Tag Archives: independent reading

Damage Done by Amanda Panitch

Damage Done“Love was leaving someone free to destroy your life and stomp on the ruins because you couldn’t bear the thought of ending theirs” is Julia Vann’s epiphany in the final pages of Amanda Panitch’s debut novel Damage Done. Unfortunately, this epiphany arrives too late to rectify or to prevent all the earlier damage. Julia’s unreliability as the narrator is established by her—she is living under an assumed name and is the only living witness to her twin brother’s massacre of eleven classmates and teacher one earlier, but Julia claims amnesia for those twenty-two minutes. The novel opens one year later; as readers we learn about Julia’s past as she chooses to dole out the tidbits, but also through the reports from the brother’s psychologist. As part of a if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-read-this list, as well as telling taglines on both covers, readers should expect twists in this novel, and at least the first one should be obvious early on. It is quickly apparent that Julia is not only an unreliable narrator but also a master manipulator. The depiction of all adults as inept could be explained by the narration technique, but the psychologist’s reports are his own and Dr. Spence comes across as a self-centered doofus. It is difficult to accept that every adult was blinded by the damage done not to see the real damaged one.

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

This book was from the same if-you-like-Gone-Girl list that also suggested Vanished, which I liked partly because that book read like a YA version of Gone GirlDamage Done takes the twists and the sociopathy to a whole new level, think Gone Girl meets Flowers in the Attic without the happy ending of the V. C. Andrews series. Twist #1–Julia Vann had something to do with the school shooting that her brother committed should be obvious, especially to a reader of psychological thrillers or viewers of any crime show. Twist #2–Julia Vann is more of a sociopath than her brother would be obvious to a more sophisticated reader or lover of Criminal Minds; I expect the textbook/stereotypical warning signs to go above the heads of high school students so that twist will be unexpected for them. Twist #3–Julia Vann and her twin brother have an incestuous relationship was hinted at, but I really didn’t expect the novel to fulfill it. The ick factor was too much for me. And because of all these, I find Julia’s epiphany, quoted in the review, hollow; I don’t buy it.

As an adult reader, I was troubled by Panitch’s inept adults; I could accept the parents being blinded by their grief OR a self-serving psychologist OR a policeman on the take, but not all three. Even the ending suggests that the police have just given up looking for Julia–she is not longer in the top results of a Google search another year later–which does not seem plausible. And no justice is served; Julia, as the unreliable narrator, seems to have become normal, but sociopathy doesn’t go away. I couldn’t decide if Panitch wants us to assume that Julia will be captured when she begins stalking people in New York, or if Panitch really wrote Julia as reformed after her epiphany.

I had wanted to add this book to my list of school shooting books, but it’s much more than that. I will keep if with the if-you-liked-Gone-Girl list, but with a caveat that these are not your standard plot twists. Definitely for high school and college-aged students; the incestuous relationship is not for middle grade students.

Vanished by E. E. Cooper

Vanished“Our group would become one of those urban legends that other kids talk about in hushed voices over summer campfires”—Mean Girls meets Gone Girl with one runaway, one suicide, and one losing her mind. E. E. Cooper’s Vanished has made the if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-then-you’ll-like-this-young-adult-novel lists, and those lists are spot on. Told from the perspective of Kalah, the younger transfer student who has been taken under the wing of the popular senior field hockey captains, the vanishing act occurs in chapter two. Beth, the girl from the middle class family unable to deal with the earlier loss of a perfect son, disappears on her eighteenth birthday. The disappearance triggers Kalah’s anxiety and OCD. In the meantime, Britney, the only child of wealthy but neglectful parents, discovers that her boyfriend may have been cheating with best friend Beth, which triggers her suicide. Once envied by everyone, Kalah becomes a pariah, detached from friends not sure what or who to believe, especially after she begins receiving emails from the missing Beth. Kalah’s realizations occur a little quickly for the lengthy build up, but readers will be left rooting for Kalah and wanting to know how she will exact her vengeance.

I make no secret of the fact that I typically do not enjoy reading young adult literature; I am not its intended audience, but more importantly, I find most of it formulaic. Nothing wrong with a formula and a happily-ever-after, but I want and expect more for my reading pleasure (I would probably consider my reading genre “literary fiction”). However, I chose Vanished and two other young adult novels because they appeared on a list of ya-books-to-read-if-you-liked-Gone-Girl. I liked Gone Girl, but the graphic violence and sexual references are too much for me to recommend it to students (it’s in our school library for any student who wants to check it out). I’m not sure why I chose to read Vanished first, but I’m glad that I did. As a debut novel, E. E. Cooper has a lot to live up to in her sophomore novel (that I will watch for and plan to read just based on the success of this novel).

