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The Song Reader

The Song Reader

by Lisa Tucker

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She can hear the music in peoples' souls.
Mary Beth and her younger sister Leeann are trying to support themselves in their small Southern hometown. So Mary Beth works to make ends meet by practicing her own unique talent: "song reading." By making sense of the song lyrics people have stuck in their heads, Mary Beth can help people make sense of


She can hear the music in peoples' souls.
Mary Beth and her younger sister Leeann are trying to support themselves in their small Southern hometown. So Mary Beth works to make ends meet by practicing her own unique talent: "song reading." By making sense of the song lyrics people have stuck in their heads, Mary Beth can help people make sense of their lives. In no time, Mary Beth's readings have the entire town singing her praises, including the handsome scientist Ben, who falls hard for Mary Beth and her unearthly intuition.

What happens when she can't make out the lyrics?
When Mary Beth reveals a long-muted secret in the community, however, she turns off the music and gives up song reading for good. Soon everyone's lives are out of tune: Leeann worries she'll never graduate from high school, and Ben can't conduct his experiments. Without Mary Beth's music the town's silence is louder than ever. Could it be that all the lyrics to all those foolish love songs really aren't so foolish after all?

Editorial Reviews

Albuquerque Tribune
Tucker's first effort out of the gate is a clear winner. . . This novel works on so many levels - the strong, suspenseful story line; the evocative characters you come to love (or hate); the eternal themes of compassion, forgiveness and redemption; and the wonderfully unambiguous and intelligent writing. . .It took Tucker seven years from the time she wrote the novel's first sentence to its public debut this week. My prediction is it won't take a fraction of that time for The Song Reader to be heralded as a literary sensation and for Tucker to become one of the most sought-after authors of her generation.
Denver Post
Tucker turns an engaging premise into a fascinating novel. The Song Reader is the debut pick for Seventeen Magazine's Fiction Club and, as such, is appropriate for teen readers. But the appeal of this novel isn't limited to those who are members of the high school set. Leeann's voice, a combination of wistfulness, pragmatism and humor, is utterly authentic. . . The Song Reader could well end up to be one of the summer's hot beach reads. It is engaging, it is discussable and, in its trade paperback format, it is affordable.
John Dufresne
I've just made that most rare and wonderful discovery--a writer at the start of her brilliant literary career. Lisa Tucker is the real deal, my friends. .
Margot Livesey
In this sparkling debut, Lisa Tucker takes a fascinating premise--the possibility of reading the future through songs--and uses it to tell the absorbing story of two sisters, struggling to grow up together. . .a delightful and engrossing novel.
Kevin McIlvoy
A novel of remarkable wisdom and tenderness. . .Every splendid page inspires courage.
Silas House
..this is a stunning debut by a major new voice for her generation.
Publisher's Weekly
>Starred Review. Tucker's assured debut novel is an achingly tender narrative about grief, love, madness and crippling family secrets. Preteen Leeann Norris introduces readers to her world: recently orphaned when her mother was killed in a car accident, she lives with her older sister, Mary Beth, who supports them by waiting tables and performing "song readings" for locals in their small Missouri town. Rather than reading palms to tell people's future, Mary Beth analyzes the songs stuck in their heads, explaining what the song fragments reveal about her clients' psyches. The plot device is fascinating, but what cleaves the reader to the page is the relationship between the two sisters--one determined to track down their long-missing father, the other equally resistant to looking at the past. When Mary Beth's song reading uncovers a local scandal, the community turns against her, and her resolve to help those around her crumbles. Leeann must become the stronger sister, and her quest to find their father finally succeeds, though not in the way she'd hoped. Tucker's dexterous portraits of the fragile family dynamics expose quirky and compelling characters. Her expertly sprung revelations will surprise readers. This intoxicating debut may remind them of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides, but it's not lost in their shadows. Agent, Marly Rusoff.
Leeann is the perfect narrator for this engaging and bittersweet story of compassion, forgiveness, and the search for redemption. This is a wonderful first novel.
Publishers Weekly
For 20-something Rachel Silverstein, finding the right guy to marry was the easy part-she'd known her now-fiance, whom she met during her freshman year in college, for about two minutes before she started referring to him as "the love of my life Dan Gershon." Luckily, Dan returned the affection-but now they have to plan the wedding to prove it, as Rachel's motley crew of family and friends weigh in on an event that is quickly spinning out of control. A writer for a popular young adult novel series, Rachel is living the dream-sort of-of making a living through her craft while enjoying plenty of time to explore her beloved adopted city of New York. But her skinflint father and social-climbing stepmother are issuing sign-and-return ultimatums to her semi-estranged mother, the poster child for borderline personality disorder. Meanwhile, Dan's parents, apparently still mired in the 1950s, blissfully plan a breadwinner-father-stay-at-home-mother existence for the happy couple. Bridesmaid Naomi wants an edgy, experimental dress, and voice-of-reason Aunt Natalie is overcome by familial forces and retreats to the background to dispense martinis and offer a shoulder to cry on. What's a girl to do? Wry observations of young New York life from a bagels-and-lox-at-Barney-Greengrass perspective instead of a Manolos-and-Cosmos-at-Balthazar angle are refreshing, and the hints of Jewish life in New York are atmospheric and charming. Schwartz, a columnist for the New York Sun, offers a pleasant and witty, if somewhat familiar, tale of wedding woes. Agent, David McCormick. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Tucker's storytelling and writing style elevate her first novel above the usual. Her young teen narrator, Leeann, tells a compelling story of life with her older sister. Mary Beth, a waitress during the day, works with clients in their small town who come to her for song reading. The sole guardian of her younger sister and her adopted son, Mary Beth has discovered a talent for counseling her clients based on song lyrics that have a significant meaning for them. In spite of appearing strong, and sacrificing her personal happiness in pursuit of making a home for Leeann and helping clients, Mary Beth is a fragile personality. When she is blamed for the attempted suicide of one of her clients, she becomes dysfunctional and is unable to care for her sister. Leeann takes it upon herself to locate their missing father in the hope he can be of assistance. Discovering that both Mary Beth and her father are mentally ill (he is barely functional himself), Leeann learns a great deal about her family and herself. Tucker portrays characters with great depth who will tug at readers' heartstrings. The 1980s setting is not as well defined. YA and adult readers will be looking for more from this first-time novelist. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Pocket Books, Downtown, 306p., Glantz
The book portrays really well a young person's road to self-discovery and understanding her past. It also illustrates a very different kind of family-just the two sisters after their mother's death and Mary Beth's adopted son, with their father out of the picture. This modern family and Leeann's struggle to put all the pieces back together seems realistic. The whole book is a journey Leeann takes to come to an understanding, to figure out the mysteries of her past, and to be comfortable with herself. I liked the idea of a "song reader" who analyzes someone based on songs; however, it was really hard for me to get into this book because it goes into a lot of boring and unnecessary detail and sidetracks from the two sisters' story. Leeann was so overshadowed by her sister, Mary Beth, and seemed to be just eyes and a voice to describe and talk constantly about her sister. I wanted to get to know Leeann better but was unable to until the second half of the book when Mary Beth is out of the picture. I'd give this a 3 for Quality, 4 for Popularity, and recommend it for junior and senior high school readers. VOYA CODES: 3Q 4P J S (Readable without serious defects; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003, Downtown Press/Pocket Books, 313p,
— Inka Bajandas, Teen Reviewer
Library Journal
Starting out with what seems na ve and sometimes even trivial, Tucker's first novel soon evolves into something much more. The story revolves around Mary Beth, who has decided that she can help people solve their problems by analyzing the music they most often listen to or cannot get out of their heads. Narrated by Mary Beth's younger sister Leeann, the novel soon makes us privy to the utter dysfunction of both their family and the larger community. As Mary Beth analyzes the musical habits of those around her, deeply buried secrets work their way to the surface. Eventually, when she can no longer contain all her own and others' secrets, she is hospitalized and her tightly woven world falls apart. In this incisive and ultimately startling work, Tucker very skillfully reveals the damage that family members can do to one another and the energy required to repair the damage-or not. Recommended for most collections.-Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Leeann Norris, 12, comes of age in the midst of an almost overwhelmingly dysfunctional family. After her mother is killed in a car crash, Mary Beth, 23, takes on the care of her younger sister in the absence of their father. She supports the two of them, and eventually a hyperactive foster child with learning problems, by waitressing and "song reading," a skill she developed to help people uncover their problems by charting the songs running through their heads. This occupation also enables her to obscure her own guilt and shame over choosing to love her selfish and victimized mother more than her insecure and inept father. When one of her clients attempts suicide, Mary Beth's fragile structure collapses and she is sent off to a mental hospital. Leeann slowly finds out or remembers small pieces of information she uses to put the picture, and the family, together again. Her voice is honest and intelligent and the other characters are interesting and believable, though each one has an emotional disaster to deal with. Both an attempted date rape and her first loving sexual encounter are sensitively handled, and Leeann's ultimate resolution is hopeful and fitting. While loaded with possible pitfalls, the situations are believable, Leeann is authentic, and teens will recognize the feelings, if not all of the events.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
Margot Livesey author of Eva Moves the Furniture [A] sparkling debut...delightful and engrossing.

