejumpers, “‘If you’re the praying sort, ask for an early fall and a long, hard winter so we can regroup.’” 
  • During Jason’s funeral, Blair notes the pastor talking about Jason “like he was his favorite altar boy or something . . . Jason wasn’t religious. Why would they bother pretending he was?”

500 Words or Less

Nic Chen doesn’t want to spend her senior year known as the girl who cheated on her lovable boyfriend with his best friend and made him transfer schools. She doesn’t want to continue to be ostracized. She doesn’t want to be stared at as she walks down the hallway or have people write “whore” on her locker in lipstick. So, when an opportunity arises to write a classmate’s college admissions essay, Nic tries to use it as an opportunity to rebrand herself and change her reputation. 

As Nic is asked to write more and more essays, she begins to walk in her classmate’s shoes. But the more essays Nic writes, the more unsure of herself she becomes. Weighed down by the guilt of cheating on her ex-boyfriend and writing other people’s essays, Nic questions the person she is becoming and if she is still the perfect straight A, Ivy League-bound teenager society wants her to be. 

Written in poetic verse, 500 Words or Less is very approachable and is a great introduction to poetry and novels written in verse. Interestingly, Rosario includes the essays that Nic writes for her classmates throughout the book. Told mainly from Nic’s perspective, the reader will see Nic’s journey as she learns to move on from her failed relationship, deals with the heartache of breaking up with her first love, and rebuilds herself knowing she acted terribly wrong. Nic is a complex character. She is a determined, passionate girl, who has admittedly made mistakes. Readers will relate to Nic’s struggles with self-confidence, knowing who she is, and wondering if her actions define her. She explains, “I’m still the girl / who cheated on her boyfriend, / the girl who cheated / on those essays, / the girl who cheated / because maybe / that’s who I am.” Throughout this book, Nic learns to forgive and accept herself as well as forgive the people who have hurt her. 

Through Nic and her classmate’s experiences in their senior year of high school, 500 Words or Less takes a look at the pressures of high school and of getting into the right college. Nic explains that she and her classmates “waited for our lives to change / with a single e-mail / from a university / that wanted us.” Furthermore, Nic explores the pressure she and her classmates receive from their parents to be successful and get into the right school. When Jordan, an old friend, tells Nic he is no longer going to Princeton, he explains, “I was always supposed to go / to Princeton. / Because I was supposed to become / my father, / and my father is an asshole.” In the end, Nic and Jordan end up not going to Princeton. Rather than following their parents’ dreams for them, Nic and Jordan decide to do what’s best for themselves, showing that getting into the perfect college will not make or break someone’s life and that any path after high school is valid. 

500 Words or Less also touches on the topic of sexism. Nic points out that while people began to alienate her and write “whore” on her locker, everybody still likes Jordan, the guy she cheated with. She thinks to herself “was there even a male equivalent / to the word ‘whore?’/ There were words/ but none that carried / the same weight.” While Nic is outcasted, Jordan remains the popular kid, showing the blatant misogyny in the treatment of men and women even when they both make the same mistake. 

The book also touches on racism. When Jordan asks Nic for help on homework in Japanese, Nic says, “You know I’m part Chinese, Jordan.” Jordan responds, “It’s like the same thing- / Chinese, Japanese, Korean.” In another instance, a friend tells Nic that she’s “lucky because / half-Asians were always prettier than/ white girls like her.” Nic feels uncomfortable when her friend tells her this. However, Nic isn’t the only person who feels stereotyped. In a college application essay, an African American classmate writes, “I want to attend [this college] because I want to be more than a football player. In America, this is not what young black men are supposed to do . . . I want to be more than an athlete, more than a black man who has a great arm.” Although people would like to “forget that race exists,” Nic points out the subtle ways racism leaks into society, negatively affecting people of color.  

Furthermore, 500 Words or Less examines classism, as Nic’s school is predominantly full of upper-class students whose parents can afford to “[donate] handsomely to the school” they are applying to. Nic herself comes from a wealthy family. She admits that even though she charges $300 per essay, she doesn’t need the money. However, there are a few students who are lower class and do not have the same opportunities as the richer students. Unlike the rich students who know they can go to college no matter what, to some of these students going to college “means everything” as it is a path to upward social mobility.  

Overall, 500 Words or Less is an engaging book, written uniquely with a diverse cast of characters. However, it’s best for mature readers because of the profanity, alcoholism, and normalized teenage drinking. Readers who are applying to college and figuring out what they want to do after high school will relate to Nic’s story and learn that getting into the perfect school is not everything. Furthermore, 500 Words or Less explains that the choices you make in high school do not define you. If you’re ready to jump into another engaging book with a protagonist who is trying to figure out who she is, grab a copy of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez. 

Sexual Content 

  • At a party Nic throws, she and her boyfriend went into her father’s office to find a drink. Nic remembers she was “drunk / on love / and alcohol. / I ran my fingers along the side of his body. / He squirmed / and smirked / and grabbed my hand in his. / He pulled me closer. / Our lips met.” He begins to tug at “the zipper on my dress, / fumbled with the clasps on my bra. / I unlocked my lips and stepped away.” Nic is worried someone will find them and leads Ben up to her room. She describes, “I untangled my hand from his / and fell on top of my bed . . . / [He] fell on top of me . . .  / [and] this time I didn’t stop him.” 
  • On a date, Nic and her boyfriend stop for a bite to eat. As the two eat, Nic thinks, “I wanted to kiss him.” 
  • At Jordan’s party, Nic and Jordan “ended up / upstairs” and have sex. It is suggested that they have sex once or twice more.  

Violence 

  • Nic’s boyfriend dies in a tragic snowboarding accident. Nic explains “teenagers didn’t die in avalanches/ they died in / car crashes, / drunk-driving accidents, / drug overdoses, / gunshot wounds, / or suicide.” After the accident, Nic heavily researches avalanches to understand how he died. She finds out “the force alone / of snow / sliding down a mountain / can kill you,” or “one suffocates after being trapped / in the snow / for thirty minutes.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • During a family dinner, Nic’s father drinks wine. 
  • Nic’s mother was a heavy drinker. Nic remembers how her mother “couldn’t / French braid / my hair / because she was / drunk.” Her father would often find her mom “slumped in a chair” with “an empty bottle of wine” when he came home from work.  
  • Nic remembers how “Mom poured herself another / from a bottle of chardonnay / on one of the last nights / before she disappeared.”  
  • When Nic and her friend Kitty arrive at a party, they are greeted by the host, who smells like “a pitcher of margaritas.” At this party they find “handles / of cheap vodka, rum, and whiskey / wafting toxic smells on the kitchen counter,” along with a variety of mixers.  
  • At the party, Kitty pours “everything- / and I mean everything, / including the dredges of empty bottles- / into a plastic cup” and takes “a large gulp.” Nic leaves the party without checking on Kitty, leaving her “shit-faced” and extremely “drunk.” 
  • Nic reminisces on the party she threw two years ago where she first reconnected with her boyfriend. “Strangers filled empty spaces, / squeezing by, / finding friends / and a beer.” Nic found him in the kitchen drinking “a Keystone Light/ slowly.” The pair go into Nic’s father’s study and she offers him “whiskey, bourbon, or scotch” and pours the two of them “a glass of Glenrothes 1970 / single-malt whiskey,” which Nic explains is a “five-thousand-dollar bottle / of whiskey.” 
  • In a draft of an essay Nic is writing for someone else, she writes about this person’s mother who “is an alcoholic, which leads me to my biggest fear in college—drinking. . . I go to parties all the time. . . But I don’t drink. I haven’t drank.” 
  • At a barbecue, someone asks Nic to “grab a beer for me.” 
  • Nic reminisces about how it all went wrong with her ex-boyfriend. She thinks, “it was polishing off a bottle of Jameson / with Jordan / last summer, / at his party.” As Nic leaves this party she encounters “stragglers smok[ing] / cigarettes and weed.” 
  • Nic remembers previous Christmases where here mom “drank a bottle of Riesling / and passed out under the tree.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes whore, shit, bitch, goddamn, fuck, slut, ass, and asshole.  
  • After the school finds out that Nic cheated on her boyfriend, her peers begin to bully her, calling her names like “slut” and repeatedly writing “whore” on her locker.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

What My Mother Doesn’t Know

When Sophie Stein enters high school, she finds herself falling in love with a boy named Dylan. However, as she goes through some difficult self-discovery, she realizes that she and Dylan are not compatible. Instead of being attracted to Dylan’s intellect, Sophie is only attracted to him physically. Meanwhile, the ups and downs of this romance lead Sophie to chat online with Chaz. At first, Chaz gives Sophie the validation she seeks, but Chaz isn’t prince charming. Instead, Chaz makes sexual comments toward Sophie, who finds herself alone again. 

Then Sophie meets Murphy, an unpopular boy who isn’t conventionally attractive. Despite this, Sophie becomes enamored by him and they start hanging out. Sophie discovers that she has more in common with Murphy than she initially thought, and she eventually falls in love with him. In this relationship, her connection with Murphy is stronger than anything she had previously experienced. However, Sophie has a difficult time telling her two best friends about the romance, since most of the school has spent many years making fun of Murphy.  

Sophie is a relatable character dealing with the average struggles of a teenager. Throughout the novel, she attempts to discover who she is in both her romantic life and family life. She also combats peer pressure and her own insecurities. In the end, Sophie overcomes her fears of becoming unpopular and is no longer afraid to show her affection toward Murphy. One of the big themes of this novel is that attempting to be popular and well-liked should not come above what brings happiness. Another theme is to not judge a book by its cover. At first, Sophie judges Murphy, but when she looks beyond his appearance Sophie forms a beautiful relationship with him. These messages will resonate with many teens. 

