Book review: ‘How To Save A Life’ by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeney thinks her mother is delusional when she unveils a plan to change their family forever: adopting a baby. The child in question comes with pregnant Mandy Kalinowski, a pretty girl with a hardscrabble life in Nebraska. The MacSweeneys have dealt with their share of trouble and heartbreak, and the serendipitous way in which Mandy and Robin MacSweeney connect online is a flicker of hope in an otherwise dark year.

Jill is a tough teen and only child reeling after her father’s unexpected death, and Mandy’s arrival is another obstacle to her never-ending grief. Feeling alone in the world, Mandy is desperate for human connection — but thinks giving up her unborn baby will free him or her of the life she herself led. Jill’s a little surly, sure, but her mother is a saint. It seems like the perfect opportunity — until Mandy begins to question everything. And her presence will change the MacSweeney family forever.

Sara Zarr’s How To Save A Life was a moving, poignant and realistic look at a family torn apart by a death — but it’s not a (completely) somber tale. It’s sad, yes, and my eyes filled with tears several times. But the overall message is still one of hope — that good things can come from terrible circumstances. That we can go on and rebuild and live again.

At first, Jill is a difficult character to like. She’s angry and sullen and so stereotypically teenager-y, but her attitude is compounded by her all-consuming grief. Her father Mac, the family patriarch, is a huge presence in the book — almost as much as any living character. We come to know so much about him and what he meant to his wife and daughter, and we learn about the way he supported and encouraged the women in his life. Knowing what an adventurous man he was — such a good man — breaks our hearts, too. So we share in Robin and Jill’s grief. We swim in it.

And Mandy, sweet Mandy — oh boy. She’s loopy and eccentric and a little odd, you know? She’s socially awkward and wounded and a bit broken, but she’s still such a sweet and innocent soul. So much has been taken from her, it seems, but much has been given in return. I wanted to wrap an arm around her from the very beginning, leading her wherever she needed to go. My maternal instincts went nutso the more we learned about her, and she was such a fully-realized character. I loved that, despite everything, she remained so hopeful and optimistic.

The story’s main tension comes from Mandy’s decision-making — will she really give up her baby? Will she tell Robin and Jill the actual circumstances she faced back in Nebraska? How will she remain active in her child’s life — especially without legal permission? As Jill and Robin became more and more attached to Mandy, I started to get antsy. Was she who she claimed to be? Was Mandy going to break off another piece of their glued-together hearts?

Seeking those answers was what propelled me along, even when How To Save A Life was a sad and difficult read. I ultimately ended the book on a (very) high note, though, and liked the delicious ambiguity of the ending. When I realized how some of the many problems could be solved, I felt an intense sense of relief. Sara Zarr is a powerful writer with the ability to bond you to her characters, and I’ve never forgotten Sweethearts, the young adult book that launched me back into the genre as an adult.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1557289727 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Bumped’ by Megan McCafferty

I’m going to be straight with you: when it comes to Megan McCafferty, I am not an unbiased reviewer.

When a copy of her latest novel — and first departure from the beloved Jessica Darling series — arrived in my mailbox last fall, you could probably hear me hollering from here to California. Not to go all breaking-the-fourth-wall-and-getting-fangirly on you guys, but when I started write meg! years ago, I had absolutely no idea that I’d someday find myself in a position to receive a book like this.

And I say that not to brag. Merely as a frame of reference for — ahem — my aforementioned bias.

All of that being said, I’m never going to lie to you. When I began McCafferty’s Bumped, the first in a new young adult series, I was . . . confused. And for about 100 pages, pretty unsure.

Unsure of the story. Unsure of where this all was going. Unsure of whether I actually . . . liked this book.

It’s true. My initial reaction? Lukewarm. I wasn’t feeling a connection with the characters or storyline, which seemed outside my comfort zone and realm of comprehension. I’ve read a few dystopian books in my day, sure, and never had much trouble grasping what was happening. But this? Well. This was proving troublesome.

Here’s the rundown: in McCafferty’s less-than-ideal future, a virus has run rampant and rendered anyone over the age of eighteen infertile — both men and women. Considering no one is cheering for the demise of the human race, teenagers — the only people still able to conceive — have become hot commodities. The government has had no choice but to legalize “transactions” between prospective parents and the teens they contract to give them a child.

And you know what that means? Sexy sex sex. All the time. Everywhere. Encouraged — no, demanded — of high school students, young women and men who are now being represented by, um, “talent” agents garnering the best deals possible for the product of a union between desirable teens. Every couple wants the perfect “pregg,” of course, and those with the funds will stop at nothing to get it.

Enter Melody Mayflower, considered by many to be the perfect candidate for “bumping.” Smart, beautiful and independent, Melody was the first in her high school to “go pro” and enter a contract to conceive for money. After signing with a wealthy couple looking for the perfect offspring, Melody’s adoptive parents encourage her to keep her virginity until a suitable suitor comes along to contribute his part of the deal. And though she’d have a willing candidate in her best friend, Zen, his desirable biracial background isn’t enough to save him from his main genetic issue: he’s short.

As Melody is waiting and debating, she gets a surprise: the arrival of her identical twin, Harmony, a young woman raised in a religious order. In a future where premarital sex is glamorized and seen as a responsibility of teens, residents of Goodside shun this sinful lifestyle, marry young and reproduce within the safe confines of their own organization. Harmony hasn’t questioned the world in which she was raised until she goes in search of her twin, hoping to bring Melody out of the darkness of immorality and into the good, clean world of Goodside.

The world has other plans, of course.

McCafferty’s novel, like many others, left me at a loss for words. For all my early inability to process Bumped’s unique brand of slang and unusual circumstances, once I got the story straight and grasped the whole “pregging” situation, I raced through this one like my pants were on fire. As always, McCafferty’s wit and humor shine through in her sophisticated, sassy heroines, and I’m pleased to say that plenty of Jessica Darling’s snark and spitfire is visible in our main twin, Melody.

The world of Bumped is cleverly drawn and realistic, and what I loved best about the book was the scary way in which I could really see this happening. As a sensible-minded woman living in 2011, I can’t say that parts of the story didn’t horrify me — but I think that was the point. With songs encouraging teens to “do it,” fake “Fun Bumps” designed to show girls how their own pregnant bellies will swell and all the talk of being “fertilicious,” any adult would read this book and think, “Um, really?”

But yes. Really. It’s slightly deranged and creepy, sure, but also somehow . . . plausible. And fascinating. And addictive. That’s what made it work.

There’s so much to take in with Bumped: religious implications; moral implications; government manipulation; the disturbing way in which teen girls are used for their wombs — and not much else. But McCafferty packs it all in with humor and wit, and I was left breathless on several occasions waiting to see how the stories — and love stories — would play out.

Of course, I can’t talk about my favorite author without talking about my most favorite of her creations: Marcus Flutie. The dashing, rebellious and unbelievably hawt hero of her Jessica Darling series, Marcus has pretty much ruined me for all other literary love interests. That being said, Zen Chen-Chavez — Melody’s best friend and purveyor of giving young women “everythingbut” — is pretty swoonworthy. I love his dedication to his friends and the sweet, sensitive side we see when no one else is looking.

Is he Marcus, with his red hair, Barry Manilow obsession, swagger and sensuality? Nope. But that would have been a tall order to fill — even by the author herself. And I certainly don’t hold that against Bumped.

Was this review long enough? I think it was long enough. In summation: loved it.

Grab your copy on April 26.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review