The novel includes numerous allusion to Alice in Wonderland with the key to understanding the deception (which I won’t give away here) in “a line by the Queen of Hearts: ‘Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'” (220). Kalah’s anxiety is well depicted in her battles to not tap six times, in her panic attack, and in lines such as, “I’d already chewed my thumbnail down, exposing the tender flesh underneath, and I was working to complete the gnaw-manicure on my other fingers. It’s a good thing I wasn’t planning to hold hands with anyone soon” (278). Not only is the nail symbolic of Kalah–“tender flesh underneath”–but “gnaw manicure” summarizes in two words the toll that anxiety has had on Kalah and on the reader. Of course, for the plot, one of the girls has to be a sociopath, but she is believable and a little scary in that everyone would describe her as “normal.” But it is a work of fiction; I can accept a teeanaged sociopath.

As I said in the review paragraph, Kalah’s aha! moment is rushed. And while she is the narrator, I would have liked to understand about the problems at her previous school earlier; that backstory is also rushed at the end, but would have been more impactful if both the readers and the authorities had known about it, which would have undermined some of Kalah’s credibility but added to the suspense. The story ends without a final resolution, much like Gone Girl. I’m okay with that; I expect that Kalah has learned much and will be very successful in her vengeance.

This novel is most definitely for high school readers; I would even suggest it to my college-aged students. And, to repeat myself, keep an eye out for E. E. Cooper’s next book; I expect her to become an author that I recommend to my students without having read a new book because her writing is that good.

The End of Fun by Sean McGinty

End of Fun

“FUN—the latest in augmented reality—is fun <yay!> but it’s also frustrating, glitch, and dangerously addictive <boo!>,” so everyone should put down his or her personal electronic devices and rejoin the “real” world. Sean McGinty’s The End of Fun, which will be published April 2016, opens with main character Aaron telling his readers that to terminate his contract with FUN he must earn 100 YAY!s first, so he recounts the past year of his life in 100 quick-to-read chapters. Comparisons to M. T. Anderson’s Feed are inevitable, but while Feed had a dark foreboding dystopian tone, The End of Fun is a light-hearted romp through desert of Nevada. Just as Aaron’s story starts to drag, a treasure hunt is added that livens up the romp. The brief description of what people look like while using FUN adds some humor that could have been expanded, especially if McGinty wants to convince teens that they look silly staring at any event through a 3-inch screen rather than watching it directly with their own two eyes. The possible environmental effect of FUN, which implies that we don’t know what problems we could be creating with our current technology, hits home, but, again, maybe not enough to convince teens to unplug. However, kudos to Hyperion/Disney Book Group for publishing a book that is for 14-18 year olds (due to drug/alcohol use and sexual content).

I received this book as an ARC at NCTE 2015. I was excited to see Disney (through Hyperion) publishing books for teens. At previous NCTE and ILA conventions that I’ve attended, Disney has promoted mostly middle level novels. I wanted to read this book over winter break because it had all the right words on the back blurb to interest me, and more importantly, to be a book that I can recommend to my students who prefer their gaming and electronics to my novels. And while I will add this to the short list of novels that cover those topics, this book is not at top of my recommend list.

It is very possible that The End of Fun pales in comparison to the novel that I just finished, Where Futures End. Both books imply that our electronic usage will have an unforeseen environmental effect in addition to the personal negative impact. However, Where Futures End is a much more sophisticated book. The fun style (word choice intended) of McGinty’s book would be more appealing to 8th/9th/10 graders, but the mature content is more appropriate for 10th/11th/12th graders. And McGinty’s structure beats you over the head with “electronics are not fun” on page one through page 405. His message is not a mystery.

I actually considered abandoning the book (which I always encourage my students to do when they would rather eat broken glass than read another word) around chapter 40 because I didn’t care what was happening to Aaron, and I was confident that after chapter 100 he would be able to terminate FUN. But, an old-fashioned treasure hunt to find Grandpa’s missing money was introduced to liven up the tale. Once again, by the end I didn’t care how Aaron’s life turned out; he terminated FUN, and we should all just have fun in real life. Got it.