The story’s conclusion is predictable because from the first time Murphy appears Sophie finds herself dealing with a strange attraction toward him. Plus, the story lacks conflict and the ending is a bit too happily ever after. Because Sophie is a teenager, she can act a little childish at times. She approaches many things, like romance, for the first time in her life. Therefore, she comes across as a bit naive when dealing with these new situations. Since Sophie focuses a lot on her blooming sexuality and the intense attraction she feels towards the men in her life, only big romance fans will enjoy What My Mother Doesn’t Know 

What My Mother Doesn’t Know is told through a series of poems and diary entries that Sophie writes, making it a quick read. While the novel is told entirely from the perspective of the main character, readers won’t find it difficult to relate to other characters in the book. Not only are Sophie’s romantic interests well-developed, but so are her best friends and parents. Overall, the story is a cute tale of teenage romance.

Sexual Content  

  • After sitting on a guy’s lap in a car, Sophie said it felt like “some R-rated movie and everyone else in the car was just going to fade away and this guy and I were going to start making out.” 
  • Sophie makes sexual references to prove that her father is not actually listening to her. When he asks how her day at school was, she says, “We played strip poker during third period and I lost.” Her dad replies, “‘That’s nice,’ without even looking up from his meatloaf.”  
  • Sophie has to listen to her friend, Grace, “moan about how horny she is.” 
  • Sophie says her “breasts have been growing so fast lately that if [she] were to sit there and watch them for a while . . . [she] could actually see them getting bigger.” 
  • Sophie discusses how her mother has never talked to her about safe sex or birth control, yet her mother is still scared Sophie will “get pregnant or something.” 
  • Sophie and her friends go to the ice cream shop wearing no clothes under their coats: “This afternoon before we put on our raincoats, we took everything else off!” 
  • Sophie talks about how she only really liked Dylan physically, saying, “If Dylan and I had met by chatting on the Net . . . instead of face to face and I hadn’t seen his lips or the way he moves his hips when he does that sexy dance and I hadn’t had a chance to look into his eyes and be dazzled by their size and all that I had seen were his letters on my screen, then . . . I think I would have liked him less.”  
  • Chaz tells Sophie that one of his favorite things to do is “jerk off in libraries.” 
  • While waiting for her mother after the school dance, a boy grabs Sophie’s breast on a dare. “The guy standing closest to me is suddenly bursting out laughing and grabbing my breasts with his slimy paws.” 
  • While having breakfast at a hotel, Sophie imagines “what it would be like to be lying naked underneath a sheet while a strange man rubbed oil all over my body.” 
  • Sophie dreams about having a man “remove every stitch of [her] clothes.” The man in her vision turns into Murphy and she dreams of “how his hands will feel cupping the lace of [her] bra.” 

Violence  

  • When a boy grabs Sophie’s breast after the school dance, she “slams [her] knuckles into his chin” and “smashes [her] foot into his friend’s knee.” 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Sophie briefly mentioned how her mother is “stuffing Hershey’s Kisses into her mouth, chain-smoking, watching her soaps, and weeping.”  

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

 Spiritual Content  

  • Sophie flashes back to a confrontation with a group of girls where she is ridiculed for her faith. The girls ask Sophie’s friends, “Don’t you know you aren’t supposed to play with anyone who doesn’t go to church?” 

Just Three

Jillian is a teenage girl still reeling from the loss of her mother. But before her death, Jillian’s mom hired a woman named Rebecca to help out around the house. Two years later, Rebecca is still there, seemingly serving as a replacement for Jillian’s mother. When Jillian catches a romance beginning to blossom between her father and Rebecca, she panics and decides to set her dad up on a dating website. Her father is skeptical, but for Jillian’s sake, he agrees to go on three dates. Just three.

Chaos ensues. The first date ends in a chicken attack. On the second date, Jillian’s dad goes out with a pro biker and gets left in the dust. During the third date, Jillian and her brother spy on their dad’s picnic from the bushes and watch as it devolves into the woman yelling at him for cheating at chess. After witnessing the disastrous third date, Jillian realizes that Rebecca makes her father happy and that his happiness is what is truly important.

One of the main flaws of Just Three is that Jillian is not well-developed. Her primary character trait seems to be a strong dislike of Rebecca, who, in addition to being a blameless victim, is incredibly likable and described as having “this way of making everyone smile.” Jillian’s hatred for Rebecca is ostensibly balanced out by her love for her father, but she spends much of the novel attempting to sabotage his budding relationship. For these reasons, readers may find Jillian to be a somewhat unlikable character.

Just Three is told in first-person narration and alternates between Jillian’s matchmaking hijinks and her conversations with friends at camp. Like Jillian’s character, this second aspect of the story is not especially developed. The camp that Jillian attends is left unnamed and unexplained, and there is no clear arc within these conversations. The author hints at a romantic subplot between Jillian and a “nerdy” boy named Victor who she has a crush on, but this is not resolved in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, Jillian’s matchmaking character arc is resolved suddenly in a single scene toward the end of the book. After the hostile third date, Jillian sees her dad with Rebecca and observes, “For some reason, [Rebecca] didn’t bug me so much this time. She was always so good-natured. I couldn’t imagine her ever screaming at my dad.” Given Jillian’s stalwart opposition to Rebecca up to this point, readers may find this emotional pivot to be rushed and unbelievable.

Despite the lack of character development, there are bright spots in Just Three. A key theme is learning to prioritize the needs of loved ones, even when it is difficult. While there is not an in-depth exploration of grief, children who have lost a parent or whose parents are dating other people may find Jillian’s actions relatable.

Released by Orca Current books, whose titles are written specifically for teens, Just Three ramps up quickly, but it’s a mixed bag. The easy-to-read story includes plenty of wacky scenes, which readers may find humorous. The book presents a surface-level exploration of grief and moving on. However, flat characters and a formulaic storyline detract from the quality of this premise. If you’re looking for a high-interest book written specifically for reluctant readers that explores family conflicts, you may want to start with In Plain Sight by Laura Langston.

Sexual Content

  • Jillian notes that all the girls at school “have the hots” for one of her friends.
  • Jillian’s father and Rebecca are described as “flirting” at several points throughout the book. This flirting mainly consists of laughing together or having lively conversations.
  • Jillian hears about a dating site and sets up a profile for her dad. He goes on three dates.
  • Jillian’s brother mentions that their dad “get[s] lots of attention from ladies” when he walks the dog in the park.

Violence

  • At a hobby farm, chickens attack Jillian. They surround her, “peck[ing],” “screeching,” and “flapping.” She emerges “covered in scratches.”
  • During a pool game, one of Jillian’s friends is accidentally hit “right in the face” with a ball.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Jillian’s brother calls her and a friend “geeks.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Naomi Brenden

What Goes Up

The past few months have not been ideal for Jorie, to say the least. Her ex-boyfriend, Ian, has left for college, but they are trying to “still be friends.” Her parents’ marriage is on the rocks after her father’s affair and she is struggling to trust him. In addition, Jorie is trying to understand why her mother chose to stay in the relationship. To escape life’s drama, Jorie decides to attend a college party with her boyfriend, Ian, and his two friends.

The next morning, Jorie wakes up in the dorm of an unfamiliar college boy, with a text from Ian that says, “you go and hook up with [one of my friends] right in front of me. You’re such a hypocrite.” Full of regret, Jorie decides to explore what led to this moment and where she goes from here.

What Goes Up is a novel in verse. Since the story is told through poems rather than traditional structure, the story is a little confusing. The reader must pay close attention to keep track of the timeline, as it is not well established. Another confusing element is that the bulk of the book is a series of flashbacks that aren’t in chronological order.

Jorie’s character is explored intimately, and she is easy to sympathize with. Her flaws are present, but they don’t detract from her likability. However, because of the introspective nature of the book, readers don’t learn much about the other characters. This is not a detriment to the overall story as the focus is clearly meant to be on Jorie’s emotions anyway.

Jorie is an artist with an interest in the science of mushrooms and fungi, using mushroom spore prints in her work. The reader will be surprised at how the mushroom and fungi facts parallel Jorie’s experiences and relationships. For example, she discusses signs of toxicity in mushrooms and how “even experts have been fooled by specimens they thought were safe,” clearly alluding to the trouble between her parents.

This breezy, uniquely told story is sometimes confusing. The shortness of the book will undoubtedly leave readers wanting more information about Jorie’s life and her relationships. The book implies that Jorie’s drunken hookup with Ian’s friend is just as big of a betrayal as her father cheating on her mother, which is puzzling. While insensitive, the hookup took place after her and Ian had broken up, so it was not adulterous.

Even though What Goes Up is a bit confusing, it is still a very interesting read that can be enjoyed by seasoned and new readers of verse novels. The writing is witty and charming which balances out the rawness of the serious topics. Overall, this story succeeds in sending out a powerful cautionary message about the domino effect that can be spurred by difficult moments in life and provides an important exploration of whether it is possible to still love someone after a betrayal.

Sexual Content

  • The book begins with Jorie waking up in the bed of a college boy who she recalls kissing the night before. They might have had sex, but her waking up to see his head “poking out from the shell of a green sleeping bag” leaves room for interpretation. She was drunk, and the book implies that the boy decided not to take advantage of her in that state.
  • Jorie recalls kissing a boy at recess when she was little, saying he “gagged me with his Dorito-crusted tongue.” The boy kisses her friend during the same recess period.
  • Ian begins jokingly “miming masturbation,” while alone with Jorie while talking about reproductive cells in mushrooms.
  • The day after the party, Jorie’s friend texts her in regards to how she made Ian feel. The friend asks how Jorie would feel if she saw him “ho it up with one of [her] friends.”

