Th1rteen R3asons Why (review)

Th1rteen R3asons Why
Jay Asher
RazorBill Penguin

More than a few of my students recommended I read Jay Asher’s Th1rteen R3asons Why and this one was a doozy–very difficult to read, but incredibly meaningful. Clay Jensen picks up the package from his porch without much thought–hmmm, cassette tapes?–but his life is forever changed. His co-worker, classmate, and crush, Hannah Baker committed suicide just a few weeks before and now her voice speaks eerily through a tape recorder: I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re 13 reasons whylistening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.

So for thirteen sides of seven tapes, Jay listens to the story of Hannah’s unraveling. It’s painful.It’s raw. And it’s probably more accurate than a lot of adults would like to admit. I asked one of my students, Lexi, if she thought it was true to high school and she said it was probably a little more extreme than reality, but the essence was there. And, unfortunately, this is the stuff teens live with. Rumors where a single kiss is twisted into a makeout session, a copped feel into going all the way, one beer into a six pack. Drama where girls play the friend when it’s useful and turn a cold shoulder when it’s not, where a brief flirtation is thrown back in your face with a laugh.

Now not a single of Hannah’s experiences would surprise anyone over the age twelve–but maybe that’s what makes Th1rteen R3asons so chilling. It’s all pretty normal teen stuff that just got too much for one sensitive and hurting soul to take. Hannah tries to seek out help, but probably too little too late–another mistake so many kids make.

There was a time at the beginning of my teaching career where not a year went by without at least one of my students attempting or threatening suicide. Kids want connection so badly–their pain runs deep–and I think we adults find it difficult to understand once we’re on the other side. But if you want to need to remember how it feels to be a teenager, alone and betrayed and besieged by rumors, Hannah’s story will jog your memory to a place you might wish you had instead walked away from.

Then go and hug that sixteen-year-old nephew who is all “Dude” and skinny jeans. Look your eighth grader in the eye. Smile and say “I appreciate your help” (and mean it) to the teenage bagger at the grocery store. We need each other.

Sailing the ocean blue: As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (review)

As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (DRC)
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press
Release date: January 6, 2015

If you haven’t caught Flavia fever by now, you’re missing out on something special. Twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is a chemist prodigy-turned-sleuth who has solved any number of thefts, murders, and kidnappings in her six previous adventures.  At the end of The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches we knew Flavia was bound for Canada to train for her role in an As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust“ancient and hereditary” organization at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the very same school her legendary mother Harriet attended.  And true to his word, Bradley opens As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust with Flavia standing on the deck of an ocean liner–in a storm, covered in sea spray, planning the murder of her chaperone Mr. Rainsmith by champagne and bicarbonate of soda. Flavia fans would expect nothing less.

As to be expected, Flavia and boarding school prove to be an odd bedfellows. At home, playmates were decidedly missing, with Flavia preferring the company of the vicar’s wife and the police inspector. Just how would she manage the drama of dozen’s of girls living under one roof? It helps that she is quickly taken under the wing of the headmistress Miss  Faulthorne—who sympathizes with Flavia on a level she’s not accustomed to–and also finds out that these girls aren’t just any girls. They are, in fact, also members-in-training of Nide, the same group that Flavia’s Aunt Felicity told her she must “learn her way into” at the end of Vaulted Arches. It also helps that by the end of Chapter 2, a mummified body falls out of the fireplace in her room, its desiccated head rolling across the floor and landing at Flavia’s feet.

With that, Flavia is off and running. Those girls I worried about become no more than stand-ins for the adults she was accustomed to interviewing (and, truth be told, manipulating) as she parsed together the truth. As always, Flavia runs into some dead ends and meets any number of decoy characters. She jumps to conclusions and puts herself in danger. But truth she finds.

When I first realized at the end of book six that there would be no more Daphne or Dogger, no more Mrs. Mullet or Colonel, my heart dropped. Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, along with her friends and family, were as much a part of the books’ charms (almost!) as Flavia. But just as the almost-a-teen Flavia was experiencing some growing pains, I, too, wanted to see how Flavia would manage outside the familiarity of Bishop’s Lacey. Bradley’s oh-so-perfect details help with our transition: a chemistry teacher who is an acclaimed—and acquitted—murderer; dorm rooms named after pioneering women (Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Edith Cavell); girls singing Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic on the wall. It’s a world of delights.

But it’s the magic of Flavia de Luce herself that successfully carries this little sleuth across the ocean, and us, the reader, with her.

846*: Zac & Mia (review)

NetGalley ARC
Houghton Mifflin
release date: Oct. 2

I read Zac & Mia because The Fault In Our Stars has been such a phenomenon with my kids at school–and the blurb sounded enough like Stars to think this might be another YA favorite. So while might not want kids to jump into a novel simply because it shared a plot similar to the best seller, at least they’re reading, right?

And truth be told? I liked Zac & Mia better than Stars.

The novel opens with Zac Meier recuperating in isolation after a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia. His life is on hold–no football, no school, no graduation. Zac and MiaCounting down the days until his release, Zac’s days are spent  playing Scrabble with his mum. Not exactly exciting stuff for an eighteen-year-old. And then a new patient moves into Room 2. But unlike the tedium that surrounds his hospital stay, the girl’s arrival (Zac caught her peeking in the window of his door)  brings all sorts of drama. There’s arguing, door slamming, and Lady Gaga blaring through the walls. His mum finds out she has osteosarcoma. Treatable. Manageable. She’s lucky, he thinks.

So they pass notes under the door and tap their hellos on the wall. And because this is 2013, they friend each other on Facebook. Compare chemo notes.

And then she’s gone.

Zac returns home–cancer-free! healthy!–and picks up (or tries to anyway) where he left off. He helps on the family’s olive farm and petting zoo. Returns to school. Sits with the football team, even if he can’t yet return to the field. And life returns to normal–until Mia shows up without warning. She’s clearly sick and not getting treatment. She’s angry, needs money, and she’s given up.

The question is, will Zac give up, too?

Writer A.J. Betts won Australia’s Ethel Turner Prize for Zac & Mia, her third novel. The characters are real (more so that Stars, I think) and the engaging plot moved quickly. I loved that I got a glimpse of Australia–all bush and joeys and alpacas. It’s nice, sometimes, to get out of the States.

We read in room B209, every Friday. All hour. The kids know I love the book and as soon as I get my hands on a paperback copy, it will join other favorites on my reading cart.

* the number of cancer deaths in Australia in one week

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The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

The Book Thief  has been on my Amazon Wishlist for ages; published several years ago and a New York Times bestseller for now a second go-around, it seemed like good summer reading. Okay, so a novel about Nazi Germany might not be everyone’s idea of a beach book, but what can I say? And from the first page, I was (dare I say?) enchanted by the narrator: Death. A kinder and gentler death, to be sure, but Death all the same. It was a poignant and powerful device.

Liesel Meminger is on her way to a new life with a foster family. The year is 1938; her father, a communist, has disappeared with the advent of Nazi rule, and her mother fears she’ll be next. So Liesel and her little brother are off to Molching, a small village just outside of Munich. Hans and Rosa Huberman were anxiously expecting them and the small stipend that would accompany the children, stretching the family dollar a little further. But  little Werner dies along the way, leaving just his big sister to meet her foster family–and refusing, once she arrives, to budge from the placement agency’s car.

We know from the first that Herr Huberman, Papa, is one special man. He coaxes Liesel from the car, shows her how to roll a cigarette for him. He plays the accordion and brings life into their cramped home. He helps Liesel navigate around the treacherous Frau Huberman, whose swearing and yelling and name-calling are legendary. But perhaps most important of all, Papa teaches Liesel how to read–he paints letters and words on the walls in the cellar and pours over the book Liesel found at her brother’s gravesite: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. (Other than that one teensy spoiler, I’ll let you discover who the book thief is and how the books are stolen.)

Liesel navigates school and afternoon soccer matches in the street and wins the heart of Rudy Steiner, friend and confidant extraordinaire. She helps Mama deliver the laundry, attends her Hitler Youth troop–and marches in parades and sings Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles and shouts “Heil, Hitler.” I think this might be the first novel I’ve ever read set in Germany in World War II where the main character is an active participant in Nazi life and it was a bit of a shock. But very little in this world is black and white, and Liesel soon finds out that life in Nazi Germany is many shades of gray.

Zusak scatters the pages of his novel with unexpected lists, labels, and asides. Here’s the list that begins Part One: “himmel street–the art of saumensching–an ironfisted woman–a kiss attempt–jesse owens–sandpaper–the smell of friendship–a heavyweight champion–and the mother of all watschens”. There are also two handwritten and illustrated books, one written by Liesel and one by a Jewish friend of hers. Which probably should have alerted me to the fact that The Book Thief  is marketed as a Young Adult novel. But because it’s been several years since the book was first published, I either forgot or totally missed the initial hype (Read: I had no idea what this book was really about) and was fairly surprised at the target audience.

Young adult fiction or no, The Book Thief  is poignant and thought-provoking and beautifully crafted.

A boy and his gun

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (NetGalley)
Mathew Quick

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. 

The blurbs on this YA novel are pretty impressive: “riveting”, “harrowing”, “beautifully written”. And with a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and a movie deal in the works, I worried the hype was too much. But I read it. In one sitting. Yep–it was that good.

The book opens with Leonard Peacock looking at himself in the mirror after he has chopped off the long hair that has curtained him off from the world. “How long as this guy been hiding under my hair? I don’t like him. ‘I’m going to kill you later today,’ I say to that guy in the mirror, and he just smiles back at me like he can’t wait. ‘Promise?'” Chills. Then he wonders whether or not the P-38 WWII Nazi handgun sitting beside his bowl of oatmeal just might be modern art … so he snaps a photo of it.

The boy, simply put, is not all that likable–he’s sarcastic, rude, and dismissive of just about anyone outside of his small circle of acquaintances. Not friends (in the true sense of the word) because Leonard doesn’t really have any. But he does attempt to date Lauren, a home-schooled Christian girl evangelizing outside the
train station. And there is Baback, the Iranian immigrant who allows Leonard to listen as he practices violin in the auditorium every day at lunch; Herr Silverman, the young Holocaust history teacher who can see through teens’ nonsense; and Walt, the elderly neighbor he watches hours of Bogart films with.

Leonard Peacock’s parents are absent (Dad left the country to avoid drug charges and Mom–or Linda, as he prefers to call her–lives in New York, busy with a career in fashion) and so he’s on his own, physically and emotionally. Leonard is also pretty darn smart, and he knows it. He has memorized extensive lines from both Hamlet and Bogey films, he takes Advanced Placement classes, and he’s expected to ace the SAT. But he’s a teenager for whom school is a burdensome formality and so he spends most of his day challenging his teachers, being a smart ass, and alienating himself from just about everyone.

Leonard also has a secret that has tormented him since he was twelve. While we don’t immediately know what happened to isolate him, we can guess pretty accurately. So after years of pain Leonard decides on his eighteenth birthday he’ll put an end to it. Literally. He plans to murder the object of most of his fury and then commit suicide. The story covers what is to be Leonard’s last day on earth as he gives good-bye gifts to his four friends.

This novel is not for the feint of heart. It’s raw, profane, and sexually explicit at times. But it’s powerful stuff. Although Leonard Peacock may not be a very clinical look at a school shooter, the book gives great insight into the mind of a troubled teen.