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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 — it’s not at all outdated thematically.]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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“How to Save a Life” by Sara Zarr

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

Author Sara Zarr, a National Book Award finalist in 2007 for "Story of a Girl," is back in October with her third novel, “How to Save a Life.” The nice people at LB Teens gave out advanced copies of "How to Save a Life" last May at Book Expo. At LONG last, I finally got a chance to read this beautifully written, at times heartbreakingly lovely book.

Less than a year after her father’s accidental death, Jill MacSweeney has completely shut herself down from the world — from her still grieving but positive mother, from her patient boyfriend Dylan, from her old best friends at school. With her dyed black hair, gobs of dark eyeliner, and bulletproof attitude, Jill has effectively armored herself against the pain of living. Or so she thinks. The one place where Jill still can muster up some of her old kindness and warmth? At Margins, the local chain bookstore where she works part-time.

Jill’s life is about to change radically. Her mom, Robin, has decided to adopt the unborn baby of an Omaha teenager who contacted her on the Internet. Mandy, with her fluffy blonde hair, polyester dresses, and naïve ways, seems horribly out of place in hip Denver. Yet here she is, spending the last months of her pregnancy living with Jill and Robin. Jill, who is vehemently opposed to the open adoption Robin has arranged, either ignores Mandy or scolds her for the slightest perceived violation. Mandy, meanwhile, is a socially awkward, terribly lonely girl starving for some compassion and love. She is utterly lost. (Mandy’s letters to her former seatmate on the train west from Omaha — a man who clearly wants nothing to do with her — perfectly show her vulnerability and awkwardness; they are a wonderful device.)

We soon discover that Mandy is a whole lot tougher than she first appears, as we learn more about her shrill, uncaring mother and her mom’s abusive boyfriend, Kent. Kent had been raping Mandy for months before she left and is likely the baby’s father, yet Mandy still had the courage to steal his gold watch, arrange the open adoption, and leave for Denver. Once she has the baby, Mandy hopes to start a new life by pawning the watch and somehow locating Christopher, the Native American boy she met on one glorious day at the state fair.

As Mandy’s due date draws near, she increasingly doubts her decision to give her baby up. Can Robin be trusted when all other adults have failed her in the past? Would Mandy make a terrible mother, like her own mom? At the same time, Jill begins to thaw slightly from a tentative friendship with Ravi, the gentle loss inspector for Margins. But is life even worth living again when the old Jill is gone forever? I’d rather not give anything away about the conclusion, which is unexpected (and, to be honest, a bit pat). Part of the joy of this novel is discovering what path Jill, Mandy, and Robin ultimately end up walking upon together.

Mandy and Jill each narrate their stories in alternating chapters, so we get tremendous insight into their motivations, fears, and hopes. Jill knows she should follow her father’s old advice to “try a little tenderness” sometimes, but she’s too wounded and frightened to fully believe in anyone — or herself — again. Mandy, raised by a mom who constantly reminded her she was an unwanted burden, hopes for something better for own daughter, yet fears that surrendering her might not be the best choice. Both of these characters are so resilient and brave in their own ways that their small triumphs — Mandy trusting Robin enough to reveal Kent’s abuse, Jill exposing her pain to Ravi and daring to live again — are a joy to read. We want to root for these complex, flawed, yet hopeful girls. By novel's end, we feel like we've come to know them so well. How could we wish anything for them but happiness and peace?

Zarr is a wonderful, lyrical writer. She is a master at depicting small moments of raw emotion and painful revelation. Some of these scenes delight the reader, some make us squirm away, yet they are laid bare here, in all their stark authenticity: the perplexed discomfort of Mandy’s train companion; the excessive politeness of Dylan toward a fragile Jill; Jill’s reflexive anger (and profound regret) toward Mandy and Robin; Mandy’s tentative efforts to console a sobbing Jill, second guessing herself all the way; Robin’s heartfelt embrace of Mandy after learning of the abuse; Jill’s moments of unbridled hope with Ravi. These scenes are imbued with such incredible depth and feeling that they are — sometimes in equal measure — beautiful and wrenching to read.

“How to Save a Life” is, in the end, a joyful, expertly crafted novel exploring the concepts of family, friendship, hope, trust, grief, and love. Calling this an “issues” book about teen pregnancy or parental loss does a huge disservice to this thoughtful, touching story. It is so much more. FYI, regarding content, there is nothing graphic or gratuitous here — no drinking or “onscreen” sex — so I’d say students in 7th grade and higher should be fine. "How to Save a Life" will be published in October. Be sure to look for it then.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Before I Die” by Jenny Downham

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I recently read Chris Crutcher's "Deadline" (reviewed below), which tells the alternately funny and touching story of a dying teen's last year on Earth, during which he triumphs, finds love, and struggles to accept his fate. How strange, then, to find another "teen dies of fatal illness" novel published mere months after "Deadline," one which also follows the same general plot line. Is this the new wave in teen fiction?

It's unfortunate to have to compare the two books, but it's natural — isn't it? — to measure one slowly fading teen's story against another. Essentially, "Before I Die" is "Deadline" set in England with a female lead character and an overall harder, more abrasive edge. Tessa is dying of leukemia, and when this fact becomes clear, she embarks on a somewhat misguided effort to fulfill a list of things to do before she dies. Tessa has a very authentic voice, and she acts, sounds, and talks like a real teenager. This means that Tessa can be petty, spoiled, petulant, and selfish. As such, this also means that Tessa can be a tough character to like and support at times. Her behavior is often so self-destructive (sex with a stranger, diving into a filthy river on a whim, shoplifting, fleeing a hospital stay, etc.), that, while you may in theory want to support a character who is trying to squeeze all life's experiences into a short window of time, you can't help but be annoyed at her antics. Even worse, Tessa's dad is portrayed as so steady, caring, and long suffering that it's difficult to separate Tessa's desire to live and create memories from the awful effects of her behavior on poor dad.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews recently named "Before I Die" one of the best teen books of 2007, and it's easy to see why. Author Jenny Downham has a lovely writing style, and she's able to nicely intersperse descriptions and observations that feel like bits of poetry into Tessa's account of her final year. I thought the second half of the novel, after Tessa opens herself up to her neighbor Adam, loses and regains love, and watches angrily as her health rapidly declines, was quite beautiful to read. Downham is able to create real emotion at Tessa's end, but not in a saccharine or falsely sympathetic way.

Most likely, girls will be drawn to Tessa's story, and I have no problem recommending it to high school readers. There is an abundance of serious subject matter here — death, sex, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy — so it's definitely a story for older teens. If you give it a try, let us know what you think.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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“Slam” by Nick Hornby

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Nick Hornby is a British author pretty well known for his novels about guys in relationships. Movies were made out of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," and his non-fiction soccer novel "Fever Pitch" was transformed into an American movie about the Red Sox. "Slam" is Hornby's first novel for teens, and it's a bit hit and miss.

Here we have Sam Jones, a British teen who loves skateboarding and almost literally worships Tony Hawk. Sam has memorized Tony's autobiography so that when he talks to Tony's life-size poster in his bedroom, he imagines Tony answering with passages from the book. Sam is an unexceptional student, although he is interested in graphic design; he prefers to spend his time skating and trying out new tricks with Rubbish and Rabbit or just hanging out at the small apartment he shares with his young mom. At a party, Sam meets Alicia, a very beautiful girl from a well-to-do family who attends a different school. Regular guy Sam — to his own shock — quickly wins Alicia's affections, and before long the two are in a pretty intense relationship. Unfortunately, the relationship sputters out, and Sam starts ignoring Alicia's texts and calls.

On his 16th birthday, just when Sam thinks he's finally done with Alicia for good, she drops a bombshell. Alicia is pregnant, Sam is the father, and she wants to keep the baby. At first, Sam freaks out and runs away to a rundown seaside resort. He soon returns to break the news to his mom and face the consequences. From there, we see Sam struggle uncertainly and rather poorly with love, fatherhood, and responsibility.

I'll be the first to admit that on picking it up, I had no idea "Slam" was about teen pregnancy. I honestly assumed it was a skateboarding novel, and while there is much talk of skating, it's certainly not the focus of the book. In that sense, I was disappointed. I also thought that very little happened throughout much of the novel. Indeed, after Sam returns from his seaside misadventure, the book seems to grind to a halt. There is much talk about fatherhood and a lost future and sacrifice and how Sam's life will change. Sam spends a great deal of time hashing all this out in his head while still mostly avoiding acting at all like an adult. To me, it felt like the same conversation repeated over and over again. While I'm sure Sam's unsettled reaction to becoming a teen dad is quite realistic, all this angst, thinking, and worrying doesn't make for the most lively novel. Finally, there is a plot device in which Sam is transported, possibly by the Tony Hawk poster, into three separate points in his future. For me, this magical element undermined the entire story, as it was jarring and felt entirely false.

On the plus side, Sam, who narrates his own story, has a great voice. I mean this in the sense that he sounds like a real teenager, he's engaging to the reader even when he's being stupid, lazy, or weak, and he's just all around a cool person to follow through a story. While Alicia often comes off like a shrill, desperate girl, Sam remains a compelling, likable character. I guess, in the end, I'm lukewarm at best on my recommendation of this novel. I will note that it's definitely geared toward high school students, since there is, as you might imagine, much talk about sex and adult relationships, and some foul language as well.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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