Book Review: One of Us is Lying

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McManus, Karen M. One of Us is Lying. Penguin Books, 2017.

I’ve noticed an emerging trend in Young Adult literature—the use of multiple narrators. I’ve seen this form completely flop if the speakers lack a unique voice or if the differing stories are too scattered and lack cohesion.

Karen McManus’ One of Us is Lying is an excellent example of an author who uses multiple narrators effortlessly.

Detention is full one fateful afternoon at Bayview High School; Bronwyn, Cooper, Addy, and Nate all find themselves held after school for an offense they didn’t commit. Also staying for detention is Simon, the infamous creator of About That, a Bayview based gossip website. As Simon delivers his usual quips and insults, he takes a swig of water and then collapses to the floor in anaphylactic shock. The four remaining students frantically search for his EpiPen and summon help to no avail. Simon is transported to the hospital where he is later pronounced dead.

When the police suspect foul play, the newly coined “Bayview Four” are prime suspects. Particularly damning is a queued-up entry to About That revealing secrets belonging to all four students. The murderer was someone in the room—but who? Was it Bronwyn, the studious perfectionist who may not be as squeaky clean as she seems? Or Addy, beautiful and popular and nursing her own share of guilt? How about Cooper, a burgeoning baseball star who is desperate to hide his true identity? Or Nate, the Bayview bad boy with an extensive rap sheet?

McManus is an expert in characterization. Each member of the Bayview Four is unique and deals with their share of hardship. Particularly poignant is the breaking of stereotypes. Addy, away from the influence of her controlling boyfriend, becomes athletic and independent. Nate, a drug dealer who doesn’t seem to think deeply about anyone or anything, dotes on his pet lizard. This book serves as a good reminder that, no matter how idyllic someone’s life might seem on the outside, no one truly knows what another person is dealing with.

One of the few flaws in One of Us is Lying is found in many other books that elect to use multiple narrators: the amount of characters can quickly become confusing. There were several characters I confused throughout my read—Leah and Jenae, for example, or Luis and Jake.

Excerpts from One of Us is Lying would be a great way to teach the characteristics of mystery and literary suspense. Students who are looking for a well-written novel that keeps them engrossed from start to finish will relish McManus’ novel.

Book Review: Truly Devious

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Johnson, Maureen. Truly Devious. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

So much of my life takes place at school. There are some weeks where I feel as though I’ve spent more time within the cinderblock walls of my classroom than at home with my husband and dog. Because of this, I’m often attracted to books where the action unfolds within a school—the Harry Potter series, for example, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.

I can now add a new—and fabulous—book to that list: Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, the first book in a forthcoming series.

Ellingham Academy is a unique boarding school in Vermont, established in the 1930s by the wealthy and altruistic Albert Ellingham. Elaborate and secluded, Ellingham Academy aims to attract gifted students who need more time to focus on their individual gifts—inventions or creative writing, for example. Albert, his wife, and small daughter even live on campus. Albert is a fan of board games and riddles, and believes learning should be more like a game. This comes back to haunt him as both his wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The kidnapper leaves a chilling singsong letter signed “Truly, Devious”. Despite monetary exchanges, Albert’s wife and daughter never return home. His wife’s body washes ashore; his daughter Alice’s whereabouts remain unknown. Although an anarchist is arrested and charged with the crime, most believe the man was innocent.

In present day, Stevie Bell is both nervous and excited to have been admitted to Ellingham Academy. Stevie is a true crime buff—she listens to a large number of crime podcasts, ravenously reads detective novels and criminology books, and is a fan of most detective shows. Her most fervent dream is to someday work for the FBI, and her cold case of choice is the Ellingham case. Her interest in Ellingham Academy is not purely academic—she wants to closely study and solve the crime. But when one of Stevie’s classmates is found dead, Stevie realizes her powers of deduction are needed in a different way. Is the killer among Stevie’s classmates? Will Stevie make progress in solving the Ellingham kidnapping case?

I am usually not a fan of mysteries, but Truly Devious pulled me in immediately. Ellingham Academy is a brilliant setting—visually idyllic but with a dark past. Albert, too, is something like Willy Wonka in that his properties are full of hidden passages and tiny intricacies. And though Stevie is both gifted and brave, she has moments of vulnerability and anxiety that soften her character and make her relatable. The mystery aspects of the novel, too, were nicely paced and believable.

My only real complaint about Truly Devious was that there was a broad cast of characters and keeping track of the students and faculty often made me want to take notes of my own. The adults, especially, were only sporadically mentioned, and I often had to go through the book to remind myself of which teacher was being referenced.

Still, I was enthralled by Truly Devious and am now eagerly awaiting the sequel. Many students are passionate about crime and forensics, and I can foresee this novel being popular choice among the student body. The novel also touches on topics that are worth discussing—fame, plagiarism, and political disagreements.

Book Review: Juliet Immortal

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Jay, Stacey. Juliet Immortal: A Novel. Ember, 2012.

Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is the most fun I have during the school year.

I love assigning roles to my students, having them act out the various fight scenes with foam swords, and helping them uncover all of the hidden meanings and double entendres found within the text. I’m a sucker for any Romeo & Juliet retelling—from West Side Story to the children’s cartoon Gnomeo & Juliet. I was powerless, then, to the novel Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay.

In Juliet Immortal, Shakespeare’s play is not fiction, but a romanticized and warped retelling of actual events. Romeo and Juliet did fall in love in Verona and marry impulsively; however, Romeo killed Juliet as she awaited him in the tomb in order to gain immortality. Juliet’s spirit goes to work for the Ambassadors of Light, inhabiting the souls of others across centuries and bringing soulmates together. Romeo works for the Mercenaries, dark spirits who try to convince soulmates to kill one another in exchange for the same immortality.

Juliet has awakened in the body of Ariel, a teenager of the 21st century with physical and emotional scars. Via glowing auras, Juliet realizes that she is to bring together her best friend Gemma and a haunted boy named Ben. But Juliet’s own feelings for Ben threaten to derail her mission and the rules of the spirit world. Romeo, too, has returned to the same era, inhabiting the body of Dylan, one of Ariel’s schoolmates. Who will win this struggle of good versus evil—Romeo or Juliet? Will Juliet ignore her feelings for Ben and complete her mission? Are the goals of the Ambassadors of Light and the Mercenaries as clear as they seem?

The premise of Juliet Immortal is an intriguing one as Romeo, the Nurse, and various Ambassadors and Mercenaries can inhabit any body of their choosing. Anyone in Juliet’s new world, then, could quickly turn into an enemy. The suspense is palpable, and many of the fight scenes and moments of violence felt appropriately climatic.

To my disappointment, Juliet Immortal did not satisfactorily mirror its source material. As readers of Romeo & Juliet know, the Nurse is a lively character in the play—raunchy, dimwitted, and incredibly funny. The Nurse in Jay’s novel is an extremely flat, almost robotic character, and I would have loved to see some of her traits from the play carry over. And while Juliet’s immaturity and impulsiveness result in her death in both the play and the novel, she doesn’t appear to have learned her lesson in Juliet Immortal. Her feelings for Ben bloom as quickly as her feelings for Romeo, and some of Ben and Juliet’s proclamations of love were much too corny.

I’m not certain that Juliet Immortal would be an appropriate book to read with a class in its entirety. The violence in the text is graphic and disturbing. Still, Jay’s book would be suitable for a classroom library, and a great recommendation for a mature student who is hesitant to leave the famous star-crossed lovers behind.

Book Review: Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index

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Israel, Julie. Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index. Kathy Dawson Books, 2017.

I select books in many different ways. I heed recommendations from my co-workers and students, pay attention to the covers I see on my Instagram feed, and check out the new releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is perhaps the first book I’ve selected based on its title alone. I was immediately curious—what kind of name was Juniper Lemon? What was a happiness index? I was excited to receive the book for Christmas so I could begin reading and find out.

