Category Archives: you think you’ve got problems?

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

serpent-kingPeople often talk about “wrestling with vipers” as a metaphor for dealing with difficult people or situations.  And, while Dill has had to face down plenty of “vipers” at school, he has also come face-to-face with actual poisonous snakes in his father’s Pentacostal church.  After his father was sent to prison — not for endangering the welfare of his congregation with snake handling and poison drinking, but for charges of child pornography — Dill’s life only got more difficult.  He and his mom had to figure out how to run their household and tackle the family debt without their main provider…  And Dill’s mom literally blamed him for his father’s imprisonment.  On top of the fact that his mom actually thought he was to blame, sharing his father’s name seemed to make the townspeople think he shared his father’s penchant for perversion.  Thank goodness Dill had two good friends, Lydia and Travis, who stood by his side regardless of how the rest of the community treated him.

Other than hanging out with Lydia and Travis, Dill’s only escape was through music.  And he even had to keep that a secret, since the only music his parents found acceptable was Christian music.  (His ability to create so-called Christian explanations for the names of bands and artists was masterful, though, so he still managed to listen to bands like Joy Division.)  The problem was that escaping into music and spending time with his friends weren’t helping as much anymore, since his senior year was being overshadowed by fear of the future.  How could he possibly manage after Lydia went away to college — especially if she started to forget about him?  Would he and Travis still be as good of friends without Lydia in the mix?  And would he ever find a way to truly make himself happy while he still felt compelled to “honor his parents” and work to pay off their debts instead of going away to college to plan for a better life for himself?  If you enjoy reading novels by John Green, A.S. King, and Sara Zarr, I highly recommend you check out Jeff Zentner.

Happy Reading!

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This Is Not a Love Letter by Kim Purcell

not-a-love-letterJessie thought that she and Chris needed a break.  Just for a week.  Just to get a little perspective before graduation.  Chris seemed to think they should get married right away, but she thought he was wrong.  Why?  Because Chris was being scouted for a full-ride baseball scholarship and could likely end up playing in the big leagues.  She thought that she would just weigh him down, regardless of how often he told her that she would only make his life complete.  And she was pretty sure her own college and career aspirations would not work out if she followed Chris off to college, since his school didn’t have the environmental conservation major she had her heart set on.  Besides, she wasn’t really sure what she could truly offer him since she thought of her upbringing as “white trash” and was embarrassed to even bring him into her home, which was dangerously full of her mom’s hoarding piles.

When Chris disappeared, though, Jessie had to find the courage to speak out about the secrets Chris had been keeping and to dig deeper.  She knew that Chris had been jumped a few weeks prior, by some other local baseball players who accused him of only getting a scholarship because he was black.  Even though she told the police about how they had used hate speech while they attacked him, and that she was concerned that those same guys were involved in his disappearance (since he was running in that same area when he disappeared), the police seemed content to think he ran away.  After all, those other guys came from good families and had an alibi for the night in question…

Every week, Chris had written Jessie a love letter.  As she struggled to work through her emotions and to try and figure out what happened to Chris, she decided to write him a letter of her own — but she insisted that it was NOT a love letter.  If he wanted a love letter, he would need to come back to her.  This book would make a great conversation starter about racism, mental health, friendships/relationships, communication, and more.

Happy Reading!

When I Am Through with You by Stephanie Kuehn

when-i-am-through-with-youI am NOT the kind of person who enjoys spoilers, and I *never* flip to the end of the story to sneak a peek… but I somehow really enjoy stories that start out telling you how things are going to end and then go back to the beginning to show you how it all went down.  I had forgotten the synopsis of this story when I started reading, and it started out innocently enough.  Ben was talking about how he and Rose came to be a couple — with her basically picking him and telling him she was going to be his girlfriend.  A little abnormal, but not scandalously so.  I am a sucker for love stories, although I was pretty sure the title meant they had broken up, but then it became clear something had happened to Rose.  She had died in some tragic way, and Ben’s story was going to tell the reader how it happened.  What I wasn’t prepared for, nevertheless, was when Ben ended the first chapter asking, “So why’d I kill her?”  Say WHAT?!?

I was recently talking with a colleague about Nancy Pearl’s “four doorways” into the book — characters, language, setting, and story — and I think this book had all four but story was my primary doorway.  I was sucked right in because I just had to know more about Ben and what could compel him to kill the girl he claimed to love, let alone claim that he wasn’t sorry, felt absolutely no guilt, and was not looking for absolution.  I especially liked how we got to glimpse into Ben’s past to see how he had been shaped by both the injury and tragedy of his childhood to become the young man he was when this story took place.  If you are a fan of mysteries that don’t follow a typical crime show formula, you should check this one out.

Happy Reading!

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

when-i-was-the-greatestGrowing up in Bed Stuy, NY, meant being surrounded by a lot of “bad” stuff.  Ali knew about the criminal activity all around him — from fencing stolen goods to prostitution to dealing and using drugs — but he wan’t into any of that.  His thing was boxing, hence his nickname.  It wasn’t because he actually liked fighting or anything, though, but because he liked training.  In fact, Ali wasn’t really into sparring at all and didn’t do particularly well in the ring.  Aside from boxing, he mostly just wanted to hang with his friends, Noodles and Needles.  Obviously, those are not their real names, but I’ll let you read the book to get the back story of how they got those nicknames.  I will also leave most of the plot out of this review because I don’t want to spoil anything.  Just know that there are plenty of teachable moments about family, friendship, loyalty, and choosing to rise above your surroundings.

I think what I liked the most about this story was how the author acknowledged the seedier side of urban life without glorifying crime and violence.  Much like Greg Neri’s Ghetto Cowboy, this book laid out all the best reasons kids should aim higher and also showed that it is possible to come back from bad choices instead of simply giving up.

Happy Reading!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

turtles-all-the-way-downSome people seem to think that money can buy happiness, but I’d be willing to bet that Davis Pickett isn’t among them.  Not only could money never replace Davis’ mother, but the existence of his father’s fortune actually complicated all of his relationships.  His father was distant, always consumed with work, and Davis was never sure whether potential friends actually liked him or his money.  Being rich, as it turns out, had made him very lonely.  And then, to top it all off, his father disappeared the night before a police raid on his home related to a fraud and bribery investigation.  All sorts of old “friends” came out of the woodwork in hopes that they could collect a reward for information leading to the capture of the fugitive billionaire.  And though Aza technically ended up at Davis’ home as a result of her friend Daisy’s plan to try and capitalize on the reward, a spark of their earlier friendship remained and quickly rekindled. 

The two had met years before at a summer camp Aza called Sad Camp, since they both had a parent who had died, but Aza was sure that Davis wouldn’t remember her.  As it turned out, though, he remembered all sorts of details about her — like the fact that she suffered from anxiety-induced thought spirals, had a perpetual injury on the pad of her middle finger [because of a compulsion caused by her thought spirals], and loved Dr. Pepper.  Perhaps that spark was more than just friendship?!?

I will never cease to be amazed by how well John Green captures the essence of being a young adult.  He not only captures the unique blend of abstract thinking, idealism, and self-discovery that keep me coming back to YA, but he accurately depicts the mental health struggles, like depression and anxiety, many young adults face.  “True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice in the matter.”  His characters are relatable without being too cliche.  If you have enjoyed John Green’s other books, you will likely enjoy this one too.  And, if you have never read anything by John Green, what are you waiting for?!?

Happy Reading!

I Was Here by Gayle Forman

i-was-here“I regret to inform you that I have had to take my own life.”  That was the beginning of the letter Cody received from her best friend, Meg — sent via email, with a time delay to ensure that her suicide had been completed before anyone could try to stop her.  In that letter, Meg went on to apologize for the pain she knew she would cause the people who loved her but also to explain that she saw suicide as the only way to end her own pain.  Something else she said in that letter, nevertheless, led Cody to question what actually led Meg to kill herself.  She found it nearly impossible to believe that she had no idea her best friend would want to kill herself, and she set out to uncover the truth of whether this truly was a suicide or whether Meg had been somehow coerced.

I read this book a while ago, but actually forgot that I had read it when I was recently browsing through “available titles” on OverDrive…  All I remembered was that I had loved Gayle Forman’s writing in If I Stay and Where She Went, so I checked it out.  As I listened to it for a second time, though, I started to recall bits and pieces of the plot and felt compelled to keep listening in case there was anything else I had forgotten about the story.  Then it hit me that this would be a perfect book to share when #SuicidePreventionAwarenessMonth and #BannedBooksWeek overlapped.  Not only does this book inspire readers to think about and look for the possible warning signs of suicide, but it also helps to create a better sense of empathy for people who struggle with mental illness.  Rather than calling people “cowards” or “selfish,” we need to recognize the sense of helplessness that mental illness creates.  Hopefully, books like this will lead to a more open dialogue so that we can work to #EndTheStigma.

Happy Reading!

The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone

unlikeliesSadie was more than prepared for a boring summer.  Her best friend was going away to work at a summer camp and she was going to work at a farm stand selling fruits, veggies, and $12 chunks of cheese to “citiots” who were on their way from NYC to the Hamptons.  Then, something completely random happened.  When a drunk and belligerent man pulled in to the farm stand, Sadie became a bit of a hero.  Rather than let him drive away with his toddler screaming and crying in the back seat, Sadie physically stopped him from leaving.  It wasn’t all that simple, though.  As she struggled to take away his keys, she actually had her head smashed off a toolbox and ended up with a major concussion and a terrible scar to show for her efforts.  Video of her daring deed went viral and she was nominated for an award at a “homegrown heroes” luncheon that honored local teens.

Though they would have been unlikely to come together on their own, these teens felt an instant connection and decided to start hanging out as a group.  Before long, they were working together to take down internet trolls while leaving care packages for the people who had been bullied.  I don’t want to give away too much, but I think it’s fair to say that their good deeds soon escalated with the help of a generous benefactor.  Though I was glad to see a book featuring brave and generous characters from a wide variety of backgrounds (both ethnic and socio-economic), I have concerns about the dangerous situations into which these teens placed themselves and can only hope that readers will know better than to emulate those particular acts of heroism.

Happy Reading!