Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2007)

Rating: 4/5 

Reviewed by R

One of the downsides to being a book reviewer for an actual publication is that I spend most of the time reading what somebody else tells me to read. And given that I’m not one of their elite reviewers, I rarely receive the best of the best. So it is with a sigh of relief I completed my most recent batch and breathed in the freedom of being able to read what I wanted for the rest of the summer. I immediately picked up Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, oft cited as a modern YA classic.

Clay Jensen comes home to find a package with no return address. Inside are seven cassette tapes with each side numbered from one to thirteen. He pops in the first tape to discover that they’re from Hannah Baker, a girl at his school who committed suicide a few weeks ago. In the introduction, Hannah voice explains that she has broken her story down into thirteen sections, each one focusing on a different person who had played a role in her decision to end her life. She goes on to explain that the only people who are receiving the tapes are the thirteen people in her story.

So it is, Clay listens to Hannah’s story and waits for his appearance.

Obviously, the first thing that stands out about this story is its structure. It operates with a simultaneous narrative, threading together excerpts of Hannah’s recordings with Clay’s thoughts, reactions, and experiences while listening. And Asher pulls it off beautifully. This approach creates an immediacy that places the reader in Clay’s shoes. His emotional reactions occur alongside ours, and we wait just as nervously as he does to hear about the unintentional consequences of his actions.  

It should go without saying that this is a disturbing story. But in my opinion, those are the best kind. Not disturbing in the gory, perverse, or creepy kind of way; disturbing in a way that disrupts routine. It will make you reflect upon how you have hurt people and how you have been hurt. It will make girls reconsider saying stuff about other girls. It will make boys confront their sexism. It will make adults look out for warning signs in teens.

My only issue with the story is that the author doesn’t just hit you over the head with the theme—he bludgeons you to death with it. The idea that our actions may affect others in profound ways is repeated ad nauseam. It was a powerful story that could have spoken for itself. A little more subtlety and this might have been a 4.5 or a 5 for me. 

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  • 5 days ago
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No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people.

Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher
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  • 5 days ago
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The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (2012)

Rating: 4.5/5

Reviewed by W

About a year ago a student picked up The False Prince in my class, read it, and said to me something to the effect of: Oh man, this is like the best book ever, have you read it? You should read it! You’re gonna love it! Taking his advice to heart, I promptly remembered I needed to teach things, and forgot about it until a few weeks ago. I read it, and I really liked it.

The main character: Sage (not the greatest name, but let’s roll with it). Sage is a proud and independent thinking orphan in the kingdom of Carthya which is teetering on the brink of civil war.  Sage is taken by Conner along with three other boys (sickly Latamer, boastful Rodin, and the academic Tobias) because they look like the lost prince of Carthya—the only one who claim the throne. Conner’s plan is to train them all to be the prince, have them take over the crown, and then pull the political strings after he kills the other three who don’t make the cut.  Conner worries Sage is too defiant, but we struggle with our hero to see if he makes it through to the end.

This book isn’t going to change lives. It’s not deep like To Kill a Mockingbird or anything, but it’s fun in a YA Dan Brown kind of way.  It has intrigue, jokes, swords, politics, murders, attempted murders, danger and double-crossings.  The author has included tons of plot twists to keep up the pace of the book, and I didn’t want to stop reading this. It’s a well-thought premise, with developed (if somewhat one-dimensional) characters, and a concept that would make a great reality TV show. 

The book is worth the effort and filled with snarky snippets of conversation that contain a good bit of wisdom besides.

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  • 1 week ago
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  • 1 week ago

A person can be educated and still be stupid, and a wise man can have no education at all.

 Jennifer A. Nielsen, The False Prince
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  • 1 week ago
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Caged Warrior by Alan Lawrence Sitomer (2014)

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewed by R

McCutcheon (aka “Bam Bam”) Daniels is a rising star Detroit’s underground cage-fighting scene—no thanks to his scumbag father’s subpar training. Instead, McCutcheon’s motivation to train and practice several times a day comes from his desire to get his little sister out of the ghetto. His success as a fighter is their ticket to a better life.

Or so he thinks until a teacher notices McCutcheon’s hidden intelligence and fixes a lottery drawing so that he’s given a spot at a prestigious charter school (more on this in a moment). Though resistant at first, McCutcheon’s infatuation with the girl who gave him the tour of the school combined with his increased awareness of the seediness of the fight scene eventually leads him to consider the offer for real. Of course, the aforementioned scumbag father—who makes a killing off his son’s victories—is not so eager to let McCutcheon walk away from the sport.

I’ll start with my criticisms.

There’s a horrible flaw with the inciting incident that bugged me to no end. As far as I know, as an educator and as someone with some knowledge of the education system, there is no such thing as the kind of hybrid charter/private school that is depicted in Caged Warrior. Maybe a voucher system is close, but they certainly wouldn’t be given away in a lottery with only a handful of winners, as it happens in the story. I realize that this is a very minor point that a vast majority of readers won’t even notice. But still.

I was also bothered (as I often am with urban literature written by authors who probably did not grow up in the kind of community they’re writing about) by the oversimplified depiction of a sensationalized ghetto. Urban lit authors, take note: Not everyone who lives there is bad. They are not all gangsters and drug dealers. Not everything is horrible and decrepit. And at the other end, not everyone who lives in the suburbs is good and perfect. A fancy school and a pretty, rich girl is not the answer to everything.

Finally, his name: McCutcheon. We can’t even get an explanation?  

