Tag Archives: school

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.

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One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2017 (audiobook)

The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie in this riveting teen mystery novel, which made for a great listen.

Five senior high schoolers get detention but within minutes of them arriving in the room, one of them is dead. Though it appears initially to be an accident it soon emerges that it’s murder and that only one of the four – brainy Bronwyn, sporty Cooper, pretty and popular Addy, or bad boy Nate – can have done it. They all claim to be innocent but then it emerges that the dead boy, Simon, who was behind their high school’s savage (but always true) gossip app, had dirt on all of them which he was about to go public with.

The novel is told through the perspective of the four teens, as they go from being witnesses to being suspects, and then, finally, investigators themselves. The twists pile up and the resolution is satisfying and unexpected.

What makes this more than just a smart mystery is the unravelling of the foursome’s lives when their secrets become public and how they deal with it. It shows the horrible pressures that many high school students are under, often driven by their family circumstances but also self-imposed. They rise above their John Hughesian cliche roles, becoming rich and nuanced characters and the audiobook readers do a terrific job of bringing them to life.

Highly recommended.

Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Emily Carroll
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018

I have not read the 1999 novel that this graphic novel is drawn from but, even knowing that this came from a full length novel, I didn’t feel it in any way skimped on the emotional or narrative depth.

Melinda Sordino went to a party in the woods before she started at high school and ended up calling the cops. When she starts high school in the fall she is ostracized by both her friends and students who hardly know her but they all blame her for the breakup of the party and its fallout. It’s initially not clear what has happened to Melinda in the woods but her response to Andy Evans, a senior, leering at her gives us a clue.

Gradually Melinda withdraws into herself, her grades fall, and she becomes isolated, depressed, and virtually mute. The only place she feels she can be herself is in her art class with the quirky teacher who believes in her ability to express herself through her art. Through the project he sets, Melinda is able to explore and open up, gradually realizing what happened to her and as the circle is closed she is able to find her voice and make herself heard this time.

The novel is not without humor. Mel’s narration is caustic as she assesses the other students and the meaningless promises the school makes about being there “to help you” and wanting to “hear what you have to say.” Her bitterness about her situation can be shot through with wit as well, as she re-writes her report cards, grading herself on lunch, friends, and clothes.

Carroll’s illustrations in shades of gray capture Melinda’s experiences both literally and metaphorically. The horror of the assaults on her are conveyed by the transformation of her attacker from person into a fuzzy featured ghoul, and the cinematic cuts sharpen the pace of the action. Being able to actually show Melinda’s artwork, though this is not as heavy handed as you might think, adds another dimension to the novel.

Melinda’s gradual steeling and strengthening is shown symbolically through the solace she finds in gardening and through her writing on the meaning of snow in The Scarlet Letter. It’s maybe a little more overt than you would find in a longer novel but feels rich and persuasive.

Mel gets her own #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, and readers will be cheering for her. Her attacker looks like he will face his comeuppance but who knows what will happen if he is nominated for the Supreme Court when he’s 53.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Katherine Tegen, 2018

Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has been invited to join the elite Ellingham Academy – home to “creative geniuses, radical thinkers, and innovators.” It’s a one of a kind school – completely free and allows the students to focus on their passions. In Stevie’s case that means crime detection. But not only is the school a top place to be educated, it also harbors a mystery: in 1936, the wife and daughter of founder and very rich person Arthur Ellingham are kidnapped. The body of Iris, his wife, and of a pupil from the school are found days later, but his daughter Alice is never found. As Stevie tries to investigate the decades old crime, there is a murder at the school and Stevie gets involved with that too.

The tone of the novel is both sharply modern but also manages to be fashionably retro. The plotting is smart and intriguing and the combination and connections of the old mystery and the new one is well done. As well as straightforward present-day narrative, there are perspectives from 1936 and FBI transcripts of interviews connected to the old mystery.

Stevie is an interesting character – very much at odds with what her parents would like and desperate for friendship from people who get her. Her new friends have a wide range of skin colors, sexualities, and gender expressions and are developed to varying degrees, mainly through the passions that have brought them to the school. Stevie also has a romance that feels completely unlikely and lacking in chemistry.

However, and this makes me so mad, this is the first book in a series and virtually nothing is resolved. You may disagree, but I do feel like a mystery should offer some closure within a book, even if there is an overarching bigger mystery, but that does not happen here – we are left completely hanging. And, while I’m complaining, Stevie manages to find a major clue in a large tin box that the police have somehow completely overlooked while searching a room – feels unlikely and convenient. So all in all, I have to say Truly Devious just felt unsatisfactory.

Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash

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Lost Soul, Be at Peace written and illustrated by Maggie Thrash
Candlewick, 2018

In this idiosyncratic graphic sequel to Honor Girl (2015), Thrash (also author of the deeply fabulous We Know It Was You) mixes memoir with fiction to convey vividly the intensity of growing up.

A year and a half on from Honor Girl, Maggie is now a junior at an elite Atlanta school and feeling isolated and depressed: her grades are plummeting and her classmates are completely indifferent when she outs herself. Things are no better at home where her mother seems to want a different daughter (“You’d be very pretty if you weren’t so determined to be weird”) and her father is wrapped up in his work as a federal judge.

Maggie’s closest connection is with her beloved cat Thomasina who disappears inside their house, and when Maggie goes looking for her she finds instead a ghost called Tommy. As she and Tommy explore his background and connection to her family, Maggie becomes more aware of her privilege as well as understanding the threshold she is reluctantly crossing into adulthood. It becomes clear that she is the lost soul and that “there’s a part of you that dies when you grow up.”

Through her recognizable slightly childlike pen and water color pencil illustrations Thrash explores the overpowering feelings of being a teenager: the absolute ennui of an afternoon at home, the thrill of flirting, the horror she feels when she sits in on one of her father’s court cases. The characters’ faces and bodies, often just a few lines, wonderfully convey this wealth and depth of emotions.

Ideal for readers going through, or reflecting back on, the turmoil of adolescence.

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick, 2018.

When Native American Louise’s Kansas high school theater announces a “color-conscious” production of The Wizard of Oz, the prejudices and lack of awareness of some of the school’s majority white community become apparent.

Last year, when Lou’s family moved to Kansas she fell into the social scene she had been used to in Texas – the popular jock-centered crowd. She dated one of the football team until he reveals his casual prejudice about Native Americans. Fast forward to senior year and Lou is determined to be more aware of the microagressions around her.

When Lou’s brother, freshman Hughie is cast as the Tin Man and two other students of color get major parts in the musical, the Parents Against Revisionist Theater campaign starts up, and the families gets hate letters, telling them to “go back to where you came from.” (Ironic, huh?)

Lou finds solace in her new family at Hive, the school newspaper and in the support of many teachers and students. She has all the idealism and self righteousness of her age but as she explores and solidifies her own Muscogee identity she finds that she herself can be unthinkingly prejudiced whether it is with her underprivileged friend Shelby or with her Lebanese-Scottish potential romantic interest Joey.

Though the novel can get a little didactic and there are too many underdeveloped secondary characters, Smith effectively brings to life a slice of Native American culture as well as exposing the often casual bigotry that people of color can face. Includes a Mvskoke-English glossary.

***Highly recommended by Debbie Reese***

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
HarperCollins, 2018.

Very occasionally I will read a book that just affects my mood for several days and this is one of them. Rising 8th grader Claudia Coleman returns from a summer with her grandmother, ready to see her best (and only) friend Monday so they can get back into their groove ready for school. Only Monday isn’t there. Claudia, against her parents’ rules, goes to Monday’s house on the wrong side of town only to be fobbed off by her mother. And that pattern persists – all the adults that Claudia talks to express concern but then do nothing about it. Even when Claudia goes to the police, she is dismissively shown a board covered with missing black girls and told not to waste police time if her friend isn’t really missing, and we are told that social services didn’t follow up requests for an investigation either. The theme, skillfully shown not told, is that the disappearance of black girls happens but nobody much cares.

As the novel moves back in time, we learn much more about the girls’ friendship and mutual dependency. Claudia depends on Monday to help her hide her learning disability and Monday spends time with Claudia’s family, so unlike her own broken one. There are already cracks showing in their friendship – Monday is much more interested in boys than Claudia is, and will do anything to make herself visible leading to some intense drama at school. In the present, Claudia quietly starts to find her own way, though never letting go of her quest to find Monday. She makes connections with some girls at her dance school and, after her grades plummet, gets help with her dyslexia.

Claudia’s desperation and frustration about her lack of agency in searching for her friend is what stayed with me from this wonderful and wrenching novel. Her kind and loving parents do their best to help her but there is so much they don’t know or don’t seem to understand, though they are not quite as clueless as they first appear.

While focused on Claudia and Monday, the novel also tackles some other substantial issues. The neighborhood in Washington DC where Monday lives is in upheaval as the gentrifiers want to evict the tenants and turn the neighborhood into something more pleasing to middle class white people. This puts tremendous pressure on an already ragged community, stressed by poverty and drugs.

One minor quibble: The novel has a complicated (and to me, unnecessary) time scheme and twist that goes with it. It didn’t add anything for me and just made things a little more complicated than I felt they needed to be. But that doesn’t in any way detract from this completely absorbing and important novel and I shall most certainly be seeking out Ms Jackson’s first novel Allegedly.