Wednesday, April 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Hate List -- Jennifer Brown

Everyone hates something about high school. Valerie Leftman and her boyfriend, Nick, are no different. As a matter of fact, they're like a lot of the kids in this world, excluded from the in-crowd, angered by bullying, and frustrated by school officials who don't help.

It seemed therapeutic at the time for Valerie and Nick to start a hate list with the names of people who'd hurt them in some way. Valerie never expected Nick to bring a gun to the last day of their junior year and shoot down six of their classmates and a teacher--most of whose names appeared on that list. She got shot in the leg herself for trying to stop Nick before he turned the gun on himself.

Now, Valerie's got to go back for her Senior year and face the traumatized, the injured, and the empty spaces once held by people who are no longer with them. Some say she's a hero. Some say she's just as guilty as Nick for writing the list and should not even be allowed back to the school.

Valerie herself doesn't know what to think. One thing, she misses Nick badly and almost no one understands her pain in losing someone dear to her that the rest of the student body considers 'evil.' Worse, her parents' marriage, which was one long argument after another, turns out to be falling apart, too.

The Hate List is one of the most powerful Young Adult novels I've read. Bullying's been a problem in schools probably since kids have existed, but this novel shows how destructive the behavior is and what happens when the victims believe they have no recourse but to take matters into their own hands. The story also addresses the aftermath of such events from every side. Readers of all ages are going to share more than a few tears over what's happening here.

I'll say right now, The Hate List could be a painful book to read for some high schoolers. It brought back some hard memories for me too. I was the only vision-impaired student in a mainstream school. Believe me, I have memories...

I never had a hate list per se, but emotions did run high at times. Who would I have had on it?

My 9th grade Algebra teacher. Thanks to the school system, I got into her class six weeks late. She was the kind of teacher who'd say "I was hoping you wouldn't get to that problem." When you came up asking for help. So I stopped asking. So I failed the first semester. I think I managed to pull the grade up to a C or D for the second, but that was a total disaster and in no small part, thanks to her.

My 12th grade Psych teacher. He was the Coach and he only showed up to take roll. Since I was in three activities, that meant I was counted absent in his class--or I had to arrive BEFORE the before-school activities and get word to Coach that I was there and would be arriving in his class after he'd already cut out. When I got a failing notice for that class, I blew up and went to the Principal who didn't much care. I think the only reason Coach got transferred out was because we lost at football that season.

Joe the Jerk. He's the one bully who stood out throughout both middle and high school. One particular incident--he stuck Scotch tape over my blind eye. I just looked at him. Nothing much I could do or say and nobody was laughing. We were; however, all laughing when he tried to turn in "Precious and Few" as his poem in English. The whole damn class started singing the chorus after he recited the first verse.

Revenge is sweet. And yeah, that revenge on Joe was enough. I saw him in a totally different light after that one incident. Good or bad, my poem was my own. My words are, too, and I didn't need to make fun of anyone else to feel good about myself.

Like Valerie, I never wanted any of the people I hated to actually die. I did want whatever they were doing to hurt me to stop.

And that's when part of my own recovery happened--when I saw Joe for who he was. I hope every kid who faces bullies has that moment where the person who's tormented them gets their comeuppance as the result of their own actions. And yes, they need to have pride in their own accomplishments and hard work.

BOOK REVIEW: An Uncommon Crusade -- Caron Guillo

I first encountered Caron Guillo's excerpt as an excerpt in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards Contest. The story of Elisabeth, a young German girl, struggling to deliver a child gotten on her by rape broke my heart. When a group of children passed her village, Elisabeth's mother urged her to join. Her step-father was contemplating selling her off somehow and Elisabeth believed that going to the Holy Lands was her only hope of redemption for her 'sins.'

She encounters two fellow crusaders, Simon, who was taken to a monastery and ran away with partial copies of the Holy Texts in his possession. These were writ by his own hand at peril of his life. And Hugo, a large young man who too painfully reminds Elisabeth of her attacker. The three of them form an uneasy alliance and attempt to bring some order to the chaotic camp of youngsters who are following Nicolas of Cologne.

At Genoa, when Nicolas's promise to part the sea for them to pass fails, the three travel on to Marseilles where they use Simon's texts to purchase passage across the sea from merchants. Hugo is 'drafted' into soldiery, Simon and Elisabeth are sold as slaves to the very Muslims they came to fight.

Hugo's doing what he came there to do. War's not quite what he expected, with injuries and deaths of the young men beside him and then his own wounding, it's clear victory will be hard-won if at all. Then, his friend finds a Muslim woman hiding in the streets and takes her back to their hideout and forms a relationship with her.

For the already-traumatized Elisabeth, enslavement is almost too much to bear. She refuses to learn the language and is referred to as "Trouble" by her owners and fellow slaves.

Simon, on the other hand, is purchased by a kindly master who teaches him their language and teaches Christianity to his master and the other slaves in return.

"An Uncommon Crusade" is not just a story of three people on an impossible mission. This book's written by a Christian author who's teaching us some pertinent lessons on life. Forgiveness is key here. "Love thy enemies" changes both parties in unexpected and happy ways. Simon's lesson to Elisabeth on forgiving yourself is equally powerful.

Personally what breaks my heart is we are still dealing with these issues after 800 years' time. Girls who get raped are still getting blamed -- and often blaming themselves. We're still hating the Muslims and some are even advocating 'crusades.' The world just hasn't changed enough in all this time, but authors like Ms. Guillo give me hope that some people get the message and are passing it on.