If you’re still reading, you might be wondering why I gave Caged Warrior a 3.5/5, which is a decent rating. It’s because despite its flaws, this is a well-told story. Sitomer writes the action scenes with vivid, raw language; I felt invested in the characters—I rooted for McCutcheon and hated his father; and the suspenseful plot had me burning through the pages. 

It’s not a knockout, but it’s a win. 

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  • 2 weeks ago
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  • 2 weeks ago

Basically, the world is hard. And to survive, you just gotta be harder.

from Caged Warrior by Alan Lawrence Sitomer
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  • 2 weeks ago

The Lure by Lynne Ewing (2014)

Rating: 3/5

Reviewed by R

There’s a special place in my heart for urban literature since I live and work in the inner-city, so I’m always glad when the good people over at The Horn Book send me something to review like The Lure by Lynne Ewing.

The Lure is about a teen girl named Blaise (aka “Toughness”) who has grown up within a broken home in a violent section of Washington, DC. Seeking safety and a sense of belonging, Blaise and a couple of her girlfriends join the notorious local gang called Core 9. At first, Blaise revels in the sense of power and respect afforded by being a member, but, of course, reality soon sets in.

At one end, there’s the fallout between her friends when one refuses to join and another becomes a sexual tool for the male gang members. At the other end, the gang’s leader starts using Blaise (post-makeover) to bait his enemies which puts her in increasing danger. And for good measure, there’s also a love triangle with Blaise and two of her male friends in the gang.

I previously wrote about what I think makes a good YA urban novel, but since I know clicking takes a lot of work, here’s the gist of it:

  1. Respect for the community as evidenced through a realistic portrayal of the bad AND the good.
  2. A character-driven story focusing less on the street drama and more on its impact on the protagonist. 
  3. An authentic voice that allows dialogue to sound genuine.
  4. A story that speaks for itself rather than being didactic.

The Lure falls halfway between good literature and urban melodrama. I give it positive points for quality writing. The language is vivid and poignant, and the plot unravels skillfully. The protagonist makes decisions most readers probably wouldn’t agree with, but they feel organic, and I felt for her throughout her story.

On other hand, I did not feel there was any real understanding of the inner-city of Washington, DC. The setting was depicted stereotypically: ghetto = bad. The author makes it feel like you’d catch a bullet just driving through this neighborhood, and I have a visceral reaction to such sensationalism.

The voice and dialogue are a toss-up. Told in a first-person POV, Blaise possesses a vocabulary and syntax far beyond her character’s abilities, which might bother some readers. The dialogue does not employ dialectical spellings and abbreviations, but I don’t think it has to. It’s more important to me that what the characters say feels genuine to who they are, and I believe it does.

While this is not a shining example of urban literature, I think it is a story many of my students would enjoy. 

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  • 3 weeks ago
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  • 3 weeks ago

I feel the difference…I’ve lost what I was. I’m nothing now.

The Lure, by Lynne Ewing
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  • 3 weeks ago

SYLO (2013) and STORM (2014) by D.J. MacHale

Rating: 2.5/5 (Note: The following is a combined review of the first two books in the series.)

Reviewed by R

I love me some good sci-fi. Throw in a bit of mystery and you should get a pretty fascinating and intriguing story, right? That’s what SYLO—and its sequel STORM—promise, but fall short of delivering.

The mystery begins in SYLO when Tucker’s teammate suddenly drops dead in the middle of their football game. After some investigation, Tucker discovers that the kid had taken something called “The Ruby” in order to enhance his physical abilities. But what is it exactly? (Spoiler: It’s not steroids. Supposedly.) The mystery deepens when SYLO, a secretive branch of the U.S. Navy, quarantines the quaint island community after attributing the death to a contagious disease. But something seems fishy, so Tucker once again investigates, this time with the help of a few trope-y friends (the nerd, the jock, the ditzy girl, and the independent girl).

STORM picks up with Tucker and (most of) his friends having just escaped the quarantine. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot of this second book in the series considering that would require me to reveal some spoilers from SYLO, but suffice it to say they are on the road trying to evade capture and save the world.  

I’ll start with the good: there’s a lot of action and suspense. Kids who like the Alex Rider or CHERUB series may enjoy SYLO because of all the things that blow up (eventually). There’s also a nice twist at the end, as there usually is with MacHale’s sci-fi. 

Now onto the bad.

The first major problem I had with this story is the writing. Maybe it’s because it’s targeted for middle grade instead of YA, but MacHale includes so much unnecessary explanation, explicitly stating things the audience should be able to infer easily. For example, a character might say something like, “Shut up, Tucker!” and then the narration will follow up with a line like, “He seemed really upset with me.” If you cut all of these kind of lines, the books would probably be two-thirds their current length, and would be much tighter stories.

My other qualm with the series is that it’s unfocused. You have the thing with the Ruby and the thing with SYLO. The two eventually intersect (albeit mildly), but I couldn’t shake the feeling the author had two cool ideas he tried to force together. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but I found that STORM falters similarly.The result is a stilted narrative that often made me glance down to see how many pages I had left.

STRIKE, the third and final installment in the series, will be released this October, but I’m fairly certain you can expect more of the same. 

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  • 1 month ago
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  • 1 month ago

Wars are fought for many reasons: religion, power, land, riches, prejudice…name a basic human conflict and you can bet that a war was fought over it. But what was the issue here?

SYLO by D.J. MacHale
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  • 1 month ago
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