Review – Going Over by Beth Kephart

GoingOver

I received Going Over from Edelweiss as a requested ARC in exchange for an honest review. Expected publication date: April 1, 2014.

Summary + Review

This is the first time I’ve read a fiction book–okay, any book–with a focus on the Berlin Wall. In fact, after reading Beth Kephart’s Going Over, I realize that my schooling about this historical barrier was pretty lacking. Luckily, the rich historic detail in Kephart’s YA novel prompted me to do some informal research about some of the scenes and events she describes.

I should add, though, that Going Over is not a book that is heavy-handed with the history lessons.  This is really the story of forbidden love between two teens, Ada and Stefan. Ada from West Berlin, Stefan from East Berlin. The two have grown up separated by the wall but have come to know each other through visits between their grandmothers.  The strain of limited, temporary visits, especially when Ada faces two of the most difficult experiences of her life, cause them to consider an escape plan for Stefan. But Stefan knows all too well the risks faced by those who try to go over: His grandfather was killed during his own attempt. As Stefan struggles to make what could be the biggest decision of his life, Ada creates a work of art with graffiti, a welcome mural on the very wall she hopes to see Stefan cross over.

Going Over had a slow start for me. Kephart’s writing here, while beautiful, almost has a disordered, dream-like quality to it. In one example of this, the author describes Ada’s nighttime graffiti habit, or graffing: “I work alone and in nobody’s hurry. I work from my one black boot and from things that I know about sky and vanishing, fear and wanting. I tilt the flashlight up on the bricked-in windowsill behind me and stand inside its shine, the cans of color at my feet and the rabbits on the opposite side of the wall, looking for nibbles in the death zone” (9). (Note: This quote is from an ARC and may be altered by publication.)

It was tough to get my bearings in the story with Ada’s unique voice. Really, the entire read, I had a tough time picturing the scenes and characters Kephart described; it was more like I got impressions rather than clear images. Once I acclimated to this style and the exposition gave way to action, however, I was hooked.

In addition to the main storyline of Ada and Stefan’s impossible romance are some really interesting subplots. Ada works at a daycare where many of her charges are children of the city’s Turkish “guest workers” (another history tidbit I’d known nothing about!). One of her favorite kids stops showing up to daycare, under suspicious circumstances, and Ada fears for his life. Readers also meet Ada’s friend Arabelle who is relentlessly supportive of Ada but has problems of her own.

Ultimately, this is a wonderful novel. I found myself thinking that it could actually have a wider readership amongst adults. But the right teen readers, those with patience, maturity, and some reading chops, will be so glad they read such a unique story that they won’t soon forget.

Readability 

There is a lot to Going Over that will challenge readers. First, Kephart uses two perspectives: that of Ada and that of Stefan. However, to further complicate matters, Ada’s chapters are written in first person point of view while Stefan’s are told in second person. I’d never encountered voice like this before (although it did remind me of the dual stories of Shorty and Touissaint L’Ouverture in In Darkness by Nick Lake), but I came to appreciate the author’s choices. We are meant to be drawn into Ada’s world because this is Ada’s story; Stefan’s perspective is important, but ultimately he is a part of Ada’s world.

Kephart’s writing style may throw off many readers, too. Admittedly, it took me awhile to get into it. I feel like I need to quote another passage for good measure, 🙂 another graffing scene: “Tonight it’s blues and purples I’m misting, white dust. Tonight my red bandana is high on my nose, my hood is pinched, and my light’s wedged in. I’ve shaken the Krylons hard, punched their noses, swapped a full cone out for a flat streamer, because I’m working the wall simple, in honor. I’m writing a burner” (48).

I think readers would also feel more comfortable in Kephart’s fictional world with some background about the Berlin Wall. As I said before, I knew embarrassingly little about that part of history going into this read, but my limited background still felt necessary to comprehending the story.

Appropriateness

Going Over feels more like an adult novel. There is nothing glaringly inappropriate, and I don’t mean to undermine the abilities and preferences of teen readers, but I just see an appreciative reading audience being a little older. Outside of this opinion, there is a little profanity and mention, but not description, of a sexual assault.