Violence

  • In seventh grade, Jorie and her friends were drunk while jumping on the trampoline. Jorie says, “a midair collision forced us back down to earth.” Her friend sustained a non-serious head injury.
  • Jorie remembers an incident in elementary school where a boy tried French kissing her friend. Her friend bit a boy’s lip “so hard it bled.”
  • In a fit of anger, Jorie slaps her mother. Jorie says “it was like smacking a stone, a wall . . . I was crying and thinking, Why is she letting me do this?”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • In seventh grade, Jorie goes to a friend’s house and drinks an old bottle of wine they found in the back of a cabinet. Jorie and her friend “passed it back and forth until the taste didn’t matter, until we couldn’t stop giggling.”
  • Jorie goes to a party where she and her friends drink White Russians. Jorie becomes disoriented and is hungover the next morning.
  • Jorie watches a video of herself while she was drunk. “Drunk me teeters on the edge of the couch like a Jenga tower.”
  • Jorie makes art using mushroom spore prints. A fellow student asks her if he could get high by licking it. The student calls to Ian, “‘remember that time we were shrooming and you thought your sister’s guinea pig was possessed?”

Language

  • Jorie says that the boy who kissed her and her friend in elementary school began calling them “ugly Slut and Lesbo Bitch.”
  • The boyfriend of the woman Jorie’s father is cheating with shows up at her house “yelling about his whore of a girlfriend, [her] mom’s piece of shit husband.”
  • Fuck is said a couple of times.
  • “Dickweed” is said once.
  • In a blind rage, Jorie says she called her mother “a bitch, a fucking idiot, a stupid–I can’t even write the word.”

Supernatural Content

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Erin Cosgrove

Mosquitoland

After the sudden and unexpected divorce of her parents, Mim Malone is dragged from her Ohio home. Mim’s happy life collapses when she’s forced to live with her father and his new wife in “Mosquitoland,” otherwise known as the middle of Mississippi.  

When Mim overhears a conversation, she finds out her mother is sick, and something in Mim snaps. Mim runs home, packs a bag, steals her stepmother’s stash of money, and boards the next Greyhound bus out of town, starting her almost thousand-mile journey from Jackson, Mississippi to Cleveland, Ohio. 

On her bus is a cast of quirky characters—some annoying, some creepy, and some, like her seatmate Arlene, kind. When the Greyhound bus tips over in the middle of a rainstorm, what would have been a straightforward trip, spirals into an interesting journey into the unexpected. On this new journey, Mim finds unexpected friends in Beck, a college student on a trip to find his old foster sister, and Walter, a boy Mim’s age with down syndrome, who is homeless. With the help of these new friends, Mim begins to realize she is not alone in this world, and that while she is struggling with events in her life, she does not have to struggle alone. 

While the trip started as a plan to see her mother, Mim’s trip morphs into a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Mim is a strong-minded and independent, but also an imperfect person. She describes herself as a “collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons.” Mim explains “my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.” Readers will relate to Mim because she does not strive to be perfect. Instead, she recognizes her quirks and problems, and, as a teenager, she knows she still has much to learn. 

Throughout Mosquitoland, Mim explains that she is “not okay.” She struggles with an unspecified mental illness, and her world seems to be falling apart because her family fractured when her parents divorced. At first, Mim is attempting to go home, back to the life she had with her mother in Ohio, but throughout the trip, she realizes “home is hard.” She learns that she will never have her old life back – a life she somewhat idolizes – and that leaving her old life behind is for the better. Mim realizes that home is not a “place or a time,” maybe “home is the heart . . . an organ, pumping life into my life.”   

Mosquitoland is beautifully written, with witty dialogue and memorable characters. The story is written from Mim’s point of view, who has a very unique narrative voice. Readers get insight into her perspective of the world and her hilarious internal dialogue on various topics, including baseball games, shop signs, and teenage girls. Moreover, her point of view is interspersed with letters to her unborn sister, explaining why she decided to leave Mississippi and documenting her feelings about the trip. 

Mosquitoland explores the heavy subject matter of mental illness and sexual assault. Mim explains that throughout her life, she has often questioned her sanity and her father has often thought there is something wrong with her. Mim goes to psychiatrists and therapy and is prescribed medication, but often questions if this medication is necessary. Mim’s family has a history of mental illness. Mim’s aunt committed suicide and her mother is currently hospitalized for depression. This book also discusses sexual assault, as an older man forces himself on Mim and kisses her. This experience traumatizes Mim and she often has flashbacks to this moment. Plus, she becomes anxious around men who remind her of the man who assaulted her. Furthermore, she feels incredibly guilty for not speaking up about this man’s actions before he assaults another girl. Mim shows the readers her vulnerability in these moments, the tough persona she presents to the world is broken down, and readers see Mim as someone who is just trying to figure life out and survive.  

Overall, Mosquitoland is a funny and entertaining book, with memorable, relatable characters. While it does touch on some difficult topics, this is balanced with a lighthearted tone and humorous plot. Beyond being a coming-of-age story about Mim coming to terms with her life and finding herself, it is also a story about the power of friendship. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Mim was younger she liked her friend’s older brother. Mim explains that she “was sexually attracted to Steve insomuch as I was an indiscriminate preadolescent girl.” When she was a year older, she still liked him. As he drove Mim home one night she explains, “new images sprang to mind: less boxing-ring-chest-pounding, more bedroom-floor-topless-romping.” 
  • Mim imagines what high school girls should be talking about. She thinks it’s “argu[ing] over who gives the most efficient blow job.” 
  • After a long, deep conversation, Mim and Beck, the older boy she has a massive crush on, fall asleep with “Beck hold[ing] Mim . . . on the floor well into the night.” Mim explains, “[w]e don’t talk. We don’t need to. Sleep is close, and I’m okay with that . . . At some point, he carries me to bed and lies down next me. . . He wraps an arm around me, and I swear we were once a single unit.” As Beck rolls over in the bed, “he rolls sideways, toward me, his face hovering over me. We stare at each other for a second, silent, unmoving . . .And I sense the move before it comes. Beck leans in, slowly, and kisses my forehead. It isn’t brief, but it’s gentle, and full of sadness and gladness and everything in between.” Mim wonders “how it would smell-taste-feel to have his lips pressed against my own, to feel his weight on top of me.” The two never go past the kiss as Beck reminds Mim, “I’m too old for you.” 

Violence 

  • In the beginning of her journey, the Greyhound tips over. Mim observes, “it’s a simmering stew of glass and blood and sewage and luggage, a cinematic devastation . . . Some people are moving, some are moaning, and some aren’t doing either. Carl is bleeding in about six places, administering CPR to one of the Japanese guys. I see Poncho Man help Amazon Blonde to her feet, right where I’d been sitting. I stand and stare for i-don’t-know-how-long, until an ax crashes through the left wall—formerly the roof of the bus. Firefighters crawl through the wreckage like ants, pulling limp bodies around their shoulders, administering first aid. Two EMTs . . . approach the limp body of a woman. The redhead leans over, puts his ear to the woman’s chest. Straightening, he looks at his partner, shakes his head.” Mim realizes the woman is dead and she is Arlene, Mim’s seat mate, who she has bonded with during the trip. In the accident, Mim received “just a cut.” 
  • Mim accidently becomes locked in the bathroom with a man she has nicknamed “Poncho Man.” He comes on to her, getting closer to her. When she pulls away, he grips her aggressively and tries to kiss her. “His lips are cold against mine,” Mim explains. In order to get away from him, Mim forces herself to throw up, launching “a vomit for the ages directly into Poncho Man’s mouth.” 
  • When she was younger, a bully calls a friend of Mim a “retard.” Mim punched the bully “breaking his nose and earning a one-day suspension.” 
  • Caleb, a suspicious young man she meets in the woods, tells Mim his dad “used the beat the hell outta [him] with household appliances . . . [and] for no good reason, too. [His dad] wasn’t a drunk . . . He was just fine at it sober. But one day, I was all growed-up, see. So you know what I did? Pulled the fire extinguisher out of his garage and beat the shit out of him.” 
  • When Mim figures out Caleb is planning to steal from Walter, she and Walter run back into town. Caleb chases them on to the roof of a gas station, where he pulls “a sizeable hunting knife” on them. Eventually, the owner of the gas station, Ahab, who just happens to know karate, comes up to the roof and begins to fight Caleb. “A blurred figure plummets on top of him, knocking him to the ground. Within seconds, Caleb is back on his feet, wielding the hunting knife at this new adversary . . .The fight doesn’t last more than a minute. In a roundhouse kick that would have made Jet Li proud . . . [Ahab] sends Caleb’s hunting knife sailing over the edge of the roof. With him disarmed, it’s hardly a fight at all. A couple of hook-kick combos and graceful strikes to the chest, arms, and head, and Ahab has a whimpering Caleb trapped in a half nelson on the gravel.” Ahab keeps Caleb in his “clenches” until the police arrive.  
  • When Caleb begins to insult Ahab, “without thinking twice, Ahab lifts Caleb up by his hoodie, and punches him once, twice, three times in the face. Blood splatters across the gravel roof, as well as a single tooth.”  
  • Beck reveals that he saw a young girl exit a bathroom, eyes “puffy and red from crying.” Afterwards, Beck sees a man exiting the same bathroom, and Beck realizes what this man had done to the young girl. Beck “punched him. Twice. In front of a cop.” The man is arrested because the “little girl spoke up.” Mim realizes that predator responsible was Poncho Man, the same man who assaulted her.  
  • Beck recalls that he had a foster sister whose father had just been released from prison. Unfortunately, a few weeks later her dad was “stabbed to death in a drug deal.” Beck’s foster sister “shut herself in the upstairs bathroom. We could hear her sobbing all through the house,” Beck explains. “I kicked down the door, found her in the tub. She’d slit her wrists.” 
  • When Mim is six her aunt “hung herself in our basement. . .I found her hanging there, her feet dangling inches from the floor – inches from life.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Mim is prescribed “aripapilazone” or “abilitol.” Mim takes these pills a few times. Although it is prescribed by a psychiatrist for her mental health issues, she is unhappy taking this medication and stops.  
  • When she was young, Mim and her mom used to go to a block party every Labor Day. She remembers “beer buckets” and her mom drinking beer.  
  • As he talks to Mim, the Greyhound bus driver “lights a cigarette [and] takes a drag.”  
  • When Mim stops at a gas station, the “young girl behind the counter blows a giant bubble with her gum and offers [her] free cigarettes.” 
  • When Mim meets Caleb, he “pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, sticks one in his mouth . . . and lights up.” 
  • In memories from her childhood, Mim remembers her mother and father “drinking beer” in various instances.  
  • When Mim was nine years old, she discovered that her father smoked, and he allowed her to try one. Mim “pulled out a cigarette, surprised by how light it felt in my fingers. Dad lit the end, then told me to breathe in deep. I followed his instructions and inhaled deeply, deciding Dad was way cooler than I’d given him credit for. This was immediately followed by my hacking my lungs out, then throwing up on my mother’s favorite Venetian blinds. I couldn’t taste anything for a week. It was my first and last cigarette.” 
  • When Mim is forced to move to Mississippi she really wants to take her mother’s couch. She tells her father, “I would literally jump off the roof while simultaneously swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills,” before leaving the couch behind.  

