The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – RAMONA BLUE

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

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

indieboundamazonbn-24h-80

 

Plot Summary:

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.)

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

Follow Julie on Twitter here.

Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

Follow Julie on Instagram here.

Follow Julie on YouTube here.

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.

     I grin.

     “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.

The Discussion:

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.”

     “Grace left.”

     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?

 

Up next…
New books for the new year! We’ll discuss debut novels all year long!
Sound fun? If so, join me.
Here’s the first title, and man, what a debut it was!

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

indieboundamazonbn-24h-80

 

Plot Summary:

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!)

Happy reading!

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Book Review – FROEHLICH’S LADDER by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon

I received this book from the beguiling Laura Stanfill. Not only is she a champion for independent books in her home state of Oregon, she’s the founder and publisher of her own independent publishing house, Forest Avenue Press, and she can wear a fancy hat like no one else I know.

 

I met her through our mutual love of books and blogs a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to read the very first book her house released. She’s been on a roll ever since. She thought I might enjoy this latest story and sent me a copy. So thoughtful!

FROEHLICH’S LADDER by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon

Published by: Forest Avenue Press

Release Date: August 9, 2016

Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy

amazonindieboundbn-24h-80

 

 

Plot Summary:

Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his permanent perch atop a giant ladder in this nineteenth century madcap adventure novel. When he disappears suddenly, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked adventure across the Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs. (Plot summary from publisher’s website.)

This is such a unique and wonderful tale, a truly magical romp of a story. Although I found it hard to readily describe – it’s kind of a folk tale with tall tale leanings filled with the most fascinating cast of characters – I did thoroughly enjoy reading it.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

The brothers’ land (two plots arranged end-to-end) was adjacent to Boxboro – less of a town at the time than the notion of a town. The previous year, the United States Congress had passed the Donation Land Act. Harald and Froehlich, being of voting age and white (by accident of birth, and without conscious design), were entitled to three hundred twenty acres in Oregon Country, provided they make improvements to the land and remain for four years. At nineteen and eighteen years old, respectively, they received no greeting when they arrived, nor did anything but a handwritten mile marker signify their property.

 “A bog,” Forehlich noisily observed. “It reminds me of a bog, Harald, only without the charm. In California, at least it’s sunny. At least the people were civilized! Did you see that coot at the general store? His mouth looked like the back of your knee! Is it any wonder they’re giving away land? If a person were to come up to you and say, ‘Here, take my daughter – my pride and joy, a vision to see,’ would you think to yourself, ‘Oh, lucky day!’ Or would you think, ‘Let me see this daughter of yours.’ Maybe it’s not even his daughter, Harald, but a man dressed as a woman, lying in wait! And when I pay her a visit, with my chin shaved and my hair nicely parted, he jumps out from behind the wardrobe, strikes me over the head, and-“

“Enough, Froehlich!” Harald shouted, finally compelled to open his eyes. Staring down at his brother, he asked, “What are you trying to say?”

What am I trying to say?” The volume of Froehlich’s voice was enough to startle the birds. “I’m saying it’s abysmal here! I’m saying this has been a terrible mistake! No one should suffer such indignity, unless they’re being punished for a grave sin-which to my knowledge, I am not.”

“But I like it here,” Harald said. “I enjoy this weather.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Froehlich snapped. “Go live at the bottom of a well, if that’s your preference. I say California was superior in every way. Or New Orleans – I rather liked the Port of New Orleans. Let’s go back.”

This statement caused Harald’s jaw to swing open, as if on a great hinge. For a moment he was rendered speechless, his face all but frozen, except for a distressed vein that pulsed in his temple. Finally, when it appeared he might’ve been struck dumb, he offered a smile.

“Go back?” He chuckled.

“Yes – go back. What’s so amusing?”

“Walk all the way to the Fort Astoria? And how will you, with your feet in that condition?”

Froehlich folded his arms and scowled. He’d thought his limp was less noticeable, even as it had grown more and more pronounced. He felt it was cruel for Harald to make light of his affliction. After all, his brother stood head and shoulders above normal men and was strong as a locomotive.

“You’ll have to carry me, of course,” Froehlich said.

Harald threw his head back as his laughter turned to howls. The rain dappled his forehead and ran in rivulets down his cheeks.

“Carry you?” he gasped, when he was finally able to speak.

Froehlich, who was beginning to lose his patience, confirmed, “Yes – carry me. Don’t pretend for a second that I’m too heavy.”