Instructional Uses

-This is such a well-researched historical fiction novel with strong connections to the end of the Cold War, communism, the eighties, and, of course, the Berlin Wall. It is also the best kind of historical fiction–the setting is an integral part of the plot, but it is woven in naturally, not forcefully. The book or excerpts could be used in conjunction with teaching these historical topics.

-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs

-Discussions/Debates about peoples’ rights and freedoms. There are motifs about being physically and metaphorically trapped throughout Going Over.

-Mood/Tone! Kephart’s writing is practically a study in creating tone and evoking mood.

Book Talks/Promotion:

Book Talk possible passages:  (Note: this will be updated upon the book’s publication. Because it’s an ARC, I cannot quote due to possible changes at publication.)

When we reach the observation post I put my arm across Arabelle’s shoulder and guide her up the steep flight of planked steps until we’re standing at the guardrail looking out over the wall’s sewer-pipe cap. Past the anti-vehicle ditch, the hedgehogs, the control strips, the trip flares, the dog run, the signal alarms, the signal fence, the barbed wire on the other side. Past the bright glare toward East Berlin, Friedrichshain, where the old buildings are fortified and the new buildings are concrete boxes, one room on top of another, every room exactly the same size, one light still on, the rest of it darkness after so much glaring brightness.

“You think they see us?” Arabelle asks, shivering a little. “The guards, I mean.”

My eyes track back toward the guards in their yellow-lit room, the steam in their windows, their radio antennae spiking on top. They’ve got portholes for firing through. They’ve got a 360-degree view. They’ve got shoot-to-kill orders if anybody flees, but right now, our graffing done, we are not their enemies. We are safe where we are against the splintery rail, safe watching that side from this side, looking for Stefan. He’s out there, somewhere, in the dark. Isn’t he?

Stefan. Please. Answer me.

“Do you think…” Arabelle asks again, but I pull my arm tighter around her and lift my right hand, marking that one solitary distant light in Friedrichshain with my spray-can finger. It twinkles on and off, yellow and blue. It looks like a star that has fallen.

“That’s him,” I say, a whisper now. (149-150)

Book Trailer: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK398ul3xbg

Web Resources: 

Chronicle Books, publishers of Going Over, have made a Teacher’s Guide with discussion questions and instructional activities related to the book. Woo! Click here to get the PDF.

Plus, the publishers have also posted an excerpt from the first few pages on Scribd.

For some background about the Berlin wall, try this video from history.com.

This brief video, courtesy of National Geographic, highlights the dangers of East Germans trying to escape to West Germany.

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Prescription

This is not a book for everyone. That said, it will be an excellent, excellent choice for many. Beth Kephart’s Going Over is equal parts poetic prose, authentic historical background, and emotional ups and downs (feels, if you will). Those who read should not be surprised by a strong urge to do some historical research.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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Summary + Review

And Then There Were None is my first Agatha Christie mystery, and it lived up to my high expectations!

The mystery opens with ten strangers traveling to privately-owned Indian Island, a tiny piece of land situated near Devon, England. A vague acquaintance of the ten has purchased it, so each guest eagerly accepts his/her invitation without much question.

Upon arriving, a few things are amiss. For one, no one associated with Indian Island, including the boat guide who takes the guests to the island and the butler and his wife, have met Mr. U.N. Owen. Secondly, Mr. Owen is not present at his house when his guests arrive. Nor does he arrive in time for dinner.  The visit takes a dark turn when a record played by the unsuspecting butler announces the true nature of the trip: all ten have been charged with murder by the mysterious Owen! (See passage below.)

As unsettling as the eerie accusations are, the situation quickly becomes more sinister. One of the guests drops dead, and poison is thought to be the cause of death! When another of the ten is found dead the next morning, the remaining eight discover that they are being killed off, one by one, in a gruesome twist on the words of the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; 
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept and then there were eight.

Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

It becomes clear that the ten are intended victims of Mr. Owen’s twisted sense of justice. Christie does an excellent job of making readers wonder: Who is U.N. Owen? And who will be this murderer’s next victim?

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I loved that the mystery doesn’t end in an expected way. Most readers will probably anticipate the true culprit finally being revealed with the last of the ten standing. However, Christie turns the mystery formula on its head and does not give away the guilty party until the epilogue. I thought the conclusion was a little “out there” and way improbable. But, again, the whole setup of the mystery itself is highly improbable, and half the fun of reading And Then There Were None is setting the disbelief aside and digging into “whodunnit.” 

spoilers over

Elements of this mystery are very far-fetched, but I think the unbelievable components actually make the read more entertaining and allow the reader to focus on trying to solve the mystery himself/herself.  I don’t usually feel this way about books, but I actually wish that Christie had made And Then There Were None a little longer. Once the murders start occurring, the pace is fast and the action is unrelenting until the end. I would have loved to see the suspense played up more: more emphasis on the characters’ psychology, more description of the creepy setting, maybe even some false alarms…and false leads.

Otherwise, And Then There Were None is a solid mystery that has stood the test of time for a reason.

Readability

The older writing style and language (And Then There Were None was first published in 1939) may throw off unprepared readers. In terms of most vocabulary and sentence structure, though, this is still a not-too-demanding read, so sharing an excerpt or two with students ahead of time may help your student readers. The cast of important characters is bigger than most books, and keeping the characters straight is really important to the plot. When this is the case, I sometimes recommend that my students make a character web or annotated list (the latter can be done really easily on a blank bookmark!) to aid their comprehension.

Appropriateness

There is a somewhat ugly history behind some of the content and the title of this book, and it definitely serves as a glaring reminder that interpretations of what is PC have changed a lot over time! I won’t spend time on that in this blog review because the issues with the original title(s) were resolved with early American publications. But feel free to take a browse here. (Sometimes I find it best to address potentially problematic content with students ahead of time, but the history of And Then There Were None may not show up on your students’ radar at all.) On that note, there are a handful of jokes and comments made by characters that are anti-Semitic in nature. 😦 If the book is going to be used in a classroom setting, I’d suggest forewarning students and taking advantage of a “teachable moment” about the grossly inappropriate and hurtful nature of such comments.

Instructional Uses

-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs.

-Discussion. Like any good classic, this one has all kinds of potential for rich discussion. What do you think about the murderer’s ideas on justice? What did you think of the ending? What common elements or archetypes, particularly in the mystery genre, are present in this book?

-Mood/Tone. From the start, Christie evokes a sense of foreboding. Students can examine how this mood is executed (pardon the slight pun).

-Foreshadowing. Christie leaves lots of hints about upcoming plot developments throughout this story. Prediction-making is a fun, valuable strategy when reading any mystery, but it is especially worthwhile with this story.

Book Talks/Promotion

Recommended passage(s) for book talks:

“The whole party had dined well. They were satisfied with themselves and with life. The hands of the clock pointed to twenty minutes past nine. There was a silence–a comfortable, replete silence.
Into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating…
Ladies and gentleman! Silence please!’
Every one was startled. They looked round–at each other, at the walls. Who was speaking?
The Voice went on–a high clear voice.
You are charged with the following indictments:
Edward George Armstrong, that you did upon the 14th day of March, 1925, cause the death of Louisa Mary Clees.
Emily Caroline Brent, that upon the 5th November 1931, you were responsible for the death of Beatrice Taylor.
William Henry Blore, that you brought upon the death of James Stephen Landor on October 10th, 1928.
Vera Elizabeth Claythorne, that on the 11th day of August, 1935, you killed Cyril Ogilvie Hamilton.
Philip Lombard, that upon a date in February, 1932, you were guilty of the death of twenty-one men. members of an East African tribe.
John Gordon Macarthur, that on the 4th of January, 1917, you deliberately sent your wife’s lover, Arthur Richmond, to his death.
Anthony James Marsden, that upon the 14th day of November last, you were guilty of the murder of John and Lucy Combes.
Thomas Rogers and Ethel Rogers, that on the 6th of May, 1929, you brought about the death of Jennifer Brady.
Lawrence John Wargrave, that upon the 10th day of June, 1930, you were guilty of the murder of Edward Seton.
Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defence?’
The Voice had stopped.
There was a moment’s petrified silence and then a resounding crash! Rogers had dropped the coffee tray!
At the same moment, from somewhere outside the room there came a scream and the sound of a thud.
Lombard was the first to move. He leapt to the door and flung it open. Outside, lying in a huddled mass, was Mrs. Rogers.”
(St. Martin’s Paperbacks 2001 papercover, pages 42-43)
 

