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“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.

pact

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"Living Dead Girl" is such a devastating, stark, painful novel that, almost a day later, I'm still thinking about it. This book about a kidnapped, brutalized teen girl renamed "Alice" by her captor is easily one of the best teen novels to come out in 2008. While the subject matter is incredibly heavy, I think (hope) there is a high school audience out there for it.

When we meet Alice, she's been Ray's prisoner for over five years, since he abducted her at an aquarium while she was on a class field trip. After experiencing Ray's sadistic cruelty for so long — Alice has continually been beaten, raped, starved, and isolated — she is dead in just about every way. Alice feels almost nothing anymore, and she has long since had the last glimmers of hope beaten out of her by Ray. At this point, with Alice fifteen and no longer able to meet Ray's twisted little girl fantasies, she knows he will soon dispose of her. Alice longs for that time when she will, at last, be fully dead.

Ray uses Alice to find his next victim, utilizing the same combination of violence and fear that has enslaved her for years. But while Alice is out scouting potential girls in the park, she discovers that, amazingly, some small piece of herself still wants to live — and still believes that's possible.

For a short, spare novel, the impact of "Living Dead Girl" is incredible. Author Elizabeth Scott has made Alice a believable, haunted, tragic character. She withstands years of torment yet is not depicted as an exceptionally brave or stoic girl. Instead, Alice miserably endures, day after day, as just a shell of a person dragging through life. In other words, she exists because that's all that is left for her, which is powerful stuff. When Alice enjoys brief moments of inflicting pain or wielding power over others (a boy in the park, a little girl looking to retrieve a lost notebook), it really drives home the miserable cycle of abuse.

My only complaint — and it's a minor one, I'll admit — revolves around a bit of Ray's back story. Like many abusers of children, Ray has continually threatened to kill Alice's real family members if she ever tries to escape. (Once, long before, Alice made a desperate attempt at freedom, only to be ignored by a store clerk.) The threat reinforces Ray's power over every aspect of Alice's life, and for most abused children, that threat alone is sufficient. In this novel, Ray has actually killed the family of his first abducted girl years after her disappearance. This bit of characterization struck me as patently false. Ray is enough of a monster solely for the horrific ways he treats Alice, making all his threats of future violence credible enough to stand alone. He's also the worst kind of coward, preying on and terrorizing defenseless children. Making him a murderer on top of all this seemed wholly unnecessary.

If you give "Living Dead Girl" a try, please recognize that the story here is quite intense. While the details of Alice's abuse are not gratuitous, what is revealed, even discretely, can be very difficult to read. Mature teens should be able to handle this novel, and I'm sure they, too, will be thinking about it long afterward.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Safe” by Susan Shaw

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Susan Shaw's "Safe" feels to me a bit like a gentler "Speak," perhaps one geared more toward younger girls. The novel begins on Tracy's last day of 7th grade, as she is walking home from a half day of school with her best friend Caroline. An older teen in an orange car grabs Tracy just as Caroline's front door slams, attacks her, and leaves her for dead in the street. In the aftermath of the assault, Tracy spends a summer as a virtual prisoner, afraid to leave the safety of home to visit friends, hike in the woods, or attend her beloved basketball camp. Tracy's dad is super understanding, giving her plenty of support, and even taking her to see a therapist. But Tracy is so closed off from the experience that it takes almost the entire book for her to attach the word "rape" to what happened to her. As the summer passes, we see Tracy struggle with disturbing thoughts, which continue to arise despite all her best efforts to move beyond the rape. Tracy's only real refuge during this time is her piano playing, which is a hobby she didn't much enjoy prior to the attack. During the summer, Tracy discovers a newfound love of music, spending entire days at the piano, practicing, composing new music, and losing herself and her troubles in the notes that she plays.

"Safe" is a short novel that packs quite a punch. There are elements of poetry throughout the book (Tracy cherishes a poem copied from a magazine and repeatedly recites to herself a snippet of an old lullaby), which give the whole novel a quiet, lyrical tone. Tracy's attack is also portrayed very discretely, with no shock value or gratuitous details. Instead, the novel focuses on Tracy repairing the battered part of her spirit, and, as such, the book is ultimately quite hopeful and inspiring. My only criticism, and it is admittedly slight, lies in the fact that Tracy's friends and schoolmates seem remarkably immune to gossip about her assault. When Tracy returns to school, even boys (8th grade boys, mind you) that she barely knows are sensitive and encouraging. Malicious gossip among teens is so prevalent — consider how many times you've recently read a news story on cyberbullying — that creating a world where it doesn't exist at all struck me as patently false. Other than that minor criticism, I have no hesitation recommending this book to middle school readers.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2008 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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“Sins of the Fathers” by Chris Lynch

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Lynch is the author of the summer reading staple, "Slot Machine," so some of you might already be familiar with his work. That book, besides providing an often hilarious view of the conformity of summer camp, also offered a realistic look at a very genuine friendship among three teen boys.

Similarly, at the heart of "Sins of the Fathers" is the strong and often beautiful friendship of three Catholic school thirteen year-olds in Boston. Drew, who narrates the story, is essentially a regular kid: he delivers papers in the morning, loves ice hockey, and occasionally gets in trouble at school. He is also a steady, faithful, and almost fatherly friend. Drew is regularly woken up for late night trips to the river by the nutty, manic Skitz Fitzsimmons and/or the deeply religious, somewhat violent Hector Fossas. Drew, Skitz, and Hector are a "tribe," and it's their fervent belief that if one of the tribe members falls behind, the others must take care of him.

Drew thinks of the three priests who run the Blessed Sacrament school as "the Franchise." One of the priests, who Drew calls "Father Mullarkey," is a newcomer. A huge, music-loving hippie, the Jesuit Father Mullarkey acts like more of a friend to the boys than a stern taskmaster, which clearly sets him apart from the strict and humorless Fathers "Shenanigan" and "Blarney."

As the story progresses, Skitz starts behaving in an even more bizarre fashion, and the once rock-like Hector becomes increasingly sick and distant. Drew is left to try to figure out exactly what's happening to his friends, which may or may not include sexual abuse. Can the friendly Father Mullarkey actually be trusted? Why is Father Shenanigan always at Hector's house? And, if something is going on at the school, what can Drew do about it?

This is a believable, gripping account of friendship, trust, and loyalty. The bond between Drew, Skitz, and Hector is so real that it pulls the reader right into the story. "Sins of the Fathers" is a must-read for anyone, middle school age and higher, who is looking for a memorable book on what it means to be a friend.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2006 in Uncategorized

 

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