“Of course you’re not too heavy – I could put a wagon on my back. But why carry you? Why should I leave? This is my home, now, Froehlich. The contract requires that we stay for four years.”

Now it was Froehlich’s turn to gape. The betrayal he felt stemmed less from what Harald wanted, and more from what he didn’t want. Harald, with his unique physical gifts, could’ve made a name for himself in Deutschland, when no such option had been available to Froehlich. His only chance at upward mobility had been to pursue his fortune, and that pursuit had led him to this wilderness.

“Come with me,” Froehlich said. “I want to show you something.”

Technically, they were standing on Froehlich’s land. Slogging to the middle of an empty pasture, where the drizzle had turned the ground to slurry, he spun around to face his brother.

“There,” Froehlich said, pointing at his feet. Rain was dripping down his brow and under his collar, not that he noticed anymore. “Look right there, and tell me what you see.”

“There?” Harald frowned. “All I see is mud.”

“It’s your grave,” Froehlich sneered. “Yours and mine, both – but you first, if rank stupidity has anything to do with it. We’ve traveled tens of thousands miles, Harald, and for what? The privilege of drowning while standing up? If that’s the case, I’d rather spend what time remains alone. Oregon Country is big enough that I don’t have to see your idiot face.”

Hobbling toward the wall of the trees, he paused to correct himself. “My home,” he said. “My land. You go and live someplace else.”

Things only get more unpleasant between the two brothers when a love-interest come into play leading to a full-on feud of ridiculous proportions until Froehlich banishes himself up a ladder, the fourth largest in the land, and refuses to come down. For years.

But don’t let the whimsical side of this story fool you. There is a darker, more haunting side explored as well. Almost all the characters suffer from one form of alienation or another and all struggle to find their place in this new world – longing for a sense of connection. Many of these struggles felt very relevant to today.

I really enjoyed the wild ride this story led me on. I think you will, too.

 

Learn more about Jamie Duclos-Yourdon here.

Follow Jamie on Twitter here.

 

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the summer session of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club.  We’re having one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’m reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This selection is from an author I’ve never read before – always exciting! I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading her book ever since. It’s a book well worth reading.

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

Published by: Arthur A Levine Books

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Genres: YA, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

indieboundamazonbn-24h-80

 

 

Plot Summary:

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

Follow Martha on Facebook here.

Follow Martha on Tumblr here.

 

It’s hard enough being in love without immortal forces interfering or outright plotting against you, especially when you have no idea it’s even happening. Their subtle moves shape your life views and change small steps that might have made big changes in your life you’ll never know about. Such a fascinating premise for this story.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:

Chapter 1

Friday, February 13, 1920

     The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really; a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common housefly. Although, he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.

     Standing beneath a leaded glass window, the visitor, who was known as Love, removed a small, pearl-headed pin from his tie and pricked his his finger. A bead of blood rose and caught the reflection of the slice of moon that hung low in the late winter sky. He bent over the cradle and slid his bleeding fingertip into the child’s mouth. The baby, a boy, tried to suckle, his forehead wrinkling, his small hands curling into fists.

    After a time, Love slipped his finger out of the boy’s mouth, satisfied that the blood had given the boy a steady heart. He replaced his pin and regarded the child. He removed a book from his pocket, scribbled a few lines, and tucked it away again. When he could stay no longer, he uttered two words, as softly as a prayer: “Have courage.”

———————————————————————

The next night, in a small green house across town, his opponent made her choice. In this house, there was no leaded glass in the windows. No gracious nursery, no wrought-iron crib. The child was a girl. A girl who slept in an apple crate – happily so, for she did not yet know of anything else.

     In the house’s other bedroom, the child’s grandmother slept lightly, listening from some ever-alert corner of her mind for the sounds that would indicate the child’s parents had returned home: the creak of a door, the whisper of voices, the careful pad of tiptoeing feet.

     The old woman would wait forever to hear those sounds again.

     Wearing a pair of soft leather gloves, Love’s opponent, known as Death, reached for the child, who woke and blinked sleepily at the unfamiliar face overhead. To Death’s relief, the baby did not cry. Instead, she looked at her with wonder. Death held a candle near so the child might have a better view. The baby blinked twice, smiled, and reached for the flame.

     Pleased, Death set the candle down, held the baby close to her chest, and walked to the uncovered window, which revealed a whitened world glowing beneath a silver flannel sky. She and the baby watched the snow fall together. At last, the child fell asleep in her arms.

     Death concentrated on her essential task, relieved when she at last felt the telltale pressure behind her eyes. After much effort, a single black tear gathered in her lashes. Death removed her glove with her teeth. It made hardly any noise as it hit the floor. With her index finger, Death lifted the tear.

     She held her fingertip over the baby’s clean, warm forehead. Slowly, carefully, she wrote directly on the child’s flesh a word that would be invisible. But this word would have power over the child, and later the woman she would become. It would teach her, shape her. Its letters, seven of them, gleamed in the candlelight.

     Someday.

     She whispered this into the baby’s ear:

     Someday, everyone you love will die. Everything you love will crumble to ruin. This is the price of life. This is the price of love. It is the only ending for every true story.

     The letters sank into the infant’s dusky skin and vanished as if they’d never been there at all.

    Death put the baby down, removed her other glove, and left the pair of them on the floor, where they would be discovered by the baby’s grandmother and mistaken for something else. The gloves would be the only things she would give the girl, though there was much she had taken already, and more she would take in the years to come.

———————————————————————

     For the next seventeen years, Love and Death watched their players. Watched and waited for the Game to begin.

 

I was hooked from the opening. And I found myself rooting for the two wee babes, who grew up to be very intriguing, complex characters, hoping they’d find a way to beat the odds and defy the influence of Love and Death and forge their own path.

How about you? Did this opening grab you from the start or did you need more to get invested in the story?

The Discussion:

Flora and Henry, our “players”, both have really big dreams that they are very determined to achieve. Flora wants to be the next Amelia Earhart, and even though she’d rather earn a living flying, without serious sponsorship money – rarely given to women, yet alone a colored woman – she must spend her evenings singing at Domino’s.  Henry loves the connection, the rhythm, of baseball and is good enough that he received a full scholarship to the all-boys preparatory academy, which could lead to a college scholarship and a bright future. If only he could keep his focus on his studies and off of music, his real love.

Things really get interesting when their worlds collide, and then Henry hears Flora sing for the first time.

Here’s the scene where Henry has convinced Ethan, his foster brother, to go with him to Flora’s nightclub, The Domino, on the pretext of writing a story  for Ethan’s father’s newspaper, about Flora, the girl pilot they met earlier that day:

   On the far side rose a stage flanked by red velvet curtains and pearly lights. Everything had seen better days, to be sure. But it was the biggest, brightest thing Henry could remember since before the Crash, and for a moment, he almost felt as if he were back in that old world, the one he’d lived in with his family before the influenza took his mother and sister, before his father…Henry stopped the thought in its tracks. Now wasn’t the time.

   A group of musicians stood on one side of the stage, and the drummer kicked off a new song. Center stage, stepping down a wide white staircase and curving handrails, was Flora, looking paradoxically the same and yet so different from the way she looked on the airstrip. She smiled as she walked, but it was clear she couldn’t care less about the audience clapping and hooting on the floor below. A spotlight pinned her in front of a nickel-plated microphone.

     “Something wrong?” Ethan said. “Don’t tell me you’ve come to your senses.”

     “It’s not that. I just -” Henry shook his head. “The singer.”

     “Not that it matters, but she’s not bad-looking out of that canvas getup,” Ethan said. “I’ll grant you that. Even if her dress looks like something that was in style twenty years ago.”

     Henry didn’t care about the dress. It looked fine to him. More than fine.

     Flora opened her mouth to sing and Henry swallowed hard. He’d never heard anything like her voice, which made him wish he had his bass in his hands, just so he could return the sounds, a mix of chocolate and cream, something he wanted to drink through his skin.

Once upon a time I dreamed

Of how my life would go…

     He recognized the song: “Walk Beside Me.” But her voice nailed him to the floor. It made him feel as though something had slipped under his skin and was easing everything nonessential straight from his bones.

     “Cigarette?” A blonde wearing a short red dress and a tray of Viceroys slung from a strap around her neck leaned in toward them, blocking Henry’s view.

On that day I saw you

It wasn’t love at first sight

But slowly, like a sunrise

You revealed your light

     Henry craned around her as Ethan waved the cigarette girl away. “Your kind always says no to mine,” she muttered as she left. The maître d’ approached holding menus.

     “Follow me, gentlemen,” he said. “It’s your lucky night, We have a table right up front by the dance floor.”

     Henry had heard “Walk Beside Me” many times on the wireless. But he had never heard it like this, slow and tender. And the accompanying music was nothing like the orderly, upright way the Ozzie Nelson Band played it. This was something unsettling here, something unpredictable, as if some set of rules, both written and unwritten, was being shattered like glass. The awareness of it dampened his forehead and made his blood sing, raising all the tiny hairs on his arms and the back of his neck.

     Flora moved on to the chorus.

I may have dreamed before you

Of how my life should be

The only thing I want now

Is for you to walk beside me

   Beneath her voice, a skinny young bass player plucked a steady rhythm, holding her on a sturdy web of notes. For some reason, Henry immediately hated the man, his mustache, his pompadour, his trim tuxedo, the way he looked at Flora as though she were a thing he owned. The music picked up a notch, taking Henry’s pulse with it as the song traveled back to the main melody, now with the full band. It was a conversation with a piano, a guitar, a saxophone, two trombones, and a pair of twins playing trumpets that turned the reflection of the chandeliers overhead into movable stars.

So Love’s player is on the hook, but will Death’s player forsake her goals and ambition for Henry?

As Henry visits the Domino almost every night, getting closer to Flora, neglecting his responsibilities and letting his grades suffer, putting his future college scholarships in jeopardy, we begin to see the effect the actions Love and Death have on each of the “players”. One side isn’t above shoving obstacles in the way to move the players in the direction that suits their outcome of the game even if that means causing them a great loss.

This is a beautiful story that will have you rooting for Henry and Flora (and maybe even against Love and Death) and have you thinking about the balance between love and self-sacrifice.

What wouldn’t you give up for love? Heavy question.

What did you think of the story?

 

Up next…

 Fall Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy

Published by: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Release Date: May 9, 2017

Genres: YA, Contemporary

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Plot Summary:

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.)

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

Follow Julie on Twitter here.

Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

Follow Julie on Instagram here.

Follow Julie on YouTube here.

 

I’ve interviewed Ms. Murphy right here on this blog a few years ago and finally got to meet her in person during her Epic Reads tour for this book. Such a delightful person! While I’ve enjoyed reading her other books, like SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY and DUMPLIN’, she said this one took her the longest, and it’s because it’s a reflection of her inner self as much as DUMPLIN’ was a reflection of her outer self. Wow! Does that make me want to read it all the more!

We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in the fall. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – SALT TO THE SEA

 

Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the first discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club of this year! We’ll have one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ll be reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This first book is from an author with the most generous spirit and all the talent to make a reader lose themselves in any world she creates. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I read her debut novel BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY. I was lucky enough to hear her speak in person about her experience researching and then writing this story. It was gut-wrenching. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. She put all of that into her story, and let me tell you. It’s a book well worth reading.

So is her latest book. I won an advanced copy on Goodreads, which was awesome – free books, yay! (If you had my book habit you’d totally understand.) Even so, I would’ve bought this book myself if I hadn’t won it.

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

 

SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

Published by: Philomel

Release Date: February 2, 2016

Genres: YA, Historical Fiction

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Plot Summary:

In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Ruta Sepetys here.

Follow Ruta on Twitter here.

Follow Ruta on Facebook here.

This is such a fascinating tale that grips you right from the opening pages. Sepetys has a way of finding different angles to shed light on familiar periods of history in enlightening and intriguing ways.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:

joana

      Guilt is a hunter.

My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant

child.

It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.

      I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania.

      Lithuania.

      I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true?

      We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us.

     “Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked.

      “Six,” he replied.

      “Who are you traveling with?”

      He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”

      I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked.

      The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.”

      So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow.

      I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear.

      I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him.

      “She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly.

      I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine.

      And then we both heard it in the distance.

      Bang.

Don’t you just love the imagery of “a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow”? There are so many different ways she describes the winter weather, you feel it as you’re walking through the scene with the characters.

With this well-crafted story which not only creates vivid scenes that immerse you right into the bitter cold of Eastern Prussia in 1945, but shows you this world through the lives of four fascinating and complex characters, we not only get caught up in their struggles, but in the mystery that slowly draws them all together.

The Discussion:

The book is told from four points of view, each character with a different reason for fleeing from something. Three of them are crossing the open, dodging the Germans from one direction and the Soviets from another, trying to find safe passage out of the country on a ship, one doomed for tragedy. One is already on the ship, trying to avoid doing much of anything – hiding in plain sight.

Here’s the scene when the three crossing all come together for the first time:

florian

     Others had beaten us there. A teetering collection of weathered horse carts was tucked beyond the brush, a sober portrait of the trek toward freedom. I would have preferred an abandoned site, but knew I couldn’t continue. The Polish girl pulled at my sleeve.

     She stopped in the snow, staring at the possessions outside the barn, evaluating the contents and whom they might belong to. There was no evidence of military.

     “I think okay,” she said. We walked inside.

     A group of fifteen or twenty people sat huddled around a small fire. Their faces turned as I slipped in and stood near the door. Mothers, children, and elderly. All exhausted and broken. The Polish girl went straight to a vacant corner and sat down, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest. A young woman walked over to me.

     “Are you injured? I have medical training.”

     Her German was fluent, but not native. I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to speak to anyone.

     “Do you have any food to share?” she asked.

     What I had was no one’s business.

     “Does she have any food?” she asked, pointing to the Polish girl rocking in the corner. “Her eyes look a bit wild.”

     I spoke without looking at her. “She was in the forest. A Russian cornered her. She followed me here. She has a couple of potatoes. Now, leave me alone,” I said.

     The young woman winced at the mention of the Russian. She left my side and headed quickly toward the girl.

     I found a solitary spot away from the group and sat down. I lodged my pack against the barn wall and carefully reclined on it. It would be warmer if I sat near the fire with the others but I couldn’t risk it. No conversations.

     I ate a small piece of the sausage from the dead Russian and watched the young woman as she tried to speak with the girl from the forest. Others called out to her for help. She must have been a nurse. She looked a few years older than me. Pretty. Naturally pretty, the type that’s still attractive, even more so, when she’s filthy. Everyone in the barn was filthy. The stench of exertion, failed bladders, and most of all fear, stunk worse than any livestock. The nurse girl would have turned my head back in Königsberg.

     I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at the pretty girl. I needed to be able to kill her, kill them all, if I had to. My body begged for sleep but my mind warned me not to trust these people. I felt a nudge at my feet and opened my eyes.

     “You didn’t mention she was Polish,” said the nurse. “And the Russian?” she asked.

     “He’s taken care of,” I told her. “I need to sleep.”

     She knelt down beside me. I could barely hear her.

     “What you need is to show me that wound you’re trying to hide.”

Once they all come together on the ill-fated ship, you know their troubles are far from over. Intense and fast-paced, Septeys keeps you turning the pages to the end to find out what each of these characters is hiding and how they will survive, if they will survive. I loved the unique take on such an important period of history, brought to life in a brilliant way. I hope you enjoyed reading it, too.

So…what’s next?

 Next Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

Published by: Scholastic

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

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Plot Summary:

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

Follow Martha on Facebook here.

Follow Martha on Tumblr here.

 

I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading this book ever since. I can’t wait to discuss it with you all next time!

We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in early summer. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

Book Review – GEORGE by Alex Gino – a TGNA post

 

tgnahead

 

After a nice long break from participating in the The Great Noveling Adventure blog, I’ve decided to join the group again. I just missed it too much. I’ll only be posting once a month, which will be much easier on me and will allow me to pursue my other goals without becoming a burden.

Today is my day for July, and I’m posting a book review of that fantastic Middle Grade novel GEORGE by Alex Gino.

Here’s a preview:

Book Review George

Hello Adventurers! It’s wonderful to be back after a much needed break. I’ve kept busy on my own blog and have managed to do a fair amount of reading while I’ve been away. One of my favorite reads so far this year has been this slim, unassuming book with the simple design that packs quite an emotional punch. Leave it to a Middle Grade author to tackle such a huge topic like transgender and to get it so right. This is an important book that needs to be shared – with young and old alike.

On to the review!

To read the full post, click here.

We are also putting together TGNA’s second anthology, FALL FRIVOLITY, and you can be a part of it! To be considered, simply submit a short story of 1000 words or less with a fall theme to tgnasubmissions@gmail.com. We’re accepting submissions through August 1st. For full submissions guidelines, click here!

Book Review – MY FRIEND MAGGIE by Hannah E. Harrison

Hannah Harrison picHannah Harrison is such a delightful person and a familiar face on this blog. She gave an interview a few years ago, right before EXTRAORDINARY JANE was published. (My son still carries his now very battered copy of JANE around with him everywhere he goes. My copy is on the very top of my office bookshelf – please don’t tell my son.)

I also reviewed her second book about a crabby cat having a very bad day at a birthday party called BERNIE GETS CARRIED AWAY, which you can read about here.

Hannah pic
Me with Hannah at the spring SCBWI Oklahoma conference.

(Have I mentioned how much I love being a part of SCBWI Oklahoma? So many generous and talented people in this group!)

