Category Archives: Book Review

Review of At the Edge of the Universe (Feb. 7, 2017) by Shaun David Hutchinson

at-the-edge-of-the-universe-coverFirst, I need to be completely honest and admit that I fangirl (can I make that a verb?) over Shaun David Hutchinson for his every book, tweet, and the one time that I have met him. I really hope–and have already suggested to him via Twitter–that he appears at #ILA17 or #NCTE17 to promote this book (and, if you do Mr. Hutchinson, I will re-introduce myself in a very professional lady-like way and ask for a picture with you, nothing weird). Violent Ends was the book that hooked me, followed quickly by The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley; those books captivated me with their original structures on top of their excellent story telling. At the Edge of the Universe is the first traditionally-constructed book by Hutchinson that I have read (sorry, Mr. Hutchinson, I haven’t read my copy of We are the Ants, yet).

The novel opens with the line: “I sat beside the window pretending to read The Republic as the rest of the passengers boarding flight 1184 zombie-walked to their seats” (1) only to have flight 1184 “tumble from the sky and crash into Southern Boulevard on the far side of the fence separating the runway from the road” after Ozzie had been perp-walked off the plane to stop him from running away. That event is not a spoiler, but it is indicative of the events that seem unlikely or random until the very end of the novel. In fact, I kept reading the novel because I wanted answers to the missing best friend/boyfriend and the shrinking universe, both described on the back cover, even thought at times I struggled to suspend my disbelief about both situations.

The pleasure of Hutchinson’s works is that the stories and the themes are worth the journey. After finishing all three novels, I was satisfied with the reality of the story but also wanting to reread the novel to fully appreciate the events and lines that I rushed over because I couldn’t connect the dots. I cannot provide more details about Edge because the whole is so much more than the pieces, and the individual pieces make the novel seem more science fiction-y than it is. But the cover is brilliant–and, no, there’s nothing wrong with the image; it is blurry in the center.

Ozzie’s journey is heartbreaking but understandable.  It’s an overwhelming teenage angst; I’m sure some of my students have felt the same as Ozzie, but they would not have been able to put their feelings into the words that Hutchinson crafted. The ending is not neat nor easy (which is why I dislike much young adult lit), but it is hopeful; a wonderful message for teens. I am waiting for the right moment, a student who appears in the depths of despair, to press this book into that student’s hands and say, “You need to read this now. Trust me.” Every high school library, every young adult literature section, needs to include this novel in its collection.

I also want to commend Hutchinson for writing novels with LGBTQ protagonists and characters who are just like my LGBTQ students. I believe that these are mainstream novels that all my students can see themselves in regardless of sexuality and gender but ones that also comfortingly reflect the lives and concerns of LGBTQ students.

Finally, a big thank you to Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing for providing this ARC at #NCTE16. I spotted the last copy and pounced on it like a child on Christmas morning. I embarrassingly gushed on about how much it meant to me to receive this copy to the (much younger than me) young lady who was manning the booth at that moment.

Review of All American Boys (2015) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

all-american-boys-coverThe praise for All American Boys is overwhelming: blurbs on the back cover from Jacqueline, Woodson, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Matt de la Pena; numerous high school teachers whom I follow on Twitter couldn’t put it down this summer nor wait to incorporate it into their instruction; and the lines for autographs at NCTE16 in Atlanta were only shorter than the line for S. E. Hinton’s 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders. I was fortunate to receive a copy from a professor of children’s literature at a local university who knows that I am not a ya lit fan but am willing to read anything that is “good.” And she thought it would be a valuable addition to my classroom library.

The novel is straightforward: the inside jacket states, “Rashad and Quinn–one black, one white, both American–face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn’t die after the civil rights movement” [sic]. The novel deals with police brutality against African Americans, the difficulty of living in the United States as an African American male, and the difficulty of white Americans to understand what it is like to live in the USA as an African American. To add to this straightforwardness, the chapters written from Rashad’s perspective–the African American male teen attacked by the white police officer–are written by Jason Reynolds, who is an African American author; the chapters written from Quinn’s perspective–the white male teen who witnessed the beating of Rashad–are written by Brendan Kiely, who is a white author. The first chapter establishes that the beating was unnecessary; the second chapter establishes that the beating was brutal. Straightforward.

