Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

I became a Lauren Oliver fan in the past few years after reading Before I Fall and Panic (I still have yet to tackle her Delirium trilogy), and was intrigued when I read the description of her latest YA novel:

Dara and Nick used to be inseparable, but that was before Dara kissed Parker, before Nick lost him as her best friend, before the accident that left Dara's beautiful face scarred. Now the two sisters, who used to be so close, aren't speaking. In an instant, Nick lost everything and is determined to use the summer to get it all back.

But Dara has other plans. When she vanishes on her birthday, Nick thinks Dara is just playing around. But another girl has vanished, too--nine-year-old Madeline Snow--and as Nick pursues her sister, she becomes increasingly convinced that the two disappearances may be linked. 

In this edgy and compelling novel, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver creates a world of intrigue, loss, and suspicion as two sisters search to find themselves, and each other.

One of the things I love about Oliver is that she's not afraid to tackle dark and edgy topics in her novels--these are the things I'm usually drawn to when reading YA. Her writing style is also very literary, and in this book, she perfectly captures the complicated relationship between the two sisters. You can get an idea of the tone of the novel by reading this excerpt from back of the book:

This is it: somehow, in these pictures, the mystery of the accident is contained, and the explanation for Dara's subsequent behavior, for the silences and disappearances. Don't ask me how I know, I just do. If you don't understand that, I guess you've never had a sister.

The opening pages quickly draw the reader in, and the story is told in from the point of view of both sisters "before" and "after" the car accident. Layered into the opening is the disappearance of local girl, Madeline Snow, and the story unfolds with a combination of the narratives from Nick and Dara, diary entries, blog posts, text messages, and newspaper articles, which keep the mystery intriguing and the reader guessing. The love triangle between Nick, Dara, and Parker was heartbreaking. I also liked the use of an old amusement park as part of the setting, because through Oliver's descriptions it seemed to take on a life of its own--fun, hot, and smelling like funnel cakes during the day, and isolated, haunting, and foreboding at night.

I did not guess how this book would end, but that's all I'm going to say, because you should definitely check it out for yourself.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Making of a Cover: Scar of the Downers

As an avid reader, I'd be lying if I didn't say the cover of a book is what first motivates me to pick it up. After all, it is the cover you see first, and maybe a few blurbs, before you flip it open or look on the back for the synopsis. When author Scott Keen first contacted us at WOW! Women on Writing to inquire about a blog tour for his upper MG/YA fantasy novel, I was immediately drawn to the cover:

Isn't it gorgeous? Scott's publishing company is WiDo Publishing, and their ability to design the most beautiful and intriguing covers for their novels has always impressed me. I've reviewed several of their books here on this blog, including Elizabeth Maria Naranjo's The Fourth Wall and Karen Jones Gowen's Afraid of Everything.

Here's a synopsis of Scar of the Downers:
Branded on the slaves in the Northern Reaches beyond Ungstah, the scar marks each one as a Downer. It is who they are. There is no escaping this world. Still, strange things are stirring.

Two foreigners ride through the Northern Reaches on a secret mission. An unknown cloaked figure wanders the streets of the dark city of Ungstah. What they want no one can be sure, but it all centers around a Downer named Crik.

Crik, too scared to seek freedom, spends his days working in his master's store, avoiding the spirit-eating Ash Kings while scavenging food for himself and his best friend, Jak. Until he steals from the wrong person. When Jak is sold to satisfy the debt, Crik burns down his master's house and is sentenced to death.

To survive, Crik and his friends must leave behind their life of slavery to do what no other Downer has ever done before--escape from the city of Ungstah.

About the cover:
I asked Scott if he could share the story of how the cover for Scar of the Downers was developed, and he was happy to oblige.

“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!” Maybe this pithy statement works when you are dealing with people, but when you are seeking out actual books to read, if you’re like me, you always judge the book by the outside of it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the author.

And so, the issue of the cover for Scar of the Downers was definitely something that had me worried and slightly stressed out. See, when you sign the contract for the publication of your book to a traditional publisher, you are, to some extent, signing away your rights. And one of the biggest decisions that a publisher makes for the book, (outside of which editor to assign), is what the cover design is.

My publisher, WiDo, obviously takes cover design seriously, and so asked for a few things from me to give to the designer. They wanted a synopsis of the plot (I think mine was 1-2 pages long) and a passage from the manuscript that best typified the tone of the book.

