blackbird     Blackbird by Anna Carey

OK, yes, you have read this sort of story before, and you‘ve seen it in movies. Someone with amnesia wakes up. Without a memory, that person has to piece his or her life together and figure out how and why s/he arrived in the present. But let’s face it–unless this scenario is one that drones on endlessly in a soap opera, it’s a fun premise. And in Blackbird, the reader is pulled into the mystery immediately and races through the story to a satisfying conclusion. That is, an almost satisfying conclusion in that Blackbird is the first book in a trilogy.

Blackbird is narrated in the second person. I see this more often lately and although writers are often advised against using the second person (You), I almost always love it. (Think of Blink and Caution and how well that worked.) If YOU wake up on the subway tracks in Los Angeles without any idea of how you got there–or how you got the scars on your neck or the strange tattoo on your wrist–well, you want to find out. This happens to you in Blackbird. All you know is that you have a backpack with one thousand dollars, some clothes, and a phone number on a piece of paper that says, “Do not call the police.”

You have to make up a name for yourself when the boy in the supermarket, Ben, notices that you are hurt and asks about you. Sunny, you think. That’s a good name. And so your adventure begins. You realize that you may have been some sort of thief or juvenile delinquent in your previous life–after all, you can pick a lock, break into an office.

Someone out there seems to know exactly what your criminal talents are and is watching you. You are stuck; you’ve lost your chance to go to the police. Who do you trust?

This novel reminds me of a short story that many, many high school students read in anthologies. When I taught English, that story was always a favorite among my kids. (I can’t tell you the name; it would give away a nice plot point of the novel). If there’s anything I didn’t like about Blackbird, it’s that the elements of the storyline that were concluded in this ‘book one’ seemed rushed–a sort of, ‘Well, this and that must have happened by now’–before the presentation of the character that will drive the second book. But altogether, Blackbird is  a blast. YOU’LL have fun with it.

High school housekeeping: I recommend this novel to all high school students. It’s fast-paced and short enough for the reluctant reader, but it also has enough mystery and plot twists to engage a book lover. Teens are always asking me for a mystery, and this is a very good one. Once I talk this up at my high school and some of my kids have read it, I want to ask them about connections to that anthologized story. We can wonder together whether it has had a lasting effect on Anna Carey, the author of Blackbird. I’m guessing yes.

Posted in Adventure Stories, Young Adult Literature, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Horror/Mystery/Suspense | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ball Don’t Lie”

Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Pena   ball don't lie

“Real life always comes whipping back around at you like a boomerang. But right now there’s one last game to play. And Stickey’s right here. In the zone. Flowing. Every shot ripping through a nylon net and playing the same song. And it’s almost mean the way he does it, making people look so bad. So sad. So human. But this game is Stickey’s drug. It’s his stage. This court is Strickey’s home.”

Stickey plays basketball at Lincoln Rec in Venice (Los Angeles). And he’s a star on his high school basketball team. He is such a great player that he really does make other ballers look like fools. So he should be set, right? Set for a college scholarship and later the NBA.

But Stickey’s got more problems than any kid should have. His friend, Dante tells him,  “‘That means three of em [foster homes/parents], plus your real momma, didn’t want your ass no more. They straight up gave you away like you was nothin. . . .All these people, Stick, they decided you wasn’t worth a damn thing.’” Add to this that Stickey has OCD and will do an action repeatedly until he senses that it ‘feels’ right.

Although he’s only seventeen, Stickey has acted the part of the troubled kid, even when people try to help him. He’s in trouble with the law, commits stupid and petty crimes. His mother was an addict and a prostitute. He’s tossed out of one foster home for his behavior, loses other placements through no fault of his own. A bright spot in his life is his bookish girlfriend Anh-thu. Although there’s no fake ‘she fixes him’ story here (Stickey maintains his thievery), she does believe in Stickey. And that’s the beginning of him wondering if there really is something worthwhile at the heart of him.

High school housekeeping: Ball Don’t Lie is a great book for seeing what it’s like to be ‘in the zone’ in a sport, “No more sunlight-glare sneaking through the open doors. No more waiting on a sorry sideline, watching. No more cleaning out a cut or coming up with a birthday game plan. No more thinking.”

It’s also a good book for following a kid who is trying to make it out of a troubled life. Because it is realistic, Stickey is not always sympathetic. He claims to care for his girlfriend, but is not the sort of boyfriend a girl would dream about. He has a very hard time talking about his emotions as well as showing them. He is often on the wrong side of the law, and this is going to cost him. The one thing that he can pour everything into is basketball. He just has to learn to be a contender in life.

I recommend this book to any teen as Stickey’s story is compelling and the writing is very good. For sports fans, this is a great choice. For basketball players, it’s an excellent read.

Posted in Multicultural, Fiction, Young Adult Literature, Romance, Sports, Family Problems, bullying | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick Reads: “Dead End in Norvelt”

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos   dead end in Norvelt

What an entertaining mix of fact and fiction about growing up in a small town. Founded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression, by the early 1960’s, Norvelt is dying off. Literally.

Many of the men who helped settle the town have already died, years ago. Their lives were tragic–hard work in coal mines and steel mills hurried them off to meet their maker. But a number of the settling women survived. And then suddenly, in the summer of 1962, the women start dropping like flies. One of those first residents of the town–Miss Volker–is a nurse and had been charged with the duty of ‘medical examiner’ by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. When young Jack is called to her house, he is happy to go only because he needs to escape being grounded all summer. He’d fired a ‘souvenir’ Japanese rifle that his dad brought home from World War II service. he was goofing off, pointing at a drive-in movie screen when the gun discharges a bullet. A bullet that Jack swears he did not load into the gun.

And so begins the two mysteries–who put that bullet in the gun and why? And is it possible that all these old ladies are dying of natural causes within days of one another?

The reader will enjoy the bit of mystery, but mostly this little novel is full of the fun that comes with getting to know the weird, eccentric characters who live in Norvelt. Jack is so young and naive that his perception of the world leads to some very funny scenes. Very early in the novel, when Jack goes over to Miss Volker’s house and she is boiling her hands and pulling the stump of her arms out of the pot of wax, you’ll be hooked. Jack’s constant bloody noses and Miss Volker’s kitchen-table cure with what appears to Jack as a hot poker are wacky good fun.

Dead End in Norvelt helps the reader to glimpse some 20th-century history in a way that’s also entertaining–it’s incorporated into each one of the town obituaries, the writing of which is another task of Miss Volker’s–and now, of Jack’s. You’ll also get some up-close views of the undertaking business (and, thus, a number of dead bodies), a town scare from the Hell’s Angels, a search for an arsonist and more. Through it all, Jack is constantly trying to get out of his grounding punishment so that he can hang out with his friends. He tries to play his parents against one another, and often it works. He is tasked with driving although he’s eleven, and hopes to have a chance to fly the plane that his dad is secretly building.

High school housekeeping: Dead End in Norvelt is geared to a ‘tween’ audience, a bit younger than you are. But as an adult, I found it very sweetly comic and entertaining. It’s a fun, fast read. A teen can learn a lot very easily about major events in the 20th-century and even pick up some facts about ancient civilizations. There’s also good characterization that gives a sense of the difference between people whose politics lean left and right. There’s just so much packed into this book that I highly recommend it to teens. However, if you want to read something similar, but at an adult level, try the books of Fannie Flagg like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. If you want adult nonfiction with murder and quirky characters, try Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And if you just want some adult nonfiction about the undertaking business and other aspects of dealing with dead bodies, try Stiff. If you want to read adult nonfiction about another seriously crazy part of author Jack Gantos’s life (drug smuggling, addiction, prison, reform) read A Hole in My Life.

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Quick Reads: “Marty’s Diary”

Marty's DiaryMarty’s Diary by Frances Cross

Marty’s parents are divorced from one another and both are remarried. Although Marty’s mom has moved to Mexico City and had a new baby boy, Marty is not angry at her. She feels that her mom is an adventurous soul.

The person she is really mad at is her father’s new wife, Linda. Marty lives with her dad and Linda. Her feeling is that  Linda exists to wreck her life. She keeps a diary in her senior year of high school and documents everything that Linda does to make her angry.

Linda keeps her own documentation of her relationship with Marty through letters to a friend named Paula. they irritate one another over disagreements on sloppiness and responsibility. They have completely different taste in clothes and lifestyles. Even when they are trying to be kind to one another, they misread each other’s motivations, leading to more anger. Linda confesses that she doesn’t have life all worked out despite being an adult.

The situation is sad. As Linda points out, “‘Marty doesn’t know me any better than I know her, and that’s a tragedy.’”

High school housekeeping: Marty’s Diary is part of the Cutting Edge series, a series for struggling teen readers. The Lexile level is 710–so about the fifth grade reading level. It’s a good book about step-relationships for its intended audience as it shows the drama from both sides. However, if you are not struggling with reading, try something with a bit more texture and detail.

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YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten Nominees are here!

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Send by Patty Blount  send

“A punch to the jaw wasn’t how I imagined starting my first day at another new school, but fate had a warped sense of humor.”

So begins Send, with Daniel (and/or Ken) making the decision to intervene in what looks like a smaller student about to be beaten by a bigger guy.

Dan doesn’t make the decision lightly. He sees a girl watching–he later learns that it’s Julie–and thinks that she will say something to the bully (Jeff). But she refuses to intervene. Dan, who has had to move from school to school, is supposed to be flying under the radar, not getting involved in anything, certainly not making enemies out of tough guys. But how can he stand by and watch?

Ironic, this. Because Dan has a secret that he hopes to keep from the entire school, the thing that has kept him on the move, fleeing from a man who wants revenge. At thirteen, Dan–when he was Ken–cyberbullied a twelve-year-old boy by posting online a picture of him in babyish underwear. The consequences are the worst possible. Justice is swift. Dan finds himself not only locked up, but labeled as a sexual predator and more. He is bullied in juvenile detention and is a terrible mess–physically and mentally and emotionally–when he comes out.

Dan breaks into two personalities–he is also still Ken, but Ken remains a thirteen year old. Dan is consumed with guilt and considers himself a murderer. So when Julie takes an interest in him, he’s not sure that he should get involved. After all, he can’t tell her the truth about himself.

What Dan doesn’t realize is that a lot of people have something to hide. All the major characters in this story are a hot mess. No one really knows the motivation for anyone else’s actions. And that can cause a lot of trouble, even deadly trouble.

High school housekeeping: Send is a thoughtful book about the consequences of impulsive actions and whether people have a ‘duty to respond’ when they see something that isn’t right. It’s also a suspenseful ride through a crazy senior year for a guy who is trying to redeem himself. It includes some interesting views of friendship and romance as well. While the writing is not ‘literary quality,’ and the book has too many coincidences, the reader doesn’t mind. As a whole, the novel is satisfying, Combine all that with a movie-like white-knuckler ending, and you have a book that just about any teen would love. I think Send would make a great teen book club choice. Luckily, it includes some discussion questions at the end for those interested in doing so. Altogether, a very satisfying read. Enjoy

Posted in bullying, Controversial Issue/Debate, Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Adult Books for Teens: Autobiography: “Lone Survivor”

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Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

Marcus Luttrell has trained his entire life to arrive at the moment when he and three fellow members of Navy SEAL Team 10 creep along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in search of a top-level Al Qaeda warlord. But he could never have anticipated the firefight Team 10 would be involved in or the resulting loss of his three fellow SEALs.

As boys, Marcus and his brother live a country life. Their parents raise horses. The kids wrestle alligators. Marcus knows that he wants to serve his country, and he happens to live in a place where a local man, Billy Shelton, pre-trains young men to be ready for military service, including service in the Special Forces.

