“Challenger Deep”

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

“‘But dreams give you insight,’ I point out.challenger-deep

“The captain leans closer, the acrid smoke of his pipe stinging my eyes. ‘Not these dreams.’”

Fifteen-year-old Caden Bosch is sure that someone at school is trying to kill him. When he finally opens up to his father about the situation, the details aren’t just sketchy–they don’t exist. The other boy is just someone walking the halls of school. He doesn’t know Caden and has no reason to hurt him. Caden’s father hopes that after their talk, he will feel better. Caden pretends to be better; he stays out walking for hours in an effort to make his parents believe he is on the school’s cross-country team.However, Caden’s good friends Max and Shelby are aware that he is not himself. For two years they’ve been designing a computer RPG. Caden is responsible for the graphics, but they now see his work as sloppy; he sees his work as failing because he can’t keep up with his vision.

Caden allows readers some of his secrets, things that neither his parents nor his friends would understand: the sprinklers in the yard sound like the hiss of snakes, the dolphins he painted on his sister’s bedroom walls are plotting deadly scheme, he feels termites eating the wood of the house. He can’t sleep as he wrestles with what is real and what is not. “Holding these two incompatible truths together takes skill at juggling.”

And always lurking under all the effort at restraint is the captain, the parrot, the ship, and the journey to Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the deepest trench on earth, entirely under the sea. The ship’s navigator tells Caden that he is the compass, that his visions show the way the ship must travel.

Caden is schizophrenic, and those around him are just coming to terms with this. He is hospitalized and is given a cocktail of powerful drugs, one that must be monitored and altered until he can stop hallucinating.

While at first, the novel moves into and out of reality without transitions, once Caden is in the hospital, it becomes clear that his adventures at sea have direct correlations in life–that is, the ship’s figurehead, Calliope, the navigator, the swabby–all have parallels in Caden’s life. The crow’s nest and its vast cocktail bar is full of meaning. Caden thinks “I conclude that it would be a good place to be alone with my thoughts, but I should already know that my thoughts are never alone.”

At the story’s satisfying end, author Neal Shusterman tells readers that his own son Brendan has experience with mental illness, experience that the author is trying to bring to life. He succeeds mightily. Brendan Shusterman, Neal’s son, is the novel’s illustrator. All of the work included was “drawn in the depths.” Brendan’s work adds much to the novel’s sense of exploring an unknown world.

The novel’s extended metaphor of sea navigation representing the exploration of the depths of a human mind is truly wonderful. But I also enjoyed a paragraph that compared life to creating on the potter’s wheel :

Centering, however, is easier said than done. This I learned from a ceramics class I once took. The teacher made throwing a pot look easy, but the thing is, it takes lots of precision and skill. You slam the ball of clay down in the absolute center of the pottery wheel, and with steady hands you push your thumb into the middle of it, spreading it wider a fraction of an inch at a time. But every single time I tried to do it, I only got so far before my pot warped out of balance, and every attempt to fix it just made it worse, until the lip shredded, the sides collapsed, and I was left with what the teachers called “a mystery ashtray,’ which got hurled back into the clay bucket.

No matter our mental stability–we’ve all made ‘mystery ashtrays’ out of life situations. So, we can empathize with the truly dark and difficult stretches of Caden’s path, exponentially worse that what we may have experienced. It is this relatability that makes Challenger Deep shine.

High school housekeeping: While the reading level of Challenge Deep is not difficult, it does take on the very serious issue of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. Since we are in the mind of Caden Bosch, we must, with him, sort through reality and illusion. Early on, when there are no transitions, this may make the reading more difficult for the reluctant reader. However, with all of Caden’s high-seas adventure, even the reluctant reader may quickly dive into Caden’s world. Challenger Deep won the National Book Award. All readers will recognize that Shusterman is an excellent writer worthy of the honor and that his weaving of reality and illusion is highly skilled. This is a not-to-be-missed book.

