The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

As someone who devours non-fiction, biography, and memoir, I was surprised to have finished this work of fiction in just shy of two days. To be fair, the book is a quick read (even for self-professed slower readers such as myself).  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson with impeccable prose and superb character development.  I could even see the book being turned into a film. In a nutshell, the book is broken into  time periods: Eighth Grade, Junior Year, and Senior Year. Within those general time periods, each chapter is further subdivided with titles such as: The Note, The Lovers, The Striver, The Artist,  The Dime, The Ride, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, and The Sleeping Lady.  Each chapter spotlights each of the core characters whose lives revolve around a tragic incident involving Tristan Bloch, an awkward but brave outcast with an overbearing mother. Over the course of four years, we follow each protagonist as s/he navigates the tough terrain of junior high and high school, further complicated  by  parents, teachers, and digital culture. In many cases, each of these young people–although living in million-dollar beach homes–is forced to establish his or her individuality and navigate adolescence while also living in the shadows of abuse, neglect, and addiction at the hands of the grown ups who are supposed to protect and guide them. As is the case with many young people, these characters can sense when things are awry at home and school; but they lack the agency to be able to articulate those experiences, sometimes in a healthy way. Always looming in this novel is what lies unspoken–what is between the lines.

At the center of this story is Molly Nicholl, a newbie teacher and transplant from central California who is hired on in the English Department at Valley High in the affluent city of Mill Valley in Northern California, roughly a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles. As Molly begins to feel out the culture at Valley High, she finds herself at odds with the other seasoned faculty who are  burnt-out on their jobs, presumably after many years teaching. As Molly reconfigures her classroom into two concentric circles (note, also, the circular themes throughout the novel) so as not to carry on her predecessor’s tradition of an authoritarian, old-school classroom, she endures pushback from teachers who believe she is crossing the line with regard to her relationship with the students. After a car crash and the exploitation of a female student on social media, Molly is questioned about the inappropriate nature of her commenting on her student’s social media threads–even though her comments stemmed from genuine concern about the well-being of her students . Early on in the book, Molly is eager to dig deeper into the lives of her students–to see them not merely as students but also as human beings who have complex lives and much promise.  Molly once asks “Isn’t it our job as teachers to help our students?” She was quickly put in her place when her co-worker says: “No, your job is to teach.” But what does it mean “to teach”? What does teaching–truly teaching–entail?

I think my teacher and parent friends would enjoy this book, especially because it sheds light on a number of questions–namely: What is the role of the teacher? How can teachers truly effect change and the lives of their students if they are forced to keep students at arm’s length? Can teachers truly be effective if they relate to their students on only the most basic, superficial levels? Is it the role of teachers to dig beneath the surface to enable students to identify and pursue their interests? Are teachers supposed to protect and help their students? How can parents and teachers be better aligned for the benefit of the student?  Must there always be such a deep and wide chasm between young people and adults–one in which “adultness” itself is often dishonest, distrustful, and cynical? I have to say that by the end of the book–and yes, it’s just the idealist in me–I feel like Molly compromised too many of her ideals in an effort to play it safe. I mean, on one hand, I can certainly see why she would opt to play it safe, given the events leading up to her transition from newbie mover-and-shaker to cautious, jaded professional.  In one particular scene, Molly receives an essay from Callista who has accepted and processed, through the therapeutic act of writing, her role in the tragedy of Tristan Bloch. This was the moment that Molly had been waiting for the past three years: to play an encouraging and inspiring role in helping  students reconcile their places in the world and hopefully help them tap into their potential. I mean, here was Callista sharing a deeply painful experience with her teacher and in a sense, looking for encouragement and validation. But Molly, perhaps afraid to assume a role other than “superior” or “teacher” misses the opportunity entirely. Instead, she writes Callista a typical response that an English teacher–not a mentor–would write. However, the implications of Callista’s writing–how she knew the fine details of the path Tristan took to the bridge–were curious, troubling. Again, the power of the unspoken demands attention.

