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Interview with Melanie Thorne, Author of Hand Me Down

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Melanie, for letting me ask you these questions. Hand Me Down is so incredibly powerful and provocative.


Melanie Thorne: Thank you, Jaime, for taking the time to ask such insightful questions!


JB: Did you always want to be a writer?


MT: It didn’t even occur to me that I could make a career as a writer until I was in my early twenties and Pam Houston suggested I apply to creative writing graduate programs. For most of my youth, I wanted to be a rock star or an actress/singer.


JB: How would you describe Hand Me Down in ten words or less?


MT: OMG, this is so hard! Here goes: A tough, tender novel about sisters searching for home.


JB: Hand Me Down is semi-autobiographical.  Can you explain?


MT: The basic outline of events in the novel—Liz’s mother choosing her sex-offender husband over her daughters, the sisters’ separation and subsequent journey—is based on my childhood experience. But in writing and revising this book over the years, real people turned into characters, timelines and places and exact details were altered and adjusted to better serve the story, so the result is a mix of truth and fiction.


JB: Why did you want to write a novel instead of a memoir?


MT: When I first started writing Hand Me Down, I had images of a “based on a true story” line on the eventual cover. There was a part of me that wanted the world to know that these events had really happened, but as I got deeper into the project, there was a bigger part of me that wanted the freedom to shape the truth of what happened in order to tell the truth of the story. In a novel, I could make stuff up without worrying about the limitations of “what really happened” so I could get at the larger emotional truths more easily. There is also an aspect of protection in writing a novel. No one knows which parts are pulled directly from my teenage journals and which parts I made up completely, and I appreciate that little bit of shelter.


JB: The title Hand Me Down has so many meanings to me in this story: sisters Liz and Jaime are passed from relative to relative almost like an old garment yet abuse is also passed down like eye color and diabetes in your story.  What does the title mean to you?


MT: Very close to what you said, actually, which is great to hear. I tried so hard to come up with a title that would encompass the idea of Liz and Jaime literally moving from place to place, and also the idea of qualities and behaviors—both genetic and learned traits—being passed down through generations. I had pages and pages of possible title lists in my journals and then one morning I woke up and Hand Me Down had appeared in my brain like a little present from the writing fairy.


JB: Hand Me Down is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Liz.  Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?  Do you think the story would have the same deeply moving effect on the reader if you had not used the first-person point of view?


MT: Part of the motivation for writing this story was hearing my angry and hurt teenage self in my head, begging at first, and then demanding that I let her tell her story. She needed to be heard, that part of me needed to be heard, so I thought I’d give her a voice retroactively, on the page. First person was the only way for me to truly let Liz tell this story, and I’m not sure it would have been as powerful without access to Liz’s emotions and inner thoughts. There is so much she doesn’t say for so long that having insight into her mind allows readers to connect with her more.


JB: I know you have a younger sister.  Is the character of Jaime based on her?  What has been her reaction to your novel?  What has been the reaction of other family members?


MT: Jaime is indeed based on my sister, and much of Liz and Jaime’s dynamic is the same as my and my sister’s. The first thing she said after she read Hand Me Down was, “I forgot what a jerk Dad was.” The book brought up a lot of memories for her, but it was also gratifying to hear that the one other person who’d lived some of these experiences felt I’d gotten them right. My sister has been incredibly supportive, as have the rest of my family members. I think it’s been difficult to have so much of this stuff stirred up and put out in the public, and they have been so understanding and supportive, and best of all, proud of me for this accomplishment. I’m so lucky to have them.


JB: Liz is based on you.  How are you alike and how are you different?


MT: Liz and I were both fighters; both of us skeptical and cautious, slow to trust but fiercely loyal. We were both independent, but acted tougher than we felt; both driven and determined to succeed beyond what the world expected given our circumstances. But Liz is braver than I was at fourteen, says the things I wish I’d said, takes action when I would have retreated. I like to think of her as a stronger version of my teenage self; me with the benefit of ten years of hindsight.


JB: How does Hand Me Down differ from what really happened to you? 


MT: It’s hard to separate out all the little exaggerations or adjustments I made in the process of fictionalizing my experiences. I can tell you that one of the few entirely made-up scenes in the novel is the big climax scene with all involved parties near the end. There wasn’t a big blow out fight like that in real life, but the book needed to hit a peak, and I thought bringing everyone together would cause sparks to fly.


JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Hand Me Down?  Was it hard recalling painful events and issues?  Did you ever just stop writing and leave it for a while?  Or even cry and rage at the past?


MT: There were definitely issues that were difficult to confront and moments that hurt to relive, but it was worth the uncomfortable trips down memory lane. The initial planning and research—which mainly involved reading old journals from when I was fourteen—made me cry a lot. I did rage some, too, but most of that was in the early stages of the project, the personal steps I needed to take towards healing that made it possible for me to write a three-dimensional story that was bigger than just me.


I did take long breaks while working on it because I was too busy working the jobs that paid the bills to write much, but I think those pockets of time away really helped me to process the events and gave me (and the book) a better perspective.


JB: The paperback version of Hand Me Down, published March 26, has an epilogue.  Why did you choose to add an epilogue to the paperback edition?


MT: The epilogue, “Word Association” was originally a story I wrote in grad school that features Liz and Jaime about ten years after the events in Hand Me Down. My agent and editor thought it would be a nice addition to the paperback as a glimpse into the futures of the characters, and I agreed. Many readers have written to me asking for a sequel, so I think they are really going to like this extra bonus material. I also love the way we’ve added it: as an essay Liz writes for a creative writing class in school, just like I did in real life.


JB: Hand Me Down was originally your thesis.  Writing it, did you have any idea that one day it would be a successful and compelling novel?


MT: I hoped that it would be both those things, but at that point, mostly just enough for me to satisfy my degree requirements and not make a fool of myself at my thesis defense. I never really thought it would become a real book until it did, and sometimes it still seems unreal.


JB: How has writing this book helped you overcome your own neglect and abuse?


MT: One of the biggest things I realized while writing Liz’s journey was that the mistakes her parents made—the mistakes my parents made—were not about her or me, but rather results of their own childhood traumas. For a long time I wondered what I had done wrong, as so many kids in these situations do, and I beat myself up over the ways I could have tried harder to be good enough to keep.


Writing Hand Me Down helped me see that my parents’ choices were influenced by their own abusive childhoods, and I learned to accept that their errors were not my burden or responsibility. What is my responsibility is how I choose to move forward.


JB: Have you heard from readers who shared a similar childhood as you did?  Is the novel helping them come to terms with their own pasts?


MT: Yes, many readers have written or told me their stories of abuse and family betrayals, of separation from parents and siblings, of being forced to move out at young ages, or bouncing between friends’ couches and guest beds to avoid unsafe households.


A woman in her late sixties wrote to me and told me she’d been abused as a child and had never told anyone until now. My book had given her the strength to say out loud the unspeakable things she’d experienced. It made me cry. There seems to be a sense of freedom in these readers in finally expressing their private tragedies, and it’s amazing for me to be able to witness their first steps toward recovering.


JB: What was it like working with Pam Houston and Lynn Freed at UC Davis?  What advice did they give you?


MT: Pam and Lynn are tremendously talented writers and teachers, and I learned so much from both of them. I think the greatest advice I got from Pam was to resist the urge to write the lines that say, “Look, reader, at how bad it was.” She taught me to earn the emotions, to show them by focusing on the concrete physical world. From Lynn, “Smother your darlings” and “Less is more” are the two bits of advice that stand out the most. I am so grateful to have been able to work with such amazing women.


JB: What advice do you have for anyone writing a debut novel?  Or for anyone writing about trauma in his or her own life?


MT: In writing about a personal trauma, I think it’s important to try to look at the events from multiple angles. That might not happen in the first draft, and it’s normal to write your side first. But in revisions, shift your perspective and do your best to see through the eyes of multiple people involved. Don’t be afraid to admit the hardest thing about your characters, especially if one of them is you. Writing the difficult truths makes the best stories.


For all writers, I’d say just keep going. That is the only thing you can do.


JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?


MT: Reading, of course, gardening, watching smart TV, going to the beach, walking in pretty places, crafting, singing, cooking, and having good conversations with friends.


JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?


MT: Oh, boy. There are so many, and so many ways to classify favorites. But here are a few off the top of my head in no particular order. Books: Kindred, Animal Dreams, The Beach, Good in Bed, Alice in Wonderland, The God of Animals. Authors: Pam Houston, Christopher Pike, Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Allison, Amy Bloom.


JB: What are you currently reading?


MT: I just finished The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about heart-breaking.


JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?


MT: Nancy Drew and Christopher Pike books were my earliest major influences, and then when I began to study the craft of writing, Pam Houston, Toni Morrison, and Dorothy Allison inspired me with the strength of their writing and the power of their stories.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Hand Me Down?


MT: I think the biggest lesson Liz learns is to speak up, which is a lesson I also learned in writing this story, and something I hope anyone else who has caged a secret in their chest will take away from the book. It’s so important to unearth the betrayals and abuse that often get buried in embarrassment or fear or shame. It’s necessary to discuss those uncomfortable truths, to release the pent-up emotions in order to begin to heal. I hope that’s another take-away: hardship doesn’t have to mean destruction; getting the truth out in the open is the first step in moving on.


JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?


MT: I’m currently in the early stages of writing my next novel. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and, like Hand Me Down, this next book will ask questions about what it means to be a family. I love the contradictions in people, the complexities of what people try to hide and why. The dysfunctional family I’m brewing in my head should be interesting to live with for the foreseeable future and fun to introduce to the world when I’m ready.


JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Melanie, and best of luck.


MT: Thank you, Jaime! It’s been a pleasure.



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Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!


Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!


JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?


SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.


JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?


SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.


JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?


SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.


JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?


SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!



JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?


SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!


As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.


The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.


JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?


SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.


JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.


SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.


JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?


SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.



JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?


SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.



JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?


SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.


I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.


In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.


JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?


SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…


JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?


SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”


JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?


SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”


JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?


SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.



JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?


SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.


JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?


SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.


JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?


SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!


JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?


SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?


SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.


JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?


SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!


JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.


SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.



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Book Review: Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne

Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne (Plume; 336 pages; $16).


A child’s first providers and protectors are his or her parents.  Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  In her powerful, provocative, and semi-autobiographical debut novel, Hand Me Down, Melanie Thorne chronicles the epic struggle of a teenage girl suffering from neglect and abuse,  determined to protect her sister at any cost.  Hand Me Down feels so real that it reads like a memoir.  Thorne’s story left me indignant and emotionally spent, which is proof of the author’s skilled writing and adept characterizations.

Sometimes family can let us down and hurt us more than anyone else can.  The people who are supposed to be taking care of 14-year-old Elizabeth “Liz” Reid and her younger sister, Jaime, have failed miserably.  The girls’ parents are divorced.  Their father, who used to beat their mother, is a drunk.

Their mother, Linda, has been a refuge for her daughters, loving them and supporting them and providing a safe haven.  As Liz tells us in her mature and sage voice, Linda “saved us from bad dreams, left the light on in our room, let us snuggle into her bed.  She rescued us from the neighbors’ fighting, sang songs loud enough to drown out the woman across the landing screaming with her head out the window until her husband jerked her back inside.”  Linda “protected us from our drunken father, stood her ground in the face of hurled beer cans and TV remotes, steered us through broken dishes on the kitchen floor and shattered windows in the carpet.  She carried us past his sleeping body in bloody slippers, pulled us out of range of his raised fists more than once, and her bruises proved her loyalty.”  Liz and Jaime “didn’t need anyone else.”

The above passage is just a sample of the abuse described in Hand Me Down.  Most, if not all, of the parts are gut-wrenching and very difficult to read, as well they should be.

When Terrance comes in their mother’s life, everything changes.   Terrance has a history of criminal behavior, but Linda is not deterred.  Linda and Terrance marry and have a son together.  Terrance ends up in prison, offering Liz and Jaime a brief reprieve.  After serving his sentence, though, Terrance returns—worse than ever.   Linda aims to please her husband and casts aside her daughters.  Like old garments, the sisters are handed down to relatives, some of whom only continue the cycle of neglect and abuse.

More than anything else, Liz worries for Jaime, especially after the sisters are separated.  She has tried to shield Jaime, but she is unable to protect her after they are split.

This upsetting novel is narrated from Liz’s first-person perspective, which elicited a visceral reaction from this reader.  This story unsettled and upset me from the very beginning.  Everyone who reads Hand Me Down will ache all over for Liz and will feel beaten and hurt just as she is.

Yet, not all of Hand Me Down is morose.  Thorne introduces beacons of hope through many characters, most notably Tammy, Liz’s aunt, and Rachel, her best friend.  Elements of humor also echo throughout the novel, just as they do in life, no matter how dire the situation.

Liz is only 14, but she seems so much older given what has happened to her.  Her voice calls to mind other teen heroines, like Ava Bigtree in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.  Thorne leaves readers with white knuckles as they wait to see if Liz and Jaime survive and even thrive.

The paperback version of Hand Me Down has a brand new epilogue not included in the hardcover edition.   If you enjoy books narrated by strong teen girls, wise beyond their years, then Hand Me Down is a must read.  I do warn you, though, you will become so invested in this tale that the adults in the story will infuriate you but the kids will inspire you.  This is a survivor’s story perfect for fans of Janet Fitch and Dorothy Allison.

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne





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Book Review: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam Juvenile; 336 pages; $17.99).

            Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, Paloma, and Jesus are the names of a series of hurricanes that hit the New Orleans area from 2005 to 2019, killing thousands and thousands of people, flooding the city, and eventually giving rise to the Delta Fever.  No, this is not a prediction orleans1.jpgof the future but the terrifying plot of Sherri L. Smith’s young adult dystopian novel OrleansOrleans is speculative fiction that disturbs, fascinates, and leaves us with much to ponder.

Smith sets her story in 2056 Orleans, no longer New Orleans, but a virtually unrecognizable world characterized by devastation, lawlessness, disease, death, and obstructed by a high wall.  The remnants of the Big Easy are cut off from the rest of the United States, and they are not alone.

In 2020, FEMA quarantined any state affected by the Delta Fever.  In 2025, the United States formally withdrew its governance from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, permanently altering the nation’s landscape and sending the economy into a tailspin.  The United States is now called the Outer States.

You guessed it, Toto.  We aren’t in the New Orleans as we know it.  Nor are in the America as we know it today.

Smith stakes out new territory in this story.  Not only is Orleans an original tale it’s also a courageous one.  And, for Smith, it is personal: Her mother was among those affected by Katrina.  Chilling and wholly plausible, Smith immerses readers deep inside Orleans, and her characters matter deeply to us.

Using a dual narrative format, Smith narrates her tale from the perspective of her two protagonists: Fen de la Guerre and Daniel Weaver.

Fen, a teenage girl with a mysterious past, finds her world irrevocably altered when her mentor, Lydia, dies while giving birth.  Before Lydia dies, she entrusts her child to Fen’s care.

In Orleans, race no longer matters.  “Tribe is life,” and one’s blood type determines his or her tribe.  Fen is an O-Positive, or “OP.”  The baby is an O-Neg, which is problematic.

Delta Fever affects people in different ways according to blood type.  Those with AB blood type suffer the worst from the virus.  “O types don’t be needing transfusions like ABs do.  The Fever be in us, but it ain’t eating O blood up from the inside like it do other types.”

ABs hunt down people with O blood type, especially O negative.  A transfusion using O blood, the universal donor, allows a person with AB to temporarily replenish his supply of red blood cells.

The ABs’ need for blood is eerily similar to that of vampires.  Fen struggles to get the baby to a safe place, far away from Orleans, before the ABs hunt down them both.  As her name suggests, Fen de la Guerre is a fighter.

Daniel is a researcher and scientist from the Outer States whose brother, Charlie, contracted Delta Fever and died “before his eleventh birthday.”  His brother’s death compelled Daniel to work to find a potential cure for the fever.

He bioengineers “a new virus with one purpose—to attack Delta Fever in the bloodstream.”  Daniel creates an “even deadlier strain of the disease.”  Daniel’s virus is a weapon, “a time bomb” that only kills those with the Delta Fever, which includes “every inhabitant of the Delta Coast.”

Through Daniel, Smith shows us what life is like in the former United States, and the picture he paints is far from pretty.  The problems of the Outer States, though, pale in comparison to what happens in Orleans.  The Big Easy has some big problems, as you have probably already ascertained.

When Fen and Daniel meet, the real fun begins.  Fen and Daniel strike a bargain and navigate the bayous and menacing thoroughfares of Orleans together.  Smith takes readers on a wild ride as we accompany Fen and Daniel throughout the dangerous world of Orleans.

There is such authenticity within the pages of Orleans.  Fen speaks in dialect, using “be” in place of “am” and “are.”  For example, “We be near the Market,” Smith writes, “where the old levee used to be, across from St. Louis Cathedral.”  This may be jarring for some, at least initially, but one quickly becomes accustomed to Fen’s distinctive voice.  Many people in New Orleans and in the bayous (and elsewhere in the US) use this kind of discourse today.

If you’ve ever traveled to New Orleans, there are certain landmarks that are permanently fixed in your memory: the Superdome, the French Market, the Ursuline convent, and St. Louis Cathedral, just to name a few.  These all figure prominently in the story.  As does some old Mardi Gras and Catholic traditions.  The most fascinating of which is a ritual Orleanians adhere to on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and the last day of hurricane season, when all tribes come together on horseback wearing old Mardi Gras apparel to disguise their identities.

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.


Filed under book review, books, dystopian literature, fiction, young adult

New Year, New Books

Happy New Year!  It’s January, and you know what that means?  Lots of new books!

death of bees

Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees is out now.  To see more about this title, go to my blog post.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes was released December 31 and is already getting a lot of buzz.

me before you

“Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.”

January 8 is the publication date for by Marjorie Celona.  This story is sure to appeal to fans of Vanessa Diffenbaugh.


“Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why? . . . My life begins at the Y.” So opens Marjorie Celona’s highly acclaimed and exquisitely rendered debut about a wise-beyond-her-years foster child abandoned as a newborn on the doorstep of the local YMCA. Swaddled in a dirty gray sweatshirt with nothing but a Swiss Army knife tucked between her feet, little Shannon is discovered by a man who catches only a glimpse of her troubled mother as she disappears from view. That morning, all three lives are forever changed. Bounced between foster homes, Shannon endures abuse and neglect until she finally finds stability with Miranda, a kind but no-nonsense single mother with a free-spirited daughter of her own. Yet Shannon defines life on her own terms, refusing to settle down, and never stops longing to uncover her roots—especially the stubborn question of why her mother would abandon her on the day she was born.

Brilliantly and hauntingly interwoven with Shannon’s story is the tale of her mother, Yula, a girl herself who is facing a desperate fate in the hours and days leading up to Shannon’s birth. As past and present converge, Ytells an unforgettable story of identity, inheritance, and, ultimately, forgiveness. Celona’s ravishingly beautiful novel offers a deeply affecting look at the choices we make and what it means to be a family, and it marks the debut of a magnificent new voice in contemporary fiction.”

Also coming out January 8 is John Boyne’s children’s book The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket.


“Barnaby Brocket is an ordinary 8-year-old boy in most ways, but he was born different in one important way: he floats. Unlike everyone else, Barnaby does not obey the law of gravity. His parents, who have a horror of being noticed, want desperately for Barnaby to be normal, but he can’t help who he is. And when the unthinkable happens, Barnaby finds himself on a journey that takes him all over the world. From Brazil to New York, Canada to Ireland, and even to space, the floating boy meets all sorts of different people—and discovers who he really is along the way.

This whimsical novel will delight middle graders, and make readers of all ages question the meaning of normal.”

If you collect signed children’s books like I do, it would be a good idea to get yourself a copy of Boyne’s newest story.

An intriguing YA novel also comes out January 8.  It’s What We Saw at Night by bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard.

what we saw

“Allie Kim suffers from Xeroderma Pigmentosum: a fatal allergy to sunlight that confines her and her two best friends, Rob and Juliet, to the night. When freewheeling Juliet takes up Parkour—the stunt-sport of scaling and leaping off tall buildings—Allie and Rob have no choice but to join her, if only to protect her. Though potentially deadly, Parkour after dark makes Allie feel truly alive, and for the first time equal to the “daytimers.”

On a random summer night, the trio catches a glimpse of what appears to be murder. Allie alone takes it upon herself to investigate, and the truth comes at an unthinkable price. Navigating the shadowy world of specialized XP care, extreme sports, and forbidden love, Allie ultimately uncovers a secret that upends everything she believes about the people she trusts the most.”

Soho Press debuts Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman on January 8.


“Set on the Minnesota prairie in the late 1980s during a drought season that’s pushing family farms to the brink, Little Wolves features the intertwining stories of a father searching for answers after his son commits a heinous murder, and a pastor’s wife (and washed-out scholar of early Anglo-Saxon literature) who has returned to the town for mysterious reasons of her own. A penetrating look at small-town America from the award-winning author of The Night BirdsLittle Wolves weaves together elements of folklore and Norse mythology while being driven by a powerful murder mystery; a page-turning literary triumph.”

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls comes out January 10.  This is a fine example of historical fiction.


I spotlighted this book on my blog.  I urge you all to read this.

The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black will be released January 15.

drowning house

“Photographer Clare Porterfield’s once-happy marriage is coming apart, unraveling under the strain of a family tragedy. When she receives an invitation to direct an exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she jumps at the chance to escape her grief and reconnect with the island she hasn’t seen for ten years. There Clare will have the time and space to search for answers about her troubled past and her family’s complicated relationship with the wealthy and influential Carraday family.

Soon she finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery involving Stella Carraday. Local legend has it that Stella drowned in her family’s house during the Great Hurricane of 1900, hanged by her long hair from the drawing room chandelier. Could Stella have been saved? What is the true nature of Clare’s family’s involvement? The questions grow like the wildflower vines that climb up the walls and fences of the island. And the closer Clare gets to the answers, the darker and more disturbing the truth becomes.

Steeped in the rich local history of Galveston, The Drowning Houseportrays two families, inextricably linked by tragedy and time.”

The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black’s suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus.” —John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

This is one book that is getting so much hype.  I’ve read it so look for my review soon.

A gripping story is now out in paperback.  It’s Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat.

lifeboatThis is not for the faint of heart.  You can read my review here.

So what are you reading?


Filed under books, children's books, fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery, women's lit, young adult

Book Review: The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam Adult; 368 pages; $25.95).


            Galilee “Gal” Garner is not your average heroine in Margaret Dilloway’s second novel The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns.  Gal is short, tiny, prickly, and in need of a kidney transplant.  Without one, she will die.


Despite the bleak outlook, Dilloway provides readers an uplifting story about family and forgiveness.  She also gives us a gal to root for.


Gal has already undergone two kidney transplants and years of dialysis.  She had her first transplant at the age of twelve; her mother was the donor.  At 24, she underwent her second, but this kidney lasted only four years.  She has been on dialysis for eight years when the novel opens.


“The odds of death go up with each year you spend on dialysis.  In year two, the survival rate is sixty-four percent.  Year five, thirty-three percent.  By year ten, it drops to only ten percent.”  For Gal, then, time is running out.


But it’s complicated.  There simply are not enough kidneys to go around.  As Dilloway explains, “People don’t line up to donate kidneys like they do to donate blood.”  Organ donation is a subject close to Dilloway’s heart.  Her sister-in-law is a three-time kidney transplant recipient.  Gal’s struggle could very well be Dilloway’s sister-in-law’s own struggle.  Dilloway really does raise awareness of the subject, and I applaud her for that.

Gal is a biology teacher at a small private school.  She loves her students (well, most of them anyway) and she loves her roses.  In fact, before we learn about Gal’s kidney problems, we learn about her roses.  That is just how much they mean to her.


“I am a rose breeder,” Gal proudly affirms.  “Not just a rose grower.”  Roses are her hobby, but she hopes to make them her vocation someday.  When she is not undergoing dialysis or teaching, Gal patiently cross-pollinates different specimens, hoping for one that is uncommonly beautiful and fragrant.  “My greatest hope,” she confides, “is to get a rose into the American Rose Society test gardens, where a few select new roses are grown in different climates to see how they fare for two years.”


Roses, Gal admits, are “difficult and obstinate.”  They only thrive “under a set of specific and limited conditions.”  That is why she loves roses so much: she and the roses are both difficult and obstinate.  This is Gal’s life.


One day, though, Gal’s structured existence is thrown for a loop.  Her niece, Riley, the daughter of Gal’s older, estranged and twisted sister arrives in need of some care of her own.  Gal discovers that raising a teenager is much different than teaching one.  Unsurprisingly, the two initially butt heads.


Riley, though, may be just what Gal needs.  And Riley herself is desperate for a maternal figure.  Dilloway has the two help each other.


Teenagers, Gal discovers, are a lot like roses.  Teens need attention and nourishment.  You have to give them an optimum environment.  Fertilize if needed.  And, yes, sometimes you even have to wash the bugs off.  Sometimes things can get a little thorny.  Who knows?  A beautiful and fragrant rose may grow.


Dilloway’s second novel is much better than her previous work, How to be an American Housewife.  Although I did not like The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns as much as Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, I do feel it will appeal to Diffenbaugh’s fans.  There are similarities in the stories, yet there are also some big differences.  Dilloway provides helpful and wonderful information about growing and caring for roses in this book.  If you love roses, I urge you to read Dilloway’s story.


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