The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan
Amazing and heartbreaking. Those are the two best words I can come up with to describe Matthew Quick’s newest novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I downloaded this book just two days ago, flying through it as I couldn’t bear to walk away from Leonard, the protagonist, as he stumbled his way towards a heart wrenching decision.
The story opens as Leonard gently wraps his World War II Nazi-owned handgun into a pink birthday box, figuring even if he were stopped going into school, no one would suspect anything evil beneath the cheery paper. He’s had years to think about the choice he is making and has decided that this world holds no promise for him, but before he ends his own life, he has a few errands to take care of, namely giving a few gifts to those he felt closest too and then killing Asher, the person who he feels most drove him to the final decision of his life.
As Leonard goes through his final day on Earth, he says his goodbyes in the only way he knows how, worried more about how his Holocaust teacher will feel about his death than his own mother, who is distant and fully wrapped up in her life as a designer, rarely even coming home to see him. (His father fled the country due to tax fraud charges, so in all practical ways, Leonard has no parents. He’s a modern-day orphan.) When a few adults at school notice and call him on his odd behavior, he puts on the happy face, the one he thinks adults expect from teens and weasels his way out of tough conversations.
Each turned page in the book takes the reader one step closer to Leonard’s inevitable end.
Matthew Quick has written an extraordinarily powerful novel about teenage depression and pain, one that will resonate with many high school students. As he wades through topics such as incest, rape and suicide, Quick humanizes these horrors, reminding the reader that we are all so much more than we appear on the outside. We’ve all got back stories that are unknowable to the casual acquaintances in our lives, but by looking closer at those around us and really trying to understand the demons they may be fighting, we can give strength to others, helping them feel powerful enough to fight another day.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is definitely not an easy read, but it is an important one. Since it deals with difficult topics, it is not one that I would just put on my middle school bookshelf (although I would keep a copy to give to more mature readers) but I would definitely have copies in a high school English classroom. Quick’s talk is a powerful one, reminding us that we are more than our suffering, but also that we owe it to those around us to remember that there is more to each of us than meets the eye. Without a doubt, Matthew Quick’s recently released novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock earns:
The Program by Suzanne Young
Yes, another dystopian young adult novel book review from In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. I’m a sucker for them! All of the websites where I buy books or that I look at for book recommendations apparently have me pegged as an angst-ridden teenager because these types of books are always at the top of the “to read” lists and I never just click away to something else.
The Program is the first novel in a series by Suzanne Young, a newer (although not brand new, as she has a couple other books already published) writer who daylights as an English teacher. The book takes place in the not-so-distant future when an overuse of antidepressants is believed to have spawned an epidemic of suicides in the teenage population. There is no proof that the medication was the impetus, but as a generation of adults who were heavily medicated become parents of young adults, the rash of deaths is pushed upward of one in every four teens taking their own lives. As the country goes into panic mode over these cases, The Program is created to keep kids for ending it all.
Once a teenager is flagged for The Program, they are forced into a facility where their memories are taken away, one by one. The idea is that if the kids can’t remember the bad things, they won’t want to terminate themselves. The powers-that-be believe that the suicides are a plague and can spread from student to student, so as soon as one is infected, their friends are closely monitored for signs of negative changes and quickly flagged. This process leaves no room for true emotion or time to grieve over losses, as those difficult emotions are instantly interpreted as infection.
It is in this world that Sloane and her boyfriend James are trying to stick together and make it to their eighteenth birthdays, at which time they will be free of the threat of forced “treatment” through The Program. As some of the people closed to them succumb to the infection or disappear into the blank-slate world of The Program, their ability to maintain facades of “normality” is challenged more and more frequently.
The premise of this novel is a good one and allows Young to explore some interesting areas of psychology, especially what makes someone themselves. If their memory has been wiped clean, are they still the same person as when they had a lifetime of memories? Or, how can one trust those around them when they have no background? Just because you were told someone was your friend, how do you know they really were? The chances for manipulation and abuse are rampant within these table rasa teens. These would be awesome discussions to have in a book group or classroom full of teenagers who already question who they are and what they want from life.
When I first downloaded this book, I didn’t realize that it was the first in a coming series of books, but it didn’t take long to figure out that the plot wasn’t going to come to a nice, complete ending by the final page. All along, it is setting the scene for future books, which I must admit is a bit of a downside. In theory, I don’t mind series (and I think they are great for reluctant readers who get caught up in with a tale and characters they love!), but when the book obviously feels like a set-up for what comes next, I must admit to being a bit disappointed. In the case of this novel, I think I may have liked it a bit better if it had been longer, but told a complete story, rather than stopping at what is clearly a jumping off point for book number two.
In the end, the series-format is the only thing that turned me off a bit to this slightly-futuristic novel. Suzanne Young’s exploration of self and memory is one that I found intriguing and created enough questions in my mind that I will definitely be downloading book two when it comes out, earning The Program a solid:
If you are one to skip to the “shell rating” at the bottom before reading the review itself, I think it is only fair for me to include a bit of a disclaimer on this one. There is no gentle way to put this, no beating around the bush, no softening of the harsh reality. I am a chicken. I can’t watch scary movies; heck, I can’t even watch the commercials/trailers for scary movies. I hate being the last one awake at night, which works out well since my husband is a total night owl. And I can’t handle creepy books. I read James and the Giant Peach when I was in elementary school and woke up to nightmares about gargantuan bugs having a tea party in my bedroom. That is the extent of my wimpy-ness. So, while the shell-rating isn’t as high as one might hope for in a book review, keep in mind much of that designation has its foundation in the fact that for many years, I considered Roald Dahl’s writing to fall firmly in the horror genre.
The Unquiet is creepy. That is the first and most important thing a reader should know. The tale centers on Rinn, a teenage girl who has recently moved back to her mom’s hometown in middle America from a sunny southern California upbringing. The move is precipitated by the fact that her mother and adopted father are having some marital problems, stemming from the fact that Rinn, a bipolar teenager who has experienced psychotic episodes, accidentally started a fire that killed her grandmother. After the death of her grandmother, Rinn tries to kill herself. Once she is released from the care of the mental ward of a hospital, her parents decide some time apart and away would be best for everyone.
Rinn, while not thrilled with the move, soon makes friends at her new high school, which is odd in itself, as she was never the stereotypical social butterfly. But, not long after moving in, she learns that the school is haunted by a girl who died in the pool. That doesn’t necessarily set off any alarms for Rinn, but when she learns that the dead girl’s grandmother hanged herself in the bedroom Rinn now sleeps in, things start to spiral out of control.
The sleep Midwestern town is suddenly plagued by inexplicable accidents and deaths and Rinn is tied up in the middle of all of them. She and her new friends (who as characters are rather flat and underdeveloped, but that is a whole different discussion) seem to be the epicenter for the evil that emanates from the pool room.
Some will love the creep factor that this book offers. It kept me awake more than one night this last week. But, that isn’t all Garsee’s novel has to offer. Instead of just being your run of the mill horror story, it tackles the issue of mental illness in teenagers, a tough subject, but one that is a reality for some young adults. Watching Rinn struggle with her perceptions of reality and the side effects of her medication create a deeper story than if the author just stuck with a teenage ghost story. This element of the novel creates some redeeming moments that make me more apt to recommend it to students.
In the end, Jeannine Garsee’s The Unquiet, is a more than a bit spine-chilling, but that is the point, after all. If a few nights of curled up under the blankets covered in goose bumps and jumping at every creak of the house sounds like a good read to you, this is your book. While I understand the draw, it is not my cup of tea, so The Unquiet earns:
Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey’s latest young adult novel, charts the journey of a teenage boy losing the naivety of his youth as he discovers the world around him, and especially the people, don’t fall into the neat frames he has created for each one. This is a definitely a book about growing up, but Charlie, the protagonist, is forced into maturity when confronted with the death (murder? suicide?) of Laura, the teenage daughter of a leading town politician.
This book is a bit of an enigma to me. The book is beautifully written and tells a captivating, if devastating story, but it seems to build on its own foundation in weird ways and at odd intervals. There were times where I thought I had a feel for the setting and characters, only to have the world I created in my head shattered by a new piece of background information. For example, I was probably a third of the way into the book before I realized that it was set in the 1960’s, while the Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia. The fact that it is set in Australia also probably should have been apparent to me soon, but a name like Corrigan just drew to mind an English town, rather than one on the other side of the world. These two facts combined, once they were clear to me, fashioned an entirely different landscape than I had previously imagined. (It’s the difference between rainy, overcast days versus sunshine and heat or trails made by rabbits and rodents versus those created by kangaroos and wallabies.)
Once I had the setting straight I my mind, it was the plot that took a bit of mind-warping reconciliation. When Charlie is asked to help bury a dead girl at the bottom of a lake, he does so without hesitation, but then must keep the events of the evening a secret, as he continues on with his summer holiday. This foundation is horrifying, and yet it leads to a story even more devastating. The deceased is already gone, so while the actions are awful, they don’t change her fate. Instead, other fates are revealed as Charlie and Jasper go in search of her murderer. The weeks following Laura’s death reveal new relationships, as well as see the destruction of existing ones.
But what are the characters doing when they are not deeply involved in the mystery of Laura’s death? Cricket. Lots and lots of cricket. This game of Down Under is one that baffles me. There are wickets and bats and runs and bowls and all sorts of doodads that are foreign to any sports understanding I may hold. While this made a great addition to the Australian setting, it was an aspect of the book I found hard to follow. (This is especially true when it came to the climactic game where Charlie’s best friend finally gets his shot and cricket stardom, which is narrated, in detail, along the course of several pages.)
For a tale based upon death and the subsequent destruction that plays out in the tragedy’s aftermath, I have to say that this is a really good book. It feels strange to like something so much, when the basis of it is so dark, but as the characters come alive throughout the story, I can’t help but feel their pain as the rose colored glasses of childhood are removed and they discover that the world isn’t quite as kind as they had once believed. Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones , a powerful young adult novel aimed at mature teens, that takes a powerful look at growing up, tough choices and the inevitable consequences of those decisions, earns: