Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

men we reaped

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

In the short span of four years, the author of this memoir lost five young men who she considered family.  They died from different actual causes-drugs, suicide, accidents- but Ward couldn’t help believing there was some sort of connection between the five deaths.  Something inside her whispered that they were all young, black, from the South and raised in poverty.  She wrote this book to ask why these tragic deaths occurred, and to look at the possibility that who they were and where and how they lived was a part of the equation.  Ward grew up in rural Mississippi, in a small, rural town called DeLisle.  As she recounts her memories of these young men, readers will begin to draw their own conclusions about our society.  One of the most poignant parts of the book states:

“My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system.  And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other.  We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us.  Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.  Some of us turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within.  And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.” (page 168)

When I first heard Ward interviewed about her book, I thought that her primary thesis was weak and wouldn’t be supported by the facts.  After reading the stories of these five young men, however, I can see how the impact of race, poverty and living in the rural South impacted their lives to a degree I had never originally anticipated.  Seeing life through Ward’s eyes, as a young person who did leave the South for college but was always connected to it emotionally, will make readers rethink their own beliefs and assumptions our our nation with its easy “freedom for all” facade.  I think this book will become a classic, much in the way Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Boy by Richard Wright have become.  I will be recommending this title to all my high school students and think it will be a hit here at Berkeley High School.


The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

impossible knife

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is unlike other titles I’ve read by Anderson, except in its brilliant and captivating writing.  This story of an unusual family with unique hardships is headed by Andy Kincain, a veteran of several Middle East tours with severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  It’s so bad he has trouble keeping a normal job, and was a long distance truck driver for a number of years while his daughter Hayley travelled with him.  He’s been “home schooling” her while on the road, but has decided that she needs to be at a real school for her senior year so he moves them back to his family home.  Although Haley lived there as a young child, she has few memories of the time.  Her plan in their new home is to keep Andy safe from his own drugging and drinking and nightmares.  When he had one of his attacks, “the past took over.  All he heard were exploding IEDs and incoming mortar rounds, all he saw were body fragments, like an unattached leg still wearing its boot, and shards of shiny bones, sharp as spears.  All he tasted was blood.”  No wonder the guy drank and used drugs to dull the memories!  All Hayley is worried about is keeping things on a even keel at home.  She’s not out to make friends or go to college,so when she meets Finn when is taken aback by their mutual attraction.  Maybe it’s not too late to find some kind of “normal” after all.

This book was sensitive and compelling.  Anderson does an amazing job with both the character of Haley and her father; readers will feel like they are a part of this dysfunctional family.   I think readers who like stories about families, their problems and Laurie Halse Anderson in general will adore this title.


Review by Ms. Provence

speak          twisted

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

where she went

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

This book continues the story of Mia and Adam as begun in 2011’s If I Stay, only this time it’s rocker Adams turn to narrate.  He has become a rock star, but feels empty and alienated from his band and his life.  It’s been three years since the accident where Mia’s entire family was killed (If I Stay), and she has gone on to Julliard to continue her piano studies. Adam’s moved from Oregon and lives in a spacious home in Los Angeles with his model girlfriend, who he’s not even sure he likes.  In a complete coincidence, while on his way to his European Tour, Adam sees a sign for a performance by Mia and stops in.  When an usher asks him to come backstage after the performance, he has no clue what she could want since she dumped him shortly after moving to New York City.

And…the story goes on from there.  I really liked that this told a love story from a young man’s perspective, unusual in all fiction, not just YA.  Shout out to Forman for not taking the easy road, but making the characters and story realistic, with flaws and roadblocks.  I highly recommend this to Forman’s fans and readers looking for a different sort of romance.

if i stay           just one day

Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman

something like hope

Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman

Locked in a detention room in a juvenile correction facility, 17 year old Shavonne dreams of a better life for herself and her daughter. Mr. Delpopolo, her new shrink, gets her thinking, which makes her angry; she deals with her physical and emotional pain by being numb. As she continues to see Mr. D., as she calls him, he gradually helps her understand that bad things have happened to her through no fault of her own. Having a crack addict mother, being abused in foster care and being raped not only were not her fault, they were the fault of adults who didn’t protect her, including some of the staff at the facility itself. She also tries to avoid both conflicts and friendships with the other girls, including her own roommate. As Shavonne begins to trust Mr. D., she starts letting in feelings other than anger and thinks about moving toward healing. She faces the dilemma of telling Mr. D her deepest and worst secret, something for which she feels personally responsible.

Shavonne grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into this book! Her character has so much personality and tells her story with so much intensity that I cared about her right away. I can’t tell any more of the plot without giving away surprises and secrets that each reader must learn in the course of reading the book. I can say that I was not at all disappointed in how the author tied all the parts of the plot together at the end.

Review by Ms. Goldstein-Erickson

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

mayas notebook

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende is one of our favorite writers here at BHS, and this title will bring her even closer to our hearts.  It’s the story of nineteen-year-old May Vidal, and is set in the modern day.  Maya was a Berkeley High student who made some really bad decisions after her Popo (grandpa) died.  She ends up a drug addict on the streets of Las Vegas, living a life that is anything but glamorous.  Her typical Berkeleyite grandmother, who she affectionately calls Nini rescues her from a gang of drug-dealing assassins and spirits her away to her home country of Chile, to an isolated town where she has an old friend.  Maya is cut off from everything she knows– cell phone, email, computers, friends and family– and slowly begins to find herself again.

The story alternates perspectives, from Maya telling readers about her turbulent past to her gradual adjustment to the quiet, slow-paced town of  Chiloe where everyone knows everyone else and their business.  This book will enthrall readers with its completely engaging story.  It’s easy for readers, especially Bay Area ones, to identify with what Maya goes through as a teenager.   (Allende actually researched the book here at Berkeley High!)  I highly recommend this title to all teen and adult readers.

My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt

my book of life

My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt

This realistically painful novel in verse will be loved by Ellen Hopkins fans and other readers of gritty, first person narratives.  The novel is taken from the incidents in Vancouver, Canada, wich began in 1983.  Prostitutes started disappearing, but the police showed little concern and little was done to find the killer(s).  Leavitt tells the story of the fictional Angel, an unhappy sixteen year old who is more interested in stealing shoes from the mall than listening to her grieving father talk about about her mother who died of bone cancer.  She meets Call at the local mall, who is kind to her, becomes her boyfriend, gives her a drug she’s nicknamed “Candy,” and eventually turns her out as a prostitute in the city’s notorious Downtown Eastside.  After nine months, Angel’s best friend Serena stops showing up on her corner one night.  Angel knows something is wrong when she finds Serena’s “running away” money still stashed under her mattress.  Call seems unconcerned, and even brings the eleven-year-old Melli to their apartment to take Angel’s place if she does not want to “earn” for him anymore.  Angel’s single-minded goal to keep Melli safe is what begins to change her life.

Readers looking for this type of story will love this book.  It’s written in the form of a journal that Angel keeps for herself, and while it is explicit about her life, it won’t leave readers feeling like Peeping Toms. I highly recommend it to Ellen Hopkins fans and readers who like books like Go Ask Alice and A Child Called It.

impulse     crank     identical

Click HERE for our reviews of some of Ellen Hopkins’ books.

Shine by Lauren Myracle

Shine by Lauren Myracle

In a departure from her usual style, Myracle takes readers into a community rife with poverty, methamphetamine abuse by both teens and adults, and a Southern, small town culture that has its own set of rules and mores.  When seventeen-year-old Cat’s estranged best friend is brutally beat up in a violent hate crime, she becomes determined to discover the perpetrator.  The “good old boy” sheriff believes the crime was committed by some out-of-towners, but Cat suspects otherwise, especially when her brother and his friends begin acting secretive and suspicious.

This was an amazing book that kept my interest from beginning to end.  Myracle perfectly captured the small town, Soutern dialect, without making it sound phony or overdone.  I especially appreciated that the book presented o simple answers, as readers watch Cat struggle with issues of friendship, physical and sexual abuse, poverty and intolerance.  I would recommend this book to students looking for a coming of age story, a thoughtful plot about homosexual bigotry or simply a mystery.