This books asks far more questions than it answers; so if you’re ok with ambiguity, you’ll love this book. I’m still wondering about these characters–what becomes of them, if they ever get to realize their true potential. Reading this book also forced me to look back on my own experiences in junior high and high school, which, like most young people, was a mixed bag of good, bad, and ugly. When I was young, I did not have vast social networks at my fingertips and cyber bullying wasn’t yet a thing. So much happens to young people online–entire worlds exist out of the reach of unwitting adults. While I tended to despise the parental and authoritarian figures in this book, I was nonetheless sickened by how these students treated each other. But unfortunately, I also got the sense that Emma, Damon, Callista, Ryan, Elisabeth, Nick, and others were just on their own, abandoned even. I certainly found fault with the parents: what is the role of the parent in providing guidance and support to their children? How can effective parenting provide a more equitable, just world? In essence, how can effective parenting be the anti-thesis to bullying, suicide, sexism, and abuse? How should parents be meaningfully involved in the lives of their children without being overbearing and suffocating? These are just some of many, many questions I have after finishing this fantastic debut by Lindsey Lee Johnson, which has drawn some comparisons to Thirteen Reasons Why.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction in my spare time. A vast majority of them have dealt with sad topics: mental illness, suicide, death, endings of relationships, abuse, homelessness etc. These are all topics that teens deal with on a daily basis, so I appreciate the fact that there are resources out there that teens(and their parents/guardians/loved ones) can turn to if they need some help. However, reading all these angsty books with no break and with no happy ending in sight is throwing me down a rabbit hole of sadness. I needed a break or a book with a happy realistic ending, not a sad realistic ending. Enter Jennifer Niven.

I’d read All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven last year and had loved her work (fair warning though: this book has a sad realistic ending dealing with mental illness and suicide). Flipping through a review magazine, I found Holding Up the Universe, also by Niven. The premise sounded like it could possibly end well and I was willing to risk it because I had loved her previous book so much.

Holding Up the Universe tells the story of Libby Strout and Jack Masselin. It is told from both of their points of view, alternating chapter to chapter. Libby Strout was once known as “America’s Fattest Teen”, a teen whose house had to be partially demolished in order to get her out of it. Back in school for the first time in years, no one can see past her weight. She’s still just the fat girl even though she’s lost 300 pounds. After her mom’s death, Libby is left picking up herself, her father, and their grief. She is ready for the new start high school has to offer.

Jack Masselin is the quintessential high school popular boy. He has swagger and the ability to give people what they want. He is able to fit in. While he seems like he has it all together, Jack has a major secret. He cannot recognize faces. Jack has prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize people by their faces. Everyone he meets, he has to try to figure out who they are by their identifiers: big hair, beauty mark, Mohawk, etc. Jack gets through life by being the funny, charming guy, but doesn’t let people get close.

Jack and Libby’s lives become entangled together in the aftermath of a cruel high school game. Sitting squarely in community service and group counseling together forces them to make a connection. This connection changes both of their lives, forcing them to confront issues that neither of them realized they are carrying. Will their connection change their world for the better or for the worse? Add in cruel high school students, family issues, obesity, brain injuries, and the possibility of love and Jack and Libby are in for a crazy ride of self-esteem, self-reliance, and teenage angst. Holding Up the Universe was the exact book palette refresher I needed.

Jughead: Volume One

I love Archie comics. Every time I went to the grocery store with my mom, I begged for the newest Archie comic and would begin reading it as soon as I got in the car. Archie was my first graphic novel crush and the whole gang at Riverdale High did things that I expected to do in high school. (When I reached high school and it wasn’t anything like Riverdale, I was more than a little disappointed.)

When I realized that Jughead was going to be given his very own comic, I was ecstatic and knew I had to read it. Jughead: Volume 1 gives Jughead the attention he always deserved in the classic Archie comics. Zdarsky and Henderson expand upon the current Archie volume to give Jughead his own up-to-date background.

In Jughead: Volume One, we meet Forsythe Pendleton Jones III, aka Jughead. He plays videogames, tries to keep Archie out of trouble, skates by in school by just following the rules, and spends his afternoons at Pop’s diner inhaling burgers and milkshakes. Everything is happening like normal until Riverdale High gets a new principal. This new principal institutes new changes on all levels: in the classrooms, in athletics, and, most concerning to Jughead, in the cafeteria. Once he gets rid of all the good food in the cafeteria, Jughead loses his cool and seeks vengeance. This graphic novel is full of gags and antics by Jughead and his friends as they try to oust the new conniving principal from his current position and, in the end, discover his dastardly plot to take over the school for nefarious reasons! This graphic novel had me laughing throughout and was a fantastic trip down memory lane to the classic Archie comics.

The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

the-way-i-used-to-beThe Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith is a deeply moving, traumatic examination of one young woman’s struggle to overcome the aftermath of a rape. Eden, a 14-year old teenage girl, is raped by Kevin, her older brother’s best friend and college roommate. Her family is asleep down the hall while he crawls into her bed. Eden is the typical band geek, good girl who lives in fear of Kevin as he tells her that he will kill her and that no one will believe her if she talks. She is paralyzed with fear and doesn’t know what to do except try to live her life like normal, an idea that quickly fails as she becomes a new person overnight.

This book follows Eden through all four years of high school, highlighting her relationships with friends and family as she keeps this dark secret under wraps. School becomes increasingly more difficult for Eden as she turns to lies, booze, sex, and parties to smother her emotions. Kevin’s younger sister, Amanda, who Eden used to be friends with, turns against her and begins spreading vicious rumors about her around school. Eden’s best friend, Mara, knows nothing about what happened to her and the two move through high school experiencing some typical high school activities: dying their hair, first crushes, getting piercings, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes for the first time, going to parties, doing drugs, and getting their drivers’ licenses. All the while, distance begins to grow between the two. Eden also finds herself separated from her other friends and her family. She has buried who she used to be, buried her emotions, and buried her secret deep inside.

As Eden grows older, readers are able to dissect the way her rape has affected her personality and her relationships. The way Eden treats herself changes drastically from her freshman year to her senior year of high school, as evidenced through her inner monologue throughout the book. How she believes others to see her changes throughout the book as well. The long-term view of the effect this trauma has on Eden allows readers to gain a better understanding of the guilt, hatred, and complex emotions survivors face in the aftermath of rape and sexual assault. The Way I Used to Be is not an easy book to read as watching Eden disintegrate is painful, but the truth and emotions revealed are so vivid and true-to-life that this book becomes a necessary read to understand the emotions survivors experience on a day-to-day basis.  Eden carries a double burden – the weight of carrying her secret and the violation of rape. She shows strength, power, survival, disappointment, pain, heartbreak, and massive loss throughout this book, leaving readers to grow attached to her well-being and her journey through a troubled adolescent made even more difficult by rape. The Way I Used to Be takes readers on an emotional rollercoaster as Eden struggles to find her way back to herself in the aftermath of her rape.

100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know

100-words-every-high-school-graduate-should-knowFrom the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary comes a quick and educational read: 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. It will help you to ensure you know the meanings of erudite words you are likely to encounter in news articles, books, and possibly cocktail parties (depending on the type of parties you are apt to attend!)

The words span the alphabet and cover a range of disciplines, including agriculture, astronomy, government, literature, mathematics, and philosophy.

A few of my favorites include: abjure, bowdlerize, chicanery, circumlocution, evanescent, facetious, feckless, hubris, incognito, interpolate, jejune, loquacious, moiety, paradigm, pecuniary, quasar, sanguine, unctuous, winnow, and ziggurat.

If you find a few you don’t know, check out 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. Even if you do know all the ones listed, you might want to challenge yourself to find out if you know the rest found within the pages of this edifying little tome!