Trailer: This is actually a film trailer for the 1945 adaptation. Man do I love a good classic movie trailer! I also think students would love the melodrama in this one.

 

Web Resources:

Agatha Christie was actually the subject of a real-life mystery! Before writing And Then There Were None, she disappeared for several days without a trace. Find out more at this link and this link.

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Prescription

And Then There Were None is a dark, quick, and tension-filled mystery. Reading it may result in readers asking for more mysteries…and classics. Heavier doses of more drawn-out suspense would add to the potency of this Agatha Christie mystery, but teen and older readers will undoubtedly get their thriller fix.  Rating: 4/5

Picture Book Review – Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Exclamation-Mark

Picture Book Summary + Review

Exclamation Mark, written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, is a picture book that has excellent potential for use in middle school classrooms. I really enjoyed it!

Exclamation mark (Exclamation Mark?) doesn’t fit in with the periods. He stands out, literally and figuratively. 🙂 One day he meets a question mark who helps him learn his purpose as punctuation. In the end, he realizes it’s not a bad thing to be different from others.

I loved Lichetenheld’s simple yet bold illustrations. The cartoony punctuation marks will make readers smile. I chuckled when I opened to the first page and saw that the illustrations and text appear to be layered over top of the lined penmanship paper many of us can remember from our primary school days. (Check out the video below for samples of the pages.)

Rosenthal keeps the text pretty simple, but she incorporates some really clever play on words. For example, Rosenthal points out that the exclamation mark is different from the periods by writing that “he just wasn’t like everyone else. Period.” Older students (and their teachers!) will appreciate this subtle humor.

Instructional Uses for Secondary Classes

-Study of punctuation mark uses!

-Puns. Rosenthal’s wordplay in this book is really fun, and older students may catch on to it better than elementary students.

-Types of sentences, including interjections.

-Climax, and other narrative plot structures. This book has a very clear turning point, as do many picture books, so this may be an easier way to study climax with students who are confused by the concept.

-Theme. For the same reasons as teaching climax, the lesson or theme of Exclamation Mark is made very clear to students.

Book Talks/Promotion

Book Trailer:

Web Resources:

Hey look! You can download a free book(exclamation)mark here!

Review – Ashfall by Mike Mullin

ashfall

Summary + Review

In the opening pages of Ashfall, readers are introduced to Cedar Falls (Woo! I went to college there!) teen Alex Halprin who is relieved when he gets out of his family’s weekend trip to Warren, Illinois. Mere pages later, Alex’s world is turned upside down when his house partially collapses! After escaping to his neighbors’ house,  more strange occurrences threaten his life: relentless thunder nearly bursts his eardrums, power and cell signals go out, and then ash begins to fall from the sky like rain. After the immediate threats subside, Alex finds out that the cause of the chaos was the eruption of the Yellowstone volcano. He grabs some provisions from his house and sets off to try to reconnect with his family. 

The plot follows Alex through a few minor stops and conflicts, but most of the story takes place after Alex is nearly killed by a prison escapee and he stumbles into the home of Mrs. Edmunds and her daughter, Darla. Mrs. Edmunds is the warm-hearted, nurturing mother figure Alex needs to recover and prepare for the rest of his journey to Illinois. Darla, however, is stubborn, impatient, smart, and critical of Alex; of course, he likes her immediately. 🙂

The three work to maximize their food resources and brace themselves for what looks to be a cold, ash-filled, treacherous winter-come-early. However, despite their preparations, nothing can ready them for all the dangers they will face in the post-eruption U.S.