Then, several weeks later, an image popped in my inbox… I opened it with great trepidation and with my heart in my throat. What did I think about it? I loved it!

The best moment for me though? The week that my book was released I visited the closest Barnes and Noble to let them know about the book’s release (the children’s department manager knew that I had been pursuing publication), and I got this reaction:

“Oh, your cover is great! I know they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I usually do anyway.”

One less hurdle for people to buy the book.

About Scott Keen:
Scott Keen grew up in Black River, NY, the youngest of three children. While in law school, he realized he didn't want to be a lawyer. So he did the practical thing--he became a writer. Now, many years later with an MFA in script and screenwriting, he is married with four daughters, two of whom he homeschools. He blogs at

And last but not least, where you can find the book:

Barnes and Noble:




What are some of your favorite book covers?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

D.A. Russell Lifts the Curtain on Problems in Urban High Schools

Think the state of public schools in America is acceptable? Think again.

I've had the honor of helping author D.A. Russell put together a blog tour for the 2nd edition of his non-fiction book, Lifting the Curtain: The Disgrace We Call Urban High School Education. The author is a retired math teacher who felt an overwhelming need to document the very real problems with education that are affecting the children both inside and outside the classroom, by spending three years surveying 760 teachers and students in 19 urban high schools in 15 cities in Massachusetts. You  can learn more about how he became inspired to research and write the book here.

In the first edition of Lifting the Curtain, Russell outlined the issues that are plaguing today's high school educational system, and offered solutions necessary to incite change. After releasing the book, he heard feedback from so many teachers that he decided to put together a 2nd edition so their voices could be heard. It also includes additional topics that weren't in the 1st edition, such as the loss of electives in today's schools.

I learned a lot personally from reading this book. I truly had no idea how difficult the teaching profession has become to navigate. You can't just hope your love and passion for teaching children will carry you through the obstacles he outlines in this book. You'll be stonewalled by PDPs, standardized testing mandates, the pressure to pass children, bullying by school administrators, and much more. (A note: Both of my elementary-age kids are in a charter school in the suburbs, which I can tell is a slightly different animal, but I'm sure it has its own set of issues nonetheless.)

I highlighted like crazy as I was reading Lifting the Curtain, and I've listed some of my favorite passages below:

A significant difficulty in trying to analyze what is happening today in education is that the statistics we really need to see--information about student attitudes, parent expectations, and current classroom methods--simply did not exist until I decided to design and conduct an extensive survey of students and teachers. We have all the date we can handle on teacher salaries, class size, test scores, graduation rates, and racial/social classifications. But the real indicators of the crisis in education remain largely hidden.

We seem to have asked everyone outside of the school building what is wrong with education, but ignored the views of everyone inside the building.

I realized that even people who really care about education could not possibly know what really happened inside our classrooms. How could they? This is one "elephant in the room" that no one outside the school would ever know was trampling everything in its path. The system is amazingly effective in hiding its problems.

The final chapter of the book provides a clear and set of solutions to all the problems Russell outlines in the earlier chapters of the book. But to learn what they are . . . you'll have to check out Lifting the Curtain for yourself!

Lifting the Curtain (2nd Edition):

The 2nd edition of the acclaimed look at today's failed education system -- with dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA and nine new chapters! Both KIRKUS and CLARION praise this important book "...from the unique perspective of a classroom teacher" that shows the real problems that have destroyed the education of our children. Few parents or legislators have any chance of seeing the real state of education in our urban schools. It is a shameful disaster -- unlike anything that we, as parents, experienced just 15-20 years ago. The real problems stay largely unseen, because career DoE bureaucrats and school administration are extremely good at hiding their failed policies behind the curtain of the school entryway. In Lifting the Curtain, Russell provides a detailed look at urban high school education from inside the classroom, including three years of research, and the first ever major survey of what students and teachers think of the educational system. If we want a real solution for our children, then for once we must focus on the real problems, the ones carefully hidden behind the educational curtain.

About the Author:

D. A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools that is the subject of Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and has his master’s degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent. Russell has a passion for children that dominates his life. He has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in Russell’s view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world. He is a contributor for education matters to the Huffington Post, and runs a personal blog at: LiftingTheCurtainOnEducation.wordpress.comdedicated to letting teacher voices be heard in the real problems with education.