Archie, Volume 1: The New Riverdale

archieI grew up slipping Archie comics into my mom’s cart every time we went to the grocery store. I don’t know what it was about the characters, but I always wanted to learn more about Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. I was always guaranteed a funny story line and a few laughs. When it was announced that Mark Waid and Fiona Staples, two of my favorite comic book writers and artists, would be launching a modern reboot of Archie, I knew I would have to read it.

Archie, Volume 1: The New Riverdale is Waid and Staples’ modern reboot. The characters in this reboot face contemporary issues, while still retaining the classic Riverdale antics that original readers fell in love with. This modern Riverdale High is multiethnic and full of characters that readers of various ages, sexual orientations, genders, and economic statuses can relate to. In this first volume, Archie talks to readers about Riverdale and introduces his friends and family. Jughead rocks out in ripped jeans and readers see Veronica stroll onto the scene as a reality show star living with her uber-rich parents. Betty and Archie aren’t talking after the #lipstickincident and readers, as well as everyone else in the comic, are left wondering what happened to break up this couple that has been together since kindergarten. The world Waid and Staples have designed is true to the original, but allows for flexibility for all characters.

Waid and Staples have concocted a world full of new possibilities for Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica to explore, while still keeping the foundational aspects of each character intact. If you’re like me, you may have been initially hesitant to open this comic for fear that your favorite character may have been completely changed. Never fear! Archie is still a complete buffoon, Jughead is still obsessed with getting food, Betty is still the girl-next-door tomboy, and Veronica still slightly scares me with her vain, spoiled, and conceited attitude. All your favorites are still here just waiting to be rediscovered!

This reboot works as a way to introduce modern themes into the classic lives of all the Archie characters. Social media, fashion, romance, wealth, and other topics are all introduced into their lives and the struggles that each character goes through are all relatable to people reading. This first volume plugs Archie into the mainstream, reality-star culture by introducing characters through writing and artwork that is bright, popping, and fill of dramatic relatable topics. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Keep Quiet by Lisa Scottoline

keep-quietKeep Quiet by Lisa Scottoline is a gut-wrenching book that begins by introducing Jake Whitmore, his son Ryan, and Jake’s wife, Pam. Tensions seem to be running high in the Whitmore family, stemming from Jake’s loss of job a year ago. The family bore the brunt of his frustration and as a result, Ryan distanced himself from his father and became closer with his mother. Jake and Pam went into therapy to rebuild their relationship. Their current focus is on bringing Ryan and Jake closer together.

Jake is sent to pick up Ryan from the movies when they get into a car accident. This accident threatens the stability of their family and the tenuous relationships that hold them all together. Ryan’s future is on the line and in a split-second, Jake makes a decision that saves his son from a disastrous future. While at the time this seems like the best decision, it instead sends them both down a dark spiral of secrets, lies, and immense guilt. Jake thinks he has everything under control, but someone emerges from the woodwork with the power to destroy his carefully laid plans and expose Jake and Ryan’s dark secret. That life changing accident holds the power to destroy all their lives and Jake is struggling to hold the family together. This book is an intensely powerful guilt-laden journey into the lives of a family who are trying to redeem themselves while their whole world is unraveling around them.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Paper Towns

paper townsJohn Green, the ever popular young adult author, has made yet another one of his novels into a movie and this time, it is Paper Towns, starring Cara Delevingne as the beguiling Margo Roth Spiegelman and Nat Wolff as Quentin, the boy who is hopelessly in love with Margo.

Paper Towns tells the story of Quentin, a boy who has been in love with his across-the-street neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, since she moved in, the event that he says is “THE moment” of his life. Quentin and Margo are best friends through childhood until they hit high school when Margo becomes a mysterious and enigmatic cool person who goes on wild adventures that everyone speculates wildly about. They essentially stop talking until about a month before prom when Margo suddenly shows up at his bedroom window in the middle of the night asking to borrow his parents’ car and needing his help to complete a list of somewhat peculiar “revenge” tasks. After this adventure, Quentin believes he and Margo have reached a new stage in their friendship only to discover that Margo has disappeared for what looks like good this time. Knowing that every time Margo disappears, she leaves clues, Quentin soon finds himself deciphering a stack of said mysterious clues that quickly result in he and all of his friends embroiled in an adventure to find out where the elusive Margo has disappeared to this time. This movie is a true coming of age story showing Quentin and his friends as they gain a more complete understanding of what friendship and love really are.


Interested in other books by John Green? Check out the ones below! (The Fault in Our Stars is also a movie!)

looking for alaskathe fault in our starsan abundance of katherineswill grayson will graysonlet it snow

Rookie: Yearbook One edited by Tavi Gevinson

rookie1.cover_webGet this book for any teen girl you know. Tavi’s online zine, Rookie Mag, has been collecting accolades since the fifteen-year-old blogger started it from her Midwestern bedroom. Tavi has been a respected style blogger since 2008, when she began her fashion blog Style Rookie at the tender age of eleven. Since then, she’s been invited to attend and review fashion shows all over the world, but it’s not just clothes anymore; this clever writer and all-around gifted young woman has created a magazine where teens can go for conversations with other teens about school, friends, music and movies, feminism, body image and self esteem, fashion, sex, and all the minutiae of teenage life that seems so monumental to those who are living it. She writes about the problems and the questions that real, modern teens have. She’s frank and funny and I wish I’d been even one-tenth as smart and confident as she is when I was a teenager. What I’m getting at is: here is a great, realistic role model. And a great book!

Rookie: Yearbook One is an ink & paper retrospective of the online magazine’s first year. It contains a lot of writing by Tavi, but it’s been touched by dozens of others; Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Aubrey Plaza, Joss Whedon, Patton Oswalt, and many others make appearances – either in pieces they’ve written for the magazine or as the subject of one of Tavi’s excellent interviews (I love how she is just as comfortable grilling Whedon about his modern-day interpretation of the sexual politics of “Much Ado About Nothing” as she is sharing a laugh with Plaza about how much they love the film “Reality Bites”). These are articles that matter, ideas that resonate, and interviews that are exciting and in-depth; it’s also lighthearted (you’ll love the section on how to cry without anyone catching you), and the graphic design of the book is phenomenal. If you have any taste for collage (and a little bit of the ridiculous) your eyes will pop at the juxtaposition of textures, photos, and hand-drawn illustrations. It’s just amazing, and I wish so much that I’d had it when I was a teenager!

Friday Night Lights on DVD – Final Season

People! Why haven’t you been watching this show? It is one of the best shows on television – ever. And now this ratings-challenged, critically acclaimed show is gone (episodes originally aired on Direct TV; now showing on NBC, the final season is nearly over) Fortunately, the library has the DVDs – learn from the error of your ways and watch Friday Night Lights now.

Let me make this clear right from the start – Friday Night Lights is not about football. OK, sure, there are several scenes with shots of  football games, and life in Dillon, Texas seems to revolve around the local high school football teams and the lead character is a football coach. The truth is, this show is about people – how they live, how they fall into and out of love, how they care for other people, how they try to be the best they can with what resources they have. For the younger people, it’s about how you think high school is the be-all and end-all of your life, only to realize it’s barely the beginning and you have some decisions to make that will affect the rest of your life. For the older people, it’s about how those decisions have shaped you and how you’ve learned to live – or not live – with those decisions. It’s poignant and funny and sad and beautiful – kind of like real life.

Brilliant acting (especially Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), innovative photography, compelling story lines and characters that you can love and understand (even if you think they’re making dumb decisions), Friday Night Lights is both classic and modern, showing us who we are and what we are capable of. The fifth and final season does not disappoint and includes a bittersweet reunion of many of the characters from previous years. Also included in the DVD is a heartfelt retrospective of the series – there won’t be a dry eye in the house after watching this.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.