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I had predicted that Alex and Darla would somehow end up on their own; I do think Mullin did a nice job of not letting the plot become predictable, though. I haven’t read the sequel, and I’m intrigued to see how the FEMA/government issues are dealt with in Ashen Winter. I’m also excited to see if/when Alex and Darla journey back to Cedar Falls. I do hope Mullin lets other characters in on whatever treks they make because I would hate to see the series become all about the romance. >:/ 

spoilers over

Mullin’s writing style, as well as the survivalist focus of Ashfall, remind me a lot of the Unwind ‘dystolgy’  by Neal Shusterman, the Gone series by Michael Grant, and The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. These books all have that fantastic action- and setting-related description but lack much character-centered or mood-creating detail. For many readers, this is a good thing; others (I’m one of them) like a little more character development with our world building! 🙂 Anyway, those books would make great read-alikes.

Because of this writing style, it took me a few chapters to warm up to the story. I also think the end is dragged out a little unnecessarily, as well. I think a few of the secondary characters blended together, without much to distinguish one from the next. Finally, as far as issues with the book go, I thought that Alex and Darla were just a little too brilliant in the self-preservation department. In a novel that is totally focused on survival, I am willing to let this go a bit. However, I think it did end up taking away some of the sense of the two ever really being in true peril: after all, they would figure something out. Other than these minor problems, I really loved this book. Where apocalyptic and dystopian fiction novels are a dime a dozen right now, Mullin has brought a new, unique idea to the table. It also must be said that, as far as the science part of the science fiction, Mullin seems to definitely know his stuff. The parts of the book that focused on the natural disaster elements were some of my favorite to read.

Readability

Sentence structure is very simple throughout Ashfall. Mullin uses some bigger vocabulary but not often enough, in my opinion, to turn away reluctant readers. For me, this had a bit of a slow start…but that could just be me. For a longer book (456 pages!), I think Mullin does a nice job of maintaining a fairly brisk pace. And while the science content is well-explained, I wouldn’t say it was shoved down my throat. (Some of my student readers complain about the over-emphasis of complex scientific concepts in some science fiction.)

Appropriateness

To my surprise, Ashfall contains references to both consensual sex and a sexual assault. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me: if the world is ending, people are gonna try to procreate. The sexual assault, without getting into spoilers, is arguably necessary to the plot. I wish Mullin hadn’t spent so much time and focus on the other. Not because I think it limits the reading audience (I think it’s handled maturely), but because it detracts from the main conflicts. But whatevs. Ashfall also has some pretty gruesome violence and mild profanity.

Instructional Uses

-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs

-Science inquiry. This book has tons of potential for students to research scientific plausibility: Yellowstone Volcano eruption likelihood; silicosis; human survival necessities; effects of volcanic eruptions on weather, climate, nature, etc.

-Discussion. Lots of great potential topics for discussion around this book, even outside of the great science connections. Ask students, what they would do to survive. Would their decisions align with Alex’s and Darla’s? Do they think Mullin’s ideas about how communities and government agencies deal with the disaster reflect what would happen in real life?

-Predicting. Prediction is a pretty basic reading skill, but the beloved (hee hee) Common Core contains ELA standards that deal with proving inferences with text evidence. See a couple different grade levels here, here, and even hereAshfall would really lend itself to predicting and backing up predictions with evidence from the story (or evidence from research, if the predictions deal with the scientific components of the story).

Book Talks/Promotion

Recommended passage(s) for book talks:

“Then the explosions started.
The sound hit me physically, like an unexpected gust of wind trying to throw me off my feet. Two windows in the house next door bowed inward under the pressure and shattered. Darren stumbled from the force, and I caught him with my left hand.
I used to watch lightning storms with my sister. We’d see the lightning and start counting: one Mississippi, two Mississippi…If we got to five, the lightning was a mile away. Ten, two miles. This noise was like when we’d see the lightning, count one–and wham, the thunder would roll over us–the kind of thunder that would make my sister run inside screaming.
But unlike thunder, this didn’t stop. It went on and on, machine-gun style, as if Zeus had loaded his bolts into an M60 with an inexhaustible ammo crate. But there was no lightning, only thunder”
(Tanglewood Publishing 2011 hardcover, pages 18-20)
 
 It was getting cold, which worried me. I thought for a moment and figured out it was the last day of August The volcano must be messing with the weather somehow. How cold would it get? I had no way to answer that question, so I ignored it for the moment. I put on one of Dad’s long-sleeved shirts over a T-shirt.
I slept in my parents’ bed that night, fully clothed. Under the oppressive smell of sulfur, I caught a hint of my mom–a faint whiff of the Light Blue perfume we bought her every year for Mother’s Day.
Lately I’d been so consumed with fighting with Mom that it never occurred to me what my life would be like without her. Without Dad’s benevolent disinterest. Without the brat, my sister. Who would I be, if they were all gone?
I clenched my eyes shut and refused to cry. Would I see them again? Yes, I decided. If they were alive, I would find my family. There was no way they could come home to get me. Nothing short of a bulldozer would be able to move in all that ash. And if the gang that had invaded Joe and Darren’s house was any indication, Cedar Falls would only get more dangerous. Tomorrow, I’d set out for Warren to find my family. The journey might be impossible, but I had to try. I had to find my mother. With that resolution, I drifted off to sleep
(pp. 55-56)

Mike Mullin on AshfallThe author talks about his inspiration behind Ashfall, the book A Short History of Nearly Everything, and he reads a passage from the book. (The read-aloud is great!)

Web Resources:

Hooray! Turns out, an eruption of the supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park is highly unlikely.

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Prescription

Ashfall should be diagnosed for readers feeling sick and tired of the same old recycled YA apocalyptic plots. It will be an especially potent read for those preferring world-building detail rather than character-centered narration. Overall, this is a well-researched, exciting science fiction novel.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

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I received Heartbeat from Netgalley as a requested ARC in exchange for an honest review. Expected publication date: January 28, 2014.

Summary + Review

Heartbeat was both my first Elizabeth Scott novel and the first digital ARC I received. While I am completely grateful to Netgalley and the publishers at Harlequin Teen for hooking me up, Heartbeat was not the book for me. But: Of reviewers who’ve read it, I seem to be in the minority. Lots are showing their love already, and I can see where this book would be a wonderful fit for some readers.

In Heartbeat, the protagonist, Emma, is heartbroken over the recent death of her mom. Sounds like a pretty typical YA premise, right? Elizabeth Scott uses a fresh, painful take on this idea, though, with the circumstances of the death: Emma’s mom was pregnant at the time of her accident, and she is being kept on life support machines in order to keep the baby alive. This decision was made by Emma’s stepdad, and she cannot forgive him for neglecting her feelings in the matter. Because dealing with this unexpected loss was hard enough, but now she also feels as if she goes through the hope-denial cycle, facing this loss, every time she sees her mom at the hospital.

Her best friend, Olivia, tries to be supportive, but Emma has no one with whom to confide about her true feelings. That is, until she has a chance encounter with the school’s bad boy, Caleb.  Caleb’s sister had been killed in a car accident several years before Emma’s own tragedy, and the two bond over their sadness, anger, and need to connect with someone who can understand. Can Caleb help Emma move on with her life?

So here was my main problem with Heartbeat, and I know that revealing it will make me seem heartless…BUT. How does one write a book about grief that is more than a book about grief? In other words, how can the author value the kind of negative, endless grief-spiral a person would realistically be in when faced with the death of a loved one, but avoid writing that comes across as depressing, repetitive, and mostly hopeless? Is it possible for an author to authentically represent a main character’s mourning and give the reader a sense of purpose (reading purpose, that is) and optimism?

I think the answer is yes, but it must be incredibly difficult to pull off. To me, Scott just missed the mark.

One of my favorite books from last year (although published in 2011) was Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life. I talked about it here and reviewed it here. I think it’s a good book to compare to Heartbeat because they have quite a bit in common. Both feature protagonists who are dealing with the passing of a parent. Both protagonists are angry teenage girls. Both are driven by a premise that is on the slightly more un-realistic side of realistic. (In the case of How to Save a Life, the MC’s mom decides to adopt a baby as a way to deal with the loss of her husband.) Both contain a romance, although Heartbeat leans on that a little more. But I gave 5/5 to How to Save a Life. Because, to me, Zarr crafted a book about grief that was about more than just the grief. Now, to be fair, How to Save a Life has two points of view, with the second MC focused on her pregnancy and not loss. However, Zarr successfully created a more balanced narration style with the employment of other conflicts and secondary characters. I don’t think Scott used Olivia or Anthony or even Caleb enough in this way. Olivia and Anthony seemed pretty flat. Also, Caleb’s introduction into the story was a little abrupt and unnatural. The other thing is that I just think Scott’s writing is not quite up to Zarr’s level. Even when Jill, from How to Save a Life, was in the full throes of her grief, I was captivated because it felt real but also original and not at all tedious. It was tough for me to read through Emma’s grieving process because it became a really dull and dismal task.

Anyway, I’ll stop fangirl-ing about Sara Zarr now! One other complaint I have, probably because of the English teacher in me, is Scott’s use of punctuation. Specifically the dash, and even more specifically the em dash.  It was overused! For instance: “Mom would hate being trapped like she is and I can’t — won’t — forgive him for it. (Keep in mind that this quote could change by publication.) In real conversation, yes, we often interrupt one another and even interrupt our own thoughts with new ones. But this was a bit out of control. Like, on some pages I counted several uses, even within inner dialogue.  A lot of ellipses, too, but you may have noticed that I have a problem with that, as well. 🙂 It was distracting to me, but maybe others won’t notice or maybe it will be edited prior to publication.

One defense of Scott’s work in Heartbeat that I want to make is that some reviewers have said Emma comes off as ‘too angry’ and, thus, annoying. I couldn’t disagree more. Emma’s anger is one of the more real elements in the book, and I think it is a totally justified feeling, given her circumstances. Every reader is entitled to his or her opinions, of course, but I think this aspect of Emma’s character was well developed.

Readability 

This is a very easy read. There are a few flashbacks, but they are set off very obviously and are told briefly.

Appropriateness

Underage drinking and a few makeout scenes are present in Heartbeat. There is some profanity, usually used to express Emma’s anger, but it is not heavy.  Drug use and theft are mentioned in a negative light, but are also chalked up to the grieving process. Heartbeat would probably be appropriate for most middle school readers.

Instructional Uses

-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs

-Discussions/Debates about life support, teen boot camps, coping with grief, etc. (Discussion on life support could hit nerves with students’ religious beliefs, so teachers may want to supply structure and know their demographic.)

Book Talks/Promotion:

Book Talk possible passages:  (Note: this will be updated upon the book’s publication. Because it’s an ARC, I cannot quote due to possible changes at publication.)

Web Resources: The news stories linked below were not what inspired Elizabeth Scott’s writing, but they have some pretty intriguing connections. I came across this news story recently, and it immediately made me think of HeartbeatTexas Father Barred from Taking Pregnant Wife Off Life Support. Crazy, right (and really, really tragic)?  This article could be used in conjunction with Heartbeat, especially read and discussed ahead of time. Some may also have heard about the devastating story of the thirteen-year-old girl whose family has been fighting to keep her on life support.

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Prescription

Readers looking for authentic emotion and main character dramatics will find it in excess in Heartbeat. However, other aspects of characterization and overall writing could have been stronger. Unique premise but a read that, for some, may be too gloomy. 

Rating: 2/5