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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars


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How to Save a Life was the first book I've read by Sara Zarr and I have to say, I'm really impressed. Contemporary fiction is one of my favourite genres but at the same time, books like this can be quite tricky. Books dealing with the loss of a loved one can quite easily turn into something very cheesy and over-the-top. However, it's definitely not the case with How to Save a Life. Not only is Zarr's book frighteningly real, its concept is very unique and I love the message it conveys.

The book tells the story of two seventeen year-old girls with two completely different backgrounds. Mandy grew up in a single-parent family by her alcoholic mother - she dropped out of high school, never really had friends or a loving family. She's desperately trying to get away from her old life and start it all over again, to build a better future for herself and the baby but doesn't know how. And we have Jill, only child to a well-to-do mother, who has just lost her father in an accident and who's been trying to go back to her old self ever since, without success. I didn't really manage to connect to either of them at first: I found Mandy quite naive and `away with the fairies', and Jill very rude and full of herself, but they both grew on me soon enough. And I loved the contrast between the two of them: the fact that apart from the baby, Mandy has nothing or no one else - not even a proper, loving family or a better future to look forward to, while Jill has a loving mum and friends she could count on and all she does is drive them away and completely alienate herself.

Going back to my original remark about contemporary fiction, where most of these books go wrong, if you ask me, is romance. Love triangles in young adult fiction seem to be the newest trend and for me, seven out of ten times they just don't work. I get irritated by the fact that it's all so predictable and terribly unrealistic. The thought that real life is nothing like that is constantly at the back of my mind and it keeps me from enjoying the book in question. But reading How to Save a Life was very different. It was realistic, not at all over-the-top, cheesy or even predictable, and I loved the two male characters (especially Dylan).

Whether you prefer young adult or adult fiction, I would definitely recommend that you read How to Save a Life. It's a touching, yet optimistic and a very much realistic story about two girls with completely different backgrounds but a common aim: wanting to start over. It's a unique novel with a beautiful message that will definitely make you think - I really enjoyed it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 March 2013
Excellent young adult fiction. Intelligent, with well-written characters that you care about. Loved the dual narrator structure. Superb.
Lovely characters to care about and an involving plot that grips.

A good companion piece to the film Juno (without the laughs).
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on 28 November 2011
I love that description - "realistic fiction" - because that's exactly what it was, fiction that could happen to anybody.

What can I say that other reviewers haven't already?
I take everything I said about Sara Zarr back. I still stand by what I said about "Once Was Lost", but Zarr, as a writer, is incredible.

She knows how to make you relate with every single character: from rebellious and hurt Jill, to creepily hollow Mandy, to grieving Robin, to confused Dylan and to understanding Ravi. Every single character in this book had an important part to play in those girls' lives.

Mandy is such a difficult girl to like, and yet Zarr makes sure that you do end up liking her and even rooting for her. Your emotions towards her transform as the book progresses right along with Jill's emotions towards her. Mandy can come off as creepy, and strange. Her dialogue is a little scary at times, almost stalker-like, obsessive and very manipulative. But then...there are certain moments, certain things she says in her narrative that make you stop and think - wow, that was deep. And as Mandy's past is revealed, and as her story unfolds, you start feeling protective over her. You want to save her.

Jill, on the other hand, comes off as the typical rebellious teenage daughter. But there's a catch - her father had just recently passed away in a car crash. Her father, who was her best friend, role model, and "mirror". Her father, who was the only person who really understood her and could make her a better person. Her anchor was gone, and she felt lost and hurt and confused. Naturally, it caused her to lash out. Because she was hurting, she needed to hurt those around her as well. She didn't know how to express her emotions or how to make people understand what she was going through. She always felt and thought one thing, but expressed and said another thing - and that, I could totally relate to. So many times I feel exactly the same way and wish I could actually say what I feel. Jill was on this quest to try and remember her old self, but try and find her future self at the same time. She needed to get out of this downwards spiral before it was too late and she had no one left. She needed to be saved.

This is such a great story, with such great characters, and even greater twists and turns. This is what I would call a complete novel.

(On a separate note, I think this book would make such a great young adult film. The entire time I could clearly visualize Ellen Page playing Jill's part.)

Sara Zarr, I am glad I gave you another shot and started reading this book right after reading "Once Was Lost".

You have truly redeemed yourself.
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on 9 May 2014
I don't know why it takes me forever to read books that are very highly rated by the blogger community. How to Save a Life is one of those books - a lot of bloggers that I have similar tastes to loved it, and yet it took me a long time to get to reading it. And yes, I do wish I had picked it up sooner.

How to Save a Life is a book that clicked with me from the first page. Jill is dealing with the death of her father the only way she knows how - by pushing people away and shutting them out of her life, including her boyfriend Dylan. And when her mother decides to adopt a baby, Jill is immediately completely against the idea. The connection that Jill had to her father is the thing that really resonated with me - her love and respect for him, and her overwhelming grief at her death felt so personal, so real and was so heartbreaking.

Although she felt closest to her father, she also has a lot in common with her mother, which she doesn't seem to see in her grief - they are both intelligent, focused women and I loved them both as characters. Even their questionable decisions and reactions endeared them to me, because throughout everything both of their hearts were in the right place. Jill is independent, strong minded and I liked that she embraced her feelings and went with her instincts, whether they were right or wrong.

Told in alternating POVs, Mandy irritated me at first - she's the kind of person I would have a similar reaction to as Jill, but as the story progressed and more of her life and background was revealed, I also started to feel sympathy towards her. It's just another example of how good How to Save a Life really is - that Zarr could make me feel that I was in Jill's seat, and my emotions changed along with hers.

I also liked how Zarr handled Dylan and Jill's relationship - as it was already in play before the book began, rather than being a romance, it was more focused on how relationships change and grow as the characters did. There are two male characters, Dylan and Ravi, in Jill's life, and both of them are fabulous - they're caring, kind and not afraid to say what they are thinking - there's no good boy vs bad boy battle, it's simply two nice guys that are prominent in Jill's life for different reasons and I loved them both.

The ending could have been a big cop-out, but Zarr handles it superbly - there's emotion, indecision and finally tough things need to happen, and there's a huge amount of character development in both Jill and Mandy.

I adored How to Save a Life - the characters are larger than life, the plot kept my attention and it was completely addictive. Sad, happy and funny, sometimes separately and sometimes all at once, I can highly recommend it.
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on 4 October 2012
I'm such a huge fan of Sara Zarr's. I've loved the quiet intensity and the emotion that has gone into every one of her books that I've read so far. And How To Save A Life was just as moving and incredible. I really loved the story and its characters.

How to Save a Life is the story of two very different girls. First there's Jill, an angry and sad teenage girl who is struggling due to the loss of her father. Since his death, Jill has pushed away all of her friends and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Dylan. She's lost that ability to be nice and that makes her sad. But still, Jill can't help but feeling like her mother is making a HUGE mistake when her mom decides that the thing to do is to adopt a baby over the Internet on her own.

With that, we have the entrance of Mandy. She figures the best thing she can do for her unborn child is to give her up to a loving family and bonus, going to stay with Jill and her mom until the baby is born solves her problem of living in her own toxic home environment.

I love how both Jill and Mandy changed for me so much over the course of this novel. At first, I didn't quite like Mandy. She's a bit brash and she makes other people uncomfortable. Her mother's silly rules had turned Mandy into somebody obsessed with image and needing the attention of men. But once we find out more about Mandy, it kind of broke my heart into teeny tiny little pieces reading the things that she has gone through in her young life. Sooner than I'd realised, my opinion of Mandy completely altered and I just wanted to give her a hug. I love that she's the type of person who loves pancake houses and cheesy Mexican themed restaurants. I love that she's the type of person who steals a man's address off his luggage after a brief conversation on a train and that she's still able to believe in love.

And as for Jill, I've always kind of liked moody and angry girls, but even Jill tested the very limits of my patience. She's so bitter and angry and it takes her a long time to see that she isn't the only person grieving for the loss of Jill's father and that Jill has always had things that Mandy has never known like unconditional love and support. It seemed as though it took Jill's relationships with old flame Dylan and her new friendship with Ravi for her to finally see that the person she is becoming isn't so great. And that while she might not be able to turn back into the self she was before her dad died, she can go forward into being someone different, someone nicer and more generous with herself.

I really loved this book. I loved that it deals with some heart-wrenching stuff in a believeable way. I love that it's a book about friendship and family and love but written in a beautiful way that never goes over the top. The characters are all real and flawed and wonderful. I couldn't bear to be parted with this book and I highly recommend that you read it!
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VINE VOICEon 10 December 2012
I'd read and loved Sara Zarr's `Story of a Girl' a few years back and so when I heard that her latest novel How to Save a Life was being published in the UK as her debut over here I was really excited for UK YA fans to discover what a talent this author is.