Twist number one comes at the end of chapter two. The police officer is the older brother of Quinn’s best friend; this man has also been a father figure to Quinn since Quinn’s father died in Afghanistan. Twist number two comes in chapter six: Quinn and Rashad are classmates, and Quinn plays varsity basketball with some of Rashad’s friends. The plot is predictable. People choose sides; friendships are tested and some falter; eventually, a protest occurs.

As someone who will snub a book simply because it is written for young adults, I was disappointed in the obviousness of All American Boys. Is the novel well-written, especially in its use of the two narrators/perspectives? Yes. What I came to realize is that this novel is early in tackling the issue of race in the 21st century, especially when situations include the police, and since it is early, it needs to be obvious and straightforward and transparent. The only way to begin the conversation is to remove all the maybe’s and are-you-sure’s. I expect that in a few years the plots will become more gray and ambiguous, more complex.

I wasn’t sure how it would be received by students in the rural, predominantly white high school where I teach. None of my students have read it for their independent reading assignment, and I know that at least some of the students whose parents are police officers would not be able to relate to either Rashad or Quinn. But a colleague who teaches a study skills class to students with learning disabilities was looking for a book to read with the students that they could relate to, so I recommended All American Boys. The class loves it; I hope that they are learning life lessons to take with them when they leave our insular community.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls“But still they ran, giddy and breathless, the pieces of June’s life dropping away bit by bit”—for about four years, June’s life was entwined with Delia’s, but that friendship was splintered by a boy. Now, Delia appears to have committed suicide by fire, which is unimaginable since she is terrified of any flame. And June can’t let it go; could she have stopped Delia if they had remained friends? Or if June had answered Delia’s phone call on New Year’s Eve? Or could Delia have been murdered? This first half of the novel alternates between June’s first person narration and third person flashbacks to their childhood. Then the ­Gone-Girl-like twist occurs and the narrative format changes. The “suicide” notes are interspersed throughout the novel, and Delia’s death is not the only one under suspicion, as the readers learn. While the twist is not improbable, the added characters who have all dropped out of society is. In the final chapters, June must decide if she, too, will allow her present life to drop away and join this band of misfits. Unfortunately, it is left up to the reader to decide what the final suicide note really means. A psychological thriller/mystery appropriate for high school and college-aged students due to drug and sexual situations.

This novel is third from a list of if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-then-read-these for young adults. It is possible that this book suffers from being the third of the books that I have read from this list and the third in a row over winter break. But I don’t think so; I think the creator of the list organized the books from most possible to least possible. Of the three, I enjoyed Vanished and will recommend to our media specialist that it be purchased for our library. While I will tell my students about both Damage Done and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls, I don’t feel compelled to tell my colleagues that they need to read either book nor do I want to nominate either book for ISLMA’s Abraham Lincoln Award.

IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SPOILERS, STOP HERE!

So here’s the twist–Delia is not dead, which is easy to except. She claims that her stepfather attempted to rape her, and she has been planting this as a possibility since she met June in 6th grade. The impossible is that Delia has found a group of three other young adults (late teens/early twenties) who have all faked their deaths, assumed new names, and live however they please. With a trash bag full of cash that is never explained. To add to the impossibility, these are not people who are helping the abused escape a domestic situation; these are four people, including Delia, who destroy others. Sebastian seems to have a conscious, but Evan, Ashling, and Delia take too much delight in their destruction. Now June has to decide if she wants to be like them, if Delia has trapped her into joining them, or if she can return to her junior year of high school. The final suicide note, June’s, could be the first legitimate suicide note if Delia died two chapters earlier. Or it could be a complete fake if June has decided to join. Or it could be a forgery by Ashling, who has already proven her prowess at forgery, to cover up June’s murder. And the reader will never know.

My complaints with this book are similar to those for Damage Done. The adults are non-existent or are hapless. The second-to-last chapter implies that Delia has been a sociopath for the entire novel, but could she really have contained her tendencies for the past five years simply because June was her friend? That seems unlikely. And while I found the ending of Damage Done to be unrealistic, I am willing to accept it because there is some resolution. Even Gone Girl, the book moreso than the movie, has a conclusion with promise that justice will prevail eventually, which is also why I much prefer Vanished. But Suicide Notes has no resolution. How-did-it-end is entirely left up to the reader, which seems like a cop-out by Weingarten. If she couldn’t decide what should happen to her characters, why should we?