TGIF- June 1st

TGIF is hosted by Ginger at GReads.

The question this week is: What books have you found to be very rewarding when it comes to tacking tougher issues?

I’m not known for reading a ton of “issue books”, but I think an author who nails it every time, without being too preachy about her views, without being too depressing and while still being able to convey a sense of hope in everything, is Sara Zarr.  I have loved every one of her books.

Story of a Girl deals with promiscuity and more than anything, with forgiveness—forgiving one’s self, forgiving someone who has wronged you and forgiving those who don’t want to forgive you.  This was my first Zarr and I was blown away by the emotion she was able to get across with her clean, beautiful writing.


Sweethearts deals with child abuse and friendship and how people cope with pain.  It is such a good book with this beautiful friendship that could probably be so much more if it weren’t for all of the crap that these kids go through together. On the other hand, it’s all of that crap that bonds them together. This one made me cry just a bit, but it was so worth it.

Once was Lost really spoke to me on such a personal level. This is about a girl who has been raised in the church (her father is a pastor) and who has to maintain a certain image because of her family. She reaches a place where she isn’t certain what she believes, if her faith is her own or just something her parents have passed down.  There is so much more to the story, but faith—in God, in the people we look up to, in those we rely on—is the main theme. OK, I cried here too.

Oh, I love all of Zarr’s books, but How to Save a Life is my absolute favorite.  Here she deals with grief, with teen pregnancy and with abuse, but the main theme is truly about hope and family.  She asks what makes a family, she shows that there are options for those who feel trapped, and in every way, she shows that even after tragedy and loss and heart-break life goes on.

Honorable Mention:

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney is an excellent picture of a girl who fights back after she’s date raped.  Whitney laces the story with ideas from To Kill A Mockingbird, which only made me love it more.  Definitely read it.

Have a great Friday!

How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeny just wishes everything could go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she’s been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends—everyone who wants to support her. And when her mom decides to adopt a baby, it feels like she’s somehow trying to replace a lost family member with a new one.

Mandy Kalinowski understands what it’s like to grow up unwanted—to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, one thing she’s sure of is that she wants a better life for her baby. It’s harder to be sure of herself. Will she ever find someone to care for her, too?

As their worlds change around them, Jill and Mandy must learn to both let go and hold on, and that nothing is as easy—or as difficult—as it seems. (from Barnes & Noble)

The Story:

Jill’s dad died less than a year ago and she and her mom don’t quite meld without him.  He was the glue of the family, the piece that connected them all.  And Jill hasn’t been easy to live with since her father’s death.  She’s pretty moody and difficult, she’s on the outs with her best friends and she’s going through yet another break up with her longtime boyfriend, Dylan.

Robin—Jill’s mom—has decided that what she needs to survive her grief is a bit of hope. That hope comes in the form of Mandy, a pregnant teenage girl from out-of-state who is looking for a family to adopt her baby.  Jill, being the natural cynic, sees about a million things wrong with this picture.  To her, Robin is too old to become a mom again and Mandy seems totally clueless.  Worse, she worries that her mom may get taken advantage of because Mandy and Robin are doing the whole thing without lawyers or any guarantees beyond e-mails and verbal agreements. And though know one really knows, there could be some validity to her concerns.  Mandy is on the run from a painful life marked by a mother who never truly cared for her.  She vows to ensure that her baby’s life will be better.

My Take:

As with all things Sara Zarr, I loved this book.  I think it may actually be my favorite of all of them (and I really have loved them all).  Every character she writes is so rich and so real, and this book is no exception.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Mandy and Jill. Each girl is so unique in her thoughts and so different in how they view life and yet each has such an incredible capacity to grow and love.  I’ll be honest, at first I had a tough time liking Jill because she’s kind of rude, but as I began to feel her grief and to understand her fears, I grew to adore her.  Mandy is likeable from the start, but she says and does some truly questionable things.  It made me sad for her, for the fact that she’d lived the whole of her life without love and for the lengths that she was willing to go to get it.

Also, of course, there are two great guys in this story and they’re both undeniably sweet. My heart really went out to Dylan, Jill’s on again off again boyfriend—not in a swoony way, but because he was so much a part of the family. He loved them, he grieved with them and he embraced Mandy without skepticism.  That totally warmed my heart. In fact, the whole book made me feel that way. It was everything a Sara Zarr book should be.

Crush Intensity– 5/5 Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.  Read it!

Once Was Lost

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

Samara Taylor used to believe in miracles. She used to believe in a lot of things.

When your father’s a pastor, it’s hard not to buy in to the idea of the perfect family, a loving God, and amazing grace. But lately, Sam has a lot of reasons to doubt. Her mother lands in rehab after a DUI and her father seems more interested in his congregation than his family. When a young girl in her small town is kidnapped, the local tragedy overlaps with Sam’s personal one, and the already worn thread of faith holding her together begins to unravel. (Goodreads)

Here’s the scoop:

Sam is a pastor’s daughter.  People seem to expect that she has a perfect life, complete with unyielding faith, an incredible father and a flawless mother. And worse, no one, not even her closest friends are real with her.  Everyone turns on their nicest smile and displays their very best behavior (or in the case of her pals, they don’t always invite her to outings they might not want their church to know about) because she’s the PK (Pastor’s Kid).  There’s really no fitting in.

Unfortunately for Sam,  life just isn’t what everyone thinks it is.  While her father spends hours every week shepherding and guiding his congregation, he has little time for his own family.  He’s not a bad guy, in fact, he’s a very nice man—but even when he’s home he’s completely distracted by work.  Sam adores her mother, but she’s gone, sent to a court-ordered rehab after a recent DUI.  The premise of perfection was too much for her to the point that she drank her days away.  No one in church, not even Sam’s closest friends, know the nature of her mother’s absence.  They all send their well-wishes for her health, all the while having no idea how life-altering this change truly is.

Sam feels a strange connection to Jody, a young girl from her church who goes missing.  Though Sam cannot claim to know Jody well, she is desperately moved by her disappearance.  It’s as though Jody is linked to her, as both girls are, in one way or another, lost.  While Jody is physically missing and the entire town is searching for her, Sam finds herself feeling alone and frightened by the fact that she is no longer certain of her own faith.  She wonders if her beliefs are truly hers or if they’re really only something passed down from her parents.  She’s angry at her father for allowing their family to come to this place.  While was helping others hold together in their times of need, her mother was silently falling apart and it was Sam who was busy trying to pick up the pieces. Now, in Sam’s time of need, her father still can’t see her cry for help.

I adored this book.  It could be because I’m a Christian and thus, I related to Sam’s struggles and in her questioning God’s hand in the things she doesn’t understand.  It’s difficult to be a teenager, but sometimes I think it’s even harder to be when you have the expectations of your church peers in addition to the normal pressures of adolescence.  And as parent, I too wonder where my faith ends and my children’s begins.  All of this aside, you don’t have to be super-religious to love this book. It’s simply a good story that I related to on a very personal level.

Sam is a character with a wealth of emotions, many stemming from the dramatic strains of her life, and some dealing with the normal issues tied to growing up. Her grief over her mother’s absence is very real without being completely depressing. While her parents are loving and equally flawed—something Sam sees honestly—they each cave in different ways under the weight of the expectations  placed upon them.  Their family is in such a fragile state and it’s both Sam’s willingness to admit this to herself, as well as her honest questions about life and faith, that carry this story.

While the search for Jody is very intriguing and left me guessing as to her whereabouts, it was Sam’s urgent need to find her that truly gripped me.  It was as if Sam’s hope in God and in herself were inextricably linked to Jody’s well-being. As the reader I was engrossed then, not only for Jody’s sake, but for the sake of Sam and her own spiritual struggle.

As always, Zarr’s simple, elegant writing style is easy to read while still conveying such weighty themes and depth of emotion.  I loved Sam.  I even grew to love her parents.  I felt the struggles they faced and the questions it brought about.  And I thought Zarr answered it all perfectly.

Crush Intensity: 4.5/5

Memorable Quotes:

I want to believe the way I used to, when my dad and mom or sometimes both of them would pray with me at night and I would picture God listening, kind-eyed and bearded.  He was real to me, as real as my own parents. I don’t know when God stopped being someone I saw as my friend, and turned into something I’m mostly confused about.

One more:

Things that happen in your house, with your family, are personal.  How do you talk about finding the spaghetti sauce lid in your dinner or the ice-cube trays full of water in the towel closet?  How do you talk about helping your mom put on her lipstick, so carefully, because her hands are shaking, so that it looks as perfect as she needs it to look before she can face the world?