“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.



Posted in Adventure Stories, bullying, Family Problems, Fiction, Grief, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.


Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Grief, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Multicultural, Read 180, Sports, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

Posted in bullying, Faith-Based/Religious Element, Family Problems, Fiction, Humor, Mature Readers, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nonfiction: “Code Talker”

Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WW II by Code TalkerChester Nez with Judith S. Avila

Chester Nez was one of the original 32 (some say 29, but Nez informs the reader otherwise) Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. He died two years ago. Thankfully, several years before Chester’s death, Judith Schiess Avila spent eighty hours interviewing both Chester and his son. As she states in her prologue to Code Talker, she had originally hoped to write a biography of Nez. But as she worked, she understood that the book should be a memoir, in Nez’s own voice.

Code Talker is a powerful story not only of heroism, but of racism, of language and of culture; of overcoming adversity and of how one man continued to ‘walk in beauty’ despite the dangers of war, his battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the tragic loss of three of his children.

Nez grew up in New Mexico in what is called the ‘Checkerboard,’ an area outside of the Navajo Nation that was populated by Navajo Indians, whites and Latinos. It was a hardscrabble life. His mother died when he was a small child; he had no electricity, sewage or running water. What he did have was a loving extended family, spiritual grounding, and the narrative culture of his tribe. Nez was a great lover of story.

As a child Nez was sent to a boarding school for Indians. There he was underfed. A major goal of his education was not just to learn English but to forget his Navajo language and culture. Physical punishment was the norm for any infraction of the rules. In fact, life there was so difficult (and he was so hungry) that his father decided to send him and his sister to another school. That, too was a boarding school in that it was far away and the children could only go home for holidays. It was pretty rough, but less so than Chester’s first school.

Thankfully, Nez learned perfect English without forgetting his Navajo language. When the United States entered World War II, Nez was in high school. A Marine recruiter came to the school looking for Navajo men who were fluent in both languages. Even though Nez had been treated like a second-class citizen–his family’s livelihood had been threatened by government policy; he was required to have an identification card, but Navajos in New Mexico were not allowed to vote–Nez and others volunteered. After basic training, they learned that they would have a special mission–using the Navajo language, which was unwritten, as code to transmit vital military messages, messages that could save American lives and help to defeat the enemy Japanese.

Nez tells the story of being a Marine in World War II, but one with a mission that was so secret, he couldn’t even tell his family, much less anyone else, about it until 1968, when the information was declassified. That’s more than 20 years later. All he could tell people was that the Marines gave him a gun and sent him into battle. This, too, is true–he served in the Pacific theater, first on Guadalcanal, and later on the islands of Bougainville, Peleliu, and Guam. His first day of battle was shocking as he waded to the beach on Guadalcanal through the dead bodies of fellow Marines he had been speaking to only minutes before. Touching dead bodies was a spiritual violation for him, and he had to learn to get used to it. Though he made every effort to maintain his spiritual practices and to walk in beauty, he still suffered from PTSD (called combat fatigue at that time). His family arranged a special spiritual ceremony–an Enemy Way sing–that helped to relieve his symptoms and nightmares. Sadly, Nez’s return from the war was also a return to prejudice that had not marred his experience in the military.

Nez goes on to tell the reader about the rest of his life, which is also really interesting. He and other Navajo Code Talkers finally get the credit they deserve. Nez, as one of the original ‘twenty-nine,’ received a Congressional Gold Medal.
High school housekeeping: Here’s another memoir that is the kind that (I think) the framers of the Common Core were thinking about when they demanded you read more nonfiction. There’s great storytelling, heroic action, and a lot you can learn about history–mostly about WW II in the Pacific theater, but also about life for Navajos in New Mexico during the Great Depression, about Indian boarding school and the tragic policy of trying to eradicate native culture, and more. If you are interested in history, racism, World War II, pastoral life, or just the Code Talkers and what they did, this is a great book. It includes photos, maps of the islands and an appendix that gives the code words. Though an adult title, it’s not particularly difficult to read. It has a wonderful storytelling quality that you’ll enjoy. Give it a try.

Posted in Biography/Memoir, Historical Fiction/Historical Element | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drug Abuse “In Ecstasy”

In Ecstasy  In Ecstasy by Kate McCaffrey

Fifteen-year-old Sophie and Mia are longtime best friends, who, as the novel opens, are getting ready for a big party. Sophie is more outgoing. Mia is socially awkward and just hopes to get through the evening without making any big mistakes. The mistakes Mia is thinking about are about looking dorky and undesirable in front of boys. Little does she dream that she is going to make one of the great mistakes of her life.

At the party, Sophie and Mia run into Lewis Scott, the ‘dream god’ and Glenn, a guy they don’t know who appears to be Lewis’s friend. Lewis has everything–good looks, money, a cool car–and enough Ecstasy for the group. As soon as Mia swallows the pill stamped with a butterfly, her perception of the party and everyone in it changes.  Everyone is beautiful, everything is peace, she suddenly realizes how much she has always loved Lewis.

Because the Ecstasy makes Mia so comfortable and happy at parties, she keeps doing it. She and Lewis start going out and their relationship is in high gear immediately. Mia starts doing stupid things like having unprotected sex and, because she is hanging out with several guys who are heavily into drugs, she tries more serious, addictive substances. Meanwhile, something terrible happened to Sophie after the party. She feels that she can’t tell Mia about it. The more Mia comes out of her shell and is swept into a drug culture, the more Sophie withdraws. Soon, what had seemed like an unbreakable friendship is a thing of the past. And as their bond dissolves, it appears that no one is there to help Mia from self-destructing.

High school housekeeping: This is a cautionary tale about drug use, but a good one because the characters are realistic. Their family problems contribute to the more immediate problem with drug use. As in real life, some of the characters’ anger is justified, but some of the girls’ behavior is delusional–and the reader can see how living outside reality is one of the ingredients for a crash landing onto the plane of what’s real.

WIth a Lexile level of 630, this is a very easy read, but the subject and characterization are for teens. The small format of the book and the chapters which alternate between the point of views of the two friends are appealing to ‘reluctant’ readers. For teens working on their reading skills, this is a fast-paced and focused novel they will enjoy. For all teens, this is a realistic portrayal of the problems that accompany drug use and then addiction. I’ve purchased several copies and plan to book talk it in the fall.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Hi-Low/Quick Read, Read 180, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Than Romance: “Love and Other Theories”

Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass  love theories

After freshman year of high school, Aubrey and her three best friends are on to an important reality: high school relationships don’t often last; in fact, given that high school students move on to college and other pursuits, they can’t last. And since this is true, why fall in love and get hurt needlessly?

They have a theory about this and enact a plan for their sophomore through senior years–to live by the girl code that they will never be sniveling, emotionally-wrecked girlfriends whose hearts are broken by the boys they date. They will go out with guys, hook up with guys, have sex with guys. They won’t allow the guys to become too attached to them. If any guys start to get too clingy, they will enact an exit strategy.

What could go wrong?

Well, any reader will guess exactly what can and will go wrong–but that’s part of the fun in YA novels that circle around romantic attachments. The hot new guy in school, Nathan Diggs, ends up in drama class with Aubrey. And while she’s a super smart girl who is headed to an elite university in the fall, she decides to play wild on the day of their meeting. They begin hot and heavy, and, like it or not, Aubrey is head over heels for Nathan. She just can’t say anything to her friends since her feelings break the girl code.

The trouble is, other girls also have the hots for Nathan and are eagerly awaiting their turn for a throw in the backseat of his BMW. Aubrey is constantly mentally checking her emotions, trying to stay cool–she’s also checking which of her best friends might make a move on Nathan. Because with the girl code, she is not allowed to object to her best friends having sex with the same guy that she has had sex with. (OK, yeah, ick.)

Widespread knowledge of the theories and real-life examples of their behavior make Aubrey, Melissa, Danica, and the extraordinarily beautiful Shelby some of the most popular girls in the school. Yet Aubrey can’t help but turn inward to acknowledge her true emotional state–and to question just how much pain the girl code and the theories can actually prevent.

High school housekeeping: The main problem with Love and Other Theories is that it takes so long to arrive at this questioning, especially considering that Aubrey is characterized as super smart. Meanwhile, the four girls are not just free love (well, not love exactly) advocates–they are snarky, petty witches whose main source of entertainment, other than making finely detailed observations about who is giving whom ‘oral’ exams, are 1) ruining the life of a former friend, Chiffon and 2) watching a teen soap opera together. Aubrey comments that she loves her friends because she and they are so “real.” They may be, but everything they talk about and do is trite and mean. It’s very hard to like them the way Aubrey does.

Yet, with Love and Other Theories, there’s a kicker. Once Aubrey allows herself to explore her true feelings and the reality of romantic relationships, the novel becomes excellent. Now the reader can finally see the smart girl that she’s been waiting for. All the pain Aubrey experiences is realistic–so too is the fact that if she hadn’t followed the theories, she would have experienced a good deal of pain anyway. Aubrey’s sense that after high school, life will be entirely different for all of the girls, as well as for the guys they romanced, is spot on. The telling of all of this is wonderful and makes the novel worth the read.

As Love and Other Theories is Alexis Bass’s debut (first) novel, I have no doubt her next will have better pacing, so I am looking forward to reading it because her observations about life are intelligent and important for teens. Meanwhile, I recommend this one to teens who can stick it. I think ‘reluctant’ readers will give up long before the novel comes into itself. (A little digression here: as a high school teacher librarian, I see a lot of teens give up on novels–novels that they claim to like very much–before they arrive at the end, even novels that are very well paced. This worries me. I know this is the subject for another article–something thoughtful on teen readers–but if we believe the research that tells us that the action in novels creates pathways in the brain so that the reader experiences them as if experiencing real life, what does this mean when so many teens give up before the valuable ending? If they only come up with pathways for snarky witchiness?) So–if you start this book, make sure you finish it–and experience the important things that Bass has to say about life, heartbreak, and growing up.

Caveat: As YA fiction becomes more and more edgy, I include fewer warnings in my reviews. However, Love and Other Theories contains lots of drinking, drunkenness, teen sex at parties and in cars (although sex is not described in any detail), nasty jokes about girls and their sex lives, plenty of f-bombs and more. I didn’t find any of it offensive except in that, as I stated, it was often snarky and witchy.

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Mature Readers, Over 375 pages, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment