Among the Joyful by Erin Eastham

Among the Joyful by Erin Eastham


Erin Eastham’s recently released young adult novel, Among the Joyful, was a quick read. I was drawn into the narrative from the very first line and then stayed up way too late on a work night to get through the final line.

Alaire, the main character, is a young lady who lacks the angst normal to the formative teen years, mostly because she doesn’t know what it is.  She lives in Golden State, where happiness (or at least the appearance of it) is of foremost importance. In this “idyllic” planned society, it is each person’s responsibility to never infringe on the happiness of others, which not only means avoiding harsh or argumentative comments/conversations, but also never going out without a smile, as one person’s lack of smile could impact and ruin the day of another. Yes, everyone smiles, all of the time. (As I read, I actually tried to smile for an extended period of time. It is no easy task when it isn’t based on an actual emotion. It doesn’t take long for cheek muscles to tire and lips to dry out. No fun when it isn’t for real.)  As a member of the coveted Joyful Court at her high school, Alaire is a role model to the other students. Until, her world comes crashing down and she discovers empathy- that the world is not all smiles and Joyful Court meetings- there is sadness, heartbreak, disappointment and a whole range of emotions that she has never been allowed to experience.

There are many things to like about this novel, but probably my favorite is all of the references to other young adult books. I love that Alaire’s emotional awakening comes from within the pages of books. I always contend that reading fiction is a great way to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and experience parts of the world that the reader has never encountered. It builds empathy and understanding.  This is exactly where Alaire starts to fall apart- the empathy and understanding piece.

Within the first few pages, I was thinking to myself how much this novel reminded me of Lois Lowry’s writing in The Giver, so I was thrilled when just a chapter or two later, Alaire stumbles upon this staple of young adult literature. It only gets better and she then comes across another classic, The Bridge to Terabithia and what is bound to be a new bedrock of the genre, The Fault in our Stars.  And of course, the title of the novel, Among the Joyful, is a nod to Margaret Peterson-Haddix’s fantastic YA series, Among the Hidden. All of these references, both outright and subtle, made me love this book from the very beginning.

My only confusion comes with the ending. As I read the book, I liked that it was a single, stand-alone novel. So many YA books these days are written as a part of a series (which are supremely beneficial for reluctant readers), but I do enjoy a good novel that can tell its story in a single sitting. I was very onboard with that idea throughout the book, but then when I hit the end, I wondered if it was meant to be a set-up for a sequel. Without providing any spoilers, but in all honestly, I liked the rather abrupt ending, as it left the reader to imagine where the tale’s characters would end up, but I worry that instead there will be a “book 2” and I am not sure the material is there to stretch for another couple hundred pages. This isn’t a criticism of the book, as I have no knowledge of an impending sequel, but I would like to imagine Eastham is done and will write another engaging novel with a different set of characters, so I can spend another sleepless night following their tales.

There were a few random spelling/grammar errors in the book, but nothing that detracted from the story or meaning, and overall, I really did enjoy Erin Eastham’s Among the Joyful  happily giving it the full score:

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Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt


Another young adult novel! I’m on a roll over the long, rainy Labor Day weekend here in Chengdu.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is the perfect companion novel to yesterday’s Sure Signs of Crazy  by Karen Harrington. Although they are not the same story, there are some great comparison points, and each reach towards a different middle school audience, while not being exclusive in their readability.

Goldblatt’s book focuses on Julian, a sixth grade boy who is writing as a requirement for his English teacher after being suspended from school for a week because of his involvement in a bullying incident. The book starts in a rather rambling sense, as Julian is just doing the assignment because he feels forced to do it, but as the novel progresses, Julian comes into his own as a writer, seeing it as a way to explore ideas and feelings that he’s not ready to share with the world.

One reason that Julian begins to love the assigned writing project is that his teachers lets him off the hook for a report on Julius Caesar and since Julian hates Shakespeare, he is happy to continue to write his own narrative. But, as literary tradition would have it, he soon discovers parallels between his life and that of Caesar, which draws him back into the very assignment he hoped to escape.

There were a couple of interesting plot points that stood out to me as I read Twerp. First of all, I found the whole thing reminiscent of The Outsiders. The story takes place in the 60s, is a writing assignment for a young man who has been in trouble and draws on literary references in a way that makes them accessible to middle school readers. Also, I liked that the protagonist was just a regular kid from a “regular” family. There were no horrible, dark secrets in his past that made him make the bad decision that lead to the writing of his story, but rather just a poor choice made on the spur of the moment with friends. I like the conversations that this could lead to in a classroom- about how each choice we make has consequences, even if we don’t intend them to. And, of course, the English teacher in me isn’t going to complain about the Shakespeare quotes and references sprinkled throughout the novel.

Mark Goldblatt’s Twerp is a great read for middle school boys. (Not that girls wouldn’t also enjoy it, but the protagonist deals with some very middle school-boy issues that are probably more relatable by the male population than the female.) It has action, it has friendship, it has competition and even a bit of love thrown in, making it a well-rounded, great read for the start of a new school year, earning it:

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The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

the ugly one

The young adult book genre has expanded rapidly over the last decade, creating reading niches for a variety of teenage interests, from the currently ubiquitous choices that include vampires and werewolves to the popular dystopian series. But, one of my favorite growing topics in the world of YA literature is cultural/travel fiction. I think it is outstanding when kids sitting in their suburban American homes can open and book and be suddenly transported to Southeast Asia, South Africa or South America. Leanne Statland Ellis’ soon-to-be-released book does just that- taking readers on a journey to Peru and the thriving Incan civilization.

Names are an important part of this tale, with the narrator going by several different ones, depending on who is addressing her. (Tale is a fitting label for this book, as it reads like a mystical tale from the ancient oral traditions, tying the reader up in the story as pages fly by.) She is called by her given name, Micay, by her loving older sister, but mocked as The Ugly One by a young bully in her village. As her story progresses, she gains other monikers, more fitting to her changing situation, but at heart, she remains the same strong young woman.

Micay’s name isn’t the only morphing element of the book, as her role within her small mountainous village is challenged and set on a new path by a stranger from the jungles below. While she initially doesn’t believe she is destined for great things, those around her see a potential that, with the right help, she is capable of achieving.

A great middle-level book is one that not only entertains, but draws on universal themes that open larger dialogs, which is an area this book excels. From the tale of the bully and his painful words to the difficult decision of when it is right to put one’s personal desires before those of the community, The Ugly One provides a great deal of fodder for thought and discussion.

The reading level of The Ugly One is not particularly difficult, making the book easily accessible to a wide range of middle school readers, although some might struggle with the occasional unfamiliar Incan word. Luckily, there is a great glossary at the back of the book, which not only helps the reader follow the narrative, but as a teacher, I love having yet another chance to introduce students to references sections in different types of literature.

The one place I felt letdown by this book was at the very ending. As the narrative is wrapping up and the reader gets a glimpse into what the future holds for the main characters, I felt that one young man who played a critical role in the story is left out of the story. I was really hoping to get at least a hint as to whether sharing a moment of understanding with Micay is enough to change this boy’s outlook or if his attitude is too deeply engrained to transform into something more positive.

Overall, Leanne Statland Ellis’  The Ugly One is a great read for students, drawing them out of themselves and into another time and another culture, earning the book:

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The Program by Suzanne Young

The Program by Suzanne Young

the program

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:

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When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke falls firmly in the young adult literature genre, but within that realm, its home is on the older end of young adults. The writing style and vocabulary are by no means out of reach of middle school students, but the themes and content definitely require a bit more mature reader.  I was drawn into the novel from the very start, loving the obvious references to The Scarlet Letter. (The allusions, both apparent and those that are a bit more concealed, were strong enough to make me want to go reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s magnum opus.)

The problem became, while I was intrigued and captivated by the first half of the novel, that level of enthusiasm wasn’t sustained throughout the second half.  While the beginning of the book introduces a series of ethical and moral dilemmas, ranging from tangled relationships and a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body  to how criminals should be punished, the second half devolves into a mere love-story.

In the not so distant from now future, Hannah Payne is raised within the boundaries of a strict, religious family. The only world she knows of is the one her parents allow her to see. That is, until she falls in love with the preacher of the mega-church her family attends- the married preacher of the mega-church her family attends. When he returns her affections (and more!) and she becomes pregnant, she knows she can’t reveal the identity of the baby’s father, so rather than having the child, she decides it is best for all involved to have an abortion. In this future, abortion is illegal, punishable by a many years long sentence. (Prisons had become too pricey for the government to run, so other than the very worst of criminals, the punished are injected a virus that turns their skin a bright color- red for murderers- that identifies them as a felon. They are then released back into the public, where they must find a way to survive the ongoing hatred meted out to them by the state’s citizens.)

Hannah, now a “red,” must find a way to survive her term of coloration. After a failed attempt through a halfway-type house, she decides to make a run for the Canadian border, where she will be protected. It is at the point that the higher-minded discussion of women’s rights and unduly harsh punishment drop by the wayside and the story becomes a mere romance.

Maybe Jordan decided that the issues were just too big and too overwhelming to tackle in a young adult book. (Although, if she felt that way, I am not sure why she started down the path to begin with. Why not make it an adult novel and see those subjects through? Or if it was YA that she really wanted to create, why not choose a single subject and do it justice?) Whatever happened, I was sorely disappointed when Hannah’s storyline became more about seeing the man who would have been the father of her child rather than the societal problems that were the foundations of the novel.

I really struggled with how many shells to award this book, but because I would give the first half a solid four and the second half a generous two, I am going to split the difference. Hillary Jordan’s book When She Woke earns:

The Obsidian Blade (The Klaatu Diskos #1) by Pete Hautman

The Obsidian Blade (The Klaatu Diskos #1) by Pete Hautman

I’ve never been a huge science fiction fan, leaning more towards dystopian literature when I’m in the mood for something outside mainstream fiction, but over the years I’ve run across a few that I really love. Anything by Ray Bradbury is a winner in my book, as is the Ender’s Game series.  When I got my hands on the first book of Pete Hautman’s new series, I thought maybe I’d be discovering another standout in the genre.

It wasn’t.

The Obsidian Blade starts out in what seems to be a fairly current time period in a small Midwestern town called Hopewell. Tucker is the son of a local preacher who, while fixing the roof one day, disappears, only to reappear later, with a young girl, obviously not familiar with their time period,  in tow. Reverend Feye (interesting name choice, as “fe” means faith in Spanish) returns changed, saying he no longer believes in God. Soon after this odd occurrence, Tucker’s mother starts to behave strangely, exhibiting symptoms that doctors diagnose as Autism, but she’d never struggled with the disease before. Things quickly spiral out of control and soon Tucker’s parents disappear (presumably into the same time-warping disko on their roof that his father entered previously). From here, the book goes all over the place.

Tucker’s uncle, whom he has never met, comes to take care of him, but soon they have both entered a different disko that is atop Uncle Kosh’s barn roof in a town several hours away. They are transported to the top of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (What?!) Anyway, after making their escape, Tucker returns to his home to enter the disko on top of his roof, thinking he will find his parents. And so the rest of the book goes…jumps from disko to disko take Tucker to the top of a pyramid where he is stabbed through the heart with an obsidian blade, to a strange hospital place where he discovers he has lost years of his life, and then it is off to Golgotha to see the crucifixion of a prophet. (Yup, you read that right. He witnesses Christ on the cross.)

It really is just too much.

Science fiction is unique in that it tends to require much more setup than a novel set in modern times. The author has to create the new world(s), a litany of characters with unique traits and what often times turns out to be a rather complicated and twisting plot line. I think it is fairly common for books of this genre to be long because of the intricate foundations that need to be set. It is understandable. The problem I have with The Obsidian Blade is that the entire novel feels like the setup. If I didn’t know that this book was the first in a trilogy, I would have been confused by the lack of cohesion. Even after 200 pages, I felt like nothing had been done other than creating a backstory for the rest of the series. I would much rather have had the book be longer and get into the actual story more. Maybe this should have been two longer books, rather than three short ones?  While this book left me with no idea what is going on in Hopewell and who the different groups of players are, I have no desire to read the second to find out. All the extended framework did was kill my interest in the book.  Maybe the second and third installments will sort out the issues and seemingly incompatible occurrences from the first book, but I just wasn’t drawn in enough to give them the chance. Because it is Saturday and a beautiful day outside, I’m in a great mood, meaning Pete Hautman’s book The Obsidian Blade generously earns: (Barely.)


Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

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: