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Book Review: Notes from Ghost Town by Kate Ellison

They say first love never dies…

From critically acclaimed author Kate Ellison comes a heartbreaking mystery of mental illness, unspoken love, and murder. When sixteen-year-old artist Olivia Tithe is visited by the ghost of her first love, Lucas Stern, it’s only through scattered images and notes left behind that she can unravel the mystery of his death.

There’s a catch: Olivia has gone colorblind, and there’s a good chance she’s losing her mind completely—just like her mother did. How else to explain seeing (and falling in love all over again with) someone who isn’t really there?

With the murder trial looming just nine days away, Olivia must follow her heart to the truth, no matter how painful. It’s the only way she can save herself.” (Summary from Goodreads)

Music, art, mental illnes, first love . . . they all come together beautifully in this haunting mystery.

Kate Ellison is the author of The Butterfly Clues, another haunting mystery that looks at the world of OCD with an artistic flair that is hard to describe, but is mesmerizing.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.  And Ellison does it again in this new mystery, Notes from Ghost Town.

With only a few days left until her mother’s trial for murder, Olivia (Liv), is visited by the ghost of her best friend and first love, Lucas – the boy they say her mother has killed.  The ghost of Lucas leads her to make a chain of discoveries that may prove that her mother is innocent of this crime, but she is by no means in good mental health.  In fact, even she doesn’t know if she is guilty or not.

An aspiring artist, Olivia finds herself suddenly and inexplicably color blind.  Now she can only see the world in shades of gray.  Does this mean that she will finally descend into the madness that has always haunted her mother?

Notes from Ghost Town is powerful, emotional, and haunting; a touch of Jane Eyre gothic romanticism wafts from page to page as Liv follows the ghost of her first love.  There is a slow build up of tension and then that snap of release as you begin to realize just exactly what happened, and by whom.  There is heartbreak and betrayal.

Where Ellison exceeds, hands down, is in her continued look at mental health issues. It is no small feat to capture what it is like to grow up under the wing of a mentally ill parent and to make the fear that you yourself may be afflicted so incredibly tangible – which Ellison does more successfully than most.  And when Liv loses her ability to see colors, you sense her fear and desperation; it would be to use like becoming suddenly blind or deaf.  If she can no longer do art, then who really is she?  There is such a loss of sense of self that occurs here, palpable and relatable.

Liv is not an easy character to like at times, and she makes a lot of self defeating decisions, especially when it comes to her loss of color sight.  But then it is important to remember that she is in a place of breathtaking fear, both about who she is as a person and what is happening with her mother.  It would be such an overwhelming place to be emotionally.  She develops another relationship with a young man named Austin that is at times hard to embrace, but he plays a critical role in our tale.

Ellison also excels at her sense of timing.  It is just as the two young friends are about to confess their love that Lucas is gone, it is just as she is about to go to college to pursue her art, it is always just as . . . at the most critical moment, the most critical things happen and compel the story forward in interesting and satisfying ways.  Although the timing of individual elements was precise, some of the pacing slows down at points.  Not enough to make you close the book, but enough to make you want for something to happen at times.  Yet at the same time, it is part of that gothic romanticism feel that our tale is wrapped up in so it is hard to be overly critical of this element.

Overall, an intelligent, beautiful and haunting mystery.  3.5 out of 5 stars, definitely recommended.  Definitely pair this up with The Unquiet by Jeannine Garsee.

Book Review: Cornered, 15 Stories of Bullying and Defiance

You can’t turn on the nightly news without hearing news stories about how bullying is affecting the lives of our teens.  Make no mistake, bullying has always been an issue, but the impact of it seems to be changing as bullying takes to the Internet.  Teens are talking about it.  Parents are talking about it.  School are talking about it.  And authors are writing about it.  So I was interested in seeing this collection of 15 stories about bullying.

Cornered has a foreward written by Chris Crutcher.  Chris Crutcher is a fabulous author, he is one of my favorites, but he is also an adolescent psychologist with keen insight into the teenage psyche.  In his forward Crutcher notes that “bullying starts with adults” because we “don’t tolerate kids finding their ways through natural developmental stages.”  I also appreciate it when Crutcher says, “If you want to find the bullies, a good place to look is among the bullied.  Most of what we learn as little ones comes through our pores.  Back before language we absorb through our senses.”  In some ways, when we are talking about teens, it is too late, they have already learned the ways of violence.  Crutcher’s introduction provides a keen, thoughtful introduction to these varied 15 stories.  And the stories themselves will prompt some good discussion about the topic with your teens.

Here’s another interesting thing about short story anthologies; although it seems like they would be an easy sell – especially to reluctant readers – they are, in fact, a very hard sell in terms of library circulation I have always found.  I imagine they work well in the classroom and the school library, but I have always found they are dust collectors in the public library.  But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t purchase them.  (What about at your library – do short story collections circulate for you?)

But let’s talk about this particular collection of short stories, shall we?  Like all short story collections, there are some good and some kinda meh.  There are a couple of stories, like Inside the Inside by Mayra Lazara Dole, that take the topic of bullying out of reality and into the realm of fantasy.

The two stories that have stayed with me the longest after reading this collection are Nemesis by Kirsten Miller and How Auto-Tune Saved My Life by Brendan Halpin.

Nemesis is the story of an individual who goes by the name, well, Nemesis.  Once a victim of bullying herself, she now offers a unique service to those being bullied: she anonymously documents their tormentors and sends them a cease and desist order or threatens to go public.  But what happens if the person that contacts you for this service happens to be the person who tormented you?

How Auto-Tune Saved My Life is a fascinating look at bullying because in this case, it is the teacher that it a bully.  Of course it is true, with power and authority, such as teachers have in the classroom, comes a great temptation to abuse that power – and your students.  This was a brutal story.  We all know teachers that had a reputation, but it is nothing compared to the teacher in this story.  Here, some students get together and find a unique way to try and bring the problem to light, with interesting results.  Because the sad truth is that sometimes, the bully wins and justice does not prevail.

Like Kicking a Fence by Kate Ellison (author of The Butterfly Clues, a previous Rec of the Week) touches on what Crutcher mentioned in his foreward.  As the title implies, this is a brutal story, full of raw emotion and some intense physical violence.

In this collection of 15 stories there are a wide variety of targets and perpetrators and there is good coverage of various scenarios.  Issues of sexuality and gender identity are raised, suicide is discussed, and the role and reactions of parents and educators are highlighted.  I tried to read these stories in one sitting but it was rough; these are intense, raw emotions being discussed.  I posted rants several times while reading these stories on my Facebook page about my thoughts on bullying and how angry it makes me.  These stories will definitely make you think, challenge some of what we think we know about bullies and bullying, and can really open the floodgates of discussion.  For me, personally, a couple of the stories simply didn’t work; but a couple of the stories worked so well that it makes the collection a good purchase, especially for schools.  I would love to see schools make reading and discussing How Auto-Tune Saved My Life a regular part of staff development to be honest.

And to close our 15 stories, there is a short story by Lish McBride, author of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.  Let me just say that if you have not read Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, you should stop what you are doing and go read it NOW! Seriously, I’ll wait.  I love that book – it is wicked funny and very Buffyesque.  Her short story here, We Should Get Jerseys ‘Cause We Make a Good Team, has some Necromancer tie-in and it ends the collection on just the right note.

As a total side note, since we are discussing short stories about bullying, I would like to recommend that you pair this collection with the truly amazing short story All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury, one of the most gut wrenching stories about bullying I have ever read.  I read it in English class, 8th grade, and still think of it often to this day.  You can view the story here.  It would make an interesting unit to look at the old and the new and compare the two.

As for Cornered, it comes out in July of 2012 and is being published by Running Press Teens.  I give it a 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it particularly for school libraries and classrooms.  And like I said, schools should consider reading and discussing How Auto-Tune Saved My Life as part of their yearly staff development.

Table of Contents:
Nemesis by Kirsten Miller
On Your Own Level by Sheba Karim
The Shift Sticks by Josh Berk
Everyone’s Nice by David Yoo
Defense Mechanisms by Elizabeth Miles
Sweet Sixteen by Zetta Elliott
Like Kicking a Fence by Kate Ellison
How Auto-Tune Saved My Life by Brenda Halpin
TK by Rhoda Belleza
The Ambush by Matthue Roth
Inside the Inside by Mayra Lazara Dole
But Not Forgotten by Jennifer Brown
The Truest Story There Is by Jaime Adoff
Still Not Dead by James Lecesne
We Should Get Jerseys ‘Cause We Make a Good Team by Lish McBride

Want to win a copy of this ARC?  Leave a comment before June 17th – our 1 year birthday – and you’ll be entered to win.  Be sure to leave a contact e-mail in your comment.

Book Review: The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison

The Butterfly Clues is a deceptive book, but in really good ways.  I first stumbled across this title while looking for new mysteries to add to my collection for this year’s summer reading theme.  And make no mistake, there is a mystery underlying this tale, but at its core it is really a complex, gut wrenching and gritty contemporary tale of a young girl living with OCD in a family haunted by loss.

Lo, short for Penelope, is controlled by forces inside her mind.  The numbers 3, 6 and 9 are safe numbers.  She has rituals for coming and for going.  She tries to keep them hidden, but they are hard to avoid.  Sometime items speak to her and once they do, she can’t avoid their whisper humming in her brain – she must steal them.  Lo breaks your heart; she is tormented by these urges that she can not control and no one understands.  But they are not the only things that torment her; her brother descended into drug use and died alone in a part of Cleveland that no one dare go known as Neverland.  But go Lo does, and that is where the mystery begins.

When we first meet Lo she is standing in alleyway when a bullet pierces a wall close beside her.  She soon learns that she is the only sort of witness to the death of a young stripper named Sapphire.  Already prone to obsessions, Lo feels compelled to learn more about Sapphire.  With each step closer to the truth, Lo spirals out of control, puts herself in increasing danger, and finds the answer to questions she never knew to ask.

Neverland is the seedy side of Cleveland that people from Lakewood aren’t supposed to go.  Bad things happen there.  That is where Lo’s brother, Oren, died.  That is where Sapphire was murdered.  And if Lo isn’t careful, she won’t return from Neverland either.  In this world, she meets a cast of characters that are sometimes free, sometimes seedy, and never who the seem to be.  Neverland is a dark place, a character of its own in this tale, pulsing with personality that hints of both a danger and a freedom that entices.  It is a very real place, this is no fantasy; but it is a place drawn so richly that it takes on a personality of its own.  It is a haunting place, where people run away from their problems and, barely surviving, take on nicknames and hide in shadows.

All the characters in the Butterfly Clues are in fact richly drawn.  Flynt is mysterious, with surprising secrets of his own. And Lo’s parents are ghosts occupying space in the home, but shadows of their former self haunted by their loss.  The rich characterization adds layers to this tale, that when slowly peeled away expose a stunning truth and allow the pieces of Po’s puzzle to come together in both satisfying and unsatisfying ways.  The puzzle is solved, but there are no easy answers when you are plagued by the mental health issues that plague Lo.

Part of the value of story, is that it allows us to step into minds other than ours and develop compassion and understanding for experiences different than our own.  For me, that is the real value in The Butterfly Clues – it helps us all walk in the shoes of someone with OCD and really feel the anxiety that happens when a ritual is interrupted and you must start again.  As a reader, your heart literally breaks for Lo.  At one point she is running for her life but she can’t run because she has to say and do certain things upon entering a room or leaving it.  The tension in these scenes was truly palpable.

I don’t have the talent or the words to describe the dark richness of The Butterfly Clues.  It’s pacing is a slow simmering perfection, its world is teeming with danger, and its characters are fleshed out mysteries.  This is not an easy read and it requires a sophisticated, mature reader – in part because of the details and in part because of the labyrinth that is mental illness.  I can see where teen readers will have difficulty sticking with Lo and her constant refrain of “tap, tap, banana” – one of her rituals.  The only thing I wish is that there would have been a little more explanation about how Lo’s rituals developed.  Pair this with Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser and you get a good discussion about OCD and mental health issues.  At the end of Kissing Doorknobx there is a good explanation about OCD in terms of there being a door in your brain that just won’t close until you do certain rituals and how that results in these compulsions.  The Butterfly Clues receives 4 out of 5 stars.