Welcome to the winter session of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club. We’re wrapping up the year with a fantastic book. Each session this year, instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ve been reading a book for the first time right along with you.
This is the third book I’ve read from Julie Murphy, and it may be my new favorite. Even though I’ve interviewed her before on this blog, I’ve never actually met her in person until this summer when she was doing an Epic Reads tour. And what a treat! As much as I loved her second book DUMPLIN’, which she said was all about her outer self, I couldn’t wait to read RAMONA BLUE once she described it as being all about her inner self. She also said this is what made RAMONA BLUE her most difficult book to write thus far. I can tell you, the effort she put into it was totally worth it!
Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:
RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy
Published by: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
Release Date: May 9, 2017
Genres: YA, Contemporary
Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever. Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family.
Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever. The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected.
With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
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I absolutely loved the way this story depicted how Ramona struggled and came to terms with her discovery of feelings for both guys and girls, even when it went against what others in her life wanted.
Here’s a look at the first chapter:
This is a memory I want to keep forever: Grace standing at the stove of her parents’ rental cottage in one of her dad’s oversize T-shirts as she makes us a can of SpaghettiOs. Her mom already cleaned out the fridge and cabinets, throwing away anything with an expiration date.
“Almost ready,” says Grace as she stirs the pasta around with a wooden spoon.
“I should probably leave soon,” I tell her. I hate prolonged goodbyes. They’re as bad as tearing a Band-Aid off one arm hair at a time.
“Don’t pretend like you have somewhere to be right now. Besides, you should eat before you go.” Grace is like her mom in that way. Every time we’ve left the house over the last month, her mom has tried to unload some kind of food on us, like we were taking a long journey and would need rations. “Don’t make me eat these SpaghettiOs by myself.”
“Okay,” I say. “The thought of that is actually pretty pitiful.”
She takes the pot from the stove and drops an oven mitt on the kitchen table before setting it down in front of me. Scooting in close, she winds her legs between mine and hands me a wooden spoon. We’re both white, but my legs are permanently tanned from life on the coast (though a little hairy, because shaving is the actual worst), while Grace’s normally ivory skin is splotchy and irritated from all the overexposure to the sun. And then there are her feet.
“What?” she asks, tilting her head. Her raven waves brush against her shoulders. She’s obsessed with straightening her hair, but even the mention of humidity makes her ends curl. “Don’t look at my feet.” She kicks me in the shin. “You’re looking at my feet.”
I swallow a spoonful of pasta. “I like your feet.” They’re flat and wide and much too big for her body. And for some reason I find this totally adorable. “They’re like hobbit feet.”
“My feet are not hairy,” she insists.
I almost come back at her with some dumb quip, but the clock behind her melts into focus, and I remember.
Grace is leaving me. I knew she would leave me from the first moment we met on the beach as I handed out happy-hour flyers for Boucher’s. She lay spread out on a beach chair in a black swimsuit with the sides cut out and a towel over her feet. I remember wishing I knew her well enough to know why she was hiding her feet.
This is our last meal together. In less than an hour, her mom, dad, and brother will all wake up and pack whatever else remains from their summer in Eulogy into the back of their station wagon, and they’ll head home to their normal lives, leaving a hole in mine.
Who knew eating SpaghettiOs steamy? What a great opening. My heart broke a little for Ramona Blue as she said goodbye to her summer love. But the wait was short before a new love interest arrived and things got complicated in a very interesting way.
Murphy paints a very vivid picture of the setting, Eulogy, Mississippi, as well as Ramona’s domestic life and her connection to her sister, Hattie. Ramona’s sense of domestic responsibility drive a lot of her life decisions.
Here’s an excellent scene that gives you a great feel for this:
I began to outgrow this place somewhere around the summer before ninth grade. I’d always been tall, but that last growth spurt tipped me over from tall to too tall. The ceilings of our trailer stretch as high as seven feet, which means my six-foot-three frame requires that I duck through doorways and contort my body to fit beneath the showered in the bathroom.
Inside my room, I rest my bike against my dresser, and just as I’m about to flip on the lights, I notice a lump lying in my bed.
“Scoot over,” I whisper, tiptoeing across the floor.
Hattie, my older sister by two years, obliges, but barely. “Tyler is a furnace,” she mumbles.
I slide into bed behind her. Always the little sister, but forever the big spoon.
We used to fit so perfectly into this twin bed, because like Dad always said: the Leroux sisters were in the business of growing north to south, and never east to west. But that’s no longer the case. Hattie’s belly is growing every day. I knew she was pregnant almost as soon as she did. So did Dad. We don’t waste time with secrets in our house.
“Make him go home,” I tell her.
“Your feet are so cold,” she says as she presses her calves against my toes. “Tommy wants to know if you can come into work early.”
She turns to face me, her belly pressed against mine. It’s not big. Not yet. In fact, to anyone else it’s not even noticeable. But I know every bit of her so well that I can feel the difference there in her abdomen. Or maybe I just think I can. Whipping an arm around me, she pulls me close to her and whispers, “I’m so sorry, Ramona.”
My lips tremble.
“Hey, now,” she says. “I know you can’t see this far ahead right now, but there will be other girls.”
I shake my head, tears staining the pillow we share. “It’s not like she died or something,” I say. “And we’re going to keep talking. Or at least she said she wanted to.”
“Grace was great, okay? I’m not saying she wasn’t.” Hattie isn’t Grace’s biggest fan — she never has trusted outsiders — but I appreciate her pretending. “But you’re gonna get out of here after graduation and meet tons of people and maybe figure out there are lots of great girls.”
Maybe a few months ago, Hattie would have been right. Up until recently, the two of us had plans to get out of Eulogy together after graduation. Not big college plans. But small plans to wait tables or maybe even work retail and create a new life all our own in a place like New Orleans or maybe even Texas. A place without the tiny little trailer we’ve called home for too long now.
But then Hattie went and got pregnant, and even though neither of us have said so out loud, I know those plans have changed.
Tyler is here for now, but I can’t imagine he’s anything more than temporary. My plans were never extraordinary to begin with, and now that Hattie has my niece or my nephew incubating inside of her, they’re even less important. Hattie’s my sister. She’s my sister forever.
“And I can’t kick Tyler out, by the way,” she adds.
I shake my head. “Yeah, you can. Just tell him to go home.”
“This is sort of his home now.”
I prop myself up on my elbow and open my mouth, waiting for the words to pour out. But I’m too shocked. And horrified.
She loops a loose piece of hair behind my ear, trying to act like this is no big deal. “Dad said he could move in,” she whispers.
There are so many things I want to tell her in this moment. Our house is too small. Tyler is temporary. There will be even less room when the baby comes. I don’t need another body in this house to tell me that it’s too small and we’ve all outgrown this place. And yet I feel like I’m the only one of us who sees it. I’m the only one wondering where to go from here.
And then things get really interesting when an old friend comes back to town. Ramona hasn’t seen Freddie since they were little kids playing on the beach together. Now, he’s back for good.
In front of his house, he hops off the back of my bike and pulls me to him for a hug. My chin fits snugly in the crook of his shoulder. Hugging at this height can be so awkward, but nothing about our embrace makes me feel like I’m bumbling.
In sophomore chemistry, Mr. Culver told us the most important thing to take away from his class was that the world isn’t made up of isolated incidents. Knowing the elements was important, but even more relevant was knowing how they changed when combined with others. And that’s what I’m most terrified of right now — how Freddie and I will change when combined with others.
I watch as he sneaks around the side of his house into the backyard.
I have some time to kill before my paper route, so I go home to change my clothes. Hattie is spread out in my bed with a limb touching each corner, and the bathroom smells like puke –from Tyler, I assume. Even though it might be nice to crash on the couch for a little bit, I can’t get out of here fast enough. The whole process of being in my house feels like I’m creeping against the wall of a narrow, smelly hallway. Nothing about it says home right now.
As I’m walking my bike out of the trailer park, my phone buzzes.
GRACE: How can I be this lonely when I’m surrounded by people? I miss you.
Normally this sentiment would feel all too familiar, but tonight I didn’t feel lonely. Not at all.
Some days are worse than others, I finally type. I miss you, too.
Ramona’s feelings slowly change toward Freddie from familiar comfort friendship to deeper feelings that leave her confused and conflicted. Watching her navigate them and find her own path is well worth the read. Fantastic characters all the way through. Absolutely loved this book!
What did you think of the story?
FIRST RELAXED AND GROOVY BOOK CLUB PIC OF 2018
CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber
Published by: Flatiron Books
Release Date: January 31, 2017
Genres: YA, Fantasy
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away.
We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs beginning early next year. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)