How to Save a Life is told alternately between Jill and Mandy two girls who couldn't be more different. Jill is grieving the death of her father when her mom announces that she is going to adopt a baby - a life for a life. Mandy is young, vulnerable and pregnant and is planning on giving her baby to Jill's mother. But through both death and new life the two girls have one thing in common- they're both after a new beginning.

The topics of teen pregnancy and bereavement have both become really overused subjects in YA and what impressed me most about this novel is how Sara Zarr took two really overworked topics and created something totally fresh by combining them both together. Whilst this book deals with grief and teen pregnancy at its heart is a moral on the true meaning of family. I loved the direction that Zarr took this story and how unique and entirely hers she made these topics.

Jill and Mandy are two beautifully flawed characters. Jill I liked instantly and despite Mandy coming off as a bit of an odd ball at the beginning by the end she turned out to be my favourite character. You get to know more about the kind of life that Mandy's had and the reasons behind giving up her baby as the book goes on and my heart definitely went out to the girl. Both characters have their faults and are far from perfect but ultimately I just wanted to reach inside the book, give them both a big hug, and help them through their problems.

I'm not usually a fan of love triangles in the slightest but in this book it was done really well. Jill has to choose between her long term boyfriend from her former life (before her dad died) or a guy who's fallen in love with the new Jill post dad. I loved both guys but was rooting for one in particular. This love triangle was done beautifully and was relevant to Jill who is caught in a type of limbo in her life between the past and the present with her grief so it only made sense that would be reflected in her love life too.

How to Save a Life was a beautiful book. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect ending and the last few chapters brought on the tears. If you're looking for a book with a lot of heart, endearing characters, and a hopeful message I'd fully recommend this novel.
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on 26 March 2015
I'm not sure I would have picked this up had Amazon not kept pushing it at me, but I'm really glad I did.

How to Save a Life tells the story of Jill, whose father has died leaving a gaping hole in her and her mother Robin's lives. Jill's solution to her grief is to retreat into a little ball of hurt and anger, lashing out at anyone who comes too near. Whereas Robin's solution is to adopt a baby...

Enter Mandy. Neglected by her mother, Mandy forms inappropriate attachments with complete strangers. Pregnant with a baby who could be the result of sexual abuse, Mandy's only thought is to give it up for adoption.

I really enjoyed How to Save a Life. Told from the dual perspectives of Jill and Mandy, it's a gentle, emotional read, and despite the difficult subject matters it never leaves you feeling raw. Sara Zarr paints both the protagonists perfectly, really letting you get into their characters.

For a book that on one hand is about the way people deal with grief over the death of a loved one, and about teenage pregnancy on the other, it would have been so easy for Sara Zarr to have made this overly melodramatic, like one of those awful made-for-TV films they show in the afternoons. Instead it's very restrained but still manages to make you care about the characters.

And the ending is just adorable.
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on 7 October 2012
How to Save a Life is a mesmerising novel by Sara Zarr. Mandy Kalinowski is seventeen and pregnant. She reads a post from Jill's mother on an unofficial site about adoption and replies about her own circumstances. Soon, she is on a train heading to Denver to meet Jill's mother. Jill is still coming to terms with the sudden death of her father when her mother announces that she is planning to adopt a baby. It is the last thing that Jill expected...or wants. The story follows Jill and Mandy as they come to terms with the dramatic changes in their lives.

I fell in love with this story and was hooked from the very first page. It is a real crossover between YA and adult fiction and I think would appeal to both younger and older readers alike. It is written from the dual perspectives of Jill and Mandy. This is a very effective format, as it makes the reader feel that they know both characters and thus both sides of the story.

Zarr has created a beautifully written, heart warming novel with characters and situations that feel very real. There are a lot of surprises in the novel that I had not anticipated and this made me not want to put the book down!
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on 8 January 2013
Something completely different from what I usually read. Although slightly confusing in places, I really enjoyed this book and how the plot developed and worked out for everyone involved. Jill reminds me of me in many ways and is easy to relate to, whereas Mandy is just a completely different kettle of fish! It's hard to understand where she's coming from as she's faced with circumstances I've never had to encounter, but in the end it's clear to see she's acting with everyone's best interests at heart. Such a sad book with all the characters yearning the same thing - love. :)
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on 30 March 2013
This is a truly beautiful book. I loved reading it. It shows the love between mother and daughter very clearly and the way the book ends is perfectly fitting.
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