I received an advanced copy of Hannah’s newest book, MY FRIEND MAGGIE from her when I saw her this past spring at our SCBWI OK conference in April. There may have been some actual jumping up and down when she gave it to me.  I get excited when I receive free books from people, especially when they’re as talented as Hannah.

I’m so honored to be able to review this book before it releases in August. Be sure to pre-order your copy today!

 

My Friend Maggie coverMY FRIEND MAGGIE by Hannah E. Harrison

Published by: Dial Books

Release Date: August 9, 2016

Genres: Children’s, Picture Books

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Plot Summary:

Paula and Maggie have been friends forever. Paula thinks Maggie is the best—until mean girl Veronica says otherwise. Suddenly, Paula starts to notice that Maggie is big and clumsy, and her clothes are sort of snuggish. Rather than sticking up for Maggie, Paula ignores her old friend and plays with Veronica instead. Luckily, when Veronica turns on Paula, Maggie’s true colors shine through.

This moving friendship story has all the heart and emotion of The Giving Tree and Kevin Henkes’s Chrysanthemum. The gorgeous artwork and important message make this a book to treasure. It’s truly a classic in the making. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


This book has already received some high praise:

Publisher’s Weekly STAR Review

“Harrison tells her story with touching and expert restraint, and her acrylic illustrations have a lovely old-fashioned feel that readers of her previous books will recognize…Harrison shows a deeply sympathetic understanding of the simultaneously fragile and powerful emotions of children.”

Kirkus Review

“Harrison’s brightly colored acrylic paintings amplify the emotions…(her) straightforward, first-person text, while understated, also conveys a wealth of emotion.”

 

 

Maggie 4

 

This is such a fantastic story about friendship, and what happens when that friendship gets put to the test.

Before I even get into the fantastic artwork, can I talk about the inner nerd girl/weird girl/picked-on-by-the-mean-girl little part of each of us hidden way deep down inside that can’t help but tear up at the lunch room scene?

Maggie 2

 

Maggie 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve lived that scene. It felt just that awful.

Talk about nailing the emotions. Pow!

As always, Hannah is a master at using vibrant color, white space, and perspective in her artwork to enhance the emotional impact of the story.

She ties it all together to bring this thoughtful tale to a very satisfying conclusion.

I fell in love with this book. And with Maggie. Everyone could use a friend like her.

 

Learn more about Hannah E. Harrison here.

Follow Hannah on Facebook here.

As a special treat, you can view this clever video Hannah made for her Artist’s Studio Tour.

 

Book Review – SUNSETS AND HAIKU by Una Belle Townsend

I received a copy of SUNSETS AND HAIKU from Una Belle herself, one of our most resilient and thoughtful SCBWI Oklahoma members, when she read about the reading challenges I am attempting this year. She saw that I could use a collection of poems to complete the Reading Bingo Challenge and sent me one of hers – so sweet!

Una Belle has published several picture books with Pelican Publishing Company, including GRADY’S IN THE SILO, for which she won the Oklahoma Book Award. This is her first book of poetry and her first book with Doodle and Peck Publishing, a new local publishing company right here in Oklahoma.

Sunsets and Haiku coverSUNSETS AND HAIKU by Una Belle Townsend

Published by: Doodle and Peck

Release Date: October 15, 2015

Genres: Poetry, Photography

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Plot Summary:

Ever-changing. Exotic. Thought-provoking.
In this exquisite photography collection, Una Belle Townsend, author and photographer, captures nature at its most elusive–when the sun, earth, clouds and atmosphere collide to create stunning tableaus from firecracker red prairies to picture-perfect pastel skies.  Famous worldwide, Oklahoma sunsets explode in a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun disappears beyond the horizon. Paired with her stunning photos is a Japanese poetry form, haiku, which traditionally calls to mind nature and its seasons. (Plot summary from publisher’s website.)

The gorgeous photographs, taken by Una Belle herself, are paired well with inspiring, and sometimes playful, poetry. I loved the variety of sunsets and the vivid colors and how familiar all the landscapes felt to me. What a challenge to select one subject of nature to pay homage to, and yet Una Belle takes it on with such deftness of skill.

Here is one of my favorite poems from the collection:

 

Vivid papaya

Luscious orange and melon clouds

Fruit for hungry eyes

 

This book is a lovely treat for the soul.

It left me feeling relaxed and content, and maybe wishing for a little more.

 

Learn more about Una Belle Townsend here.

Follow Una Belle on Facebook here.