Juniper, a high school junior, is grappling with life following the abrupt and tragic death of her older sister Camilla. There are holes everywhere Juniper looks: her parents are quiet shells of their former selves and teachers and adults are awkward and bumbling in her presence. Perhaps most devastating, Juniper’s former best friend, Lauren, has drifted away simply because she doesn’t know how to handle Juniper’s grief. Juniper carries on a tradition that Camilla instituted—a daily “happiness index”. On an index card, she writes the positives and negatives from that day, with an overall rating from one to ten. Since Camilla’s passing, most of these ratings have been dismal. But a discovery gives Juniper a renewed sense of purpose. She finds a handwritten break up letter from Camilla to a mysteriously addressed “YOU”. Juniper is puzzled—to her knowledge, Camilla wasn’t seeing anyone at the time of her death.

As Juniper attempts to untangle the mystery of the breakup letter, she also must begin her friend circle anew. More discoveries lead to her befriending the often-bullied Kody and the dreamy Angela. A new student, Nate, also strikes up a friendship, though Juniper struggles to understand his motives. Most surprising, Juniper finds herself enjoying the company of Brand, the resident school bad boy who spends most of his time in detention or vandalizing property. With the help of her new friends, will Juniper be able to find the “YOU” her sister was addressing? Will the resolution of this mystery alleviate her grief? Will she find a way to heal her family and keep Camilla’s memory alive?

I found this novel particularly poignant in its portrayal of grief. Anyone who has ever suffered a deep personal loss will likely agree that Juniper’s account is painfully accurate. The most heart-wrenching moments were unintentional—for example, a teacher starts to ask if Juniper is Camilla’s sister before remembering Camilla’s death and awkwardly stopping herself. The characterization of Juniper and Brand Sayers was particularly strong. Juniper is vulnerable, devastated, but darkly funny. Brand is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the entire novel, a layered character who carries his own share of sadness.

In a largely perfect novel, I only wish that two of the characters—Nate and Morgan—were given detailed characterization as well. Nate is important, but his role in the book nearly diminishes as the story unfolds. And Morgan, the resident school bully, is thoroughly mean and flat. She even pokes fun at Camilla’s death, a taunt that is overheard by adults who do not intervene.

Overall, Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is well-written and gritty and sure to be loved by teenage readers. As silly as it may sound, I thought the book could perhaps aid students in journaling. I loved how Juniper kept track of each day and rated them accordingly. This could perhaps inspire students to create indexes of their own and write about the highlights and disappointments of their day-to-day life.

Book Review: The Love that Split the World

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Henry, Emily. The Love That Split the World. Razorbill, 2016.

Kentucky isn’t a glamorous state. The weather changes frequently–you can go to work sporting a cardigan on a frigid morning and find yourself sweating as the temperature rises at day’s end. While there are certainly beautiful natural landmarks and caves and hiking trails, there are none of the big tourist attractions you might find in other states.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. While I love to travel and experience the bustle and chaos of larger, notable locations, I have a profound love for and loyalty to the Bluegrass State. That’s why I felt both proud and giddy as I began Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World. Set in Union, Kentucky, the novel highlights many Kentucky and Appalachian attributes–rich cultural history, oral storytelling, and strong familial ties–without falling into overused tropes and stereotypes. And the Kentucky native in me squealed at the sprinkling of Kentucky-specific details: mentions of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and Ale-8 One (a soft drink sold only in Kentucky and a small number of surrounding areas).

Natalie Cleary is closing the book on her high school career. While she participates in the traditional parades and Senior Nights that the end of the school year entails, she is also looking to what lies ahead. She has been admitted to Brown University where she hopes to study history and learn more about her heritage. Adopted at birth by doting parents, Natalie is Native American and feels out of place beside her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She is also feeling a lack of connection toward the activities and people she once loved–her ex-boyfriend, Matt, friend Rachel, and her high school dance team.

Natalie’s race isn’t the only thing that makes her feel different. Since childhood, she’s had nightly visits from a phantom–an elderly woman she has come to call Grandmother. Grandmother imparts wisdom in the form of fables and tall tales, and Natalie is comforted by her presence. After a visit with a psychologist, Natalie fears Grandmother has finally disappeared; however, as high school ends, Grandmother reappears with a chilling message: Natalie has just three months to save him. She doesn’t specify who him is, and Natalie is on-edge. Shortly after the visit, Natalie’s world begins to change. Sporadic flashes reveal a second, strikingly different Union than the one that Natalie has known her entire life. While her friends and family exist in the new Union, she does not. While in this new world, Natalie encounters Beau, a boy who does not exist in her world. As she and Beau try to sort out their unique predicament, Natalie is frantic to decipher Grandmother’s cryptic warning. Will she be able to save the mysterious him?

The transition from high school to adulthood is a complex time, and Henry does a fantastic job capturing all of Natalie’s angst and confusion. Natalie wants to maintain relationships with the people and traditions she has come to love while, at the same time, she knows she must assert her own independence and find her place in the world. All the characters are round and multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed NKU professor Alice Chan, Natalie’s twin siblings Jack and Coco, even Natalie’s Saint Bernard, Gus.

While the characterization, imagery, and plot in The Love that Split the World were all fantastic, I often found the rules and nuances of Natalie’s time-bending abilities confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps this will be clearer for readers who are more familiar with time travel fiction or media. In my case, I simply had to accept Natalie’s abilities as the story unfolded.

I would love to introduce this book to my students–positive portrayals of Kentucky are increasingly difficult to find. That aside, this book would be relatable to graduating seniors, adopted students, or anyone who is facing a big transition. The Love that Split the World discusses what it means to love deeply and unconditionally, a topic worth thinking about and discussing.

 

Book Review: Evil Librarian

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Knudsen, Michelle. Evil Librarian. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2016. Print.

During the instructional day, a high school is a lively place. The halls are filled with chattering (or yelling, depending on how close you are to the end of the year), the thud of feet, and the metal clank of lockers opening and closing.

But there’s something incredibly creepy about being in a school alone at night.

Perhaps it’s the long, vacant halls, or the unexpected silence, or the flicker of the red “EXIT” signs. Whatever it is, I’m always determined to make my rare nightly visits as short as possible.

Therefore, a high school is perhaps the perfect setting for a horror novel like Michelle Knudsen’s Evil Librarian.

Cynthia “Cyn” Rothschild is having an ordinary but relatively happy junior year. She spends each school day pining over her long-time crush, Ryan, and joking around with her best friend Annie. After school, Cynthia has finally landed the coveted position of tech director for the school’s drama program. She’s determined to make the sets and props for Sweeney Todd the best they can possibly be.

Annie’s odd behavior, however, momentarily distracts Cyn from the musical. Annie admits to being head-over-heels for the new librarian, a young and attractive man named Mr. Gibson. This crush results in some uncharacteristic and alarming actions—Annie skips class to spend time with Mr. Gibson, and is spacy and unresponsive when outside the library. And she’s not the only one—other students who spend time with Mr. Gibson are also in blank, zombie-like states. Panicked investigating leads Cyn to the cause: Mr. Gibson is not human, but is instead a demon. Cyn knows she must find a solution before her best friend and the rest of the school become soulless monsters or worse. Will she find allies who believe her story? Why are Mr. Gibson’s powers ineffective on Cynthia? And how will this demon invasion affect the highly anticipated school musical?

A premise as over-the-top as the one found in Evil Librarian would certainly be ridiculous had Knudsen not balanced it out with perfectly timed and dark humor. Cynthia is a plucky heroine whose internal dialogue is knee-slappingly funny. It’s difficult, even, to decide what’s more humorous—Cynthia’s frantic lusting over Ryan, or the demons’ excitement over the school production of Sweeney Todd. The characterization, too, is very strong. The demons are deliciously evil; Cynthia and company are brave and determined to save their school and friends.

As with most horror or thriller novels, the book ends with a final showdown. Although Knudsen paints a vivid picture, it’s a short battle that encompasses only a single chapter of a lengthy novel. With so much build up and anticipation, I was left craving more. It’s worth mentioning that there is a sequel to Evil Librarian, so I’m hoping Knudsen will reveal more of the demon underworld in the next volume.

With an abundance of suspense and mystery, Evil Librarian would be a fitting addition to a unit on literary horror elements. Don’t be deceived by the funny moments, either—the book asks some deep questions. How far would you go to save your best friend? What things or people in life are worth the ultimate sacrifice? What hobbies or passions do you turn to when life becomes difficult? Evil Librarian is a fun read—students will alternate between sitting on the edge of their seat and laughing out loud.