If you are a teen who hasn’t had the chance to see the work of the artist Hieronymous Bosch, look it up. While Caden doesn’t want to think of himself as a participant in the strangely nightmare world of Bosch, there’s a reason the author has given the protagonist the same last name.

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LQBTQ+: “Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda”

Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli simon

Although Simon believes that coming out as gay isn’t going to be a big problem in his life, he is hesitant to do it. His family will still love and support him, but they make a big deal out of absolutely everything the kids do. He doesn’t want the attention and discussions. Since he attends school in the state of Georgia, he knows that some kids (not all) may bully him. While he stays in the closet, he does have a secret crush on an anonymous guy (known as Blue)–one that Simon knows goes to his high school because he found this heartthrob on the school’s underground Tumblr.

The two boys email one another in order to keep their anonymity. Very early in the novel, Simon makes the mistake of not closing down his computer at school. A guy named Martin sees what Simon has written to Blue and puts it together. Now Martin has a crush on one of Simon’s best friends–Abby. So Martin decides to blackmail Simon. Either Simon causes things to happen and makes sure that Martin is around Abby or Martin will out Simon to the school.

So while Simon is not super concerned about himself, he is angry that someone else is trying to take away his autonomy–coming out when and where he wants to should be his choice. He is also worried about how this will affect  ‘Blue’ and his relationship with him. What if Blue finds out how careless Simon was with the emails?

All this leads to the usual angst and humor. However, Simon and Blue’s online conversations, as well as Simon’s relationships with his parents, two sisters, and many friends are beautifully crafted. Simon realizes that everyone has some sort of ‘coming out’ issue in life, even if it isn’t always as significant as his. As Simon missteps, he accidentally causes pain to others. As Martin missteps, he causes Simon significant grief.

High school housekeeping: Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a book just about every teen will enjoy. Simon’s troubles are very real, and–because Simon is able to make a larger connection between his life issues and the issues of everyone he knows–any reader will sympathize with him. Meanwhile, there are many fully-formed characters in Simon’s friends and family. Even Martin, the blackmailer, is not a one-dimensional stereotype of a bully. He has issues and concerns that drive him into his misguided plans.

Another thing I loved about this novel is that the issues that all the characters have are dealt with. So if a reader deeply identifies with any of Simon’s family or friends, s/he will enjoy a satisfying resolution to all the problems that have arisen for that character in the course of the novel.

Really–just a lot of fun, very sweet. Another one that I will get more copies of for the library to use in book talks and literature circles. Happy reading!

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“My Kind of Crazy”

My Kind of Crazy by Robin Reul   my-kind-of-crazy

Hank Kirby comes up with a great idea for asking popular Amanda Carlisle to the prom. How then does he manage, with just a box of sparklers, to light up Amanda Carlisle’s yard, bring on the fire department, and start schoolwide rumors–all without ever popping the question?

Hank says it’s because everything he does, he screws up. And, in fact, there is a witness to his romantic gesture gone wrong. Peyton Breedlove lives across from Amanda Carlisle. Unlike Amanda, Peyton is a loner, someone Hank doesn’t know, but now feels compelled to hang around and cater to. After all, won’t she tell on him if he doesn’t?

Peyton has many odd behaviors. Hank soon learns that she enjoys watching a good fire, striking matches, and burning her enemies in effigy (OK, burning her enemies in Barbies). She hints at the trouble in her life, which includes her mother’s series of boyfriends (Steve the Sociopath, Dave the Dealer, and now Pete the Deadbeat).

Hank’s home life has its own quirks. His mother has died and his dad has sunken in behavior and personal hygiene. His girlfriend, Monica, is an exotic dancer, one who thinks she can save men from self-destruction. Hank is betting on her to help his dad. Meanwhile, Hank works in private on his comic, Freeze Frame, which he hopes to publish.

