Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls

words on bathroom walls cover

Walton, Julia. Words on Bathroom Walls. New York: Random House, 2017. Print.

Although I have read some amazing fantasy books this year, YA contemporary fiction continues to be my favorite genre. As a teacher, there’s nothing more satisfying than locating a book for a student that deals with the same issues they might face in their day-to-day life. I love that today’s contemporary authors don’t shy away from tough topics, including mental illness. A great example of this is Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls, which centers on a teenage protagonist struggling with schizophrenia.

Sixteen-year-old Adam has entered a clinical trial for a new schizophrenia drug, ToZaPrex. This trial requires regular visits to a psychologist, but Adam refuses to engage in conversation during his appointments. He reaches a middle ground with his psychologist: he will answer the doctor’s questions in a journal. Within this journal, Adam chronicles his transition to a new, Catholic high school. Along with typical high school issues—classes, homework, making friends, dealing with bullies—Adam must also deal with the constant presence of his hallucinations. They range from Rebecca, a quiet, reassuring woman, to a group of mobsters who fire weapons into the ceiling.

Adam notices slight improvement while on ToZaPrex, and this is coupled with an exciting development: he meets and begins dating one of his classmates, Maya. A smart and attentive girl, Maya notices Adam’s twitching and grimaces. As their relationship intensifies, Adam considers telling Maya about his schizophrenia, but fear of her reaction keeps him silent. Just when things seem relatively calm, Adam receives some bad news: he isn’t making progress on ToZaPrex, and he will be dropped from the clinical trial. How will the lack of medication change Adam’s symptoms? Will he be able to function during the school day? Will he ever reveal his secret to Maya?

Words on Bathroom Walls is a quick, smooth read. Adam’s narrative voice is authentic, and the reader will feel as though they are privy to his private thoughts and struggles. There is truly no way to read this novel and not come away with a different point-of-view regarding mental health issues. In one of the most poignant sections of the book, Adam compares his life and illness to that of the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Massacre. He knows that his illness will always scare and appall others, and that sort of loneliness and ostracization is difficult to imagine.

There is a pivotal moment in the book when Adam’s illness is revealed to his classmates. Without giving too much away, this scene is described in a quick, choppy manner, and I wanted more clarity regarding such a large reveal. It can be argued that the ambiguity speaks to Adam’s mental illness, but I still wished the entire scene was considerably slower.

Teachers who tackle psychological issues in their curriculum or teach a psychology class will want to check out Words on Bathroom Walls. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about a variety of issues—witch hunts, modern medicine, honesty, blended families, and religion. Students will be drawn in by the easy, conversational language and the vulnerability behind Adam’s tale.

Book Review: Song of the Current (June Uppercase Box)

song of the current cover

Tolcser, Sarah. Song of the Current. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.

Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing.

I’ve never been a big fan of pirate stories. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies admittedly lull me to sleep. Novels set at sea or within a boat have never been my first choice of reading material. So, when I saw a copy of Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current in my June Uppercase Box, I steeled myself for disappointment.

And I’m happy to report I was wrong. Very wrong. Tolcser’s novel is quite possibly the best book I’ve received from Uppercase and one of my favorite reads of 2017 (so far).

Caroline “Caro” Oresteia has spent her life on the river aboard her father’s wherry, Cormorant. She assists her father in delivering cargo and the occasional shipment of smuggled weapons. Caro’s father converses heavily with the god of the river, and Caro hopes that someday she too might have an experience with the divine. In the meantime, Caro’s focus is singular: she wants to take the reins of Cormorant upon her father’s retirement.

Caro’s life changes when she and her father sail into the town of Hespera’s Watch. There, the duo learns that a group of outlaws known as the Black Dogs have destroyed wherries in pursuit of an important piece of cargo. When officials in Hespera’s Watch cannot convince Caro’s father to carry this cargo to the intended recipient, he is jailed. Caro, in exchange for her father’s freedom, decides to sail Cormorant on her own and make the delivery. Caro is given a letter of marque and strict instructions not to open the box she is transporting. But, after a close scuffle with the Black Dogs, Caro can no longer resist—she has to open the box. What is inside? Why are the Black Dogs determined to confiscate it? Will Caro free her father?

Song of the Current’s strengths lie in its pacing and characterization. Whereas most novels that take place at sea tend to feel slow, the urgency behind Caro’s mission keeps the action moving. And Caro Oresteia is an intriguing, multi-faceted protagonist. Her love of the water, fierce loyalty to her family, and desire to converse with the gods will have the reader rooting for her from the book’s very beginning.

There is little to dislike in Tolcser’s tale. Those unfamiliar with sailing (like me!) might struggle with the nautical terminology, though Tolcser’s website contains a glossary. There is also an undefined though clearly burgeoning romantic relationship at the book’s end, and I wanted a bit more clarity. There is a sequel slated for next summer, though, so I’m hoping to receive answers then.

I am excited to recommend this book to my students, particularly those who enjoy novels with lots of action and suspense. Song of the Current makes some great social commentary as well—there are themes of political coercion, class warfare, and revolution. I can only hope that discussing Tolcser’s novel with my students will hold me over until the release of the sequel.

Book Review: Windfall (May Uppercase Box)

windfall cover

Smith, Jennifer E. Windfall. New York: Delacorte Press, 2017. Print.

There are several characteristics that attract me to a novel: an intriguing, unique plot, recommendations from my fellow bookworms, an author whose previous work I have enjoyed, etc. I am often loath to admit that there is one additional attribute that will draw me to a book, something that makes me sound a bit superficial and vapid.

I am a sucker for a pretty cover.

And, in my view, there are few covers prettier—or more interesting—than the cover to Jennifer E. Smith’s Windfall. I’d seen it many times on Instagram: a cascade of blue and green confetti, flecks of gold glitter, and two golden figurines: one a bear, one an alligator. I was overjoyed, then, to see Windfall in my May Uppercase Box. I read it eagerly, hoping to find similar beauty behind the cover.

Alice’s early life was marred by bad luck; her parents died only a year apart. Since then, she has lived in Chicago with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Leo. Though they love and provide for her, Alice finds herself yearning not only for her late parents, but for her home state of California. She hopes to return by attending Stanford University, a college that her mother planned to attend before her untimely death. Now a high school senior, Alice spends her time reminiscing about California, volunteering, and hanging out with Leo and their mutual best friend Teddy.

Alice feels that Teddy’s eighteenth birthday is the perfect occasion to admit her romantic feelings for him. She fesses up in a birthday card and buys him a small gift: a lottery ticket with numbers that are meaningful to them both. Though she panics and diverts his attention away from the card, Teddy does receive the ticket. The next morning, she and Teddy realize that the numbers Alice selected were winners, and after dumpster diving for the discarded ticket, the two realize they are in possession of a life changing slip of paper. Teddy is now a multimillionaire, and he offers to give Alice a hefty share, which she refuses. Saddened by this rejection, Teddy’s attitude begins to shift and he makes unwise decisions. He spends money on frivolous items and is overly generous with his friends and even his teachers. Teddy also refuses to see how he is being manipulated by his father, Charlie, a compulsive gambler who has been absent for years and has conveniently returned to his son’s side. Will Teddy’s good luck destroy his friendships and his life? Will Alice ever admit her true feelings? Will she go off to Stanford and leave it all behind?

Windfall is, at its core, a love story, and the chemistry between Teddy and Alice is strong and believable. They both have shared devastations and disappointments—Alice with the loss of her parents, Teddy with the abandonment of his father. They balance each other out as Teddy is more fun-loving and goofy and Alice is more stoic and purposeful. They protect and support one another, and I rooted for them from Teddy’s introduction onward. Teddy and Alice even reminded me of one of my favorite literary couples: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series.

Romance aside, Windfall is also about becoming your own person away from the shadow of your parents or your past. Alice realizes that she is the creator of her own story and can become much more than the “orphan” label that has haunted the latter part of her life. I was surprised, then, that Alice makes the ultimate decision on where she will attend school based on her proximity to her family and to Teddy. This did not seem like the decision of a girl who was discovering and enjoying her burgeoning independence, though this was just one small thing that irked me in a largely wonderful and entertaining story.

There are lots of great ways to use this book to teach literary elements and symbolism; however, there are also great financial lessons in Windfall. Many of our students (and—who am I kidding?—many of us!) daydream about suddenly acquiring large sums of money. But, like Teddy, some teenagers spend their money impulsively and rarely think about the future. Reading this book can provide many teachable moments about the right way to spend and save. It can also lead to some great discussions about how money can change both the recipient and the people around them. When Teddy first wins the lottery, he is insanely popular and sought after. As time passes, jealousy creeps in and many of his classmates want to see him fail. There is a dark side to wealth, though this might be something students have never considered.

Book Review: Defy the Stars (April Uppercase Box)

defy the stars cover

Gray, Claudia. Defy the Stars. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Print.

One of my favorite new shows last Fall was HBO’s Westworld. If you haven’t seen it, here’s what you need to know: robots that closely imitate humans can easily garner their sympathy.

Also, they can be unnerving. Terrifying, even.

This was in the back of my mind when I received a signed copy of Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars in my April Uppercase Box. I’d encountered lots of snapshots of the book on Instagram (the beautiful cover is fun to photograph) and I knew a humanoid robot featured heavily in the plot. Would he be a pitiable or terrifying machine? I quickly began reading to find out.

Noemi Vidal is a citizen of Genesis, an eco-friendly and religious planet. Genesis became a haven for many Earth residents as their resources and climate began to erode. Because of this, Earth and Genesis are constantly warring with one another. Noemi, a soldier, is planning to take part in a suicide mission that will destroy the gate between Earth and Genesis. During a training exercise that ends in a surprise ambush, Noemi discovers a marooned ship, Daedalus, and a stranded “mech”—or servant robot—named Abel abandoned inside.

This mech, however, is far more advanced than the models Noemi has learned about in her studies of Earth. Abel has a photographic memory, excellent combat and piloting skills, and a sense of humor not seen in many machines. He even inadvertently gives Noemi an idea to save her planet, one that will require him to sacrifice his own life. Noemi, thrilled with this solution, holds Abel as something of a hostage. But, as they grow closer, Noemi discovers that Abel is more human than she had ever imagined. Both Abel and Noemi know that he was built for a great purpose—but what can it be? Will Noemi carry out her plan, saving her planet but destroying Abel? In this planetary war, who will come out on top?

The characterization of Noemi and Abel are Defy the Star’s greatest attributes. From the book’s beginning, readers will root for Noemi Vidal—she’s tough, has a heartbreaking backstory, and thirsts for vengeance. Abel, too, quickly endears himself to the reader. He is, at times, painfully lonely, and tries to understand human emotions and interactions. His matter-of-fact manner of speaking and cheeky arrogance sometimes made me laugh out loud.

Defy the Stars is action-packed—which is a good thing—but my main complaint is that the action rarely slows. In fact, there weren’t many moments of stillness until around page 300 or so, and the effect was dizzying. Those quiet, tender moments between Noemi and Abel were so important in showing Abel’s humanity and Noemi’s changing ideas. I simply wish there had been more of them.

This book would be an excellent way to springboard class discussions or debates about politics, government, and even climate change. In Defy the Stars, Earth reigns over other small, habitable planets, and further dominates in weaponry and wealth. The planet is slowly being stripped of its resources, few plants and crops thrive, and humans tightly pack large cities such as London. It would be interesting to have students consider various “butterfly effects” that would result in such a future, and to brainstorm positive changes they can make in the present to better our world.