If Marcus thinks that Shelton’s grueling training schedule is tough, he has much to learn in Navy boot camp. He takes to heart the motto Honor, Courage, Commitment. After boot camp, Luttrell moves directly into Navy SEAL Indoctrination, which is its own bit of hell. The pain recruits experience is equally physical–from all of the swimming (near drowning), running, and climbing–emotional and psychological. Most guys quit. A few of the photos included in the book give the reader a general sense of why. (What it means to ‘get wet and sandy’ is one example.) Yet, the very detailed narrative of the ‘Indoc’ brings it all home.

Luttrell is trained as a sniper. He becomes “supremely confident, because we’re indoctrinated with a belief in victory at all costs. . .  We’re invincible, right? Unstoppable. That’s what I believed to the depths of my spirit on the day they pinned the Trident on my chest. I still believe it. And I always will.”

Luttrell has many tests of his resolve, but, of course, the greatest is Operation Redwing. To say too much about what happens would be to ruin the intense suspense of the firefights. Suffice it to say that I never knew people could be shot so many times and continue to fight. For awhile, the four men do seem to be invincible–not as a Navy SEAL unit or mission, but on an individual, mortal level. But they are so outnumbered that, eventually, three fall. Luttrell feels strongly that several miracles–genuine acts of God–play into his survival. His being unreachable by the enemy and the fact that no matter how many times he has to leap down the side of a cliff, his gun always lands within his reach, are two.

Although Luttrell survives the firefights, he is wounded. Bleeding profusely and tormented by thirst, he tries to crawl to safety. He is met by friendly Afghans, and here another chapter of his survival begins. He tells the reader that he didn’t know whether these Afghans were going to help him or kill him–and they can’t communicate their intentions because of the language barrier. But Luttrell is so badly injured and near death that he has no choice but to be carried away. Fortunately, he learns of Lokhay, a tribal law that demands that the entire village will risk all lives–is honor-bound–to save the individual they have invited to share their hospitality.This promise leads to its own suspense as the Taliban leans on the village and its leaders to give Luttrell up.

In general, the narration of the memoir is exciting and the reader feels deep compassion as well as genuine respect for Luttrell and all Navy SEALs. At times, I found myself in tears and had to put the book down for a bit. Exceptions to the overall power of the narrative were the digressions on Texans being the best people on the planet and on then-sitting President George W. Bush being a near God. Luttrell also blasts the ‘liberal media’ at any opportunity, and, in fact, blames it (and I believe liberal thinkers in general) for the deaths of his fellow warriors. I’m a fairly liberal thinker, so I’ve ruminated on this a lot since I’ve read the book. It might be too much of a spoiler to give details on the event that leads to the later firefights. But Luttrell feels that a critical decision SEAL Team 10 made that day was based on how their actions would be reported in the liberal media. He is sure that this choice led to the deaths of the men. He’s right–it did. It seems to me that any choice would have led to the same end. They were in a situation that was impossible to get out of. Fate handed them a no-win moment. No matter what they action they decided on, the Taliban would have been alerted and found them.

High school housekeeping: This memoir is highly engaging and deeply suspenseful despite the fact that the reader knows the outcome from the title. Teens will be engrossed by the narrative and by the smart-mouthed folksy humor that dots the story. Anyone thinking of going into military service should read it. Perhaps it should be required reading for anyone who wants to be a member of Special Forces. As an adult working with teens, I infrequently come across those who aren’t doing their work,but seem to be lounging their way through school. When I ask them to sit up straight and start working, they reply, “I don’t need to do this. I’m going to be a –(fill in the blank here–Marine, Navy SEAL, etc.)” Yeah–right. Read Lone Survivor and see what it really means to have that sort of dedication, will and the determination to never give up.

Posted in Adventure Stories, Biography/Memoir, Faith-Based/Religious Element, Movie Tie-In, Non-fiction, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment