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“Badd” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp was a runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award (Young People's Literature) for "The Spectacular Now," his fantastic novel about a teenage alcoholic in extreme denial. Tharp is back with "Badd," another novel featuring an unreliable teen narrator with a precise, rich voice who faces some very serious issues. While "Badd" lacks the charismatic lead and disarming buoyancy of "The Spectacular Now," it is still a compelling read.

In a hot summer in a small town, high schooler Ceejay McDermott is playing paintball with her crew, crushing on her friend Tillman, and counting the days until her idolized older brother, Bobby, returns from the Iraq War. Ceejay is a tough, no-nonsense girl. From her descriptions, her steely reserve and bad ass approach to life are nothing compared to Bobby. Before he left for Iraq, Bobby was a wild, charming tough guy willing to (literally) fight for the little guy and raise plenty of hell along the way. When Ceejay spots Bobby in a car weeks before his planned return, she and goth girl best friend Brianna track him down to a stoner buddy's apartment. Turns out Bobby was discharged early for drug possession. The vacant man who has returned home — at times enraged, skittish, and lost — is nothing like the brother Ceejay remembers. Bobby is jumpy and troubled, freaks out at the smell of grilled meat, has flashbacks of exploding IEDs and dead friends, and numbs his pain with booze, drugs, and women.

Inexplicably, Bobby soon hooks up with the town's most eccentric resident, Captain Crazy, a man who lives in a trailer surrounded by huge sculptures designed to ward off evil spirits. The Captain lost his own brother back in Vietnam, so despite his childlike exterior and odd behavior, he knows full well the heartbreak of war. Bobby recognizes something of himself in the Captain — or maybe finds in the Captain something worthy to protect — and so, despite encountering scorn and negativity, embarks on a mission with the Captain to build a flying contraption (an "aero-velocipede") named Angelica.

Too weird? Maybe. "Badd" is a strange juxtaposition of gritty reality — the town people's casual drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and infidelity; the wasting death from cancer of Ceejay's grandma; Bobby's post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior; the Captain's mental illness — and fanciful notions of unseen good forces, a misfit revolution, and the redeeming freedom of flying unfettered through the sky. I'm not entirely sure it all meshes together, and I haven't even touched Ceejay's growing romantic relationship with Padgett (Mr. White), a sensitive, compassionate teen who wears all white as a sign of hope.

Perhaps if the character leading us through this story was more open or displayed some more vulnerability, "Badd" would've had a stronger impact on me. But Ceejay is so blankly inexpressive and so unwilling to examine her own pain and fear that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of the story. Yes, Ceejay's voice is strong and clear and I know exactly who this rough, brave girl is. She bullies Brianna, beats up a drunken lout, worships her heroic brother, hides her true feelings, and is convinced in her heart that she will never be pretty, popular, or loved. That's a deeply rendered character. She just never fully grabbed me. So while I liked how Ceejay's own issues color her views of and decisions toward Bobby and his behavior, I simply could not connect with her, even in her softer moments with Padgett or younger sister Lacy.

None of this is to say that "Badd" isn't a good read. It is. Bobby is so traumatized and lost that I couldn't help but get pulled into his suicidal descent and fragile recovery. As bizarre as it is, Bobby's relationship with the Captain, full of sacrifices and kindness, is touching and believable. I wanted them both to survive. I was even glad to see Angelica soar across the sky, as this sweet if somewhat pat conclusion felt well earned. I guess I just hoped (er, expected) a bit more from the great Tim Tharp. In the end, although "Badd" never reaches the transcendent heights of "The Spectacular Now," it's a still an intense, worthwhile book.

PS – "Badd" is definitely intended for a high school audience. We're talking about loads of strong language, ample drug and alcohol use, sexual references, and the kind of painful emotional distress that is probably best suited for teen readers.

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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Shine” by Lauren Myracle

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Thank you Net Galley and the good people at Abrams / Amulet Books for the electronic galley of Lauren Myracle's forthcoming teen novel "Shine." Author Myracle is probably most well known for her bestselling IM-speak "Internet Girls" series. In "Shine," she gives us a powerful, evocative novel of a small southern town's secrets.

As the book begins, we're in a rural North Carolina town shortly after the brutal beating of Cat's former best friend, Patrick. Patrick, a charming, easy going teen, was closing up the local gas station / quickie mart when he was pummeled with a baseball bat and left unconscious with a gas nozzle taped inside his mouth. While Patrick lies in a coma, Cat begins searching to discover what really happened. As the town's only known gay resident, Cat believes that Patrick was the victim of a hate crime; the local sheriff, however, wants to blame the attack on outsiders and make the whole mess disappear. During her investigation, Cat confronts older brother Christian's friends — obnoxious Tommy, goodhearted Beef, and drug addled Dupree — as well as Wally, the local meth dealer, and some of his clientele. She also befriends Jason, a local college student who knew and respected Patrick, and learns that Patrick had a secret boyfriend, who may have played a vital role in his attack.

I loved the sense of danger surrounding Cat's investigation. Myracle does a superb job of depicting a secretive, oppressive town with unspoken rules, enforced silence — she finds a severed cow's tongue in her bed — and a toxic subculture of drug and alcohol abuse. This strong undercurrent of violence and drugs, of a sweltering town in a hot summer just waiting to explode, informs everything Cat does. Add to this the fact that Cat has been harboring a secret pain of her own, and you get this constant, creepy tingle of foreboding … which is exactly what you're looking for in a mystery. When a brave Cat rides her bike out to a forest-shrouded meth lab, I truly felt afraid for her. Ok, I will fess up fully: I actually had to stop reading! The town itself, with its bigots, dropouts, and lost, broken people, is so clearly presented that it almost serves as an additional character in the book.

I also really liked the layered portrayal of religion here. Cat's Aunt Tildy drags her to church, where the local ladies are mostly self-righteous and gossipy, and where Patrick's "lifestyle" is condemned. But religion is also shown as a source of comfort and strength, as when Cat recalls the Bible blessing about the Lord's face shining upon you. Indeed, this story is as much about Cat's journey toward finding her own voice and spirit again — her personal shine, if you will — as it is about solving the mystery surrounding Patrick. [Side note: at an Abrams' presentation I attended last November, this book was still entitled, "Speechless." "Shine" is, in my humble opinion, a much better choice.]

Similarly, the characters are developed in nuanced, believable ways. When we first meet Jason, he comes off like a rich, hateful brat, which couldn't be further from the truth. Stoic brother Christian, whom Cat has resented for his aloofness for years, becomes a friend and protector. Even the vile Tommy, who hurt Cat years before, may not be as awful as he first appears. I could give five more examples of this sort of slow unfolding of a character's true nature, which is a testament to Myracle's writing skills. Because so much of this story involves finding the truth beneath people's exteriors, this careful method of presenting folks "from the outside in" works beautifully.

I do have a complaint, though, and it's a fairly big one. I had and have the nagging sense that there is just far too much going on in this story. It's part mystery, part social commentary on abuse and addiction, part love story, part coming of age tale, part discussion of hatred toward gays and the self-loathing that may come with being different … is that one too many parts? The story feels crammed full of varying threads and issues, not all of which fit neatly together or within the flow of the story itself. I found myself wishing for just a little less. If this book was more streamlined, the issues presented here, and the dramatic turns surrounding them, would have even more of an impact.

"Shine" comes out in May 2011, and it's clearly geared toward the high school crowd. (Abrams is recommending 14 and up, which, based on the content and language, seems appropriate to me.) This is definitely one of those books that will stick with you for awhile, and I think it's well well worth reading. Please keep a look out for "Shine" in the spring.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Blank Confession” by Pete Hautman

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Pete Hautman is the author of the National Book Award winner "Godless," as well as last year's super popular (well, at least at Kinnelon Library!) "How To Steal a Car." In his latest teen novel, "Blank Confession," Hautman relates the story of high school student Shayne Black, who walks into a police station one night and confesses to murder. The story is part mystery, part character study, as we slowly discover more about secretive newcomer Shayne and his escalating tensions with drug dealing bully Jon Brande. While there's a real level of implausibility here — which, incidentally, I came to accept! — this is a powerful book about abuse, power, and responsibility.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with a third person narrator giving us insight into Shayne's long confession to Detective Rawls, while Shayne's lone friend, the part Haitian, suit-wearing Mikey Martin, fills us in on the back story. Seems that Jon has been dating Mikey's flighty older sister, Marie. Jon forces Mikey to hide a bag of drugs in his locker, which Mikey has to ditch in the boys' room when police sweep the school. After Jon beats up Mikey and demands a $500 replacement fee, Shayne intervenes. Mikey is his friend, and he wants to stand up for him. As importantly, Shayne has drifted through a lot of schools (he tells varying stories of who his parents are and where he came from). Bullies like Jon violate Shayne's code of ethics, and he simply cannot let them act without challenge. So, despite being outnumbered — and facing a psychopath! — Shayne intervenes, with disastrous personal consequences. For although Shayne has a steely toughness and some wicked martial arts moves, he's no match for Jon and his testosterone-laden buddies. Shayne's sense of responsibility for Mikey and his meth-using sister ultimately leads him to a violent encounter at Jon's party.

"Blank Confession" is written in short sentences and has a rapid pace. I can easily see it holding the attention of even the most reluctant reader. And Mikey is a great character. While Shayne can seem a bit removed with his stoicism and quiet courage, Mikey is a witty fireplug; he's fun to be around, even as his situation becomes ever more precarious and his actions more dangerous. Other characters have unexpected depth as well. We clearly see how Jon became so violent and ugly, while also discovering, in a surprising fashion, that one of his thuggish pals has more heart than expected.

My only gripe with this novel lies in the fact that it may be hard to buy Shayne as a roving crusader, a kind of lone wolf traveling from town to town, saving people. He's a teenager, for cripe's sake! Where is he staying? Who is paying for his clothes and food? How is even registering for school with no documents? As I mentioned above, I was able to put these issues aside and just enjoy this short, compelling story of honor and sacrifice. "Blank Confession" is a great book for boys, in particular, as it is chuck full of believable male characters and engrossing action sequences. I'd recommend this one for older middle school readers; there is some level of violence and drug use here, although none of it felt gratuitous to me. Give "Blank Confession" a try. I think you'll be riveted by it!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Spectacular Now” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp's "The Spectacular Now" was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (please click here to read an interview with Tharp on the NBA website). After reading this almost stream of consciousness peek into the last few months of one teen guy's senior year of high school, I can definitely see why. "The Spectacular Now" is authentic, lively, and ultimately disturbing in a way I can't identify.

Sutter Keely is the senior guy in question, and he's quite literally the life of the party. Sutter is so precisely portrayed that I understood exactly who he was. You know that charming, exuberant, scruffy, kinda lovable screw-up that girls always think they can tame or protect or somehow fix? That's Sutter. He can talk to anyone, making that person feel special and magical for those few moments in his spotlight. He's all about fun and adventure and maybe even a little danger. Sutter's problem? He's also a closeted, mostly functioning alcoholic ("god's own drunk," as he says), driving around Oklahoma City with a Big Gulp 7UP generously laced with whiskey. Sutter drinks constantly, from the time he wakes up right on through the day, even getting loaded for his job at Mr. Leon's men's clothing store and before a dinner at his uptight sister's house. Sutter's easy, natural charisma helps deflect many of the consequences of his drinking, and he's in full-on denial mode about any other problems it might be causing. See, Sutter's all about "embracing the weird," and he's hit on something so many anti-drinking crusades miss: drinking can be a lot of fun. That's why kids do it. So while we as readers see all the scary issues raised by Sutter's drinking, he thinks he's living it up right in the moment. In the spectacular now.

Sutter's life is already careening pretty far out of control when he meets the shy, nerdy, sci fi geek Aimee. Well, "meet" might be too strong a word for what actually happens. Sutter blacks out after a night of drinking, waking up to discover that he's in an unfamiliar neighborhood — sitting on someone's front lawn! — and being roused by a quiet newspaper delivery girl. Sutter initially takes on Aimee as a kind of project, thinking he can boost the confidence of this gentle, meek girl and really do something right in his life. Along the way, he learns that Aimee is pretty spectacular herself, despite — or perhaps because of — her love of horses and Commander Amanda Gallico and her unquenchable, maybe naive capacity to dream big dreams. Unfortunately, Sutter, in "helping" Aimee, also introduces her to the lure of near-constant drinking. All this leads to a climax that is touching, real, and unexpectedly sad.

I'm not entirely sure this book will be fully appreciated by its target audience of high school age readers. As a (cough) somewhat older reader, I recognized Sutter's character and knew exactly how pathetic he'd be with another 10 or 15 years of "partying" under his belt. While Tharp capably conveys this very point when we meet Sutter's estranged dad in Fort Worth, I'm still not convinced those without the life experience will fully appreciate the utter depth of Sutter's impending decline.

Regardless, this is a real "wow" kind of book. Sutter's voice is so compelling that I felt like I was strapped into some sort of amusement park ride run amok. That's what the narration of his life feels like. You will absolutely root for this terribly flawed but well-intentioned guy, who will disappoint you and surprise you in equal measure. Plus, Sutter's relationship with Aimee is so hopeful and tragic (at the same time!), that it's reason alone to read this outstanding novel.

Please know there are lots of drinking (well, duh!), drug, and sexual references here. Even beyond that, I think the somewhat subtle nature of this story lends itself more to high school age readers. Finally, although my description here might make "The Spectacular Now" seem like a dull "issue" book, nothing could be further from the truth. The great feat of this novel is how it manages to make self destruction seem so incredibly attractive. Truly, although it may sound odd, this is an energetic, almost bouncy story of one boy's slow descent into real despair and heartbreak. It is definitely worth reading.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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“Burned” by Ellen Hopkins

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Ellen Hopkins is the bestselling author of such novels in verse as "Crank" and "Glass." If you're confused by the term "novel in verse," think of it as a story written as a series of poems. Probably my favorite teen verse novel is Virginia Euwer Wolff's brilliant "Make Lemonade," but there are literally tons of other choices, including "Hard Hit" (baseball and grief), "Shark Girl" (a surfer girl's survival after amputation), and "Sold" (a Nepalese girl sold into sexual slavery in India, reviewed here).

"Burned" is the first Ellen Hopkins novel I've read, and I have to admit to being pretty disappointed. While her talent in constructing and crafting the individual poems is breathtaking — truly, some of these poems are works of art — the overall story is unconvincing and, I hate to say it, melodramatic.

As the story begins, high school junior Pattyn is living in a fundamentalist Mormon household with her abusive, alcoholic father, a lazy, beaten-down mom, and six younger sisters. Pattyn is burdened with the responsibilities of her church and family, so she's as startled as anyone when she starts dreaming and fantasizing about a hot classmate, Justin. Quicker than you can blink, our girl — originally portrayed as a free thinker, but one who is shy and bookish — is swilling tequila in the desert, fooling around with Justin's friend Derek, and getting violent at school. After her half-crazed father learns of Pattyn's antics, he ships her off to rural eastern Nevada to spend a summer with his estranged sister Jeanette.

Now, if you're like me, you might wonder why Pattyn's dad would set her loose with his unconventional, independent sister — a sister he disowned years before — just as Pattyn is questioning church doctrine and acting out in increasingly destructive ways. Yeah, doesn't make much sense, right? Hrm. Next thing you know, Pattyn meets another hottie — college sophomore and cowboy Ethan — and they soon fall crazy in love, complete with naked swims and passion and the whole deal. Because this story is exactly as cheesy as you might suspect, Pattyn gets pregnant (because a college veterinary student has never heard of the morning-after pill? shame!), returns home to Carson City, and then desperately tries to run off with Ethan, all with disastrous consequences. Be thankful I haven't mentioned Aunt Jeanette's background or the wholly improbable turn her life takes.

I won't give much else away, but if you've seen even one single episode of "General Hospital" or "Days of Our Lives," you'll be able to predict every single plot turn in this ill-conceived story. Too many of the characters are cardboard cutouts, including Pattyn's horrifically evil dad and the super-sweet and caring Ethan, that you may want to cringe. I hate to give a book a bad review, particularly when, as I mentioned, the craft of the poems is extraordinary. Plus, the book reads quickly and Pattyn, at least, is a compelling, complex character. But I think "Burned" is just so messy, ridiculous, and ultimately irresponsible that I cannot recommend it. If you feel otherwise, please let us know.

PS – If you decide to read "Burned," please know that it is most definitely a high school book, with lots of drinking and sexual situations.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

In the interest of full disclosure, let me first say that I had the hardest time getting into "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." I thought the book was a little slow in the beginning as it introduced Arnold Spirit, Jr., a Spokane Indian afflicted with childhood brain damage. Arnold ("Junior" to his Native American friends and family members) lives on a reservation with alcoholic parents and a sister who hides in the basement. His best friend, Rowdy, is a violent, short-tempered bully. Arnold himself gets beat up on a pretty regular basis by teens and adults alike. Despite — or maybe because of all this — Arnold can envision a better life for himself, one free of the alcoholism, poverty, and hopelessness that afflicts so many of his fellow tribe members.

As his freshman year begins, Arnold makes a brave decision to leave the backward reservation school for Reardan High School, an exclusively white school located 22 miles from his home. Once Arnold begins attending Reardan, the pace of the book — and my own interest level — picked up considerably. Yes, as you might suspect, Arnold initially gets picked on by other students who view him as a freak because he's (a) Native American, and (b) a skinny geek with thick glasses. But Arnold is able to break through all kinds of stereotypes by challenging a bully, befriending the most popular girl in class, studying with a fellow smart nerd, and even joining the basketball team. Arnold's newfound confidence in himself helps him to excel at basketball, and he even leads the Reardan team in several crucial battles against the reservation school. The longer Arnold attends Reardan, the more he becomes a new, stronger, but possibly "less Indian" person.

The book is narrated by Arnold in short, spare, easy-to-read paragraphs interspersed with cartoons depicting various aspects of Arnold's life. Author Sherman Alexie is a poet, and there are some really beautiful, heartfelt descriptions that will literally make you stop everything and re-read them. That's the unexpected and ultimately satisfying thing about this book; Arnold can go from being a gross, foul-mouthed, immature teenager to someone who can share all his pain and sorrow and hopes and fears in truly special ways. So while you might start off disliking Arnold, just as I did, I have a feeling he'll win you over with his great combination of grit, humor, and honesty. Plus, this is one of the few teen novels that explores in any level of depth life on a reservation, so for that reason alone, it might be worth checking out. For fans of comic-style novels, and for anyone looking for a funny, touching, quick read, this will be a good choice. Since there's lots of rough language, I'd recommend it for boys and girls high school age and up.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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“Raiders Night” by Robert Lipsyte

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

For older teens (due to the themes and language here), "Raiders Night" is a great book about the underside of high school athletics. Matt Rydek is the senior co-captain of the Nearmont High Raiders football team. He's also a member of the "Back Pack," a group of football players who lift weights and shoot steroids at a local gym. The story begins at the very end of the summer, just as the Raiders are about to leave for a five-day mini camp.

Matt is, quite frankly, a mess. He's the team's star player — in fact, one of the best in the area — but his entire life has become about football. Matt's dad is a former player and current caterer who pays for his son's steroids, pesters him constantly, harasses officials, obsessively compiles lists of scouts and colleges, and generally puts a world of pressure on the teen. Matt is cheating on one girlfriend and ignoring another. He pops the painkiller Vicodin like it's candy, hides a flask in his duffle bag, and occasionally walks (and drives) in a complete stupor. While he's clearly falling apart carrying the weight of his teammates', community's, and father's expectations, Matt is actually a pretty good kid. He's just often too overwhelmed to challenge those around him.

During "Raiders Pride Night" at the preseason mini camp, Matt's co-captain, the loud, abusive, and completely underhanded Ramp, takes a freshman hazing prank way too far. Chris, the transfer student who is the victim of the prank, goes from being a flashy, confident player to a shell of himself; he misses practices, stays home from school, and avoids his teammates. Matt soon realizes that the team's coaches, boosters, and even some of the parents know about the hazing, but all choose to ignore it so the team can continue to thrive. Matt is faced with a choice: betray his teammates and reveal the truth, or keep quiet and watch a young man self-destruct.

As I said in the opening, this is a gripping book about the negative effects of all the hoopla surrounding high school sports. There is tons of sports action here, both in the Raider practices and games, that football fans will surely love. Matt is also a very real teenager, a believable combination of "big man on campus" and decent guy. Author Lipsyte weaves many issues throughout the story (drug and alcohol abuse, casual sex, parental demands, sexual abuse, etc.), but none of them overwhelm the story. This is ultimately a compelling story about one teenage athlete's attempt to do the right thing. "Raiders Night" is strongly recommended for high school age readers.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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