John Dufresne author of Louisiana Power & Light [A]n achingly beautiful and bittersweet tale.

Silas House author of A Parchment of Leaves A stunning debut by a major new voice for her generation.

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Pocket Books
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Song reading was her term for it and she invented the art as far as I know. It was kind of like palm reading, she said, but instead of using hands, she used music to read people's lives. Their music. The songs that were important to them from as far back as they could remember. The ones they turned up loud on their car radios and found themselves driving a little faster to. The ones they sang in the shower and loved the sound of their own voice singing. And of course, the songs that always made them cry on that one line nobody else even thought was sad.

Her customers adored her. They took her advice -- to marry, to break it off with the low-life jerk, to take the new job, to confront their supervisor with how unfair he was -- and raved about how much better off they were. They said she was gifted. They swore she could see right into their hearts.

From the beginning, my sister took it so seriously. She'd been doing readings less than a month when she had those cards printed up. Each one said in bold black letters:

Mary Beth Norris

Song Reader/Life Healer

Let me help you make sense of the music in your head.

[Family problems a specialty.]

Leave a message at 372-1891. Payment negotiable.

She had to work double shifts at the restaurant to pay for the cards and the answering machine, but she said it was just part of her responsibilities now. "I have a calling in life," she told me, "and I've got to act like it."

I wish I'd saved one of those cards, but I wasn't there the night she buried them at the bottom of the garbage can. It was after Ben left, and after I discovered she'd lied to me about my father. It was when the trouble with Holly Kramer was just beginning, and I still thought -- like most of the town -- that her talent was undeniable.

Some people even claimed she had to be psychic. After all, no one else knew that Rose was in trouble except Mary Beth; no one even suspected that Rose would take Clyde's car on that sun-blind Saturday morning and drive it right over the sidewalk and through the glass wall of his News and Tobacco Mart except my sister, who told Rose two months before that she'd better stop seeing Clyde. From the song chart, Mary Beth knew Clyde had to be bad news. She shook her head when Rose got stuck on "Lucille" for five weeks and warned her a life can't hold this much sadness for long. When Rose started humming "Hungry Heart," Mary Beth knew the lid was about to blow off Rose and Clyde's relationship. But she didn't tell Rose I told you so when we went with Rose's mother to bail her out of jail. She wasn't that way with her advice, not at all.

My sister kept file cards on her customers, "song charts" neatly alphabetized in a large green Rubbermaid box in the corner of our kitchen. On Saturdays she would meet with new customers in the little room downstairs our landlady Agnes had donated to the cause -- as long as Mary Beth kept the room clean and didn't disturb Agnes's husband's sketches and charcoal pencils still sitting on the desk exactly as he left them when he died eighteen years before. Sometimes she gave advice at these first meetings, but usually she waited until she'd kept the chart for at least a few weeks before she gave them a reading.

They were instructed to call twice each week, on Sunday and Wednesday, and leave a short message telling her the songs and the particularly important lines they had hummed for the last few days. She had to rewind the cassette on the Phonemate back to the beginning to fit all the messages that would come in. I helped her update the charts. (It was a lot of work, especially when they reported country and western songs, which I hated.) I wrote down the titles and lines exactly as they said, even if they got it wrong, for what's important, Mary Beth said, is how they hear the words. But if they were off on the lines, we would make a little star on their chart since Mary Beth said they might be hearing them wrong for a reason. We also made an "S" if they'd sung the lines on the machine, and a "C" if they'd sounded like they were crying or struggling not to.

Mary Beth was proud of this organized system. It allowed her to just glance at an entry and know quite a bit. For example, one of the entries on Dorothea Lanigan's chart was the last two lines of "Yesterday." Dorothea had changed only a word and a tense, but Mary Beth had nodded when she looked at the chart later that night and said, "Well, that's that."

Even I thought this one was obvious. After all, the song was about lost love, wasn't it? "It's too bad Dorothea and Wayne are splitting," I said. "She must be miserable."

Mary Beth looked up at me from the floor where she was sitting surrounded by charts and burst out in a laugh. "Leeann, they are going to be engaged by the end of the month. You mark my words." And of course, it turned out to be true. They had their wedding the next summer. Mary Beth was the maid of honor, since Dorothea said it was all thanks to her.

It was a gift, everybody said so. Sometimes I wished I had the gift, too, but I knew I didn't; I'd tried and failed too many times with my friends to believe otherwise. I asked them about their music and I gave them my theories, but I was always way off, and Mary Beth finally told me I was dangerous. "You can't mess around with something like this. What if somebody believes you?"

I knew, though, there was little chance of that. Mary Beth was the kind of person you take seriously; I had never been. Only my sister saw me as the thoughtful, intense person I felt I really was; my friends and acquaintances looked at me as a sweet, happy-go-lucky, go-along-with-anything kind of person. And I knew that was a side of me, too, but I was more comfortable at home, always had been, even though I didn't have parents.

Sure, we were a small family after Mom died, but it wasn't lonely. We had the endless stream of my sister's customers and of course the music. Every day, all day, our stereo would play and Mary Beth would talk about the lyrics, what they really meant. Even when we got Tommy, she kept it up, because she said babies could adjust to noise just fine, as long as you gave them the chance.

When Tommy first came to us, Mary Beth wasn't even all that surprised. She was only twenty-three, but she'd wanted a child as long as she could remember, and she was a big believer in things working out, no matter how improbable the odds. "It was meant to be," she concluded. "It's a sign that I've waited long enough."

At first, I didn't see it that way. I was eleven then; I knew you couldn't just hand over a living, breathing baby as payment for services rendered. Of course Mary Beth insisted Tommy wasn't payment, but I didn't see the distinction. After all, a customer had given him to my sister after the song reading was over, the same way they gave her cakes and stews and afghans and even cash occasionally.

Her name was Linda, but she called herself Chamomile, like the tea. She had a garden of red and purple flowers tattooed on her back, a string of boyfriends back in Los Angeles, and a fourteen-month-old son with big black eyes and curly black hair that she hadn't even bothered to name.

She called him the blob, because she was so sure he was retarded. He couldn't walk or crawl; he didn't talk or coo or even cry much. Nobody wanted that baby: not Linda, not her parents, and not any of the families on Missouri's waiting list for perfect, white infants. Mary Beth took this as another sign that she was supposed to have him. She didn't care if his daddy was black or brown or from Mars, because the first time she picked him up, he held on to her hair with his fist like he was afraid she'd disappear. When she curled up next to him at night, he breathed a fluttering little sigh of what she swore was pure happiness.

Linda was back in Los Angeles and the adoption was already final when the doctor confirmed what Mary Beth had been saying all along: the only thing wrong with Tommy was the way Linda had been treating him. He turned into a chubby-legged toddler who giggled as he followed us all over the apartment. He called me "E-ann" in the sweetest little voice. He called Mary Beth, Mama.

Sometimes I thought Mary Beth's gift would bring us everything.

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Nobody else in the whole world can say that, as far as I know. And even after everything that happened, I still find myself wishing I could go back to when the music was like a spirit moving through our town, giving words to what we felt, connecting us all.

Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Tucker

Meet the Author

Lisa Tucker is the bestselling author of The Promised World, The Cure for Modern Life, Once Upon a Day, Shout Down the Moon and The Song Reader. Her short work has appeared in Seventeen, Pages and The Oxford American. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.

Brief Biography

Santa Fe, New Mexico
Place of Birth:
B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1984; M.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1987; M.A., Villanova University, 1991

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