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. The profanity includes shit, fuck, bitch, jackass, dick, bastard. 
  • When she was younger, Mim witnessed a bully call a friend a “retard.” When she asks her mom what that word means, her mom explains “retard is a mean word used by mean people.”  
  • Beyond the use of regular profanity, this book also uses words that are profane-esque, including “effing” or “muthafuckas.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Beck asks Mim if she “believe[s] in God.” Mim tells a story, explaining when she was “maybe four years old,” she was with her mom running errands. Mim saw a man with “a really deformed face . . . so with the tact of a four year old, [Mim] pointed right at his cheek and asked what happened. He smiled even bigger and said God made him that way.” Mim continues “the prospect of there being a God scares me. Almost as much as the prospect of there not being one.”  
  • Beck says he definitely believes in God. He says, “My heart must continue beating in order to pump a red liquid called blood through tiny tubes called veins throughout this unit called a body. All my organs, in communication with my heart, must work properly for this carbon-based life-form called Beckett Van Buren to exist on this tiny spinning sphere called Earth. So many little things have to be just so, it’s a wonder we don’t just fall down dead.”  
  • When visiting her mother, Mim “ponder[s] the peculiarities of an angry Almighty.” She explains, “[a]nd now I know. I see it in the medicated drool dripping from the face of my once youthful mother. I see it in the slew of trained specialists assigned to her keeping. I see it in the Southwestern motif, from floor to ceiling of this nightmare called Sunrise Rehab, and I know what makes God when He’s angry: a person with the capacity for emptiness . . . a drained emptiness. A person who was once full. A person who lived and dreamed, and above all, a person who cared for something – for someone. And within that person, he places the possibility of poof – gone – done – to be replaced by a Great Empty Nothingness.” 

Thanks for the Trouble

Parker Sante has not said a single word in 12 years; not since he witnessed his father die in a fatal car accident. Instead, he writes out his thoughts in a journal and watches other people interact; studying their movements and actions until it is the perfect moment to steal something that others would never know is gone. That’s exactly what he is doing when he locks eyes with Zelda. The striking, silver-haired vixen who seems to entrap him with just one look. Suddenly, not only does he want to steal from her, but he wants to get to know her. To talk to her.  

However, Parker quickly realizes that Zelda isn’t everything he thought she would be. She’s a dream, but one that may be coming to an end very soon. When Zelda receives a mysterious phone call, she makes it clear she plans to end her life. While she won’t tell him the details, Parker knows he must change her mind. So, the pair spend the next few days doing everything that Parker hopes will make Zelda fall in love with life again. It includes one wild night at a Halloween party (a scene that is very unlike Parker), becoming the middleman in a very public breakup at the movies, and even letting Zelda convince him to apply for college. However, as time passes, Parker falls more in love with Zelda and is increasingly frustrated because he knows nothing about her.  

Zelda remains an enigma to Parker until he demands she tell him who she is and why she is going to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. But the story that Zelda begins to tell Parker is one he never saw coming. Instead, it is filled with unbelievable lies that Zelda insists are her reality; a reality that causes her to remain young forever. But Parker isn’t buying it. People didn’t just stop aging and live forever…or did they?  

As Parker races against time, trying to change Zelda’s mind, he realizes that maybe she isn’t the only one who needs saving. After all, Parker was living his life at half volume until Zelda came along, and now that she’s here, he doesn’t want to let his life slip away again. He just may have to figure out how to live life to the fullest on his own. 

The odd, yet endearing friendship between Zelda and Parker adds a vibrancy to the novel that immediately draws in the reader. Considering all the challenges Parker faces, witnessing his social progression throughout the story will leave the reader with a sense of pride. For example, by the end of the novel Parker begins to make real friends at school and starts to form the connections that he always wanted but never had. While Zelda shows some signs of vulnerability, an air of mysteriousness remains around her. There are moments where even the reader will question if what Zelda is saying is true or just another made-up story to help her conceal her identity. Because of this, the reader may find themselves frustrated by Zelda’s consistent games, but they will simultaneously be entranced by her.  

While Thanks for the Trouble contains a great plot line and immense character development, there is a heavy presence of suicidal thoughts. Multiple times, Zelda mentions that she intends to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and she eventually carries through with the action. While Zelda discloses to Parker that she cannot age and that is why she intends to commit suicide, the reader is still left with a feeling of uncertainty around that reasoning. Therefore, it never feels like we get a complete reason as to why Zelda wants to commit suicide, which makes the novel heartbreaking. While Parker consistently attempts to get Zelda to rethink her decision to commit suicide, that is the only form of suicide prevention that is present within the novel. The novel does not discourage suicide, and it does not discuss methods of intervention.  

Aside from the heavy topic of suicide, the plot will keep readers on their toes and the mystery never lets up. Readers never know what will happen next, which makes Thanks for the Trouble a must-read. The story is heartbreaking and honest in a way that many novels for young adult readers are not. The novel plays on the impulsiveness of teenage feelings when it comes to love and relationships, creating a sense of understanding between the reader and the characters. Parker’s devotion to Zelda reminds the reader that love is the greatest kindness you can show someone. Once more, Zelda’s journey through the novel and her eventual death brings light to the idea that life is fragile in every form, and that we may never know how much time is left. All in all, the novel makes resounding commentary on how love, life, and death are the three sole things that can never be stopped, even if we wish they could be.    

Sexual Content 

  • Zelda guesses what Parker does in his free time. “Seventeen? What a horrible age. I bet you spend most of your free time playing computer games and watching pornography on the Internet.”  
  • Parker recalls his first kiss when he was in seventh grade. He was playing spin the bottle with a friend and “the bottle had landed on her first, then on me, then blam! I was kissed. Kisses are weird that way. They’re supposed to be performed by two people simultaneously, but they don’t have to be. We even have a term for it- a stolen kiss– which is really just a euphemism for full-on-oral assault. I can remember looking up from the open mouth of the bottle only to find another open mouth rushing at me. A crush of lip and tongue and saliva and the chorus of yowls from the onlookers.” 
  • Someone tells Zelda what a cougar is. “A cougar’s an older woman who gets it on with young men.”  
  • Zelda lies about Parker and her being lovers. A boy at the Halloween party “asked me if you were my community service project. I told him we’d been lovers for months. That you’d made me feel things I’d never felt before.”  
  • Zelda and Parker kiss at a Halloween Party. “I turned to smile at Zelda and she kissed me, right on the mouth this time, and I kissed her back.”  
  • As Parker walks around a museum with Zelda, he says, “Usually, the only thing that keeps me awake is all the nudity. Though not nearly as common as bowls of fruit, naked ladies tend to feature very prominently in your average museum.”  
  • Parker and Zelda passionately kiss in the Shakespeare Garden. “I moved across the dark distance between us and put my arms around her waist, pulling her into a kiss. I felt the cluck of her phone dropping to the grass. A moment later we were on the ground too. She rolled on top of me, pinning my arms behind my head, pushing against me in a way that made me forget every single problem I ever had or probably ever would have.”  
  • Parker’s mother gives him sex advice. His mom says, ” Try to do it mostly with people you love. Use protection. Don’t be an asshole.”  
  • Parker and Zelda have sex. “We finished undressing each other and got into bed. The house was just cold enough that it felt really good under the covers, skin to skin. And then we were kissing, and then it was happening, and I’ll leave the gory details to your imagination if that’s okay by you.”  

