Bang

Every once in a while, I come across a book that I know is going to wreck me. Sometimes, all it takes is a look at the cover or a glance at the description to realize that I better get the Kleenex ready. That’s what happened with Bang by Barry Lyga.

When Sebastian Cody was four years old, he did the unthinkable. He shot and killed his baby sister. It was an accident, but that event changed everything. It broke up his family, and it made Sebastian into a pariah. Everyone knows him as the kid who shot his sister.

It’s now ten years later, and Sebastian has nearly reached his breaking point. He’s certain it’s almost time for him to end his pain. He can’t escape what he did to his sister, but he can escape this life. He’s almost ready. Almost.

When his best friend, Evan, goes away for the summer, Sebastian is sure that he won’t see his friend again. He’s going to end his life, and nothing is going to stop him. His plans begin to change, however, when he meets Aneesa.

Aneesa is unlike anyone Sebastian has ever met. For one thing, she’s Muslim, which already makes her unique in his extremely white bread town. For another, she doesn’t know anything about Sebastian’s past. To her, he’s just Sebastian, awkwardly funny guy who charms her parents and makes delicious pizza.

Sebastian and Aneesa become fast friends–and partners in a pizza-making YouTube venture–and it’s almost enough to make Sebastian forget his plans. Could he possibly move past what happened to him all those years ago? Does he deserve friends and a future after what he did? He’s starting to think it’s possible.

But maybe all of the positive stuff in Sebastian’s life is too good to be true. After all, no one will ever let him forget his past. Even Aneesa’s friendship isn’t enough to blot out the pain. Can anything help him to move on, or is Sebastian fated to end his life the same way he ended his sister’s?


Like I said, this book wrecked me…so much so that I’m finding it difficult to write as much as I typically do. It is an outstanding piece of realistic fiction, and it’s sure to keep readers eager to turn the page. Yes, some of that enthusiasm could be morbid curiosity–will Sebastian end his life or not? But I’m hopeful that most people will want to keep reading to see if Sebastian finds his way through the darkness. Maybe they need to see him find a glimmer of hope so that they can seek their own measure of peace.

Aside from the deep stuff in Bang–and it does get pretty intense–I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it made me hungry. Not something you expected in a book like this one, right? Well, when you read about Sebastian’s epic pizza creations, you’ll probably feel the same way. After reading the descriptions of his pizzas, Papa John’s just won’t cut it anymore. I’m not inspired to make my own pizzas or anything–I hate to cook–but I may have to venture beyond the traditional after this book. When I wasn’t using tissues to dry my tears, I’m pretty sure I was using them to wipe away drool. (Can you tell I’m on a diet? Is it too obvious?)

I’m not sure if Bang is a good fit for a middle school audience, but I definitely recommend it to YA readers. It’s a powerful book, a quick read, and it makes readers think about differences, friendship, forgiveness, and redemption.

To learn more about Bang, visit author Barry Lyga’s website or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr.

Vigilante

For those of you who’ve read and binge-watched Thirteen Reasons Why and are looking for something similar, I suggest you give Vigilante by Kady Cross a try. This book, which was released a couple of weeks ago, made me so mad that I could scream, but it also made me want to fight back against a society that shames victims while excusing their attackers. I’m not advocating taking things to the extremes that the main character in this book did, but I can certainly understand the appeal. When you feel like nothing is being done, sometimes the only thing to do is to take the situation into your own hands.

Everything changed after the party. The party where Hadley and her best friend, Magda, went their separate ways. The party where Magda was drugged and raped by four “good boys,” and the shameful act was posted to social media. Months after that party, despite all of the physical and video evidence, those “good boys” remained free, and Magda had to live with what had been done to her.

Hadley tried to be there for her friend, but Magda was slipping farther and farther away.  Soon, she would be completely out of Hadley’s reach. The pain and humiliation became too much for Magda, and she ended her life. Now, Hadley is starting her senior year of high school without her best friend, and she has to sit in the same classes with the boys who destroyed her world.

Numb since her friend’s death, Hadley finally begins to feel something again when she gets the chance for a little revenge. At a party, one of Magda’s attackers is left passed out and alone. Hadley takes that as her cue. She writes “rapist” on him in Magda’s lipstick and posts a photo of the guy–using his own phone–to every site she can. Her classmates take care of the rest.

After the photo goes viral, Hadley decides to take things a step farther. Donning a pink ski mask and using her martial arts training, Hadley begins to go after the other guys who raped her friend. Along the way, she encounters (and stops) more attempted sexual assaults. Finally, after so long feeling like she failed her friend, Hadley is doing something that makes a difference…something even the cops can’t seem to manage.

But things are getting far more complicated than Hadley ever envisioned. Taking punches is becoming all too commonplace for her. People are starting to suspect that she is the person the media has dubbed “Pink Vigilante.” And the very guys she’s targeting are putting their own target on Hadley. She knows what they did to Magda. What more would they try to do to her?

Even as her quest for revenge threatens to overtake her world, Hadley simply can’t stop. No, she won’t stop…not until every one of Magda’s attackers has paid for what they’ve done. She’ll deal with the consequences of her actions when she’s finished, but she has to see this through.

Will Hadley find justice? Or will her desire for vengeance lead to her own destruction? Find out when you read Vigilante.


As I sort of mentioned at the beginning of this post, I do not advocate violence or taking the law into your own hands. That being said, I couldn’t help but cheer for Hadley as she put a hurt on the horrible guys she encountered. She refused to accept that she and the other women around her simply had to be victims, so she did something about it. Yes, many of her actions were questionable (and illegal), but others were inspirational, like getting involved in self-defense classes, finding a group of girls to watch each others’ backs at parties, and calling people out–even her own mother–for victim-blaming.

Aside from Hadley, one of the characters in Vigilante that I particularly liked was Detective Davies. This woman was involved in Magda’s case and was disgusted by how it turned out. She taught Hadley’s self-defense class and encouraged all who attended to band together. She told them how to fight, and, at a school assembly, she gave the single most important way to stop sexual assault and rape. Don’t sexually assault or rape anybody. Full stop. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if a girl (or guy) is drunk, wearing revealing clothing, or strutting around naked. She’s not asking for it. No excuses, fame, or family money should be enough to erase sexual assault. (I’m thinking of quite a few public figures as I type this.)

I do think Vigilante is suited to a mature teen audience, but many of its themes need to be discussed with girls–and boys–as early as middle school. While this book may not be the best fit for middle grades, I urge you to seek out others that may be more age-appropriate.

If Vigilante sounds like the book for you, I also urge you to read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (obviously), Some Boys by Patty Blount, All the Rage by Courtney Summers, and The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney.

For more information on author Kady Cross, visit her website.

Finally, if you or anyone you know has experienced sexual assault and you need help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. You can also go to RAINN.org for more information.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

My latest read has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and I finally picked it up this weekend. I finished reading it yesterday after work, and I’m still sorting out my feelings on it. My initial reaction, though, is that I love it, and I wish it had been around when I was in high school.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is not what I would call an easy read, though the pages seem to fly by. It deals with some uncomfortable–even horrifying–situations, many of which adults would like to imagine teens don’t think about or deal with. This book treats those situations in a realistic way and gives a look into the mind of a teenage boy who is essentially at the end of his rope.

This book also does something that all excellent books do. It makes the reader think. (Some people seem to be uncomfortable with this as well. Just take a look at the current political climate in the U.S.) My hope is that readers–both adult and young adult–will look at this book and examine their own attitudes toward those who may be considered outcasts, weirdos, loners, etc. One never knows what someone else is going through, what drove them to this point, or how they often wish for someone to acknowledge their pain.

Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It’s also the day he’s going to die. After he’s said his goodbyes today–to the only people who really matter to him–he’ll kill his former friend, Asher Beal, turn his grandfather’s gun on himself, and “shuffle off this mortal coil.”

As Leonard goes about his day, readers gradually begin to understand what is driving Leonard’s actions. They see how his parents have all but abandoned him. They see how he’s treated at school. They see how Leonard doesn’t think or act like most other kids. Most importantly, they see just what happened between Leonard and Asher Beal. Leonard has very good reason to hate Asher, but does that reason warrant Asher’s death…or Leonard’s?

The moment of reckoning grows closer, and Leonard must decide if he’s going to follow through with his plans. Will he actually use his grandfather’s gun to kill Asher and himself? Is there anyone who will notice that Leonard is a truly desperate young man? Will he reach out to someone and seek the help he needs? Is there any hope left that things will ever get better? I’m afraid you’ll have to discover those answers yourself…


I think that anyone who’s ever felt misunderstood, isolated, or excluded will, in some way, identify with Leonard Peacock. (This may not be a welcome realization for a lot of adults. I submit that those adults have either forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, or they bear some responsibility in making others feel like dirt.) Readers may not have gone through exactly what Leonard did–though some most certainly have–but they may recognize and sympathize with Leonard’s feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and apathy. By encountering these feelings through fiction, maybe those readers can begin to work through some of the issues troubling them and begin to seek help. On the other end of the equation, perhaps this book will help others realize that they never really know how their actions–or inactions–influence those around them.

I’m going to stop now before I say too much (even though I may have already done that). If you’d like to learn more about Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and other novels by Matthew Quick, check out the author’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

My Heart and Other Black Holes

I’ve now read four of the twenty books nominated for next year’s South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, and I’m sensing a theme. Three of the four books I’ve read deal, in some form or fashion, with suicide. That includes my latest read, My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga. (The other two books are The Last Time We Say Goodbye and All the Bright Places.) I don’t know if any of the other nominees deal with suicide, but I’m kind of hoping for something different as I continue to make my way through the list.

Moving on…

My Heart and Other Black Holes is a good book, and the author definitely captures what it feels like to deal with depression. Both of the major characters are extremely sympathetic, and it’s easy to see why they feel the way they do.

Aysel has two interests: physics and planning her own death. After her father commits a heinous crime, Aysel feels like a pariah in her town, her school, and even within her own family. She’s scared that whatever demon had hold of her father is also inside of her, and she wants to end the pain before she causes even more.

Aysel worries that when she finally does decide to end it all that she won’t be successful, so she looks for a suicide partner on a website called Smooth Passages. She finds that partner in Roman, a boy in a nearby town who is battling demons of his own.

Roman has a deadline for his suicide. April 7th, the one-year anniversary of his little sister’s death. As long as Aysel is willing to do the deed on that date–and not flake out on him–he agrees to be her partner.

So these two very different teens begin to meet and discuss the details of their joint suicide. What neither of them expect is to become friends. Aysel finds that in talking about her depression and her feelings of worthlessness, the load that is weighing her down feels a bit lighter. She hopes that Roman feels the same way, but it seems like his load is still too heavy to bear.

As April 7th draws closer, Aysel becomes more convinced that suicide may not be the answer. Maybe her heart isn’t a black hole. Maybe she can put the past behind her and find a way to convert all of her potential energy into something real. But can she help Roman to do the same? Is it possible for Aysel and Roman to look toward the future when the past still has such a vicious hold on them? Can someone so broken be saved?


Like I said at the beginning of this post, author Jasmine Warga definitely gets what it feels like to be depressed, and that comes through My Heart and Other Black Holes. As someone who’s dealt with depression since my teen years, I appreciate that, and I wish I’d had books like this when I was younger.

As a wannabe science nerd, I also enjoyed all of the physics talk in this book. I especially liked that this talk was coming from a Turkish girl. Even Aysel’s thoughts on the physics of death were interesting to read and think about. And ultimately, this interest in something leads to her having some semblance of hope for the future.

All that being said, I do have a couple of issues with this book. One issue is the lack of closure between Aysel and her father. There are hints at the end of the book that a big meeting between the two is coming, but I wanted to see it. I wanted Aysel to confront her father, ask him why he did what he did, and get some clarification regarding his own mental health. I think that would have gone a long way in providing Aysel with the answers she desperately needed, but neither she nor the reader gets those answers.

My biggest issue, though, is with Aysel’s miraculous recovery. That sounds awful, but hear me out. The minute she figures out that she has feelings for Roman, she wants to live again. I don’t like the idea that this guy, even (or especially) with his tragic circumstances, could magically “cure” Aysel’s depression, stop her suicidal thoughts, and turn everything around. That’s not how depression works. Love, if that’s really what Aysel and Roman feel for each other, is not a cure all, and it’s dangerous to give readers the idea that simply finding that “one right person” will put an end to their feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes love is not enough to save someone.

Although I think this book has some problems, I do think it is an entertaining read. Yes, it’s dark and deals with serious issues, but the major part of the book gives a realistic look at depression and the scary thoughts that accompany this illness. And, though I have an icky feeling about how the author approaches it, the book does tell readers that there’s always hope.

If you’d like to learn more about My Heart and Other Black Holes and Jasmine Warga, check out the author’s website. You can also connect with the author via Twitter and Facebook.

All the Bright Places

Last night, I finished yet another of next year’s South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominees, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

Like The Last Time We Say Goodbye–also a SCYABA nominee–All the Bright Places deals with the subject of suicide. The two books differ, however, in how they approach the topic. While The Last Time We Say Goodbye takes a look at what happens after a loved one commits suicide, All the Bright Places kind of shows readers what leads up to it. Yes, this book also gives a glimpse of the fallout, but the bulk of the book focuses on the “before,” for lack of a better word.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of the school’s bell tower. Both of them are there thinking about doing something drastic. In Finch’s case, he never really stops thinking about ending it all. Violet, for her part, is overcome by grief following her sister’s death and simply wants to escape.