Hank’s best friend, Nick, has the reputation of being the son of a mafia boss. He lives in a nice house, but secrets surround the source of the family’s income. Even good-natured Amanda has her secrets. Hank’s disaster is the beginning of an Amanda challenge among boys at the school to take credit for the deed and to take Amanda to the prom. With Nick hoping to get together with Peyton, we wonder how this crazy group of friends/acquaintances/frienemies will negotiate their futures-with or without each other.

Everyone has a bit of crazy spinning in his or her life. Maybe the best thing to do is to match craziness and learn how to deal with it.
High school housekeeping: I’ve been hoping to read My Kind of Crazy since the Ontario Teen Book Fest last year, when it was introduced to me. I’ve finally been able to get a hold of it. It’s a lot of fun to read and a lot of fun to root for the ‘crazies’ as they navigate high school cliques, culture and teen issues. It’s also interesting to see how the adults and their behaviors affect the lives of the teens. And yet, as everyone, more and more, gets their crazy on, there is true understanding of people’s faults and a poignant acceptance of life on its own terms. My Kind of Crazy has a certain joy to it, so I’m ordering multiple copies and book talks are coming up!

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“All the Bright Places”

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven  All Bright Places

We meet Violet Markey and Theodore Finch out on the ledge of their school’s clock tower. They haven’t gone there together, but rather accidentally run into one another as they as both thinking about what it would be like to end it all. Their reasons for being depressed are the first thing that mark their differences.

Violet is dealing with the death of her much loved older sister. The two were in a car accident together, and Violet (irrationally) puts blame on herself. Though her parents are loving, they have not done a good job of processing their daughter’s death. Finch’s depression has a more complex origin. it’s a part of his chemical makeup; it’s who he is when he is not endlessly wakeful, brimming with ideas for songs and action, for changing his appearance and trying out new personalities. Add to his core makeup the fact that Finch is treated like crap at school and by his father (who is violent and abusive), and we imagine that he would be the one to talk Violet into jumping with him.

Thankfully, neither jumps. And now that Finch has had a conversation with the much more popular Violet, he also has a new project in life: helping Violet to step back from the ledge in a more metaphorical sense. Teaching her that there is a vast world of brilliant places and moments awaiting. He gets this opportunity when their geography teacher assigns a project in which class members will pair up and visit sites in their home state of Indiana.

As the couple wander, they become closer. I always love books with road trips, and Violet and Finch take several as they explore their home state. Their romance is at the heart of our love for the novel. And our worry about whether it is enough to save them is what makes us feverishly read to the novel’s conclusion.

High school housekeeping: I so enjoyed All the Bright Places that I am buying more copies so that I can book talk to several classes this fall. It’s a bittersweet look at teen romance and mental illness. The personalities of both characters are very well drawn (each narrates his or her own chapters). As readers, we know them. Their quirkiness–including their wonderful ability to quote famous authors–endears them to us. Helpful also is the suicide prevention material at the end of the book, as well as Niven’s own honest discussion of how the suicides of a family member and a friend have affected her.
Although the two books are very different, I had the same feeling on finishing All the Bright Places as I did when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian: here is a successful author of adult novels who has just hit a homerun in the YA category. And while I know that writers must follow their muses, I hope that Niven is compelled by hers to write more YA fiction. As a school librarian, this is exactly the kind of book I look forward to sharing, one that may well hook a student on reading.

 

 

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Sports Books: “The Final Four”

The Final Four by Paul Volponi   Final Four

The hoop action between the Michigan State Spartans and the (underdog) Trojans of Troy University is nonstop, heart-pounding excitement. While the semifinal NCAA championship game is played, the novel focuses on four players: The Spartans’ superstar, ‘one-and-done’ Malcolm McBride–the trash-talking frosh who is so good that he plans to go to the NBA next year and has let everyone know that the system is using him by making him play college ball for a year; the Spartans’ Michael Jordan, who is a scrapper, a pretty good player with a lot of heart, and who happens to be saddled with same name as a basketball legend; Roko ‘Red Bull’ (for his curly red hair) Bacic, an underrated Trojan player from Croatia who never stops challenging McBride; and Crispin Rice, the Trojans’ only big man, who must help carry the team just days after finding out that his cheerleader fiancee, Hope, may be cheating on him.

While the game is in play, the reader feels the raw emotional stress of each of the four players and sees how their leadership styles, self-esteem, ego and sense of teamwork all affect the action on the court. The trash talk, the plays at the buzzer–the excitement of the game pulls the reader through chapters as s/he must find out who wins.

 

High school housekeeping: I added The Final Four to my summer reading list because I was looking for something that would appeal both to fans of sports books and to readers working on their skills. The Lexile level for this novel is 870–about 8th grade–so I think it’s a good choice for high school students who are working to achieve grade-level reading. However, many of the ideas lived and played in the novel are important life lessons. So, even if you are reading at grade level, if you are interested in the difference between teamwork and self-centered superstars, in what it is like to be underrated, to play ‘second fiddle’ to a team’s more talented star, to endure pressure in the public eye, and more, The Final Four is a really good book. In addition to the game play and the dialogue/backstory that makes the players come alive, there are quotes at the beginning of each chapter–words of wisdom from basketball stars and coaches–and many chapters that comment on the NCAA practice of financially rewarding coaches, star schools, and just about everyone except the players. These give you food for thought about what has become a multi-billion dollar business.

 

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“Bone Gap”

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby  Bone Gap

Finn, the teen oddball in the tiny country town of Bone Gap, is both loved for his quirky personality by most of the town and bullied by the family of Rudes–a common scenario in small town narratives where everyone feels that s/he knows everything about everyone else, where it’s both comfortable to remain in and difficult to break out of the image that folks lock you into.

Finn and his brother Sean have had it rough. Their father died too young and their mother, always flighty, took off for a chance at second love, leaving the older Sean to cut short his dreams of becoming a doctor because he has to care for the adolescent Finn.

Yet something strange and wonderful happens to the brothers when the extraordinarily beautiful Roza enters their lives. Finn finds her in the barn, appearing badly beaten and frightened. The guys have an apartment attached to their house, and they set Roza up, allowing her to keep her secrets and to seek both physical and psychological wellness at her own pace.

Clearly Sean is enamored with Roza. Finn cares deeply for her because he feels she understands him. So when Roza disappears from the county fair and Finn is the only witness, he feels shame and knows he is blamed. He can’t give a description of the kidnapper to the police–he thinks the man is nondescript except in the way he walks, like swaying corn. A tension leaks into the brothers’ relationship. Finn, seeking connection, is falling for Petey, both the daughter of a beekeeper and a girl whom others in town think of as very weird looking. No matter how crazy are the tales Finn tells her about his life and the disappearance of Roza, Petey believes and accepts him.

What has happened to Roza and who will try to save her? How will Finn manage his relationships?

High school housekeeping: When cornfields take on a life of their own, you always know you’re in for cool creepiness and strange occurrences. Bone Gap is a blend of realism and fantasy, as the ‘gaps’ in Bone Gap are dangerous openings in space and time. The Polish Roza has always been prized for her beauty, and her story alternates with that of Finn. How they come together will please fantasy fans. Fans of strong female characters will enjoy the novel as well. Although Roza needs helps, she also has to rely on her wit and courage to break her nightmare world. Meanwhile, Petey (Priscilla, although she hates the name), is a strong girl who faces down the cruelty and reproach of her peers, seeking an honest and equal relationship with the boy she loves. And, of course, there’s plenty of delicious honey in the mix. Lots of fun and thoughtfulness, too. I’m getting more copies for September book talks at my library. Enjoy!

Posted in bullying, Fable/Fairy Tale/Fantasy, Family Problems, Fiction, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Adult Fiction: “Skippy Dies”

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray  Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies has been described by more than one professional reviewer as ‘hilarious and horrifying.’ I would say that it is hilarious for a very long time, and then suddenly horrifying. This is true although Skippy dies in a donut-eating contest in the book’s prologue. Because, after all, his roommate, the severely overweight donut-eating champ Ruprecht, also happens to be a genius who is working out time travel based on his understanding of string theory and multiverses.

Skippy and Ruprecht are part of a small group of ordinary friends at the elite Seabrook College, an all-boys Catholic boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. The opening of the novel moves back in time before Skippy’s death to show the boys in action. They hang out with Dennis and Mario. Mario is from Italy and fancies himself a real hot lover. Dennis is more a skeptic, questioning Ruprecht’s genius. Skippy–whose real name is Daniel–is a sweet fourteen-year-old guy (a ‘second year’ at Seabrook) who keeps secret his family troubles and who crushes on Lori, a girl who attends St. Brigid’s all-girls school, after seeing her through Ruprecht’s telescope.

The boys carry on the kind of banter that the reader expects of fourteen-year-old boys. Mario is always giving (very bad) love and sex advice to his friends. They ignore him, understanding that Mario’s lucky condom can’t be that lucky if it’s been in his wallet for three years. Many of their interactions are funny enough to make the reader weep. Yet, Skippy’s love for Lori is a dangerous one. She has a quid pro quo relationship with the sociopathic Carl–he provides her drugs, she returns sexual favors. Skippy knows nothing about this and see Lori as an ideal. Her family and her home, at least superficially, are evidence of sweet perfection of her life.

Skippy is adrift–he’s tired of the swim team although the coach tells him that he’s a natural. His grades drop. The equally adrift history teacher, Howard ‘the Coward’ Fallon (who is also smitten with the wrong woman, a substitute geography teacher named Miss McIntyre) is bullied by the school’s acting principal, Greg Costigan, into keeping an eye on Skippy. Greg is a narcissistic jerk who hopes to become the permanent principal by ‘branding’ Seabrook and cashing in on its long history. Howard is torn between teaching the boys true and interesting things about World War I (using Robert Graves’ poetry, discussing Irish involvement and the way that people in control wasted the lives of the young and patriotic) and just teaching the textbook in preparations for exams–that is, doing what he’s told to keep his job.

Only when Skippy dies, do the true evils luring in Seabrook comes out. And there are many. As Skippy’s friends work hard to communicate with him in this multiverse, the world of the adults works against their deep desires.

High school housekeeping: Skippy Dies is an adult book. A lot of people would think this is because of the subject matter–the sometimes sickening bullying at the boarding school, the boys’ open lusts and sometimes profane language, the fact that a few of them are incipient drug dealers. But, to be honest, I’m always reading YA fiction, and these things abound in most that’s been written in the last few years. What sets Skippy Dies apart are the length–about 675 pages–and the  terrible nature of many of the adults, who are more concerned with their own (undeservedly good) reputations and the reputation of the school. Greg Costigan is a horrifying leader, and yet he will be recognizable to every adult who has ever worked outside the home.

There aren’t many high school students who feel they have the time to read a long novel like this one. But I do know some. And the rewards are plentiful. Readers will learn a bit about life in Ireland, Irish folklore, what a boarding school can be like, the work of Robert Graves and James Joyce, and the scientific string theory/multiverse theory.  All of this is woven so perfectly into the story that it is fun to engage in. Young adult readers will also get a taste of how, as Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, an ‘institution is the lengthened shadow of one man’–and why that is so disastrous for freedom, creativity, and especially for truth.
Skippy Dies is a brilliant novel that works on many levels. I’ve picked it for my family book club. (My kids are all young adults.) Everyone who is a good reader should try it. If you’re a teen and wonder if you’re up to it, think about books like Libba Bray’s Going Bovine. Do you like that sort of thing, something that is so dark and so wildly funny at the same time? If so–and if you are ready to take it up a few notches from there–you should give Skippy Dies a try.

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