Book Reviews: White boys (& a Girl)

Posted: May 25, 2013 in Book Reviews

images-1HENRY, Nathan L. Good Behavior. 265p. Bloomsbury. 2010. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-599-90471-9.

Adult/High School—This gritty first memoir alternates chapters from Nathan’s young life and the year he spent locked up in Paradise County Jail (Illinois) during his sixteenth year. Gritty and disturbing it is, balanced with passages of introspection and reflection.  While Nathan grew up in a small town with little threat of violence, his father’s obsession with guns, paranoid fantasies of death, dismemberment and destruction, along with his readiness to share inappropriately with his young son paves the way for Nathan’s fearful and angry acting out (yet is not used as an excuse by the author). Along with a stint in “rehab” with no explanation of medication protocol upon release, the armed robbery seems inevitable. Reading and questioning the nature of existence in his cell leads Nathan to an awakening and awareness of his life and future desires. The epilogue explains that two years later Nathan is married and happy – presumably out of the life that led him to trouble. The abrupt ending is a disappointment and readers will be left with many questions. The alternating chapters don’t necessarily work… at one point a mention is made of a break up with a girlfriend that we have not yet been introduced to…. but are not too much of a hindrance.  Lots of swearing, violent fantasies and description of sexual experiences make this book a better bet for high school age, rather than the fourteen year olds it’s marketed to. There is certainly a place for memoirs of Caucasian people incarcerated in the Midwest, and youth in detention centers (as well as elsewhere) around the country will want to read this book. -Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, San Leandro, CA 

images-7KEY, Watt. Dirt Road Home. 224p. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 2010. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-374-30863-6. Grades 8 -11.

Lots of action opens this book as 14 year old Hal is led in chains to the Hellenweiler’s Boy’s Home – a lockdown facility – in Alabama where he is to serve his sentence until age 18. Hal and his Daddy have an agreement: Daddy is going to stop drinking and Hal is going to stay out of trouble while incarcerated. However, as anyone knows, that is almost impossible, and the action continues as Hal is faced on day one with joining the Ministers or the Hounds, either of which will bring him LOTS of trouble.  Hal chooses the unthinkable – to join neither. The tension, positioning, threats and shifting alliances are believable and will hook readers.  A little girl action is also in the mix. The corruption of the supervising adults is also believable, and Hal’s idea to expose it creates a page turning experience. However and unfortunately, the exposure is a little too easily accomplished and rings false, especially after all the realism that comes before in the text. A happy ending with Daddy, Hal and Caboose, another loner from the facility neatly wraps up the story. While the first ¾ of the book is a little more gritty (except for the Daddy parts!), the last ¼ is almost for a different audience, which puts this book squarely in the camp for younger readers with a tougher edge.  Sequel to award winning Alabama Moon, this book stands on it’s own.

Mitchell, Jeff. Real Justice: Young, Innocent and in Prison The Story of Robert Baltovich. 128p. James Lorimer & Co. Ltd. 2012. $12.95. 978-1-4594-0078-8. Grades 6-10. Rob Baltovich was wrongfully convicted of killing his girlfriend and jailed for eight years. He is one of several high profile cases of wrongful conviction in Canada, and one of a series of books looking at the system and how this occurred. Rob’s court case is detailed along with his time inside, including and some of the losses he suffered by being incarcerated.  Youth will empathize with him being unable to be with his mother while she was sick and dying, and could see themselves in his situation. The writing and story is both interesting and average. On the plus side, the book is accessible, and has a reading level of 5.0. On the negative side, the cover is a mishmash of colors and type faces with a black and white out of focus old time photo of a strange looking kid who is not going to attract much interest from contemporary youth. The photos on the inside are also black and white with little contrast.

clean-cover-10_10REED, AMY. Clean. Simon Pulse. 237p. 2011. 978-1-4424-1756-4

Grades 8- up. Olivia (Ms Perfect who is NOT addicted to diet pills), Kelly (pretty fucked up: alcohol and sex definitely do go together),  Christopher (homeschooled not-so-religious possibly gay meth head), Jason (dad is not very nice to say the least) and Eva (talks about herself in dramatic third person) all tell the story of being in rehab along with the Scary Guys: Gas Man, Satan Worshiper, Heroin Addict and Compulsive Liar. All appear to be white and basically middle to upper class. Title headings alternate between Drug & Alcohol History Questionnaire, Group, Personal Essay, and individual names of the teens. It’s a quick and good read, with humor, information and action that will keep teens interested, reading and by the way, learning some stuff (an adults dream: kids learning about themselves, taking responsibility, understanding the causes of addiction, etc) Great cover that teens who read Beautiful (and those who didn’t) will be drawn to, fans of Ellen Hopkins will love it and I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes the 2012 Quick Pick and other lists. My only quibble: a rant by one of the counselors about race and class that make it clear that my teens would not be in this facility – and in fact, would alienate them, if they read the rant carefully. I think the author meant well, but the book would have been better without it.

Sheinmel, Courtney. All the Things You Are. 243p. Simon & Schuster. 2011. (9781442417816). Grades 6-10. 12 year old Caucasian Carly Wheeler goes to a private scUnknown-1hool, has a best friend that is a Rothschild, has a mom that is a stylist for the cool Lovelock Falls soap opera, and she babysits for the star –  Ally’s  – kids. All in all she has a breezy, fun life. Until the doorbell rings and FBI takes her mother into custody for embezzlement. After that, Carly struggles with her feelings about her mom, what she did and the consequences impacting her: her mom going to prison for a year, her best friend no longer talking to her, whispers as she walks down the hallway, having to sell their home and move into an apartment, etc. Written in an easy style with lots of interesting relationships and a quick paced plot.  The book is accurate about the process of arrest through prison and doesn’t skimp on many of the issues that come up between friends, family, neighbors and the like. The conclusion is realistic and yet positive, completely appropriate for the audience. Kind of a girl version of Terri Field’s My Father’s Son. (2008, Roaring Brook Press).

Unknown-2Stevenson, Robin. Outback. 131 p. Orca Soundings, 2011. $9.95. ISBN 978-1-55469-419-8. Grades 6-10. Jayden is down and depressed after his girlfriend dumps him, and when a chance comes to go to Australia to visit his crazy uncle Mel, he figures, why not. He gets there and Uncle Mel has gotten crazier and wants to go into the Outback on a mission that seems almost paranoid and suicidal. Accompanying them is cute, pierced and surly student Natalie. All signs point to disaster, and the ultimate happens: the truck catches fire with most of their supplies and belongings and leaves them stranded at least 10 days away from civilization with no hope of anyone driving, walking or flying by. 10 days of walking in hot sun and cold nights. Unfortunately, the plot wraps up a little too nicely and easily: satelitte phone in Uncle Mel’s bag brings rescue within three days – and no real romance, drama or survival smarts happens in the meantime. Reluctant readers might be better off with Gary Paulson’s Hatchet or other similar books, but Orca lovers may love this one too.

Swan, Bill. Real Justice: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death The Story of Steven Truscott. 152p. James Lorimer & Co. Ltd. 2012. $12.95. 978-4594-0074-0. Grades 6-10. Steven Truscott is one of Canada’s most famous victims of a wrongful conviction. At 14 he was sentenced to die by hanging for the rape and murder of 12 year old Lynne Harper.  It took over 47 years for his complete exoneration. The book does a decent job of telling the story, but gets bogged down in the details of who said what and what time something happened – details that are necessary in a courtroom and to accurately tell what happened, but not for the best read. On the plus side, the book is accessible, somewhat interesting in that it’s always interesting when someone is wrongfully convicted, and has a reading level of 4.8. On the negative side, the cover is a mishmash of colors and type faces with a black and white out of focus old time photo of a geeky looking kid who is not going to attract much interest from contemporary youth. The photos on the inside are also from the 50s when the case took place and are both grainy and grey.

WRIGHT, Denis. Violence 101. 240p. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. October, 2010. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-399-25493-2. Grades 8 and up.


Fourteen year old Hamish Graham is in his third institution – this time for violent offenders. Not only has he attacked other teens, but he also has attacked staff and therapist. Hamish is the type of kid who could be labeled a genius and/or a sociopath; he has absolutely no qualms about his violent behavior, in fact elaborately and convincingly justifies it. He’s white, from a “good” family (i.e. middle class and there doesn’t seem to be anything obviously dysfunctional), smart, logical and exacting in why he is violent. The book alternates chapters between staff meetings discussing Hamish and Hamish’s journal entries. The journal provides insight into Hamish, his take on staff, group homes, his past as well as history. Hamish reinforces the normalcy of violence by studying and writing about leaders in history such as Alexander the Great and the violent Greek and Roman empires cultures. What Hamish doesn’t expect is to start to care about a staff member. When he escapes the facility on an extreme and dangerous mission of his own design that is either going to kill him or provide him what he’s always wanted, the book picks up speed. Hamish’s pain and behavior becomes clear. This book is for those “special readers” – the smart and antisocial ones –  such as Hamish himself. Set in New Zealand, there is also some information included about New Zealand history and culture. – Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall,  CA 

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