Violence 

  • Parker steals from a woman’s purse at the hotel. “I glanced around the room, and when I was sure no one was looking, I reached over and undid the clasp of the silver-haired girl’s little blue handbag. I pushed through a cloud of Kleenex and deep-sea dove into the mysterious mire of femininity until my fingers found the wad.”  
  • Parker describes his version of the sleeping beauty storyline. “He’s actually a douche-bag king—one who already has a queen by the way—and he rapes her. She wakes up pregnant, so the king’s wife tries to kill her, bake her into a pie, and feed her to the king. The happy ending? The king decides to have his wife burned to death so he can raise a family with Sleeping Beauty.”  
  • Parker writes a fairytale and describes one of the characters abusing his wife. “As a punishment, he beat his wife around the belly with a bent piece of barrel wood.”  
  • Zelda tells Parker about her plans of committing suicide. “I am waiting for a phone call. And when it comes, I’m going to give this money to the first needy person I see. Then I’ll take the trolley to the Golden Gate Bridge and jump off of it.”  
  • Parker describes the car accident that killed his father. His father caught the back bumper of another car when he was switching lanes and “we were flipped over in the middle of the highway and my dad was dripping onto the fucking roof, you know.”  
  • Parker recounts a character in one of his stories being hit by his mother. “His mother slapped him upside the head again. Go back to bed child!”  
  • Parker tells Zelda about how he got charged with assault in eighth grade from pushing his bully. “I pushed him back one time, and I wasn’t paying…this one car was driving way too close to the sidewalk, and so yeah, he ended up getting hit. Trevor’s parents pressed charges, and maybe because he was white and I wasn’t, I got this minor version of assault put on my record.”  
  • When Zelda finds out Parker declined the phone call she had been waiting for, Zelda slaps Parker. “Finally, I grabbed her shoulder, and she spun and delivered a stinging slap right to my bruised cheek. I was blind with pain for a few seconds, and by the time I recovered, she was gone.”  
  • Parker finds Zelda about to jump off the bridge. “Now, you might think it doesn’t really matter one way or the other—if a person wants to kill herself, she’ll just find some other way to do it, right? Wrong. It turns out that most people make these decisions pretty lightly, on the spur of the moment when the thought occurs, they often don’t do it at all.”  
  • Parker describes how Zelda looks before she jumps off the bridge. “Imperfect sadness maybe, which was another way of saying there was a little splinter of happiness in there too. I’d given her that at least. And then she jumped.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zelda pours rum into her drink. “She took a small leather flask out of her purse and poured some of it into her soda.”  
  • Parker goes to see his mom and she is drinking. “The eviscerated remains of a TV dinner were still in my mom’s lap, and she was holding a mostly empty glass of red wine.”  
  • Parker gets home and notices his mom is drunk. “My mom was clearly a little bit tipsy. . . ”  
  • Parker describes his idea of high school parties. According to Parker, high school parties are “a bunch of people getting together to be drunk, loud assholes, with a special emphasis on the loud. And another emphasis on the drunk. And a third emphasis on assholes, while we’re at it.”  
  • After being left alone at the party, Parker gets drunk. “I’ve never seen the appeal in getting hammered every time there’s alcohol on offer. But here I was at a party made up entirely of people I either didn’t know or didn’t like, so what else was I supposed to do?”  
  • Parker sees others at the party drinking. “Jamie Schmid, the host of the party, came running from the other end of the yard, a bottle of Budweiser gripped tightly in each fist.”  
  • Parker describes his mother’s bedside table. “Her drugs were on the bedside table – Prozac and Tylenol PM – alongside an empty bottle of wine.” 
  • Zelda confronts Parker’s mother about her alcohol use. Zelda says, “But you cannot expect your son to stand here and be lectured about self-control by an alcoholic.” 

Language   

  • Explicit language such as fuck, shit, and ass are used frequently. 
  • Parker says others describe him as “a thug.”  
  • A friend of Parker’s argues with him over who should go first in chess. “You’re Latino is what you are, son. And that whole white-goes-first bullshit is straight-up racist.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Parker describes some of the artwork in the museum: “All those haloed saints and weeping Marys and bleeding Jeses (that’s the plural of Jesus, right?) and yawn-inducing landscapes and dead chickens.” 
  • Parker, Zelda, and his new friends discuss God. The friend said, “God and science are not incompatible. And Zelda just said herself. Nothing adds up unless you consider God.”  
  • Parker expresses his thoughts on the Bible. “That’s the problem with the Bible—or one of them, anyway—it doesn’t just tell you what to do, it tells you what to want. That’s too much to ask, IMHO.”  

Family of Liars

Caroline Lenox Taft “Carrie” Sinclair is the eldest of four daughters. Her prestigious old-money family, the Sinclairs, spend their summers on their private east coast island. As a family, they follow certain rules: “We keep a stiff upper lip. We make the best of things. We look toward the future.” This does not change when the youngest sister, Rosemary, drowns.  

The summer after, seventeen-year-old Carrie goes back to the island where she sees her lost sister. However, Rosemary’s ghost is not the only surprise the summer will bring. 

Newly confident from surgery that has left her with a chin that is “set forward” and an addiction to painkillers, Carrie is more than ready for love. Carrie discovers that her cousin Yardley has brought along three boys. One of the boys, Pfeff, captures Carrie’s attention right away. Irresistible and unpredictable, Pfeff changes everything for Carrie.  A summer of passion, long-buried secrets, betrayal, and terrible mistakes has only just begun. 

In Family of Liars, Carrie is the narrator, who is vividly fleshed out. The story is framed as Carrie telling it to the ghost of her son, Johnny, who died in a fire in We Were Liars. Carrie admits that she is unreliable, so the reader is kept on their toes and will be questioning things until the full truth is revealed. For a portion of the book, readers will feel sympathetic towards Carrie because she begins her story amid a loss, and she spends time reminiscing over the long-ago loss of her sister. By the end, Carrie is not exactly likable, but she is interesting, and the reader will have a good grasp of who she is. 

Unfortunately, the story has several flaws. First, most of the other characters feel flat. There are so many of them, and some exit the story for long periods and reappear unceremoniously. The large cast of characters will force the reader to pay close attention to who’s who. In addition, certain plotlines feel unnecessary. In particular, the haunting that Carrie experiences does little for the story aside from showcasing her relationship with her deceased sister. The reader might expect a twist or revelation regarding Rosemary’s death, but there is none to be found.  

Despite its flaws, Family of Liars is still gripping enough to forgive most of the book’s shortcomings. The pacing has little twists and turns occurring throughout the story rather than a slow burn to a revelation at the end. The book can be understood without having read its predecessor, but it should be noted that the famous twist of We Were Liars is spoiled on the first page of Family of Liars. If a reader intends to read both books, We Were Liars should be read first. 

Family of Liars is nevertheless a gripping read that fans of We Were Liars are sure to enjoy. Lockhart’s writing style and storytelling ability are captivating and easy to get sucked into. Readers will not find it hard to get invested in the complicated Sinclair family.  

Sexual Content 

  • Carrie recalls her teenage years and fantasizing about kissing, at one point saying, “I longed for love, and I had a pretty urgent interest in sex.” 
  • Carrie remarks that her sister Penny has “kissed too many people to count.” 
  • When Pfeff is changing, he playfully calls out for the others not to come in and look at his “weenie.” When one of his friends says nobody would be interested in a weenie like his, Pfeff retorts, “It’s a perfectly normal weenie. A good weenie, even.”
  • While swimming with the boys for the first time, Carrie thinks “the nerves in my fingertips cry out to touch someone.” 
  • When Carrie’s cousin’s parents get a divorce, the cousin tries to ignore evidence that her dad had “girlfriends, or hookers, even.” 
  • Carrie sees her cousin and her boyfriend passionately kissing. She was “pressing him against the house with her hand up his shirt.” She then invites him up to her room. 
  • Shortly after meeting, Carrie and Pfeff become romantically involved. Pfeff kisses her and slides his hand “up [her] waist to [her] chest.” 
  • Pfeff reconnects with a girl from his past and spends several hours with her. A friend speculates to Carrie that he spent the afternoon “‘boning that girl.’” 
  • After kissing one night, it is implied that Carrie and Pfeff have sex. They go to “his room in Goose cottage. [They] take off [their clothes]. . . . [their] skin salty, [their] breath uneven.” 
  • After their first sexual encounter, Carrie and Pfeff struggle to keep their hands off each other. At one point, they are kissing in the ocean and Pfeff takes off her bikini top and “presses his chest up against [her] underwater.” 
  • Carrie catches Penny “kissing Pfeff.” 
  • Pfeff begins “forcing himself on [Penny]” while they are “messing around.”  
  • Carrie briefly mentions “reveling in sex” during the summer when she was nineteen. 
  • Carrie remarks that Rosemary would have been reading books and “folding down the pages on the sexual bits.” 

Violence 

  • Rosemary drowns in the ocean, presumably “knocked down by a wave and caught in an undertow.”  
  • Carrie recalls the original Brother’s Grimm tale of Cinderella, which involves the two stepsisters mutilating their own feet, “one cuts off her big toe. The other slices off the back of her heel.” 
  • In a Brother’s Grimm story called Mr. Fox, the titular character brings home the dead body of a woman and cuts her hand off. At the end of the story, two men “cut [Mr. Fox] into a thousand pieces.” 
  • When Pfeff tries to assault Penny, Bess kills Pfeff by “[bashing] his head with a board.” The three sisters cover up the murder by dumping his body far out in the ocean. 
  • Near the end of the book, Carrie reveals that she was the one who killed Pfeff in a blind rage. She “brought [the board] down over and over,” not knowing if it was Penny or Pfeff she was hitting. Bess witnesses this, and it turns out that Pfeff was attempting to assault Penny, so both sisters believe Carrie was acting out to defend her. The scene is described over a page. 
  • The ghost of Rosemary reveals she keeps coming back to haunt Beechwood because she’s worried Carrie will kill herself, or as Carrie puts it, that “I would cut my wrists or drown my own unworthy self, then worried I would kill myself with pills.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Carrie’s parents smoke cigarettes one time. 
  • After surgery, Carrie took several medications and painkillers and became addicted to codeine. She describes her teenager self as “an athlete and a narcotics addict.” 
  • Penny steals a bottle of wine from the cellar and she and her sisters, all underaged, drink it on the dock. 
  • At seventeen, Carrie steals Halcion sleeping pills from her father and takes one out of curiosity. She develops a habit and notes that in the future, “it will take me some years and two stays in rehabilitation clinics to stop taking pills.”  
  • As an adult, Carrie struggles with alcoholism. 
  • While walking to her room, Carrie sees Penny and her friend passed out with “an empty bottle of whiskey on the floor.” Carrie wakes them and gives them Tylenol. 
  • Pfeff and Major say that they are “high” on one occasion and they admit that they often are. 
  • Fourteen-year-old Bess is drunk on whiskey when Pfeff is killed.  
  • All the teenagers drink frequently.  
  • Adults are described as drinking on a few occasions. On one occasion they allow the teenagers to drink with them, and Carrie gets fairly drunk.
  • Bess remarks that Penny had “three beers in an hour.” 
  • After dumping Pfeff’s body, the sisters get drunk on whiskey.

Language 

  • The word ass is said a couple of times. 
  • The word bastard is said once. 
  • Penny calls Pfeff a “fucking rapist.” 

Supernatural Content 

  • The entire story is framed as an adult Carrie telling it to the ghost of her son, Johnny. 
  • The sisters believe they hear a voice one night, and Penny speculates that it could be the ghost of their youngest sister, Rosemary. 
  • Early on, Carrie begins seeing and interacting with the ghost of Rosemary. She describes her as “solid, not ghostly at all.”  
  • The ghost of Rosemary tells Carrie that she tried to visit her mother but she turned away from her. Their mother indirectly confirms this later in the book when she says, “one night, I thought I saw Rosemary… she looked like she had crawled up from the sea.” She dismissed the vision as a figment of her imagination. 
  • Carrie recalls a Brother’s Grimm story called The Stolen Pennies, which centers around bringing the ghost of a young child to rest. 
  • Carrie sees Pfeff’s ghost on the beach. He apologizes for the trouble he’s caused and swims out into the ocean after she tells him to leave. 
  • Rosemary keeps visiting Carrie summer after summer until Carrie tells her she doesn’t need to worry about her anymore. Rosemary’s spirit leads Carrie to the attic where she leaps from the window and vanishes, presumably at peace. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Bess says, “I kind of pray to Rosemary. Like she’s an angel or something.” 

Afterward

Ethan was kidnapped four years ago. But when his captor, Marty, brings home a new eleven-year-old boy named Dylan, the police break down Marty’s apartment door shortly after. Now, Marty is dead, and both boys are able to reunite with their families. Ethan’s parents are overwhelmed with relief at having found their only child alive after all this time. While very glad to be home, Ethan himself struggles to readjust after having lost four years of his life to captivity and trauma.

Afterwards switches back and forth between the perspective of Ethan and Dylan’s older sister, Caroline, who feels like she is the only one in her family willing to acknowledge what happened to her brother. Caroline observes, “It’s like my mom wants to act like everything is going to be okay if she just says it over and over enough.” To complicate matters, Dylan is nonverbal autistic, and since the family can’t afford therapy, they can’t understand his trauma. While her parents are attempting to sweep the whole incident under the rug, Caroline knows her brother is suffering and still needs to heal.

After several months, when the media’s cameras have faded away and the rest of the world has moved on, Caroline decides that there is only one person who can give her the information she needs to help Dylan—and herself—deal with the kidnapping. Slowly, a powerful friendship begins to form between the two teenagers who are suffering because of the pain inflicted by the same man.

Since each chapter of Afterward alternates between both Ethan’s and Caroline’s perspectives the reader is able to better understand their interactions with each other.  Readers will sympathize with Ethan as he describes the difficulty of returning to a normal life. He thinks, “I think I probably can’t be fixed at all.” The reader feels the heartache of his struggle and can easily root for him to overcome his trauma. Caroline is a bit more difficult to like. She is rather reckless, and at one point reignites Ethan’s trauma in an act of selfishness. However, Caroline’s more nurturing and considerate side is showcased in her relationship with her brother.

Ethan’s therapist, Dr. Greenberg is a lovely addition to the story as he is professional but personable and he’s the light that guides Ethan along the road to recovery. However, Dylan gets a bit lost in the narrative. Because he disconnects from the world, readers will find it difficult to connect with him. The story becomes more about Ethan and Caroline’s friendship than helping Dylan through the trauma he suffered. The closest the story gets to suggesting Dylan gets the help he needs is Caroline telling her mother that he needs therapy, and the reader can only hope they will find a way to afford it.

Afterward ends with some uncertainty about where the characters will go next. Nonetheless, Afterward is a difficult but heartfelt read that shows that recovering from trauma is possible. The story doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but it does handle them in a way that is respectful and manageable for a teen reader. Afterward would be a good read for older teens who are looking for a serious and mature story. Readers who want to explore another book that revolves around a kidnapping should read Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice.

Sexual Content

  • Caroline and Jason work together. Caroline describes kissing and “messing around” with Jason during breaks and after work. During one of their encounters, she describes him as delivering “these tiny, goosebump-inducing kisses and nibbles all over [my neck] that make my hair follicles go electric.” Then he pulls her to the ground and it is strongly implied that they have sex.
  • During work, Jason texts Caroline suggesting they hide behind one of the hay bales and “get nekkid.”
  • While musing over her blossoming friendship with Ethan, Caroline reveals that she has never been able to be just friends with a guy. Before Jason, Caroline “messed around” with three other boys.
  • Before he was kidnapped, Ethan was heading to his friend’s house. He was wondering if he could stay overnight and he became excited at the prospect of using Jesse’s binoculars to spy on his babysitter. He hopes that she’ll “take off her shirt and everything.”
  • While at a party, Caroline describes seeing two people “groping each other like two eighth graders under the bleachers.”
  • While intoxicated, Caroline takes off her shirt and tells Ethan to kiss her. He does; Ethan describes “getting hard” as they grope each other. He says, “her tongue is in my mouth, and she’s putting her hands on my shoulders and back.”
  • Kissing Caroline triggers memories of Ethan’s sexual trauma from his captivity. He remembers, “Hands on me. Rough hands. Big hands. Not stopping. Not when I pleaded for them to stop and then gave up when the pleading only made it worse.”
  • Dylan was likely sexually abused during his captivity, but it is not described. Caroline is disturbed when imagining “Dylan being touched or hurt.”
  • Ethan talks to his therapist about his abduction. Ethan says, “‘When I was with him, sometimes my body responded then, too. Even though I hated what was happening.’” He questions whether this means some part of him wanted the sexual acts.
  • When Caroline’s mother tells her that her father is having an affair, she says, “Your father is having sex with someone else.”

Violence

  • In an article detailing the boys’ reappearance, Ethan and Dylan’s captor, Marty, is described as dying of “a self-inflicted gunshot when authorities attempted to arrest him at his workplace.”
  • Ethan and Dr. Greenberg talk about the protesting of nukes in the eighties. Ethan thinks to himself, “People don’t talk about countries firing nuclear weapons much anymore. It’s just terrorists blowing shit up or people shooting up schools that freaks everybody out.”
  • Both Ethan’s and Dylan’s roadside kidnappings get described in detail and each description is about two pages in length. Both boys are held at gunpoint. Ethan recalls his captor telling “me to get down. Get on the floor, this is a gun on your neck.” Ethan describes, “The [gun’s] metal feels heavy on me. Heavier than the guy’s hand.” The weapon is never fired, and no physical injuries are noted.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ethan takes prescribed medications to ease his anxiety and help him sleep. At one point, he reveals he is taking four different prescriptions.
  • When they are together, Caroline and Jason often smoke weed and drink heavily spiked sodas. Caroline muses that Jason “only gets sweet and gentle when he’s high.”
  • Ethan recalls smoking weed at fifteen and possibly even younger.
  • While at a friend’s house, Caroline drinks Shiners from the fridge.
  • While her father is in the kitchen, Caroline takes a beer from the refrigerator “just to see if he’ll notice,” which he does not. She drinks half of it in her room and pours the rest out.
  • Caroline offer’s Ethan a swig of heavily spiked Diet Coke. This leads to the sexual encounter mentioned above.
  • Occasionally, adults are described as drinking beer.

Language

  • Dylan often repeats the phrase, “Damn, piece of cake.”
  • Occasionally, Ethan or Caroline will use the words hell, ass and fuck.
  • Shit and bullshit are said multiple times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • After Dylan’s return, Caroline prays to God, though she is uncertain if she believes in him. She thanks God for bringing her brother home.
  • Near the end of the story, she again thanks God, even though she is pretty sure she doesn’t believe in him.
  • Ethan and Dr. Greenberg discuss why people do and don’t believe in God. Dr. Greenberg mentions that he is Jewish, but doesn’t elaborate on his beliefs. They briefly discuss atheism and Unitarian Universalism, a religion that lacks a set of beliefs and “supports the idea of everyone being on their own faith journey.”
  • Ethan thinks back to the idea he had of God before his abduction and how he began to resent God for not answering his prayers for help in captivity.
  • During one of his sessions with Ethan, Dr. Greenberg refers to the novel, Cat’s Cradle. He explains the story’s fictitious religion that involves a belief that people are cosmetically linked in ‘karasses,’ or teams, to do a section of God’s will. Ethan thinks of being connected to Caroline and Dylan in this sense and wonders why fate would link them in such a terrible way.

by Erin Cosgrove

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Everyone in Fairview thinks they know what happened: Andie Bell, the pretty and popular high school senior was murdered by her then-boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. Five years later, Pip is not convinced that Sal is guilty. There are too many unanswered questions: Why was Andie’s body never found? Why would Sal kill Andie? Why would Sal kill himself?

While the case has officially been closed, all Pip sees are loose ends. With the help of Sal’s brother, Ravi, Pip tries to unravel the secrets of what happened in Fairview five years ago. Pip insists that Sal is innocent. Pip’s investigation becomes more than just a school project, putting not only herself but those who she loves in danger.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is a suspenseful, thrilling read that has short digestible chapters and tons of twists and turns. Jackson uses an interesting style of storytelling that combines a traditional third-person narration with journal entries from Pip’s point of view, interviews, police transcripts, maps, text messages, and much more. Oscillating between each point of view gives interesting insights into Pip’s character. Pip is a headstrong and determined young girl, who seems like she has her life fully put together, but she is far from that. Readers will relate to Pip who, as a teenager entering into adulthood, does not fully know who she is as a person or what she wants to do with her life.

Pip recognizes the racial bias that may have played a role in the suspected murder Sal faced. For example, when interviewing the reporter, Stanley Forbes, who heavily covered the original story, he explains to Pip “it’s always the boyfriend or the ex-boyfriend. Not only that Sal was Indian . . .  [T]hey have different ways of life from us . . . They don’t treat women quite like we do.” Bullying and its effects are also discussed heavily, as the murder victim, Andie, was a notorious bully who caused real harm to her victims.

The book also explores sexual relationships in various forms, including consensual and non-consensual sex, as well as relationships between older men and underaged girls. Sexual assault and rape, along with common misconceptions surrounding these topics, are also discussed. For example, at parties, girls’ drinks are being spiked. When Pip confronts the person who has been doing this (after she found out he drugged and raped a girl) he attempts to justify it by saying “but, like . . . she didn’t say no.” There are also heavy themes of teenage drinking which in many ways is normalized throughout the book.

Overall, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is an entertaining, suspenseful story with interesting twists and turns that readers will not see coming. The story examines the actions of a group of teenagers, who are not always the good kids they are perceived to be. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder also tackles the difficult topics of death, grief, teenage drug use and other mature topics. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is perfect for mystery lovers who are ready to explore mature topics.

Sexual Content

  • Pip jokes that her friend is “the daughter of a porn star.” Her friend responds by saying her father “only did one nude photoshoot in the eighties.”
  • Two of Pip’s friends are described as having “a failed fling last year that amounted to just four kisses and some drunken fumbling.” Later, it is revealed that they have recently kissed again.
  • A photo is found showing a boy “wearing nothing but a pair of black underwear.”
  • Andie claims that she has a sexual relationship with an older man, a janitor who works at the school and is about twenty.  Andie blackmails the man’s sister with this information.
  • When Pip goes to a party she observes the “dancers and the overenthusiastic kissers.”
  • When carving pumpkins, a friend notes Pip’s pumpkin looks like “a vagina on fire.”
  • Pip interrogates a suspect, Max, asking if he “drug[ged] and rape[d]” a girl at a party. He responds that he did put something in her drink “but, like… it wasn’t rape. She didn’t say no.”
  • Pip finds out Andie has been having a sexual relationship with one of her teachers, Mr. Ward. He explains “it only happened twice.”
  • Right before Pip’s press conference, Ravi, Sal’s brother who has been helping Pip with her investigation, “[leans] in to press his forehead against” Pip’s. The two then share a kiss.

Violence

  • The basis of this book is Pip’s investigation of a murder and an apparent suicide. Sal, the suspected murderer, is believed to have killed himself by “taking a huge dose of sleeping pills, and plac[ing] a plastic bag over his head, securing it with an elastic band around his neck. He suffocated while unconscious.”
  • The murder victim, Andie’s younger sister, Becca, is mentioned to have “been hospitalized for self-harming.”
  • Pip is interviewing someone who knows about the drug dealer in the town. When Pip tries to leave, he “[grabs] her wrist to pull her back.” Then, she “grab[s] his wrist with her other hand and squeezed, digging her nails into his skin.” She is able to get away.
  • Andie bullies another girl, Natalie, in her class, tricking her into recording and sending a topless video of herself. Andie posts this video online and “loads of other people were sharing it. The comments were horrible.”
  • After a night of drinking, Max and a few of his friends went to a party. When it was over, Max “who was just as drunk as [the rest of the group], was driving too fast up the highway. It was like four a.m. and there were no other cars on the road. And then… this man comes out of nowhere . . . he was standing well back on the shoulder . . . [and Max] lost control of the car.” Though the man did not die, “there was so much blood . . . and his legs were bent all wrong.” The group covered up the accident.
  • Pip’s dog is kidnapped and she is blackmailed for all the information in the case. The dog is found “in the river . . .drowned.”
  • When Pip confronts Mr. Ward, the teacher Andie was sleeping with, he reveals that he and Andie fought. Mr. Ward “just pushed her to get her to stop. . . she fell back and hit her head on [his] desk. Hard. And . . .she was on the floor and her head was bleeding.” Andie was conscious and when he went to go get a first aid kit she disappeared. Thinking she had died, the teacher attempted to cover his tracks by killing Sal.
  • In order to cover his crime, the teacher stole pills from Sal’s house, and forced Sal to swallow them. The teacher “held [a penknife] up to his neck.” When Sal “started to struggle . . . [the teacher] pinned him down and forced him to take more” pills.  As Sal “lost consciousness, [the murderer] put the bag around his head.” After Sal died, the killer framed him for Andie’s murder, placing blood under his fingernails and Andie’s phone in his car.
  • Months later, Sal’s killer thinks he saw Andie on the side of the road, “messed up on drugs . . . skinny and disheveled.” He kidnaps her and locks the girl in his attic. Unfortunately, this is not Andie but a troubled girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • After Andie escapes her teacher’s house, she walks home and is confronted by her sister, Becca. The two fight and Andie is cruel to her sister causing her to snap. Becca explains that Andie tried to push her out of the way and Becca “pushed her back . . .and [they] were both shouting and shoving and then . . . it was so fast . . . Andie fell back onto the floor . . . Her eyes were closed. And then she was being sick . . . her mouth was full, and she was coughing and choking on it. And [Becca] just froze.” Andie dies and Becca hides the body in a septic tank on a farm.
  • Becca drugs Pip. Pip runs away dazed and confused. When Becca catches up to Pip, Becca pushes her. Pip “[falls] onto her back in the leaves and mud.” As the two fight “Pip’s head [is] smashed against a tangled set of roots, a snaking trail of wet down her face, the iron-bit of blood in her mouth.” Because of the drugs and her injuries Pip is in and out of consciousness. Becca gets on top of her and begins to strangle Pip, but Becca has a change of mind and retreats. At this moment Pip is rescued. Just as she is saved Pip falls into unconsciousness, but she is safe. This scene lasts over four pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Teenage and underage drinking is mentioned heavily throughout the story. It is talked about in passing, but many of the main characters also are described as drunk. Pip’s parents allow her to go to a party and drink. Her dad tells her, “I want you to remember to be, at least, a little irresponsible.”
  • Sal takes his father’s sleeping pills. His father “was taking phenobarbitals for his insomnia.”
  • In order to find out who is selling drugs, Pip talks to someone who has drugs at a party. He rolls them a joint, pulling “out a small baggy of weed and a packet of rolling papers.” Pip pretends to take a few drags.
  • Andie sells drugs, including “weed, sometimes ecstasy, mephedrone, ketamine . . . and Rohypnol.” (Rohypnol is commonly used as roofies).
  • Pip finds out that there are “instances of drink spiking happening at . . . house parties.”
  • When Pip asks to be excused from the dinner table, her father jokes “some people have to worry about their kids rushing off from dinner to inject heroin into their eyeballs. Be thankful it’s homework.”
  • After she was drugged and raped, Becca wakes up and doesn’t know “what happened or with who.” Becca asks her friend to go with her to get “the morning-after pill.”

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes shit, asshole, fuck, bitch, and slut.
  • “Scum Family” is spray-painted on the house of the suspected killer.
  • After a friend’s breakup, someone says, “Boys are dicks.”
  • A girl says her dad “married the whore like right after the divorce” (referring to the woman he was cheating with).

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Mikaela Querido

A Hundred Horses

Nell is not happy about spending her school vacation with relatives she doesn’t know. Expecting nothing more than silly little cousins and boring farm life, she sneaks along a special suitcase that once belonged to her father. In it, she knows, are the parts of a music box and sixteen miniature painted horses. She thinks maybe she can fit them all back together.

But the countryside has unexpected surprises. When a half-wild and mysterious girl named Angel steals Nell’s suitcase, the two girls are united in an adventure of Angel’s devising. Nighttime meetings and a horse that just might be magical, pique Nell’s curiosity. Soon, she might find a way to put together the mystery of who Angel truly is and understand the legend about the herd of a hundred horses. She may also discover something special about herself.

A Hundred Horses revolves around a fairytale about the one-hundredth horse. Some people believe that when the one-hundredth horse arrives, it will corrupt all the other horses. However, Nell’s friend Angel has learned the fairytale with a different conclusion. Angel’s story views the one-hundredth horse’s arrival as positive because the horse has magic. In the end, the one-hundredth horse’s arrival is tied into Angel’s personal story. However, many young children will not understand the significance of the fairytale and how it relates to Angel.

Nell narrates the story, which allows the reader to understand her complex thoughts. Despite this, some readers will have a difficult time connecting to Nell. The story grows at a slow pace because most of the suspense revolves around the mystery of Angel, who doesn’t want anyone to know she is back in town. Nell’s interactions with Angel allow Nell to look beyond Angel’s appearance. Because of her relationship with Angel, Nell realizes, “I knew what it meant when you don’t let people stick around. You’re scared that they don’t really want to know you, that when they do, they’ll leave you anyway. So you make yourself not care about them first.”

The book slowly weaves a story about friendship, family, and self-acceptance. While a horse and a foal make several appearances, they are not a focal point. Instead, the girls’ feelings of abandonment and their budding friendship take center stage in this heartwarming story. Readers who enjoyed Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo will like this book. However, many readers will have a difficult time reading to the end of the story. If you’re looking for an engaging book that explores the loss of a parent, you should read My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan.

Sexual Content

  • Nell’s father “ran away to a place called Las Vegas with someone—called Susie or something. . .”

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Because of the legend of the hundred horses, Nell wonders if Angel is a real angel. Nell ponders, “Isn’t that what real angels did? Watched over and protected us just at the time between life and death.”
  • Angel thought Nell was an angel. Angel says, “I know I kept telling you to go away, but you didn’t I thought that meant you must be an angel. Only you’d lost your wings, so you’d forgotten you could fly.”

 

 

The Summer I Turned Pretty #1

The story follows 15-year-old Belly, who has gone to Cousin Beach every summer since she was born, along with her brother Steven and their mom Laurel. The house owner, Susannah, is Laurel’s best friend, and their visits are a tradition Belly always looks forward to. 

Belly holds a genuine love for the house and the memories it holds. Especially when it comes to the memories Belly has shared with Susannah’s son, Conrad. Conrad is known for his intense, quiet presence and his keen observance of everything around him. Belly has been completely infatuated with him ever since they were kids. But with Conrad, she never truly knows where she stands.  

It’s the complete opposite with Conrad’s younger brother, Jeremiah. Jeremiah and Belly have been close friends for as long as she can remember. They’ve kept each other’s secrets and looked out for one another. Jeremiah has been a great friend, although this summer he may no longer be satisfied with just being friends.  

This year, Belly decides to branch out on her own rather than staying stuck behind the boys’ shadows. Belly is finally coming into her own and gaining confidence, which gives her the courage to venture off and meet new people. Even though Belly is determined to change, she finds herself conflicted. Somehow every time Belly thinks she’s left her insecurity behind, she runs into things that make her feel like the self-doubting little girl she once was. This causes her to reflect on the past summer memories that led her to this point. 

The Summer I Turned Pretty will effortlessly keep readers intrigued because Belly shares her love for Cousins Beach and brings readers into her whirlwind life full of boys. Belly is a realistic character who faces typical teenage conflicts such as liking boys and trying to fit in. Belly’s strong-headedness will cause readers to root for her as she takes the reader through emotions such as cheerfulness, heartbreak, and nostalgia.  

Although The Summer I Turned Pretty is full of clichés and a typical love triangle, the characters will make readers fall in love with them. Since the characters share their memories, their complexities shine. Plus, readers will enjoy seeing both Belly’s struggles in the present and her reminiscence on her past. However, the constant switching of time periods is frustratingly confusing. The Summer I Turned Pretty is a summer romance that is a fun, easy read that will leave you in tears. For more sweet summer romance worthy of taking to the beach to read, check out The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson.  

Sexual Content 

  • Cam writes a note to Belly saying, “IOU one skinny-dip.” 
  • Belly has her first kiss with Jeremiah. “He kissed me right on the lips. His mouth was a little bit open, but it wasn’t a French kiss or anything. I tried to push him off, but he kept on kissing me for a few more seconds.” 
  • While parked in the driveway, Belly shares a kiss with Cameron. “He dipped his head low and kissed me. I didn’t let go of the door handle. All I could think was, I wish this had been my first kiss.” 
  • In the midst of consoling Conrad, Belly kisses him. “I let his head rest there, stroking the back of his hair, and then I cup the back of his head, moved it toward me, and kissed him. Tentatively at first, and then he started kissing me back, and we were kissing each other.” 
  • Belly catches her best friend and her brother kissing on the beach. “He had his arms around her, and they were kissing. They weren’t even watching the sunrise.”  
  • Jeremiah explains his first kiss to Belly. He says, “The first time I kissed a girl was a joke. She kept telling me what I was doing wrong.”  

Violence 

  • Conrad almost gets in a fight with a guy at a party. “Conrad was looking for a fight. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he got one, period, and this guy, he could kill Conrad.” They do not end up fighting.  
  • Conrad and Jeremiah get into a confrontation over different opinions. “Conrad pushed Jeremiah away roughly, and Jeremiah pushed him back. Conrad stumbled and nearly fell, and when he rose up, he punched Jeremiah right in the face. I think I screamed. Then they were wrestling around, grabbing at each other, hitting and cursing and breathing heavy. They knocked over Susannah’s big glass jar of Santee, and it cracked open. Tea spilled out all over the porch. There was blood on the sand.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Because Conrad has been distant and on edge, Belly’s mom asks, “Is Conrad doing drugs?” Belly says he is not. 
  • Conrad is caught smoking a cigarette. “Since when did you start smoking?” Belly asks him accusingly. 
  • Conrad leaves empty beer cans on the patio, after drinking alone.  
  • Someone offers Belly a beer, but she declines it. 
  • A boy named Kinsey is rumored to sell “crystal meth out of his trunk.” 
  • Belly’s mother has “been taking medicinal marijuana to help with nausea from the chemo.”

Language 

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes hell and ass. 
  • A girl calls Belly a “little skank.”  

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None  

by Jae’La Leavy

Nobody Knows but You

Kayla Martin has always been a bit of an outcast. That is until she meets Lainie at an eight-week-long summer camp. The two girls instantly become inseparable. Lainie is fun, charming, larger than life, and able to bring out a side of Kayla that she never knew she had. However, it isn’t long before another camper enters the picture.

Nerdy but confident, established playboy Jackson immediately grabs the interest of Kayla’s newfound best friend. The two begin a passionate, hot, and cold relationship. Though Kayla is less than thrilled about the effect Jackson is having on Lainie—and about becoming the third wheel—she remains fiercely loyal and hopes Lainie will come to her senses by the summer’s end.

But the summer ends with Jackson’s corpse being discovered in the lake. Foul play is suspected, and Lainie quickly becomes the prime suspect. As her friend awaits trial, Kayla grapples with the murder and the events leading up to it. Everyone else seems so sure of the truth, but she knows there’s often more to a story than meets the eye.

Nobody Knows but You is largely told from letters Kayla writes, but never sends, to Lainie. These letters describe her memories of that fateful summer as well as the aftermath. Kayla’s perspective, especially in the format it’s presented, is very unreliable. Early on she states, “even now, I am keeping [Lainie’s] secrets. Everyone that I can.” It becomes clear Kayla has a very biased outlook on the situation, and the reader is not necessarily meant to agree with how she perceives the events.

In order to give more perspective, the reader also gets glimpses of Kayla’s text exchanges with various characters. Kayla’s contributions to these exchanges tend to be very short and vague while the other person provides more substance, which shows that our narrator doesn’t reveal all that she knows. In addition, the narrative sometimes shifts to news articles and fellow campers’ transcribed statements. The articles and statements give the reader outside perspectives that highlight Kayla’s bias. The perspectives provided give the reader a very intimate (Kayla’s letters), semi-removed (camper’s statements), and outside (articles) look at the situation.

The story emphasizes the idea that strong connections and a deep sense of community are formed at camp. An unnamed camper muses, “I have friends I was tight with only the last ten days of camp and I know them better than people I’ve been friends with all of high school. You kind of have to experience it to know about it, but it’s true.” Teenagers who have been avid attendees of summer camp will likely be able to relate to this sentiment and understand why Kayla holds her bond with Lainie in such high regard. However, Kayla and most of the other characters are unlikable. This seems to have been the author’s intent, but it might make it difficult for some readers to get invested in the story.

Nobody Knows but You suffers from underdeveloped characters, particularly in the case of Kayla herself. Another negative aspect of the story is that the letter-writing format makes it difficult to gauge who she is outside of her relationship with Lainie. Furthermore, the final twist will be predictable for seasoned YA readers. However, this is a short and fast-paced read that is intriguing. While not a must-read, it is a gripping story that even the reluctant reader will be drawn into.

Sexual Content

  • Lainie and Jackson are often portrayed kissing and struggling to keep their hands off each other. A camper says, “you’d see them laughing and cuddling, or practically tearing each other’s clothes off in public.” The sexual nature of their relationship is heavily alluded to, and near the end of the story, Kayla states in one of her letters to Lainie that a scene flashed before her eyes of “letting [Jackson] kiss you. Kissing him back and running your hands under his t-shirt to feel his warm skin. Letting him unzip your hoodie and push it off your arms … leading him down the path toward the dock, where you can continue what you started, and more.”
  • Jackson, who is sixteen, hooked up with fellow camper Emma, who is only thirteen. A camper says regarding a statement Emma made, “sucking face with a notorious fuckboy doesn’t show you the depths of his soul.”
  • Kayla describes passionately kissing a boy named Ian at a Halloween party in one of her letters to Lainie. She says she knew she and Jackson gave each other scratches, and that some were “featherlight, and others harder, like the ones I gave Ian at the party tonight, experimenting.”
  • One camper states that they heard a rumor that “Lainie, Kayla, Nitin, and Jackson had a four-way orgy on the dock one night.”
  • Kayla recalls a late-night swim with Lainie, Jackson, and Nitin in which they all removed the majority of their clothes. She states that “only Jackson stripped completely – and only once he was underwater, thank goodness.”
  • Lainie tells Kayla that she went out with a girl in her school and that the two of them “hooked up at the Valentine’s dance.”
  • Kayla and Lainie kiss twice. Kayla says, “your lips were soft on mine, but what I felt was my insides plummeting.”

Violence

  • Jackson was murdered. He was bludgeoned in the head. He is hit twice, the first knocks him unconscious and the second “[breaks] the skin – a small gash, but still bleeding.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Kayla and Lainie sneak out at night, Lainie offers her “contraband.” Kayla assumes she is referring to cigarettes or other drugs, but it turns out to just be gum.
  • Kayla describes a Halloween party where she unknowingly drinks spiked punch and becomes drunk.
  • Lainie jokes about the camp chef having Scooby Snacks in the kitchen. Kayla realizes she is referring to a drug, “though exactly what kind of drug, [Lainie] didn’t seem to know for sure.” She later concludes that it’s either Valium, pot, mushrooms, or club drugs.

Language

  • “Fuck” is said multiple times.
  • “Motherfucking” and “fuckboy” are both used on one occasion.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • Kayla is pretty certain she does not believe in an afterlife but considers the possibility. As Kayla muses over her dislike for Jackson, she says, “I hope it’s fine. I don’t need [Jackson] to rot in hell for eternity.”

by Erin Cosgrove

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