Cover of Free Verse by Sarah Dooley. A suitcase opens to reveal a cloud of birds, including one golden bird

About the Book

Title: Free Verse
Published: 2016

Cover Story: Halfway to Heaven
Drinking Buddy: Too Tired for Having Fun
Testosterone Estrogen Level: One Fist of Iron
Talky Talk: Have They Given Up?
Bonus Factors: God, What Did We Do?; Brothers and Sisters, What a Terrible Time
Bromance Status: A Big, Big Man

Cover Story: Halfway to Heaven

Cute cover, with references to Sasha running away, her transitory lifestyle, and the poetry that sets her soul free. But this looks like a poetry anthology, which would turn a lot of people off.

The Deal:

When Sasha was eight, a mine accident took her father. With her mother having long abandoned the family, her older brother, Michael, gave up on his military dreams and raised his little sister. He worked long hours at the grocery store, still finding time to volunteer as a fireman.

But as Sasha enters the seventh grade, a fire turns deadly. A blaze at a cupcake store of all places. Sasha is on her own.

She moves in with Phyllis, an older woman who’s serving as her foster mother. She meets Mikey, her young second cousin. She becomes involved in her school’s poetry club. Things could be worse.

But Mikey’s father is a coal miner, and every time those sirens blare, there’s a chance he won’t be coming home. And sometimes, Sasha kind of freaks out. She’ll find herself standing amid a scene of chaos and destruction, with the horrible realization that she caused it. She has no memory of what happened. And when there’s a a bad disaster at the mine, Sasha does something rash…

Drinking Buddy: Too Tired for Having Fun

Two pints of beer cheersing

Once again, I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t worry too much about a fictional character. Sasha has had so much tragedy in her life, it’s no wonder that she’s screwed up. However, she’s kind of a terrifying character. Those freak-outs are epic, and they risk frightening Phyllis, who has the patience of Job. I’d like to take a fatherly interest in Sasha, while being glad that I’m sleeping in another house.

Testosterone Estrogen Level: One Fist of Iron

There was pretty much no romance in this book (Sasha starts out as twelve years old). Not a lot of violence or high-paced action, either. Still, with Sasha’s mental issues and the prospect of death hanging over everyone, there were a few bite-your-nails chapters. Good stuff for younger readers.

Talky Talk: Have They Given Up?

I didn’t give up, but there were times I wanted to. When Sasha discovers her knack for poetry, she writes a lot of it: Haiku, Cinquain, Tanka, Free Verse, the works. And it’s all included in the story. Many, many pages, especially near the end. And it advances the plot, so you can’t just skip over it. For those of us whose love of poetry begins and ends on a bathroom wall, this wasn’t a happy development. And one of the big plot twists turned out to be a major fake out. I prefer my misunderstandings in episodes of Three’s Company, not in the story of a psychologically damaged young woman.

On the other hand, poets will eat this up, as will those who like a good tragedy. The poetry pages make for a rapid read. I’d recommend this one to reluctant readers who don’t want to have to look up a word every page and like a flawed main character.

Bonus Factor: God, What Did We Do?

The 'I'm mad as hell' scene from Network

So when things get rough for Sasha (or even when things seem okay), she’ll suddenly lose track of herself and come back to reality to realize she’s done something violent. Sometimes it’s small, like playing too rough with her little cousins. Other times, it’s kind of scary. One minute, she’s singing with Phyllis, the next, Phyllis’s beloved guitar is smashed to pieces. Sasha is disturbed by what she’s capable of, and struggles to maintain an even keel.

Bonus Factor: Brothers and Sisters, What a Terrible Time

Meryl Streep in the A Series of Unfortunate Events movie

In most books, the foster parent is cruel, disinterested, and only in it for the money. Not Phyllis. She’s calm, understanding, and weathers Sasha’s rages. A nice alternative to the evil foster parent trope.

Bromance Status: A Big, Big Man

You’re a hard book to understand, but once I got over my initial dislike, you were enjoyable. I’m glad I made the effort.

FTC full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Not really his sons, but the publisher. No money or booze exchanged hands. Free Verse is available in March.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.