On that fateful day, this unlikely duo eventually climbs down from the bell tower, and, though their classmates think they know what happened up there, no one but Finch and Violet knows the truth. Who really saved whom?

After the “bell tower incident,” Finch and Violet partner up for a class project. Their assignment is to explore the wonders of the state of Indiana. At first, Violet is less than enthused about the project…and working with Finch. Ever since her sister’s accident, Violet won’t get in a car. That sort of limits just how much of Indiana she and Finch can explore. Finch doesn’t let that stop them. He’s determined to enjoy every moment with Violet. After all, how many moments do they have left together?

As reluctant as she was in the beginning, Violet is enjoying her time with Finch. There’s something about his seemingly boundless energy that makes her want to join the world again. But while Violet is starting to live again, Finch wonders how long he can stay “awake.”

Finch is pulling Violet out of her self-imposed shell, but he’s also retreating into his own. Violet senses something is “off” with Finch, but she doesn’t know how to help him…or if he’d even accept any help. And his friends and family don’t seem to find anything amiss.

What can Violet do if no one will admit that anything is wrong? And is there any way to stop Finch from doing the unthinkable and leaving Violet to wander this crazy world alone?


So, you’ve probably surmised by now at least a little of what happens in this book. No, there’s not some magical happy ending, but it doesn’t leave readers feeling totally hopeless, either. As someone whose life has been touched by suicide, I really appreciate that.

Another thing I appreciate about this book is the very realistic way it portrays bipolar disorder and the stigma attached to it and other mental illnesses. Some people–often even those suffering with mental illness themselves–don’t think they have an actual medical problem. After all, it’s not like they have cancer, diabetes, or anything like that, right? Wrong. People need to pay attention to the signs of mental illness and treat it as the serious medical–and treatable–issue it is. Would attention and treatment have been enough to change the outcome of All the Bright Places? I don’t know, but it might be what it takes to save someone you know and love.

If you’re a librarian, teacher, parent, or other adult wondering if this book is a good fit for middle grade readers, I would honestly say that I’m not sure. There is some cursing, a couple of sex scenes (which for some reason freaks people out way more than graphic depictions of violence), and very frank talk of death, but that’s reality for lots of kids. Yes, even those in middle school. I would say to know your audience. Use your best judgement when recommending this book to anyone, but especially those not yet in high school.

I definitely enjoyed the time I spent with Finch and Violet, and I’m so glad the SCYABA committee chose to place this book on next year’s nominee list. All the Bright Places elicited a lot of feelings–not all of them comfortable–and I went through my fair share of tissues while reading. I predict that lots of other readers will have the same experience.

Apparently, we’ll be able to see Finch and Violet on the big screen sometime in 2017. Pre-production has already begun on the film adaptation of All the Bright Places, and Elle Fanning has been cast as Violet. I’m sure more will be revealed soon on the book’s website (which has tons of great information), but that’s all we know for now. This has the potential to be a great movie. I just hope Hollywood doesn’t screw it up (like they tend to do).

The Last Time We Say Goodbye

On Monday, the latest nominees for the South Carolina Book Award program were announced. For the first time in probably ten years, I had not read any of the books listed in the Young Adult category. (I may work in an elementary school now, but I still love YA literature…as you may have noticed.)

Anyway, I knew I needed to correct that situation immediately, so I asked a friend which of the YA nominees I should read first. Her recommendation was Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. Unfortunately, that book was unavailable through Overdrive, so I had to move on to another one. (Luckily for me, Red Queen became available fairly quickly, so that’s my next SCYABA read.) Since I couldn’t immediately dive into Red Queen, I chose to read The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand. I’d read her Unearthly trilogy (Unearthly, Hallowed, and Boundless) and enjoyed it, so I trusted that I would like this book as well. I was right…again.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is not what I would call an “easy” read. The subject matter–suicide and those left behind–is tough to read about. It’s even tougher if one’s life has been touched by suicide. That being said, I feel this is an important book for allowing readers to explore a tough topic…and to know that they are not alone.

Lex thought she knew the path her life was on. She was happy, excelling in school, and hoping to get into MIT. She had good friends and a great boyfriend who really understood her. Sure, things were tense at home since her dad left, but she, her mom, and her brother would get through that eventually. Things were okay.

And then everything changed. From one moment to the next, Lex’s entire world was turned upside down.

When her brother Ty ended his life, Lex didn’t know what to do with herself. How could she ever be happy again when her brother would never be able to? How could she look forward to her future when Ty wouldn’t have one?

As the weeks and months pass, Lex searches for her new normal. She’s forgotten what it feels like to be happy. She’s lost touch with her friends and ended things with her boyfriend. Her grades are beginning to slip. She worries about her mother, and she can’t even deal with her father. Moving on from this tragedy doesn’t seem to be an option.

Lex reluctantly talks to her therapist who suggests she keep a journal. Through writing, Lex begins to explore her relationship with her brother, what may have led to his decision, and her own guilt over not being there when Ty needed her. Could she have done something to stop him? Lex doesn’t know, but the guilt–and the feeling that Ty is still around somehow–are driving her crazy.

If Lex has any hope of moving on and being happy again–whatever that looks like–she knows she must face everything that happened the night Ty died, all of the events that may have led up to it, and the horrible fallout. She has to confront her parents about their actions as well as come to terms with her own. It’s the only way she can possibly have any real peace.

Will Lex’s efforts be enough, or will she forever be haunted by the ghost of her brother? Find out when you read The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand.


The Last Time We Say Goodbye is sure to be popular with fans of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Fall by James Preller, or I Was Here by Gayle Forman. It’s a great book dealing with a difficult subject, and it may be just what someone needs to get through a tough time.

I don’t know that I would recommend The Last Time We Say Goodbye to all middle grade readers, but some may be able to handle it. Use your best judgement when putting this book in young hands, but keep in mind that kids–yes, even those in middle school–have been touched by suicide. A book like this one may be what they need. Trust me on this.

For more information on The Last Time We Say Goodbye, check out author Cynthia Hand’s website. You can also connect with the author on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Finally, if you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help. Talk to someone–a parent, a friend, a guidance counselor, a librarian, a religious leader, someone. Go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or It Get’s Better. You’re not alone.

The Fall

It seems fitting that a book like The Fall should be released during National Suicide Prevention Month. This latest book from James Preller is out today, and it takes a look at one boy’s reaction to a classmate’s suicide.

While The Fall is a quick read, I think it forces readers to examine their own actions and reactions to things that are happening in schools, on social media, and everywhere in between. If this book can help just one person to be a little kinder, then it’s done its job.

When Morgan Mallen jumped off the town water tower, Sam was forced to take a long, hard look at himself and his actions (or inactions, as the case may be). Everyone knew that Morgan had been bullied relentlessly at school and online. Even Sam participated. What everyone didn’t realize was that Sam knew Morgan. He was perhaps one of her only friends.

Why, then, did Sam take part in tormenting Morgan even though he knew it was wrong? Why didn’t he want anyone to know they hung out? Was he partly to blame for her suicide, and could he have done anything to prevent it?

Sam explores his friendship with Morgan and the aftermath of her suicide through writing in a journal. He’s brutally honest with himself about his relationship with Morgan, his own weaknesses, and his part in this tragedy.

Sam knows that he wasn’t the only one making Morgan unhappy–and on some level, he realizes that Morgan’s decision was her own–but he’s struggling with all of the events that led up to that fateful day. Why was she bullied in the first place? Could anything have stopped Morgan from ending her life? Why did she feel she had no other option?

As Sam works through his feelings and all of the questions plaguing him, he comes to understand that, even though he can’t change what happened with Morgan, he can change his own behavior. He can do whatever possible to somehow make amends. He can confront those who were the worst offenders and own up to his own mistakes. And he can try to be kinder to everyone around him. After all, no one really knows what demons someone is battling. A little bit of kindness could make all the difference in the world.

_______________

I think The Fall and other books on the subjects of suicide and bullying are vitally important to young people (and even adults). These books make us examine what we say and how we act toward others. We really never know how one cruel or kind word can impact the people around us.

I would pair The Fall with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why to give a gritty glimpse at the aftermath of a person’s suicide. Some parents may not be entirely comfortable with the subject matter, but it’s something that will likely touch their children in some way. I’d much rather a young person explore this topic through fiction than have to face the horrible reality. (A friend of mine committed suicide when I was in the 8th grade. It would have been nice if I’d had a book that let me know that I was not alone.) For that reason, I would recommend this book for libraries that serve both middle grade and teen readers.

For those who’d like to learn more about The Fall, visit author James Preller’s website. And if you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help. Talk to someone–a parent, a friend, a guidance couselor, a librarian, a religious leader, someone. Go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or It Get’s Better. You are not alone, and things will get better.