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Written by Laura McNealAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura McNeal and Tom McNealAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom McNeal

· Ember
· Trade Paperback · September 14, 2004 · $9.99 · 978-0-375-83098-3 (0-375-83098-7)
Also available as an eBook.

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Readers Guide

1. In chapter one, Mick visits Nora’s classroom and talks to her about Lisa Doyle and his summer plans. What are some of the other memories he shares about time spent with Nora? Does he see her as a traditional stepmother? How does he feel about her and the experiences they’ve shared? How do his feelings change once he has read Nora’s e-mail? Mick asks Nora to drop the nickname Maestro, explaining, “I don’t like it. It’s not true” (p. 23). Is he talking only about the nickname here, or does his request have greater significance?

2. Why won’t Mick take off his coat at the end of chapter one? Look at the moments throughout the book when Mick pats the disk that is zipped into his jacket pocket. What is he thinking about when he does this? What is he really trying to keep zipped up? Does it work? Similarly, Myra puts her feelings for Pam into a letter. At the end of the novel, Mick and Myra send their disk and letter up into the sky with a bunch of balloons. What does this act symbolize for each of them?

3. On page 21, Mick takes a long look at this father, and later he challenges his father to a particularly competitive game of foosball in an attempt to “make him play a little harder” (p. 26). What is Mick trying to bring out in his father? Through whose point of view is Mick seeing his father now?

4. Internal conflict is a struggle within a character over an issue or a choice he or she must make. Lisa considers the forbidden fruits of the Mormon religion: “drinking, caffeine, boyfriends, and fun” (p. 33). How does she feel about these rules? What is Lisa’s internal struggle? By the end of the novel, do you think Lisa is on her way to resolving these problems? What choices do you think she will make? What are Myra’s internal conflicts? Mick’s? Nora’s? How are they resolved?

5. Betrayal is one of the themes of the novel. Which characters feel betrayed? How and by whom? How does each of these characters deal with his or her feelings? Would you be able to forgive an act of betrayal like Nora’s? Why or why not? Does Mick forgive her?

6. A symbol is a physical thing that stands for an idea or an emotion. Nora adds a new figurine to her car’s dashboard--a small plastic devil she calls Beelzebub. How does Mick feel about this item and why? Where do you think it came from? What does this figure symbolize to Nora? Do her feelings about it ever change? Where does this figure end up and what does its condition represent?

7. Birds’ nests appear throughout the story. Toward the end, a singing bird is building a new nest in the backyard. Contrast the image of the dried, abandoned nests in Nora’s classroom with the lively new nest at the end, in which “. . . the five white eggs were still together and intact” (p. 269). What do you think these images symbolize about the status of the Nichols family at different points in the novel?

8. The setting of a story--when and where it takes place--can establish its atmosphere, or mood. Where does this story take place? During what season? Mick observes, “The air was warm sometimes, but you couldn’t trust it ” (p. 7). How does this climate foreshadow, or hint at, the situation Mick is about to find himself in? How are the lines “Everything looked green--the trees, the yard, the valley and hillside beyond--everything” (p. 272), indicative of Mick’s new situation? Do the authors use the weather to set the mood in other parts of the story?

9. Do you think Maurice is racist or prejudiced? Why or why not? What are some of the characteristics that make the reader and characters dislike him? Describe Janice’s feelings for Maurice. Do they change when she looks into the orange juice container? Eventually, Lisa decides Maurice is not a total “sleazeball” (p. 273). Why does she come to this conclusion? Do you have sympathy for Maurice? Why or why not?

10. Lisa and Janice are best friends, but they don’t spend much time together as the book progresses. How do their differences become clearer? What kinds of choices do each of them make? Have any of your friendships ever taken similar turns? What do you think will happen to their relationship? Is Lisa a good friend? If not to Janice, then to whom? At the end of the novel, after Elder Keesler departs, Lisa visits Home Park Gardens “one last time” (p. 265). What does she see? How is this view different from what she used to see? What do you think this means?

11. Many of the characters in the book are different on the inside than they appear to be on the outside. Myra calls this phenomenon the “face behind the face behind the face” (p. 120). How do Nora and Myra fit this category? What does Mick expect from Nora and how is he surprised by her behavior? What does Mick assume Myra will be like and how does she surprise him? Does Mr. Cruso fit Mick’s assumptions? Nora says, “Adults are like everybody else, Mick. Usually they do what they’re supposed to do. Sometimes they don’t” (p. 255). What does this teach Mick about himself and other people?